thomas m wilson

Origins.

February 15th, 2000

In February of 1830 Sarah Theodosia Hall, my great, great, great grandmother, arrived in Fremantle on a ship called The Protector. She and her husband had filled most of the 380 ton ship with their livestock and servants. Sarah was 27 years old.

In the middle of the 1840s Sarah planted an oak tree on her families 420 acre farm near Perth. Perhaps she couldn’t truly enjoy the aesthetics of the Australian flora. Perhaps she felt that an oak tree was part of her ethnicity as an English woman, and wanted to plant the tree as metaphor for her own attempt at abiding and enduring on this apparently inclement southern land.

oak tree

160 years later, in the year 2000, I stand beside Sarah Theodosia’s oak tree, and I see history unfolding its leaves before me. Blood of my blood, she has passed down to me not just a bit of my genetic inheritence, but a beautiful living oak tree for me to look at. Twin strands of continuity standing side by side under the sun.

One of Sarah’s children was my great, great grandfather, William Shakespeare Hall. He was a five year old boy when he arrived at the beach at Fremantle in 1830 aboard a ship whose timbers creaked with his mother and father, five sibilings, eight servants, plenty of tools, seeds, plants, 37 sheep, 13 goats, brandy, gin, rum, and much else (I know this detail thanks to my grandmother Helen Maragaret Wilson’s book Sarah Theodosia and the Hall Family, 1994). These were English men and women whose whole civilisation was based on the pastoralism of the British Isles, in turn founded on deep topsoil and heavy rainfall. Their sheep ate Zamia palms and died. They had arrived at the other end of the earth from everything they knew. They stood on the beach at Fremantle facing endless dry and infertile wilderness, alien plants and animals, and the faces of black men and women whose ancestors had been Australian for the past forty eight thousand years. There they were, clinging to their linen and ‘wearing apparel’ as fragile symbols of the dinner tables of home.

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Young William grew into a man and spent much of his life in the 1870s and 1880s in the saddle of a horse in the north-west of Australia. He would have made first contact with the original humans to live in this part of Australia. I can only imagine what these eyes saw.

Parisian ideas.

December 29th, 2000

I include this journal entry from my time in Paris to show how much I’ve changed. At this time in my life literature and music and people were the atmosphere I wanted to breath. I was Euro-centric and I was culture-centric. Happily I no longer unconsciously tow the line that northern hemisphere cities are the centre of the world. Read on:


I look out the kitchen window of my friend’s shared apartement and through the early morning dusk what looks like a cloudless, if barely illuminated, sky is to be seen. Another subterranean muttering sends vibrations upwards, rattling the kitchen panes slightly, as the trains of the Metro go to work. I am in Paris.

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Windows look out from the bedrooms on the courtyard below and have curliqued iron railings at their bottom. The floor is a wooden tiling, worn by many years of Parisian feet. We walked into the small kitchen in which I now sit and pulled out a half size bottle of champagne from the fridge. Clinkings ensued. Thinking about how much of a culture, people, city, jungle, world was beyond the walls around me. It is the babe-in-the-woods effect that I am familiar with from visiting New York City. One feels acutely how much complexity and density of life one is physically contiguous with. It is a feeling you just don’t get living in a house in an Australian suburb. It is the feeling that action and the unknown are happening and existing everywhere around one. Just around the corner. Just down the street. You are in Paris: Notre Dame, boulevards galore, Tour Effiel in profuse blue scintillations, interior of nearby Pantheon softly lambent with ultra-aquamarine.

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The far shore of the Indian Ocean: Reunion Island.

July 23rd, 2002

French street signs; French small cars; lots of sugar cane fields; old black men wandering along with proudly worn broad brimmed cowboy hats firmly pulled on; old black woman with umbrellas as a defence against the sun; twisting roads along the coast along which various dwellings have been hobbled together; people sit around on street corners in the middle of the day talking and hanging out and drinking – this could be a charmingly islander-like liberation from capitalistic rigmarole, smelling the roses rather than put one shoulder to the wheel, or it could be a sad, alcoholic waste of life, or it could be a mixture of the two. But when one gets outside the human settlements on Reunion the beauty of nature reasserts itself, the landscape swings up from the ocean into majestic mountains, it cuts the skyline with audacity, gorges slice down from above with a plethora of vegetable life hanging on their flanks, the greens of the island’s flora wave in the warm air everywhere, a volcano’s crusty dribble of lava blackens the slopes here, a fluting bird song comes fresh on my alien ear’s there… even if I couldn’t always understand the local creole, I could decipher the beauty of the living creation. Tropic birds sail around massives cliffs inland on the island.
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The rock is raw basalt in the nooks of the river. This bassin cache’s, this hidden water hole’s, water ran fresh from the three thousand metre tall mountain peaks above.
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When I flew out of Mauritius (as you must if you fly to Australia from Reunion) I knew that the incipiently claustrophobic, bone numbingly boring discomfort and frustration that equals nine hours in an aeroplane was nothing compared to the weeks and weeks on a ship that my ancestors would have spent crossing the Indian Ocean in 1830. Goodbye Reunion. It is a riot of volcanic rock, black and baroquely shaped and battered by the Indian Ocean. Volcanic, tropical, clear-watered, vacuaos growing and French speaking and Creole eating. A green, mountainous, misty island with its gurgling rivers, unquestionably alien to all things antipodean.

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Meeting John Fowles.

September 12th, 2002

Belmont House is a happy mellow ochre, with little dolphin’s on the façade at the front. As you walk in the sense is of a very large, warm, comfortable, cultured, book-filled residence. Paintings everywhere, book-shelves in most rooms, two cats, one Kitto they bought from the gypsys, the other Bagh, is Sarah’s big and purring tabby that she likens to a Bengali tiger.

belmont

The tabby followed me into the garden like a friendly escort as I took a look in the three acre hill side that begins with a level lawn and then slopes down through winding paths in the thickly wooded what you can now only call patch of forest. Ceres, the Greek goddess of fertility, has her sculpture on the top lawn in a bower of trees, and the back hand is cast down behind her. Someone has humorously put a gardening glove on her stone fingers.

ceres

In a flash one could be in a world of refined ladies and gentlemen circa 1867 (as Fowles, we all know, has been), or Jane Austen’s people could stroll down the road by the side of the garden. Yet again, these trees and paths step outside history, so that one feels above the ‘past’ and ‘the historical present’, and able to exist in a now which has no steady allegiance to historical epochs. A now of fluid swaying of leaves for which it makes little sense to impute the date 2002. As John told me later after lunch, this place is part of him, he knows it and what grows here intimately after all these years. ‘It is my paradise’. I walked a bit through the patch of forest, then decided to sit down and realise where I was. I realised that this place is beautiful, a little bonne vaux. And I thought how lucky John is to be its steward and companion, watching it change and live from day to day. I also thought to myself that it was so very fortunate I made the decision to come to England, and see the nature that John loves with my own eyes. If eco-critics in America go to the lands Edward Abbey, or Barry Lopez, or whoever else they are writing about loved, then I was getting a taste of the nature the distinguished English equivalent bats for. Talking about Fowles as a nature writer is something, Sarah agreed with me in the car on the way back to the train station that day, that hasn’t been done really in the critical literature. And as she told me, you know, nature is his first love. So it is something that really needs rectifying in literary studies, no one has done it thus far, and I have struck out on an important task.

Fowles

John is a frail old man now, but (despite the odd repitition) can still converse more or less cogently. His house is a citadel of culture and refinement, and his garden and patch of forest are indeed a kind of paradise.

The Undercliff to the west of John’s home is one of the true areas of wilderness in southern England, and its winding paths and jumbled angles exude nothing if not the mysterious. What do you think inspired The French Lieutenant’s Woman? Look down this path.

undercliff

Tasmania: Another fragment of Gondwana.

May 18th, 2003

As a teenager I lived in Tasmania for three years. However only on returning to the island more recently have I really appreciated it.
My country boasts some wild and unmistakably beautiful natural environments. Proceeding upwards into Mt. Field National Park in the south of Tasmania these blasts of yellow leaves caught our attention, these were our first sightings of Nothofagus, the only native deciduous tree, a beech. Their leaves were resplendent, and glowed like fire on the rocks and among the snow gums with their winding bark.
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Further on up we came to Lake Dobson and here we saw Pencil Pines many centuries old (perhaps a thousand years) which twisted like giant bonsais in front of the pellucid and pan- flat lake, which caught the sky in a mirror reflection. (Why did I have to step into this photo!).
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Further south I found another kind of beech tree on a trip up the Huon River. The beech trees in Australia and New Zealand are closely related species, indicating that they used to all belong to the same big land, Gondwana:
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New Zealand’s south island

November 5th, 2004

While George W. Bush was about to bring shame to the stars and stripes for a second time (term), I blew out a sigh of frustration and headed to Eden (a.k.a. New Zealand’s south island).
At Kinloch Lodge, near Queenstown, the mountain across the lake was shot in the forehead by a bolt of sun’s even-song. Never have I seen a mountain with such a iridescent wreathe of cloud around its brow. Such clarity of pellucid light. The superlatives have to be packed up at this point. Nothing to be said.
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Try stopping for a moment in some beechwood in New Zealand – the bird songs are amazing. The litter on the ground and the tall trunks create the open space of northern hemisphere beechwood, but it feels much wilder here, as indeed it is.
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The space and the ancient forms… The tiny leaves… I was transported to Lothlorien from Jackson’s film.
The atmospheric and sentinel-like tors of Arthur’s Pass:
the pass
And finally, the Southern Alps. Aldous Huxley’s father called a trip to the mountains the equivalent of church-going, and my time in this area certainly cultivated my sense of the religious.
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At home on the ground in Perth.

December 1st, 2005

This is the path along the Swan river in Peppermint Grove. Melaleuca in bloom in the foreground.
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Before I moved to Fremantle I was living further up this river, on its northern side. I often found my looking at the crassly ostentacious houses of the rich and thinking what a waste of resources they’ve heaped up into a pile. The people they vote into power prioritise economic growth. My t-shirt explains the rest (if you don’t live in Australia, Lib-Nat is an acronym of the ruling federal party of right-wing henchmen).
greed
I find myself much more at home on the banks of the river beside a young tea tree than clamped behind gates of steel.
tea tree
This picture below is of John Forest National Park in the hills behind Perth. John Forest was a former premier of Western Australia, as well as being a bit of a man of the land. If we’ve forgotten most things about him, we remember him gratefully for this park. Granite boulders here are hundred of millions of years old.
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A couple of months ago my local patch of dirt staged one of the largest floral displays on planet earth.
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Wandoo woodland beneath the sun.

March 13th, 2006

These are some of the shapes and textures of the often heat baked and sometimes fire scorched woodland a couple of hundred kms east of Perth. First I look upwards into the smooth white limbs of the wandoo tree…
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Then I turn my gaze downwards to smaller forms… Hakea leaf.
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Grass tree post-mortem.
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A banksia log by twilight with its bark stripped off.
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Knarled woodland on a mirco-scale.
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Sydney: Sojourning in the big smoke.

April 27th, 2006

I’ve been in Sydney for the past week, staying in Bondi Junction and then in Surry Hills. In the past I’ve dismissed this city as a brash and anonymous pile of high-rises, and not really thought it a high-light in the Australian scene, or bothered to spend much time here. This time I’ve enjoyed tumbling out of bed and onto the well-beaten pavement and into the shifting metropolis of faces and lives. On ANZAC day I was strolling through Hyde Park and noticed this young guy walking in front of me with his brass instrument gleaming.
anzac instrument

South of Sydney to Coledale for one day, and I found myself passing through the cabbage palms and dramatic escarpment of that area just north of Wollongong. I noticed these stones shining in the shallows of the Pacific.
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I was at Taronga Zoo for one morning. Not being a fan of caged life, I’d just hoped it would be a nice place to just walk around in – like Perth Zoo with its old trees and bamboo groves – but wasn’t overly impressed. If you can say that a crocodile is the warm mangroves as much as the warm mangroves are the crocodile, I don’t really see the attraction in seeing one bit of an ecosystem floating there out of context.
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As for wildlife in the city, I saw a seven foot transvestite happily saunter down Flinders St. in bottemless chaps the other night, but was more impressed by the glistening wings of this bat who passed above me.
bat

South-east Queensland: Catch a Fire

April 30th, 2006

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Here I stand, on the beach at Byron Bay, looking out to sea with a smile you can’t see. On Thursday I and my old university friend Reuben caught up in Brisbane where he’s living. Byron drew us on Friday evening, and on Saturday morning we wound up a rugged little road through the tropical plants and trees and greens, and found a beach where waves wrapped lazily around a sandy point. The waves broke for longer than I can remember seeing good surf break, and upon entry the water gave me the thermal shock you’d expect from the tropics – even if we were five hours drive south of the tropic of Capricorn. The Pandanus palms stood sentry back on the edge of the beach, and I had a mental recall to Reunion Island and that epoch of my life. There was no wind, the sun shone from the blue, the waves were superb, and if it hadn’t have been for the sixty or so people out in the line-up, I would have cried halleluya.

This is the view from on top of Cape Byron, looking south.

cape byron

Below is a fire seen through cuttings in a drum at Woodford, where we were on Saturday night for a small festival. Of course I’m including it here for the meaning of the word cut into the steel.

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Saturday night I and my friend slept at his parents house near Maleny. In the morning I found myself wondering around their hill-top property, through their tropical orchard. They were just harvesting their eight avocado trees. Trees only twenty years old groaned with hundreds of avocados, and many other tropical fruits stood alongside for the picking.

avocado

The Rainforest

May 2nd, 2006

For a while I’ve had the idea that you had to make your way up to around Cairns in northern Queensland if you wanted to see some warm rainforest in Australia. I was wrong. A hundred or so kms south east of Brisbane you come upon Lamington National Park, the largest area of easily acessible subtropical rainforest in the world.

With around seven hundred varieties, Eucalyptus species of tree dominate Australia. Aesthetically I admit I found it a relief to be surrounded in the rainforest by a more chlorophyll enriched maze of life.

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It is hard to imagine how the early white settlers could have dismissed this area of rainforest on the east coast of Australia as the big ‘scrub’.

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I raise my glass to John Seed, highly influential rainforest activist who was engaged in the conservation struggle in the seventies and eighties just south of Lamington in northern NSW. Seed said that he was simply part of the rainforest defending itself.

leaves in the rainforest

As you drop down 400 metres in altitude into a deep valley near Binna Burra the light turns a silvery grey.

Fremantle again.

May 15th, 2006

15/5/06

I’ve moved house and am now living in Fremantle, the gateway to Western Australia if you happen to be a shipping container. This photo looks out from my bathroom window over the roof tops to the busy harbour.

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Here I am in my upstairs study, sporting some Jamaican headware. Purely by chance in turns out that my dad rebuilt some of this house thirty years ago – Fremantle is pretty small!
me in study

This is my new front door. I’m living a stone’s throw from the centre of Fremantle in a house built in the 1850s from limestone. Outside my bedroom window New Holland Honey Eaters drink the nectar from the yellow cones of Banksia flowers. It seems like a nice compromise between the vapidity of the burbs and the grime of inner city life here above the harbour.

house entrance

Shadows

June 10th, 2006

In between the interstices of the light, falls the darkness.

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Life is a balancing act. In my mind I see all the darkness and destruction of this world as well as so much light and beauty. On the side of darkness I see Westerners driving cars more suited to militarised zones than a trip to the supermarket. These people fail to read the fine print of their actions.

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On the side of light I see this young wandoo tree catching the evenings light above the Swan River in the supple curves of its trunk. I know that trees such as this one capture carbon dioxide, and ultimately help Gaia to regulate herself at a temperature suitable for all of us living things. To take this photograph, as I do whenever I do photography in Perth, I jumped on my bike and cycled to the location. It’s easy to read the fine print of such actions.

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Is there anybody there?

June 19th, 2006

Webcams are an example of a green technology. I’m not saying that using one should always replace having a tete a tete in person, but using them more might reduce the amount we fly around the place. So now I have one… and even if you don’t have one you can do a one-way video chat with me. Go to http://www.aim.com/ My username is: Thomas MurrayWilson

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The Moore River

June 21st, 2006

If you drive two hours north of Perth you get to the Moore River. I visited a friend of mine, Peter, who is a bee keeper and who has some land in this mostly flat and sandy country. The Menzies Banksias were wreathed with buzzing bees wherever I walked. Being allergic to bee stings, I was watching my back.

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Down by the Moore River a friend’s child, Hamish, scampered through the tussled trunks of Paperbark trees.

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Later, in a fit of Blake-like sermon-on-the-mount grandeur, the sun blasted its rays outwards.

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The south-west of Australia in winter – part one.

June 30th, 2006

I spent some of my childhood in the south-west of W.A., and being back here this last week has reminded me of what I like best about my old stomping-ground.

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Here I stood, watching the morning’s light creep onto the Frankland River.

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A demure leaf orchid.

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Beyond this peppermint tree, the farming pasture rolls down to the sea. This photo could almost be a painting by Samuel Palmer of the English countryside in Kent.

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I stand under this peppermint tree and the angles of the branch on the ground and the hills and the trunk of the tree to my left imparts a feeling of reclining ease in the land.

The south-west of Australia in winter – part two.

June 30th, 2006

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There is only one place where the karri trees meet the southern ocean. Behind these flowers is the location.

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The orange lichen gives Elephant Rocks its unique character.

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Here the evening light was caught high up in the arms of this karri.

The south-west of Australia in winter – part three.

June 30th, 2006

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This grass tree had its stalk removed, and its diverging leaves stimulated my eye.

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The rich reds of the tingle trees bark seemed to glow in the soft winter light.

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Peaceful Bay is just down to the right in this photo.

The south-west of Australia in winter – part four.

June 30th, 2006

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The whole trip was an experience of the natural world of the south-west which is existing in all its splendour out of sight and mind of the majority of Perth’s population. A place which is quietly going about its millennial routines, while the city’s denizens further north shoot here and there, oblivious to the subtle winter beauties of the south. Maybe some of these photos will remind Perth people of what is best in their state.

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From grey to red, the winter has its secrets.

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The south-west of Australia in winter – part five.

July 1st, 2006

These six entries detailing images of the south-west come from a week I’ve just spent down in the Walpole-Nornalup wilderness area.

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This plant is carnivorous. It catches little insects with its sticky flowers.

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I liked the way this former Banksia flower loomed out at me from the greyness.

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This native fern sits as an epiphyte on a dead stump. I’ve been staying at a friend’s house near the Deep River. The world of moist, micro nature among the sandy soiled and gently undulating hills was such an intimate treat after the bold shapes and sizes of sixty metre karri trees and open-horizoned sea shores.

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Thoreau’s log-wood cabin never had it so good!

The south-west of Australia in winter – part six.

July 2nd, 2006

Despite that previous image taken from space, there is still a lot of wilderness in the most south-westerly corner of Western Australia. The next six entries delve into those wild places.

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The karri trees seemed to me like white pillars holding up the sky on this evening.

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After the rain has fallen in the forest, shafts of sun light filter down through the canopy.

Reality beyond the Perth suburbs.

July 4th, 2006

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All the lighter areas in this satellite image of south-western Australia have been cleared for European agriculture, mainly the growing of wheat. For those Perth citizens naive enough to think endless Aussie bush lies beyond the edges of their sunny city, this photo is worth dwelling on.

The South-west Botanical Province accounts for only 0.23 per cent of the earth’s land surface but it supports 12.6 per cent of the world’s rare and threatened flora. This is because we live in quite a special place, and around 93 per cent of the vegetation communities in this special place have been cleared for agriculture. Over previous millienia each afternoon’s sea breeze dumped layers of salt on the land. The native flora kept the salt below the water table, but now it has risen back to the surface, killing everything in its way.

Putting it simply, life around here is very biodiverse, and the land east of Perth, the so called ‘wheat-belt’, is a mess. There are people doing something about this state of play. For example, The Australian Bush Heritage Fund has bought a massive conservation reserve in an area called the Charles Darwin Reserve. You can read about it, and also find out a bit more about life in these parts, at the Charles Darwin Reserve website.

The blasphemy of dead men.

July 5th, 2006

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Jarrah is a eucalyptus tree with long, grey striated bark. Today I’ve been in the Jarrah forest south of Mundaring in the Darling Hills east of Perth. I went out there in the hope of finding some old-growth Jarrah forest to walk amongst. I talked to a local fire officer with Conservation and Land Management, a guy who would know, and told me that he only knew of the odd old jarrah standing about the place and of no virgin forest. He was right, the whole forest I made my way through had a feeling of unhallowed youth about it. There were no groves of four hundred year old trunks to be found. How dissapointing.

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The fact is that only two per cent of jarrah forest remains which has never been logged (karri is doing better in the south-west, where two thirds of old-growth remains). I am not against the harvesting of timber. Quite the contrary: it takes ten times the amount of energy to produce an iron girder as to produce a wooden beam, and as long as forests are selectively logged and not clear-felled, all those who care about the planet should very firmly support the harvesting of timber and see wood as the building material of the twenty-first century. However the Australians of earlier years went much too far in their chopping jarrah down and shipping it off around the world.

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Here jarrah lies on the Fremantle dock in 1899. What the people of this era called ‘swan river mahogany’, a superb building material for its extreme hardness, went off in massive quantities to lie under the pavements of London, amongst other places and uses (actually in this photo they were building the docks with the wood but you get the idea). In few places in the world could you have found, in the early 1800s, such a huge swathe of mature hardwood forest standing on such dry and nutrient-poor soils, as the jarrah forest of the Darling Range. A pity these dead men and women didn’t appreciate this fact.

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The actions of the dead loggers of earlier years left me wandering around the Jarrah forest today, feeling nonplussed. I was unable to find a bit of ground where the grey trunked elders of the forest towered over me. Well, at least I found this transient forest floor dweller amongst the winter leaf litter. That was some kind of compensation.

In An Old Look at Trees: Vegetation of South-Western Australia in Old Photographs, compiled by Robert Powell and Jane Emberson (1978) you can find the following photograph of virgin jarrah forest near Jarradale, south of Perth.  It was taken in 1896. This is what the jarrah forest used to look like:

It is the birth-right of all people who live in Perth to go into the hills near our city and walk through big, beautiful jarrah forest like this.  We have been deprived of this birth-right by the blasphemy of dead men.

The journey into darkness.

July 6th, 2006

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I was down on the north mole this evening when a massive ship slipped through the water past me. I live in a port town, so quite often I see the vast steel architecture of these structures float accross the top of Fremantle’s streetscape.

Ninety per cent of all trade between countries is carried by ships. There is something romantic about seeing a huge ship glide past you a few metres away and off on the four and a half day trip north to the tropics and to Singapore. On the other hand, there is nothing romantic about the fact that that ship will have its hull painted in a paint mixed with organotins – highly toxic chemicals which kill anything that attaches to the ship and which leach from the paint into sea water, and are absorbed by marine organisms and humans who eat them. There is nothing romantic about the fact that if cargo levels are low the ship will load up on local sea water, and then release the water when they pick up new cargo at the next port, introducing stowaway organisms that can become invasive, and potentially ruin entire ecosystems. Then, you all know about the spectre of the big oil spill, but did you know that many ships illegally discharge bilge oil before they enter port to save the money they’d have to spend on legally getting rid of the stuff?

Despite the efforts of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, we have the known marine pests the European Fan Worm and the Asian Date Mussel around Fremantle thanks to ship’s ballast. And although they are planned to be phased out by 2008, organotin-based anti-fouling paints can still be found in plenty of the hulls of the ships in Fremantle. Actions are being taken to deal with these problems by national and international agencies. These actions are happening about as quick as the response time of a mighty but stupid behometh of the sea. The night is gathering, but now I’m seeing more clearly.

Thoughts on having seen the film ‘Ten Canoes’.

July 10th, 2006

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[Photo by Jackson, Courtesy of Fandango Australia and Vertigo Productions.]

I watched the film Ten Canoes the other night. In the opening shots of the film the camera pans over the Arnhemland wetlands, that part of Australia where one third of our bird species live. One instinctively holds one’s eyes wide open to this expansive, green, bird-buzzing, wilderness. The film turns out to be a story told by a canny and humorous old Aboriginal, set in the time of his ancestors. The film follows a tribe who go through revenge, love, battle, laughter and gathering goose eggs on a swamp, among other things. In the above photo the hunting men avoid crocodiles by camping high in the branches of paperbark trees. It was nice to see a film where the pace and rhythm of life is slow, closer to the daily schedule of the natural world than in most other films. The camera shots often make humans tramping through the landscape look peripheral to the enduring and greater fact of the earth, positioning them at the top edge of the frame for example. And to see bark canoes made with precision and paperbark stripped to carry food and make shelter is to witness important local competencies. So many folkways have been lost with the loss of Aboriginal culture, and indeed some amount of cultural revival had to take place in the making of this film. The first Australians were truly the mastercraftsman of living in the bush. This film acknowledges that fact with quiet accuracy. Although I admire this original Aboriginal culture, I am personally searching for a whitefella dreaming. We white Australians also need representative stories, or cultural myths, which illustrate our living sustainably with the land.

Lines of connection.

July 15th, 2006

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This is a dimly lit grove of sheoaks, or allocasurinas to use their latin name, near Walpole in the south-west of Australia (they are actually Karri Sheoks). Of the 45 species of casurina trees found in Australia, most are endemic to Western Australia. However there are some of these trees in Indonesia, and one species is found in Madagascar and Reunion Island.

So casurina trees ring the Indian Ocean. When the wind blows through their thin, needle-like leaves it creates a high, whistling sound just like the sound of wind blowing through the rigging of yachts with their sails down. They are important trees to me because they are marker of continuity between Reunion Island, where I stayed a few years ago, and Perth, to otherwise entirely different locales. When I see one, or when I hear the sound of the wind in its needles, I can be transported to the hot, volcanic sands on other side of the sea.

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My dad built this chest of drawers out of casurina timber. Perhaps the English saw another line of continuity with the similarity to the grain of the oak of the British Isles, and that’s why they called this tree ‘sheoak’ (after I wrote this blog entry my brother told me quercus robur, or oak, was sometimes called the ‘He-oak’ in English dialects, due to it’s manliness). All I know for sure is that its fine, amber-coloured veins make it the most beautiful wood in Western Australia.

Climate truth is…

July 19th, 2006

This morning I watched Al Gore’s new film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. Gore illustrates the facts and figures of climate change in a way which brings clarity. Here is a man who knows the steps of the white house better than most people, who is a member of the privileged WASP American, square-jawed set, and yet who also knows that to be an intelligent and ethical man at this juncture in history means to be out of kilter with the majority of his countrymen. Thankfully we have Al Gore and his new film around, because in it, step by step, and with comic relief, Gore shines light onto the single most important issue on planet earth at the start of the twenty-first century. You may have read a thing or two about climate change. You can read that, for example, the overwhelming majority of the scientific community agree that climate change is real and is caused by humans, but until you see on Gore’s slide screen a representation of all the scientists who back the climate change consensus, compared to the number that don’t, then you’ve not fully grasped that really everybody who counts thinks its real. You might know that glaciers are retreating, but until you’ve seen these images from Greenland, you’ve not really understood how far we’ve already pushed the planet into a new shape. This film is a shaft of strong and steady light, striking into the miasma of public understanding about the changing of the atmosphere. I’d call the release of ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ an important event in world history, and I’d say that if you don’t get yourself along to watch it then you are neglecting your duty as a citizen. I can’t put it any more lightly.

You can click on the icon above and pledge to go and see the new film about the heating of the atmosphere.

FERN

August 9th, 2006

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Now I’m on the board of FERN – the Fremantle Environment Resource Network. This old community garden centre is just around the corner from where I live in Fremantle. It could become a centre for sustainable technologies, but at the very least it is a nice glass-walled, open space, which will be filled with Lee Perry and Freddie Hubbard style sounds, and nice food and company each Tuesday evening. Next Tuesday we’ll be projecting slides of nature photography as well, and this may become a regular feature.

Tuesday night at FERN.

August 23rd, 2006

Earlier this evening I was over at FERN. This Tuesday night gathering is gathering force. My friends Nick and Johnny projected some of their photos…

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I projected some of my own images later in the evening. While the photos rolled off the digital projector I gave a commentary, to those willing to listen, which was possibly a little blurred due to the effects of shiraz.

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Yesterday I and my friend Ravi, a Byron Bay horticulturalist now based in Fremantle, prepared the soil for a large garden bed at FERN. I thought it was time that we kicked the ball off in terms of gardening here at the site, so away we went. We planted seeds and seedlings of capsicums, cucumbers, eggplants, chilli, silverbeet, basil, and tomato. I even put in a few kangaroo paws, Perth’s great glory.

I and Ravi stepped out into the dark this evening for a photo beside our soon to be germinating bed of life.

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In an issue of the British magazine The Ecologist the journalist Paul Kingsnorth recently reminded me of the campaign during the second world war in England to get families to grow their own vegetables.

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Britain needed to become self-sufficient in terms of food at this time with the seas swarming with German U-boats.

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Next time you hear a check-out chick ask you if you want fly-buys at the supermarket, just remember: Dig for Victory!

Time to power-down.

August 24th, 2006

I heard the American peak oil commentator Richard Heinberg talk this evening at the University of Western Australia. Oil production is currently just keeping up with oil consumption. By approximately 2010 however we’ll be wanting to put petrol in our cars at a rate that will not keep up with how many barrels of oil are being pulled out of the ground (even taking into account projected new discoveries of oil deposits). So the current increase in the price of oil will turn into a much sharper increase. We’ll have reached a peak oil crisis. With this knowledge we can continue with business as usual, in which case in four or so years time a yearly increase in demand for oil combined with a yearly decline in the global supply of oil will surprisingly quickly reek havoc on our social and economic system. Or we can prepare for a world in which oil isn’t always there in endless supply, and thus avoid an unpleasant jolt.

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On my way home from the talk I passed by these big badges of oil dependence standing beside the Fremantle harbour. For over the last hundred years we’ve used the magical substance contained within these silver monoliths to replace human and animal labour. It is hard for us to imagine that it won’t always be around in such large quantities as we’re accustomed to. It won’t.

Fremantle five metres down.

September 9th, 2006

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2001 that the expected rise in sea level by 2100 due to glacier melting alone was between 1 and 23 centimetres. Sounds ok to me? Nothing much to worry about there?

One fear is that the entire West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets might disappear into the oceans. Greenland hosts the second-largest icecap on Earth, holding 10 per cent of the global ice mass. If the Greenland ice sheet melts then the global sea level would rise 6.5 metres.

2001 is a long time ago in the world of climate science, and things have changed. New data is in and new predictions are now being made.

Four weeks ago the notion that the IPCC website is out of date was firmly confirmed. Four weeks ago New Scientist magazine reported that the Greenland ice cap, the world’s second largest ice cap, may be melting three times faster than indicated by previous measurements, according to newly released gravity data collected by satellites. Greenland’s ice is melting faster than ever. The process could reach a point of no return before the end of the century.

Some time this century down town Fremantle may truly be down: the West End, the markets and South Terrace forever submerged under five metres of water.

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[Thanks go to map expert Dave Robertson for preparing this image for me.]

If you don’t believe that you’ll live to see a five metre sea level rise, this is what Freo will look like under three metres of water.

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We actually got this image published on the front page of the Fremantle Herald, the local newspaper. 

 

 

Big Earth – Part One

September 23rd, 2006

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Berries actually grow out of the trunk of this rainforest tree. There are around 1200 tree species in the wet tropical bioregion of north-east Australia. (These photos were all taken on Fitzroy Island, south-east off the coast of Cairns.)

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The beach was an eroded coral jig-saw patch on this tropical island’s shore.

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In the spotlight.

Big Earth – Part Two

September 23rd, 2006

After Cairns and Fitzroy Island we went south. Up into the Tablelands to the east the water flowed cold and pure.

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Then we were a thousand metres up in the Tablelands, amongst the clouds and the rain.

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By Lake Barrine I thought I’d check the strength of the lianas by pulling on one. One thing lead to another…

Big Earth – Part Three

September 23rd, 2006

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This black and white and sepia collection comes mainly from Mossman Gorge, north of Cairns.

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This is the Gorge in all its quiet, fresh-watered inwardness.


Big Earth – Part Four

September 23rd, 2006

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The area around Mossman is full of grand cane field-filled ampitheatres of cloud and mountain.

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Engaging with nature doesn’t mean just looking at it. The waters of Mossman Gorge are so good for washing off the salt of the coast. Massive white boulders and cool water on the skin, so fresh you could smell it as you stroked your way forward across the surface or tumbled through the rapids.


Big Earth – Part Five

September 23rd, 2006

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The light is saturated in green in the forest north of the Daintree River.

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Looking down over the forest to the Coral Sea I am almost part of the tangle of life.

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The trunk of this palm by Cooper’s Creek is vibrant with colour.

 

Big Earth – Part Six

September 23rd, 2006

 

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Coral gardens I saw on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef came in yellows, purple, reds and blues.  David Suzuki published his autobiography this year (2006), and in it he writes of going to the outer reef from Port Douglas, as I did to take these photos.  Suzuki laments the decline in the reef’s health he’s noticed over the years.  He also speaks of a moment where he watched his eighty year old Japanese father and young grandchild floating together over coral such as this, with intent and delighted faces, as one of the happiest memories of his life.   

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A photo looking southwards from Green Island, off the coast of Cairns. What lies off beyond the shelving ledge of coral?

Big Earth

September 23rd, 2006


I have just been in the wet, tropical north-east of Australia for the last two weeks. The next few entries of photos are named ‘Big Earth’ in honour of the latest album by Taikoz, the Australian drum ensemble of which Riley Lee is a part. I saw a performance of Taikoz at the Cairns civic theatre on my second night in the area and this event of floating smoke and giant drums was a fitting opening ceremony to two weeks travelling through the rainforests and reefs. The music of Taikoz has has the virtues of stillness, depth, simplicity, force, and spaciousness. Good nature photography should aspire to the same virtues.


Enter Spring

October 9th, 2006

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Every spring Western Australia gets one of the largest floral displays on planet earth, up there with the profuse flowerings of California. In fact, because this part of Australia has been a stable bit of land, with not much going on in the way of mountain building and the like, for the past 250 million years, and because the soils are leached of nutrients so that not too many big trees shade out the little heath plants, species of flowering plant have just kept joining the party, century after century. We’ve got to the point where the southwestern corner of WA has more species of flowering plants than almost anywhere else in the world. The Everlastings above were found in King’s Park.

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This flash fire of yellow I saw on the north shore of the Swan River in one of Fremantle’s only remaining pockets of uncleared nature.

 

The Stern Report

October 31st, 2006

Sir Nicholas Stern is a former chief economist at the World Bank, which means that as economists go, this man has impecably good credentials. He has just released the Stern Report in the UK, declaring that the globe now must reduce emissions or face a depression greater than that of 1930 and the world wars combined in the coming years. Tony Blair calls it the most important report ever to come over his desk.

The report has got Britain moving into a brave new era of political action on the climate crisis. In Australia, Howard’s complicity with the fossil fuel industry has backed his government into a corner. The only way the world can deal with the climate crisis is to have carbon taxes. Howard’s compromised position means he must repudiate this, and instead he wastes our tax dollars on $100 million of what is, boiled down to its essential nature, window-dressing. The solution? Among other things, vote in the next federal election at the end of 2007 for regime change in Canberra.

One day you might be asked, ‘How come you did not know what was going on?’

‘Why did you not fight?’

‘Fight!’ you’ll say,

‘that’s a word that never occured’,

the very word brings tears.

It will dawn on you after all those painful years

that to fight is one of the most beautiful,

simple and useful ideas.

– Michael Leunig

Climate Protest in Perth.

November 4th, 2006

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There is no beating green and gold. Today in Perth, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Adelaide, Canberra and Perth, people who you would not normally call ‘environmentalists’ came out in their thousands and protested our government’s inaction on the climate crisis. In Trafalgar Square, London thirty thousand people marched (check out some photos), while in a country half the size of England, Melbourne boasted forty thousand participants and Sydney, forty thousand. This has been the biggest march on the biggest issue on the planet, to date.

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Every man and his dog put there right foot forward on the streets of Northbridge, in Perth. If you are reading this blog from outside Australia, this placard is more explicable if you know that our prime minister’s surname is Howard. I made this placard, along with four or five others I handed out, including ones which said: CAPTAIN HOWARD: FOSSIL FOOL AT THE HELM, and CARBON TAX NOW, OR YOU’RE DOING NOTHING.

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Blow your horns, blow your triumphant horns!

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Back-stage comment. As the hearts of men become increasingly arid, so too will the desertification of the earth creep forwards. This saying has taken on a new, quite literal meaning in light of the climate crisis issue and its effects in south-west Australia. Perth normally has around 870ml rainfall each year (falling mainly in May to October), which isn’t that dry compared to many places in the world. However since the 1970s human-induced climate warming has caused it to drop 25%, and by 2020 it is predicted to drop another 20%. The average run-off into Perth’s water reservoirs since 1996 has been 115 gigalitres, compared with 339 before 1975. That is a big drop. So people in this city have started to feel the local effects of the global climate crisis and scratch their heads, wondering why their elected government isn’t taking care of the national interest.

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Humour’s satirical barb at the end of the march (drawn by Bill Leak).

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Let us hope that Australia won’t forever look like such a rogue state. No, hope isn’t good enough. Time to get out of that chair.

Conversation with Bob Beale

November 16th, 2006

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This afternoon I was walking across Murdoch University campus, where I’ve temporarily been doing some work, when I came upon this big Zamia palm’s spiky fruit. 170 years ago my English ancestors had the misfortune to have their livestock munch on this thing and go belly-up. A couple of hundred years before that, the odd Dutch sailor came onto these shores, ate the fruit, was violently sick, and died. For forty or so thousand years before that the original Australians took the fruit, soaked it in a stream for a couple of days and buried it in the ground, leaching the toxins, and then sat down for some good tucker. This afternoon, perhaps understandably, I wasn’t game to pick any wild food before I got on the bus back to Fremantle. Back in England, foraging for wild foods is a contemporary reality: read this lovely little article about one forager called Fergus Drennan by Paul Kingsnorth. But here in Australia, I feel like I need a guide to show me the ways of the sclerophyl woods.

The discourse of environmentalists can often over-shoot itself. Carbon dioxide emerged as the global villain of 2006, and our struggle to spread the word about the current climate crisis continues apace. This spreading of the word is good stuff, however, let’s not forget the bioregion we’re standing in right here and right now.

So where am I? I’m standing in front of this strange looking zamia palm fruit.

Small-scale mixed farming, what is usually ‘organic’ agriculture has much to recommend it environmentally, as all of us thinking people already know (in relation to this I really suggest reading this short piece by Colin Tudge).

However, organic isn’t the whole story when it comes to doing the right thing with food in Australia. What follows is a online conversation I’ve had over the last few days with Bob Beale, co-author of Going Native, along with Michael Archer, and based at the University of New South Wales.

Tom:
I have read your book Going Native and learnt much from it, and would like to thank you for it. I have given a copy to the head chef at one of Australia’s only organic restaurants (The Sandcastle), and he has read it with pleasure.

However I have a question for you. Recently I was at a talk given by Peter Singer on his new book The Ethics of What We Eat. I asked him during question time why he does not advocate the consumption of native species in the Australian context as an important ethical act. He replied that only perhaps two million of the twenty million Australians alive could be fed using native species available, even if we were to farm them more. Is he right?

Bob:
I don’t know on what basis Singer makes this claim but it sounds like a specious argument that I’m not going to get drawn into any further than I must to respond. How does he arrive at a figure of 2 million? What does “farming them more” mean? How much more? If we developed productive native grains that could be farmed instead of wheat, our wheat farmers have already shown that with current production methods they can produce enough wheat to supply the Australian population several times over. He also seems to be trying to cast it as an either/or argument: we’re suggesting a gradual process of supplementing our largely exotic diet with native foods. If you’ve read our book, you’ll see that surely that is the ethical and sustainable way to go. We’re not suggesting “farming” kangaroos or breeding stumpy-legged emus, just making more of what we’ve got with foodstuffs that fully sustained millions of human beings for tens of thousands of years before we got here. One challenge I pose to people is to set a date, say six weeks from now, and plan and create a three-course meal for six people that uses only indigenous Australian ingredients (no marine foods, please, since they are not strictly Australian). It’s a great discussion subject around the dinner table, especially when you relate to your guests the processes you must go through to find your recipes and ingredients. It’s irrelevant whether Singer’s figures are right or wrong: the more interesting question to me is: why do we know and eat so little native fare when the ethical and environmental arguments for it are so strong?

Tom:
It seems that you have basically confirmed what I thought: Australia’s most well known philosopher has made a major omission by not emphasizing the importance of native species in his latest book on what we eat. What a pity!

Bob:
Peter Singer is well aware of the kangaroo harvesting issue, so it would appear to be unlikely to be an oversight, especially since he had a ready answer to your question. I guess you then have to ask why the topic is omitted (no conspiracy theories here, just a fair question)..

[So I wrote to Peter Singer in America]
Tom to Singer:
Recently I was at a talk given by you at the Fremantle town hall on the ethics of what we eat. I asked you during question time why you do not advocate the consumption of native species in the Australian context as an important ethical act. You replied that only perhaps two million of the twenty million Australians alive could be fed using native species available, even if we were to farm them more.

Peter Singer:
Sorry, I assumed you were referring to eating native animals. I know nothing about native grains, and can’t comment on their advantages or disadvantages.

Tom to Bob:
So this is Peter Singer’s rather cursory response to my question – professors at Princeton are busy men!

[I don’t want to give the impression here that I don’t respect and admire the work of Peter Singer. I do, and his book How Should We Live? is on my list of essential reading.]

I suppose you could argue that he wrote his recent book with the US as well as Australia as a target audience, and as there are 300 million yanks and only 20 million Aussies, it was not the ideal platform to talk about Australian native species. All the same, I do think he should read your book considering what he writes about.

Bob to Tom:
Thanks Tom. I would have hoped for a more considered answer. We’re all busy.
We still don’t know the basis of his assertion about native species feeding only two million people. Even if he were referring to animals only, I can just as easily hypothesise that if we actively bred bustards instead of turkeys (or, say, mallee fowl instead of chicken) we’d have plenty of poultry meat to go around. If we also bred emu, possum, yabbies and say, crocodile specifically for human consumption and sustainably harvested selected kangaroo species likewise, I’d have thought there’d be a rich and varied supply of delicious protein to fill many stomachs (not to mention securing the existence of some currently threatened species). Of course, Singer’s focus is more on production methods, which is a different take on the question. I wonder where he’d stand on eating koala, echidna, goanna, snake and the myriad other animal foods utilised by Aborigines.

Have at look at pages 18-23 of this document on the Aboriginals of Port Stephens.. I first read it almost 25 years ago and it made quite an impact on my thinking about issues like this. It puts modern lifestyles, animal liberation, environmental sustainability, organic farming and so on in a different perspective, even allowing for hindsight and the filtering eye of the observer.

Tom:

One other thing Bob, in thinking of a three course meal for six I didn’t come up to the high standards of the Port Stephens mob!

In fact I only could think of getting some kangaroo from Coles (which comes from South Australia), some macadamias (again, not local) and some native tomato chutney (the brand I know is made in NSW), all of which means that the food miles of the meal would be enormous. Help?

Bob:

The light is beginning to dawn . . . seek and ye shall find brother! That’s the point of the exercise. Google it man:

This page has some pictures of some Australian food.

[End of dialogue.]

And there you have it. After I read the first link Bob sent to me about the original Australians of Port Stephens, I was really interested and pleased to learn a bit more about what the food, pets, and generalized attentiveness to nature of these people looked like. I have yet to organize that three course meal for six, but the walking boots are ready to go.

Al Gore at the Perth Concert Hall

November 17th, 2006

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Al Gore delivered a speech this afternoon in Perth, Western Australia. He ambled onto the stage in front of 2000 people, and spoke for the following hour in a deep, calm and measured voice. These are my recollections of his key points.

The climate crisis is a symptom of civilisation, as we currently know it, colliding with the ecosystem of the planet. Studies of happiness among people in the West have shown that since the 1950s economic growth has steadily risen, but we have not been getting any more happy. So not only is the pursuit of short-term material wealth at the expense of the planet a bad idea for nature, but it is a bad idea for us as well.

Every day we pump out 70 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air. 25 million tons of this is absorbed into the ocean, causing the acidification of the seas. We act as a society as though it is just business as usual. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, ‘we must disenthrall ourselves’ from this shared delusion. We must disenthrall ourselves from the shared delusion that it is ok to put 70 million tons of CO2 into the air each day.

During the Middle Ages in Western Europe knowledge was largely controlled by the Church. With the Declaration of Independence in America in 1776, and with the Enlightenment of the 18th century, knowledge became something which could be debated among private individuals. If one person didn’t believe something, but was shown by another person that for this or that reason it was true, then they would be open to altering their views about the world. The clergy didn’t have a monopoly on the truth anymore. Now the best argument, made with the best evidence, could come through.

At the end of the World War Two, a bunch of German philosophers sat down in Frankfurt and discussed what had gone wrong, what had lead to the rise of Hitler. Theordore Adorno said the following words: ‘knowledge has become power’. Wherever Al Gore has gone around the world to spread the word on the climate crisis he has encountered the vested interests of governments, businesses and industries which do not want the truth to come out. The media is full of these vested interests. Instead of an open, democratic public sphere where we can say, look this must be true because of that, now those with an interest in the world not knowing about the climate crisis have increasingly shut down the conversation. The rise of the internet, and the emergence of blogs, such as the one you are reading right now, is a positive thing in that it can help us navigate around some of these effects of power.

Austrlia and America are the only countries to have not signed the Kyoto Protocol to deal with the climate crisis. We are like Bonny and Clyde. If Bonny falls, if Australia signs, then Clyde will will be left all by himself, and then finally there will be overwhelming pressure for the US to join the international community. After the US joins, there will be overwhelming pressure for countries like China to get onboard. So in a sense Australia is the domino that has to fall. We Australians can have a disproportionately important effect on solving this global problem.

After he had spoken in a strong voice, Gore became hushed. He ended by quietly quoting a Scottish mountain climber’s words:

‘When you commit yourself, Providence moves.’

The 2000 strong audience broke into applause, now standing in their seats. The concert hall was loud with the sound of acclamation.

So, what do I think about Al Gore now I have heard him speak in person? I’m not easily convinced to buy into new movements, as those of you who know me will attest. However, now I’ve heard Gore in person, I honestly think this:

All those who have thought deeply about the world we live in, now have a new leader.

Back at home, and looking at Gore’s recently published book, full of large colour photos and clear, succinct quotations, I can only further confirm to you that this man is now the leader for all of us who get out of bed in the morning with an inquiring mind and an ethical framework. If you cannot see Al Gore speak in person, then see his film and buy his book.

We must disenthrall ourselves from this shared delusion. It will take courage.

I have a final comment that I would like to add to this report on the speech this afternoon. Each of us has our own strength and talent to bring to matter. Human ingenuity will be needed. However, those of us who have started to break out of the shared delusion use words such as emergency and crisis to describe our current situation. Do our actions reflect our words?

No.

If we are in an emergency, then we should start acting like we are in an emergency. It is time for public protest. It is time for students to stage noisy campus sit-ins, and for enterprising media activists to get the tv cameras rolling on the tons of coal they’ve just dumped in the forecourt of Parliament House in Canberra.

As Mike Tidwell wrote a couple of days ago, ‘big change requires both legislative action and determined public protest.’ While the lawyers were working the courts, Martin Luther King Jr. was on the street boycotting buses. While anti-Vietnam War legislators were holding hearings in Congress, men and women of service age were unfurling banners on the streets.

North America

November 25th, 2006

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There is plenty of anti-American sentiment where I’ve been in Australia and Europe. People forget to mention that America is also one of the most beautiful lands in the world. One of the richest conservation NGOs in the world recently put on a competition for the best nature photograph taken by one of its members. As most of The Nature Conservancy‘s members come from the US, this means most of the photos were of America. The photo above is my vote for the winning entry, but it is worth browsing through some of the other photos entered if you’re interested in nature photography.

Politricks for Australia’s 2006

December 1st, 2006

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In case you’ve forgotten, Australia became a nation in 1901. For the previous hundred or so years it had only been a bunch of individual British colonies. The capital of the nation is Canberra, an inland city in the south-east of the continent. This city was planned from the start and its construction dates back to just 1913. Australia’s most highly respected research university is there, the Australian National University, where I studied philosophy and English from 1997 to 1999. The current Parliament House was completed in 1988, and is a large structure, for the most part buried beneath a grassy hill in the middle of this city.

On warm evenings at the end of the 1990s, I and a friend of mine would often sit on top of this grassy hill. We walked to the top of the hill, almost directly on top of Parliament House. I liked the symbolism of tempering the arrogance of officialdom by sitting above them. Me and my friend were usually alone, apart from the odd security guy patrolling the area. The night was quiet and we looked down across the smooth sward on the lake below, and up to the southern cross in the night’s sky. At such moments I was glad to live in this country, and glad to be in Canberra with its big granite monuments to the nation’s history and democracy.

Let us look beneath the well-mown surface of this scene. Like each of Australia’s six states, the federal parliament has an upper house and a lower house. The lower house is called the House of Representatives. Australia votes every three years for the people here, and the party with the majority of people in the house governs the country. They make up the cabinet and the prime minister.

What follows is my personal ‘snap-shot’ impression of politics in Australia in 2006.
I’m not going to dignify the federal ministers by referring to them by name. History will not remember any of them in the way that it remembers figures like John F. Kennedy, so I don’t think you should bother to remember their names either.

In September the Minister for Environment said of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth in an interview on Radio National:

‘I did see it on one of my flights in the last couple of days. My most respected scientists concur with me that the science in vice-president Gore’s movie is sound and solid. It’s based on fact and the consequences of not addressing the problems that vice-president Gore has identified are very substantial.’

This guy is clearly onto something. So why doesn’t he do something effective? He is in government, so why not just go for broke and try governing?

The federal parliament uses a cabinet system where the Ministers have executive decision making power. However in reality over the past few years the Prime Minister, after successive election victories, has made Canberra politics into more of an unofficial presidential system, where he and a couple of his friends decide what goes, and then ring Ministers and say ‘do it’. The policy priority is to get economic growth going up, and to not worry about other stuff (like, say, personal well-being or nature). Let’s strip the message of these economic fundamentalists bear: ‘Life is a perpetual eat-buy, eat-die cycle.’ And hey, don’t even think about suggesting that fetishization of a rising dollar could lead to over-work and over-consumption. Don’t mention that it leads to stressed individuals and families, and to the destruction of nature.

So what of the ship all Australians are sailing aboard? What of nature? The current government says we need to be rich to look after the environment. The say it again and again. This philosophy has hit a big and glaring snag with the world’s biggest issue. You guessed it, the climate crisis.

‘We need to be wealthy to look after the environment.’

Translate this cornel of wisdom into reality and you get the following sentence:

We need to work really hard as a society, so that when we make ourselves sick we will have enough money to buy some medicine, to, hopefully, cure ourselves.

Sound dumb? You decide. That is the current government’s policy priority in a nutshell.

In October the Minister for Environment and Heritage put out a media released entitled ‘Australia on track for a sustainable future’. This looks hopeful I thought, turning to the media release. I then read that WWF released their Living Planet Report 2006, showing that Australia’s ecological footprint was 6.6 hectares in 2006. If all of the world’s people had such a footprint we would require more than three planet earths to have a sustainable future. I wondered if the Minister was privy to some late-breaking news from the exciting world of space exploration.

As well as being stupid, the current gang of federal ministers are ugly. All of them. If you don’t believe me, go to their departmental websites and look at their photographs. Would you trust any of these faces if you were stuck with them in a broken down lift? Without even mentioning the face of the current Minister for Health and Ageing, the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources is a case in point. As well as having a head which is an assault to God’s good earth, he boasts on the official government website that he played rugby while studying engineering at university, and was dubbed “chainsaw”. Even if this moniker was used affectionately, I’m not sure we want a man with all the finesse of a self-professed power-tool in charge of industry. But then the Minister for the Arts has a degree in Commerce. Why not continue the trend of putting aggressive materialists in positions of national importance?

But let’s stick to policies.

Humans now face the biggest challenge they have ever faced collectively: a global human-caused climate crisis. It is not the only thing needed, but government regulation will be a sine qua non in meeting this challenge. The federal government in Australia is currently made up of the Liberal Party. They don’t like the idea of government regulation of the economy, and prefer to stand around smiling benignly with their hands in their pockets while the rich get richer and the GDP goes up. Australia has woken up to the threat of the climate crisis and have started to look to the federal government to see what they are doing about it. The government has found a key phrase here and they think if they parrot it enough it will let them off the hook. It is: ‘low emission technologies’.

Since roughly September 2006, the climate crisis has featured more and more in the media releases of the Environment Minister. This Minister doesn’t want to put a carbon tax in place as that would curb economic growth (despite the fact that the recently released Stern report says that this is wrong, and that it is the only viable solution to bring the power of the market to do good). The Environment Minister is advocating technological developments as the way forward. He needs to perpetuate the illusion that he is doing something after all. Biodiversity conservation is a priority of this department, but again not when it impacts significantly on the economy. This is partly why issues like whaling get so many media releases from this department. Saving the whales doesn’t impact on the Australian economy, but it does captures the public’s easily courted ‘green’ imagination.

So the approach of the Environment Minister is to give out a fistful of dollars; a few million here and a few million there (remember for context that this year the federal government spent $220 billion). But do not accomplish actually the goal of curbing CO2 emissions by harnessing the power of the market and putting a carbon tax in place.What of the other Ministers?The federal Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry talks a lot about financial support for farmers including drought support, water recovery packages for the Murray, Landcare, and export markets for food. His department is promoting exporting food from Australia all over the world, with inevitable increase in the burning of fossil fuels. They are also giving money to farmers suffering drought until the drought is over, which may be unsustainable if the climate is causing the permanent drying of large parts of southern Australia.

The Minister for Trade promotes the export of primary products from Australia to countries such as Japan and China. He seems to think Australia should just be a big farm and a big quarry. The shipment of large quantities of primary products overseas is not sustainable due to massive fossil fuel use and the increasing cost of oil.

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs makes no mention of tailoring immigration numbers to achieve sustainable population levels.  On this point let us remember that Derek Eamus at the University of Technology, Sydney, has shown that if we want to make our ecological footprint more like that of the global average, and maintain our current population size, then we will have to halve our energy usage.  If we want 40 million Aussies on this land, then we will have to consume one-quarter of the energy we currently use (per person).  The current government’s talk of an expanding population ensuring a growing economy sounds good on one level, but if you cannot see that this nation’s supplies of water, fossil fuels and agricultural soils are limited, then you really do have your head buried firmly in the sand.  Those who put their heads in the sand deserve to have their asses kicked.

But I digress.

From the Department of Industry, Tourism and Resources we have heard some talk of the worth of sustainable development and the capture of carbon from power plants, but the main priority has been the export of gas and coal, and the giving of grants to innovators in industry. This department continues the current government’s policy of generally expecting industry to do the right thing by the environment on a voluntary basis, for example on energy efficiency they require that the largest 250 energy users make public their opportunities for energy efficiency gains. Ohhhh, what an iron fist from above Honourable Minister! Rather than a carbon-trading scheme or taking part in the global Kyoto Protocol, the Minister for Industry proposes putting millions of dollars into developing clean energy production methods. Through, for example, the $100 million investment in the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Climate Change (AP6, or what one US senator called a gigantic PR ploy) they expect to see adequate progress on reducing Australia’s carbon emissions.

The Minister for Tourism expresses concern over the impacts of climate change on Australia’s ability to draw tourists, for example with the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef. However it has never occurred to her to discuss the impacts of overseas tourists making long-haul flights to Australia on global climate heating.

The Treasurer makes no mention of sustainability (apart from economic sustainability of course) in this year’s media releases or his speeches. This is even after the Stern report was released showing that inaction on the climate crisis will result in a depression greater than 1929 and the two World Wars combined.

So that is my snapshot of federal politics in 2006.

But let’s not get too gloomy.

Australia is not Haiti. We do not leave our doorsteps each morning and step into a chaotic world of massive unemployment, a debased currency, endemic street violence and almost total deforestation.

You might argue that Homo sapiens evolved primarily as a hunting and gathering species, and that since the Neolithic revolution roughly ten thousand years ago we were always going to have a tough time organizing ourselves in societies of millions rather than around 150 people. Consequently, you might say that sure we’re not doing a great job with securing our long-term wellbeing on the earth, but we’re doing pretty well in Australia in organizing mass democracy, at least in as botched and unnatural a job as it will inevitably be.

And politics is always behind public opinion to some extent. While the wave of public opinion breaks, the low bass swell of movement from government follows a few leagues behind. That is dynamic is built into the nature of large unwieldy organizations.

But the wave is breaking. Concern about the environment in countries like Australian, Canada, the US and Britain reached a peak around 1990, and since then it has dipped and been comparatively low. Well guess what? At the end of 2006 concern for the environment is as high, if not higher, then in 1990.

At the start of last month a News Online poll has found 75 per cent of voters want the Government to sign the Kyoto Protocol, and 80 per cent think the big polluters should pay a tax on their emissions. 92 per cent, think the Government isn’t doing enough to encourage clean technologies. There are 16 million people of voting age in this country. Millions and millions and millions of Australians want our federal government to do their bit to fix the climate crisis. Look at my photos from a recent November blog entry of the Walk Against Warming to see just a few thousand of them.

And we can change. Look at Britain. Culturally not very different from Australia in many ways, they now take part in an EU emissions trading scheme and electricity suppliers are obliged to source an increasing amount of their energy from renewables. It seems like the whole of England has gone green sometimes when I read the news. The tabloid newspaper The Sun has made clear movements in that direction, as have the conservative party the Torys, not to mention the future King, Prince Charles.

Taking a turn for the greener is possible for Australia. If an election was called tomorrow, it is quite possible that the majority of 16 million dissatisfied voters would have a rather pleasing effect on the make-up of the inside of Canberra’s Capital Hill.

This morning I was went for a dip in the Indian Ocean, at Port Beach by my home town Fremantle. The sky was blue and a few stratus clouds lined the western horizon. The sun shone down through the crystal clear and very warm water around me. I floated there, with alternating rays of sun and shadows flickering on the sandy bottom of the sea below me. A Caspian Tern flew by to the west of me, with its graceful, crisply pointed white tail feathers outlined against the blue. In my final piece of good news for today, I can report that this little Tern couldn’t care less about any of us or our government.

Politricks for WA’s 2006

December 4th, 2006

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Welcome to the land of the black swan.

First some context… In 1870 Western Australia was granted representative Government, cutting loose from mama’s apron strings back in London. Until 1964, only those people who owned property were entitled to vote in Legislative Council (upper house) elections. Pathetic! That would have counted me out from voting on that one.

Parliament house is on a hill just west of the Perth CBD (and, incidentally, just around the corner from King’s Park, an area of wild woods bigger than Central Park in New York City). The two Chambers of Parliament House were completed in 1904. Later, in 1964, the eastern front was added. This is the main entrance for the public and it isn’t extremely august looking, but at least you get to walk up some stairs to get to the entrance. I’m sitting on these stairs in the above photo.
And now, after a searching and extensive historical discourse, I turn to WA politics in 2006.

Let us start with good news. The state government Department of Planning and Infrastructure is concerned about cleaner transport options such as hydrogen fuel cell buses, biofuels, gas buses (179 provided so far) and cycling paths ($68 million spent) and a initiating a program of community education to reduce car trips. This state government has significantly expanded Perth’s public transport network, for example between 2001 and 2006 putting $1.6 billion into doubling passenger rail capacity. They are also encouraging new developments along rail lines. This department is currently developing a mandatory building sustainability index (like the one in NSW), which will require energy saving measures be incorporated in the construction of new buildings in WA. Not bad stuff.

However, figures on, for example, transport show that the state government certainly should be busy. At present 8 out of 10 people in Perth drive to work. Check these figures out:

CBD parking spots per 1000 people
Perth: 631
Australian average: 489
US average 468
European average 238

Percentage of work trips on public transport
Perth 9.7 %
Melbourne 15.9%
Sydney 25%
Australian average 14.5%
US average 9%
European average 39%

My environmentally based focus on politics continues… From the Department of Agriculture and Food we have heard, as usual, concern for invasive species that plague crops and pastures, for example the newly arrived Starling in Western Australia, and the Rainbow Lorikheets in the Perth metropolitan area. As per normal, much concern for the breeding of crops and animals, and the export of agricultural produce from the state (no concern that the export of primary products in large amounts is not a sustainable industry due to its impact on global heating and its reliance on increasingly expensive oil).

From the Department of Conservation and Land Management there has been concern with containing the soil-born disease dieback in areas where it has infected the native flora, with maintaining and creating national parks and marine parks (any time now we should hear about some good news in protecting the waters of Rottnest island), and with combating the spread of invasive fauna such as pigs, camels, goats, wild cattle, foxes and cats. Conservation through the nomination of national parks as well as the encouragement of nature-based tourism are also priorities.

As for the Department of the Environment, well this one and the previously mentioned department have now merged. Climate change is a concern here and on this matter the declining rainfall has motivated the construction of a desalination plant which will be powered by wind energy. Government agencies have been required to gradually reduce their energy usage. Carbon trading is being investigated. Despite some concern over climate change, WA only gets 3% of its electricity from renewable energy, smaller than any other state, and only plans to get 6% by 2010 (and this is not even a legislated target). South Australia gets 11% and has legislated to get 20% by 2014, NSW gets 8% now and has legislated for 15% by 2020, and of course Tasmania gets 81% from renewable sources as we speak. The Greens, the Liberals, the Nationals and the Independants are all pressuring Western Australia’s Labour government to commit to 20% renewables by 2020.

Today I heard, from an source not to be named, that the Premier of Western Australia saw An Inconvenient Truth last month and had a moment of truth and revelation. The government will release its climate change action plan in the first quarter of 2007. If Al Gore’s message has really sunk in with the head of state government, then we may have something exciting waiting for us some time in the new year.

Looking back, one of my favourite recent moments of clarity from Parliament House came from the Green member of Parliament Paul Llewellyn when he, in his inaugural speech to the upper house, envisaged Western Australia in 2055. Among other things he put forward a picture of an ‘internationally recognised tourism industry based on sail and solar powered ocean liner technology’. I can imagine how beautiful my little port town of Fremantle would look full of such ocean liners. Huge swathes of white sails lazily flapping from towering masts… The masts festooned with elaborate computer-controlled riggings… In a sense, we would be moving forwards by moving towards Fremantle’s historical.

At the start of last year over 3000 people voted for me to take a seat in the lower house of state parliament, representing the Greens. I received sixteen per cent of the vote, which was more than double won by the previous greens candidate for the area. True, I didn’t end up with a seat in Parliament House with my name on. But ever since I’ve believed, like Al Gore, that you’ve got to change public opinion before the politicians will shuffle along in its wake.

Now you’ve read this blog entry, don’t worry about lumbering old state politics. Just talk to your neighbour. Get back to the politics of you and me. Ask that only half convinced friend to see An Inconvenient Truth. Leave a copy of Gore’s book of the same name on the kitchen table.

Going Down to Earth

December 7th, 2006

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[Thanks to the Department of Agriculture and Food for the photo.]

If I ask you where you live you’ll probably tell me a particular suburb and a particular street number. But where you live is also defined by your bioregion, that is your watershed, the plants and animals that are native to your place, the climate, the soil beneath your house… This is basic knowledge, and yet so many of us cheerfully walk around each day as ecological illiterates. We can read a complex alphabet developed into Western Europe, but we can’t read the shapes and forms of our home place. Walk into the middle of your local university, supposedly a city’s greatest repository of learning, and ask the first academic you bump into about the soil which lies beneath our feet. From the distinguished, tenured philosopher specializing in Hegel you will get a blank look.

Most people in Perth live on the Western Coastal Plain, where the soils are largely yellow or brown sand, often with a grey surface, and with limestone further down. Rain falls on the ground and soaks down through the sand to underground to aquifers and to the Swan river. Our suite of native plants and trees are exquisitely adapted to this ecological niche.

Certain people in this city choose to resist these physical realities, and to pretend they live somewhere like England with deep topsoil with plenty of organic matter in it. They plant non-native plants which require lots of piped in water and fertilizers. The phosphates from the fertilizers flow down through the soil to the Swan River and create massive algal blooms in the water each summer which use all the oxygen in the water and kill everything in that ecosystem. Ignorance isn’t always bliss.

This week I and my brother and father were twenty metres beneath the old Fremantle Prison. We were exploring an underground passage way dug out by convicts well over a hundred years ago. The passage had been dug out of the limestone by hand, and our torch lights flickered across the uneven rock surface. Water flowed through the bottom of the passage at some points. The air was musty and damp, and as we walked along we noticed thin, hairy tree roots hanging down out of the shadowy ceiling. Some native tree had sent its roots over twenty metres through this limestone in search of water. That is true knowledge of one’s place.

Within the Groves of Academe

December 8th, 2006

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[In a new development, all of the photos in this blog entry can be viewed in a larger size if you click on them.]

In the above photo you can see the skin of a Wandoo. While the leaves fell each autumn back in Europe, when white people came to this land they found an invertion of their experience: here it was the bark that was shed as the seasons turned. Some Australian trees have a thick layer of bark to insulate them from the fierce fires which can burn in summer.  Others, like this Wandoo, sacrifice their bark to the flames to escape too much damage to their trunks.  To be honest this tree is normally found a bit further inland and had been planted by human hands.

After the previous blog I wrote on soil, I thought I’d show that there really is a diversity of natural beauty which springs forth from my sandy home.

Between the Indian Ocean and the hills behind Perth, the Darling Scarp, sits the Swan Coastal Plain. This is an area of Banksia and Eucalypt Woodland. Agriculture and urbanisation have lead to clearing and fragmentation of this woodland, however pockets remain. Murdoch University has one of the largest campuses in Australia, and here, camera in hand, I found one of these pockets of original life.

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Now we’re in the real woodland. There are plenty of species of Banksias endemic around here (50-60), and this is the immature flower of one of them (I think it is Banksia ilicifolia). Its conical shape makes me think of it, for some reason, as a trophy of the bush. Aboriginal Australians used to soak Banksia flowers in water and then drink the water for a sweet beverage. Each Banksia cone is actually covered with thousands of tiny little flowers and each flower is dripping in nectar, a high-sucrose substance. Each year the Banksia grandis, the most imposing looking Banksia flower, would bloom and the Australians would gather to celebrate the ‘yellow season’. Sounds good to me.
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This is the sap of a Marri tree. Marri trees are always giving you the impression that they are bleeding from a mortal wound, and layering their dried blood on the woodland floor beneath them. In fact this stuff is properly called kino, and is a sugary exudation from the Marri which was used by the first Australians as a medicine.

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Nuytsia floribunda, or the Christmas Tree, puts out some new flowers, soon to be a riot of yellow and orange (those are a couple of Marri trees in the background). I really love these trees. Every December I know it is getting close to Christmas when these beautiful flowers start to explode out of the dull green leaves of certain trees. Forget the bunting in the main street of the city, this is the real colour of our yearly celebration. Of course it is pure chance that this tree works in time with a ritual derived from a land over thirteen thousand kilometres away.

Slip St.

December 11th, 2006

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I don’t often write about boats and perhaps this is strange considering that I live in a port. So, let’s go for a wander down Slip St.

This is the street in Fremantle where ships were built many years ago and then launched down the slipway at the west end of the street into the sea.

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As you can see, there is still some wooden boat buidling going on. My brother, Sam, studied wooden boat building in a workshop on Slip St. a few years ago. He helped to build a ten metre long whaling boat, exactly the same design of boat that was used in the second half of the nineteenth century to take pilots (people who would help guide ships into strange harbours) out to jump onboard incoming ships off Rottnest (the island off the coast of WA). Here it is…
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The design is called a clinker, because of the overlapping planks that make up its hull. Five men would sit in it and pull on these oars. In making this vessel my brother made of himself a point of connection with hundreds of years of human history.

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This is a piece of technology whose use emits zero CO2 pollution into the atmosphere.

It is also lovely to look at. Not to mention made with an impressive amount of skill, care and attention.
As the process of producing a bit of steel uses ten times as much energy as the equivalent wooden plank, wooden boats such as this one also have it over vessels with metal hulls when it comes to discussions of in-built energy (assuming you harvest your wood in a sustainable manner of course).

In Perth, a sunny city on a coast, there are tens of thousands of boats used for cruising around and having fun in, and most of them are propelled by many hundreds of litres of petrol. No leisure activity should necessitate the burning of fossil fuels. Unless you can change formula one racing to electric vehicles, then get rid of it. This is where boats like the one above come in.

I’d happily row around the Swan river on a summer evening in this thing with four or five of my friends and a few cold beverages stowed within reach. If I wanted to go further afield then one could contemplate another zany and avant-garde form of zero-emissions technology: a sailing boat.

Imagine this: It is 1865 and you are standing on the wooden deck of a seventy metre long tea clipper, surging west over the Indian Ocean. Four masts tower above your head, each with six massives sheets of white canvas billowing outwards, not to mention topgallants and other smaller sails full of the salty wind. The hold is full of wool from Australia, or maybe tea from China. Ships from earlier centuries, like the Duyfken, were happy to steam along at six knots with the wind behind them. As you stand there on the deck know that beneath your feet nearly one thousand tons of wooden clipper is moving at twenty knots.

As I imagine this moment I realise that this is a point in which I can see a sophisticated technology, the culmination of hundreds of years of human ingenuity and maritime history, shine forth proudly. And then, at the same time, I realise that I’m looking backwards in time at our past.

In 2006 the world’s fastest sailing vessels are now slick and shiny catamarans made out of carbon fibres, but after well over a hundred years of tecnological development and many millions of dollars invested, they can only add about another ten knots to the speed of these nineteenth century clippers. To this day ships like the Cutty Sark and the Flying Could were the fastest ever commercial sail vessels.

Oil is currently seventy two dollars a barrel, and big sailing ships take many hands on deck to operate, each sailor needing to be paid. Sailing ships are not economical to transport goods for trade at present only because full environmental costs are not built into the cost of a barrel of oil. When it is the China Clippers of the 1860s and 1870s may start to look like not only the beautiful, silent and swift paragons of human civilization that they truly were, but also blueprints for a saner future.

Out, beyond the salt estranging sea.

December 12th, 2006

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Before white people populated the Swan river this beautiful little succulent called samphire (Halosarcia lepidosperma) used to be found all over the place. Now I have to go further afield to find it.The other day I and my brother headed over to Rottnest, an island 18 kms west of the coast of Perth. This island hadn’t been inhabited for thousands of years prior to the nineteenth century, and Rottnest island pine and tea trees clothed the land. These trees can happily manage with exposed, salty conditions, but not with prying farmers and errant fires. The nineteenth century was not kind to Rottnest, and today, as we saw standing at the top of the lighthouse in the centre of the island, it is quite deforested.
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People who live in Perth nearly always have memories of going on summer holidays to stay in a cabin or a bungalow on the island off the coast. I have such memories, and they are good ones.

My dad was telling me the other day of how he and his friends would go over as teenagers in the 1960s and camp in the campground. The roads were not sealed then, and they were allowed to have a fire at their camp site. They would catch thirty crayfish a day, and they would all sit by the fire at night playing the guitar and hanging out.

As you can see, this island has developed a special place in my dad’s affections. Over the last seven years he has been over once a year each winter to help plant around 25 thousand a year of the native tea trees or pine trees. I think its nice to see this kind of reciprocal care between a person and a place.

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The Rottnest Society is the organising group for the plantings, and you can get a free bed in a cabin if you go over and help with the planting for a weekend in July. The fence in this photo is stopping quokkas, the gregarious mascots and macropods of the island, from eating the young trees.
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Eventually the native pine trees have a deep shade of green that you’d never expect to come out of this salty and sandy island.

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Me and Sam walked down to Armstrong Bay and jumped into the water. The clarity of the water was such that even though I wasn’t wearing a mask, I could see for metres and metres every which way I looked.

Bubbles drifted up to the surface as I slowly exhaled, and looked at the sea floor beneath me and the plants around me. The light illuminated everything, so that the browns of the sea grasses and the greens of the other plants glowed brightly. The cool water slid over my skin, and for that moment I could have my dad forty years earlier: I was just a male body under the water, marvelling at the colours and the brightness in front of me, off a beach on Rottnest. As long as I was underwater for that moment I felt free of time and free of all the troubles of the world above the surface.

Trust in Aeolus

December 13th, 2006

A couple of weeks ago I quoted Green member of the Western Australian Parliament Paul Llewellyn when he, in his inaugural speech to the upper house, envisaged Western Australia in 2055 having an ‘internationally recognised tourism industry based on sail and solar powered ocean liner technology’. I’ve been doing some reading.  Paul was wrong to have sketched such a vision as belonging to as far away an epoch as 2055.

The Royal Clipper is 5000 tons worth of ocean-going ship for carrying tourists around the place.  It uses the power of the wind. India to Greece is one route they do which might be interesting. I’m not attracted by the whole ocean cruising tourism thing, but I wouldn’t mind sipping a whiskey in some wooden interior redolent of a London club, knowing that it was Aeolus, the god of the winds, and not the Dug up Dead, fossil fuels, that was abetting my travels.

I also recently mentioned the Cutty Sark in this blog. Wouldn’t it have been great to have been onboard in 1885 heading towards Sydney when, under full sail and at a rate of 17 knots, she overtook the steam ship Britannia? I like the poetic justice of this moment in history.  The age of steam was threatening to entirely replace the age of sail, but here were the sailors of the Cutty Sark, looking back in their clipper’s wake at a ship within whose iron bowels sweaty stokers laboured in the dark to feed coal into infernal furnaces.

Meet the Cyclops

December 14th, 2006

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You are looking into the eye of Acacia cyclops.  Acacia trees number nine hundred and fifty species in Australia, and they are amazing at taking nitrogen, one of the things that plants really need to grow, out of the air and fixing it down in their roots.  This species is endemic to the south-west of the country, and it has plenty of seeds out at the moment.  These are seeds which can be picked and ground up and used as flour, for a loaf of bread say.  That is the plan for one element in my Christmas lunch this year.

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The aboriginal name for Fremantle was Booyeembara, which means place of the limestone ridges.  That is what I and my friends were standing on this afternoon as we picked Acacia seed pods and put them into our bags: a limestone ridge above the harbour.  This bit of disused land is normally only haunted by graffiti artists and black cockatoos.  Until the seed pickers arrived.
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We all sat around my kitchen table this evening, drinking beers and hulling the pods of the acacia.  I’ll take a photo of the loaf of bread that all this goes towards creating on a Christmas day blog.
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Wink.

Even the limestone background has hints of Greecian antiquity.

En Route

December 17th, 2006

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This afternoon I was on a three-masted barquentine called the Leeuwin, sailing off Fremantle. I spent a bit of time lying on my back up on the bow sprit, the bit of the ship which sticks out the front. This is what I saw looking up and back at the sails.
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We spent most of our time travelling at about five knots. This is something like the speed humanity, or those select members of it who did get about, travelled around the globe for the four hundred years before the twentieth century. There was no noise of a mechanical engine roaring. Later, I stood watching the water slip by the ship’s rails, listening to the sea’s slap and trickle on the hull below. So this is what travel used to be like, I thought to myself, slow, but quiet and very peaceful.

Re – Freshed

December 24th, 2006

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Yes all you northern hemispherians, the water is just fine down here in Australia.

This evening I was hot from the thirty something degree weather we are getting in Western Australia, and the Indian ocean was my destination.  Just as millions of Indians bath in the Ganges as a spiritual exercise, I get a really profound feeling of renewal when I re-emerge from the sea in the evening after a dip.

Looking out to sea, what do I see…

2006 was the year in which it was predicted that, if current trends continue, all the major fisheries of the world will collapse by 2048 (which means they will be reduced to 10% of their original capacity).  ‘Current trends’ mean a global system where fish are sought out with sonar, a technology developed in World War Two to detect submarines, and scooped up in massive nets.  If we forget the hi-tech element, the essence of the current war against fish can be understood by us landlubbers if we imagine two jeeps speeding across the African savanna with a huge net strung between them, picking up every lion, antelope and sparrow to get in the way.  Of course we wouldn’t condone such a practice on the African savanna, and we shouldn’t condone such rapacious, indiscriminate and, ah, plain dumb harvesting of populations of species which exist beneath the waves.  To make sure you’re not taking part in this stupidity, get hold of a copy of the recently released Australian sea food guide, or the equivalent for your country.
But looking out to sea I’m also seeing mystery…

2006 was also the year in which the global Census of Marine Life further revealed how little we know about what is out there beyond our shored horizons.  This well-funded international project discovered, to give two examples, a previously unknown species of crayfish off the coast of Madagascar whose length spans half a metre, and, off the coast of New Jersey a 20 million strong bunch of fish swarming in a school the size of Manhattan island.   The scientists taking part in the Census of Marine Life know that when their project finishes in 2010, they will still not have shone an all-seeing light onto all that is out there in the sea.

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Mystery endures.  And I’m still happy to be standing here on the shore, exploring the fragments of life out here on the periphery.

The Bread of Christmas

December 25th, 2006

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Christmas morning I sat at my kitchen table and a nutty, coffee-like smell that isn’t exactly like nuts or like coffee, wafted my way.  I was smelling acacia seeds popping and jumping on a frying pan.  This smell is the smell of Western Australia, I thought to myself.   We chefs did a bit of work getting the little bits of red stuff off the seeds, before we could get to this late stage.  And although the whole process takes ages, the smell is worth it at the end.  We made two loaves of bread with acacia seeds mixed into the flour.
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Here’s to Euro-Australian fusion.  Happy Christmas.

Locating Civil Unrest

December 26th, 2006

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So this is my home town, all alone besides the big, old Indian Ocean. Let’s narrow things down a bit…

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This is the port town of Fremantle, part of the larger city Perth. You can see two patches of green at the top of this photo: these are the two remaining good sized patches of nature around here, otherwise known as Bold Park and King’s Park. I treasure them.

The red arrow is pointing at the gardens and building known as FERN (Fremantle Environment Resource Network). Let’s look closer…
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You can really see in this photo the way in which Fremantle is involved in the sea, the way in which this port town leans against and takes into its open arms, the lapping ocean.
The red arrow shows the way for present purposes. You can see that FERN sits in the corner of the grounds of the Fremantle golf course. At the corner of Montreal and High streets, for those planning a visit.

Our regular Tuesday evening meals will start again on the second Tuesday in January. On this first event for 2007 I will be fermenting some civil unrest; from approximately 6.30pm. To be specific, I will be screening some films, streamed off the internet, using a digital projector. These include a video made about a conference in Lyon called ‘Towards Car Free Cities‘, and a film out of San Francisco about an ingenious style of car busting. I might even show the Edward Abbeyesque video for discontented youth now on the net.

I love to watch the astounding cinematography of the BBC’s recently released ‘Planet Earth’ series with the sound turned down and ambient music by the likes of Eluvium or Markus Geunter coming out of my stereo’s speakers. However this film screening at FERN will be much more about involving you and I in environmental action. My brother gave me a year-long subscription to Carbusters magazine for Christmas, and it has introduced me to a whole new social movement and its milieu. The films I will show will present the growing car-free movement, a movement which empowers urban citizens to express their discontent over gas-guzzling oil addiction.

See you there.

Ask not for whom the bell tolls…

December 28th, 2006

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This is the bell of the Scots Presbyterian church in Fremantle. It was made in London, and has been ringing over the roof tops of Fremantle for the last 110 years.

This morning I climbed up through a series of very dusty chambers and ancient wooden ladders to the top of the church spire where this sight confronted me. It is not generally open to the public, and my thanks go to Sandy, the obliging old fellow who took me up there (none of the other churches in town would let me go up their spires).

I hear bells like this one toll every day and every night while I lay in my bed before driting off to sleep. Their sound means something to me.

First, it is part of the identity of this place I live in. Hi fi, that is, coherent and unique sounds, and not low fi, meaning the background hum of traffic and the like, is partly constitutive of a place’s identity. Then, the sound is like the birds which regularly cry ‘Attention!’ in Aldous Huxley’s novel Island: it is a call for us to bring attention to the moment. Finally, the sound is a calming reminder of a more monastic pace of life.

But you may be wondering why I’m writing about a church bell in this blog. At the start of December, thanks to the organising efforts of the Climate Institute, 16 of Australia’s religious communities signed a document called ‘Common Belief’.

In this document some very important things are contained, some of which I want to highlight.

In this document, a bishop of the Anglican church called the destruction of the environment a ‘sin’. He called climate change a ‘core matter of faith’.

The Australian Christian Lobby said that we have a moral duty to be stewards of creation.

The Buddhists said that ‘when one treats nature as a friend and teacher, one can be in harmony with other creatures, and appreciate the interconnectedness of all that lives.’

Australia’s Catholic bishops said that we are indebted to environmental activists, as ‘such people show that humanity elevates itself when it reaches for a heightened consciousness of Life on Earth.’

The Islamic faith was in accord with all of the churches when it said that ‘people of religion must forget their theological differences and work together to save the world from climate ruin.’

The Salvation Army decried the the ‘environmental vandalism’ that is rapid climate change, and said that we must each take ‘practical steps to regenerate and conserve’ the Creation.

The Uniting Church admitted it had been complicit in the abuse of the creation in the past, and renewed its commitment to treat ‘the earth itself and all the life that it supports’ as precious.

I’m not religious, but I now see that I share some common beliefs with my church-going neighbours.

Environmentalism used to be seen as concern of a ‘special interest group’. No longer. Now it has been publicly acknowledged for what it truly is: an essential part of a thoughtful and ethical human life.

The bell tolls for you.

 

See more photos on wikimedia commons.

New Year’s Resolution

January 1st, 2007

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I took this photo in May last year in Australia’s central east coast rainforest – in Lamington National Park. I didn’t publish it at the time, but today is a good day to share this river’s beauty with the world.

In Richard Wilbur’s poem ‘Year’s End’ he writes of how most of the time we don’t boldly step into our future’s with clear and shapely resolutions:

‘These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.’

Australia’s great poetic voice of honesty and human frailty, Michael Leunig, has some words that I think would make a good centre-piece for anybody’s list of new year’s resolutions. The following bit of writing comes from his collection Wild Figments (yes, it has a painting of people picking figs on the front cover). Check it out.

So, in the coming year I will keep this bit of Leunig wisdom always at the back of my mind:

‘A Herbal Remedy for Lifeache’

You suffer from lifeache. Your whole life is sore; it hurts when you move it. Herbal remedy: take one patch of grass, a mild day, and two large green trees. Lie on the grass beneath one tree and contemplate the other tree. Nap from time to time, or gaze occasionally at the grass. Pain will subside. Lifeache cannot be cured, but you can learn to manage the symptoms.

Unity with the Land

January 9th, 2007

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Earth Man.

(Actually it is my friend Danny Cummings a few years ago in Byron Bay, east coast Australia.)

I recently discovered a drawing by Paul Livingston, author of Australia’s most sadly neglected comic novel The Dirt Bath (buy a copy if you find one), which continues this theme of finding union with the Earth.

Livingston accompanies his drawing with some humorous words on the habit of sunbaking.

After heeding Livingston I will never look at Australian beaches in the same way again:

‘I believe this irrational behaviour is a subconscious attempt by displaced Anglo-Australians to get in touch with the land. One only has to witness the hordes of white flesh basting on the beach to realise that these people have a deeply repressed need to become a desert.’

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Funny Weather

January 10th, 2007

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Funny Weather by Kate Evans is a recently published book of cartoons about climate change (Myriad Editions: 2006). I’ve just finished reading it and it is essential reading: humorous, honest and entertaining drawings and witty commentary on the biggest issue in town. I thought I knew plenty about climate change, but I also learnt a few things from Evans’ book (here are a few pages from the book for you to preview). I was so impressed by the ability of this slim volume to pull one’s attention along, that I might go and leave a copy of this book in the waiting room of my local doctor – I’m sure some of the patients will pick it to pass the time. This is pretty crazy but you can’t buy the book in Australian book shops right now, so you have to resort to ordering it off Amazon.
There are many more obviously funny cartoons in the book, but the above image of Gandhi has lodged itself in my mind. If you’re not living in a log cabin far from news of the day, and you have an ethical bone in your body, then it is likely that you will have informed yourself about the developing global climate crisis and decided that low carbon living is the way to go. But you may despair that your efforts are ultimately not going to change the course the majority of your neighbours have set the planet on. When you feel like this, remember this image of Gandhi, and don’t give up.

New signage in Fremantle

January 23rd, 2007

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Finally local government has become serious about encouraging the people to reduce their carbon footprint in the face of a growing climate crisis. This morning STOP signs all over the Australian port city of Fremantle were unveiled, boasting a new design which incorporates a motivational carbon neutral message. Well done government!

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Visiters to the Fremantle train station needed no encouragment.

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Fremantle’s historic West End proudly wore the anti-car moniker on another beautiful, sunny West Australian afternoon.

Today the Colour of Patriotism is Green

January 26th, 2007

On the National Interest on Radio National (21/8/06) a few months ago, Ian Lowe and Tim Flannery, two of Australia’s most eminent environmentalists, discussed climate change.

Ian Lowe praised the actions of some state governments, and then gave to the federal government’s role thus far. He said: ‘…the problem is that the commonwealth government is asleep at the wheel’.

Tim Flannery quickly added the following: ‘I would even go further than that Ian, I don’t think the federal government is asleep at the wheel, I think that they are actively acting against addressing climate change.’

Today is Australia Day, and for the first time in close to thirty years a hero of the planet has received the nation’s greatest honour. Tim Flannery has been named Australian of the Year by the prime minister.So what kind of odd predicament do we find ourselves in here? The nation’s leader hands out the great award for Australianess to Tim Flannery. Tim Flannery points his finger right back at the PM and accuses him of putting the fate of the planet in peril.

Score: Australia: 1/ Dishonourable PM: 0.

And so, amidst the helter and skelter of today’s recrudescent tribalism, the annual outing of the flags and the louts, I will have a smile on my face. I will be smiling with the knowledge that this country has officially recognised the greatest Australian of all as the one who speaks with much eloquence and intelligence on behalf of the living earth. Today we have some real, widely acknowledged, reason to recognise honourable Australians as being those who work to care for this country’s ecological heritage.

Oh, and if you have yet to listen to this talk that Flannery gave at Sydney University last year, then today is your day.

Plant a Wandoo next to your house.

February 1st, 2007

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The trunk of this Wandoo has all the colour and curvature of a human body. Its warm tones and taught muscles rise confidently in the January warmth, despite no rain having nourished this tree in a long time. Don’t you just want to run your hand over this bark?

Jane Hirschfield has written a poem called The Tree.

Tree

by Jane Hirshfield
It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.
Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.


That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—


Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

Having read Hirschfield’s poem, I started to think that the good nature photographers could be said to plant the seed of a redwood – or a Wandoo, to use a more Western Australian example – in our little urban lives. As the tree rises up besides us, the clutter of our housed existences is thrown into salutory perspective.

New Earth: Part 3

February 9th, 2007

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Silver silence.

The locker of this natural world still has plenty of patterns and species within, yet to be encountered.

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The Retreat.


New Earth: Part 2

February 9th, 2007

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White giants.

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This is more of a personal photo, remembering me and my friends and our recent time in the wilderness.


New Earth: Part 1

February 9th, 2007

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Colour in wind.

These photos I took on a recent trip to the bottom south-west corner of Australia, to a place called Broke Inlet.  I call them New Earth as a way of testifying of the power of our living earth to continually appear new to me.


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Mind Dunes.

The Australian Farm

February 23rd, 2007

The other day I was 160 kms east of Perth, in the area of land known as ‘the wheat belt’ for its growing of large amounts of wheat. I was visiting a farmer by the name of Kim, a friend of a friend, and a guy who has spent his whole life calling this four and a half thousand acres of semi-arid sheep and wheat growing country home. Welcome to the farming life: long hours of looking after sheep and hanging out with sheep dogs, dark, quiet nights, lots of space and the odd eagle soaring overhead. I couldn’t do it – even though I love the space and the quiet – and I’ll be thanking the farmers next time I eat a bit of bread in the city.

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This is where Kim and his sister and mother and father started out, later moving into a more modern house. For a deracinated urbanite like myself it is difficult to imagine having such a continuity of attachment to home. Surely behind the laconic and bluff patter of the Australian farmer lies a deep sense of belonging?

The trees have mostly been chopped down decades ago in this part of the world, and the roots of the trees which used to keep the water table lower are now mostly gone. The water has risen as a result, bringing salt from down in the earth to the surface and killing all the plants in its way. Kim showed me dead trees which had been alive and well when he was a kid in the fifties.

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These are salt bushes which Kim has planted. By doing so he is laying down plants that will soak up the salty water in the ground, thereby combating the march of the salt. He has planted thousands and thousands of trees and salt bushes each year and he is winning the fight. On the other hand, many farmers do not have such foresight. And even if they did, it seems to me that what is needed is not just such action on certain strips of farming country, but for the government to buy back twenty per cent of the wheat belt and set it aside to conserve the thousands of species of plants which grow out here. If the Greens were in government you could expect that kind of result.

If any of you reading this blog in Perth would like to come out to Kim’s property in July of 2007 and plant some trees for a day or two, then let me know. Kim loves nature and its diversity of species, and has offered to put us up at his place so that we can do some planting. Rather than paying for carbon offsets, why not just come out and stick some seedlings in the ground youself?

These days Austalians aren’t the most agrarian folk you’ll find. We have gone, in a handful of generations, from bush pioneers to city slickers. As of 2000, 91 per cent of Australians live in urban areas. In the context of the democratic West, Australia is the second most urbanized country after Belgium. Although I’ve no deep affinity with the rough culture of Australian farmers, I do feel invigorated by the colours of the salmon gum in half-light and the huge amounts of tourist-free space everywhere you go, up hill and down. And I’m glad I’ve made a connection with a person who produces my food and sees beyond the city pavements.

The English Farm

March 1st, 2007

[Today I’m going to publish a bit of writing by Julia Denton-Barker (my mum). She has recently written a retrospective piece about a farm in Cornwall where she lived many years ago. Reading it doesn’t just make me sad for the loss of the traditional English farm and associated folkways, it also makes me reflect on the immense difference between producing food in England prior to the 1960s, and producing food in Australia today. The former seemed to allow a kind of humane intimacy between humans and the land, while the latter most often seems to lack such any such rapport. Anyway, time for me to stop writing.]

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When they first bought the farm, they had to learn everything from the beginning. Despite lots of experience with a large (and organic) garden, a productive orchard, plenty of chickens, rabbits and the rampaging goats, they had no idea at all about the work involved in running a dairy farm. It was a large place by local standards, nearly 200 acres, although I may remember that wrongly and it could have been much smaller. In those days, milking 24 cows everyday, twice a day, was considered to be a useful contribution to the farming economy, whereas these days it wouldn’t be ‘viable’. They dived in, full of positive expectations.

The farm had been owned by William Tregear, and possibly his sister, but by the time he had decided to sell it, she had died. He had lived there all his life, and had worked the farm with three or four Clydesdale horses. They were in the top home field, the first day that I went to the farm, and their huge heads hung over the gate as they watched the activity in the yard. It was the last farm in that part of Cornwall to have working horses, possibly the last farm in the south west of England, and Willum, as he was called, had no time for tractors. He was a large man, usually wearing an old dark tweed jacket with a hessian sack tied (with binder string) around his waist, sagging and stained trousers and boots that looked as though they were welded on to his feet. His nose was a beacon: it took up most of his face, florid and enormous, like a large red cauliflower, and the skin was veined and mottled, from his life of being outdoors in the gales and rain of West Penwith. We stood in the farmyard, that first day, and he slowly brought words up and out into the daylight. His entire life had been bounded by the farm and the area between Sennen and St. Buryan; somehow the subject of ‘elsewhere’ came up, perhaps because we had told him that we had lived in the Welsh Borders, and he paused, considered, and carefully told us, “Well, yesss, you know that, I did go to England once, you know, yesss….” and he stopped again for a moment. “I went to Plymouth, you know, well, in fact I did go a couple of times,” and he considered this, thinking about England again. I felt the weight and depth of what it must mean to be so strongly grounded in this place, and how the Cornish land was still held to be a different nation with its own identity. Willum Tregear was a Cornishman, and he wasn’t English.

The farmyard where we stood that first afternoon, talking, looking around, waiting for whatever he may be able to tell us next about the farm, was ringed by low granite barns. At the top of the yard was the hay barn, two stories, with opened dormer style shutters and below were the horse stalls. An opening in the wooden upper floor meant that the hay could be easily thrown down to the horses; there were cobblestones on the floor and ancient stone troughs for their feed, and wood partitions were rubbed smooth from uncountable years of occupation. Next to the stables was the milking shed: long, low, and with a spotless concrete floor. Each cow had her own place, her own spot, and when the gate was opened for them at milking time, they ambled gently into the cowshed, straight into their places and keenly pushed their heads down to eat their allocated food. Willum had twenty four Jersey and Guernsey cows, each one known well and clearly loved deeply. We watched him milk, later that first afternoon, quietly going up and down the row of cows, working as he had done for over sixty years, and the cows stood, calmly chewing, while the milk was taken and pumped into churns. There is a particular smell to milking parlours, composed of cow manure, disinfectant, hay, cattle feed, and the soft warm taste of fresh milk too. The milking took place in silence, or at least without the noise of talking; there was a low hum from the milking machine, and the sounds of chewing cows, the swish of their tails, the clank of the buckets as Willum hefted them to carry the milk into the adjoining small barn to be measured and poured into larger churns. It was a peaceful and measured way of working.

Next to the milking shed was the longer barn which was used to house the new litters of pigs: empty that first day of animals. The pens were roomy and clean, covered in fresh straw with corner areas cordoned off, separate so that the piglets could sleep without being squashed by their large mothers. Then, at the end of this row of barns was an old, near derelict cottage, with broken windows, and no front door. Inside, the second floor had been almost completely taken out, so that the roof tiles were visible. One corner of the old floor still stood, held up by roughly placed timbers, and the whole building was filled with hay bales, stacked right to the roof in the back and coming down like a large staircase to the old front door. The smell was sweet and strong, and the only sound inside amongst the hay was of faint rustlings of the mice and of swallows coming and going to their nests, lining the rafters.

The house stood on the other side of the yard, which was roughly paved with stone, but muddy with the activity and use of a working farm. The two sheep dogs lay quietly watching every move that Willum made, waiting to work; the younger collie inched closer to his master, waiting hopefully. Chickens pecked around the dung heap that pushed up against the cowshed wall, and in the middle was the well, which had low granite blocks as a wall, no roof, and an ancient galvanized iron bucket resting on the stone, and some rope roughly tied around the handle. This was the house water supply: there was no running water and no bathroom in the house. A scullery served as the kitchen, a lean-to built as a much later addition to the rest of the farm, and this held two rickety wooded benches with large enameled, white bowls for the washing up and perhaps, too, the washing. The farm had probably not changed for fifty years or more, although there was now electricity. No telephone, though, and no need for such a device.

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The land went up gently behind the farm buildings, towards the hill, Chapel Carn Brea, which stood to the east. Each field had its own name, and its own character. He led us round, up past the fields where the cows were pastured, through old wooden gates tied with string and bits of wire, up on to the higher ground. There was another old abandoned cottage up there, standing with its windows open to the weather, and holes in the walls where the granite rocks had fallen, lying in the bracken now, and in the cottage just mud and a rocky floor, where the cattle had sheltered from the weather. Up here were the beef cattle, perhaps a dozen at most of Aberdeen Angus, young creatures who came bunching up around us in curiosity and affection. Willum knew each one of these beasts, naming them and giving each one its history. Each field on the farm was contained, held, protected by stone walls – he called them hedges – about the height of a man, these walls were covered in flowers, gorse, moss and lichen, ancient granite blocks which stopped the wind and rain from eroding the land and which gave shelter to the birds and small creatures. The fields were small, each with its own special character, and the grass was patched with bracken and clumps of gorse bushes. As we walked, the only sounds we could hear was that of the larks, the cattle, and the wind; the air smelled sweet with the yellow gorse flowers and the damp familiar bracken. The dogs ranged around us, back and then away again.

Higher up again, on the top of the hill, the view stretched right around the whole peninusula. The path up to the top was narrow, winding up through the gorse and low bushes, past tall blocks of granite: standing stones, some of them, ancient and placed there for ceremonies, perhaps and for reasons that we could never know. We looked out over Lands End, towards the islands, and back towards Penzance: a networked web of small fields, outlined by the hedges, dotted with cattle. There weren’t many trees, as the wind howls in from the Atlantic in West Penwith, but in the valleys there was the glimpse of shelter and a sense of mystery and hidden beauty. The wind was strong up there, and the rocks held their own power. The stones tumbled up into a large mound were, he said, the remains of the Chapel of St. Michael, built there in the earliest times of Christianity in Britain. Beyond this stood standing stones, grouped together, still erect, silent, with a curiously forbidding sense about them. The view was as wide as the world, and we stood, with no words necessary, looking out over the patterned, unchanged landscape and aware of the gift that had been granted. William Tregear was no longer able to work his farm, but if he handed it on to us, we could work to be stewards, truthful caretakers, and hold the long occupation of this land in trust. I fell in love that day, for the first time knowing that one particular place, this place, the air and the wind and the earth, could be a source of immense joy, comfort, peace. I was to spend many long hours on the hill, absorbing the spirit of place, loving it, dreaming, losing myself in delight.

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My parents only lived on Kerrow Farm for about seven years, before selling it and moving to the Balearics, and then, on to Australia. The history of each field, and the continuity of use, ended with them. They milked the same number of cows as Willum, and ran some cattle up on the top fields, and they kept pigs for a time, grew beets and kale for winter fodder, and brought the hay in, just as it has always been done. But when they sold the farm, the new owner knocked down all the old stone ‘hedges’, in order to make the land ‘profitable’ for larger scale farming. He planted one crop over the whole area, one crop on one large field where previously had been five or more small, enclosed and healthy fields. The wind blew the soil away, and destroyed the crop, and the rain washed earth down onto the bottom road, and away off the land. He sold the house, then, to a local business man, and the monoculture continued with cattle, first, and then more crops. The price of the land went up and up, so that only rich agribusiness farmers could afford to buy it when it went back on the market.

Last year I went back to Kerrow for the first time in nearly forty years. I went first to the top of the hill, and walked, and gazed, and heard the larks, and smelled the gorse, still sweet like special honey. I climbed onto the top of the rocks, looking out over the land towards the sea, and out to the Scilly Islands. The sky was luminous, blue, clear, and I rubbed my hand against the rough granite, closing my eyes, knowing suddenly that I was home again. The path still wound down past the stones, through the bushes, down towards the farm. But the fields had gone, and there was just a large space of wheat growing, and some plowed land, fallow and dark. I hadn’t intended to visit the farm itself, but as I went past the bottom of the lane, past the old stone-built stand where I had so often hauled up the full milk churns to be picked up by the milk lorry there was a For Sale sign stuck up at the gate. Without pausing to think, I turned up the lane. It had been winding, lined with flowers, blackberries, muddy and hard to walk without getting wet after rain, and I had walked it each day with the dogs, down to collect the post, or down to catch the bus along the main road into town. Now, the lane was just a track, no walls on either side, no winding curves to invite the visitor. I came out at the farm yard.

This was no longer a yard, or at least, it was no longer anything to do with a farm. The buildings still stood, and there was some kind of structure in the middle of the space, but there were small tubs of petunias dotted around and it all looked like some kind of municipal carpark. The old stables, still there but looking neat, and pretty in a magazine fashion, as if they had been created for a theme park not for real use. The milking shed had patio furniture standing neatly outside the door, and curtains shielded the windows where once the cats had perched waiting for their milk. It all looked the same and yet it was utterly different. A tall man came out of the house, wearing a buttoned down blue shirt, neatly pressed, and grey trousers, soft shoes and a mobile phone in his hand.
He was a retired doctor who had bought the house, with just a small piece of garden, about eighteen months ago, and he knew nothing about the history of the land or of the farm itself. He showed me around the house, and I could just recognize the rooms, the deep set windows, the view out over the fields towards Sennen. But the rest was new, done up, with the old house covered over by nice furnishing, comfortable carpets, proper heating and the kind of bathrooms that featured in design magazines. I thought of William, and then I remembered too our time in the house, carrying water, bringing in fresh milk and taking thick cream of the top of each jug, listening to the gales rage, going out in the rain to bring the cows in for milking, caring about each spot on the farm.. I knew that it was the same house and yet there was no acknowledgement that this had been a real, working place, loved and inhabited by generations of Tregears, and who knows who before them.

He showed me around, and then we went back outside. The barns on the other side of the yard had been bought, done up as holiday cottages, used for perhaps a month or so each year and rented out for sums of money that seemed unreal to me. The For Sale sign that had brought me up the lane was for the old pig shed, a small barn that had housed three litters of pigs at a time. It was freshly roofed, and the stone work pointed, cement making the walls neat and probably more solid. The front door could have belonged in a street of town houses, in some city far away from this windswept, granite grounded finger of land surrounded by the wild Atlantic.

Nothing I saw matched my memories. It all seemed as though a theme park had been constructed over the site of a prehistoric settlement: the displacement was as strong as if I had come out of the age of dinosaurs to find a new species occupying my own habitat.

The Child is Father to the Man

March 1st, 2007

Why do some people love nature and some people are just rather indifferent to it? Developmental psychology tells us that early exposure – as we are growing up – to woods, fields and animals encourages biophilia, the human tendency to affliate with wild nature.

In some families there is a tradition of owning animals and of regularly spending time out in nature. My mum comes from England, and her family have always been nature lovers. What follows is a snap-shot of how one family carried its love of nature down through the generations.

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This is my great-grandfather and his children – my grandmother and my great-uncle – somewhere in England about 1904.

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Stepping down to the next generation, my grandfather, Ralph, loved to walk in nature, up fell and down dale. His favourite writer was William Wordsworth, the poet from who wrote the words which are the title of this blog entry. My grandfather and grandmother lived first in the Welsh border country, then on a Cornish dairy farm, and then on a Spanish island. Clearly my mother was influenced by some of these environments – not to mention the constant companionship of various dogs – as she grew up and turned into a woman.

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She moved to Australia and had two sons, me and my brother. For a while we lived in Denmark, a small town in the south-west corner of Australia, surrounded by towering karri trees to walk under, sun dazzled inlets and grassy fields. My mum and my dad took us on plenty of camping trips and we were always accompanied by dogs and cats while at home. One of my mum’s favourite poets is Gary Snyder, and her favourite novelists, Wendell Berry.

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I and my brother both love nature as adults, and I think our parents actions when we were young may have had something to do with this. I thank them for imparting a love of nature to us. The child is father to the man.

I am writing this retrospective blog entry in 2007, and very recently we human beings tipped over the point where there are now more people living in cities than outside of cities. As Gary Snyder has said, what we need now more than anything is people who love the world. Knowing this, I hope most fervently that all these new urban citizens take their children out into the world beyond the pavement.

Remembering America

March 2nd, 2007

In 1996 I lived in the U.S. for the year. I was in their charming parlance, a ‘resident alien’. I was an alien in San Franscisco, north of the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. One of the points of cultural association that I have come to increasingly appreciate since I have left this country was City Lights Books, a bookstore in the city.

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It isn’t City Lights I love really, but the associations that hang around that geographical location. Lawrence Ferlinghetti started the shop in the early 1950s and it became a gathering point for certain beat poets, such as Gary Snyder. In 96′ I was sitting in a bookstore by the name of A Clean Well-lighted Place for Books in Marin listening to Snyder, the old man with the creased, experienced face, give a reading from his book of poems Rip-Rap and Cold Mountain Poems, however it wasn’t till more recent years that I came to realise the value of some of Synder’s limpid moments of being in the natural world expressed in his poetry.

In Snyder’s world sometimes nothing has meaning, except ‘that which is seen is truly seen’. Read ‘Piute Creek‘ and you might understand what I’m talking about.

And then there were the woods, the redwoods…

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These are the tallest trees on our planet: redwood trees. It’s not a mark of rectitude to talk in cathedrals, so I’ll be quiet about this place.

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In winter I was in Yosemite National Park, and I looked up at ‘El Capitan’, as had Ansel Adams before me. Where Adams looked, saw and photographed some of the most perfectly composed black and white compositions ever, errant stone monkeys have looked at El Cap and scaled it, intoxicated by a visceral sublime. Before such people knocked about rocks, John Muir walked around Yosemite, writing prose about the place which expressed a truly ecological imagination, and inspiring the president Theodore Roosevelt to protect the joint.

After reading ‘Piute Creek’ you’ll perhaps understand why I was interested to visit the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Zen monastery in secluded valley of the dry southern moutains in California. I was here for a few days, and although I didn’t actually spend that much time meditating, I spent plenty of time walking down the valley, along a creek which provided relief from the heat.

In the south of California I also explored the world of the Spanish monks who had come here in 1771. At Mission San Antonio I participated in an archeological field school, where after study was over for the day I saw cougar flash across the fields, and was woken in the morning to the sound of coyote wailing like tormented banshees. Some hot nights I would stand in the mission quadrangle… you could hear only the soft splashing of the fountain, see the see the lambent cream of the adobe walls topped by the orange of tejas. One evening I remember the moon was particularly large and bright as you looked up past the cypresses. A monk walked past the other side of the tree-filled square. The air had a comfortable warmth to it for my t-shirt and shorts shod body.

So I was skirting my way around the crass and commercial parts of California. It then found my way to another desert monastery: Joshua Tree National Park. Here I had intimations of the south-west of the U.S. that Edward Abbey writes about in his books (yes, I know he wasn’t writing about California, but for me there are certain associations between his books and this place). Abbey, if you don’t know him, was a savage, funny, and incandescently intelligent voice out of the American desert. Read him at your merry peril.

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Finally, in my last American adventure, I helped onboard the good sloop The Clearwater. The Clearwater is a ship which sails down the Hudson River in New York State, delivering a positive environmental message to school kids to clean up the Hudson. It has as its founder and patron spirit, Pete Seeger, that great voice of politically progressive American folk music. In fact I went to Pete’s 80th birthday party, at his house on a hill above the Hudson. We need more voices like Pete Seeger’s in this world.

Here I am, standing on deck, giving a hug to a New Yorker who followed our floating hippy bandwagon down the Hudson. The rusts, yellows and reds that are the autumn colours of New York State made a fine backdrop for a river voyage.

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These are just some snapshots of the points of interest on my personal map of America. It took some clever navigation all those years ago, but I did learn that the US isn’t all blaring soap operas and endless billboards.

Environment Minister with a Past

March 4th, 2007

On Australia’s Radio National this morning the current Liberal Minister was exposed as having a history of involvement in the corporate rape of the earth. Liberal Minister helped expand a forestry company in 1991 – Axiom Forest Resources in the Soloman Islands. This guy streamlined this company’s efforts to cut down Pacific Island rainforests. The company was allowed to cut 33 thousand cubic metres per year, which is more than would have been sustainble for the whole of the Solomons (remember they were only allowed to log some of the country). The now Australian federal Minister for the Environment earned a neat twenty five million Australian dollars for his work. Should we trust this kind of operator to look after Australia’s heritage?

The Aboriginal

March 5th, 2007

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This is John Soane. He is an aboriginal of the British Isles.

A few years ago I was in England for the first time, and I thought a bit about belonging to a land and a landscape. My ancestors all came from England to Australia at various times in the past. Australians speak English, it is our mother tongue. But if you pick up a volume of poetry by any number of celebrated and dead poets who write in this language you’ll find poems with titles like ‘May Morning’ or ‘June Day’. When you come from Australia and pick up John Clare’s poem ‘July’ and read the first line – ‘Loud is the summer’s busy song’ – then you feel a strong sense of incongruity with your own experiences. In Australia July is the middle of winter and noon doesn’t ‘burn with its blistering breath around’, it is actually pretty cool (Peter Porter has commented on this in a poem about reading Midsummer Night’s Dream).

So Australia obviously needs its own literature of nature, and we have a bit of it, here and there. But my point is that the English landscape does have a small influence, through the circuitous route of English literature, on life in Australia.

Anyway, when I was in England a few years back I got interested in the kind of aesthetic sense expressed by people people like John Soane. Soane’s house is open to the public as a museum in London, and shows the visitor what the nineteenth century English gentleman with an interest in architecture could do to make a pleasing environment. Beyond that I went out into the country and entered the world of the English country house and its estate. Despite the lamentable political circumstances associated with the creation of such places hundreds of years ago, I found myself pleased and calmed by the order and beauty to be found in some of these houses and their woods and gardens.

This is a postcard I have of Belsay Hall, a property run by English Heritage (the British government), one of the most beautiful of all country houses. It is in Northumberland, and the quarry where the stone for the house was taken from was turned many years ago into a sunken garden, which winds under the canopy of overhanging trees.

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I normally are much more interested in wilderness than planned gardens, but this winding walk through the limestone walls and ravines is enough to make me feel some affinity with the great tradition from the 18th and 19th centuries of English landscape gardening.

Soon I was doing a couple of weeks voluntary work for the National Trust. I stayed at Felbrigg Hall and worked, along with a bunch of around twenty other volunteers, at Blickling Hall, in Norfolk. In the evenings all the tourists had left the area, and I wandered about the place. It was a warm evening at the end of May, and I was sitting in the walled garden by myself, watching the doves flit around the tall dovecote and listening to their soft coos. I got up and walked through the gardens behind the house to the orangery and breathed in the thick aroma of the many camelias kept in there. With moments like these, why, I asked myself, don’t more English people volunteer to do this kind of thing?

At one point I found myself opening up the pyramid shaped mausoleum in the middle of the woods at Blickling. The door to the mausoleum is made of iron and weighs a ton. I fitted the old iron key to it and swung it open, a slow, sepulchral creek echoing inside the tomb. I thought of what kind of person John Hobart must have been to have wanted a pyramid in the middle of the woods to be his tomb. Did he really felt he belonged to England? Then I left this musty resting place and walked into the woods around the pyramid. I saw a barn owl fly above me and across to a nearby tree. It landed and watched me. I sat down for a minute and watched it. I kept walking and deep in the woods I found the old deer ditches that bordered the medieval park, now green and leafy dingles. I could hear buzzing, rustling, hooting and scurrying around me. There was the smells of the forest, the wind on my face and the soft earth under my feet. Tall trees rose from the sea of purplish blue bells in front of me.

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I’ve never been there, but I just noticed on the National Trust website that Wallington, another estate with lots of woods, this time in Northumberland, has an opening for volunteers this May. If I was in England, I’d do it. The great thing isn’t just helping out with running the gardens, but is being able to wander around the place when all the day trippers have gone home.

Australia has a lot more original wilderness and previously undescribed species of life still kicking around, and I feel a strong sense of belonging on this southern land. On the other hand I can’t help feeling like an aboriginal when I’m treading along under ancient silver beeches.

Climate change and Australian politics

March 7th, 2007

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[Thanks to Linda Zacks for letting me use her illustration.]

What is my take on politics and climate change in this election year in Australia? As you’ll see from my recent blog entries, I’m not a fan of the current government.

The Labor Minister for the Environment is Peter Garrett. He is actually now called the Shadow Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, a move that you might think was made to hint that his party takes the climate crisis seriously. Labor proposes to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, cut Australia’s greenhouse pollution by 60% by 2050, establish a national emissions trading scheme; substantially increase the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, and build greenhouse gas triggers into Australian law.

What do I mean by this last bit about greenhouse gas triggers? The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBCA) is the single most important bit of national law relating to nature. In its four or five years of operation it hasn’t done much about the two major threats to biodiversity: greenhouse gases and land-clearing (it has had a few minor successes, like protecting flying foxes in Queensland). State laws are more important when it comes to protecting the environment. But the EPBCA could become important if it had a greenhouse-gas trigger built into it, so that when a proposed development was considered and it was going to pollute the air with too much carbon it would be rejected. Labor, it seems, might build such triggers into the EPBCA.

But then I have a feeling that Labour here would be like Labour in England right now. Plenty of talk about climate change, and even some targets, but they probably won’t actually keep to the targets for reductions of emissions by 2020. Despite the green-friendly rhetoric, Labour in Britain looks set to fail to deliver sufficient reductions.

The Australian Greens actually would make targets and keep to us to them. Of course the Greens have very little money for campaigning, usually a bunch of thousands, that’s all. If only some philanthropist would donate $2 million for the greens to have TV ads on prime time commercial tv – where an ad costs about 50 thousand to make and four thousand to air for 30 seconds each – just before the federal election. Maybe shouting the truth into Australian sitting rooms that we live in a country on the front line of the effects of the climate crisis would sway a few more politically comotose voters. And after the election we’d end up with a few more compassionate and honest humans in Parliament House. Hard to imagine I know.

Well in the absence of a couple of million dollars, the Greens can do what? At least become a bit more canny….

In 2007 I’d like us in the Green party to remember Guy Rundle (editor of Arena magazine), looking back on the 2004 Australian federal election, and saying:

‘[The Greens] have not yet made the leap from the politics of the New Left to one that addresses contemporary society’.

I support nearly all the policies of the Greens, but I think there is an urgent need for us involved in the Greens to appreciate the cultural and political climate in which we act. In the February 2005 issue of The Ecologist Aidan Rankin wrote of how the European Greens have, lamentably, been captured by an authoritarian and unelectable left. Rankin goes so far as to suggest that a new Ecology Party be formed to remedy the situation. In America, Kevin Phillips recently argued in Harper’s Magazine that the decline of liberalism began because “liberal intellectuals and policy makers had become too sure of themselves, so lazy and complacent that they failed to pay attention to people who didn’t share their opinions.”

This election year the Australian Greens need to ask, how do we start bridge-building with the mainstream, and get more people into parliament,? The dire predictions of climate change make the stakes much too high for us to sit contentedly on an unelectable moral high-ground (even while our membership numbers continue to climb).

The Greens drug policy is hurting the Greens vote. James Norman, Victorian Greens Media Assistant during the last federal election, wrote recently in Arena magazine: ‘One of the key differences between the Greens and the other Australian political parties is that the Greens released extensive policy documents on the party website for all to see months before the election. Most other parties don’t do this.’ The Greens ‘went overboard in making long, detailed policies too freely available. For example the much misrepresented drug policy should simply have read: ‘The Greens support the principals of harm minimisation and wish to see drugs considered as a health, rather than criminal problem.’ Leave it at that. There is no need whatsoever to isolate particular drugs, like heroin and ecstasy, as drugs earmarked for liberalisation. It’s political dynamite.’

If you’re reading this, please join the Greens, run as a candidate, and don’t sit too high up the moral high-ground.

Bespoken Hemp

March 9th, 2007

My private and unofficial Eco-Dandyist Manifesto stipulates that a gentleman dresses well. But where to from there?

Hemp is a great plant fibre, environmentally speaking, in that crops of it don’t require the application of large amounts of environmentally harmful pesticides, like the cotton you are probably wearing as you read this sentence. Hemp comes from canibis, and canibis plants more or less just shoot up by themselves. So that sorts out the kind of the plant fibre we’re aiming for (although bamboo is another one worth thinking of nowadays – even softer than cotton).

Making the clothes is next…

Most of the clothes we buy come from Asia, where hundreds of women sit in ugly and noisy factories and do boring work for hardly any money. So why not spend a little more on your clothes and get them made by someone in Australia, or whichever first world country you are probably reading this blog from?

Time to find a bespoke tailor. What’s ‘bespoke’ mean, I hear you ask? It means a tailor that makes your suit to measure your body, by hand. Well, better read the explanation of Thomas Mahon, a tailor on Saville Row in London who writes a blog called ‘English Cut‘.

So now you know all about bespoke tailoring. If you live in Western Australia you might get some hemp from the Margaret River Hemp Company and ask a local clothes designer to go to work.

So is the suit I’m wearing made from bespoken hemp?

No, it came from a local op-shop and cost seventy dollars. Even better for the environment than getting a locally tailor-made hemp or bamboo suit, is going and collecting a suit that was just sitting there unclaimed in an op-shop around the corner (as long as you can find one you really like, that is).

Time to hit play on some Gregory Isaacs and drink a gin and tonic.

New Zealand and How it Became Middle Earth

March 16th, 2007

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I’ve been thinking about New Zealand recently, partly because of a related essay I wrote a while back which is soon to be published. I’m not going to say much about the essay here, but I will say something about the land that is the South Island.

Looking back through my journal I find the following from my time there in 2004:

“Not only seeing nature, but also smelling the wet earth and the fast flowing stream at the bottom of the valley. Further up we passed through a high ridge and looking down on the scene below made me think: well, there is nothing left. It isn’t possible to see any more impressive topography on this blessed planet. D. H. Lawrence said he only felt a deep sense of the religious in his world travels when he arrived in New Mexico. My New Mexico.

Being here, these experiences of green mountain ringed plains, dell-filled beech woods, pine bordered, iridescent lakes, drift wood tossed shores, gives me a grounding in extra-human meaning, meaning outside the realm of human artifacts and social interactions. I’m glad to have had this time, its memory will help me persist through the knocks and setbacks that are endemic to suburban day-to-daying on my return to Perth.”

There is a way in which Wallace Stegner’s comment that ‘a place needs a poet’ is meaningful. Peter Jackson has, in a way, sung these beech woods, and given them added significance. I have a chapter in a book called ‘How We Became Middle Earth’, which is forthcoming later this year. It is out with Walking Tree Press – check it out.

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I haven’t taken any good photos of New Zealand… apart from the following one of the farming country near Christchurch. The shades of green in this land are so deep compared to Australia!

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Although I don’t have a great gallery of New Zealand photography, I can direct you to a few photos taken by others. These photos will give you some idea of what I’m talking about.
The river flows

The clouds drift

Mt Cook stands guard

Now look into the lake, and wash away your mental clutter…

New Photography Gallery

March 18th, 2007

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Mass of twisting white spirits, frozen in their silent decade-long dance in a clearing of the south-west,

ancient lives towering from the floor to the canopy,

tumbled granite boulders, with a window in the karris out over the land and the southern ocean and the swell’s boom,

clear sight… peace in his heart.

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My new gallery of nature photography can be viewed by following the link on the top right hand side of this page.

Why I Like Edward O. Wilson

March 25th, 2007

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In 2oo2 I was on Reunion Island, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. At the time I wrote in my journal: ‘I have seen the beauty of nature on a tropical island, been fascinated by the workings of the physical world around us, realised that I am part of the biosphere – something much bigger than my personal problems – discovered how pressing is the need to conserve and restore global biodiversity, and found new direction in my life in wanting to help do that.’

When I was on Reunion the place had a 43% unemployment rate, plenty of bad drivers and groups of men drinking rum on the side of the street in the middle of the day. Despite some of the problems on the island, being in a very different cultural framework – the French speaking, Creole eating tropical scene with a little bit of African influence – allowed me to see nature like an alien on another planet. I read E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life for the first time. Wilson and the land both inspired me, and thus this blog entry has to be about both. Wilson’s prose in his book Consilience – which I also read while I was there – put me on a new path, bound up in his broader conservation ethic, to approaching my own life. The tone was amelioristic, in control, optimistic, rational, autonomous, fascinated, and knowledge-hungry.

Reunion is a volcanic cone poking up out of the Indian Ocean. The somewhat undisturbed south-east is called the ‘sud sauvage’, the wild south in English, and it is crested by this constantly unpredictable volcanoe, the Piton Fournaise. This mountain is three thousand metres from the sea to the top. Dribbles of dark lava come down the south-east slope.reunion2.JPG

The interior of the island is sometimes dry, sometimes lush, but nearly always slashed by very deep gorges and outrageously tall mountain peaks. This beach is typical of the island. I don’t love the French habit of leaving cigarette buts everywhere in the sand, but I do love the fact that you can float in a pool at the end of this beach and see the warm colours of live coral beneath you. You can see what a great place it was to be reading about the workings behind the diversification of species of life on earth.

The rivers that flow to the sea carve deep gorges full of icy water holes, like this secret spot…

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So this is the tropical crucible within which I first heard the uplifting and philosophical voice of the greatest prose stylist of modern science. Thanks Edward O. Wilson. Partly because of your writings, everywhere I walk on this earth I feel I belong, as part of the biosphere.

When I returned to Australia in 2003 I was saddened to find that the conservationist figure embodied by E. O. Wilson – the affable, well-mannered southern gentleman with a prodigious intellect and stylish approach – didn’t fit very clearly among Australian Wilderness Society activists and Greenpeace recruits.

Still, I have continued to be influenced by Wilson’s outlook on the world. True, I write about novels, poems, and films, and not about the workings of ecosystems. But some science does inform my environmentally- slanted literary criticism. Most of all, I’m humbled by the complex workings of the species of life on this earth; my cosmology places us humans firmly within this natural realm; and much of my spiritual sustenance comes from the creation. Partly thanks to the tone of the writings of an old Harvard professor, I’m still determined and I’m still impressed.

The Path and John Fowles

March 29th, 2007

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My interest in conserving and marvelling at global biodiversity and the physical planet has caused me to be more: scientific, optimistic, determined, self-secure and impressed by the world. It has created a path of sorts for me in life.

In 2002 I walked from the West Quantocks Hills in Somerset just under the Bristol channel, with the Exeter University Out of Doors Society, to a small village called Bishops Lydeard. This is when the photograph of the path above was taken. It is also the period of my life when I first met John Fowles.

Fowles was right to insist that you can’t capture the experience of nature in words. Of you can’t capture it with photographs either, which is a salient reminder for myself now that I’m more interested in photography. I remember walking through the trees below Fowles’ house in south-west England, with the wind and the grey light gushing past, leaves swaying and turning, my vision moving as I pass, feelings of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and a man and a place so bound up in nineteenth century notions of refinement.

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My bedroom was inside the main house, a room that makes one think of well lived in certain country mansions of the 20s a bit, not big but cultured and hailing from an England you’d never guess existed still as you walked down today’s British high street with its mobile phone shops and ugly mall. And Baag, the big, burly tabby who has now sadly passed away, padded around the house… it really is true that having cats around reduces one’s level of background anxiety.

I uses to often walk into the Undercliff, a wooded area west of Lyme Regis. I strode forth, across a section of open county and then into the chaotic topography and jumble of trees and plants. The path winds along and one thinks: well, here is a bit of wild England after all. The blood pumped through my body and I felt alert, but when I came to a particularly romantic spot – it all is that, one really gets a sense of the spirit of the place that must have motivated the romanticism of the FLW, as Sarah calls The French Lieutenant’s Woman – I stopped. And the silence came flooding in from all sides, and I stood thinking how much these lush vines and trees and shrubs on such wildly up and down terrain stimulant a sense of mystery, of promises around corners. Thinking how, regardless of how hackneyed a word it is, there really was a magic to this place. Of the kind that Fowles talks of in his notion of la bonne vaux. The place is an entrée into a kind of invitation to dream. After the contrast of recent city or town dwelling it came onto my eyes with a fresh, possibility-filled and timeless charm.

How easily I could be Charles Smithson setting out into this wilderness. Or how easily the fictional Sarah could come walking down Ware Lane. The place varied every second as I trod along the path which winded and bobbed up and down, under trees and around corners. The magic of a Samuel Palmer English valley, which Fowles has written about, I truly got an inckling of. As my walking boots had given out the previous weekend, Sarah gave me a pair of John’s old shoes to have and walk in. I was truly walking in the footsteps of John Fowles.

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Freo Stencils

March 30th, 2007

I’d like to announce that a new blog has arrived in my home town Fremantle: Freo Stencils.

Of course the British artist Banksy is the acknowledged king of stencil art placed in urban spaces. However this frequently political art form has been taken over by all kinds of people in the community, as is evidenced by this website. With the public space, the agora of Greek civilization, monopolised these days by merchants of mindless consumption, I see stencil art, at its best, as a stand against this culture of consumption, in the manner of Kalle Lasn, the inspirational and courageous Estonian prankster who founded Adbusters magazine.

To the writer of this new blog, I salute you!

Back From the Island

April 2nd, 2007

I’m just back from Rottnest, the island off the coast of Western Australia. This arid fragment of limestone floats in a scintillating blue and green sea. It is shored by finely ground shells and inland jagged, wind-blown and salt-tolerant plants make their home.

I’ve finally got a couple of reasonably good photographs of the place. So check my gallery – follow the link on the top right – to see the island’s colours.

Gary Snyder’s Most Recent Book of Poetry

April 4th, 2007

Danger on Peaks (Washington: Shoemaker and Hoard, 2004) is a slim book of poems from a man who is now in his mid seventies. As usual the poems are spare and understated, and reach for the clarity of a summer morning in the high Sierras. The tone of the collection seems somewhat elegaic, largely due to the number of poems which recollect experiences Synder had in the fifties or later. As usual we are introduced to the quality of simple, hard work amongst the truckies and loggers of the US, and taken into simple and limpid moments amongst the granite of the Californian mountains. This isn’t Snyder’s best collection in my view, but it does contain a handful of poems worth reading.

The last two lines of the book are my favourite, and are translated from Chinese. You can almost hear the quiet, koan-like intonations of Synder’s voice behind these words:

hail all noble woke-up big-heart beings;

hail – great wisdom of the path that goes beyond

The Peace of Wild Things

April 6th, 2007

Sometimes life gets a bit too much. Too confusing or stressful or whatever the case may be.

Shelly’s sky lark, and Keats’ nightingale, were envied by those nineteenth century poets for the peace of unreflective sentience. Today I want to share with the world a poem by Wendell Berry, the English lecturer turned farmer from the east coast of the US. Like Shelly and Keats a century before him, Berry reminds us of the peace experienced by nonhuman lives. It is an instructive lesson:

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Amen.

Spreading the Word

April 9th, 2007

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This is one of the most memorable photographs in the history of the Australian conservation movement (thanks to the Terania Action Network). The year is 1979 and one of the last pockets of the subtropical rainforest of the central eastern Australian coast is about to be logged at Terania Creek. A hundred or so long haired hippy types arrive, and for the first time Australians see images in the media of direct confrontations between conservationists and police and loggers. This photo stand out though.

Here we see the power of physical affection to break down barriers. Authority is humanised through love, not further strengthened through the expression of hate. In this one moment caught on film, we see how the ‘pig’ in black and white can become the man with the beating heart. I think in contemplating the issue of climate change today we need to remember this image. Instead of become frustrated with the majority of our fellow citizens lethargy when it comes to becoming carbon neutral, we need to take a deep breath and talk to somebody about the issue you might not normally talk to. Instead of ‘shouting at the idiots for not doing enough’, remember that everybody is, as W. H. Auden said, ‘jealous of their privacy and easily hurt’. Everybody is human. Approach with the sentiment of brotherhood and unity and you’ll get more traction. The best tool in the skill kit of the active conservationist is to find something to love in that man or woman who doesn’t seem to care. And then to draw them forward with gentle prods and hints.

Ok all you young dudes, the hippies who are now in their fifties were right…

one love.

Two French Pastorals

April 11th, 2007


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This is the south-east of France, in the hills north-west of Lyon that drain into the Soane River. At the start of 2001 I stood on a hill here, near the tiny village of St. Cyr le Chatoux. I was alone and I sat down on a grassy bank beside the road, and looked out into the valley before me. This is what I saw. The pastoral quiet and gentle sunshine still rise clearly from my memory.

Monet’s Poppies is a painting familiar to many. Take a look at this new take on that old painting. I saw this image recently and it made me think anew about the concept of pastoral in the rural landscape. The machine in the garden marks a turn for the pastoral idyll of literature past, and this painting is a kind of anti-pastoral spoof of Monet’s pastoral scene.

Australian Company

April 12th, 2007

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This photo is by Geoff Cuningham (published in The Best of Australian Geographic Photography). It is of a velvet gecko pausing on some Aboriginal rock art, and to me it is the perfect symbol of the intimate connection between Aboriginal culture and the natural world on this continent. I consider this to be one of the most memorable Australian nature photographs.

The Aboriginals weren’t saints when it came to environmental sustainability, but they were a lot more attuned to the textures, patterns and forms native to Australia than the Europeans who arrived after them. Part of this came from hunting native animals: the hunter perforce has a deep knowledge of the animals he hunts. Aboriginals also kept Australian animals as pets.

But white Australians can bring Australian life into their homes as well. Michael Archer, author of Going Native, has kept a quoll from infancy in his house, and reports that it makes a better pet than a cat or a dog. The Department of Environment and Conservation in Western Australia has, over the last few years, legalised the keeping of lizards, so that you can now have even a big monitor lizard. In the next few years they will hopefully get around to legalising the keeping of marsupials such as quolls. If a native pet industry grew up then conservation would have another ally. But more than this we would have little Australians in our houses, bringing us white people closer to having a bioregional consciousness.

With knowledge could come love.

Art and Photography Exhibition in Western Australia

April 19th, 2007

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My friend Dave is opening the doors of the studio in his back garden a week from this Friday. The currently roofless studio – thus the ‘weather pending’ bit above – will be full of art works and photographs of a bunch of local people, including four of my photographs. There will be music and the drinks policy is byo. I hope to see you there.

Galahs and Play

April 22nd, 2007

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This morning I was on my way into King’s Park when I looked up into an old Wandoo tree and saw this galah sitting above me. I stopped and watched him for a while, and took this photo. When I clicked my tongue a bit he became more interested and seemed to engage a bit.

Parrots originated in this part of the world. Cockatoos are part of the parrot lineage, and more than half of all cockatoos come from Australia. We have plenty of hard nuts to crack on our trees, thus the big, powerful beaks of these birds for cracking nuts open. Eolophus roseicapillus is the latin name for this species, but most Australians call them galahs. Australian slang uses the phrase ‘playing the galah’ to indicate that somebody is fooling around, and it is true that these birds love to play (ok, I admit that only salt of the earth Aussies use the term!).

Play is a sign of intelligence, and parrots are amongst the most intelligent of animals. They can live to 80 years old – older than many people! – and they do plenty of stuff in groups. For example, these galahs often keep their fledglings in ‘creches’ of up to a hundred youngsters. An evolutionary history of cooperation like this has helped direct their increasing intelligence. It also means that they readily develop strong relationships with others, be they cockatoo, or be they human.

As I looked up into the tree from a suburban street I saw a stranger, not a friend. But as I looked up into the tree from the street it was salutory to be reminded that another intelligence was looking down at me from the wild, and wondering what the hell I was doing standing there.

Interview with Riley Lee

April 25th, 2007

Listen to a little chat I had recently with Riley Lee on the connection between his music and nature.

This is the first in an infrequent series of podcasts on the arts and the environment.

Way To Go

April 26th, 2007

Roger Short, at a recent conference on science journalism at the University of Melboure, made the point that when we are cremated it has a negative effect on global warming, both because of our bodies becoming carbon dioxide pollution, and because the oven has to be heated up to 850 degrees for an hour and a half and uses massive amounts of fuel. Traditional burials are also no good as the places we use just have grass on them, and no biodiversity.

Smart thinks we should have vertical holes drilled, and we should be lowered down amongst leaves as a kind of padding. And then a tree should be planted over that. Over a century a tree sequesters one metric ton of CO2.

I love Short’s idea, not just because his science is so spot on and because he has thought of an important change for us to make in our burial rituals, but because of the associated symbolism of returning to the ecosystem. Edward Munsch’s painting ‘Metabolism’ springs to mind…

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On Not Coming in from the Rain

April 28th, 2007

Today I really want to share with the world a Mary Oliver poem:

Black Oaks

Okay, not one can write a symphony, or a dictionary,

or even a letter to an old friend, full of remembrance
and comfort. 

Not one can manage a single sound though the blue jays
carp and whistle all day in the branches, without
the push of the wind. 

But to tell the truth after a while I'm pale with longing
for their thick bodies ruckled with lichen

and you can't keep me from the woods, from the tonnage

of their shoulders, and their shining green hair.

Today is a day like any other: twenty-four hours, a
little sunshine, a little rain. 

Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from
one boot to another -- why don't you get going?

For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees.

And to tell the truth I don't want to let go of the wrists
of idleness, I don't want to sell my life for money,

I don't even want to come in out of the rain. 

Clive Hamilton’s Scorcher

May 4th, 2007

Clive Hamilton has been busy digging up the truth on the Howard government’s self-serving response to climate change. He has just published a book in which he brings the truth to the surface. I heard him talk last Wednesday at UWA in Perth.

If you didn’t manage to get your hands on the book or get to a lecture, you can hear Hamilton talk at the University of Sydney a couple of weeks ago.

My favourite quote from the talk: What do you call a climate change sceptic’s think tank? A sceptic tank.

Nuf said.

Goodbye Western Australia

May 10th, 2007

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The other day I was in the belly of a wooden whale: standing in the burnt out core of an ancient tingle with my friend Sunny, looking out like Jonah from the beast. Being here with food, fire, friend, trees, sky, birds, winds, colds, warm suns, being here with the basic elements is good for the soul I’m sure. No advertising to spin you off course. No texting mobile phones to chop up your minutes. No errant knaves, just the knaves of wooden chapels, like the tingle I’m standing within and looking out from the triangular entrance. Sunny wandered off from the tingle, but I stayed within, looking closely at the breaches in the trunk where light and spiders webs coalesced.

All of a sudden the sound of Sunny’s bamboo pipe echoed through the Valley of the Giants. The high and delicate notes came to my ears through the maze of green leaves and came muffled by the wooden buttresses to my sides, but they came as if from the loci genus, the spirit of the place.
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This morning I’m leaving Western Australia. My recent time in the forests of the south (where I took some new photographs which have been added to my gallery) was a bidding farewell to this place. I’m about to travel around the world, going today to Coffs Harbour, and then to New Zealand on Tuesday, and hence Samoa, North America, Europe, Bali and back to Perth. I’m going to put some of the dates of my travels on the front welcome page of this website if you’re interested.

Along the way I’ll be updating this blog, when I get the chance.

I’m about to go to some strange places, but everywhere I go I feel that the biosphere is my home.

Dorrigo National Park and Memories of Oscar and Lucinda

May 13th, 2007

I’m sitting in a cafe in Bellingen, a small country town on the Belliger River in north-east N.S.W. This morning I paddled a kayake with my friend James up the Belliger River, and as I did so I remembered Peter Carey’s novel Oscar and Lucinda, the final scenes of which are set on this river. Oscar is taking a church made of glass up the river on a barge to Bellingen. The year is around 1880, and the town he is trying to take this church to is one of the first pioneering town’s outside Sydney. Oscar is an idealist and a dreamer and the impracticality of these attributes in the Australian wilderness is represented by the heat pounding down upon him as he sits inside the now cracking glass house by himself. As the barge moves up the river Carey talks of how the white colonists saw only looming trees and failed to percieve that the land about them was thick with stories and myths, belonging to the Aboriginal culture. This morning as I pushed my way up the river with my paddle I didn’t even see banks thick with trees: in 2007 the banks of this river are mainly cleared for cattle. Oscar dies in this place, and this great Australian novel ends with a fatalistic view of white settlement on this continent. But throughout the final pages of the novel, and the final scenes of the film of the same name, I think the beauty of this part of the central east coast of Australia comes through.

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This is Dorrigo National Park, just up the hill from where I sit and write this in Bellingen.

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The subtropical rainforest, beneath the canopy. The central east coast rainforest reserves of Australia are the largest areas of subtropical rainforest on earth.

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The humidity in the forest is very high, and the air is cool as we’re at about 800 metres.

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I can say that my time in these hills was happier than Oscar’s.

New Zealand’s South Island: The View From the Highlands

May 17th, 2007

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I flew over from Sydney on an Air New Zealand plane a couple of days ago and looking beneath me I saw the Southern Alps, with their empty, wide, brown valleys, and craggy peaks. A man from flat and olive coloured Western Australia finds himself in tall mountains, and his soul swoops up with the crests of the snow dusted summits. Honestly.

I stayed in Geraldine, a small town at the foot of the moutains, on the first night. The next morning I stepped outside to see giant sequoias growing in the Geraldine camp ground where our wee white cabin stood. The air was cold and crisp, and the air was still and bright. This evening I’m staying in an old farmhouse just outside Twizel, up on a spacious plateau in the moutains. The fire warms the sitting room, but otherwise it is pretty cold in the evenings, if the days are surpringly warm. The land is dry here, after a long dry summer, and not nearly as green as last time I was in New Zealand one November.

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The rivers run cold and clear over grey pebbles.

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The colour of the water comes from some mineral – silica I think – suspended in the glacial melt.

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Light and shadow battle it out.

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Tomorrow is my birthday – I’m turning 29 – and I’m happy to say that I’ll be staying at Kinloch Lodge (there is a link to the place on my links page, under places), a beautiful place north of Queenstown. If anybody wants to ring me, you can use the number on my welcome page, or use the number of Kinloch on their web page.

And yes, the view from this rock was pretty good.

Deep in the Valley

May 21st, 2007

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I’ve been at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu, near Queenstown, for the last few days. I thought Western Australia was young when it came to the arrival of the white skinned folk, but they didn’t get to New Zealand till around 1840, and to this valley till around 1860. More than other places I’ve been, Western civilization is a fledgling creature.

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Red beech bark…

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A bold visitation from a miromiro? If you know what this bird is let me know. I and another photographer were walking through the beech wood on Saturday morning when this little fellow decided to pose for us. He came within five centimetres of my ankles, and then jumped on this fungi covered log, when I took this shot.

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Kinloch Lodge’s view over the water… We’re at about four hundred metres here and those mountains are about two thousand metres tall. The light falls over the tussock grasses and tumbles down through storm clouds, and there is literally a different mountain every ten minutes to look at.

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Colours of the forest floor…

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The road to Kinloch…

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Beechwood is found deep in the valley, and goes up to 1150 metres, at which point the alpine tussock grasses take over. With the coming of climate change the beech woods will literally be – and already are – marching up the mountain sides in New Zealand.

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Tonight I’m in Te Anau, and tomorrow I’m going on a boat on Milford Sound, a fiord in the wilderness.

Imagination and Reality at Milford Sound

May 23rd, 2007

Yesterday I, and an English guy I picked up hitchhiking made our way to Milford Sound, in the bottom south-west corner of New Zealand. The route into the sound is through steep valleys covered in beech forests and alpine grasses. The amount of water falling from the sky around here is seriously large, and when it isn’t raining all this water tumbles down cascades and waterfalls, like this one…

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After making our way through a tunnel through the guts of a vast grey, rocky mountain which looked like a war-lord’s castle, we came down in altitude to the sound.

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Here you stand at sea level, and look up to cliffs and peaks that shoot up vertically to two thousand metres. With all this grandeur it can be easy to forget the smaller details…

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Going out on a boat on Milford Sound was strange. Everywhere you look the scale of the cliffs and the lush hanging gardens on the cliffs, seems implausible. Another boat passes by a waterfall on the other side of the sound, and you realise how an otherwise quite large vessel is made to look like a grain of sand at the base of the waterfall. The boat came up to the face of the cliff at many points and upon looking upwards at the falling water and clinging trees I had the feeling that this was hardly real. A baroque reality.

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After going out to the Tasman Sea the boat turned around and we faced the entrance. I imagined being a lost sailor and coming to this shore, not knowing this was New Zealand. What would I think? I’d scarcely believe that this amalgam of something out of Rober Louis Stevenson and Samuel Taylor Colderidge was actually planet earth.

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Standing in the Sound and looking around the ampitheatre the hardest thing to fathom is that there are 13 other sounds, very much like this. Now that knowledge really makes one feel insignificant.

This morning I’m in Queenstown and today I’m heading down out of the high country, down to Geraldine, and hence to Samoa tomorrow.

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Letter from Samoa

May 28th, 2007

I’ve now been on Samoa for four days. Samoa consists of a couple of small islands in the South Pacific, not far south of the equator, and about 180 thousand Samoans. I’ve been staying with a friend who is working for an aid program of the Australian government, Ausaid, in the capital, Apia.

This place is really a land unto its own. Despite having had a New Zealand administration from 1914 to the sixties, English is not understood by everybody, and Samoan is most assuredly the language of the land. ‘Saaa Moa’…. pronounce it that way, and do so with a deep voice and an air of brusque finality and you’ll sound like an insider. My lips had been cracked and almost bleeding from the dry, cold air of New Zealand, but within minutes of stepping out of the plane they felt ok again and rehydrated. The air is sopping with humidity here and the temperature is always in the high twenties. Apia is a small town for a capital, and the place has a dilapidated air, perhaps prematurely aged from the tropical conditions. Faded Coke signs are here and there, and taxis crawl down the high street. Leaving uncharasmatic Apia, you head into the suburbs, which here are just villages which join up on the edges. Lots of space and virulent greenery. Except in the middle of town there are no pavements, and the seemingly blithe indifference shown by the motley strollers to oncoming traffic is surprising. School boys walk along wearing skirts, which all the men wear here. Older men are generally fat, except if they are playing sport, in which case they are very athletic. The taro, chicken, pork, cream and Vailima (the local beer), with no shortage of deep fried options, is the die (not to forget the great tropical fruit everywhere growing), and beyond bok choy greens are a rarity. As you pass around where I’m staying there are hedges, stray dogs, lots of churches, breadfruit, mango and papaya trees. The men generally seem to be quite macho, and the way that you communicate here seems to be, well for the men, speaking in short bursts and deep tones in a way which is subconsciously perhaps intended to express their control of the situation.

I’m sleeping under my tripod with a mosquito net I brought with me draped over the top of it – National Geographic journalists on location eat your heart out! I have yet to have the courage to do much photography of the people here, but that will come. For the time being here are three photos of the island. This is the real Samoa as far as I’m concerned anyway, not Apia. I have a mobile number here also: 7582361 (you’ll have to find Samoa’s area code also).

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The south side of the main island, Upolu, looking eastwards.

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Everybody wears colourful shirts with flowers on them… perhaps this kind of thing was the inspiration.

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There is only one road that crosses the centre of the island. Here I stand looking southwards. Lots more photos to come!

Bringing Progress to Polynesia: The Gradual Loss of Samoa’s Forests

May 30th, 2007

Samoa is made up of two main islands, Upolu and Savaii (you pronounce Savaii like you pronounce Hawaii). Upolu is where the capital is, and where most people live. It is about 70 kms from east to west, and about 30 kms wide. The islands have some rare wood pigeons and flying foxes, and plenty of species of native rainforest trees still growing up in the mountains. The pigeons act as the dispersal agents for the seeds of some of these rainforest trees, so if the pigeons go (and they are hunted for food), the trees will go. If the trees go the pigeons will lose their nesting places and food sources, so they will go.

Although this island has green everywhere you look, nature does have some troubles. The four pictures below (from Samoa: Mapping the Diversity, R. Gerard Ward and Paul Ashcroft, Suva: University of the South Pacific 1998) show how much forest has been chopped down in the last fifty or so years. The centre of both the islands is full of mountains, and it is for this reason that the forest remains in the centre of the islands. These uplands have a much higher rainfall, lower hours of sunshine and temperature, steeper slopes and poorer soils than the lowlands. So like many places in the world, nature hangs out and hangs on where the ground is too steep for humans to grow stuff on it.

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The two pictures below are of the main island – home to the capital and where most Samoans live. Witness the even greater change between the fifties and the eighties on Upolu.

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From the mid 1950s to the late 1980s the amount of forest on Samoa went from 74 per cent of its land area to 55 per cent. Before Europeans arrived here the population was stable and forest regeneration was allowed to happen as they moved their root crops from one area to another. Then along come the white folks…

The Germans and then the Kiwis encouraged the expansion of cash crop production: coconuts, cocoa and bananas. This combined with the clearing places on the edge of the forest to plant taro, and a rising population from the 1920s onwards, saw the forest retreat. New roads now aided the clearing of the land for agriculture. The high rate of clearing slumped a little when there was a collapse in the export trade of bananas in the 1960s. But then by the 1970s there were Samoans living in New Zealand and Samoa started exporting taro for their taste preferences overseas, and this continued the high rate of clearing. The introduction of the Taro Leaf Blight in 1993 destroyed this export trade, and some former taro growing land has regenerated.

Then there was the change in tenure practices. Land was traditionally controlled through the title of the matai (chief), but more and more people have tried to control land as individuals. The act of clearing a bit of land traditionally gave you ownership of it, so people have tried to clear land to get land for themselves.

So on Samoa in the late 1980s forest loss was 2 per cent per year – about the same rate as the loss of tropical rainforests worldwide. Unlike other parts of the world, only a small amount of this loss comes from logging for timber. There has been some, but by 1992 only 14 per cent of the primary forest on Savaii was suitable for logging, and there was none left on Upolu.

So you have to hand it to the champions of Western civilization. Sure there are some sealed roads on the island now, and some hydro-generated electricity, both good things. But the West can be proud at having brought Samoa export trades and a dash of selfish individualism which in combination have gradually skinned the lowlands of their nation. I was hoping to be able to walk around some flat, lowland rainforest with big old trees, but that isn’t too easy nowadays.

Robert Louis Stevenson and Austin’s Bedroom

May 30th, 2007

In case you don’t know him, Robert Louis Stevenson was a Scottish writer from the nineteenth century who wrote many poems, travel books and novels, including Treasure Island. He loved language, and his poetic turn of phrase is obvious even in his fiction. He also loved adventure, and this combination of a love of language and adventure made his books quite popular in their time. He travelled to beautiful places in France and America in a time when a British gentleman travelled in style, and there were some very stylish places to travel to. Travel was also a more serious undertaking in those days; as he writes on chartering a ship accross the Pacific: the vessel ‘ploughed her path of snow accross the empty deep, far from any hand of help’.

Stevenson was a small man with a big nose, and long dark hair. At the age of forty or so Stevenson moved with his wife and her children to Upolu, the main island of Samoa, just up the hill from where I’m writing now. He built a lovely white, wooden-boarded, two-story house next to a steep hill which overlooks Apia. He had health problems throughout his life, and he died in this house four years later. The house has in the last ten years or so been restored to more or less how it looked when the family lived in it over a hundred years ago. Walking through it you could imagine blinking and having Robert or Fanny stroll into the room to proffer a gin or a port, depending on the hour of the evening. I have to admit that I appreciated the light elegance of the stylish English nineteenth century after being in the chaotic downtown Apia just down the road.

In some parts of this island there really is a Treasure Island aesthetic. Look for yourself.

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On the south side of the island there are secret coves which could be approached over the fringing reef, beneath billowing cumulus clouds.

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Here I and a couple of friends found an ocean trench, a deep hole in the ground close to the shoreline into which the ocean ebbs and flows under the ground through caves and tunnels.

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This open roofed cave is like a ten metre deep and thirty metre wide natural bath tub, with a sandy bottom beneath a couple of metres of fresh sea water. After climbing down a ladder into the water, with a slightly cooler temperature, ferns hanging off the dark rock walls, one’s voice bouncing off the surfaces with an errie echo, and then having a couple of errant coconuts bobbing by in the lambent blue twilight, I truly felt like a character out of an R. L. Stevenson novel. This would have to be my best moment so far in Samoa, and it was a moment when I said to myself ‘no wonder Stevenson settled on this island for the last few years of his life.’

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This is the man’s study, on the second story of his house, surrounded by a spacious verandah over which refreshing sea breezes would flow to cool the brow of a toiling scribbler.

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Doesn’t Upolu’s southern coast just look like a scene out of a pirate-festooned book or film?

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This is the room of Austin, the son of Fanny, Stevenson’s wife. Stevenson’s fiction is adept at imaginatively performing the struggle for survival in the wilds of nature, and maybe in this way it speaks to that aspect of the young adventurer inside of many men. On the little mountain besides the house the man is buried and on his tomb reads the inscription: ‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea/ And the hunter home from the hill.’

Young boys have this spirit of adventure in nature – I know I did – and in this way I found Austin’s bedroom to be, ironically, the most R. L. Stevenson room of any room in the house.

Heaven and Hell in a Humid Nation

June 2nd, 2007

A few weeks ago before leaving Western Australia to start my journey eastwards I watched a film from the eighties called The Bounty, a reenactment of Captain William Bligh’s journey through the Pacific in the late eighteenth century. In one of the early scenes from the film, the well trimmed English vessel leaves the mouth of the Thames with its full compliment of square-rigged canvas sails billowing in a fresh breeze. The open, white sails signified ‘the journey out’ for me at this point in my life. After all I too was headed for the South Pacific. The crew of the ship mutiny upon arriving in the Cook Islands and being faced with the beauty of the place, the fecundity of the natural world and the swaying, gorgeous and semi-naked Polynesian women all around them.

Well, now I’m in the South Pacific, guess what? It isn’t all quite like that.

Now my opinion is that living in Samoa is a combination of the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ll start with the negatives: nobody is ever on time, shops provide, as the Lonely Planet accurately describes it, ‘a nutrition nightmare’, broadband internet isn’t available, potentially dengue fever carrying mosquitoes buzz around you (invading your space and making you feel ill at ease), the language has the abrasive abruptness of many Asian languages to my ears, the national sense of humour sometimes seems to me to have the simplicity I recall from some of the Japanese people I’ve known, and a coterie of frequently aggressive stray dogs wander the streets making every journey on foot potentially dangerous, especially after dark, nobody is on time, I don’t feel like getting any exercise because I’ll get a bit over-heated, and the culture is more religious than the bible belt of the USA. Now for the good stuff: the colours on this island are vivid, be they the greens of the plants, the blue of the sky and the white of the cumulus clouds, or they the red, yellow, or pink lava lavas of the women, and the aloha shirts of the men; nature is fecund; the air is gentle; the basalt rock creates really varied land; even in Apia the suburbs are a collection of brightly coloured houses, each situated on generously sized bits of land covered in the lush green leaves of mango, breadfruit, coconut, papaya trees, with hedges for fences; the water is always warm and full of coral and colourful fish; the people, with their broad faces, and big frames, are often very beautiful… In summary, this place is paradise, but it can also be considered purgatory from certain angles. I don’t want to mutiny and leave the boat.

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Where do people live in Samoa? Not on the colonial verandahs of Robert Louis Stevenson, that’s for sure.

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This is more like it. Fales traditionally had thatch, and many still do, although corrugated iron is more common. Cutting fresh coconut up and sitting, eating it, in a fale by the ocean seems to much of a tourism brochure cliche, but many rural people here would see such a lovely vantage point as normality.

I’m in the village (Apia has linked ‘villages’, not suburbs) of Vavasi Utu, staying with a couple of Australian Youth Ambassadors (people in their twenties or thirties I think, who come to the South Pacific or south-east Asia to work in voluntary positions for a small wage paid by the Australian government). Their house is provided for them, and nearly all the houses around here are surrounded by a good variety of tropical fruit trees.

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Driving around the island you keep seeing people, and not just the old folks and solitary sheet farmers travelling past at 110kms/hour in white utes, familiar from the Australian bush. No, young people, middle-aged people, people in the prime of their life. It is strange for a person from a country where ninety per cent of the population is urban to come to one where seventy per cent of the population is rural, but perhaps many third world countries around the equator are like this.

Paradise? Put down that tourist brochure and swat that mossie!

Life in the South Pacific

June 2nd, 2007

After having navigated some snaking roads frequented by pigs, dogs and chickens (yep, second-gear terrain), I’ve seen a few of the shapes and the colours of life in the South Pacific.

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This is how black basalt looks after it gets wet.

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In the centre of Upolu this fall falls a hundred metres, surrounded by the original forest of the island.

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Going to a beach around Samoa usually entails paying a couple of bucks to the locals. I have to say I’m not a big fan of the idea that a trip to the outdoors should cost money.

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A breadfruit trees leaves on the right (and is that a mango on the left?).

White Man Moving Through

June 5th, 2007

I’ve been on Manono for the last couple of days, an island off the western tip of Upolu. Manono has no roads and no dogs. I walked around the island on the one path that goes through banana plants and past coastal villages. Often little kids would see me coming down the path from the vantage point of their parent’s fale and start shouting out to their friends: ‘Palangi! Palangi! Palangi!’ Palangi means white man. I tried to imagine an African American walking down a street in Australia while my kids ran out onto the front porch crying ‘Black man! Black man! Black man!’ Couldn’t do it.

Anyway, here are some images to lodge in my memory…

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The leaf of Samoa’s favourite fruit.

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Looking up to my fale’s ceiling, beauty was in the eye of the beholder.

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I talked to a bee keeper in Samoa and he told me that in the past the majority of flowering plants would bloom in September or two or three weeks on either side of then. Well for the past ten years or so he has noticed that the blooms can be two or three months on either side of September. He suspects global heating is the cause. Other impacts of climate change on Samoa include increased frequency and intensity of cyclones. The ocean in the tropics is like a pot on the stove full of hot water. Turn up the heat just a little and the activity at the surface can become pretty turbulent. When a cyclone does arrive this translates into onslaughts of wind and water that can knock everything on the island flat.

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That’s the rim of former volcanoe on the left – Apolima.

Goodbye Samoa. After coming from the bare, tussock-covered hills of Central Otago in New Zealand, I’ve found my way to the azure waters and rioting rainforest of Samoa. Quite a transition. Tonight a red-eye special, and tomorrow evening the concrete towers of downtown San Francisco. This kind of fast forward travel is impressive visually, but it can’t be good for the planet.

Arriving in America

June 8th, 2007

I’ve been in the US for two days. I caught a cold on the plane thanks to a slump in my immunity because of sleep dep, but this morning I’m starting to feel better. This arrival in San Francisco has been bringing up some family related stuff which I won’t go into here, but I can say that I left this place over ten years ago and most of the major events of my adult life fit into the time space between leaving here and arriving back Tuesday night. Seeing downtown San Fran, and seeing Marin County (where I used to live) north of the city, is good after all these years.

Some first impressions of the US…

The cars really are big here – I thought they were big in Australia, but many people drive SUVs here which make Range Rovers look small. The money is paper and grey and green and looks like what you imagine ‘real’ money to look like. African American police officers rocket down the highway in Highway Patrol cars that look like they are out of the movies. Streets often are called ‘Fourth’ or ‘Van Ness’ or ‘Lombard’, without the ‘St.’ afterwards on the sign. The speed limit is 55 miles an hour on the highway and everybody sits at 70 because California voted to do away with speed cameras. Food is reasonably cheap. People pay tips.

After coming from Samoa there are a few things I’m really loving: I can drink water from the tap – what a luxury! There are no mosquitoes! The air is cool and not humid! There are no dogs barking at night or lurking on the street! Ahhh… I’m clearly not cut out for life outside the first world. It is so nice to have healthy, organic food easily available (the health food grocery shops in North California are the best I’ve found anywhere). And so nice to have a few books and paintings and fast internet around in the house where I’m staying. The summer is on here and it is somewhat disorientating and jarring to see young tomatoe plants in people’s gardens and dry grass on the Marin hills at this time of year (when Australia and New Zealand have been dipping into the colder months). Still, I’m adjusting. And even the summer here in this Mediterranean region is a cool relief after the constant warmth of the tropics. In the shadows or in the mornings and the evenings I need a jumper on, which I’m liking. I know much of the wealth of this country that I see around me is paid for by cheap oil and cheap Mexican labour, and I dislike the culture of consumerism here, but I’m happy to have arrived.

Marin County is the area north of the city, just over the Golden Gate Bridge. The few suburbs (towns), such as San Anselmo, Mill Valley, San Rafael and Novato, sit on the eastern side of an area of hills covered in a patchwork of dark leaved oak trees and dry, gold-coloured grass slopes. In many places you can look up from the shops or houses and see the hills – a nice compromise between the urban and the rural. It doesn’t look that opulent to me, but I hear that this is the second wealthiest county in the US. Despite this they all vote for the Democrats. From a British/Australian perspective the people are very American in an ‘irony-deficient’ kind of way, but at least Northern California has attracted a good number of non-conformists (like myself).

I walked through Fairfax yesterday. Comparing it with funky little towns in other parts of the Anglo-saxon, English-speaking realm such as Denmark in WA, Bellingen in NSW, Geraldine in south island New Zealand (well Geraldine isn’t funky)… I like Fairfax. It has the advantage over those other places that in one hour’s travel you can be in the downtown of a big city. Yet like those places it has beautiful nature not far from the high street. Of course the average price of a house here is a million American dollars, so that isn’t so attractive if you wanted to buy a house here I suppose.

Last night I went into City Lights Bookstore in San Fran’s Northbeach. I’ll put some photos up later, but I can say that I wish I always had access to this place! The best poetry section in the upstairs room of any bookshop I’ve been to. And some fast, pulsing jazz on the stereo downstairs.

San Francisco

June 9th, 2007

Here are a few images of the city, taken in a hurry and without any art.

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The good old Golden Gate Bridge. Still going after all those earthquakes.

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Yep, the hills are as stupidly steep as ever, and the rows of white, wooden nineteenth century two story houses are still clinging to them.

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The TransAmerica building still looks good as far as sky scrapers go.

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Step inside City Lights Books Store, the literary capital of Northern California. This place is owned by Lawrence Ferlenghetti the great American poet, and since the fifties when this area was a Beat hang-out, it has been part of the city’s identity. And yes, I like the comment about ‘printer’s ink’ on the wall.

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If you have time, read a couple of Lawrence’s poems on the following page.

In a minute I’m off to visit Muir Woods, a grove of giant redwood trees named after the great conservationist John Muir, and one of the few remaining pockets of redwoods in Marin Country. Hopefully I’ll also go up Mount Tamalpais, or Mt. Tam, the tallish hill that looks over Marin and often has its foothills clothed in the notorious San Franciscan fog. Tomorrow morning I’m off to Big Sur, three hours drive south along the coast, where I’ll briefly visit the retreat centre at one point frequented by Aldous Huxley, Esalen.

Mt. Tam

June 14th, 2007

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These next couple of posts are retrospective – I didn’t have time to go on the internet at the time. The photo above was taken from the top of Mount Tamalpais, or Mt. Tam, the biggest hill in Marin, north of San Fran. The Pacific Ocean is really cold in California – too cold to swim in – and the cold water combined with the hot air from the land combines to create regular fog. Here I’m looking west, over the fog.

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Muir Woods is one of the last patches of old growth redwood near the city. Redwoods have seeds come out from beneath them when they are killed in a fire, and young redwoods, ‘daughter trees’, form in a circle around the old stump. In this way they grown in little circles here and there in the forest.

Esalen and Big Sur

June 14th, 2007

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The embrace of sea, land and air.

Last weekend I went south along the Californian coast to Big Sur, an area of steep cliffs that drop into the sea, where giant kelp groves sway, feisty otters bob about, and the odd condor swings down out of the sky. Esalen is a retreat centre which offers week long courses in yoga, massage, meditation and the like. Aldous Huxley spent some time here many years ago. The place sits on the edge of the American continent, with steep hills behind it and the constant white crumbling waves sloshing over the rocks in the ocean in front. Hot springs come up through the rocks here, and Monterey cypress – that tree with the philosophical and wizened bend in its boughs – grow. I sat on a table outside of the dining area and watched the backs of the swells roll into the bay to my left. You can understand how this place is conducive to transformation of a kind, and why it would attract a utopian mind like Huxley’s.

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Most of the food served – I had the best carrot cake of my life here – is grown on site.

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The lawn rolls to the edge of the cliff and then…

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This is the meditation room. The thermal baths are pretty great for the spirt as well.

While I was in Big Sur I stayed with a family who live up a canyon called Palo Colorado (tall red colour in Spanish, reflecting the tall redwood trees which line the canyon’s floor). One evening we had buffalo for dinner. In the same way that eating kangaroo in Australia amounts to conservation through sustainable use, eating buffalo in the US is something which aids that species ultimate renewal. That night I slept in a large yurt amongst the live oaks of the hillside. Next to me sat the gaunt skull of a buffalo, complete with pointing horns. Buffalo’s famously are supposed to charge oncoming storms rather than run away from them. I could say that I awoke full of buffalo courage in my yurt on the hill, but that would be a lie. I didn’t. I did however find a drum lying in the yurt which turned out to have the skin of a buffalo on it. I hit it and put it up to my ear and easily imagined the hooves of the big bison thumping into the earth of the prairie.

The Home of Robinson Jeffers

June 14th, 2007

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Signpost‘ by Robinson Jeffers is a poem worth a look. Jeffers lived on the Californian coast south of San Francisco and wrote vitriolic verse in the 1920s to 194os. This is a picture of Tor House, the house he built in Carmel, a town I went through last Monday.

Jeffers attracts me for his sense of the greater glory of nature as something which gives needed magnitude and dignity to human experience. However most of the poems in the three very weighty volumes of The Collected Poetry of… (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1989) betray or outright exhibit, an anger at all human society which becomes tiring and a cynicism for the human future which is somewhat depressing. For this reason I don’t return to his work with much enthusiasm – apart from his canonical poem ‘Hurt Hawks’, the poem most people vaguely familiar with his work know.  Thought I’d share the photo of Tor House though.

The Ugly Airport

June 14th, 2007

Ah travel! I’m currently sitting in a departure lounge of the airport at Washington D.C. Yesterday I made my way here after a stupidly early start (I accidentally set my alarm for 2.30am in the morning and couldn’t go back to sleep). The flights to Greenville – where I’m now going to attend the conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment – were cancelled due to severe thunderstorms in the south. After going and prodding the staff of United I discovered this – they were not forthcoming. This was three hours after I was supposed to leave. Then another three and a half hours elapsed as I stood in the line for customer service. Upon getting to talk to somebody I was told that I was rebooked on a flight at noon today and that there were no hotel vouchers. After ringing all the hotels it appeared that the hotels of D.C. were fully booked. I’d now been awake for nearly 24 hours, and the prospect of a hard airport floor was not attracting me. This low point was starting to remind me of the other low points I’ve had on this trip – such as having a red eyed Kiwi sheep farming lad slam into the front of my compact rental car on a road in New Zealand, or getting a cold from sleep dep. Travel sometimes doesn’t seem worth it.

Luckily a distant contact who I managed to phone booked me into the local Hilton somehow and the airport agreed to pay some of the price. So I have actually managed to get a few hours sleep – ah the joys of a hotel bed for a weary wanderer! – and I’m off to the second day of the ASLE conference.

If I have yet to respond to your emails, that is because I’ve only had twenty minutes on the internet to post these few blogs. I’ll do so asap.

Expect more from the ASLE conference soon. I will get there!

ASLE Conference 2007: A Few Comments

June 15th, 2007

It is Thursday afternoon, and I’m sitting in the Roger Miliken Center, a meeting place for the conference goers. I’m feeling a little tired after an early start and loads of conference papers, and its nice to sit and not be spoken at for an hour or two.

So, I’m in the south. The southern drawl in some of the accents is charming and it is nice to have the regional identity of this place come through in people’s voices. I’m enjoying being amongst 500 people interested in literature and the environment, to have a little room to stay in of my own, good food available in the dining room, and a packed schedule of papers and plenary sessions to listen in on. One of the best thing about academic conferences is the sudden invigoration of being able to engage in high-octane intellectual conversations with lots of friendly people, all over the place.

A couple of months ago I said that I would create a podcast of some of the talks in this conference. However in the intervening time the conference organizers decided to do this themselves. Here it is.

This morning I listened to Astrid Bracke talk about environmental concerns in Graham Swift’s Waterland and Martin Amis’ London Fields. It seems Amis had been precient in writing a novel at the end of the eighties which pictured intimations of apocalypse in the violent and confused wheather on London streets at the turn of the millenium. I heard Andrew Hazucha talk about Jane Austen’s Emma as a character who tempers her class prejudices through the development of a landscape asthetic in the novel of the same name. Liam Campbell, from the University of Ulster (one of the very few people at this conference who isn’t North American), talked about ecological augury in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien, mentioning Treebeard’s anti-industrial critique – Saruman has a mind of metal and wheels – and the description of Mordor as mounds of rock standing ‘like an obscene graveyard in the endless rows, slowly revealed in the reluctant light.’ (Twin Towers HarperCollins 1993 p.617) He remarked that one might see humanity as the dark lord of the technosphere, owning one ring, the will to be master of all things. In the sense that elves were once in balance with nature, and that the orks come to be destructive of the natural world, Tolkien is reported as having written to a relative that we humans may in this way become elves in the future. Campbell mentioned a short story by Tolkien called ‘Leaf by Niggle’ in which the painter of a leaf ends up spontaneously drawing a whole tree and then can’t help but paint the whole landscape around the tree. In the same way Tolkien had written of the way in which the ecological concerns in his work were self-propelling energies.

I’ve met the editor of Orion magazine, as well of plenty of teachers and editors in the area of literature and the environment. Tomorrow I’m looking forward to a session on film and ecocriticism. More soon.

More Thoughts From ASLE 2007

June 16th, 2007

Until I arrived here to Wofford College a few days ago I was unfamiliar with the phenomenon of rich private colleges with small student numbers that are unique to the US. Walking around this campus is so relaxing. There are only around a thousand students here. The actual town of Spartanburg isn’t very charasmatic, but being here amongst the nineteenth-century red brick buildings and the massive oak trees in full leaf standing over their carpet of thick green grass… well it seems like these college environments constitute a pastoral idyll all of themselves, with gambling ecocritics on the sward. And I hate to sound like Prince Charles, but give me a moulded cornice any day over a sixties concrete bunker.

There are five hundred people here, but the Australian contingent is made up of only two people. Myself and the co-editor of The Littoral Zone: Australian Contexts and their Writers (CRANSTON, CA. and Robert ZELLER (Eds.) This book is in the same series as my own book on John Fowles, and is forthcoming. Conferences are always good places to learn of books to put on your ‘to read’ list, and I’ve added Terry Gifford’s Reconnecting with John Muir; Bill Mckibben’s Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on the Earth; and Coming Into Contact: Explorations in Ecocritical Theory and Practice (Ingram, et. al.) to my list. Hopefully I’ll be having a look around some of northern New England next week, and because of this I also want to read Bill Mckibben’s book about walking through this area: Wandering Home.

Last night I was out in a pavilion on campus where a bunch of the profs were playing guitar and singing and hanging out – I tried to picture this kind of scene going taking place at a British ASLE conference and couldn’t see it. The English would just be too self-conscious. While I was there I met a woman who will be talking about place-based blogs – like this one I suppose – tomorrow morning. In other conference news, I met a young guy here who has a tattoo on his arm of a maple leaf, as originally drawn by Henry David Thoreau.

After the talks tomorrow morning I’ll be heading off for the weekend to St. Helena Island, and the Penn Center, with around twenty other conference participants, to check out that heartland of Gullah (a kind of African-American slave) culture. Monday afternoon I fly to Montreal.

So long Wofford College…

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A Short Journey in the Deep South

June 19th, 2007

Today is the close of my weekend-long trip with the ASLE conference participants to Helena Island, a large fragment of land just off the coast of South Carolina (south-east USA). I’ve enjoyed this trip to the south, but right now it will also be good to have a break from this country’s huge cars, huge portions of food, permissive gun laws, and America-centric view of the world.

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There were 18 of us on this field trip, mainly academics, and apart from two of us, all North American. Here a few of us sit on the front ‘porch’ of our story house on St. Helena island, watching the light fade in the ubiquitous Spanish moss hanging from the tree branches. That’s David Ingram in the foreground, Londoner and author of Green Screen, a volume of ecocritical film theory and criticism.

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One day we went on a tour of the sounds. This photo was taken as our boat slid along through the waterways of South Carolina’s low country, the area being so named because of its low lying, tide inundated topography. The grasses grow up to the edge of the forest, and then pines and cabbage palms rise up. The climate here is subtropical, and the air is almost as warm and humid as in the tropics. This area was once inhabited by native Americans who made thatch for their shelters from the wide leaves of the cabbage palm. The Spaniards arrived in the early 1600s, but didn’t stay. Pirates used these bays and estuaries as jumping off points to take Incan and Mayan gold-laden ships as they bobbed up the Gulf Stream later in the century. I can’t imagine English pirates careening their galleon on this shore, while armed native Americans flit through the foliage in the background. While we cruised by the marsh grasses and green woods, John Barth’s novel The Sot Weed Factor kept springing to mind. I know it is set further north, in Virginia, but here I was really experiencing the fertility of the eastern seaboard of North America as it appeared to the adventurous and sometimes murderous European flotsam that came here during the 1600 and 1700s.

My sparse knwledge of American history will have to be excused here… The English got over here. Later the revolutionary war ended with the US shaking off the old country. Then there were Africans brought over by rich whites from West Africa and used as slaves. At one point in the early 1800s there were 800 plantations around these immediate islands (6000 whites and 30 thousand black slaves). With such fertile soil and long hours of sunshine the cotton crops shot up and this in combination with the slave labour made the planters so rich that they could fill their estates full of lavish European silver and crystal and extensive libraries. Knowledge and repression side by side… how vile. Then the abolutionist movement arose and the south wanted to be a separate nation… thus the Civil War. We walked through Beaufort, the town which where the cradle of insurgency was located.

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When the Union guys (the north) arrived in town in 1862, three days before all the wealthy planter families had high tailed it down the road in their carriages, leaving the Corinthian columns of their white boarded mansions to the company of the Gullah people, the cultural group of African Americans that had formed in this region.

Notice the big windows in this photo. Climate change is causing sea level rise in the lowcountry – dead cabbage palms could be seen on the shore as a result. Also more intense hurricanes are coming to these parts. And still the air conditioned retirees inside houses like this don’t open the floor to ceiling windows on their ‘porches’ to let in the breeze, as they were designed to do a couple of hundred years ago.
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We went to a church in which the gravestones had been dug up during the civil war and used as operating beds for soldiers (in the hospital temporarily located inside the church). I can’t think of a worse operating table, symbolically speaking. This gravestone has the cabbage palm on it, the state’s emblematic tree. It is a different species, but it looks like the cabbage palm found on Australia’s east coast.

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The Spanish moss on the branches of the Live Oak is my abiding memory of the south. I hope the Gullah people keep ownership of as much of this land as they can, farming it for vegetables as their forefathers have for the last few generations.

Montreal is a Green City

June 22nd, 2007

Ironically living in a city is good for the environment. Dense population clusters facilitate the widespread use of public transport and bikes, and mean water and other things don’t require as much energy to be moved about. But some cities are better than others. I arrived in Montreal on Tuesday, and I think this place is one of the better ones.

I really like this city. It has the brownstones familiar from New York’s Greenwich Village, with iron stairs leading up to the second story, and old trees in full green leaf along the street. Unlike Greenwich Village it is affordable to live here. Odd turrets and elaborate gables top the terrace houses here and there. Black iron fire escapes climb down into the back alleys, where squirrels dodge cats and people stroll. The books have the minimalistic jacket designs of the French publishing industry. People switch backwards and forwards between French and English, both with a slight American slant. The windows of the apartment I’m staying in have the old, white sliding bolt design used in old French apartments. The air is warm and lots of people are on the street.

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Bikes adorn the railings in front of nearly all the houses in this area, Mile End. Everywhere I go in Montreal the street is wide and full of cyclists. They have installed very wide, two-way cycle lanes – as big as another lane on the road – on a few one-way streets. I saw literally fleets of cyclists shooting down these lanes.

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Often people have vegetable gardens in their narrow front yards. There is a funky, community orientated feeling, familiar to me from Brunswick St. in Melbourne.

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I’m happy to be here. In some ways this city is the place I can most imagine myself living out of all the places I’ve been so far on this trip. That said, I’m looking at the place in late June when all the windows and doors – like our back door in the above photo – are open and heat is in the streets. In January minus ten celcius is merely average and more snow falls than in a Moscow winter. I don’t know how I’d cope with that. But right now I really like this place. It has a cool, urban feeling, and doesn’t have the cultural arrogance to think it is the centre of the world (I think us Australians and Canadians share this sense of cultural humility).

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Sitting on the Metro, reading the program of the soon to come Montreal Jazz Festival. As part of the festival I’m going to see the Cinematic Orchestra on 5 July. If you don’t know them, have a listen. They are sounding quiet and romantic on their latest album Ma Fleur.

Tribute to George Seddon, Writer on Australian Nature

June 23rd, 2007

A few weeks ago I recorded and podcasted a chat I had with George Seddon on my back verandah in Fremantle, Western Australia. He lived six or seven houses away from me, in another old, limestone house in central Freo. Now and again he’d come over for a cup of tea, and a talk about our mutually shared bioregion, and matters to do with culture and the environment. More than any other person in Fremantle, perhaps even more than any other person in the whole of the country, George was a wealth of knowledge when it came to the geological and biological identity of south-western Australia, and Australia more broadly. He loved to talk, and had a cultured accent, and a measured, yet good humoured approach to conversation. He’d written a large number of books and articles, something he didn’t mind letting people know about.

A couple of days later I bumped into George on the street walking up the street next to the playing field around the corner from our houses (below John Curtin high school). George always seemed a bit frail and preoccupied. We exchanged a few words, and said goodbye – he touched me on the shoulder in a rare show of physical affection. Three or four days later George died.

There were things that irritated me about George. Mainly his seeming lack of interest in the doings of others – most of his conversation was about himself, and his lack of humility when it came to talking about his own academic achievments – he was always telling me about various articles and books he’d published. We had different interests as well: he was much more interested in the scientific details of the natural world than I am, and had less of a clear interest in fighting environmental destruction. However, despite this I feel sad that I will never be able to walk around the corner and talk to George again. The finality of death has served to emphasise all that I did admire about the man and his intelligence. Through his books he more than anybody else has taught me about my home place, the soils and plants of the Swan Plain around Perth. Being 80 years old he was a bridge for me with the past. I feel like I’ve thought, read and lived a fair amount, but when George was my age it was the late 1950s! He carried a lived knowledge of a lot of the twentieth century to our conversations in 2007.

Back to the U.S.A.

June 25th, 2007

Today I’m heading down over the Canadian border into the US, to New York State and Vermont, for a few days camping with a friend. All going well we will get down as far as Concord and pay our respects at Walden Pond, the location of Henry David Thoreau’s famous book.

I’m hoping that while camping beside a lake in the Adirondacks or in the farming country of Vermont I’ll hear the low, baleful call of a loon (a kind of bird) as did Thoreau over a hundred and fifty hears ago. Check this space in a week from now and you’ll find out about my trip.

The Adirondacks to Vermont

June 28th, 2007

I don’t have time to write this blog right now, but I’ll expand on the comments below when I get back to Montreal on Friday or Saturday.

I’ve just come down from Montreal, through the Adirondacks briefly, and into Vermont, the most rural state in the US. This place is pretty harsh in winter, but at the moment I have to say this is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I’m not going to make it to Walden Pond after all – too far – but this evening I’m heading to another pond in the wilderness – where loons are to be found. Finding one’s own ‘Walden Pond’ is much more in the spirit of the man anyway. And I’m in the right place to do so.

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Standing on Mt. Joe in the north-east of the Adirondacks. The spruce, and white pine and hemlock blend with the birch trees, and carpet the mountains every which way you look.

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One evening in southern Vermont I saw a fly fisherman cast his silvery line beneath one of Vermont’s famous covered bridges.

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American beech… more soon.

Right Inhabitation in Vermont

July 1st, 2007

‘I hate a man who skins the land.’

Franklin D. Roosevelt said that, many years ago. This last week I was camping at Townshend State Park in southern Vermont and I noticed this lovely old stone retaining wall.

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I asked the ranger about it, and he told me it had been built in the 1930s by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a government program for unemployed young men during the depression. I remembered learning in my high school history classes about this initiative of FDR, and the way in which the CCC had built many state park facilities, as well as planting lots of forests around the country. FDR was a great president, the greatest conservationist president ever. ‘I hate a man who skins the land.’ When he found out that he was the next president of the USA he had just been called down from a hike up a mountain in the Adirondacks. The mud from the mountain trail was still clinging to his boots when he was given the news. It was good to see this small but pleasing legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps in Townshend State Park.

I grew more and more tired of seeing American flags draped off the front of people’s homes as we wound through the wooded valleys of Vermont. They’re everywhere to the extent that not flying one would look like an act of rebellion. But on a more positive note, I can report that the number and quality of state parks – places which have a camping ground and an area of protected land – in New England is very impressive. This system of protected areas and camping grounds must be the best in the world, or one of the best.

I loved the first night of the trip in Meadowland state park, near Lake Placid. The gentle floor of fallen pine needles, the deep green maze of maple and coniferous forest stretching out a few metres from the tent. The grey clouds floating slowly over the mountains and the valleys, valleys on the other sides of the mountains around us that you just knew were devoid of humanity, and only busy with the activities of other life forms. The tiny, striped chipmunks chattering and chirping and running up to our ankles. As I lay in my sleeping bag that night I thought of the tall, wooded Adirondacks leaning in above me, all around me, and I felt safe and contented.

Coming down out of the Adirondacks into the Champlain Valley and north-eastern Vermont was a clear transition between bioregions. From the tall hills (mountains, but without the craggy majestic peaks you might hitch to that word), down to the lake and then the horizon opens on the other side into open, very green and very pastoral space. The air was hot. Haze hung over the hills. We went to the south of Vermont where we were back in wooded valleys, but this time without the strongly coniferous and mountainous feeling of the Adirondacks – this was the Green Mountains. This place is very beautiful. There is seemingly endless woods, with a white, wooden boarded nineteenth century house here and there along the road. We swam in a river and the water flowed over the skin with a cool, refreshing feeling. The architecture is like the Etruscans of ancient Italy, it is lovely, but won’t last for hundreds of years like stone architecture – and that transience adds to its charm.

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I read Wondering Home, Bill Mckibben’s book about walking through this area. He lives in Vermont and loves the place. As he walks he visits little organic farmers, sustainable forestry projects, and maple syrup farms, suggesting that this is one of the best places in the world where restrained and humane inhabitation on the land is concerned. I have to say I didn’t see that on my journey through the state, but then I was there only briefly and didn’t investigate deeply. It kind of makes sense though, considering that, along with northern California, Vermont was one of the key places where the American hippy back-to-the-land types of the 1960s and 1970s moved out from the cities to settle in. In Vermont you’re in a rural arcadia of sorts and it is hard to imagine that only three hours or so by car away is downtown New York.

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Solitude on a Waldenesque Pond

July 1st, 2007

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That’s quite like what Thoreau would have seen as he walked down to the edge of Walden Pond.

It was going to take too long to get to Walden Pond, so here we were, camping among the trees five metres or so from the edge of a pond I imagine is just like Thoreau’s home. In fact this may be more in the spirit of ‘going to Walden’, than actually going to Concord woods, as here in the central eastern side of Vermont I’m in a much more remote valley than the ‘wilderness’ Henry sat himself down in in the 1850s. Sitting reading a book I looked up at one point one morning and suddenly felt how calmly beneficent the combination of plants and water and warmth is here. All of a sudden I really understood that passage in Walden where he writes of recovering from a bout of loneliness and about feeling that he was surrounded with life forms that provided relief amid the solitude. I think the reason Thoreau wrote that was partly the unmistakably benign nature of the plants and animals in this bioregion of north-east America in this summer season. A wooded, wild lake edge in New England in June has soft bird calls, or beautiful loons singing. It has little flowers and deep green grass. Birch, alder, maple, oak, beech. Green leaves that are broad, and most of all, rich in chlorophyll. The leaves are as green as green can be.

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(The American beech, Fagus Grandiflolia, which is different to the European beech and very different to the southern beech of Australia and New Zealand, Nothofagus.)

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No wonder Thoreau felt at home deeply and given good company by nature – he was in a place like this. You can learn to love more arid places on the earth – look at Edward Abbey’s love for the American desert in Desert Solitaire, or my own love of the south-west of Australia. But it is hard to find a more obviously benign environment for humans to live in as this Walden-esque, New England lake edge in June.


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Maple leaves. I just had some of the sap from this kind of tree on my morning muesli, and it was delicious.

Tribute to a Long Lived Bowhead

July 2nd, 2007

Around six weeks ago a Bowhead whale was caught off the coast of Alaska. Inside was found the remains of a lance bomb, an explosive harpoon head. Knowledge of this weapon shows that the whale had last been attacked around 1890. Using knowledge of the rate of decay of the lens inside the eye of the whale, as well as the age of the lance bomb, the whale was estimated to be around 120 years old. Some Bowhead whales are thought to live as long as two hundred years, so this whale could have lived decades longer. When I heard this bit of news yesterday my imagination was fired.

Tribute to a Long Lived Bowhead

Singing through deep, icy blue space, while the author of Moby Dick lay on his death-bed.

Engulfing a great cloud of krill, while Australia became a nation.

Crashing down out of the sky in sport, while the Depression washed over the Western nations.

Drifting slowly past an Artic ice pack, while jazz was invented.

Taking a leisurely draft of oxygen through the blowhole, while Britain introduced rationing.

Finding a baleen lover, while my grandparents had their first and only child together.

Growing old and wise, long before my own conception as a human being was credible.

Watching the Bowheads become strong again in numbers, after the IWC banned commercial whaling in 1982.

Diving deep into the blackness, while humanity decided to use the atmosphere as a sewer, and digital technology went online.

Finally, in 2007, facing a human with a harpoon again.

Facing blood and extinction a second time.

Death.

Know that even now, drifting in sequestered blue, the brothers and sisters of this fifty ton being are going to see more suns set than you.

Know that all the details you call modern, all the details of our ‘twentieth century’, are rounded by the life of one Bowhead whale.

I’ve read the news and I feel a fresh breeze in my room.

Goodbye Montreal

July 7th, 2007

I’ve now left Montreal, and I feel a bit sad about it. So, in retrospect, I’m going to go on a little bike ride, camera in hand, through the city.

First some info. It is the second biggest French speaking city in the world after Paris – 3.6 million people. But the city is bilingual – you can speak French of course, but when you get tired or are unable to express a fine philosophical point, you could lapse into English and be understood pretty well. How nice for an English speaker like myself! The city is far inland, but has a big, wide river running past it – the St. Lawrence river – and has a large, wooded hill in its centre – Mt. Royal. I’d miss the ocean if I lived here. But then you do have the arcadia of the Adirondacks/the Champlain valley just south of here into the US, an hour and a half hours in a car away.

When you go up Mt. Royal and look down you can see downtown…

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But if you go north-east from downtown the Plateau and Mile End the area becomes more residential, but in a cafe frequented, community fostering, urban kind of way. Old three up brick apartment buildings line the streets.

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Here I begin my ride at the bottom of the stairs from the apartment I was staying in…

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The trees in this area are one of the things I like about it…

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Going down St. Viateur, past bagel bakeries and organic supermarket, people are all over the place, in cafes and on the pavement. The density of living spaces means more people about, and fewer cars in action. Even without the environmental virtues of this scenario, this kind of urban environment – lightened by the street trees – appeals to me over the semi-isolation of living in the well-spaced Australian suburbs. Even more, you don’t feel cramped here on the wide streets of this new world city as you might in the similarly busy streets many old European capitals.

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When you have a bike in a new city somehow you feel less of a tourist, and more a part of the place – even if you’re riding a vintage road bike like this creaking contraption.

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The Montreal Jazz Festival brings out everybody, young and old.

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Saskatoon berries, a native food formerly eaten by the American Indians. One night I and a couple of friends picked them off somebody’s front garden tree and brought them back to the apartment for desert. Food is generally very cheap in Montreal, a meal out often costing say eleven dollars (Canadian and Australian dollars are about the same). Rent is also cheap – you could live in this area and share an apartment with one or two other people and pay $100 a week, or a little more.

So I really like Montreal. I’m just not sure about the winters. I’m not sure I could handle being inside for so many months of the year… But as a new worlder from one of the non-superpower nations I relate well to the unspoken sense here that we are not the centre of the world, and we are not stuck in our cultural ways. One of the differences I like compared to Australia is that the culture here is probably more open to the arts and ideas in some ways than the still slightly anti-intellectual legacy evident in Oz (I may be wrong on this point – let me know if you disagree).

I hope I’m back in this part of the world soon!

Hallo Oxford

July 8th, 2007

Well I’m in England. Oxford is a little over an hour on the bus from Heathrow, and as I rolled along the highway the land I saw on either side seemed so domesticated after the woods of New York and New England. I felt a sense of dissatisfaction with the natural world here, as though the density of people in southern England had robbed it of its glory.

But I’m in Oxford, and there are other things to appreciate apart from nature. Here is what you’ll see when you look through the main gate of many of the ancient Oxford colleges: the ‘quad’. The noise of the high street dims and the calm of the scholar’s sanctuary takes over.

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This afternoon I had an interesting meeting. I was wondering around Oxford by myself. Walking past New College I poked my head through the main gate, and noticed a ‘no visitors’ sign. Ignoring this with casual trepidation, I walked onwards into the college grounds. Rounding a building I came on a lawn, with some pretty flower beds on one side. A few students were hanging out on the lawn and one of them asked me if I was a photographer. We got to talking and they offered me a glass of sparkling wine.

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Tim, on the left, and John, on the right, are English, while Daniel, in the centre is American. We had a jovial argument about the advantages of American and Australian accentless meritocracy over the system of inherited prestige in some parts of Britain, along with plenty of other stuff, and they invited me over to Keeble College later that evening to continue the talking and drinking (Oxford University is a collection of colleges where students live and study).

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Here is John in his common room, playing the gentleman at ease.

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We went up on the roof of one of the buildings to hang out, and the Victorian brickwork of Keeble glowed quietly beneath us.

There will be more about arriving in England tomorrow.

Post-script…

Ok, I’ll admit that the evening was a bit more eventful than that. There were a bunch of us at Keeble that night getting a bit drunk. About three in the morning or so somebody had the idea of running around the main quod of Keeble college stark naked. Everybody did it. Yep, everybody.

Picturing the Modern Era in Britain

July 9th, 2007

Oxford is a city of 136 thousand people, about 60 miles from London. This place is an old don in a modern scene. Today I stood in the middle of the High, and looked towards Queens College. What would I have see if I had stood here in the 1920s, I wondered?

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Well, let’s see…

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Wow, all of a sudden I’m not swirling in a turbulent sea of 14 year old French and Spanish school kids, and there are dapper gents in well creased slacks enjoying the spaciousness of their street corner!

In the last thousand years only two new roads have been built in Oxford. The High Street of Oxford was not designed for enormous metal vehicles. I am an advocate for the environmental benefits of public transport, but if you stand in the middle of this road – Oxford’s High Street – today you’ll have such things obscure your view and brush past your coat tails. Streets in Canada, the US and Australia and the rest of the New World, were built more recently. Medieval road design does not figure in our daily experience, and there is a lot more space on our pavements as a result.

So here is what you’ll see today standing in the middle of the road:

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Now let’s go up the road a bit, past that spire you can see in the picture above, to Queen St. And let’s wind back the clock to 1907. What shall we see?

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What do I see today?

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Hmm… Blank concrete, nylon sportsware and multinational temples of commerce. Get me out of here!

Let’s go over to Broad Street to get away from all the people. And let’s go back even further in history this time, to 1875.

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Sure there would have been plenty more carts here on market day, but for now peace reigns.

Ok, back to the future.

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Britain, and the world as a whole, has changed a lot in the last hundred years. One of those changes has been an increase in noise and ugliness on the High streets of the Commonwealth.

In response I suggest we all recite the Chap Manifesto. Could classic style be an act of revolution on the streets of 2007?

An Obscured View From an Ivory Tower

July 9th, 2007

Today I saw this gargolye at New College, Oxford. Its veiled features got me thinking about the way in which universities are not always awake and alert to the reality of an era of environmental crisis.

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During the Second World War our governments put much of the professorial brain power within the universities to work on research that was relevant to the war effort. This redirection in the core mission of the university was temporary, and after the war things returned to normal. In 2007 we are faced with a window of ten or so years within which to restrain our carbon economy, or face the deaths of hundreds of millions of people and the permanent extinction of around half the species of life on planet earth. I would suggest that such a situation would be well termed a crisis. I would suggest that such a situation asks for, among other things, the channeling of the intellectual efforts of our university research sector into dealing with this threat. It is true that research into ‘sustainability’ issues is a major research priority in many countries, particularly Britain thanks to the Labour government. However, has the academic world as a whole truly woken up to the magnitude of the climate crisis? Are universities being put on a ‘war-time’ footing? No. Look upwards. The man on the tower still hides his eyes behind his hands.

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Do universities communicate with the public? Do they try to pass the fruits of their research into the public sphere?

The gold of these gates shines in the sun. The gates are firmly closed. Oxford’s wealthy coffers and tenured scholars are back there somewhere.

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The gardens of New College are full of flowers at the moment. I do think that universities should centred around beautiful green spaces, as many of them are. Being in such environments is relaxing, and a state of biophilia-induced calm is a good base from which to engage in clear, concentrated mental activity. Mathew Arnold’s ‘Scholar Gypsy’, an Oxford man I believe, is an appropriate pastoral for the practicing prof to emulate.

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But how far away from the real world, how deeply inside the academic sanctuary, can academics afford to rest?

London

July 11th, 2007

I don’t have time to write now, so just a few words.

My friend Danny’s Bethnelgreen Rd. apartment. Outside London is raining, despite it being summer time. London really doesn’t excite me. Grey skies, expensive public transport, bored faces and slumped shoulders in the hot and over-crowded tube, Indians selling tacky merchandise on the pavement of Bethnelgreen Rd., uninspiring and shoddy architectural styles lining the streets… I’m glad I don’t pay the $250 Australian a week for a room in an apartment here. London is not on the list of charismatic places I’ve been on this trip around the world. Why do Australians flock here?

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Now the good things about this city I’ve seen. This is the front door of Maggs Rare Books, a very fine bookshop. I love good front doors.

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This is my friend Danny browsing in a photography bookshop in Bloomsbury.

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And here are some of the old books at Maggs. Time travellers, full of learning.

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Right now I’m off to Lyme Regis in the south-west.

The Memory of John Fowles

July 16th, 2007

John Fowles died 5 November 2005, a bit over a year and a half ago.  John had lived here, at Belmont House in the small coastal town of Lyme Regis on the south-west coast of England, for around four decades.  He would have seen the light on those cliffs in the distance on many evenings as he sat in his upstairs study and wrote.

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Last Wednesday afternoon I arrived in Lyme, the first time I’d been there since John’s death.  I was visiting Sarah Fowles.  As we walked down the hill to look at the recently built ‘John Fowles Path’, a memorial to John’s life here, the high and fading sound of English sea gulls and the gentle wash of the sea below came freshly to my ears.

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I have spent a lot of time over the last few years studying John’s writings, and reading his personal journals.  Many of John’s ideas about nature and his attitudes towards the natural world have had a considerable influence on me.  Seeing Sarah again and returning to John’s home was an important experience.

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John studied French at New College, Oxford, during the late 1940s.  Charles Drazin, editor of John’s journals, wrote an obituary in the New College journal, seen above, for the man.  Yes, that also happens to be the Oxford college I ended up in last weekend.  A friend of mine is taking up a job teaching French at this same college next year.  The lightning bolt of hazard strikes twice in a row.

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This is the front of Belmont House in Lyme Regis.  It has been given to the Landmark Trust and it was strange to see the pink dolphins frozen in stone and the light pink facade, and know that John and Sarah no longer reside within.

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I walked around the back of the house the next morning.  The three acre garden is still there, with the area of lawn at the top.  And then I saw what you see above:  yellow flowers growing over the stone sculpture of Ceres, the Roman goddess of growing plants.  The profusion of yellow blooms touched me, it was as though life continued over the still figure of John’s stone goddess in a vidication of his faith in nature.  The man is gone, but the beauty of nature, embodied by the plants that John loved, return anew this year, immortal in the present.

The Undercliff and Remembering the Path

July 16th, 2007

On Thursday I walked in the Undercliff, the area of wilderness and unstable geology which stretches six or so miles westwards from Lyme.

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As I walked I remembered walking here for the first time in 2002, soon after I had walked over the ridges and beaches of Reunion Island.  Walking through the English wood I remembered feeling that John’s love of nature was my love of nature, and that that love and that relationship would be, as it had been for him, a deep lifeline.

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Totnes

July 16th, 2007

On Thursday afternoon I was on board a train, heading for the small English town of Totnes, south of Exeter, in Devon.  Ah train travel… if only I could ride more trains.  I think it is the best form of long distance transport.  Space, quiet, the English countryside domed by a blue sky full of fluffy white clouds outside the window, and the feeling that you are happily en route.

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Totnes is a small town of eight thousand people, and is reputedly the classic English hippy country town.  Like many old country towns in Britain, the streets are just wide enough for a horse and cart, and in 2007 when they are full of cars, you feel a bit hemmed in.  Totnes is trying to powerdown, to ween itself of oil.  But bikes are dangerous on the very narrow country lanes that wind between the hedges – I and my friend Cliona hitched a ride back to her place outside the town, and as we rode along I saw a cyclist almost fall into the hedge, trying to ride so close to the edge of the road to avoid our car coming up from behind .

The Totnes Pound: a good idea.  You can buy one of these things for 95 pence, and use it to buy stuff in many of the shops in Totnes.  The great thing about local currencies like this one is that the money of the people of Totnes will stay in Totnes, instead of heading off to London or Paris or Sydney or wherever.  If the money stays in Totnes then the local community benefits.  There are over a couple of thousand local currencies now in existence around the world.  I hope there are more and more.

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London Colour?

July 17th, 2007

I spied a London mood…

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Europe is the most densely populated continent. Only 1/100 of Britain has its original forest cover. London air pollution can be seen on the black grime on the buildings of the capital. These are the stones of the Fitzroy Hotel.  Imagine what your lungs would look like after fifty years of living in this city.

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Martin Amis was right in London Fields to portray this city as a grey and gritty. But enough criticism. I’m staying on Bethnel Green Road with my friend Danny and this part of East London is pretty close to being on the Indian subcontinent. It is a mark of the multiculturalism of this city that I thought I was engaged in very London experiences when I relaxed in the apartment yesterday listening to a Ravi Shankar record, and when I then strolled down the street past the West Indian guys listening to reggae circa 1974 on my headphones.

They have damn good hats in this town. I bought a straw hat with a green top in Brick Lane market today from a stylish black guy.  You can see some of Alva’s other hat work on his site. Below is Brick Lane market. The fashion here is far more quirky than any  other European cities can manage.

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They also have great bookshops in this city. Foyles on Charing Cross Rd., the road most famous for its bookshops, is excellent. As is the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury (that is the British Museum you see in the background on the left).

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Browsing in these bookshops on the weekend I discovered a few titles I plan to get hold of and leaf through. They are:

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman; The Earth Only Endures by Jules Pretty; and the apparently quite gimacky but actually very intriguing Extreme Nature by Mark Carwardine.

One book I did buy was Wildwood by Roger Deakin.  The author of Waterlogged, a book about one man’s attempt to swim his way across Britain, died last year.  This book details his travels through trees around the world.  I happen to think the jacket design is superb.

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I said that the British Museum was in the background of a previous photo. Walking around the Japan section of the place I discovered an ancient bell. Apparently bells such as this one have been found buried on the edge of agricultural land, suggesting that they were involved with some kind of fertility ritual. In Zen Buddhism the bell is used as symbol of enlightenment, a moment of clarity or satori. If you can, get your hands on an album simply called ‘Japanese Temple Bells. It is a recording of different bells, many from the 7th century, and is well worth hearing.

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Tomorrow I’m leaving London for Geneva. This weekend I’ll either be in the Alps of Switzerland or the Black Forest of Germany.

Switzerland

July 22nd, 2007

I arrived in this country last Wednesday evening.  The approach from England and from the west emphasised the space and rolling patchwork of forests around here.  26% of this country is forested, a big contrast after England, and it really showed as I looked down out of my plane window.  People and their settlements were being almost shrugged off by the massive geology, the ridges and the hills, and large areas of trees stood all around.  Ah, what a relief.

As soon as I arrived at the airport I could see that this was a rich country.  One thinks that once one is in the first world that is it, first world means first world.  But no, think again.  This place is even richer than England.  The public transport is excellent.  The dirt of Bethnel Green Road seems a distant memory.  The country has very little crime and almost zero unemployment.  They have hydro and nuclear energy which means their electricity produces no CO2 pollution, and recycling is very, very advanced here.   They also have direct democracy, and referenda are held a few times each year on different topics.   Good place eh?  On Thursday I was swimming with my friend Ben in Lake Geneva in warm water, with the French-looking hotel fronts of the six story stone buildings that surround the lake edge in the background.  I thought it was a pretty nice place.

But what of the opaque banking system here?  In this country a corrupt, third world dictator or mafioso crime boss from eastern Europe, can have an account with a number on.   Some of the wealth in this very wealthy place comes from rich banks who operate in shonky ways.  And did I mention the price of a sandwhich?!  Think $10 Australian.  I honestly don’t know how tourists manage to come here without leaving all their savings in the hands of the Swiss.Today I walked in the centre of the country, in Grindelwald.  Walking up the Alps I heard a strange disembodied tinkling sound, as though metallic wind chimes were ringing out there in the grey space before me. What could it be I thought? On the other side of the steep ravine was another slope, and so it wasn’t coming from mid air at two thousand metres, this much I knew. From the preternatural to the prosaic, in a few steps, bovine reality loomed out of the mist.

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The mist wraps the mountains like swaddling. The cauldron is a space of obscurity…

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The Eiger, a well known mountain, has a glacier on one of its sides.

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Last night I dreamt of a valley whose sides only could be seen. In the morning I saw one such outline.

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As beautiful as the Alps can be, I do realise now why Australians flock to London, despite its flawed nature. It is the shared cultural background of the place for English speakers of the Commonwealth. We are able to speak a common language, allowing utter transparency of communication. And we know much of English literature, with its consequent common points of reference. Going through German speaking Switzerland I sometimes remembered walking through London with my friend Danny…

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Despite Switzerland being a good society, I don’t want to live here. But what of Geneva, a city where 45% of people are from elsewhere and where English is heard on the streets often? More in my next blog entry.

Geneva and the United Nations

July 25th, 2007

This is the view I see looking out of my friend Ben’s apartment window. That area of buildings in the back is Old Geneva. The other day I was sitting in the park around the corner and I kept hearing people speaking different languages, often English. This city may only have the population as Hobart, Tasmania (around 200 thousand), but it is much more cosmopolitan, and feels much larger because of the more densely spaced living quarters.

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Today I walked, through extensive security checks, into the Palais des Nations, a central building of the United Nations here in Geneva. The big HQ of the UN is in New York City, but the second largest centre for the UN is here in Geneva.

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The 192 states which have membership in the UN each get a vote in the General Assembly, the most important forum in the UN (this bit is actually in New York). But it doesn’t sound very democratic to me. I was in Samoa a while ago and there are only about 200 thousand of them. Why should they get the same vote as China with over a billion people? As our tour guide continued to talk about the comprehensive membership coverage in the UN I found myself wondering if Tibet or West Papua are two of the 192 nations that get a voice in this international talk shop. Get real Tom: of course they don’t.

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The view from the softly padded diplomat’s chair… I have to admit that the idea of day long sittings in such places, arguing fine points of language in shared declarations, would send this citoyen running screaming into Lac Leman. But they do good stuff. To use an example you might not expect, a committee of the UNESCO World Heritage program is currently looking into the evils of logging practices on the edge of a world heritage area in south-west Tasmania. I hope they shame Australia on the international stage on that point.

In a week or so I’ll be in France, and not too long after that, back in Western Australia.

The White Swan and the Sleeping Sword

July 28th, 2007

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A snow white swan cruises the fast flowing river that courses through the centre of Geneva. I’m used to seeing black swans in Australia, so the snowy feathers are a novelty for this rambling tourist at least.

Walking home you cross the river and look down at veins and eddies of silver and black. You are reminded in a salutory manner that this river has run through here for much longer than this quite old city has stood.

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The sleeping sword in the hand of a forefather of the city…

One thing I didn’t mention in my previous remarks on Switzerland is that they are gun mad. Well not quite, but let us just say that every adult male has a machine gun locked in a box in his cellar. They don’t have a professional army, and the Swiss are all prepared for immediate mobilization in case of an invasion. The problem is guys, nobody is coming. Italy is in a cafe drinking a latte! France has a croissant to deal with!

(Need I add that easy access to fire arms is bad news when it comes to the issue of suicide.)

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In summer in Geneva you can get a bike for four hours for free. I left my $20 deposit and rolled out along the lake. Why doesn’t every city have this kind of scheme?

By the way, that is the famous ‘jet d’eau’ of Geneva in the background of the previous photo, the tallest fountain in the world at 140 metres.

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The sight of a summer evening in mid-flow. May there be many more for all of us.

Tomorrow morning I’m off to Paris, then Tuesday I’m going to Stockholm.

Paris: Take One

August 1st, 2007

I’ve been in Paris for a few days. Yesterday I arrived in Stockholm, but before I write about Sweden I want to reflect on my recent time in France.

Paris, as everybody has probably told you, is a beautiful city. I spent a few months there six years ago, I’ve had a few Parisian friends, and I can speak a bit of French, so I know the place more than some tourists. One of my first impressions of Paris this time around was that the city doesn’t have enough trees. Compared to the streets of where I was in Montreal, it feels all stone, and it is very densely populated. So being in the centre, where the traditional conception of ‘belle Paris’ emerges from, made me feel like I was far from the natural world I love so much. It is interesting to find myself critical in this respect of this city. So many, including myself, have so much praise for Paris. But despite the beautiful old architecture, I wouldn’t want to live there permanently, deep in the middle of the work of humanity. I would crave more space. I would miss untamed ecosystems.

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Now after my brief bit of complaining, I will say that I do like walking around certain areas, like St. Germain des Pres. For those who don’t know, central Paris is about two million people living inside a ring road amongst five or six story eighteenth and nineteenth century apartment buildings. St. Germain is close to Notre Dame and the Seine. I like to be close to the Seine, as being by a river reminds me of the natural world a bit. I know that the days of Hemingway and Sartre and Camus are gone when it comes to this quarter, but I still like its art galleries and narrow streets and stylish cafes.

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I looked into the shop window in St. Germain and saw reflected the classic Parisian activity: sitting in a cafe.

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There is a bookshop on the other bank of the Seine from Notre Dame that I often visit: Shakespeare and Co. They have a piano amongst the books for any passing musicians to sit down at. On Monday morning I was browsing in the back of the shop when I heard some clear and bluesy notes coming from the piano. I looked over and there was a guy with a white beard playing. I kept looking at books, but my attention was completely taken by what he was playing. He was improvising. What he played was perfectly conceived jazz improvisation, with fades to contemplative, well spaced thoughtfulness, and then rises to soulful, twisting movement and force. I stood there behind the piano and amongst the books and felt my heart become lighter. My spirit relaxed as I felt the play and delicate emotions of his phrases. The space of the book shop took on a new quality, much more than a place for old parcels of paper.

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That is his son I think, waiting for his dad to finish playing. After he had finished playing I congratulated him on his music and asked if he played in a group, expecting to hear some famous jazz trio as the response. No, he said, in a North American accent, he just noodled around on his piano at home. I couldn’t believe it. Some of the most beautiful music I’d ever heard, stuff that I’d happily put beside Keith Garrett’s work, had just been played by some North American guy who liked to play at home. The music hadn’t been recorded. It had just happened in a bookshop in Paris. I will never here that bit of music again. I left with a new appreciation for music as an event, an event that need have no connection with concerts or studios or CDs, or even with a written score. Just the right set of fingers on an old set of keys. A moment I will not forget for a long time.

Paris, Take Two

August 1st, 2007

At this time of year many Parisians go away on holiday, and sometimes it seems like every second person in the street is an American with a guide book. Or one of their kids.

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That is Pont des Arts in the above photo.

The number of tourists that must stream over the paving stones of this city per year must be astronomical, but who can blame them? Paris is beautiful.

I wanted to represent the ‘flow’ of tourists through Paris visually, so I stood beside one of the most amazing doors in the world, the front doors of Notre Dame, and took a photo. Great old Age welcomes transient and restless Modernity across its threshold…

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Ok, I’m not the first person to have taken the next photo, but it is an image I like nonetheless. From the top of Notre Dame I look westwards. The devilish gargoyle plots and broods over the denizens of the city far below.

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If we are to look for a devilish plot with a greater basis in reality, the newly elected president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, might have something up his economic-growth-festishizing sleeve. That at least is what this bit of stencil art on the pavement of the Latin Quarter intimates.

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OBEY

WORK

CONSUME

AND SHUT UP!

In the space of those last two images I moved from the Paris of the tourist to the Paris of the resident. What of the residents? They are more likely to be hanging out in places like rue Jeane-Pierre Timbaud, where I was in the 11th arondisement. They talk more quickly than your average Australian, being in general a bit more stressed. I can’t vouch for the men, but the women are very stylish, often with muted colours, interestingly cut skirts and comfortable, dark, flat-soled shoes.

These are my friends Solene and Julie in the 11th, a scene not found in the guidebooks.

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My Knighthood in Stockholm

August 2nd, 2007

My baggage hasn’t made it here yet, but I at least am in Sweden.

After flying over Germany and seeing an endless patchwork of fields (as well as plenty of wind turbines by the way), I was glad to look down on Sweden and see forest cover being a more dominant element of the landscape. Clearly I had left the more hyper civilized parts of Western Europe behind me.

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Upon arrival in Stockholm on Tuesday I ambled around downtown by myself, without a map and with the eyes of a stranger recording the scene. There are immigrants from Iraq and Iran and other places, but most people have the traditional Swedish features: thin faces with slightly pointy noses and blond or light coloured hair. I’d heard the Swedish were very fashionable, but I can’t agree: the guys are very often to be seen in a pair of jeans which hang off their arse and then become really tight around their legs. To top this off they often sport a tight, light coloured t-shirt and a cap sitting on their head at a wild angle. Sorry guys, but I’m not digging it.

The architecture seems to be full of straight edges after the curved embellishments of Parisian apartment buildings. Like German towns, and unlike English or French ones, the buildings are painted bright colours. I prefer the unpainted stone and the more intricate facades of further south in Europe.

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The streets of Stockholm’s downtown are strangely either shopping streets, full of commerce and people, or not shopping streets, and if you make a turn all of a sudden there is nobody around and no shops to be seen. There are many waterways running through Stockholm, and the presence of the Baltic sea never far away is nice. The sound of Swedish in my ears is a kind of honest, charming sing-song which proceeds ‘da-da-da‘ with an emphasis on the last syllable.

From the moment I arrived, looked at the airport and talked to a polite, intelligent, friendly and articulately Anglophone Swedish woman at Scandanavian Airlines, I knew I was in an organised country. This place is full of clean public places and fast and easy to use public transport. Maybe one of the reasons I have encountered happy and smart people in the service industry here is that these guys actually have a robustly supported Society. Think tax funded child care, parental leave (for both the mother and the father), a ceiling on health care costs, free education up to and including university, extra taxes for the very rich, and proportional representation. With all that no wonder you don’t encounter too many bitter underdogs, or outright criminals, as you walk around the place. If you look after the whole society, and not just the abstract Me of right wing politics, then a trip down to buy some milk from the shop will be a better experience.

In my final bit of praise for the Swedish nation state, I am pleased to see that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences agrees that global oil supplies are peaking and that Sweden should get itself off the oil addiction. It isn’t impossible that Sweden will be oil free by 2020 as the government has promised. They already get most of their electricity from hydro and nuclear and biomass. It is so heartening to see a national government well on the road to doing the only sane thing when it comes to dealing with the environment: preferential taxation to encourage environmentally benign patterns of consumption (for example, the more polluting your car is, the more you pay to own it). The feeling that the people upstairs are actually moving forward on sustainability is refreshing.

My next photo from Stockholm was inspired by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, author of Don Quixote.  My little poem below isn’t just about traveling.

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Dub Me a Knight

 

I’d rather be tilting at windmills, than pronouncing life a known factor.

 

I’d rather be questing over the horizon, than ticking boxes at the desk.

 

I’d rather have an imagination, than a BMW.

 

To the giants!

Pastoral Scenes from the Novels of John Fowles

August 3rd, 2007

Yesterday I visited Skansen, the world’s first outdoor museum, situated on an island next to Stockholm.  The idea of an outdoor museum is here intended to show you what the trappings of life looked like for those people living in the Swedish countryside in centuries past.  As I walked around a couple of the things I saw reminded me of scenes from John Fowles’s books.

The first was from the first chapter of Daniel Martin.  It is harvest time in the south-west of England, and the villagers are stooking the wheat.  This sheaf of wheat below shows how the principal grain to nourish humanity was collected into a bundle.

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The next few photos are not directly related to Fowles’s novels, but they are interesting nonetheless.

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As you walk around there are people in the farm houses doing various things.  Here a girl was knitting some wrist warmers.  They talk in their strong Swedish accents and you really feel like you’re in the Swedish countryside.

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Lactose intolerance is the normal state of humanity.  A few European groups have developed a genetic trait that lets them keep drinking mammalian milk after infancy.  The Swedes as a population have one of the lowest levels of lactose intolerance in the world.  To me that says that these people have been pastoralists for longer than nearly anybody else in the world.  Here is a scene from a northern pasture.  Traditional sheep hang out around a byre.

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The earth roof was often seen…

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The idea of using whole logs to make a dwelling is so simple and so obvious.  They are cut so that the logs simply sit on top of each other, locking into each other at the corners.

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And now another scene from a novel by Fowles.  In The Magus the character of Maurice Conchis recounts the story of his time journeying through the wilds of northern Scandanavia.  He tells of coming upon a small farm in the remote north.  Up the river from the farm lived the blind brother of the farmer.  This brother believed that he communed with God on a nightly basis, and lived a bare and ascetic existence.  When I saw this old Swedish man in this tiny wood cabin, my memory went back to this powerfully narrated tale from The Magus.

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The smoke in the cabin sits under the ceiling before leaving through the door, and radiates heat down into the rest of the cabin.

This next picture is of a tradtional bookbinders shop.  I took it for Sam, my brother, as he used to do bookbinding.  Now he’s creating digital books of a kind in cyberspace.  There seems to be some kind of continuity there.

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The final chapter of my journey East.

August 5th, 2007

I’m sitting in a Starbucks outside Gare St. Lazare in Paris.  Yes, Paris, nowhere else have so many gone about their daily grind with so much ancient and beautiful masonry towering above their shoulders.   It is hot and sunny outside and I was forced into this chain as the classic Parisian cafe does not deign to offer wireless internet to its patrons.  Yesterday I sat on a boulder with a couple of friends in the evening sun on an island in the Swedish archipelago.  Today I’m en route to Normandy.

In just over a week – 15 August – I’ll be back in Australia.  I’m looking forward to the banksia trees and the peppermints, to seeing a few good friends and feeling the sand under my feet as I jog along Leighton beach.  I won’t have much internet access in Normandy, so this blog may have to recommence in a little over a week.  Then I’ll have time to reflect on more of the journey.

I’m hoping to visit St. Mont Michel in the coming days.  Let Providence make Luck be on my side.

Sweden in Retrospect

August 9th, 2007

Well the digital book that is my blog opens up its pages for the world once more…

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This is actually me in the Nobel Museum in Stockholm a few days ago.  Alfred Nobel was, like myself, a man with a keen interest in both science and literature.  Thanks to him we have the Nobel Prize awarded in five categories, which include science and literature.  I knew that Jean-Paul Sartre had rejected his Nobel Prize, but I didn’t know that each one came with 1.5 million U.S. dollars.  Ah the folly of sitting too high on the existentialist’s moral high horse!

I’m in a small coastal town in the north of Normandy, Fecamp.  I’ve found a little bar/cafe with wireless.  To my right is the bar’s counter, with a handful of French men standing and chatting over their morning’s cafe.

Before I mention Normandy, I thought I’d share a few of my photographs of the archipelago off Stockholm.  Four hours on a big ferry winding our way through pretty waterways, and finally we made it to the island of Moja.

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Granite is everywhere on these islands…

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The runic alphabet of life…

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The forests of these islands are full of pines and birches.  They don’t seem to grow very tall though, maybe because of the underlying soils not being deep.  The Swedes often have little cabins, painted red, to retreat to for summer holidays.  This path led to the cabin of my friend Robert.  Lucky soul that he is, he is living there till September, amid the silence and the water and the trees.

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Speaking of Swedish retrospectives, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen’s favourite director died a few weeks ago.  I have never seen a Bergman film, and Robert suggested I watch two films from the 1950s that aren’t quite as bleak as many of his works: Wild Strawberries and Smiles of a Summer Night.

Normandy

August 9th, 2007

This is not a photo of Normandy.

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I have started an entry on Normandy with a picture of the opulent shadows of the inside of Opera Garnier in the middle of Paris as I want to highlight the difference between city and country. The zenith of traditional European architectural grandeur: red velvet, towering statues and candelabras. Then I stepped off the train into the countryside of Normandy…

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Paris is not all beautiful interiors. All of a sudden I’ve left the heat and the noise and the tourists of the streets of Paris behind.

Fagus silvatica, or the European Beech tree. It has been interesting to see the same symmetrical veins on beech leaves on species in New York, Canada, England, France, New Zealand and Tasmania. Veins of continuity which cross the planet, as I travel eastwards. Beech leaves linking the continents with their slanted striations.

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This is Eu, a small town in the north of Normandy. Half-timbered houses are common  around here, with their black beams and wattle and daub walls painted white.  Many of the coastal towns with their old stone buildings, gulls crying, green and rolling hills around and cool and often rainy sky remind me that I am in the France that is so well known and evoked by English literature over the decades and the centuries. This is the France that is just on the other side of the channel from England, a big stone’s throw away. So the landscape is just the same. It is the first foreign bit of land generations of English men and women have seen down through history. Julian Barnes’ ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ springs to mind. It is much easier to feel at home here than if you were English and you’d gone down to Avignon or the south of Europe.

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Just outside of Eu…

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The first couple of nights I stayed at the house of the parents of a friend. It was an old farm house in a valley with green woods and fields around. Lovely. Waking in the morning and sticking my head out of the window it was beautiful to be surrounded by green hills and forests and fields and no other houses or people. I’d look out after having just woken up, still feeling groggy, and have the invigorating vista of green and outdoor life below and before me, with Austan the Breton Spaniel running across some field to the right, and the cool air brushing against my face. The house still has its exposed oak beams, hundreds of years old, in the kitchen.

Chateaus in Normandy

August 9th, 2007

I recently visited a chateau in Normandy from the late medieval period, apparently a classic instance of the military architecture of the era. My visit lead to this little poem:

The Unguided Tour of Chateau Rambure

Chateau Rambure,
a place where the recreated castle atmosphere evoked the epoch of French chevaliers to all of us on our guided tour,
but made me imagine the explorations that were still waiting to be made in jungles and deserts all over the planet,
as a French lord sat down to eat dinner in the dining room,
or a nineteenth century gentleman padded down the stairwell with pigeons cooing outside,
then the lady in her long dress going down the wide stone stair case past the worthy oil ancestors while the sun fell outside,
as it did year after year on the villages of Normandy in summer,
the immemorial peace of the oak leaves still there to the east, century after century.

And the still mysterious Amazon standing entire,
the unphotographed highlands of Papua New Guinea, still bursting with tongues,
the massive shoals of cod still swimming off the coast of Canada,
the thylacine savaging a frog on the bank of a Tasmanian marsh,
the albatross sailing and falling, unthreatened through the smooth blues of the South Pacific,
blank spaces on the map,
dark spaces in the mind of a chevalier.

A rustle of breeze in the green oak leaves beyond the window,
the murmur of Europe’s twenty-first century as I turn and rejoin my companions on our guided tour.
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We also visited the Chateau de Digeon, a much smaller nineteenth century chateau. My friend’s cousin has ownership of this place. We stopped and talked with them. Both in their sixties, grey hair, animated and friendly. Bruno Goisque-Thienpont showed us his gardin potager. It is a formal garden in the Italian style, but with a very important twist: all of the formal hedges are there to accentuate the beauty of the flourishing vegetable garden that lies within the borders. Bruno talked of how vegetables are beautiful plants, and how he likes to display them, having cucumbers climbing along a little fence on the borders for example, or laying down seeds in horizontal lines. He and his family eat mainly vegetables, and little meat. It was refreshing to find the owner of such an apparently aristocratic house so in touch with the earth. Beneath his finger nails was a thick layer of black soil, and beneath his ownership of part of Frances cultural patrimony lay a green political agenda. They actually have a couple of rooms for people to stay in a bed and breakfast setting, and I’m going to recommend to my friends to stay at this place. If William Morris’s dictum to have nothing in your house which isn’t beautiful or necessary is true indoors, then Bruno has shown how to take this idea into the garden. The ‘jardin potager’ (kitchen garden) is a masterpiece, constantly maintained by Bruno and his wife, a masterpiece of garden design. Beauty for the eye and nourishment for the body sit quietly and synonymously within the old garden walls. In a well looked after garden in the middle of the Normandy countryside grow tastes for the plate and the gourmet’s palette and pleasing shapes for the aesthetic idler. That evening we ate salad leaves and beans and other produce from the garden for dinner around a long table in the kitchen, and drank a kind of pear cider Bruno’s son had brewed in an old wooden cider press earlier in the year from pear trees in the garden. Slow food movement devotees eat your heart out. What is more, these guys have been doing a kind of French aristocratic permaculture from before Bill Morrison even published a handbook. Not much English here – to hear Bruno talk about it in his enthusiast and articulate French you’ll have to learn a decent amount of the native tongue.

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Here is Bruno searching for something he was going to show me.

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Beauty and utility…

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Life in Fecamp – La France et Les Anglais

August 11th, 2007

I’m in Fecamp and the air feels fresh and the gulls are crying. I wish Australian sea gulls sounded so nice.

Sitting up on the cliffs just outside Fecamp a couple of nights ago… It was like the allied forces were just over the water, and could disembark on the pebble beach sixty metres below our feet at any moment.

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With the white cliffs of Dover not far away France and England will stand forever face to face against each other. The gulls banked and slid across the upwellings of air. One sat a few metres from me on the precipitous ledge of white chalky rock. Below the gulls the odd bit of grass clinging to a hollow or dimple in the sheer surface. It was good to sit up there and eat baguette with pate and salad, and enjoy the feeling of height above Fecamp away to the east and the sun dazzled Atlantic below to the left. Those are wind turbines on the far horizon.  I really don’t think that they ‘spoil the view’.

Fecamp is known in France as the home of the liquor Benedictine.  This horror movie style bit of Rennaisance Gothic architecture contains the distillery, and the big boxes of spices from all around the world that go into the drink.

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Speaking of drinks, last night I sat in a creperie by the port, looking out on all bobbing masts, ate sea food galletes, and drank local cidre Normande, apple cider, from ceramic bowls, and spoke French.  I talked with my mum on the phone recently and she told me that my English grandfather once drank plenty of cider in Normandy in this region, along with a fair amount of Calvados, and danced with street signs on his merry way home.  Those are tall precedents to live up to!

The Return to Australia

August 19th, 2007

I’ve done the final hop down to the southern hemisphere and to Perth. For what its worth, Singapore is the best airline I’ve flown with: friendly, helpful people, and hundreds of things to watch on the screen in front of you. On the plane over I read the French newspaper. The Figaro’s front page is about the success of the Velolib program in Paris. Ten thousand bikes, and twenty thousand by the end of the year, are being hired out to people for a Euro or something equally cheap for short distant rides. As I caught the Roissy bus to the airport I saw a besuited and fattening old business exec glide past in front of some salubrious, shiny golden gates. It seems everybody is coming onboard with this initiative of the Green and gay mayor of Paris. They need to as the air in Paris smelt and looked bad after the fresh sea air of Normandy.

Speaking of the Figaro, I’d like to publicly congratulate the French for producing newspapers, such as this one, which devote only two pages to sport (and plenty of that goes to sailing at that) and plenty of pages to culture and the arts. They also have many international stories and put them up in the front of the paper, as well as having in depth environmental coverage. The chronic geographical ignorance, both statistically verified (in a recent survey by National Geographic) and well lampooned from a British perspective by Ali G, of the majority of the American people is well known. It is not to be found in the pages of one of France’s major newspapers.

Continuing the pro-French note, I hear Michael Moore’s new film Sicko praises the French health care system. Then there is the extensive and very cheap train network: the SNCF. And little bit of gallantry I’d not noticed in the past that I noticed last week and that I like a lot: when French people leave a restaurant they will sometimes say (in French of course, and not in a loud voice) ‘Goodbye ladies and gentlemen’ to all the assembled people in the eatery, not just thanking the waiter they’ve just paid. I’m not uncritical of France: among other things they have a problem with criminality on the streets (although Normandy didn’t seem to have this problem to the extent of Paris or the south), and they can often be over-stressed. They often talk too fast and seem to need to take a deep breath and get a massage – although here they beat us Ango-saxons on a systemic, if not cultural, level in that they introduced the 35 hour work week a while ago. My praise for French dress sense can’t be extended to Normandy: the understated cool turns out to be a Parisian thing, as well as a few of the cities in the south.

I’ve experienced a lot on this trip around the world. I haven’t written about all of my travails with different airlines: for example, turning up at Charled de Gaulle to fly to Stockholm and being told that it is impossible because of my ticket guidelines and arguing with the staff for an hour and half and then running to catch the plane just before take off, or spending literally days and days on the phone in Geneva or Montreal trying to change dates or routings, or having my luggage lost twice, flights cancelled twice and flights delayed tens of times. I’m not joking when I say that anybody contemplating a trip around the world should get an extensive briefing before departure on the complex rules and regulations of contemporary airline ticket structures and codes. Apart from the well known environmental evils of air travel there is another reason not to do it: at some stage it will result in a plentitude of teeth-grinding frustration.

But there is something special about a circumnavigation of the globe. To have traveled around the world makes the planet seem more tractable as an entity. Although I can’t compare this trip to Charles Darwin’s in the nineteenth century on his wooden sailing ship The Beagle, I can say that this circumnavigation increases my sense of intimacy and ownership over the whole biosphere. Then there is the simple fact of having become a lot better as a traveler – knowing when is the right time to change currency, or how to master a new public transport system in a new city, for example. The more one travels, the more one has confidence to travel. And I’ve also often had the feeling that, yes, sure it is exciting to be in this place right now, say South Carolina on the beech one evening, but this time in four days I’ll be in a country I’ve never visited, say Canada. This feeling of the journey onwards has been invigorating. My travel in the past has been to one place for a few months usually. Often early on, say in Samoa, thinking of the trip to come was like thinking of the attic full of suprises I was soon to burst on into. Those moments of full attics to come are some of the best in a strange way. The road to come… The stairs to climb up…

My views of the nations and landscapes of the world has altered. I see that Australia and North America are some of the only first world places that have large amounts of wilderness left. My love of the tropics has been slightly decreased due to potentially dangerous mosquitoes and their maraudings. My other value-laden rantings on various nation states are obvious from previous entries over the last three months.

One of the best things about this trip around the world though has been staying with friends – you are never alone when staying with friends. (I hope they all come and stay with me!) In fact although I’m back in Perth now, for the first couple of nights I’ve stayed at a friends place – until my place in Fremantle was available again. Camaraderie once more. And there lies my suitcase on the bedroom floor again, lid open, full of clothes. There sits my camera bag and my black day pack next to it. And looking at the suitcase with its well known collection of shirts and the like, I wish it would go on like this. I wish that this would keep on being all I have. Having this set up makes you feel like you’re dynamic and en route, and not sunk in a domestic, possession-encumbered situation. I wonder if I can camp out, as it were, in my old bedroom in Fremantle?

Impressions of Perth, Australia… It is a bit like being in California, except that the cars aren’t quite as big, there isn’t much crime, the people are friendlier, and the night life isn’t as good. The culture is a kind of re-textured British working class culture with an legacy of egalitarian sentiment (recently marred by a creeping economic growth fetishism and its status symbol race). The sport-obsessed, working-class tenor to Australian culture is redeemed by jazz groups like The Necks, poets like Michael Leunig and witty cultural critics like Clive James. The weather is excellent, and the city is very dispersed, so that everybody has room in their house, not to mention their back garden, to move around. But most people are addicted to using a car and burning off fossil fuels on a daily basis. And because of the dispersed suburban living in Perth – the amount of medium and high-density living being very small here – the critical mass of people living together doesn’t get generated which ultimately achieves a downtown ‘city’ vibe. The trees and plants here aren’t green. They are olive coloured. And it is generally very flat. A few hours ago I arrived back to live in the port city of Fremantle and there is a bit more of an atmosphere generated here, with plenty of nineteenth century architecture, lovely proximity to the sparkling Indian ocean and a few artistic types loitering around. Fremantle is an oasis backed by the banal aggregations of materialistic suburbia lying to the east of it. But I will still admit that it is, as part of Perth, very isolated from other cultures and metropolitan centres. I think if I didn’t have the appreciation, intimacy and knowledge of the natural world that I do, I’d probably get sick of this ‘isolation’, and leave town. But I do have that link with nature, so rather than feeling isolation, I feel connected to the landscapes and life forms of this huge Western half of the oldest continent. Lucky for me. And of course I also have some interesting, cultured and cosmopolitan friends here, and fast internet.

According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology the Aboriginal categories for the seasons of the year are much more appropriate for use in this country than the four seasons we are accustomed to use as transplanted-Europeans. At this time of year in the south-west of Australia it is Meerningal. Many birds are singing in the forests at the moment. Soon there will be a vast coming forth of wild flowers across hundreds of kms of land north of Perth. The world will take on a multi-hued coat that I will be witnessing with my camera in hand. For the moment I’ve walked out into a small bit of local woodland and broken a eucalyptus leaf and put it to my nose to smell the scent of this country. I think that is more appropriately symbolic than the fact that I can plug my computer lead into the power socket here without using an adapter plug.

Red and green bursts of the Australian existential…

September 3rd, 2007

I live in an ancient land. The oldest rocks on earth, over four billion years old, are some diamonds that were recently found in the north-west of W.A. For the last 250 million years the south-west corner of Australia hasn’t been doing much, geologically speaking. It has been getting worn down and leached of minerals. The plant species have been quietly diversifying. If you drawn a line from Shark Bay in the north to Esperance in the south, then within that triangle you’ll find nearly seven thousand plant species. Four hundred or so are threatened with a very uncertain future because of the things white folk have done over the last hundred years, but there is still plenty to celebrate.

While winds blew through foliage a hundred thousand years ago on a spring morning on the ground above which I now write there was already a veritable coral reef of land-based colour to be seen. The year has rolled around and colour has come again to the land in Perth. This afternoon I was in Kings Park and these are some of the hues that entered my lens…

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Geraldton Wax (Chamelaucium unciatum).

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Kangaroo Paw (Anigozanthos manglessi). In case you don’t know, this is one of the things our state is most famous for. The soft, downy texture of the flower, its vivid red and green colours, and its splayed open ‘fingers’ make a great emblem for Western Australia.

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Everlasting flower (Rhodanthe chlorocephala ssp. rosea). Millions of these paper-like petals are starting to light up our semi-arid lands for hundreds of kms north and east of Perth right now.

Spring in the old southern place

Ancient land,

Lambent September,

Syllables of youth come floating out of the ground,

Light and colour for your existence.

It doesn’t matter where we are, e. e. cummings was right all along:

‘yes is a pleasant country’.

The System of Nature: An Art Exhibition at the University of Western Australia

September 22nd, 2007

 Last night I went to an art exhibition at the Lawrence Wilson at UWA which I enjoyed, called ‘The System of Nature’.  If you’re living in Perth then this exhibition is worth a look.  My friend Holly Story invited me along, and she has a number of works in the exhibition, works which, like many of the pieces in the show, comment on the scientific urge to catalogue and organize.  One of the most interesting pieces is by Gregory Pryor, and is a number of European herbarium catalogue slips with dried specimens of Western Australian flora lying on them.  Pryor hasn’t just laid out these slips, but has placed a rusty old ball and chain over the top of them all, with the names of Aboriginal prisoners along the chain.  The urge to imprison and coerce through the act of naming by colonial newcomers is vividly suggested through this overlaying of human history on natural history.

Another interesting piece is by Janet Laurence and is called Cellular Gardens.  It is a number of Western Australian plants growing in small dishes of soil on long metallic bases, within glass cells.  Laurence reflects that it is evocative of the care and support that our fragile environment needs to survive, but I took it another way.  I immediately thought of the way in which human hubris thinks it possible to take species out of their biological context and have them live in fragmented, artificially supported environments.  The work made me reflect on the impossibility of ever truly doing what Laurence does in this art work.  The ecological matrix that ever species originates in can never be done away with.  That goes for us bipedal mammals as well as little banksia plants.
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The System of Nature is on till 7 November at the Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery.

Put Your Signature on the Landscape

September 25th, 2007

This afternoon I saw this sign in a suburb of Perth sur Swan. The real estate agents were offering me up the dream opportunity of stamping my personal signature on the Western Australian landscape. The signature would be made in angular concrete and two car garage luxury. What joy! In the background I saw that people all around this patch of bare and soon to be built upon earth had already taken up the opportunity to erase all sense of belonging with the land.

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As I looked at the sign I rememberd D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence wrote of the Etruscans (a society that had inhabited Italy prior to the Romans) with their wooden architecture and organic connection with the natural world and contrasted this vividly with the arrogant stone monuments of imperial Rome. The buildings of Rome are still there to be seen. The trace of the Etruscans on the landscape has faded leaving few remains.

I passed by this bit of coporate skull-duggery on barren ground, and found my way westwards, up onto Wireless Hill, an area of original woodland and heath. The kangaroo paws glowed up at me, and the Swan snaked by down to the north.
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This is what the landscape looks like around here. Idiosyncratic shapes that have evolved for millions of years in isolation from the rest of the green, leafy globe. The first Australians probably walked over this hill on a bright spring morning ten thousand years ago, and maybe their great grand children did so again 180 years ago. I can’t see the signature that they put on the landscape.

Two days ago I watched the film ‘The New World’, written and directed by Terence Malick and released at the start of 2006. This film follows the history of the English arrival on the east coast of the US, at Virginia, and their encounter with the local people of the land. I encourage you all to watch this film – it is one of the most beautiful meditations on the life-giving nature of the natural environment I’ve ever seen, and boasts some superb photography of the forests and waterways of Virginia. But what sprung to mind as I stood on Wireless Hill, is that the native American people leave no heavy and pompous architectural trace in their inhabitation of Virginia as portrayed in this film. Like the first Australians, their’s is an elegant ecological footprint, not a fat boot print.
‘Put your signature on the landscape.’

Would you ‘put your signature’ on your mother? The kind of message I saw on a billboard in the Perth suburbs could only come from a life-world that was blind to the beauty and life-giving qualities of nature. It could only come from a Roman-mentality of arrogance and bombastic immaturity.

Of course we need some kind of shelter, but this shelter should find accommodation within the matrix of a pre-existing landscape.

We need architecture that takes as its maxim: Being with the earth.

Feeling Nyungar Warmth

September 27th, 2007

Kia kia. That means hallo in the language that used to be spoken around here.

The following photo was taken near Fremantle in 1890. It is of a local Aboriginal woman standing outside her shelter, wearing a ‘buka’, a cloak of kangaroo skin turned inside out and hitched around one shoulder. She’s holding a long digging stick, or ‘wonna’, which was used to dig for root vegetables and small animals. Her hut is made of branches bent over a single frame in a semi-circle, and then covered in leaves.

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Yesterday I was shown around Walyunga National Park by some Nyungar people. It was part of a field trip I got myself onto at the end of a conference I didn’t attend on National Parks in Australia. The day was cool and rainy, and having the ever so soft fur of kangaroo skins draped over our shoulders was useful in keeping warm.

The above photo has no colour. What if we add some colour to this way of life?

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The fur of the bukka is such a soft feeling on the skin. Why can’t white people use this obvious clothing material somehow? Using place as a blanket, as it were.

Among other things, we were shown how to make knives with small sticks and bits of sharp quartz stuck into melted marri resin on the end of the sticks. I’ve now got a plan to go and collect some quandongs, a slightly sharp tasting but plentiful local fruit that will be available in the next two to three weeks, as well as the fruit of pigface, a coastal succulent flowering around now. This is the time of year when the first people of Perth would come down out of the hills to the coast and start to harvest frogs, turtles, quandongs and plenty of other bush tucker.

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The clay and ochre came from the local earth, and was smeared on my skin. It dries quickly and feels like a mask so that moving your skin in a facial expression pulls on the dried earth. Smearing ochre mud on another man’s face gives you a strange feeling, an atavistic and tribal intimacy. God, I’m sounding like a men’s encounter group devotee all of a sudden! Soon I’ll be wearing a tapestry waist coat and warming my legs over an open fire. Don’t worry, that will never happen.

Biological evolution has only had a few million years of trial and error experience to work out which species should be living on these soils. Aboriginal people have only had a few millenia to work out good ways to live off these species. I’m not suggesting that mums and dads from Cottesloe don arm bands of eucalyptus leaves, wear red-tipped black cockatoo feathers in their hair, and learn to throw a gidgee in the river (although I do love that image!). But white fellas around these parts certainly do need to leave the air-conditioned comfort of Coles and go out and wake up to wear they are standing.

Labour Candidate Feeling Awkward Over Climate Policy

October 30th, 2007

This evening I was at the Tropicana Cafe in Fremantle for a session introducing the candidates for the 2007 federal election for this area. During the question time a friend of mine asked Melissa Park, the Labour candidate, if her party was committed to cutting total greenhouse gas emissions in line with the aim of avoiding a two degree rise in global temperature (which amounts to 80% to 90% reductions compared to 1990 levels by 2050). Melissa throughout the evening had presented herself as an amiable, well intentioned, and highly intelligent individual. As she stepped to the microphone a shadow of awkwardness crossed her face for a moment. She obviously felt uncomfortable at having to say that no, her party’s target was 60% reductions by 2050. But, she said, it might look at changing this target later on. Here is her moment of weakness:

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Steve Walker, the Greens candidate then took the microphone. He said that no matter how nice and well intentioned a Labour candidate such as Melissa Park was, when it came to the hard and fast game of politics, she would be voted out by other less progressive elements in the Australian Labour Party.

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He had a point, and he did not feel awkward when he said that the Greens had a set of climate change policies that were designed to help us stay below two degrees in rising temperature, and thus avoid run-away climate chaos.

Satis Arnold: A New Voice on Climate Change in Perth

November 2nd, 2007

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Today at Murdoch University in Western Australia Satis Arnold, Director of Policy and Planning at Murdoch, gave a presentation on climate change to the assembled students and academics at the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy. Satis’ forceful and vibrant delivery, combined with his detailed knowledge of the science and politics around climate change, put many a more measured and boring academic to shame. Satis has recently been on a study tour of North America, meeting the people behind California’s inspirational Climate Action Team, and visiting the Earth Institute at Columbia in New York. Satis’ power point presentation is a whirl wind tour of climate science and a lesson on the greatest threat to humanity. We should all see it. Let me know if you are living in Perth and are interested in seeing the presentation and I’ll let you know next time he’s speaking. If you know of a public venue where you think he could appear, again, let me know. WA now has its own ambassador for the truth that the planet is heating up.

Australia: 2050

November 4th, 2007

A modified excerpt of the following article was published last weekend in The Perth Voice and will also be published this weekend in Fremantle’s local paper, The Herald.

Australia has warmed 0.9 Celcius since 1950, with most of that taking place in the last twenty years. This is because our species has used the atmosphere as a sewer for CO2.

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What’s coming?

First let’s remind ourselves that life could be pretty great in 2050. If there is major action from governments in the next five years around the globe we will be fine. In fact there will be even cleaner air to breath than we have now. Joseph Romm in his book Hell and Highwater (2006) says the world needs to do a few things, including: starting to build 1 million large wind turbines, making buildings much more energy efficient, increasing the efficiency of power generation, building 700 large nuclear power plants (and no, he doesn’t say that Australia needs to build any nuclear plants), making the world’s cars much more energy efficient, and stopping all tropical deforestation. WWF suggests we have five years from now to act. Romm thinks we have ten years. James Hansen of NASA also says we have ten years to get it right.

There are and will be plenty of government initiatives around the globe to tackle climate change, of this I have no doubt. But considering that a rise in over two degrees will flip the earth into a (self-generated) hotter and hotter state, tackling climate change becomes an either/or question. Either we stop the earth getting over two degrees hotter, or we don’t. So the question becomes, will we get the aggressive government-led regulations and frameworks that are required to do the job?

In Australia the Labour government that is (probably) in power for the next three years, starting in a few weeks time, isn’t looking flash. Currently they have an aspirational target of 60 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050, but not enough policies on the table to get us on the track to reach that point. Going into the 2007 federal election in Australia on 24 November the Greens have a target of 80 per cent reductions by 2050, as well as a comprehensive set of policies to get us there, starting immediately.

But with all this talk of climate change, let’s be honest about what will happen if we don’t act.

If we don’t act, the world will continue to get hotter, probably getting 2 degrees warmer in Perth by roughly 2050. This is a conservative IPCC derived figure – it could be higher. In the south-west of Australia rainfall has already declined by 25 per cent since the mid 1970s. This decline is the most drastic in all of Australia. It will continue to be the most drastic. Already the crowns of Wandoo trees in the south-west are turning brown here and there because of water stress. Perth has built one desalination plant, and another one is planned (both getting their energy from wind turbines). But nobody is going to build a desalination plant for nature. There will be no efficient reticulation installed along the floors of the majestic karri forests. By 2050 the plants and trees, along with the animals that use them as habitat, will be dying everywhere in the south-west. I will be an old man in 2050, and soon to die myself. The land high up in the Stirling Ranges, a living museum of strange and beautiful endemic plant species, will be a mausoleum. Max Dupain’s ‘The Sunbaker’, that iconic black and white photograph of the bronzed man with his head on his arms lying on the sand, along with the beach itself that he lay on and that is such a part of Australia’s sense of itself as a nation, will soon be gone with rising sea levels. There will be no wheat production from the ‘wheat belt’. The WA Wheat Belt will be called the WA Dust Bowl. Because Australia is rich, people will not starve to death in Perth (like they will be starving in their millions in other less developed parts of the world), but food will be many times more expensive. An increasing number of people will die each year from heat stroke, their internal body temperature going over 41 degrees on frighteningly hot days in February, and putting them into a coma. Figures like John Howard will be considered, looking back on history, like Chamberlain, someone who delayed an inevitable confrontation and lost us time. I won’t hear much birdsong anymore.

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Get it? No water.

I’m not sure I want to have children now, as they will be around in the 2070s, when the rise of three degrees celcius has triggered positive feedback systems in the global biosphere, and the earth is moving, decade by decade, into an unpleasant and largely uninhabitable state. In my darker moments I’m not even sure I want to stay living in Perth in the next few years because of the grief I’ll have to go through seeing the death of nature in the south-west through permanent water-scarcity and consequently rampant and fierce wild fires while I’m in the last years of my life.

If you open the pages of the newsletter of the Australian Greenhouse Office, the government publication that tells us what our leaders are doing about the problem, you’ll see large colour photographs of the minister for the environment smiling warmly. In his smiling face you can see no hint that he has bad dreams at night.

But then we might expect that from a government that for the past 11 years has been blatantly corrupted by the involvement of members of the fossil fuel industry in the writing of cabinet submissions and ministerial briefings (see Clive Hamilton, Scorcher, 2007 and Guy Pearse, High and Dry: John Howard, climate change and the selling of Australia’s future, 2007).

More importantly, do most university educated Australians know that we have five to ten years to stave off the slide towards the end of our country as we know it, a slide that will happen in a handful of decades? The answer is no. If you pick up a newspaper anywhere in Australia tomorrow morning, will the front page treat our predicament as tantamount to how America saw the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December of 1941? Have a look. You can get back to me. The earth goes into glacial periods every few thousand years and is quite a bit colder than it is now. We are in a warmer, inter-glacial period. It is sad that the species Homo sapiens is going to probably make its cradle and its only home, already pretty warm, just too hot to live in. Can we at least get the word out that this is starting to happen right now? Surely we can at least go some way to remedy this colossal ignorance, an ignorance still widely encountered among even educated, well-meaning, left-wing people?

You might ask why I don’t get apathetic? I’ve had a good think about this. As I write this in 2007, there will still be nature around for the rest of our life times, here and elsewhere. If we fail to convince governments to govern on climate change, and this struggle isn’t yet lost, then, even then, it isn’t all over. Although they will be diminished in their extent and diversity as the decades go on, there will still be forests and ecosystems there to inspire and invigorate us. Nature, in some form, will be there to give us solace for the rest of our lives. This is undeniable. What is more, it will always be part of the meaningful human life to engage in ethical action. It will always be part of the well lived life to engage in the defense of nature. To really understand this I encourage you to read How Should We Live? by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer.

In the last 11 years of the Howard government’s rule, there have been plenty of ministers and lobbyists who, as we’ve now found out through leaked minutes or insider reports, have been scared of the effects green lobbying can have on public opinion. Which brings me to another great reason to raise your voice against government inaction on preventing global heating. Against the background of the corrupt ties between the Australian mining lobby and the Australian federal government over the last decade I would say:

‘You know you’re not wasting your time when your activities are clearly making corrupt politicians uneasy’.

We should all contact our elected representative at a state and federal level and ask them what they are doing to make sure our country reduces its emissions by 80 per cent (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050, as it must to avoid run-away climate heating globally. The technology is there to make that change, from energy efficiency improvements, to wind farms, to halting the destruction of forests. California has taken the first step down this visionary path.

I used to think that letter writing to politicians was a waste of time. However I recently talked to a friend who has worked with members of parliament in Canberra. According to this person, when individually written, polite yet forceful letters start to arrive in their hundreds or thousands, politicians can get scared and then start to listen. I’m going to write one of these letters to Jim McGinty, my state representative for Fremantle, and Melissa Parks, the soon to be federal Labour representative for Fremantle. I am going to tell my local member that I will not vote for a government that allows Australian greenhouse gas pollution to keep rising. It is admirable and important that we all reduce our carbon footprint. However, it seems that at this late hour in world history writing this kind of letter is more important than reducing your personal carbon emissions.

The future has not arrived. We can help to make the future. But we need to understand the obstacles to change. George Marshall has said that “Climate change lends itself to a psychological phenomenon called the bystander effect… By and large people are conformist- they look to the wider values to set their own moral compass. People take the general lack of response to climate change as the norm and the basis for their own position. The individual bystander sees a lack of action by the other bystanders and feels that their own decision not to become involved has become validated. And so we all sit around and wait.”

But what if the individual bystander looked around and saw me or you contacting their elected representative to call for fast and deep cuts in overall greenhouse gas emissions?

What if they saw you or me at a protest rally?

Rapid and positive social change is not an impossibility. The drum beat of public outcry is building. It is getting louder and louder. Let’s start demanding real action from government.

I’ll be on the Esplanade of Fremantle at 1pm on 11 November, along with thousands of other Australians, at the ‘Walk against Warming‘.

In the words of the reggae band Fat Freddy’s Drop:

‘Hope for a generation. Just beyond my reach. Not beyond my sight.’

The Walk Against Warming in Western Australia

November 11th, 2007

Thousands of Western Australians marched down the main street in Fremantle today, despite the temperature going up into the high thirties.  They were calling for action from the federal government on climate change.  This jester shouted the key message…

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I couldn’t help feeling some empathy for this little lad who can’t vote in the election in two weeks…

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High Street in Fremantle was bursting to the brim with thousands of ordinary citizens who don’t want to see Australia dragging its heels when it comes to looking after the climate…

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Who put the coal in the Coalition?

It is all terribly confusing when you’re little.

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Landscape for Learning: A Book Review

November 19th, 2007

The following is a review I recently wrote of A Landscape for Learning: A History of the Grounds of the University of Western Australia by George Seddon and Gillian Lilleyman (UWA Press, 2006). A much shorter version of this review will be published in the journal Studies in Western Australian History in mid 2008. Unless you have had some association with Perth and UWA you may not be intensely interested in what follows. For those who are interested: sorry UWA Press but I suggest that this is the kind of tightly synoptic review which makes reading the actual book redundant.

What makes a landscape for learning? In the opening pages of the book, Seddon calls UWA the most beautiful campus in Australia. He seems to think that this campus is what a site dedicated to the seeking of wisdom should look like. It does makes you relaxed to be in a pleasingly set out green environment such as this one, and a state of relaxed mental alertness is a perfect state to learn it. Perhaps Seddon is right to designate the grounds of UWA a ‘landscape for learning’.

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Above: Youth leans on age. I left the garden path and looked upwards in the ‘tropical grove’ in the Great Court.

Prior to learning about the legacy of Sir John Winthrop Hackett, we are taken back to the original state of the site. Before white settlement was felt there, the campus site was covered in marri and jarrah with big old trees dotted here and there of the kind you are hard pressed to find today in the metropolitan area. In the south the site was thickly timbered with sheoak. There were banksias, tuarts, paperbarks and Christmas trees. The site had a shallow water table and relatively fertile clay soils, like the property of the Bussell family, ‘Cattle Chosen’. The Swan used to flood regularly – it does not do so any more because of more recent human changes to the river. The Crawley site was often flooded prior to 1829, and over the millennia the floodwaters had dropped plenty of their sediment load in the area. Sand, silt and organic debris enriched the soil of the site. It was this that made it a more fertile location than is commonly encountered on the Swan coastal plain. For this reason UWA may be considered the closest Western Australia has to a traditional botanical garden.

Seddon notes the importance of the site as a gathering place for the Nyungar people. There was much native food on the site that could be gathered: in seasonal swamps there were frogs, marron, tortoises and snakes. In the waters of the shallow bay there were mullet, salmon, schnapper, cobbler, tailor, shellfish, turtles, crabs and prawns. In 1827 Charles Fraser remarks on the Swan River: ‘Without any exaggeration, I have seen a number of swans which could not have been estimated as less than 500 rise at once, exhibiting a spectacle which, if the size and colour of the birds is taken into account, and the noise and rustling occasioned by the flapping of their wings previous to their rising, is quite unique in its kind’(p.13). The Nyungar women dug for tubers. Zamia nuts were stored for use, and banksias flowers were soaked in water which was to be drunken. There would have been quokkas, quendas, bilbies and tiny honey possums scurrying about the place. It was the site’s plentiful food supply that made it a cultural gathering place for the Aboriginals. While today cricket is played today on James oval, hundreds of years ago boomerangs may have been thrown in the same spot, demonstrating a pleasing continuity of human usage.

The lands biodiversity was not noticed by early white society. In an epithet which prefaces the volume Adam Armstrong in an advertisement to sell nearby land at Dalkeith cottage writes: ‘As a goat run it is not surpassed by any in the Colony.’ (1838) Fruit trees adorned the site around a small farm, and plenty of melons were grown. Gillian Lilleyman traces the history of the site as a farm for goats, fruit and vegetables in the first decades of settlement.

Later, in the choosing of the site the senate were not all convinced. The site was five kms from the Perth town hall, and sand and bits of limestone were blown across it off the unsealed road running from Perth to Fremantle. Leslie Wilkinson advised on the layout of the campus in the 1920s. His preference was for a ‘wooded park’ of trees and grass. Especially mature marri trees (Corymbia calophylla), for example, were retained, but most of the flora was removed from the site. From 1922 gelignite was used to blow up the bigger and older marri and jarrah trees. Henry Campbell, superintendent of the grounds, went on to plant rows of palms in the Great Court at the end of the 1920s. In 1928 he planted the oaks of the Oak Court.

The book does not provide a broad-brushed botanical tour of the campus, as I would hoping it would. However, on pages 64 and 65 the book contains a plan and key of all the trees in the Great Court, which will be of interest to those who would like to know what they are looking at while they wander around the most immediately botanically impressive area of UWA. Indeed, for my own uses this is the most valuable part of the whole book. It is a great pity that the numbers 96 to 158 have been left off in the right hand margin in the printing of the book. Interestingly of the trees Campbell planted half, by species, come from the eastern seaboard of Australia. As the authors point out, so did half the human population of Perth at the time of their planting.

I don’t want to belittle the contribution of Seddon in this book. He and his coauthor have performed an accurate and detailed work of local history in this volume, and more generally Seddon’s books have taught me more than anybody else about my home place, the soils and plants of the Swan Plain around Perth. However, in discussing the trees of the campus Seddon never invites the reader into a lyrical and affectionate relationship. In discussing the trees of the Great Court he writes: ‘Some trees grow too well and are out of scale. Others struggle, even after the best care. Off with their heads!’(p.169). In my experience Seddon is more a historian and a scientist than a writer attuned to the poetics of the natural world. In my own view some of the most impressive trees on campus come from Queensland: the towering white and muscular trunks of the lemon-scented gums besides Reid Library, and the rod-like heights of the kauris. Seddon, in typical, taxonomically snobbish form, prefers the most rare specimens, for example the Karrir plum in the Tropical Grove (p.l67).

Some romance… Henry Campbell died in 1930, and his younger protégé, Oliver Dowell moved in to take his place. Dowell had an appreciation of the native flora. The karri in the north-west quadrant of the Great Court with the iron seat around known as the honeymoon tree is so called because Dowell collected its seed in the south-west on his honeymoon. In the early 1940s the US Navy established at base on Matilda Bay and used some of the University buildings to house the personnel. Because of the black-outs required at night Whitfield Court began to be used as a ‘trysting’ area, and complaints were made – the behaviour was said to be upsetting the caretaker’s sensibilities.

In the 1950s around fifty sheep grazed the lawns in place of mowers, and were even shorn for a profit by the grounds staff. The university would have been a much more peaceful place without noisy mowers and leaf blowers doing their job here and there.

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Carting hay in the early 1930s on campus. Horses were important members of the UWA work force till the 1950s. Although Seddon fails to mention it, there is no technical reason why they could not be so again in 2007, making the campus quieter and less polluting.

So, let’s return to the title of the book. What makes a Landscape for Learning? Despite the wonderful clay soils of UWA, and the enjoyment provided by floristic diversity, one wonders if native plants aren’t more appropriately planted in the grounds from now onwards considering declining rainfall in the south-west and CSIRO projections of continuing decline in precipitation due to climate warming. Western Australia is not eastern Queensland, despite the Umbrella tree being a feature in so many gardens of the Western suburbs. In the absence of such native plantings coming to dominate the UWA campus, as they did a hundred years ago, perhaps we will see another instance of a university not practicing sustainability while its courses increasingly preach it. The more university institutions perpetuate a radical disconnect between course content which stresses the importance of environmental sustainability, and buildings and grounds which do not enact this philosophy, the less seriously Perth’s young undergraduates will take the advice of the memorial besides Reid Library to: ‘Seek Wisdom’.

A New Government in Australia

November 26th, 2007

On Saturday Australia voted for a new federal government. For the first time in eleven years we have a government that is not worthy of contempt. Those educated, left-wing Australians in their late twenties or early thirties have had a mean shopkeeper, a man whose stunted ideology of materialism they detest, leading their nation for all of their adult lives. Now he is gone. We no longer have to cringe when we hear or see that cretin on tv or the radio. We no longer have to think about moving to New Zealand.

Millions of Australian men and women voted for the Liberals on Saturday. We live in a democracy, and they lost.

I was working at a polling booth in Fremantle. While we counted votes after the doors had closed and the sun was sinking the news came through that the Australian Labor Party had won and that a sad chapter in Australia’s history had come to an end. People started to cry out ‘Howard’s out!’, and ‘Labor’s won!’ and their were smiles everywhere among those assembled. Then I went down into Fremantle with some friends and people were shouting ‘Howard’s history’ in the streets, and yahooing to strangers (including me).

I’ll remember those moments for a while to come. John Howard is history. I repeat, John Howard is history.

The Greens have five senators which means they now have party status and will get increased funding (which means more research staff). So there was good news on that front as well. Interestingly while counting votes I found that the overwhelming majority of votes which had been made below the line on the senate ballot paper were made for the Greens. A suggested conclusion? Those who think reflect deeply about politics vote for the Greens.

I noticed a well known Australian academic voting on Saturday. He is an august looking man with grey hair, and his much older looking mother was there voting as well. He helped her into a seat where she could fill out the ballot papers in comfort. She was very frail and she asked her son politely how to make sure she was giving her vote to the Greens. These were not fringe-dwelling hippies with flowers in their hair. These were intelligent, educated, compassionate and respectable citizens.

There are real differences in personality among different individuals, reflected, for example in the differences we find in the ability of different people to recognize novel stimuli (political conservatives are not so good at this). Amongst the stream of wealthy, blank faced, and often impatient Liberal voters – the Liberals won the vote in this polling both – this respectable older man and his frail old mother stood out for me. For a moment I realized that even if the Greens never form a government at least we can know that they represent the opinions of those complex, well-rounded and compassionate individuals who have truly thought about what makes a good nation. Such people may always be a minority, but they exist.

Time to sound biblical… Whatever happens on this earth, and whatever happens to this earth, the righteous shall stand tall.

My Poetry Selection

December 2nd, 2007

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The other night I heard the Australian musician Xavier Rudd play a song called ‘The Mother’. I’m not normally a fan of folk-rock, but this song has stayed in my mind. The song is a tribute to Gaia, and the key line in the chorus is ‘Mother Earth breathes good luck’. This song doesn’t need a very deep level of analysis, but I appreciate its message and enjoy its rootsy, Australian feeling. It comes from a surfy kind of mileau and listening to it you can smell the spray of the surf in a campsite among old trees. See what you think. I expect its on iTunes and it is off the album ‘Food in the Belly’.

Colours for Christmas and the Extinction of Experience

December 23rd, 2007

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The other day I was out in my garden in the sunshine and noticed that the paperbark tree in my garden has flowers on again.  It must be summer.

It is so easy to forget to renew our connections with the bit of the planet that we live on.  Life gets busy and time goes by.  It happens to most of us.

There are many environmental ills in the world that you and I can’t remedy.  But there is one extinction that we can stop, right now, each one of us.  That is the extinction of experience.  The extinction of the experience of intimacy with the land.

I have recently been reviewing Jules Pretty’s recent book The Earth Only Endures for an American journal Organization and Environment.   Discussing ecoliteracy, our ability to read the species of local life on the land, Pretty uses a range of statistics to show that  that ecoliteracy is lower in richer communities than poorer ones.  He visits the Innu in northern Canada and writes about the rapid extinction of experience their culture is going through with respect to nature.   Reading this I thought of Australia and the massive extinction of Aboriginal experience of the land.  So much knowledge and intimacy is forever gone all over this country.

Here is a test to see how ecoliterate you are.  Could you give a friend directions on how to get to your house using only natural features of the landscape?

Even if I can’t measure up to this level of literacy about my home place, at least I can stop the complete extinction of the experience of nature from my life.  The other day I did this.  Look how vibrantly yellow the banksia flowers are looking in King’s Park at the moment.

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Happy Christmas one and all.

A Poem to Start 2008

January 3rd, 2008

“I could have told much by the way

But having reached this quiet place can say

Only that old joy and pain mean less

Than these green buds

The wind stirs gently.”

Time goes on and on and in spite of all the things I feel like I need to do this coming year, nature reminds me to forget New Year Resolutions and to return to the present.  Read, or listen to, the rest of this poem by the English poet Kathleen Raine here.

Finding Place in Fierce Australian Space

January 5th, 2008

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I wrote the following article in response to seeing a series of photos by my Indonesian friend Pila.

The title of the above photo (which is available for sale I believe) is ‘act 05 of Hello And Goodbye series’
size: 60x100cm
2007

A neat, Asian girl is standing on the flat and dry expanse of the Western Australian wheat belt. Her clothes are contained and respectful. The nape of her neck, the intimate place only a lover would kiss, is all you can see of her skin as she turns to face the silver desolation of a salt lake. The land does not embrace her. It gives no gentle reciprocity to the newcomer. The sun light scours the horizon, showing no relief or refuge. The land has not received human love here, and it stares back at the visitor from under a layer of white scum. The anonymity of the earth’s face carries menace. The salty expanse holds no cherished niche or well known outlook. The only human stories to have past by here were those sealed behind the door of a moving ute. Once this land was briefly wheat for dollars. Now it is only erasure.

The girl cannot feel at home here. She comes from a land just across the narrow sea to the north. Seen from outer space the verdant greens of Indonesia’s mountains and islands create a vivid contrast with the ochre to scarlet reds of Western Australia. Now she stands here on the land down under and sees the flat line of the horizon. Before this moment lines meant only the vertical shapes of rising mahogany and teak. Now the line that rings the sky has been stripped of mountains and forests and is there before her.

Her name is Prilla Tania, or Pila for short. I visited her in the small farming town of Kellerberrin in south-western Australia, a few hundred kms from the coast, one Friday afternoon in dry December. I was there for the opening of an exhibition of photographs she had taken. In a series of six very large colour prints, the photos show her entering the hurt landscape and trying to feel at home. She steps over a doormat which sits at the bottom of each of the frames, picks up an English tea cup and drinks, standing in the living room of big sky and brown wheat. Her photos are a cycle that witness the degradation of the land. They start with the image of her stepping over the threshold into the original woodland of the area. Soon she is standing in a razed field, then in a field of wheat, and then, in one of her most powerful images, she is turning to confront the white plain of a salt lake. The inadequate tea cup of British settlement comes up again and again.

As I had made the three hour drive out into the area from the port city of Fremantle I had felt my mood sink a little. My eyes had searched for the biological wonders of diverse plant and animal life that have evolved to fit this arid corner of the planet, and come up with only horizon after horizon of ‘productive’ brown fields and the odd apologetic copse of trees. Now I had seen Pila’s photos I felt even more acutely the lack of welcome that this part of Australia held out to the visitor.

Even if white folk hadn’t knocked down the open woodland of this low rainfall country to make way for crops and sheep, the land still wouldn’t have been an easy one for most humans to embrace. This place was never lush or soft like the island of Britain or the rainforests of Pila’s home to the north. However in the past a fierce sun would have shone down on the lopsided antics of little Thorny Devils, the dark feathered flight of Black Cockatoos, the freckled trunks of Powderbark Wandoos, and the symmetrical crowns of gorgeous Salmon Gums. Now, with the clearing of millions of hectares of trees for agriculture the deep roots of the trees that kept the water table low have been replaced by the shallow roots of annual crops. The water table has risen, and millions of tons of salt in the soil has come to the surface, killing most things in its wake. With rising temperatures the future of this part of the world is looking even more squeezed.

After the exhibition was over we went back to the room next door to the gallery where Pila was staying. Me and another friend who had come along for the journey wanted to see some stars now that we were out of the city, so we walked down one of the few streets in the town. In two minutes we had left the lights of the suburban looking houses behind us and come to an old, wire fence. Beyond the fence lay a field. We climbed the old wire fence and walked forward into the night, hearing the crackle of our feet in the dry stubble. Darkness muffled the edge between the bright pattern of the milky way above and the emptiness of the field stretching out under our feet. Dark night and a cool wind blowing through the stubble of the wheat made me relax.

We paused and stood in silence. I squatted down and felt the blanket of rural darkness cover me. It was a comfort, and for the moment I felt an intimacy with this place. The endless blanks drawn by the sun were replaced with the smudged shapes of shadow and dark suggestion.

Now only night can bandage the wound.

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Shall earth no more inspire thee?

January 7th, 2008

I offer the following poem by Emily Bronte to all of you who have ever felt discouraged by all the ugliness and destruction in the world…

Shall earth no more inspire thee,
Thou lonely dreamer now?
Since passion may not fire thee
Shall Nature cease to bow?

 

Thy mind is ever moving
In regions dark to thee;
Recall its useless roving
Come back and dwell with me.

 

I know my mountain breezes
Enchant and soothe thee still
I know my sunshine pleases
Despite thy wayward will.

 

When day with evening blending
Sinks from the summer sky,
Ive seen thy spirit bending
In fond idolatry.

 

Ive watched thee every hour;
I know my mighty sway,
I know my magic power
To drive thy griefs away.

 

Few hearts to mortals given
On earth so wildly pine;
Yet none would ask a heaven
More like this earth than thine.

 

Then let my winds caress thee;
Thy comrade let me be
Since nought beside can bless thee,
Return and dwell with me.

 

by Emily Jane Bronte

No white nor red was ever seen, so am’rous as this lovely green.

January 8th, 2008

I wrote the following short story while I was musing on the erotic in nature late last year. 

In the stone heart of an old city an elegant restaurant goes about its nightly buisiness. A couple are sitting down for dinner at a starched linen table cloth. Outside the windows of the sparesly adorned interior the street is mostly dark, apart from the lights of intermittently passing cars. The entree and the main course pass, and the candle light flickers forgivingly over the faces of the two lovers. That slice of papaya now on the woman’s perfectly white desert plate encases small, dark life forces. Weeks ago in a humid African orchard those glistening black ovaries were fertilzed by pollen. Now the woman’s tongue slides up against the sweet body of tropical nights. Her nourishment carries the sperm of aching trees. But in the dimness of the evening the woman does not remember.

The abiding taste of papaya is good. Ahh, yes, good. Her eyes meet those of the man across the table. For a moment their pupils dilate in collusion. The woman pauses, feeling a seed on her tongue. She moves it over her tongue and plays with it on her lips. While bringing the sweetness of promise across their tongues the lovers are intent on the beauty of dark eyes across the table. They smile to each other. Outside the old city walls a breeze glances through leaves in a grove of trees.

It is a few days later, in the country. A small forest of trees borders an enclosed space of lawn. The young woman walks, alone, into the middle of the sheltered scene. Civilization fits tightly. She undoes its clutching grasp, and lets it fall softly from her body. She lies down on a rug, there in the middle of the lawn. Leaning low she feels the warmth of the sun on her brown, now naked skin. The roughness of the grass through the rug under her thighs. She savours the sensation of the warm air caressing her free breasts. Time passes. A bird calls out. Green shadows shift and fall languidly over the grass.

Looking sideways into the trees the woman notices a seed case hanging from a bough. What is this shape? Slowly, she gets to her feet and walks over to the hanging seed case. The outer skin has already started to come off, making the object look naked, even brazen. She peels the casing further back and slips her whole hand around the large, heavy seeds within. She hefts their uneven texture, sensing a dense, weighted content.

The roundness of promise lies there in her hand. Her eyes see clearly in the day’s brilliant sunlight. Within an arch of wood seeds are gestating the future. All the trees seem to lean in from the edge of the garden around her. Stroking the pendant ovals with her fingers, she looks, and remembers all the love in the world.

Cutting Free from Port

January 11th, 2008

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Last night I and a select group of acolytes gathered for a film night at my place.  This wasn’t any old film screening, this was a journey into light, accompanied by a mix of ambient acoustics that I’d put together.  While we soared over the peaks of the Himalayas the sounds of Aeroc pulsed through us, as flowers in the high mountains opened Triola came through the big sound system, and as we ventured into the dark caves of Borneo the echo of Bill Laswell’s dubs opened before us.  Many of the world’s best nature photographer’s were involved in the making of the BBC’s Planet Earth series (2006), and their superb work needs this kind of soundtrack, not the BBC intonations that the film was released with.  (Sadly the photographer’s involved are not even listed on the sleeve of the DVD, only ‘David Attenborough’ is mentioned.  And of course David didn’t do any of the photography that makes this film so sublime.  Come on BBC!)

That’s my friend Chris having a peaceful inhalation of his cinnamon hookah.  The tethers have now been cut.

The Lines of a Tree

January 19th, 2008

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White Australia was born with the sweat and blood of poor British men and women dripping off it. 736 convicts came out on the First Fleet. The ‘First Fleet’ consisted of eleven ships full of people forced into exile from their homeland by a legal system that looked after the rich. The oldest female convict was Dorothy Handland, a dealer in rags and old clothes. She was 82. She had been given seven years for perjury, and in 1789 she hanged herself, in a fit of befuddled despair, from a gum tree at Sydney Cove. She became Australia’s first recorded suicide.

For me nature is a lifeline. My sense of my self as part of the natural world buffers me against depression. But when Dorothy’s body swung from the limb of a gum tree, like the one above, she clearly had no understanding of the lines of nature as lifelines.

Did the Aboriginal people ever record a suicide? I don’t know. As Australia Day approaches this year I’ll be looking back with sympathy not only on the Aboriginal people who suffered the invasion of their homeland, but also on those thousands of men and women who were slaves of the British Empire two hundred years ago.

highSurf

January 20th, 2008

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Real environmentalism isn’t just about acknowledgment of the problems of this world and the struggle to right them, it is also a regular, lived appreciation of nature. Try and live the first without doses of the second of these things and you’ll find it a rough path. People whose contact with ‘environmentalism’ goes only so far as a Greenpeace banner, or a newspaper headline, are understandably turned off by the whole movement. The other day I was running on the beach.  Afterwards I jumped in the waves and the warm water, played around, smiled and goofed off. It was like washing all the artifice of modern life off. Unclogging the arteries of my day from duty and chore and other heavy metals. We go to the ocean in Australia to wash off the urban. And we renew our selves. Surfers are more realistic than environmentalists in this respect in that they always balance the bad news of the day with real and regular experiences in the more than human world. Sitting in the city as the weeks and months go by and reading about the ills the natural world suffers again and again gives one a distorted picture of reality. Reality contains ugly destruction, but there is so much more beauty and extant landscape to enrich your days out there. Surfers know this as they don’t forget to pay regular visits to the swelling and swaying landscape of H20 that rings this country. I felt my body and soul profit from my afternoon flop, flail and foam-slide in the surf.

A participatory experience of cosmically generated aquatic waves makes you feel good. Let’s talk about health for a minute. Most of the time in the West doctors use a deficit model of health: that is, if you’re not sick, then you are healthy. But what if we had a more positive conception of human health?

My cousin, Tim Baker, is a freelance writer who lives in northern NSW and does plenty of surfing. He’s just published a book of interviews with surfers, High Surf, and flicking through it the other day I came across the words of Dorian Paskowitz:

‘When you come out of surfing, there is this euphoria, which is part of an actual physical sense of well-being. It’s not that you suddenly hear angels, its that you feel physically remade. You’re not only remade, but remade with refinement, exactness, so that things feel inside you to be gearing and meshing effortlessly. You feel lighter, you feel that you move with more agility. You have more positive feelings, you talk faster. How much more this is than not being sick; how much more this is than just being normal.’ (p.125)

I then read a comment by a surfer in Byron Bay, Rusty Miller:

‘When the surf is good in Byron Bay and a lot of people get a lot of surf, the vibe in the town is actually elevated by the spirit of what you bring in from the water.’ (p.220)

Moving through space in an unpredictable environment and reacting spontaneously to changes in that environment is what our bodies were evolved to do in the Pleistocene environment of our long-gone ancestors in Africa. It seems to me that catching waves triggers all the responses our body was evolved for. No wonder the activity can make you feel so good. Perhaps we should all be praying to liquid drainpipes.

Goodbye Australia

January 23rd, 2008

The act that founded the city of Perth, Western Australia, for white folks in 1829 was the cutting down of a tree on Mt. Eliza in today’s Kings Park, and the firing off of a volley of shots. Since then the transplanted British and their progeny have not done the best job of living well with nature around here.  Perth has a long way to go when it comes to cultivating the presence of wild nonhuman life within its suburbs.

Tomorrow I’m flying to Sydney and on Friday I’m flying to San Francisco. I’m going to be a work-study scholar at the Esalen Institute, studying massage for ten weeks there. The feeling of anticipation is building. I do like the landscape of Western Australia, but it is very flat here, and it is going to be a real pleasure to see some big hills in Big Sur, northern California. I’m not going to Esalen only to study massage, I’m also going to spend some time under a big starry sky, by the cold Pacific, far away from city life. Living in the suburbs dulls one’s perceptions to some degree, and I’m hoping that these coming few weeks will sharpen my senses and my appreciation of the natural world.

This morning I and my friend Yvonne went down to Bather’s Beach in Fremantle for a swim.  This is my last dip into the warm blue Indian Ocean before heading into the northern hemisphere winter.  As we swam two dolphins, a mother and her young one, came and played with us.  I and Yvonne gasped with surprise as the glistening fins surfaced a few metres away from us.  They circled around us, and I ducked under the water and swam alongside the large grey shape of the mother.  I couldn’t believe that just five minutes bike ride from my house I was playing around with a couple of huge, intelligent wild beings in the warm shallows of the sea.  They were so much larger than us, and so lithe in their liquid space.  What a benediction to receive just before I leave Australia.

I didn’t have my camera handy when the dolphins turned up, but this is where we met the strangers from the blue.  Look at the colours of the ocean today (and thanks for the photo Yve).

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There is still wildness to be found in the city.

An Australian Enters American Territory

January 27th, 2008

The longest Friday in my entire life started with walking through Surrey Hills in the morning in Sydney, and finished at midnight, tapping alone at my laptop, in Fairfax, a suburb of San Francisco. I left Friday afternoon and arrived Friday morning. While Australia had already moved into celebrating Australia Day I was still treading water back in Friday. In the Australian afternoon, as the plane moved out over Botany Bay I looked back and saw the white sandstone cliffs of NSW recede. A hot, dry land, yes, but at least a place where you can feel the sun on your skin. Thirteen hours later as I came into San Fran the turbulence of strong winds and heavy rains knocked the aircraft around. Upon emerging out of the car park with a debilitating mixture of nausea and sleep deprivation I found endless gray water sheeting the Californian sky. I’ve left summer and come to winter.

The feeling of having left the warm web of human associations back in Australia hit me about then and I felt sad on top of it all.  But don’t worry, after some sleep and food and drink I’ve revivified and today and feel ok again.

I’m an Australian in America.  I’ve come ambling out of the red centre…  A real man of the Australian wild doesn’t look like Crocodile Dundee, he looks like Jimmy Pike, brilliant Aboriginal hunter and tracker, pictured here with a Bilby (photo from Hunters and Trackers of the Australian Desert by Pat Lowe).

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No, I’m clearly not a true Man of the Wild.

This isn’t me.  I’m more at home with the button on my Nikon, than the grip of a throwing spear, and the sound of a trumpet being blown at a party, than the sound of a dingo howling after dark.  But I am more in touch with the natural world than most people.

So when I arrived here in San Fran the first thing I wanted to do was see what the land looked like beyond the built walls of civilization.  It is green and wet, so different to the arid land and blasting sun of south-western Australia I’ve just come from.   The experience of coming from one season and land to another season and land in such a short time is jarring at first, but I’m already adjusting to a winter key.

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Moss and lichen coat the stones, and the waving arms of the oak trees in the valley.

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The rain that fell yesterday and last night has created torrents where before there were just dribbles.

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This cataract, and former dribble, is in Fairfax, a small town about 45 minutes drive from the centre of San Francisco.  We’ve had some very serious rain here, with potential for dangerous flooding in the area.

This little house I noticed on my way out to this waterfall, on the side of the road in Fairfax.  The flag tells the true story as I see it.  I am an Australian entering American territory, but more importantly, I’m a human being entering another bioregion within the global biosphere.  This land is part of the common treasure and heritage that is the biosphere.

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Tomorrow morning I’m off to Esalen, Big Sur, to start my work-study program there.

To all my friends, I miss you!

Esalen – Part One

January 31st, 2008

Arrival…

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No, it hasn’t been that dramatic a crash. But I’m going to be honest about my experiences here, and you’ll see that it isn’t all flowing smoothly.
Esalen is a kind of retreat centre, which offers week long courses in yoga, meditation, photography, amongst other things. There are about three hundred people on this cliff-side property on the steep sides of Big Sur, central coast California. Some of the people are staff, and some of the staff are ‘work-study scholars’, that is people who pay less money to live and study here for a longer period, as well as who work for some of their week. I am one of these people. I’m staying on the main property, quite close to the lodge (the dining hall) which is the centre of activity here. I’m sharing a room with a Korean guy, an English guy, and a very young American guy. They are all nice, low key people. However the English guy is on the bunk bed below me and he snores and even with ear plugs it disrupts my sleep. Hopefully tonight the white noise machine somebody left in the room will help. However not having a private space to retreat to from all the people – and the experience of being at Esalen is of being thrown into a sea of talking heads – gets me down a bit.

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In the dining hall one eats at a buffet, and the food here is so various and gourmet in a very healthy sense that I am eating the best meals I’ve ever eaten.

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Here is the kitchen. This is where I work six hours a day, five days a week. I am washing dishes or pots or chopping vegetables or taking salads out to the salad bar in the dining hall. I work quickly to alleviate the monotony of the jobs, and today I had the pleasure of having my iPod played on the stereo as the chef for the day didn’t have any music on him. What with work during the day and the two and a half hours of classes in the evenings I’m finding myself feeling overly controlled by outside forces (what with the additional factor of not having a private space of my own to retreat to after work or class).

But I want to give a balanced view of my experience here, so now it is time to turn to some of the positives of being at Esalen. At Esalen thermal hot springs are channeled into hot bathes which are perched on the edge of the cliffs. I generally try and have two trips down the hill each day to soak in the tubs. With sore muscles from scrubbing pots or running around the kitchen, it is just what one’s body needs.

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I have yet to actually take my camera into the tubs – people are generally naked so they might not appreciate it if I did – but here is where I stand on the stones above the freezing cold Pacific ocean and have a hot shower before entering the baths.

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Yesterday I had a rare moment of solitude in the bathes before lunch, and as I rolled around in the water I watched an otter rolling around in the much colder water below me on his back. A pleasing analogue in recreation between me and the ocean swimmer. Lying in the hot tubs is clearly one of the best things about this place.

I have to go to bed now as I’m exhausted, but I’ll continue this blog about Esalen tomorrow.

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Esalen – Part Two

February 3rd, 2008

Now for the place…

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We are on the edge of some cliffs above the ocean. The days are cool, maybe 15 degrees? I can’t tell you what temperature it is with certainty as the Americans use Farenheit which I don’t understand.

Yesterday I walked up the canyon, and looked around and saw big trunks, dignified and ramified by thousands of years. Leaving the dining hall (to the right of this photo) and the society of this place, I was confronted by nature. A sudden lifting of the veil and I see that I am in a place, not just a sea of talking heads. Up the path I sat and watched the water shoot down the creek before me. Turning to my side I noticed shafts of sunlight catching and highlighting the green grass on the ground around me. The air is cool and humid here, and I can’t ignore that I am in a place not just a society.

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In the mornings the ocean hits the rocks and creates a fine mist of spray along the coast as you look south from the dining hall (here I’m looking into a reflection from the window of the sun-room).

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My ambivalence about the earnest and irony-deficient character of Esalen village life is not extended to this patch of the Big Sur coast. I love it.

The Big South

February 6th, 2008

As usual I don’t have enough time to do any writing here, but I thought I would share a few of my recent images.

Dinner in the lodge with John the piano man…

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Frail barques set sail on the ocean of blue, their wings setting a faltering and delicate course outwards. These are Monarch butterflies over-wintering in Big Sur.  The ones further east in the US make their way down to Mexico for winter each year.

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Far from the chatter and the heat of the crowd…

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The pulse of the sea on a Western frontier.

February 11th, 2008


More thoughts and images from El Sur Grande (The Big South)…  A word on history.  This part of the world has a Spanish name due to its Spanish history, which started a couple of hundred years ago.  In 1770, while James Cook was mapping the east coast of Australia, on the other side of the Pacific the Spaniard Gaspar de Portola was spear-heading the spreading of Catholic missions to this part of the world. The Esalen Indians, and other tribes of native Americans, were quickly converted to Christianity and lost their culture.  Until about seventy years ago this part of California didn’t even have a road going to it.  In 1938 Highway 1 opened it up to tourists, of which there were to be many.  Some of the interested travelers to have visited have included Ansel Adams, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jack Kerouac.  Short history lesson I know, but my sources here are sparse.

It is still winter as I sit here in Big Sur, with the Santa Lucia mountains to my back, but we have had a series of sunny days in the mid twenties so it doesn’t feel like it.   The other evening I was walking back up the hill from the hot tubs listening to the Californian reggae group Groundation on my headphones.  A couple of people walked down the path past me, carrying the smiles of those who have just come off the dance floor, as they had.  I looked out at the dark sky and the moon and thought I am glad to be here…

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Greeting the sun in a rare moment of solitude.

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The pulse is strong.

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The water is green and cold.

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Sprawling coast live oak draped with lace-like lichen creates a dark, convoluted space.  The hills of Big Sur are a mosaic of grassland, oak woodland, redwood forest, and coastal shrub.

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A Green Place By the Sea

February 24th, 2008

Look at my American gallery on this website to see recent sights to have met my eyes – my image editing software is broken, so I’m just putting unedited images straight into the gallery at the moment.

So, another epistle from the headquarters of credulous Californian hippydom. Rather than dwelling on the negatives of being here, like little time to one’s self and little privacy, I’ll throw down some vignettes of things I’ve enjoyed.

An early morning awakening rewarded with a pink sky, and a rainbow in the midst of the mellow splendor.

Stopping on the road and watching five condors swing and glide out of towering thermals. They were flying without needing to move their wings, as though they were using hang-gliders with fixed structures above their torsos.

At Point Lobos. Cold and windy, and towards the end of the day. Shadowy vistas, grass glades, wizened, wind-wracked zig-zagging boughs of Monterey Cypress, and ancient and tilted stone boulders above the loquacious Pacific. A philosophical location.

Here’s a photo of the front lawn of Esalen…  two young fellas watch the sun slip away.
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Finally feeling at home at Esalen.

March 11th, 2008

I’ve moved into a new cabin here at Esalen, (to remind you, Esalen is the expensive, new age, formerly avant-garde spa resort/ workshop centre/ seas-side community that clings to the unpeopled mountains here on the north-central Californian coast, where I’ve been residing for the past six weeks). I’ve also started a new job in the office. It has been a week of experiencing these new things, and thanks to these changes I’ve really started to get into the groove of being here. The new cabin is clean and nice and has a little deck. Up in my double bed with my photographs on the wall I feel like I have a little home here in America. I share the cabin with one other guy, rather than the three others of my previous cabin. It is simple, but it is all that is needed, and it is somewhere to call my base. Apparently having this aesthetically pleasing and comfortable little corner makes a difference to me – maybe its my personality type, I’m not sure. And what with this little home nook, and not disliking my job anymore now I’m away from the noise and clatter of the kitchen, I have come to a point where I find myself relaxing more and more often enjoying what is to be enjoyed at Esalen.

Last Saturday evening I DJed some reggae at a party in a yurt up the hill. There were the people from the new work-scholar group in attendance (work-scholars are people who work and study here in blocks of five weeks).  The new group is doing a month-long workshop in dance.  The party was low-key, with a pile of cushions in the centre of the yurt, on which lay strewn sundry limbs and torsos in various state’s of massage-induced relaxation. Here Johanna, a German lady, is enjoying a foot massage.

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The other day I visited Monterey, a town an hour’s drive north on the coast from here. It is famously associated with the novels of John Steinbeck, but the contemporary reality seems quite nondescript and unremarkable to me. Being in Monterey – my second time out of Esalen in six weeks – was a strange experience. I had left Planet Esalen and returned to the real world. Roads and tarmac and cars were one of the first things I noticed. They seemed to be everywhere. That was the first impression from leaving here. Most people live on an area of the planet’s surface that is relentlessly bisected by roads built for automobiles. I realize that I really love having just a little wooden cabin by the sea and walking to and fro. I like not seeing polluting cars en route all the time and being reminded of how unsustainably people live. As I walked around Monterey I started to think about some of the things I’ll miss when I leave Esalen. I counted them out. I realize that when I leave here I will miss being able to roll down to the lodge whenever I want and get a delicious, organic, healthy meal, with endless variety and freshness of produce. Or walk into a free Qui Gong class, or an improvisational dance class. Or talk to somebody I know in the lodge if I feel like a social interaction on the spur of the moment. Or roll down to the tubs for a soak in mineral hot waters while watching waves power themselves onto the rocks below me. Or go and take photos in the thousand year old redwood forest up the canyon. Or meet interesting people over a meal in the lodge. Or get a massage down in the tubs while hearing the Pacific rumble in my subconscious. Or get up in the morning, get out of my bunk bed and walk out a few paces and look at the waves and the mountains and the cypresses and smell clean air. I will miss these things.

As compensation I remind myself that when I do leave here I will be taking some good bodywork skills away, some knowledge of dance and Qui Gong, a Big Sur photographic portfolio, and some good contacts. And of course one part of the Californian coast can’t ever have a monopoly on dance, massage, nature and the like!

Now I can say that I feel connected to Big Sur and I can imagine happily living here in this part of America. I love this landscape. Finally after six weeks I feel like I’ve arrived.

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Here’s the lodge where we eat like healthykings:

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Here’s the front deck of my little cabin.  At the end of that row of cars is the cliffs and I walk and stand and look out on the coast of Big Sur each morning.  The white stone I found down on the pebble beach here.

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Big Sur Vision and Occlusion: Looking out at the land and gazing in at the navel.

April 2nd, 2008

The other morning I sat in a hot tub under the morning sun as it tipped over the Santa Lucia mountains from the east and cast it warmth down on the naked loungers in mineral hot water. I looked down on the rocks of the beach below, gray and catching the dragging surf in an immobile clasp. The foam collected and ruffled like white egg yokes, then retreated to the west. The water I was in was hot, and only with an intellectual effort did I remember that the blue sea I was looking at below was very, very cold.

All of a sudden a movement to my right on the steep rocky slope. Salt peter and olive coloured bushes clung to the near vertical scree, and from among them I made out the shape of a squirrel. The squirrel weaved a perilous and sure footed way down the slope. It came to a ledge further below me again, but still high up over the sea. It stopped and looked out, static on the ledge. It was looking at the waves powering themselves onto the stones below and the big blue immensity out beyond. I could see that the only reason for being were it was and doing what it was doing was to perceive the dramatic ocean scene in front of both of us. I looked at the waves. It looked at the waves also. And then in that moment I knew that other living beings can also appreciate aesthetics, or visual drama. I was witnessing it happen before my eyes. It is not just the struggle for survival that preoccupies other mammals. A different living reality was here with me soaking in the spectacular tumble of the Big Sur coast.

Here’s me later in the day soaking in the view.
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Green tea and sitting high above the ocean in an empty and quiet sunroom is the perfect combination for thought and reflection. That’s where I am right now. It feels good to use my brain again. With so much external engagement in the form of lots and lots of social interaction and massage and chores and meals and work in the office, my intellectual life has been dimmed somewhat. Good to reclaim it and sit here thinking and writing. I’m glad to be leaving Esalen in less than a week. Working and studying in this community/workshop centre/resort means constantly running from one thing to the next (I haven’t had time to update this blog or keep in touch with my friends). I need to slow down and focus on my own work more.

After experience in ‘process’ groups (group therapy), I have realized that many of the people here at Esalen want to find interpersonal psycho-drama when there doesn’t always need to be any. Many of them really want and expect that stuff. Rather than being attentive to the natural world, or discussing climate change, history or other such substantial and meaningful topics, many of them prefer to sit in a circle in a yurt and discuss the exact shape and colour of their respective navels. Let me make it clear that I am interested in the human drama, and I do believe in the importance of clear, constructive communication and an awareness of one’s inner emotional state, but sometimes these people can just go overboard. Get more upbeat, smile, get going on some bigger projects, and find a sense of humility through finding your place in the natural world, I often secretly think to myself. Many of these people don’t seem to understand the importance of normality, levity and humble simplicity. Instead they get swept up in the group delusion that earnest interpersonal psycho-drama is the most important thing in the world, when it is really something that will be remembered as much as yesterday’s weather.

But the land here still inspires me. Despite all the earnest, knotted-brow Californian errant knights of Esalen the land abides and stands tall. While people can bring you down, the reality of being here on the edge of this magnificent continent can still be touched. A diminutive squirrel still sits poised on a ledge, looking outwards to the sea.

Last weekend I was up the road a few miles north of here, walking on a trail through the redwoods which then wound up a valley through oaks and grassland, in Julia Pfeiffer state park. On the way up I and a friend sat on a rock high above the valley, surrounded by green, translucent leaves. The sun created highlights and dark patches on the tips of redwood trees on the opposite side of the valley and we dangled our legs over the rock and were silent. Sometimes a bird sang from below us or near beside us. There was so much peaceful, shadowy, empty space in the middle of the narrow valley before us. I had a moment of immersion in the wilderness, thinking that this place was always here, and always wild and unpeopled. This corner of California is far from the madding crowd, and due to a long distance from Big Sur to where most people in this state live, it will remain untrammeled by humanity. Days come and nights fall here, I thought as I sat on the granite boulder, with immemorial regularity and calm. This is why I come to nature – not to stride boldly through it, but to be still at places like this, to look outwards and sense the spirit of the place.

The human community can make a lot of noise, but there is another kind of community at Esalen, a community of non-human beings. Like these long-lived cypress trees standing on the edge of the cliff, the members of this other community are much quieter interlocutors.
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Leaving Esalen and mastering massage.

April 9th, 2008

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This image was created by my friend Nate Bolt (rights reserved). It is of the Esalen hot tubs, and depicts the place as a planet.  Superb work Nate.

So I have now left planet Esalen (the retreat centre where I’ve been working and studying for the last ten weeks). Today I’m breathing a sigh of relief to have my own life back – to not be working for the machine and to not be constantly in the public eye. I am in control of my own days again. I have some privacy again. I can choose who I associate with again. Ahh.. at last. The sun is shining through the leaves of the oak trees in this quiet valley in Fairfax, just north of San Francisco.

What do I mean by ‘the machine’? On one of the feeback forms I took in the office from a guest at Esalen they had written ‘the machine is too well oiled’. And this is accurate – the selection process for becoming permanent staff at Esalen stresses organizational ability, punctuality, following orders without question (what they call ‘being a team player’), and the ability to give great significance to repetitious and banal work activities. Because of this the make-up of the Esalen staff is full of personalities that possess these traits. They run the machine of a workshop centre/ new age resort very efficiently. If this is the only litmus test of success then they succeed admirably. But could the machine possibly ‘be too well oiled’? Well the above mentioned personality traits do not often coincide with the relaxed, fun-loving, easy-going, jokey, creative, and charismatic aspects of human identity. In fact they can sometimes preclude these other aspects of human identity. The machine of a large new age hotel runs smoothly and efficiently at Esalen, but the people who live and work here permanently are often overly fastidious. Many of the people who work here are great at running to complete the next task, but they forget enjoy the journey en route. These people are great at making other plans, but they forget that life is what happens while you are making other plans. I’m sure many organizations in the modern Western world suffer from the same problem.

And I have to say that it is nice to be away from New Age discourse. This discourse, exemplified by many of the books in the bookshop, is full of slap dash poetic sentiment and nebulous and evidence-immune philosophical argument (more often plain assertion rather than argument). I have an image of Aldous Huxley come back from the dead. He is slumped at a table in the Esalen lodge, despondently listening to a zealot babble incoherently about the chakra system.

But of course there have been some great things about being at Esalen. The dance sessions for example…

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And the hot tubs above the ocean fed by mineral hot springs…

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Esalen massage is unique. It is full of long ‘settling strokes’ which give you a feeling of whole body integration, as well as rotations of the joints, and an emphasis on the quality of touch and presence of the practitioner. Although I’ve not talked much about it here, after ten weeks of studying massage I am now confident with practicing massage. I have a good knowledge of anatomy and I have mastered a range of bodywork techniques. I am ready to practice on those who need it, so let me know.

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Leaving the Tribe

April 22nd, 2008

Having left Esalen I have had moments of missing the place. What I missed was the sense of being enmeshed in a small community of people. While staying at Esalen I sometimes found this overwhelming and without respite (and thought to myself that I wouldn’t want to live in an eco-village), but now away from it I realize that I also found it satisfying on a visceral level. For most of human history we, as a species, have lived in stable groups of between 20 and 200 people for just about our entire lives. With this in mind it comes as no surprise that after I’d slaked my thirst with a few days of peace and solitude, I started to miss the easy access to known characters that walking into the Esalen lodge (the dining area) always provided.

But there were things about that place that I had tired of. And although I’ve left the country and come to the city, I’ve not left nature behind. My path continues. Just to the west of the towns of Marin county is an area of woodland and hills. I’m regularly to be found up winding paths such as this one. As you can see, spring is here in this part of the northern hemisphere.

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I’ve been into downtown San Francisco a couple of times. As you walk past Grace Cathedral into downtown proper the streets dip dramatically, and the ornate hotel facades, glimpses of the water through canyons of tall buildings, and well hallowed cable cars rattling up the incline, all make for an intriguing cityscape. I like it. The other day I and a friend visited a gallery downtown that exhibited the black and white photographs of the Californian photographer Brett Weston. I particularly like his photograph ‘Reeds, Japan, 1970‘. Abstract brush strokes from the creator.

I’ve visited Berkley across the bridge on the more polluted east side of the bay, and found that the energy level on the street there is far, far greater than over here in sedate and peaceful Marin County. As you walk into a pub it will be commonplace to hear a snatch of excited conversation about politics or philosophy from someone who is quite likely an academic or a student, or at least highly educated. I’ve also made a day trip down to Stanford University, south of here in Palo Alto (just around the corner from where Apple has its headquarters). The area Stanford is located in reminds me of quiet Canberra back in Australia, and doesn’t have the same rough vitality of Berkley street life. The architecture of the main quad is, strangely enough, just like the Byzantine style of the old buildings at the University of Western Australia (but UWA has a smaller and prettier campus).

But mainly I’m back in Marin, the area just north of the often fog-shrouded Golden Gate bridge. I lived here twelve years ago, but this time I’m more appreciative of the quiet valleys to be found in the hills around me.

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Goodbye San Francisco

May 13th, 2008

Before flying back to Australia I wanted to make one final visit to the top of Mt. Tamalpais. Mt. Tam is the tallest mountain around San Francisco, and it has the most beautiful views from the ridge that leads to its summit.

The Pacific ocean is just so cold around San Francisco that even moderately warm temperatures create thick plumes of fog, plumes which curl over the hills of Marin and shroud the Golden Gate bridge and the city itself. Here I stand on the way up to the top of Tam, looking north as the fog drifts its way through the tops of the redwood trees.

The following photo was also taken from the way up to the top of Mt. Tam, but here I’m looking west, out to sea. I love the feeling of shelter this spot gives me each time I visit it. It is like a promise of sanctuary in the little wooded crease of valley below, a bonne vaux to use John Fowles’ term for such a sheltering and mysterious place.

Most of the past few weeks I’ve been based in the little town of Fairfax in Marin County. The walls of this little town have murals painted by the artist who created the album covers of the Grateful Dead, and there is a cadre of old school hippies that hang around on the main street. Apart from this though its a settled, Democrat-voting and children-raising demographic in Fairfax. It is not the most exciting place to be, but just up the end of the street I was staying on you step into the wilderness of the Marin hills, and walking and mountain biking up here, with just a couple of turkey vultures circling lazily overhead, was fantastic. Regularly getting into this kind of wooded and hilly country and leaving the trail made me determined to eventually settle in a place where I can do this again.

Of course I like the urban as well… Last Saturday night I was in the city, and walking down a lively street in Russia Hill was like a glass of stiff liquor after the diluted calm of downtown Fairfax. San Francisco is a beautiful city as new world cities go, and it is possible to exist here without driving a car. Just hit the wide and steep pavement, and go for a walk. You can also jump into a cable car or a bus. Bus stops have digital screens telling you how many minutes remain until the next bus arrives.

We walked over the hill and down for an Italian meal in North Beach, the traditional home of the beat writers in the 1950s. Later we ended up in City Lights bookstore, the literary capital of northern California. While I was there I took the following photo which I think nicely echoes the shop’s name.

I’ve enjoyed being in the Bay area. Culturally America has a lot of the same Anglo-saxon heritage that Australia has (prudery and a Protestant work ethic for example), but there is also more going on because of the sheer volume of people in this country, and there is not the distrust of cultural excellence here that Australian culture sometimes lets slip. I won’t miss some aspects of America – the tense atmosphere in some neighbourhoods after dark, the huge, polluting cars and the bland ethnocentrism of the country all come to mind – but I can say that San Francisco is one of the coolest cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of hanging out in.

Arriving back in Australia.

May 13th, 2008

I’ve made the journey over the Pacific and to Australia.  I arrived yesterday morning and caught a taxi to my friend’s Annie’s place on a quiet and leafy street of Bondi.  The streets here in Bondi are full of subtropical plants and trees.  Sydney gets a little bit of rain throughout the year, unlike the long dry summers of Perth, so these kinds of rainforest plants grow better here than in the west.  On the plane over I’d read Lost Worlds, a book on a naturalist’s experiences of the lowland and montane tropical rainforests of Papua New Guinea by Bruce Beehler of Conservation International.   Amazing to learn that the most remote place on earth is probably the Fojo Mountain range of western New Guinea – just north of Australia – a tropical forest fastness full of undescribed species that is truly worthy of being called a Lost World (unlike most rainforest wildernesses around the world even the indigenous land users haven’t been up there).  I feel great when I’m around the diversity, colour and fecundity of tropical rainforest ecosystems, and it is nice to have little intimations of them on the streets of Sydney.

Walking down to the beach at Bondi the blue of the water came as a welcome shock to my eyes.  Knowing that the water here is about 20 degrees celcius gives the place a different atmosphere to the shore of the frigid Pacific in Northern California.   Ah, welcome to Australia…

Walking around the cliffs by Bondi you see the wind-sculpted sandstone that hundreds of British men and women would have peered at as eleven wooden ships sailed into Sydney harbour 220 years ago.   It is good to be back.

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush.

June 1st, 2008

Gary Snyder says that true affluence is not needing anything. But what we do need is the fertility of the land and the beauty of the more than human world. In his poem ‘Spring’ Gerald Manley Hopkins writes that nothing is so beautiful as that season. Reading his lines reminds me of the life in my garden right now in south-western Australia. The atmosphere here in Fremantle has shifted so much from the hot and arid place I left back in January. The rain has been falling here and the land is green and the little New Holland Honey Eaters, although they are quite different to the Thrush of England, sing as I write this. Here our ‘autumn’ is like the ‘spring’ of England. Let’s turn it over to Hopkins:

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush

Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue

What delicious eloquence. I love the way Hopkins sees ‘low heavens’ in the delicate shells of Thrush’s eggs, and the way he depicts the victory of biological life over the inert wagon wheels of technology. Now is the time when weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush.

Pirates, Surgeons, and Diving into the Indian Ocean.

June 24th, 2008

A bit of hyper-local comment today, which will hopefully be of interest even if you don’t live where I live.  I dwell on the west coast of Australia, in the port city of Fremantle.  The other day I was reading a report from the surgeon of the Fremantle prison from 1870.  In describing Fremantle he talks of the ‘excessive heat at times’, and the ‘sterile, uninteresting prospect’.  The Fremantle Attfield would have looked down on all those years ago was a small town of crushed limestone roads, limestone cottages, encroaching sand dunes, the odd grass tree dotted here and there, and a few ships masts off to the left of Arthur’s head (the limestone outcrop the Roundhouse sits on).  It was an extremely isolated fragment of Anglo-Saxon protestant society, sitting incongrusously in the wild lands of dark-skinned hunters and gatherers.  You could send a telegraph up to Perth, but you certainly couldn’t make a phone call to any other part of the British Empire (the telephone had only just been invented a couple of years ago in America at the time). 

 

Last weekend I was watching a pirate film set in the late 1600s and shot partially on the rainforested coast of the island nation of Dominica in the Carribean.  It was not a great bit of cinema by any means, but the visual landscapes made me dream of my own experiences of tropical coastlines.  I remembered being in a mouldering old port town on the southern coast of Reunion Island in the Indian ocean.  Then my daydream turned to pirates chasing well laden East Indiamen off the coast of Reunion in the early 1700s.  To boarding these wealthy British ships, looting them, and riding off to a remote coast of Zanzibar and careening there on the beach and drinking rum in the humid sunshine… the soiled leather hats, the scared cheeks, the well worn hemp ropes, the dirty canvas full of wind, the untramelled natural world now sliding by the ship’s rails as they pass another green isle.  

 

In 1859 three convicts broke out of the Convict Establishment at Fremantle, stole a long boat and some supplies, and headed up the coast, tacking their way into adventure.  I imagine these long dead men looking over the boat’s rails at the flat and arid Western Australian coastline slide by monotonously under the hot sun.  

 

In one sense Attfield, that surgeon from the nineteenth century, was right: the Western Australian landscape can exhibit a ‘sterile and uninteresting prospect’.  This is the oldest part of the planet geologically speaking, and the soil is eroded of nutrients for the most part.  And many white folks back in Attfield’s day would have stopped on Mauritius on their way to Australia from England, to get some more fresh water and food.  Mauritius, like Reunion, is tall hills and mountains and deep lagoons and black basalt tumbling into the sea.  To see such a place and then arrive on the other side of the Indian ocean after a month or two at sea might have been an anti-climax. 

 

But then maybe that long dead surgeon should have rambled down to the sea at Fremantle, taken off his clothes, stood on a rock, looked down at the shifting, clear blue waters below him, and dived head first in.  He would have surfaced, as I did last Sunday, gave a hoot at the fresh temperature of the water in late June, and then happily gone for a swim.  The coastline at Fremantle isn’t something that I really complain about.    

The Owl of Minerva Spreads its Wings at Sunset

July 2nd, 2008

In the old chaplain’s house along the front terrace of Fremantle Prison, an old Australian convict site, there is a wide Victorian balcony. As I walked through the front door of this building this morning I looked up at the jarrah rafters on the underside of the balcony and a pair of wide, dark brown eyes looked down into my own. In all his compact, downy splendour sat a Southern Boobook (Ninox novaeseelandiae ocellata). I was happy to see the little visitant from a wilder Australia.

Owls have been on earth since the time of the dinosaurs, proving that their model of body is a pretty good one in the game of evolutionary change. Owls are far-sighted, and are unable to see anything clearly within a few inches of their eyes. Their far vision, particularly in low light, is exceptionally good. Serrated edges on the leading edge of the owl’s flight feathers muffle the owl’s wingbeats, allowing its flight to be practically silent.

The property manager of Fremantle Prison told me that he had come upon an owl inside the prison grounds one night when looking for pigeons. The owl had been two metres above his head sitting on a fence. When the pigeons took off they made a loud noise, but when the owl took flight it was absolutely silent.

The Owl of Minerva was a symbol of wisdom for the Romans. The German philosopher Hegel once commented that the Owl of Minerva only gets going and spreads its wings just as the historical day is coming to a close. Let’s hope he wasn’t right in the context of our historical transition to an environmentally sustainable Australia. May the Owl of Minerva bring his wisdom into our lives before the close of day.

And I hope the little fellow at Number Eight sticks around as well.

I am Australia

July 6th, 2008

Witness a scene on a beach, in a bay around half way up the east coast of Australia.  It is 1770, and forty year old Yorkshire-bred fellow by the name of James Cook stands there with two or three other uniformed white gentlemen.  Cook is Captain of the bath-tubbed shaped British barque the Endeavour.  Cook and his men have just sailed across the Pacific Ocean in their 32 metre long wooden sailing ship, watching Venus transit over the sun while in Tahiti, and then mapping the coast of New Zealand for six months.  They are excited to be standing on the mythical Terra Australis Incognita, that land that the Greeks had surmised must exist in the southern hemisphere to balance the lands of the northern hemisphere.

Cook and the others look inland at another group of men further up the beach.  These men are very dark skinned, have no textiles hanging from their bodies, have very thick beards, less hair than the white fellows on other parts of their bodies, and are holding three metre long spears.

Two worlds stand, suspended in mutual incomprehension.

Let the two worlds stand there for a moment.

The old Australian is nomadic.  He enjoys the prospect of changing horizons and shifting skies.  He is part of a tightly bonded human community.  His community is by no means utopian, and its treatment of women is to be lamented.  But his people know no huge gap between rich and poor.  He uses his hands to make tools and to paint pictures.  When Cook throws down trinkets and ribbons at his feet as a sign of peace and amiability he is indifferent and shows no gratitude.  He is ecologically literate and he reads the shapes and patterns of the natural world with consummate finesse.  He hunts with his brothers and engages all his senses while moving with stealth through the leafy and shadowy present.  His language grew on this land, and its fault-lines fit the fault-lines of this land with an intimate clasp.  His forefathers and mothers have lived full and satisfying human lives here for around fifty thousand years.

The prudish interloper, swaddled in colourful wool and cotton, is loyal to king and country, to King George and to England.  He comes from a society that stopped being nomadic a long time ago, and settled down to agriculture.  His society grew in numbers, got itself a king, and became feudal.  He comes from a world of lamentable inequality.  A young boy has the noose placed around his neck on a scaffold in a London square for a minor theft, while aristorcrats dance to Mozart around the corner in an opulent ballroom.  Convicted British men work as shackled slaves on the banks of the Thames river.  Recently the light of science has started to shine in his land, and a public sphere is forming where people read newspapers in coffee houses, and debate the issues of the day.  Punishments are slowly becoming less inhumane.  Englishmen like the botanist Joseph Banks, the tall man back on the ship, are full of the wonder of science.  Cook comes from a land of ancient and small-scale mixed farms that do no harm to wildlife.  He comes from an economy with a rich diversity of skilled and non-polluting trades and professions, like wheelwrights and shipwrights.  This man speaks my mother tongue.

Two cultures, standing still in time, staring at each other.

Both cultures are deeply imperfect.  But both cultures have much to be remembered.  Both cultures have much to be celebrated.

I love both cultures because both cultures help to make me who I am.

I am Australia.

There is nothing lowly in the universe

July 17th, 2008

Literary critics always seem to have something to say. But sometimes they should keep quiet. Today all I want to do is share with you some lines from the poem ‘Still’ by the American poet A. R. Ammons:

I said what is more lowly than the grass?

Ah, underneath a brown crust of dried burnt moss

I looked at it closely and said this can be my habitat

but nestling in I found green mechanisms beyond intellect awaiting resurrection and rain

so I got up

And ran, saying ‘There is nothing lowly in the universe’

I found a beggar

He had stumps for legs

nobody was paying him any attention

everybody went on by

I nestled in and found his life

There, love shook his body like a devastation

I said, ‘Though I have looked everywhere, I can find nothing lowly in the universe.’

Gulliver the Boab and His Western Australian Travels

July 20th, 2008

I was passing through King’s Park, a park in the centre of the city of Perth, this afternoon. What should I see, but the fabled Gulliver lying prone. Brightly clothed Lilliputians crawled around and over him.

Gulliver was tied down firmly, and the people of Lilliput swarmed about. Gulliver was an old man from the north of Western Australia. The people of Perth saw Gulliver as part of their state, part of their identity. But these southern Lilliputians forgot that Western Australia is twice the size of Western Europe, and that Gulliver’s outlook for the past 750 years resembled nothing most of them had ever seen. Before the Enlightenment period of the eighteenth century that rocked Europe’s intellectual foundations, Gulliver was a seasoned elder. Before the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century, Gulliver was a dignified pillar of the community of vertical beings. Before the great, great grandfathers and mothers of these present Lilliputians were born, this old boab had seen many generations of tribes of darker skinned Lilliputians wandering across the horizon, or maybe stopping to harvest some seeds beneath his boughs.

Adansonia gregorii, is Gulliver’s scientific name. He has six cousins in Madagascar, and one in Africa (yes we were one land far back in the mists of prehistory). Gulliver is cold from the drop in temperature in his new home in Perth, 3200 kms south of where he’d lived for the previous few centuries. He’s been translocated to King’s Park as they were going to build a road through his spot on the planet.  Hopefully he’ll be ok.

Ode to the Swan River

August 1st, 2008

[For those not from Western Australia, the Swan River is a broad and slow flowing river which winds through Perth and out to the sea at Fremantle.]

A SILENCE UNHEARD ON YOUR FURROWED CHANNELS

I throw down my bike, and I’m here.

The flowing Swan, soothing broth for my head.
Drinking in the cooler shadows, I look down on my pass, never fled.
High above the water, amongst the needles of the trees.
I pause for a moment and sigh, not being charged any fees.

Anger at Four Wheel Drivers slips out in a rasp.
Blood moves through me, the currents of flow yet out of my grasp.
Casuarina trees mat my ground with their flax,
This pause elongates, then disbands incremental emotional tax.

Nothing is demanded by the dimensions of my local river bank,
The palimpsest of the Paper-bark has only a history of evolution in its tussled flank.
The waving Zamia palm’s government is the risen sun,
The only land-lord of this Marri is the afternoon wind and its sometimes squalling run.

The slope of this sandy earth was not a grandstand in 1829,
And you can hear no querulous Wattlebird report upon those whose questing navy was of Lime.
Prior events were more cyclic, a thousand years contained the morning’s news.
The khaki colour of my sentinel’s leaves, a leached detail any day would not fear to lose.

The morning of this quiet, greener millennia is here.
I look around this river bank, now my Today has dispensed with fear.
I stand upon the grassy river’s edge and am complete,
Let us pray for others yet to rise to their feet.

How to explain the experience of riding a wave:

August 6th, 2008

This morning I was at Leighton for some clean, two foot barrels, all to myself.  I caught myself enjoying the moments on the face, and then being a word-hoarder, I wanted to verbalize why I like this experience. Read on…

Forward comes the scintillating bank of green water. You paddle and then, you are:

Free. Freed from the contraints of being a slow, land-dwelling mammal. Liquid. All motion buffered by gentle and forgiving silk. Effortless. Pollution-free, you float along the edge of one of nature’s rhythms. Moving. Hericlitus was right to say that stasis is death. Absorbed in the Now. Rousseau’s Noble Savages play on the Australian littoral. Out-racing the breaking lip. Tim Winton was pleased to see men do something pointless and elegant.

What have you accomplished?

Freedom-drenched liquid under the sun.

Book learnin.

August 10th, 2008

In case you’re interested, I’ve recently added short, paragraph-long reviews of Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, of Lester R. Brown’s Plan B 3.0 and Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food to the page on this website entitled ‘Wisdom’ (my suggested reading list).  It isn’t often that reading a book influences my view of the world.  All three of these books have managed to do just that.

The Thought of Something Else

August 11th, 2008

Half of humankind now lives in an urban environment, me included. Recently I’ve been pining for some more nature in my life. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

I think these lines from a poem by Wendell Berry beautifully illuminate our predicament:

THE THOUGHT OF SOMETHING ELSE

By Wendell Berry

A spring wind blowing
the smell of the ground
through the intersections of traffic,
the mind turns, seeks a new
nativity-another place,
simpler, less weighted
by what has already been.
...
-a place where thought
can take its shape
as quietly in the mind
as water in a pitcher,
or a man can be
safely without thought
-see the day begin
and lean back,
a simple wakefulness filling
perfectly
the spaces among the leaves.

How to Win a Discussion about the Environment:

August 15th, 2008

We have all encountered political apathy and pessimism in those around us. Here I imagine a conversation between Citizen X and an environmentally unconcerned relative of his.  Let’s see what happens…

Wealthy relative [folding his arms across his chest proprietarily]: ‘Well, I’m not doing too badly [in fact he is rich], so I’m not too worried about all that doom-and-gloom talk.’

Citizen X: ‘Remember that you eat the same food and breathe the same air as the rest of us. Living disproportionately high on the food chain, where toxic substances become concentrated, you are at more, rather than less risk of reproductive impairment.’

Wealthy relative: ‘I’ll be dead by the time all these environmental problems become really serious.’

Citizen X: ‘I don’t see why you are paying through the nose for your kids private school education with the goal of helping them enjoy their lives 40 years from now, while simultaneously undermining the world they will be living in at that time. Surely you’ll want your kids to have a stable climate, living forests and living oceans to enjoy? It is a basic moral obligation to help pass on to your children a planet that is inhabitable.’

Wealthy relative: ‘Ok, but as an individual I can’t stop things going the way they are going. So I won’t do anything.’

Citizen X: ‘The second step in your argument doesn’t work. You are right to say that alone you can’t save the world. However, if you do your little bit to fight climate change you will be helping. It is like paying taxes – a small contribution multiplied millions of times becomes a large amount. And totally apart from this, altruistic action feels good, something which makes sense considering our species’ evolutionary history of living in small bands of hunter-gatherers who needed to co-operate. Only your hopelessness is an indulgence we cannot afford.’

Whenever somebody has the courage to disagree with a defender of the status quo, whenever somebody joins the Green movement for revolutionary change, whenever somebody stands up and speaks out, somewhere, in the background, horns of Victory are blowing.

Nature and the Breakfast Table in an Australian Garden

August 20th, 2008

[These are a few lines I wrote a little while back about the divide between culture and nature.]

NATURE AND THE BREAKFAST TABLE IN AN AUSTRALIAN GARDEN

I’m let free from my mooring in the night.
Stretch into the morning without a fight.
Step down the hall.

But then, sick to my stomach of flat, human crafted surfaces,
Tired of synthetic tables and silent curses.
I walk out into my garden.
No, I go out the back door, into a green then.

In my right hand I carry an old handsaw,
Used by my grandfather and disused a lot more.
I walk towards an offending trunk and leaves,
Non-native, invasive, bringer of luxuriant thieves.

Place the teeth to the bark,
Place my right foot to the ground among the twigs.
Then I move and find I’m dynamic among the verdure,
Far from that breakfast table.

A cat watches me from the distant grass,
His eyes glisten and
My spirit glistens.

Smokey the Bear Sutra

August 22nd, 2008

The year was 1969… the back to the land movement was underway. People were heading off to build little wooden cabins in forest clearings and Gary Snyder published his poem Smokey the Bear Sutra:

SMOKEY THE BEAR SUTRA

Wearing the broad-brimmed hat of the West, symbolic of forces that guard the Wilderness, which is the natural state of the Dharma and the True Path of man on earth; all true paths lead through mountains-


Trampling underfoot wasteful freeways and needless suburbs;

smashing the worms of capitalism and totalitarianism;


Indicating the Task: his followers, becoming free of cars, houses, canned food, universities, and shoes, master the Three Mysteries of their own Body, Speech, and Mind; and fearlessly chop down the rotten trees and prune out the sick limbs of this country.


Can you imagine such a politically spirited, slightly naive but powerful eco-manifesto having followers today? Where is Smokey the Bear in 2008?

I don’t know.

The Slow Fires Trailing of Stanley J. Kunitz

August 27th, 2008

The recently deceased American poet Stanley J. Kunitz once wrote a poem called ‘Layers’. I want to quote some lines from this poem, as they seem to me to perfectly capture the experience of loss that is part of being human. Despite the heart’s ‘feast of losses’, we mostly manage to continue onwards down the road. With poetry like this to bring into speech the reality of loss, somehow such experiences seem more tractable.  With his language Kunitz makes it easier for us to continue on down the road.  Here are a few lines from ‘Layers’:

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

We’re Going to Shoot that Scene Again

September 1st, 2008

Take one.

Lights, camera, action.

You and your friends are unrelated in any meaningful sense to the birds in the trees that you occasionally see when driving to work in the morning. You and the people you know or see on television are Human. You and your human kin have created art, written love letters, driven cars, earned incomes, built houses, and voted in federal elections. And that vast gap between you and that dog barking down the road, or that cat sitting on the sofa over there, doesn’t need any commentary. It’s big. It isn’t just a matter of a difference in scale, but an absolute change in quality. We are the elect, we are spirits and minds, we are Human.

Take two.

Lights, camera, action!

You are an incredibly complex biological organism. Your mind is the flow of scenarios that presents itself through the workings of a neo-cortex situated in your head and is constantly interrelating with thousands of chemical reactions in the rest of your body. The emotions you feel, the things that make you bother getting up in the morning at all, have a physical presence and evolved with you over the millennia, on the savannas of tropical Africa, your ancestral home. Like every other organism, you prosper when you experience many of the things available in your native habitat. These include a wide range of unprocessed foods, water, shelter, the love provided by a lover and family, the community of your tribe, some sun light, physical exercise, purpose, sleep, and the habitat itself: an ecosystem with trees, grasslands, sun, wind, rain and other forms of life, scurrying, roaming and gliding about the place.

If you think you are a smooth, urban, go-getter, who can jump in the car, buy goods and services, find full time employment, watch commercial tv, drink a beer and then put your feet up on the sofa, all the while disregarding the state of the natural world, then I suggest you reconfigure the script.

Christianity was wrong to tell us that we are transcendent souls inconveniently clothed in flesh. That gap between you and the dog barking round the corner or the cat sitting across the way is not immeasurable. Like theirs, your body, mind and spirit have been evolved over many millenia as adaptations to living in nature. Nature gives us clean food, water and air, and its diversity of colours, shapes and motions can feed our sense of wonder and mystery. We are primates. If you start to think in this manner then you’ll agree that our ancestral home has more than marginal significance.

Yes, nature is more than a lawn briefly noticed on a bold walk towards concrete and glass.

The colours of home.

September 7th, 2008

The other morning I was in King’s Park.  There was a grey sky with a warm, soft breeze passing over the heathland around me.  I stood there amongst the light navy greens of the plants, studded with the vivid reds and yellows of blooming flowers.  My eye took in the spiky leaf of a hakea, and then moved right and outwards to notice kangaroo paws and acacia flowers and macrozamias and other lives.  I crouched down and took the time to pause and look.  I remembered where I’m from. I’m from this land, this sandy, spiky, colourful and warm part of the planet.  If I don’t come here to a bit of real, natural Australia at least once a week and pause and look around myself and see the ancient and constantly renewed colours and shapes of my home, then I, slowly but surely, become a deracinated and spiritually empty dupe of technologically bolstered globalization.

And who wants that?

This light, navy green ground, splashed with colour each spring, is my frame.  It is part of my identity.  In some ways I’m a colonial fellow, speaking English, owning a ninth edition Brittanica, a bespoken linen suit, appreciating the farming methodology of the Duke of Cornwall, drinking gin and tonic on the veranda in the heat of the southern hemisphere.  But like other southern gentlemen, such as, Edward O. Wilson wandering through the forests of Alabama and northern Florida in the 1940s, I have a deep interest in understanding and loving the wilds of a new world.  My cultural heritage comes from afar, but this land is my home.

What do I believe?

September 14th, 2008

Would you like to characterize my political position?

Here’s something to go on.  I believe that unions help out the workers and provide needed balance to the greed of the rich.  I believe in the supreme importance of education as a light to shine into a world of dangerous ignorance.  I believe that there is an important discrepancy between the probing and educated voices of academics in universities and the ambient noise made by the mainstream media each day.  I believe that you should not derive your system of values from the advertisers book of dreams.  I believe that, due to its political quietism, postmodernism is the handmaiden of consumerism. I believe that our natural urges to eat sugary food come from our ancestor’s lives on the African savannah and that today we have to discipline ourselves to avoid these foods.  I believe that through practice you can rearrange your neural networks and become good at most things, and this includes meditating on love and peace.  I believe that our sedentary Western lifestyle is not what our bodies were designed for, and that we have to disclipline ourselves to move our bodies more.  I believe that part of citizenship should involve bioregional consciousness of the place you call home.  I believe that if you are going to eat meat in Australia it is environmentally irresponsible to not buy kangaroo.  I believe that if you buy goods made in first world Western nations you are also buying built-in trade unions, health insurance for workers, and many of the other things we value in the West as part of the package (and if you buy them from elsewhere, like China, you’re not getting those built-in features).  I believe that social capital, trust between people, is the glue that keeps a society together.  I believe that, because of the link between caring adults and exposure to good attachment figures in early childhood, we need to pay workers in day care centres more money if we want to live in society with more compassionate voters and more social capital.  I believe that because of the human propensity to compare, there are more stress hormones eroding perfectly good nervous systems in more inegalitarian societies.  I believe that politicians and beurocrats in positions of power have a vested interest to perpetuate the impression that they are in control of the way society is going, but that the reality is that, on the major trends, they are not and that social inequality and environmental destruction is on the rise.  I believe that this is the make or break century for the human species.  I believe that global oil production will peak, food prices will spiral upwards, and that there will be a significant economic recession in the coming few years.  I believe that most of our environmental problems can be fixed easily by rearranging the taxation system to tax environmentally destructive activities while reducing income tax.  I believe that we must provide more slack (build more autonomous units of energy and food production) in global and domestic systems in order to avoid a seventy car pile up on the highway (a cascading catastrophe) if something goes badly wrong somewhere along the line.  I believe in the virtues of frugality, as practiced, for example, in the few years after the second world war in England.  I believe that politicians are human beings and that they are susceptible to being shamed and influenced, sometimes more and sometimes less, by the actions and words of those that protest in the name of the environment and social equality.  I believe that because of our ancestors living in information-poor environments where it was an advantage to have a herd mentality, today most people acquiece to commonly held beliefs.  I believe in the unforced force of the better argument.  I believe in the virtues of being a gentleman, being kind, educated, compassionate, aware of one’s cultural history, curious about the very different cultural histories of others and the natural histories of other species, and being measured in one’s criticisms.  I believe in the importance of family planning in the developing world to prevent the increase in the number of failed states.  I believe that the twentieth century Western world has brought some good things, for example less physical violence, modern medicine, libraries full of books, and the mobility of the bicycle spread to millions of people.  I believe that the twentieth century Western world has also brought bad things such as the legal position of a corporation as a legal person, the conversion of ancient sunlight frozen in the form of fossil fuels into greenhouse causing gases, the conversion of urban citizens into eco-illiterate feed-lot cattle in terms of the amount of knowledge they have of the origins and nature of the food, water and energy they rely on each day for life, and plenty of loneliness for all those people in their little boxes.  I believe in the importance of being grateful and giving thanks for the good things in life.  I believe in the importance of play and laughter for mental health.  I believe that play and laughter (not to mention wider reflection on society) need lacunaes of idleness in which to flourish, and that a society obsessed with material wealth and time urgency discounts the importance of these lacunaes of idleness.  I believe that the wonders of the ancient diversity of species of non-human life on planet earth, the Creation, are a great source of spiritual reverence.

What do you think?

Judith Wright’s Old Cry of Praise

September 21st, 2008

I recently wrote a review of The Littoral Zone: Australian Contexts and their Writers for an American journal called Organization and Environment. While reading the book – I wasn’t that impressed by the way – I came upon a poem by Judith Wright, and it sparked the following thoughts…

Often the state of the world gets me down. With habitat being cleared and pollution being belched from so many quarters one searches for a light at the end of the tunnel. This is where the Australian poet Judith Wright and her poem ‘Flame-tree in a Quarry’ come to the rescue. The flame tree is endemic to the rainforests of south-east Queensland (around half way up the east coast of the Australian continent). When a flame tree is in bloom it literally looks like it is aflame: its holds up a profusion of bright red flowers up into the sky. The flowers have an especial vividness of colour and density of coral-like petals. In Wright’s poem we are introduced to a flame tree growing in the middle of an abandoned quarry. But as we read the poem we see more than a tree in a quarry. In the eyes of the poet we see ‘the old cry of praise’ coming out of ‘the torn earth’s mouth’. Wright:

Out of the very wound
springs up this scarlet breath –
this fountain of hot joy,
the living ghost of death.
(1971: 62) (p.190)

In the midst of human-caused destruction of the planet, right in the earth’s ‘torn mouth’, up comes life. The key line of the whole poem is the last one from the above quotation: nature’s triumph is to be ‘the living ghost of death’. That is to say, nature’s triumph is to be the presence that taunts death with its return. While there might be much destruction of nature in the twenty-first century, with this image of the red flowers of the flame-tree standing boldly in a quarry, making themselves a ‘living ghost of death’, I am reminded of the regenerative power of the natural world. And with such an image planted boldly in my mind, I forget woeful introspections and am heartened by nature’s victorious beauty in the living present.

Following tracks from T. E. Lawrence to Robyn Davidson to the Darling Range.

September 30th, 2008

I recently watched Lawrence of Arabia projected onto a big screen for the first time.  I loved some of the early scenes in the film. To see camels and the Bedu, and the esthetic Englishman’s white robes high on the camel’s back, to hear the gentle roar of the ungulates early in the morning, and to sense the air of philosophical desolation over all… the sun’s anvil, the red rocky mountains rising from the sands.. It all made me want to know more. I then read Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, a classic about travels through Saudi Arabia in the forties with the Bedu, but was unimpressed by Thesiger’s prose style and his lack of emotional affectivity and poeticism (of course the man is to be praised for his championing tradition modes of travel and for his great spirit of adventure). Still, give me white robes, a camel to ride, a desert and an mystic resolve and I’ll be happy, I mused. The scene where T. E. Lawrence walks into the English sergeant’s mess after traveling through the desert with his Bedu friends stayed in my mind, the stark contrast between the artificial and over-civilized Englishmen and their tedious customs, and the still grand, mobile, familial, looking-towards-the-land Bedu, made me much more impressed and interested by the traditional nomadic cultures of the middle east than I ever had been before.

Continuing this trajectory of interest, I’ve just read Tracks by Robyn Davidson. This young Australian woman walks from new Alice Springs across the Gibson desert to south of Carnarvon with four camels and her dog in 1977. It is an Australia my parents knew, not I. But Davidson goes truly into Australia. She walks across its sands with the company of her intimately known and loved animals, naked to the waist, dark brown, and having shed the routines of domestic life in the suburbs of Queensland. Australia was more ocker at that time, especially in some of the towns she went through, like Alice Springs, and it reminded me of those with a literary sensibility feeling alienated from this culture – almost as though Davidson is not Australian and is looking in on the ocker culture from outside of it (actually she was as she wrote the actual book while living in London). But the main thing is walking under the sun and sleeping in the freezing cold of the desert, and knowing the ways of camels, and meeting Aboriginal elders and speaking some of their languages, and being nomadic. It really is something to have done: unlike suburban modes of existence in Australia such months under the desert sun would truly teach an urban, white coastal dweller a thing or too about the ancient identity of this nation. So I was impressed by the book. It is not great literature by any means, but it recounts an original and quite deep acquaintance with a hitherto unsung landscape in my part of the world.

However, interestingly enough, I did notice that at one point in the narrative Davidson lets slip the following: ‘I wouldn’t want it getting around… but I’m just a weensy bit tired of this adventure. In fact, to be quite honest, fantasies are beginning to worm their way between the spinifex clumps, skeletons and rocks – fantasies pertaining to where I’d like to be right now. Somewhere cool clover comes almost to your crutch, where there are no stray meteors, camels, nasty night noises, blaring thrumming cancer-producing sun, no heat shimmer and raw rocks, no spinifex, no flies, somewhere where there’s lots of avocados, water, friendly people who bring cups of tea in the morning, pineapples, swaying palms, sea breezes, puffy little clouds and mirrored streamlets’ (p.203, 1980, Penguin). This made me think, Yes, the Western Australian deserts with a company of camels and a dog and some forward movement would be a profound experience, but ultimately I too dream of much more verdant places, a mossy granite shrine on a terraced hill in Bali, or a surf strewn bay in the Mentawai Islands off the West coast of Sumatra, or the green and undulating highlands of Papua New Guinea, for example. Reading Tracks was also refreshing in the sense that it is about my corner of the globe, and not the Oregon of Barry Lopez, or the mid-west of Scott Russell Sanders, or any number of other North American places the predominantly North American tradition of environmentally attuned writers usually write about and I have often read.

Much of Western Australia is desert and there are many hundreds of thousands of wild camels roaming about it. Lawrence of Arabia appears exotic to most Westerners, but there are tracks leading from that sandy and beautiful world to my own.

And so last weekend I went to unearth some of these tracks.  In the above photo you can see my left leg swinging along in the bottom of the frame.  I did indeed find some camels to ride through the Darling Ranges east of Perth.  These camels used to live in the wilds of Western Australia’s deserts, but these days they carry curious and paying folk such as myself and three of my friends along winding paths through jarrah forests near Kalamunda.  A camel is one part of an ancient ecological jigsaw puzzle that was assembled thousands of kms to my west.  As such, when I looked at these camels on the weekend I was looking into the sands of Arabia.  The male I was riding goes by the sobriquet Major.  Say hallo Major.

The experience of riding domesticated camels is surprisingly calming.  They are such large animals that compared to humans their walking gait is noticeably languid and smooth.  As the animal moves forward with you on its back the rhythmic swing of your body in the saddle is a long one, and easier to get accustomed to than the faster jolting backwards and forwards of riding horse-back.  The motion of the long stride, the slow turn of the head to make sure they’re still close to the single file of their fellows, the deep tones of their roar when they want to make themselves heard, the huge, nonchalant and dark brown eyes… these beings exude a sense of calming might and majesty.  I can see why they make good travelling companions.  What is more, when sitting on top of a full grown camel you find yourself a long way off the ground, and the good thing about this is that you get a really nice vantage point from which to survey the surrounding landscape.  Having a gentle, sensitive and quite intelligent mammal as your mode of transport, rather than an anoymous, inert, and metallic vehicle, is something hundreds of generations of humans have taken for granted.  It is something I can only wonder about.

Spring has come to south-western Australia.

October 6th, 2008

So its that time of the year again.  Finally… spring has come.

I recently watched a short film about the transcendent importance of our fixing the problem of global climate change – you can watch this important film here.  But as significant as the message of this film is – it couldn’t be more significant really – sometimes one needs to return to the concrete reality of a walk in the park.  This last weekend I was in King’s Park.  Here you can see some of the colours that have ignited the south-west of Australia this last week or two.

Climate change is a clear and present danger.  We should acknolwedge this and become politcally active in meeting it.  However, we would be foolish if we didn’t also leave plenty of space in our minds and our spirits to celebrate the glowing, living present.  Lets usher in the season of abundance with a deep appreciation for this land.

Lounging around in island waters

October 9th, 2008

Today I’ve been on Rottnest, an island 19 kms off the coast of Fremantle.  I and a friend were exploring some of the less frequented bays and points when we came across what looked to be, from the vantage point of the dirt track I was riding my bike along, a bed of waving kelp at low tide.  It wasn’t sea weed.  It was a bunch of New Zealand Fur-seals holding their flippers out of the water to warm them in the sun.  I went close and now and again one would stop rolling around and scratching its stomach and look at me.  The odd amiable yelp came from the pack.  My trip to Rottnest was about doing just what these peripatetic mammals were doing, lounging around in the much appreciated spring warmth.

I’ve added a new photo of Rottnest to my Western Australian gallery if you’re interested in seeing the island in colour.

We Who Need Wild Places

October 14th, 2008

“People need wild places.  Whether or not we think we do, we do.  We need to be able to taste grace and know once again that we desire it.  We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation.. To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours, and none of which could possibly care less about our economic status or our running day calender.”

Barbara Kingsolver wrote these words in the book Small Wonder (2002).  I think they give a good partial explanation of the idea that we are only human in contact, and conviviality, with nonhuman lives (David Abram’s phrase).

I’m sure if I was living in a village in the highlands of Papua New Guinea then I would constantly be convivial with other species.  But I’d also be living in a world where the light of science doesn’t penetrate, where homophobia, violence, preventable disease and xenophobia are ugly spectres.  I don’t really want that.

After reading Tim Flannery’s book Throwim Way Leg recently I’ve been thinking a lot about living in a traditional human society as opposed to living in a modern Western society.  Is the answer to live in a Western city like Perth?  But what happens to all those urban denizens who think ‘contact with nature’ only needs to be a stroll in a park or a trip to the beach?  What happens to them?  Perhaps our sense of wonder is dampened down.

Our rural Papuan neighbours to our north know more about wild places, leisure and the warm clasp of the community than we materially rich, longer living and more peaceable Australians down here in the south.  They need to experience some development to reduce violence, disease and shine the light of education into their demon-haunted world where almost anything bad that happens is blamed on sorcery.  But does Ausaid, Australia’s aid agency, consider that those rural Papuans are doing many things much better than Australia, such as being, at least traditionally, ecoliterate, and alive to the nature of wild places?

Tim Flannery: The Great Australian Explorer

October 21st, 2008

Tim Flannery is an Australian expert on tree kangaroos.  In the 1980s he spend a lot of time in remote parts of Papua New Guinea.  I quite recently read the book that recounts his Papuan memoirs: Throwim Way Leg.  What follows are some hastily scribbled impressions of the book.

Tim goes to villages where people smell sicky sweet because of skin diseases, limbs are swollen, outbreaks of amoebic dysentery are regular… he himself records a frighteningly long list of diseases experienced over the course of his trips to the island: cerebral malaria, typhus, gardia, the list goes on.  He is almost killed by the people of one tribe he visits.  He meets people whose very high rate of infant mortality is only remedied by their irregular raids on nearby villages to kill the adult men for food and take the children to be raised as their own, and who accept this cultural norm without a qualm.  He goes to wild, wild places deep in the heart of the big tropics, and despite the sweat bees and mosquitoes swirling around him he manages to appreciate the beauty of the trees and the views and the animals.  He floats down a wild river on his inflatable mattress and circles through a log flotilla, looking up at the rainforest canopy rotate far above his head (later for find out that the river is infested with crocodiles).  He records this experience as one of the most magical afternoons of his entire life.  He meets people for whom their valley is the centre of the universe and for whom the outside world barely exists.  He meets great elder tribesman who are master hunters and perfectly imitate the sound and movement of a great eagle of their region catching its prey.  After everything what remains as a tension in my mind is the huge contrast between the dignity, ecological literacy, advanced cultural framework, and variety of the traditional peoples of PNG, and the atrocious and endemic violence, sexism, superstition, and crippling and painful disease that they also live with.  I would hate the outside world to impinge too much on some of the remaining ‘lost tribes’, and yet… how can I say this when their cultures also contain so much ignorance, violence and disease?  It is all very well my marveling at these people, but when their culture has such a paucity of scientific knowledge to lead to a belief in sorcery which can spark brutal murders of innocent human beings in the tribe next door, or to lead to people dying of things that might be remedied by some simple anti-biotics, then maybe my cultural curiosity should take a back seat and ‘development’ should take place using Australian aid money.  I don’t know.  It is a tension in my mind.

I do know that I have learnt an enormous amount about the identity of Australia’s closest neighbour through reading this book.  A salutary experience that I would recommend to all culturally curious Australians.  It was gratifying to read accounts of walking along a walking path thousands of years old through highland beech forest, or walking through an Aracaucia grove protected by custom as a sacred grove where birds of paradise sport with impunity, or stepping on a frog that gives a high pitched human-like scream and is then found to be new to science.  So much beauty and profusion of life seems to reside in the mountain forests of the island to my north.  It was also fascinating to learn about the cultural diversity of this island, for example to learn of an old woman weighing only thirty kilograms who suckled a particular pig in its infancy from her own breast and who still looks after the great beast in her old age.   And then to think about how much good a simple multi-vitamin or aspirin or mosquito net can do for many of these village people.  It made me want to take a trip up there with a load of these things and become a kind of regular benefactor of a village.  But then the tales of being constantly harassed by bugs and rats and being constantly wet, eating badly, and having no privacy, did not make me want to go there.  And having to fly to get around (with its attendant high financial costs).  The book has taught me that these people are terribly cruel to many non-human animals – cooking things alive often.  And sometimes terribly lacking in a spirit of conservation – felling a rainforest giant for some bark to make a roof for an overnight hut for example, or hunting species of mammal to local extinction.

However the bottom line is that this book is full of adventures in an amazing land which is just next door to Australia.  I was fascinated to read it.  I think Tim Flannery should be more widely recognized in Australia as a great naturalist and adventurer – if only on the merits of his memoirs in Throwim Way Leg alone.  He writes in a clear, and lucid English prose that does much to dissolve confusion and to express a humble and enquiring spirit.  He has shared some of his wonder at the great natural and cultural diversity of PNG with me, and for that I am thankful.

How to heal your soul in South-West Australia.

October 28th, 2008

Some Western Australian land and flora is hard to appreciate aesthetically if you’re a member of the species Homo sapiens which comes from high nutrient laden lands with greater rainfall.  However, if you understand how it is adapted to survive extremes here – as Barbara York Main illustrates so well in Between Wodjil and Tor (1967) – that is, if you understand how nature here works, then that will put you ahead in your effort to appreciate the natural world here.  If you look at the micro patterns of the flora here that will help.  If you look at the birds that will help.  And so on.. if you leave the coma of the concrete and if you open your eyes.  And if you stop seeing nature here as something out there hours car drive away, then you could ride your bike to the local park or area of bushland or river’s edge and take it into your life.  I’ve done these things myself, and it has changed me.  Made me more grounded, more appreciative of the world I wake up into every morning.   If you do all these things you will no longer have a Eurocentric outlook which sees the Swan River as drab and ugly, but will have gone a long way in learning to love this place.

We need a society which farms native and eats native, has native flowers on its tables, more native common plant names, grows natives in its gardens, has native frogs in its ponds…. And… then… one day, has visual and literary art which celebrates these things.  This is where Australian society must go if its people are to heal their souls and not be just materialistic and lost and drifting urbanites.

Prehensile Precursor

November 3rd, 2008

PREHENSILE PRECURSOR

Sun-down at Manning Park in Hamilton Hill.  The paperbarks are like palimpsests of what?  Themselves. Ragged sheaves of paper flapping in the breeze, stroked by warm evening light.  A tangle of twisting trunks dancing over the mirror of swamp water beneath.  I approach and my eyes are filled with dimensions and shadows.  Memories of an eight year old me, twisting agile limbs along half-submerged logs, over swampy fringe of Manning Lake, into adventure.  Memories of lighting out for the territory as an inquisitive clamberer.  The evening light pours rich tones into the well-watered, water-fowled ecosystem before me.

As a young boy in South Fremantle I swung my frame up the dark coloured bark of peppermint trees in our park, and found myself sitting in secret aeries, redolent of minty leaves, thick odour of the tree in my nose.  Relishing the smell, sitting up there, held by something.  The mystery of timber bigger than artifacts immutably solid beneath foot.

My great grandfather grew up speaking Ngarlooma

November 11th, 2008

This article was published in the Northem Times 9/12/1971.  It is about my great grandfather’s life, a life lived growing up with Aboriginal companions in the 1880s and 1890s in the north-west of Australia, and working on stations in the Pilbra region for many more decades.  If you speak a language regularly before you’re seven years old you’ll have a perfect accent for the rest of your life – that is a lesson from cognitive science.  It is amazing to me that Aubrey spoke Ngalooma as well as native speakers, and knew their culture intimately.  I can only just picture this plucky white gentleman leaning against a saddle perhaps, feet on the bright red earth, chatting away in the strange syllables of Ngarlooma with native fluency.  What a different picture of Australia he would have had to people like us.

A Life Well Lived.

November 17th, 2008

I don’t want to sound like another new age Far East-worshiper from the Far West, but earlier in the year when I was working in the Esalen bookshop in California I came upon some sage words from the Himalayas.

‘You see, we are all dying. It’s only a matter of time. Some of us just die sooner than others.’

-Dudjom Rinpoche

‘If one were truly aware of the value of human life, to waste it blithely on distractions and the pursuit of vulgar ambitions would be the height of confusion.’

-Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Whatever you do with your life, wherever your path leans and leads, these are good guiding lights to start with.

A. E. Housman: An Aboriginal in England

November 24th, 2008

I feel that I belong in nature wherever and whenever I’m in it.  The English poet A. E. Housman, in his poem ‘Tell me not here…’ expresses my position nicely:


On russet floors, by waters idle,

The pine lets fall its cone;

The cuckoo shouts all day at nothing

In leafy dells alone;

And traveller’s joy beguiles in autumn

Hearts that have lost their own.


On acres of the seeded grasses

The changing  burnish heaves;

Or marshalled under moons of harvest

Stand still all night the Sheaves;

Or beeches strip in storms for winter

And stains the wind with leaves.


Possess, as I possessed a season,

The countries I resign,

Where over elmy plains the highway

Would mount the hills and shine,

And full of shade the pillared forest

Would murmur and be mine.


For nature, heartless, witless nature,

Will neither care nor know

What stranger’s feet may find the meadow

And trespass there and go,

Nor ask amid the dews of morning

If they are mine or no.

Since Housman’s time in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century a few things have changed.  You can’t find ‘sheaves’ of wheat anymore, the bundles of the stuff that people used to sit upright while they were harvesting the fields by hand many years ago.  The ‘elmy plains’ aren’t as ‘elmy’ anymore due to the spread of Dutch elm disease in the late 1960s in England, and being made from dark tarmac the highways don’t shine under a harvest moon in the same way as when they were crushed limestone.  One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that walking through a forest or a meadow is not a transgression of a tree’s right to private property.

But hang on, I’m an Australian living in Australia.  Housman’s wondering poet is an aboriginal in England, but here on the Swan coastal plain in south-west Australia the Nyngar people are the rightful owners of most of this land.  Most of the Aboriginal people in this area were wiped out by epidemics of measles and other imported diseases in the years leading up to the 1860s, but those that persisted and remained still have a claim on much of this land.

Hmm… I support Aboriginal land rights in Australia, but it doesn’t matter if I’m on a white fella’s wooded estate in England or a black fella’s coastal plain in Perth, I do not feel alienated from the living earth I walk over.  My position is that, wherever I am in the biosphere, I belong in field or forest.  Laws to do with private property, and the fences and guns that back them up, do not comprehend the deep sense in which ecosystems and landscapes operate irrespective of the cultural constructions of clever primates.  They do not comprehend the deep sense in which we are all interlinked organisms in a grand, million-year old biological fabric.  Wherever I am, when I leave the pavement and get back to the land, I’m coming home.

As Gil Scott Heron famously sang – much more recently than Housman’s poem – it’s your world!

Last Fragment

December 1st, 2008

There are those who don’t have a deep spiritual connection with nature.  Their lives will always be limited, despite how much meaning they may find in dressing well, in the arts and in social relations between solid walls.

And then there are those who will understand the following poem by Raymond Carver:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

(from ‘Last Fragment’)

Travelling Inland into Australian History

December 3rd, 2008

Beach spinifex would have been one of the first thing British folk saw when they piled off their ships in 1829 in south-west Australia.  It is still growing in 2008 at Port beach.

Then as they stepped past the sand dunes and climbed up some of the hills they would have walked through old groves of Melaleuca lanceolata or Ti Tree.  These are harder to find in Fremantle in 2008 than beach spinifex, and I wonder why people don’t plant these beautiful trees in their gardens around town.  The trees above are actually growing in a corner of John Curtin High School, my old alma mater.

And then there were the locals to meet.  I don’t have any photos of the original people around Fremantle, but this is an image of some original peoples of the East Kimberley from 1910.

Last night I and a group of my friends watched ‘The Tracker’ (2002).  Aboriginal societies, of which there were hundreds over the continent were, like humans everywhere, not entirely guiltless of ecological destruction, for example causing the extinction of the marsupial lion.  Some societies had habits that appear very strange to modern, Western sensibilities, such as consuming the flesh of other humans in some circumstances.  None of them had soft beds to sleep on at night or antibiotics or an advanced culture of respect for the rights of women (women are forcably abducted in many of the Aboriginal myths and stories that I’ve read collected by Ronald M. Berndt).   However these first Australians did have much that we Westernized Australians lack.  For example: tightly bonded communities, plenty of free time, regular participation in the arts, and a deep bioregional consciousness.

In ‘The Tracker’, along with Rolf de Heer’s other great Aboriginal film ‘Ten Canoes’ (2006), the director represents human life in the Australian landscape as a passing subset of the greater natural world.  de Heer does this, for example, with camera shots which start focussing on the human protagonists and then slowly zooming out into a panaroma of wooded mountains until the humans dissapear into the grey-green distance.  And de Heer is right to represent the first Australians in this way.  For these people the Australian land is not there to be concreted over in globalized homogeneity and then mostly forgotten about, but is invested with stories and symbolic significance, intimately known and interacted with, and recognized as the abiding context of human life.

Last night, in the warm night’s air of Fremantle in early summer, I followed the Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil stepping along the woodland paths in a fictional 1922 and breathing life into the nomadic ways of the first Australians.  As I did this I found that I was passing over the littoral of this country, and travelling inland.

In the Prison of his Days

December 10th, 2008

At Fremantle Prison imprisoned men painted pictures of nature on thick walls.  That is tensioned razor wire at the top of the above limestone wall.  This mural was painted in 1991, just before the prison was closed as a functioning place of incarceration. Some of the paintings done by Aboriginal men remain, fading now as they are weathered by the elements, but still poignant.  Beneath the razor wire they dreamt of open eucalyptus woodland.

Scenes of natural landscapes have been shown by numerous researchers in the field of psychology to be good for our mental health.  E. O. Wilson has proposed a theory of biophilia to give an evolutionary explanation for this: we evolved along with a rich diversity of species in the rift valleys of east Africa and a propensity to find psychological comfort and aesthetic pleasure in a diversity of natural life is easily activated in our pathways of mental development.  Biophilia is a part of human nature.

Many of us who live in Fremantle but who aren’t locked up physically in Fremantle prison seem to forget to praise the earth.  This brings me to invoke the famous words of W. H. Auden from his elegy for W. B. Yeats:

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.’

Auden was talking to the figure of the poet, and talking about the power of literature and poetry to raise our spirits and give us profound existential satisfactions.  But I want to use his words for my own present purposes.  Even as we are free to roam around the streets of our towns and cities we can suffer a kind of spiritual incarceration.  What do I mean by this?  I mean that the concrete nature of your every day environment can become the prison of your days.

But we can see through the walls.  We can remember the green fields behind and beyond.  Listen to the voice of the American poet W. S. Merwin:

GREEN FIELDS

By this part of the century few are left who believe
in the animals for they are not there in the carved parts
of them served on plates and the pleas from the slatted trucks
are sounds of shadows that possess no future
there is still game for the pleasure of killing
and there are pets for the children but the lives that followed
courses of their own other than ours and older
have been migrating before us some are already
far on the way and yet Peter with his gaunt cheeks
and point of white beard the face of an aged Lawrence
Peter who had lived on from another time and country
and who had seen so many things set out and vanish
still believed in heaven and said he had never once
doubted it since his childhood on the farm in the days
of the horses he had not doubted it in the worst
times of the Great War and afterward and he had come
to what he took to be a kind of earthly
model of it as he wandered south in his sixties
by that time speaking the language well enough
for them to make him out he took the smallest roads
into a world he thought was a thing of the past
with wildflowers he scarcely remembered and neighbors
working together scything the morning meadows
turning the hay before the noon meal bringing it in
by milking time husbandry and abundance
all the virtues he admired and their reward bounteous
in the eyes of a foreigner and there he remained
for the rest of his days seeing what he wanted to see
until the winter when he could no longer fork
the earth in his garden and then he gave away
his house land everything and committed himself
to a home to die in an old chateau where he lingered
for some time surrounded by those who had lost
the use of body or mind and as he lay there he told me
that the wall by his bed opened almost every day
and he saw what was really there and it was eternal life
as he recognized at once when he saw the gardens
he had made and the green fields where he had been
a child and his mother was standing there then the wall would close
and around him again were the last days of the world.

The walls close around us – we are cut of from the natural world.  The animals migrate before us – we no longer see wild animals in our lives.  For Merwin’s character Peter this means that the world is ending.  His life is ending, but more than this: the more-than-human world is ending.

Peter’s life in an old chateau becomes life lived in a benevolent prison. As the condemned man in Fremantle prison dreamt of a rolling Australian woodland, so Peter dreams of the gardens and green fields of France beyond the chateau’s walls.  Beyond and behind the walls lies the mother, the natural world.  And Peter has learnt how to see through the walls.  In an Australian prison an Aboriginal man projects his dreams of the open woodlands of his home through the medium of paint onto a limestone wall.

Most of us do not have our freedom denied in so literal a sense.  Most of us are not imprisoned.  Despite this it remains for us caught in a more metaphorical prison of concreted days to really learn how to praise.

Australian Government Gives Up on Climate Change

December 16th, 2008

The Australian federal government yesterday released its plans to reduce carbon pollution by 5% by 2020 (compared to 2000 levels).  I thought that after eleven years of conservatives in parliament house in Canberra, that this year, with a brand new government, would be a turning point.  I was wrong.  I, and many other Australians, have been let down.  Today in the centre of Perth the Greens Senator Scott Ludlum spoke on behalf of all us who feel frustrated by the news.  He was on the RTR program Understory this evening, and said that the governement may as well have done nothing as release this paltry 5% target.  With government inaction like this the time has come for the community to stand up and protest.

The truth is that physics does not do bargains with lobby groups or make fudges or compromises.  The climate does not care about us, or our our political arguments and discussions.

The climate crisis we are now facing is very simply explained.  If the melting ice in the Arctic is the canary in the coal mine, then the canary is dead.  It is time to evacuate the mine.

Fading Light Over the Swan

December 22nd, 2008

This is a map drawn by Captain James Stirling in 1827, when the captain was exploring the area prior to setting up the Swan River Settlement of British immigrants in 1829.  Click on the above map and it will enlarge so you can read it better.

Kallip is an old Nyungar word meaning ‘a knowledge of localities; familiar acquaintance with a range of country… also used to express property in land’ (Moore 1884b:39, from Sylvia J. Hallam, Fire and Hearth: A Study of Aboriginal Usage and European Usurpation in South-Western Australia, Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, 1975, p.43).

Do you have kallip?  Captain Stirling had more kallip than many contemporary citizens of Perth, but he didn’t have as much kallip as the Aboriginal people with their ecologically attuned awareness of seasons, animal behaviours and landforms.  I try to have kallip.  Where I live is not just a street name and number: I live on a sandy, limestone hill close to the Indian ocean, south and near the mouth of the Swan river.  Stirling’s map is interesting to me as it captures many of the important aspects of the landscape, such as Mount Eliza, the prominence where today’s King’s Park stands, and most importantly, our river. Unlike most maps you will see today that depict the area on a north-south axis, this map makes the river a central point and a part of the landscape that streches out before, you, the viewer.  The Swan is the centre.  As it was for Aboriginal people here.

Come back to 1827.  You are more likely to bump into people on the Swan coastal plain than, for example, in the thick karri forests to the far south.  These people don’t live in tribes, but in what is more accurately described as large extended families of up to fifty people.  Single men camp away from the married men, women and children.  They are lean and walk with the ease of nomads.  Some have headbands with Emu or Cockatoo feathers stuck in the side, rising regally above their faces.  In winter they retreat to the area inland just below the Darling Range, away from the strong and chilly winds coming off the ocean.  They hunt yonga, or kangaroos, at this time.  The men leave the camp in the morning in groups of two or three and use the noise of the wind and the rain to provide cover as they stalk the yonga.  They wear bukas, or long cloaks made of kangaroo fur fastened with a bone pin in front.  Unlike out on uninhabited Rottnest island, the woodland here is full of huge, old djara, or jarrah trees, most with burn marks from past fires, and open green pasture underneath the trees.  The lack of undergrowth here on much of the Swan coastal plain is due to the habit of the locals of seasonally starting small fires.  It creates carpets of lush new growth the next year and good, green hunting pastures.

As the year progresses and summer approaches the people move westwards towards the coast and towards Fremantle.  Beach time!  More people get together.  They step over soft, sandy ground.  Banksia flowers start to glow yellow in the sun.  The people collect them and steep them in little fresh water springs to taste a sweet liquid.  Men climb trees by chipping foot holds in trunks with stone axes, and collect the eggs of parrots from holes in boughs far above the ground.  Sometimes they visit the lakes south of Fremantle, like Manning Lake in today’s Hamilton Hill, and dig for frogs and tortoises, or yargan, in the mud at their edges.  Women kill some norn, or snakes, to eat.  They eat yams and other roots the women of the family dig up with their wonnas, or digging sticks.  In the trunks of decaying balga, or grass trees, they find fat, white moth larvae to eat.  As summer comes on fishing starts to become their main source of protein.  The Swan river is alive and full of healthy shoals of big tailor, cobbler (Tandanus bostocki) and other fish.  The locals fish by herding fish into the shallows and spearing them.  Canoes and fishing hooks are not on the scene, but here and there weirs are used to trap fish.

Witness this land in 1827.  A kwenda ambles along through the understory.  A shy honey possums creeps through the leafy canopy above.  You can hear the sound of Casuarina’s needles soughing in the wind.  The day passes quietly, as it has for thousands of years.  Come to the water’s edge.  A tale is being told around a camp fire at the slow-flowing river’s shore.  Behind the dark face of the narrator the western sky is lighting up another tapestry of coloured cumulus.  A limb cracks and falls off an old Tuart tree further downstream.  All eyes turn in the direction of the splash.  The silence ripples outwards from the Tuart’s speech mark.  Then the other story is resumed.

Later steaming fish are lifted from the ground and unwrapped from paperbark coverings.  The aroma pervades the clearing and the humpies and brings appetite.  Young people laugh and crack jokes.

The evening lengthens.  As the light goes a huge flocks of black swans, hundreds and hundreds of them, suddenly take to the air.  Although it is dark now the rush from the surface of the water is loud.  They are taking off, just out of sight.  Old eyes look out over the barely lit waters.

Old eyes can fail.  Old eyes can flicker, and then close.

It is a deeper shade of black now.  But in the centre the Swan keeps flowing, slow and sure.  Not even forgetfullness can stop it.

myspace/bytomwilson

January 2nd, 2009

I’ve just created a myspace site.  In doing so I wanted to put together a little slideshow that hinted at my sense of place living as I do in south-western Australia.  The slideshow hints at my philosophy of anti-materialism, bioregionalism, E.O. Wilson-like wonder at the diversity of species of life on earth.

So… Happy New Year everybody!

www.myspace.com/bytomwilson

Wash the Mind of Foolishness

January 15th, 2009

Contented minutes.

Cloud-trafficked sky.

Mind rippled wind.

Face the blue lucidity.

Have a near-life experience in the ocean.

Wash the mind of foolishness.

Rottnest – Progress on a Beautiful Island

January 16th, 2009

Rottnest is an island offshore from Perth in Western Australia.  It is about 10kms long and at its widest about 4kms wide.  The island has never been a place of Aboriginal inhabitation.  It was wooded to the north and east before white people arrived. Some of the more windswept parts were originally heath however.  Quokkas (Setonix brachyurus), a nocturnal macropod that hops slowly about the place, nibbled meekly on pigface and drank brackish water.  The sound of the sea winds blowing across the canopies of melaleucas, acacias and native pines was heard by these little beings for thousands of years.  King skinks waddled over the crests of brilliantly white sand dunes to look down on the acquamarine waters, just as we do today, for countless centuries.

In the nineteenth century the island took on a darker face: it became a prison for original Australians.  Often the incarcerated men had comitted no offense at all.  Under their own law in their own land they had the right to kill large mammals that were wandering about in their hunting grounds.  Under their own law they were often obliged to spear a man in the leg who had comitted an offense of some kind.  And yet the white usurpers did not recognize the thousand-year old laws of Australia.  Those who followed their laws as they always had they renamed ‘criminals’.  Many of the original Australians – from the deserts of the north or the forests of the south – died on the island from illnesses such as pneumonia.

In the twentieth century the island became a holiday retreat for white people from Perth.  The land had deteriorated and by the 1930s native plants were being raised in nurseries and planted out across some parts of the island.  This reafforestation continues to this day in 2009.  You can help to plant trees on the island by joining a group with the Rottnest Society that heads out each winter.

These days quokkas are not shot at by ‘sporting’ white men.  They don’t have their skins made into rugs as sometimes happened in earlier times.  Now they are an endangered species of life on earth, like so many other furry Australians.  They are very hard to find on the mainland, where the bulk of their kin used to live.

In the water people still kill plenty of wildlife out on Rottnest.  The over-fishing has been going on for a while.  Personal accounts of long-term skin divers have suggested that what used to be an underwater fairy land in the 1950s had become comparitvely barren and empty by the 1980s (Rottnest Island: A Documentary History, Prue Joske, et. al., UWA Press, 1995).  Indeed the population of Perth really only becomes substantial after the 1950s, so this trend would make sense in terms of the increasing pressures of fishing on the waters around the island.

I helped out during a recent campaign of the Wilderness Society to get the amount of the waters around Rottnest turned into areas protected from fishing.  In doing so I talked to many members of the public about the issue.  Divers who had been diving on Rottnest from the 1970s till today told me that they had, over the years, watched a huge drop in the numbers of large fish around the island.  In July 2007 the amount of protected marine areas on Rottnest went from 3% to around 15%.  Conservation biologists told us that we need to put at least 30% in protected areas, but the government didn’t follow their guide and the waters of Rottnest are still underprotected from Perth’s weekend fishermen.

Some people still camp on the beach around Rottnest, even though they’re not supposed to.  In doing so they are keeping up an old tradition of their white forefathers and mothers, who camped on Bather’s Beach in Fremantle for many weeks when they first arrived in Australia in 1829.  One praiseworthy development on the island is that, unlike their mosiquitoe-harrassed ancestors, contemporary littoral itinerants on Rottnest boast tight-fitting mosquito flys in their tents.

Some things at least get better with time.

Yatungka and Warri

January 24th, 2009

I live in the south-west corner of Australia.  The Nyungar people in this area spoke a mutually intelligible language, and unlike the people out in the more arid parts to the north and east, did not practice circumcision.  The bioregion in the south-west corner of Australia can be considered as fitting into a space on the map that correlates neatly with the cultural bloc that used to inhabit it.  But over the bulk of inland WA, east and north of Perth, is another bioregion, and lived another cultural bloc.  These were, and are, the Western Desert people.

This is Yarri and his friend Mujon.  Look at how straight Yarri’s spear is.  It used to be a small, thinly trunked tree, but Yarri has placed it over a fire and turned it in his bare hands – full of sand to insulate his skin against the heat – and created this marvel of outback symmetry.

But to continue…  Functioning Nyungar culture basically dissapeared many years ago, back at the end of the nineteenth century.  However, in 1984 a family of nine who constituted the last uncontacted nomadic Aboriginals in Australia were brought out of the Gibson Desert in the north-west.  It pleases me to think that during some of my time alive there have been traditional Australians living and hunting on the land exactly as their ancestors had done thousands of years before them.

However here I want to go back slightly earlier: to 1976.  In 1976 some more of the last of the truly traditional Australians walked out of the Western Gibon Desert.  They were an elderly Aboriginal couple, Warri Kyangu and Yatungka.

Many years ago this couple had married across blood groups and against the laws of their tribe.  They had sought refuge from the legal repercussions of this act (a spear flying at them) by retreating to the most remote parts of north-west Australia.  However there had been a severe drought and some of the Aboriginals in Wiluna feared for the survival of this couple, known to exist by some of the elders in Wiluna.  So a search party was sent out.  W. J. Peasley was a member of the search party, and wrote a book about his experience of being on the search party that finally made contact with the old Western Australians and brought them back to the white fellas world.  The book is called The Last of the Nomads (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1983).  It is a sad book.  The couple were very frail, having lived almost exclusively on quandongs – small, sour tasting berries – in recent times.  They knew their world: they knew the night’s sky, the warmth of their dingos as they lay close to the smouldering embers of their fire through cold and clear night’s in the desert.  She knew how to find quandongs and lizards and how to shell and grind acacia seeds.  He knew how to make almost three metre long spears that were as strait as an arrow, and how to throw them with pin point accuracy at fleeing kangaroos.  They knew how to find rocky pools and water holes in the middle of the baking desert sands.  They knew the laws of their tribe, long since left. Most of all they knew love for each other.

Like most of you I’m pretty helpless, hopeless and incapable when it comes to finding my own food, water, warmth and shelter outside the walls of cities and towns.  Like most of you reading this now, if I was to walk off into the world of Warri Kyangu and Yatungka I would be dead in about three days.

Through neuro-plasticity your environment and your culture has a role in shaping the patterns of connections in your brains.  Each day of their life this man and women interacted with Western Australia, with its textures, its ecology, its gait, its temperatures, its sands.  This old man and women knew Western Australia better than I will ever know it.  It humbles me to say that.

Before leaving their land they were told to leave their dingos behind as they would be classified as ‘vermin’ in station country.  You can imagine how it must have felt to have to leave some of your family behind.  Then when it came to climbing into the vehicle Warri became very frightened: ‘He was clearly terrified, making feeble efforts to climb up but he trembled so violently that he was forced to abandon each attempt’ (p.94).  Warri was a seasoned and proud old man.  In his world he had wisdom to offer.  But in front of a Range Rover in 1976 he was reduced to shaking uncontrollably.  What was going on here?

We can never know what is was like for Warri to climb into this vehicle.  But let’s imagine it was like a seven foot tall albino African reigning up a pulsating, glowing beast with the texture of firm jelly in front of your house, and then being asked by this bizarre stranger to immerse yourself inside this creature’s gut before going on a trip some place you’ve never heard of.  Would you do it?  Would you climb into the gut of the beast?  Would you perhaps start to shake uncontrollably because this was like something out of a bad dream, except that the sun was up there in the sky shining down on you, and your wife was there next to you, and it wasn’t a dream?

This moment, the moment that Warri tried to board a Range Rover in 1976, is one of the saddest and most poignant moments I know of in Australia’s photographic history.

On the trip back they made stops and every time the party got back into the vehicle Warri has difficulty getting onboard.  During the night on their trip back to Wiluna they were camped by a fire.  Although it was a cold night Warri and Yatungka shed the clothes they had been given by the party.  The Aboriginal man who was on the party reported that: ‘they felt uncomfortable waring the white man’s shirts and trousers and with their several small fires, were quite happy to sit naked as they had done throughout their years in the desert’ (p.109).

In the following months back in Wiluna the author writes that:  ‘Warri did not appear to comprehend what was happening to his people.  He saw that much of the ‘law’ was openly disregarded, especially by the young, the social organisation was disintergrating rapidly and the widespread abuse of alcohol was destroying the self-respect and self-reliance his people once possessed…

Warri and Yatungka seemed to be reasonably happy, never openly expressing any desire to return to Ngarinarri.  Warri rarely spoke, content to sit for long periods of time before his fire, whislt Yatungka, as she overcame her shyness and her fear of tribal retribution, took a more active part in the affairs of the people.  She never moved far from her husband’s side and when engaged in conversation with others would, from time to time, reach out to touch Warri as though to reassure him that she was near, that he was not forgotten’ (p.117).

Warri clearly had culture shock.  Through neuro-plasticity our brains change configuration to some extent in response to the particular culture we live in.  When we move rapidly from one culture to another one which is very different from the one we came from we can experience a palpable sense of disorientation that we call culture shock.

The couple lived for one more year after leaving the desert before they died.  On many night’s along during their years in the Gibson Desert Warri and Yatungka would have given huge solace to each other.  They loved each other, it must have been this that made them break tribal law and to chose to live with each other in exile.  In this bizarre and alien world away from their homeland Warri sat crossed legged on the sand, looking into the hot embers of his fire while others talked around him.  He clearly didn’t understand this new world and felt shut out.  The image of Yatungka reaching out to touch Warri while talking to somebody else, just to reassure him that she was still there, touches me.

From one ancient and sandy world in the Gibson Desert to a new and violently disorientating world in a hobbled together white fella’s brick and tin encampment one thing endured, one line of continuity ran strong:  The quiet love between an old man and an old women.

Fremantle Wildlife

February 13th, 2009

The last few days in Fremantle have been very, very hot – too hot!  The hot suburbs of a Perth suburb in February are enough to make anybody vapid.  The other night I rode my bike down to Bather’s Beach, a beach in the middle of Fremantle.  I was alone and I trod across the warm sand and then down into the area where the water laps the beach.   Although it was 7.30 it was a still and very hot evening.  I dropped my shoulders under the water and started to swim out towards the west.  I dove down and resurfaced.  After five minutes a dolphin suddenly slid its fin out of the water twenty metres away from me, further out to sea.  The fin glistened in the dying light, and then dropped below the surface again.  Without much thought I started to swim quickly out to sea towards it.  As I got towards it I started to swim underwater. There was a slight nebulous fear about transgressing the boundaries of personal space between our species – a not-knowing what happens when you quickly approach Bottle-nosed dolphins underwater in the dusk as a lone swimmer.  But pushing through and past this fear was part of the exhilaration of the experience.  I knew that I wanted to be close to this wild and beautiful Other under the water, and I made it happen.  In a split second I was swimming quickly out to sea and diving down a few metres below the surface.  And then, in the grey underwater light of late evening in Fremantle, without a mask on, I saw a lighter shape out in front of me towards the bottom and heard a high-pitched sequence of querulous sonar beeps.  “Hallo, who are you?”  Seemed to say the sentient Other in the misty atmosphere before me.  There were no other dolphins in the area as far as I could see, so why would this fellow be making vocal signals just as he came into proximity with me?  But the piquancy of this sudden burst of cryptic and alien communication came to me like fresh air.  It was like fresh air coming into a room made stale by human breath.  I started to swim with the large being, dropping down to the bottom and stroking my way forward towards it and past it.  I popped up now and again with wide-eyed excitement.  All day I had been reading about the slow but steady depredations on nature in south-west Australia by white people over the previous century, and to finish this hot summer day with a sudden and unexpected encounter with a large, wild mammal in the sea, five minutes bike ride from where I live was a joy, a needed joy.  I came home to my house feeling revived by an encounter with slippery, muscular extra-human reality.  I came home to my house feeling reassured by the continuing presence of the wild.

Bagarap Empire

February 18th, 2009

Bagarap Empire is a phrase I have borrowed from Fred Smith, a Canberra-based musician who I met last weekend at KULCHA in Fremantle.  Fred has worked in Papua New Guinea and knows that in pidgin ‘bagarap’ means ‘to go wrong’ (i.e. the root in English would be to bugger up).  My reason for choosing these words to begin will become clear soon enough.

In the 1920s in Western Australia the British government and the Australian government cooperated to create the Group Settlement Scheme.  This scheme saw hundreds of British men and women immigrate to south-west Australia where they were given a bit of land in the forests of the south-west.  Usually they would start up in a location along with around 20 other families.  They were to clear the land – ‘improve it’ – and were given a plot of land to themselves to create a dairy farm. They were paid to clear the land and the government stocked their farms.  When the farm was successful they were to repay the Western Australian government for all the assistance they had been given.  They would often ringbark the karri and jarrah trees.  You can imagine the sight at a plot of land at say, Northcliffe, with a full moon shining down on a field of deathly white trunks and branches.  At the end of the square plot of land they’d cleared would be the wild, dark forest towering up.

A ghostly spectacle, isn’t it?  The British empire sending out unemployed men and women to a far flung land they’d taken in their name and then telling them to kill an ancient, beautiful and biodiverse ecosystem, one that till now had captured and sequestered carbon for nothing and filtered water and provide habitat and native foods.

The following photo is circa 1924.

Guess what?  You can still see that same image today.  With the difference that you would be further north and they are Indonesian men and women standing in a field cleared of lowland rainforest.  I am talking about West Papua.  In a part of Meganesia that is even more biodiverse and critical in preventing global warming through capturing and storing carbon than south-west Australia the Indonesian government has had the arrogance to claim the land as theirs.  And then to skin large sections of it clean.  Like in the Group Settlement Scheme of south-western Australia in the 1920s, the Indonesians now carve out chunks of beautiful forest and set down poor men and women from the homeland.  Like a British family standing in a denuded clearing in the 1920s, I can see an Indonesian family standing in a cleared patch of rainforest in 2009.  Empire-sanctioned violence against culture and nature put them both in new moonscapes.  Welcome to the world of Bagarap Empire.

This would be a sour note to end on.  Sometimes clearing forest is useful for dairy farming.  I mean, I do eat yoghurt after all.  You probably drink milk and eat vegetables.  Too much of the south-west has been cleared, and much of the food south-west Australia grows is exported and this is arguably far from ideal, but certainly not all land-clearing must be evil.  The last image I’m going to leave you with here was taken recently by a guy I know, Stuart Halse, flying low over Denmark, again in the south-west of Australia.  So…  Can you feel the love?

The Story of Perth

March 2nd, 2009

The sketch by Richard Ffarington was done along the edge of the Swan River in the 1840s (from Ffarington’s Folio: South West Australia 1843-1847, Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1986, p.26).  It is a very rare glimpse into what Perth has meant for humans for the vast majority of the time humans have been here.

It is wrong of one nation to go and claim a part of another nation as as part of their country.  Yet that is what the British did where I live in south-west Australia around a hundred and thirty years ago.

Langoulant, 1978.

Early white settlers in Perth dismantled fishing traps and weirs of the Aboriginals, shot their dogs, and took their most valuable hunting pastures.  They then flew the Union flag on the land, and told themselves that ‘the natives’ were a lower race of humans than ‘civilized’ members of the British Empire like themselves (‘civilized’ fellows were of course quite civilized enough to die from scurvy rather than eat nearby quandongs).  It all reminds one of the arrogance and madness of tiny troops of Spanish men clambering through South American jungles in the 1500s and proclaiming ‘all this’, as they surveyed another grand vista of beautiful, green forest canopies, as belonging to the Spanish crown.

The banks of the Swan are full of interesting plants like balgas, or grass trees.

The shapes of this country are many oceans of difference away from the hedges and oaks of English fields…

When Captain James Stirling was exploring the Swan River in 1827 he didn’t have an SLR hanging over his shoulder, but he did have a professional artist with him:  Frederick Garling.  This is Garling’s version of what the banks of the Swan looked like as Stirling and the men explored up it.  Here are the men rocking in their hammocks in the warm night’s air in a clearing, one that was probably used by Aboriginals as a campsite:

In 2009 the banks of the Swan look quite different.  Now people who can’t tell the difference between a tuart and a jarrah bed down for the night in surburban monstrosities that have erased the character of the Australian earth.

Ah… the green Sahara of the lawn.  The Perth metropolitan area has plenty of facilities for automobiles and demented suburban hubris, but not quite so many for ecological-niche dependant biodiversity.  As Irene Cunningham says, in Perth ‘green lawns and football are seen as more important than saving the land’ (The Land of Flowers, 2005, p.34).

Jarrah trees of immense size were once common around Perth (full of nesting holes for Twenty Eight Parrots and other local life).  This photo is of a Yanchep road scene from 1935:

Most of the big old patriarchs like this one were cut down for timber.  Although there are a couple of exceptions like Bold Park and King’s Park, you could basically summarise the environmental history of Perth by singing along with Joni Mitchell: ‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot’.

Many people in Perth have gotten rich through investing in the mining of their state.  Many flaunt their material status symbols.  These same people might heed the words of Clive James from his recent ‘Point of View’ broadcast on the BBC (2 Jan, 2009):

‘Getting rich for its own sake looks as stupid as body building does at that point when the neck gets thicker than the head, and the thighs and biceps look like four plastic kit bags full of tofu.’

The Perth metropolitan area keeps growing outwards, knocking down the tiny patches of banksia woodland we have left on the Swan Coastal Plain. Today central Perth is an unremarkable, steel and concrete central business district with a non-residential core, surrounded by sprawling, car and fossil-fuel dependent suburbs.  But Perth wasn’t always this ugly or badly designed. Perth was a small town from the 1830s till the gold rush of the 1880s and 1890s turned it into a small city.  It was up until the 1940s that it had two and three story Victorian architecture lining long streets like St. Georges Terrace and Hay St.  This was the city of English values 13 thousand kms from England that my grandmother was a young woman in.  It looks much as the West End of nearby Fremantle looks today, except that it has lovely little trams rolling up and down the street.

It is fascinating to think that for my grandmother this was her experience of Perth as a young woman: genteel Victorian stone facades, expansive balconies, trams, bowler hats, bicycles, and generally a quite pretty little city situated on the banks of a healthy Swan river full of prawns and crabs and fish.  The ugly concrete high-rise buildings appeared in the 1950s and then really came into the streetscape in the 1960s and 1970s.  Busy roads and freeways crisscrossed the Esplanade between the city and the river and you could no longer stroll down to the river’s edge after alighting from a tram.  The old Perth went under.

Today in 2009 Perth is not a beautiful city in my eyes.  However the land abides where it hasn’t been skinned by chronically industrious wajelas or white fellas.  Even in the middle of the city, as Wendell Berry writes in his poem ‘In a Country Once Forested’, ‘under the pavement the soil is dreaming of grass’.  Let me rephrase that:  in Perth, under the pavement the soil is dreaming of grass trees.

Karakamia: Visiting Australia’s Past and Maybe its Future

March 12th, 2009

Karakamia….  275 hectares owned and managed by the conservation NGO the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.  One hour’s drive east of Perth in the Darling Ranges.  In Nyoongah, the original language around here:  Karak: cockatoo.  Mia: home.

Last night I was there.

After arriving we passed through an electronic gate, and past the electrified wire fence that extended for 9kms around the edge of the property.  As we drove through Karakamia towards the little hut that is the visitor’s centre I saw elder marri trees standly with an aged dignity uncommon in much of the Perth hills.  Not only that but there were huge trunks strewn about the earth here and there, left to decay and some of them suitably inhabited, no doubt, by furry little animals.

After a preliminary talk about the history of Karakamia I and my group of friends began our two hour guided walk through the property.  The moon was full and shone down through a gauze of cloud.  The air was warm and slightly humid.

It has been a long, dry summer, and the understorey was full of old leaves that crackled in the still night as you walked over them.  Making our way along the darkened path down a west-facing slope we heard a rustle in the dry leaves to our right.  Lisa, our guide, swung her spot-light in the direction of the noise and highlighted a furtive quenda, otherwise known as a southern-brown bandicoot.  The quenda doesn’t hop like the macropods, it does an ungainly trot through the undergrowth on all fours.  Its coat was sleek and shined in the torchlight, a sign of its good health.  Its brown nose was long, almost like an ant-eater, and pointed down to the soil where it foraged for insects in.  Its little black snout was wet and shined in the light.

We left the quenda to the peace of a summer’s night and continued on down the track.  The torch beam caught the silvery tracery of a spider web.  The torch sought its quarry and a frighteningly large Golden Orb Weaver was in the limelight.  The spider waved its arms in protest at the intruders.

Onwards.  Crackle, crackle, crackle.  Then Maria said stop, and pointed forward at the ground.  The light was shone, and at our feet stood the tiny figure of a woylie, or burrowing betong.  It looked up at us for a few moments, a fraction of our size and unsure of what was going on as it stood under this sudden downpour of intense light.  Then it bounced off into the jarrah understorey.  Bounced rather than bounded I should add.  As I’ll explain this later.

Walking through the bush on this balmy summer night I could almost feel myself walking through a historical drama.  I was appropriately attired for a colonial costume drama from the 1890s and after a dinner party late one night we’d decided to take a stroll out through the little known Australian bush under the full moon.  We had wandered down a cart-track under the full moon, through the jarrah trees and the banksias.  The place still echoed with the spirits of its Aboriginal companions.  The marsupials of the forest were still healthy and ever present.   If disturbed one bounced away or wandered off through the shrubs.  The place was still wild.  You could feel the pressure of wildness.  Back in 2009 reality, the spirits of the bush are still in residence.

The walk finished and we retired for a drink at the visitor’s centre.  As we were about to leave Karakamia, about ten o’clock, I made my way to the small gravel car park by myself.  A small brown shape appeared before me on the edge of the gravelled area.  I stopped.  It was a woylie.  I sat down on the ground.  The sound of the others from the verandah of the visitor’s centre came to me in snatches of laughter and talk, but I was mostly enveloped in the calm of the warm night in the forest.  The towering shapes of old marri trees in a long-disused field spread out to my west.  The little woylie eventually became used to my shape and started, slowly,  towards me.

How can I describe its movements?  It hopped forward in diminutive, elegant bobs.  As it hopped forward and moved past me to my right, incredibly close, I was entranced by the way in which its head pointed forward and down and it made its rapid jumps with a mixture of flowing confidence and touching smallness of motion.  I’m used to seeing Western Grey kangaroo’s bound, and compared to that easy, long roll, the gait of the woylie is entirely different.  It is like seeing a cougar run across a field in the mountains of California, and then later watching a chipmunk scramble along a rocky path.  And in fact that was the next thought that came into my mind: I’ve seen many squirrels and chipmunks in America, but not once while growing up in Australia did a woylie bounce past my family’s tent.

As beautiful as the little fellow was, something is wrong in this scene.  Here I was, thirty years old, sitting on the gravel in the carpark of Karakamia and seeing for the first time in my life the animal that should be so common to my forests and fields, the beautiful little creature that should be such a recognizable feature of the place I come from.  I have spend quite a bit of time in the natural environment in Australia, and I have never before seen a woylie.

To the WA government: Do whatever it takes to bring back our animals.  Don’t leave it to the efforts of private philanthropy.  Make the bush live.

On the Up Side We Have: Life

March 20th, 2009

The American poet Jane Hirshfield is the author of the following poem.

Optimism

More and more I have come to admire resilience,

Not the simple resistance of a pillow whose foam returns over and over to the same shape,

But the sinuous tenacity of a tree

Finding the light newly blocked on one side

It turns in another

A blind intelligence, true

But out of such persistence

Arose turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs

All this resonace, unnretractable earth.

In her portrait of the rising sap of evolution the poet intimates something I feel when looking on the green, emergent life of a forest or woodland.  It is this unfolding, endlessly optimistic spirit in the wood, leaves and mitochondrial pulse of life that provokes a feeling of… you fill in the blank space.  I’m sure endless numbers of cliche-ridden poems have been written to fill that blank space in, many of them harping on spring time in the British Isles.  In the cliche-free language of Dylan Thomas it is ‘the force that through the green fuse drives the flower’.

Like Hirshfield I can’t help but admire the persistance of evolution: that meandering and long-flowing river that has brought us turtles, figs and mitochondria.

Walking Further into the Valley at Serpentine Falls

April 10th, 2009

This afternoon I organized a group of friends to go to Serpentine Falls in a national park south-east of Perth.  We were going to swim in the hot autumn weather.

It took about an hour to get there and, then, finally we entered a valley coming out of the Darling Scarp.  There was a dramatic granite face confronting us to the east further up the valley.  We were heading to a point where the water drops down over this steep rock into a deep pool.  Today is easter and a public holiday and, of course, the car park was disappointingly full.  But my dad had recently told me to climb up behind the falls to some swimming holes where you can escape the crowds.  That is exactly what we did.  There were eleven of us in total, and we made our way up the rock face indian file and then over the top.  There were a couple of pools in our high up aerie and the water was cool and refreshing.  It is a long time since I swam in fresh water – I’m always in the ocean – and so the silky feeling of having been in fresh water was a well received as I stood dripping in the sun.  Then I sat under the waterfall created where the water flowed out of a metal pipe from Serpentine Dam.  I sat in a small air pocket, beneath the water coming out above, with a friend and talked. Soon I needed to leave the group, and return to my home.  I was glad of the beautiful, wet bodies in the sun and the smiles and the presence of friendly people.  But the east was drawing me, up the twisting valley, through the trees, past the stones. I left the chatter and Das Man of the group, and moseyed along up the canyon floor.

It opened out into a valley as it went around the corner.  I looked back and saw the red stone and the blue sky and the unsullied eucalyptus canopy stretching up to the hill top horizons and felt good.  Here I was back in the dry, warm, Nyoongar haunted home of my childhood.  I could imagine a couple of first Western Australians walking around the corner with two or three gidgies (long, thin spears) over each shoulder, and their naked bodies shining with emu fat rubbed into their dark skin and a lizard tucked into a skein of possum fur wrapped around one of their waists as a belt.  This dream could have been only a handful of decades ago, and yet how very far from the brightly t-shirted and urbanized primates that lounged on the rocks back at the foot of the falls, far, far below me.  I walked forward, feeling my feet firmly on the rocks of the dry streambed.  Then I stopped, remembering that I had some new glasses in my backpack.  I got them out and put my glasses on.

All of a sudden my long-distance vision took on a clear-edged precision that made the world anew for me.  I was filled with wonder at the shapes of the valley I was walking up.  I couldn’t’ stop looking around myself in pleasure.  Soon I saw a blue-tailed bird through my binoculars, and I realized that this was a Splendid Fariy Wren.  It had a brown body, and was thus a female.  In the world of Splendid Fairy Wrens the females get a small share of aesthetic glory.  Much of the river was dry, with pools and mud here and there.  And I could smell the damp, musty clay and mud smell fill my nostrils as I stepped along stones above these areas.  I breathed it in and it was good.  Dragonflies swooped here and there.  Dragonflies are biomonitors in that their larvae are susceptible to pollutants in the environment.  If they are here it is a sign that this place is healthy.  Then bird song came shyly from the bushes to my right.  Two light green, tiny birds sped through their movements on a nearby limb.  They were Elegant Parrots, and because of how uncommon they are I was surprised to see them.  In fact I have never seen these birds before.

It took a while of walking, but finally the chatter of the group back at the pool no longer bounced along the rock surfaces to reach my ears.  A new peace and silence enveloped me.  I found a bulrush and tried to pull out the base of the stem.  Food.  It was hard work and I realized how much more useful a Nyoongar woman’s wonna, or digging stick, would have been than a Nikon SLR at that precise moment in time.  Afterwards I walked forward through bushes that had begun to crowd my path along the valley floor.  I came out of the bushes and the valley opened out and turned left.  A white-faced heron poked his sharp face into space above the boulder-filled reflections from a pool.  I walked past the pool, quietly observing him flap his wild, grey presence into the air.  I walked up along through the marri trees and over pebble beds of their nuts lying strewn on the earth.  I looked up at the western bank of the river bed: it rose up and up with two thousand million year old boulder surfaces giving way to jarrah trees and shrubs, and then like a white skeletal fenestration against the dull navy greens, a pocket of beautiful wandoo trees.  The wandoos waved their vividly white arms in the air.  Their crooked lines etched themselves into me.  I stood and looked at the king among these trees.  It was closest to me, just on the other side of the river and standing over me at the bottom of the slope.  My eyes raised up to meet its height.  Its boughs sprouted diverse angles, zigging and zagging in a frozen explosion of white wood, out into space, and with their… oh, the time. The National Park was closing its gates at five.  Five to five.  I pulled myself away from my immersion in this Australia.  I turned on my heel.  The intrusion of man-made timetables gave me an abrupt full stop.  I had to go.

It is evening now and I sit at home.  Looking back at this afternoon I see how over the past few months of reading and writing about the human and environmental history of south-western Australia, I have changed.  I walk through the arid, open, dry country of my home, past diverse lives, over the history haunted floor of the Swan coastal plan and over the granites of the Darling scarp, and I feel more and more like I belong here.  Sure, I was born here.  One of my grandfathers was one of a small handful of the first white-skinned people to be born in the western third of this southern continent.  I grew up visiting the non-urban world often with my mum and dad.  Yes, I am from Australia.  But only recently have I started to become Native.

What is the point in writing about nature?

April 14th, 2009

Some people write about nature in a way that goes beyond scientific observation.  These writers merge history, anthropology, ecology and personal emotional reactions and associations in their work.  This kind of thing constitutes a genre of creative nonfiction about the natural world.

But what is the point of such writing?  Why bother producing it?

Hmm…

Annie Lamont said that:

‘If you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little light house. Light houses don’t go running around all over an island looking for boats to save, they just stand there shining.’

Three men in a boat.

May 11th, 2009

This morning I, my friend Danny and my dad went out on my dad’s boat to Garden Island to do some snorkeling.  It was a calm, sunny May day on Cockburn Sound, and spirits were high. We piled our sundry gear into the bottom of the little wooden boat and lowered it into the water at Woodman’s Point, south of Fremantle.  My dad steered us out past the rocky groin: onto the ocean, sun high, eyes glinting with sea shine.  Three men in a boat.  Heading out.

The Indian Ocean spread out all around us.  Dolphins periodically slid their grey flanks out of the water in front of us, allaying any peripheral anxiety my dad’s talk of recent Great White sightings may have sparked.  Dophins don’t hang out with sharks, as a rule.

We made our way to the island, the skipper bumping and sliding us over the chaotic dimples of the sea with practiced ease.  The island has been an island for something like seven thousand years when the sea swelled and covered up most of the Swan coastal plain, leaving a few limestone lumps a far distance off our contemporary shore.  The Nyoongar people didn’t have boats, and this meant the island we were about to arrive at had not been burnt by humans with fire sticks in centuries past.  What we were seeing as we approached the sand beach of Garden Island’s north-eastern side was what the approach to Fremantle might have looked like a very long time ago.  Funny, although I live very close to it, I have never stepped onto Garden Island.

Arrival.  Stepping onto the sandy shore.  Walking into the forest.

There are hardly any places were you can see Melaleuca lanceolota (ti-tree) and Callitris preissi (native pine) growing in thick stands with closed canopies.  These trees haven’t been molested by fires and humans with axes or bulldozers.  In fact the state categorizes this vegetation type as a Threatened Ecological Community.  These almost unique remnant forests stand as a reminder of what parts of coastal Fremantle and Perth once looked like.

Looking up into the canopy the ti-tree’s sillouette looked slightly gothic.

But as I stood below amongst the trees, feeling the soft sand and brown moss beneath my bare feet, hearing the chuckle and crash of the surf beyond the dunes embroider the forest peace and stillness, I felt happy.  The shadows here didn’t hide any grief or pain in their depths.

Later I was snorkeling and floating above a glowing nudibranch.  My eyes were focused attentively on the iridescent aqumarine of its little body amongst the sea grass.  The colours of our local nudibranch are worthy of the most spectacular tropical reef ecosystems.  When we were on the boat at one point somebody spied a sea turtle from afar.  We approached, only to catch a few seconds of the old, barnacle encrusted voyager before he span and flapped his way down into the blue.

Later in the afternoon some wind had picked up from the south and we made our journey back. The boat shot forward.  Danny stood, leaning back and holding on steadfastly to his rope, grinning at the surging force beneath his feet.  My pa held the tiller and steered us onto the faces of waves we could ride, and over the crests of those we couldn’t.  I clung to the old, blue rail of the little craft and looked at the sea water slap and spray out to the side of the hull. The blue water shot beneath us.  Water shot out to the side.  Water shot into our faces.  I was still wearing my wet suit after the snorkeling earlier – not that the water was very cold today – and we were all catching plenty of sea spray onto our dripping and smiling mugs.  Close up and personal with the big blue.  Three men in an ocean-going little boat.  No insulation, no isolation.  I put my hand into the plumes of spray we were kicking up, and watched the tiny rainbows that sometimes appeared.

Stand Tall Fremantle

May 17th, 2009

This morning I got up, after plenty of partying last night, and the sun was shining on the town.  I rode my bike into Fremantle, wearing my Vote Greens t-shirt.  I didn’t have any reason to be downtown.  I just cruised along with a smile on my face, watching the pedestrians pass by on the pavement.  I went to my usual cafe and bumped into a few friends.

Yesterday the town where I grew up voted for the Greens to represent them in the Western Australian parliament.  For the first time in Australian history the Greens took a larger chunk of the primary vote than Labour.  For the first time in Western Australian history a Green politician has been elected to the Lower House of the state parliament.

The elected representative in parliament house in Perth for Freo is going to be a Green.  It is going to be somebody I support strongly.  This has never been part of my experience before.  This is something new.  I am so used to feeling oppositional to the mainstream political climate of where I live that it will take some getting used to.  Apart from the practical impacts that this election result will have there is something cultural and symbolic about this that has moved me.  The Greens stand for real, genuine commitment, not just talk and greenwash, to looking after nature, to an egalitarian society, to resisting corporate lobbying.  Now every time I pass the Freo library there will be an elected official in the office opposite who is a Green.  In this town I am no longer in the minority in my political persuasion.  The core member of the establishment in my town will, from today, be a person with whom I sympathize.  Suddenly I feel like I belong in my home town in a way I’ve never felt before.

Stand tall Fremantle.

White Australia

May 25th, 2009

This photo is of a cousin mine.  It was taken many years ago in Carnarvon in north-west Australia. I share it with the you because I find it symbolic of white Australians learning about the life of this land, and becoming native.  In becoming truly Australian we must know this land, and bring stewardship and care to that which we are knowing.

New Journal Article Out

June 5th, 2009

I’ve got a new journal article just out.  It is called ‘Introduction to the Post-Pastoral in Australian Poetry’.  It recounts my search for realistic and celebratory visions of us living with nature in Australia in Australian poetry.

As you’ll see I did have some luck finding such visions, but it took some searching.

Have a look here.

Photographs of the Known Unknown.

June 20th, 2009

A glimpse of a misty and mysterious paddy field in southern China, a place most of you will never visit.  This photograph, and the two that follow, were taken over the last few months by my mother.  She recently returned from a trip that wound through south-east Asia, China, Mongolia, Siberia, Russia, Scandinavia, western Europe, eastern Europe and finally to Turkey.  She traveled using trains and ferries.  Mainly just trains.

I wanted to share these photos as I find them to be full of mystery; they present the known unknown.

The waters of the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland…

The evening deepens over the countryside of Umbria in Italy…

I like photography that says goodbye to the obdurate finite.

Wungong Gorge to Forrestdale Lake: Wanderings

July 5th, 2009

It has rained a lot recently, or so it seems to me.  And yet in fact the first half of 2009 has been much drier than average in Perth, in line with this corner of the world getting less and less rainfall as global climate change takes its toll. Political weather…  Now we’re moving into July, which is the wettest and coldest month of the year in Perth.  But with maximums of 18 degrees for July I shouldn’t really complain (although most people I know seem to do that)  It is true that I’ve been inside for the last few weeks more than I like to be.  Yesterday I bucked the trend.

Off to Wungong Gorge on the edge of the Darling Ranges with a few friends.  We walked up the gorge on the track, imprinted as it is with a few horses’s hoof marks, but not much else.  As we moved away from the road the green grass carpeting the hill that dropped away to our south came as a surprise to my eyes, so unaccustomed as I am to seeing such an intensity of the colour green in this part of Australia.  After twenty minutes or so we left the track and climbed up through some Marri trees, sheoaks, and grass trees on the southern side of the gorge.  This was steep terrain and little plants clung to the slope.  Small Drosera species, or sundews, were waving their vivid and alien arms down at ground level, bedecked with false nectar to entice insects in for a feed (once the carnivarous sundew has the insect on board the sundew is the only one to be doing the feeding).  We scrambled up some loose rocks and then climbed a granite dome.  There we sat and looked back down over the peaceful treasure trove of unsullied nature beneath us. The natural world…  The magna mater.

Valleys like this are like cantonments of biological diversity away from the strife of bulldozers and anti-nature shire councilors down on the Swan Coastal Plain.  Later, after returning to the valley floor we found a place to swim in Wungong brook.  The water was an icy shock to the system, but after getting out the grey July air suddenly seemed warm and relaxing.  There is something congruent in removing human-built artifacts from one’s sight, and removing other human-built artifacts, clothes, from one’s frame.  A journey up a stone gorge then becomes a trip back to primary elements.  Simplify, simplify, simplify, wrote Thoreau… and a day trip to the Darling Scarp becomes a balm to the over-perplexed urban iPodder.

I found the dead trunk of an old balga (grass tree) and, in my Nyoongar-taught enthusiasm to find white larvae to eat I kicked it in half.  A lizard, I think an ornate rock dragon, tumbled out, but no bush tucker.  I guess the old Australians would just eat the lizard, but I felt sorry for the poor fella.  He had been snug and thermally insulated in this old balga trunk, and ready to return to this beautiful hillside once things warmed up.  Some stupid ape out of Africa had disturbed his winter shut-eye.  I was repentant.

As the afternoon lengthened we returned to the Swan coastal plain to the west.  Stopping at the end of a suburban street by Forrestdale Lake, we planned to wander through some swamplands.  Forrestdale Lake used to be called Jandakot by the Nyoongar people.  Jandakot means ‘whistling eagle’ or ‘kite’ in the dialect of the area.  For them it was the place of the whistling eagle.  Today Jandakot is a place further east from here: one place name has been colonised by another.  A man with a long walking stick emerged from a wooden house.  It was Rod Gibblett, lecturer in communications at Edith Cowan University, author of Postmodern Wetlands, and long time resident beside and friend of Forrestdale Lake.  Rod took us on a little walk down the eastern side of the lake.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago the sand had been blown up on eastern side of the lake into a lunette (semi-circle of sand), and we were picking our way through the banksias woodland on top of this ridge.  This area seemed to be less biodiverse than the plethora of vegetation types we had encountered up in Wungong Gorge, but it was very beautiful, full of Banksia menziseii’s, flowering even in the middle of winter.  The purple Banksias stood glowing in the recently emerged sunshine, and New Holland Honeyeaters dodged and twittered in front of us erratically.  Down to the west was Forrestdale Lake, a great, flat oval, largely empty of water right now.  We found a Snake Bush (Hemiandra pungens), a delicate south-west endemic plant.

Rod has put his name to a collection of oral histories of this lake, and reading it I noticed how the older residents of the area had noticed a big drop in Long-necked tortoise numbers in the lake.  The little tortoises used to stick their inquisitive heads up above the lake’s surface in their dozens, but in the last handful of decades foxes have eaten them and left their shells as evidence at the scene of the crime.  They are still here – Rod found some in his swimming pool one summer’s night – but there are far fewer.  As we walked I noticed the shell of one such unlucky reptile.
While people used to denigrate swamps as places of darkness and malign diseases, the modern term wetlands, purged of pejoritive overtones, is closer to the reality of these heartlands of life.  In Rod’s book he quotes Thoreau on wetlands: ‘What’s the need of visiting far-off mountains and bogs, if half-hour’s walk will carry me into such wildness and novelty’ (Postmodern Wetlands, p.235).  I heed the prophet of hyper-local eco-tourism.

A Helicopter Over Suburbia

July 8th, 2009

In suburbia many aspire to brick and tile. Busy and benighted, donning the blindfold of activity
all the long day through.

Each night the citizens retire.  Recline.  Lift the blindfold for a moment, and then catch…

slant cant, on a screen.

What is this thing called life?

Silence.  No, wait, I can hear a noise approaching…

It is a helipcopter.
I can hear its blades cutting the air with powerful precision.

Again and again.

We are living in the developed world, but below the wisdom poverty-line.

And nobody is dropping down a first-world aid package from the craft that is passing in the dark night’s sky above.

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

July 9th, 2009

This flower from a Banksia ilicifolia tree, endemic to south-west Australia, was something I noticed in the woodland around North Lake.  It is the flower of one of Perth’s most special trees.  This flower will soon turn pink and then red.  The Western Spinebill, one of my favourite birds in Perth, likes to come and drink the nectar from it when it is yellow.  This tree doesn’t look like the other banksia trees around Perth, and it reminds me of the sacred live oaks in southern Europe.  The Western Australian state government is planning on putting a six-lane highway (an extension of Roe Highway) through here, and if it goes ahead this tree would be knocked down (find out more here).  We will never see the beauty of its yellow, pink or red flowers again.  The Western Spinebill will lose its food source.  This should not happen.  There will be resistance.

At the start of George Seddon’s 1972 book Sense of Place he quotes Robert Frost’s poem ‘The gift outright’.  I’m going to quote from this poem as well, changing a few of the words as Seddon does to suit it to the Australian context:

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people.  She was ours

In Western Australia, and in Tasmania;

But we were England’s, still colonials,

Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found out that it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living,

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

It seems to me that many Western Australians, including myself, need to learn a lot more about the land in order that the people of Perth become truly indigenous, truly of this place.  When, for example, I see a Banksia ilicifolia tree in flower and learn what it is, or that I could steep bunches of it in fresh water and drink an energy-rich drink, then I feel like I’m getting closer.  Once Western Australians stop withholding ourselves from this place we will become stronger.  We will become the land’s people.

The Last of the Wild in Perth

July 27th, 2009

I have two long black feathers, one tipped with a streak of scarlet red and the other with a flag of pure white, near me as I write.  The Nyoongar people sometimes wore such feathers in their head bands or on their arms.  For me I will keep these near me as a symbol of the last of the wild in south-western Australia.

This afternoon I went up to visit Glenn Dewhurst in the hills directly east of Fremantle at the headquarters of the Black Cockatoo Preservation Society.  I interviewed Glenn on Understorey on RTR 92.1 FM earlier this week about the work of his organization, and had been invited by him to come up for a visit to his aviaries.  There are many well paid professionals in the area of environmental conservation, working for WWF for example, or for the Department of Environment and Conservation in government.  Don’t get me wrong, I am sure they do good work, but many don’t obviously shine with a light of passion or love for the ultimate end of their work.  Glenn Dewhurst does.  He is not well paid.  He is not a bureaucrat.  He is not career-focused.  He is an honest champion of the birds he loves.

Glenn lives with his wife and three young children on 12 acres in Martin, covered in marri trees.  It is quite green out there at the moment after weeks of rain.  Glenn has a large number of aviaries for Carnaby’s, Baudin’s and Naso (red-tailed) cockatoos that he is rehabilitating and preparing for release back into the wild.  He can even find the original flock of the injured bird and return it to the original family – something which would bring great joy to parents who probably thought their child dead.  He took me and a friend into one of the aviaries down the hill where two Naso’s are being rehabilitated.  We entered the aviary and looked around us.  One of them he had spent countless hours with nursing it back to life after it had been hit by a car.  This fella, by the name of Retep, was quite curious and affectionate.  Generally Glenn doesn’t encourage this kind of human intimacy with the birds as they will ultimately be released into the wild when they are fit and ready and such behaviour won’t help them later on.  However for Retep so much care had been necessary to keep him alive that it was to late to completely cut out his familiarity with humans.  He came over and landed on my arm, then walked up and sat on my shoulder (I now more easily understand how mariners in centuries past managed to end up with pet parrots from the tropics sitting up along side).  Parrots are very social and highly intelligent animals, I’ve known this intellectually at least for a while.  But to have a very large black cockatoo sitting with me this afternoon, on my shoulder, looking for a bit of warmth and interaction, was touching.  Retep bobbed and huddled closer in the winter’s air.  A bit of inter-species communication was taking place on a cool afternoon in July.


Watching some videos of the couple who helped set the Black Cockatoo Preservation Society up during the week I was reminded of how much of a symbol of the last of the wild in Perth these large and beautiful birds are (the red-tailed birds are declining thanks to shooting by farmers, poaching and other threats in their jarrah forests, but Carnaby’s is more of the woodland dweller).  If we can save the Carnaby’s cockatoo, then we will have to save a lot more of the land around Perth on the Swan Coastal Plain from developments such as the one planned by Bells Rapids (where the Swan river enters the hills) or the one planned by a Japanese corporation up at Yanchep.  And if we can do that we will have saved the habitat of hundreds of species of reptiles, invertebrates and other biodiversity.  In this way Carnaby’s black cockatoo is the best symbol that we have of the last of the wild in Perth.  As ugly housing developments are built, they lose their homes. As the wild goes, they are going.
Glenn told me that a flock of 150 came into his area in the last month.  He watched them fly down to the coastal plain, but very soon they were back in the marri trees of the Darling Ranges where he lives, looking for marri and jarrah nuts.  Glenn thinks it is likely that they didn’t find the woodland habitat they were looking for down on the plain because of all the new housing developments.  This year is the first time he has seen this happen.

Wee-loooo, wee-loooo, wee-looo.  Endangered sounds from above.  Suddenly the large group passed across above us, and the birds in the aviaries called out in excitement to their cousins.

These birds are such proud, complex and beautiful beings.  Their tall heads, graceful wing lines, lustrous black body set off by white or glowing red tail-feathers, and most of all, their curious and emotionally-nuanced personalities, make them the best symbols of the old, wild Australia that we have around here.  Being with them today inspired me. I was looking right into the face of the last of the wild in Perth.  Those dark eyes made me want to protest the destruction of nature at this cities boundaries more than ever.

Down on the Farm

August 7th, 2009

As I left the south-west highway the feeling became much more rural. It is the middle of winter and all the rain has turned the fields a beautiful green. I’d driven for forty five minutes south-east of Fremantle. The sun was shining from a blue sky, and as I got out of the car to unlock the gate onto the property the bird song came from the trees around me.

I was visiting a small organic farm south of Armadale. My friend Ben was working here.

I rolled slowly up the track and parked my car under some gum trees. In front of me was a large area of vegetable beds running parallel to each other. Ben is a softly spoken and extremely tall guy. With his wilderness sage-style beard, Finnish ancestry and copy of the poems of John Keats tucked in his pocket, he is well attuned to the quiet rhythms of this farm. Ben and his two fellow workers were out in front of me, working the field. The area was bounded by trees on all sides, and also by the Wungong Brook on one side, and it had the feeling of a sheltered glade of… food. The greens, reds and purples of cabbages, silver beet and egg plants coloured the ground.

The earth around here is naturally more fertile than further east towards the coast as for millions of years rain has washed sediments down off the Darling Ranges onto this area near the base of the hills. Ben showed me the earth he’d helped create and it was dark and rich, perfect for growing vegetables. There are no pesticides here and the soil is alive. The insects aren’t all killed so the birds have food and I could see with my own eyes plenty of birds on the property. A kind of compost tea is poured onto the little seedlings by Ulli, a German student of organic farming.

I’m glad I visited Ben on the farm yesterday. Wendell Berry is famous for writing that ‘eating is an agricultural act’. But until I’d visited this garden on a sunny winter’s afternoon in August, I’d not known deep down what this meant. Every day I eat carrots and lettuces and spring onions that were put in the ground by people I know in a patch of earth I know. Now when I see the vegetables in the tray at the bottom of my fridge I don’t just see items that magically appeared for sale in a city shop. I see plants that grew in dark, rich soil in a quiet glade south-east of Fremantle. I know that Ben looked after these plants for the past few weeks as they grew. I close my eyes and instantly I can see a picture of the place my food comes from, and the people who grew it. Most of us are city folk and the water or the electricity that we use each day, comes from… well, where? We don’t think too much about it. We get used to a feeling of disconnection.

Unlike from other people’s farms, there are no clouds of pesticides drifting off this farm to poison people living along side. Instead of what you’ll find on most farms around Perth, monocultures and machines, here you find diversity and humans. But it isn’t just that these vegetables are better for people, insects and birds. It is more than that: I know the people that grow my food. I know the place where they grew. This pushes back the some of the undefined feelings of disconnection that you get from living your life in a city. In supporting this farm financially and knowing Ben and going to the farm, I have joined the dots and understand the ecology of my life a bit better.

Woolworth’s and Coles have 80 per cent of the retail food market in Australia.  The farmer’s they buy from cut-corners by laying on the pesticides and getting rid of diversity of crops and getting rid of human labour.  Keep cutting corners and keep making money, that’s the approach.  Woolworth’s and Coles keep making huge yearly profits.  So do the pesticide companies.  But agriculture isn’t a business like any other.  If you treat it like one, as you do every time you buy conventionally produced vegetables, then you’re voting for an ugly and damaging future.

It is time to let Coles and Woolworth’s wither on the vine.

John Seed Drops into Kulcha

August 22nd, 2009

The rain kept coming in thin misty sheets, but the air wasn’t cold. Walking through the woodland of flooded gums along the river a multitude of bird and frog songs came to our ears. The birds were clearly excited at the changing conditions of rain and then sun. A pair of Shelducks with orange-chests and widely spread wings flapped noisily down their flight way of the river’s surface. A mother yonga, or kangaroo, licked her daughter’s wet grey coat affectionately and then stood tall and stared at us, the furless intruders. The earth sprang wet and fresh to my eyes. Angular Babylon was merely a memory.

John Seed is a well known Australian environmentalist and spokesperson for deep ecology. Since the late seventies he has been involved in rainforest activism, most famously for Australians at Terania Creek in north-east New South Wales. He has run many workshops over the years teaching people to move beyond having just ecological ideas, to having an ecological identity. What is more we need to go beyond having merely social self, to having ecological self.  John thinks that we have a tendency to forget who we really are and to wander off into socially constructed identities. His group process workshops, known as the ‘council of all beings’, have helped to restore a sense of the human being implicated in the web of life for many people, at places as far away as New England. The other night John Seed spoke at Kulcha, the world music performance venue in the centre of Fremantle. Earlier in the day I had the pleasure of showing him some of the flooded floor of the Avon Valley.  Here is the sight that greeted our eyes as we entered the Darling Ranges…

I kept looking around me with a sense of curiousity as I and John walked along a path through Walyunga National Park. I’m used to living in a dry and crackling place, and I couldn’t get used to all this water… I couldn’t get used to this feeling of gurgling surfeit and softness that it gave my home.

In winter the Nyoongar went inland, to places like this sheltered river valley. The rain has been falling frequently over the last few weeks in south-western Australia and the Swan River, called the Avon where we walked along its banks, has swollen and flooded its edges. The water, brown from the soil it flows over through the wheat belt, roared over the rapids, and chuckled in the feet of the melaleucas, and then flowed with a quiet lapping sound in the broader streches of the river’s path. Most of the rivers coming out of the Darling Ranges were dammed for Perth’s water use before I was born. Here it is big winter flow.

And then the flow returns to where I live most of my days, to Fremantle…

John is a stout white-beared elder of deep ecology.  Hanging out with him you get a sense that unless you’re tapping into some kind of spirituality in your life then you’re really just mucking around.  The sky darkened over Fremantle, and the lights of Kulcha shone from its balcony.  Sitting in the crowd and listening to John that evening, it was refreshing to hear from someone who experiences ecology and spirituality as so deeply intertwined.  So often you hear environmentalists, or professional ‘natural resource managers’ talking about the ‘environment’ as something out there.  For John ecological self is the water that falls from the sky and flows through our veins, it is the plants that come from the earth and then make up our body.  Gaia, the mother, exists before us and will exist after us, and this is something to sing praise for.  As John spoke, and showed some of his films, his sense of confidence in his view of the universe, and happiness about that view, shone through.  After all these years Australia’s premier deep ecologist is still smiling.

These words come from John’ song ‘Water, fire and smoke’:

‘I’ve pondered and worried/ I’ve tightened the rope/ I’ve feasted on sorrow and starved out my hope/ Now I come like a lover/ my heart in my throat/ give me water, fire and smoke.


Water for planting/ my eyes and my ears/ fire the transformer of sorrows and fears/ smoke for the ancestors, drawing them near/ with the water, fire and smoke.


So run from the church yard, the work and the cross/ run to the forest, the rivers and the rocks/ you will find a green alter deep in the moss/ you’ll find water, fire and smoke.’

Brad Pettitt: The Next Mayor of Fremantle

August 22nd, 2009

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Today Brad Pettitt launched his campaign to become the next mayor of Fremantle.  I like a guy who launches his political campaign on a bike.

When I was growing up in Freo in the 1980s the place was full of artists and bohemian types.  During the late 1990s and the 2000s I watched property prices in the town sky rocket.  Many of the locals left or moved to Hilton or Hamilton Hill in response to this and the place started to fill up with rich white baby-boomers.  Today it is in danger of becoming a wealthy dormitory suburb and losing its special character.

Brad believes in a vibrant and inclusive Freo that doesn’t go down this path.  He wants more high density in the east end of the centre of town to bring people back into the city to work and live.  He is behind plenty of renewable energy projects and environmentally sound building standards.

Yep, he’s got my vote.

Understorey Now Available as a Podcast

September 1st, 2009

Outspoken in the West….

To mark the start of spring in 2009, Understorey, the environmental radio show I help to host on RTR 92.1 FM, is now available as a podcast.  Just follow this link to subscribe.

The only environmental radio show in Western Australia, we regularly speak out for some of the inhabitants of this state who don’t get a vote in democratic elections.

Mark O’Conner on a Sustainable Population for Australia

September 2nd, 2009

I talk with Paul Gamblin from WWF about the recent plan to build a massive gas plant on Barrow Island, a bastion for threatened Australian wildlife off the coast of north-west Australia.  Then in the second half of the show I discuss what it means for Australia to have a sustainable population with author Mark O’Conner.  Here is Understorey’s first ever podcast.

Small Beginnings

September 26th, 2009

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This month I’ve started to prepare a series of lesson plans on Western Australia’s environmental history for local high schools.  The sustainability NGO HotRock has commissioned me to do this.  So much bioregional awareness is missing from the minds of urban Australians, and it is a pleasure to be helping to restore some of it in the lives of young people.

The Jewel beetle above is one member of the ecological community in which I move.  It is a small creature, but its story is one thread in the billion year-old narrative of a once glorious landscape.  To uncover this greater picture takes us far through both space and time.  Once we have completed the journey our sense of place in Perth is changed forever.  With a new perspective on our world, with a new story in our minds, we move closer to becoming truly Western Australian, truly of this land.

I am happy to start with small beginnings.

The Spider Orchid and the Road

October 4th, 2009

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A Swamp Spider Orchid, or Caladenia paludosa.

This morning I went to walk around some damplands vegetation in Forrestdale (south-east of Fremantle near Armadale) with the folks from Perth’s Wetlands Conservation Society. This Spider Orchid is beautiful, but its kind isn’t as safe around Perth as they used to be. This is the second most floristically diverse Bush Forever site (place of conservation significance) on the Swan Coastal Plain but none of it is looked after by the Conservation Commission of WA.  The damplands that are the home of this Spider Orchid are under threat from a planned Keane Road extension – to service a new bit of sprawling Perth – which would split the regional park.  What is the Armadale council thinking?  As we amiable thirty of so amateur botanists wandered in the morning’s sunshine along the sandy fire breaks, this was something many of us must have asked ourselves.  One minute healthy stands of kangaroo paws were raising spears of red aloft, the next orange Swamp Pea was smoldering fierce orange in the undergrowth, and the next a Purple Enamel Orchid was spied shining from the shadows of a shrub.  This is beautiful and biodiverse land, full of elaborate and fascinating plant lives.  A road slicing through its heart will spread more destructive weeds and kill more animals.  How would you like a road built between your kitchen and your sitting room?  The Environmental Review, required by the WA government, of the road to go through this area is due out in February.  I’m sure everybody who walked with me this morning will be ready to protect it for the public good.

Some of these old fellas were a well of knowledge to draw from when it comes to the nomenclature of the different species of flowering plant that are glowing in the sunshine around here at the moment.
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Yellow everywhere.

This is Acacia pulchella, or Prickly Moses, something which covers the land soon after fire has passed through.  Unlike this one, many species of plant around these parts currently have no common name, and a double-barreled Latin name isn’t always an endearing epithet in their absence. Thanks to the gregarious David James I know a whole lot more local plant species than I did yesterday, including many common names.

I got more out of the walk this morning than botanical knowledge.  It is refreshing to be around people with enthusiasm for the world they live in.  Thanks to everybody who shared their love of this rainbow-hued land with me as we move out of winter and into a new season.

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Look down and then stand up

October 19th, 2009

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Fremantle just elected Brad Pettitt as mayor, a man who means what he says when he talks environmental protection.  I got to shake his hand on Saturday night and pay my respects.  But for those of us who care about the natural world, most of Fremantle is urban (which is not to say that the green revolution shouldn’t take place in cities).  The third largest area of native vegetation in Perth, and the closest one to Freo, is surrounding Jandakot airport, a little further south-east.  Yesterday I wandered through some banksia woodlands not too far from Jandakot airport with my friend Matt.  In this photo Matt surveys the prospect.

We parked in a suburban street nearby, and then proceeded on foot.  Soon the footpath ran out and we were forced to walk along the side of the road.  To the left and the right the angular shapes of suburban roofs with square air conditioning units atop and plenty of exotic palms rising up amongst them all.

Then Matt and I left a road and entered a woodland.  It wasn’t one on land owned by Jandakot Airport – that would be trespass and that is something we would not do.  But we did leave a road and enter bush on the sandy soils not too far from the airport.  It is still the end of spring and plenty of flowers are out.  The banksia woodlands of the Swan coastal plain make up a natural scene which is not breathtaking considered standing up, looking out.  You have to stop walking, and pause…

Now look down to your feet.  Squat down.  Look amongst the plants.  You are faced with tens of beautiful plants species with their own unique flower and leaf.  It is here that the surprises lie.  Most people are too impatient for the onwards march of a bush walk to really stop and look down.  But if you do, you will be rewarded with much more than you’ll ever find with the stride-over-the-hill approach.

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These little purple stars gleaming like jewels in the undergrowth are the flowers of perennial shrub called Calectasia narragara, or Star of Behlehem.

A few footfalls later.  And then…

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This flower of passion amongst rich green stems, richer green than I’m used to seeing on this sandy soil, doesn’t have a common name, but is called Daviesia hakeoides.

For me the star of the morning was from the Proteaceae family: Petrophile linearis flowers have a kind of alien-like charm with their furry pink petals low down amongst the chaos of leaf and stem…

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What an amazingly funky looking plant and flower.

Then we walked along the road south into Jandakot airport.  From the road I could see what the airport guys have already done to the native vegetation in this area.  Destruction…

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Why do they need another runway and more money?  They’ve already wrecked enough land around here.  Look for yourself.  This land was cleared a while back for a ‘commercial precinct’, a place for big wharehouse sized shops to sell plasma screen tvs and the like, but months have past and its still empty.

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What we are talking about is the third largest area of native vegetation in Perth.  This is the largest area of woodland close to Fremantle.  And the Jandakot Airport people have already ripped into it with bulldozers, leaving the empty earth you see in the above photo.  According to the WA Native Orchid society ‘there is some dispute whether the 79 ha that was cleared (and the 53 ha remaining to be cleared [for this one commerical precint]) was done with appropriate authority and permission’.  Across the whole site, the airport people want to knock down another 167 ha, and the federal government is considering their proposal right now.  I and Matt know how intricate and wonderful the thousands of plant and animal lives existing in this kind of banksia woodland are.  Imagine going into an ancient library full of illuminated texts from centuries past and pulling books from shelves and tearing them up.  This is the kind of thing that  Jandakot Airport Holdings wants to do with thousands of Western Australian works of nature.  Fremantle people should at least know that a private enterprise is trying to get more money by diminishing the largest treasure trove of nature left close to them.

On our way out of Jandakot airport we walked across a highway intersection.  It seemed to go on for a long time, reminding us of what a surprisingly large amount of physical space a highway junction or bridge can take up on a landscape.  Soon Roe highway is going to be pushed through North Lake’s bush for a vast concrete intersection, not totally unlike this one.  This is just around the corner from Jandakot airport.

Don’t feel that you can’t do anything about the loss of nature in Perth.  You can step up to the plate.  Protest this destruction of nature by coming to a rally at North Lake on 31 October.

Nature in Perth right now needs you.  Come and support the preservation of one of the last remaining wetlands in the metropolitan area. There will be speakers and entertainment.  More details at: www.savebeeliarwetlands.com

See you at:

Bibra Lake Reserve, Progress Drive
(between Hope Rd & Gwilliam Drive)
Bibra Lake

11am – 1pm Saturday
31 October 2009

350 in Perth

October 24th, 2009

Well the whole world has been making the numbers 350 in various ways today.  Here’s what we did in Perth, Australia…

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This morning we first formed a critical mass of bikes riding through the centre of our city, causing cars to stop and make way for our smiling bicycle gang.

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That’s Tim Hemsley, the brains behind the Perth critical mass today.

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The centre of the business district had never seen so many free-wheeling environmentalists.

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I’d never been in a critical mass before.  There was a sense of solidarity between the riders.  We were taking back the street from the dirty and polluting cars.  But it was also really fun.  A fresh and refreshing experience to be riding through the centre of Perth without any fear of getting hit by a speeding automobile.

SatisArnoldThe ride stopped at Western Australia’s parliament house where well known climate change activist Satis Arnold opened proceedings.  He reminded us all that today is about getting the current level of carbon dioxide pollution down from 385 parts per million to below 350 parts per million in the atmosphere.  350 is the most important number in the world as it is the number that everybody on earth needs to be aiming for right now.  The rise above 350 ppm at the current rate of about 2 ppm/year is leaving behind the conditions that allowed the development of human agriculture and civilisation from about eight thousand years ago.  If we don’t want to see billions dead, human and nonhuman, through floods, droughts and fires, then we must get things down below 350 ppm.  We can do this through a war-time effort to increase renewable energy generation, stop land clearing and start a massive global reforestation campaign.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the humble bike.  Nice riding with you my friends.

Cabane des Naturels

November 3rd, 2009

DSC_0061Yesterday I and my friend Gilliane left Western civilization in our dust.  We drove south along the foothills of the Darling Range.  Around a 100kms south we veered left up into the scarp and the granite and the jarrah.  We stopped at a view point and we were here, soon standing on a titanic and prostrate jarrah log, looking out through a vale of foliage on the curve of the green hills and the wide plain beyond.  Pea-flowered shrubs glowed orange in the understorey, and vined their way through the lattice work of an exuberant macrozamia leaf.  The little buggy had got us quickly deep into the natural world.  Far, far behind, yes, left far behind were the cars and the tarmac and the people.  Here it was just Gilliane and I and wallabies and grey kangaroos and scarlet robins and thousands of other nonhuman others.

We camped beside the Murray River.  A grey, slightly muddy area was the only place I could see that was flat enough.  But we scooped up lots of sand from up the hill and dropped it on the area and we had a camping spot.  We found ourselves beside a big pool fringed by towering jarrah trees and vocal frogs.  That night the frogs chorused in three dimensions through the dark space, while the fire flickered over our faces.  We sat on granite stones I had carried there from a river bed nearby and drank a bottle of red wine and ate sandwichs.  And talked. It was good to be there with my friend and the fire and the dark and the thumping on the other bank of roos in the wilderness and intimate conversations about our loves and losses and our hopes and fears.  With the flat pan of the river before us smoking with mist and the trees and bushes sheltering us behind and to our sides and the fire there on the sandy edge of the river, just as it would have been for the white explorers like Dale and Wilson of this river in the 1830s.  And our little mia, our little cabane des naturels, behind us, into which we would later crawl and relax and sleep. That night I slept covered by my buka, the soft downy press of kangaroo fur on my cheek.

Today we ventured through the private property of a beef-farming couple in a salubrious farmhouse further west of this point on the Murray, with the auspices of the owners (they even gave us a map), and took my little car on perilous journey over high hill.  We parked eventually and walked.  After an hour of walking we neared the summit of the tallest hill on the edge of the Darling Scarp where the Murray exits the hills.  It was hot and Gilliane was tired from the very steep ascent.  Down, far down, in a crook of the valley behind us, a wide and fast flowing Murray River glinted and accentuated the romantic nature of this already green and beautiful place.  It encouraged us backwards.  I encouraged her forward.

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Soon we reached the top, clapping our hands loudly as we waded through tall grass to scare off errant dugites.  A large granite boulder crowned the bald head of the hill.  That was it.  We climbed on top of it and stood, finally, looking out on the vast table-cloth of paddocks and trees stretching out beneath us to the west, fringed by a lagoon, Lake Clifton, and then sand hills and then the Indian Ocean in the distance.  The well earned thrill of topping out and having big perspective on the world was ours.

gillianeettomLater we walked back down the red gravel track to the bottom of the valley.  A big black tree monitor  shot off its basking place on a granite boulder, and scurried out of potential danger.  Soon we were naked and swimming in the cool and fast flowing Murray.  My feet touched the bottom of a deep section in the bend of the river.  I wondered which other human feet had touched the bottom of the river at this exact point.  I clung to the edge of a rock while Gilliane enjoyed the sun on her skin.  Feeling the bottom with my feet and seeing the slopes of the valley, full of granite boulders and balgas and jarrah and marri and not even the memory of a footprint of a tourist, feeling the fast flowing water on my body…

Go forth with your eyes wide open.  Shadows sway.  Surfaces are real.  You are human.

Go up into those hills.  They are waiting.  They are always waiting.

Searching for Simplicity

November 28th, 2009

South west blog-10For the past two weeks I have been wandering around the south-west of Australia searching for moments of wildness, beauty and simplicity.  I found them.

Sitting by the fire with the firelight glowing on the lower trunk of an old leaning peppermint above, with my book on my lap, and the entrance to my mia-shaped tent at my back, no phone or email or facebook in the vicinity, not to mention no street full of people, no hard walls, no town around… this has been my life recently.  Checking facebook and emails in Margaret River the other day I scanned through, realizing how much scatter and trivia fills my days via these channels.  I agree with Scott Russell Sanders, ‘the opposite of simplicity is not complexity, but scatter, clutter, weight’.  While in Margaret River the other day I also visited a friend’s place, and walking into her admittedly very new and tasteful house felt odd.  Walls were there and there was the comfort of sofas and the ease of showers and cook tops in the area.  But it all felt too tame, too insulated, too much like life away from the white-chested wrens and the peppermint blossom on the ground and the flames of the fire at night and the DEC picnique benches standing square for another one-pot dinner.  I like camping.  I like the feeling of being in the midst of the wilderness with my capacious dome tent.  I don’t pay rent to a land lord, I don’t see the same scene every day I wake up.  I am self-sufficient, lord of my own manor.  I am nomadic and mobile.  I feel my buka on my check when I curl up for deep rest after dark.  Bird and tree and weather surround me.  The movements of the sun determine my waking hours.  At night when I feel tired I am bone tired and fall out of consciousness without query or qualms.  Quenda dig holes near me as I sleep.  Being in these wooded, wind-brushed, bird-loud places, I elect to experience Australia, not globalized, rented, tarmaced routine.

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My first night in the bush was in Dryanda.  This is the largest fragment of what much of the western side of the WA wheatbelt used to be like.  The wandoo woodland is open and easy to walk through.  We stopped earlier in the day and it was good to be in this open and dry woodland among the white colums under the blue sky, with tiny delicate white flowers that looked like stars in clusters on the ground.  That night I experience quiet with Bush Stone Curlews sometimes sending a haunting and delicate cry out from the sclerophyllous black, and brush tail possums scrabbling on the bark of wandoos near the camp site.  The Bush Stone Curlew has been driven out of most of the western wheatbelt through habitat loss and predation by foxes.  The sound I was hearing came from an earlier, wilder Australia.  Although I’ve never seen it I know from books that it is a tall, large-eyed, phantom-looking bird which feeds at night.  Believe me, its call sounds nothing like any other bird call you’ve ever heard, and is a signature note of darkness that should be widely known as such on this part of the planet.

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Traveling through the rolling wheatbelt you watch dry, weedy road verges giving onto kilometre after kilometre of wheat and sheep fields with the coral-like foliage of york gums stretching up like lone survivors of an earlier Australia here and there.  Sometimes you pass ugly 1960s brick and tile suburban houses with depressing little rose gardens out the front sitting incongruously at the centre of these many-thousand-acre properties.  Always flies buzzing around one’s lips and eyes if one stops and leaves the car interior.  Sometimes lone mesas standing on hills, with laterite capping breaking away into tumbling iron stone down their sides, with delicate grevillea flowers, like the ones above, fanning their petals against the lichen splotched sides of the rocks.  Old railway carriages standing useless on the Perth to Albany line at occasional sidings.  Large Victorian balconies on the hotels in depopulated towns like Wagin and Katanning.  Most of all hundreds of kilometres of tarmac winding through hundreds of kilometres of fields, denuded of nature.

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When salt is whipped up off the Indian Ocean by ocean winds it is eventually carried in clouds over this part of the world, falling in the rain and accumulating in the soil over millions of years.  In the past the trees sucked up all the water, but now most of the trees have been cut down the water table rises, washes into valleys and depressions and brings the toxic salt to the surface.  This deathly scene, rarely observed by city folk in Perth, combines the footprints of a highly destructive feral fox with the landscape footprint of highly destructive farmers.  Stormy tidings from the West.

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But not all hope was lost.  At one point we stop and harvest some quandongs from a couple of healthy bushes, with lambent red balls glowing like Christmas decorations amongst the leaves.

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Some people think quandongs are better used to make jam than eaten raw.  I personally love these  fruits which taste like young apricots with a hint of lemon in them.  Tasting their flesh connects me with thousands of generations of earlier Australians.

Later in the journey the mountains suddenly rear up.  The road shoots at them like a runway.  The mountains, clothed in vegetation, sit like a solid mystery in our sites.  Eventually after hundreds and hundreds of kilometers of smashed natural heritage, we enter the Stirling Range National Park.  Suddenly all around is kwongan.  It is a dramatic transition.  Tout d’un coupe, Australia remembers who it is.

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The wild lands envelop us, and we pass along the road, deeper into the park.  The land we have left, looking back, now seems like an amnesia patient who has forgotten its identity.  Inside the boundaries of the park the vivid living reality of a unique part of planet earth abides.  We camp that night at the national park camping ground.  The next day rain falls in solid bursts.  We travel down the centre of the park, and stopping to take a photo of one plant’s flowers brings one face to face with an exciting host of species of plant jostling in the kwongan.  Srange patterned leaves of one member of the lily family brush shoulders with a elongated red flower petals that look like miniture fog horns.  And then when you look up the colourful kwongan rolls away and down into a valley above which on the other side rise the granite crenellations on a far-away peak. It is an exhilarating place to be: amongst mountains that look like they are the real thing, at least to somebody from this flat part of the world, and amongst plants that look like they come from another planet.

Later in the trip I visited the land of John Pate, former professor of botany at the University of Western Australia, now residing on a 60 hectare property on Mt. Shadforth by the town of Denmark.  John had organized an open garden event at his place, and this included opening the karri forest he owns to visitors.  This old fella has created an extensive network of trails through the forest, by hand, up granite outcrops and through wetlands.  Walking it I read some of the interpretive cards he’d written and placed along the trail for the day.  This one caught my attention…

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Later in the trip I walked through the giant karri trees of the Warren National Park and looked up at the victors of the struggle to eat photons.  This one is the height of a fifteen story building.  Remembering John Pate’s card, I noted that its siblings have long since passed into oblivion.

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Later still in the trip I spent some time in the Boronup karri forest south of Margaret River.  This forest was logged around a hundred years ago and all the trees are rising up together, racing to get to the light, shoulder to shoulder.

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If governments don’t stop global warming from going much further there will be decreased rainfall in south-western Australia, and among other things this means that this tall forest drama will not continue, and there will not be any eventually victorious karri giants for our grand children to look up at.  With less water the karri trees will grow smaller and branch lower down their trunks.

It has been a good trip.  I return to my opening themes of beauty, simplicity and wildness.  You can see some of the photos I’ve taken on the trip by clicking on the ‘gallery’ sidebar on this website.  Therein is suggested some of the beauty I’ve experienced.

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What of simplicity?  I counsel you to avoid caravan parks.  Prince Siddhartha did not journey through the countryside with an extra-large Cougar-model portable home.  Francis of Assisi did not start up a Yamaha generator at sundown each evening.  Ghandi did not motor around India in a V8 four-wheel drive.  Simplify, simplify, simplify.  And if you see a ‘no-caravans’ sign at the entrance to a campsite, advance with confidence.

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A Word from the Floor

December 17th, 2009

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That’s me practicing my interview technique with a youth contingent from the Perth hills.

This morning I met Scott Jones, part owner of Planet Video and volunteer wildlife carer, in Mt. Lawley.  We went to his house first of all, to pick up an injured Wattle Bird he’s been caring for in an aviary in his back garden.  Then we drove east to Martin under the hot December sun, with the little Wattlebird sitting in a darkened cage on my lap.  We were headed to the Darling Range Wildlife Shelter, a centre for the care and rehabilitation of injured wildlife.  Scott volunteers his time here every Saturday afternoon and had offered to show me around the place.  The shelter is a collection of low khaki buildings, aviaries and pens sitting against a background of native vegetation at the feet of the Darling Ranges (directly east from South Fremantle, just north of Armadale).  Western Australia has plenty of two ton lumps of metal hurtling along sealed surfaces at high speed.  The state also has plenty of animals unacquainted with the intricacies of road safety practices.  In sum we have many injured animals needing care and human attention.  The state Department of Environment and Conservation does provide a wildlife care hotline (ring it if you ever look and find a joey alive in the pouch of a dead female kangaroo lying on the side of the road), but generally the Department’s level of funding means that it must channel its money into the conservation of endangered animal species.  Volunteers take up the slack.  At places like the one I was visiting, such people do rewarding things like feeding helpless and swaddled joeys bottles of milk.

I and Scott walked around the shelter.  We walked through a series of large, grassy pens in which progressively older kangaroos were hanging out and doing some healing.  The first bunch of motely youngsters stood scratching their chests in endearingly unsteady style, sprawling lazily on their backs, or having a quick tussle in the shade.  When I approached one young grey came up to me immediately, wanting to interact.  This curious young dude was happy to be picked up.  Holding the little, gangly life in my arms I couldn’t help but smile at the way he tried to burrow closer.

tomandrooI’m accustomed to kangaroos being extremely fearful of human presence, perhaps a result of being hunted for many millennia and only the most-wary-of-humans surviving to pass on their genes.  Being surrounded by year old joeys, unsteady, big-eyed, and very friendly, was gratifying.  The wall dividing the species was down.  While these little guys just wanted to suck on your finger (some personalities admittedly being bolder than others), the red kangaroos in the next area we visited were even older and more boisterous.  Red kangaroos are naturally more bold and rowdy than grey kangaroos.  Two or three of these youngsters came up to me, heads up and nuzzled a strap on my camera.  Then one of them decided to grapple my leg, and have a bit of a playful wrestle.  It’s a bit like when you play with a dog, except that it isn’t a dog you’re knocking around with, it’s an ancient Australian marsupial lifeform.  Cool eh?  Lucky these reds are still half my size and can’t win too many points against me.

wrestlerI asked Scott Jones about his thoughts on the commercial harvesting of red and grey kangaroos in Australia for meat and skins.  Some of our discussion will be broadcast soon on RTR FM in Perth.  Soon I’ll also be talking with Michael Archer, author of the book Going Native, about this same subject.  They have very different opinions on the topic.  Surrounded by affable little joeys I thought it was an interesting context in which to do such an interview.  More about this later.

joey

Marsupium means pouch in Latin.  Hanging in a pouch, or a bag, is where these little marsupials are most relaxed in their first few months of life.

Kangaroos on the radio 30 December.  In the meantime, thanks Scott.  You’re doing a great job.

A Conversation with Michael Archer, Author of ‘Going Native’

December 30th, 2009

In this episode I had the good fortune to talk with UNSW professor and well known Australian author Michael Archer.  I talked with Michael about the harvesting of kangaroos among other things.  I begin the show by visiting the Darling Range Wildlife Shelter with volunteer Scott Jones to get up close with the kangaroos themselves.  Here is this week’s podcast.

Higher for 2010

January 6th, 2010

2010

New Year’s greetings.  This is a bit belated, but I couldn’t write an entry in this blog at the time as I found myself many leagues from the good burghers of internet commerce.  I thought it would be an appropriate perspective to start two ten with: air that smells so good you want to gulp it down as it folds its way through a window in your tent, arabesques made by early morning silvereyes, the colour green and the sensation and reality of height.  In the 1970s film Rockers the character of Higher is the wise rasta who speaks from the hills of becoming irey and gaining coverage of I-heights, loveful heights.  This is the character I’m symbolizing with the red, green and gold in this photo.  This is the style in which I commence 2010.

My sense of height changes in karri forests. I stand and watch a karri tree leaf falling from far above in the canopy and spiralling down slowly through the cool, still air.  It is so small and falling for so, so long.   It is still falling in diminutive delicacy.  As I stand and watch the idea of a leaf falling from a tree gets reconfigured in my head.  Then this single leaf arrives on the ground

The ground crackles.  It has been about five weeks since I was last in the southern forests of Western Australia, and in this short time things have really dried out.  It feels like the middle of summer down there.

For some of the time I was in the south I was staying with botanist John Pate near Denmark.  I slept in an old 1920s settler’s cottage and one of the first pleasures of being there was the liberation of having so much space around me as I went to sleep at night, with paddock rolling off to the south and a copse of fifty year old karris partly obscuring a beautiful view of the southern ocean in the distance.  There aren’t many people you encounter these days who really know their local geography, and the names and history and dynamics of the nonhumans lives around them.  John Pate is one such guy.  His conversation as we walked his handmade trails through the karri forest was interesting.  At one point he told me that in the last ten years or so he’d noticed a drying of the climate which has resulted in some of the karris in front of his house thinning in their canopy.  His wife had once asked him to chop some down so that they could have a better view of Wilson’s Inlet, but now it isn’t necessary as the thinning in the canopy lets you glimpse the view between the trunks of the trees.  Turning to the latest news from Australia’s bureau of meteorology we see that average temperatures for the whole of this last decade we’ve just been through were 0.48 degrees above the 1961-1990 average, confirming that John’s observations of his forest are very pertinent.  On another subject John also expresses the view that, despite the noise made by forestry professionals, forests don’t need to be managed.  He does not burn his forest, and if a fire from a lightning strike went through his forest the ecosystem would just start up again as it has for thousands of years.  He does not feel like the owner of his forest, just somebody who walks through it and knows it intimately.

johnHe enjoys feeding the superb blue wrens on his verandah with meal worms.  They chirp in a high pitched, touchingly insubstantial way, and then hop onto his hand for a bite. The gaunt and affable guardian of the wrens.

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I hope your resolutions for the twelve months to come hail from greener and higher places.  Happy New Year from an indolent garden guest.

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The Virtue of Being a Savage in the Blue

January 21st, 2010

Cormorants

I live in the south-west of the Australian continent. Although if you look at an ariel photograph of the city of Perth you won’t see much wilderness, you could be mistaken.  The eleven year old boy, marvelling at the living creation, lives on.  The blue on the map hides something.

The other morning I was on Rottnest Island with a group of friends.  I clambered over the rocks.  Alone for this experience.   It is good to be alone in nature – after being in the human realm so much one needs a shot of the primal elements straight, no chaser.  One needs a face to face sensual interaction with air, water on skin, rocks under feet, other species looking indignantly at one and then backing away, sounds sifting under one’s membrane of hearing.  I dived down, using my body, feeling my body moving, and at the depth of three or so metres I grabbed hold of some brown, green sea weed, sloughing in the wave motions of the sea, and watched a well camaflouged brown fish back in and out of its covey of weed.  All the domesticities of washing up, putting clothes away, are washed clean from one’s screen with a trip to the ocean.  Blown away with the trip out.  The fresh air of going forth, taking only one’s body and a towel, and slipping into a wild biota.  Going down, the warm salty water slipping over the body.  And it enlivens the system.  The doctor should surely prescribe a regular interaction with the more than human world once per week.  Jacque Cousteau stands for more than a faded seventies tv fashion.  He stands for the virtue of being a savage in the blue.

fishThese photos were taken on a $45 underwater camera.  Steve Andrews, a PhD student at Curtin University, was exploring the idea of bring out people’s appreciation of the marine environment through giving them cameras and sending them forth to take photos of things that mean something to them.  Steve’s project is called Show Us Your Ocean, and if you’re in the Yallingup/Margaret River area of south-west Australia, where he’s normally based, then I suggest you get involved.

Kingfish

A school of kingfish, or yellow-tailed amberjacks, cruised past me, rays of sunlight dappling their pelagic muscles.  These big, fast pelagic predators used to be sometimes found in the Swan estuary in the nineteenth century, but no longer.  Their power is humbling to be around.

The heat has been far too much this last weekend in Fremantle and Perth – so hot that every few hours I would wake at night, unable to sleep because of the temperature in my room, go take a cold shower, then go back to sleep for a while before involuntarily waking up again.  But apart from the ocean there is another thing I like doing in this weather.  Projecting old, rare footage from Jamaica and its musical heritage in my garden.  Good friends, hot nights, good music.  With a couple of cold beers, some uplifting well amplified island riddims, and a mist of water now then sprayed over the grooving crowd… moments like those when you loose yourself in the music and the motion and you feel your spirit rising up… make everything seem worthwhile.

NuggetIain McCloud of the band Nugget, spotted at a big, underground party this last weekend in Fremantle.

The elements are in place.  Summer has finally arrived.

A Haul of Sea Grapes

February 1st, 2010

DSC_0027.JPGThis morning I woke up, post-party induced sleep still in my eyes, and after a short drive with my friend Steve, walked into the sea.  I was walking into the water at Cottesloe with around fifteen friends who were joining me and a friend, Rainbo Dixon, Murdoch University doctoral candidate and underwater botanist extraordinaire, for a tour of some of the species of sea vegetables you can munch on.  Rainbo is doing a PhD on sea plants and their taxonomy and genetics, and happens to have also studied which of these salty greens you can eat.  I convinced her to share some of her knowledge.

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It was good to walk down onto the sand by the limestone crags and drop our stuff, then walk over the hot sand into the cool blue with your mask and snorkel.  I went out a few hundred metres to a line of limestone reef where the water was clearer and, pulled down by my weight belt, I flew along through the water, just above the waving terraces of sea grass, brown, orange and green.  It was like a heath or a forest, now I looked at all this life for once as my prime focus.  Normally I’m more focused on fish or coral or shells, but today, passing above the sea bottom, my eyes were scanned the fans and threads of  underwater plant life.  Looking for sea grapes I discovered how hard it was to find a good, large stand of this plant to pick from.  The warm, mid-summer temperature water passed over my skin, cool under my arms, slipping and streaming off my swimming hands and fingers as I beat my way forward with my my fins.  Now I was more aware of the way in which the bottom of the sea changes with every metre passed.  Now a large kelp, now a calcified, bright green leaf, now a dense and faded purple bush…

I didn’t want to go back to the shore.  I was enjoying the search for new plants and the warm, sheltering, enveloping water too much.

Eventually I walked up onto the sand with a treasured haul.  We each took back a small sample of some of the more interesting plants we’d seen, and, on a bench in the shade of a picnic awning, spread out our various finds.

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These are some of the things the taxonomic wiz kid Rainbo told us we could happily toss into a salad.

These sea grapes are good…  Caulerpa racemosa

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But not these (Caulerpa cactoides).  Notice that these divide at the start of each stem…

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This is good…  Laurencia species (notice that the branch tips are swollen and end abruptly).

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And this is good…. Hypnea species with fine spiky ends.

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And this is good…

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A Walk Through the Karri Forest with John Pate

February 3rd, 2010

John Pate is a retired professor of botany who lives on a many hectare property on Mt. Shadforth by Denmark on the south coast of WA.  John took me on a walk along the steep trails he has created by hand over the years and discussed the karri forest that he loves so much with me and a friend.  Here is this week’s podcast.

A Philosophical Land

February 8th, 2010

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Tonight I was walking through John Forrest National Park with a friend.  Do you know the jarrah and wandoo and dryandra clothed slopes of the Darling Scarp in late afternoon light towards midsummer?

This is not a gushing, romantic, sloppy land, I thought as I walked.  This land is spartan and dry and ancient and philosophical. Unlike rainforests or temperate forests, this land has an intense and stark lucidity and openness.  It is not a place of soft excrescences.  It is a philosophical land of dry open shrubs and light-shunning eucalyptus leaves that point down towards earth, and let the fantastic sunshine slip past them and onwards. Now evening light falls on the dry bark and white trunks of elder wandoo trees. It is a land searching for the memory of so many proud and forever gone Nyoongar hunters and gatherers.  Now granite monadnocks squat antiquely.  It is the 2.5 billion year old bones of the planet, sticking through the surface.

It is the land for those who love, or learn to love, the truth, the glaring, searing, the ancient truth.

Vulnerable Perth

February 27th, 2010

PerthThis map uses the colours of the traffic light to show which areas of Perth have good public transport (green) to average (yellow) to bad (red) to nonexistent (black).  If you live in an area in the black and the price of oil goes up too high, as it eventually will, you won’t be able to drive to work because filling up the tank costs more than your weekly budget can deal with.  Maybe you’ll try and catch the bus or the train.  What if your suburb is badly catered for by public transport?  Check the map.  Society in your oil-price-vulnerable area will start to fray.  To stop a wild west scenario developing we should all keep asking for more apartment buildings and more light rail in sprawling Perth, and faster.  In the meantime you can almost see Mad Max saddling up in the distance.

Nice map Jan.

Welcome to My Place

March 24th, 2010

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I’ve now completed a series of PowerPoint presentations on the environmental history of south-west Australia.  I gave the first presentation of this slideshow last Friday night.  The location for the projection was fitting: a clearing amongst marri and paperbark woodland ten minutes drive east of the small town of Yallingup, three hours drive south of Perth, and many thousand light years beneath a covering of stars.  There were around twenty people there for the projection, and it was well appreciated.  If you’d like to come to the next presentation send me an email and I’ll set it up: tom at tmwilson.org

When I arrived at the house of my friend Steve Andrews, the location for the projection, the first thing I did was climb a big old paperbark on his property.  At the very top of the tree I sat and looked out across the tops of the surrounding trees.  I could feel the limb I was sitting on move gently beneath me.  The tree was swaying in the wind and I enjoyed feeling this motion through my body.  The feeling helped me leave behind the monotonous rigidity of riding in a car and enter into the spirit of the place.  Then a Western Spinebill, a beautiful little brown collared bird with a long black beak endemic to the south-west, hopped out of the foliage into my field of vision.  I don’t think he was used to encountering humans at the top of trees before, and I felt welcomed to the place by his bold approach.

Laughing at the Male Ego

April 3rd, 2010

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Down By Law is a black and white film which came out nearly a quarter of a century ago in 1986.  This film memorably portrays the late night streets of a long past New Orleans.  But isn’t this blog about culture and the natural world?  Why am I writing about what most people would think of as a resolutely urban film?

I watched the film last night with a bunch of friends and one scene stayed in my mind.  I am talking about the moment in the film when Jack and Zack are walking by themselves through the Louisiana jungle-like forest at night and enacting their urban personas, Jack the slick New Orleans pimp who controls women, and Zack the smooth radio DJ making the world stable and controllable through his flow of interlinked sentences and words.  They have both escaped from jail, along with their friend Bob, and are fleeing through the swamplands.  The camera follows Jack gesturing and talking to himself, then cuts to Zack (played by Tom Waits) also walking alone in another part of the wet dim forest, also talking to himself.  These men are enacting their shark-like urban personas.  Yet as they walk by themselves through the dark jungle their lack of control of the real world about them is gloriously obvious.  Back by a camp fire their friend and fellow prison escapee, the at first apparently naïve Roberto Benigni, is happily cooking himself dinner.  In this part of the film the director Jim Jarmusch has brilliantly demonstrated how the urban, power-obsessed male ego becomes entirely helpless and neurotic when lifted out of the machinery of the metropolis and placed into the chaotic midst of the natural world.  The environment of cars and dealers and women and scams and sidewalks can be controlled by one kind of alpha male, but that apparently triumphant tough guy is shown to be divested of all control and power when he steps far outside the boundary of the city.  A classic moment in twentieth-century cinema is for me the world-weary Tom Waits doing his radio presenter voice while wandering through the tangled night of a southern forest.  We see the male ego desperately trying to reassert control.  Waits voice can’t keep back the night forever and this scene is an instructive and touchingly futile comedy.

Penelope Swales

April 9th, 2010

I met Penelope at Kulcha recently when she was performing there, over from the east coast.  She told me about her new video ‘Black Carrie’, about a German environmental activist she once knew.  Its finally been released and here it is: Black Carrie.

Wandering down to the Wolery

May 11th, 2010

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Last weekend I gave my environmental history presentation to a group of Notre Dame sustainability students on the south coast of WA.  I took a few friends with me for the ride, and along with a large dome tent and some red wine, we wound our way south.  Upon arriving in Denmark we rendezvoused with the others at the Centre for Sustainable Living.

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Part of the centre, ‘The Sanctuary’ is a small circular building with a living roof.  We walked to the entrance of the Sanctuary and looked, over the grass and over the river, out on Denmark in the still and cool autumn morning.  With the mosaic of trees and river and hills and grass it was a heart-lifting scene.  Talking with Louise Duxbury inside the centre she reminded us of some of the history of the town, including the wave of hippies who came to live in the town in the 1970s.  Such folk included my parents, and soon enough myself as a small baby back in 1978.  I knew the man who had made the mosaic tiles for the Sanctuary and the man who had made the stained glass.  It was a good feeling to be enmeshed back amongst some of my Denmark roots.

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And so to the location of my talk later that day: the Wolery.  The Wolery is an eco-village on 64 hectares close to the town of Denmark.

In this photograph John Piercy is showing us about passive solar design, his profession, with a tour through his own home at the Wolery.  The place felt light and open and good to be in.  In fact it was an inspiring house to be inside.  At the end of his talk I asked him how much it had cost him to build it.  He told me that if you discounted labour, of which he’s supplied all of it, then it had cost four thousand dollars.  Inspiring indeed.

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Here Louise Duxbury shows us her orchard, next to her house at the Wolery.  Those are many, many persimmons that you can see hanging on the tree behind her.  Louise also showed us around her large vegetable patch.  Afterwards I asked her if she would be able to manage to live on only her own produce for a year.   She said she could.

South-west again-8These are some of her pumpkins, sitting pretty for a meal some time in the future.  With peak oil and peak phosphorus causing global food scarcity around 2030, it is the kind of thing I’d like to see sitting on my veranda.

I will have excerpts from a couple of interviews I did at the Wolery on the radio 11.30am, 26 May – on Understorey, RTR 92.1FM in Perth.

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That’s the community centre at the Wolery, with my powerpoint presentation Digging in the Sand set up and ready to go.  Thanks for having us to all at the Wolery.  It was a pleasure to walk around the quiet, bird-frequented property, with its mud brick and wooden houses nestled amongst orchards and gardens.  This place used to just be a big paddock, and in three decades it has gone on to become a centre for sustainable, and enjoyable, living.

Oh yeah… I mentioned that I took a few friends along with me for the ride down to Denmark.  One was from Canada, one from Germany and one from France.  At one point we passed some emus in a field.  I told them that emus were particularly curious birds, and that if they wanted the emus to come close to them then they might do something bizarre in the middle of the field, like like lying on their backs with the hands and legs in the air.  Then hopefully the curiosity of these enormous birds would be piqued and they would approach the group.  Luckily everybody believed me.  I don’t know about my integrity or credibility as a tour guide, but the photo will live on.

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The Final Days of Warrup Forest?

May 13th, 2010

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This is Warrup, an area of jarrah and marri forest in the south-west of Australia, south-east of Bridgetown.  Much of it is scheduled to be chopped down this year.  I was there recently, and can report that it is a beautiful, healthy and biodiverse ecosystem, far from the madding crowds.

South-west again-17Walking through the forest I and my friends found fungus growing from the sides of fallen forest giants, glowing orange against the brown of the fallen jarrah leaves.

The jarrah forests of the south-west of Australia have been overcut for the majority of the twentieth century.  At Warrup there are two areas of old-growth jarrah forest, something very hard to find in 2010.  These areas will not be logged, but anything around these areas will be.  This will open up the old-growth left to the effects of heat, wind and invasive weeds, as well as quite probably spreading die-back into the area.  It will also impact on threatened animals such as the woylie that are not unknown around here.  At Warrup we had found an area of Australia that deserves to be part of the national park system, but that, unless the Department of Environment and Conservation gets its act together, is going to be basically clear-felled.

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Tune into RTR 92.1FM in Perth, or online, on 26 May, 11.30am, to hear me interviewing Russel Catomore, a representative from the Bridgetown-Greenbushes Friends of the Forest group, about the future of Warrup.

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This forest has only been logged once back in the 1940s and today it contains massive trees and a rich understorey.

South-west again-14The sounds of quiet bird song fluting in the canopy in the areas adjoining the old-growth were an elegy in my ears.  Soon we won’t hear song in this old forest if the Department of Environment and Conservation gets its way.

South-west again-13Logging this forest will be a serious environmental injustice in Western Australia.  To find out why check out me and Rus on Understorey, 26 May, RTR FM, or podcast the show later on.

Bioregional Revolution (Remixing Gary Snyder for Australian Conditions)

June 16th, 2010

An owl winks in the shadow

A lizard lifts on tiptoe

breathing hard.

A robot in a suit peddles a mineral-rich delusion called “Western Australia”.

The head-heavy, power-hungry Government shuffles papers

Does it speak for the green of the leaf?

Does it speak for the soil?

In the city of Perth the front line expands

A bulldozer side-slips over the skinned-up bodies of still-live banksia trees.

In the pay of a man

From town.

Woylie, honey possum and chuditch are gone.

Super-stores and brick and tile shining hard in the sun.

Now is the time for solidarity

Between four-legged, two-legged people.

Flying people.

The paper-shufflers lose their mandate

The people turn towards the ancient land of the Bibbulman.

An owl winks in the shadow

A lizard lifts on tiptoe

breathing hard.

(My re-edit of lines from Gary Snyder’s poems ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘Front Lines’, 1969)

Green Island Visions at Kulcha

August 8th, 2010

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Last Friday at Kulcha (the venue I work at in Fremantle) was a celebration of Jamaican Independence Day, ‘Roots of Reggae’.  The venue at Kulcha looked like a haven of greens, with huge branches of tropical foliage turning the downstairs entrance hallway into a jungle.  Upstairs at the bar were found real whole coconut cocktails, and if you turned right and walked across to the dance floor you would have looked up and seen projections of tropical landscapes, and tenement yards, above the DJs and MCs.  This was another Green Island Visions production, a result of my wiping away humidity from the glass of my lens in various tropical forests and coasts around the world and bringing the results back to venues in Australia.  Live Vjing is an art in itself, and what I do is more pre-edited video and photography montage production. The point is to bring to the people some of the beauty of tropical nature while mixing it into the musical heritage of Jamaica.  The next time Green Island Visions appears will probably be for another reggae party in September 2010.

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Walk Against Warming, Fremantle 2010

August 17th, 2010

TomWilsonFreo

Yesterday two or three thousand people converged on the Fremantle Esplanade to protest government inaction on climate change.  At the end of this week Australia will vote on our next federal government, and it was a good time for this national day of protest to take place (not to mention the climate change disaster events in Russia and Pakistan hot in the news).  In Perth we had a great day of sunshine, and as you’ll hear if you listen to my radio broadcast at 11.30am on Wednesday morning 18 August RTR 92.1 FM, there was some good music from the likes of John Butler to be heard.

Actually one of the highlights of the day for me was the righteous anger of John Butler as he told WA Premier Colin Barnett that you’re going the wrong way down a one way road.  In a finger pickin’ style, of course.

If you live in Perth and didn’t make it to the Esplanade, then listen to the radio on Wednesday.

TomWilsonProtest

Wildflower Country

August 30th, 2010

9781921361784_WILDFLOWERCOUNTRYI’ve just read this new book from Fremantle Press: Wildflower Country.  It is a large, folio-style book of macro colour photographs of wildflowers from the south-west of Australia.  The Western Australian flowers often reminded me of unearthly, alien-like organisms when seen in these beautifully photographed macro perspectives.  As the author of the text, Stanley Breeden, comments in the book, the study of these flowers combines the emotional impact of the aesthetics of the flowers with the intellectual pleasure of learning about the workings of their ecological identities.  I met and interviewed the authors – Stanely and his wife Kaisa – and you can hear this interview on Understorey, 11.30am 15 September, RTR 92.1FM.  The work is a fitting tribute to what is now acknowledged by ecologists as the area with the greatest wildflower show on earth: my home.  On this upcoming show I’ll also be talking with Dom McFarlane from CSIRO about the future drying up of the south-west because of global climate warming.  I leave it to you, the listener, to draw what connections you may between these different subjects.

The Sunset Frog

September 7th, 2010

This week I get a peek at the very little and very beautiful Sunset Frog, a frog that lives in peat bogs in south-west Australia and may be one of the planet’s first casualties of global climate warming.  Here is this week’s podcast.

Wildflower Photography and the Drying Climate in South-west Australia

September 15th, 2010

The first half of the show is an interview with Stanley and Keiser Breedan, the authors of the gorgeous large-format book Wildflower Country published in 2010 by UWA Press.  The second half of the show is an interview with Don MacFarlane from CSIRO which sums up recent research on the drying of the climate in south-west Autralia.

Here is this week’s podcast.

An update on the Roe Highway plan to destroy bush land and the sorry health of dolphins in the Swan River.

October 6th, 2010

An update from WA Greens Member of the Legislative Council Lyn McClaren on what the WA state government is now planning on doing to the native vegetation of North Lake (destroying it by building more roads).  This episode also includes a look with historian and Swan river advocate Sue Graham Taylor at the six dolphins deaths in 2009 in the Swan river.

Here is this week’s podcast.

Doing Time on Boyagin Rock

October 15th, 2010

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Today I’ve returned from Boyagin Rock, a huge granite monolith 140kms east of here.  I camped there last night with some friends.  Going there is like slipping through the mosaic of environmental devastation in the wheatbelt into a land that has escaped whipping.  It is a journey into how much of southern Western Australia has looked for thousands and hundreds of thousands of years.  It is an arid and ancient land of crushingly cold night and punishingly hot days where life must be highly adapted to survive.

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Last night we sat around the fire and talked, enjoying the warmth of the fire on my legs as the temperature started its nightly descent.

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This morning I woke in my tent and got out into the sunshine and a cold southerly.  Bird song and scouringly bright light.  I walked behind the tent through a grove of sheoaks and up a large and tilting granite slab to the west.  On the top side of this slab the sheoaks began again and I walked into the trees, raising my legs here and there to pass over fallen trees and branches.  I came upon a clearing full of white and pink flowers, their petals having seen better days I concluded that they must be everlastings on the elegiac end of their season.  I stopped, turned around, and looked out through the trunks of the sheoaks on the valley beyond, over the wind-swept sheoak tops and the heaths to a granite face on the other side of the valley.  I felt good, having left the chatter of my friends behind me back at the campsite and able to concentrate fully on the spirit of this forgotten place.

An orchid brings a flicker of colour to the somber tones of the woodland…

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The last time I was here was in 1986 when I came here with my parents and their friends to watch the passing of Halley’s Comet.  I was eight years old. I thought back past this time as I stood amongst the sheoaks to the time before that Halley’s Comet had passed by in 1910 – this view would have looked the same.  The same when it came close in 1835.  The same grey sheen of the sheoak’s foliage when the comet was recorded as being observed by humans in 1682.  And onwards backwards through human history at least.  This place is a refuge for biological species unknown to you or I.  On the top of the monolith I bumped into Grant Wardell-Johnson, who I happened to have interviewed on refugia for plant species in the south-west of Australia in the context of global climate heating (on RTR 92.1FM’s show Understorey, 17 March 2009).  What’s going to happen next?  Will this island of life weather the changing times the future brings?  Grant will be one of the first people to be able to answer these questions.  Maybe I’ll return to Boyagin Rock in 2061 when the famous comet next passes through the inner solar system.  What will live here then?

All kinds of folk were out enjoying the rock on this day.  Next I bumped into Ctenophorus ornatus, the ornate crevice-dragon, bobbing his head at me and then scattering frantically into shadowy hiding.  Deep time didn’t concern this feisty denizen of old stone.

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Visiting the Steve Irwin at Fremantle

October 28th, 2010

I’ve just walked around the Steve Irwin, interviewing a couple of the ship’s crew for the environmental radio show I host Understorey.  I left the humdrum hustle of Freo streets behind, walked across the train tracks, and as I approached the docks of Fremantle wharf, the black form of the Steve Irwin loomed from between buildings, solid and with the air of some very serious intentions.

SteveIrwinI’ve grown up in the port city of Fremantle but almost never have I been onboard one of the many ships that dock in our harbour. Today the cargo ships we mostly have visit us are vast commercial enterprises, anonymous and entirely sealed away from the residents of this port.   Wandering around to the ship today and talking with some of the crew it was refreshing to have a brush with the cosmopolitan, en-route atmosphere of travel and adventure you’d expect life lived a busy port to more often be like.  Here I and photographer Danny Cummings are chatting with some people in the galley.

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Most of all it was heartening to be around people who have acted on their beliefs, and are standing up to protect mother earth, or mother ocean to be precise.  The crew are preparing the ship to travel to the ocean around Antarctica in a few weeks where they will intercept the Japanese whaling fleet and prevent them from illegally killing whales in an international whale sanctuary.  They’ve been doing this every year for the past seven years.

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You can hear some of crew talking about life onboard the Steve Irwin on the upcoming episode of Understorey, 3 November, 11.30am, RTR 92.1FM.  You can also visit the Steve Irwin yourself and go on a guided tour of the ship this coming weekend from 10am-5pm.  Many thanks to Catherine Mansart for showing us around today.

Freo Tweed Run, 2010: A Perfect Way to Start the Weekend.

November 14th, 2010

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This morning was the morning of the great Freo Tweed Run.  This was an event in which the two hundred or so registered riders would congregate on South Beach in Fremantle wearing their most dapper kit, generally tweed, and after a bout of leisurely chit chat, take a run up to the Fremantle Esplanade.  Henceforth we would proceed to X-Wray Café, where, photos would be taken and garlands bestowed upon the nattiest cyclists of the day.  Thanks for the photos Neil Wallace.

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This morning was one of the most enjoyable mornings Saturday mornings I’ve had in some time.  After a very late night at Kulcha the previous evening, I pulled myself out of bed, showered, and donned my linen suit, and boater-esque hat.  The silk pochette that I neatly folded and placed in the breast pocket of my bespoke linen suit jacket had been hand delivered by my friend Jess Berry the previous day as a gift, direct from Jim Thompson’s in Bangkok.

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That’s my friend Alice doing some impromptu lindey hop.  My friend James Clarkson had retrofitted his large cargo bike to carry a car stereo and battery well hidden within an old suitcase.  I had prepared a playlist that went from twenties jazz to lilting Haydn, with a bit of Hugh Laurie singing Jeeves and Wooster thrown in for good measure.  With Nagasaki playing you can see why they’re dancing.

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There were plenty of friends about the place, everybody looking greatly pleased with themselves and the general state of things in the world.  What a perfect way to begin the weekend.

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I interviewed one of the organizers of the event, Lachy Bridie.  You can hear that interview, as well as plenty of errant chin wagging from the day on an upcoming episode of Understorey on RTR 92.1 FM (11.30am 1 December).  As you’ll see from my chat with Lachy, there is more to all this than a love of well pressed trousers (visit www.dismantle.org.au for a taster).

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And then for the run…  along the ocean and into Fremantle.

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The sound of Minnie the Moocher and other classics of the pre-war era followed us thanks to the design efforts of James Clarkson, efforts for which he was later awarded a $150 voucher.

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Is that a tweed flask I see?

We adjourned to X-Wray. I asked the young lady at the counter for a couple of her establishment’s finest ales. She looked nonplussed.  We settled down with some clearly  specified Rogers.  Somebody raised a toast to Stephen Fry.

For now I salute you all my fellow cyclists and propose another toast: to taking back Fremantle from cars and turning every day into a Freo Tweed Run.

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The Freo Tweed Run

December 1st, 2010

A live recording from Freo Tweed Run, a celebration of gentlemanly style and the two wheeled steed.  As well as a retrospective look at the 2009 Montaro oil spill which took place off the north-west coast of Australia.  Here is this week’s podcast.

Lizard

December 6th, 2010

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I saw this guy wandering through the woods the other day and I thought I’d share him with the world.  No comment today, just tipping my hat to a fellow explorer.  Varanus gouldii, or Gould’s goanna.

John Seed Reads Robinson Jeffers

December 9th, 2010

TMWilsonJSeedOn 7 December John Seed appeared at Kulcha in Fremantle.  He spoke to us about deep ecology, as he had when he appeared at Kulcha last year.  John also read some of the poems of the American poet Robinson Jeffers.  His reading of Jeffers poetry was particularly memorable, and I invited him to record some of these poems for radio the next day.  To hear this recording tune into Understorey, RTR 92.1FM, 11.30am 5 January 2011.

Another Lizard

December 15th, 2010

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Skinks running at me today on the West End of Rottnest, fearlessly seeking food.  Sleek scales move over hot limestone.  Millions of years of evolution slinking over sun kissed skeletons of sand, reading striations of past ages with clawed feet.

John Seed reads Robinson Jeffers

January 12th, 2011

Legendary Australian environmental philosopher John Seed discusses and reads from the work of his favourite poet Robinson Jeffers.  Danny Cummings reads from Henry David Thoreau.  Here is this week’s podcast.

Return from the Kingdom

February 10th, 2011

I’m just back from three weeks wandering around Thailand, the Kingdom of Siam.  In the above photo I’m hanging on Ko Jum.  With plenty of head space I relaxed and took in that combination of elements: moisture filled balmy air, gentle breezes, large leaved trees and palms and green grass, wide sandy beach and an ocean so benign that it feels in temperature and texture like cool silk on the skin.  In the background was the Andaman sea, calm as a sleeping giant murmuring incoherently to himself now and again.  Over in the local Muslim fishing village I got over culture shock and was able to calmly take in the main street on which everybody lived, traded or scooted along in ad hoc, resource-poor, community-rich South-East Asian style.  Unlike in the West where large and anonymous retailers turn high streets into citadels of corporate power, here the little man on the street grabs his share of the market, even if its just in the form of a tiny road side stall.  Oranges are sold as they grew on the tree out back, rather than being trucked in and only sold if they fit a cosmetic and flavourless ideal.  On the down side foul odours of rubbish or raw sewage assault the nose on a regular basis.

Later I was in Khao Sok National Park further north and west.  This is one of the most significant refuges for nature in south-east Asia.  It also turned out to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

The centre of the park has a huge lake in it.  One night I stayed on floating bamboo hut in a distant corner of this lake.  The journey on a longtail (traditional wooden fishing boat fitted out with an absurdly loud converted truck engine as a motor) wound through huge limestone crags covered in rainforest over endless and placid, deep green water.  I started to feel like one the conquistadores in Werner Herzog’s film Aguire the Wrath of God, taking a trip down an exotic tributary of the Amazon.

Arriving at our floating bamboo village I alighted and looked down through the floor boards at a large freshwater fish hanging motionless, suspended in clear, sunlit green water.  There was a feeling of makeshift honesty to the construction of the place.  If you stepped too heavily in the wrong place you might have fallen through one of the worn floor boards, but it didn’t matter.  It was uniquely beautiful and, like so much of the day to day life I encountered in Thailand, a thumb in the nose to safety-obsessed Australian bureaucracy.

Some images that came into my sight as I wandered through this part of the planet…

Floating in my little kayak one morning I make my way up a small tributary into the wilderness.  I hear a gibbon singing his long, plaintive song into the cool morning air from off to my right.  I stop paddling and listen.  Another gibbon replies from far off to the left…  A very special moment for me, alone with an ancient Thailand.

On the way back to civilization the boat passed through a bay of the lake which was ringed with towering green mountains.  White cumulous clouds topped the scene against a blue sky.  Looking out of this panorama I felt my spirit rising up.  Shangri-La if there ever was one.  One of the most uplifting landscapes I have ever seen.

Return from the Kingdom – Part Two

February 13th, 2011

Next the windows swung open to me on northern Thailand.  Wherever you are on the planet the temperature generally drops six degrees for every thousand metres you gain in altitude.  Getting off the train in Chiang Mai in north-west Thailand bleary eyed after a night of little sleep I felt the cooler air and gave thanks.  Chiang Mai has less air pollution than Bangkok, but still seemed, on first sight, polluted and overly tourist-orientated.  I was, however, a tourist.  As such I praise the tradition of ridiculously cheap traditional Thai massage available on every corner.

The above sign advertises massages for 150 baht which is less than five Australian dollars.  At such prices I was getting one per day. Another obvious pleasure in south-east Asia is to have one of these every day for less than a dollar…

A wat in the forest outside old Chiang Mai…

After Chiang Mai I wound my way four hours north west, further into the mountains, to Pai.  This small town is the perfect size to rent a scooter and not fear for your life while in Asia.  Zipping along the road out of Pai to a natural hot spring in the forest I saw scenes such as this…

After going further off the tourist route again, into Mae Hon Song, I found far less hassle from touts and more of the quiet and gracious rural Thais.

Walking around the hills of this area there was plenty of slash and burn agriculture.  Corn fields each had one of these little bamboo bungalows in – I suppose for resting in after work when it was harvest time.  Bamboo is used so inventively in rural Thailand as a building material that I am tempted to see it as one case of poverty giving birth to beauty.

After wandering in the north-west I spent time in Ayutthya where I took the following photos.

Saving grass trees, and the live export of cattle from Fremantle.

February 16th, 2011

Bruce Abbott of Replants, a business in Fremantle, talks about his work transplanting grass trees from bush to be destroyed around Perth. Greens MLC Lyn McClaren talks about the latest evidence condemning the export of live cattle to Indonesia from Fremantle. Here is this week’s podcast.

Interview with Tim Flannery

March 30th, 2011

I talk with Tim Flannery about his fantastic new book Here On Earth.  He was here for the Perth Writer’s Festival and I got to have a chat with him in the RTR studio.  Here is the podcast.

PERTH POEM by John Kinsella

April 27th, 2011

This week I managed to get one of Australia’s most critically acclaimed poets, John Kinsella, to record his poem ‘Perth Poem’ for the show.  As you follow his branches through the urban corners and natural facets of this Western city you’ll be surprised.  Here is the podcast.

Ian Lowe on How Australia Has Done on Climate Change

May 25th, 2011

President of the Australian Conservation Foundation Ian Lowe comes into the RTR studios to talk with me about the Australian federal government’s series of failures to deal with the threat of climate change.  Here is this week’s podcast.

Looking Back at Managing Kulcha: 2009

June 6th, 2011

So here goes, I’m going to give you my view of the highlights from Kulcha over the last couple of years.  Its really a visual essay, images I took that create a portrait of each year in the venue.

And best gig of the year at Kulcha in 2009 goes to… Sirroco.  Australia’s greatest ‘world music’ outfit.  Before I heard them I never even knew what a shoon was.



Looking Back on Managing Kulcha: 2010

June 6th, 2011

Last year at Kulcha my personal highlight was, along with original Freo personality Danny Cummings, starting a jazz funk, disco house, deep house, afrobeat DJ night called WILDSTYLE.  We slowly built the night till the summer came around at the end of the year and the dance floor exploded during the Festival of Fremantle series.

Best gig of 2010 goes to… Chris Smithers!  Deep, ravaged, down home blues from the Delta.  An amazing performance.

Here is my visual portrait of the year that was.

Looking Back on Managing Kulcha: The First Half of 2011

June 6th, 2011

And so we come to this year.  We’ve already had some amazing musical performances in our 200 capacity venue above the rooftops of the port.  In April Tony McManus played a beautiful guitar concert in which I even heard Erick Satie being transposed at one point.  Then only a few weeks after the Egyptian oud player from Sydney, Joseph Tawadros, put us all under his spell in a night I will not forget.  It was the first time he played his piece ‘Freo’ in the town the number is dedicated to, and the audience loved ever minute.

However best gig for the first half of 2011 goes to an unexpected contender… Miriam Lieberman’s performance in May at Kulcha with Ziggy playing along on his suite of African drums was pure excellence.  Just the kind of thing that Kulcha does best.

But 2011 is only just getting into its stride.  At the end of the month the Gyuto Monks of Tibet will be in Western Australia at the same time as the Dalai Lama.  The monks are taking over Kulcha for a week, and the building will be open every day for chantings, teachings, meditations and the sand mandala creation process.  Zarm are ending the month of June with a reggae explosion, so come down for a dance.  And in July one of the biggest events of the Kulcha year takes place: Santiago de Cuba, a sell-out Cuban party to warm up winter.

I continue to ride a groove train overland, across country, and into culture.

What’s that music? Rest in Peace Gil Scott-Heron.

June 6th, 2011

The day after Gil died just over a week ago I put this picture of him behind the Kulcha bar.  At the time I wrote:

Gil Scott Heron died yesterday. For many years Gil has been a kind of mentor I never met, a figure who inspired me and gave me strength when I didn’t have any. I’m pretty upset that he has left us. Tonight I hope that everybody around the world plays his music and pauses to remember this giant of a man.

One of America’s greatest musicians has left us, aged only 62.  His music is not playing on the radio, but it is playing in my heart.

The Gyuto Monks of Tibet, Speaking Direct from Kulcha

June 21st, 2011

Tibet has maintained a deeply conservative cultural tradition and religion for many hundreds of years behind a curtain of high mountains.  If you were at the Burswood Dome last weekend to see the Dalai Lama you would have seen the red robes and yellow hats of the Gyuto monks, costumes that have not changed for centuries.  The monks are in town this week, and I caught up with them.

Gen Lama Thupten Phuntsok is the man I first talked with, through a translator of course.  The head lama comes direct from Dharamsala, India with his group of Gyuto Monks to begin the year long Infinite Present Tour of Australia.  Later in the excerpt I talk with Maureen Falon, and I think she really gets to the heart of why you should come and spend some time with the monks at Kulcha this week.  Listen up.

Look at this monk’s expression – you can see the focus required to make a sand mandala…

 

As the Gen Lama takes his seat on the stage my eye drifted to a healing bowl.  This is the bowl you can hear singing at the start and end of the interview I did with the lama.

 

A Chat with Ben Elton

June 29th, 2011

I recently attended a forum on the end of logging in Western Australia at Notre Dame in Fremantle.  The MC for the event was none other than English comedian Ben Elton.  On this week’s Understorey we hear from Ben Elton, as well as other speakers at the forum.  In the second half of the show I talk with Danielle Witham at WWF Perth about a new conservation plan for south-west Australia.  Here is this week’s Understorey.

Nature Deficit Disorder or a Biophilic City?

July 27th, 2011

Griffin Longley from Nature Play talks with me about his efforts to remedy nature deficit disorder in Perth.  Tim Beatly from the University of Virginia’s architecture school chats with me about biophilic cities, and how Fremantle might become more of one.  Here is this week’s Understorey.

Rock Wallabies on the Way Out? The View From the Stone Citadel.

August 30th, 2011

Recently I found myself sitting at the back of a sparse stone chamber and looking through a granite arch out over woodland, boulders and fields, all wet and green.  This was the prospect from my refuge.  I hadn’t expected to find myself sitting high up in a remote and little visited stone cavern looking over a green landscape when I had gotten out of bed much earlier that morning.  Things were going well.


I was looking for evidence of the black-flanked rock wallaby with Katherine Howard from WWF, the conservation organization.  To get to the cave I and Kath had climbed over a slippery ledge, where green fronds clung in crevices, traversing above a steeply sloping 30 metre drop to the rocks below.  There was a serious purpose to our journey to Mt. Stirling in WAs central Wheatbelt, but man, this is fun, was what I was thinking.  There was the risk of the fall, and the act of approaching the dark yawn of a remote cave entrance, inside of which lay we knew not what.  My hands clung to the stone, I moved forward slowly, my breeze brushed my neck, I felt unquestionably alive.

 

I was out of the urban bubble, on a massive granite monolith with three WWF conservation professionals, monitoring the presence of Black Flanked Rock Wallabies.  These diminutive macropods used to be commonly found on the Darling Scarp behind Perth.  With the arrival of the fox at the end of the 1920s the end of their abundance began.  Today they persist in the north-west of Australia, but in the south-west they have been reduced to six granite outcrops in the wheatbelt.  Most city folk don’t even know what a black flanked rock wallaby looks like.


So did we find any of these animals at Mt. Stirling?  Or at least pictures thereof?  Listen to this week’s Understorey and find out.

Really Tom, why should anybody give a damn about rock wallabies in the WA wheatbelt, I can hear some people asking?  As I walked around Mt. Stirling that day I realized that these animals are mute sentinelsl looking down on a changing Australia.  They are the ancient soft brown faces of this country looking down from a stone citadel on disruptive modernity.  You may have never seen their white-stripped faces, but their perspective is an important one.  It is the secret soul of this country, the old, the original Australia.

 

Sheltering Overnight in Freo

September 25th, 2011

This man is giving his vote of confidence to the Department of Housing and Works and their ability to provide shelter to those who need it.  The sad thing is that this political-cartoon-like image is a real scene, and was observed by myself on the streets of Fremantle around 1am last night.

The Environmental Message in Reggae: From Pablo Moses to Mista Savona

September 27th, 2011

This week on Understorey its a reggae special.  I talk with roots reggae legend Pablo Moses – pictured above – about his music and the place of nature in the Rastafarian faith.  Later I interview Ian Scobie, director of Earth Station, a boutique environment and music festival taking place in a National Park in South Australia in October.  On the line-up for the festival is Melbourne-based reggae outfit Mista Savona, which of course gave me an excuse to interview the man behind Australia’s biggest reggae act, Jake Savona.  Here is this week’s show.

Hallo Vietnam

October 12th, 2011

On the spur of the moment I booked a ticket to Hanoi, northern Vietnam, last week.  Tonight I sit on the balcony of a wooden stilt house by a lake with touring limestone peaks as a dimly made out sky line all around.  This laptop is about to run out of batteries, so I’ll keep this short and write more soon.  Last night I sat on the back of a scooter and crossed downtown Hanoi in peak hour traffic, in a tropical downpour.  I have to say that this one of the scariest experiences of my life and I loved it.  The traffic in Hanoi is a quivering and twitching organism of intricate give and take.  Amazing experience. Didn’t like the feeling in my lungs, but amazing.   The food here is the best I’ve ever eaten and leaves Thailand for dead.  I’m on the move with lovely local Vietnamese people.  Half of this countries 83 million people are under 30, and it seems like every single person here is a slim and good looking 25 year old.  A huge number of people still live in the country and they know more than us Westerners that eating is an agricultural act.  More soon.  Facebook is blocked in this Communist state by the way.

 

From the mountains…

October 15th, 2011

I’ve just been making a short film with a few people in Ba Be National Park in northern Vietnam.  I’m not going to write much now, just putting up a couple of photos.  From the land where the pith helmet is actually worn by millions of men on bicycles.

 

 

 

A Chap in Hanoi

October 17th, 2011

The Temple of Literature was built in 1070 as a conduit for the teachings of Confucius.  After ambling through this establishment this morning, I walked around the corner and sat myself down for a shave.  As I leaned back I saw above the leaves and branches of rainforest trees, and in the reflection in front of me, the messy tendrils of electricity wires and the general bustle of Hanoi.  My good fellow was charging me under five dollars for his work.  Surely there are few better and more affordable places in the world for a chap to lean back and sharpen up.  Afterwards it was time to don the pith helmet and hail a cyclo… 0ff for further adventures.

 

Bike Love

October 18th, 2011

I really liked the look of this guy’s bike workshop.  Its a street corner.  Good view eh?

 

 

Is God Green?

October 26th, 2011

This week’s Understorey starts with a discussion with David Conover, a film maker in America (pictured above).  Conover is the mastermind behind the contemplative and visually stunning series Sunrise Earth, and he is currently producing a film called Behold the Earth, and exploration of science and religion as different avenues for embracing nature in American culture.  Today you’ll hear excerpts from the film, including the voice of the great writer and thinker Edward O. Wilson.  The second half of the show is an interview with Martin Palmer of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.  Listen to this week’s show here.

Vietnam: From Hanoi to Ba Be National Park

October 26th, 2011

 

These are a few of the images that remained in my mind after visiting Hanoi and the rainforested mountains south of the Chinese border. The soundtrack comes from sitting around in a village hut in Ba Be with a couple of the women farmers singing in their local Tay language. At the start you can hear us clinking glasses filled to the brim with rice wine liquor.  Thanks to Hien Thi Hoang for letting me use this recording of her voice.

I SUPPORT THE RIGHT TO ARM BEARS

November 29th, 2011

This week the show comes from Vietnam. I make a botched attempt of singing a line from Noel Coward, and then explore Ba Be National Park in northern Vietnam. Ba