Returning [again]

The Yarra River at Collingwood

The Yarra River at Collingwood

As part of the Weather Stations project, in September and October of 2014, I visited the cities of Berlin, Dublin, London, Warsaw, Gdansk and Hel, working with school and community groups. I learned a great deal. Some of the knowledge I came away with surprised me. It was most common for people to tell me, ‘of course, you have it much worse out there,’ (climate change); a reflection on the issue as a visible catastrophe. Everybody knew about the experience of bush fires in Australia (which we are again experiencing), drought, and the damage to the Great Barrier Reef, reflecting an understandable but severely limited engagement with the issue.

Historically speaking, bush fires in Australia have little to do with climate change and have been, and are, a natural environmental phenomenon. Certainly, with the planet getting warmer (and 2014 may be the warmest year on record), fires will occur with both greater frequency and ferocity. And while some in Australia accept the link between climate change and the increase in bush fire activity, at a psychological and intellectual level we respond to fire as a disaster to be fought, conquered and overcome – even in grief. Even when the immediate disaster is associated with the broader issue, the language used to describe our response is couched in militaristic language. We battle and defeat the enemy. Confronted by widespread flood, caused as much or more by irresponsible urban planning than changes in weather patterns, we are Queenslanders, as if the heroic label somehow grants special status to a group of people hardy enough to defeat all – until the next flood visits.

The negative impacts of climate change on the environment do not manifest themselves in sudden bursts of meteorological activity alone. Climate change is not simply a recent phenomenon or future event. Its impact is both gradual and profound. The effects of climate change on the planet should not be reduced to a sound bite or dramatic image, such as the devastation caused by a bush fire. Remembering back to the catastrophic Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009, the weather conditions leading up to the weekend of the fires were extreme. What most people do not know, or have forgotten, is that more people died in Victoria as a consequences of extreme heat before the fires than those who died in the fires themselves. Without doubt, the trauma and violence wreaked by the fires had an immediate and shocking impact on the lives of the people who experienced them. But, as most of us know little or nothing of the many hundreds of deaths that had nothing to do with the fires, but everything to do with the warming of the planet, we do not give enough thought to an issue that does not abate between fire seasons, being the impacts of climate change that are ever-present. While people in other parts of the globe watch images of fire in Australia on their TV screens and regard this country as a Global Warming Horror Story, they, like us, will have their lives changed, not by shock and awe, but stealth. For instance, the Arctic Circle is melting – melting too slowly to produce a 30 second YouTube clip of any consequence, but changing the planet in a way we have not known for thousands of years.

Yesterday I again walked the banks of my river – the Yarra, in Melbourne. I have written about the river several times now for the Weather Stations project; I have behaved as provincially, ‘non’ global, and perhaps small-minded as I can get. I’m not sure why as yet, but I think my understanding of the issue of climate change has to be found here, on the river. I’m reading as much as I can about the politics and science of climate change. I speak to as many people as I can about the issue. I came to this project as a writer and teacher. And yet, increasingly I have become interested in not the power of language, but its limitations. The planet is more powerful than any words or narrative that humans ascribe to it.

As I was about to leave the river yesterday, I walked by a favourite bend. At a particular moment, lasting no more than a second or two, I could smell the river the way I did over forty years ago. I could feel the memory of the river in my body. It was as much a physical as a psychological reaction. My next thought was that there were no words, not a single one available to me to describe the feeling.

I was content with that feeling.

Tony Birch


River view

My feet thud against the wooden planks as I cross the bridge, a slight breeze stirring wisps of my hair and blowing them into my face. Pausing at the centre, I grip the red handrail and gaze at the landscape before me, taking in the details. Ahead lies the river, its shimmering surface alight with the blazing rays of the sun. Grey rocks tinted with the deep green of algae line the water on both sides, separating the land from the water. Lush green grass ripples in the wind, darkened by the shadows of the enormous trees that tower above the ground.

Sparrows, magpies, galahs and rainbow lorikeets dart in and out of the vegetation, disturbing the quiet with a ruckus chorus of birdsong. In the distance a dog barks, followed by a squeal of childish laughter floating on the breeze. Suddenly I hear my name being called, telling me that it’s time to go. Slowly, I turn away and begin making my way across the rest of the bridge, thinking about the river. The river I have grown up on. The river that I have always lived on. The river that is so full of life … I can only hope it stays that way.

– Eliza / Footscray City College Substation

Climate Change – it’s been, it’s here, and it doesn’t star Brad Pitt.

P1060770A recent Guardian article (‘Losing paradise: the people displaced by atomic bombs, and now climate change‘, 9 March 2015) provides a sad reading about communities suffering the devastating effects of climate change now. The people of the Pacific Marshall Islands and Kiribati are dealing with ‘food shortages, droughts and floods’ while rising sea levels will ensure that their land and homes face certain oblivion. These are the same communities who have previously dealt with environmental degradation, and the resultant poisoning of their soils and their bodies due to US atomic testing that took place in the immediate aftermath of World War Two. Similar experiences of colonial violence have impacted on Indigenous nations across the globe for hundreds of years (and more). In Australia, for instance, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have witnessed the destruction of land, water systems and the delicate ecological balance of country — across the mainland and surrounding islands from the moment of the permanent arrival of the British in 1770.

For Indigenous people, the impact of climate change is not a future event. It has occurred in the past, and it is occurring now. In fact, it is not a future event for any community — although we know that so-called ‘third world’ nations, and the poor more generally, are being impacted on more severely and immediately as the impact of climate change gathers speed. It is also certain that the same communities will suffer to a greater extent in the near future.

Read more

How I didn’t stop global warming. The Climate Diary of a concerned consumer

I started writing The Climate Diary encouraged by Claus Leggewie and Harald Welzer. In The End of the World as We Once Knew It they wrote: “every day we do things that go against our deepest beliefs. This book is about energy consumption, which we increase despite the fact that we know better and often don’t have to do it. We do it by using taxis, cars and planes. There are plenty of examples showing how easy it is for us to gloss over the contradictions between our beliefs and our behaviour. Proof? If you are aware of the climate protection issues, start writing your own climate diary, noting how often, in what way and in which situations you break your own principles stemming from that awareness.” As a person aware of the climate protection issues, I have decided to start my diary.



This is my old mobile phone which I lent to a friend to avoid feeling guilty that it’s just collecting dust.

2 December, 10:30 a.m.

I have turned the radiator up. Because I was feeling unwell. And today I really don’t want to get ill. I don’t have time to be ill. Isn’t my health more important than turning the radiator up to generate a bit more heat?


2:30 p.m.

I met a friend for lunch and got some soup to go. I didn’t bring a container, so I was given a disposable one made of Styrofoam. And I didn’t bring a container, because I wasn’t planning to get any takeaways. But the soup was part of the 5 złoty set and I felt like it, but I was afraid that if I ate it straightaway, I wouldn’t be able to eat the main. So I got it to take away.


3 December, 3 p.m.

I went to the shop to get tobacco and some linden tea, because I was coming down with a cold. There is nothing like cigarettes for colds. Joke. When you have a cold it’s best to stay under a blanket and drink tea. I wasn’t planning to get anything else, so I didn’t take my shopping bag with me. But when I was out and I got my tobacco, I decided that it might be a good idea to buy some fruit as well. After all fruit is a natural source of easily absorbed micro-elements and vitamins. But because I didn’t bring my shopping bag, I had to take a plastic one from the greengrocer.


4 December

I bought a new computer. Well, not exactly new, as it is second hand, but new for me, because I still have the old one. I got the old one a good few years ago and it really was on its last legs. Kept freezing all the time and stuttering, so I thought it was time to get a new one. Now I’m in a quandary, because the old one still works, even though it likes to freeze and stutter. Well, I’m not going to throw the old one away, I will give it to my brother who will find it some use, I’m sure. To make it worse, the new computer came packed in bubble wrap. And I don’t know what to do with it now. It’s a shame to chuck it, so it is sitting on the armchair, sending me reproachful looks.


5 December, 12 p.m.

I went shopping. In the greengrocer I told the shopkeeper that I didn’t need the plastic bag just for two onions. “Always a decagram more,” he cracked a joke. He meant that he would make more money thanks to that plastic bag. It took me a while to get his joke. So we were there, laughing and in the end I took the plastic bag, which I didn’t want. I hope he really did make some money on it.


1:18 p.m.

A courier brought a parcel, which reminded me about my dilemma on how to use courier services in an ethical way. As if it wasn’t enough that they increase traffic on the roads, couriers’ working conditions (as well as sorting departments employees’) are truly dismal. But since stating it doesn’t help them at all, perhaps I should instead cycle to get all those things, which are so easy to buy online with one click of a button? They might be more expensive, but all in all it would be cheaper, because I wouldn’t buy half of those things.


9 December

I have changed the phone and now I’m guilt tripping again. I’m thinking about all those children forced to work in gold and platinum mines, thanks to whom I can enjoy a new mobile phone every other year. I would like to be able to shake their hands one day. To thank them for all those years which kept my life on a steady, technologically advanced level. But I will probably never have the chance; I can only lament their fate fleetingly. Perhaps I should light a candle for them? Or perhaps I shouldn’t have changed the phone? After all the old one still works and if I put some work into it, if I got rid of all the junk, it would probably keep working well for quite a while longer. Admittedly I was annoyed with the crappy camera, but if I want a good camera perhaps I should get a camera and not keep changing my mobile every two years in the hope of finally getting a snapper that is good enough. Perhaps I should do just that, but for now what is done, is done. I bought a new mobile and extended my contract with the operator for two more years. Poor us.


grandparents house in the mountains is the one in the middle with the red roof

My grandparents’ house in the mountains is the one in the middle wight the red roof.

10 December

On my way to Lubomierz (a village in the mountains where my grandparents left me a cottage) I bought a yeast pastry and a bagel. Both were put in plastic bags and I was too much in a hurry to object. There was this experiment once when young pastors were asked to prepare a sermon on the Good Samaritan and then told to go to a different building to deliver it. Most of them were in such a hurry that they didn’t even notice a man lying on the pavement, pretending to have an epilepsy attack. Only a few of them stopped and checked if he was alright.


12 December

I’ve travelled into the mountains and I’m sitting here writing a book. I came by train and coach, which wasn’t too bad for the climate. Today I took a coach to Mszana Dolna, a slightly bigger town than Lubomierz where my grandparents’ house is located. I’m wondering now if it was a stupid idea. I bought a lot of things, which I will most likely need, but some of them I could have bought in the village shop (though not most of them). And anyway even if I couldn’t buy some of those things in the local shop, perhaps it is time to learn how to cook good meals using products that I can find in the nearest shop. And not just soya milk and sun dried tomatoes from Biedronka supermarket all the time. After all tinned beans are also an excellent product, one that I have not appreciated enough in my cooking up until now. Perhaps it is time to get more friendly? Non-tinned beans would be better, of course, but who has time to soak them? On the other hand if climate matters to me, perhaps I should find the time needed?

Basically I went to town, because I made an attempt at climbing yesterday, but gave up quickly. The crampons I fastened to my boots were broken and I had to adjust them all the time. So I thought I would buy myself new crampons. You would expect to be able to buy them in every other shop in a little town located in the mountains, wouldn’t you? After all a lot of people go climbing here and surely they need that kind of a product? But I found out it was not the case. Clearly people have better boots and are more skilled in walking on ice than I am. Nobody here needs crampons. In the end I bought myself a new pair of boots. One good thing is that they are not made of leather, but still quite pretty. I did indeed need a new pair of boots, as I only have a pair of riding boots for winter. And I can’t wear riding boots everywhere I go. Or perhaps I can? Perhaps I don’t need new boots at all? And some other things I bought? For example, if I had more forethought I would have brought my sunglasses from home and I would not need to buy a new pair. But I didn’t have enough forethought. I was too busy doing other things. I didn’t think about what I might need in the mountains. As a result I bought even more things, things, which I don’t need in a longer run. And the GDP keeps growing and growing, and growing. One day it will bury the old world.

There is one more thing that worries me. Usually I don’t think about it. It’s electricity. I can’t live without electricity; I understood it today. It was very windy and suddenly the lights went off. It was 9 p.m. The idea of spending the rest of the evening without power, by the candlelight, was unbearable. Even more so when I finally found and lit candles, which were just some pathetic stumps. You couldn’t even read. I wrote on Facebook that I had a power cut and asked what to do. A friend inquired how much battery I had left. (That’s quite telling too – that I can be without power, but still have enough power to write on FB.) I thought about her question and wrote: “Do you mean my laptop, tablet, mobile phone or the other mobile phone?” Of course while writing those words I was fully aware of their dubiousness. As a person concerned with the climate issues I shouldn’t be showing off with my technological overindulgence, should I? But I feel like doing it, exactly because I shouldn’t. I constantly think about reducing my energy consumption. I tend to switch off my computer, tablet and mobile when not using them. Ok, one of the mobiles. But still.


15 December

I’m still in the mountains, which supports my ecological lifestyle. I haven’t left the house for the second day in a row. Of course I’m still emitting CO2 by using the fireplace, my computer, and so on, and so forth. After reading another text on balanced development – on the economics of waste, to be precise – I stumbled upon the idea that it doesn’t make sense to flush the toilet after a wee; we should only do it after a poo. I agree with this thought. Getting the water to the top of the mountain just to let it out mixed with urine seems quite absurd. But it can be difficult to change one’s instinctive reactions. I still catch myself flushing after a wee. There is a long way from the resolution to the actual change.

I found out that my mobile can take panoramic pictures. That’s what it looks like.

I found out that my mobile can take panoramic pictures. That’s what it looks like.

16 December

I have to go to Kielce to stand as a witness in a case about a photo I once took of myself with the inscription that read: “Pope is a dick and Poland is a whore”. I don’t know if they can find the perpetrators; I don’t know who wrote it. And I presume I’m the only witness, as this photo was taken in Berlin. If I wasn’t in the picture, there would no case at all. At least I am not the suspect. But I still have to go to Kielce, which is stupid, because that will increase my carbon footprint. Not to mention the footprint of the prosecutor’s office, wasting fuel on such stupid cases.

I made hummus sandwiches for the road and packed a salad, which I have been eating for the third day in a row. It’s a leftover from the visit of my Auntie and Uncle and their kids. I had to change in Krakow. The railway station in Krakow has been practically turned into a shopping centre, so there is nowhere to sit down if you don’t want to sit in the chain coffee shop, a bakery or a restaurant, but in the end I managed to find a bench where I could perch and eat my meal. I was very proud of doing something so naff like eating home-made food in the middle of this retail temple. Nobody paid any attention to my act of resistance, but that wasn’t important. Perhaps today nobody notices it, but tomorrow they might themselves think that it doesn’t make sense to buy a hamburger if they can bring a home-made sandwich, which is cheaper, tastier and healthier.

The hearing went on for so long that I didn’t even have time to buy anything else to eat. At least I didn’t get another plastic bag.


18 December

I went to see a friend in Cieszyn, where more resources are wasted than at home in Lubomierz. For example I bought three pairs of socks just because they were decorated with an inscription saying: “fuck you”. There was one thing there that made me happy (apart from the fact that trips are generally cool, my friend is cool and it was generally nice there). The friend’s toilet was broken and it was not enough to press the button to flush, you had to open the tap too. So flushing the toilet required a moment of reflection, which gave me time to remember that flushing after a simple wee is a waste. It stopped me from doing just that. I only flushed after a longer session.


19 December

I went shopping and forgot to take my cotton shopping bag, because I was only supposed to buy a bread roll and a paper but, of course, there were other things: apples, pickled peppers, another bread roll. I couldn’t stuff it all into my pockets but I still refused to take the offered plastic bag.


20 December

I’ve come back to the house in the mountains and now I’m wondering if sitting here on my own is indeed ecological. I buy fewer things, that’s true, but heating adds more to the global warming than making plastic bags which I sometimes accidentally take. Admittedly winter this year is particularly warm, but not so warm as to sit there just in a jumper. Luckily the family will come down soon, which will make it more energy efficient.


27 December

Christmas, Christmas, Christmas. We ate from morning till night, we managed not to resort to a fistfight, and I was called a fascist only three times. Luckily my mother has done most of the shopping, so I didn’t have to concern myself with calculating the amount of carbon dioxide released into the air. But I did tell her off for trying to burn plastic in the fireplace. We have recycling systems; we don’t need to burn rubbish. But I don’t think I convinced her and she still burns rubbish when I’m not looking. I’m a bit worried about putting weight on, but fortunately I have a metabolism of a 15-year-old, so pretty much everything is out of my system soon after I’ve eaten it. Let’s see what the scales in the gym show though. When I finally get there. Not flushing after a wee is proving more difficult than I expected, but I am slowly getting used to it. And stopping myself.


30 December

I came back to the city and the plastic bag problem returned. Everybody wants to give them to me. I try to decline, with varied results. It’s not always easy to say no, sometimes it is easier to take it and just live with it. I mean, it is always easier, but I don’t give up. Luckily there is a shop on my street where they sell different types of grains, dried fruit and nuts or spices packed in paper bags. So I try to shop there. Not that this shop wasn’t there before, but I didn’t like going there because there used to be a guy who liked to wear a nationalists’ t-shirt working there. What’s the point of fighting against global warming if you support nationalism? Luckily the staff has changed. I’m not sure if I mentioned it before, but I might become a vegan. That will surely decrease my carbon footprint. Meat industry is responsible for over 20 per cent of CO2 emissions. Well, when you buy vegetables, it is difficult to stop the shopkeepers from putting them in plastic bags, but I’m sure there must be a way around it. I will tackle it in the New Year. That’s my resolution.


Translated by Anna Hyde

10 things I have learned during my fight against global warming

fot. Anna Novotny

fot. Anna Novotny

It’s impossible to list everything I have learned and understood, everything the Global Weatherstations project has given me, but I will try to make a list of the ten most important things:
1. I was reminded about the importance of the issue of global warming and also why most people couldn’t care less about it. Or, if they could, they still don’t care enough. But despite everything, it is not completely alien to them, it affects them..
2. I have learned to take my water bottle with me everywhere I go, but I have also learned to drink all the water from it before getting on the plane. You can refill it pretty much straightaway with tap water in the bathroom.
3. Tap water is tasty and healthy, but people still prefer to buy bottled water, which costs 2000 times more and leaves unbelievable amount of plastic on the planet. There is a nice film about it.
4. There is so much plastic in the world that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch was formed. There is a nice film made about it, called Plastic Paradise. Albatrosses eat plastic, which can be seen in photos made by Chris Jordan from Midway, and as a result they die. As do fish. Population of numerous species of fish has decreased within the last forty years by 90%. Eating fish, which have eaten plastic, can cause various diseases. Including cancer.
5. Industrial farms seen from a satellite are more beautiful than Salvador Dali’s paintings. And more terrifying. No wonder conceptual artist Mishka Henner exhibits them in galleries. You can see it on his website.
6. Meat consumption is killing the planet. Meat industry is responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than transport. Forests are cut and monoculture GMO plants cultivated for animal feed, generously sprinkled with pesticides, which cause death of millions of insects and birds. And meat consumption is still on the increase.
7. In the space of the last few years population of animals living in the wild decreased by 50 per cent, but population of animals reared in cages went up. Those animals never see the sun, never touch the soil. We have organised a little animal Auschwitz for them, but on a larger scale. What’s more, we pump them with antibiotics and as a result those same antibiotics will stop having an effect on us.
8. Sometimes you have to travel by plane, even if it is against your deepest beliefs. Though there are people who think that we don’t have to fly at all. And I agree with them.
9. I’m cool, I’m smart, I’m inspirational. Even at events in London or Berlin. Though I think I should learn English properly. Or should I? There are so many great translators. Perhaps it’s better not to take the work away from them. Anyway poetry read in Polish sounds beautiful. So let’s have it in Polish.
10. Everything is possible. I still don’t know how to write about global warming to captivate the attention of owners of companies, which pollute our planet, or the politicians, who are paid by them, but I’m not giving up. And anyway – as far as I know – they do understand the problem. But we still don’t exert enough pressure on them, so it’s worth writing about it to make a change.

The Hel Peninsula is a place

IMG_7975-2The Hel Peninsula is a place where fishing and tourism provide a chance to survive – because they pay. But we are beginning to think that tourism is as horrible an industry as fishing is. It always stinks in the port and it’s polluted. We got used to it, but the dreams of a different everyday reality have been maturing in us. We want it to be different even though we are the residents of the place, which is a tourist destination. Hel is still a home for us.
Why do we have to accept the noise, trampled plants by the beach, loud music and bad-mannered tourists? Are these the inevitable costs of earning money? It is us, the residents of Hel, who clean the beaches in springtime and in autumn, because we love relaxing there all year round. It is us who accept sleepless nights in summertime in the name of earning money, which is enough to survive all year round. It is us who can only smell fried fish in summer, the odour stronger even than the odour of the port. Accepting all that is our conscious decision taken under the financial pressure, but what about the animals? What advantages are there for the animals living in the Hel woods? I don’t think they ever wanted to live in the woods littered with bottles, plastic, paper and chocolate wrappers. Although it might still be better than setting the forest on fire, which does happen when playful tourists start a bonfire and lose control over it. One of the summer attractions of Hel is a tree decorated with empty bottles. For us it’s a monument of despair…
Every year we remove rubbish from military bunkers – several dozens bags worth of rubbish; and fromIMG_7881-2 one of the most untouched beaches – another several dozens of bags and some tyres on top of that. Do tourists who come here in summertime spend their time in cities in a similar manner? We don’t think so!
Some will say that these are the extra costs we pay for living in a tourist destination. But these are costs, which we don’t understand and don’t accept. After all people come here seeking nature. Why don’t they notice its assets? Why do they destroy the woods? That’s where the animals live; they can’t pack their things and go back to their clean and tidy cities? We thought fishing nets were the biggest nightmare. They kill seals, porpoises and birds, which get entangled in them together with the fish. For a while now though we’ve been wondering if the tourists who have no respect for nature aren’t even worse?
Another summer holiday will start in a short while and we would love Hel to be a place where people can be close to nature, where they come to spend several days on the beach, respecting each and every creature. This is the Hel we want to create.


Image: Time

The world has gone to Lima, apparently with the view of saving the planet. Signals are being beamed to us in microsecond wires of communication. We Are Here To Act. Not really, of course. Lima is an exercise in semantics, spin and a photo opportunity that will certainly eventuate after frantic discussions. The tone will be one of urgency, desperation in search of a communiqué to wave before the gathering throng, Chamberlain-like. This has been the practice of such gatherings for more than a decade now. All talk and little Climate Change action. The Australian government should not have been so nervous about attending. There was no need for the hardline government minister, Andrew Robb, to chaperone the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop to Peru. She could have demanded real cuts in fossil fuels, supported the need for renewables and rowed back to Australia to eat into her own emissions, and it would have made no difference to the outcome. (Perhaps it would have embarrassed her Prime Minister, Tony Abbott – and perhaps not – nothing seems to embarrass him).

It may appear contradictory to suggest the last rhetorical flush we need is urgency. For sure, the state of the planet is desperate. Despite Minister Bishop claiming that Australia’s – no, the world’s – Great Barrier Reef is in fine shape, reputable scientists have warned us, time and time again, that the reef is in a dire situation. One that may well result in its death. I could go one here about other aspects of urgency: around clean air, contamination of waterways, drought, increasingly ferocious weather events, etc. etc. Oddly, perhaps, I do not think talk of urgency and panic get us anywhere. The language may provoke some to action, and I applaud this. Action is vital. But many run in fear, bury their heads in the proverbial sand and do nothing. This mood of panic has been strategically exploited by the Abbott government in Australia, and other administrations around the globe.

Urgency is the language that allows politicians to look busy-busy. I do not disregard that fact that there would be many present in Lima – NGOs, Indigenous groups, and members of government themselves – with a genuine brief to create something of substance. But we need more of an outcome than another piece of paper being thrust at us; while paradoxically, real change to deal with climate change moves at glacial speed. (Although, I suppose, glaciers are moving a little more quickly these days?)

However desperate our situation has become, we need to act with patience, not panic. It is the only means by which change of substance will eventuate. Consequently, I have been thinking more about the ways in which Indigenous engagement with land and a philosophy of environment and ecology may provide both an intellectual and scientific way forward for us. (I did mention this on occasion on my recent ‘European tour’, with little response. I think that most people in Europe, like white Australia, relegate Aboriginal knowledge to the status of romantic folklore, at best.)

I was speaking to a friend recently, talking about the practice of ‘soft eyes’, used by some Indigenous communities in Australia (and I would think worldwide) in seeing the land. I am not qualified to go into the intricacies of the practice. It would be both foolish and disrespectful to attempt to articulate the cultural and intellectual value of ‘soft eyes’ here. But I do feel qualified to respond to what I regard as the wide cultural lesson to be learned. ‘Soft eyes’ is a way of looking at land, and sky, and water in a way that refuses to focus on a single object or site. By seeing nothing with detailed specificity, one is able to engage more fully with the whole. Another aspect of ‘soft eyes’ is that it takes patience and time, to both learn the technique and respond adequately to what one is actually seeing.

After Lima there will be Paris, and who knows after that. I haven’t checked my schedule. But, in the words of an Aboriginal elder and poet of the nineteenth century, ‘we all become bones … all of us’. There is a holistic reality in these simple words. And a lesson for each of us. We … 

Tony Birch

Let’s Walk – number one – Tony and Nina

[map 23 - Mr Wolf, Yarra River, Melbourne]

[map 23 – Mr Wolf, Yarra River, Melbourne]

How do we speak about the places we love? If we are not poets, if our education has been limited, if saying to a teenage mate, ‘I love this place,’ causes embarrassment (all round) and results in ridicule and possible humiliation, how can we express our fierce loyalty and attachment to place? When I was a teenage boy, I loved my piece of the Yarra River in inner Melbourne. I lived on a Housing Commission estate, typical of the brutalist architectural response to ‘slum clearance’  across the globe in the post-WW2 era of ‘reconstruction’. We spent most of our time on the estate discovering new ways to slam each other into concrete walls – which dominated both the inside of the flats we lived in and the surrounding outdoor spaces.

[map 24 - my literary hero]

[map 24 – my literary hero, Barry Hines]

Tony Birch_03Despite my delinquent behaviour at school, I was always a voracious and serious reader. My favourite novel around the time I discovered the river was Barry Hines’ A Kestrel For A Knave, a story set on the other side of the world in a grim northern England mining town. The central character, Billy Casper, is a boy who suffers violence; in the home, the street, at school and on the football pitch. Billy is a boy who roams and falls in love with the ‘wilds’ surrounding his town. He also falls in love with a bird, a kestrel – Kes.Tony Birch_03

The book affected me in a deep and lasting way. I felt great affinity with Billy, and developed an admiration for the author of the book. I thought it remarkable that a writer could create a story that could travel across the globe and produce such influence in me. Hines became the first literary hero of my life, and has remained so to this day. When I was writing my first book, Shadowboxing, I thought of Billy Casper and Kes each morning before I sat down to write. And I wondered if I could, like Barry Hines, write a story that teenagers would connect with.

[map 25 - Shadowboxing]

[map 25 – Shadowboxing]

In Shadowboxing, and with each book I have written since, I have produced a story about the river: on each occasion, attempting to articulate more clearly my deep attachment to it. While I would not say that I have failed to express the extent of my attachment through words, it is clear to me that my words and stories are yet to fully satisfy me – as should be the case for any writer attempting to reiterate an idea mediated through landscape.

What is more revealing to me is that when I was a teenage boy, I did not possess the expression of language to convey my love of the Yarra River. And now that I do, the words still fail. Perhaps that is a good thing? My (slightly more mature) intellect and my creative work are no more able to express that love – that way I felt about the river, as I lived it, walked it, swam in it and dreamed of it when I was a boy.

[map 26 - Nina Birch looking for her father's demolished home - Abbotsford, Melbourne]

[map 26 – Nina Birch looking for her father’s demolished home – Abbotsford, Melbourne]

Yesterday, I went walking with my sixteen year-old daughter, Nina, along the Yarra River. On the way there, we stopped at my mother’s place for a cup of tea. She is in her mid-seventies, and has lived her entire life within a couple of miles of the centre of the city. While we spent many years as children on the move from debt collectors, the police and government bulldozers, we never travelled far, living by a rule passed down to my mother from her mother – ‘if you can’t hear a tram bell when you’re in bed of a night, you’re living too far away.’

[Map 27 - 'Slum kids' - looking happier than they ought to, 1966 - author is second from the left]

[map 27 – ‘Slum kids’ looking happier than they ought to, 1966; author is second from the left]

After we left my mother’s house, we walked along a plantation separating Melbourne’s Eastern Freeway from the narrow streets leading down to the river. The plantation had once been a street of terrace houses, full of kids, and kitchen tables, and backyards with barking dogs. It is all gone. When I pointed to a spot on the plantation and told Nina she was standing on my childhood front doorstep, she looked around as if searching for a ghost. The house I lived in at the time was knocked down for the freeway development. It was close enough to the river that I could lay in bed of a night and smell the scent of the water drifting into my bedroom, and could hear the water rushing over Dights Fall, no more than a few hundred yards from my back gate.

[map 28 - Dights Falls, Abbotsford, Melbourne]

[map 28 – Dights Falls, Abbotsford, Melbourne]

In the years that I hung out at the river, it was the remnant of a nineteenth century industrial site. Cotton mills and factories had been built along the lower side of the river. The workers for the mills were crowded into narrow houses built in the shadows of capitalist expansion. Dights Falls itself, built over a ‘natural’ waterfall, was a ‘man-made’ construction. It powered a turbine in an adjoining wheelhouse that supplied water for the mill. By the time I inhabited the river, more than 100 years later, both the mill and the wheelhouse were in ruin; all the better for young teenagers laying claim to our own place.

[map 28 - the wheelhouse wall, Dights Falls]

[map 29 – the wheelhouse wall, Dights Falls]

Nina and I took photos at the falls and walked across to the wheelhouse. While the ruin has been stabilised, its past remains present; in the rancid smell of stagnant water laying at the bottom of the wheelhouse, the damp mosses creeping up the redbrick walls, and the scratching sounds coming from the darkness below, which could well be bare tree branches bending with the wind. Or the river rats we witnessed as kids, happily strutting their stuff in the mud and rubbish and weeds. I pointed to various spots around the falls where we rode our bikes, where we jumped from rocks into the water, and where we came across burned-out wrecks of stolen cars. I would not say Nina was envious of the stories of my teenage years, but I do know she has a yearning to discover places of her own; places outside regulation, outside the prying eyes of authorities, parents and invasive CCTV cameras. Such places are harder to find in the contemporary city, but I hope she stumbles across them before its too late, before she grows up.

[map 29 - Nina visiting the site of her father's beautifully misspent youth]

[map 30 – Nina visiting the site of her father’s beautifully misspent youth]

We left the falls and headed downriver toward the city, passing endless numbers of drains that wash rubbish from the streets into the water. When I was a boy, it was nothing to see chemicals dumped directly into the water from the factories above. Until the 1970s, the lower Yarra was widely accepted as the open drain of industry. Swimming in it was hazardous (as I experienced as a teenager, collecting pus-filled sores and alien rashes after a swim in the river).  In the 1970s, Melbourne’s Age newspaper began a campaign, ‘Give The Yarra A Go’, in an effort to raise both the profile of the river and the consciousness of citizens. The campaign had some success, and the river did become cleaner (although over the years, many setbacks have occurred).

[map 31 - a man expressing angry over the violence done to his Yarra River]

[map 31 – a man expressing anger over the violence done to his Yarra River]

I often felt angry over the poisoning of my river. I would sometimes see dead fish in the water, in the area around drain outlets. Or oil and paint trails drifting downstream with the current. In those days, I would not have considered that the environmental damage done to my river could be stopped. I felt powerless. My parents were powerless. My community did not have a voice that could be heard. All we had was our anger. An awareness of environmentalism was an impossible notion. Today, so many of us are aware. And we are also more informed. There are also outlets for us to articulate and express our concerns. And yet many of us feel equally powerless.

Why is this so? I cannot provide an answer here. It is, though, a central idea in my thinking and writing for the Weather Stations project.

[map 33 - Nina visits another childhood home of her father - Nicholson Street, Abbotsford, Melbourne]

[map 32 – Nina visits another childhood home of her father – Nicholson Street, Abbotsford, Melbourne]

We left the river and went to the Salvation Army shop in Abbotsford. Nina bought a woollen cardigan, and I picked up a t-shirt and running top. I’ve been going to ‘op-shops’ for more than 50 years. I love the smell of the places. They smell of life, or use rather than refuse. We stopped for one last photo opportunity outsider another house I lived in during the 1970s. Nina asked if I had enjoyed living in the house. ‘Yes. I was happy here. We were never far from the water.’

The house had been seriously renovated and would fetch a packet at auction. I remember walking by the house many years ago when it was being fixed up. I was angry then also. When we rented the house, it had holes in the roof, the walls and the floors. The rising damp reached the ceiling, and the only hot water was supplied by a ‘chip heater’. I was annoyed that it took someone with money to make the house decent to live in.

I don’t think that way any longer. I’m simply happy that this is one childhood home of mine that was not bulldozed for some grand scheme. There was a kid’s bike on the front verandah, and a muddy pair of gardening boots. There are children in that house, playing and crying and sleeping. There is somebody living in that house who turns their garden over and clips their roses and sits on a chair on the front verandah in the afternoon sun. I hope they love their house.

Tony Birch

Trust and our children

Bunjil Shelter - The Black Ranges, Western Victoria

Bunjil Shelter – The Black Ranges, Western Victoria

Bunjil’s Shelter is the most significant Aboriginal rock-art site in south-eastern Australia. It is also one of the oldest shelters, at around 6,000 years. Tourists visit the site each year to photograph the art work. Many leave without knowing the important story that the art work represents. It is a story about country and custodianship. It is also a story about the protection of children, the care and leadership we provide them, and the future protection of the country we entrust in them. The story simply stated, within Aboriginal culture, is that Bunjil the Eagle watches over all children from the sky and endeavours to keep them safe. This is not simply a ‘fairytale’ or folklore (in a dismissive sense). The story of Bunjil has vital meaning in contemporary Australia for Aboriginal people. The story also acts as a guiding point for the sustenance of all peoples and the environment.

The Bunjil story within Koori (Aboriginal) communities in Victoria comes with a high level of responsibility. It is incumbent upon adults and parents to care for our children. It is important that we provide them with education. That we nurture them both emotionally and intellectually. In return, we hope that when our children grow, they will accept the responsibility of caring for each other and the environment. This is the trust we place in our own actions, and their acceptance of responsibility that comes with age.

Some might read the above as a naïve and simplistic statement; be they realists, cynics or pessimists. They may be right – on occasion. In Aboriginal communities, we have sometimes failed to live up to the expectations we rightly impose upon ourselves (although far less so than the ceaseless ‘doomsday’ media portrayals of our communities). What is more common, in Victoria at least, is that in providing guidance to our children, to both teenagers and younger kids, we are reaping the reward of young people increasingly taking a lead in working with the environment. As they come to accept the role of custodian, they in turn find trust in their own decisions. Put simply, the satisfaction that comes with the job justifies whatever sacrifice they make.

Last weekend, a friend of mine – Stephen Muecke, a writer from Sydney – came to stay with our family for the weekend. Things went pretty well (except that my father is quite sick in hospital – he will recover, I’m sure). The weather was fine, sunny and clear; my football team, Carlton, played out a dramatic draw against an arch rival, Essendon, in front of 60,000 people. On Saturday night, we had a great dinner at a Greek restaurant with my closest friend, Chris Healy (also a writer) and my wife, Sara (a writer, academic and all-round extraordinary woman).

On Sunday morning, with the football and dinner over, talk turned to our concern not so much for the realities of climate change, but the current Australian government’s inaction on the issue. As often happens, the conversation shifted to our own responsibilities and the action we need to take to shift the government’s position. We wondered – as we often do – if what we do, write, has any impact at all. While, naturally, we hoped it does, we weren’t at all certain. We then spoke about our children (I have five, Stephen has three), and young people in general. While neither of us wanted to feel that we’d let our children down in failing to live with the environment – although, in fact, collectively we have failed – we had to accept that any sense of disinterest our kids might convey around issues such as climate change is an outcome of the lack of responsibility and leadership provided within institutions of power, such as mainstream politics and media.

These institutions are of our own making. I’m a believer in the mantra that we get the politicians we deserve. In Australia, the shallowness of the environmental policy trumpeted by conservatives has been more than matched by the Labor side of politics. Inaction, outside the dedicated environmental and activist movement, is a shared experience in Australia. If we think we deserve something more, we have no alternative but to act with greater energy and conviction. If we do not do so, we cannot expect our children to trust us. Nor can we expect to entrust the environment to them.

To return to Bunjil. The eagle’s protection of children is unconditional. The role ascribed to Bunjil is in recognition of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual leadership. Nor is the nurturing of the young by Bunjil contingent: there is no expectation that at some time in the future, those children will grow into the role of responsibility; that they will, without question, reciprocate the care provided to them. This may not appear, at first, to be a great deal. That eagle, up there in the sky, puts in an enormous effort looking after the young. There is no guarantee of gratitude. Consider, then, how both powerful and tender the contract becomes when children do recognise all that hard work the eagle has done – for them. They come to trust the eagle and respond accordingly. If we want our kids to show interest in the environment and to fight for it when necessary – if we want them to trust us – we’ll have to get up there in the sky and do the work.

Looking for Bunjil - outside my front gate

Looking for Bunjil – outside my front gate

Tony Birch

Postcards from the Baltic Sea

  1. The Palace of Culture

Before heading towards the Baltic Sea, I have to stop in Warsaw and stay in one of those over heated small hotel rooms which stink of smoke. Well, each time I visit Poland, I get a mixed sense of desolation and nostalgia. Even though this time I come here for the Weather Station’s project to do with the issues of climate change, still, I feel I am a cultural tourist – wandering in those foreign streets reminiscent of some old Polish films I watched when I was in China.  From a historical point of view, one can say Poland is a sorrowful land, that gives an impression like the solemn landscape of Siberia seen through a Dostoevsky novel. As a Chinese growing up in a communist house, we had some interesting ideological connections with East European countries. Bolesław Bierut’s name is still mentioned a lot in post-Mao era China. As I walk along some stately broad street in the center of Warsaw, I feel I am back again in Beijing, passing through a gigantic brutalist urban space, trying to find somewhere agreeable to sit and think. Actually, the more I walk around Warsaw, the more the city resembles for me Harbin – the northern capital of Chinese Manchuria. Harbin has this particular style of architecture that shows up in Warsaw: a mix of classical European mansions and brutalist socialist buildings.

The Palace of Cultural and Science was the place where I screened my film UFO In Her Eyes some years ago. I thought it was a perfect place (a gift from Soviet Union) to screen a film about totalitarianism. The building itself reminds me of my mother. For about twenty years, my mother worked in the Cultural Palace of our hometown Wenling in South East China. The Cultural Palace of my hometown was not as grand as the one here, but its function and its style were very similar – serve the people with well intentioned entertainment. And my mother was proud of her job, until one day the building was torn down along with other socialist buildings in my hometown. For some nostalgic reason, I do hope this grand building survives in Poland, not only symbolically, but also pragmatically, despite its complex ideological background.

  1. Czesław Miłosz

Last night I was drinking with some obscure Polish artists in Café Amatorska, discussing the gloomy future of our planet. ‘Stop worrying! Humans will die, but the planet is not going to die! That will be the scenario. It’s a good scenario as far as other species concerned.’ They told me in Vodka infused loud voices: ‘Human species are over-rated! The most selfish species should have been wiped out long ago’. Obviously this bunch of Poles was not Christians. ‘You know what’s the most ecological way to live?’ A painter stared at me earnestly: ‘It’s this: we humans must stop giving birth. So the most destructive species can eventually die out. Charge me with the crime of Against Humanity? Oh yes, please!’ He concluded bitterly. Perhaps they were right, and were more absolute than me. The night continued with sarcasm. But I have never been a good drinker, nor do I like to indulge in fantasies of an apocalyptic world. So I left early with a headache.

This morning, on a train to the Baltic Sea, I am clear-headed, and want to write again. I enter the dinning car, ordering a bowl of Zurek – Sour Soup – meanwhile reading a book from Czesław Miłosz. Is there any connection between this sour soup and Milosz? There must be. Both are great stuff. Sour soup is one of my favourite Polish dishes. The thick broth comes with a boiled egg and sausages, a hearty thing to eat in the cold weather. Miłosz, the exiled poet, essayist and Nobel Laureate, was someone whose poetry I loved reading when I was still writing poems in Beijing. He was hugely important in China with his books – especially ‘The Captive Mind’ and ‘Miłosz’s Alphabet’. Exiled in France then in the USA for 30 years, his writings examined the moral and psychological pressures of life under a totalitarian regime. In that respect, Milosz is similar to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, except the latter went through a much harder life in Stalin’s gulags. I, naturally, feel akin to these writers, especially when they talk about the dilemma of the impossibility of returning to one’s homeland, and the alienation of living in the western ‘free’ world. Even though Miłosz had a good professorial position in California, he still referred to himself as ‘The Wrong Honorable Professor Milosz who wrote poems in some unheard-of tongue’. He returned to Poland after decades of life in the west and died in Kraków at the age of 93.  Some of best lines from Milosz in my opinions are these:

On the day the world ends

Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,

A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,

Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,

The voice of a violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night.


And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and the moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

I close the book, thinking back to the conversation we had in Café Amatorska last night about the end of the world. Yes, no one believes it is happening now, as long as the sun and the moon are above.

  1. Gdańsk

It’s a three hour train ride from Warsaw to Gdańsk. I pass the grey yellow plains of April. Ah, northern landscape, I sigh. How ironic that a southern person like me has ended up in the north. All my adult life seems to be about living in the cold and big northern cities: Beijing, London, Berlin, Zurich. And how I dream everyday about returning to a warm and lush semi tropical land. I miss the heat and those big leaves and smelly flowers. In my eyes, those small-leaved northern trees are never as beautiful as the big-leaved tropical plants. But probably there are fewer and fewer big leaved plants surviving in my tropical land. This is not only a metaphor but a reality: the tropical land is going. It only exists in our memory or imagination. It only remains in an anthropologist’s photo archive. The Amazon rainforest appears only enchanting in those well-angled expensively-produced documentary films. Perhaps the day when Claude Lévi-Strauss finished ‘Tristes Tropiques’, the tropical land had already been swallowed by the northern civilization – the process that began in England with the pre-Victorian era factory chimneys.

Gdańsk is another sorrowful place. The most famous thing in recent history about the town is perhaps its German character. After the World War One, Germans formed a majority in the city and Gdańsk was not under Polish sovereignty. In accordance with the terms of the Versailles Treaty, it became the Free City of Danzig. In  1939, Germany invaded Poland and the attack began in Danzig; later on the Soviet Union trashed the city entirely. Double rape! No wonder the country has produced those incredible poets and artists in the last century. But the future of Gdansk looks uncertain – the houses have been re-built after the war but most of houses are empty and unemployment is high. People are poor here, with all their good qualifications fading in their drawers.

I stand by the once famous port, now abandoned, with broken ships and messy cranes lit along the bank. The area by the water is waiting to be ‘developed’, to ‘shine’ again. I try to stretch my imagination, visualizing the newly built budget hotels one after another along the harbor in the next five years, with the holiday makers from all over the word coming here to kill their summer days.

  1. Sopot

This is where the famous ill-tempered German actor Klaus Kinski came from. One could not be totally convinced that the eccentric German cinema icon actually was born in this calm and pretty little Polish beach town. Now the city has a population of 40,000. Most are elderly people, and then many tourists. On the beach, the Royal Hotel stands proudly on the white sand facing the peaceful blue bay. Somehow, those grand family houses remind me of the rich town of Deauville in northern France. Maybe Poland’s Sopot is the Deauville of France, if you restrict the comparison to landscape.

In the local library I meet a little group of readers who were given some photocopied pages of my novel. In fact, three pages out of my four hundred page long novel. They admitted that they didn’t have time to read through my book. One woman told me she hadn’t read a single book for years after she had her baby. ‘Of course, I understand that,’ I reassured her and everyone else: ‘Don’t worry, we will just chat.’ So we talked about the reality of being Polish, being Chinese, being in between German power and Russia power. It seemed to me that everyone preferred to be under German influence rather than Russian influence. ‘And what about Communism?’ I asked. A blonde woman shook her head violently: ‘No, communism kidnapped our freedom. We prefer to hide in the religious’. Then a man from East Germany added: ‘And capitalism. It’s better. There is no freedom anywhere anyway.’

  1. Hel

Hel is a pine-tree covered beautiful peninsular. ‘It is the end and the beginning of Poland’, as the locals jokingly claim. It is so long and slim that nearly every house is located right next by the water, with a great sea view.

We stay in the Marine Station where they have kept members of many endangered sea species in their lab. The grey seal is a big thing in the Marine Station. They even have four infant seals in the pool at the moment. As I stare at one of the large, fat, young seal babies diving in the water, I am almost sardonically surprised that this big sea mammal has managed to survive alongside human world for so long. And their great whiskers! I can only admire them. I am told that when they sleep, if they are in the water, half of their brains remain awake, so they can detect any danger around them. But if they sleep on the land, both sides of their brains go into sleep mode. I wonder, given human’s barbarian nature, wouldn’t the seals be killed more often on the land than in the water? In order to survive, perhaps they have to learn to not sleep at all.

In the noon, there are about 20 middle school students around the age of 15 walking me through the forest by the sea. Most of them are local, born in Hel with their parents working on the island for the fishing and tourism industry. The boys impatiently want to show me all the war remains on the peninsular. The girls are talking to me about the pollution in the sea. We enter the ruins of bunkers which were built during World War II and look at the burnt forest in the southern end of the land. Young, beautiful, but vulnerable, they seem to be hopeful but also fearful to leave this place and to enter the big cities for their future.

‘Hel is the most beautiful place in Poland. Look the sea and the forest here! But I think maybe California is better.’ A 14 year old boy remarks while I gaze into the shimmering sea shore.

Standing by the edge of the water, a naïve but profound question rings in my ears: where is our future? What is our future? Well, I think the sea is our future. The sea is the place that gives birth to everything. Yet, humans don’t want the sea, Humans want the land, the useful land. One of the ancient folksongs from the Baltic Sea region goes like this:

Now I’ll sing the sea into grass, the seashore into fish,
The sea sand into malt, the sea bottom into a field.

‘Can we imagine a human world without the sea? Or, the Planet without the sea?’ I ask the students around me. They look gloomy when hearing such a question. We wander about some more, strolling by the abandoned fortifications one after another under the bright burning sun of Hel.