Environment and Climate

At the height of the Millennium Drought (2001–9), I took the late Deborah Bird Rose to my favourite childhood swimming hole near Dubbo, on the Wambool (Macquarie River). The banks had eroded and a flood had washed the sandy beach a hundred metres upstream, burying trees halfway up to their crowns. Weeds flourished in the churned ground, and scum floated on the shallows. Nothing seemed safe from degradation. Farther west, on the Barka (Darling River) near Bourke, we passed private water storages lining the banks of the river for kilometres. The scalded land was strewn with rubbish and discarded machinery. Wind blew dust into our eyes. At our feet, a dead sheep lay in an irrigation channel. ‘This is it,’ I said. ‘This is broken country.’ Rose thought for a moment, then turned and said, ‘No, it’s wounded.’ It was a reminder to afford nature its potential to heal.

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Reading Richard Flanagan’s searing allegory The Living Sea of Waking Dreams (2020) and Delia Falconer’s new non-fiction book, Signs and Wonders: Dispatches from a time of beauty and loss, in rapid succession was a surreal, slightly unmooring experience. Both authors lucidly capture the dreamlike state of disbelief and horrified fury with which we’ve watched the world slide terribly into the 2020s. Both are part of an outpouring of new language, new stories, new ways of expressing our reactions to the barely imaginable scale of realities we can no longer ignore: fire columns that remind NASA of dragons; a pandemic that conjures news scenes we had thought the province of cinema. As our poor human cognition struggles to catch up, scientists become poets, novelists become scientists.

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At what point does a ramble or meander through the bush become a bona fide bushwalk? Was my two-hour stroll near Wolli Creek during semi-lockdown – when I locked eyes with the now-maligned fruit bat – a bushwalk or just a ramble? Answers to these questions vary wildly according to the conflicting approaches to bushwalking detailed in Melissa Harper’s updated version of The Ways of the Bushwalker (2007).

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Before reading Richard Flanagan’s new book, Toxic: The rotting underbelly of the Tasmanian salmon industry, it is useful to remember that Australia’s southern isle was once the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land. During the first fifty years of the colony’s existence, a small ruling élite achieved a near monopoly over the island’s most lucrative natural resources, the subservience of the majority convict population, and considerable profit from the public licences and patronage associated with political power. Far from these privileges ending with the cessation of transportation, self-government allowed the establishment to so entrench their interests that no substantial separation existed between the promotion of them and the functions of the state.

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In July 2020, Indigenous residents of the remote central Australian community of Laramba lost their case in the Northern Territory Civil and Administrative Tribunal. For decades, the water that flowed through the taps into Laramba homes had been contaminated with high levels of uranium – about three times the safe limit. The case was a desperate attempt to force the government to assume legal responsibility and to fix the problem. They didn’t succeed: the Tribunal found that the Department of Housing (as the landlord) wasn’t required under Northern Territory law to provide safe drinking water to its tenants.

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It’s an achievement to write about the climate crisis – and the resulting increase in Australian firestorms – without having people turn away to avoid their mounting ecological unease. Despite experiencing the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009 directly, I too am guilty of looking away. It’s easier that way. Danielle Celermajer, however, excels at both holding our attention and holding us to account, balancing the horror and hope of not-so-natural disasters, specifically extreme Australian bushfires, in her new book of narrative non-fiction, Summertime.

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The Anthropocene by Julia Adeney Thomas, Mark Williams, and Jan Zalasiewicz & Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

by
March 2021, no. 429

When fourteen-year-old Dara McAnulty penned a diary entry on 7 August 2018, his grief poured out in stanzas. He felt an acute need for ‘birdsong, abundant fluttering / humming, no more poison, destruction. / Growing for growth, it has to end.’ One month later, he took these words to the People’s Walk for Wildlife in London: ‘I call it a poem but I am not sure it is. I feel it would be good to say aloud, to a crowd … the words spilled out.’ For the event, McAnulty added a title: Anthropocene.

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The Climate Cure should have been on every Australian federal politician’s Christmas list. As Tim Flannery explains, our federal politicians, stymied by Coalition climate change denialists and the fossil fuel lobby, have failed the climate challenge of the past two decades, so that we have ‘sleepwalked deep into the world that exists just seconds before the climate clock strikes a catastrophic midnight’. But ‘at the last moment, between megafires and Covid-19, governments are at last getting serious about the business of governance’.

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A detailed timeline prefaces Fire Flood Plague. Stretching from September 2019 to September 2020, it charts events so momentous that Christos Tsiolkas describes them as being ‘imbued with an atavistic, Biblical solemnity’. Sophie Cunningham, the book’s editor, notes in her introduction that many of the contributors (herself included) have found themselves drafting their essays ‘once, twice, thrice, as we’ve progressed from bushfire and smoke-choked skies, to the early days of the pandemic … and into the exhaustion of what is becoming a marathon’.

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Last month I was volunteering with a group of botanists surveying coastal heathland in the Tarkine Forest Reserve in North-West Tasmania when one of them cried out, ‘Orchid!’ We all rushed over excitedly, our phones and pocket magnifiers at the ready. It was a Green-comb Spider-orchid (Caladenia dilatata), with long, delicate-green limbs and a reddish-purply face, hovering like a ballet dancer in mid-leap. The first thing that astonished me was how tiny it was – no bigger than a human eye – and then, how solitary. Like many orchids, C. dilatata uses sexual deception to mimic the shape of a female wasp; when males attempt to mate with it, they accidentally collect pollen, fertilising the next orchid they visit. Millions of seeds scatter on the wind, but only a few will land on a sunny patch of soil where the correct mycorrhizal fungus is present for it to germinate.

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