This year I’m spending a lot of time at the local anthropology factory (the University of Melbourne) to work on my thesis project, which is about the different attitudes to how wild donkeys should be treated in the Kimberley region. I’m going to head to the far north-west this winter to spend a few days doing fieldwork at a station where there is a wild donkey project. I wanted to do this project because I grew up as a settler in the central desert regions of the Alyawarre and Arrernte nations, where are millions of donkeys roaming the plains. I became interested in the ways that people relate to them, sometimes living together in peaceful reverence and other times perceiving donkeys as feral pests that must be shot from helicopters.
I’ve always been curious about the ways that humans and animals are entangled. Last summer I worked as a cameleer, where I learned so much about the history of introduced plants and animals in the “outback”. My job involved taking tourists out on camel tours through the desert. I had to give long spiels about camels, these beautiful but ambiguous dromedary creatures who occupy the APY lands, the country of the Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara people. It sparked an interested in depictions of the frontier, the way that settlers experience the “outback”, traditional ecological knowledge and also the harrowing stories of the Afghan cameleers who crossed those deserts a hundred years ago. Since then there have been many recreations of these long treks with camels, such as Robyn Davidson, who is often called an anthropologist because of her musings about nomadism around the world. In 1977 she walked from Alice Springs to the West Australian coast with her camels. Many of the travellers that I took on camel tours were shocked to find that there are almost one million wild camels in this country, and that dromedaries are almost extinct in the wild in their countries of origin. I had a lot of interesting conversations with the people I took out on these camel rides, who came from all around the world for what they thought was the quintessential outback experience, only to hear that camels are not “native” and are culled in the tens of thousands. I think these conversations might have motivated my thesis topic. Also on my birthday at the start of this year I woke up to the grating noise of donkey brays, and there in the bush was a white donkey, which seemed like a clear sign of what to do with myself this year.
The works of eco-feminist anthropologists such as Anna Tsing and Deborah Bird Rose have inspired me, especially “The Mushroom At The End Of The World” and “Wild Dog Dreaming”. I also was pretty shaken by Val Plumwood’s account of being mauled by a crocodile and having an epiphany that humans are just walking meat bodies, a part of the food chain. I’m excited for the future of Anthropology, as it gravitates towards the exploration of more-than-human worlds.