EXCERPTS FROM MY TRAVEL DIARY
May 2005; Adelaide, State Library of South Australia:
An account left to us from a British colonist arriving in my state South Australia early one morning in 1837:
‘ …Before next day’s sunrise, a great change took place in the landscape before us. The watchers on deck beheld a fire on one of the hills which seemed to spread from hill to hill with amazing speed. All on board were now awake and on deck looking at this grand, and yet to those who knew not its cause, fearful conflagration. It seemed as if the whole land was a mass of flame. The whole range was as black as midnight, except where the trees were still burning.’
July 2005; Port Augusta, ‘Wadlata Museum’
Text from an exhibit copied during a break in a bike ride at Port Augusta in the mid north of South Australia:
‘The following plant species are commonplace in the native flora of South Australia and all of them need fire:
‘The hakea tree retains its seeds year after year. It is often possible to see a number of seasons’ worth of seeds in a row. The tree will only release its seeds after a firing.’
‘Most eucalypts can be burnt to the ground but shoot up again in a couple of weeks. This is because beneath the ground they have swollen tubers containing dormant buds. These buds can regenerate immediately after the surface tree is burnt to the ground.’
‘Beautiful desert blossoms which only bloom after a fire. During seasons without a fire occurring, the plant will only grow as large as a green leaf.’
‘Emits a resin which acts as a fire retardant. They remain unaffected by fire. They only flower after a fire.’
‘The mulga tree drops its seeds to the ground in hard husks. The tree itself is killed off by fire but the husks lying on the ground will only open to release their seeds after being fired.’
‘It burns so fiercely during a bushfire that any surrounding vegetation which may compete with it during regrowth is killed off. The Spinifex grass is also killed off but quickly regenerates from a portion of the stem which grows safely just under the ground.’
‘FIRE STICK AGRICULTURE’
A Synopsis of what I said on the night of January 2019, The Netherlands.
´The Australian aborigines are the oldest indigenous people in the world. They arrived on the Australian continent 60,000 years ago. At some point they began setting fire to native vegetation in order to create open grasslands for kangaroos, their prime source of meat. In the burn out areas, new grass appeared after it rained and the kangaroos fed on this new grass – and kangaroos, when they have plenty to eat, reproduce quickly. Kangaroos however also need areas of undergrowth to retreat to during the heat of the day. They often feed early in the mornings and around dusk.
The aborigines used fire to create a quilt work of bush and open grasslands. It was a form of farming, only without fences or ploughed pastures. In this way, the kangaroo came to dominate the Australian continent. Behind our national symbol, the kangaroo, is a history of fire and smoke.
In time, the result of constant bush fires was that only those plant species which could adapt to fire proliferated – but the evolutionary process went beyond adaption. Trees and bushes appeared The trees and bushes hungered fire. Fire became a part of their cycle of death and renewal.
When the white settlers arrived in Australia, they did not find a ‘natural environment’: it had been changed by the indigenous people over the course of tens of thousands of years. The settlers then proceeded to implement far greater changes within historically a far shorter period of time. They cleared immense sections of the bush to create huge fenced paddocks where they grazed sheep and cows, and grew crops. They exterminated the indigenous people, along with so many of the native animals. Theirs’s was a pitiless campaign of imposing a European form of agriculture upon a land which had been formed around aboriginal ‘fire stick agriculture’. At the same time that these ignorant and racist British farmed a land they considered ‘undeveloped’, they harboured a respect for what they called ‘nature’ – a European definition of ‘nature’. They designated certain areas as reserves – ‘parks’; they drew lines on the map and in these areas, allowed the bush to proliferated. These reserves were meant to conserve natural bushlands. But there was nothing ‘natural’ about these bushlands; they had never existed in pre-white Australia. They were immense areas filled with fire hungering trees and bushes: a potential tinder box.
There have always been bushfires in Australia.
The bushfires became far worse – larger, more devastating – with white settlement. Now we are in another phase thanks to climate change.
Long ago, climatologists had predicted an increased chance of devastating bushfires in Australia given the rise in temperatures, the heightened chance of drought, and very strong winds; a fatal combination. In aboriginal Australia, the wildlife flourished. There was a menagerie of weird and wonderful animals including 60 species of marsupials. Since white settlement, that menagerie has systematically declined. With the recent devastating bushfires we are looking at the extinction of the remaining ones including the koala. ‘
A group of Europeans came together on a Saturday and there I was sowing discord.
‘Your country’s burning! The cause is climate change.’
‘There’s more involved than climate change. ‘
The idea of bushlands which were meant to burn was not easy to explain to Europeans. It was completely alien to their historical experience. There was no such thing as ´bush´ in Europe and whilst there was the word ´forest´, forests were certainly not genetically programmed to burn.
So for Europeans, there could only be one major cause of the devastating bushfires in Australia: climate change.
But I knew that there was another factor involved. I was reticent to mention it.
‘There’s more involved in these bushfires than climate change’.
These were exactly the words used Australia’s right wing Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. A dull, small minded, man, he was Australia’s own version of Bolsonaro, Brazil’s fanatical right wing prime minister (both men were born again Christians) who was burning down the Amazon and turning a blind eye to the murder of the native Indians by the big pastoralists. At the international climate conference in Madrid in late 2019, Australia distinguished itself by joining Brazil and China in blocking any attempt to take measures to reduce global carbon emissions – the only western nation to do so.
Morrison was a fervent supporter of coal fired power stations and at a time when most western nations were phasing them out, he was all in favour of building more of them. As it was, 65% of Australia´s power came from coal fired power stations; the nation’s carbon footprint was the highest in the western world (and more than twice as high as Netherlands). Australia was one of the biggest exporters of coal in the world.
As the worst bushfires ever were ravaging Australia, Morrison flatly refuted that climate change was involved. But as a withering crescendo of criticism descended on him and continued unabated, Morrison beat a strategic retreat.
His seeming change of heart – the implied admission that climate change was involved – was no more than a low canard from a politician whose popularity ratings were in free fall. He was beating a strategic retreat. He would employ any means, any escape clause, to stick by his fundamentalist convictions. The born again Christian was a liar and a hypocrite.
A funny thing, language. Words and meaning were two different things. Words were the only way we could express our meanings, but sometimes they failed us.
Introducing qualifications in the context of any contemporary issue – and not just climate change – could be a risky venture.
You could find yourself being pigeon holed – and stigmatised.
We were living in a world which was increasingly polarised, of people convinced of their correctness and who vilified those who held different views. Moral outrage dominated over nuanced thinking. To entertain doubt was seen as weakness.
Those who recognised the reality of climate change and connection with human activity i.e. the production of carbon – had science on their side.
It was important to have reason on their side too. Reason and reasonableness.
There was, from my perspective, a need always to be honest and never to embrace a cause to the extent that you ignored facts which contradicted that cause.
Blinkered vision from the Right – or the Left – or whoever – was repugnant to me.
Gradually the looks of incomprehension – hostile – slowly changed into another kind of incomprehension: people found themselves listening to a story about another continent, another country.
I was glad about that and felt a sigh of relief.
I’d achieved my purpose. It was because of a six year old child that I embarked on this venture.
When I was finished I kept my mouth shut and spent the rest of the evening listening instead of talking.
To listen to others meant opening yourself up to other views, other experiences.
An Argentinian woman related a story to me about massive forest fires she had once witnessed which were caused by an erupting volcano.
It was quite an evening.
I travelled from Spain to Australia and then Argentina – and hadn’t moved an inch.
(Looking back at it, it’s ironic that the bushfires in Australia – and climate change – were a dominant item in the European news services in early January 2020 and had been since October 2019. A few days after that evening at my niece in laws, reports surfaced of a strange new virus in Wuhan, China. By that time it was too late. The mysterious virus broke out at a critical time of the year – Chinese New Year – when millions of Chinese were travelling both within China and also abroad. In the crucial first stages of the impending epidemic, the Chinese government tried to deny the problem and cover it up. Leading doctors who’d sounded the alarm were imprisoned and forced to confess to ‘sowing discord in society’. The makings of a pandemic were set in motion. None of us will ever forget what happened afterwards and the utterly science fiction nightmare we are confronted with today: the connected, globalised world suddenly shut down; borders closed; millions of people losing their jobs and their livelihoods; the world economy in free fall – and all of us left wondering what the next installment is in this enormous tragedy. Suddenly, the issue of global climate change, as serious as it is, has vanished – see also my facebook page)