Boorna Waanginy

Ah, Perth, how you confound all expectations and surprise us – not just one or two of us, but thousands of us, your citizens, your old and young, your new arrivals and your home grown.

Above your bright skyline where the neon of commerce and mining glow cruelly against the night sky, above where your humble ferries ply a bright-lit trade against river darkness, where your once-contested bridge sweeps arcs of headlights across the Swan, where your sea of suburban light reaches out to darkened hills – above it all as a yellow moon breaks free of clotted clouds, new light is created and thousands of us walk beneath its thrall in many footed darkness among strangers and among friends.

We were meant to pass through six seasons experiencing it from within, but instead hung back to watch it from afar – reptiles scamper up the foremost eucalypts; giant numbats meet and play against the trunks. The music changes, and fire comes, red and orange and crackling-quick. (It’s for this I stand among the trees later, trying to imagine the reality of these sounds outside the safety of art.)

I love the rain most, bright and loud and reminiscent of the sound of raindrops on hard baked ground; then cracking thunder and lightning illuminating the stately gums. Later, the black cockatoos wheel – this, too, is impressive not only from afar as on a stage, but from within: I look up and the dark shapes pass across the canopy above my head. Continue reading

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Tropical Queensland

From the dry of Western Australia’s Swan Coastal Plain at the end of summer to the Sunshine Coast hinterland in Queensland – a long way and a world apart.

It’s a work trip, but nonetheless there is time for nature – mostly incidental, because in a leafy town like Maleny, in humid, bursting-with-life-Queensland, there’s bush and birds everywhere.

The Glasshouse Mountains, seen from Maleny.

Mary Cairncross Park near Maleny

  
Mary Cairncross Park, with vines thicker than my arms. Birds everywhere – my colleague stops often to listen and point out their individual calls. Most of what we hear we do not see.

A pademelon in Mary Cairncross Park

Now, after a week of meetings I’m waiting at Brisbane airport to return to WA. Conversations this week have brought to the forefront of my mind – once again – questions of connection to place. As always with new people, I must explain why I say I am “from” Fremantle, yet also “from” East Gippsland. Having many layers of identity when these layers refer to two different, faraway places seems odd to others.

Often, it takes too long to really explain what I mean. According these two places the status of “I am from here” does not seem to do justice to either. For one, it neglects the years of family history that count for as much as my own years there. For the other, it neglects the choice to return, nearly two years ago now, many years after leaving for new places. Yes, to some degree I have come home, but the other home remains, the feel of the land there waiting to be recalled, remembered – revisited.

Wolf image by Shawn Kinkade

Ecological hope: on George Monbiot’s Feral

Off the coast of southern New South Wales, the albatross appeared at first singly, then in twos and threes. On the third day of sailing from Sydney to Eden, eight black-browed albatross swept around us on their calm, broad wings.

I did not grow tired of looking at them: distant against the waves with the naked eye or seeming, when seen through binoculars, to be gliding at great speed yet so near.

One afternoon after the birds have been absent for a while I look across to the eastern horizon and see that one has returned. This bird is different to the black-browed albatross. Languidly soaring across the waves, it banks and I see its enormous wingspan, white back and speckled pattern leading into dark wings.

It is not until I look at the bird book later that I realise it is a wandering albatross. I am stunned: the wandering albatross is something out of seafaring mythology, yet it has come soaring into my presence, gliding into my modern world, enlivening another day on the ocean.

Feral by George MonbiotI feel an uplifting of the heart; a passion kindled. To see these birds up close, determined in their line of flight, their sleek perfectly white bodies bright against the rich grey on their wings, is to feel humbled and hopeful.

Hope has been on my mind since reading Feral: Rewilding the land, sea and human life (2014), by British journalist George Monbiot. He argues that hope is vital if humans are to feel any sense of belonging in an ecological world.

Monbiot’s Feral is at its heart a piece of nature writing; a project driven by the need to escape the constraints of modern human existence. He writes of paddling out to sea, seeking a place in which he feels ‘a kind of peace’:

The salt was encrusted on the back of my hands, my fingers were scored and shrivelled. The wind ravelled through my mind, the water rocked me. Nothing existed except the sea, the birds, the breeze. My mind blew empty. (p16)

I began reading Feral when I joined the HMB Endeavour as crew in late 2014. Two months later, after two stints on the ship and with an interlude hiking in the bush in between, I felt that Feral had played some role in shaping my relationship with both the sea and the land during that time.

Monbiot writes beautifully of the natural world but he also has important arguments to make. He argues that humans have lost their connection to the natural world and that we are poorer for it. The loss of this connection is damaging to wild places but to humans as well – so for our own sake as much as for the sake of ecosystems, we must ensure that wild places still exist and that humans can access them. Humans themselves need to be ‘rewilded’.

Rewilding is a relatively new term, yet is already defined in a number of different ways – perhaps most widely as meaning the rehabilitation of entire ecosystems. It has entered the conservation lexicon, including in the form of conservation groups Rewilding North America, Rewilding Australia and Rewilding Europe. The latter defines rewilding loosely as an approach to conservation where ‘the concept of wild nature and natural processes is accepted as one of the main management principles’.

So how does this relate to humans? Monbiot sees rewilding as an opportunity for humans to be re-involved in nature – as ‘an enhanced opportunity for people to engage with and delight in the natural world’ (p11). This might sound like public relations speak for an ecotourism outfit, but the lack of engagement in the natural world is at the crux of Monbiot’s creeping sense of dissatisfaction with the civilised life he leads.

In the book’s first chapter, he writes,

If you are content with the scope of your life, if it is already as colourful and surprising as you might wish, if feeding the ducks is as close as you ever want to come to nature, this book is probably not for you. But if, like me, you sometimes feel that you are scratching at the walls of this life, hoping to find a way into a wider space beyond, then you may discover something here that resonates. (p11)

The second and lengthier part of Feral‘s argument is about the rewilding of places and landscapes. Wild places, for Monbiot, are places where the trophic webs function properly and ecosystems are species-rich. They are places where humans do not interfere, except to reintroduce missing key species that enable an ecosystem to function and ‘ecological processes to resume’ (p8). This reintroduction, if done right, is the catalyst for rewilding the land.

Monbiot argues for the reintroduction of large herbivores and key predators to enable the full functioning of trophic webs in natural ecosystems. The most famous example of a reintroduction of this kind is that of wolves into Yellowstone National Park – a move that quickly proved effective at reducing populations and changing behaviour patterns of the elk that were damaging the Park’s vegetation and river banks, leading to flow-on impacts for other parts of the ecosystem.

The Yellowstone National Park reintroduction appears to have worked, with beavers, birds and fish among those who benefited from the changed behaviour of the elk. Monbiot argues that certain reintroductions are required in the UK to re-establish functioning ecosystems.

Monbiot wants people to resist their impulse to control, corral and tidy wild landscapes, but he is equally aware that many ecosystems are far too damaged for us to simply step back and allow rewilding to happen on its own accord. Reintroductions of keystone species might go part of the way to restoring natural processes, but it seems simplistic to assume that this will be enough in most cases.

Here in Australia, the concept of rewilding – of allowing wild processes to proceed without human interference – is severely complicated by the fact that much of our flora and fauna has evolved in conjunction with the land management practices of Aboriginal people, particularly in relation to fire regimes. Reintroducing keystone species and walking away is not going to solve all the problems that Australian ecosystems face.

Feral is set almost entirely in the UK, with examples drawn from other parts of the world. For an Australian reader it is fascinating because the UK and Ireland deal with an entirely different set of historically created ecological problems than what we do here in Australia. Australians tend to view our fauna and flora in a black-and-white fashion as either native or introduced – present prior to European settlement or introduced by Europeans – but arguments about what constitutes native or introduced in the UK are much more fraught.

Monbiot argues that European conservationists in the traditional mould are highly conservative (linguistically this makes sense) and aim only to ‘preserve’ nature as it was in their own childhoods or in recent historical memory. Thus the desolate moors of Wales are considered in need of conservation – something Monbiot considers absurd given the paucity of species in these ‘moonscapes’. Sheep-damaged moors have been the norm in the UK for such a long time that few people can envision a more species-rich, functioning ecosystem such as might have existed before sheep came to dominate the landscape.

Albatross and shearwater from onboard Endeavour. Credit Suzannah Marshall Macbeth

Albatross and shearwater off the coast of NSW.

I understand Monbiot’s yearning for nature. I feel it when dolphins come to play in the port of Fremantle in WA: they are wild things brought so close, yet in the midst of a city I am painfully aware of how distant they really are.

I feel it when I walk through the bush and do not understand its structure or the animals that live in it and cannot always identify invasive flora.

I feel it on the open hillsides of East Gippsland in Victoria when I try and reconcile my love of a landscape that is part of my childhood with the destruction of functioning ecosystems that accompanied the clearing of it for agriculture.

At sea, with albatross soaring around me, there is a sense of hope, but this too is transient and perhaps misplaced. Visually the ocean off the east coast of Australia seems untouched, but that is partly because the currents have taken our litter away to an ‘island’ of rubbish in the middle of the Pacific. Monbiot’s chapters about the sea are amongst the most powerful in the book, perhaps because it is harder to see or understand the impacts of humans on the ecosystems of the sea.

As well as hope, Monbiot’s book provides a stark reality check about the challenges our ecosystems face. It is a powerful reminder of the complexity of the natural world and of how important it is to the health – physical, psychological and emotional – of humans, even if most of us have become so far removed from nature that we barely notice its absence.

Monbiot puts into words a yearning for nature and the desire to understand it that is powerful and vital for us all.

Feature image: credit Shawn Kinkade

Repeal of the carbon tax

Today is a sad day for Australia. After years of political wrangling it has come to this: the repeal of the carbon tax.

It is a giant step back from facing up to the encroaching cliff, a turning away from the erosion of solid ground, a denial of a slow-burn but deadly serious threat.

Ian MacDonald and Barnaby Joyce, in the midst of winter, talk about cold weather as though it means something. Their statements are unbelievably crude, and their experience of the cold means nothing in this debate. Are they silly enough to believe that a cold winter’s day is reason to scrap the carbon tax, or are they heartless enough to spin an anti-climate change line for political benefit? I’m not sure which is worse.

I’m angry and there is no outlet for it. Where do you turn, nearly 4000 kilometres from Canberra, to express your disgust? We can only turn to one another – and we have been doing that for years, to no avail.

All around me people have become tired of caring – I’m guilty of it too. Today’s repeal re-energises my anger, but what good is talking about it to the people around me? I know I should be optimistic that talking about the issue does matter, but I, like most of us, exist in an echo chamber and our opinions don’t change the mind of anyone who matters. All around me people are saying how awful the repeal is – yet nonetheless it goes ahead. Whatever voice we may have had in September last year when we voted is utterly lost.

When I began writing this piece around midday today, I felt gutted and betrayed. Outside my window there was a blue sky and the green branches were waving slightly in a gentle winter’s breeze. Now, the sun has set and with the orange on the horizon there comes a stillness in the air. It is a beautiful sight and feels like the calm before a storm.

Perhaps these years are the calm before the storm.

We will look back one day on the nineties and on the first three decades – maybe four if we’re lucky – of the third millenium and see an idyllic life that we could not bear to disturb for the sake of a liveable future. We will see a time when we had knowledge but did not use it. When whole generations were born and grew up while time passed and not enough was done for their future. A time when we prioritised money and business over the life and environment of the planet.

You might say I am being dramatic. But it is hard not to feel that drama is warranted; that fear is warranted. If so little has been achieved in the last thirty years, what’s to say that anything useful will be achieved in the next thirty? If governments and societies cannot make the change that’s needed now, in the calm before the storm, how will we fare during the storm itself, when things become much tougher than they are now?

In a press conference today, Tony Abbott talked about being part of a ‘conservationist government’; being aware that we only have ‘one planet’. The words don’t roll easily off his tongue – perhaps he’s aware just how offensive they are – a contradiction to the action his government has just taken.

Later, he is back in his native discourse with these words, which roll smoothly: ‘We are certainly not going to do anything that damages our economy or that puts our people and our businesses at an unfair competitive disadvantage.’

If there’s anything unfair here it is that a man instrumental in this repeal – Clive Palmer – owns companies which stand to save several million dollars each year due to the removal of the carbon tax. It is a sign of just how mixed up Australian politics have become.

As Lenore Taylor wrote today in The Guardian, the repeal of the carbon tax today is a ‘complete and catastrophic failure of the political system’. Let us hope that this failure is not replicated around the world and on into the future.

Looking west: an evening with Tim Winton

It’s four years since I left WA and in that time I keep hearing about how it’s changed. ‘It’s so expensive.’ ‘The airport is full of miners in fluoro.’ ‘The place has changed.’

But I brush it off – I’ve been back many times in these four years and the port city of Fremantle where I grew up has been much the same in many ways. The differences have been small enough to ignore — after all, I’m there on holiday so it’s easier to stay disconnected.

Sunset from South Beach – Olympus OM-1N, Kodak Gold 100 (exp 1989)

But after hearing Tim Winton speak at a Wheeler Centre event at Melbourne’s Town Hall in late October, all this talk about WA is starting to sink in.

I had mixed feelings going to see Winton speak about his new novel Eyrie. It’s set in Fremantle, one of the two places I call home. I was nervous about this famous novelist – even though he’s from the west – getting stuck into my town in his fiction. There was something odd about seeing Winton speak on the wrong side of the country – as though I might be mistaken for an east coaster, a Melbourne bohemian looking across the desert with a condescending eye towards that distant western city. Continue reading

On fear and climate change

Image credit: NOAA's National Ocean Service

Image credit: NOAA’s National Ocean Service

You’re not supposed to want to cry about climate change at work, but that’s how I felt this morning.

We are good at staying divorced from painful but distant realities. We are good at ignoring the hurt that’s happening to someone else if they are nothing like us. We are good at enjoying sunny winter days and not asking why.

Even the phrase ‘climate change’ almost rings hollow these days – we hear it so often, in so many cold and unemotional contexts.

But climate change has many faces, and once in a while there’s a face that pulls at the heartstrings. The article last week on The Guardian gave climate change a face that most of us can’t fail to be moved by. A polar bear found dead, ‘skin and bones’; a 16-year old starved to death, when most members of the species live into their early 20s.

It’s awful and moving. Yes, it’s the cute animal effect, but that doesn’t make the emotion meaningless. It’s a good thing if it draws attention to an issue that will change the environment for a whole range of animals – and plants and entire ecosystems.

The Guardian article and this response by Freya Mathews on The Conversation are powerful reminders of the harm we have done and the hurt we have caused as a species.

I am overwhelmed by this hurt. It is almost ungraspable. It is so big as to avoid definition, so very nearly unstoppable, so hard to see, yet if you look even a little bit closely, it’s so tangible and so close.

This hurt hits me more and more regularly these days, and it’s intensified by the lack of concern shown by the Labor party and the Coalition in the lead-up to an election. That the issue is not attracting some focus during a campaign suggests that enough of us don’t care, or aren’t speaking out about it if we do.

It’s all too easy to feel the emotion, for a while, and then let it pass and slip back into one’s day to day life, worrying instead about work or study pressures or  money or family or what to have for dinner. It’s also hard to see how an individual can make a difference – political machinery seems to roll on without paying any attention to our views, and sometimes not even to our vote.

But we have to keep caring and keep trying to do something about this if we want anything to change. It’s individuals who make up the collective, and it’s the collective that can change the direction of the nation.

So if you vote on one issue this federal election, vote according to who takes climate change seriously and is committed to doing something about it.

I’m scared. We all should be sacred. Everything else pales into insignificance.

 

Read these:

On The Guardian, ‘Starved polar bear perished due to sea ice melt, says expert’

On The Conversation, ‘Wild animals are starving, and it’s our fault, so should we feed them?’ by Freya Mathews

On The Drum, ‘The election that forgot the environment’ by ABC Environment’s Sara Phillips

The canary in the coalmine, the butterfly on the hill: Flight Behaviour

Flight Behaviour coverBarbara Kingsolver’s fourteenth novel, Flight Behaviour, is set in Tennessee. The characters are firmly rooted in a primarily pastoral landscape that turns out to be unstable, though most in the novel refuse to acknowledge the changes.

Dellarobia, the feisty young mother trapped in a domestic situation where her only outlet is crushes on local tradesmen, learns to see that the land on which their lives are based is changing before them. In doing so she recognises too the instability of the human landscape.

The book opens with Dellarobia in full flight, albeit in unsuitable shoes, up a mountain towards an extra-marital tryst. But the sight of mountain ranges aflame – not with fire but with something she cannot comprehend – sends her home again, with the sense that running away is not the answer.

The orange flame turns out to be millions of monarch butterflies, a beautiful ‘miracle’ that is the result of a horrible truth. Climate change is rearing its head in a town where people say that the weather is in the Lord’s hands. It changes Dellarobia’s outlook completely. Unlike most of those around her, she doesn’t have much faith in God, and is open to science and to encouraging her intelligent, questioning kindergarten-aged son in a way that few others are.

This is working-class rural America, where college isn’t part of the life plan, where people are judged if they don’t attend church, where floods and orchards rotting in the earth are all attributed to God’s will. But it is the poverty that is an unexpected feature of this novel; while Australians might perceive middle America as overweight and subsisting on junk food, this is a family that hasn’t had take away or eaten in a restaurant in two years.

This is a book about class and about the division of ideas. It is also about denial, and about the lack of security in both the earth and in each other as human beings. Dellarobia, never knowing what else there was to aspire to, sustained herself with crushes on men who were not her husband. Now a world opens to her that is both terrifying and much broader than anything she has ever known.

Kingsolver returns to her theme of religion in this novel – Dellarobia, despite being thrown out of Wednesday bible discussion for having the temerity to actually discuss, weaves bible metaphors into her thoughts throughout the book. Flood and fire: while the bible bashers deny that it is upon them, she is confronted with it through the evidence of science.

The ending of Flight Behaviour has been widely criticised, and while I share some of the criticisms the novel ultimately tells a powerful and imaginative story. It is a book that should be read, because from it there is so much to learn.