May 14, 2011
The Kimberley region of Australia is vast, remote, barely inhabited and strewn with ancient art. Jo Lennan takes a tour with a local elder to work out what it tells us about our distant past …
I’ve come to see a painting. To reach it, I climb up the rocky outcrop, use the crook of a tree for a foothold to cross a crevasse, then edge out along a ledge. Above is a wide blue sky, below is a tangle of gum trees and grass. Only rock relieves the endless flatness of the land. The terrain is strewn with sandstone, either piles of it, rising up violently orange against the sky, or solitary boulders that seem to have stopped mid-tumble to nowhere. Standing on the ledge, I face a more-or-less smooth expanse of rock face that has been used as an artist’s canvas. The paint is a deep mulberry-coloured stain. The artist, it’s clear, had a way with a line—I’m looking at a tableau of a lithe human couple, shown in crisp silhouette. There’s a delicate flair in the profiled forms and headdresses of the pair, who seem to saunter out of the rock from a forgotten Eden.
Who are these people, I wonder, and who immortalised them here in Australia’s far north-west? It’s a question that intrigues many people who set eyes on them, including Sam Lovell (pictured below), an Aboriginal elder who spent decades droving cattle through the savannah and river-gorge country of the Kimberley region, and who has led the way to these paintings. His mother was Aboriginal, while the line of his pastoralist father goes back to the Lovells of Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire. An agile 77, Sam is now a director of an outfit researching the untold reserves of rock art here. “They’re known as Gwion Gwion,” he explains. Gwion is the name of a bird that, according to oral tradition, pecked the rock with such force that its blood sprang forth, then painted the dainty figures with its bloodied beak and feather. The myth dovetails neatly with current theories on the subject: such fineness, it’s thought, must have been made with quills.
That’s how it looks to me, too, but my eye is untrained. I’ve come to visit the Kimberley from “over east”, the populous Pacific strip, stirred by curiosity about the remoter reaches of my own country. In fact, I realise that this is the remotest place I have been on earth. Once here, I can feel the force of what these wilds are hiding: a trove of art spanning as many millennia as we’re able to measure, and beyond. To follow the gleeful Lovell is like skipping through the ages, the blades of spinifex grass be damned. You can see, in the rock, the layers of the ages. At one outcrop after another, new paintings are layered over the old, and those over older ones still. Sometimes you see the great haloed spirit beings of the most recent artistic epoch, the Wandjina, which is still alive today, glaring out over the vastly older Gwion Gwion paintings.
So how old are we talking, really? There’s the rub: so ancient is the paint that often it has ceased to be paint at all. What looks like a mulberry stain has actually become part of the rock itself, which makes it both very old and very hard to date. Add the fact that this is figurative art, and you start to raise some heady questions—mysteries of the kind that hijack the lives of those who try to solve them. Might this tradition of painting be the oldest we have that portrays the human form? More than that, could the Kimberley’s mysterious paintings be that rare bird of science—something that changes the picture we have of our common human past?
Getting at the past is an arduous business, particularly in the Kimberley. In an area of land that’s three times the size of England, and larger than California, precisely one road through is sealed. The land is riven by gorges that, in the wet season, rage with torrents. Colonists took hold here relatively late—the name Kimberley came only in 1880 (John Wodehouse, then the British secretary of state for the colonies, took the name from his Norfolk estate and became the first Earl of Kimberley). Expeditions are still a logistical challenge: supplies must be carried in, and contact with the outside world is at the caprice of a satellite phone. Just getting to our point of departure took two full days of driving, chasing the dust clouds thrown up by road trains as they turned from a blood-orange blush to a mauve-ish, iron-rich tint.
“This country reclaimed the land,” says Lovell, in his old-timer cowboy cadence, as we bounce along tracks that, in the pastoral heyday of his youth, led to outlying cattle runs. “You can clear it all and it comes back. Two or three years, no trouble at all.”
The terrain is so dense that the first European to stumble upon the Gwion Gwion paintings was unable to direct others to the place. In April 1891 a leaseholder called Joseph Bradshaw made a careful journal entry, noting that these extraordinary works lay in the secluded chasms of “a great pile of immense rocks on the west side of the river”. It took more than a century for anyone to find the site he meant, because Bradshaw—in the area of his own lease—had got the wrong river. The man who made the re-discovery in 1997 was Grahame Walsh, the leading researcher into the Kimberley’s art. An ardent amateur, Walsh trod his own tortuous path and produced sumptuous photo-filled tomes with the backing of private patrons, while fuelling quad-bike expeditions on pseudoephedrine pills and tinned tuna. This bent for extremes took its toll. When a university gave him a doctorate in 2007, one examiner commented that “Mr Walsh has devoted himself to a study that has defeated or been the ruin of many.” He might have added that it had more or less ruined Walsh, too; a few weeks later he was dead.
Some latter-day amateurs have come in Walsh’s wake. One of them, who shares our campsite by a creek, has been coming to the spot for so long that he’s been given a “blackfella” name, Munyanji. Formerly a Canberra bureaucrat, Munyanji lives here for half the year, spending his days searching out rock art. It’s an indication of just how much of it there is: you feel as if you can’t turn a corner without stumbling on something significant. You end up either blasé or obsessed.
The real work is now being done by scientists, with aficionados helping raise funds. One of these, a philanthropist from Melbourne called Maria Myers, became a staunch supporter of Grahame Walsh after he gave a talk at her daughter’s school. With her husband Allan, a barrister, she has since bought three art-rich pastoral leases to serve as hubs for research, and she sits with Sam Lovell on the Kimberley Foundation board. Decades of work by rock-art researchers—Myers’s daughter Cecile now among them—have revealed more of the story of these otherworldly artworks. But there’s a hitch of a different kind: time itself is nearly as impenetrable as the land. It’s hard to carbon date a painting when the pigment has long since become rock, as there’s no carbon left to date.
For the Kimberley’s latest and continuing Wandjina painting tradition—still practised by Aborigines living here today, and named after the haloed spirit-beings it often depicts—a breakthrough came when researchers discovered a painting done in beeswax rather than pigment. This surprise finding, at roughly 3,600 years old, instantly tripled estimates of the age of Wandjina culture. For the older Kimberley art, and ancient Australia in general, the problem runs deeper still. Scientists call it the “carbon barrier”: the point at which the radiocarbon dating method reaches its limit. In tropical conditions such as these, it seems to be about 40,000 years, even when you can lay your hands on the carbon. Only with newer methods have scientists begun—in fits and some false starts—to push that horizon back.
Suppose you take just one grain of sediment or sand: minerals within it recall, by the level of radiation absorbed while the grain was buried, when it last saw the light of the sun. Optical luminescence dating is a way of gauging the time that has elapsed since that moment. It was recently used to show that a fossilised mud-wasp nest over a Gwion Gwion painting was more than 17,500 years old—the same age as the cave art at Lascaux in France. At sites in Arnhem Land, which lies to the east of the Kimberley, optical luminescence dating of pieces of sediment found around artefacts is giving ages of up to 60,000 years. Luminescence dates are outlier findings, as scientists are quick to warn: the numbers aren’t set in stone, so to speak. Nonetheless, in terms of how we measure the far-distant past, we’re in the midst of a revolution, and it goes well beyond the Kimberley…
They were the usual words of reassurance and conciliation. “Content is more important than timing,” EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger said on Thursday, addressing a disagreement in Brussels over “stress tests” for 143 European nuclear reactors. “The public expects credible tests that will cover all foreseeable risks and security concerns.”
Like so much else in recent weeks, the safety tests for European nuclear plants have been a point of contention in Brussels. The meeting between Oettinger and representatives of the 27 member states ended without tangible results. In the wake of the Fukushima disaster the EU agrees that stress tests are important, but no one can agree on criteria. France and Great Britain, above all, have stonewalled detailed EU examinations — they see no reason to test their reactors with regard to anything besides natural catastrophes.
Nuclear stress tests are just one example, though, of an atmosphere at the EU in which communal feeling is crumbling. The financial crisis has split the continent, and “me first” has become the new credo in Brussels. Denmark just this week shut its borders unexpectedly — stepping back from the Schengen Agreement on visa-free travel throughout the EU on account of a sudden wave of immigrantsfleeing chaos from the Arab Spring.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a prominent Green member of the EU parliament, suggested that Copenhagen should feel swift consequences. “The Danes have to decide: If they want to be serious about closing their borders then they need to resign from the Schengen Agreement,” he said to SPIEGEL ONLINE. “Then they’ll need visas of their own to travel through Europe — one for each country.”
Against the Euro Rescue
Finnish voters, meanwhile, gave enough support to a right-wing populist party in a recent national election to let them, conceivably, enter the government and derail an EU support package for debt-ridden Portugal. Until this week, it looked as if the nationalist True Finns would throw the rescue plan for the euro into doubt. In the end the party was outmaneuvered, though — and decided not to join the government over precisely that issue.
“Me first” Europeans have also gained ground in Germany, for the same reasons. After three bailout plans since the euro first wobbled — and hundreds of billions of euros in loans and support for Greece, Ireland and Portugal — Merkel’s opponents fear that Berlin will become the paymaster for an increasingly hopeless euro zone.
The threat is real for Merkel. A total of 19 members of parliament from the chancellor’s coalition — which consists of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) — have supposedly said they are no longer prepared to support Merkel’s plans to save the euro. But the ruling coalition has only a 20-seat lead over the combined caucuses of Social Democrats, Greens and Left Party members. If more politicians from the CDU, CSU or FDP decide to defect, Merkel’s domestic majority for measures to save the euro will crumble, and she would be dependent on opposition votes to get legislation passed.
Which, of course, would be dangerous. “Germany is the most important anchor for Europe,” says Friedrich Heinemann at the Centre for European Economic Research. “The whole crisis mechanism (for the euro) stands or falls on German support for EU bailout policies.” Complications with the crisis mechanism would send shock waves through financial markets…
The Information Sage: Meet Edward Tufte, the graphics guru to the power elite who is revolutionizing how we see data
May 14, 2011
One day in the spring of 2009, Edward Tufte, the statistician and graphic design theorist, took the train from his home in Cheshire, Connecticut, to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with a few members of the Obama administration. A few weeks earlier, he had received a phone call from Earl Devaney, a former inspector general in the Department of the Interior, who is best known for leading that agency’s investigation of the lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Devaney had recently been appointed head of the Recovery Act Accountability and Transparency Board, the body created by the Obama administration to keep track of the $780 billion in federal stimulus money that has spread out across the country.
Whereas Devaney once led a team of professional investigators responsible for sniffing out waste, fraud, and abuse, he was now faced with a rather different, but related, task: designing a Web site. In the stimulus bill, Congress had called for the creation of “user-friendly visual presentations” of data that would allow the American public to watch over the disbursement of the giant funding package. This wasn’t exactly familiar territory for Devaney, a career lawman. Perhaps Tufte could offer some advice?
And so, that April, in an office building blocks from the White House, Tufte spent a few hours with Devaney looking at sketches of some of the displays the board was preparing. Devaney showed Tufte a prototype of Recovery.gov, the site that catalogs all the projects funded with federal stimulus money around the country. Thinking about it now, Devaney remembers that the proposed pages were full of “classic Web site gobbledygook, with lots of simple pie charts and bar graphs.” Tufte took one look at the Web site mockups that the board’s designer had prepared and pronounced them “intellectually impoverished.”
It was a classic Tufte moment: a spontaneous and undiplomatic assessment that immediately struck everyone in the room, even the designer himself, as undeniably true. The site would get a wholesale redesign. The model, as Tufte explained it, should be the Web site of a major newspaper, with Devaney and his staff as reporters and editors. “I told them that it isn’t an annual report,” Tufte told me later. “It shouldn’t look stylish or slick. It’s about facts.” As Tufte and Devaney talked, a number of staffers gathered in the hall, waiting for the meeting to finish. “The guys from the IT department had lined up outside my door to shake his hand and say they met the guy,” Devaney remembers.
Edward Tufte occupies a revered and solitary place in the world of graphic design. Over the last three decades, he has become a kind of oracle in the growing field of data visualization—the practice of taking the sprawling, messy universe of information that makes up the quantitative backbone of everyday life and turning it into an understandable story. His four books on the subject have sold almost two million copies, and in his crusade against euphemism and gloss, he casts a shadow over the world of graphs and charts similar to the specter of George Orwell over essay and argument.
Tufte is a philosopher king who reigns over his field largely because he invented it. For years, graphic designers were regarded as decorators, whose primary job was to dress up facts with pretty pictures. Tufte introduced a reverence for math and science to the discipline and, in turn, codified the rules that would create a new one, which has come to be called, alternatively, information design or analytical design. His is often the authoritative word on what makes a good chart or graph, and over the years his influence has changed the way places like the Wall Street Journal and NASA display data.
In policy circles, he has exerted a quiet but profound influence on those seeking to harness the terabytes of data flowing out of government offices. In recent years, several large American cities, including New York, Oakland, and Washington, D.C., have opened up entire universes of municipal statistics, giving birth to a cottage industry of programs and applications that chart everything from the best commuting routes to block-by-block crime patterns. And under the Obama administration’s Open Government Directive of 2009, the federal government has been releasing scores of downloadable data sets. In the public realm, data has never been more ubiquitous—or more valuable to those who know how to use it. “If you display information the right way, anybody can be an analyst,” Tufte once told me. “Anybody can be an investigator.”
Tufte is equal parts historian, critic, and traveling revival preacher. For a few days each month, he goes on the road to teach a course called “Presenting Data and Information” in hotel ballrooms and convention centers. One afternoon, shortly after his meeting with Devaney, Tufte was teaching his course in the downstairs ballroom at the Marriott hotel in Seattle, Washington. There were 400 people in the crowd. Tufte, who is sixty-nine, and has a thinning slash of silver hair and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses that hang off his nose, was standing at the front of the room. He was wearing a wireless microphone, and held a copy of a small map above his head.
“This,” he said, “is War and Peace as told by a visual Tolstoy.” The map is about the size of a car window, and follows the French invasion of Russia in 1812. It was drawn in 1869 by a French engineer named Charles Joseph Minard. On the left of the map, on the banks of the Niemen River, near Kovno in modern-day Lithuania, a horizontal tan stripe represents the initial invasion force of 420,000 French soldiers. As they march east, toward Moscow—to the right, on the map—they begin to die, and the stripe narrows…
May 14, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.