Monthly Archives: January 2016

Strong Rain

Recently Sydney had a wild event that felt even crazier than usual. It was hot and sultry, 38°C on the balcony. The pressure was building. The sky got darker and darker, and with a bang that shook the house the thunder and rain were upon us. It was torrenting down, there was lightning, there were big drops threatening to turn to hail, the wind whipped all about and a strange darkness enveloped us.

Storm, Ma L (CC)
Storm, Ma L (CC)

At first the air remained hot in spite of the rain, and it all felt perfectly tropical, but then the temperature plummeted. As the storm moved on, little falls of rain continued; the day slipped away, and we hoped not to get soaked and chilled as we walked from the train station to the opera house for a performance.

We were actually pretty damp and chilly but it felt okay because we had gone to see ‘Cut the Sky’, a new production by the Marrugeku dance theatre group. The performance was described as ‘a dynamic fusion of dance, song, poetry and breathtaking visuals, featuring … heartfelt poetry and music’. It lived up to, and beyond, its promise.

Cut The Sky, ©Jon Green 2015*
Cut The Sky, ©Jon Green 2015*

The group is based in Broome (Kimberley region, Western Australia) and is made up of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal creative artists. The title refers to the ability of the Elder rainmakers to call up the rain, and to send it away again, too. I guess the rainmakers thought a good drenching was in order for opening night, perhaps to cheer on the performers, perhaps to remind the rest of us that these are great forces, not to be taken lightly.

The Kimberley rainmakers have been part of my cultural world since I started living with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory back in 1980. In that arid region of the tropical savanna the monsoon rains come from the west, that is, from the Kimberley. People in the Victoria River region of the Territory were somewhat in awe of the rainmakers.

The Kimberley coastal mobs experienced most of this rain first, and they were said to have the most powerful songs and rituals for rain-making. Their power was that of life and death: if no rain came in the wet season the country would suffer terribly, for there would likely be no rain until the following year.

Dry Season, Victoria River Country
Dry Season, Victoria River Country

I was interested in my Aboriginal teachers’ understandings of seasons, of course, and it was not too surprising that in this hot, dry country their annual cycle works at one level between the two big powers: sun and rain. When the sun is in the ascendence (the dry season in local vernacular), rain is hidden away. When the rains re-emerge and gain ascendence, the sun is hidden away (although rarely for long). Rain is understood as the action of the Rainbow Serpent, a figure of life and death throughout Australia.

These two great powers wrestle back and forth, and living beings have learned to live with extremes: from the desiccated aridity of late dry season to the flooded billabongs, swampy ground and rushing rivers of the wet season. You could die of thirst, or you could drown, each possibility is totally real and almost every year a few people (often but not always tourists) do die of failure to understand one or the other of the demanding regimes of this country.

Extremes are normal here, and they are interrupted occasionally by titanic events.

This is how it is: Australia is impacted by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and by the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). Monumental droughts and massive cyclones are part of the story. As I write, Cyclone Stan is leaving the Indian Ocean and heading across Western Australia. My friends in Broome are at the edge of it, but many coastal mobs will be well awash in strong rain.

One of the most famous is Cyclone Tracy which slammed down on Darwin on Christmas Eve (1974). It crossed over, turned around, and slammed the city again. Its energy, its focus on the major site of white Australian habitation in the far North, and its timing all marked it as something way out of the ordinary.

Darwin after Tracy, EM Knowledge Hub (CC)
Darwin after Tracy, EM Knowledge Hub (CC)

Why did Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin? Local Larakia people had an answer: in their view it was a hit against Whitefellas who were refusing to grant the Larakia people land rights. In other words, the cyclone had a social context.

Across the region from Darwin through the Kimberley, the cyclone became part of Aboriginal people’s repertoire of stories. Outside of Darwin, people also identified a social context for this titanic event, but they found meanings relevant to themselves. Over in the East Kimberley they made a whole corroboree about it. Gurirr Gurirr (Krill Krill) tells the story of the Cyclone through song, dance, painted boards, body paint, and tall headdresses. It is a wonderfully vivid corroboree in a region where Indigenous culture is already rich with ceremonies.

Gurirr Gurirr was taught to Aboriginal artist Rover Thomas by his mother a few months after she died. She told him of her travels, how she had seen what the Cyclone had done to Darwin, and how she wanted the story to be remembered by being performed. Aboriginal Elders in the Kimberley said that Gurirr Gurirr would teach Aboriginal people, young and old, to take the cyclone as a warning and to keep their knowledge and culture strong. Thomas’s work hangs in the National Gallery, and some of the paintings depict Cyclone Tracy.

Gurirr Gurirr is vivid, beautiful, energetic, and very much in the classic style.

Now: imagine a new Kimberley corroboree. Imagine a multi-media modern dance-theatre performance dedicated to rain and cyclones. Imagine that it addresses multiple dangers – climate change, mining, extinctions, exploitation.

Cyclone Glenda over Broome, Dave Sag (CC)
Cyclone Glenda over Broome, Dave Sag (CC)

‘Cut the Sky’ draws inspiration from the power of the rain and sun, the power of country, and the power of the Kimberly rainmakers and song makers. Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain are the collaborative creators of this awesome work. They write: ‘There is a sense that the cyclone has been circling us as we work. That it, in turn, has been listening to us, causing us to dance at the edge of the apocalypse.’

The performance has a direct focus both on ecological processes that degrade life on earth, and on their social corollaries: dispossession, violence, deceit and trauma. Throughout the five acts of the performance the dancers brought breath-taking energy to everything they did. Even the quiet moments were astonishingly intense.

Cut The Sky, ©Jon Green 2015*
Cut The Sky, ©Jon Green 2015*

Dalisa is a member of a gifted Broome family and the descendant of Bardi rainmakers. She holds and focuses space with every movement. To watch her solo work was to be in the presence of mesmerising artistry. She transformed herself and her connection with her audience, going beyond performance to become something far more rare, and beautiful, and sacred. Throughout her main solo, the anguish and anger of people who are under the weight of destruction came forth, and so did the defiance. ‘I was born for a reason’, she called out, moving in a heart-grabbing stretch between earth and sky. We were with her.

That place of connection became real and the dance became transformative. No longer was it an enactment of the powers of life, but rather it inhabited those highly charged powers. We were there.

There was a time not so long ago when most western-educated people would have scoffed at the idea of connections between human action and weather events. Now our knowledge of climate change reveals the hubris of thinking that our impacts don’t matter. The connectivities are clear, and so too are the responsibilities. We can’t honestly imagine that these big changes have nothing to do with us.

We are in the midst of extreme events, and on this continent the extremes are becoming gargantuan. We are in the midst of violence against the earth and earth’s living beings that seems almost (not always) impossible to stop. We are in the midst of on-going dispossession, greed and deceit, and in our bad dreams we know the frenzy, despair, defiance, and power that ‘Cut the Sky’ brings to life for us. We know it, we need to know it, and we need to be sure that we remember what we know along with recognising that there is much that we don’t know.

'Cut The Sky', © Jon Green*
‘Cut The Sky’, © Jon Green*

I don’t want to spoil the ending of ‘Cut the Sky’, but I can say that leaving the theatre I felt strong. The final act, ‘Dreaming the Future’, put us in the midst of the enduring presence of country, this time overwhelming us with the power of this land of gift. I came home feeling blessed.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

*Photographs provided by Marrugeku. All rights reserved.

Resources:

For a discussion of Gurirr Gurirr (Krill Krill) see this article (view here). To see some of the art, view here.

To see a clip of ‘Cut the Sky’, including a small segment of Dalisa’s solo, view here. For more on Marrugeku, view here. To see a clip of Dalisa’s solo Gudirr Gudirr (not to be confused with Gurrir Gurrir), view here.

To see the Bardi dancers in action, view here.

To learn more about the Indigenous knowledge of weather and seasons mentioned in this essay, see my article ‘Rhythms, Patterns, Connectivities’.

Ways Toward Compassion

Singer and songwriter Betsy Rose has been visiting for a few weeks. She is travelling for eight months on a journey that will take her around the world, singing as she goes. Betsy is my sister, so of course it is wonderful to have her here, and in good sisterly fashion she’s given me the opportunity to pick her mind. She is a Buddhist, and I have saved up some questions about compassion.

Betsy Rose
Betsy Rose

The term ‘compassionate conservation’ hit me like electricity when I first heard it. How exciting it is to encounter an alternative to the treadmill of killing that claims that the only way to achieve healthy ecosystems is to kill everything that appears to get in the way of a pretty narrow human vision of what belongs and what does not. Compassionate conservation takes us right away from a suite of practices based on suffering and death, inviting us to think and act differently. The convergence of ecology and compassion is a truly significant direction for major change in our world today, but what is compassion, actually?

Betsy’s mode of engaged Buddhism draws inspiration from the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He teaches a basic message of mindfulness and peace that is becoming more profoundly urgent as our species’ penchant for violence erupts into an accelerated, global, multispecies rampage. From an ecological point of view, Buddhism offers a particularly significant human response to violence because it links individuals into wider networks of living beings and aims for the well-being of all.

Guan Yin detail, Akuppa John Wigham (CC)
Guan Yin detail, Akuppa John Wigham (CC)

Many Buddhist prayers ask that all beings be free from suffering. There is, of course, no way to eliminate suffering from life – the two go hand in hand, just as joy and life go hand in hand. But we human creatures have it within us to change our own behaviour so as not to cause suffering needlessly, and it is possible to work toward more peaceful, less brutal societal relations between humans and other creatures. The emerging field of compassionate conservation aims to accomplish this manner of social change in the domains of ecological management and conservation. And yet …

the Buddhist idea of well-being goes way beyond welfare.

The provocation to western thought is huge! Welfare can be understood as freedom from suffering, whereas well-being implies that beings are actually capable of experiencing the goodness of life. This is so significant that it can be hard to take in. One has to pause for a moment to consider what the experience of well-being implies. In ecological terms, we would say that all beings have their own life-world, and they experience it subjectively. Creatures, whether large or tiny, are not machines, but rather are subjects: they have ways of life, modes of being, forms of action and interaction. Worlds of subjectivity include time, place, mobility, sustenance and much more.

Migrating butterflies, Bruce Tuten (CC)
Migrating butterflies, Bruce Tuten (CC)

One effect of the Buddhist commitment to well-being is that it calls for commitment to ways of life. And in this world of connectivities, commitments keep expanding. For example, commitment to a migratory species must surely include the path of their travel, and commitment to species whose strong site fidelity brings them home to reproduce must involve commitment to those home places. We might think with others in terms of their precious well-being and be reminded of salmon running up their specific streams to spawn; or the lovely synchronicity between flowers, nourishing pollen and pollinators as butterflies migrate from Mexico to Canada and back; or turtles returning to specific beaches to lay their eggs.

Buddhist commitment to well-being apparently involves a lively, unlimited recognition of the connected world in which creatures are capable of experiencing joy in their own well-being. A short section of the Buddhist prayer of universal love reveals this:

May all beings everywhere,
Seen and unseen
Dwelling far off or nearby
Being or waiting to become:
May all be filled with lasting joy.

Visitors at Elephant Nature Park, Christian Haugen (CC)
Visitors at Elephant Nature Park, Christian Haugen (CC)

I did a short interview with Betsy (view here), asking about her travels and her activism. We filmed at home with the relentless rain contributing a little hum in the background. Betsy had encountered a multispecies zone of compassion at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and she offered a vivid description of the thrill of being in an animal-centric place. There, humans are just visitors, and the focus, organisation and management of the place is dedicated to the well-being of the other (non-human) animals. To close the interview, Betsy sang one of the songs she wrote expressing Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist teachings. It is particularly moving to me because it is about breathing. Breath is immensely inclusive: all the myriad creatures (plants, fungi, animals, many bacteria) breathe in one form or another, and the wind is the breath of the world. Wind, breath, life, well-being: it flows through us all.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources

For more about Betsy and her music, visit here. To follow her travels, visit here. Her first posting, from Thailand, tells of how she was honoured with the ‘International Tara Award’. To learn more about the Elephant Nature Reserve, visit here.

The Centre for Compassionate Conservation at UTS has excellent material on this ethical approach to conservation. I  have addressed issues involving compassionate conservation in a number of essays, for example, ‘How to Love a Pest’.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s work and teachings are well documented, for example at the site for Plum Village in France.

The west’s understanding that creatures inhabit their own worlds of meaning owes its recent history to the continental biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944). Brett Buchanan has provided an excellent analysis of Uexküll’s influence in more recent philosophy in his book Onto-Ethologies. Thom van Dooren and I have developed some of this thought in relation to how two types of animals, penguins and flying-foxes, create worlds of meaning that focus on place. Our article is available on the web.

The Goodness of Salmon

Our festive season here in Sydney was mostly damp: sultry and tropical at times, at other times chilly, but persistently wet, wet, wet. Whenever the rain carries on like this I think of Seattle in all its watery glory, from salt water to fresh, and from drizzle and showers through to sudden squalls and wild horizontal lashings of the most torrential rain. Love them or not, these rains are essential to the bountiful, moody, temperate rainforests that make the Pacific North West so special. The greatest concentration of biomass on earth is found in these forests, more even than in the Amazon, and one of the great scientific questions has been: how do the trees do it?

Hoh Rainforest, Elizabeth Gomm (CC)
Hoh Rainforest, Elizabeth Gomm (CC)

David Suzuki offered a surprisingly elegant and complex answer. He pointed out that while rain is essential, it is also the case that it washes nutrients out of the soil. Those months-long downpours take away nutrients at a rate that would seem to make huge forests impossible. So: where on earth does the actual fertility come from?

The Answer: Salmon!  And therein lies a true story of life’s goodness.

Sockeye salmon run, Todd Radenbaugh (CC)
Sockeye salmon, Todd Radenbaugh (CC)

The scientific analysis of the relationship between forests and salmon is fairly recent. The evidence comes from nitrogen. It is possible to distinguish two types of nitrogen, one that is land based (14N) and one that is ocean based (15N). Analysis of the forest, from trees to soils, shows that the main nutrient is ocean-based nitrogen.

Salmon hatchlings make their way to the ocean and live there for several years, consuming foods such as plankton that are rich in ocean based nitrogen. When it is time for them to spawn, they return to the river in which they hatched, swimming upstream in order to reproduce and die. Along the way they are prey to a great diversity of animals, especially bears.

Doug Brown (CC)
Doug Brown (CC)

Salmon and bears – how iconic! Bears grab fish out of the water and take them back into the forest for a private feast. They gobble up the choice bits and then return to the river for more. They transfer from river to forest upwards of 60 million kilos of salmon every year in British Columbia alone! The forests become rich in salmon carcases, and all manner of birds and other scavengers eat the remains.

The bears go on their way in the forests, pooping nitrogen rich fertilizer. The last remains of the salmon become food for flies; the flies lay eggs (on both salmon remains and poop) that hatch out as maggots and transform into pupae. Then, in a moment of perfect synchrony, zillions of nutritious flies emerge just in time for the annual northern migration of many insect-eating birds. Among them are the beautiful little olive-sided flycatchers who fly from Central and South America to the northern forests and back every year.

Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mike's Birds (CC)
Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mike’s Birds (CC)

And so vast amounts of ocean based nitrogen are transferred to the forests, their inhabitants and their visitors. Indeed, the scientists have learned that they can correlate tree rings with salmon runs: the wider and healthier the tree ring (indicating greater annual growth), the bigger the salmon run that year.

Salmon not only benefit a great diversity of other creatures, including the mighty rainforest trees, they also benefit their own offspring. After spawning, the adults die. Their bodies are consumed by fungi which are themselves consumed by bacteria and other micro-organisms. Later the young salmon feed on these same micro-organisms, building strength for their journey back to the ocean. Indeed, salmon are food for almost everyone – in the course of their travels not only are they prey to bears and birds and humans, but also to whales, seals, dolphins and sea lions, and to larger fish including sharks; their decomposing bodies are consumed by micro-organisms; as youngsters they are scooped up by snakes and water birds ~ everybody eats them! And still they thrive, and still they carry the ocean’s bounty into the freshwater rivers, and into the forests, and into other land, sea and sky creatures.

'Seal snack', Larissa Saye (CC)
‘Seal snack’, Larissa Saye (CC)

The scientific analysis is fascinating, but it barely begins to capture the wild exuberance of this story. The transformation of fish into food sustains bears, humans, eagles, crows, otters, trees, microscopic river organisms and much more. In these transformations life itself is shifted across plant, animal, fungi and other kingdoms. The great nutritional loops conjoin land, sea and air, seasonal and migratory cycles, birth and death.

Eagle with fish, Jerry McFarland (CC)
Eagle with fish, Jerry McFarland (CC)

David Suzuki wanted to make a point about management. With all the connectivities and transformations that loop through species and individuals to form ecologies, it is clear that a forest is not just a collection of trees. And yet, from a management point of view, trees are to be managed by one bureaucracy, rivers by another, oceans by another, wildlife by another, fish by another; forestry, fishermen, hunters, and a myriad other human-centric interests argue passionately about their particular part of the great system. The real issue, however, is that the health of any part of this vibrant system is integral to and dependent on other parts of the same vibrant system. In Suzuki’s words, ‘… if we keep looking at our own self-interest without seeing the big picture … we are going to screw it up for sure.’

More than forests are at stake here – more than trees and salmon, more than bears and micro-organisms. The wildly entwined loops of transformation are the very practice of goodness in Earth life. The goodness of salmon, as with all goodness, lies both in their lives as lived for themselves and their offspring, and in the benefits others gain from them.

In a human-centric world of narrow ‘self-interest’ and stubborn resistance to recognition of entangled connectivities, it is good, I find, to think of the philosopher Lev Shestov. He argued for a kind of craziness that is exactly what is needed here. Craziness for Shestov meant that a person would immerse themselves in life that is specific in its time and place, situated in awareness of its entanglements with others, and fully committed to the complexities of birth and death. His craziness is a commitment to transience, flux and uncertainty, and perhaps part of the craziness is that none of these qualities offers a promise that leads to human complacency. Rather, uncertainty means that nothing can be taken for granted. And so craziness goes hand in hand with Earth’s exuberance. It offers joy in the form of commitment to transformation, metamorphosis, synchronicity, and shared, looping connectivities.

Mills (CC)
‘Tree of LIfe’, Mills (CC)

For us humans, to become crazy-in-love with the living world would mean becoming crazy for salmon and crazy for bears, crazy for forests, fungi, clear running rivers, healthy oceans, migrating birds, nitrogen and much more. We would become absolutely crazy for goodness.

At the end of the day, goodness is the way and the truth of living creatures, and craziness is a human being’s way of remaining part of it.

I find it hard to imagine becoming crazy for rain. Even while I treasure its gifts of life, the truth is that day after day of the stuff makes me fretful. It was a great delight, therefore, when the sun returned for a day or two. And so it is in this world of flux: nothing lasts forever, except perhaps the great earth herself, and change is yet another aspect of goodness.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources:

David Suzuki spoke on the Science Show (ABC Radio National – listen here).

Scientific research on salmon, bears and forests has been carried by Tom Reimchen, and James Helfield and Robert Naiman (among others).