Tag Archives: Pteropus spp

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 Constructed of brick, timber, stonework and iron, the reservoir was superseded around the turn of the century.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).

So Many Faces

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.

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

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’.

Young grey-headed flying-fox in care
Land Clearing, Queensland

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’.

Trees, understory, and flying-foxes, Redlands City
Trees, understory, and flying-foxes, Redlands City

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.

Young grey-headed flying-fox in care
Young grey-headed flying-fox in care

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.’

Helicoppter in Charters Towers, Photo: Adele Foster
Helicopter in Charters Towers, Photo: Adele Foster

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.

Australian magpie, David Jenkins (CC)
Australian magpie, David Jenkins (CC)

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.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources: Where Song Began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world, by Tim Low published by Viking/Penguin, 2014.

In a couple of my previous essays I have had a few words to say about ‘creature languages’ and ‘songsters’.

Bush Heritage Report on Land Clearing and its Impacts (view here).

‘Trimming vegetation understory’ (view here)

Bat Battle television story (view here)

‘Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink’ (view here)

A number of terrific essays on Levinas and nature can be found in the book Facing  Nature, edited by William Edelglass, James Hatley, and Christian Diehm.

The quote is from Susan Handelman’s book Fragments of Redemption. (Indiana Uni Press, 1991)

Violence Against the Defenceless

Flying-fox Courtesy of Nick Edards
Flying-fox
Courtesy of Nick Edards

The term ‘warfare’ is regularly used to describe human action against the natural world. I too have spoken of the war against nature and the war against flying-foxes. And yet, I haven’t felt fully comfortable with this language.

Nature (in general), and flying-foxes (in particular), have never mounted a war against humans. The violence in this ‘war’ is all one-sided. And, too, the violence is radically disproportionate. What humans have done to flying-foxes in Charters Towers, both now and in the past, bears no correlation to what flying-foxes have done or ever could do to humans. Reports indicate that the people who organised the Charters Towers violence have stopped. Apparently, they are ‘happy’ with the results. Can it really be that all this suffering and on-going injury, including starvation, all this totally unnecessary death, constitutes warfare and is something to be happy about?

A new book called Horrorism is helping me think again about the problem of using the language and imagery of warfare to describe human-animal or human-nature violence. Written by the Italian scholar Adriana Cavarero, and subtitled ‘Naming Contemporary Violence’, this wonderful book shows that there are huge problems in using the language of warfare to describe forms of violence that are directed primarily against the helpless. Her examples all concern violence perpetrated by humans against humans, but the general direction of her analysis works extremely well with human violence against animals.

Horrorism Adriana Cavarero
Horrorism
Adriana Cavarero

Here is the key point: ‘violence against the helpless is becoming global in ever more ferocious forms, [and] language … tends to mask it.’ The masking language draws on images of warfare. But there are huge differences. In war armed combatants face each other knowing they are aiming to kill each other, and knowing they may be killed. Speaking for myself, I respect the armed forces, and I respect the fact that some wars (not all) are necessary.

It is clear that a great deal of contemporary violence does not live up to the model of the warrior. Violence against the helpless, violence for the sake of making life utterly miserable and uncertain for those against whom it is directed – this is not warfare. This is something that should be named as a hideous phenomenon in its own right. Horror, Cavarero explains, describes actions that ‘dismember and disfigure the body, the social relations, the uniqueness of that way of life’. In Charters Towers the use of weapons of harm was thoroughly engaged in damaging bodies, minds, and social relations. The attack on the maternity camp targeted defenceless young and nursing mothers, and thus was an attack not only on this generation but on future generations as well. In the mode of violence against the future it clearly aimed to violate the standards that have been set for conservation of native species (i.e., ensuring their continuity).

Is horror new? Not at all, Cavarero says, and yet something is changing. In part it is the scale of violence, in part it is the organised and sanctioned targeting of those who are helpless, and in part it is the wanton revelling in ruining the person, their bodily dignity, their life and future. In Cavarero’s words ‘a certain model of horror is indispensable for understanding our present’ time.

Cavarero discusses the totalitarian principle that ‘everything is permitted’ in the use of force against the defenceless. Here in Australia we have had legislation that prohibits cruelty to animals and the purpose has been very clear. Not everything was permitted in the use of violence against animals. But when Queensland made the legislative decision that the anti-cruelty legislation would not apply to flying-foxes, it opened the way for an apparently bottomless pit of cruel and vicious action. Yes, there had to be a permit to ‘disperse’ flying-foxes, and yes, the actions were meant to comply with the permit, but in the absence of any outside regulation, and with the tacit approval Local Councils for whom ‘everything is permitted’, cruelty becomes a matter of local choice.

Many of us wondered where the RSPCA was in all of this. A recent statement offers a bit of clarity. In a nutshell, if cruelty is allowed, then the only legal questions are procedural: was the action carried out in the manner in which it had been stated it would be carried out? This legal pit of violence was anticipated by many thoughtful people, as I discuss in my post on Zombie Politics. And yet, many of us really had not fully grasped the depths to which humans will sink, given the opportunity. The RSPCA asks to be notified in cases of ‘blatant cruelty’. What was the Charters Towers action if not horrific, and certainly blatant, cruelty?

It is clear in Cavarero’s analysis that the language of warfare puts a layer of conventionality over actions that are essentially crimes. Let us not forget: actions that would legally have been crimes if the legislation had not been changed are still the same actions. Nothing has changed except that people are now carrying out violence that previously the courts, the legislature, and all humane people had understood to be criminal. In the language of horrorism, people are savaging the bodies of those who have no means of defending themselves against this wounding.

Is the Charters Towers event over? Not for flying-foxes. Not for the survivors who may yet die of starvation or shock, not for those who come back next year, and perhaps not for the survivors who have gone to other towns in Queensland. Further actions are planned. The story of persecution is just beginning. This means that the need for action is not over either. Websites and Facebook pages are helping people to stay in touch with what is happening. A few of my favourites include Don’t Shoot Bats, Bat Conservation and Rescue, and Bob Irwin’s site.

I will close with some words from Louise Saunders, of Bat Conservation and Rescue:

The use of water cannons to hose bats from the trees at Charters Towers’ cruel and sadistic dispersal. An observer said a mother and her baby were hit with the full force and thrown to the ground. This is barbaric treatment to a gentle innocent and important keystone mammal. With non flying and dependent young many mothers tried to carry away their babies but the young are too big to carry far if at all. Nursing mothers so stressed from the cruel onslaught will lose their milk in the next week or so, as seen when maternity colonies are disturbed. Their babies die slowly and in agony. PLEASE if you have not written to confirm your disgust please we need your voice. Email the EHP Director General – jon.black@ehp.qld.gov.au and the EHP environment minister Andrew Powell – Environment@ministerial.qld.gov.au THEY WILL BE LEGISLATING FOR MORE TORTURE TO BATS IN THE NEW YEAR -KILLING ENTIRE COLONIES BY UNIMAGINABLE MEANS. PLEASE HELP OUR BATS. WRITE ASAP Thanks

© Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

Flying-foxes in Outback Australia

Black Flying-Fox, photo courtesy of Nick Edards
Black Flying-Fox, photo courtesy of Nick Edards

 

The country was touched with gold by the late afternoon sun as Darrell and I drove the last kilometres of gravel road taking us to Wadeye, an Aboriginal community formerly known as Port Keats. Darrell Lewis is often described as a legendary bushman. He had been in Wadeye a week earlier, and had sent a text saying there was a flyout that surpassed anything he’d ever seen. I knew that anything that awed him must be truly fabulous. The flying-foxes were camped by day in the mangroves. There were probably several hundred thousand of them, at the least. Just on dark they had been lifting off – hundreds of thousands of wings beating through the still air, fanning out across the country to flowering trees and shrubs where they would spend much of the night feasting on nectar and pollen. As the main pollinators and seed dispersers for numerous Australian trees and shrubs, they are identified by scientists as a group of keystone species.

Darrell offered to take me to see the flyout, if I could get myself to Darwin. I arrived a week later, hoping like mad that the flying-foxes hadn’t all decided to go somewhere else in the meantime. Everyone out there was talking about it, though, and Darrell was getting texts saying it was all happening. Still, one never knows with flying-foxes. The scientist Kerryn Parry-Jones and her colleagues reported on a camp of about 80,000 individuals in New South Wales where almost the whole mob decamped on one night in June 1989.

As we drove we saw smokes on the horizon where people were burning the country. Closer at hand, the fires had been and gone. The sun lit up the black trunks and brilliant new branches of cycads. We raced past ant hills with fluted tops, and past black and green cycad groves where new fronds formed shapes like wine glasses resting on top of tall black stems. We slowed down through paperbark swamps, and crossed small, clear running rivers. Through hot scrub and entrancing flats, we chased the lure of flying foxes.

Once we got to Wadeye we positioned the video camera, almost holding our breath as we waited. I filmed the sunset, and still we waited. The sky became a deeper mauve, the blue vault grew darker, and still we waited, watching the line where the mangroves met the sky.

When the first ones finally appeared, it felt like a treasure box had just sprung open. The horizon was almost black in intensity, and then it started to fragment as flying-foxes in their thousands separated from the trees and from each other, taking flight and heading off toward the west. Some travelled low across the sky, while others fanned out over our heads. The sky was thick with them, and we could hear their wings fanning the air. From time to time, one would turn and go back, but the vast majority kept going in the direction they had chosen for their night time feast. We were looking at ‘blacks’ – Pteropus alecto – one of the four Australian species. It is possible that ‘little reds’ (P. scapulatus) were there too.

We had no way of knowing how many there were. It is impossible to gauge the number of individuals in a fly-out unless one is an expert. And yet, large numbers are by no means impossible. Even in NSW where the numbers are in decline, there are reports of camps of 200,000 individuals as recently as the 1980s. I was reminded of what the naturalist Francis Ratcliffe wrote about his experiences with flying-foxes in his 1938 book Flying Fox and Drifting Sands. He described a cloud of grey-headed and little red flying-foxes in southern Queensland in the 1920s. At that time the populations were in decline because settlers had been killing them in large numbers. Here is his description of a flyout:

The scrub by that time was belching forth foxes. They rose up in thousands circled once or twice, and then joined the southbound stream. In three or four minutes a column of the beasts about a hundred yards wide was stretched away across the sky as far as I could see.

From a very rough census I estimate some of the flocks which congregate together for shelter in the daytime number hundreds of thousands. Not so long ago a few must have crossed the million mark.

Ratcliffe was writing at a time when flying-foxes were being heavily persecuted. He had, in fact, been brought out from England to carry out research with the aim of eradicating flying-foxes. Orchardists in NSW and Queensland had tried many methods; they’d they shot, poisoned, gassed, and burnt flying foxes. They’d cut down their maternity camps, created a great variety of forms of harassment to drive them away, paid a bounty for scalps, and even bombed them. In recent years other cruel methods have been used with the result that many flying-foxes live with increasing conflict and terror. And of course they are not alone in this: many animals, including humans, are today afflicted with terrible violence.

Like many people who spend time around flying-foxes, Ratcliffe came to respect and perhaps even grow fond of them. And so it was with a touch of regret that he concluded that while efforts to eradicate flying-foxes would probably not be successful in the short run, the populations were in steep decline and it seemed possible that ‘the problem’ would take care of itself. Today both grey-headed (P. poliocephalus) and spectacled flying-foxes (P. conspicillatus) are endangered, and are protected (in theory) in accordance with the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The awe I felt at seeing the Port Keats mob was tinged with the knowledge that in many parts of Australia flying-foxes are reviled and persecuted. Even as I treasured every moment of the flyout, I couldn’t help but hold in the back of my mind the sense that someday this sight might no longer be possible. For the moment, though, the experience was exhilarating.

We were not the only ones to feel the excitement. Darrell’s friend Mark Crocombe lives there, and he told Darrell that the previous night the flying-foxes had varied their track and flown directly over the community. The children were out playing, getting the most out of the last light of day when the flying-foxes flew over. The kids stopped their play, and they cheered!

Wadeye has its problems, as do many communities, but it also has its strengths. The great flyout was a wonderful moment for realising that this is how life is meant to be: country that is well cared for; animals free to lead their own lives of purpose and beauty. And amidst all this splendour, humans who respond in kind: the cheering children, the watchful and awestruck adults.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

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References

Parry-Jones, K. A., and M. L. Augee 1992 ‘Movements of Grey-headed Flying Foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) to and from a Colony Site on the Central Coast of New South Wales’, Wildlife Research 19:331-40.

Ratcliffe, F. 1938 Flying Fox and Drifting Sand: The Adventures of a Biologist in Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

For a longer essays on flying-foxes, see:

Rose, D. 2012 ‘Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time’, Environmental Philosophy, IX, 1, 127-140. (See: https://www.academia.edu/4539615/Multi-species_Knots_of_Ethical_Time)

Rose, D. 2011 ‘Flying Foxes: Kin, Keystone, Kontaminant’, Australian Humanities Review, 50: 119-136. (http://epress.anu.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/ch076.pdf)

For a conversation with the legendary bushman, see:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/conversations/darrell-lewis/4766348