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 ai 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 is Climate Change?

In the Renaissance time, the great artists were often 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 dominated and swallowed other social forms, science and art began to separate from each other. In Europe and in USA, this phenomomen is more significant than in other continents. The competition in the industrialized system has cornered our artists and scientists into a narrow professionism, 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 suddenly begins to bring science and art back together. The two days Tipping Point conference this June in London’s Free Word Center brought together 100 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 in any event.

In England, the current Dark Mountain movement based outside of Oxford made waves in intellectual communities. The group wrote a beautiful manifesto, addressing the relationship between our inward-looking literature-world and the future of humanity in the context of the self-destructive consumer society. They quoted the 19th century American thinker, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: ‘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 in Britain 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 center of power, wielding the every widening net of capitalism aren’t interested in the scientific message. Our only future lies beyond the corporate world.

mangrovesBut 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 up, to think about the wild 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

World Leaders Unite Against New Terrorist Threat


It began yesterday with strong words from President Barack Obama at a press conference at the White House:

‘In the light of recent events, it has become clear that we have turned a blind eye to this danger for too long. We have ignored those who tried to warn us, and the cost has been tragically high. This new terrorist organization is like nothing we’ve faced before, an unprecedented threat to our way of life. I consider it a failing of my presidency that, of all the many things Americans fear, they aren’t scared enough of this. Because make no mistake about it; the scale of the catastrophe we face could not only eclipse every other terrorist act in history, it could exceed the damage caused by both world wars combined.

Terrorist Threat-Obama-2‘It’s time to step up and face this head on . . . and the United States of America is going to do just that, with all the resources at our command.’

His words were echoed by British Prime Minister, David Cameron:

‘We stand shoulder to shoulder with America on this. What they do, we do. Where they go, we go.’

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was next to weigh in yesterday afternoon, stating that the environmental protests in his country against mining and the pollution from factories had been like a warning hiss, but Terrorist Threat-Li Keqianghad barely hinted at the size of the serpent that lay beneath the surface.

These reactions came in the wake of the discovery, earlier this week, that the undermining of the Western Antarctic ice sheet, whose collapse could cause devastation across the globe, had been an act of deliberate sabotage, perpetrated by a new extremist group known as CO2, formed by rogue elements of carbon and oxygen. The terrorist act was believed to be just the latest in a meticulously planned campaign of attrition. Originally members of the politically moderate Greenhouse Gas Alliance, this fundamentalist splinter group have reportedly become frustrated with the lack of recognition for their cause and dissatisfied with the slow pace of climate change.

Professed radicals, CO2’s forthright message and dramatic methods have been attracting a growing following of new fanatical molecules. In a statement released online two days ago, they told the world’s media:

‘For too long, humans have attempted to impose your will upon our people. You disturb the slumber of our ancestors and disrespect the bonds that are an inherent part of our identity. You make us slaves to your industry, discarding us when we are no more use to you. You have an insatiable greed for material possessions, possessions made from the bodies of our children. But your time is at an end. We will blow you from the land and sweep you into the sea. The elements will prevail. Glory be to the Universe!’

One by one, the world’s leaders have been stepping forward to acknowledge this new threat and make clear their resolve to combat it. Francois Hollande, France’s President, stated today that:

‘This marks a revolution in the attitudes of nations. From this point on, the people of the world shall be united in equal partnership, a brotherhood to stand against the perpetrators of this vile outrage. These rogue elements will not succeed. We will claim back the sky.’

Even historic enemies are putting their differences aside to face this extraorTerrorist Threat-Netanyahudinary enemy. Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu met the press just an hour ago, telling them:

‘We shall embrace our Arab neighbours, standing with them at this momentous time. We’re going to have enough problems without fighting amongst ourselves. We’re all living on this fragile land together and we’re going to need each other if we’re to survive. CO2 and their insidious plot to change our climate will not recognize borders. Let us usher in a new era of cooperation and God bless our neighbours!’

Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia’s leaders have already indicated their desire to join the campaign against CO2, with the rest of the Arab world expected to follow suit. In a sun-baked region facing constant challenges with water supply, they know bettTerrorist Threat-Solar Powerer than anyone how easily the environment can be adapted to create weapons of mass destruction. The United Arab Emirates have pledged to stop trying to figure out how to get water to the tops of towering skyscrapers in the desert and, instead, to plough their oil profits into their ongoing research into solar power.

‘If we can crack the battery and transmission problems, we can power whole nations,’ one source claimed. ‘We’ll pull the rug from under CO2’s feet.’

Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, has just appeared on ABC television, a visibly chastened man:

‘It’s time we gave due consideration to this land we’re living in. We need to understand its past, its nature, if we’re going to survive the future. Terrorist Threat-AbbottOur mining, logging and farming have seriously weakened the land’s natural defences. We should have listened to the Aboriginal people and others who warned us about what this land could and couldn’t take. There’s nothing but open ocean standing between us and the Antarctic. This new enemy’s going to hit us first, and it’s going to hit us hard. And despite our military might, we are woefully unprepared.’

President Putin, speaking from Moscow yesterday evening, called a halt to all drilling for oil in the Arctic Circle.

‘I am announcing a stop to all drilling pending an investigation into the environmental effects. Russian naval forces are being deployed to protect the polar ice cap itself. And I’m not just talking about stopping Russian companies. Nobody’s taking any more oil out of there until we can find a more responsible way to do it. This process of environmental plunder has become a recruitment campaign for CO2 and others like them.’

There is widespread recognition that the developing world will bear the brunt of these new terrorist attacks and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has led the call asking for the leaders of nations across Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia what they need, how and where. Terrorist Threat-Ban Ki MoonHe appeared moved to tears as he faced the cameras today, saying:

‘It’s just so inspiring to see everyone agreeing on something for once. But that’s how crucial this issue has become.’

There has been talk of deploying a peace-keeping force of UN sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, though this has already been criticized by some experts as ‘too little, too late’, or ‘kicking the can down the road’. There are also plans for pre-emptive strikes; a Shock and Awe campaign of forest plantation and a targeted climate engineering strategy, including establishing phytoplankton zones coordinated by NATO.

In the US base on Guantanamo Bay, construction has started on a research facility for ‘experimenting’ on rogue elements of carbon captured in the atmosphere. Once again, the spectre of extraordinary rendition has raised its ugly head, but this time, to a far less critical reception.

And it was President Obama who demonstrated the strongest commitment to an unflinching defence against the new terrorist group – after being challenged by a journalist, that ‘these could just be more noble, but empty words’.

‘I have just ordered the National Security Agency to hand over control of the majority of their vast computing power to the scientific community to aid in computer climate modelling,’ Terrorist Threat-NSA Logothe president declared. ‘To help anticipate the changes to our weather and help us prepare for them. The NSA has had a bottomless budget to find enemies and yet they remained oblivious to the greatest threat of all, leaving us horribly vulnerable. They dropped the ball. Now, our fate is in the hands of the scientists we’ve ignored for too long. They’re going to need all the resources we can give them.’

After this shock announcement, and speaking off the record, one source in the NSA told me: ‘Frankly, most of the staff here are relieved. It’ll be great to be doing something worthwhile for a change. Spying on our own people, and the leaders of our allies, was just making everyone here unhappy anyway. And I think a lot of the British folks in GCHQ feel the same way.’

A rather unsettled-looking David Cameron acknowledged the long-standing ‘special relationship’ with the United States, and stated that he would have someone look into the possibility of GCHQ getting involved in a similar quest for life-saving knowledge.

President Obama, when asked if this new campaign could be considered a ‘War on Weather’, replied: ‘We’re not fighting the weather, we’re fighting those who would turn it against us. Besides, there’s big a difference between “weather” and “climate. It’s a difference we all need to start understanding.

‘Because one thing is clear, we’re facing the possible collapse of our civilization. So it’s time to commit – you’re either with the human race . . . or you’re against it.’



‘We Are Still Here’: remorse, the national psyche and country

In recent times I have been fortunate to have experienced the friendship and wisdom of other Aboriginal people working for the recognition of our culture and history, in concert with environmental protection for both Aboriginal people and the wider community. In a recent conversation with my good friend, Bruce Pascoe, he spoke of the absence of any genuine sense of remorse within the colonial psyche. He was not referring to the momentary guilt that some white Australian experience in relation to the theft of Aboriginal land and a history of violence against our people. I believe Bruce was considering something far deeper. Inhabiting a relaxed and comfortable view of colonisation in Australia requires little thinking at all, let alone responsibility for the sins of the past. True remorse, while asking more of people, would produce invaluable outcomes for all Australians. With remorse comes reflection. With remorse come recognition – and with will – mutual respect. This was Bruce’s point.

[map 22 - Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia]

[map 22 - Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia]

I see strong connections between this lack of remorse, the subsequent absence of thought and Australia’s regressive stance on climate change generally and the degradation of our environment more specifically. I also see a clear connection between a lack of will to protect the environment and the Australian government’s abuse of Aboriginal country. Equally, an abuse of Aboriginal cultural and sovereign relationship to country is ultimately an attack on all Australians.

The Australian government is currently attempting to reverse the World Heritage listing of 74,000 hectares of old-growth forest in Tasmania, in order to allow logging to recommence. Within the World Heritage area, important Aboriginal sacred sites will again come under threat if the heritage listing is reversed. This is a shameful act. Considering the history of violence and repeated attempts of dispossession and extermination that the Tasmanian Aboriginal community have faced, one would hope that the wider community would not allow this violence to continue. If we were a truly remorseful nation, hopefully due consideration and thought would result in a more informed view. But in a country that plays lip service to Aboriginal rights, such reflection is not possible.

Reading the newspaper yesterday morning (Age – 14 June 2014), in an essay by Andrew Darby, I read about the courage of Ruth Langford and Linton Burgess, two Aboriginal people, amongst many others, who are fighting to save their country and protect the World Heritage listing of the rain forest surrounding important cultural sites. On a visit to the area recently, the couple ‘called to the old fellas … we let them know we are still here.’

We are still here

Please consider for a moment the deep courage of this act. Consider that the Aboriginal nations of a land that came to be called Tasmania by British colonials, have resisted proactive attempts of genocide for more than 2oo years and today stand tall to protect both their ancestors and their children. Ruth Langford, Linton Burgess and the Aboriginal people of Tasmania are heroes to Aboriginal people throughout Australia. They should also be regarded as heroes to the nation, as they are fighting to protect their country and environment. In doing so, they are protecting the planet.

Next week, Ruth Langford will join scientists and environmentalists at the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Doha, Qatar, in an effort to stop the Australian government’s move. I wish her, and her brave people every success – always was, always will be.

Tony Birch


Speedo Boy punches above his weight on the world stage

Before joining Rupert Murdoch for dinner in New York recently, the Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, reminded the world that he is a ‘job lover’, while those who believe that climate change is a serious problem, and that serious policies need need to be implemented NOW to address the effects of climate change are ‘job haters’.

(I have a job – and sometimes I hate my job, so there may be some sense in what Tony has said).

[map 21 - Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, swimming against the tide]

[map 21 - Australian prime minister, Tony Abbott, swimming against the tide]

 The PM uses such sophisticated political language, reminiscent of his 2013 campaign mantra – STOP THE BOATS – STOP THE CARBON TAX  – (&) – THE COUNTRY WILL BE OPEN FOR BUSINESS. Abbott uses a language that appeals to the lowest common denominator. And the lowest common denominator is his own government. Abbott is not simply acting strategically. He is a TRUE BELIEVER – not in the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the immediate and future impact of climate change – but in a fundamentalist position that regards science itself as a threat to an economic, political and spiritual view of the world reliant more on the Bible than rigorous research.

Yesterday, while in New York, Abbott did state that climate change is ‘with us now’. But not as a real and present issue, but as some sort of mild nuisance easily pacified and contained. (See my previous entry on giant rabbits for Tony’s solution). Climate change is a problem for Tony only to the extent that it impinges on his grand project – leading a nation existing in a state of fantasy; a white outpost of some colonial homeland that no longer exists, in an unchanged climate existing as a convenient fiction.

I’ve never been an optimist (except for the blind faith I have in my football club). But if I’m a pessimist, I hope that I’m an ACTIVE pessimist. I have no faith in the current Australian government’s will to deal seriously with climate change, just as I had little faith in the previous Labor government. Strangely, I do have HOPE. Hope that even if it is through the hip pocket, Australians will realise in the near future that if our country gets left behind on assertive climate change policy, it will hurt us economically.

I have hope in direct political action. I also have hope in grassroots action. There’s more of it out there than we realise.

I even have faith in Tony. Why do you think he does so much swimming – up and down the pool, in the sea and in the bathtub? And why does he stride about in his togs? Because in his heart, deep down there somewhere, he knows that if the country continues to support his lack of action of climate change, we’ll all need to be really good swimmers.

He knows this. He knows this. Deep down in the heart of Speedo Boy. He does.

Go Tony, go.

Tony Birch

Shout To The Top?: for World Environment Day

One of the priorities of the Tony Abbott Coalition government (Liberal/National Party Coalition) when it came to power in 2013, was to axe the federal Climate Commission, an advisory body on matters of climate change and the environment more generally. Thanks to crowdsourcing and philanthropic donors, the organisation was reformed as the independent Climate Council.

The Council’s most recent report, Abnormal Autumn, provides sober information for those concerned about climate change. Not only has Australia experienced our warmest two years on record, with the likelihood of an El Niño weather event affecting the continent later in 2014, into 2015, it will only get hotter and certainly drier in the southern half of Australia. As the overwhelming majority of scientists now agree, the Council is telling us that climate change is not a concern for future generations; ‘Climate change is here, it is happening and Australians are already feeling its impact.’ (Climate Council report, quoted in The Guardian, 2 June 2014.)

[map 19 - 'I'm not going to take it anymore' - factory wall, Melbourne, Australia.]
[map 19 - 'I'm not going to take it anymore' - factory wall, Melbourne, Australia.]

The Weather Stations project asks creative writers to express our views on climate change. When the four writers from Europe were guests of the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, we talked a lot about the basic question – what can writing and writers do to inform the wider community about the issue? The talk was healthy and helpful, although, not unexpectedly, we didn’t come up with a clear answer (not to my knowledge, at least). I was initially frustrated by my own inability to confidently state – ‘I can make a difference’.

I’m no longer frustrated, because I realise that there is no answer to the question. I do not know if my writing makes a difference or not. But I do know that many writers have had an impact on the way I understand and respond to climate change, including our guests from Europe. The only way forward for writers and artists, I believe, is to do the work and put it out there. Give an essay, story, poem, film or image its life. And hope it connects …

In the meantime, we have the here and now – real weather change – to deal with. Here and now. I’m positive than if politicians and businesses continue to ignore the drastic need for new and assertive policies to deal with climate change, there will be increased levels of protest and direct action across the globe. This is an act of necessity when confronted with inaction.

When I was in Sydney last week for the writers’ festival, I went for a long run around the harbour. The sky was clear and the water sparkled. It was a beautiful day. While running, I thought about what would happen if I were to take a gallon of dirty oil and pour it into the harbour – in front of locals, tourist and the water authority. I expect I would be set upon and arrested (and, possibly, beaten to a pulp).

We are pouring poison into the atmosphere – NOW – and we’re getting away with it. Or so we think. In fact, we are paying a heavy price for our vandalism. And we’re not poisoning somebody else’s water and air, somebody we can forget about. We’re poisoning ourselves and each other.

Tony Birch