G’day from Footscray City College, Australia

Image: Footscray City College - oh so cool (so says Tony Birch)

Footscray City College – oh so cool (so says Tony Birch)

G’day from Footscray City College, Australia!

Footscray City College is a state school in the inner west of Melbourne, Australia. We have 46 different nationalities at the school, and almost 1,000 students. We overlook one of Melbourne’s great waterways, the mighty Maribyrnong River. We are an excited bunch of 14 and 15 year old kids with some great, committed teachers. We are exploring the city of Melbourne as well as the natural landscape that surrounds the city.

Here’s a film we made on our first day with Weather Stations

Our group are working with Tony Birch and the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas to improve our own writing and knowledge about climate change. Tony has written multiple fiction books including Shadowboxing and Blood. The Wheeler Centre is an organisation that organises talks and events for the public about lots of topics including writing, climate change and more.

Our goal is to get people talking about climate change and how it might impact on us in our own suburbs, streets and homes. We want people around the world to know that we’re thinking and uniting around the issue. Not only do we want people to think about climate change, we want to provoke them to action.

We look forward to sharing our work with all of the other Substations in Berlin this September!

– Students of Footscray City College Substation

The Tern


For more than a year now my elderly neighbour, Jack, has been sorting through his life and getting rid of some of his stuff. While we’re not family, and have known each other for just a couple of years, a lot of what he has no more use for has come my way.

He began with hardback copies of The Encyclopaedia of Australian Tractors and Tractors and Modern Agriculture. He offered them to me one sunny morning as we were talking across the scraggy hedge of lavender that passes for the fence separating us. Read more

Weather Stations: The Current Climate

Few contemporary issues present us with so much information, speculation and polarity of opinion as climate change. While many in the scientific community argue that the planet is headed for environmental disaster, equally determined sceptics dismiss such concerns. Elected officials and the media have taken sides and fiercely defend their often contradictory positions.

As part of the Weather Stations initiative, the Wheeler Centre presented a conversation that provided you, the audience, a chance to ask experts in the field what’s really going on. All five of the Weather Stations writers in residence from around the globe, including our own Tony Birch, were amongst a participatory audience.

Guests on the panel included Amanda McKenzie, CEO of the Climate Council, the independent body that was crowdfunded after the Climate Commission’s government funding was withdrawn; Environment Defenders Office CEO Brendan Sydes; and David Karoly, a Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Melbourne.

Returning [again]

The Yarra River at Collingwood

The Yarra River at Collingwood

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

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

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

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

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

I was content with that feeling.

Tony Birch


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

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

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

Read more

Yes, Yes, YES!

It might seem a bit of a stretch, but bear with me for a few minutes and I’ll explain why the recent decision by the Irish people to include same-sex marriage in our constitution gives me hope that we possess the capacity for a much greater public appreciation of climate change.

And no, it’s not just because climate change has long been viewed as bleeding-heart, sandal-wearing, lefty liberal issue and the referendum was a victory for bleeding-heart, sandal-wearing, lefty liberals everywhere. Though there is that too. For me, the most heartening aspects of the campaign for the legalization of marriage for same-sex couples were its sheer positivity and how visible it made the more enlightened views of the Irish towards LGBT people. Yes-Pic 3The new law recognized that change of attitudes, and it’s the difference between laws and attitudes that I want to talk about.

Let’s put things in perspective: Ireland’s laws, and the attitudes they originally reflected, specifically concerning homosexuality, date back to the Victorian era. The 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act outlawed: ‘the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or with any animal’. So homosexuality was aligned with bestiality, under the heading, ‘Unnatural Offences’. The state’s official position on this remained unchallenged until about 1970, when David Norris, lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin, spearheaded the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, trying to get it decriminalised.

It wasn’t until March 1983 that Ireland had its first Gay Pride Festival. In 1988, Norris, by then a member of the senate, won a case in the European Court of Human Rights over the criminalisation of homosexuality in the Irish Constitution. It was a legal process he had started in 1977, that was beaten down in both the Irish High Court and the Supreme Court.

The law declaring that homosexuality was illegal was eventually changed in 1993, with the future Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore (who had campaigned on this since his student union days), declaring: ‘The sexual activities of consenting adults in the privacy of their home are a matter for the people concerned and should not be the business of the Dáil, the Garda or anybody else, including the peeping Toms of the self-appointed moral police from whom we hear a great deal nowadays.’

That was in 1993. Think about that for a second. A little over twenty years ago, according to Irish law, you could still be put in prison for making love to an adult, consenting partner. It was written into the same statute that included: ‘Causing bodily injury by gunpowder.’ and ‘Impeding a person endeavouring to save himself or another from ship-wreck.’ And it was included in the same sentence as bestiality. By 1993, however, nobody in their right mind would have attempted to try someone for the ‘crime’ of gay sex. That law is a reflection of the establishment’s position back in the nineteenth century, but it also reflects the attitudes at the time when, we must assume, Ireland’s population had the same proportion of homosexuals as it does now. People who had to live their whole lives suppressing their emotions, hiding their loves and denying their true natures for fear of arrest and imprisonment. Yes-Pic 2If they were in any way religious, then, by the teachings at the time (and still for some religious nuts now) they would have been assured by their religious leaders that God himself condemned their ‘abominable’ kind.

And though society evolved after that law was passed in 1861, those damning words remained there, a fixed point in a tide of slowly shifting public opinion. Strong, vocal, passionate activists started arguing for this law to be changed, but for a long time, the Irish conservative, predominantly-religious public opinion wasn’t ready to accept it. With growing numbers of people starting to take an interest, however, and looking beyond religion for their moral principles, the campaign began to gain momentum. Women’s rights were, slowly, gaining ground and this, in turn, contributed to other civil rights causes. The conversation on gay rights spread from being one held solely among strident activists fighting for a cause; to people interested in civil rights in a more general way; to people who just wanted to see others treated decently; to people who didn’t have strong feelings about it but figured, ‘Well, why not?’. As we became more aware of the need to distinguish betwYes-Pic 6een them, everyday discussions expanded from just ‘gay’ rights to ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender’.

It took over a hundred years, but the weight of public opinion swung from steadfast resistance to the idea of LGBT rights, to a recognition and common acceptance of it.

By which time, the 1861 law was looking more and more absurd, along with many of the Victorian values it reflected.

So in 1993, homosexual sex was made legal. Which was an improvement, but, given how long it had taken, not what you’d call a giant leap for mankind. Looking back at that change in law now, to a time when I had just left college, even I feel a sense of embarrassment about how backwards my country must have seemed to anyone attracted to the same sex. I can imagine what it would be like if someone told me, after years of having to conceal it, that I could no longer be put in prison for having consensual sex with a woman. Would I be relieved? Yes. Grateful? Not a whole lot. But then what could you expect? The Irish were screwed up enough about straight sex. Despite the emerging crisis of AIDS, condoms had only recently become widely available, after bitter opposition – once again – by the church. Only a few years before, it had still been legal for a man to rape his wife. To use the term often trotted out by the ‘No’-siders in the referendum, marriage was ‘redefined’ when the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act, was passed in 1990, so a woman could legally refuse to have sex with her husband. Yes-Pic 1Even if the Irish were slowly accepting how unjust our society still was, laws don’t change quickly. And constitutions, by their nature, change even slower.

It wasn’t until 2010 that the Civil Partnership Bill was passed, not allowing marriage, but giving the relationships of homosexuals and transgender people some rights under the law, including the right to adopt children. LGBT couples still didn’t have equal rights, but it was considered a victory nonetheless. The bill went a long way towards helping the public get its collective head around the idea of LGBT marriage.

In 2011, the first openly homosexual TDs were elected to the Dáil. Jerry Buttimer, John Lyons and Dominic Hannigan took their seats, representing Cork South-Central, Dublin North-West and Meath East respectively. Here was proof of public acceptance forging ahead of legal recognition. In legal terms, it had taken nearly twenty years, to go from homosexuality being illegal, to it being so accepted that you could be open about your sexual preferences and be voted into government. And help write new laws. But the Irish people had been changing for a lot longer than that – it just took the plodding system of government a long time to catch up.

In January 2015, Leo Varadkar became the first openly gay government minister when he came out publicly. At this point, Ireland was recovering from a crippling recession and a regime of harsh austerity. There were, and still are, huge protests over the move to start charging for the domestic water supply. The country was suffering and morale was low – but one thing was lifting our spirits. The referendum was looming and the country was clamouring for same-sex marriage to be recognized. It had gone beyond a gay rights issue. This was Ireland wanting to move on from its reactionary, conservatively religious roots.

The ‘Yes’ campaign was, at times, marred by negative terms and imagery, but it was overwhelmingly positive, not just about homosexuality and transgender people, but about our society, about Irish identity itself. The campaign was marked by joy, colour, humour and good will. Yes-Pic8We wanted to be better, more open-minded, more inclusive. We wanted tangible proof that we had changed for the better and were ready to spread the love. And what’s more, we wanted the world to know it. We had a pretty straightforward decision to make. We were voting on adding the following words to our constitution:

‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’

That’s it. You wouldn’t think it was such a big deal, except there were a couple of million opinions to take into account. I remember walking into the polling station with mixed feelings. On one hand, it seemed bizarre that I should be voting on someone else’s right to get married. I didn’t believe in asking my wife’s parents for their permission to marry her – why should somebody have to ask the whole country? But I also walked in with a sense of excitement about voting that I hadn’t experienced in years. And it wasn’t just me. The country was buzzing with anticipation.

We still weren’t sure of a win. Progressive amendments to the constitution had been defeated many times before by the overwhelming influence of the Catholic Church and the conservative element in Ireland, one that might be less vocal these days, but still had a strong foundation and, vitally, had a better record of voting. Ireland’s youth, in particular, had long shown a disconnected cynicism about the political process.

But not this time. The young voted in record numbers. The old came out in support. People from a range of religious backgrounds. There was no urban/rural divide, no division between classes. This was bigger than just an issue over LGBT rights; Irish people were making a statement about the kind of society we wanted. And for a whole lot of straight people, it felt good. Yes-Pic 7When the referendum was passed by a margin of two to one – the biggest margin of any referendum in Irish history – journalist and commentator, Fintan O’Toole said it simply: ‘This moment is not a gift from Ireland to the LGBT community. It’s the other way round. Thanks for making us proud of ourselves again.’

So here’s the thing: Ireland had already changed by the time the law caught up and made it official. That new law will not end discrimination; the world will never run out of assholes – they’re a renewable resource. But it has been made clear that discrimination will no longer be tolerated by society or the law.

That wouldn’t have been possible if public attitudes hadn’t changed dramatically long before that. The law didn’t lead the people, it was the other way round, but making it official marks the end of a process where the idea went from radical, to progressive, to accepted, to just plain . . . normal. And though the change in the constitution will now ensure LGBT couples will have equal rights, it has also made it possible for society to do much more beyond that.

In the campaign to raise awareness about our climate, to promote a more environmentally conscientious way of life, passionate activists have swum against the tide for years, calling for change. Unlike the ultimately personal question of equality and marriage, climate change is a difficult, theoretical, complicated and bewildering issue, but in more recent years, discussion about it has become more mainstream, with those in power now including it in their manifestos, wanting to appear progressive, forward-looking. As they so often do, our elected leaders are watching public opinion, gauging its direction. They want to show they have an eye on the big picture. Cross That Bridge-Low ResClimate change has now become the stuff of day-to-day conversations, a part of the small picture, as people accept that it is happening, that we are past the point of preventing it, that its effects are being felt already and it is becoming a part of all our lives.

It is now largely accepted (at least in Ireland) but our official position on the matter still has to catch up – and this time it’s going to take more than one shift in the law to achieve it and to motivate people. But those changes won’t just bring a solution to one problem. As modern life has drifted farther and farther from nature, it has caused all kinds of problems whose solutions lie in the very practices that will help our environment. Getting outside more, getting more exercise, taking the time to reconnect with nature; thinking more about what we’re eating and where our food comes from; making better use of our water; questioning the cost of convenience, reducing our waste; harnessing nature rather than fighting against it; demanding technology that does things better instead of doing more things unreliably; making sure it’s in a business’s interest to be ethical as well as profitable . . . These are changes that will have long term effects, but also offer immediate improvements in our lives – and they can be used to instil the kind of infectious positivity in the campaign against global warming that won the referendum campaign for the ‘Yes’ vote.

A lot is going to have to change and, as we’ve seen with LGBT rights, with women’s rights, children’s rights and so many other advances in our country, society is slow to accept a new direction – but it can and it does. As far as climate change is concerned, public opinion is almost there, but to recognize that new reality and to really turn things around, it needs the structure that only new laws can provide.

And we’ll get there. It won’t be easy, but some of it might actually be fun and in the end, maybe we’ll feel good about ourselves for making the world a better place.

Climate poetry slam


Global warming, it calls for a warning,
The ice is melting, the planet’s drowning.
We burn up tonnes of coal, gallons of oil too,
You love airplanes, they’re guzzlers, it’s sad but true.

Global warming, it’s time for a warning,
Earth’s surface’s burning, it’s alarming.
Water reserves drying up –
Let’s drink water from the tap.

Could good old cooperation
Save us from deterioration?
A filter for your chimney, that’s right!
Fight to spread it nationwide.

Start recycle and repair,
That’s our way out of despair.


Global warming, it calls for a warning,
The ice is melting, the planet’s drowning.
We burn up tonnes of coal, gallons of oil too,
You love airplanes, they’re guzzlers, it’s sad but true.

Carbon dioxide’s the villain,
That’s who stands behind this killing:
Storms and draughts and floods and tides,
Creatures cannot live their lives.

Let’s plant green plants, shut down your greed-plants,
Trees are the best filters, now give them a chance.

Flooded by plastic and cows’ greenhouse gas
We soon may forget the looks of the grass.


Global warming, it calls for warning,
The ice is melting, the planet’s drowning.
We burn up tonnes of coal, gallons of oil too,
You love airplanes, they’re guzzlers, it’s sad but true.

Don’t eat hamburgers in bed,
Better take a walk instead.
Are you brave enough to smoke?
What if those around you choke?
Our atmosphere’s our common good
Don’t see it yet? Well, you should.

The ozone hole, up there, is a real evil badass,
It’s mean as methane, the cow-produced bad gas.
Methane makes the Earth keep heat,
We’ll all end up as sizzling meat.
Save the planet’s water now,
Ask not why, start thinking how.

Translated by Mikołaj Denderski


Image: Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Birch

Trust and our children

Bunjil Shelter - The Black Ranges, Western Victoria

Bunjil Shelter – The Black Ranges, Western Victoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for Bunjil - outside my front gate

Looking for Bunjil – outside my front gate

Tony Birch

Postcards from the Baltic Sea

  1. The Palace of Culture

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

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

  1. Czesław Miłosz

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

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

On the day the world ends

Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,

A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,

Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,

The voice of a violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night.


And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and the moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

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

  1. Gdańsk

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

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

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

  1. Sopot

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

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

  1. Hel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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