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).

Lazarus

It feels splendid to leap into the writing life after a year of absence. Thank you, dear readers, for your interest across this span of silence.

Photo: Chantal Jackson
Photo: Chantal Jackson

The diagnosis was cancer and the treatment that knocked it off was brutal. Together they left me stunned, wandering in the valley of the shadow of death, at times truly fearful.

Coming now into the light of life, feeling the beginnings of vibrance as I emerge from the shadows, I keep thinking of Lazarus. Not the guy who was raised from the dead, but the other one. Jesus told the parable of a sick and destitute beggar named Lazarus who lay before the rich man’s gate asking only for the crumbs from the table. The rich man turned his back, slamming the gate shut so that no food, care, comfort or goodness could cross over. Behind the closed gate the rich man and his brothers continued their self-satisfied, hard-hearted, opulent and comfortable lives. Lazarus, abandoned and alone, died at the gate. Abraham himself came and took Lazarus away to a better place.

Not long after, the rich man died. From his place of torment in Hades he called to Abraham, asking that Lazarus come to give him relief. Abraham said no: the barrier between the two places was impassable, he said. So the rich man asked if Lazarus could go back to earth to tell the brothers what had happened to him. He thought that if they heard about it from Lazarus they would change their behaviour and avoid the brother’s fate. Again, Abraham refused. He said that the living brothers already had Moses and the prophets. If they would not listen to all the wisdom that was already given, they would not listen to anyone.

This is the true wisdom of the face-to-face: goodness toward others gives life its value, and all anyone needs to know is right before them.

The first part of this powerful story concerns hard-heartedness in the face of desperate need. We are today deeply familiar with the social and spiritual demands of strangers at the gate. Indeed, there are hundreds of thousands of them. Michael Ignatieff recently wrote about the disasters pushing people to flee Syria: ‘Assad’s barrel bombs, Russian and American air strikes, ISIS beheadings, militia murders and persecution’. Ignatieff argues that generosity toward refugees is both ethically good and politically prudent. Far better that people be given the opportunity to make good lives for themselves than that they be pushed into utter, nihilistic desperation. And multicultural experience shows that in general nations are enriched as newcomers settle and flourish. None of this happens without effort, but this is the real work of life’s goodness: to reach out in care and responsibility.

The second part of the Lazarus story also speaks powerfully to life on earth today. Abraham said that all we need to know is actually before us.  For him, Moses and prophets held the keys to knowledge. Other times and places hold other keys.

These days I find myself thinking of the animist vivacity that permeates the goodness of earth life. Part of the horror of the shadow of death is that one feels that life’s goodness is being obliterated. In contrast, to see clearly is to see that goodness arises all around us – in the rain, air, ground, light, warmth, the light winds of morning and the golden glow of dusk. Alfonso Lingis explains:

‘We do not relate to the light, the earth, the air, and the warmth only with our individual sensibility and sensuality. We communicate to one another the light our eyes know, the ground that sustains our postures, and the air and the warmth with which we speak. We face one another as condensations of earth, light, air, and warmth ….’

Photo: Chantal Jackson
Photo: Chantal Jackson

All creatures are the beneficiaries of elemental goodness, and all creatures participate in the webs that nurture and support on-going life. We are face-to-face with goodness all the time, and that goodness gives rise to creatures’ capacity to flourish. It speaks in all the vast exuberant generosity of earth life that flows through birds and bees, predators and prey, flowers and nectar drinkers, creaturely generations, air, sun and water. All around us is this great flourishing. All one needs to know as a grounding for wisdom is the coming forth of diversity, beauty and integrity. The goodness of a human being is here: in becoming a conscious contributor to the generosity of life.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Readings:

Ignatieff, Michael 2015 ‘The Refugees & the New War’, New York Review of Books, LXII (20), pp. 8-12.

Lingis, Alfonso 1994. The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.p.122

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.

Site Fidelity

A couple of weeks ago I was swimming in Lake Washington. I had paddled about in this large snow-fed Seattle lake when I was a child, and in recent years it has been wonderful to return. This October I was using a lazy breaststroke so that I could hold Mt Rainier in my sight. The lake shimmered with ripples, waves and sun. The mountain gleamed with snow and ice, light and shadow.

Lake and Mountain, Selbe B (CC)
Lake and Mountain, Selbe B (CC)

It was a perfect swim, and I reflected with gratitude that the outcome of the geographical tug of war between my father (east coast) and mother (west coast) had never really been in doubt. Yes, we bounced back and forth, also sometimes landing in regions between the two coasts, but for the past several decades it has been Seattle, the lake, the mountains and the Pacific Ocean that have anchored my natal family and given a great deal of meaning to our lives. Many of our stories and many of the events of our lives have been connected to the beauty and generosity of lake and mountain.

How one comes to be attached to specific places is a process that is both deeply known and yet also forever mysterious. Many attachments are formed early, some stick and some do not. Some people experience them more deeply and non-negotiably than others, but in all cases attachments to place also involve time. Memories form around places, and as they are acted upon they accumulate, and so they are enhanced.

Attachments to place are deeply embedded in memory, action, and anticipation.

Place-action becomes part of the process of meaning-making, so that place, like the living creatures who grow into it, exists in the lives and minds of creatures who themselves come and go, and are sustained by place. It may not be so well known that humans are by no means the only creatures to form attachments to place. Amongst nonhuman animals one process of attachment is known as site fidelity (the tendency or desire to return).

Thom van Dooren and I recently wrote an article about place and meaning-making in the lives of two animal species who have strong place-attachments here in Sydney – flying-foxes and little penguins. We wanted to make the point that whatever functionalities are involved in creatures’ determination to return to the same places to breed (philopatry), there is also the wider domain of meaning which exceeds functionality.

These animals, we were saying, inhabit places made meaningful through their own practices of memory, action and anticipation. As with humans, attachment is both enriching and exposing. The great philosopher of place, Edward Casey, reminds us that to be emplaced is also to face the ‘unhappy prospect’ of becoming unplaced. He was pointing toward the anguish of those whose homes are no longer inhabitable.

Little penguins at Manly, cocoa3c (CC)
Little penguins at Manly, cocoa3c (CC)

As Thom explains in the context of nonhumans, meaningful places are not just ‘habitats’. They are not interchangeable, but rather are experiential worlds that can be understood as ‘home’. It follows that site fidelity, although it sounds quite formal, is really about intimacy: the familiarity, security, knowledge, confidence, and intergenerational gifting that goes into making homes.

While I was in Seattle I was forcibly reminded that there is a strong human dimension to home and homelessness that may often be overlooked: ‘home’ is not just a roof over one’s head, but is a complicated and irreplaceable world of meaning. People want to go home, or to find home, and so do those other animals whose lives are shaped by site fidelity. Penguins return to their burrows in Manly every year in spite of the fact that every year the place becomes more built-up, noisy and dangerous. Flying-foxes attempt to return to their camps every year, and it takes sonic torture and other horrific modes of ‘dispersal’ to force them away from their home places.

Grey-headed flying-fox, Nick Edards
Grey-headed flying-fox, Nick Edards

I couldn’t help but think about the lives of creatures I love as I enacted my own site fidelity by swimming in the lake. We try to make things better for ourselves as humans, at least some of the time. Lake Washington became so polluted once that it was dangerous to swim in, but it has been cleaned up. What, though, do we do to ease the anguish of nonhumans whose attachments to place and to their future generations is every bit as committed as ours?

My family’s site fidelity, like that of flying-foxes and penguins, has been an intergenerational project. Flying-foxes return to maternity camps to give birth, penguins return to their familiar burrows to hatch and fledge their young. In my family, Lake Washington was where my mother and her parents had swum, and our family kept returning.

Recently we added another chapter to our attachments to place, time and generations when our mother died in her bed at home facing the lake. We kept her body with us until the afternoon, and when the professionals came to take her away we sang ‘Will the circle be unbroken’. The clouds parted and the sun shone with astonishing heat and brilliance.

There was only one thing to do:   we ran to the jetty and jumped into the lake.

DSC03200

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources: The article Thom and I wrote is called ‘Storied-places in a multispecies city’ (read here).

Edward Casey’s work on becoming ‘unplaced’. as I mention here, can be found in one of his major books Getting Back Into Place.

Little penguins are also the subject of a chapter in Thom’s book Flight Ways, a terrific new book about which I will have more to say soon.

Dingo Nation

September 21, 2014 is the first-ever National Day of Action for Dingoes. The date is well-chosen: it is the International Day of Peace. The General Assembly of the United Nations has dedicated this day to strengthening the values of peace ‘both within and among all nations and peoples’.

Dingo, Alexandre Roux (CC)
Dingo, Alexandre Roux (CC)

Of course one assumes that ‘nations and peoples’ means human beings. But as the war against nature acquires ever more violence, and as those who practice violence become ever more intransigent, it is clear that we need to include animals, plants, ecosystems, oceans, atmosphere, soils and much more within our concept of the nations with which we (humans) need to be making peace. As Henry Beston wrote in relation to animals (and I think his point is widely relevant to all creature-worlds): ’they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.’

NDAD has taken up the challenge in relation to Australian Dingoes (Canis dingo). According to the message on the NDAD Facebook page, the National Day of Action for Dingos was born from the advice of Dr Jane Goodall DBE at a recent meeting in Melbourne with a small group of dingo protection advocates. The objective of the event is twofold:
– to unite groups and individuals with a common goal to help dingoes
– to send a clear, united message to the Australian government about dingo protection.

Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray
Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray

My role in the emerging action has been to organise and film a conversation between myself and my friend Arian Wallach, facilitated by my friend Jane Ulman. We met the studio of our mutual friend Janet Laurence to discuss the question: ‘Can the War Against Dingoes be Stopped?’ (view here) I won’t summarise the conversation; it is fascinating and deep, and well worth the investment of 27 minutes of time.

The background to any question about peace must ask: what manner of creature is trying to make peace? We know a lot about human creatures in all our diversity, complexity, and apparent lack of capacity for holding onto peace. We know less about dingo creatures and their capacities. Thankfully, scientists like Arian Wallach and others are teaching us a lot. The research consistently reveals a complex family structure (known as a pack), collaborative care of the young, cooperative hunting, territorial defence, limits on family size and structure, individual personalities, and other features that indicate highly social animals with strong loyalties and a deep sense of duties and responsibilities. Their ability to harmonise together is a lovely indicator of their sociality, as I discussed in an earlier essay (view here).

Dingoes and other canines live within kin-based family groups. A standard anthropological definition of kinship is that kin relations are bonds of enduring solidarity based on descent from shared ancestor or formed in order to produce a new generation. These bonds of enduring solidarity are emotionally complex in animals, as indeed they are in humans; amongst all kin groups there is the work of raising the young, and work of dealing with loss. Social animals in kin groups are deeply invested in each other, and so it follows that the loss of a member entails grief – that is, the experience of irreversible loss of those with whom one’s own life is entangled is both felt and shared.

Evelyn Downs Dingoes (Arian Wallach)
Evelyn Downs Dingoes (Arian Wallach)

Recently, an instance of dingoes grieving was documented in the ‘wild’. It is unlikely that anyone who knows dingoes or who understands kinship will be surprised by this fact, but apparently there has been a dearth of scientific documentation. Rob Appleby, an ecologist at Griffith University in Brisbane documented a dingo family responding to the death of one of the pups. Their behaviour was similar to that of primates and other animals that grieve, such as dolphins, according to the report  by Joseph Bennington-Castro. In his words:

“The dingo family consisted of a mother and five pups about 3 months old. When Appleby stumbled upon the family, one of the pups was dying — it was lying on the ground, where it occasionally lifted its head, whimpered and sometimes convulsed. The pup’s mother and littermates roamed around nearby, returning to the pup to sniff him and whimper every once in a while. The pup died within half an hour, but Appleby continued to periodically observe the family over the next two days.’

This report includes a brief bit of video footage of the mother moving her dead pup when Appleby got too close (view here). In Appleby’s words: ‘there was a lot of distress on the part of the mother’. She moved her pup three times, staying near it, not wanting to leave it. The surviving pups also changed their behaviour, becoming more subdued when they got close to the dead one.

Other fascinating reports about the emotional lives of dingoes show beyond doubt that it is possible to make peace with dingoes.

More than that, they show that peace actually has the potential to become precious friendship. The long history of alliance between humans and canines means that some canines may on occasion include humans in their family groups. Indeed, the Dingo Nation can be understood as a great multispecies group with many clans and families, some of whom include humans and some of whom do not.

Dingo, Bulbexpos (CC)
Dingo, Bulbexpos (CC)

A short but compelling report about John Cooper’s ‘love story’ offers a beautiful account of family interactions. John Cooper is a landowner with the duty of controlling dingoes on his property. He took the novel approach of making friends with the pack on his place, and leaving it to them to control the dingo population. The video of this extraordinary man shows him interacting with and the dingo family that allowed him to become part of the pack (view here). It includes a glimpse into the den where the mother dingo is nursing her pups, giving us a rare view of what Appleby has called ‘an enduring mother-infant bond’. Few things on the web are as totally delightful as John Cooper playing harmonica accompanied by a dingo.

Tehree Gordon also had an awesome experience of being incorporated into the family. She and her husband Hamish own the Jirrahlinga Koala and Wildlife Sanctuary – Dingo Conservation Centre, and she told her precious story on radio national’s ‘bush telegraph’ program. Shortly after the Gordons bought the Sanctuary the senior dingo died. There were about a hundred dingoes on the property at that time, and the loss of the matriarch was felt by all of them. As Tehree described the day, the dead dingo was down in the valley and the living dingoes sat quietly on a nearby ridge. Slowly, in groups of three, they went down to their dead mate and sat with her. One sat at her head, and one on each side. They stayed for about ten minutes and then, giving her a final sniff, they moved away and another group of three took their place. Tehree was not sure if she fit into the ritual at all, but she took a place further down the line, and when the time came she moved down the hill accompanied by two dingoes. She sat at the head, the other two took the sides, and they all remained there for ten minutes. Then she touched the dead dingo’s head, the others sniffed the body, and they all moved back up the hill.

It is one thing to witness rituals of grief, quite another to be included in them. And yet, as Tehree points out, there is nothing truly remarkable about all of this: ‘We all need to understand that anyone or anything who is close to something else has to grieve for the loss.’

Making peace would mean bringing an end to all the needless loss.

There can be no doubt that this is a time of immense suffering. Dingoes experience the physical pain of poisons, traps and bullets, and the survivors experience the grief and disorientation that comes with losing family and all one’s familiar ways of social and cultural life. The people who are working toward greater understanding of dingoes and a better future for them and for humans often suffer as well. I have visited some of these courageous people, and I will continue to visit and to write.

Dingo, Leo (CC)
Dingo, Leo (CC)

For now, in honour of the Dingo Nation’s canine and human members:

To all who suffer, and all who struggle to hold families together in face of on-going assault ~ Dog Bless!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

ndad

Resources:

The NDAD Facebook page is a rich site of information and lively action on behalf of the Dingo Nation.

In 2012 I made a short home video of a dingo family at the Dingo Discovery and Research Centre in Victoria (view here). The Centre is one of numerous dingo rescue and conservation centres in Australia. Run by incredibly dedicated people who work non-stop to put an end to the war against dingoes, this and other centres are places where peace is lived out day by day in the most inspiring ways.

The ABC radio program featuring Tehree Gordon, Brad Purcell and myself can be downloaded (view here).

The Henry Beston quote is from his book The Outermost House.

 

Ecology and Writing ~ Martin Harrison

My friend Martin Harrison was a poet, essayist, professor, mentor and colleague. He died unexpectedly on Saturday, September 6, 2014 at just 65 years of age.

Martin Harrison, by Adrian Wiggins (CC)
Martin Harrison, by Adrian Wiggins (CC)

Martin was one of the foundation members of Kangaloon, ‘a fellowship of poets, scholars, artists and activists in dialogue with the current cascade of ecological degradation and diminishment of life’. Kangaloon takes its name from the area in NSW that is home to the endangered giant dragonfly, Petalura gigantea.

Throughout many deep and exploratory conversations, Martin was a key figure in developing our statement of who we are and what we aim for: ‘Through our creative endeavours we ask: how are we to respond with vision, love and hope? How are we and other species to live and live well? How may we promote health, life and beauty in an era of unfathomable loss?’

Our commitments, too, were deeply affected by Martin’s vision:
– to the beauty and practicality of ecological systems to a philosophy at one with the environment
– to create art, writing and scholarship from the depth of nature
– to promote balance and sustainability in design
– to rethink economy as ecology
– to live simply and poetically in the presence of earth’s creatures

Petalura gigantea, Merryjack (CC)
Petalura gigantea, Merryjack (CC)

The Kangaloon group reached out to others in numerous ways that included open seminars, readings, panels, and writing. One of our achievements was a special issue of the journal TEXT, an open-access online journal dedicated to writing and the teaching of writing. Four of us co-edited a special edition with the title ‘Writing Creates Ecology / Ecology Creates Writing’.

Martin wrote a brilliant essay, and indeed the whole special issue consists of fascinating  contributions to the questions that Martin formulated so succinctly: ‘How does creative writing engage with the theme of ecological catastrophe and ecological possibility?  How does the ecological challenge of the contemporary period impact on the teaching of writing?  What are the thematic horizons of new and emerging writers who engage with issues to do with the environment and ecology?  What kinds of experiment does the ecological context encourage and indeed require of the contemporary writer?’

Just last Thursday (September 4) Martin and I presented together in a small seminar at the University of Technology, Sydney where Martin taught creative writing. The seminar series was titled ‘Poetics, Writing, Thought’, and was organised by the students. It was a special evening, charged with ideas, conversation, and the kind of dialogue that pushes everyone’s thinking along. Martin suggested that he and I read the ‘Postscript’ we wrote for TEXT, and so we revisited an enjoyable writing project. The lucky people who attended this seminar got to hear Martin read one of his great poems, ‘White-Tailed Deer’ (see below), perhaps the last poem he ever read.

Martin was in great form. Rarely did he approach an issue in full frontal mode. Like every fine poet, his approach was to move quietly and circuitously toward a moment of revelation. And so he said, with that wonderfully characteristic shrug, ‘I’m sorry to keep bringing Heidegger into the conversation, but … he was absolutely right.’ He smiled, then, and went on: ‘I’m sure you know what I’m getting at, Heidegger was telling us even then that humans are so remaking and re-defining the world that all they ever can see is the human’.

Martin (Harrison, not Heidegger) loved earth life – the lives of other-than-humans. His deepest concerns were called forth by the perils, indeed disasters, of human self-enclosure. At the same time, he had the greatest respect for ‘the others’, and that respect included the fact that they live their own lives.

We brush against each other, some of us, from time to time, and Martin the poet was grabbed by the mystery of it all, the indecipherable connections, the unpredictable moments when something happens and we humans are drawn from our encaged preoccupations.

When I learned that Martin had died I was already on the other side of the world, and my thoughts flew back to the evening in Sydney when we spoke and conversed. Kisses are strange and beautiful events, I realised, remembering that we had kissed ‘hello’ and, later, ‘goodbye’. There are kisses that are formalities, and others that are sweet friendship, and in the end, without our even knowing it, there are the kisses that will come to have said, and will forever say, fare thee well, dear friend, fare thee well.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

For more on Martin Harrison’s life and writings, see Wikipedia.

The issue of TEXT that Martin, Lorraine Shannon, Kim Satchell and I edited can be accessed online (view here). It includes articles and poetry by Kangaloon members Martin, Lorrain, Kim, Peter Boyle, James Hatley, and me.

The ‘Postscript’ that Martin and I wrote, including his poem, can be accessed online (view here), and I include a small portion of it here as well:

[this is part of what was read by Martin and me the Thursday evening before he died]

…. MARTIN: In other conversations, you have wanted to talk about my poem White-Tailed Deer.  It’s true that in that poem (hopefully) a rich diverse system has come together.   This is not because I wanted it to, but because in order to be a poem it had to come together.  There is even the risk that it will all fall apart and that it won’t make sense that the local sunset had to meet the up-state New York night and that the deer have something to do with it.  I had been entranced by them, by their watchful presence, in that deep, often re-growth forest.  It was on the border between New York State and Vermont.  It took me a couple of years to get the original drafts unfocussed and then re-focussed.   You see, I’m not just a slow writer but a really lazy one!

DEBORAH: You know yourself best (maybe!), but I’d dispute the term ‘lazy’. The multiple time dimensions through which living beings speak, and the terrible slowness with which many of us humans manage to respond, is not so much laziness, I think, but more like struggling through some awful nightmare. The terrible realisation today is that to wake from a nightmare is to emerge into another one. I keep thinking (always) of the flying foxes who are at this moment being tortured in the effort to force them to leave and never to return to their home camp in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. For them, as for the flying foxes in Queensland who are being shot, each day is a fresh nightmare, each generation is subjected to a new biocide, and in spite of the dedicated, sometimes heart-broken people who protect, defend, rescue, care, and seek to assist them back into the symbiotic life of blossoms, nectar, nourishment and pollination, nothing is ever enough. And so the loss of generations, and the loss of ecosystems, and the loss of the human capacity to stretch outside the boundaries of this self-made  prison of righteousness and knowing goes on rendering more suffering, more death, more distance, more loss of all those within whose company we could have thrived, and who could have thrived with us.

The time scales are outside our ordinary frames. The poem that speaks beyond the frame, that takes minutes to read but years to write, takes even more years on the part of plants, animals, and human culture to have arrived at that particular nexus. If like yours it succeeds, it becomes an achievement in binding time, species, place, and culture; it lets us glimpse through the membrane of closure into other worlds, times, creatures, and forms of love, and to grasp, again, that moment in which the future was (is?) still open.

MARTIN:

White-Tailed Deer

The small thump from nowhere, someone turning
a piece of tin, a door’s buffeting noise closing across the gulley,
a neighbour – what are they doing out there? – dropping a trailer or a drum
in a paddock where damp grass’s been drying out these last twenty minutes
in a final sun cube whose shattered gleam just now has
flooded through sprays of half-grown bluegums
traced on the shed-wall —
it happens – where? –
closing in mid-air between two never identified twigs
six metres up, or caught behind a bird song (was it that?
or just some other sound) caught the thousandth time
from outside the kitchen door, magnified for a second or two
then forgotten just as many thousand times.  Like the thump,
it’s forgotten so intensely that we all hear it as an event
not really known as an event, one which shifts
the breath, the blood-surge, and how we see,
back into shape.  For a moment you understand
dazed ecstasy –  it’s a squawky wattlebird landing
(no, that’s a dream half-merged with a memory)
or it’s the elbow’s jerk with which the car boot slams,
happenings which aren’t noticed or which can’t be,
how the shopping brought home brushes the passage wall,
how events change time’s flow beneath perception.
Really, you’ve no idea what’s going on.  You hardly grab a thing.

Networked. Transformative.  Yes, the world glimmers.
The flash lies in the grass, is something and is nothing.?
The yellow-throated bird scrabbles in the rangy grevillea.
A great ocean withdraws into perspective over my shoulder,
in the shadows of untended trees.  A hum overtakes the orchestra
and a striated sense of inevitable time surpasses each local thought.

It’s as if you can be fearless — a second or two — about
what’s inextricable in feeling and movement and mood.
A dance becomes a fight, bodies tangled, then a dance again.
The light goes down like a glittering dark boulder buried in the soil.
An aurora flares in the half-heard resonance around the thing –
the thump, the door closing, the click that passes you by –
while intangibility takes a serpent’s shape of wind-brushed molecules.
And how will it end? this half-traced ecstasy at merely being here.
Could anything be heard other than the after mode
of how we got there, made it out?  Suddenly you realise
you’re hearing a night-time forest floor, a twig snapped –
not this last light with its thin, gold trees and ragged openness –
but a moment’s hesitation one night in a foreign country:
I was in up-state New York, there was a house in the woods,
there was indoor light of a dinner party, good people, drinks.
I’d stepped outside to get a sense of things, their loitering depth.
Earlier I’d seen startled deer leap a stone wall tumbled into bracken.

                                                        (Acknowledgements to Vagabond Press)

To listen to Martin reading this poem, here is an audio file, with thanks to Peter Boyle and Nick Keys!

 

Rock Orchids ~ Tricksters Deluxe

I’m packing my bags (yet again), this time for another trip to North America. The thought of late summer in the Pacific North West is enticing, but at the same time I hate the thought of missing out on the rock orchids here in Sydney.

D. speciosum, about to flower
D. speciosum, about to flower

This is one of those annoying times of year. From inside the house the garden looks inviting – blue sky, sun, birds, wattles and other flowers, and lots of enjoyable work to do. However, step outside and the cold wind bites, the skies cloud over, rain suddenly arrives, everything loses its charm, and one’s big desire is to get back indoors.

Just at this time of increasing annoyance, the rock orchids burst forth. These glorious, mass-flowering beauties are native to this area. They love living in sandstone. They don’t ask for a lot of sun, they’re happy enough in shade. They don’t ask for a lot of nutrients, they grow on rocks. They don’t demand much at all, and yet they manage this annual abundance of glorious flowers. When I get annoyed, I think of these orchids: how they thrive amongst the stones, and bring blessings of beauty to everyone who has ever wondered if winter would ever end!

Yesterday I was hit by a terrible thought: what if there were no more rock orchids on earth? In truth, these beautiful plants are not threatened, although their numbers in the wild are down because habitat is depleted. I wasn’t hit by fear for orchids, exactly. Rather I was jolted by that crushing realisation that we are living amongst terrible losses. The losses are cascading and we don’t know where, or if, they will stop. Almost anything could be at risk; most probably almost everything is at risk. I went rushing off to the native garden to see if the orchids were blooming yet, as they always come out first over there.

Sunpho, (CC)
D. speciosum

One of my former research colleagues, the late Frank Fenner, predicted that in a hundred years or so the human species will have driven itself to extinction. His views are extreme, but they touch on this crucial point: we are driving the earth into greater and greater loss of ecosystems; we are stimulating extinction cascades that are expanding rapidly and in many cases unstoppably and unpredictably; we are producing the most extravagant amounts of toxins, garbage and waste; and we are consuming and wasting all that lives in the most careless fashion. Whether the world goes on with us or without us, it will be a world radically disfigured by us. The kind of time that it will take for the earth to recover diversity and stability is beyond our comprehension.

Often when trying to think about what seems unthinkable I have to remind myself that answers to big questions about life do not arise from one species alone. Our lives are held within sustaining webs of life, and all our philosophy, and all our action, and all our desires unfold most effectively when we pay attention to the others.

We humans are not alone here on earth. Other creatures are in these same webs: there are no other webs.

For today I am turning to rock orchids and wondering about their lives. I don’t want to extract a moral lesson, or turn them into an allegory. I just want to cherish them more deeply by understanding them better. And what a story their lives tell!

In my area the main rock orchids are Dendrobium species: the yellow D. speciosum and the ‘pink rock orchid’ D. kingianum. They are lithophytes meaning that they live on rocks: their long aerial roots find crevices both to hold on to and from which to access nutrients.

D. kingianum
D. kingianum

These are very low nutrient creatures; they get their main sustenance from air, rain, debris and their own dead tissue. Some of what they glean they store in ‘pseudobulbs’ as a hedge against hard times, particularly dry spells. The rock orchids themselves provide habitat for others – fungi of course, and also animals and bacteria. They are home to a beetle known as the Dendrobium beetle. The stems are edible; they were eaten by Aboriginal people and are opportunistically browsed by other plant eaters.

Another side of this low nutrient story is the strong symbiotic mutualism they share with a microscopic fungus. This mutually beneficial relationship is known as a mycorrhiza. Orchid and fungus are not parasitic on each other, since both seem to flourish, but the best known fact seems to be that orchids simply could not live and reproduce without their fungi. In fact, orchid seeds are so low in nutrients that they cannot germinate without the help of these symbionts who supply the developing plant with nutrients until it is able to photosynthesize. Given the cycles of drought that characterise Australia’s ENSO-driven climate, new generations of rock orchids may have long periods of dependency.

Sunpho (CC)
Sunpho (CC)

Yet another side of this story is orchids’ relationship with pollinators. This is not symbiotic, at least as far as is now known. Botanists talk about lures and rewards: angiosperms invite or lure others through their dazzling brilliance of colour, scent and shape, and they ‘reward’ their visitors with nutrients. Rock orchids are among the tricksters in the world of lures and rewards. They produce great, showy, masses of flowers, and when the sun shines their fragrance comes forth.

DSC01895

Orchids offer up all the signs that send forth the great angiosperm message: ‘nectar’. This is explained in delightfully technical language by two orchid scientists:

‘Potential pollinators of Dendrobium speciosum are attracted to the plant by large, cream to yellow, finely segmented, aromatic inflorescences. Plants in natural populations flower synchronously, producing a massive display. Osmophores scattered over the perianth produce a strong, sweet scent in sunny weather. Nectar-seeking insects are guided to the central, reproductive area of the flower by the colour gradation of the perianth, including an area of high U.V. reflection near the centre, and a bright yellow ridge along the labellum. A tube formed by the labellum and column directs the potential pollinators.’

In the words of these scientists, this glorious invitation is akin to ‘false advertising’.

The pollinators (mainly bees) come and do the work of pollination, but they get no reward because in spite of all the showy appearance there is no nectar. Unlike the mistletoes I discussed in an earlier essay that get on in the world though abundant and promiscuous generosity, rock orchids get on through targeted deception.

These brilliant tricksters have developed fabulously enticing beauty. The human fascination with orchids is just as keen (I imagine) as that of bees. And yet the delicacy of the flowers is part of an extremely successful adaptation to harsh conditions. Their way of life is anchored at the edge of the nutrient world and is adapted to many extremes. From 45° heat in summer (115F) to winter frosts, through winds, droughts, bushfires and deluges, rock orchids hold on in their stony bastions and put forth great masses of flowers year after year except when recovering from bushfires. The great confederacy of Orchidaceae has been around for perhaps 130 million years, and the orchids here in Sydney are probably much the same as their direct ancestors who were here with the dinosaurs.

The diversity of their interactions is captivating: they are food for some creatures, including humans; they are symbionts with others. And then they are tricksters with yet others! Symbiotic, delicate, tough, fragrant and with great survival strategies, their multispecies complexities testify to the diversity of interactions that are woven into the webs of life.

All praise to orchids ~ Every leaf, every stem, every tough little kiss of life.

D. kingianum
D. kingianum

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

Frank Fenner’s article (view here)

On symbiotic mutualism between orchids and fungi, see ‘hunter valley backyard nature

On ‘false advertising’, see ‘The Pollination Biology of Dendrobium speciosum Smith: a Case of False Advertising?’ by AT Slater and DM Calder, published in the Australian Journal of Botany 36(2) 145 – 158, 1988.