Hidden Treasures’ first tram session

If you’re going to be early to anything this week in Fremantle, make sure you’re early to Hidden Treasures – Fremantle’s winter music series. Otherwise, you might miss out on a seat for this year’s very special treat: a gig on the Fremantle Tram.

There was a palpable sense of anticipation as we waited outside the Buffalo Club to board the first ever Hidden Treasures tram. The tram is not very big, so lots of people missed out on that first trip.

We took off into the night with a rumble and a lurch. We didn’t have far to go – soon, parked down by the Fishing Boat Harbour, the lights glowing on the water, this little venue came alive.

lucy-peach-fremantle-shipping-news

Lucy Peach, whom I first saw perform at the Fremantle Festival event Songs of the Suburbs, Songs of the Sea last year, was an ideal performer to kick off the tram sessions.

Lucy is a storyteller, and in the intimate venue of the tram, with winter weather lashing at the window, her stories carried extra-special weight and warmth.

Four songs and stories and a few laughs later, it was time to head back into town for the rest of the night. By the time we got back, the West End was in full swing. With the fire roaring in the drum on the corner of High and Pakenham, with a food van ready for the hungry among us, with beats to make you dance even on a weeknight… Hidden Treasures is well and truly out of the shadows and embracing a new season.

Thank goodness for winter in Freo!

You can watch and experience the tram session here. This article was first published on Fremantle Shipping News on 12 July 2017.

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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

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.

Stories and weapons in Anna Krien’s Night Games

Night GamesAnna Krien’s Night Games is a fascinating exploration of football, rape and the justice system, and like Krien’s previous works there are no easy answers to the questions it raises.

Night Games focuses on the trial of a young man, Justin Dyer*, for the rape of a young woman, Sarah Wesley*. The incident took place early in the morning after Collingood’s AFL Grand Final victory in 2010. Earlier that night, Sarah had had sex with or been raped by three other men – two of whom were Collingwood’s Dayne Beams and John McCarthy.

The question of whether Beams and McCarthy raped Sarah is never answered, because they are not charged and the events of earlier in the night are shaded out of the narrative told by both defence and prosecution during Justin’s trial.

The case thus neatly sidesteps the AFL players involved and instead focuses on the hanger-on, a young man who is a player in the VFL and who is immediately dropped from his team when rape charges are laid. Continue reading

Art and nature: Sunday Reed and Autumn Laing

When I finished reading Alex Miller’s latest novel, Autumn Laing, a coincidence led me to a book that Miller himself read in the process of creating Autumn Laing. This latter book is The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide, by art historian Janine Burke.

To simply move from one of these books to the other is no great step, as Autumn Laing is loosely based on the historical figures of Sunday and John Reed, patrons of modern art in Melbourne, and on Sidney Nolan, Sunday Reed’s lover who lived for many years with the Reeds at their home, Heide, now the Heide Museum of Modern Art.

But I would perhaps not have gone on to read The Heart Garden were it not for my internship at The Conversation. I came across a press release about Janine Burke’s latest book Nest: The Art of Birds, and contacted Janine to ask her to write a short piece for us, not yet aware that she was Sunday Reed’s biographer. Continue reading

Book review: Eleven Seasons by Paul D. Carter

For outsiders, the attraction of Aussie Rules football is hard to understand. In WA it hovered at the edge of my consciousness in winter, and I chose a team as an easy way of identifying my allegiances to the north or the south of the river.

In Melbourne, football culture assaults me with the presence of loud fans in the city after games. Wide-eyed children on the tram, bedecked in team colours with a parent by their side, bring to mind memories of my mother’s stories, of going to the football as a teenager with a much-loved older cousin who has long since passed away.

Bruce Dawe’s poem ‘Life Cycle’ gave me something of an insight as a youngster into what it meant to grow up with football in Melbourne. Now, Paul D. Carter’s Eleven Seasons, which won the The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for 2012, has added a stirring contribution to the way I understand the culture of AFL, revealing both its problems and its power from the inside.

Continue reading

Australian Literature: what should I read next?

For the last few months, Thursdays have been a good day. Most Thursdays, I’ve jumped on a tram in the afternoon and headed into the city for the Wheeler Centre’s Australian Literature 101 series.

But now the series is over. I’m going to miss it, as every session has without exception provided food for thought or inspiration for my creative writing. Better still, it’s prompted me to read books that I might otherwise have neglected.

The question is, what should I read next?

Admittedly, I still need to catch up on the reading that I begun as a result of the series. I’ve yet to finish Patrick White’s Voss, dense tome that it is, as I was distracted by Monkey Grip and That Deadman Dance.

That Deadman Dance was the subject of the final session. I’ll write a post specifically about it soon, but in the meantime I want to start a list of Australian literature to read once I’ve finished Voss. (And once I’ve handed in the 10,000 words of essays that I have due over the next month!)

Michael Heyward of Text Publishing has an article in The Age today about the lack of interest in Australian literature, specifically at universities. It’s a topic that Heyward has been writing about a lot lately, alongside of the release of the Text Classics series.

It’s great to see this debate getting so much air, and I know that my reading experience has been enriched over the last few months thanks to the spotlight that’s been turned onto Australian literature.

The Wheeler Centre is going to run a second series next year, Australian Literature 102, and they have invited us all to contribute to the discussion about what that series should look like. Should it be thematic? Or chronological? Should the books be famous, or relatively obscure?

Readers, what do you think? In Australian literature, what books or plays or collections of poetry would you like to talk more about, or learn more about?