“I am a wildlife rescuer.”

[map 7 - High Street, Northcote, Victoria, Australia]

[map 7 – High Street, Northcote, Victoria, Australia]

I was out with my camera walking through a public housing (council) estate when I came across a noisy gang of magpies; at the same moment I was thinking about magpies for a farewell piece I hope to write for the four Weather Stations writers returning to Europe on Monday.

I was taking pictures of the birds when somebody called me from behind.

‘Help me, please help me.’

It was a woman wearing a bicycle helmet. She explained to me that she had come across a magpie with a badly broken wing and had been unable to catch it.

‘I’m a wildlife rescuer,’ she explained.  ‘I should be able to round it up, but I can’t.’

Together we tried herding the bird into the corner of a basketball court surrounded by a high-wire fence. The bird was determined not to be rescued, and managed to avoid us like Harry Houdini escaping from shackles and chains.

While we slipped over, crashed into the fence and generally made fools of ourselves, the magpie, with great agility, slipped through a hole in the fence.

Outside the cage we were being watched by a woman standing at the entrance to her building in dressing-gown and slippers.

She called out to me, ‘have you a spare cigarette, love?’

‘Sorry, I don’t smoke.’

She laughed at the wildlife rescuer, who had again taken up the chase.

‘Let me tell you something, love,’ she said. ‘You and your friend, you shouldn’t be chasing the poor bird like that. She’s frightening it. Keep it up and the bird might crash into the fence and break a wing.’

Tony Birch

[map 8 - High Street, Northcote, Victoria, Australia]

[map 8 – High Street, Northcote, Victoria, Australia]

The Ruins of Port Douglas

[map 5 - Paradise Lost]

[map 5 – Paradise Lost]

I thought the dog might belong to the jogger. And then the woman with the pram and child. It had deserted them and was running around me in wide circles barking, without menace. It was a bit-of-this-at-that dog. Maybe part-Staffie crossed with a Kelpie? It was crazy-friendly, running off on me as I walked, chasing garden sprinklers watering deep green manicured lawns. Just when I thought it had given up on our brief friendship, the dog ran back to me and nuzzled my crotch, affirming an instant loyalty.

I was walking from my motel into the Port Douglas commercial strip, a forty-five minute stroll, passing condos and apartment buildings – some a little worn out by backpackers and schoolies binges, others genuinely luxurious, secured behind walls of palm trees imported from commercial farms. The gardens are a deep green and require a good drink, not a problem in a part of the country that measures rain by the feet. While it might be unfair to describe Port Douglas as a theme park, it does feel un-real.

I had walked for around twenty minutes and had apologised to at least a dozen people, explaining, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s not my dog,’ each time my new friend jumped on a jogger or harassed a small kid with an ice-cream cone melting down one arm. I’m sure none of them believed me, as, after causing havoc and been shooed away, the dog would retreat to my side and look up at me with the eyes of a loyal companion.

I stopped at a high metal fence that ran for fifty metres beside the path. I could see the heads of palms trees on the other side, following the fence-line. I spotted a gap and climbed through the fence. The piece of land was infested with weeds overgrowing a series of murky canals running between the brick foundations of an unfinished apartment complex. The ruin was maybe less than ten years old – I couldn’t be sure – and across the road from the entrance to the beach. Position! Position! Position!, the marketplace would call it. I wondered if it was a grand scheme gone bust. Or worse, a project outdated before its opening date.

I left the ruin with the intention of following a bicycle path into town, until I reached a proverbial fork-in-the-road. Rather than following the bike-path, winding through more palm trees and apartments, dog veered to the left and I followed. We quickly found ourselves on a dirt track. We passed a yard holding several train carriages, badly in need of repair, a water treatment works, and an ancient hand-painted sign advertising yet another holiday paradise – although there was no paradise to be found except for the footings of a building that had long since departed.

On one side of the road were the remnants of human activity since gone.  On the other a putrid muddy soup that would have once been wetland, now cut off from the sea by the reclaimed land (strange word, that) that more recent condos had been built on.

Dog and I ended our walk near the old wharf at the tip of Port Douglas. I realised we had shadowed the main road into town having never strayed more than 200 metres from it. And yet, we could have been in another world. In fact, we were in another world. One that may have existed as a ‘settlement’ for less than 50 years before being abandoned for new frontiers only 100 metres away (‘just a jump to the right’). Or in the case of the Paradise Lost I’d discovered with dog, in the blink of the speculator’s eye. We are a disposable society. Some of our rubbish we can pick up and recycle – tin cans, plastic bottles and newspapers. But land, it can only take so much of our stupidity.

Dog moved on from me once we hit Port Douglas. But not before giving me a final loving nudge in the crotch followed by a wet sticky lick of the back of my hand with a sandpaper tongue. He was a good dog. We parted on equal terms. If he’d been my dog and I thought myself clever, I’d call him Reciprocity.

Tony Birch

Ghost River

[map 3 - Branded Aboriginal flag, garage wall, North Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia]

[map 3 – Branded Aboriginal flag, garage wall, North Fitzroy, Victoria, Australia]

The first europeans arrived in what would become Victoria – a colony of Britain – in 1835. They illegally occupied the land of Indigenous nations collectively known as the Kulin. An immediate impact on Kulin communities was the degradation of land, particularly the  wetlands surrounding the Yarra River, itself a vital source of physical and spiritual sustenance. The wetlands were gradually drained to provide land for speculators and shipping merchants. The impact on Indigenous people was immediate. The destruction of ecology resulted in the eradication of food sources, the permanent loss of spiritual sites and environmental damage impacting on future communities.

Wetlands provide a natural sponge during times of flooding. When waterways overflow, the surrounding wetlands absorb much of the run-off. When wetlands are destroyed in areas prone to flooding – a weather event becoming more frequent – the problem is exacerbated, not only by the volume of water people have to deal with, but the growing realisation that the water recedes very slowly – as was the case in the recent floods, both in Australia and the south of England.

Developed countries are either slow to learn that the manipulation of natural habitat has serious and negative knock-on effects; or they think only of the present, fixated on the now benefit with no serious consideration of future costs. Indigenous communities are not romantically in harmony with nature. Indigenous communities give due consideration, intellectually and metaphysically to past, present and future impacts on land as a result of human behaviour and intervention.

In 1836 the Europeans were told by the Kulin that the waterway that met the mouth of the Yarra – Port Phillip Bay (as the Europeans named it) – was only young. The sea on which Europeans sailed to enter the mouth of the river had been land until recent times, in a relative sense, and any shift from sea to land was gradual, with each learning to accommodate each other. The Europeans dismissed the information as an ‘Aboriginal myth’, as they dismissed much Indigenous knowledge of place.

In 2005, the Victorian state government legislated for the dredging of the shipping lanes in Port Phillip Bay so even larger vessels could enter the port. In the following year a team of divers entered a crevice on the sea floor at Port Phillip Heads, where the bay meets Bass Strait, the waterway separating Victoria from Tasmania. The divers went to a depth of 105 metres, where they reached the original riverbed of the Yarra. The bay’s formation was gradual and natural. It occurred over thousands of years, with land and sea coming to understand each other.

On Sunday, I will be taking our four visiting writers from Europe on a walk along the lower Yarra and sharing stories with them. Stories of two rivers; one in the present, another of the past that is present still.

Tony Birch

Breathing in … breathing out

Breathing in … breathing out, in Hiroshima 

[map 2: Hiroshima] (image: Tony Birch)

[map 2 – Hiroshima, Japan]

For many years I have wanted to visit Hiroshima, after researching the devastation it suffered as a result of the American military dropping the atomic bomb on the city at 8.15am on the 6th of August 1945. I also read John Hersey’s book, Hiroshima, several years ago; a report on the immediate aftermath an event that killed more than 100,000 people (a figure that rose to 200,000, with people continuing to die of the effects of radiation poisoning for many years).

Hersey documented the lives of six people who survived the immediate impact of the bomb. He followed them through that first day, and the weeks and months after the bomb exploded. An understanding of the trauma people suffered is beyond our reach. I am sure that Hersey realised this. In focusing on the lives of individuals, he drew attention to an intimate and personal story, rather than an incomprehensible body count.

I finally visited Hiroshima in January this year. I left my hotel and headed for the Peace Park. The atomic bomb exploded six hundred metres above the centre of the park. It is now the site of several memorials, a peace and anti-nuclear museum, a national shrine, and a burial mound containing the remains of many thousand of victims. The most photographed structure around the park is the ‘A-bomb Dome’, the remains of a badly damaged government building, now a World Heritage listed site.

The building is a symbol of resilience for the people of Hiroshima. Standing in front it for the first time was a sobering experience. Although the surrounding streets, parks and cycling tracks were lively on the Sunday afternoon I visited, the closer I walked to the Dome, the quieter the surroundings became. People circled the A-Dome, took photographs and talked with others – in whispers.

In the days after my initial visit, I returned to the park several times. I also visited the museum and was struck by its sense of dignity. While Hiroshima is a strong critic of the nuclear industry, particularly its association with military armament, its key role is education. I was struck by the fact that I did not see one national flag either in the museum or park. And I was deeply impressed by the city’s generosity and the welcome it provided to visitors.

I am a thirty-year veteran of running. I have slowed a little in recent years, but enjoy the exercise more these days. My regular five mile run is a contemplative, problem solving, and occasionally, metaphysical habit. In Hiroshima I ran early in the mornings, when the temperature was around zero and the sun was coming up. With the city spread across a six-river delta in the shape of a fan, I explored several river pathways, bridges and parks.  Each morning I passed the A-Dome at the beginning of my run.

On the first morning, I lowered my breathing as I ran by the site. I contemplated walking, feeling that I what I was doing was somehow sacrilegious. It was a weekday and I noticed there were no sightseers or photographers out and about. Returning on my run, I lowered my breathing again as I passed the A-Dome. I’m not sure if I did the same on the second morning, but I do remember that by the third morning I had passed by the site without noticing it at all. On my return, around forty minutes later, I saw groups children walking to school, old women out with their dogs and several boys laughing uncontrollably at a friend trying to do a handstand – on the riverbank, directly in front of the Dome.

For the people of Hiroshima, the earth on which their city is built holds the saddest stories. They understand this, and attempt to provide these stories with due recognition.  (Although, I also learned that for many years some people hid the shame of their story and feared the prejudice they could suffer, being marked for life by the poison of the bomb).

Leaving Hiroshima on the train and coming home to Australia to participate in the Weather Stations project, I became certain that the city can teach us something about how we face the challenge of climate change. Some may feel it is extreme to compare our challenge with a catastrophic event that caused more damage in a single second than any event in human history. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the World Health Organisation conservatively estimates than climate change results in the deaths of 150,000 people each year, and that this figure will double by 2030.

Figures such as this can debilitate both individuals and communities. Instead of action, we can become crippled with emotional paralysis. But we needn’t. Societies of the past, and entire communities within our own lifetime have faced situations of the most extreme adversity, and struggled through, survived and eventually flourished. I left Hiroshima impressed by its humble tenacity. It is a trait worthy of practice.

Tony Birch

The Boat Becomes a Heart

[map 1: image]

[map 1 – Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia]

In the time of the bay the feet of the boats left the earth and lay and rested on stone and earth and waited to be called to the water – they were called – and drifted along rivers born in the mountains and flowing with life. They navigated the web of creeks surrounding the bay and met where the mouth of the ancient river announced its arrival to the bay. In the time before the bay, all boats were trees. The boats stood end on end, settling into earth and touching sky. The boats grew in the mountains and lined the river valleys. They rounded their bodies and carried water. They gave care with strength. When it was time for new life, the boats provided the hollows for newborn and the cribs for nests. And when it was time for death they cocooned the spirit in sanctuary and journeyed the spirit home. In the time of the humans the boats have worked for us, crossing the waters, providing life. When the ghosts first came they arrived in boats that once were trees that had always been boats, listening to be called and shaped. When the men and women came in iron chains cutting skin and bone, with children dying in the arms of mothers, they came in boats groaning with sadness and anger. And when the boats wept and sent themselves to the bottom of the sea, they took the ghosts, the men and women and the babies with them. They are there, ready for us, resting in coffins that were trees. Today, when the desperate come to us for sanctuary, they do not come in boats made of iron and machine. They come in boats of wood collapsing under the weight of life, in boats that once were wood in the forests of Europe, in the jungles of Africa, and the plains of North America. The boats speak and have a question for us. They want to know – are we truly human? Or something less than we claim to be. And are we ready to lift the desperate from the water and carry them to safety? Or will we send them away? The boats remind us they were here before us. And when we are gone they will be here, standing end on end, reaching for the sky and speaking with the earth.

Tony Birch