JCU researcher examines how people experience cyclones

20 January 2021

Cyclones are a constant threat in Northern Australia’s summer months. JCU Senior Research Fellow Dr Chrystopher Spicer writes about cyclones in literature in his new book Cyclone Country, and he tells us why the red flag above the Cairns post office was so important during cyclone season.

Cairns, Queensland, Australia
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When Dr Chrystopher Spicer started researching cyclone experiences in fiction, initially for his PhD thesis and later for his book Cyclone Country, he was surprised that no one had looked into Australian cyclone fiction and poetry before. “We have a rather unique region in which people are living, with a constant threat of extreme weather. So we were thinking, how do people live with that and how do they incorporate that into their lives?”

Chrystopher was especially interested in the relationship between people and nature, and how literature depicts people coping with the sometimes traumatic events of a cyclone. “Because we don’t just live in a paradise,” he says. “We live in a paradise that is constantly under threat of being ripped apart by this really extreme weather.”

The Australian Aboriginal perspective on cyclones

Australia has a relatively short history of written literature, but it has an oral storytelling tradition that goes back thousands of years. However, Chrystopher found that oral history does not tell us much about extreme weather events.

“Although the ancestral serpent Taipan is regarded by Aboriginal people of Cape York and the Gulf country as the maker of cyclones, floods, thunder, and lightning, their oral history does not usually recount cyclone impacts in detail for good reason.”

The red flag – and traumatic cyclone experiences

It wasn’t that simple for Queensland’s sedentary white population, though, that had to go through often traumatic cyclone experiences. In the early 20th century, Queenslanders didn’t have cyclone safe housing and, more importantly, there was no warning system as we know it today.

“We are only a few decades away from where the first warning of a cyclone was when someone raised a red flag over the post office,” Chrystopher says. “I’ve met people who still could remember it. You would be probably going back to the 1940s or ’50s. That was, of course, when Cairns was still a small place and you could actually see the post office.”

Chrystopher J Spicer has written extensively about Australian and American arts and culture in such books as Clark Gable: Biography, Great Australian World Firsts: The things we made, the things we did, and The Flying Adventures of Jessie Keith ‘Chubbie’ Miller. He is currently a cultural historian and a Senior Research Fellow (Adj) at James Cook University, Cairns, Queensland. You can contact Dr Spicer at chrystopher.spicer@jcu.edu.au.

About James Cook University

One of the world’s leading institutions focusing on the tropics, James Cook University is surrounded by the spectacular ecosystems of the rainforests of the wet tropics, the dry savannahs, and the iconic Great Barrier Reef. JCU’s unique location enables students to study in a diverse physical environment unparalleled by any university in the world.

JCU also recognizes their special obligation to be relevant to their own region and have forged close links into the economy and social fabric of the northern Queensland. The university is dedicated to ensuring that teaching, learning, and research is not only of high quality, but also delivers practical benefits to the peoples and industries of the region.

Canadian students at JCU love the fact that they can study exceptional professional degrees in a beautiful, natural environment. JCU programs are hands-on and academics work closely with industry leaders to ensure degrees prepare you for “real world” careers, especially those focused on rural and remote health.

Some of the most popular study areas among Canadian students include medicinedentistrypharmacy, sciences, and law.