The Integrity of Facts

  By Mirko Bonne November 5, 2014

Tell it to the Bees: Australian Journal 14

Meg, an environmental activist from Greenpeace Australia Pacific in Sydney, speaks about the gap between facts and feeling. To bridge this gulf, she believes, “the integrity of facts” is required from the scientific side, but new ways to convey them must also be found. Narratives and poetry can open doors that remain closed to the language of scientific research, as they do to political slogans and legal jargon.

It has taken decades (one might object), if not centuries, for literary narratives and poetry’s music of meanings to free themselves from the stranglehold of functionalization and instrumentalization.

Leard State ForestBut Meg is not demanding that literature and poetry be pressed into service; at most, she wants them to cease being sheer entertainments. Literatures can tell stories of climate change that reach people, she says, transforming facts and figures, filling them with life, translating them.

Meg is in her mid-fifties, with a weathered face and black outdoor clothing, radiating anger as much as sorrow. She has spent the past several days in prison following protests against the clearance of large parts of the 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 in this forested region for thousands of years. It is home to around four hundred rare and endangered animal and plant species.

Meg believes in the power of stories and in the magic of poetry, and she believes that both make it possible to reach people, because poetry and storytelling are a part of every human culture, no matter where you look.

Meg is the 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 in the Pacific, formerly a British colony known as the Gilbert Islands. 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. And, they say, part of the earth is Kiribati.

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 – ovens they could take with them when fleeing the next flood.

She tells of the Wurundjeri aborigines, about a thousand survivors of expulsions and massacres, half of them living in reservations where they are cut off from their land, the animals and trees, the rivers and their sacred places. Meg tells how the Wurundjeri say: “We won’t die out. We refuse.”

She tells of the Inuit and 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.

Lyrebird 1932Meg tells of the Australian lyrebird. It imitates sounds in its environment, and more and more lyrebirds can be heard emitting a strange snapping, clicking and whirring, the sounds of cameras, while others sound like electric hedge clippers.

In the tradition of the Kulin, the lyrebird is the interpreter of the animals. The Kulin believe that all birds once had a common language, before greed and envy drove them apart. Only the lyrebird has continued to aid communication among the now mutually unintelligible animals.

I tell Meg that in Hamburg blackbirds imitate cellphone ring tones, evidently out of confusion.

It might be a confusion that shows a way out, she replies.

Meg is an activist; I am exactly the opposite. I feel thrown through the world, forced into wakefulness, day and night, caught in a restless state between all kinds of worlds, at the mercy of incomprehensible customs and still stranger intoxications, and seeking comfort in the belief that my writing might move someone to keep their eyes open – when in the end all I want to do is sleep, dream, and, in good moments, scribble down memories in a notebook, so that they won’t be lost along with everything else.

Just as she speaks of God in passing, Meg knows where to find those responsible: “The government violates Australia, and will violate the Australians”, she says. “No one is doing anything. We’re surrounded by criminals. We are criminals ourselves.”

Photos: Leard State Forest (1): leardstateforest.com; “Unbelievable Lyrebird”, Ambrose Pratt, 1932 (2)

Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

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