The End as We Thought It, Briana Symons

Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash

My name is Bri. I’ve been sitting at my desk, looking at a blank page for ten minutes as I listen to my neighbour struggle to pull out of the driveway. Every scrape of tyre against pebble resonates in my chest. My neighbour always takes ages to get out of the driveway, but it feels different now. Everything outside feels different now. It feels as if I have to appreciate the little things.

Sometimes it is the little things that matter. Stop to smell the roses and all that. Stop to hear the tyres scrape. Stop to feel your chest inflate. My chest has felt tight for months.

I’m lucky, I know. All tests negative, all scares thankfully false alarms, all my loved ones still alive and well. Not everyone is so lucky. Not everyone is so unlucky. That makes me sound ungrateful. I am grateful, but since that day in late March when Peter Overton told us over dinner that the coronavirus outbreak was at a peak in Australia and yet increasing, I’ve felt unlucky. After we heard the news, my mum turned to me and told me firmly:

‘You cannot get sick, Bri. If you get sick, it is going to be very, very bad. We won’t take any risks.’ In that moment, I felt a different Bri emerge.

*

When I was a kid, I loved apocalyptic books and watching end-of-the-world movies. I wanted to be the heroine who would fight off hordes of zombies single-handedly, scavenge supplies for my family in harsh conditions, maybe even be the one to find the all-important Cure, and protect everyone. It was sort of a morbid desire of mine to die in a heroic and sacrificial manner. Perhaps that’s not the most normal aspiration to have, but I was a weird kid.

One of my favourite apocalypse series was the ‘The Last Survivors’, by Susan Pfeffer. There were three books in the series, ‘Life as we Knew it’, ‘The Dead and the Gone’, and ‘This World We Live In’. The second book was always my favourite, and not just because it taught me that tall buildings trap heat. I was ecstatic when one of the protagonist’s sisters was named Briana, just like me. It was the first time I’d ever shared a character’s name, and her nickname was Bri too. Not only that, but she also had asthma, which I’d had since I was a baby. My mum told me she used to have to stay up through the night with a nebuliser to make sure I could breathe.

I felt like her character was written just for me, answering exactly what I wanted; my own place in this grand adventure to save my family from certain doom. Even though she wasn’t the protagonist, I felt seen. I would ramble on and on about Book Bri at the dinner table to my mum and dad until my older sister got sick of my chatter and would tell me to be quiet.

Book Bri was everything to me. I devoured the book, reading as much as I could each day; and getting caught with a reading torch under my bedsheets at night. I loved that she was like me. She had such strong, unwavering faith, and as I was raised Catholic, I really looked up to that. She had faith in God and her parents, and as children do, I had faith in myself. Even when she didn’t appear in a chapter, I kept reading, just waiting for her return. Maybe she would learn new and exciting ways to survive on her own that she could bring back to look after her family. Maybe she would grow strong and dependable and exciting. Maybe I could learn new things, or become strong, and dependable, and exciting – instead of weird.

Maybe she would find their parents.

Maybe I could make it up to mine.

*

Dear Prof.

I’m writing to let you know that my doctor has advised me that due to my medical condition I am considered to be in a high-risk category to be infected by Covid-19, and the effects of the virus could be exceedingly detrimental to my continued health…

Thank you for your consideration,
Briana Symons

*

I began to self-isolate a week before the official lockdown. Everything up to that point had just seemed like a little bit of an inconvenience, but then suddenly, I had to email my teachers, reorganise my rheumatologist appointment to be via video call, and stay house-bound for weeks on end.

‘Miss Symons here has a case of rheumatoid arthritis in several joints, which was diagnosed as juvenile idiopathic arthritis when she was seven.’ I watched my doctor speak to the medical student observing our video appointment, nodding along as they took down notes like I was something to study. ‘And as such, Briana, you must be careful with this whole pandemic business. People with immunodeficiencies and those on immunosuppressants – like you – are at greater risk of contracting a respiratory infection. Take every precaution.’

My mum was terrified for me. The more we learned about the coronavirus, the scarier it seemed. An acute respiratory disease spread through droplets is high up on the list of worst-case scenarios for those with respiratory diseases like asthma. Adding on to the stress was the fact that I’d just recently increased my immunosuppressant dosage. I felt very unlucky.

It hung like a dark cloud over our family. I was alone in the house for a while until my dad had to start working from home, and every day when my mum and sister came back it was almost a ritual to see them put down their things, throw their disposable masks away, and wash their hands before they even said hello. We all knew, if they brought it home, the disease would hit me very hard. This strange, overwhelming disease was already killing perfectly normal, healthy young people – it would ruin me.

To put it lightly, lockdown was very difficult for me. Even as a person who was used to spending a lot of time locked up in my room watching inane YouTube videos or working on various projects, I felt trapped. The front yard became a haven to me. I watched my dog run along the fence, back and forth, back and forth, as my mind ran with her. Caged in.

*

I want to see my friends. I want to go to class. I want to catch the train. I want to go to my internship. I want to go to the doctors. I want to go shopping. I want to go to the local café. I want to get my hair cut. I want to go outside. I want, I want, I want.

*

Bri died. The very first time I’d ever read about a character just like me, in a genre I loved, and she died. It wasn’t heroic. It wasn’t sacrificial. It was slow, and lonely, and she was scared.

My unwavering faith faltered.

*

When the Covid-19 pandemic had just begun, I remember thinking to myself at least it’s not zombies. But even then, I felt I would be more prepared for zombies than an inescapable illness. I had plans for zombies. If the apocalypse happened, we would have to do this, and this, and this. In every plan, I’d think about what I could do, where I could tell my family to go, who we could team up with, how I could fight if I had to. I’ve never thought of myself as being one of the vulnerable in a group, the one needing protection.

Covid-19 isn’t a zombie apocalypse. In some ways, it’s worse. It’s real. And I can’t fight it. I read an article called ‘COVID-19 in Immunocompromised Hosts: What We Know So Far’, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the word host. Am I just a potential zombie?

*

I want to move. It hurts. I’m hot. I’m cold. I want to play outside. I’m so sweaty. It’s been three days: mum has to go back to work. I want my mum. I can’t breathe. My lungs are heavy. I’m missing school. My knees are so swollen. My eyes ache. I want to read. I feel sick. I want to move. I want my mum.

*

I read about a character who was just like me. Now I feel like I’m just like her. She could only leave her house once a week to go with her siblings to church. I went out once a week to sit in the car while my dad got food. She cried when their apartment was snowed in and her brother told her she couldn’t go to Sunday mass. I nearly screamed the day it became too cold for me to go pick up Wednesday night dinner without suffering aches through the night. She took it better than I did.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I know everyone is suffering. It’s just I feel so trapped. Sunday is the only day I’m outside. I guess God could tell my motives were impure. I’ll pray for His forgiveness.’

She thought to pray for forgiveness on page 238 of 301 of her apocalypse. They found her corpse 51 pages later. I’ve been trying not to count my own pages. I don’t want her death. I feel as if my fingers are holding the next page but are afraid to turn it. I’m afraid to keep reading. With each word I read, with each day that goes by, I fear I am running out of pages.

*

Dear Prof.

Did you know that Covid-19 was declared an official ‘pandemic’ by WHO on the 11th of March 2020, and according to the Australian Medical Association, as of the 2nd of October there have been 34,162,732 confirmed cases worldwide, with 1,020,932 deaths? 27,109 of those confirmed cases have been in Australia. How many of those people do you think were like me?

Hope you’re well,
Briana Symons

*

I get sick quite often, and I have since I was a child. It wasn’t an unusual sight for the school nurses to see me laid up in the sick room while they waited for someone to come pick me up. And some of that, of course, was just me trying to avoid bullies, but most of the time I was just unwell. I think they thought I might have been lying, considering how often I was there. But I just always felt bad. Whether it was a cold, or a stomach-ache caused by anxiety or my volatile medications, I just always felt bad.

I think that’s why I got so into apocalypse books. They were another level of escapism that my dinosaur books just couldn’t provide. It feels strange now to think of the apocalypse as a mode of escape, as the closest thing to one I’ve experienced so far has just trapped me.

Sometimes I feel like the outside world is moving to a place where I won’t be able to reach when this is all over; if there’s even an ‘all over’ anymore. Apparently, a lot of other immunocompromised people felt the same when we all huddled down in our bunkers while the rest of the world kept turning. It’s a funny phrase, isn’t it? ‘The world keeps turning.’ The world will always keep turning, no matter what happens to those who live on it.

There’s a lot of funny things like that popping up with this pandemic. It’s funny that half of the news we get from the outside world is about people who don’t believe in the thing that has us locked away. It’s funny that the requests we’ve made for years about accessibility and working or studying at home have been met with firm refusals and statements of impracticability from the rest of society – until they needed it of course.

It’s funny that an influential person could suggest a ridiculous ‘cure’ to this disease that just so happens to be one of the medications keeping me inside.

*

To whom it may concern,

In a tragic turn of events, my dear sister and dedicated student, Briana Symons, has passed away due to COVID-19. I know she may have been just another student to you, or even a number, but she was the light in my and my family’s life, and I would appreciate her passing being portrayed very seriously and respectfully to ensure your students are aware of how serious this pandemic is.

If you have any questions do not contact her emergency contact which would have been our mother, contact me on 61+

Stay safe,
Tashani Symons

*

The page isn’t blank anymore. I’m still scared. I almost feel like it’s as bad to write on the page as it is to turn it. Have I accelerated my fate by recording it? I guess there’s no way to tell. But still, there are little things to appreciate. My neighbour is long gone, but there’s the tac-tac-tac of my sister’s keyboard, the dog pressing her head against my closed door to beg for dinner, the clink of cutlery as my dad sets the table, my mum sighing as she packs away the console I left on the coffee table. Maybe I’m not one to hold off hordes single-handedly or find the all-important cure, but at least I’m a master at social distancing now.

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Tightrope Walking 2020, Jacqui Greig

Photo by Elisabeth Wales on Unsplash

Michelle’s grandson has told her he’s too old to need band-aids. So now, leaping from stone to stone of the dragonfly shimmering creek, Samuel knows a fall means he will have to grit his teeth and wish away the hurt. It’s their favourite walk; eucalypt scented, dotted with yellow boronia and the jewel-red of mountain devil calyxes. They keep constant watch for the elusive lyre bird singing near his nest in the fern bed.

Samuel is six and for a third of his memory life has lived in a Covid world. He invites his grandmother into his cubby-house shop, with sharp reminders to wear her mask and stand on the X taped to the wooden floor. The lounge room has been taken over by his Lego Covid rescue centre with ambulance, fire-engine, and police car at the ready.

‘Granny! Granny! Come immediately to the rescue centre. You are needed urgently!’

Sunlight falling through the window washes them in its glow as she awaits instructions.
‘These are the Covid dead. You must take them to the cemetery,’he explains, pointing to a pile of Lego figurines heaped in a pick-up truck.

‘I am busy fixing up the Covid sick,’ he adds, busying himself with laying the afflicted on their hospital beds.

On completion of her gruesome task, Granny makes lunch and seats the Covid doctor at the dining table.

‘Granny, how long does it take to get to heaven?’

‘I think it happens pretty quick,’ she reassures.

He nods and, between mouthfuls of cheese and tomato sandwich adds, ‘I’m going to live here, with you, until I’m as old as you are.’

With the meter ticking toward a million dead, and epidemiologists suggesting the number is ten times that, children will live with the effects of the 2020 pandemic year for the rest of their lives. On a global scale this means increased poverty and less health care, the latter already evident with the downturn in vaccination rates in developing nations. Children face decreased access to education and possible loss of family, particularly loss of family elders who are often primary carers for the young. While children seldom become severely unwell with Covid19 the pandemic’s broader ramifications magnify with passing time. The World Health Organisation warns that the improvements in maternal and child mortality made over the past few years could be wiped out as a result of the pandemic.

The effect of stress on pregnant women and young children is already known, as far back as the Dutch potato famine and the 1920 Spanish Flu long term negative consequences of stress have been recorded. In recent years studies have increased our understanding of how these effects occur. Stressors as disparate as a Chilean earthquake, the September 11 attacks, or the sinking of a Swedish ferry, show an association with low-birth weight babies. This likely results from the placenta going into overdrive and producing lots of stress hormones which may slow down foetal growth and increase the risk of early labour. Possible consequences of low birth weight include obesity and childhood diabetes. In the field of epigenetics, a relatively new science which studies small changes in DNA due to environmental factors, the effects of stress on generations to come is also being monitored. These DNA changes potentially pass from mother to baby and further. This new science has blurred our long-term dichotomy of nature vs nurture with respect to children’s physical and psychological health and warns that stressors such as the pandemic should be taken seriously. Government investment to decrease financial burdens on families and to prevent families being rent asunder by pandemic deaths will reap benefits in the long term.

On the penultimate day of September the clock radio wakes me with the catch phrase of this year’s news. At the million mark we have reached another “grim milestone,” as if this death and disease is purposefully leading to a destination. While the Reaper scythes down the elderly, the 2020 New York Film Festival awards its gold medal for ‘best social documentary’ to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s series, ‘Old People’s Home for Four Year Olds’. This unlikely success story won the hearts of Australians and left many tears at its completion. Remarkable for a program about preschool children visiting some, not infrequently grumpy, retirement village residents. The enthusiasm of geriatrician Prof Sue Kurrle, of the Intergenerational Care Project, was infectious, but it was the endearing relationships between the elderly and the children that stole the show.

Intergenerational care is relatively new in Australia whereas other countries have already successfully incorporated it into their care models. There are several studies underway to assess the benefits of these models which vary from frequents visits, as portrayed in the TV series, to shared campus arrangements. The benefits for the elderly were clear to any viewer of the series, as weekly the muscle strengths, personal interactions, and depressions scores of the participants improved. More difficult to measure was the benefit to the children but many parents commented on the youngsters’ improved sociability and empathy. Psycho-geriatrician Nancy Wadsworth writes that programs of this nature decrease harmful intergenerational conflicts and problems of social equity. Covid19 has laid bare just such a social equity conflict.

Nine months into the pandemic my social media feeds, with regular monotony, still posit the brilliant idea of simply isolating the elderly and the vulnerable. Then everyone else can get on with their lives and the economy won’t be trashed. Covid19 has brought to light swathes of armchair experts who have stumbled on blindingly simple insights that epidemiologists, medical experts, statisticians, and modellers have unfortunately missed. US Fox channel’s Tucker Carlson trumpeted the ‘isolate the elderly’ notion just shy of April 1st but he wasn’t playing a prank. The elderly are scattered throughout the community and often live within family groups. The latter is particularly the case in multicultural and disadvantaged communities. How, in Australia, would we isolate all these vulnerable people? Do we reopen Sydney Harbour National Park’s Q station? The views of Manly and The Heads are undoubtedly spectacular, but Victoria’s recent and bitter lesson has emphasised that Covid kills the elderly most efficiently if they are housed together.

Aired on the same US TV show a few weeks later was Texas republican governor Dan Patrick who believed that the elderly were entirely willing to die for the cause of keeping the economy running. This brave, if oblivious of his personal privilege, 79-year-old governor complained that no one had reached out to him as a senior citizen and said, ‘Are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’

‘If that’s the exchange, I’m all in,’ he enthused, adding, ‘There are lots of grandparents out there like me.’

Senator Patrick may have been a trifle short of the mark as it didn’t take long for #NotDying4WallStreet to become the top Twitter trend. Grandparents were apparently not quite ready to stand in line waiting at the Soylent Green factory. Their generation knows that the year 2022 hasn’t yet arrived. When actually asked their opinion many elderly said they would die for their grandchildren but not for the economy.

In 2017 former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott vehemently opposed the euthanasia bill stating, ‘I think we’ll regard this [bill] a sad milestone in our decline as a decent society.’

Covid has apparently adjusted his opinion which now seems to be that nature, presumably in the form of the virus, should be allowed to take its course and families should elect to keep their elderly relatives comfortable. This is a clever, if transparent, conflation of two different issues. One allows passive euthanasia, which in blocking the bill Abbott effectively vetoed, and the other sacrifices healthy and productive elderly for the mirage of economic stability. Abbott has apparently not looked to the consequences of unchecked viral outbreaks in countries like Brazil, India and, the ever-controversial Swedish model. His notions seem neither epidemiologically sound nor humanitarian.

I was Samuel’s age when I spent half a year living with my flamboyant, tousle-haired grandmother. A teacher, artist, writer, and feminist who carried her opinions like a standard before her. Those six months, the clearest memories of my childhood, remain wonder infused. The dawn excursions that saw us set off across the veld to the river while mist still hugged the hollows. She sketched and I discovered brilliant Agama lizards, more rainbow than creature, and watched the yellow-black weaver birds construct their intricate nests. Nests that clung precarious to the thinnest of willow twigs and danced above the water. At night, drowsy under the crazy-block quilt she’d sewn, she wove tales to drift me to sleep. The spy she’d met during the war. How fossils were discovered at Sterkfontein. Why her Pekingese was called Xiao-xiao. She wrote a book about elves and owls, mice and carrots, and dedicated it to her grand-daughter. The hard cover edition retains pride of place on my bookshelf.

South Australia – Flinders ranges – Ikara. Photo by Jacqui Greig

In the year before this nightmare one of fire and pestilence, I visited Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre within the Flinders ranges, known as Ikara, the meeting place, to Adnyamathanha people. They have been inhabitants of this rugged red-rock landscape of mountains and sheltering gums for tens of thousands of years. The fossils at nearby Brachina Gorge speak of further life forms so ancient they are mere swirls inscribed in stones.

At night, with stars burning holes in the darkness, there is a welcome to country in Yura Ngawarla, Adnyamathanha language. Children from the city and local kids, who must have heard the tales a hundred times, sit with knees clasped before the fire and listen, intent faces lit by dancing shadows. Not one stirs as elders pass on culture and life advice the way humanity always has. Next day in Bunyeroo Valley, a red-capped robin, Awi Irta, alights on a reed and I know his brilliant feathered head is a consequence of ignoring his wife. Stories stay with us.

Western society, increasingly obsessed with the young and the beautiful, is quick to discount and discard the elderly. It isn’t surprising that in, Three Uneasy Pieces, Patrick White laments, ‘The callous see us as dispensable objects, like broken furniture or dead flowers’. In contrast, Australian aboriginal communities nurture the importance of elders and their contribution to family life. In aboriginal lore age is less important than wisdom. The Australian Institute of Family Studies tells that, “[elders] hold stories of dreaming, culture, and injustices suffered in the past and keep them safe for youth to understand their place in the world.” In some communities the elders are the only remaining people who speak the local language. Sole survivors to pass on a legacy of words.

The city of Leganes, located on the outskirts of Madrid, is prosaically named after the slime the town was built on and is where suspects of the 2004 Madrid train bombing blew themselves up to evade capture. It is also the only place outside of Melbourne with a street named after Australian rock band AC/DC. In Leganes a group of researchers from Montréal collaborated with doctors from the Autonomous University of Madrid in a human longevity study. They found that elderly who were connected with strong family and social networks had longer ten-year survival. However, merely being part of the family isn’t enough, those people who were respected and who felt they played an important role in family life benefitted most. Blue zones are areas of the world, such as Okinawa in Japan and Icaria in Greece, that boast the highest number of centenarians. These super-elderly have many dietary and exercise habits in common but they are also respected and socially active members of their families and community. Mutual dependence within families increases longevity and decreases depression in the elderly while the young benefit with culture and wisdom.

These days the waiting room chairs stand spaced and the friendly baskets of tattered magazines have disappeared. Patients wait behind masks, absorbed in their phone screens. The silent glide of the door admits a young boy and his grandfather. Hands cup at the sanitation station, clear solution pumped and dutifully spread. The old man sits with the slow deliberation of age and his grandson leans against him, his small hand resting on the man’s arm. The tan of youth as brown as the liver spots of age. Who is looking after who?

I comment to my GP, we’ve known each other since hospital resident days, on the boy and grandfather. He frowns, concerned that the pandemic will leave a generation of anxious, germophobe children in its wake. Psychologists reassure us that if we talk openly and honestly with children, and are not afraid to sometimes say, ‘I don’t know’, they will keep trusting the adults around them and feel safe. Learning to regularly wash our hands, and cough and sneeze into our elbows, are likely long term positive public health measures. Children should not be shielded from the truth, rather they need honest answers and simple, concrete explanations with positive messages. ‘Let’s wash our hands so we can stay safe,’ being better than threatening with the risk of infection. Australia’s 2020 children’s laureate Ursula Dubosarsky captures the essence with her Covid kitten poem:

‘What can we do?’ ‘Well wash your paws,’
Her mother said, ‘And all your claws.’

‘We’ll stay inside a shut the door.
You’ll laugh and hide and read and draw’

And wait until the morning when
Our big old world is right again.

Michelle rings to discuss the latest news, President Trump’s admission to hospital with Covid. Despite deriding and ignoring all scientific advice this elderly man will receive the latest antibody and anti-viral treatments.

Michelle tells me Samuel has created a ‘torch thermometer’ to temperature check each customer entering his Covid-safe shop. Samuel, whose home life is a chaotic mix of itinerates, dogs, cats, processed food and late nights, needs his grandmother more than ever during this pandemic. Not only to decently bury deceased Lego figurines, but for stability, and reassurance, and simple joy. When our grandchildren ask us how we lived now, will we with confidence reply that we walked the pandemic tightrope fairly?

When my son was six months old I bundled him onto the long Sydney to Johannesburg flight to visit his great-grandmother. Each day of our time together she held him in her arms. Weeks later, as the smoke-hazed veld dipped below the wing of the plane circling away from Tambo International airport, I knew I would never see her again. My son grew up with stories of the woman who wrote the “carrot- elf” book and we have a photo of four generations together. At ninety-three my grandmother’s hair was still not grey.


References:

“Aboriginal Cultural Tours: Proudly sharing Adnyamathanha culture with you.” Wilpena Pound Resort, www.wilpenapound.com.au/do/cultural-tours/.

“Australian Birds.” Red capped Robin – Aboriginal information, mdahlem.net, 3 Sept. 2019, mdahlem.net/birds/19/redcrobn_abo.php.

“Strengths of Australian Aboriginal cultural practices in family life and child rearing.” Australian Government: Australian institute of Family Studies, Child Family Community Australia, Sept. 2014, aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/strengths-australian-aboriginal-cultural-practices-fam/theme-3-elderly-family-members.

“Tony Abbott joins Paul Keating in opposing Victoria’s euthanasia bill.” The Guardian, 21 Oct. 2017, www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/21/tony-abbott-joins-paul-keating-in-opposing-victorias-euthanasia-bill.

Armitage, Richard, and Laura Nellums. “COVID-19 and the consequences of isolating the elderly.” The Lancet, vol. 5, no. 5, 19 Mar. 2020, doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S2468-2667(20)30061-X.

Baker-Jordan, Skylar. “Thanks, Mr President, but I asked my grandparents and they don’t want to die for your economy.” The Independent, 24 Mar. 2020.

Dubosarsky, Ursula. Ursula Dubosarsky: Australian writer – Children’s laureate 2020-2021, ursuladubosarsky.squarespace.com/.

Fitzgerald, Anneke, et al. “A new project shows combining childcare and aged care has social and economic benefits.” The Conversation, 3 Sept. 2018.

McArdle, Megan. “Here’s why it won’t work to just isolate the elderly and vulnerable.” The Washington Post, 4 Apr. 2020, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/04/03/heres-why-it-wont-work-just-isolate-elderly-vulnerable/.

Schiele, M., Gottschalk, M., & Domschke, K. (2020). The applied implications of epigenetics in anxiety, affective and stress-related disorders – A review and synthesis on psychosocial stress, psychotherapy and prevention. Clinical Psychology Review, 77, 101830.

Torche, F. (2011). The Effect of Maternal Stress on Birth Outcomes: Exploiting a Natural Experiment. Demography, 48(4), 1473-1491.

Wadsworth, Nancy S., and Peter J. Whitehouse. “Future of Intergenerational Programs.” The Encyclopaedia of Elder Care, edited by Eugenia L. Siegler, Elizabeth Capuzeti, and Mathy Mezey, Fourth ed., Prometheus Books, 2004, p. 188.

White, Patrick. Three Uneasy Pieces. First ed., Jonathan Cape, 1988, p. 41.

Wintour, Patrick. “Tony Abbott: some elderly Covid patients could be left to die naturally.” The Guardian, 2 Sept. 2020, www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/01/tony-abbott-some-elderly-covid-patients-could-be-left-to-die-naturally.

Yoshikawa H, Wuermli AJ, Britto PR, et al. Effects of the Global Coronavirus Disease-2019 Pandemic on Early Childhood Development: Short- and Long-Term Risks and Mitigating Program and Policy Actions. J Pediatrics. 2020;223:188-193. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.05.020

Zunzunegui, M., Béland, F., Sanchez, M. et al. Longevity and relationships with children: the importance of the parental role. BMC Public Health 9, 351 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-9-351

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A Bed Of Roses, Isabella Ross

Photo by Isabella Ross

A Bed of Roses was awarded 3rd place in The Quarry – Future Leaders Creative Writing Prize 2020


Nestled among the flowering hedges within the grounds of a Sydney cemetery, is baby Primrose. She rests underneath a canopy of white roses, a ceramic mushroom house and a fairy figurine placed next to her grave. The morning breeze scatters petals across the Baby Garden, wind chimes drowning out the hum of the adjacent highway. Next to Primrose is 10-day-old Kenzo. A sun-bleached toy car leans against his plaque, the granite surface adorned with a rose motif. These plaques are two of the many sprawling across the cemetery’s gardens.

Attending to the grounds and its 3500 roses is Horticulturist John*. With his khaki uniform and work boots caked in mud, John stomps over to the cemetery’s Magnolia Chapel, greeting me with a humble ‘G’day.’ ‘Today is actually a weird day because we have eleven babies being cremated,’ he yells over the piano melody spilling out of the chapel’s service doors. ‘Florist will be busy.’

Playing tour guide, John is to show me the grounds via his company truck, the cemetery’s logo imprinted on the side door that he has opened for me. While buckling our seatbelts and speeding away, John says his goal is to re-design sections of the crematorium into botanical sanctuaries. ‘The Garden of Eternity looks like a skate park. Idiots,’ he grumbles. Through the windscreen, the grey slab of concrete plaques can be seen, desolate of any foliage. Yet the nearby Rose Garden is no skate park. Stepping out of the truck, the sickly-sweet scent of a thousand roses overwhelms as we draw nearer. ‘The standard is to just chuck roses in wherever because that’s the traditional thing,’ John says, sweeping away the ground’s decayed leaf litter with the side of his boot. Flowering buds of white, fuscia and yellow occupy the site, along with dozens of glossy marble headstones.

For centuries humans have found comfort in flowers. Next to each headstone in the 19th Century, white roses were planted, a black ribbon tied to its stem. The black ribbon may have been left behind in the pages of history, but our appreciation for the rose has carried on. With bushy eyebrows raised, John reveals that gravesites near flowers sell quicker. ‘If the gardens around it look nice, you can ask for more money,’ he chuckles in his ocker twang, a grin spreading across his tan face. Still in the Rose Garden, John tends to one of the memorial site’s rose bushes, the tips of the leaves shrivelled and brown. Susceptible to black spot and aphids, roses are temperamental, needing to be trimmed around the clock, not to mention their sharp thorns. He notes that complaints have been lodged recently as a result of the dying flowers. ‘Water restrictions have made it really difficult. Each person you imagine would think their loved ones’ gravesite should have priority or get personal attention, but unfortunately, it’s just not possible,’ he sighs.

With the clouds looking sombre, we decide to retreat to the truck. John’s shoes squelch in the manicured grass sodden from the previous night’s storm. Driving through the grounds, there are no visitors to be seen. Pointing this out to John, he shrugs that he too doesn’t come across many people. ‘What I do notice on Monday mornings is lots of fresh flowers.’ From the car window, he points out a bouquet placed on the edge of one grave over the weekend. ‘I may not see the visitors, but I know they are there all the time.’

Our conversation is interrupted by a horn beeping furiously. Groaning, John pulls the truck off to the side of the road, letting the car behind zoom ahead. With his blue eyes narrowed, John swears under his breath. ‘That’s some arsehole funeral director there. He’s probably running late to a burial.’ Exhaling, he stretches while running his hands through his dark crew cut. Soon after, a pickup wagon hurtles down the hill toward the route of the funeral director. The vehicle’s tray is filled with excavator equipment, and John smirks, knowing his assumption of a late burial is correct. ‘Once the coffin has been lowered, they compact the dirt and wait a few days for it to settle. It often drops after rainfall and needs refilling again,’ he says, parking the vehicle next to the entrance of the Baby Garden.

In this memorial section, ornaments are scattered around the various plaques, a toy aeroplane slumped against the trunk of one rose bush. Standing in the centre is a stone sculpture of a mother and child embracing. With a lopsided frown, John says, ‘when there’s a child and a parent grave you know something violent has obviously gone on there.’ The speckled pink windmill wedged into one of the garden beds spins feverishly in the chilly air. ‘I try to disassociate myself from it,’ he says with a shiver and shake of the head, as we take one last look at the dual gravesite. On the outskirts of the Baby Garden, two plants immediately grab our attention. One bush has been hedged into the shape of an elephant, but the other animal is unclear. ‘It is supposed to be an emu but looks like a duck. Probably better off having it as a duck I reckon,’ John snorts while inspecting the beak of the emu. Walking among the rows of infant headstones, the sweet aroma of flowering shrubs carries through the air. Engraved in between each of these plaques is the emblem of the rose – its petals, thin stem and thorns etched delicately under each name. With one last look at the Baby Garden, we head back to the truck to explore the grounds further.

Driving towards the Rose Chapel, I ask John about the reasoning behind its name. ‘It’s very traditional. They name the chapels after the certain flowers that surround its neighbouring garden.’ Slowing in speed, John notes that he and his team try not to drive by a chapel when a funeral is underway. Even amidst the pandemic, intimate services continue to take place at the cemetery. As we sit in the parked car, half-a-dozen mourners walk into the Rose Chapel, service music inviting them in rather than the usual hugs and shaking of hands. ‘As a team if we’re having a good day and share a laugh, we have to make sure we aren’t ‘too happy’ near a funeral. Making jokes and stuff isn’t cool. No leaf blowers that’s for sure!’

Near the chapel is the florist. ‘All the flowers around here are white, white, white,’ John notes. With white lilies and roses being the most common funeral flowers, the shop is abundant with white bouquets perched in silver display buckets. Seen as an emblem of spiritual love, the white rose has been given in circumstances of grief for over 12,000 years. Metres away from the florist is a magnificent ‘Teddy Bear’ Magnolia tree, its white petals open like a lotus. I ask John whether he prefers certain flowers over others. ‘That’s like asking a true horticulturalist what their favourite plant is. They shouldn’t be able to tell you because each one has its own use and beauty.’ When it comes to redesigning the gardens, roses will still play a role in the cemetery’s grounds according to John. ‘I’ll keep the monumental sections with roses, but I want to branch out, excuse the pun, and do something different,’ he tells, turning the truck’s engine back on.

Sweeping down the hillside is the Chinese Monumental section. The lawn is teeming with maroon granite headstones, each inscribed with gold Mandarin characters. ‘A normal grave here would be maybe $20,000 – $30,000 easy.’ John tells me that for many Chinese buyers of these gravesites, they do not like certain flowers. ‘Yellow is superstitious. No eucalyptus. They love gardenias,’ he lists. Driving past the Jewish section there is little planting to be seen, except for the freshly cut lawn. For Jewish burials, flowers are not as common. Instead, the placement of stones on a loved one’s graves is custom in Jewish culture, seen as a symbol of humility and respect. To them, these stones are their white rose.

Countless gums tower over the garden, some of the trees older than the deceased buried here. John is still taken aback by the fact that 20 to 30 bodies are buried here at the cemetery each day. It is a volume that is confronting. The cremation schedule and florist orders for today come to mind. Wandering down the trail, I ask John whether he would want to be buried somewhere like this. ‘You can put me anywhere I don’t give a shit. It’s up to my kids really, they can decide what they want. Maybe a staff discount would encourage me,’ he smirks. I notice a small sign requesting visitors bring fresh flowers in lieu of artificial varieties. ‘The natural appeal and beauty of our park’ is advertised as the reason for this request. ‘When you start to think about the 100,000s of graves all with fresh flowers that’s a lot,’ John says shaking his head at the thought of the price tag.

Arriving at the last leg of the morning’s tour, the rain has eased slightly. This memorial is lined with plaques. Some have tiny ceramic images of the deceased welded into the granite, others opting for engraved motifs of angels or single-stemmed flowers. Each of the graves here are privy to their own rose bush, a pastel canopy framing the lengthy pathway. Tiny nibbles in some of the petals can be seen up close. ‘There are caterpillars around a little bit,’ John sighs. He leans down, his face millimetres away from the shrub, picking off the wriggling pests one by one. Stepping back to admire his handiwork, he quietly examines the rose’s perfectly pruned petals, before continuing onto one of the cemetery’s countless other blooms.

*For privacy reasons, names have been changed.

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Xenophobia is a Virus, Sing Tuck Jonathan Chang

Photo by Khachik Simonian on Unsplash

Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s getting attention. From deserted Chinatown districts to plummeting sales at Chinese restaurants to the violent abuse – both verbal and physical – people of my skin-tone bear the weight of the colonial gaze in extra measure. Viral paranoia spreads faster than viral infection, and COVID-19 gives them an excuse to justify their hostility openly. That is, the covert subliminal racism I’m used to, has now burgeoned into overt, brazen racism, where myself and others who look remotely “Chinese”, can be suspected of carrying the coronavirus – whether we’re at Macquarie Centre, or riding the metro in the CBD, or disembarking a flight from Singapore.

An Unjust Pecking Order

I was born in Singapore, a British colony up till 1963. The epistemological system of colonies is based on the “creation and maintenance of an unequal economic, cultural, and territorial relationship… based on domination and subordination”. Postcolonial theorist Edward Said calls this ‘Orientalism’, which constructs binaries between Occident (Western world) and Orient (East), from a Eurocentric (colonist’s) perspective. This is achieved by “making statements about it, authorising views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it: in short, Orientalism is a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. These are fundamentally exploitative practices, where colonised people become marginalised as colonial powers move money, people, commodities, and technologies around the world in the service of colonial capital.

Said describes Orientalism as a “western style for dominating restructuring, and having authority over the Orient”. This pits West against East, which identifies and “subordinate[s] peoples of the Orient as the ‘Other’… the non-European self”. In postcolonial theory, this is interpreted as coloniser (West) and colonised (East) forming hierarchal binary logic, whereby West is regarded and universalised as superior in cultural standard and the “oft-invoked Other usually occupies a subjugated position”.

You also see this hierarchal discourse in the terms “first-world” and “third-world”. It’s reflective of colonial powers. One of the first postcolonial writers was Frantz Fanon, who was highly critical of the way Eurocentric ideas became the universalised standard against which everything else is judged as inadequate. In his words: “for the black man there is only one destiny. And it is white”. It is this same language you hear in the White House today – the “Chinese virus”- words used to keep colonial power in place; their white supremacist discourse justifying their casual racism by repeating colonial ideology. It’s never enforced (think along the lines of Marxist false consciousness).

So why am I pissed about referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus”?

This Orientalist discourse paints a problematic ‘us vs. them’ binary logic. The East is seen as ‘exotic, sensual, spiritual, mystical, uninhibited, primal’. Take yoga and martial arts, for example. If they’re considered ‘spiritual’, the West is, by connotation, ‘unspiritual’. It doesn’t matter which way it goes, it’s still Orientalising. Each time you say something about the East, it allows you think something about the West by inference because they’re caught in this binary relationship. For example: Scientific West vs. superstitious East. Modern West vs. backward East. Moral West vs. immoral East. Rational West vs. irrational East. Progressive West vs. regressive East. Open West vs. inscrutable East.

The East, then, becomes a screen for the West’s fears and fantasies. It’s the unfounded misgivings conjured when encountering a passer-by wearing the hijab or burqa. It’s the Japanese-American citizens in World War II being labelled as ‘foreign spies’ and mass incarcerated. It’s the Asian-American soldier in the Vietnam War pulled out of formation by their platoon commanders and sergeant majors to be an example of “what the enemy looks like”.

It’s the more-than-passing-glance glower I get on the street that translates to “get the fuck away from me”.

Yet even though West is the dominant term, it has no value without an East against which it is not, but which at the same time it relies on them not being not, to be what it is. In other words, without the supplementary idea of East, there is no framework with which to define what West is either. The relational-but-differential status of the Other is always necessary. A term like “white culture” wouldn’t make sense if everything and everyone was white.

When societal ‘harmony’ is disrupted by threats to our conceptions of the world, humanity instinctively turns to revulsion or humour to right their perceived wrongs. This is why homophobes think LGBTQ+ people are either scary enough to be murdered, or ridiculous enough to be laughed at. Same goes for the Asian man in predominantly white countries. He is both scary enough to be immediately perceived as a COVID-19 carrier, but also funny enough to be caricatured as the anime-watching, ramen-eating kung-fu sensei. Racism in society functions by maintaining these exclusions, and disrupting them nudges one out of inertia and into paranoia and ridicule.

Situating Myself in All This

I am a walking, talking example of this. I intentionally, unrelentingly press into it. My English is unnervingly fluent to the white man. I have a Diploma in Mass Communication, a Bachelor of Media, and I’m working on a Master of Creative Writing to back it up. I embody the binary contradiction – English enough, but not quite really. I can perform the social codes of ‘Englishness’, but my skin tone and code-switching marks me as distinctively not English. In these spaces, my English grants me overt power (official approval), but my sociolinguistic accent tendencies grant me covert power (social affirmation). This signifier grants me access to societal spaces where less fluent English speakers aren’t ‘welcome’. My language puts me one foot in the insider’s circle, while my race puts my other foot outside. Back home in Singapore, speaking Mandarin grants me this same covert power. One Kopimotion article puts it this way:

“language is instrumentalised to both include and exclude at the same time. Often, what this means is that even though English remains the official working language in our institutions, Mandarin achieves an unofficial status as an informal working language. On the table, we speak in English; off the table – where deals are actually negotiated and ties of friendship are formed – we grant access only to those who speak Chinese.”

Synthesising an Other in Another

The problem with this in today’s postcolonial world is “there is no neat binary opposition between coloniser and colonised [minority] – both are caught up in a complex reciprocity and [the Other] can negotiate the cracks of dominant discourses in a variety of ways”. Homi K. Bhabha coined this negotiation as “hybridity”. Instead of demarcating civilisations into rigid homogenised coloniser-colonised binaries, postcolonial societies are marked by the confluence of both dominant and subordinate cultures, and the movement of subjects across those strata.

The role of postcolonial critics is to challenge Eurocentric universalism and western hegemony (like Fanon), where white values have become standardised as arbiters of an apotheosis, and thus used to judge anything not white. They aren’t universalised at all; they’re relative values presented in a universalising way because those who are universalising have the authoritative power to do so. The myth of universality is therefore “a primary strategy for imperial control”.

Ambivalence is key to the postcolonial experience. We are endlessly hassled to ‘assimilate’. An example question would be: “you’re totally different from us; why can’t you be like us?” The colonised person is appropriated and assimilated into, and by the, dominant culture and institutions. A popular Western discourse is the concept of Asians as the ‘model minority’, which highlights socioeconomic disparity between racial demographics. Asians are typecast as unassuming, polite, intelligent, law-abiding members of society, in contrast to uneducated, welfare-dependent, criminal-prone black or Hispanic stereotypes. Positive or negative, these colonised are both inside and outside of the assimilation process. The trouble here (with white people in Australia) is that without Aboriginal/black/Asian people, they don’t know they’re white. Their very identity as a white person is predicated on the Aboriginal/black/Asian ‘other’. That is, you need to know who you are; yet if I become like you, I won’t be your other (therefore you won’t know who you are), or I’ll remain separate from you, and thus be the subject of your endless anxiety about your own cultural identity. The existence of the Other is always necessary; total assimilation means no one knows who they are in relation.

I can seamlessly assimilate while retaining the identity of my cultural roots (‘both/and’, not ‘either/or’). Bhabha calls this tactic ‘mimicry’, where colonisers desire “a reformed recognisable Other, as a subject that is almost the same, but not quite”. That is, I pretend to be who you want me to be so you can be who you think you are. But me being who you want me to be means I’m not who I am, which means you aren’t who you really are either. This is intrinsically destabilising to the majoritarian white, who considers this resemblance a “menace”. The colonial gaze can’t put the Other in their place. For the case of ‘Chinese virus’, the term’s use is to try and put China in its ‘subjugated place’ as enforced by centuries of colonial standards.

One Century of Diseases Later

Even after the devastation of the 1918 influenza pandemic, humanity still hasn’t learnt its lesson. Contagion outbreaks evince double standards. The 1918 influenza pandemic is more commonly known as the ‘Spanish’ flu. Its name is a misnomer, because the first few outbreaks and mortalities were documented in the US. Because Spain was neutral during the concurrent World War I, it wasn’t under wartime censorship. Therefore, the false impression that Spain was hardest hit gave rise to its ‘Spanish’ flu designation. It was one of two pandemics caused by H1N1 influenza A virus. The other is the 2009 swine flu outbreak that originated in North America. The first incidence of Mad Cow disease and its associated vCJD came from the UK in 1986. Yet there’s no ‘American bacteria’ or ‘British prion’. The 2013-2016 Ebola crisis became a rhetorical proxy for ‘African-ness’. COVID-19 isn’t new ground. Two other coronaviruses have been prevalent in my lifetime – SARS in 2003, and MERS in 2012. Even though the latter stands for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, xenophobic sentiments aren’t nearly commensurate to the racialised backlash COVID-19 has had on those of Asian descent, like me.

Identities are produced through series of social categorisations; who you are is a function of how you are treated because of the social categories you occupy. These different ‘selves’, which arise at the interstitial liminal spaces of different lines of privilege and prejudice, are what critical theorists call ‘subject positions’. Even though different skin colours occupy the same physical space, we occupy different subject positions because we are included and excluded differently through circles of language, culture, and power that box us to varying degrees. Unfortunately, since who we are is so deeply connected to our very different social realities, we cannot learn compassion if we refuse to look through each other’s eyes. Until we’re willing to, this xenophobia will propagate long after COVID-19 is etched into the annals of history.

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Deadly Traffic, Jacqui Greig

Photo credit: gmacfadyen

The email blipped onto my phone as I boarded a flight from Diqing to Kunming in China’s south western Yunnan province. I tapped the little aeroplane icon and walked down the jet bridge. Later, as the Himalayas passed below, stereoscopic and horizon-wide, I read, ‘A mystery virus is sickening people in Wuhan. Stay away from markets.’ It was 14 Jan 2020 and I was on my way home to an Australia still smoke-dazed from its worst bushfire season ever. Given the many discussions I’d had with my brother, a biomedical engineer researching HIV at Massachusetts General Hospital, the email should have alarmed me. Perhaps it was getting up at an ungodly hour to reach the airport, or the brief but disconcerting concern that my visa wasn’t valid, that left me exhausted and unconcerned. I, like the rest of the soporific world, pushed the message out of my mind. The truth is that for all of us this story started long before now.

On the morning of my eleventh birthday, I had met an African Spitting Cobra and a dinosaur. To my brothers and me, the scaly creature rustling from the veldt on its hind legs with its giant claws tucked against its chest was a velociraptor. The snake, also scaly but slimmer and agile, didn’t stay; it swam off, a gold flash in the grass. The dinosaur turned its inquisitive snout in our direction and sniffed our scent on the dawn air. We three crouched, entranced as we watched the creature continue its purposeful progress. That was the first and last time I saw a pangolin. The beauty of other animals over the years: a cheetah downing its prey in a swirl of dust, the iridescent joy of a hovering sunbird, or the silver gleam of a diving otter, never dimmed the privilege I felt at glimpsing the elusive scaly anteater.

Pangolins, native to Asia and Africa, subsist on ants and termites, a preference sufficient to make them lovable. Pangolins are ant devourers extraordinaire. They possess the elongated sticky tongues of other myrmecophages and their tough, keratin-lined stomachs must, for ants, be comparable to the voracious maw of the sarlacc in The Return of the Jedi. Ant venom has the questionable distinction of being the only acid named after an animal. Formic acid packs a punch but the scaly exterior of the pangolin is ideally suited to its diet. Pangolins are the only mammals that boast of such armour which they put to good use defending themselves by curling into a tight ball and swinging their sharp tail to ward off predators. This defensive tactic accounts for their name, which derived from Malay, pengguling, means ‘one who rolls up,’ but it also leaves them vulnerable to poaching. Humans, unlike leopards, overcome it with ease and our appetite for the keratin scales which protected pangolins for millennia, now renders them the most trafficked animal in the world.

Keratin is a remarkable protein, as lustrous as hair and as tough as hooves; it constitutes rhino horn as well as pangolin scales. Despite being ubiquitous, the protein has resulted in these two animals being listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) list. This means that they may not be hunted or traded for any reason other than scientific purposes. No study has ever found keratin to have therapeutic properties.

Chinese friends explain that pangolins’ mythical appearance makes them prized. What my child-eyes believed was a dinosaur is perceived in China as a small dragon. When rolled up, pangolins resemble fabled dragon eggs.

The rarer pangolins become, the more they cost, paradoxically increasing the demand for pangolin meat. For a host to provide expensive pangolin, or other rare wild animal meat, for guests or employees shows generosity and improves face. Along with the perceived healing properties of the scales, this has skyrocketed the [1]  price of pangolins. As recently as 2018, the Chinese government, in  Implementation of the Rural Revitalization Strategy, encouraged farming of wild animals for sale in wet markets as a path out of poverty for millions of rural poor. The practice was further encouraged on Chinese television and by internet celebrities. According to Beijing University’s Professor Lü Zhi, wild animal farming is largely unregulated and many animals for sale are wild-caught ‘laundered’ animals. Particularly vulnerable are species near impossible [2]  to breed in captivity like pangolins.

It’s autumn in Hangzhou city with hawkers shouting their wares: framed red jianzhi[1], jade and silver bangles, and wood carved croak-frogs. With leaves already tinged yellow, the ancient gingko trees lining the street shade the afternoon warmth. A brisk walk uphill is required to reach my destination, the local Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) centre. Along the way, aromas of frying oil, meat and spice assail my nostrils,  smells that become an assault as I pass the local ‘stinky tofu’ dealer. Wooden benches cluster about the entrance where the TCM patients wait. Inside it is cool, cavernous, and quiet, the air is redolent of spices and dried plants: the reassuring scents of ancient knowledge. White-coated doctors staff the heavy counters where meticulous drawers, brass-labelled with artistic hanzi[2], stretch into the gloom. Atop the cabinets reside china-blue medicine jars guarding secret balms interspersed with glass jars of animal feti, snakes and pickled roots. Time is spent unravelling each person’s concern. Despite many years of absorbing western medicine, the gravitas of history and the spell of mythology overwhelm me and remind that the Western scientific approach can neglect with patients.

I ask whether pangolin scales are available. The prompt denial seems more to deflect this waiguo ren[3] than to communicate the truth. The Chinese name for pangolin scaleschuan shan ji, means ‘piercing through a mountain’, which epitomises their perceived strength and explains why they remain listed in hundreds of TCM formulations. These formulations are used to improve lactation, menstrual disturbances and arthritic pains deemed due to cold, or damp. As unscientific prescriptions go, the notion that pangolin scales act as galactagogues is no more unlikely than the advice that fenugreek, nettle, blessed thistle and ginger improve breast-milk flow than we would like to admit. The latter remedies remain touted in Australia without any corroborating trial evidence.

Zootherapy, the use of animals for healing, was a world-wide phenomenon prior to the ascent of scientific medicine. As recently as 2011, World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics reveal that 80% of people in developing nations still rely on traditional medicines for their primary healthcare. Many modern medications derive from natural remedies, humble aspirin being one of the more notable. In Latin America, 584 animal species, ranging from the slimy — slugs, snails, and worms, to the magnificent — pumas, manatees and tapirs, are listed as having medicinal properties. The most renowned TCM practitioner of the Tang Dynasty (608-907), Sun Simiao, in his ethical treatise, Da Yi Jing Cheng- The Sincerity of Great Physicians, wrote of animal usage, ‘if you kill an animal or take a life to save another life, it moves away from the original meaning…the lives of animals and humans are equal.’ Today, TCM has drifted from this principle and, though practitioners may be reluctant to prescribe endangered animal parts, the raw ingredients remain readily available in shops. It may be easier to buy a whole pangolin shell than to obtain prepared medicine containing pangolin scales. Purchasers can then simply prepare the scales for personal use. The meteoric rise of an enormous, cashed up Chinese middle class, coupled with the Communist Party’s ambition to elevate TCM to the status of Western medicine, has left vulnerable species on the edge of extinction; a precipice they were already pushed toward by climate change and habitat destruction.

On my January flight home, I was unaware the plane was tracking north-east of the main pangolin smuggling route from Myanmar into China. The poor of Myanmar, a strife-torn country with one of the largest income gaps in the world, are easily exploited by wildlife smuggling chains. The smuggling routes stretch from Mandalay northwards through the border town of Muse and the poorly policed, casino hub of Mongla, before crossing into China near Ruili. Investigators from the environmental group Sustainable Asia report that smugglers take pangolins only as far as Ruili due to stringent police road checks in China. From Ruili, transportation becomes the buyer’s responsibility. To circumvent this, many Chinese keen to sample Pangolin and other wild meat travel to Yangon in Southern Myanmar. There, a restaurant opposite the international airport openly serves these delicacies. It is possible that one of these trafficking routes, fanning out across the vastness below my plane, facilitated the transmission of Covid-19 into our world.

I hadn’t been home long before I started receiving panicked emails and messages from friends in China. People, many people, were dying, and my friends were terrified and angry. News of doctors and academics being silenced abounded. The world’s slumber was disturbed by a new, deadly, crown virus that had started in a wildlife market in Wuhan.

Neither zoonoses nor plagues are a novelty, despite the virus initially being called ‘novel’. Zoonoses and coronaviruses are devastatingly familiar to doctors and epidemiologists. In medieval times, the plague was deemed miasmic, caused by ‘bad air’. Now, the commonly accepted theory is that the plague was a zoonosis, an infection that crosses the species barrier from animal to human. The plague bacterium, aptly named Yersinia pestis, was ably assisted by fleas in its transitional leap from rats to humans. Tuberculosis came to us from cows, psittacosis from parrots, and rabies from any animal that bites. We risk disease if we live too close to animals either by domesticating them, encouraging their overpopulation or by driving them from their homes by natural habitat destruction. In the last decade, 75% of new diseases have been zoonotic; the barrier between human and animal has always been gossamer thin.

The route Covid-19 [3]  took to reach our lungs may never be fully elucidated. The market where it is believed to have started has been disinfected before reopening. However, scientists rapidly identified and sequenced the genome of the causative coronavirus, a member of the virus group that caused recent deadly epidemics like SARS (2003) and MERS (2012), and which has long annoyed us with the common cold. Bats have evolved to co-exist with coronaviruses for millennia, but humans virtually never catch the virus from bats. For this leap, an intermediate host is needed to facilitate the gene mutations that help the virus attach to human cells, which it does using its corona, or crown, of surface ‘bubbles’. For SARS, the intermediate host was the civet; for MERS, it was camels. As urbanisation destroys their habitat, bats come into closer contact with intermediate animal hosts. The market atmosphere of stressed wild animals in crowded cages further increases the likelihood of the gene leap occurring. Covid-19 shares 77% of its RNA with a bat coronavirus, while its receptors share 99% of their RNA with a pangolin coronavirus.

The road to the Covid-19 pandemic is pathed with ironies. China had, as recently as 2019, planned an outright ban on pangolin trade. Since 1989, pangolins have been on China’s level II protection list, which bans eating pangolin meat but allows scientific research and medicinal use. The elevation to stage I protection, banning all use, would come into effect in Jan 2020. After the SARS epidemic in 2003, China placed a ban on the sale of wild animal meat, but it was only temporary. China is not alone in selling wild animals in wet markets; the phenomenon is common in South East Asian and many African countries.

In the United States, repeated warnings concerning the likelihood of a pandemic were met with the shuttering of the Pandemic Preparedness Unit in 2018. The same year Luciana Borio, then director for medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, told a symposium that “the threat of pandemic flu is our number-one health security concern”. When President Trump said on March 6, 2020 that the pandemic was an “unforeseen problem…that came out of nowhere”[4], he had never been further from the truth.

The tragic tale of pangolins encapsulates the perfect storm of the Covid-19 pandemic: the environmental destruction and climate change leave bats and pangolins vulnerable; the poverty and inequity encourage poaching to help people to survive; and the greed strips every resource from our environment at the lowest cost and sells it to the highest bidder[4] . Over [5] the years, my heart has wrenched each time I read of another border-police haul of illegal pangolin scales. I have felt grief that my children would never see this elusive and gentle creature wending its way through a honeyed African dawn. How much more I should have worried.

Bibliography

Alves, Romulo R., and Humberto N. Alves. “The faunal drugstore: Animal-based remedies used in traditional medicines in Latin America.” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, vol. 7, no. 9, 7 Mar. 2011, doi:10.1186/1746-4269-7-9.  

“CITES Appendices.” CITES Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, CITES, www.cites.org/eng/app/index.php.  

“Pangolin.” South Africa’s showcase of our collective heritage, southafrica.co.za, www.southafrica.co.za/pangolin.html.  

Devonshire-Ellis, Chris. “Covid-19 Carriers: What Do China’s Wildlife Protection Laws Say about Pangolins?” China Briefing, Denzan-Shira, 1 Apr. 2020, www.china-briefing.com/news/covid-19-carriers-chinas-wildlife-protection-laws-pangolins/.  

Friedman, Uri. “We Were Warned.” The Atlantic, 18 Mar. 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/03/pandemic-coronavirus-united-states-trump-cdc/608215/.  

Greenfield, Patrick. “Ban wildlife markets to avert pandemics, says UN biodiversity chief.” The Guardian, 6 Apr. 2020.  

Long, Marcy T., and Bonnie Au. “Pangolins Poverty and Porous borders.” Chinadialogue, edited by Jessica Aldred, Ned Pennant-Rea, Lizi Hesling, and Jiang Yifan, Chinadialogue, 27 Feb. 2020, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/11878-Podcast-Pangolins-poverty-and-porous-borders.  

Long, Marcy T., and Bonnie Au. “Why are pangolins so prized in China?” Chinadialogue, edited by Jessica Aldred, Ned Pennant-Rea, Lizi Hesling, and Jiang Yifan, Chinadialogue, 14 Feb. 2020, www.chinadialogue.net/article/show/single/en/11855-Podcast-Why-are-pangolins-so-prized-in-China-.  

Lyons, Suzannah, and Natasha Mitchell. “How did coronavirus start? Where did bats get the virus from and how did it spread to humans?” ABC News: ABC Science, ABC News, 9 Apr. 2020.  

Qiu, Jane. “How China’s ‘Bat Woman’ Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus.” Scientific American, 27 Apr. 2020.  

Ranasinghe, Kashmi. “Going viral: how a virus mutates between animals.” CSIRO Scope, CSIRO, 7 Apr. 2020, blog.csiro.au/virus-mutation/.  


Endnotes

[1] Papercuts – a Chinese traditional art form that dates back to the 6th century ACE

[2] Chinese characters

[3] Foreigner

[4] Quotes from ‘We were warned’ The Atlantic March 18, 2020.


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The Beast, Amanda Midlam

Photo by Michael Held on Unsplash

The monster fire that ate Mallacoota on New Year’s Eve and spat out charred toothpicks is galloping towards us.

Just a few days into 2020, the mayor of Bega Valley Shire makes a heart-quaking announcement. My town of Eden will not be defended.

How can a town of 3100 people not be defended?

The answer is that Australian firefighters are stretched to the limit. Our fire season is now months longer than it used to be. It now overlaps with North America’s fires. There are not enough resources. A decision has been made. The towns of Bega and Merimbula will be defended from fire. Eden will not.

It is incomprehensible. Eden has a new $40 million wharf built to take colossal cruise ships. Literally thousands of people could be evacuated from the Eden wharf. But I do not have time to think it through. The second message from the mayor is terror-striking.

‘Your safest chance of survival is to leave Eden now.’

I have been preparing for bushfires since August. Drought has left the surrounding forests matchstick dry. Climate change is now creating Frankenstein fires. The rural fire service has told us to prepare, to have an evacuation plan and be ready to go. A leather overnight bag, which I bought in Bali in better days, is filled with documents and keepsakes and my passport and the dogs’ vaccination certificates. In the car already are a bag of kibble for the dogs and a change of clothing for me. To this, I add an air mattress and bedding, just in case I have to sleep in the car, then I panic off, forgetting to soak towels and place them under the doors.

Club Sapphire is the evacuation centre in Merimbula. The club is its usual, surreal, clubby self. Men wearing smart casual pants and women wearing make-up, socialising and playing poker machines. I find a desk with an evacuation sign and try to register but am told the club won’t take dogs and am directed to go to Bega.

Bega is another 30 km away. It lies inland and could easily be cut off from the coast. It is also under threat from two hell fires that are moving closer both to each other and to Bega. I am scared to go there but too scared not to. I am terror-shaken and trembling.

It is a slow drive on smoke-filled roads and it is getting dark when I arrive at the Bega evacuation centre. The first thing I notice is that it is right next door to the gas distribution centre.

If there’s an ember attack on those giant gas cylinders, the explosion will kill everyone.

The evac centre is nothing but the old showground, rebranded. It faces a nearby mountain that is caught in a conflagration but the smoke is so thick, it blacks out the flames. I can barely breathe in the miasmic smoke.

I am glad I had the foresight weeks ago to send away for a P2 face mask that has a filter. I clutch it like a lifeline. The dogs stay in the car while I register with the Red Cross in the vestibule of an old hall. The floor of the hall is awash with mattresses and bedding for the blank-eyed elderly people and families with dazed young children drifting around.

I am told there is no room for me and I should try to find a camping spot on the oval. I am also told to take a blanket so I rummage amongst a pile and select a woollen one.

Then I drive around the crammed oval looking for a spot for my car, careful not to hit any of the ghostly-looking people emerging through the gloom as I peer through the windscreen.

The showground is now a refugee centre and through the gates I can see a stream of more people coming. The lucky ones here have caravans. Most people have tents.

Who the hell decided an evacuation centre in a bushfire should be outside?

On my second drive around the showground, I find somewhere to park. I am next to a woman who has no other shelter apart from a swag she has been lent. We both cough in the turbid smoke that scorches our throat and lungs. She tells me food is available in the pavilion next to the hall.

Here I find volunteers cleaning up after the evening meal. One of them kindly makes me a salad sandwich. I don’t want to talk to anyone. Too much fear has inflamed my senses. I cannot cope with anything more. But a feral couple tell me they fled their home in the village of Verona as their house burst into flames. They evacuated to the town of Cobargo and saw fire destroying the main street. Next they evacuated to Bermagui, and then when fire threatened Bermagui, they headed to Bega.

I feel like telling them to fuck off. They are obviously bad luck. Then I wonder if this is a Lord of the Flies response.

‘It’s the government doing it,’ the man said, shaking his matted head. The woman agreed. ‘It’s a government plot to get all the hippies out of the hills.’

I don’t need their conspiracy theories. I have my own fear-fed, fiendish thoughts. This is a fight for survival. This is the end of days.

We are told that if all else burns, the Bega showground will be defended. I speak to a police officer who tells me bluntly that I made the right decision to come here. They are expecting hundreds of people in Eden to be dead by morning.

I am wretched with grief and incandescent with anger that we have known for a long time that we were sitting ducks and nothing was done to avert this. The state and federal governments both abandoned us.

Then it begins to rain. It splashes down on my hair, my face and my shoulders. It is not until I go to the toilet and see my speckled self in the mirror that I realise it is ash and soot. I hear hell-roaring thunder too. The nearest fire is so super-hot, it is creating its own weather. Thunder means lightning, which means brutal ignition and more country converted into crematoria for wildlife.

I check my phone. Many people are refusing to leave Eden. Neighbours and friends are staying to defend their homes. I am terrified for them.

The Beast is seething, ready to surge. A behemoth against an undefended populace.

My phone again. People are jammed in at the wharf area in Eden, in their cars, figuring if the worst happens they can at least jump into the sea. Some people are sheltering with their young children on one of the tugboats.

The Beast is the devil incarnate. Sleep happens on other planets. Not this one. I try to stay calm and rational, cowering in my car, incessantly checking my phone. Through the sunroof just above my head, I watch the sky as it changes from volcanic orange to incandescent red.

Phone again. My neighbours tell me police have knocked on their door to tell them to get out. But it feels too dangerous to leave Eden. The roads are full of smoke, visibility limited to a few metres. They head to the wharf.

I need to go to the toilet. There are 2000 people sheltering at Bega Showground. Sheltering is a euphemism. The hall can fit only a fraction of that number. The rest of us are outdoors desperate for shelter from the smoke. The women’s toilet at the hall is up some stairs. I don’t know how the elderly and disabled manage. Near my car is an ancient toilet block. I stumble towards it. Through the murk, I see people are walking their horses around the showground ring. I hear children crying. Everyone is coughing. A group of people are praying. This is the apocalypse.

I check my phone. The police have been to Eden with a bus to try to remove people to evacuation centres in other towns. Many refuse to go.

For me, that first evacuated night in Bega is the most terrifying. In the morning, I weep with relief when I learn that the Beast reached the edge of Eden – then the wind swung around and sent its fearsome flames elsewhere. Everyone I know in my community is still alive. No houses burned down.

But it is not over. I stay at the Bega Showground in my car for four nights.

I cry a lot. I cry constantly but I don’t know if I am weeping tears of fear for my life and grief for the loss of the environment, or if it is just my eyes watering from so much smoke. I also worry about the smoke I am breathing. What is in it? Trees, lost houses, crisped birds, charred kangaroos, chemicals from sheds, asbestos…

The experience changes me. What is valuable to me shrinks to a small list. My two dogs; the car that is our current home (and future too, if my house burns down); my keys; my P2 smoke mask; and my glasses.

Then I lose my glasses, leaving them in the shower stall, and when I go back they are gone. Without them, I can’t see to use my phone. I can’t text. I can’t access current information about the fires.

Fuck. I can’t cope with this if I can’t see.

I tie the dogs to the car door and turn the car upside down and find, falling apart with relief, an old spare pair of glasses.

The darkness does not lift. It seems perpetual. It lasts for 40 hours and intense disorientation sets in when daytime does not include daylight. Will we ever experience normal again? I develop a ritual to get me through.

Pat right pocket of pants, checking phone is still there. Pat left pocket of pants checking keys are still there. Fucked if I lose either. Utterly fucked. There are rumours, rumours, rumours everywhere. Conspiracy theories and religious proclamations about judgment day. Pat, pat, pat. Phone, keys, glasses. Pat fucketty pat.

What would it be like to die here? I think everyone is wondering if this is the end. Armageddon. Two mega fires are bearing down on Bega and further south the Beast continues to threaten Eden. There is nowhere safe to go. We are told the Bega showground is the safest place to be and will be defended if it comes under ember attack but I look around and I can’t see any buckets of water to put out embers.

My only shelter is a car out in the open with a full tank of petrol. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Eventually we are told we can return home. The danger is not over but it is no longer so cataclysmically life-threatening. My house is still standing but there has been a snowstorm inside and there’s residue on floors and countertops and in corners. It is not white but streaky grey with black smuts. It is ash that has home-invaded, sneaking in under doors and through ill-fitting windows.

The Beast seems immortal. It refuses to die. Helicopters fly over the flames with thimbles of water. It is too dangerous for firefighters to enter the forest due to falling trees. We are told they need to wait until the fire reaches a cleared area – a farm, or a town, or a village before the fire fighters can attack it.

I used to think that fires were sudden rapid events with names like Ash Wednesday or Black Saturday but our Beast has stamina. It gets status, something called a campaign fire. We are told that if we are lucky, it will burn for weeks. If we are unlucky, it will burn for months.

People in Eden are stupid with fear. I pay the newsagent for a newspaper and she stares at the money in her hand unable to count it.

‘Do you want a bag?’ asks the young girl in the crapadashery where I buy some crap.

‘No thanks,’ I say.

‘Do you want a bag?’ she replies.

We are all exhausted from being hypervigilant. Cognitive function is closed down. We are in fight or flight mode for months.

My car stays kitted out ready for evacuation. Twice more I evacuate but not to the hell hole of the Bega Showground. One time I pay to stay at a holiday apartment in an empty complex in Merimbula. The next time I go to a friend’s place, also in Merimbula. To thank her, I take her out to dinner and we sit on the deck of a restaurant until the rain of falling blackened leaves and ash forces us indoors.

And still the Beast is unsated. It prowls scarily in secrecy, invisible behind its smoke screen. No one sleeps as the Beast makes it ravenous raids, day and night. There is no clocking off when you might need to flee flames. Forty homes are lost on one infernal night in Kiah, just south of Eden. Many people I know are now homeless. Some are underinsured or not insured.

The army arrives to help and a navy ship arrives in Twofold Bay ready to take refugees. American firefighters arrive as their fire season ends and Australians from other towns turn up as fires, up and down the coast, are brought under control. Members of the community wear face masks and shuffle through the streets in fear and grief. The stories are terrible. Homes lost. Wildlife screaming as it burns. Forests incinerated.

When the cloche of smoke lifts after weeks, we see that the national park that borders the bay is blackened with plumes of smoke rising from the carnage. It is a war zone. And still the Beast keeps marauding. We are told to stay indoors, to avoid the smoke but the air has been smoky since late last year and we want to go out.

At last the Beast is brought under control but we are warned it is not over, there are hot spots and the wind could whip the fire up again. We are dead-tired. Then one day, finally, the mayor announces that the fire is out. The Beast is dead. That is in mid-March, the same time that another beast, invisible but just as deadly, sneaks into our lives. We are still in fire shock when we descend into another of Dante’s circles of hell. Covid-19 begins.

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Covid-19 Diary, Sue Osborne

Date: 1 April

It’s amazing how the rain can become a source of entertainment. For months we had none, so when it finally comes it brings excitement and joy. Now it is more mundane, yet still a pleasure. All of a sudden, a dripping gutter is a conversation starter. Our lives have been reduced yet at the same time enriched. Simple things have become important. I believe this time of crisis could see us all appreciate life a bit more.

It’s April Fool’s Day too. I contemplate a prank but it seems inappropriate. It’s a time for contemplation. We must maintain our spirits, stay uplifted, yet resorting to trickery feels wrong.

Date: 2 April
Weather: 23°C Mostly Cloudy

Pyjama parties, toga parties, they’re classic rites of passage during the first year at university. The pyjama party many students are now experiencing is very different – festering at home in their sleepwear. What does it mean for ‘Generation Covid’, who will never properly experience what it is to be a fresher student? University is about more than just learning. It’s about making new friends, having new experiences. A whole cohort is missing out on that, forced to study from home. Even before this crisis, university wasn’t what it used to be for undergraduates, with so much communication via social media and financial pressure forcing students to work long hours. There was a time when students could explore radical political and social thinking. That doesn’t seem to happen as much now. Are we creating a generation of more insular, conformist people? I hope not.

Perhaps next year universities will endeavour to give second year students a chance to make up for lost opportunities, and a new appreciation for freedom, be it political or social, will arise from this year of living singular!

Date: 3 April 2020
Weather: 20°C Partly Cloudy

Prince Charles found self-isolation ’strange, frustrating and often distressing’. So speaks one of the most privileged men on earth. Self-isolation is a novelty for most. But for some it is the norm. Some elderly people can go for days without any human interaction. How does self-pity from the temporarily and newly isolated make them feel? The young can still reach out using social media, the elderly often cannot do this. They move among us invisible and forgotten. We quickly tire of their conversations when they nab us unexpectedly at a shopping centre. It could be the first human contact they’ve had in days but we’ve got a deadline to meet and cannot be delayed. The world is shrinking for all of us but for the lonely it was already very small. In times of crisis, people do tend to band together, but this virus is insidious. The elderly and isolated in our community are exactly the people we must avoid.

Date: 4 April 2020
Weather: 24°C Mostly Cloudy

I have often imagined being a fly on the wall while my husband is teaching one of his classes. Now I have that opportunity every day. Every class is being rolled out courtesy of Zoom from our spare bedroom and it’s given me a newfound admiration for the teaching profession. I already knew teaching was hard but the intensity, the total concentration and devotion to the students required from teachers is like no other job. My neighbour, also a high school teacher said, you ‘just give and give all day’. It sounds like it ought to be easier on screen but in fact, without feedback from the kids and the classroom dynamic, the pressure to keep a lesson lively is even greater. Let’s hope at the end of this crisis we all come away with an increased appreciation of our teachers as well as health professionals.

Date: 6 April 2020 at 9:23:00 am AEST
Weather: 20°C Mostly Sunny

Matching pair. But seriously, I’m amazed by how many dog walkers there are on the streets at the moment. I thought I knew every dog in my suburb after years of regular dog park visits, but I’ve seen lots of unfamiliar dogs and owners these last few weeks. Dogs seem to be the winners during this lockdown. Taking the dog for a walk provides a great routine to our day. Dogs and other animals stay the same while all around seems changed and uncertain. Their unquestioning faith in us, and complete innocence and reliable friendship, are a comfort in these uncertain times, when a simple trip to the supermarket could end up in a squabble over toilet rolls.

Date: 7 April 2020 at 9:49:37 am AEST
Weather: 19°C Showers Nearby

In many parts of Sydney, residents are only a few streets away from places captured in time. In Lane Cove National Park, it can feel as if you are lost in a deep prehistoric forest, surrounded only by the squawking of cockatoos and the rustling of water dragons scuttling into their hiding spots. A wall, built in convict times, remains impervious to the daily to and fro of the city. These places provide important respite for residents, until we decide to build on them. Every hectare counts.

Date: 9 April 2020 at 10:18:13 am AEST
Weather: 20°C Mostly Cloudy

Today is an exciting day. An excursion, a treat. Where to? The local Woolworths no less. A formerly onerous task has become something to look forward to. I get dressed up and put on make-up. It’s the only chance I’ll have this week to do that. However, in the store I feel guilty about buying things, even though I need them. I look furtively at the other customers and can’t meet their eye when I put anything in my trolley that’s in short supply, as if I’m committing a crime. There’s a tense atmosphere pervading the whole shop. Am I standing too close to you? Did I wash my hands enough when I got here? I feel vigilant and observed, and in fear of being accused of something, although what exactly that is, I’m not sure. So even though this was to be my big excursion for the week, I can’t get out of here quickly enough. It’s not a relaxing experience like going to the pub. That kind of thing will just have to wait.

Date: 10 April 2020 at 10:14:06 am AEST
Weather: 19°C Light Rain

I’ve never considered myself a ‘girlie girl’ worried about ‘putting my face on’ before I could leave the house. In fact, for a long time I considered make up and high heels anti-feminist and part of the conspiracy to keep women in their place. Nowadays, I’ve changed my position and getting dressed up is part of the excitement of going out. I never thought getting dressed up for work was anything special. I did not realise how important these routines of make-up and wardrobe are to us. I am not missing the actual work or socialising as much as the preparation and anticipation of it. Clothes and makeup gathering dust in the wardrobe are a daily reminder of how the normal ebb and flow of life has been disrupted. I’m impressed by the way most people have adapted almost overnight to these new rules. Nonetheless, humans are creatures of habit, and we miss our little rituals.

April 12

Easter Sunday is usually a quiet day at home overdosing on sugar, so today will feel like a fairly normal Easter for us. Family time has been quite a pleasure these last few weeks. I know the authorities were worried about this enforced togetherness causing a spike in domestic violence. I hope that hasn’t been proved true for too many families. Home is a haven. I can’t imagine what it would be like not to feel safe in your own home, to have nowhere to run and hide in times of trouble. We’ve been getting on fine, no arguments. it’s quite nice to be together, but I feel a lot of sorrow for my children, missing out on so much at such pivotal times in their lives. My daughter was to celebrate her 21st in a few months. Now she fears losing touch with many of the friends she was to invite to the party. She was also to tour Europe in July for a typical graduation holiday before starting a ‘proper’ job. I’m sure there are many in her shoes. What of the people at the other end of the spectrum? What if you could count the rest of your years on your fingers? One year taken from that small bunch is a momentous amount. If this was the year to do that one last bucket list trip or activity, to ensure you have lived a life with no regrets, how would you be feeling now? Praying that your health, and perhaps that of your partner’s, holds out so you can do it next year. What about those elderly people in nursing homes, forced to live in isolation, not sure when, or even if, they will see family members again. Worst of all, the poor people dying in isolation, unable to farewell their loved ones.

April 14

An unexpected consequence of the shutdown is that we’re hardly driving. We are saving a lot of money on fuel bills. The planet must be taking a huge breath. Global emissions will be down this year. Perhaps we’ll get an extra month out of the Great Barrier Reef. Maybe it will make up for all the carbon pumped out during the bushfires. It’s been noted that Scott Morrison is now taking notice of scientists, something that’s been out of fashion since Abbott’s prime ministership. When this current crisis is over, will the government continue to listen to scientists? Scientists agree that the climate crisis is a more serious existential threat to life on earth (not just human life) than Covid19 will ever be. Morrison said not one single Australian job should be sacrificed in the fight against climate change, yet he’s allowed thousands to be shed to tackle the virus. It’s time for a change of philosophy, a new way of thinking and living, if we are to tackle the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced – climate change.

April 17

I’ve been bushwalking with a neighbour. I have known this lady for several years as we walk our dogs together in the dog park. However, our relationship has never moved beyond a casual acquaintanceship until now. It seems like the unusual circumstances are also freeing us up to be more open with each other, to make social connections even when we are instructed to be distant. I feel much more connected with my local community now I am forced to spend more time in it, and the community spirit is palpable. Just walking around the streets, with so many people out and about, not rushing to the station, is refreshing.

20 April
Weather: 26 Sunny

I’m going for a haircut. It’s been a long time. While I must admit I’m pretty keen (being confident about how you look is important), I hope I’m not like the woman in America who wants all lockdown measures removed because she can’t get her roots done. It’s amazing but very scary watching these Americans taking to the streets with semi-automatic weapons in hand to protest their lack of freedom during the lockdown. I didn’t realise the full extent of their cultural beliefs on individual freedom. They’d rather risk thousands of their citizens dying than have the government tell them what to do. And this obsessions with government interference means some eschew government-funded entities like hospitals, welfare and public education. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. The least educated members of society need such services the most, yet shy away from them. They’re also the easiest swayed by populist politicians and vote for policies that will do the most vulnerable (often themselves) in society the most harm. A strange, perplexing conundrum.

April 24

Old friends from childhood are replacing real friends. We’re finding comfort in the safe and secure familiar stories. Colouring, jigsaw, puzzles, quizzes, painting, reading, writing, drawing crafts and baking are experiencing a resurgence. Arts, creativity and contemplative work have come to the fore and people have time to take a breath but are also considering what really adds value to their lives when the constant business of work is removed. Perhaps another positive that can emerge from this time is a reconsideration of what we value, what’s important. The arts, like health and education, have been starved of funds for years. Maybe it’s time to stop valuing GDP over all else and consider other ways we can value things. Why is a commercial real estate agent earning four times more than a teacher or a nurse? Who is really bringing the most value to our society? We can only hope this virus makes us reconsider our worth.

April 27

Ever since the cathedral of Notre Dame almost burnt to the ground in April 2019, things we once took for granted seem no longer immutable. The summer bushfires and the Covid-19 crisis reinforce that impression. The new normal is that there is no normal. Expect institutions, traditions and expectations to change quickly, and evolve with them or be left floundering on the sidelines.

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA
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The search for Lycaon pictus, the African wild dog, Keira Chrystal

Egypt, Naqada III: Cosmetic Palette

Addax bulls clashed by the acacias, trampling the savanna. They gnashed and snorted, grumbling up dust, and leaving pits in the dirt. Females and non-contenders ruminated around them, as if oblivious. Giraffes observed from their troop, swishing their tails, and smacking their jaws.

Before the pharaohs of Egypt, wild dogs welcomed the flush of the Nile with each monsoon season. The flooded banks were silty and lush, and the dogs lifted their prints abundant in the soil. A short distance away, out of sight and downwind, a young man squatted in the grass. He turned over a smooth slab of stone in his hands, thumbs tracing invisible, circular patterns on its surface. The energy of the season runs rampant on the Nile plains after the flood; he had come to watch nature’s competition and rage. The energy of the wild has long drawn humans in, has long been carved into cave walls and flat stones.

 The bulls grind their horns and swung one another with the weight of their bodies, with the sort of force would shatter a human spine.

The giraffes swayed their necks as they scoped the grass. Out on the plain, the wild dogs padded low to the ground, attracted by the stench of the addax herd. A juvenile addax stood close to her mother, her swollen eyes following the pacing of the dogs. The troop of giraffes had noticed, idling by the acacia trees, gumming slow at the greenery. Perhaps too tall and large to be threatened, the giraffe has long been a lookout for herds while the antelope are distracted by their rituals.

Four dogs stooped out from the spindles, teeth like splinters; they yowled and panted with impatience. The man had not seen one himself in many years; they had become more uncommon around the Nile banks at this time, driven away by the yelling and brashness of new farmers. Addax tails flicked and hooves stamped, compacting the dirt in a brave defiance. He watched as the calf is swallowed by the herd, and the bulls break apart, bowing their heads, rubbing their muzzles.

All eyes lingered on the circling painted dogs, pressuring calm upon the herd, now docile like cattle. He searched for the calf but could now barely see her tiny hooves through the dirt and knees and grass. She ducked her head to the pasture. All about her, there was a stillness, and she was at ease with the dogs’ distance. In his hand, the man turned his stone over again, and envisaged the dogs as natural shepherds of the desert creatures.

*

Ethiopia, Middle Ages: Tigrean Shepherd

‘Your blood is the blood of a wolf,’ the shepherd had told his son, when he was old enough to help him watch the herd. The Tigrean people once carried their speared weapons and fought off the wolves in jabs and gashes. Tribesmen would hobble home with game strung across their shoulders, legs and arms bloodied with the indents of wolf teeth. It was said that contact with wolf blood was deadly, and wolves have always been cunning. They dip their tails into their own fresh wounds, smearing and flicking their blood to their attackers. It would only be a matter of hours until death.

The boy had never known the death of a tribesman by wolves in his lifetime, and his father confessed neither had he. He said it was because their people do not take chances anymore. Once revered as a hunter, wolves had almost been banished from the region in an intentional persecution. Hearing of an encounter was rare; seeing one even rarer.

Ears like broad leaves sprouted round and brown against the grass, visible for only a moment before they ducked out of sight, down low to the soils. The sweep and sigh of the savanna hushed the footsteps of stealth hunters. The cattle shuddered their hide, and trotted wearily together, straying from their shepherd. He hissed and clamped a hand to his son’s shoulder. ‘Wolves’, he said, and the boy’s eyes darted, searching for a resurface of those ears, a snout, any soft sound or crackle of grass to give the wolves away. But there was nothing.

His father had told him when he was young that wolves would plunder their farms, gut their livestock in mere moments. Burdened by the increasing weight of riverbed stones, feet caked in clay, the boy had toiled through dry rivers much of that morning. The stones were chosen for their bluntness and heaviness, and were carried by his father in a leather pouch. Stoning the wolf was the only way, his father had told him, so that they could avoid the splash of blood.

A lone wolf, smeared with ochres and white, made a dash from the grasses. The cattle dispersed flightily, snorting, tossing their heads and brandishing their horns. The boy’s eyes were trained on the wolf; he watched the tail, held high like a white feather, and the legs, true strength underestimated as they pranced and pounced about the bull. The wolf was more beautiful than he imagined; the coat was painted like the rocks and trees under foliage shadows of the summer Sun. Seeing the beast, he did not doubt the magic of its blood — indeed the blood running through his own body. He gripped his wrist as he watched saliva drip from the peeled back lips of the wolves, with more emerging from the grasses. His pulse was warm and alive, in time with the hammer of his heart. The wolf gaped a yawn, tongue curled and long, teeth too large for its mouth.

The shepherd thrusted some river stones into his boy’s hands. The boy clenched them, clenched them tight until his palms ached. He watched the wolves, dancing around the cattle as though magical beasts. His father threw the first stone.

*

Botswana, Holocene: Abathwa Shaman

Crocodile mouths mustered at the banks, basking together in the afternoon. The Okavango Delta was a great reflection of the skies, vegetation sprouting from the waters in a patchy network of greens and yellows. Lechwe cautiously waded through the shallows, nipping at reeds, but the crocodiles were lethargic in the warmth, their jaws agape.

A lone wild dog laid in the shade of fig trees. His nose twitched with the scents of the lechwe on the wind. He had come far from his den in search of food and water; back home, even the blood of brawny bucks soaked the soil and spoiled the waterways. Great predators brandished spears, and stamped their feet, howling sounds that stirred his dwindling pack. They brought anguish to the lands, and herds, and packs.

It was to be a bountiful time for the Abathwa. The Moon shone full at night, and the sunshine beat onto the delta in the day. A young woman rattled through young sycamores for figs and flowers. She would collect enough to bring to her family, and the shaman, out of gratitude for what he had done for her. It had been early when the shaman set out alone, toward the rivers of the delta. Now, the Sun was high, and the plains were dreary. She intended to meet him by the first fork in the river when the Sun was peak overhead. Clutching her weaved basket, she called a notice to her brothers, and headed toward the river.

The wild dog was strewn through exertion, though he had not hunted. The wealth of prey animals at the delta showcased individuals too fit and fine for him to take down alone. The heat made him languorous, and he wobbled on shaky legs as he trod back through the mud and to the solid bank.

The woman traversed the low grasses, gently batting aside the katydids that leapt up in her foot-worn path. She idled by the rain trees at the first river fork, taking in the buzz and warmth of the sun-soaked waterways. So far on the horizons, elephants wallowed a path through the shallows, lifting their trunks like animate pythons.

She called for the shaman softly, wanting to remain unobtrusive to the creatures around her, but she was answered only by the rasp and gargle of wetland birds. Kneeling down in the shade, the woman waited. Lechwe grumbled and huddled by the water’s edge, utterly alerted to her. They poked up their heads, turning to the side for a better look, their ears flicking in each and every direction.

There was a deft patter by her side. A wolf, beautifully painted with the ochres of the land, eyed her with a fiery yellow gaze. He dipped his head low to the ground, nose pressing to the dirt as he heaved and huffed for her scent. The woman slowly rose from her place in the grass, ducked low, and held a fig in her outstretched hand. He lifted his head and retreated to the shrubs, sniveling. Quietly, she followed, watched as the wolf padded into the grasses and finally to a clearing, where he slackened his steps to a halt.

She squatted by the shrubbery and observed the wolf sink and sprawl his legs across the loam. He laid his head to the ground and closed his eyelids, whiskers twitching away flies that tried to settle on his muzzle. Perhaps he wanted more time alone, she had pondered. Should she have left him for when he was ready, or was this a test? Of trust? Of loyalty?

Patiently, she waited. The wolf paid her no mind, only the occasional flick of his white-tipped tail any sign he was still living. The wolf was all ribs and hips. She rolled the fig out into the open, and the dog heaved himself up just enough to look at her. But he only lay back in the dirt. She could imagine him a dusty cavity, mummified by sunshine, and sand, and time.

*

Madikwe Reserve, Anthropocene: Lycaon pictus

I set out in the early morning, just as sunlight seeped through the Boscia trees. At first light, the pups play, gnawing at their lazing mother’s ears and toes. She wiggles them off, gently kicking her legs in irritation. Her name is Smilo, and she is currently the alpha female. Her mate is Zenzo, and together they have eight pups of six weeks old.

It is good to see a new generation in the Madikwe pack. There were concerns that the populations of South Africa would not bounce back, but the enforced borders of the park have reinvigorated the grassland ecosystems, with the African wild dog playing a central role in its health and sustainability. The wild dog is critically endangered, seen as a pest to cattle in many agricultural African tribes, and it has been this way for many hundreds of years. Once a common and successful predator, the population has fragmented over thousands of years; the clustered distributions whisper of ancient unity, in a time where wild dog populations ranged from Egypt to South Africa. It is my duty to make logs on the Madikwe pack and its members, track their health and monitor their safety.

Pack life of African wild dogs is unique among carnivores; it revolves around the pups’ care, and a strong social cohesion among all members. The mature individuals watch one another, and all participate in the protection of the pups. The alpha pair will eat at a kill to regurgitate to their pups before they are old enough to eat solids or partake in hunts. A pack of African wild dogs is more than a dynamic social hierarchy. A pack of African wild dogs is a family unit.

In the last few months, I have observed and documented a bond between brothers, strong yet unsurprising to me. The African wild dog is sorely misunderstood, particularly within its own nations…

It was a mid-morning hunt. The African wild dog is one of two exclusively diurnal predators in Africa (the other being the cheetah, needing visual acuity to chase down antelope at such great speeds). At night, the savanna belongs to the lions, leopards and hyenas.

The dogs were snarling, snapping at the ankles and hind of a warthog by the water. Their tails were held high, and their heads low. They lunged together in rhythm-like fashion, from all sides. Zenzo, as the alpha, took front and centre. The alpha of wild dog packs bears responsibility that is unknown to male lions and matriarchal hyenas. They place themselves in danger’s way, holding hazardous prey down while their pack launches attack after sharp attack. Zenzo bared his teeth, biting at the snout, clamping the boar in a bone vice.

They were head to head, predator and prey, tusks protruding beyond Zenzo’s ears. I can imagine the snorting aggression between the two, all spit and humid breath. The boar flicked his tail, swung his head and shook Zenzo side to side. Zenzo wailed loud and long, scampering back from those tusks. The pack hovered around him as he recoiled, tails furious and ears flat to their heads as they form a wall to protect their alpha.

I wanted to throw myself between them, too — the stupidity of it – I know I would be easily perceived as a threat or prey.

As the Sun set, the pack retreated to their den. Zenzo distanced himself, likely to keep predators from investigating around Smilo and the pups. He was gashed, and the scent of blood was a sickly-sweet stench to nocturnal creatures. We monitored him closely from our van, praying that he would get through the coming night. He was barely in condition to walk to safety.

The pack had managed to bring down a young kudu that same evening, after Zenzo was injured. Lead valiantly by his brother – Sipho is his name — they brought the kudu down and devoured most of it within half an hour. African wild dogs are small and must eat their shares quickly. The stink of an open carcass attracts much larger, and more ferocious, predators from miles around.

The team and I watched as Sipho gnashed through pelage to the guts of the kudu calf. The pups propped themselves on their paws and scoffed at the meat, but Sipho ate his fill as priority. This was curious behaviour. He slunk off from the feeding pack, and we tracked him to an outcrop in the rock. In the dying light, with tender vocalisations, were both brothers.

We watched as Sipho approached the alpha, began panting and gagging, stretching his neck. He bent down to Zenzo, regurgitating into his mouth as if the alpha was a pup. We watched, grasping each other’s sleeves, and at our binoculars, and our digital cameras.

This detour from an afternoon kill to the rock outcrop became habitual, and we were privileged to document this behaviour. Each evening we would observe from afar as Sipho padded away from the group and made the (sometimes long) trek back to the place Zenzo rested. We watched as Sipho nursed his brother and nibbled his ears, even laying with him hours after dark.

I had mentioned this bond was unsurprising, but it filled me with a sense of pure compassion for the Madikwe pack, for Zenzo, for Sipho. The day we saw Zenzo follow his brother back to the den, we celebrated. And with frantic sniffing and wagging tails, the Madikwe pack celebrated the return of their alpha.


Endnotes

Baines, J. (1993). Symbolic roles of canine figures on early monuments. Archéo-Nil: Revue de la société pour l’étude des cultures prépharaoniques de la vallée du Nil, 3, 57—74.

Fraser-Celin, V., Hovorka, A. J., Hovork, M. & Maude, G. (2017). Farmer-African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) relations in the eastern Kalahari region of Botswana. Koedoe, 59(2), 1—10.

Littmann, E. (1910). Tales, customs, names and dirges of the Tigre Tribes: English translation. Publications of the Princeton Expedition of Abyssinia, 2, 79—80.

Lyamuya, R. D., Masenga, E. H., Fyumagwa, R. D. & Røskaft. (2014). Human-carnivore conflict over livestock in the eastern part of the Serengeti ecosystem, with a particular focus on the African wild dog Lycaon pictus. Oryx, 48(3), 378—384.

Morell, V. (1996). Hope rises for Africa’s wild dog. International Wildlife, 26(3) 28—37.

Parkland, Melissa Bartel

My lens twinkles as it takes in the unfolding scene before me. Never before had it seen such a vast array of creatures huddled so closely together in nature.

A 7×20 ought to do the trick.

I observe my favourite to start off my parkland excursion. Corvus coronoides – known by its English name as the ‘Australian Raven’, though no one calls it this of course. In this sun-scorched country we simply call it ‘crow’. Its cawing was a sure sign of rain – my parents frequently reiterated this old wives tale. This magnificent creature is known in Australian Aboriginal culture as a trickster and of course it is known worldwide as a bringer of death and bad luck. My lens presumed a different aspect of this sleek Aves.

KAW!

Oh, look at him strutting back and forth, his brilliant feathers glow in the sun. What gives them their shine? Rafael Maia and Liliana D’Alba (2010)[i] would agree that these ‘black’ birds are of a different feather. According to their research, the lustre stems from a unique arrangement of nanometer-scale parts. Their feathers harbour such a distinctive nano-structural form that is similar to the iridescent feathers found in a pigeon’s neck.

But wait, what is he doing?

His white all-seeing eyes are keenly focusing – I follow his line of sight. The abrupt movements of some feasting humans make him cautious as he approaches. Some unwanted crust from an ill-favoured sandwich – the texture of which is least desired. Its taste is similar to the centre of the bread, though the texture slightly ‘chewier’. It surely is a curious thing to which some humans despise. With a flap of the arm, the human warned the approaching crow that this was their temporary picnic territory. To what end did they ward off the persistent creature. This was his home after all – your unwanted scraps can surely be his. Alas their movements left him unperturbed, for they had not sung to him of their intention to stay. In one striking movement he lunged forward and hauled away his crust victoriously.

*

What next should I observe? My lens wonders left and right, up and down. A-ha! The pesky rock dove waddles about with his stumpy legs and stout body. His scientific name would appear much too fancy – Columba Livia. Such a name does injustice to the great Livia Drusilla – wife of Roman Emperor Augustus, mother of Tiberius, grandmother of Claudius and great-grandmother of Caligula.[ii] These disease ridden swine known simply as ‘pigeon’ are regarded as a feral pests and of course for good reason, for they are not simply transmitters of avian flu. No, these dull coloured fiends with their boring grey backs come baring many nasty gifts in the shape of ugly white splatters on windshields and sidewalks.

What diseases do they carry? Of course, you are curious.

Histoplasmosis, to name one for starters. A rather nasty respiratory disease caused by the fungus in their leavings. This nasty bugger can definitely be fatal.

Candidiasis, since we are on the topic of fungus, or rather yeast, is well known, for it affects many areas of the body from the skin to the mouth, to the respiratory system, even to the vagina.

Cryptococcosis, another yeast of course, which can affect the central nervous system.

The list could surely go on, given that they are carriers of over sixty known diseases, though I’d rather not continue for want of not causing myself depression.[iii]

Enough of their issues, but what is he doing? Is that some browning apple piece, discarded for its bruising? I watch as he pecks tirelessly, absorbing the sweet nectar of this mushed mess. Which human had it come from? I couldn’t help but wonder, for I could not see a soul who had just consumed this cheap fruit. Perhaps it had been a young child, whose parents would insist that eating one a day could help keep the doctor away? Perhaps it was an adult who didn’t want to pay extra for the mango?

A flash of white and my attention moves elsewhere. What had flown past just now? My binoculars move, searching for the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. There he is! Hanging upside down from the branch above.

His name is ugly – Cacatua Galerita – but his appearance screams ‘beauty’! These old buggers can live for eighty years – almost as long as humans nowadays. His screech is nasty as he informs his nearby friends that the picking is vast and the bounty is glorious below. His favourite are berries and seeds, though if we are being honest, he won’t mind.[iv] He will take anything, so long as it is edible.

Movement ensues as he swoops back to the surface, his elegant white feathers strut forward with too much confidence. Crest up, he approaches the perched humans who are enjoying their mix of his favourite nuts on the greying park bench. Gym clothes on, their food is most suitable, for they are trying to have a ‘healthy’ snack. His big black beak moves as he approaches their feet, then flutters up to the back of their seat. Overly-friendly, their advantage is clear. A certain ‘hello’ in bird talk, he imposes on their snack practically asking if they can spare a bite.

‘Aaahhh!’

One screams almost as uglily as he had, though the other girls laughs. The seeds spill as she jolted back. He’ll have those, he abandons his post. A friend comes to join as he munches away at the ground. Silly clumsy human, say goodbye to your morning tea, for the dirt has tainted it but not for he. My attention shifts as I look for his mates. Surely at least one is keeping watch to ensure no danger is present and pending. I search from tree to tree, hoping to spot this guardian, though I have no luck, that is until I hear—

“Aaahhh!”

 Where did it come from? I see him above. Nestled in the gum tree he warns to his friends of the incoming dog bounding forward despite his restraints. His owner is jolted as he pills at the lead, sniffer to the ground, tail wagging furiously. To him it is a game, to them it is danger, so off they go to join their friend in the safety of the trees. It is funny really how they see us as harmless. Perhaps it is the lack of sharp teeth and the ever-fading ‘predator instinct’? With their crackle[v] flying away, I observe another species.

*

Oh my, what is this? Is that a rooster? A red junglefowl? His name is boring and appears to be given little thought – Gallus Gallus, oh what a drag. His feathers on the other hand, are far more impressive. With fourteen tail feathers that can reach twenty-eight centimetres in length, he is surely a sight to behold. His body harbours many colours, such as the deep orange on his neck, reminiscent of a fiery sunset. These feathers contrast nicely with the cool metallic green covering his tail and chest. His little white patches create interest and his brilliant red crest creates visual perfection. The way he struts forward demonstrates his lack of fear. He halts for no human, scouting for food is more important. A herbivore and insectivore, his favourites are worms, grass and grains. His sense of taste is funny though, as he cannot detect sweetness, however he hates the taste of salt.[vi] He spots a human with a treat in their hand. He is drawn to the strawberry tops – the part where red meets white. Here the sweetness one tasted before turns bitter and disappears. The human discards this part, for it has not value. His sharp claws propel him forward as he approaches his lunch. He digs in swiftly, feasting on his salt-free nutrients before another bird dare take it. Vitamin C, Calcium, Magnesium and Potassium – they are all his now.[vii]

*

To the left, I observe once again, the overly-excited Labrador and his owner sipping her coffee. ‘Sit for your treat,’ She insisted ever so casually, though his attention span caved and he sniffed the ground excessively. The smell of something forbidden was much more tantalizing then his generic kibble he gets every night. The first mistake of dog-training is to not entice with something yummy and of course something with strong smell as this is always the dog’s favourite.

What has he found?

My lens follows his nose as I spot the upturned can of tuna oozing its contents all over the grass. Who would leave that there? How carelessly rude. The dog pulls to the length of his lead, though it is not quite far enough, and the Myna bird swoops in on enemy territory.

The Acridotheres Tristis has an agility that is unmatched here. The ever-increasing population of this omnivorous woodland bird means that he has learnt to be ballsy, given the increasingly ‘urban’ landscape with which he works. He is listed in the world’s most invasive species list and threatens native biodiversity. He has nasty territorial behaviour, which increases his inherent dauntless nature.[viii]

With more tuna still left, the dog bounds more, hoping to reach it and perhaps catch a bird for lunch. The crafty Myna swoops back and forth, snatching this feast not far from the great jaws of the longing dog.

‘Ugh, stop pulling!’ Her coffee had spilt and was now dripping down her hand.

‘What is your problem?’ She stands with anger, pulling the golden dog away from the scene, leaving the Myna uninterrupted to feast.

What have we here? A lingering creature who hangs back in the tree line I spot up ahead. Ah the Alectura Lathami, or Australian Brush Turkey – I would recognize that ugly mug a mile away.[ix] Its long, sharp claws are something to behold, thought its oddly proportioned body and wrinkled neck and head leave the eyes wanting to turn. His big size doesn’t seem to matter to him, for he fears that dog who just left, knowing too well how tasty he would be in its jaws.

Scavenge or flight? I could see him question, though the dog’s disappearance did somewhat help provide him with an answer. He crept slowly forward, looking for some spat out flavour that had left some miserable aftertaste in a picky human’s mouth. Perhaps that banana would do the trick? He pecked at the little browned stub left in the banana peel – yuck, it was far too bruised. Delicious. I suppose one man’s trash is another birds treasure. He feasted on his mouth-watering meal then cautiously crept away, drawing no attention from the self-absorbed teens behind him who were too preoccupied with taking selfies to notice all the wildlife.

*

The Australian Magpie sticks close to the humans, though he remains cautious of the already gathered muscle of other birds. This Cracticus Tibicen is a medium-large songbird who prefers open habitats. Its beautiful melody of carolling is the common reminder of the Australian bush in which I sit.[x] His black and white patterns are drained of all colour, save for his glowing red eyes. Their colour stares intently at the ground, dancing in and around the feasting people. A piece of un-popped popcorn – Yes please. A half-munched cracker – Yes please. This crafty creature sure knows how to beg, though only the suckers toss him a bite.[xi]

*

I could think of only one who was missing this epic party. The Dacelo, or as it is more commonly known, the Kookaburra. Surely there had to be some, for the number of suitable trees surrounding this park would make a fine habitat for these laughing beauties. I searched the trees, hoping my lens’ might spy one. Oh, where are you hiding, my favourite little friend? Perhaps they are too busy, bashing the heads of small snakes against the ground or a tree branch in the depths of the bushland before me?[xii]

Koo-koo-koo-koo-koo-kaa-kaa-kaa!

Alas, I spoke too soon!

The mighty laugh of the kookaburra resonated throughout the treetops above. My lens’ search and spotted his off-white and brown feathers. He had a beautiful splash of blue down his wings, and his beak was keen to feast. Below him he spotted some unattended sausages, from the group of friends who were barbequing on the public grill. Oh, big mistake silly humans, for this friendly creature has no boundaries. The man’s back was turned and without any warning, the crafty joker had snatched his tasty meat. The women laughed as he turned around all angry-like.

‘Why didn’t you shoo it away?!’ He blamed the girls, though it was doubtful they had noticed the clever little guy waiting for such an opportunity in the first place.

 My lens’ followed the kookaburra, as he aggressively bashed the sausage against the tree. Bits flew off and feel to the ground, though he still managed to get a good taste of the meat. Delicious. I could see the satisfaction on his face. Well done my favourite, well done. Enjoy your feast, you crafty bugger.


Endnote

[i] “Researchers Discover How Feathers Get Their Shine, Inspire Ideas For Creating Gloss”. Phys.Org, 2010, https://phys.org/news/2010-12-feathers-ideas-gloss.html. Accessed 3 Oct 2019.

[ii] Wasson, Donald. “Livia Drusilla”. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2016, https://www.ancient.eu/Livia_Drusilla/. Accessed 6 Oct 2019.

[iii] “Birds And Their Droppings Can Carry Over 60 Diseases”. Medical News Today, 2014, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/61646.php. Accessed 6 Oct 2019.

[iv] “Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo”. The Australian Museum, 2019, https://australianmuseum.net.au/learn/animals/birds/sulphur-crested-cockatoo/. Accessed 6 Oct 2019.

[v] “Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo – Whatbird.Com”. Identify.Whatbird.Com, 2019, http://identify.whatbird.com/obj/1232/_/Sulphur-crested_Cockatoo.aspx. Accessed 6 Oct 2019.

[vi] Gautier, Zoe. “Gallus Gallus (Red Junglefowl)”. Animal Diversity Web, 2019, https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Gallus_gallus/. Accessed 6 Oct 2019.

[vii] Cherney, Kristeen. “Strawberries A-Z: Nutrition Facts, Health Benefits, Recipes, And More | Everyday Health”. Everydayhealth.Com, 2019, https://www.everydayhealth.com/diet-nutrition/diet/strawberries-nutrition-facts-health-benefits-recipes-more/. Accessed 6 Oct 2019.

[viii] “Fact-Sheet: Common (Indian) Myna – Pestsmart Connect”. Pestsmart Connect, 2014, https://www.pestsmart.org.au/pestsmart-common-indian-myna/. Accessed 6 Oct 2019.

[ix] “Australian Brush-Turkey”. The Australian Museum, 2018, https://australianmuseum.net.au/learn/animals/birds/australian-brush-turkey/. Accessed 6 Oct 2019.

[x] “Australian Magpie – Song & Calls | Wildlife Sounds By Wild Ambience”. Wild Ambience, https://wildambience.com/wildlife-sounds/australian-magpie/. Accessed 6 Oct 2019.

[xi] “Australian Magpie | Birdlife Australia”. Birdlife.Org.Au, http://birdlife.org.au/bird-profile/australian-magpie. Accessed 6 Oct 2019.

[xii] “Laughing Kookaburra | BIRDS In BACKYARDS”. Birdsinbackyards.Net, http://www.birdsinbackyards.net/species/Dacelo-novaeguineae. Accessed 6 Oct 2019.

True Colours, Bohdi Byles

Disclaimer this personal essay contains potentially triggering content relating to hate crimes, self-harm, and suicide.

 

March 3rd, 2012. I’ve never seen anything so vibrant, so spectacular, or so expressive before. It is the night after I’ve come out, and Mardi Gras felt like a symbolic way to embrace my new, authentic life. There’s every colour of the rainbow in all different shades, from azure to cerulean, indigo to violet, lemon to lime; colours in the hair, on the naked bodies, on the clothing, the floats of the parade. There was something about the rainbow that was transcending the physical — it was like there was a rainbow flowing through each person and connecting them, bringing together a community to celebrate who we are. How is it, though, that a rainbow had come to hold such symbolism for people?

Scientifically speaking, a rainbow is a blend of colours typically in the order of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. They occur when light is refracted through the water droplets floating around in the air and are commonly associated with storms and the sun emerging from behind the clouds. Personally, I find that explanation boring. For me, whenever I see a rainbow in the clouds, it is like the universe is nudging me a little more forward on my path, or reminding me that I’m not stuck, I’m just pausing to take a breath.

A rainbow flag was an image adopted by the LGBTQ+ community in 1978, originally designed by the late Gilbert Baker. Prior to the rainbow flag, a pink triangle defined the gay community during the Gay Liberation Movement. However, the triangle was a symbolic reminder of how Nazis identified homosexuals in World War II, and so with the triangle came the emotions connected to what it had been. For Baker, the rainbow flag was a way to deconstruct the solemnity attached to the gay community. When openly gay politician, Harvey Milk, was assassinated in November 1978, the flag became a symbol of the gay community. Since its genesis, the rainbow flag has become a constant image of resilience and strength.

I want to take you back to May 2010, when I didn’t know about strength or resilience or pride. I am sixteen-years-old, sitting in a theatre, waiting for the lights to dim and the movie to start. My friend and I are chatting as my phone buzzes. I open it up to Facebook. One unread message. I see the name of the person sending it to me and inhale before opening it.

‘Use all should be shot in the head and burned you queer kunt.’

My fingers tap wildly on the screen as I respond.

‘When the fuck are you going to understand. . . I. AM. NOT. GAY.’

I silence my phone before shoving it back in my pocket. My heart is thumping in my chest and my stomach churns. It’s hard to draw in air. The lights dim, and the movie begins as I start getting tunnel vision. I smile at my friend, but all I can think is how I have school tomorrow, and the next day, and the next month, and the next year. I want nothing more than to curl up under the seat in the darkness and stop existing. I’m not going to make it.

It’s effortless for me to recall this experience and many others, like the Facebook page made about me saying I had sex with another male student in one of the high school blocks, only for people to shout it at me for weeks during quiet classes. Or being harassed in the change rooms for looking at the boys when I was standing as far away as possible, staring at a corner and changing as fast as humanly possible. I was still in the closet, still hiding who I knew I was. For me, to be out in high school would’ve meant more than just being vulnerable and authentic. It’d be like bleeding in a lake full of piranhas. They would’ve smelt me out, and they would’ve come in full force to tear me apart even more than the chunks they’d already stolen.

Bullying is bullshit. It’s deeper than just a mean remark or a nasty comment. It’s a way to police people’s behaviours and try to force them to conform to an ideal person. In my case, that ideal was to be straight. It’s not an uncommon story either, and it often has tragic endings.

Seared into my mind is the story of 9-year-old Jamel Myles who came out as gay, full of pride and joy, only to endure four days of constant bullying, to which resulted in him committing suicide. Four days is all it took for people to take this boy’s pride and irreparably shatter it along with his life. The other names tattooed on my soul went the same way – Tyler Clementi (18), Jamey Rodemeyer (14), Phillip Parker (15), Jadin Bell (15). All young, all beautifully queer, all gone. These names never fail to bring tears to my eyes because they are like a mirror to me of what could’ve been.

While I was walking on a tightrope for 4 years, I nearly fell off. Along with that list of names could’ve been Bohdi Byles (18). My name has had a total of four opportunities to join that list, three of them in 2012, each attempt etched into my brain along with their unforgettable sensations. The pills washing down my throat and being forced back up. The sharp sting of a razor blade slicing over flesh. The belt-tightening around my neck. My lungs burning with my head underwater. The shame. The prickly shame of failing yet again.

The day I came out, I was terrified. I was scared that those closest to me would abandon me. I was suffocating. It’s like my body was ready to emerge from the cocoon but the cocoon wouldn’t break, so it was just getting more and more claustrophobic. However, fear and anxiety were not good enough reasons to carry around a 50-ton burden anymore. I was going to come out and the chips could fall wherever they damn well pleased.

Gratefully, I had an easy coming out experience, albeit a little anti-climactic. While I thought everyone would be shocked and have their perceptions of me absolutely blown apart, for the most part, the opposite happened.

‘It’s about time, now go clean your room,’ Mum said to me. The fear I had wasn’t real anymore, and frankly, no one cared.

Except for Grandma.

Grandma didn’t want one bar of it. Even now, six years later, she still is optimistic that I will one day realise I am straight and want a girlfriend, regardless of how insistent I am and how much I externalise my queerness. She’s grown though, from the woman who cried and told me I was going to get AIDS and die.

AIDS has always carried a stigma with it. In the late 1980s, during the AIDS crisis, it was linked entirely to gay men. That stigma, while it has shifted over time, has never fully been left behind, as proven by my grandmother’s fears. It was her fear that drove her reaction, not her disapproval. Her love has never been in question, only her acceptance.

When my uncle was 13, he was placed in a boy’s home for stealing a car. While there, a gay security guard sexually assaulted him, and from that, my uncle contracted HIV, which later developed into AIDS. He passed away when I was two, so I have no recollection or memory of him. I only have photos, but to me, they might as well be photos of a stranger. I never had the opportunity to know him.

I spoke with my grandmother recently to try and scope how that experience was, particularly because it was happening during the AIDS crisis and just afterward. I wanted to know, partially out of my own curiosity as a Gender Studies major, what it was like, what the beliefs were, and how they were enacted. Through her tears, she told me about how all her friends abandoned her when they found out because they were terrified they would catch AIDS. She wept and spoke about the deep shame she carried.

‘How could I tell anyone?’ she asked, her voice croaky as she wiped a tissue over her eyes. ‘How could I possibly tell anyone?’

I understand why she feels the way she does. Through that understanding and empathy I have is a driving force for me to own my authenticity and my identity with pride. I am proud of who I am, and I want to make it known to people that there is pride to be had as an LGBTQ+ individual. With that pride comes a community, a chosen family who accepts one another.

In June 2016, a shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, went down in history as one of the worst shootings to ever happen in modern U.S. history. 49 people in a gay club were killed, another 53 injured. I was in a house alone, watching the constant stream of news through Twitter unfold.

I was shell-shocked for weeks. I was numb and felt so completely powerless. I lit candles, I cried, I even gave an impromptu speech at a vigil (even more powerful given how I detest public speaking). I cried some more, and I was just a cloud of confusion and fear. What helped me walk down that cloudy, scary path though was the rainbow I was walking with, the people I looked to for inspiration.

For the months that followed, the rainbow flag was not just a symbol of pride, but one of remembrance and grieving, connection and compassion, not just in Florida, or in the United States, but worldwide. People mourned as a community where their brothers and sisters, their chosen family, had been attacked. These were my people. My community. My family.

The words from my high school bully rang through my head after the shooting, and still do. ‘use should all be shot in the head.’ Bad grammar and spelling aside, if this person had their way, I would’ve been one of those injured or killed. Yet, reflecting back on those experiences of the many others who came before, like Harvey Milk or the victims of Pulse nightclub, I think that there is solidarity in our struggles, and there is power in our stories.

In 1939, in The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland (a much beloved gay icon) sang the lyrics, ‘Somewhere over the rainbow / Skies are blue / And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.’ Beloved popstar of the 70s and 80s, Cyndi Lauper, sang in her powerful anthem, True Colours, for her friend lost to AIDS, Gregory, ‘I see your true colours / And that’s why I love you […] True colours are beautiful / Like a rainbow.’ During her life, the late Maya Angelou would often sing a 19th-century African-American song: ‘When it looks like the sun will not shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds.’

I wonder if perhaps there isn’t something waiting over the rainbow, but maybe the rainbow itself is the dream that really does come true. Maybe it isn’t so much about the rainbow, but about who is within that rainbow that you find.

What I know for sure is that coming out as gay was so much more than liberating. It was a golden ticket to life, permission to not just survive but thrive. Pride wasn’t a sudden response, but a gradual and internalised feeling that reached the deepest, most unloved parts of me and brought them to the surface to shine.

 

Endnotes

“9-Year-Old Boy Killed Himself After Being Bullied, His Mom Says.” The New York Times. 4 Oct. 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/28/us/jamel-myles-suicide-denver.html

“Cyndi Lauper Lyrics: True Colors.” AZ Lyrics. 3 Oct. 2018. https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/cyndilauper/truecolors.html

“Dr. Maya Angelou: “Be a Rainbow in Someone Else’s Cloud” | Oprah’s Master Class | OWN.” YouTube. 27 Aug. 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nYXFletWH4

“Jamey Rodemeyer Bullied Even After He Died.” Total Life Counselling. 3 Oct. 2018. https://www.totallifecounseling.com/jamey-rodemeyer-gay-teen-bullying-tips-suicide/

“Judy Garland Lyrics: Over The Rainbow.” AZ Lyrics. 28 Aug. 2018.  https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/judygarland/overtherainbow.html

“Oregon teen hangs himself in schoolyard ‘because he was bullied for being gay’.” Daily Mail. 3 Oct. 2018. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2270457/Jadin-Bell-Oregon-teen-bullied-gay-hangs-schoolyard.html

“Orlando Shooting.” The New York Times. 28 Aug. 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/news-event/2016-orlando-shooting

“Phillip Parker, Gay Tennessee Teen, Commits Suicide After Enduring Bullying.” Huffington Post. 3. Oct. 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/23/phillip-parker-gay-tennessee-teen-suicide_n_1223688.html

“Rainbow Flag: Origin Story.” Gilbert Baker. 27 Aug. 2018. https://gilbertbaker.com/rainbow-flag-origin-story/

“Sixty Minutes: Cyndi Lauper/Kinky Boots Special.” YouTube. 3 Oct. 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GtVR7jX6P7I

“Tyler Clementi’s Story.” Tyler Clementi. 3 Oct. 2018 https://tylerclementi.org/tylers-story/

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