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Searching for rice in the wilds of Australia

In May 2015, Lisa M. Hamilton joined an expedition to the Cape York peninsula, Australia’s northeasternmost point, reporting on the search for the wild relatives of Oryza sativa, or the plant we know as rice. This journey was more discreet than the great plant collecting expeditions of yore: there was no army of porters carrying bulky scientific equipment, no scrolls printed with royal decrees. The team traveled by truck, spoke English and ate hamburgers.

Still, Hamilton says that the trip was defined by a deep sense of departure from the usual trappings of contemporary life. That’s because inland Cape York is one of the few wild places left in the world. The tip of the peninsula lies just 100 kilometers from New Guinea, and the interior is virtually uninhabited. The collectors uncovered a bounty of the wild Oryza plants, which in time should help plant breeders adapt the world’s most important food crop to the challenges of climate change. Observing them, Hamilton discovered for herself a new relationship to the wild, and what it might mean for our domesticated lives. Read the full story at California Sunday magazine or on FERN’s web site, where you can also find our Q&A with HamiltonThe following photographs are an exclusive look inside the journey.

All images © Lisa M. Hamilton 2015.

A swamp ringed by wild rice and decorated with water lilies. Nobody entered this swamp for fear of crocodiles.
Robert Henry, the leader of the trip, is director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at the University of Queensland. He has studied agricultural biochemistry and genetics for more than three decades.
Robert Henry, the leader of the trip, is director of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at the University of Queensland. He has studied agricultural biochemistry and genetics for more than three decades.
Grains of wild Oryza. The long tail attached to each seed is an awn, at the base of which are barbs that hook onto passing animals to help disperse the plants to new locations.
Grains of wild Oryza. The long tail attached to each seed is an awn, at the base of which are barbs that hook onto passing animals to help disperse the plants to new locations.
A swamp ringed by wild rice and decorated with water lilies. Nobody entered this swamp for fear of crocodiles.
Ian Chivers, a specialist in Australian native grasses, collects wild rice in a swamp outside the coastal town of Weipa.
A"donger," one of the metal buildings resembling a shipping container that are common on Cape York. They are almost always raised off the ground, to accommodate the massive flooding during the rainy season that lasts from December through April.
A “donger,” one of the metal buildings resembling a shipping container that are common on Cape York. They are almost always raised off the ground, to accommodate the massive flooding during the rainy season that lasts from December through April.
Termite mounds are a prehistoric-looking staple of the landscape. They extend as far underground as they do above, creating a natural cooling system for the thousands of insects living inside.
Termite mounds are a prehistoric-looking staple of the landscape. They extend as far underground as they do above, creating a natural cooling system for the thousands of insects living inside.
A black python as roadkill. Cape York is home to roughly thirty different types of snakes, including some of the most venomous in the world.
A black python as roadkill. Cape York is home to roughly thirty different types of snakes, including some of the most venomous in the world.
The larva of a rhinoceros beetle, in the amateur natural history museum at the Musgrave Roadhouse.
The larva of a rhinoceros beetle, in the amateur natural history museum at the Musgrave Roadhouse.
To the casual observer in the dry season, Cape York appears to be a rather plain landscape of small trees and dry grass. Over time, though, the tropical savanna reveals its diversity and its wildness.
To the casual observer in the dry season, Cape York appears to be a rather plain landscape of small trees and dry grass. Over time, though, the tropical savanna reveals its diversity and its wildness.

The post Searching for rice in the wilds of Australia appeared first on Food and Environment Reporting Network.

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