Thriving in a world of plants: the possibilities of ecobiography

Scrub brush in front of mountain and blue sky with clouds.

Take a map of Australia and turn your attention to the western half. Draw a diagonal line from Shark Bay in the north-west to Israelite Bay on the south-east coast. That large triangular wedge goes by a few names—always was, always will be the land of the Noongar people. This is also the Southwest Australian Floristic Region (SWAFR), one of just thirty-six global biodiversity hotspots. This alignment between cultural and ecological boundaries confirms the intimate connection between the Noongar people and their Country stretching back for at least sixty thousand years.  

In 1874 Sarah Brooks, with her mother and brother, walked nearly seven hundred kilometers out to the south-eastern extremities of the SWAFR in search of land where they might run sheep. Willie Dempster, an early settler-coloniser of the area, described this trio as “gentle folk totally unfitted for such a venture in that harsh, waterless country.”[1] The question of how and why Sarah, an educated, accomplished, single woman, lived the final fifty-four years of her life out in this isolated place has long intrigued me. However, I could not answer this question via a conventional biography due to the limited archival material available. The more I researched Sarah’s life, the more I realised I could not extract her story from this remarkable place, from the plant world that she helped to document, or from her relationships with the First Nations people she was complicit in dispossessing.  


I turned to ecobiography, first defined by Farr and Snyder as a life-story that explores “the Self’s interaction with the external environment,” to develop a kind of “ecosystem of the Self.”[2] As Jessica White argues, increased understanding of our (human) entanglement with the myriad of other beings we are surrounded by, implies that an autobiography should “include the lives that sustain and shape it: the autos of a biography should include our environment.”[3]

Farr and Snyder suggest an environment “forms the character of its people after its own image because of what is required by those people to survive and prosper.”[4] The environment in which the Brooks lived was challenging; a semi-arid place of erratic rainfall, sandy infertile soils, an abundance of poison plants like Gastrolobium, and a lack of edible grasses. Their grazing enterprise never prospered, yet these ‘gentle folk’ persisted here until the end of their lives. In trying to understand what sustained Sarah for half a century, beyond her obvious familial loyalty, I have a hunch that she developed an important connection with the lives around her, that she might have found a way of understanding the more-than-human world she was inextricably entangled in. Perhaps she even came to see the non-human lives around her as ‘kin,’ not merely as natural resources.[5]

Writing with plants

The intricate web of life out on the sandplain where Sarah lived is known by its Noongar name of kwongkan; a remarkably biodiverse heathland, particularly rich in proteaceous plants, and now a nationally protected threatened ecological community.[6] But in Sarah’s day it was not celebrated; usually described as worthless or desolate, and “bristling with harsh growth which no stock will eat.”[7]

Banksia speciosa in Cape Arid National Park (Author).
[Image Description: Conical yellow-green clusters of flowers atop jagged green leaves, with landscape in the background.]

Sarah came to know the kwongkan intimately when she began collecting botanical specimens for Baron von Mueller, the Government Botanist in Victoria, who was intent on writing the definitive flora of Australia. Over twelve years, Sarah sent Mueller at least one thousand botanical specimens, becoming one of the most prolific women collectors in his continent-wide network. Her botanical specimens enabled him to articulate important biogeographical boundaries. Mueller honoured her contribution by naming two plants after her, the Hakea brookeana and the Scaevola brookeana.

To have collected so many plants in her twelve active collecting years, Sarah must have paid close attention to the abundant diversity of plant life at her feet. The plants she collected, having managed to flourish in these challenging circumstances through millennia of uninterrupted evolution, might have provided her with quiet inspiration on how to live in that place. Researching Sarah’s life 150 years later, I can also use her herbarium collections in practical ways—I can trace her movements as her explorations widened, I can see her botanical knowledge evolve in the notes she addressed to Mueller and attached to the pressed and dried plants. I can see echoes of her personality in the way she collected, and the delicacy and care with which she presented her specimens. And crucially, I can use her collection as a field guide for my own explorations, as a conduit between past and present for my own efforts at understanding this place and its plant life.

Specimen of Hakea brookeana (later reclassified as Hakea obliqua subsp. obliqua). MEL672172 (Reproduced with permission from the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria)
[Image Description: A photograph of a plant specimen surrounded by herbaria materials including tags and metadata.]

Decolonising Sarah’s story

The land taken by the Brooks family would prove to be not well suited to pasturing sheep, even though it had sustained the First Nations people for millennia. When reminiscing at the end of her life about being lured out there by generous incentives, Sarah displayed an unusual sensitivity to those people displaced and dispossessed: 

[W]e soon found the Government had been very liberal with something which did not belong to it. [The] leaders of the more ancient race were the real owners whose race had lived in undisputed possession and were not inclined to waive their rights to anyone.[8]

But there is also a dissonance here between her understanding of the cultural and ecological values of the place, and her complicity in the acts of colonisation and exploitation, which inevitably diminished many of the values she identified.

I am facing up to my own dissonance too in seeking to write a sensitive history of a settler-colonist while being inextricably part of the settler-colonialist culture that continues to inhabit unceded Aboriginal land and where “monological settler ideology” still denies or trivialises the evidence of the injuries of colonisation.[9] In this most storied of continents, where ancient stories and songs are steeped in the land, water, and skies, I am grappling with navigating the narrow path between appropriation and honouring. I came to this research with a naive expectation that sharing some traditional ecological knowledge might help to honour and celebrate the ancient history of this country and its plants. But increasingly in Australia, Aboriginal cultural and ecological knowledge carries both economic and cultural cachet, and Noongar writer Timmah Ball notes that “it is often white Australia who is the quickest to exploit this.”[10] To remain respectful of Indigenous Cultural Intellectual Property and the rights of the First Nations people to retain control over their cultural knowledge, I will likely be limiting the scope of the story I tell. Robin Wall Kimmerer reminds us that while all Indigenous stories are rich in wisdom, and all cultures need to hear them, they should not be appropriated wholesale. Instead, “an immigrant culture must write its own new stories of relationship to place… but tempered by the wisdom of those who were old on this land long before we came.”[11]

Out on the kwongkan sandplain, the only visible tree will often be the Moodjar, culturally significant to Noongar people, and otherwise known as the Nyutsia floribunda or Christmas tree. It is hemiparasitic; the roots and rhizomes extend out and draw nutrients and water from a large number of other plant hosts. The rhizosphere is a broadly compelling metaphor for the more-than-human world, with the “dense and tangled cluster of interlaced threads or filaments” taking the place of the more linear, hierarchical model represented by a tree.[12] The rhizome of the endemic Moodjar with its ingenious yet taxing ways, is an even more compelling metaphor, providing inspiration for telling the story of settler-coloniser Sarah Brooks, her place and the more-than-human multitudes she lived amongst. The Moodjar can “provide an example to all of us of how to prosper within and as part of a biologically rich but nutrient poor Country,” as it long has for the Noongar people of this place.[13]

Moodjar tree on the kwongkan sandplain (Author)
[Image Description: A photograph of a single tree with plants in the foreground and blue sky in the background.]

[1] John Rintoul, Esperance: Yesterday and Today, Esperance Shire Council, 1964.

[2] Cecilia Konchar Farr and Phillip A. Snyder, “From Walden Pond to the Great Salt Lake: Ecobiography and Engendered Species Acts in Walden and Refuge,” in Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature, eds. Lavina F. Anderson, and Eugene England (Utah: Signature Books, 1996), 197-211.

[3] Jessica White, “Edges and Extremes in Ecobiography: Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun,” in Life Writing in the Posthuman Anthropocene, eds. Ina Batzke, L. Espinoza Garrido, and Linda M. Hess (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 97-121.

[4] Farr and Snyder, 198.

[5] Ursula K. Le Guin, “Deep in Admiration,” in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, eds. Anna L. Tsing, Heather A. Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

[6] Australian Government, Department of the Environment, “Proteaceae Dominated Kwongkan Shrubland: a nationally-protected ecological community“(Commonwealth of Australia, 2014).

[7] A Correspondent, “The South-Eastern Coast: Mettler’s Lake to Albany,The Australian Advertiser (April 10, 1889), 3.

[8] Canberra, “A Wonder Woman of the West: Miss Brooks of Balbinia,” Sunday Times (April 29, 1928), 8.

[9] Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation (Sydney, NSW: UNSW Press, 2004).

[10] Timmah Ball, “In Australia: White People Write My Culture for Me,” Westerly 61/2 (2016), 29.

[11] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2013). 

[12] Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill (London: Routledge, 2000), 140.

[13] Allison Lullfitz, Lynette Knapp, Shandell Cummings, Jessikah Wood, and Stephen D. Hopper, “Talking Mungee–a teacher, provider, connector, exemplar: what’s not to celebrate about the world’s largest mistletoe, Nuytsia floribund.” Plant and Soil (2023).

Cover Image by author.
[*Cover Image Description: The granite mound of Mt Baring on the kwongkan sandplain, with Banksia speciosa (Showy banksia) and Xanthorrhoea (Grass tree) in the foreground.]

Edited by Bava Dharani; reviewed by Deniz Karakaş.

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