Tag Archives: Climate Change

Lively Water

Jila is a place of ‘living water’. It identifies fresh water that never dries up. Often unprepossessing, perhaps the water is secreted deep in a well that has been dug and maintained for generations, perhaps it is a spring that bubbles up quietly, or maybe the water forms a pool that remains after the flow of a river or creek has disappeared. Jila, the place of living water, commands respect and care; it gives life and thus is a source of life. Here on the driest inhabited continent on earth, knowledge of living water can truly make the difference between life and death. Living water is cherished; it is a blessing.

Native well, South Australia
“Native well”, South Australia

If water is living, can it also die? Is water caught up in precarity, is it vulnerable? Is water, like life, variable and diverse; in this time of ecological loss, is it threatened? The great Sydney artist Janet Laurence says ‘yes’ to these questions. Water, she wants us to understand, is fragile and complex, precious and threatened. This message was offered in her recent installation ‘H2O: Water Bar’, set up in the Paddington Reservoir. Janet’s stated aim was to bring people into appreciation of water’s variability, and to raise questions in their minds about its fragility.

Paddington Reservoir, zenra (CC)
Paddington Reservoir, zenra (CC)

In the 1860s the city of Sydney built an underground reservoir to augment its water supplies. Constructed of brick, timber, stonework and iron, the reservoir was superseded around the turn of the century. For decades it was used for storage, then part of it collapsed. Finally in 2006 part of it was redesigned as a sunken garden and part of it was preserved as an historic site; it is only open to the public on special occasions. We were there on a very hot evening. The reservoir was cool and elegant, and beautifully peaceful; the city seemed to evaporate. The arches woke up memories of Roman water construction. We breathed the moist, earthy garden air, and in spite of the solidity of the construction materials, we felt surprisingly buoyant.

Janet Laurence's H2O Water Bar
Janet Laurence’s H2O Water Bar

The water bar, gleaming with glass and mirrors, was set up at one end of the enclosed area. There were shelves of vials, each containing a different water, and each carefully labelled both for origin and for trace elements and pH factor. Janet’s assistants, wearing lab coats and managing all the vials, beakers and shot glasses, offered us water and engaged us in conversation. We were invited to taste and compare, to bring our own bodily sensorium into encounter with water’s diversity and charms. I was particularly taken with spring water from Mt Warning (in NSW). This volcanic water contains fluoride, manganese, magnesium, calcium, zinc, cyanide, silica, sodium and copper and is pH 7.3. Its taste on my palate was lively, with a bit of zip (cyanide, perhaps?).

The best art works a kind of magic, bringing us to experience the world unexpectedly. Janet’s water bar, with its hints of alchemy and its commingling of quantification and qualitative experience, transformed a glass of water from everyday necessity to precious experience. Without having to say it, the water bar reminded us that all too often we take for granted this glorious, life-giving flow; we forget its individuality, its relationships with place, its flowing nature.

Janet Laurence's H2O Water Bar
Janet Laurence’s H2O Water Bar

My friend Luke Fischer organised an evening of readings on ‘The Language of Water’ to coincide with one of the water tasting events at the H2O bar. The aim was to honour Janet’s work, and to bring words into the celebration of water’s liveliness. I was invited to speak, and I drew on my experiences over many years with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory in order to address this question: if water is living, does it have a voice and does it have a face?

The area where I lived in the Territory was in the catchment of the Wickham River, a tributary of the great Victoria River. This is monsoon country, where rivers flow episodically and the extreme aridity of the dry season is counter-balanced by the massive downpours of the wet season. Across the course of a single year the extremes are enormous. And of course there are larger fluctuations linked to the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole. Sun and Rain, dry season and wet season, each have their moment. Sometimes they balance each other well, but in many years the usual extremes became even more wild. This past wet season the monsoon failed and life became very tough. Heat and humidity were intense, and the blessed relief of rain was largely absent. When it came, though, it was caused by a cyclone, making sudden, localised floods that killed people. In other years, though, the rains go on and on, floodwaters rise everywhere, communities are evacuated, and it takes most of the dry season for the country to dry out enough to be able to travel off road even in four wheel drive.

Storm building up, Paul Williams (CC)
Storm building up, Paul Williams (CC)

The great seasonal forces are for Aboriginal people expressions of the power of on-going creation; they are part of the eco-cosmology. Wet season and Dry season: Rain and Sun. The great life-shaping powers wrestle back and forth, Rain and Sun, Sun and Rain: living beings have learned to live with extremes, from the desiccated aridity of the late dry to the swampy ground and rushing rivers of the wet. You could die of thirst, or you could drown, each possibility is totally real and almost every year a few people do actually die.

The North Australian monsoon region is its own thing, but it also needs to be said that Australia is its own thing! Water in Australia is governed ecologically by the reality that this continent is the ‘driest, flattest, most poorly drained, and in fact largely inward draining land on Earth’, according to Mary White. Most of it is arid; rain is wildly variable, as I’ve said, and global warming is almost certain to exacerbate the unpredictability of water. Here in Australia ‘normal’ is already a set of extremes, and it is hard to imagine what may be coming.

And still, water flows through everything.

It flows through you and me, through soils and trees and rocks, through all creaturely bodies and through its own ever-shifting pathways. And everywhere it goes it is connected with life. When the rain falls, living beings respond: plants and other creatures liven up and new generation are begun.

Aboriginal eco-cosmology is expressed in the medium of kinship, and conveys the underlying knowledge of connectivities. Across all the big players like Sun and Rain, across species and landforms, across seasons and generations, patterns of connectedness reproduce bonds of enduring solidarity. One big social division in the Victoria River area is based on the Sun/Rain dynamic. People are born into one or the other: either Sun, along with earth, ground, the dry season and associated animals; or Rain, along with light or dark rain and associated animals.

I was privileged to be incorporated into the kinship system, and the perspectives I know best involve my close kin: dark rain, along with the flying-foxes (Pteropus alecto) who hang upside down over the water.

Dark rains are fierce and erratic. They can come as thunderstorms, sometimes they come as cyclones. They descend on the land, they fill up the billabongs and move into the underground waterways and aquifers. They get the rivers flowing, often get them running bankers and flooding far out across the land. And then they go away, and sometimes they don’t come back for a very long time.

Rainbow over Sun Dreaming site, Wickham River area
Rainbow over Sun Dreaming site, Wickham River area

Sun and Rain wrestle it out, and where they meet and join, there you see a rainbow. Pattern and connection: out of difference comes something new and powerful. The Rainbow Snake is the great being associated with all water: all rains, all rivers, but most of all with every permanent spring and waterhole. The fact of permanence is living proof that something powerful is there. That ‘something’ is the Rainbow Snake. Furthermore, the Rainbow snake embodies the idea that water is both a powerful presence and an ethical subject. What I mean by saying that water is an ethical subject is that it is enmeshed in, and responsive to, calls for care and responsibility.

Aboriginal stories really draw this out. Let’s go back to those flying-foxes hanging down over the water. Late in the dry season, when country is becoming almost unbearably hot, they come to camp above permanent water. Why do they do this? It is pretty dangerous – one false move and you become dinner for the hungry crocs that patrol up and down beneath the pandanus trees. One reason is that they need the humidity to counter the heat stress they experience as the Wet season (summer) approaches.

Eucalyptus flowers
Eucalyptus flowers

Another reason is told through Aboriginal story: they are calling out to the Rainbow Snake, telling it to bring rain. The people who taught me said that they are ‘mates’ with the Rainbow, and their calling out is a central part of the relationship. There is a pattern that works like this: flying-foxes live by following the successive flowering of Eucalypts and Corymbias. The flowering starts in the higher country away from the river and works its way across the land until it reaches the river banks. Flying-foxes follow the flowers, and when they get to the river they have reached the last of the blossoms. It is late in the dry season and there will be no more flowers until the rains come and renew the country. So they call to their mate, the Rainbow, urging it to get up and get going, and bring the rain. Others join in: the frogs shout their crazy chorus, waterbirds come flocking in, cicadas are shrieking. It becomes very noisy, there is heteroglossia to the max, and most of the time the Rainbow Snake responds. Across this continent of heat, dust and fires, the rains do come.

Flying-foxes over permanent water
Flying-foxes over permanent water

Water, I am saying, has a face, using the term as developed by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In his studies of ethics, to have a face is to be an ethical subject. Ethics arrive as a passionate call for connection. The flying-foxes call to their mate the Rainbow, and the Rainbow responds. Those responses bring life. We ourselves are expressions of water. All the creatures who live because of water, from frogs to birds to turtles and flying foxes, to you and me, all of us bear witness to water’s gifts of life.

Earth has been a watery planet for 3.5 billion years, and in all this time the relationship between water and life has been symbiotic water sustains life, and life sustains water. And yet, the liveliness of water is not faring well. Eileen Crist writes vividly that ‘human beings have taken aim at the very qualities that define the living planet, dismantling, with an intent that seems paradoxically both blind and demonic, the diversity, complexity, and abundance of life on Earth.’

We are water creatures, all of us. Life evolved in salt water and stayed there until about 400 million years ago when plants and animals ventured on to land. Terrestrial mammals such as ourselves recapitulate this history, floating in our own little sea of amniotic fluid until being thrust out and required to breathe. We are 78% water as babies, and drop to 65% (give or take) as adults. Many plants are 90% water; other animals vary around 60%. Even in the driest places, where living things have become incredibly adept at living with minuscule amounts of water, the story is still the same: no water no life.

Flying-fox 'belly dipping'. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Flying-fox ‘belly dipping’. Courtesy of Nick Edards.

The voices of water are around and within us, and they are passionate. The appropriate response is to join in. To celebrate and protect water, to taste and treasure its diversity, to delight in and defend the creatures who call on water, to be awed by water’s power, and to cherish the connections: this is the work of life; this is the work that really matters.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016

Resources:

A beautiful account of jila places can be found in the book by Pat Lowe and Jimmy Pike: Jilji: Life in the Great Sandy Desert, published by Magabala Books. I learned about the sacred qualities of living water in my work on Aboriginal claims to land throughout the Northern Territory; a great many of the sacred sites we visited were water sites.

A description of ‘H2O: Water Bar’, and a video of Janet talking about the work, is available online (visit here). I have written about her work in other essays, for example ‘Blood and Chlorophyll’. Jim Hatley has an absolute ripper of an essay online (visit here).

A brief description of ‘The Language of Water’ can be found here. To learn more about Luke Fischer – poet, scholar, writer and organiser – visit his website (here).

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

The quote from Mary White is taken from her book Running Down: Water in a Changing Land, published in 2000.

The relationship between flying-foxes and heat stress has been the focus of several essays, for example ‘Climate Change and the Question of Community‘, and ‘Lethal Heat‘.

The quote from Eileen Crist is from her essay ’Intimations of Gaia’ in a book she has edited: Gaia in Turmoil, published by MIT Press in 2010. This book contains an excellent essay on water. Numerous websites offer facts and figures relating to water problems; a good start is with the WWF (visit here).

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’.

Partnership Rewilding With Flying-Foxes

Thanks to a conversation with my friend the environmental humanities film-maker/director Rob Nugent, I have become entranced with ideas of how we humans can work with flying-foxes rather than against them. Human-animal alliances that work toward greater integrity of ecosystems are, I propose, forms of ‘partnership rewilding’.

Sociable little reds,  photo:  Ashleigh Johnson
Sociable little reds,
photo: Ashleigh Johnson

‘Little reds’ (Pteropus scapulatus) are one of the four flying-fox (mega-bat) species in Australia, and they’ve been the focus of a lot of public talk and action recently. On the positive side was the enticing announcement of the arrival of little reds in Brisbane for the flowering of the bloodwood trees. I couldn’t get away from home in January, and so had to settle for a very short video clip and delightful write-up of the ‘wildlife spectacular on a world scale’ posted by the Bat Rescue and Conservation group in Brisbane (view here).

Further north in the Atherton Tableland town of Herberton, residents were complaining about little reds and calling for them to be removed. Apparently the mob arrived in late November and camped along the Wild River. One person in the know wrote recently: ‘The trees are literally flattened and the bats are still camping in them. About half have left in the last week’.

The Herberton story re-entered my imagination last week at the environmental humanities conference here in Sydney. The snappy title was ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’, and in the midst of an extremely lively program, it was great to catch up with Rob Nugent. His first film in the area of human-animal interactions focussed on locusts – their strange, beautiful, ‘Biblical’ and in many ways disastrous lives. ‘Memoirs of a plague’ is filmed across Africa and Australia and tells beautiful and disturbing stories about human-animal relationships.

Rob had recently been in Herberton and had filmed the little reds. I am so grateful to be able to get a glimpse of a big mob of ‘little reds’ in situ (view here). In Rob’s words:

“I particularly like the idea that they had decided to camp on a river called ‘Wild’… I suppose the river was named after someone called Wild, but perhaps it was named for its “wildness” too. The vegetation on the river was probably stripped for tin mining and is now regrowth…. In any case the bats are doing their best to “rewild” it by gradually breaking it up and pulling it to bits. I don’t think they are killing the trees though they will take a bit to recover. As it’s such a high rainfall area it’s unlikely that the bats’ superficially dramatic impact on the trees, sculpting roost sites to hang out together, branches being bent and broken under their collective weight etc., will last very long at all.”

Rob’s wry comment about rewilding the Wild River is partly tongue-in-cheek, but also wonderfully provocative.

Little reds characteristically love to hang together in tightly packed groups. According to the bat experts Les Hall and Greg Richards, ‘their habit of forming dense clusters, with up to 30 bats hanging together from one small branch, often results in the branch breaking. The combined weight of many such clusters will cause even large branches to break…. The resulting effect of a camp of little reds on a patch of vegetation is somewhat akin to the damage done by a severe hail or wind storm.’ It would seem that the trees where flying-foxes camp get a large influx of organic nutrients along with all the ‘pruning’, but it is still difficult to imagine the scene when a million or more little reds gather together in one place. As Hall and Richards point out, ‘fortunately these large camps of little reds are mobile, and move on when the local flowering ceases.’ Increasingly, as land clearing reduces their options, they may return before a camp has had time fully to recover.

Little reds in Boonah, Qld Photo: Paisley Hadley
Little reds in Boonah, Qld
Photo: Paislie Hadley

In 2000 Hall and Richards wrote that little reds had not normally lived in the Atherton Tableland, but were coming more frequently. Their arrival has truly upset people in this area as well as in inland towns such as Charters Towers where the recent disastrous cruelty is well documented. I will never condone that cruelty, but what strikes me in this context is the fact that here humans and trees share a perspective when it comes to little reds. For both species (humans and trees) the big question is: when will they leave?!!!

The answer, of course, is ‘when they have somewhere to go’. Little reds are the most nomadic of all the flying-foxes of Australia. Their range overlaps with the others, but goes further inland, bringing flying-foxes deep into the arid zone of Central Australia.

They are the odd group out amongst the Pteropids of Australia. Little reds are smaller, with a different colour and smell; they breed at the opposite time of year to the rest of the three main species; they are more reliant than the others on blossoms and nectar, and thus are almost exclusively nectivorous. Their large groups and greater mobility are responses to the focus on nectar.

The lure of the Atherton Tableland is likely to be related to the failure of the blossoming trees further inland, a factor that is influenced by climate and weather. However, Hall and Richards also note that ‘continued wide-spread clearing in central Queensland has removed trees which were major winter and spring food sources for little reds.’ As a result, large numbers of creatures were starving, and were looking for alternative places and alternative foods. Since 2000, land clearing has continued, and (surprise) the Newman government has recently altered legislation to make it easier for land owners to clear fell. One figure of the many that could be offered demonstrates the impacts of land clearing: for every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress.

Queensland cattle country
Queensland cattle country

As habitat destruction and persecution go hand in hand with starvation and heat stress, it sometimes seems the odds are stacked against flying-foxes. Every time I hear calls for expulsion, dispersal, eradication, war on bats, and other violence, I have to do a double-take and remind myself that in spite of all the propaganda, there are actually many creatures for whom the future of flying-foxes really matters. That’s in addition to the creatures themselves who, in their determination to find their food, survive heatwaves, and raise their young, clearly care deeply about their future.

We need to step away from the hype of hate to get a wider perspective on how flying-foxes are appreciated by many creatures. It is probably fair to say that the predators who get an occasional mouthful of little reds and other flying-foxes appreciate these creatures. Crocodiles, powerful owls, pythons and perhaps an occasional lucky large raptor that finds a flying-fox getting about by day, all get a benefit from flying-foxes. This tooth and talon (or crush ‘n’ gulp) kind of benefit ensures that for hungry predators flying-foxes are indeed a pleasure.

Little red with blossoms Photo: Helen Gormley
Little red with blossoms
Photo: Helen Gormley

Undoubtedly trees are the greatest ‘fans’ of flying-foxes. Many of the trees they visit, lap upon, and pollinate require out-crossing for best pollination. This means they need to be pollinated with more distant trees, not just with themselves and their immediate neighbours. Little reds are the pollinators par excellence of the inland arid-zone trees. A study of little reds showed that 95% of the time they range beyond ten metres from where they start their evening meal. In contrast, 80% of birds remain within a ten metre range of where they start their meal. In the arid regions of scattered eucalypts, corymbias and other native flowering trees, little reds ensure that the future of these trees will be adaptive and flexible. In this time of rapid ecological change, that capacity for adaptive and flexible response, especially for long-lived creatures such as trees, is especially important.

Among the many beautiful Myrtaceous trees, the inland bloodwood (Corymbia terminalis) and desert bloodwood (Corymbia opaca) have a range pretty much identical to the inland range of little reds. Both thrive best with outcrossed pollination. From the perspective of bloodwoods, flying-foxes are the generous nomads who take their pollen from tree to tree across these inland regions.  Their work holds whole life-worlds together, for trees do not live in isolation. As I learned through my ethnobiological work in the Northern Territory, the future of the trees is entwined with the lives and future generations of many other creatures, creating a shimmering tapestry of life sustained by flying foxes.

Birds and butterflies live amongst the bloodwood, and so in some sense are entwined with them, and thus with flying-foxes. Native bees positively adore making their homes in bloodwood hollows, as well as feeding on the pollen, and so they too are entwined. Bloodwood ‘apples’ are the growths that result when an insect lays eggs in the bloodwood bark. The gall of the desert bloodwood is said by those who know to taste rather like coconut.

‘Sugarleaf’ is a sweet crust called ‘lerp’ that forms on bloodwood trees and a few others. Shaken off, formed into cakes, and stored for ceremony, ‘sugarleaf’ was once an extremely important food for Aboriginal people. Lerp is part of the life cycle of a set of insects, and sugarleaf is eaten by a range of other creatures: birds such as honeyeaters, parrots, and willy-wagtails along with lizards and others.

Corymbia terminalis
Corymbia terminalis

For humans, bloodwoods also offer a good wood for firewood and for tools; the ashes are good for use with chewing tobacco; in the arid regions, some bloodwoods hold water in their hollows and have saved peoples’ lives. Many of the first cattle yards were made with bloodwood posts.

Orchids love to grow in protected corners of bloodwood trees, and centipedes lurk (if that is a fair term) in orchids. Mistletoe, too, thrives happily in bloodwood trees. Where mistletoe lives, the mutualist mistletoe birds also live. Along with mistletoe birds, others such as painted honeyeaters, a species threatened by land clearing, are reliant on mistletoe. Children too chew on mistletoe berries. And where mistletoe thrives, small mammals such as possums also tend to thrive.

Who cares about flying-foxes? The chorus of bloodwoods and those who live in, on, and with them, has many voices. Taken together with the many other trees such as river red gums, coolabahs and paperbarks, it becomes a symphony of praise for the pollinators, and for all the blessings that flow from them. Its two-part chorus comprises joy in the present with a call for health, vitality, and connectivities in the future.

This call inspires me to imagine a program of partnership rewilding. The term ‘rewilding’ has come into use in recent years. It carries with it all the problems of what we may mean by wild, but it is useful in our struggle to find language equal to the issues we face. It isn’t fully appropriate to talk about ecological restoration anymore – there are too many questions about what makes an appropriate baseline, and who is included or excluded. Equally, in Australia a lot of restoration work is all about killing, as Thom van Dooren discusses in his great article on this subject. And, too, there is much uncertainty about the future in this time of climate change. Restoring ecosystems to a past state may not be what is needed for the future. Increasingly, scientists talk about resilience, and increasingly everyone realises that for the foreseeable future humans and animals are going to be living in ever more cheek-by-jowl proximity.

Flying-fox flyout, Sydney
Flying-fox flyout, Sydney

The two big ideas of rewilding are to protect and connect natural processes (core areas and connecting corridors), and to protect or re-introduce keystone species and apex predators. Little reds and other flying-foxes are keystone species because of their pollination work, and the benefits they bring to eco-systems cascade across a huge range of other species.

My not-so-modest proposal is that we humans start to understand ourselves as mutualists. In partnership with flying-foxes, we could work to facilitate the great nomadic blossom-chasing way of life, and all the gifts it brings to creatures great and small.

This program would reverse the long history of land clearance, and would be designed to enable flying-foxes to continue their beneficial work. There would be extensive corridors with a well-planned succession of flowers, catering particularly for the most difficult times of year. Rewilding corridors would draw flying-foxes away from urban centres, helping them live the life they are evolved to live, and sustaining the integrity of Australian ecosystems. Rather than we humans trying to drive flying-foxes away by injuring them, partnership rewilding would entice them back into the bush where everyone benefits.

There are many other gains. Trees reduce local temperatures, and would make a real difference in this heatwave era; trees sequester carbon, and the renewal of the bush reduces our carbon footprint, just as land clearing exacerbates that footprint.

The ethical beauty of partnership rewilding is that it inspires us humans work with others.

It allows us to acknowledge the great work others do to keep life flourishing, and to assist in that work. It puts humans in their place as part of the community of life rather than as dominators, as Aldo Leopold was proposing so many years ago. Partnership rewilding fulfils in every way Leopold’s great dictum: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’

 

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

This is the first of a series of essays on Partnership Rewilding.

Resources

Leslie Hall & Greg Richards, 2000, Flying Foxes: Fruit and Blossom Bats of Australia, UNSW Press.

Aldo Leopold, 1949, ‘Land ethic’ in Sand Country Almanac, Oxford University Press.

Figures on bird deaths in land clearing come from an article by Bush Heritage Australia.

I got some home video footage of a massive fly-out in the Northern Territory last year (view here).

 

Lethal Heat: Lament for the Dead

They were young and beautiful, and they were dying. Some fell out of the trees, some crawled down and died on the ground. Some left this life still gripping the branch. Babies clung to dead mothers, and struggling mothers held dead babies.

The heat was relentless and the suffering went on and on as death worked its way through 100,000 or more flying-foxes in SE Queensland and Northern New South Wales. It may be the greatest mammalian mass death event to be caused by the new regime of extreme heat. It is probably also the first of many. Who will live and who will die becomes a question of temperature, refuge, and assistance. Much cannot be prevented.

Carers are working their hearts out. Support is needed in every area. Anguish is everywhere, and so too is commitment.

Behind this mass death is a history of persecution and on-going conquest. It is a history of loss of forests, refuge areas, blossoms and nectar, and of ever more urbanisation and conflict. Flying-foxes are these great pollinators, the night-workers of the Australian bush. Ranged against them is a desire amongst many humans to take over the world by relentlessly grasping or destroying the lives of others.

Courtesy of Nick Edards
Courtesy of Nick Edards

There was a time when flying-foxes regularly flew their great long trips across forests and escarpments, and returned home again because the way was known, and home was there. In some places life is like this still.

I remember stories the Aboriginal people told me about how flying-foxes are mates with the Rainbow Serpent. How they come and go in a pulse that is equally the pulse of the rainy time. They come bringing blessings because they call up rain, and when they depart they take their blessings elsewhere. They are kin – ‘one red blood’ in the words of David Gulpilil.

Now there is the haunting of mass death – it is possible that their blessings may indeed leave this earth forever. It is not only lives that are extinguished, but also the blessings of those lives. It may be that the earth is bleeding out now, and we are witnessing yet another aorta falling open.

We don’t have respectful methods for dealing with all these dead bodies. The image of wheelie-bins filled with dead flying-foxes shows a necessary pragmatism in the face of a huge problem, but is also deeply disturbing. Where will the bodies be taken? Will they be buried? Who will mark the grave-sites? Who will sing them home?

We lack appropriate mourning rituals for all this death. In truth, I wonder if we are capable of taking in the magnitude of the suffering. And yet in the weeks to come we will need to develop ways to honour the dead, to mourn their passing, to cherish the survivors, and to praise the carers.

For tonight, a candle is burning here in Sydney and I am dreaming of a flying-fox paradise. There the forests are unfelled, blossoming is sequential, flying-foxes travel and stop, eat and move on to their hearts’ content. They depart, and when they return, home is still there. Every branch and blossom welcomes them, and paradise is not a dream, but the real world of co-evolved life.

DSC02290

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 Postscript:

A report from a mass death event in NSW last year enables us to gain a visual sense of encounter:

Resources:

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/highly-significant-heatwave-smashes-australian-records-20140106-30dx5.html

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-08/hundred-thousand-dead-bats-after-qld-heatwave-rspca-says/5190644

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDXF5lSd5Dz6ZBxDOWNASc8bjI_8DLgLt

http://www.bats.org.au/

https://www.academia.edu/4539615/Multi-species_Knots_of_Ethical_Time  (an article on flying-foxes and rain)

 

 

Climate Change and the Question of Community

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle Wikimedia Commons
Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle
Wikimedia Commons

January 1, 2014

It is now official: Australia has just experienced its hottest year on record. According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s report, ‘2013 will go down as the year that registered Australia’s hottest day, month, season, 12-month period – and, by December 31, the hottest calendar year’. This was the year, it will be recalled, that the Bureau of Meteorology added two new colours to the temperature maps. Deep purple and pink joined the colour coding to indicate maximum temperatures of 50-54°C (122-129°F).

In case that was not enough, another report tells us that climate scientists at the University of New South Wales have published the results of a study showing that global warming is almost certain to be more extreme than previous models indicated. They have developed a method for analysing the effects of clouds on global temperatures, and their results show that on current trends we’re looking at global warming of at least four degrees by 2100. If you are in any doubt about whether four degrees really matters, Mark Lynas’s book Six Degrees is well worth reading. In 2100 the earth is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the world we now know.

The year 2013 also saw the publication of Bill McKibben’s latest book. In Oil and Honey McKibben takes on the fossil fuel plutocracy. His data are as bleak as ever, and lead directly to the point he has been making for some time: that we are in the midst of irreversible, unfathomable changes. Recently Verlyn Klinkenborg discussed this sense of impending doom in his review of the book. Klinkenborg contends that we are living in the midst of a rolling apocalypse that is changing pretty much everything. Our language, and our sense of time and destiny, aren’t up to the task of communicating this new, accelerating, event. For example, the great floods in the US in 2013 were described as ‘Biblical’. Klinkenborg offers the awful reminder that these floods are NOT Biblical. There is ‘no wrath, no retribution, no forgiveness, no ark, no dove.’

It is too late to avert global warming completely, as McKibben (along with others) has been telling us for a while now. Our political systems are not responsive to the need for quick and strong action, and the fossil fuel industries are at this time well-nigh unstoppable. In fact, the influence of oil, gas and coal industries on government is a sign of the subversion and retreat of democracy. On the one hand, scientists have determined that if we are to keep global warming to a manageable degree, we cannot put more than another 565 gigatons of carbon into the air by mid-century. On the other hand, the fossil fuel magnates plan to extract, sell, and burn every skerrick of oil, gas and coal. In McKibben’s words, the crucial number is 2,795 gigatons. That is ‘the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies…. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.’ In sum, ‘we already have five times as much oil and coal on the books as any scientist thinks it is safe to burn.’

McKibben continues to urge humanity to try to contain and reduce carbon emissions, and to ‘re-democratise’ our societies so as to require governments to act in the interests of the people rather than the mega-rich fossil fuel magnates. Most importantly, though, he urges us to acknowledge that tough times are all around us and are going to get worse, and to respond to that knowledge by fortifying ourselves and our communities to face these tough times. The safer places, he says, will be in ‘strong communities’, so a wise response to global warming will involve building and sustaining such communities.

This advice leads directly to the question of community. Is a strong community a fortress, or is it a web? Is it strong in the sense of unyielding, or in the sense of resilient? Who is in, and who is out? Aside from politicians and a certain type of populist, it seems clear to all that in times of change individuals and communities need to be flexible, adaptive, resilient, and capable of quick, intelligent, organised responses.

In the context of community, as in the context of climate change, it is necessary to ask if our languages, values, and sense of solidarity are up to the task of imagining and building the necessary strength. Nestled within these questions is the deeper question of ethics. This question involves the assumption of response, responsibility, care, concern, and the refusal to abandon others.

Dog in Dragon Boat, Lake LiYu, Taiwan
Dog in Dragon Boat, Lake Li Yu, Taiwan

Traditional ways of thinking about community are based on what we have in common. A community is made up of people who share language, values, and understandings of the world that enable them to sustain their commitment to working together for their common (shared) goals. This type of community is called the ‘rational community’. If those shared elements are lacking, then community building involves finding ways to develop shared values, and to accelerate the power and resilience of groups of people who work, communicate, and celebrate together. Many people are addressing these questions, and there are excellent programs in existing towns, neighbourhoods and social groups that work to develop resilience and the capacity for transformation.

In the years since World War II a number of philosophers have been addressing the question of ethics and community. Do communities demarcate a domain within which shared values, norms and belief systems prescribe ethics for action? If so, how can we imagine or understand an imperative toward ethics that arises and commands us from outside the domain of shared values and goals? What of the strangers, the excluded, the refugees, the helpless?

Alphonso Lingis has written an excellent book on this subject: The Community of Those Who Have Nothing In Common. This ‘other’ community does not come into being through what we have in common. Rather, it is made of people whose lives brush against each other without necessarily having anything in common. In these encounters, meaning arrives mysteriously. We often do not, and may never, understand others with whom we do not share the qualities of the rational community, and yet we recognise their personhood. We recognise our shared vulnerability, and it follows that although our ethical responsibilities have no clear rational command, they nonetheless make claims upon us. Lingis’s phrase ‘nothing in common’ is used in opposition to the rational community where what holds people together and gives them cause for care and concern is based on what they have in common. Breaking free from that which is shared, the analysis asks how ethics command us in the absence of shared religious and economic interests, and the solidarity of shared values.

This brings me to the conjunction of ethics, climate change, and multi-species communities. Concepts of community for this time of massive change must challenge our traditional concepts, as the philosophers are doing. At the same time, they must be far more inclusive. Climate change impacts on the lives of many, many species. In this rolling apocalypse of climate change, earthlings are enormously vulnerable. We are mortal, we experience meaning in life, we suffer, we struggle to remain alive. These are creaturely conditions that are inherent in the lives of all multi-cellular organisms, and perhaps of many single-celled creatures as well.

Multi-species communities arise in recognition of creaturely vulnerability. It needs to be said again and again that many of our fellow earthlings are at or near the edge of extinction. An incredibly large number of them are affected by climate change. Although the factors that push a species toward extinction are complex, climate change is not only a factor in itself, but also further impacts on creatures’ capacity to adapt to the changes that are now happening.

Probably everyone is familiar with the image of a polar bear on an ice floe, and has heard about coral bleaching. Other creatures are affected by other aspects of climate change – rising sea levels, heat stress, extreme weather, and much more. In addition to specific climate change impacts, almost all creatures now also experience a great number of other, more direct, human impacts. Violence is a large and visible factor, as I have been writing about recently. So too are numerous others: loss of habitat and related issues of over-crowding and urbanisation, plastics, toxins, ocean acidification, and many more. Of course these and other impacts affect humans as well. This is the point. Earthlings today have one great thing in common (with a few exceptions): extreme vulnerability to the unstoppable damage now in process. Our species is not exempt, but at the same time, our species has huge responsibilities.

My current research is dedicated to exploring questions of multi-species communities that form around animals that are vulnerable to extinction. I am interested in communities of care, by which I mean communities in which humans acknowledge and act upon their ethical responsibilities toward other (non-human) creatures. There is no single model for how such communities come into being, and how they work. The research is on-going, and involves a number of people including many of those in the Extinction Studies Working Group.

Here are just two examples of the kinds of multi-species, ethical, responsive and responsible communities I am talking about.

Sea Turtle, Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons
Sea Turtle, Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Scientists tell us that there are seven species of sea turtles on earth, and six of them are endangered. These ancient and beautiful creatures are experiencing a huge number of threats some of which are directly attributable to humans. Hunting, pollution, plastics, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat loss and other hazards have driven many species of sea turtles into the zone of the endangered – they may not survive the rolling apocalypse. The problems are all interconnected, but at the same time, climate change poses a number of quite specific threats. It is difficult to imagine in the abstract, but the specifics are arresting:  sea level rise that wipes out beaches and nesting habitats; weather extremes involving storms that damage beaches and seagrass beds; hotter sand from increasing temperatures leading to death before the eggs even have a chance to hatch. Bear in mind that the sex of sea turtles is determined by the temperature at which the eggs develop. With increasing nest temperatures, there are likely to be more females than males, thus threatening genetic diversity.

It is impossible to think of turtles without also thinking of plastics in the ocean. The long slow death of a turtle that has eaten plastic is almost too terrible to contemplate. In the midst of all this suffering, people are rescuing sea turtles, creating protected areas for them, healing their wounds, protecting their nests, and developing hatcheries where nest temperature can be controlled.

Sea turtle beach, Hawaii.
Sea turtle beach, Hawaii.

WWF initiative that brings scientists together with Indigenous Rangers in North Australia is a great example of human action in the face of the many disasters afflicting sea turtles. Long live the turtles and the people who work so hard to help them survive!

A second case study brings us from sea and beach to land and air, in order to consider the vulnerability of flying-foxes to climate change.

Flying-fox 'belly dipping'. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Flying-fox ‘belly dipping’. Courtesy of Nick Edards.

Of the four species in Australia, two are endangered, while world-wide a large number of species is threatened. We know from experience here in Australia that when the temperatures hit 40°C, approximately, flying-foxes start to suffer severe heat stress. Wherever possible they camp in rainforest gullies, mangroves and other heat-protected areas, but the combination of habitat loss and rising temperatures is lethal. According to Justin Welbergen, a flying-fox 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 tees, or climb down, and crawl on the ground looking for a cooler spot. At that stage they are close to death.’

Most vulnerable to heat are the females and juveniles — bad news indeed for endangered species. In urban areas, volunteers turn out during heat waves to spray a cool mist into flying-fox camps in an effort to keep the temperature down and the humidity up. They rescue as many downed flying-foxes as they can.

In spite of all the help, it seems that some 50,000 flying foxes have died of heat in the last fifteen years, and the number will grow as temperatures rise. Welbergen concludes that flying-foxes are showing us a glimpse of the future, when not only more flying-foxes but also many more species of animals will be affected by heat stress.

Sydney flying-fox rescue volunteer Storm Sandford was interviewed last year (the hottest on record, it will be recalled). Her inspiring story is a perfect example of a multi-species community that arises in response to vulnerability. Her actions emerge in recognition of the needs of others. Her human response to that need is an exemplary demonstration of the generous spirit of all the people who rescue and care for flying-foxes, She gives us a glimmer of how life can be ethical, committed, and engaged in the midst of terrible and unstoppable events.

Juvenile in care, Sydney.
Juvenile in care, Sydney.

Multi-species communities in the time of climate change are made of this: the recognition of vulnerability, the responsiveness of love, the capacity to act, and the refusal to stand by and do nothing.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript

Since posting this little essay a few days ago, a media release came out concerning heat stress in Queensland. I reproduce it here:

6 January 2014
Media release

Extreme heat event devastates Qld native Flying-fox colonies.

Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of native flying-foxes have died as a direct result of the weekend heat event with temperatures of over 43°C. The deaths will continue over the next few days as surviving orphans from dead mothers will slowly die of dehydration.
Many colonies across South-East Qld have been severely affected including those at Camira, Mt. Ommaney, Pan Pacific Gardens, Regents Park, Boonah, Bellmere, Pine Rivers and Palmwoods. Reports indicate all Western Suburbs colonies and inland, and colonies from Gympie down to Yamanto have been devastated.
Deaths include Grey Headed Flying-foxes which are on the vulnerable to extinction species list and Black Flying-foxes. Flying-foxes are Australia’s only nocturnal, long-distance pollinator and seed disperser.
Volunteer rescuers have been overwhelmed with the mammoth task of collecting dead bodies and tending to survivors as part of their service to the community. Currently there are over 200 baby flying-foxes in care “We have never seen this type of heat event devastation before and the massive amount of casualties as a result. From the initial call onwards, the camps fell like dominos.” says Louise Saunders, President, BCRQ.
“A huge thank-you to all the dedicated volunteers who rallied to the call and worked so hard in the diabolical heat to save the bats that were still clinging to life”. Bat Conservation & Rescue Qld wish to thank the many residents adjacent to colonies who came to the carers and offered their assistance and support.
“Never try to perform your own rescue. For your safety and for the sake of flying-foxes, always call a wildlife rescue service,” BCRQ president Louise Saunders said.
“A frightened flying-fox is likely to bite or scratch, potentially exposing a well-meaning rescuer to Australian Bat Lyssavirus. Less than 0.5% of bats may have the virus, there is a safe vaccine to protect anyone who may be exposed. Anyone exposed to a scratch or bite must seek prompt medical attention. “That inevitably means vaccinations for anyone bitten or scratched, and death for the flying-fox because Queensland Health requires them to be euthanased for testing.
for the full text, see: http://bats.org.au/uploads/news-events/media/press-releases/Heatdisastermr6012014.pdf

Angry Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

 

Take-Back Time ~ Science and Economy

Dendrobium speciosum
Dendrobium speciosum

David Suzuki is one of the great moral leaders in the world today. For decades, now, he has advocated a changed culture, changed relationships between humanity and nature, and a shift in values away from self-centred opportunism and toward connectivity and mutualism. It was great to read the text of a recent speech and learn that he believes that many of our contemporary leaders, the Abbot government in Australia and the Stephen Harper government in Canada to name two relevant groups, could rightly be charged with ‘criminal negligence through wilful blindness’. Their willingness, indeed their raging eagerness, to trash the future in order to secure their own power and influence in the present is surely a crime against the generations to come. Under the label ‘intergenerational justice’ we recognise our ethical responsibilities to the future. If we trash those responsibilities, we will suffer for it, our children will suffer for it, their children and children’s children will suffer for it, and the great thriving mass of earthly life will suffer for it. To think in terms of generations is also to confront the fact that many generations will not come forth, as whole species of creatures (plants, animals, fungi and others) go extinct. For many, the word ‘future’ has no meaning.

Climate change is just one factor in the whole process of trashing the future, but it is a major factor, and one that should have been addressed forcefully decades ago, as many thoughtful analysts have told us. The Garnaut Review in Australia, the Stern Review in the UK, Al Gore in the USA, and the on-going work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have all made it abundantly clear that it is better by every measure of social, economic and environmental well-being to take action sooner rather than later. So when Tony Abbot got rid of Australia’s Climate Commission, the disservice to our nation, our society, our environment and our future was potentially incalculable.

Lots of us aren’t willing to let that happen. The good news is that we have now entered the era of ‘take-back’. The newly established Climate Council will act “largely in the same way as the commission”, Tim Flannery tells us. It will continue the work of informing the public on climate change impacts. Anyone who doubts the value of the work of the Climate Commission should read Will Steffen’s report ‘The Angry Summer’. It details the facts of the 2012-2013 summer, including the fact that the Bureau of Meteorology had to add new hot colours to its diagrams to account for the new, off the top of the range, temperatures recorded around Australia this past year. The new Climate Council will rely on donations from the public, and the former climate commissioners will work pro bono. This is the moment to join the take-back: sign up, donate, and become part of a movement to take back climate science.

Take-back has been coming for a long time, and it is now shaping up in fascinating ways. Back in 1996 J-K Gibson-Graham published a wonderful book: The End of Capitalism (as we knew it). The key idea was that capitalism is not the only game in town: we all participate in numerous and diverse economies. The book was a feminist analysis that re-visioned alternative economies. Just a few weeks ago they published a new book: Take Back the Economy. The co-authors are Jenny Cameron and Stephen Healy, it is published by University of Minnesota Press, and it has the lovely subtitle: ‘An accessible guide to demystifying the economy and creating a more just and sustainable world’. The Press has done a great job in allowing the authors to produce a seriously deep and theoretically informed book that is still accessible way beyond the academic world. I particularly love the title of the last chapter: ‘Any time, anywhere’. Take Back the Economy affirms the capacity of every person everywhere to become involved in their own destiny.

A few weeks ago I interviewed Kathie Gibson. We sat amongst the rock orchids that grow prolifically in our sandstone area in south-west Sydney, and we talked about the key ideas of community economies. We discussed how ‘economy’ can be re-framed to encompass the work we do to survive well, and how the commons includes not just humans but other living beings and habitats. The video is now posted on the Environmental Humanities journal website.

Take-back matters both for the future and, equally, for today. Will we be puppets, manipulated by whatever coalition of power happens to jerk our strings? Or will we be active participants in our own lives and destinies?

Take-back time is exactly now.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

When All You Love is Being Trashed

(Photo: D Rose)
(Photo: D Rose)

The force of disaster hit me in the heart when, as a young woman, I heard Bob Dylan sing ‘Hard Rain’. The 1962 song elaborates an old American folk genre that works with question and answer. In the familiar songs of my childhood, the questions concerned how he managed to give his love a chicken that had no bones, or whether his darling could bake a cherry pie. The witness in ‘Hard Rain’ is no longer the naïve Billy Boy. He is asked: where did you go, what did you see, and what will you do? Still today his answers impel themselves into us with terrible force and anguish.

In a voice stunned by violence, the young man reports on a multitude of forces that drag the world into catastrophe. In the 1960s I heard the social justice in the song. In 2013 the ecological and political issues ambush me. The song starts and ends in the dying world of trees and rivers. The poet’s words in both domains of justice are eerily prophetic. They call across the music, and across the years, saying that a hard rain is coming. Long before climate change became a major public issue, Dylan’s words sing into ‘extreme weather events’. Flood and drought, poisons and waste stalk the world of ‘hard rain’.

My research has led me to develop the concept of double death through which I explore some of the ways in which we become partisans with death rather than life. On the one hand, double death is a threshold process in which the work that promotes death starts to overwhelm the work that promotes life. On the other hand, double death presses us to take a stand: for life or for death. This choice is pressed upon us not because life and death are in themselves oppositional but because the work that amplifies death is destroying the capacity of life to twist death back into life. Increasingly, life is struggling or failing to hold death in balance; increasingly life is struggling to affirm and promote relationships that sustain life and death in their mutual integrity.

Species are rendered locally or everywhere extinct, billabongs and springs are emptied of water, and soils are turned into scald areas, and forests are clear-felled. Dust storms, major heat events, massive bushfires, desertification, and acid sulfate soils stalk the land. This violence produces vast expanses where life founders. It amplifies death not only by killing pieces of living systems, but by diminishing the capacity of living systems to repair themselves, to return death back into life. What can a living system do if huge parts of it are exterminated? Where are the thresholds beyond which death takes over from life? Are we not exceeding those thresholds violently and massively not only through direct destruction but also through all the indirect, amplifying unpredictabilities of climate change?

And still, the damage rolls on. As research scholars we, too, are vulnerable. The degree of vulnerability shifts with shifts in social life, and the Coalition has just announced a new shift. Under proposed new rules, research funded by the Australian Research Council should no longer address national priorities. As reported in the Daily Telegraph, ‘Coalition sources said they believed that there was “waste” in the grants process and funding of projects that didn’t meet the Coalition’s priorities’. One of the ARC-funded projects singled out for approbation concerns public art and climate change. It is part of a research initiative at RMIT on Art and Environmental Sustainability. Research scholars in this initiative investigate ‘how cultural interpretations of the non-human world contribute to our knowledge of the environment and the crisis in global ecological sustainability’.

Tony Abbott may, perhaps, recognise the danger of research that brings cultural analysts and industry partners together to address major issues of how our people and our environments can remain resilient, adaptive and sustainable under the weight of all the ‘hard rain’ that is coming. When ‘coalition sources’ say that research must be responsive to the coalition’s priorities, let us be clear that they are not identifying the priorities of the nation, or of biodiversity, or of international conventions, international law, or the local integrity of bio-social communities. When they target the ARC-funded research project on ‘Public Art and Climate Change’ they perform to perfection the double bind.

Over fifty years ago, Gregory Bateson developed the concept of the double bind to describe a coercive and surreptitious form of power. In the context of the Coalition’s attack on research, it goes something like this:

1) As good citizens of an open democracy, we should all work for the sustainability of      the nation;
2) The coalition will decide what is good for a sustainable nation, and will disallow anything that gets in the way of its own political agenda;
3) No critique will granted legitimacy.

Double death walks the land in just such cloaks of coercive power. ‘The executioner’s face is always well hidden’, in Dylan’s gloriously truthful words. Well hidden, that is, by being put out there in plain sight: behind a mask of the ordinary – of economic rationality and ‘business as usual’.

Dylan sings the bleakest and most powerful existential stand for witnessing that I have ever encountered. The words bear no story at all; they give us a series of compelling images, an account of impending calamity. The artistry of the poet (Bob/Billy Boy/Dylan) offers sequences of reports that pile wreckage upon wreckage. When Dylan’s questioner asks him what he will do now, he replies that he will go back out to keep on witnessing even if it kills him.

His song defends the integrity of life against destruction. And still it seems to call us ever more provocatively. Far from the sweet world of cherry pies and babies without crying, we are called again, and again, to rise up in defence of our capacity as humans to be involved in our own destiny and in the future of life on earth.

Nothing less is at stake. These are our times. The rain will get harder.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

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Other comments on the coalition’s criticism of ARC funding processes and outcomes can be found at:

http://ecocriticalconnections.wordpress.com/2013/09/08/ecomedia-and-identity-politics-the-australian-governments-definition-of-ridiculous-research-projects/

http://theconversation.com/guess-who-defines-waste-in-arc-funded-research-17880