Monthly Archives: October 2013

Angry Spring

Earlier this year Australia came to the end of a summer that was so outstandingly hot and stressful that the Bureau of Meteorology added two new colours to its charts so as to be able to indicate the high heat levels. Will Steffen, a world leader in climate science and a key figure in the government-funded Climate Commission, wrote the report ‘Angry Summer’, showing the figures that enabled the public to get the picture of just what had been happening.

Eight months later, the story rolls on:  Angry Spring has flashed into New South Wales bringing fire, wind, heat, death, fear, injury, lightning, pain, peril, loss, despair, and, of course, anger. In the few months between February and October 2013 we had had a chance to think, evaluate, assess, and plan. Collectively, we hadn’t done well at all. The Climate Commission has been abolished (replaced, however, by the crowd-funded Climate Council). Climate change is treated as if it were a topic to be debated rather than a phenomenon about which to take action, and all the while it is accelerating.

As Peter and I continued our travels in North America, parts of our minds were focussed on home: on fires, on friends at risk, on the suffering of all who are in the paths of the fires. Parts of our minds were here where we were, of course, and the dissonance between the island country of the Pacific Northwest with its damp forests, lakes, inlets and sounds forms an incredible contrast to the news from NSW.

Those contrasts were with me when I walked into the Royal British Columbia Museum and found myself face-to-face with an exhibit on climate change that was without doubt the best I have ever encountered.

Debbie and mammoth Royal BC Museum
Debbie and mammoth
Royal BC Museum

The exhibit places contemporary climate change within the context of a dynamic, ever-changing earth system with all the changes in flora and fauna that have been part of the story of earth. It focuses, though, on the most recent era of human life in the north – the end of the most recent ice age. The life-size mammoth is an awesome reminder of the fact that change is earth’s way of life, and nothing lasts forever.

One section of the exhibit gives clear explanations of the main forces in climate dynamics: including the pulses of ocean currents and oscillations, the tilt of the earth, the earth’s orbit, and other factors that pulse at different rates and intersect to form patterns through time. Human impacts were set within the wider oscillations, and then it made good sense to talk about what the current changes imply for the future. Having always thought of this region as one of endless rainfall, it was fascinating and horrifying to learn that British Columbia, too, has recently experienced terrible fires, and can expect more. Indeed the great forests of the region could be lost to a range of impacts, including the devastating effects of the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae). This voracious little beetle is kept in check by freezing winters. As winters lose their frosty bite, the beetles multiply so rapidly that they are destroying forests throughout the western part of North America. The stories rolled on, with strong sections on greenhouse gases and global warming, and excellent suggestions for what individuals could do to reduce impact.

Canada is far from being a perfect society, as government bans on the public reporting of scientific findings attest.  Nevertheless, the climate change exhibit is supported by ’Environment Canada: Environmental Action Fund’, ‘Environment Canada: Eco-action Community Funding Program’, and the ‘British Columbia Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection’.  As Libby Robin has discussed in an essay on climate change and museums, the role of the museum is to address big questions. In the BC Museum, the stories unfold in urgent scenarios that leave sensible people asking the great question: ‘what can I do?’ And indeed, the Museum offers a strong educational action program to accompany the exhibit.

While I was still immersed in this sense of urgency, I was shocked to learn that once again the PM Tony Abbott denies links between climate change and bushfires. And perhaps even worse, that there has been some suggestion in Australia that it is not good to talk about climate change in the midst of terrible fires. I gather that the idea behind this notion is that climate change is political, and no one should be politicking in the face of the fear and suffering of bushfires and the heroic efforts to contain the fires. But this idea is wrong. We in the ecological/environmental humanities  have been talking about climate change and bushfires in Australia for a good while now, and with a new government that wants to stifle research and informed conversation and action, it is imperative that we continue to tell the stories that move people to understanding and action.

Climate change is not politics. It is reality. Much of what we love is at risk – not only our own lives, but forests, animals, birds, plants, oceans, homes, neighbourhoods, communities, the future. What could be more important for us to talk about than the real world in which we are living? This is our life, our time, our responsibility, our debt to the future.

'Climate Rules' Royal BC Museum
‘Climate Rules’, Royal BC Museum

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)


The Republic of Poetry ~ Trois Rivières, Quebec

The opening ceremony of the 29th Festival International de la Poésie took place in the Maison de la Culture, at the heart of Trois Rivières, a medium-sized city halfway between Montreal and Québec City, Québec Province, Canada. Gaston Bellemare, the organiser of this miraculous event, was described by one of the speakers as the President of ‘La République de la Poésie’. His presidential style is incomparable; thanks also to the director Maryse Baribeau, there has never been a more hospitable festival. From 4 October to 13 October, 2013, the city of Trois Rivières gave itself over to poetry, and our days here have been a blessing. Poets have arrived from Finland, Senegal, Egypt, Peru, Benin, Argentina, Brussels, France, China, and many more places. Some have dual origins, announcing complicated lives of resistance and exile: Iraq/Spain, Egypt/ Québec, Cuba/ Québec, Syria/France. Australia is represented here too: Peter Boyle is an invited poet, and I am on a holiday surpassing all dreams. In this Francophone culture, poetry, eating and drinking go hand in hand, day after glorious day.

But to go back to the beginning: on the stage in the auditorium where the opening ceremony took place was a small dais, and on the dais was an empty chair. One spotlight remained on the dais throughout the evening. The empty chair was conceived by PEN International (originally Poets, Essayists and Novelists). The oldest human rights group in the world, PEN was founded in London in 1921 with an international mission. It has become clear over the years that in many troubled areas of the world writers are targeted for imprisonment, torture and assassination. PEN has taken the lead in defending writers everywhere. The empty chair is for our brothers and sisters who are in prison or other places of torment.

Outside the Maison de la Culture, others are also remembered. The absent, the forgotten, the poets whose lives we will never know, are uniquely represented in Trois Rivières by the world’s only monument to the Unknown Poet.

The festival continued as it had begun: the opening ceremony concluded with an invitation to step out into the foyer for wine and beer. The speaker urged us to enjoy ourselves by making reference to Rabelais’ great observation that there are more old drinkers than there are old doctors! From there on it was non-stop multi-sensorial pleasure. As the program unfolded we learned that the festival was almost completely decentralised, taking place in foyers, cafes, patisseries, restaurants and bars all over the city, and even in a few religious settings. There were readings and discussions over breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, apéritifs, dinner, early night at the bar, and late night at the bar.

Brunch and Poesie at the restaurant 'Le Sacristain'
Brunch and Poesie at the restaurant ‘Le Sacristain’

Each reading included four or more poets reading just a few short poems. We always had time to think about what we were hearing, we always heard several poets, and we never had to go back to the auditorium to find ourselves looking at each other across a barrier created by the contrast between spotlight and obscurity. Rather, we were together in intimate spaces, reading, listening, discussing, joking, eating and drinking. The audience included other poets, of course, along with residents of Trois Rivières, people from the province and the nation, and some from overseas as well.

For such a festival to succeed, internationalism must be more than a list of countries of origin. The cosmopolis of poetry achieves its vitality through both diversity and conversation. Here in Trois Rivières we were telling stories along with reading poetry; we were sharing lives, histories, and passions; we listened attentively, and the poets spoke eloquently. We had occasion, day in and day out, to laugh together. Sometimes there were tears as well.

Our conversations developed into fascinatingly mixed smorgasbords, with French, English and Spanish predominating, often mixed together in unexpected ways. The official language was French, though, and every poet brought works that had been translated into French, if they weren’t written in that language to begin with. Every poem was read both in French and in the poet’s own language. My French is not good enough to allow me to appreciate many of the subtleties of poetry, and I missed a lot, but at the same time, I was thrilled to hear the sounds and cadences of other languages, catching emotions and intensities borne by the human voice in one of its most expressive modes.

Postcard: an afternoon in the church

Church of Saint James (Anglican) Trois Rivieres
Church of Saint James (Anglican) Trois Rivieres

I became entranced with the Arabic poetry of Ahmad El-Shahawy before I could understand it. It wasn’t until the afternoon reading in the Saint James Church (Anglican), the only event in which English was the primary language, that I was able to appreciate both its meaning and its impact.

Ahmad El-Shahawy
Ahmad El-Shahawy

Ahmad is a journalist in Cairo, as well as a poet. His work has won numerous prizes, including the UNESCO Prize for literature in 1995 and the Cavafis Prize for poetry in 1998. As well, he has been the subject of many MA and PhD dissertations. He loves Egypt: its long history, its greatness, its ancient civilisation, and the possibilities for a future that remains faithful to that ancient cosmopolitanism. As I listened to him, I thought about the fact that journalism is one of the most dangerous professions in times of political troubles. I admired his courage, and I was enthralled with how he allowed his love of life to speak for itself, and implicitly to become an act of resistance in a place threatened with extreme repression.

The poem I filmed is from ‘The Book of the Dead’ (1997). Clouds, sky, ashes, stars, earth, and wind flow through the poem. Birds and trees inhabit it, as do angels, and light, and roses, and a woman who is loved. In this garden of life and death birds and trees talk to their gods, and the hoopoe, the sacred bird of ancient Egypt, writes verses in its own Koran. Love flows through this sacred place, and loss, while part of the flow, is also a wound. The poem is read first in English by Peter Boyle, and then in Arabic by Ahmad.

Peter Boyle
Peter Boyle

 Postcard: lunch at the Maison de la Culture

On many occasions the Festival included music along with poetry. Musical improvisation was the main mode; there were many moments of unexpected and beautiful intra-action.

The most captivating performances took place over two sessions of ‘World Music and Poetry from Afar’. The group was Afroworlbeat, and most of the poets were from beyond North America. Many of the poets selected readings that worked with intra-actions across times and places. The three musicians engaged gently and thoughtfully with the reading. The depth and liveliness took our breath away.

Juan Pedro Bertazza (Argentina) and Afroworlbeat
Juan Pedro Bertazza (Argentina) and Afroworlbeat

One of the readings I filmed was by Peter Boyle. He was born in Melbourne and has lived in Sydney most of his life. He is the author of numerous books of poetry which have won many praises. He translates poetry from French and English, and was recently awarded the NSW Premier’s Award for translation. Peter read his poem ‘Berlin Buch’ in both French and English, while Afroworlbeat carried rhythms and short melodic lines of wonderful intensity.

How does it happen? Across languages, histories, lives, continents, dreams and nightmares, revolutions, wars, bombs, migrations, exile, injury and love – across all these distances and experiences, we were brought together in transformative moments that felt and were miraculous.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)




“Who Wrote the Book of Love?”

“It’s a corny old song, it asks a ridiculous question, and I had the sudden realisation that there is a very interesting answer.

It has taken about 4 billion years to come into its present form. The book of love I’m talking about is the book of life. It is written in DNA and RNA, but that’s the least of it. It is written in sunshine, rain, oceans, salt, forests, pollinators, seed dispersers, migrations, predations, fires, floods, feasts, famines, plate tectonics and slime moulds, to name just a few.

It took about four billion years, and if there’s any meaning to the term belonging in this context, it belongs to itself, to its great diverse, patterned, beautiful self. Let’s hold it in mind that this book wrote us humans, too. We are present in it, we’re part of it, and we have the most awesome capacity to love this book, and the most appalling capacity to trash it. …”

Recently I gave this presentation at a symposium. I spoke about the Tasmanian Wilderness, Aldo Leopold’s concept of goodness, and the human capacity both to love and to trash. Because I couldn’t be there, I sent a video. The topic of the symposium was ‘Ecological Australia: Ecocriticism in the Arts’. It was hosted by the Australian Centre at Melbourne University, and took place on 3-4 October, 2013. The video can be accessed here.