Peter Latz talks to the land, and it answers back

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By OSCAR PERRI

If stories are the currency of the bush, Peter Latz’s new book, Tough, Tantalizing or Tasty, is the treasure vault of the nation, holding dreams and their stories, “love magic” and the ensuing romances, discovering new species, native sweet potatoes as big as your head, and the potential of one of our native wattles to feed the world.

Gastrolobium brevipes
“IN 1909 DR CHARLES CHEWINGS was given the task of finding a route from the cattle stations in the Victoria River District to Alice Springs, in the hope that cattle could later use this route to get to markets down South. He was fortunate in having Aboriginal guides to warn him about the toxic nature of wallflower poison bush, and he avoided losing his camels by ensuring that they did not browse on these plants.”

While the reader will learn plenty about the features and environments of the plants endemic to the Australian desert through the 80 double-page entries, adorned with much photography, there is just as much to be garnered about Latz himself.

Woven into the entries are anecdotes about his upbringing at Hermannsburg Mission, growing up alongside and learning from Aboriginal people, and his long experience working in the area as a plant ecologist.

Actinotus schwartzii

“BECAUSE ITS PREFERRED HABITAT is in the most inaccessible areas of the centre, I initially considered it to be extremely rare. It was only when I had the chance to conduct a helicopter survey of the northern ridge of Ormiston Pound that I changed my mind. I just happened to be there when it was in full flower, and was able to observe quite a few plants growing on the cliff faces for several kilometres.”  

The book was launched at Olive Pink Botanic Gardens last week. The gardens had been given the manuscript by Latz, and a group have spent the last couple of years editing and formatting it, as well as compiling the photography.

Speaking at the event, Dr Ken Johnson, a long time colleague and adventure sharer of Latz’s, described his friend as a “practising eccentric”.

“He gets out in the country, and he talks to it.

“The unnerving thing about it is that it seems to talk back to him, and tell him what’s going on.”

He commended Latz for his efforts to share the knowledge he has gathered over his years, through teaching new scientists and rangers about the area, and through published work.

“This book continues that sharing, and it’s been a marvelLous part of Peter’s career in The Centre.

“It’s important too that it gives us a sense of the man, how he’s come to be, and why there’s never going to be another one like him.”

Xanthorrhoea thorntonii

“ACCORDING TO THE DREAMTIME story, this mountain was the site where elders were conducting an initiation story with a group of young men, who had their long hair tied into a bun at the back of their heads. Someone started a wildfire so severe that it killed all the old men, and the resultant severe updraft caused by the fire wafted the initiates up into the air. With their hair burning, half of them landed around Gosses Bluff (80km away) where they became the grass trees still found there.”

Latz says he hopes the book attracts some further attention to the unique plants and environment of the Australian desert.

He sees a lot of potential uses for them especially as climate change looms, if “people down south” make the effort to do the research.

News editor Erwin Chlanda recalls: “A group of us made its way up an incline in the Palm Valley area where Magellan had a small oil and gas field. Peter Latz was with us to broaden the horizon of the roughnecks. It was the seventies.

“He talked about the land, its creatures and how they reacted with each other in this harsh yet magnificent part of The Centre. Over a good half hour, story by story, a drama unfolded, delivered by Latzi in his spellbinding style.

“Yet the size of the land he was talking about was no more than one square metre, down by our feet.”

Tough, Tantalising or Tasty is available at Olive Pink Botanic Garden and Red Kangaroo bookshop.

Photos are reproduced from the book, courtesy the publisher.

Last updated 2 September 2021, 11.09 am (minor edits) and September 3.

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