Mammalian weeds? What could this person be talking about? The speaker, Professor Katie Holmes, was in fact speaking about mice. Delivering a paper at the recent AHA conference, Katie discussed mice plagues in the Victorian Mallee, drawing attention to the sheer numbers of mice that invade farmlands during a plague, infiltrating every crevice of barn and bedroom and confounding perceptions of what is ‘natural’. Such mouse plagues are familiar (at least by repute) to most of us who live in south-eastern Australia but I was surprised to learn that they are rare in the rest of the world. The only other place they occur in such large numbers is in isolated provinces in China.
The AHA 2016 conference was held in Ballarat in the first week of July. After getting lost finding the central Federation University campus in cold, drizzly winter weather, I settled down for four days of stimulating papers. Katie’s paper was just one that took up the conference theme of ‘Boom to Bust’. Stories of rise and fall, progress and collapse, rags to riches are often threaded through the work we do as historians and the many papers on offer certainly did justice to this theme. The conference offered ten separate streams on subjects that ranged from environmental, cultural, industrial, heritage, regional and feminist topics.
With so much richness on offer I faced the daily dilemma of the conference attendee. How could I possibly choose the ‘right’ session to attend? I largely solved this quandary by establishing myself in lecture halls C0001 and C0003. These were the rooms devoted to the environmental history stream, one of the most vigorous and lively of the conference program and attracting around forty-five individual papers and panel discussions.
Katie’s paper was part of one such environmental history panel, exploring agricultural boom and bust through the lens of pests. While Katie focused on mice, Andrea Gaynor investigated locust plagues and the prevalence of military metaphors as well as military equipment and personnel used in the ‘war’ against them. On the same panel Emily O’Gorman showed how the redistribution of water for irrigation purposes in the Murray River system increased mosquito numbers and the threat of mosquito-borne diseases.
For me the highlight of the conference was the launch of Tom Griffiths long-awaited book, The Art of Time Travel, in which he examines the craft of history-writing through the work of fourteen historians. I left the conference with my head buzzing with new ideas, and Tom’s new book in my bag promised to further stretch my thinking. Now I only have to carve out the time to read it…