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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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
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.
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.
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!
I read something today that reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great words of wisdom. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who refused to support the Nazi regime. As a Christian he could not, and as a theologian he could not. The depth and sincerity of his commitment to ‘love thy neighbour’ made it impossible for him to join the persecutors. His refusal put him at odds with the majority of German Christians who implicitly or explicitly acquiesced with the regime. His refusal went further, to acts of resistance including attempts to assassinate Hitler.
At a time when his colleague Niemöller had been imprisoned for eight years in concentration camps as the personal prisoner of Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote these wonderful words:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionist, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
In the end, Bonhoeffer too was arrested and imprisoned. Even as the Nazi regime crumbled, one of Hitler’s last acts was to require some of his loyal henchmen to ensure that Bonhoeffer be executed. And so he was hanged, just two weeks before the liberating army arrived, and three weeks before Hitler committed suicide.
Although I am not a Christian, I am inspired by the perennial question ‘who is my neighbour’. Bonhoeffer is telling us that the neighbour is not only the one who is in some way like me. The neighbour is the stranger, the ‘other’, the ones whose lives disrupt my comfortable self-enclosure. The connection I was seeing today concerns the natural world, and so I am bringing social justice and ecological justice together in thinking with Bonhoeffer.
The division between social and natural is completely arbitrary and has its roots in the idea that humans are separate from and in some ways at odds with nature. This separation is false in the way it separates humans from all the others, and it is equally false in the way it lumps all humans together.
These days many of our biggest struggles are between two main human types: those who understand themselves as part of nature and want to see both humans and nature flourish vs. those who either despise nature or see themselves as its masters and conquerors. For this latter group nature seems to be only a collection of ‘things’ that matter to the extent that they can be made profitable.
For those of us who understand ourselves to be part of nature, our neighbours are not only human, but are all those fellow participants in living systems: forests, reefs, dingoes, Tassie devils, flying-foxes and the myriad other earth creatures.
Bonhoeffer was not saying that we should defend others because it is in our self-interest. Rather, he is saying that we are all part of this world of life. Turn our back on any of the others and we turn our back on anyone’s claim to be part of the world of life. As a theologian he was almost certainly saying that to turn away from others is to turn away from God.
We who love the nonhuman world and want to see earth life thrive are often, I know, beset with the question: how does one keep going when the odds seem so stacked against us and all that we love? Where is hope to be found, and when it seems hopeless, what sources of inspiration keep us going?
I was inspired by an article from the Wilderness Society concerning the Tasmanian Forests. The Tasmanian Legislature has been debating whether or not to throw out the Tasmanian Forest Agreement. This agreement brought forest activists, the timber industry, the unions, and other key groups together to work out a path that would be good for the forests and good for people. This long work of reconciliation took decades, and it set in place a legal agreement that was recognised by all the parties.
Now it is on the line. The report from the Wilderness Society expresses the matter perfectly:
“With questions and opposition from the independent upper house and key stakeholders – including environment groups – flying thick and fast, and the novice Government amending its own legislation on the fly, the bill may yet fail or be heavily changed in the coming days.
What is clear, however, is that if the bill passes, the Tasmanian Government is lining itself up for years of pain. The Tasmanian community will hold the Government responsible for damaging the environment, hurting Tasmania’s reputation, and taking an axe to a forestry industry slowly recovering as a result of unprecedented collaboration between former adversaries….
The Tasmanian Forest Agreement has already delivered a securely-protected World Heritage area, kept the chainsaws away from half a million hectares of forest, and shown that a strong commitment to working with past adversaries can deliver for nature.
Regardless of the outcomes of the impending vote, the Wilderness Society is committed to working with the community to see Tasmania’s old growth forests and wild places protected – forever.”
Commitment as Bonhoeffer advocated recognises that ultimately we are all connected, and ultimately we must defend the world around us, even when it may seem hopeless. Over the last few years I have met many people who rescue and care for wildlife and who are activists on behalf of nonhumans. I am constantly awed by the way they keep on working with love and dedication even when the opposition is brutal and relentless.
I keep asking myself questions that resonate with Bonhoeffer and that I know trouble concerned people everywhere. This is the ‘where was I?’ question.
They came for the reef, and where was I?
They came for the flying-foxes, and where was I?
They came for the dingoes, and where was I?
They came for the forests, and where was I?
We can’t all be everywhere at once, and as we see so much that we love being trashed, it seems particularly vital to remember that we are part of a multispecies community of care. Within this widely inclusive community, it is good to remember that we humans too are creatures to be treasured. The nonhuman world needs defenders. The defenders need support from others. Who will be there?
Today it was great to read that the Tasmanian government has postponed debate on the bill to destroy the forest agreement. I love their slogan:
‘Governments come and go but my love for nature only grows’.
I am reading Tim Low’s terrific new book Where Song Began. Tim Low is a renowned science writer, and in this new study he tells fascinating stories about Australia’s birds.
The birdsong of the world originated here in Australia.
It is wonderful to see the evidence piling up. For decades, though, this conclusion was resisted by many biologists who simply could not open their minds to the idea that something as significant on earth as birdsong could have evolved in a place so far from what many them liked to think of as the centre of earth-life, i.e., the northern hemisphere. And yet, DNA evidence is now showing beyond any doubt that Australia was the original home of songbirds. In Tim’s words, birdsong brought ‘a new dawn for planetary acoustics’.
Tim Low is a biologist with a strong interest in connectivity. The story of Australian birds is told in the context of soils, sunshine, trees, seeds, sugars and nesting areas. In the case of parrots, for example, primary breeding sites are tree hollows. Eucalyptus hollows can take hundreds of years to form. In one of the great understatements of the year, Low notes that ‘the demise of large trees in farmland raises concerns about future parrot success’.
I visited Tim last week, and as I was driving through his neck of the woods there was a lot going on both in the country around me and in news from elsewhere. It was adding up to a pretty awful moment in the ecological life of this amazing continent that had the exuberance to bring forth birdsong.
I saw a lot of evidence for the ‘demise of large trees’, and I am moved to express myself in more vigorous language: I saw trees being killed and paddocks massacred. I know from my study of land clearing issues that a lot of dying was happening here in addition to the highly visible trees.
According to a Bush Heritage publication on Land Clearing and its Impacts, Australia is still clearing way too many trees, and the effects are not only on the trees themselves but on all the other creatures who live in and amongst trees, including those who inhabit the understory. This report does not pull its punches:
“Over 5 million parrots, honeyeaters, robins and other land birds are killed each year by land clearing. For every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress. Half of Australia’s terrestrial bird species may become extinct this century unless habitat destruction is rapidly controlled.
Nearly half our mammal species, including some wombats, wallabies and bandicoots, are either extinct or threatened with extinction as a result of land clearing, habitat destruction and other threats.”
Another point made in this report concerns that great ecological dictum: ‘what goes around comes around.’ Bush Heritage warns that land clearing increases the potential for salinity, adversely affecting both soils and water, and thus generating negative impacts for farms, towns and cities.
One side of the story is the lack of political will, another side is human intransigence. As it happened, I was driving past recently cleared paddocks whilst listening to reports on the radio about the funeral of Glen Turner. Mr Turner was an environment inspector in the state of New South Wales, a government employee whose responsibilities included monitoring land clearing. He was shot and killed, and a local farmer Ian Robert Turnbull has been arrested. The news reports state that Mr Turnbull had a history of conflict over land clearing. Previously he had been in court over the matter of ‘clearing’ some 3000 trees. We will learn more about it in due course. In the meantime, Mr Glen Turner, a local man who was said to have loved farming life and the rural community, is gone forever.
One of the many reasons we take death seriously is that individual death, like species extinction, doesn’t offer return tickets.
There is so much evidence about the value of trees on properties that one is left wondering why people become so intransigent. It strikes me that some people get smart when they have to figure out how to make a living that will be legal, sustainable, and ecologically inclusive. Others, it seems, just get mean.
The human capacity for meanness was on display in Brisbane during this same week in another case that also involved clearing. According to a report ‘Bat Battle on the Bayside’, some people whose homes are adjacent to a park where the land is zoned ‘environmental reserve’ are annoyed. Apparently the fact that the environmental reserve was actually fulfilling its function as a haven for both humans and nonhumans was not appreciated. It is not clear that all residents felt equally angry about having to live in proximity to flying-foxes from time to time; what was clear was that the on-going actions of the strident residents led to a response that was euphemistically called ‘trimming vegetation under storey’.
The ‘trimming’ took place at night because it was anticipated that the flying-foxes would be out foraging, and thus would not be directly disturbed by the machinery and activity. The method involved a machine that bites into the understory, chomps it up, and mulches it on the spot. Plants, animals and fungi go in one end, mulch comes out the other, and everything that was alive – birds, eggs, skinks, snakes … whatever was sessile or not quick enough, was ground up and spat out.
The point in relation to flying-foxes was that they do not like camping in areas where there is no undergrowth. All the deaths in the understory would, it seems, be validated because the changes would encourage the flying-foxes to move a few meters further away from human homes.
Many grey-headed flying-foxes were camping in this area (Pteropus poliocephalus). This species is listed as vulnerable to extinction and protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). This is one of the mammal species the Bush Heritage Report was discussing in relation to vulnerability and land clearing. In addition to species vulnerability, many individuals are pregnant females, and are now or will soon enter the critical third trimester. Both they and the next generation are at risk in actions that cause shock and stress.
The most strident resident (at least in the news) was Annette Brown. She called the flying-foxes ‘noisy and smelly’, and said she ‘wants them gone’. Ms Brown’s televised statements encapsulate to perfection the lack of thought around these issues.
1) living in a home near land zoned for environmental reserve and deciding that nature will have to go
2) remaining indifferent to the direct and indirect suffering that has been and will continue to be caused by the ‘trimming of understory’
3) failing to connect the dots: flying-foxes lose their bush habitats through land clearing, then they are shoved from one spot to another in urban areas.
The pressure comes from everywhere, and if there is a grievance it would more fairly be directed against other humans.
I went to visit the site on the morning after the first night of ‘trimming’. When I got there the sky was thick with flying-foxes flapping about in agitated consternation. This was in broad daylight, a most unusual event for these nocturnal creatures. I hear that some of the residents may be out there during the day harassing the flying-foxes in order further to force them away.
Mr Bill Lyon, Redlands City Council CEO, spoke of the action as a limited effort to make more space between human homes and flying-foxes. He was well aware that dispersal would just shift ‘the problem’ somewhere else, and he seemed to be hoping not to do that. Ms Brown had no such concerns. In her words: ‘I don’t care where they go. I just want them gone.’
In the same news report, Denise Wade (Bat Conservation and Rescue, Queensland), made the point that loss of habitat is pushing flying-foxes closer to humans. In her words: ‘It’s about planting alternative habitat and preserving the habitat that we have left. I see a very bleak future for bats.’
I have been interviewing many talented and committed rescue and care volunteers, and this perception of a bleak future is widespread. Every little bit hurts, and of course much of what hurts is by no means small, as we know from the actions in numerous Queensland towns and cities in recent years (discussed here).
Over the course of those few days in Queensland I was gaining the sense of a desperately disturbing deep-time trajectory. The steps go like this: this is the continent that brought forth birdsong and enriched the whole earth; this is the continent that was inhabited by Aboriginal people for millennia under a cultural regime we now know as ‘caring for country’; this is the country that now has the highest rate of mammalian extinction in the contemporary world.
When Tim told me that another animal appears to have gone extinct I can’t say I was shocked. The only surprise was that it was a lizard. The Christmas Island Forest Skink suffered a quick and severe decline. At one point they were prevalent, then suddenly their numbers were down, and earlier this year the last known individual died. The authors of the report find that ‘In most cases, extinction can be seen as a tangible demonstration of failure in policy and management, of inattention or missed opportunities.’
If I were writing up a report card, the result would be terrible. But the failure goes way beyond reporting and assessing. There is widespread, systemic failure to consider and protect individuals, species, ecosystems, habitats, and ecological connectivities, along with the failure to cherish beauty, to prevent harm, and to show consideration for the lives of others.
This deep and exhaustive failure offers on-going evidence of a terrible wound in the biocultural fabric of Australia.
I suspect that none of us knows how, or whether, it can be healed. Our capacity for ethical action is bleeding out all over the place. The great continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote of the ‘face’ as that which interrupts my self-absorption and calls me into ethical responsibility. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years as to whether the face means ‘a human face’. What about other animals? What about trees? What about understory? The definition of face that I find most inspiring treats it as a form of action. Here face is something one does rather than something one has: ‘facing is being confronted with, turned toward, facing up to, being judged and being called’.
The living world is filled with facings – to be alive is to live among faces, many of which are noisy and interruptive. This is good. This is life in the mode of ethics. At this time, this is also tough. There are so many facings, and often one feels so helpless.
And yet, the exuberance of living creatures continues to be inspiring. It is still possible to step outside and listen to birds. For the moment, now, I am taking myself off to the garden. It is true that these songbirds are not all equally musical to my ear, but they sure are smart and lively, and many of them sing beautifully. They have been here for a very long time, and I hope they and many of the others will continue long beyond this current regime of terror.
Another drought, another witch hunt in the form of dingo persecution. Another program to ‘improve’ the country through slaughter. I think this is called dysfunction: you keep on doing the same violent thing in the hope that somehow the issues you face will go away.
The Longreach region of western Queensland is rolling out their biggest and most expensive attack on dingoes ever.
According to the ABC report:
“Longreach Mayor Joe Owens says more than 30,000 square kilometres will becovered in a new wild dog baiting campaign, one of the largest in western Queensland’s history…. The $150,000 campaign is due to begin next week, with nearly 30 tonnes of meat being ordered for baiting.”
I expect that the money is coming from the drought relief funds. It is public money, and it is utterly astonishing that there seems to have been no public consultation on this. Discussions with dingo experts would have explained both the causes of the problems and offered some solutions. There are alternatives to the deathwork.
Consultations could also have addressed the matter of conserving endangered species in the area, and the role of dingoes in suppressing invasive species such a foxes and cats. We can expect a massive spurt of pressure on birds and other vulnerable creatures.
The ‘zombie politics’ reaction says if there’s a problem there’s an enemy, and that enemy must be persecuted and made to suffer, and that enemy must die. There are plenty of alternatives. Another way into dealing with problems is to try to understand their causes, try to implement practices that actually address the causes, and become adaptive. Landscapes change, climates change, markets fluctuate and consumer desires shift. Life changes, humans have to adapt. These are basic truths and it is difficult to understand why they are so hard to grasp.
Queensland has been at the forefront of cruelty in recent years, and this new program maintains that position. The other recent mass cruelty event in Queensland was the Charters Towers days of shame when flying-foxes were persecuted, tortured and killed. Noel Castley-Wright has made an excellent short film ‘State of Shame – Queensland’s Legislated Animal Cruelty’ (view here).
The big difference between Charters Towers and Longreach is that out on the pastoral properties most of the suffering will be take place out of sight of humans and their cameras. We will never know the full story of all this terrible suffering. We know it will happen, we know the shock and trauma will spread amongst the surviving dingoes, we know the poison will spread to other species who also get into it, we know the cascades of death will accelerate, and we know that these damaged ecosystems will be further degraded, losing ever more resilience. We can predict (and time will tell) that the next drought will be even more damaging.
Let there be no doubt: 1080 causes terrible, painful deaths. If you have ever wondered whether this is true, listen to the people who have witnessed its effects. Emma Townshend interviewed a few of them on her recent ‘Freedom of Species’ program about 1080 (listen here). These are people have seen animals die of 1080, and have resolved not to use it. They are admirable individuals who have confronted the suffering and decided it will not happen on their properties. The same program contains an excellent interview with Arian Wallach. Speaking as both a pastoralist and a scientist, she discusses the beneficial ecological role of dingoes as top predators.
Encountering this terrible persecution on Good Friday caused me to ask what a religious person might think about all of this. I remembered a heart-felt comment that came to my site during the Charters Towers mass persecution. This is from Sharon Peterson. She describes herself as a Christian and an American.
“I’m a Creationist, so I see man as created by God and given stewardship over the Earth’s animals. That stewardship does not include cruelty, or senseless violence. Animals should be treated ethically and appreciated for their many unique qualities bestowed on them by our Creator. Just as He preserved man during the flood, He preserved every kind of animal. This shows Jews and Christians that God cares for all of His creatures. The Bible says, His eye is on the sparrow, which means He has compassion for even the smallest of His creatures.”
“No matter how we look at this, through humanistic or Biblical lenses, the answer is still the same. Man does not have the right to cruelly, and with great harm and mortality, attack animals.”
And then there are those wonderful words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. At a time when humans’ mass slaughter of animals was becoming very clear and very troubling, he wrote the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1834), with its famous lines:
He prayeth best, who loveth best, All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.
The only good news on this bleak and sorry Friday was that not all the pastoralists in the Longreach region are taking part in the dingo baiting. Thus far, it seems, the law cannot force people to use poison on their properties. I imagine it takes a lot of guts to resist the majority view on poison, and as the article makes clear, those who refuse are already being set up as scapegoats for when the project fails. There is a lesson here: the ‘good shepherd’ not only takes care of his or her flock, but also protects the others who share in the life of the land.
There is great courage and dignity in refusing to join the deathwork mob. Pastoralists of honour, I salute you!
In response to some of the comments questioning various aspects of the viability of pastoralism and alternatives to broacacres baiting, I thought it would be good share a link to a site in the usa that focusses on predator-friendly pastoralism and desertification. I think they are working toward something very important. Well worth reading! (view here)
Keystone species ‘punch above their weight’, to use a popular metaphor. They contribute more to their ecosystems than their numbers would indicate. Charismatic top predators such as wolves and dingoes are great examples of keystone species. They generate the trophic cascades that enhance whole systems of life including the geophysical foundations (discussed here). But as the fascinating ecologist Stephan Harding tells us:
‘You never know who the big players are in the wild world.’
To my mind one of the least likely ‘big players’ is mistletoe. Can a parasite actually be a keystone? Surprisingly, the answer is ‘yes’. Not only is mistletoe good for kissing, this great cohort is a ‘keystone resource’.
Let us enter the entrancing world of mistletoe through symbiotic mutualism. A relatively non-technical definition is ‘two or more species that live together to their mutual benefit’. Although the idea of symbiosis was not the dominant paradigm for much of the 20th century, a growing body of research is showing that it complements competition and is utterly fundamental to life on earth and is part of how every creature lives. The great biologist Lynn Margulis declares:
‘We are symbionts on a symbiotic planet.’
Mistletoe, it turns out, is a highly eclectic and inclusive symbiotic mutualist. One of the main families all around the world, and a prominent player in Australia, is Loranthaceae – a family of mistletoe with about 1,000 member species. Most of them are ‘obligate, stem hemiparasites’. This means that they can only live by being attached to another plant (obligate), that they attach to stems (not roots), and that while they get water and some nutrients from their host, they are also able to photosynthesise.
The story of mistletoe mutualisms is all about entanglements of interdependencies, nutrient cycles, and seductions. Loranthaceae are themselves deeply dependent. First there is dependence on the tree or shrub on which they grow. No host, no parasite. Next, there is dependence on birds and bees to pollinate. No pollination, no seeds, no future generations. Then there is dependence on birds, in particular, to eat the fruits and disperse the seeds. No dispersal, very little chance of germination and growth. And there is dependence on the leaf-eaters: no browsing means too much mistletoe growth leading to multiple deaths and disasters.
If mistletoes are to survive they have to entice and nourish their mutualists. The brightly coloured flowers are powerful attractors of pollinators, and the nectar is not only high in sugars, but also fats. Some of the Australian Loranthaceae produce nectar containing droplets of pure fat. The berries are highly visible, abundant and full of nutrition. Worldwide, many ‘folivores’ eat the nutritious leaves: deer, camels, rhinoceroses, gorillas and possums, amongst many others.
Their adaptive edge goes beyond mere provisioning and involves dazzling abundance.
The most awesome interdependence is between mistletoes and their mutualist mistletoe birds. ABC Science journalist Abbie Thomas wrote a delightful account:
Many mistletoes continue to flower in drought or during winter, when few other blossoms are available. Indeed, they are often the only local source of nectar and pollen during hard times. Packed with sugar and carbs, mistletoe fruits are good tucker, not just for the ubiquitous mistletoe bird, but also for cuckoo-shrikes, ravens, cockatoos, shrike-thrushes, woodswallows, bowerbirds, and even emus and cassowaries.
The mistletoe bird plays an important role in the mistletoe plant’s life cycle. The life of most mistletoes begins when a viscous, gluey seed drops onto a branch from the rear end of the brilliantly coloured black, red and white Mistletoe bird. Found throughout Australia, these birds are highly mobile and go wherever mistletoe is in fruit. Once eaten, the seed of the fruit quickly passes through the bird, emerging just 10-15 minutes later. The sticky seed fastens onto the branch, although many seeds fail to adhere, and are lost.
Within days, a tiny tendril emerges from the seed, growing quickly and secreting a cocktail of enzymes directly onto the corky outer protection of the branch. Unable to resist the onslaught, the bark yields a small ulcer-like hole into which the tendril probes, seeking its way down into the sappy tree tissue until it hits paydirt: the water and mineral-rich plumbing of the tree.’
Mutualisms are entanglements of interdependencies. The host tree supports its mistletoes physically and nutritionally, and it also buffers them against the vicissitudes of climate uncertainty. So, too, mistletoes support other species and provide a buffer against fluctuations and uncertainties. A study from Australia shows that mistletoes have extended nectar and seed producing periods, and that within a given region nectar and fruit are available from one or another mistletoe species all year round. In addition, as mistletoes are host to so many insect species, the insect-eating birds also get the benefit. Mammals join the feast, eating leaves, seeds and flowers. Possums are amongst the main leaf eaters, and are seasonally dependent on mistletoe.
Along with all the creatures who consume mistletoes, there is yet another entourage that benefits. Some animals build their nests in the mistletoe where they get some protection from the elements and predators. The action of the mistletoe itself increases hollows in trees, and so all the creatures that nest in hollows get the benefit. A further benefit is that their presence in trees alters the forest canopy and reduces the severity of bushfires.
In life systems, what goes around comes around. The host tree or shrub gets a steady rain of litter, droppings, and other organic matter that become part of the nutrient cycle, benefiting both the host and other plants in the area. In short, the benefits of mistletoes pass through the lives and bodies of many species before turning into nutrients to be drawn up by hosts and tapped into by mistletoes.
The relationships work because of the extravagant generosity of interdependence: highly nutritious nectar produced by bright showy flowers; shiny seeds loaded with carbs and sugars; mistletoe birds with their gorgeous red feathers, lovely song, and fertile poop; gliders and possums; butterflies who visit, eat, and reproduce.
There is an association between songbirds and mistletoe, and as new evidence is showing that both groups have their origins in ancient Gondwanaland, perhaps there is more to this old and beautiful alliance than is yet properly understood. I found myself totally captivated by a story shared by Andrew Skeoch, a sound recordist specialising in the sounds of nature. He recorded a mistletoe bird in full song, and inadvertently also recorded the fact that this talented little creature was singing and pooping at the same time. Something about this bright little bird creating and performing musically, while depositing mistletoe seeds securely wrapped in glue and fertiliser seems almost magical in its joyfulness (listen to the birdsong here).
It is good to recall that there is an old European history of respect. Mistletoe is sacred to Druids (contemporary and ancient), and it is still a customary Christmas decoration. Hung over the threshold, it invites people to kiss. In earlier days it was said to be able to find buried treasure, keep witches away and prevent trolls from souring milk! It would be good also to recall that Aboriginal Australians respect mistletoe as a food for humans and for many other creatures. In North Australia, where so much of my learning has taken place, people give berries to children, but adults avoid them. Perhaps they are aware that growing children have a particular need for the high nutritional value of mistletoe.
At this time, many people think mistletoe is a pest. The term ‘parasite’ conjures negative imagery, but the larger issue, at least in Australia, is that in some areas mistletoes are over-abundant. Trees are dying, and something has gone askew because mistletoe cannot thrive if the host dies. The renowned science writer Tim Low tells us that the loss of possums, those folivores who love their mistletoe, is a key. “Foxes, by preying on mistletoe-munching possums,” set up conditions where mistletoes can grow out of control. Possums are only prey to foxes when they come down out of the trees. Along roadsides and on farms, they are at risk. Within forests where they can remain up in the trees possums thrive and mistletoe is contained.
So, what would partnership rewilding be like if the focus were on mistletoes and their ‘ground up’ trophic dynamics?
First, it would involve fewer foxes and more possums. Here the answer is readily to hand in the form of the dingo. As I have been reporting in other essays, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that dingoes reduce the numbers of invasive species such as foxes and cats, and promote the viability of smaller native marsupials such as possums.
Second, it would involve on-going health and reproductive capacity of more extensive stands of trees. Here the answer is readily to hand in the form of flying-foxes. Their pollination is utterly crucial to the future of forests and woodlands in Australia, and their lives and livelihoods are central to partnership rewilding.
Third, it would involve changes in human thought and action. Not everyone thinks mistletoes are innate pests, but, as the great mistletoe scientist David Watson indicates, “pretty much all of the public’s perceptions about Mistletoe are fundamentally incorrect.” I want to be clear that Aboriginal people are not likely to hold these misperceptions. Here, as with other matters, the limitations of the mainstream public cannot readily be attributed to everyone. Having said that ~~
I want to set up camp, metaphorically at least, under the mistletoe. Here the kiss of life is sensuous, continuous, and diverse.
I hope others will join me, and I rather hope we won’t get pooped on! Let us open our lives to the great, complex, on-going, joyful, benefit-rich, exuberant and dazzling generosity that holds entangled interdependencies together. A camp in the midst of all these mutualisms is place of coming-forth for those whose flows of life and death are achieved together. These entangled partnerships have co-evolved over millions of years, and if the human newcomer can partner in with them, we may yet become part of ecosystems that will hold together in this time of flux and uncertainty.
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’.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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 Degreesis 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. InOil 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.
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
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.
A 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.
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.
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.
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