Sunday, January 12, 2020

The Emergency Wombat AirBNB Experiment

I've been putting water out for the birds. The inlet is salty now, too salty to drink and so this enamelled cauldron of water sits on a directors chair. I've put a stick in, so the insects can drink without drowning. The water becomes browner every day with tannins from the marri tree leaves that fall all around us. The water carrier is directly opposite where I sit on my days off, reading or writing in my notebook. Birds of many feathers seem delighted. That brief rain a fortnight ago was the first in a long time. I'm delighted too. Sit still long enough and nature will always throw on an event for me. It's better than watching the royals on TV. A few days ago, I saw a kingfisher, fisher of men, hunter of fish, his wings so so blue and his beak so sharp. I saw a white breasted robin smash a centipede against the cast iron cauldron. I see the quail family every day, popcorn babies spinning as they forage for bugs in the leaf litter.

The author Jackie French is a legend in Australia. She's written more than two hundred books for adults and children. Basically she writes about whatever takes her fancy; cooking, wildlife, gardening. Her mainstay is wombats. She's also created a wombat sanctuary where she lives and in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald about the bush fires she reports this incredible observation:

I have seen wombats share their holes with snakes, quolls, possums and a nervous swamp wallaby

French has been in and out of evacuation for the last six weeks during the fires. Yes, she knows wombats. She has Wombat Street Cred and she's seen these critters share their underground burrows with creatures desperate to survive during the terrible fires. I don't know if I could share my home with a needy tiger snake. I just can't even. But a burrow? Gah!

It's been quiet work at the fire tower. I could see the smoke from the Stirlings fire but apart from that one, the only excitement has come from a local renegade who let his permit burn carry on into the prohibited season. I come down the mountain tired, sore of eyes and happy spending my day on a granite mountain peak. 

But the anxiety of our nation is palpable and I believe we all now carry it in our bodies. We can't ignore it. This is climate change. This is what climate scientist Ross Garnaut warned us about twelve years ago. He got the exact year and conditions right. We can bitch and whinge about looters and arsonists but we all know that such human blights are ones that arrive after the catastrophe, not preceding it.

DO NOT FORGET. (Writes Jackie French) 
Because those who make vast sums of money from businesses that, as a side effect, destroy our planet, put vast sums into PR or political campaigns so that laws are never made to hinder their actions. The politicians who denied climate change, the need for disaster planning and firefighting equipment, and who cut fire budgets by 30-40 per cent this year alone – despite warnings from their own experts that we faced catastrophes this year – will use political spin ... let’s just call it lying … to try to make you forget before the next election.

 Please read her article here: There is a lot of good writing coming from our crisis of country, confidence and climate and this article is one of the best. We've been lucky in the west, so far, and I repeat ... lucky. Nothing more than that. There are many months to go yet.

In the mean time, my son tries not to look at the dams. He knows they will empty whether he watches them or not. I save water from my showers in the mornings. We put water out for the birds and insects. This small effort is laughable, incomparable to the day my son has to call the water truckers in to fill dams, but we do it anyway. Still, we watch for smoke. Every day, we watch for smoke.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Stirling Ranges from the fire tower.

Tower yesterday and 145 kilometres away the Stirlings ablaze. That is not a cloud.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Lightning map

These maps are cool. You can go to and click on lightning strikes in the last 24 hours. Satellite data gives you the exact location of strikes. So, the map above shows two day old lightning strikes in orange. That was Friday night and it was a massive system stretching from the Nullabor Plain and up to the Pilbara. The map below shows the 'hotspots' or fires the lightning left in its wake.

Quail morning

Before work yesterday morning, sitting on a leaf-strewn veranda, I could hear rustles in the undergrowth. Selkie was inside as I sipped at my coffee. It was a quail, scratching around for bugs. They are very shy and the only time I see them is when the hound flushes them out. So this sighting was a treat. I sat very still and the ... oh my heart ... three tawny chicks followed her, all in a line like ducklings. She was teaching them how to forage.

Friday, December 20, 2019

The purest mirror

Now I would like to write about my favourite things, books.
With a kind of bizarre secrecy from the Prime Minister's Office regarding the whereabouts of our national leader (apparently mainstream media also agreed not to broadcast his holiday intentions), I'm going back to books. Good books are dependable, like bushfires in this country. Books are revelatory, like the acts of politicians under criticism. Books hold a mirror to our society, *crickets* from our leaders. You may think that to conflate a post about a best reads list of 2019 with our ongoing bushfire emergency is a lazy grab for attention. It's not. It's related, because good books conjoin humanity with literature. It's like coitus, right? Literature gets together with humanity and before they know it, oh my god, humanity is pregnant.

Ok, so the humanity/literature babbies for 2019 are: 

Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. 
This lady has never minded ruffling feathers. She builds a world in Frankisstein where others are building worlds, whether it be sex-bots which (which or who? crucial question here) malfunction during a sex-con gone wrong. A scientist is trying to create AI body parts, wants to upload his brain while still alive and a transsexual doctor is mistakenly inducted into said scientist's trans human project "because people often get this trans thing wrong". It's brilliant and scopes all the things we are terrified of when it comes to AI and the building of humans. Mary Shelley would be proud.

The Overstory by Richard Powers. 
This great big, baggy American novel is the read of the year for me. Three years ago, I discovered the wild wonder of mycelium in the world's forests. Now we have The Overstory. I keep pressing it on people, even though I know the worst thing you can do for a book is to say 'you HAVE to read this!' Yes, it's book death. But everyone has to read this book. It's about the fight to save America's great redwoods, the protests involved, the people who lived in the tallest tree in the world for ten months, trying to save it. It's about communication between trees, about arboreal interdependence and inter generational immigrants. Shortlisted for the Booker. Just fucking read it.

Vida by Marge Piercy.
Years ago, I used to read a lot of Marge Piercy. Woman on the Edge of Time, and other titles. I read Vida while I was on standby for fire duty recently. Piercy published Vida in 1980 and the eponymous protagonist was an (often violent) activist against the Vietnam War and later the anti-nuclear dissent. Vida is on the move as a fugitive the whole way through the novel, marked after trying to bomb the Mobil base. The novel is infused with the sexual politics of the late sixties, early seventies as people grapple with open relationships, covert affairs, bisexual tendencies and the latent desire to bomb places whose politics they detest. The book ties in with a lot of things in Richard Power's book; the exhaustion of fighting for years against an apparatus as large as the state, and common people feeling betrayed by their nation's leaders. See my first paragraph here ...

Tuesday, December 17, 2019


Already too hot in the morning after the strange fog lifted. It’s smoky too, from yesterday’s burn to the north. Paper wasps hover on the veranda, searching for nest potentials. A ground frog whooped like an owl and the sun hit the sand bar out in the inlet, gleaming white.
‘We’re holding fast,’ someone wrote on twitter, ‘It’s stay and defend now. Fire trucks everywhere.' Someone else tweeted that the pharmacy was bringing them asthma inhalers by boat, up the river. At least there is still a river left and not a fire break of hot, dead sand.

The dog with the orange eyebrows crawls under my bed to get away from the flies. It’s like every bug in the world has hatched out today. Tiny black beetles crawl over my bare skin. Insecticide and smoking mosquito coils seem to attract them. Birds call alarm.

I wonder how, when the first thing to go down here during an emergency are the phone lines and internet, people still seem to post and read twitter updates. Perhaps over east, their towers are powered by something more sophisticated than the grid.

My car is covered in fine ash from the northern burn. By lunch, it’s thirty-four degrees and we’re all twitchy with it. I’m on standby in case they need help with radio comms. Snakes cross the track, thin rivers of hot, black oil. An ecologist posts about the country where he’s tracked dingos, foxes, quolls. ‘The creek used to have little endemic crayfish in it …#bushfire’

‘Have you tried turning Australia off and then on again?’

A kookaburra catches a tiny snake, maybe a baby tiger and returns to its roost in the peppermint tree out of sight. I can hear it bashing the snake on the tree branch. Still, drowsy air.

The Moby Dick account: ‘A sage ejaculation.’ Someone posts about the smoke lying over Sydney for weeks now. ‘Fog horns for the ferries on Sydney Harbour.’ Others debate the correct kinds of face mask to wear. Now is not the time to talk about climate change, we are told by our leaders. Our man in Madrid is standing tight with Brazil to maintain our current emissions, stalling the world climate talks. The prime minister goes on holiday to Hawaii and there’s a flurry of tweets to Hawaiian journalists to find him. Seven hundred and forty houses destroyed … so far. Three people dead, but ‘They were probably Greens voters.’ Fire fighters crowd fund for supplies.

Last week the fires began in earnest in the west and some of our ground crew were sent to help out. They worked for days out east, came home and then headed straight for the blaze north of Perth. I ran over a snake at the beginning of August when it should have been underground. ‘We’re okay,’ the twitter hold-faster posted. ‘I just want to curl up and have a good cry now.’ Prayer emojis.

The Moby Dick account: ‘Thou canst consume, but I can then be ashes.’

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Hydrodamalis gigas, or the last of the Sirens

On Remembrance for Lost Species Day (today) I'll take a look at Steller's sea cow, a sirenian related to the manatee and the dugong. As you can see in this image, they were er, plump and often weighed up to ten ton. They were much larger than their cousins, at between seven and ten metres long.

They used to live in the Bering Sea, gentle giants grazing the kelp beds in herds, apparently gregarious in company.

What finally brought the last of the Pleistocene mega-fauna undone, after millennia of Aleut people also hunting them, was the Western world's insatiable penchant for fur hats and coats. No, the sea cows were not furry. But sea otters are and the two species tended to live in the same areas.

"It seems that almost every aspect about these animals contributed to their decline. From their diet of kelp that forced them into shallow water, their social behaviour that put surviving sea cows in further danger, or the thick blubber that not only meant that buoyancy was always an issue but also made them apparently just so delectable."*

As one of the first western scientists to describe the species, German zoologist Georg Willhem steller naturally named sea cow after himself. Steller first saw a sea cow when the starving expedition crew were wrecked on Bering Island. He had the distinction of seeing the mammal both alive and dead and noted that if a cow was harpooned, the bull would follow her and try to ram the boat, copping another harpoon. 

Georg Wilhelm Steller begins his inspection of the female sea cow in 1742 
Photograph: Bering’s Voyages/

Steller's sea cows became extinct less than thirty years later in 1768. It's possibly an extinction hastened by ignorance as much as greed. The fur hunters seemed to be convinced that a lot more sea cows existed than actually did. The sea cows were in fact a remnant population that were previously unexploited, a lost tribe clustered in the shallows around the uninhabited Commander Islands. As Josh Davis explained in the quote above, Steller's sea cow was doomed from the moment their final refuge was discovered. 

In 2017, archaeologists and scientists with the Commander Islands Nature Reserves unearthed a near-complete skeleton. It's possibly the same sea cow that Steller and his crew butchered in 1742, starving, on the Great Northern Expedition of Vitus Bering. (Who also named a few things things after himself.)