Listen: Talking About the Weather

What sort of story is climate change? In the light of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Free Word invited an activist, a novelist and a former diplomat to explore the stories we use to talk about our changing environment.

The discussion was chaired by Isabel Hilton, Editor of The panelists were:
John Ashton, Founding Director, Third Generation Environmentalism; Special Representative for Climate Change, FCO (2006-12)
Xiaolu Guo, Novelist, Filmmaker, Free Word’s Writer in Residence for Weather Stations.
Charlie Kronick, Senior Climate Adviser, Greenpeace

Listen to the event in the player above, or visit Free Word on Soundcloud to hear more talks on the environment, literature, and more.

Climate Change, Fear and Bullshit


[map 43 - government strategy meeting - back-lane, Fitzroy, Australia]

[map 43 - government strategy meeting - back-lane, Fitzroy, Australia]

Prior to becoming the prime minister of Australia in 2013, Tony Abbott articulated a clear and simple climate change policy. Despite all evidence to the contrary from the science community Abbott announced that ‘CLIMATE CHANGE IS BULLSHIT’. It was a simple manifesto. It fits conveniently on the front of a t-shirt, with room to spare for a multi-national logo. Abbott’s policy has other benefits. I have daughters in high school thinking and writing about climate change. I often help them with their homework of an evening. Sometimes I’m tired after a day’s work and not in the mood for more thinking. But once we get the books out on the kitchen table I warm to the job at hand and give them all the help I can. Tony Abbott has provided me with the opportunity to baulk at my parental responsibility. The next time one of my daughters opens a science book I can explain to her ‘hey, that’s bullshit. Let’s watch Neighbours instead.’

[map 44 - a shadow on a Sydney street, Australia]

[map 44 - 'a shadow' on a Sydney street, Australia]

Abbott’s entry into the debate on climate change was as inauspcious as it was predictable. But it was never surprising. Nor was it a descent from a history of sophisticated intellectual debate in Australia. No doubt, we have our share of intellectuals, scientists and rational social policy researchers. When it is politically or economically expedient we tend to denigrate and ridicule them with a distinct purpose in mind. To shut them up.

None of us can be certain that climate change is bullshit, despite Tony’s mantra. Although you can smell it a mile off, bullshit is an elusive substance. But we do not need certainty that it exists – and certainly not evidence. All we need is the ‘leader of the nation’ to come marching out of the parliament with a base drum, a flag and slogan, choreographed to get us off the hook of responsibility. Along with a culture of apathy we thrive on perceived fear. There’s a shadowy menace out there and our political leaders boast that they can defend us against these unknown unknowns. With regard to climate change the enemies that would destroy our way of life are ‘big taxing governments’ (in a traditionally low taxing country), Green ‘fundamentalists’, and ‘authoritarian scientists’.

[map 45 - Sydney, Australia]

[map 45 - Sydney, Australia]

This federal government, not unlike earlier governments, both Liberal/National and Labor, has regularly stoked our anxiety over unrealised fears in other areas of policy. In Australia, when writers and thinkers consider any relationship between climate change policy and the treatment of potential refugees to the country, they tend to focus on the relationship between migration policy, population figures and environmental resources. While this is of relevance the clearest link between the two policies is the administration of nation anxiety, sloganeering and the overt encouragement that we avoid dealing with a issue that requires thought, responsibility and action.

As long as climate change remains bullshit, there is little for us to consider, even on occasions, for instance, when the hills surrounding Melbourne ignite in a ball of fire and kill more than 150 people. (This was the outcome of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires). Whenever Australia suffers ‘natural’ disaster – drought, fire, flood and cyclone – a regular occurrence across the continent, the science linking the disaster with climate change is marginalised and quickly replaced by the language of war. Australians battle nature, we regularly fight it to the death, and come out of the other end as heroes, not having conquered it.

[map 45 - Stop the Boats - Fitzroy, Melbourne, Australia]

[map 46 - Stop the Boats - Fitzroy, Melbourne, Australia]

Leading into the 2013 federal election, Abbott gathered a whole bag of slogans with which pacify us. One of them was ‘STOP THE BOATS’. (A more recent slogan is ‘TEAM AUSTRALIA’  – you’re either for us or against us in challenging ‘terrorism’). Australia’s asylum-seeker policy has become an imprisonment policy under Abbott, administered largely on tropical islands come gulags to Australia’s north. While federal Labor were been the architects of this policy, the Abbott government has refined it in ways that suit the dominant psyche of the nation. Firstly, we shift the ‘problem’ offshore. We’re really good at this. As long as we do not have to look at the faces of refugees, well, they’re just not there. And to ensure that their not out there, incarcerated behind wire, the government provides not information to the community and refuses journalists entry to detention facilities.

I am not drawing a longbow between the climate change and refugee policy for political expedience. The cruel manner in which we treat asylum-seekers should fill us with shame. While optimists may not be too welcome on this site (!) I want to believe that if transparent information about those seeking sanctuary in Australia was fully available, if we saw the faces of the people involved, and came to know their names and hear their stories, fear would dissipate and be replaced by acceptance. With regard to climate change, if politicians stopped muddying the waters for short-term political gain, and set about ensuring that we became fully-informed on the issue, I think a clear policy to deal with the current realities of a changing planet would gain widespread support. But this will not happen soon. Not in a country where clear thinking and associated individual and collective responsibility is too often the greatest fear of all.

[map 47 - The Fear - Fitzroy, Mebourne, Australia]

[map 47 - The Fear - Fitzroy, Mebourne, Australia]

 Tony Birch

The Irish Don’t Wear Anoraks

He walked into the lobby of the Dublin hotel like it was a saloon in the Wild West. His eyes, the grey of an Irish sky, swept the room. There were nearly a dozen people in the large, sculpted concrete lobby, but his gaze immediately settled on a woman with short brown hair, the square-shouldered, narrow figure of a swimmer and the face of someone who lived a healthy outdoors lifestyle, but who didn’t tan well. She was dressed in jeans and a blood-red waterproof jacket.

The man nodded to himself and walked over, casting a glare around in a manner which suggested that, at any moment, someone might ask him to step outside for a gunfight, and he was born ready for it, goddammit. He was tall, with a powerful build, tight cut dark hair and a handlebar moustache attached to a broad, chiselled face. His left eye sported a mottled purple bruise that spread over the side of his face. There was an unlit cigar gripped between his teeth. He was wearing cowboy boots, jeans and a black Cordura jacket, the type bikers wore, with the armour sections for protecting your spine, elbows and shoulders.

‘Doctor Mayer?’ he asked the woman in a flat Dublin drawl.

‘Yes. I’m Hilde, hello,’ she said, picking up her laptop case and smiling as she stood up to shake his hand.

Her English was fluent, with the clipped consonants of a faint German accent. His grip on her hand was overly firm, but felt like it could go a lot firmer. He took his cigar from his mouth.

‘Jack Brennan,’ he replied. ‘Met Éireann.’

He declared the name of the country’s national weather service as if it was the Royal Marines or the Navy Seals. Perhaps it was to be expected, given what she’d heard about Met Éireann, but she was still somewhat taken aback. Meteorology attracted a few gung-ho types, but they normally found their way to the US to chase tornadoes or flew airplanes into hurricanes or sought out other forms of freakishly violent weather. Ireland’s weather had grown more turbulent over the last few decades, but Met Éireann’s reputation as a nest of adrenaline junkies had always mystified her.

‘Do you mind me asking . . . were you mugged?’ she asked, gesturing to his black eye.

‘Ha, no! Just caught flat-footed!’ he laughed. ‘I was in the cage . . . y’ know, UFC? Mixed martial arts? I was sparrin’ last night and got smacked with a bleedin’ good one.

‘Oh,’ Hilde said quietly. ‘It looks like it hurts.’

‘Stings like holy Jaysus when I touch it,’ Jack said, grinning around the cigar as he led her towards the door. ‘Anyway, I’m your lift to HQ. Hope you like bikes!’

He wasn’t kidding.  Anorak-3-HarleyIt was a big Harley, black and chrome and wide as a horse, parked diagonally to take up a full parking space. Jack swung his leg over it and kick-started the engine, which coughed out a deep, guttural growl. He pulled on an open face helmet – worn, apparently, so he could smoke his cigar as he rode, for he’d lit up as soon as they walked out the door of the hotel. Donning a pair of shades, he handed her a full face helmet, an expression in his eyes that suggested this would be a telling moment. She hesitated for just a moment, than accepted it, putting down her laptop case so that she could use both hands to put the bulky helmet on.

‘I didn’t recognize you there,’ he said as Hilde did the clasp on the helmet strap and then slung her case over her shoulder. ‘The picture we have of you showed you with long hair and glasses an’ all, y’know? If it wasn’t for the anorak, I’d have walked right past you.’

‘The anorak?’ she asked.

‘The waterproof jacket,’ he barked over the revving engine as they took off across the car park. ‘You were the only one in the lobby who looked like a tourist. The Irish don’t wear anoraks.’

She glanced down reflexively at her red jacket.

‘But it rains here all the time!’ she shouted over his shoulder, leaning with him as he swung round a corner.

‘Exactly!’ he called back.

They hardly spoke for most of the ride, because of the noise. The cigar smoke in her face smudged out the traffic fumes they rolled through. Jack drove a bit too fast, but he handled the bike well. If he expected her to be unnerved, he’d be disappointed. Hilde had owned a bike when she was in college. It was an old Honda, nothing close to the size of this beast, but she was quite comfortable as a pillion passenger, though there were some white-knuckle moments as Jack negotiated the chaotic Dublin traffic. The ground was wet from rain and Hilde’s expert eye read the cumulus clouds developing into cumulonimbus and knew there was more rain to come. She wondered what Jack had meant when he said the Irish didn’t wear anoraks.

‘The river’s flooded the quays again,’ Jack informed her, swerving round an SUV. ‘It’s causin’ havoc in town. I’ll have to swing round a different way.’

Hilde’s hands tightened around his waist as he gunned the engine and they roared down a side street, the gravelly engine echoing off the buildings either side of them. Hilde’s boss back in Deutscher Wetterdienst – Germany’s national meteorological service – had told her that a stint with Met Éireann would do good things for her career. It was said that if you could work there, you could work anywhere. She still didn’t understand why that should be. Ireland was defined by a climate that was milder than almost anywhere else in Europe. It wasn’t like they suffered many extreme heat-waves or freezing winters, though the instances of both of these had increased over the years. What was it about this place that made her colleagues regard it with such awe?

Anorak-1-BuildingThe building that housed Met Éireann’s headquarters was located in Glasnevin, an area of north Dublin. It was a striking structure, unlike any other Hilde had seen in the city, its bunker-like, sloping sides and the array of dishes on the roof giving it an appearance that was a cross between something from East Berlin and something from the film, Blade Runner. Jack swooped into the car park, and once again took up a full space with his bike, parking next to a mousy-haired man with ginger goatee and a sinewy, freckled face who stood leaning back against the side of a dark blue Subaru WRX that jutted with fins and air intakes.

‘Baz, me ol’ flower!’ Jack greeted him as he killed the Harley’s engine. ‘Yer back! And with a new motor. That the STI, yeah?’

‘Yeah, picked it up just before I headed off to Germany,’ Baz said, gripping Jack’s outstretched hand. He had a somewhat reedy Cork accent and an intense manner. ‘Took this monster out to the Nürburgring while I was in Cologne. Feckin’ belted around it, so I did! Nearly three hundred and fifty brake-horsepower under that hood, boy. Goes like shit off a shovel! Stiff old chassis on her though. Great for the autobahn, but you’ll bruise yer arse if you run into any potholes on the smaller routes.’ He gestured to Hilde. ‘Who’s this now?’

‘Speakin’ of Germany . . .’ Jack took the cigar from his mouth and made a mock bow, ‘this is Doctor Hilde Mayer, visiting us from Deutscher Wetterdienst. We can call her Hilde, she says. Hilde, this is Doctor Barry McGovern, works with me in GAnorak-5-Subarueneral Forecasting – on the front line. Hilde will be joinin’ the Marine Unit. She’s hopin’ to get some divin’ in while she’s here. Maybe you could show her some good spots.’

Hilde glanced at Jack. She hadn’t mentioned she was a diver, but her PADI qualifications were on her CV. Was this guy trying to put her on the spot? Was this another challenge? Good God, she’d only made it as far as the car park . . .

‘That’s grand,’ Baz said, shaking Hilde’s hand. ‘I know a couple of places you’ve a good chance of seeing whale sharks. Glad to have you aboard.’

But Hilde saw it again, the same note of challenge that she’d picked up off Jack. They were welcoming enough, but they wanted to see how she’d do.

‘Germany – you’ve got the continental climate,’ Jack commented. ‘You’ve got seasons, right?’

‘Of course,’ Hilde replied.

‘Must be nice,’ Jack sniffed.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Oh Jesus, I nearly forgot!’ Baz exclaimed. He opened the door of his car and took out a bottle of whiskey and some glasses, putting the glasses on the roof of the car.

‘What’s goin’ on?’ Jack asked.

Just as he posed the question, a woman came speeding in on a bicycle, a high-performance racing bike, of course, thought Hilde. The woman pulled up, breathing hard. She was dark-skinned, probably of Asian descent, a long Roman nose among otherwise delicate features. She had a fierce, but excited look in her deep brown eyes. She looked formidably fit, dressed in skin-tight cycling shorts and top and wearing a streamlined helmet that she unclipped and yanked off as she waved to them.

‘Am I in time?’ she asked, standing her bike by bracing a pedal on the kerb.

‘Barely,’ Baz snorted. ‘What took you?’

‘Feck off,’ she snapped back. She started doing some leg stretches . ‘I just did thirty-two kay and I’ll be doing the same home again. Like I do every day, petrol-head. Some of us don’t want to sit on our arses in traffic, breathing fumes for half our lives.’

She looked over at Hilde.

‘What’s with the anorak?’

‘She’s German,’ Jack told her.


‘Doctor Hilde Mayer. Deutscher Wetterdienst,’ Jack said. ‘Call her Hilde. Hilde, this is Doctor Suria O’Neill. Climatology and Observations. Hilde’s joining Marine.’

‘Well, haven’t you come on the right morning?’ Suria cackled to Hilde.

‘Is someone gonna tell me what’s goin’ on?’ Jack demanded.

Therapy Tom’s on his way in,’ Suria said, her face child-like in its delight.

‘Shit, you’re kidding! Is it that time already?’

‘Therapy Tom?’ Hilde asked.

Baz was pouring whiskey into each of the four glasses.

‘Perpetual stress case,’ Jack replied as he accepted a glass. ‘He’s been on the job over ten years, but he has a breakdown two or three times a year. Can’t hack it – pressure’s too much for him. He’s been out for three months after the last one. Last few times, he hardly made it back into the building before he had his next panic attack.’

‘That’s horrible,’ Hilde gasped.

‘Terrible, yeah,’ Baz said. ‘Anyway, whenever he comes back now, we place bets on how far into the building he gets before he does a runner. However far that is, we’ll toast him for his effort. Take a glass.’

‘I . . . I can’t,’ Hilde blurted out, shocked at what was happening.

‘You have to do the toast,’ Suria insisted. ‘You’d only be disrespecting him otherwise. He keeps coming back. We have to salute that.’

‘Here he comes!’ Jack announced, pointing to a silver Toyota Avensis that was rolling into the car park. ‘Twenty quid says he doesn’t get out of the car!’

‘I’ll back him making it as far as the door,’ Suria said. ‘One hand on the handle.’

‘Opening the door?’ Baz pressed her.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ she responded, her hard eyes on the subject of their bets as if she was judging the form on a racehorse. ‘No, just putting the hand on the handle, I think.’

‘Have some bloody faith, people!’ Baz exclaimed. ‘Three months he’s been gone. Plenty of time to get those nerves sorted. A fortune spent on the shrink. Look at him gettin’ out there. Sure, his hands are hardly shakin’ at all. Have you ever seen a sheen of sweat like that on a more noble brow? I’ll see him through the door, but not up the stairs and I’ll be right – you watch now!’

Tom had the door of the car open now, and was rubbing his face.

‘That’s as far as he’s goin’ to get,’ Jack assured them, still confident he could win. ‘Look at those eyes. If he stared any harder he could cut glass.’

Tom’s arrival had been spotted by others in the Met Éireann HQ and windows were opening in the sloping sides of the slab of a building. There were cheers and shouts of encouragement to Therapy Tom as money changed hands. He had the car of his door open and lifted his right hand in a hesitant wave. Stepping out, he stood up and slammed the door shut with a resolute motion, as if his decision was made.

‘Ah, shite,’ Jack sighed, grimacing.

‘Good on you, Tom!’ Suria bellowed. ‘Great to have you back, man! How’re you feeling?’

‘Great! I’m feeling great!’ Tom called over to her as he made his way across the tarmac surface towards the door. ‘It’s . . . it’s great to be back.’

‘Great!’ Jack smirked.

‘Keep going, baby, you can do it!’ Suria egged him on.

‘Go on ya good thing, ya!’ Baz yelled.

Tom waved again, then lifted his hand to the people shouting from the building above. The level of noise rose as he got closer to the door. His pace slowed and the crowd, sensing the climax was close, roared in support. Hilde watched in horrified fascination as Tom made it the last few steps and reached out and . . . stopped.

‘Go on, Tom!’ Suria cried out. ‘You can do it! Take the handle, Tom! Grab it, man!’

He paused there, as if frozen for a few seconds, the emotional turmoil visible on his face, sweat running down from his hairline and dripping from his chin. Then a look of sheer terror came over him and he spun round and bolted back towards his car.

‘Ah Jesus, Tom!’ Suria gasped in exasperation.

The Toyota’s engine over-revved and Tom backed out of the space with screeching tyres. As he took off out of the car park, everyone waved goodbye.

Baz held up his glass of whiskey.

‘To Tom,’ he said.

They all drank and even Hilde drank with them, disturbed by what she’d seen.

‘I don’t understand,’ she said softly. ‘What did that to him?’

Jack’s smile faded into a more tender expression and he put his empty glass down on the roof of the car. Baz poured another measure.

‘You’re thinking how can things here be so mad, right?’ Jack asked. ‘I mean, it’s Ireland, yeah? It’s not like we get the really nutty weather here is it? No hurricanes or tornadoes. No tidal waves or serious drought. But we’ve been hit hard by climate change here. The floods have been especially bad, destroying businesses and crops. The economy’s taken some serious hits. The country’s broke. Every time we have to deal with something new, we haven’t got the resources to cope with it. Sure, our weather’s less violent compared to other places, but it’s so changeable, it’s hard to prepare for the extremes of weather we do get. A bit of a heat-wave and we have water shortages and our old and weak start dying of heatstroke. A bit of snow and the whole bloody country grinds to a halt and our old and weak start freezing. And that’s true in a lot of places, but it’s worse here ‘cos of our particular bloody weather.’Anorak-6-Sea

‘You were wondering why the Irish don’t wear waterproofs, anoraks,’ Jack said. ‘Because we do get loads of rain. But it’s not how much we get, it’s that we can get rain at any time. So if we were to dress for the weather, we’d have to wear anoraks every day and who wants to do that, right? And we’d also have to dress for the cold. And the really humid type of heat we get. But it’s the same for the bigger picture. We’re perpetually dealing with change and the floods are hitting us hardest. We don’t actually get much more rain than we used to, we just get it in more torrential downpours than before. And the combination of rainfall and rising sea levels is overwhelming our cities and our farms.’

‘We hardly have seasons any more,’ Suria added. ‘The weather’s just getting more and more chaotic and it makes it hard for anyone to do the kind of planning that helps us cope with flooding and other disasters. It’s all too little, too late. And because past floods have already cost us so much, we don’t have the money any more to deal with the disasters that are becoming more common. A lot of people can’t get their homes insured any more. A single flood can leave them homeless, financially ruined. So now everyone really pays attention to the weather forecast, because the country’s so overstretched, we’re constantly walking that edge of disaster and even something small can tip us over.’

‘We have a saying in Ireland: “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute”.’ Baz continued. ‘Our job is to try and make sense of the chaos, to predict the tiniest changes in the weather that could trigger calamity further down the line. And here, for us, those changes are so small, so variable, it could drive you nuts. It’s like trying to nail down a flea with a needle. We stare at those satellite pictures, the reports and computer models like we’re bloody air traffic controllers working in a blizzard. If we misjudge our predictions by a few degrees here, or a few centimetres of rain there, lives could be wrecked.

‘The longer the world keeps heating up, the more extreme our weather is getting, the more broke the country gets and the fewer resources we have to deal with it, the more vulnerable we become to the weather. It’s a vicious circle. And when our people are trying to plan how best to use what little we have left . . . they look to the weather forecast.’

‘And every time we get it wrong, we get crucified for it,’ Jack said. ‘That’s why we let off so much steam when we finish work. It’s why Tom’s forever in feckin’ therapy. But to be honest, we love it. How could you not? It’s a beautiful thing, to stare into the chaos and try to understand it. And we are really bloody good at it. So, Hilde . . . welcome to the Oul’ Sod.’

Baz had refilled their glasses and they each held them up as he gestured for a toast.

‘Here’s to the chaos!’ he said brightly.

‘Here’s to the chaos!’ they cried and then they drank.

The mood was more sombre as they all headed towards the door, but Hilde was struck by these strung out meteorologists and their intensity. She empathized with them more than she expected to. She turned to see that Jack was still standing in the car park, gazing up at the sky. The temperature had dropped slightly. There were those heavy, brooding cumulonimbus hanging over everything. He gave a faint smile, spread his arms out to the sides and lowered his eyes to meet hers.

‘Let it rain!’ he said gently.

And it did.

Australia 6 – Wicked World

DSC01759aVisiting zoos has always made me feel quite depressed, but my visit to Zoos Victoria was extremely sad. The very fact of keeping animals in cages so that people could watch them seems to be rather depressing, but to this adds also another fact: if those animals weren’t kept in those cages they would simply become extinct, which actually makes one want to kill and rape. Unfortunately neither killing nor raping is an answer. It’s actually the very opposite of an answer. Because of the fact that humans like killing and raping (this applies to various species, the human one also, yet not to the highest extent) many species have already become extinct and many are waiting in the line to be next. This long line is getting shorter. Homo sapiens is an effective predator. Which particularly likes carcass. I know that, because I like it too. But I try to resist it.

DSC01768aAfter seeing the Leadbeater’s possum, which was believed to have become extinct before a few ones were discovered in the mountains and are now being brought back to nature by the scientists, and feeding the orange-bellied parrot (only about fifty ones remain at large, three times as much is bred in cages and freed each year) we had a meal.

DSC01761aFor several years I’ve been eating no meat and since almost a year I eat also no almost-meat, that is, fish and seafood. It’s not always easy. When yesterday in the restaurant my mate asked for vegetarian dishes, the waiter suggested chicken salad, shrimps salad and oysters. Thankfully, they had also garlic bread and some salad served normally as a starter, but it was quite ok. Yet as for the restaurant in the zoo aiming at rescuing animals it was rather surprising. The only hot vegetarian dish served there were chips. Luckily, I like chips. But, among others, that is why I think there is no hope for us all.

DSC01888aEveryone likes meat. It’s healthy. It’s full of vitamins and minerals. Gives us energy. And optimism. You eat steak and you feel better. Some even believe that meat is better than sex. Maybe these are the ones who have no chance for sex. I don’t know, I didn’t do any research. Even so, these are not the only ones. All kinds of people like meat. Tall and short. Big and small. Americans and Poles. Germans and Irish. Chinese and Indonesian. Yes, really, almost everyone! And there seems to be nothing wrong in it. Of course, except of killing and making suffer animals that suffer and feel in the same way that we do. And, of course, I understand that some may not care about it at all. Our world is a cruel place. We cannot avoid suffering. So please give me the steak because I’m almost starved to death. (Really? To death? Sometimes I think that you could maybe really die, but then I try to be understanding again.)

Suffering is one thing, economy is another. You can not care about suffering, but not caring about economy is harder. If everyone in the world would like to eat as much meat as Americans, we would need six planets as big as Earth to be able to grow enough grains to feed all the to-be steaks (temporarily in the state of cow). Hmm. We don’t have six planets, I’m afraid. Hmm. Most people would like to eat as much meat as Americans, I’m afraid. Hmm. We have a problem, I’m afraid.

DSC02102aMeat is not only tasty and healthy, but it’s also an indicator of social status. Bling! Bling! Riches! The poor eat lentils, the rich can afford foie gras. And still there’s nothing wrong in that, except of the fact that the ducks and geese are fed through pipes pushed into their throats in order to make the production more efficient. However, there is another problem. In China and in India more and more people is earning more and more money. Which is actually cool. But it can also cause serious problems. Rich people want to eat more steaks. To provide them with the sufficient amount of meat, more cows have to be bred and more grains have to grown to feed them. And the amount of grains that we can produce is limited. The question is: who will pay more for the grains? Children from Africa? Or Chinese people who want steaks? The latter, I bet. Chinese are clever, whereas children from Africa do not have much bargaining power. The riddle is: what will happen if the prices of the grains go up to such a level that the precariat in Morrocco, Egypt or Syria will not be able to afford bread? The answer is: we’ve seen that a few years ago and we can still watch the consequences. One of the reasons for the Arab Spring were the rising prices of food. And the food is getting more and more expensive also because of the fact that we have to give the cows something to eat. The African precariat won’t pay as much as subsidised by the state American farmers. And the amount of grains is limited.

Have I already written that the war is coming? I think I haven’t. So now I do. The war is coming. And when it will come I will write: didn’t I warn you? And maybe I will go for a steak.

Australia – 3

Should we deprive people of all hope? I keep thinking of it for a few days. Because hope is the worst. And, as we all know, it is the last to die. Maybe it’s possible to kill it somehow? Covertly poison. Attack, when it turnes its back at us. As long as we will all have hope, not much can be done. Let’s imagine for example that Obama has all data that he needs. Researchers have made some pretty charts and tables showing him the projected increase of the amount of CO2 and the rise of the level of oceans. Let’s say bye bye to Hawaii, let’s watch New York becoming the new Venice. And Obama keeps sitting at his desk and cries and then pumps another billion dollars in the armament industry. And what does he think then? Fuck the flood in Luisiana, I’ve never really liked it, the important thing is that we’ll finish with some guys in flip-flops on the desert. This is who threatens American dreams, not the Koch brothers and not the relentless desire to eat meat.” So, to be honest, I don’t think that he thinks so. I rather suspect that Gen. Keith Alexander comes to him and explains: Don’t worry, mate. We’ll soon build a perpetuum mobile, we’ll have an unlimited source of energy and you’ll soon be able to tell the oil barons to go fuck themselves. Maybe you’ll even succeed in introducing your Obamacare, but I still don’t know what for.
And what do mediocre people think? Those that I’ve met recently think for example that the scientists exaggerate. Not so long ago they predicted that London will be flooded by tones of shit, because of the excessive number of horse cabs.
And what then? Then the cars were invented. Scientists could say that London is still being flooded by shit but in gaseous state. Air pollution will soon exceed smoking on the charts of factors leading to the lung cancer, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Yet we have already concluded that the scientists exaggerate, didn’t we? Thanks God there are another brave scientists who instead of exaggerating and depriving people of hope keep working on brave new atomic piles. Or even more exciting things. At least we hope so. So maybe we should be deprived of that hope?
People also think that it’s impossible for a man to harm nature so much in such a short period of time. We are just too weak for that. The ocean level may be rising, but it has always been like that, the world has always been changing. Maybe the species keep dying, but we still need to eat something.
I agree at that point. It’s difficult to prohibit eating. Yet to some people it should be prohibited. But it is still impossible. We can’t even impose taxes on these people, so how could we make them go on a diet? Prohibiting things is easier when it comes to poor people. And that’s extremely awful.
Australian government is trying to discourage people form smoking. So the cigarettes cost about $15. I couldn’t believe it as producing a packet of cigarettes costs a few pennies (in Australia maybe a bit more, because of high costs of labour).Yet this was true. To rich, of course, it doesn’t matter. But for poor it is quite a lot. Thanks to this idea some people may actually give up smoking. But as far as I know, when it comes to oil there are no such restrictions. It’s funny that the government that is doing its best to destroy the Great Coral Reef completely takes so good care of its citizens. This care is actually so good that soon in Australia there will be no one but citizens with healthy lungs. Or maybe just a bit unhealthy because of the polluted air. Yet not because of cigarettes. So maybe it would be easier to impose taxes on those who burn oil rather than on those who smoke?
All in all, the awareness of the harmfulness of smoking has become widespread. So maybe the awareness of the fact that consuming oil is not such a good idea will also get to every house? The trick is that even though living without smoking is perfectly possible to imagine (and billions of people do this), living without oil is not very possible. Maybe it’s done by some guys wearing flip-flops on the desert.
But maybe not. Yet their flip-flops are made of something. And if it’s not human skin it surely is oil.
Now I’m going to get some beer. Korean, because it’s the cheapest here. It’s cheaper to import the beer from Korea, where the labour cost is low. Air pollution comes for free. Yet air is also for free. Maybe it shouldn’t anymore?

Nature in the sky: a sixpenny song for Billy Bragg

[map 42 - Singapore]

[map 42 - Singapore]




When the rich get richer

and pretty as a Monet picture

when the common touch

don’t mean that much

we’ll build nature in the sky


with palm trees and grass

and a deck-chair for the arse

we’ll enjoy the show

dying down there below

from our nature eyrie  in the sky


When you don’t count

and cannot amount

to a lump of coal

in a mining hole

or my ode to nature in the sky


we’ll kiss the world goodbye


Tony Birch


Remembering Steven – walk number two

[map 33 - Yarra Trail, Kew, Victoria, Australia]

[map 33 - Yarra Trail, Kew, Victoria, Australia]

I set out with the intention to begin my walk at the Kew Billabong (more on that later). I studied the transport maps and worked out I needed to catch the number 48 tram to Balwyn and get off at stop number 33. I’ve been feeling lightheaded and pleasantly spacey. (I have felt the world too big of late, and kept myself small.) I caught the 109 tram by mistake. I didn’t realise my error until the tram was about to verge to the right instead of ploughing straight on. I jumped off the tram and decided to walk the remaining journey. Within a few minutes, I was standing at the gates of Kew Cemetery. Not my intended destination, but the place where one of my closest teenage friends, Steven Ward, has been buried for 35 years. I loved Steven. We lived on the same public housing estate and went everywhere together; most particularly to the Yarra River, the backyard of our childhood.

Deciding I couldn’t walk by the cemetery without visiting Steven’s grave, I went inside. I had visited him many times before, and was surprised that I couldn’t locate the grave. It angered me. I felt negligent. And guilty. It was as if I had forgotten him.

Determined not to give up, I walked the lanes in the section of the cemetery where I knew Steven was resting. I passed the graves of the old and young, married couples and entire families. Just when I was about to quit the search, I found myself standing in front of Steven’s tombstone. It was a bittersweet discovery, like frantically searching for the face of a loved one in a crowd, finding that face and experiencing its disappearance at the same time. I sat down and cried, not surprisingly, and unashamedly. Was it a fortuitous detour? I guess so. After all, I had been heading to our place. There was no question that Steven would come walking with me.

[map 33 - Kew Cemetery, Victoria, Australia]

[map 34 - Kew Cemetery, Victoria, Australia]

I stopped on a bridge above the Eastern Freeway – a river for cars. Victoria has a freeway fetish, matched only by our fetish for cars. I can spit further than the distance some people drive to work of a morning. A freeway flows reasonably around lunchtime when it’s quiet. During peak times, Melbourne’s freeways block up like an old sewer, and the state is forever on the lookout for solutions – of a limited kind. While Melbourne’s public transport system struggles with ageing infrastructure, each time a major road artery clogs beyond repair, we choose a bypass; a new artery with a limited lifespan before it too requires major surgery. Our latest transport solution is the proposed East-West Link, a tunnel that will burrow deep beneath the ground, welding two freeway systems together. Most cars travelling through the link on workdays will carry solitary drivers. I expect that eventually they will spend a lot of time in the tunnel talking to themselves.

[map 34 - Eastern Freeway; Melbourne, Australia]

[map 35 - Eastern Freeway; Melbourne, Australia]

It took me no time to leave the traffic behind and find myself at the Kew Billabong. The billabong is the remnant of a vast wetland that once dominated the landscape. It was home to a vast array of birds and animal species, few of which remain. (Although programs to provide a suitable habitat for birds is ongoing). The billabong is an important cultural and spiritual place for the Wurundjeri people, the Aboriginal nation of greater Melbourne. They are a remarkable community. Faced with the onslaught of the British occupation of their land from 1835, the Wurundjeri’s courage, intellect and ingenuity has ensured that their knowledge of, and claim on land remains vital to sites such as this.

[map 38 - Welcome to Wurunjeri Country]

[map 36 - 'Welcome to Wurundjeri Country']

When we were kids, we would ride out to the billabong on summer afternoons. The bikes we rode were put together affairs, assembled from bits and pieces we scrounged from around the streets. There were no bike paths in those days, very few people out walking their dogs, no freeways bulldozing our wayward days, and no signs welcoming visitors to Aboriginal country. But still we played the game of Aborigines every chance we got. Our blood was strong, but our skin, burnt brick-red by the sun, would never do. We would begin the game by jumping naked into the billabong, scooping up handfuls of mud at the water’s edge and smearing it across our bodies. We went black face, I guess. But all for a good cause. We were wild and did not want to be civilised or assimilated. We hid our faces from progress. In the billabong, we were safe. While we imagined spearing anyone who dare invade our country, we were sure we would never grow and never die. As long as we stayed in that water.

[map 37 - Kew Billabong, Victoria, Australia]

[map 37 - Kew Billabong, Victoria, Australia]

The billabong could not hold us, and we did grow. We roamed the river for miles and claimed all of it as our own, with little competition, as the river was unloved and neglected by others. We would sit on along her muddy bank, smoking cigarettes and singing to her. The river wanted to know that we loved her, and tested us at every opportunity. One summer we pledged to jump from each and every bridge from the city centre to the Pipe Bridge, the last bridge along the river before the billabong. Jumping into the water from 60 feet above its surface should have created fear. It never did. Even deep in the blackness and pockets of chill, I was sure the river would hold us true. If you have never jumped, let me share a secret with you.  In the space between your feet leaving the safety of the railing and hitting the water, there is a moment of genuine flight – everything stops, except your imagination.

[map 38 - Pipe Bridge, Fairfield, Victoria, Australia]

[map 38 - Pipe Bridge, Fairfield, Victoria, Australia]

And then the saddest day arrives. Some of your river has been taken from you, and destroyed by those fools in suits who love freeways. And those other fools who would rather sit, stuck, immobilised, in capsules spewing shit into the air. Other parts of your river have been opened up with pathways, bikeways and walkways.

You have a choice. You can share the river with others, and their dogs, and their frisbees, and kites, and expensive baby strollers. Or you can leave and carry the river and the soul of your teenage friend with you. All you can do is leave behind an epitaph for those who will never know the river as you do. Maybe you don’t want to admit it. Maybe you can’t face up to a truth; these new people who come to your river may just love it too. Yes, that’s the hardest truth of all. You do not own this place. And you cannot – if what is left of the river is to be cared for and saved.

[map39 - epitaph to the Lost Boys - beneath Chandler Bridge, Kew, Victoria, Australia]

[map 39 - Epitaph to the lost boys - beneath Chandler Bridge, Kew, Victoria, Australia]

You return home, to the falls. The river you love – this is her heartbeat. As the water rushes over the falls, the vibration shakes the ground. It is good to know that she is alive. Just when you are feeling as selfish as a stupid man can be, thinking, ‘why don’t these people just fuck off and give my river back to me,’ a serendipitous sound shifts against the sandstone steps on the far bank. You think it is a trick. A deception tugging at your deep sense of loss – for your people, for your loved boyhood friend who shared the water with you with his gleaming skin and velvet hair.

But it is not a trick. It is an offering from another visitor, standing by the water offering a song. For the river. And for me. I wave across the water to him and say ‘thank you.’ I leave knowing that I am the only fool today. I am the one who needs to know. I need to know that the places we love are not ours to covet. They are not ours at all. We belong to them.

[map 40 - Sax Man, Dights Falls, Victoria, Australia]

[map 40 - Sax Man, Dights Falls, Victoria, Australia]

An epilogue

I leave the river thinking that thinking about the walk and the river is over. There is nothing more to write about. My journey ended perfectly, at my favourite corner of the world, and with a perfect end to a piece of writing about walking, and places, and generosity – all thanks to the mysterious sax player.

And then I come across a wall. Separating me from the river of cars. And I discover an act, the art of defiance.  This place lives. So, let’s end here instead.

[map 41 - Freeway Wall, Abbotsford, Victoria, Australia]

[map 41 - Freeway Wall, Abbotsford, Victoria, Australia]

 Tony Birch

Why do optimists make me sick

DSC02430When I was standing nearby the shop on one of the busiest streets in Melbourne, a young man that looked a bit like a mini version of 50 Cent asked me if I could sell him a cigarette for a coin that he held in his hand. I said that I had no cigarettes, so I couldn’t sell him any. He probably didn’t take my words seriously, because even though he went away, he came back in a while and asked me for a cigarette again. That time he didn’t want to pay. I repeated that I had no cigarettes and that I had only the one that I was smoked. He didn’t believe me. I was trying to explain that I left the tobacco in the hotel, because I left only for a while to smoke. Still he didn’t seem very convinced. He didn’t even ask, he demanded.

-Do you wanna get hurt? – he repeated a few times as if it was a question requiring further consideration.

He finally believed me that I had no tobacco, because he suggested that I gave him the cigarette that I was smoking. I didn’t want to. I got out of the hotel to smoke and not to give my cigarette to some aggressive guy. Yet I didn’t want to fight. Although I used to take part in Krav Maga classes and I knew that I would succeed. However, the second rule of Krav Maga is: “If you find yourself in a dangerous place or situation, go away as soon as possible”. I decided to employ this rule. I got into the shop and I was wondering what to buy for so long that the guy went away.

DSC01687I’ve been attacked on the street lots of times, but nobody has ever tried to beat me up to get a half of a cigarette. An addiction is a really bad thing. And cigarettes in Australia are extremely expensive. It doesn’t surprise me at all that the children of immigrants cannot afford them. Yet I won’t suggest the boy that he should quit smoking. He probably doesn’t have too much pleasure in life so breathing in carbon monoxide, tar, polonium 210, prussic acid and five thousands of other poisonous substances may be for him one of rare occasions to get some relax. He was probably brought up in a violent environment, as he reacts in an aggressive way to the refusal. I felt sorry for him and I would have given him this cigarette. If only I had had it. But I really didn’t have. Maybe I should have suggested that I would got to the hotel and bring a joint for him? Yet his aggressive behaviour discouraged me from being sympathetic.

If people who are refused to get a cigarette behave this way, let’s imagine what will they do if they are refused to use fossil fuels. Possibly lots of them have also been brought up in violent environments and have problems with controlling their aggression. The brave and benevolent employers would get seriously beaten up. Another sad thing is that the alternative for this massacre is making millions on mining for carbon, gas and oil. Which, mas we all know, harms our planet, but let’s be optimistic. We’ll deal with it somehow for sure. For example artificial volcanos exhaling sulphates to the atmosphere that will disperse solar radiation and lower the temperature on Earth. We have actually invented them, Yet they are difficult to create, extremely expensive and also nobody knows what consequences would exhaling tones of sulphates to the atmosphere bring about. But there are suspicions that it would lead to an ecocatastrophe. Fighting an excessive emission of greenhouse gases wih the use of other gases doesn’t sound like a brilliant idea. Yet it was seriously discussed, particularly because of the fact that the procedures aimed at lowering the level of CO2 in the air are not very effective. Or rather ineffective. Even though we know the threat better and better, the level of emission rises each year. And it is not going to stop soon. Even if we lowered it somehow (haha, sorry, I don’t think so), the changes that have already taken place are irreversible. We can only reduce harm. That’s why optimists make me sick.

And in Australia there are lots of optimists. Maybe because of that during the debate on climate change none of the experts and activists answered my question: “Assuming that we can’t avoid global warming and ecocatastrophe, what should we do? Where should we move? What should we buy?”. Even though nobody answered me, I don’t care about it too much. I will soon get to know this. We will all get to know.

DSC01952Despite of that fact lots of scientists that we met, after showing us some data reflecting the bad condition of the environment, suggested that we shouldn’t be pessimistic, because there is a whole lot of optimistic ideas. For example, the aforementioned artificial volcanos. Most of the activists were also optimistic. The conservative right wing claiming the greenhouse effects to be bullshit may be ruling, but we should not give up. We have to explain it to them. Maybe they’ll understand something one day.

Ok, the woman from Greenpeace was not an optimist, She claimed that she sometimes considers herself as a a climate denier, as having all the knowledge that she has, she doesn’t drop bombs on the mines. Yet she still acts as if anything could be changes by regular methods, even though the facts show it can’t. Enchaining people to the machines can stop the work in the mine for some hours, but it won’t stop the harm done to the environment. The only positive effect is arresting the participants of the protests. But how many times can they get arrested? A lot, I suppose, but the fact that all the malicious trends that are fought against actually keep growing may be discouraging. Nothing threatens the progress. Or at least there is no visible force that could stop it. Except of the global ecocatastrophe, of course. The planet will defend itself and smash the pest. I’m only sad that I belong to the race of pests and predators. But what can I do. Maybe some more intelligent species will come after us. Professor Jan Zalasewicz bets that rats.

PS: Meanwhile in Australia, because of the global warming, in a way, the sheeps commit mass suicides.

Tell it to the bees

Image: Louise Docker

Image: Louise Docker

From the Australian journal

The lovely light over Melbourne that first morning: as though the whole south of the world would be nothing but pale blue. I hadn’t yet seen a bird, but all night long I’d heard the twitter of an air conditioner from the roof of the neighboring apartment tower, exactly like a flock of budgies were roosting there. A sudden loud swell of windmill sails, perhaps a dream, but then a fire siren came racing down the chasms of the streets. It took me a day and a half to fly halfway round the world, from Abu Dhabi on over Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean, past Perth and Adelaide. To wake up in such light … to wake up just once like that from the unreality in your life. From spring I flew into fall. Where was the summer en route?

I observed vast cloud fields in Melbourne, mostly flooding in from the west over the Yarra River. They seem inconceivably swift, even when the wind barely stirs the treetops. Darkness falls quickly, dusk lasting barely twenty minutes, and the weather is just as quick to change. A cool rainy morning is followed by a radiant noon, an afternoon rent by gusts of wind and darkened by towering clouds, an evening in whose orange-red sky frigate birds circle.

Climate seems to me a much larger, more complex and sweeping story than the one which I follow, which I have read ever since I can remember. I am probably a hopeless empiricist, certainly an incorrigible altruist. I read the weather, following it daily, more or less happy with rain, rain, rain; in Hamburg, after all, three hundred days of rain at a stretch are no cause for despair. In my writing, in my characters’ thoughts, feelings and actions and in the images, allusions and music of my poetry, the weather plays at least as important a role as psychology, morals, doubt or imagination. Weather for me is a constitutive factor. Climate, to be perfectly honest, does not exist for me. I couldn’t even say what is meant by the word. For me, climate is to weather much as religion is to faith. The religious is beyond my knowledge, my comprehension, my interest. Faith is of existential significance for me, a dialogue, a test, a foothold, a framework for life.

Am I a climate sceptic, then? Yes. Yes and no. Or actually no, I think not, only that the climate-change-sceptic climate makes me skeptical. Doubts are barely permitted any more, and yet they are only appropriate. Doubts are necessary – not, however, doubts in the fact that the earth’s climates, the life in rivers and seas, the airs and the forests, the life of plants and animals, the lives of peoples in cities and in the countryside is at the brink of a sweeping and, it is to be feared, long-since unstoppable upheaval. Rather, I have my doubts in the way in which we have grown used to speaking of it, this so-called climate change. For no dialogue is taking place. All we hear and hold are monologues.

In this sense, for me talking about climate change means talking about the reasons for this absence of dialogue among the spheres of research, science, politics, art and society. Here is a situation in which people are incapable of communicating, though all of us face a common peril: losing the basis of our own existence and that of our children and their children. How can this be? I believe that talking about climate change means first of all talking about a climate of fear. It seems to me that only narratives, stories of individuals’ experiences and visions can enable us to achieve an understanding of something as all-encompassing, as unfathomable as this transformation of the world into an inhospitable and unreal place.

“Tell it to the bees” is an old Australian proverb. When you have something on your mind, and you try to share it with someone who has no inclination, no time, no patience for it, he’ll tell you to tell it to the bees, who seem to understand everything magically and fly off at once to make honey from your secret.

Don’t give up. Tell it to the bees.

Image: Todd Huffman

Image: Todd Huffman

One grey morning I travel to the Yarra Valley. The landscape is gentle and hilly, densely forested; I see more and more of the eucalyptus trees so typical of Victoria, among them the gigantic mountain ash, rearing up from the forest canopy like leafy towers. But abruptly – just as I begin to compare the landscape with the Black Forest, the Hudson Valley, the Vosges or Thuringia – the landscape opens up, the woodlands end and prairies stretch out between seemingly endless rows of vineyards.
In the Healesville Sanctuary I am shown mountain pygmy-possums, barely larger than mice. They are not disturbed in their beginning hibernation when the young biologist takes one and lays it in her cupped hand. It nestles in. The pygmy possum, says Jill, feeding the animal with a cannula, no longer exists, strictly speaking. It was thought to be extinct until skiers happened upon a tiny colony in the Victorian Alps.
She fills another cannula from a honey jar and leads me into an aviary; there among all the finches and parrots I feel like an emu. A little black and yellow bird with a long pointed beak and a vibrant yellow crest lands on Jill’s hand. It seems trusting, yet as though it lives at such a different speed than I that it does not even perceive me, its potential enemy. Several times I’m forced to dodge so that it doesn’t try to fly straight through me. Perched on Jill’s fist, it drinks honey from the cannula and gazes at me like a large hummingbird that has strayed into my perceptual grid, eyes dark as Emily Dickinson’s in the only two extant photos of her.
It whirs away, enough of the hand, enough of the honey from the plastic bill. In the whole world there are thirty-nine members of its species left, thirty-two of them in Healesville. Four of them sit on a branch in front of me, a tenth of the entire Helmeted Honeyeater population.
Jill tells me about projects to release the animals back into the wild with tracking devices, of futile endeavors to protect the Honeyeater, bereft of its habitat, from birds of prey. They do not recognize raptors as enemies, any more than they do me. She tells me of aviary experiments, of Honeyeaters and raptors in the same cage, of artificial raptor noise meant to frighten birds much too friendly for this world, of protective blankets beneath which they learn to be wary and hide; she tells of charts, analyses, new possibilities, serene, without a trace of sadness.

In the Australian I read that ten of every hundred North American bee colonies died off in the winter before last; last winter it was twenty three of every hundred. What causes the colony collapse? Is it accidentally-introduced mites, monocultures, forest and bush fires, deforestation and other forms of environmental destruction, or are extreme temperatures responsible?
“Fast ausgestorben” in German is a euphemism. The English expression “nearly extinct”, used over and over in the Healesville Sanctuary, is all the more apt for its cool reserve. German has nothing but martial expressions, commensurate to the subject, but too subjective and thus unhelpful, like “wiped out”, “eradicated”, “exterminated”; they ambush you with guilt, making you turn away to flee complicity.

The Black Saturday bushfires eradicated the towns of Kinglake and Marysville in Yarra Valley. A small museum in the neighboring town of Lilydale has a permanent exhibition, “The Art of Response”, recalling the fires of February 7, 2009. One hundred and seventy-three people died in the fires, thousands lost their homes, countless animals perished, and entire swaths of land, once abundant in vegetation – including often century-old mountain-ash trees, whose oils make them burn like tinder – were razed by a juggernaut of flames that rose hundreds of yards in the air, rumbling down into the primeval valley of the Yarra.
“The Art of Response” is an eloquent name for an exhibition which consciously foregrounds works by local artists and students. Such was the force of the fire, it seems, that those who survived the catastrophe of Kinglake and Marysville believed only they themselves and those closest to them could find words or images for it. Age, profession, education are irrelevant. The magnitude of the trauma, both individual and collective, is rendered imaginable by means of harrowing distillation. This trauma was and remains part of the fire, smoldering on within, blazing in the silence; the objects that survived the flames, displayed in Lilydale’s museum, are not only fraught with memories, they are the truest reflections of a spirit in which Black Saturday remains branded.
A garden gnome perches in a glass case like a Japanese teapot glazed with fly ash. Bottles slumped to half their size, glasses bent crooked in air in excess of 1300º, vases baked down to lumps are displayed. The case of a Canon camera, blown up like a metal balloon, is filled with ashy powder. I read that the camera belonged to a woman who sought refuge from the flames by climbing into the drinking water tank in her garden.
An amateur video recorded by Daryl Hall, who lived in Marysville until the town was destroyed, shows the fire consuming trees, houses, stables, cars, and everything else besides. There are images in that film that have changed my view of the world and its possibilities. They convey what it must have been like to be delivered up to a conflagration that seemed to have seized the very clouds.
Daryl Hall makes no comments on his video. Only in one brief sequence, recorded the day after the bushfire, does he breathlessly name familiar places in town, places which even he must struggle to recognize. His silence has great urgency; I find it forceful, defiant and comforting. And if you listen closely, you keep hearing a soft, perplexing singsong – it is unclear what in fact is producing it, the fiery wind or the man with the camera. In the words of the Melbourne poet Emma Lew: “Learn from a child’s panic: / Song means that you breathe.” Point by point, point by point, and so on and so on, singing all the while, softly, to yourself, for the image, the image of the land, drawing humming breath and placing point by point upon the image to make it an image in the first place, as the Aborigine clans do, down thousands of generations.

The wind is powerful in the Melbourne region. Within a week it altered my image of wind fundamentally. In early February 2009 southern Australia had gone through months of temperatures as high as 46º Celsius. Water shortage, drought, plus fierce, hot wind. Who wouldn’t panic? And then there is the proclivity of individuals to prey on a precarious situation, if only to forget their own existential fear or to counter it with some eruptive reality. A scenario full of fatal possibilities.
The fire complex of Kinglake and Marysville developed out of two earlier fires that merged when the wind changed. The area that burned was the size of a New Jersey surrounded by walls of flame and flattened by a flame juggernaut.
Investigators have concluded that the fire was caused by arson. But the bush fires that devastated Yarra Valley have also been blamed on environmental organizations and green politicians who supposedly prohibited prophylactic controlled burns which had been practiced for centuries, going back to the Aborigines. Instead of seeking the alleged arsonists, it was claimed, the true culprits should be pilloried. It seems impossible to conduct a debate about the climate, its changes and their consequences, without at the same time speaking of people’s evidently changeless fears. Rooted in greed, destructiveness and self-interest, they constitute just as unpredictable a factor in the climate debate as do envy, presumption and indifference.

It took seventeen minutes for the rainstorm of February 17, 1972 to sweep Melbourne and transform Elizabeth Street, a main artery that runs north-south to the city center and down to the Yarra River, back into the creek which in the early 19th century still wound its way down the northern slopes to empty into the river sacred to the Wurundjeri and Bunurong.
In the legends of the Kulin, the aborigines of what is now Victoria, it was the eagle Bunjil – creator of the mountains, waters, plants and animals, and of the laws by which humans are meant to live – who formed the river by flying across the hilly land and scoring the ground with one claw. That was the origin of Birrarung, as the Wurundjeri call the Yarra River.
In modern, commercial Melbourne, the Yarra is nothing but a waterway, regulated and diverted when necessary over the course of two hundred years, used to death, in many places little more than a fishless, polluted cloaca, at best with a romantic or idyllic veneer. Embedded in the concrete banks of the CBD, the “central business district”, it is monitored for its powerful current and watched for the numerous floods, which can swell the harmless-seeming stream to considerable breadth, making lakes spring up in the middle of the city.
The old Flinders Street Station still stands on the banks of the Yarra. Here the first British settlers arrived, not by train, for the train never crossed the Indian Ocean, but with sailing vessels that came up the Birrarung and cast anchor here. There was no harbor – the Kulin needed none, the whole valley was their harbor. Where Brunswick, Carlton and other suburbs now grow out into the countryside, the creek rushed down the hills to the river.
There was a lagoon.

Melbourne at dusk. Image: 2Careless

Melbourne at dusk. Image: 2Careless

At the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, researchers lecture on the decline of seaweed and kelp along the Eastern Australian coast, a phenomenon ascribed to the warming and acidification of the oceans and the rising water level, and connected with the extinction of the coral reefs.
“We lost the kelp forests.” The wording makes me wonder what “we” is meant here. Photos show the “forests” which grow, or once grew, to a height of sixty meters underwater. They harbored countless, often previously-unknown life forms, and were subject to currents that could be described as submarine storms. New designs for wave power plants are presented, seaweed cultivation on land in vast fields of containers. The fear is something I don’t want to pass over, the wave fear, the seaweed fear, the fear of straying into a kelp forest while swimming in the sea and losing yourself there forever.
“Do you see any grounds left for optimism?” The marine biologist smiled. “No”, she said soberly, “too much has been lost for that. But it would be awful if I’d stop seeing the meaning in my work, and lose my joy in it. You can’t just withdraw from the game.”
No, we won’t give up. We’ll tell it to the bees!

Meg, an environmental activist from Greenpeace Australia Pacific in Sydney, speaks of the gulf between facts and feeling. She is in her mid-fifties, radiating anger as much as sorry. She spent the past several days in prison following protests against the clearance of large parts of Leard State Forest, an attempt by the Whitehaven coal company to expedite the opening of the Maules Creek Mine. Maules Creek is Aborigine land; the Gomeroi have lived for thousands of years in the forested region that is home to around four hundred rare and endangered plant and animal species. The coal from Maules Creek will be exported to China.
Meg speaks openly of profit-driven crimes. But she also tells of the power of stories, the magic of poetry, and how both enable us to reach people of every culture.
Meg is first person in all these meetings, lectures, conversations and tours who does not hesitate to use the word “God”. She talks about the faith of the inhabitants of Kiribati, a Polynesian island nation. For scientists, the anticipated rise in sea level leaves no doubt that the islands, each of them rising just a few yards above the sea, will be flooded. However, the inhabitants refuse to leave their islands, appealing to traditional tales and the Bible to justify their decision. In Kiribati there is no doubt about God’s pronouncement: never again will a flood sweep the earth.
Meg tells of Bangladesh. She asked women there what relief supplies they needed the most, and the women of the coastal region requested mobile ovens which they could take with them when fleeing the next flood.
She tells of the sounds of Alaska. The Eskimos’ names for native birds imitate their cries or songs, and for a long time now the Inuit have been discussing what to do with the names when the birds no longer exist.
She tells of the Wurundjeri Aborigines, only around a thousand of whom have survived expulsions and massacres, half of them in reservations, cut off from animals, trees, rivers, their land, and thus from their legends and their culture, their dreaming. The Wurundjeri say: “We won’t die out. We refuse.”
We won’t give up. We’ll tell it to the bees.

Image: Vipin Baliga

Image: Vipin Baliga

Greed, selfishness and destructive frenzy, sanctimony, ignorance and malevolence, all the shades of fear seen in the disputes about the causes and consequences of climate change – none of it lets me forget the courage, the tenacity, the inventiveness and composure with which many bring to the challenging task of starting a conversation which no one can claim does not concern them. It is a conversation, I believe, that takes place not just among us humans. Seen poetically, climate change is a conversation demanded of us with great urgency by the world, nature, creation.
Naturally, that is poetry. How is this supposed to work – telling something to the bees? Recently I read about the tropical researcher Carlos de la Rosa, who on the Puerto Viejo River in Costa Rica managed to photograph a large orange-red butterfly and a wild bee drinking tears from the eyes of a crocodile. De la Rosa discovered that French researchers had observed something similar on the Amazon in Ecuador: there a solitary bee drank from the eyes of a river turtle. Headed by Hans Bänziger at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, researchers have recorded around three hundred such observations worldwide. The insects are seeking salt; that much seems clear. In a self-experiment, Hans Bänziger was able to prove that they drink from human eyes as well. As they drank his tears, he reported, the bees could barely be felt.

(Translation: Isabel Fargo Cole)

Reflection On Interesting Times

What sort of narrative does Climate Change have?

In the time of the Renaissance, the great artists were often also the great scientists: like Leonardo Da Vinci, like Michelangelo. In the East, the great emperors in many cases were poets and artists. But in the last century, when capitalism came to dominance and swallowed other social forms, science and art began to separate from each other.

This phenomenon was more significant in Europe and the USA than it was in other parts of the world, and the competition in the industrialised system has now cornered our artists and scientists into narrow definitions of their profession. Thus writers and artists have become more and more self-indulgent, and scientists more and more dry and incomprehensible.

But now there seems to be a turning point. The subject of climate change is now beginning to bring science and art back together. ‘Weatherfronts’, the two-day conference organised by Tipping Point and held this June at London’s Free Word Centre brought together a hundred writers, poets, scientists and politicians in an intense discussion about culture and politics. A writer myself, I have never seen such a mingling of the literary and scientific worlds at any event.

Elsewhere in the UK, the Dark Mountain movement, based just outside of Oxford, has been making waves in intellectual communities. The group wrote a beautiful manifesto addressing the relationship between our inward-looking world of literature and the future of humanity in the context of our self-destructive consumer society. They quoted the words of 19th century American thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization’, which echoes strongly the problem in our age – the age of the Anthropocene*.


According to a current study, the next generation of the UK’s population will live shorter lives than their parents, because of the combined effects of our food industry and the severe contamination of our food chains. The worst thing is that our current economic system presents itself as the solution to all our problems, and the politicians sell us the same idea, while the scientists have insisted that there is great uncertainty about our future – let alone the future beyond the human world. The echelons of power, wielding the ever-widening net of capitalism, aren’t interested in the scientific message. But our only future lies beyond the corporate world.

However, not everything is a reason for gloom. My recent trip to Australia, and especially to the Great Barrier Reef, is far more than a grey memory. When looking at the bleached and dying coral in the water in front of us, we writers all felt mournful, until a group of Sydney and Melbourne-based scientists told us that in ten years time the coral will have moved south. At some point, Sydney and Melbourne will have lots of coral growing along their shores. The scientists said: ‘Nature has a way of adjusting its eco systems in the course of history, and there are always many factors that can lead to utterly unpredictable outcomes.’ Well, I don’t take these words as a comfort, but rather, as a mysterious hint that forces us to open ourselves up: to think about the wide blue yonder beyond our trivial reality.

Here and now, I look around at our limited urban reality. Although surrounded by fast cars and traffic lights, there are still many tree lovers in these cities and towns, and I am one of them. I love the nature worshippers of the Amazon forests. I love the stories of Australian Aboriginals who sang their song lines and knew all the waterways of their lands. And I love a certain feminist who bought a patch of rainforest land in the South Hemisphere and planted hundreds of thousands of trees. If we can all love nature in a truthful way, or to use another phrase – love it intensely, I cannot see why our world will always be as messed up as it is now.

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