Time

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

Weather Report – on leaving Melbourne for Europe

031430

The skies over the city are clear this morning. But I’m not fooled, and, sadly, I’m predicting stormy weather ahead. Despite the fact that Australia’s highly respected national science body, the CSIRO, crunched the numbers (again) last week, and concluded that the effects of climate change that we are living with now are largely ‘man-made’ – coming in at conclusive 99% probability – and that these changes are having a major and negative impact on our life and the environment now, the climate sceptics and economic opportunists (those with a selective fishbowl mentality) hold sway with the Commonwealth government. With the abolition of the carbon tax, the country has no serious emissions trading scheme. The federal government is also threatening to withdraw support to companies and consumers wishing to meet Renewable Energy Targets. We continue to invest in, and rely on dirty energy sources such as brown coal. In most cities across Australia, the public transport system is either an antiquated shambles, or the reinvestments are again in dirty energy sources such as diesel. And yet we are spending billions of dollars burrowing under cities – a tunnel here, a tunnel there – in an effort to get out of a traffic jam. What we’re really doing is simply putting the roadblock underground. I’m not sure who this helps and how? But maybe it’s a bit like sticking your head in the sand when faced with the obvious?

The say it will be a cool night tonight, followed by a ‘perfect day’ tomorrow. Can you believe that? I’m not so sure. I’ll leave you with an image of our top weatherman and see you in Europe. Australia’s chief forecaster doesn’t have a spinning bow-tie. But he’s a showman and a half when it comes to shifting our focus to entertainment.

A Man For All Seasons - particularly the hot ones.

A Man For All Seasons – particularly the hot ones.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

The Ruins of Port Douglas

[map 5 - Paradise Lost]

[map 5 – Paradise Lost]

I thought the dog might belong to the jogger. And then the woman with the pram and child. It had deserted them and was running around me in wide circles barking, without menace. It was a bit-of-this-at-that dog. Maybe part-Staffie crossed with a Kelpie? It was crazy-friendly, running off on me as I walked, chasing garden sprinklers watering deep green manicured lawns. Just when I thought it had given up on our brief friendship, the dog ran back to me and nuzzled my crotch, affirming an instant loyalty.

I was walking from my motel into the Port Douglas commercial strip, a forty-five minute stroll, passing condos and apartment buildings – some a little worn out by backpackers and schoolies binges, others genuinely luxurious, secured behind walls of palm trees imported from commercial farms. The gardens are a deep green and require a good drink, not a problem in a part of the country that measures rain by the feet. While it might be unfair to describe Port Douglas as a theme park, it does feel un-real.

I had walked for around twenty minutes and had apologised to at least a dozen people, explaining, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s not my dog,’ each time my new friend jumped on a jogger or harassed a small kid with an ice-cream cone melting down one arm. I’m sure none of them believed me, as, after causing havoc and been shooed away, the dog would retreat to my side and look up at me with the eyes of a loyal companion.

I stopped at a high metal fence that ran for fifty metres beside the path. I could see the heads of palms trees on the other side, following the fence-line. I spotted a gap and climbed through the fence. The piece of land was infested with weeds overgrowing a series of murky canals running between the brick foundations of an unfinished apartment complex. The ruin was maybe less than ten years old – I couldn’t be sure – and across the road from the entrance to the beach. Position! Position! Position!, the marketplace would call it. I wondered if it was a grand scheme gone bust. Or worse, a project outdated before its opening date.

I left the ruin with the intention of following a bicycle path into town, until I reached a proverbial fork-in-the-road. Rather than following the bike-path, winding through more palm trees and apartments, dog veered to the left and I followed. We quickly found ourselves on a dirt track. We passed a yard holding several train carriages, badly in need of repair, a water treatment works, and an ancient hand-painted sign advertising yet another holiday paradise – although there was no paradise to be found except for the footings of a building that had long since departed.

On one side of the road were the remnants of human activity since gone.  On the other a putrid muddy soup that would have once been wetland, now cut off from the sea by the reclaimed land (strange word, that) that more recent condos had been built on.

Dog and I ended our walk near the old wharf at the tip of Port Douglas. I realised we had shadowed the main road into town having never strayed more than 200 metres from it. And yet, we could have been in another world. In fact, we were in another world. One that may have existed as a ‘settlement’ for less than 50 years before being abandoned for new frontiers only 100 metres away (‘just a jump to the right’). Or in the case of the Paradise Lost I’d discovered with dog, in the blink of the speculator’s eye. We are a disposable society. Some of our rubbish we can pick up and recycle – tin cans, plastic bottles and newspapers. But land, it can only take so much of our stupidity.

Dog moved on from me once we hit Port Douglas. But not before giving me a final loving nudge in the crotch followed by a wet sticky lick of the back of my hand with a sandpaper tongue. He was a good dog. We parted on equal terms. If he’d been my dog and I thought myself clever, I’d call him Reciprocity.

Tony Birch