Monthly Archives: November 2014

Flying-foxes and the G20

While we were listening to news of the G20 gathering in Brisbane and wondering how our government would respond to the major climate change initiative that the US and China have agreed to, the weather was doing its own thing.

Just a three hour drive south from downtown Brisbane, the town of Casino in northern New South Wales was experiencing a massive heatwave with temperatures up to and above 44C (111F). At those temperatures, flying-foxes start to die of heat stress. Grey-headed flying-foxes, already declared a threatened species and struggling against a barrage of perils, were dying again.

Flying-fox, courtesy of Nick Edard
Flying-fox, courtesy of Nick Edards

From the climate point of view, the timing was odd: mid-November (late spring), and already a heat wave of this magnitude. What does the summer have in store for us all? From the flying-fox point of view, the timing was disastrous. Their birthing time is October-November. The babies were still wholly dependent on their mothers’ milk, and indeed many were still dependent on their mother all the time, even when she flew out at night for food.

Mothers and babies were most vulnerable to heat stress.

Flying-fox Mum and Bub. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Flying-fox Mum and Bub. Courtesy of Nick Edards.

The connection between heat and death is this:  when temperatures reach 43°C (109°F) these lovely flying mammals ‘start to melt from the inside out’, as one scientist vividly described it. In the words of another scientist: in extreme heat ‘flying-foxes first start fanning their wings, then they seek shade. Next they pant heavily and spread saliva on their bodies. Finally they fall out of trees, or climb down, and crawl on the ground looking for a cooler spot. At that stage they are close to death.’

The ground beneath a flying-fox camp becomes covered with flying-foxes most of whom, but not all, are dead. Mothers who die may yet have a living baby still clinging to the breast.

In the midst of all this heat and death, carers offer their dedicated labour. Systematically they sort through piles of dead flying-foxes to find any still alive. They euthanize those who can’t be saved, and they work round the clock to save those who can be rehydrated, allowed to recuperate, and released back into the bush. It is estimated that some 3000 individuals will die.

Given the time of year, there were many young orphans. Now they are now being fostered by flying-fox carers as far afield as Sydney.

 

Flying-fox pup, Paislie Hadley (CC)
Flying-fox pup, Paislie Hadley (CC)

All of this heat and mass death was taking place around the time that climate change was being discussed at the G20 gathering in Brisbane. US President Obama spoke movingly of Australia’s vulnerability to climate change. According to one report: “The science is in, he said, and Australia and the Pacific especially need to pay attention….”

“Extreme weather events, heatwaves, fires and the need to protect our beautiful Barrier Reef for generations to come make action imperative.”

By way of response, Australia’s Prime Minister Abbot rejected everything that was put to him both by President Obama and by the international community more widely. According to the Courier Mail: “Tony Abbott has rebuffed Barack Obama’s demand for increased action on climate change and openly clashed with the US President in a fiery end to Brisbane’s G20 leaders’ summit.”

“The Prime Minister muscled up to Mr Obama behind closed doors yesterday, declaring there could be no effective action on climate change without a strong economy and strongly endorsing fossil fuels.”

“He did not address calls to pay into a global Green Climate Fund backed by the US. He also refused to commit to new emissions reduction targets in the first quarter of next year, despite being urged to do so in the final G20 communique agreed by all leaders.”

Mr Abbot was in full frontal display as a master of zombie politics. The basic elements of zombie politics are fear, cruelty toward those who are vulnerable, and the vigorous defence of an ‘us-them’ boundary dedicated to the interests of the most powerful. Both at home and in the international sphere, zombie politics assert that dialogue is not really possible; all that matters is protecting one’s ’own’ against the others. The government’s ‘us-them’ commitments were clearly shown to be sick to the core: ‘us’ was implicitly defined as extractive industries, with fossil fuels at the centre. ‘Them’ included anyone who sought dialogue toward significantly reduced carbon emissions.

Back in northern New South Wales, rescue and clean-up continue. I am thinking about the two events – mass death and zombie politics – in the same frame. Along with being sickened by a federal government that revels in not caring for anyone but the powerful, I am also struck by the quality of local leadership. While Mr Abbot was refusing to lead the country on matters that affect the lives and well-being of humans and nonhumans alike, people who were experiencing the flying-fox heat death event were showing genuine and committed concern in matters of life and death.

Little red flying-foxes at Casino, Paislie Hadley (CC)
Little red flying-foxes at Casino, Paislie Hadley (CC)

Let us acknowledge these humans who show compassion, fair-mindedness and concern:

All praise to the carers. Their names have not appeared in the articles I have read, but we knew they are there, that their work is exhausting and traumatising, and that they hold fast to their commitments in the midst of it all.

All praise to public officers who have to manage the dead bodies, and who have remained grave and thoughtful. Mr John Walker of the Richmond Valley Council described the heat death event as a tragedy: “Whatever anyone’s opinion is either side of the bat debate, no one wishes this sort of tragedy on the bats.”

All praise to local residents who are experiencing the difficulties of sharing their parks and backyards with flying-foxes and never the less are able to balance inconvenience with awe and appreciation. Mr Paul Mackay of Casino spoke in an interview about the flying-foxes in his backyard. He showed himself to be an exemplary leader in multispecies co-existence and conviviality in this time when we need ever more respect across species and amongst humans.

My daughter Chantal Jackson is a mandala artist. She made this flying-fox mandala that praises the blessings of life on earth as they come forth in the mutualism of flying-foxes and  flowering trees.

Flying-fox mandala (Chantal Jackson)
Flying-fox mandala ( Chantal Jackson)

And so, with love and respect, let us yet again mourn the suffering and deaths of our fellow creatures in this time of escalating catastrophe. And let us honour the flying-fox survivors by doing all we can to assist them in their perilous lives.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

For information on Mr Walker’s statements, see: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-11-17/dead-bats/5896002

For the video of interview with Mr Mackay see: http://www.northernstar.com.au/news/heatwave-kills-bat-colony/2456008/

I have written about flying-foxes, mutualism, heat stress deaths, and the glories of fly-outs in several previous essays, see for example: Lethal Heat and Flying-foxes in Outback Australia.

 

 

Mister Gough Whitlam

Today Australians celebrated the life of Gough Whitlam (11 July 1916 – 21 October 2014). This towering figure for justice was the 21st Prime Minister of the nation (Dec 1972-Nov 1975), and during his brief time in office he and his party transformed Australian social life.

Gough Whitlam by RubyGoes (CC)
Gough Whitlam by RubyGoes (CC)

I first learned about Whitlam in depth from Aboriginal people in the Victoria River District where he was affectionately and respectfully known as Mister Whitlam. Both their affection and their respect recognised his strong commitment to human rights.

The iconic moment in land rights in Australia took place when the deed to a portion of the Wave Hill cattle station was returned to traditional owners. The ceremony took place in country. Mr Whitlam poured a handful of soil into the hands of Mr Tommy Vincent Lingiari. His words became a high water mark for social justice and inter-cultural respect in Australia:

On this great day, I, Prime Minister of Australia, speak to you on behalf of all Australian people – all those who honour and love this land we live in. For them I want to say to you: I want this to acknowledge that we Australians have still much to do to redress the injustice and oppression that has for so long been the lot of Black Australians.
Vincent Lingiari, I solemnly hand to you these deeds as proof, in Australian law, that these lands belong to the Gurindji people and I put into your hands part of the earth itself as a sign that this land will be the possession of you and your children forever.

Gough Whitlam, 16 August 1975

Mr Whitlam at Daguragu (Darrell Lewis)
Mr Whitlam and Mr Lingiari at Daguragu (Darrell Lewis)

It is probably well known that Mr Lingiari led the walk-off from Wave Hill station in 1966. As I wrote in an earlier essay, Aboriginal people in the Victoria River District of the Northern Territory had lived for several generations under the authoritarian rule of cattle property owners and managers. Settler Australians had taken over the traditional Aboriginal homelands, and placed a grid of cattle properties across Indigenous country. Those Aboriginal people who survived the early years of conquest became an unfree, unpaid labour force that kept the industry alive. They were not citizens of Australia, but rather ‘wards of the state’. In fact, Hobbles Danaiyarri, one of the men who taught me about the history of the region, said that during the long era from conquest to walk-off people had been ‘prisoners in their own country’. As one example, he showed us fence posts that Aboriginal workers had had to carry because the whitefellas didn’t want to waste the lives of horses in this hard work.

 

Hobbles with fence post (Darrell Lewis, 1992)
Hobbles with fence post (Darrell Lewis, 1992)

The walk-off was meant to change all this, and its impacts were far-reaching. Over the next few years the original mob was joined by Aboriginal people from most of the other properties in the region. Locally, albeit briefly, their actions brought the cattle business to a halt. The people I lived with and continue to learn from were part of that walk-off. They left Victoria River Downs and Humbert River stations, sojourning at a distance from their own traditional countries in order, they hoped, to achieve a life of freedom for their future generations.

From the walk-off camp at Daguragu people waited out the longer-term negotiations that would enable them to achieve citizenship, and to return home with the prospect of decent wages if they still had jobs. Underlying it all was the promise of land rights. The land rights issue  was central to the meaning of freedom, as was citizenship in the Australian nation.

Gurindji Freedom Day poster
Gurindji Freedom Day poster

Mr Whitlam recognised all these justice issues when he returned part of Wave Hill station to the traditional owners. In respect and reciprocity, a group from Daguragu and Kalgaringi came to Sydney for the memorial event, bringing their participatory presence into the national ‘sorry business’.

Over the decades, the Australian nation has lost a lot of Mr Whitlam’s commitment to justice and freedom. The fact that many people are weeping today is testimony not only to their love for Mr Whitlam but also to the sad fate of his empowering vision of what Australia could be and could become.

The Aboriginal people with whom I have lived and learned told many long stories about Captain Cook, colonisation, injustice, and wrong turnings. In these stories Captain Cook is the figure of injustice; the stories are emblematic of the cruel history that has defaced Australia from the beginning of colonial encounters. I have published the main version of these stories a few times, and there’s no need to repeat it here.

Deb Rose, Gough Whitlam and Nugget Coombs (Darrell Lewis, 1994, Darwin)
Deb Rose, Gough Whitlam and Nugget Coombs (Darrell Lewis, 1994, Darwin)

 

The part of the story that comes to mind as I think today about Mr Whitlam’s legacy is the reflection that things can be different.

Old Jimmy Mangnayarri concluded the Captain Cook saga with the big question: why had it all been so hard? Why wasn’t mateship offered right from the start? That was what Jimmy Mangnayarri wanted to know: ‘Why Captain Cook never say: “Oh, come on mate, you and me live together. You and me living together, mates together. You and me can work for country all the same then.”’

Deb Rose and Old Jimmy
Old Jimmy and Deb Rose (Darrell Lewis)

I am revisiting his words today, and thinking about how Old Jimmy was shifting the dynamics from conflict and opposition to shared responsibilities. Further, he was transforming the dyad of coloniser vs. Indigenous into a triad that includes country. He put country at the heart of it all: we would be mates for a purpose, and that purpose was to take care of country.

This is the absolutely crucial issue of our time: how we may work together for country.

No one has stated our current challenge more succinctly and vigorously than Old Jimmy. And when he says that the whole purpose of living together is to work for country, we might think again about that great moment when Mr Whitlam and Mr Lingiari touched each other’s lives through an exchange of soil. For while it clearly was and will always be a moment of justice and reconciliation, it can still become something more. This exchange may yet become a moment in which country starts to take its rightful place as our focus of care and as the source and meaning of the lives of all.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

On Kalkaringi mob in Sydney: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-11-04/whitlam-to-be-given-farewell-from-aboriginal-friends/5865826

Hobbles Danaiyarri’s great Saga of Captain Cook is published under the title ‘The Saga of Captain Cook’, Hobbles Danaiyarri (as told to Deborah Bird Rose)’ in the prestigious volume Australia’s Empire, Oxford History of the British Empire, edited by Deryck Schreuder & Stuart Ward, Oxford University Press (2008).

An article about Old Jimmy Mangnayarri is titled ‘Mates Together: Dancing with Difference’, and is published in a book edited by Vin D’Cruz, Bernie Neville, Devika Goonewardene and Phillip Darby: As Others see Us: The Values Debate in Australia, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne.

My 1991 book Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River, and Wave Hill stations, North Australia follows the Saga of Captain Cook through the walk-off and on into the (then) contemporary land rights era. It works primarily with Aboriginal people’s own stories, and is published by Aboriginal Studies Press. I am proud to say that it won the 1991 Jessie Litchfield Award for Literature.