David Phelps, ARS President and Director, DAF Office Landsborough Hwy Longreach Qld 4730.  Email:president@austrangesoc.com.au


Science. Art. Rangelands. The founding members of the Australian Rangeland Society were deliberate in creating a vision of the ‘the science and art of rangeland management’ to guide our profession. Most of our members have a focus on science, yet Australia’s rangelands have captivated artists for centuries longer than scientists.

Indigenous Australians represent their relationship with country through art—as a rich visual story which conveys belonging, knowledge, history and instruction through symbolism of landscapes, flora, fauna and people. Early colonial artists, seemingly intent on obfuscating the true beauty of Australian landscapes through a European palette, grew to increasingly appreciate Australia by engaging with our rangelands. Painters and writers captured the adversity, variability, dust storms, shearer’s strikes, gold rushes, settlers, squatters and characters of the outback as Australia was being settled. Households names such as Dorothea Mackellar, Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson, Tom Roberts, Russel Drysdale, Pro Hart and Albert Namatjira took their inspiration from the rangelands. Our rangelands are influential for art forms in the modern era, from classic Australian cinema such as Mad Max, Priscilla and Wolf Creek, to modern productions like Goldstone and the emergence of Winton as Queensland’s outback film capital.

I think we can all enjoy and appreciate the talented art that our rangelands have inspired—but is there a place for art within science?

A 2015 article by Marten Scheffer and colleagues[1] postulate that intuition and reasoning are interlinked within the creative process, and that both are needed for innovation. They suggest that an over-reliance on reasoning in science can stifle major breakthroughs, and that intuition should be allowed to blossom within scientific settings. They argue that this duel-thinking is the ‘generator of novel ideas [which] has always been essential for scientific breakthroughs and should be taught and catalysed more explicitly in academia’.

They note that many breakthroughs have come from scientists priming their thoughts by consciously trying to piece together elements of seemingly intractable problems, but then allowing their minds to wander into the subconscious where patterns form more naturally. They caution, however, that intuition—the subconscious process of pattern association—is not always correct. Reasoning is also needed to assess the value of such insights: ‘the definition of creativity as the generation of novel useful ideas, the best results are obtained by an intimate tango between the two systems, and there are many examples of well-known scientists who seem to have taken this approach almost deliberately’.

They suggest that art encourages controlled risk-taking to stimulate innovation, whilst science strives to reduce the risk of mistakes. Further, they argue that scientists should allow time for reflection and allowing their minds to wander, train in risk-taking exploration and refer to the arts to help foster scientific break-throughs.

The ‘science and art of rangeland management’ is a recognition that ground-based management decisions require intuition, experiential learning, trial and error in adapting scientific results to paddocks, traditional lands, mining leases or conservation reserves. The work reported by Scheffer suggests that our recognition of the importance of both art and science may be quite an innovation in itself.

Let’s make a point of enjoying modern and ancient outback artworks, immersing ourselves in rangeland landscapes, communities and industries, or letting our minds wander the depths of the Milky Way. We might find that we surprise ourselves with new breakthroughs in science, art and rangeland management…


[1] Scheffer, M., J. Bascompte, T. K. Bjordam, S. R. Carpenter, L. B. Clarke, C. Folke, P. Marquet, N. Mazzeo, M. Meerhoff, O. Sala, and F. R. Westley. 2015. Dual thinking for scientists. Ecology and Society 20: 3. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-07434-200203