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Uncharted

On a dimly lit shelf in the dining room of the Musgrave Roadhouse sit two dozen specimens preserved in cheap vodka — a makeshift natural-history museum. In a pickle jar is an accumulation of scorpions stuffed against a thick wad of cotton. An old Vegemite container holds a furry red body with crab-like legs, labeled BIRD EATING SPIDER. Beside it is the sawed-off head of a snake, its jaw stretched open with a toothpick to display four fangs; masking tape identifies it as a taipan, the world’s third-most venomous species. The waitress explains that they are all creatures found just beyond the fence that rings the roadhouse. “When someone finds a new one,” she says with a shrug, “they bring it in, and we get a jar.”

Musgrave is one of a few pit stops along the rutted, mostly dirt road that traverses Cape York, Australia, and ends at the northeasternmost tip of the continent, just 100 miles from Papua New Guinea. The peninsula is part of the world’s greatest concentration of free-flowing rivers and its most extensive network of intact tropical savannas, which stretches across the country’s north for hundreds of miles. Even in a country where open spaces rule the landscape, this place looms in the national mind as an uncharted, prehistoric mystery. This year alone, scientists discovered 13 new spider species on the peninsula. Cape York is roughly the size of Nebraska but with only 17,000 residents, most of whom are indigenous and clustered in a few towns along the coast. When the immigration officer at Sydney Airport read on my form that I was going to Cape York, his face darkened with concern. “It’s just very … isolated,” he said.

I’m here with a team of researchers from the University of Queensland, whose protocol required a risk assessment for the trip. Snakes were the second item on that list; the first was “croc attack.” On a scratchy pre-trip conference call, someone read its summary aloud: “Consequence: very serious. Exposure: continuous. Risk level: substantial.”

“Basically, there will be crocodiles wherever we go,” explained a voice on the call.

“Right, and the thing is,” another voice said, “crocodiles are invisible.”

Before that person could explain, a voice interrupted to say that mosquitoes pose a greater threat, because while we are standing around worrying about crocs, the insects might give us dengue, or “breakbone fever,” for which there is no vaccine and no speedy cure. Another voice added that we should not forget about leeches. The first-aid guy piped in that we ought to be “more snake aware than anything.”

“As long as we don’t have a late cyclone, we should be fine,” the leader of the trip said with a light laugh. “Two years ago we got hit by one. We thought we’d thought of everything that could go wrong, but we hadn’t thought of cyclones.”

The trip leader is Robert Henry, a modest, affable geneticist who directs a global agricultural research center at the University of Queensland. In 2010, he was named one of the most-cited authors in scientific literature about agriculture. Nothing about him suggests that he would lead an expedition into a land where there are more snakes than people. His shoulders slump under his rumpled dress shirt; his khakis bunch up over his Blundstone boots. Whenever he finds cell reception, he starts shooting out emails — about the intercontinental spread of a banana-fungus epidemic, travel plans for a meeting at the Pentagon to discuss biofuel. Just before noon each day, his phone chimes: His assistant programmed it to remind him to eat lunch.

The object of the expedition: wild Oryza

What draws Robert to the edge of the continent appears at first glance to be undeserving of his attention. It is a grass, composed of erect green blades and tiny flowers that hang unremarkably from the plant, like feathers that have poked their way out of a pillow. Cape York is home to hundreds of other grasses, many more beautiful or rare. What makes him want to chase down this one is that it is related to Oryza sativa, the plant we know as rice.

Grown on six continents and in 117 countries, rice is the world’s most important food. There are 144 million farms that grow rice, more than for any other crop. The vast majority of these are in developing countries, and virtually all of them are small, averaging just over 2 acres apiece. Simply put, the crop is the daily sustenance of the world’s poor. The primary reason is its remarkable biology. Rice is naturally prolific, each plant generating perhaps 25 times as many grains as a single wheat plant. When grown in water, its microbiome regenerates the soil’s nutrition, making fertilizer unnecessary. Yet even this robust plant is vulnerable to climate change and the extreme conditions it brings. Already one-eighth of the world’s rice fields are threatened by flooding; in Asia, the same amount of acreage suffers from scarcity of water.

The good news is that rice is one narrow branch of a broad family tree. Like every food crop on earth, it can be traced back to a wild plant whose innate possibilities were cultivated over millennia into things their human supervisors desired: nutritious leaves, succulent fruit, larger grains. The domesticated progeny now dominate the earth’s arable land, but many of those original wild plants still exist, as do countless relatives — the grandparents, great-aunts, and second cousins twice removed of all the plants we eat. For ages they have meant little to most people, usually considered weeds if they are considered at all.

Robert Henry (left), leader of the expedition, on day six
Robert Henry (left), leader of the expedition, on day six

In recent decades, an increasing number of geneticists and plant breeders have realized that crops’ wild relatives hold immense value because they have not been domesticated. Instead of being narrowed and homogenized by humans, these crops have produced immeasurable genetic diversity as a result of their natural adaptation to pests, diseases, and climatic fluctuation. Their genes have already begun to help agriculture tackle the enormous challenges it faces today.

Rice’s genus, Oryza, has 25 wild species that grow in nearly every tropical country. But as the world’s most cultivated crop, rice has displaced countless populations of wild relatives. Those that remain are often near enough to domesticated rice to cross with it and be contaminated with human-influenced genetics. In most of Asia, wild Oryza is no longer truly wild. Rice farming is unwittingly shooting itself in the foot.

So when Robert and his colleagues identified wild Oryza number 26 growing on the southern edge of Cape York a few years ago, he turned his attention to unraveling its story. The plant showed great variation — so much that it appeared to be two new species. It was far from any notable rice cultivation, meaning it was likely pure. Then the initial genetic analysis suggested something extraordinary: that some of it might be the original ancestor of Oryza sativa, the plant from which rice as we know it evolved. If that is true, Robert’s team will have identified perhaps the most important limb of that tangled family tree, at a time when the world needs it most.

“I certainly would not have dreamt of finding something as important or relevant to food security as this,” Robert told me. “You think, Well, I might be able to achieve this little bit of a thing. But you never think of something thisbig.” For that, he is willing to forge into a wilderness where neither he nor anyone else on his crew has ever been — indeed, where most Australians have not set foot.

Why are the rest of us on the trip willing to risk taipans and croc attacks, to tromp through swamps in the oppressive heat? Some are being paid; some are getting credit toward graduate degrees. One person has been sent by the Australian Tropical Herbarium to collect specimens so that other researchers can see the flora without having to come themselves. But I suppose that beneath all the professional obligations lies the desire just to visit this place: to prove we can survive it, yes. But more so, to step outside our safe, clean lives and enter one of the few places left that is genuinely wild.

The Contents of the caravan include five Ph.D.s, seven sun hats with the tags still on, three bottles of Bushman bug spray, three CB radios, two first-aid kits, one satellite phone, clippers, scissors, rulers, dried apricots, and two refrigerators plugged into the cigarette lighter. Even in the wilting heat, their insides remain at 39.2 degrees Fahrenheit.

We cram into one Toyota truck and two rented Land Rovers, and on the roofs strap down luggage, shovels, and nets on telescoping poles for reaching rice that grows in locations deemed too croc-y to get close. The exteriors of the rental trucks are decorated with advertisements for Captain Billy’s 4WD Cape York Wilderness Adventures. Each side shows an angler spearing a giant fish and a crocodile surging out of the water at him with open jaws.

The person leading the hunt is Robert, but the person he looks to for guidance is Ray Byers. He is tall and meaty, with receding brown hair cropped close to his scalp and a horseshoe mustache sculpted down to his jawbone. His back is covered by a tattoo of an epic sunset landscape; an Indian warrior rides a horse across his waist, and an eagle shrieks from his shoulder. “I’m not very scientific,” he told me by way of introduction. “I don’t even know what Ph.D.stands for.”

Driver Ray Byers has explored Cape York for 25 years.
Driver Ray Byers has explored Cape York for 25 years.

Ray was hired as a driver, chosen for his 25 years of experience exploring Cape York’s dirt roads. But he is here equally as someone who can see the signs of an invisible crocodile or the camouflaged twitching of a taipan. When we met by phone, he told me that he has a passion for handling snakes and saw the trip as a chance to approach venomous species. At each stop he lit a cigarette and stepped hopefully into the tall grass as he smoked.

“Who’s got the map?” Robert asks as we set out. “Who knows where we’re going?”

“It’s a road,” Ray replies. “We’ll just drive.”

The hunt for rice begins each day at sunrise and ends after dark. Headlights are always on, since each oncoming truck on the red dirt road leaves a cloud of dust that blinds the driver for ten seconds. (Within that fog, the first vehicle radios a warning to the two behind, since they are likely struggling through the dust stirred up by the leader’s wheels.) Ray recalls when the road was just two dirt tracks that barely found their way through the brush. He tells us that farther north, another road had massive dips where the dust would collect, and as you drove through, a red wave swept up over your windshield — you’d have to use your wipers, as if in a rainstorm. “It was awesome,” he says.

In places the road has been graded and sprayed down with water to control the dust; elsewhere there are even stretches of asphalt. The paving has begun only in the past few years, Ray says. It appears for a mile here or there, seemingly at random, and is gone almost as soon as it begins. But each smooth mile turns his face red.

“It’s the road to destruction,” he says. “The beginning of the end.”

On the first morning, Ray drives last in the caravan so he can make sure no one breaks down and gets left behind. The other two vehicles pass by an injured wallaby in the middle of the road, but Ray turns around and pulls over. He speaks to the animal softly, steps forward and slips his hands under it. As the animal kicks spastically in fear and soils itself, Ray cradles the body and carries it to the tall grass. When he places it on the ground, he faces it toward the trees, a practical and perhaps metaphoric orientation.

Australians divide the year into two seasons: the Wet and the Dry. During the Wet, Cape York turns to water. Rivers flow sideways across the land. Forests become wetlands. Roads disappear. The few residents of the interior wait out the flooding in homes built on stilts. Their groceries arrive by airplane.

But around the end of April, the precipitation stops and the flat, porous land empties like a colander. Looking out the window of the Land Rover in May, what I see is the Dry. It is not a charismatic landscape. It is poor soil growing short, skinny trees, and beneath them various kinds of grass. Every so often, the monotony is punctuated by a dark creek bed, and as the truck dips down to cross it we all scan for crocodiles. Seconds later we drive up out of the hollow, back into the savanna, and that is basically it for roughly 80,000 square miles.

The team collected 250 samples of wild Oryza.
The team collected 250 samples of wild Oryza.

The result of this hydrologic feast or famine is that human populations have always been sparse in the interior. Aside from some widely scattered cattle, there is no agriculture — never has been. The land has never not been wild. This is the core of what makes Robert’s unnamed plants precious: They have evolved outside of human influence — Robert believes for 1 million years or more — and they continue to do so today.

That may soon change. The road paving that Ray loathes signals a larger transformation afoot. The national government includes Cape York within its official plan to help northern Australia “grasp its full potential,” in large part by developing energy and mineral resources and building dams to enable irrigated agriculture. The state government is also promoting agriculture, tourism, and mining throughout the peninsula. Together the two entities have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, including upward of $150 million to pave the road on which we are traveling.

“I reckon that in the next few years it’ll be bitumen the whole way,” Ray mutters on one stretch. “Then it will all be ruined.”

Every decade or so politicians take up the call to develop the tropical north, but after much surveying and bluster, they have always conceded that it can’t be done. This time may be different because the context is dire: At the same time that global population growth is creating more hungry people, climate change is threatening the global food system that will feed them. Investment in Australian agriculture is booming, and large-scale Chinese acquisition of northern farm and ranch land has begun. Still reeling from the decade-long Millennium Drought, the country’s agriculturists salivate at the thought of all that water.

Helicoptering over the Torres Strait
Helicoptering over the Torres Strait

Just to the south of Cape York, Chinese and American investors are looking into developing a sizable irrigation district served by the Gilbert and Flinders rivers. Among the crops being tested for commodity production is rice. Meanwhile, SunRice, one of the largest rice food companies in the world, has begun expanding from arid New South Wales up to the Burdekin, a region bordering the peninsula.

It’s a tricky subject for Robert. He is an advocate for these wild Oryzas, whose genetic integrity could be compromised by the large-scale farming of rice so nearby. Yet the reason he advocates for the plants in the first place is to serve rice farming. He is not a wilderness conservationist; he is an agricultural scientist. Indeed, Robert has helped SunRice breed rice for its new production in the Burdekin. He embodies a paradox playing out around the world, and not just in rice: While agriculture may well depend on wild relatives for its survival, often there isn’t enough space left for the two to coexist.

Ray is leading the caravan when we enter a deserted national park and come to an orange sign: ROAD CLOSED. He drives around it. A few minutes later he steers us around a second sign, and then a third. “Those don’t apply to us,” he says with a chuckle. A kangaroo flies out of the trees and across the road, then a voice radios to pull over. Through the thin forest, someone has spotted an area that is bright, seemingly treeless. This can mean a wet area, and sometimes that means rice.

Robert grabs a clipboard and walks through the shaggy paperbark trees until his shoes squish down into standing water. The trees open onto a brilliant, sunny clearing about a quarter-mile wide and composed of a single plant: erect green blades, topped by a yellow aura of grains. It looks like a farm field waiting to be harvested, but in fact it is roughly 10 acres of Robert’s nameless wild plants. Four scientists in waders proceed past him into the muddy swamp. The water rises over their ankles, their calves, and, without warning, their thighs. They fan out and recede into the distance, tiny torsos bobbing in chest-high grass. They yank sample plants and slog back with fists full of dry leaves and muddy root balls.

Ray lingers nearby like a bodyguard. He is in bare feet and jeans. As we leave the swamp, I lumber behind him in my heavy rubber waders and joke that we have all just broken the most basic rule of crocodile safety: Don’t go into deep, murky water. “But there are no crocs here, right?” I ask.

“Well, there might be one,” he replies without looking back. “There’s not a good place for one to hunt, but one could be waiting in any of these paths we’ve made through the grass, waiting for a pig to happen by.”

“So what would you put the chances at that there’s a croc in here?”

“Less than 50 percent.”

I push through the water a little harder. “Aren’t you worried, in bare feet?”

“No,” he says. “If there’s a croc, I’ll be able to run faster than the rest of you.”

Water lilies, rice, and Eleocharis growing in a swamp
Water lilies, rice, and Eleocharis growing in a swamp

Robert did not follow us into the swamp. He returned to the truck to find a ranger waiting to bust us for being on this closed-off road. Robert explained that he had permission from the highest levels, then chatted for a while, telling the man about the rice plant and asking if he had seen it. The ranger revealed that he was looking for a gang of trespassers who were there trying to wrestle wild crocodiles. Apparently they were also driving trucks from Captain Billy’s, but as the ranger spoke with Robert, he realized we were too tame to cause trouble.

After the ranger left, Robert just stood quietly next to the truck, as he did every time we stopped. His assignment is to uncover the big-picture story of this rice: how many of these plants there are, where they grow, and what their weaknesses are. The only way to understand the identity of a plant, he explains, is to observe it within the larger landscape. “If you don’t see it in the wild, you’ve got no idea,” he says. “You’re never quite sure what you don’t know if you haven’t been.” So as the others collected, Robert leaned back on his hips and took in all the loose, possibly important but unquantifiable information from the surrounding environment. Paperbark trees often surround the places where rice grows. Water lilies are often present, too. The plant seems to be a perennial, growing in places where the ground doesn’t dry out completely.

Until Robert can piece together the story, it’s impossible to predict how much the pavement and all it brings will affect this wild Oryza. It could be that the greatest danger is not genetic contamination from rice farms but grazing by cattle or competition from exotic weeds. Likewise, no one knows what might be in danger of being lost; so far, these plants are just a reservoir of possibility.

Much of that possibility lies in their continuing to evolve, uninterrupted. Robert knows in order to preserve that, he must make the case that these plants matter enough to be conserved. To do so, their value must be put into terms that our un-wild world can appreciate. “It can’t be an endangered unknown,” he told me. “If you want to conserve a plant, it’s got to be something.”

The work is, in a sense, to un-wild these plants: to collect, decode, and define them. Coming out of the swamp, the collectors present their muddy samples to Robert’s right-hand man, a geneticist named Agnelo Furtado. He never gets dirty; instead he waits by the passenger-side door of a Captain Billy truck, where he has set up as close to a lab as this place will allow. He pinches off the tiny white flowers and photographs them on a piece of notebook paper. He carefully folds the leaves into a sandwich bag and places them in the humming refrigerator. These baggies hold perhaps our most precious cargo, for the leaves’ fresh tissue will offer DNA that can be analyzed back at the University of Queensland. The resulting genetic information will enable Robert’s team to describe the plants in formal taxonomic terms, all of which will lead to official classification within the genus Oryza. That will allow botanists to find them elsewhere and determine their geographic range, evolutionary biologists to reconstruct their history, and plant breeders to prove their merits through practical application. The reservoir of possibility will be quantified.

For days, all we do is drive and look out onto the unchanging savanna in hopes of spotting a patch of blades that are thigh height or a certain yellow-green. If there’s a clearing in the distance, we stop and hike to it. We ask anyone we encounter for directions to the nearest swamp. Even Ray begins scanning for the plant from the driver’s seat, walking with his cigarette to see if he can find it at the far side of some lagoon where the others have not dared go.

This is not the hunt for a snow leopard or rare orchid. The plants are common, even abundant to the point of being known by some locals as just another weed they see everywhere. For our purposes, this makes it more valuable: The more plants we find, and the more diverse they are, the greater the possibility they offer to discover specific, useful genes later. We track down the plants in idyllic marshes and roadside ditches — again and again, and still the thirst for more seems to grow within everyone.

When Ray flags down a rancher to buy some emergency diesel, he gets loose directions that lead us to a muddy hole in the middle of a field. It’s nearly noon and at least 90 degrees out, but when the collectors spot some rice, they load into their waders and trudge into the muck. Robert leans against the truck and studies the location. There are no paperbark trees here, nor lilies. This morning he posited that what he believes is the first species grows on the west side of the peninsula and the second species on the east. Now we are on the west, collecting the second species in this billabong, so he reshuffles: Species one is south; species two is north. How much they overlap, he has no idea.

Robert’s calculations for each plant the team collected
Robert’s calculations for each plant the team collected

When the collectors finish, their clothes are soaked through with sweat. Ray says he can hear a waterfall nearby, so we rumble down the road in search of relief. Before long, the road sinks down to reveal the wide Coleman River and what passes for a waterfall in this flat land: stones step down 2 feet; riffles smooth out to a stream 3 inches deep. All of us strip off shoes and socks to walk awkwardly over the sharp rocks, and we exhale as the river runs between our toes. The hottest of the wader wearers bends down, lies on his back in the water, and stares up at the sky in ecstasy.

In the sand beside the river are tracks — from a goanna, or monitor lizard, Ray tells me. The tracks are perfect: an unbroken line, like a gentle wave, with a pointy, primeval footprint on the outside of each curve. Given how unfrequented this place is, the animal could have walked through days ago, but I feel as though it just left; I can sense the lumbering steps that dragged that tail in a gentle arc, back and forth, as the heavy, low predator came here to drink. Goannas can be 4 feet long and fierce, but the animal’s presence feels like a gift, not a threat.

In that moment it occurs to me that danger is the language people use to describe this place because it’s easy — snakes and crocodiles are a blunt shorthand for wildness. It’s much harder to slow down and witness this place. That’s what I admire in Ray, who has just fished a giant clam out of the river and is looking for a rock with which to crack it open: He doesn’t want anything from this place aside from the chance to disappear into it. Instead of danger, he sees beauty.

Specimens gathered for the Australian Tropical Herbarium
Specimens gathered for the Australian Tropical Herbarium

The rice has offered the rest of us a secret door in. The unexpected reward for our scouring the savanna for the plant is that as we look so closely, so continuously, the land gradually reveals itself through a richer vocabulary. A flush of pale galah cockatoos turns all at once, and their wings flash blood red in the rising sun’s light. A dingo emerges from the grass and shows no fear, challenging us to move on.

As I look out the truck window that afternoon, from the grating monotony of trees and grass there emerges a sort of song. The trees have no branches or leaves until the very top — some are 40 feet tall with nothing but a lollipop of greenery. The air under the thin canopy is open, and the view is of trunks. Driving past, I can feel that visual beat of one after another, like with a picket fence or acres of orchards. But there are no right angles here. These millions of bare trunks are all different, each individually crooked from a lifetime of struggle — against a cyclone that blew it sideways, against hungry insects that kinked its wood like a broken bone. I can now hear that the beat they make is syncopated and complex, a sort of trance music.

Then, for reasons no one knows, we stop finding rice. We travel 185 miles more, to the rocky tip of the cape, eyes glued to the window the entire way. We go up in a tiny helicopter that resembles a dragonfly and search from the air. We follow an Injinoo man named Shorty who takes us by foot to lagoons guarded by a crocodile he says is big enough to take down a grown cow. Nothing.

We think we see it everywhere. In fact, the absence turns us into delirious prospectors. Because we haven’t seen the plants for so long, we’re convinced that anything we find could be a new species. One morning, as I lug my bag to the parking lot of a small touristy hotel on the coast, I see Ray emerge from a swampy area behind the building. He is smoking a cigarette and looks sheepish. “You were looking for rice, weren’t you?” He nods yes.

Why are we obsessed? Probably not because of our driving desire to address global food security; we all recognize the plants’ value for humankind, but not once does anyone mention it. It is the thrill of the hunt. We want to find and possess — even if what we possess is nothing more than the moment of discovery. Being here in the name of conserving these plants would appear to position us opposite those forces that want only to extract from this place, whether that is mining, farming, or wrestling a croc. Yet we are also here to extract the thing that is of value to us. There are hundreds of grasses on Cape York, and any number of them may be threatened or lost as a result of development; we care only about the ones that can benefit our domesticated crop.

And so Robert calls off the final day of the search and instead books a conference room in probably the only hotel on Cape York that has one. He and the team review data and fill up the white board with plans for the genetic analysis to be done back in the lab. It will take months for the team to process DNA from the 250 samples they collected, and then years, perhaps decades, for plant breeders to mine out specific genetics that prove the wild Oryzas’ worth — that is, if they find anything at all. But to focus on itemized returns is to miss the true value of wild relatives like these. Just as wilderness allows us to reassess our modern souls within the context of an ancient, feral world, wild plants offer domesticated crops a bridge back to where they came from.

Just outside the Archer River
Just outside the Archer River

The team drives the trucks south to Cairns, but Robert flies home — he is due at an Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering awards ceremony and has meetings booked for the rest of the week. I board the prop plane out of Cairns, too. Only after five minutes in the air do I see the road, a thin red incision through the continuous forest canopy. It looks weak and crudely cut compared to the broad rivers that curve gracefully — willfully, it seems — through the vast green. I can picture how when the Wet begins, the waters will erupt to inundate this landscape. In some spots their force will scrape the surface all the way down to the harder earth beneath the soil, leaving a hole. As the Dry sets in, water will remain in some of those new depressions. Over the course of many seasons, plant litter and animal waste will collect on the bottom and decompose to make a soft, new soil. Eventually lilies may root in the muck; perhaps a crocodile will move in. And if the new lagoon produces the right conditions — whatever they are — rice may seed itself along the edges. Perhaps someone will find it growing there. More likely, though, it will grow and eventually die unknown. Its whole life will play out in the secret heart of this place.

Story was originally produced in partnership with California Sunday Magazine. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org. Support for FERN’s climate change, agriculture, and public health reporting is provided in part by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

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