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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No Woman’s Land, Teresa Peni

There were no spaces left to lay down on the grass, so quite a few ladies sunbathed on the rocks that circled the women’s sea pool, like lizards, like litter, like a colony of seals. Their luminous arses wreathed the giant sandstones.

I looked at them and thought, I was twenty-something, once. I debated taking up residence in the old handball court up the back corner, usually the reserve of saddle-bagged pensioners or hairy-lipped lesbians. Rocks or court?

The court was supposed to be a quiet space, there was a new sign—no music, no talking, no phones—what wasn’t specified but everyone knew, no clothes. One woman was already there, baking herself like an overcooked gingerbread. This snug, private corner was created by two adjoined concrete walls; this had once been a space for fit girlies to bounce balls around when it wasn’t the done thing do in public.

The woman slept. Thirty-ish, was my quick assessment. A sliver of shade cowered in the corner. I put my things there, as far away from her as possible.

Down the steep cliff steps to the sea pool; time for a swim, time to cool off and get a feel for the place. Time to fit in. The water was busy. There are too many people in the world already. One or two strokes were all I achieved before some Russian dame with her hair piled up nearly kicked me in the head. All shapes and colours, some of the women were swimming topless, others kept themselves discreet in shorts and singlets. A Muslim mother and daughter explored the rock pools in their burkinis. We all frog-kicked, floated, caressed the clean seawater, and avoided putting our feet down on urchins.

Talk, talk, talk, so many women, so many words. Beside me I heard Chinese interspersed with English: ‘Never again, I said!’

Crones exercised their flabby arms with aqua punches; ultra-slim teens minus any pockmarked cellulite slid their perfect thighs into our cool green world like elegant herons. They’d never drank alcohol, you could see it in their skin.  I took possession of the pool corner that poked out into the ocean, carved straight into the rock, and faced a blue horizon. Cleansing waves spilled over the edge, I let the frizzy foam spray all over my face. Like my husband’s gush. I thanked the sea for its Merlin healing tricks, Mother Earth for her massaging wetness.

Back up the cliff in the hot court now lazed three Arab women: a pair of sisters or maybe best friends, twinning, had arrived and spread out in the space between the lone lady and my sarong; two designer handbags bullied my beach bag, competing for the shade. Perched on their elbows in unison, their set of buttocks were lithe shiny olives intersected with G-strings. Why did women show their bottoms at the beach nowadays? I found it a bit off-putting. I remembered when going topless was all the rage, but we don’t really do that anymore, except down there in the Ladies’ Pool where men can’t particularly see us unless they’re kayaking past, hell-bent on a fitness mission. Everyone used to do it, didn’t they? Or was I remembering it that way because I was young back then, and that’s what we young people did. Getting your tits out in public had felt rebellious, even though it was okay by law; it was a political freedom. They’re just nipples, get over it! Blokes didn’t seem to mind at all, although it wasn’t something you did in front of your Dad. These days it’s a bit outrageous—my kids died of embarrassment and begged me to put my top back on at Cave Beach. Ahh, I see now—you do it with your friends. But now my friends were more inclined to cover up their post-baby bosoms, wracked with hard labour and gravity. I wondered if there was a link between the feminisms of the day and which body parts we exposed when sunbathing… perhaps there were also variations depending on one’s age.  I tried on a bummier costume in my mind.

The pair started chatting at full volume, waking the first woman from her sun trance.

‘You look like my friend Fatima,’ I couldn’t help but overhear. She was indeed a Fatima, but not the one from Bankstown. This nude Fatima kept her knees together enough to keep her secrets.

In my head I pointedly re-read the rules under the QUIET sign. It distinctly said, no loud talking. My jaw wobbled but I decided not to be a fussy old cow, in case they thought I was being a bit racist. Then, one of the sister-friends turned her phone volume up to torture me with some shitty dance-pop. I stuffed my earpods in and stripped my wet swimmers off, resigning myself to bronzing the parts of me that still looked Irish.

The summer holidays were over; I was free again. This trip to McIver’s Ladies Baths was to celebrate my kids going back to school. Nourish myself. I needed to un-tether from their universe. God this was lovely. It was so hot, the twins decided to go for a swim.

I finally gathered the courage to turn over, I needed to cook my other side. My pubes were sparse—it’s a fact of life they don’t tell you that happens after forty—balding. All those years of waxing etc and now I wish I had more lushness down there; it’d be ironic if Seventies-style bush became a thing again. Lying flat on my back, my tummy-fat roll stretched out in a less offensive way. Sweat dribbled down between the cracks. A big floppy hat covered my face to protect it from burning. I am a naked flower.

A timeless minute went by.

Sloshy wave sounds and cicada drone rolled through the heat.

Then, a little boy, maybe three or four years old, climbed the short fence separating the handball court from the grassy area where his mother sat, and perched himself up there, hovering right above my face. This was not how my day was meant to go, I had just dropped my son off at the school gates, I’d done my time. He was ruining the moment.

The Arab girls were back and cooed sweetly, giving him the attention he craved, ‘What’s your naaaame?’

Don’t encourage him.

He clung like a monkey to the fence, making toddler chirrups, settling in for more of their girl-love. A helicopter buzzed along the coast so I shifted my hat to hide my yoni from the sky.

‘Go see Mummy,’ I urged, ‘Bye bye.

‘No, no, no,’ he shot back, and rearranged his penis, staring at my nipples as if it were lunchtime.

That. Was. It.

Excuse me, is this your son?’ I thrust my head over the fence to locate Mum. She was mid-conversation with a girlfriend, having a good old time. My boobs wobbled under my sarong as I spoke: ‘He’s staring at me and I don’t like it.’

He was probably only two, but I had not driven all the way across the city to this sanctuary for women, only to have a boy feel a throb. I didn’t care if he was just a kid. I registered the look of horror crawl over her face when she realised I was accusing her baby of being weird just now.

Words kept spilling out of me: ‘I have just dropped my child off for his first day of high school, so I don’t feel like babysitting,’ and promptly lay down again like a collapsing deckchair. I felt like crying.

All that mediation was obviously not working. I had failed some test. I remembered a meme from Instagram earlier in the day: It’s a lot easier to be angry at someone than it is to tell them you’re hurt. Your son is hurting me.

I miss my little boy.

The Arab sisters couldn’t believe it. There was a ‘discussion.’ They included Fatima. All three looked at me as if I’d levitated. I couldn’t hear what anyone was saying because (a) the language barrier, and (b) I’d jammed the earpods back into my boiling head. Instead, I caught the eye of the presumably elder sister and held up my hand—flat palm facing down to the ground, then twisting the wrist so my palm faced up again, then flickered it back and forth—palm down or palm up? Was that okay, what I just did?

She grimaced and gave me a weak thumbs-up.

You young ones, you’re people-pleasers, I thought.  But her eyes said, Wow, you just did that?

Yes. Yes, I did. He was annoying us all, admit it.

That was another thing about aging, you give different zero fucks.

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The Space Invader and the Mud Lotus, Teresa Peni

 

SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST

When did my midlife crisis begin? Before the tears on the tiny plane, or the farewell party? Wait, no—let’s go back a bit—maybe the painful arrows and the street battle. Okay ‘battle’ is a slight overstatement. It might have been the moment my husband brought me in a breakfast tray.

He must have wanted my ‘company’. There was even a red rose in a champagne flute, which did make the breakfast look very pretty. Too bad his timing was off. I was mid-paragraph into the fresh ideas of my hero, Pacific scholar Prof Epeli Hau’ofa.i It was not time for sex, oh no, no, nooo. It was time to get angry, get organised, and save sinking Polynesia from climate change or being nuked by Kim Jong-un. The coffee was good though, he got that right. When he flopped into bed beside me I dipped the croissant into jam, turned a page, and kept reading.

He sighed, presumably about my lack of attention, and picked up a random book from the bedside table.

‘Are you going to keep wiggling that foot?’ It was vibrating back and forth as he read, making the bed wobble.

The foot stopped.

‘I might go play guitar,’ he said, strutting off. He wasn’t getting any action in here. The house was still; the kids were no doubt lazing in their beds, hooked up to YouTube. I heard the crackle and buzz of the amp being switched on, down the hall. But it wasn’t that which threatened my serene ladyspace, it was the anthropologist, author, artist, agitator, legend, Hau’ofa, that had got me all riled up.

A walk would do me good. I squeezed into my spandex tights, laced the Adidas, and cranked some electronica into my earpods to fuel my turn around the harbour.

Wind disturbed the mangroves and a black cormorant dove under the ruffled water surface. It reappeared with a tiny silver fish slung from its beak.

I mused and fumed over Epeli’s words as I strolled along. About how the Pacific Ocean, lapping almost everywhere on the planet—even right here at my feet in Sydney—was peppered with awesome Polynesian explorers for millennia before those pesky nineteenth-century colonisers arrived, divided, and dominated the vast Polynesian network—some, my motley ancestors. They carved it up with their invisible imperial boundaries into ‘tiny, needy bits,’ to be developed.ii They didn’t appreciate the wholeness of the Pacific Ocean; it was to them, the middle of bloody nowhere.

Hole in the doughnut,’ is how they saw us, warned Epeli; ‘If we do not exist for others, then we could in fact be dispensable.’iii It was as though the sea connection was worthless.

A man was jogging along toward me. Instead of staying on his side of the track, he made a sudden 180-degree turn. He jogged across my path, over my feet, as if I were invisible. He didn’t adjust his route for me one iota. A surge of outrage compelled me to curl my foot into a sneaky hook and discreetly ankle tap him as he barged through my personal space. He was quick enough to work out what was happening—adjusting his stride so he didn’t fall.

I maintained original course and bearing.

He jogged backwards, glaring at me like I blew out his birthday candles.

‘You tried to trip me!’

I death-stared him through my sunnies.

‘Watch your step,’ I said.

Jogging Man looked ready to pop a vessel.

‘You’re a bitch.’

Very slowly, I raised my two middle fingers, 1 and 2. There. You. Go. I cranked it a notch higher.

He looked me up and down with an overdone head pivot, as if his eyes couldn’t do the task themselves.

‘I hope…I hope your children get run over by a bus!’

He was seeking some part of my identity to trash. Mother, he figured.

‘Why don’t you hurry up and fuck off,’ I said.

I’m not scared of you, I thought, although I was shaking. I considered the likelihood of him thumping me—no one was around—and he was bulky. His blue eyes burned, incandescent with rage. No doubt, we both had adrenaline careening through our systems.

He stayed up in my face, trying to intimidate me, but I did not slow my step, smile, nor apologise. Do not fuck with a Maori lady when she is mad.

Then, it was as if the wind suddenly abandoned his sail; he knew words would not hurt me. He performed a theatrical manscowl and ran off, huffing.

I threw the parting punch:

‘Next time watch where you’re going, cockhead.’

 

MUTATION

Later that night, back at home; all nice and calm again, I felt very bad for Jogging Man (idiot). Of course I was proud of standing my ground, but my good shoulder-angel was more harpy than usual, making me ashamed of the way I’d done it; reaching for that familiar weapon—anger—so powerful yet so terrible. I blamed it on insightful literature, poured myself another red wine and tried to forget about it.

So I wasn’t shocked when Facebook analytics, which knows us better than our own mothers do, magically delivered this video to my feed; because it had digested and diagnosed every procrastinatory rant, preach, like, and share I’d tapped out since 2005. It submitted its sum total knowledge of me that night:

Transform Your Anger’ with Thich Nhat Hanh.iv

I hit [Play].

The Vietnamese Zen master is sitting in brown robes, beside a girl wearing a pink dress. She looks about ten. He’s holding up his fist to his own face and has a mean look.

‘You want to give that boy or girl a punch.’

Sprung bad, I thought.

He smiles as he jabs the air around his head. She smiles back.

‘Punish him or her. That is the anger in us… that anger is a kind of mud, it will smear everything.’

He’s got a strong, Vietnamese accent, so I’m grateful for the subtitles.

‘We need to be aware that the mud of anger, we must handle.’

He brings both hands together as if gripping a hefty mud marble.

‘But without the mud, you cannot grow lotus flowers.’

[Insert time-lapse video of an incredible pink lotus flower opening]

‘So the mud is useful somehow.’

The video cuts back to the monk and the girl surrounded by a luscious array of tropical flowers and candles. Cue bamboo-flute music.

‘So your anger is useful somehow, maybe you should not… let it out.’

He gently cocks his head at her. Maybe she laid into her little shit of a brother?

‘You should not throw it away. If you know how to make good use of your anger, you can grow the Lotus of Peace, of Joy, of Forgiveness. And if we look deeply, we’ll be able to understand. And when we understand, there is love. And when there is love, anger must…’

His palms open like lotus petals.

‘Transform itself.’

The girl gives a simple nod. She gets it.

I, on the other hand, was trying very hard to work out how he got from mud to love.

Google: Booktopia: ‘Thich Nhat Hahn Mud Lotus’. I pulled out my credit card and ordered his book. It was obvious I needed to stop spraying mud everywhere.

 

DIVERSITY

My street-stoush with Jogging Man was a tremor that heralded a quake. He was like a small dog that had got hold of my trouser leg. I wanted to kick the fucker off to fix the problem. But seriously, what was my problem? Was it really because he was a Pale-faced Manspreader invading my Ladyspace?

The next level of my mud quest came at me via another scholar. My two majors were, like the Pacific and the Atlantic, meeting at last. The anthropology of art was meandering into creative writing territory. We read Michael Jackson’s (yep, cool name) ethnographic-poetry, which veered away from desiccated academia. I was immediately fanboyant—more so when I discovered he came from my grandparent’s sleepy seaside town (Nelson, New Zealand), which I reckoned his poem, Making it Otherwisev was about:

 

‘… silt spread on the estuary

like a map of darkness

to be read by those

journeying toward clarity of speech.’

 

A small prophecy that held no meaning, yet—but I digress.

I was intrigued by his sweet-tempered explanation of the human condition. Apparently we are plural creatures, constantly trying to balance the seesaw between ‘our sense of what we owe others and what we owe ourselves.’ We want to be our own bosses and have all the things, AND we want to share nicely with our group, for the common good. Everyone struggles with this in a myriad of individual ways.vi

We tend to employ a bunch of simplified categories to frame our battles (for resources and ideologies). You can imagine all the variations on us/them: Raging Feminist Maori Mother Abuses Misogynist Second-Australian Fitness Addict.

Jackson agrees identity labels are helpful in getting us what we want—we should definitely study how we adopt them for good effect—marginalised people can be especially ravenous for identity.vii

Jackson says good anthropology (and writing, I presumed) will shine light onto the nitty-gritty ways we struggle with these tensions, mixed feelings, and contradictions. Nuanced description can unmask, and is more meaningful than, simplistic either/ors—when we write the life we actually live.viii

This was the kicker for me: ‘Any one person embodies the potential to be any other.’ix

Wait. What? Sounded like Jackson was saying someone can simultaneously carry the worldview of an adult and (a very needy inner) child; or exhibit the prejudices of the asshole and the victim. I am actually Maori and Irish. Goddamit, it’s possible Jogging Man was a nice guy who wasn’t wearing his glasses, just being a dick that day.

Epeli Hau’ofa soothed me, too—with his messier, oceanic view of our modern regional identity. Our diverse group—including new arrivals—were clever buggers, aye, once again regularly visiting each other, via Virgin Air; taking more than bags of cava or packets of pineapple lumps across borders. We were exchanging jobs, spreading welfare dollars, swapping sporting cups, and lovers. Epeli claimed our survival could depend upon us acting in concert to protect the Pacific Ocean (and by extension, Earth) from usurping ratbags who don’t respect it, who don’t see the real value of our epic space.x His warm voice wants to reunite criss-crossing Oceanians… who are all who love her, by being more expansive and tolerant, so we can transform ourselves: from being belittled ‘islands in the sea’, back into ‘a sea of islands’.xi

Heh. I started to like myself again. A roundhouse-kickass style had helped Oceanian women survive their dunking into the realm of nowhere. But, perhaps I could venture beyond the margins of stereotypes or monoculture; maybe morph into a more genuine creature, rather than some abstract, divided identity thrust forth in order for there to be only one winner.

 

GENETIC DRIFT

Finally, the new book arrived, No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering.xii

It was really excellent timing because my spunky little grandmother had just died, unexpectedly.

Breathe, incanted the ninety-one-year-old Zen master.

Thích Nhất Hạnh knows his readers’ mud is not limited to swearing at joggers. He did not promise to deliver anyone from suffering, but would teach me how to suffer, properly. The first arrow of pain, he soothingly explained, is pain you initially feel: anger, rejection, failure, injury, separation. The death of someone you love.xiii

Mum asked me to speak at Nana’s farewell: ‘I am somewhere I have never been before: Nelson without you.’ There was a lot more in that speech; but for some reason losing Nana also meant losing the whole town and occupants.

After seven happy-sad days spent setting up and conducting Nana’s funeral street party (Photoshopped invites; TV slideshow; where to park the Portaloo? red or black serviettes?); as well as catching up with hordes of cousins and uncles (beer and burgers; cycling along the river; reminiscing Nana over G&T’s; weeping while weeding her chic garden), it was time to return home to my little family in Sydney.

But grief opens up a hole; it irritates any festering, untended wound, makes it weep. The death of a matriarch can get the pus up.

The wound, what was it?

Breathing in, I know suffering is there.

Breathing out, I say hello to my suffering.xiv

Nhất Hạnh dropped a magnificent truth bomb: the second arrow of pain. Usually self-inflicted, it may take the form of judgement: the crap we tell ourselves to make our suffering much worse.xv

I belong nowhere, throbbed the arrow in the wound.

I pined like a lonely dog, seeing Nelson disappear through the airplane porthole, the din of the twin propellers masked my whimpering. As it banked over glacial blue water whorling into the estuaries below, I started crying up in that lonely airspace and could not stop for four days. I leave my extended family, again, and again and again.

Nhất Hạnh writes: ‘Some of our ill-being comes from hurt and pain in our own life; but some has been transmitted to us by our ancestors… you are the continuation of your parents… your body and mind contain their suffering and their hopes as well as your own.’xvi

I’d moved away from serious Buddhism a few years back when it got a bit mystical in the reincarnation department, but this guy was making things clearer. Nhất Hạnh explained how my body transported the genes and stories and happenings of all the people who came before, who had made me. I carried in my cells all their luck and habits. I was just the next step in all our journeys.

Jackson’s poem, Pioneers,xvii seemed to acknowledge their presence:

 

‘I am theirs and of them and for them speak.

My hands have gone over the roofs and gullies

of their names.

These hills I love under are their doing.

I have been given what they got.

I am what they became.’

 

I was seven when my parents vamoosed New Zealand to explore the world. Economic migration—ah, exciting new opportunities!—meant three nations, six primary schools, and ten houses changed before I slumped into high school. Boring, lovely old Nelson remained my spiritual basecamp, where I clambered a concrete blue whale to see the beach. I posted Nana and Pop regular airmail about our adventures; they were my first readers, and always wrote back. Letters were all that anchored me to their silver-haired kindnesses.

I had lost my huge family and beautiful land, and I never had a choice.

Why must I keep denying the wound? I squinted through my murky grief and saw broken arrow heads deeply embedded beneath my lifted chest armour.

Mindfully breathe, lulled Nhất Hạnh, it will create space to recognise suffering energy, then embrace it, ‘like a mother taking care of a crying baby… in her arms, without judging or ignoring it… with the energy of tenderness.’xviii I hugged my wailing mud baby, just by breathing.

Stacked on Nana’s coffee table had been family albums stuffed with hundreds of photos. One in particular—transported from 1973—gave me pause. Dad was standing on the dock, before his soon-to-depart frigate, hugging two-year-old me; I’m wearing his sailor cap and looking très grumpy. I didn’t know then, what I know now; that he was serving aboard the HMAS Otago, a Royal New Zealand Navy ship sent to protest the French nuclear testing at Mururoa Atol. Their military attention helped send those nuclear tests underground.

Our family line of warriors, sailors, explorers, and migrants seeking harbour stretched back through time. My uncle had shown me illustrations of the nineteenth-century tall ships that carried my great-grandmother from Ireland to New Zealand, a late arrival after the ocean-going migration waka had brought our iwi here, the Te Arawa and Ngāi Tahu Maori. I carried inside me more cheeky-sad travellers than one person could own.

How do I connect us? How do I belong?

Remove the second arrow.

Jackson, who knows something of being a bridge between art and social science, says, ‘When we don’t have power to materially change something, one power we can use is via the work of imagination, to rethink and reconstruct our reality, “undo deeds of the past,” with forgiveness’.xix

Could I revere my conflicting moods, be a breathing paradox? Notice, I imagined Jackson whispering to me, notice it all: the ancestors within me / the daughter left on the wharf / the girl torn from Aotearoa / the Oceanian who surveyed the world / the Sydney woman who battles space invaders. I am not either/ors—these are parts of a whole, spacious Sea of Me, and she has many expressions.

All this sounds a bit like the ethereal lotus.

Jackpot. Mud into love.

 
 

Works Cited

i Hau’ofa, Epeli. 2008. We Are the Ocean. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu.
ii Hau’ofa (p. 38)
iii Hau’ofa (p. 46)
iv ‘Transform Your Anger with Thich Nhat Hanh’, Goalcast, Facebook, accessed 1 October 2017. https://www.facebook.com/goalcast/videos/vb.897393153671209/1536207029789815/?type=2&theater
v Jackson, Michael. 1989. ‘Making It Otherwise,’ Duty Free: Selected Poems 1965-1988. John McIndoe, Dunedin. (p.27)
vi Jackson, Michael. 2011. ‘Not to Find One’s Way in a City,’ Life Within Limits: Well-being in a World of Want. Duke University Press, Durham and London, pp.359-383. (p.375)
vii Jackson Michael, 1998. ‘Here/Now,’ Minima Ethnographica: Intersubjectivity and the Anthropological Project, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp. 189-209. (p. 199-201)
viii Jackson, Michael. 2012. ‘On the Work and Writing of Ethnography.’ Between One and One Another. University of California Press, Berkeley, pp.167-214. (p.172)
ix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 208)
x Hau’ofa (p. 42)
xi Hau’ofa’s essays: ‘Our Sea of Islands,’ and ‘The Ocean in Us,’ in We Are the Ocean, express all these ideas, throughout.
xii Nhat Hanh, Thich. 2014. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering, Parallax Press, Berkley, California.
xiii No Mud, No Lotus (p.46)
xiv No Mud, No Lotus (p. 23)
xv No Mud, No Lotus (p.47-48)
xvi No Mud, No Lotus (p.33)
xvii Jackson, Duty Free (p.28)
xviii No Mud, No Lotus (p. 27)
xix Jackson, Minima Ethnographica (p. 203)

 
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Planet Earth, Red Alert, Rima Martens

A woman draped in purple stands ankle deep in the shallows, and the waves break around her. It is only her body that interrupts the clean line of a sky that meets the water’s horizon. The rest of us are gathered up on the rocks. A black veil covers her head, one arm is up in the air, and her hand is something of a constant wobble. At first, my novice ears mistake her war cry for wailing.

I’m standing on Whakatane’s pebbled beach in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. It’s Waitangi Day, and a crowd has gathered to watch the Wakas go out to war.[1] Even the group of boys with gang emblemed bandanas over their faces has turned from their intimate circle. Their cool cigarettes are dropped and snuffed out with the latest air soled sneakers. Their attention shows respect.

Although Australia has Indigenous people, we do not have an equivalent to Waitangi Day. For those that share views with Tony Abbott, it might be a concept a little hard to grasp.[2] Waitangi Day celebrates the signing of a treaty between the Maori people and the white settlers. And even though Australia does not currently have an Indigenous treaty, I cannot imagine an equivalent day would be very joyful.

As we listened to the chants of rowing men and women echoing around the bay, it is incredible to know that in exactly two months the area would be flooded so severely that even evacuation centres would have to get evacuated. In April 2017, Whakatane homes filled with water two metres high, treasured letters and books were sodden, photo albums washed away and the woodcarvings of Maraen, rotted.[3]

For New Zealand this would be deemed a ‘freak’ accident: Mother Nature lashing out as she occasionally does (of course, she has lots of reasons too). However, some 3000-kilometers away, the island of Tuvalu feels these lashings a lot more fiercely and frequently.

The saying, ‘trouble in paradise’, seems a cruelly shallow way to describe the small nation, though it is fitting. If you google Tuvalu you will be met with pictures of swaying palm trees, bountiful reefs and aqua waters that look like they are straight out of a luxury travel magazine. Alternatively, googling ’Tuvalu climate change’ presents an entirely different colour pallet, of children standing ankle deep in brown waters brimming with trash and holding signs saying: To the rest Of the World Please Could you Prepare a place for my country to stay.

Tuvalu is one of the smallest countries in the world, after the Vatican, Monaco, and Nauru. It is an island group in the South Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Its name, Tuvalu, translates to ‘eight standing together’ and refers to the eight traditional islands of Tuvalu (Nanumea, Niutao, Nanumaga, Nui, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Funafuti, and Nukulaelae), the ninth island is tiny Niulakita. With a total land area of ten square miles, it consists of nine coral atolls, four of them being reef islands the other five being true atolls. As Tuvalu is low lying, rising no higher than one-point-eight-three metres above sea level, it is particularly threatened by a rising, warming ocean.

Tuvalu is considered one of the world’s countries most susceptible to climate change. In the last five years, its media coverage has been dwindling. This is possibly because it is a story that no one is interested in anymore, or perhaps because it only has a population of approximately 11,000. It may also be because our current world leaders don’t know how to sustaining their economies while dealing with the critical needs of current science.

Tuvalu could be depicted as a contemporary Atlantis, soon to crumble into the bubbling seas. The thought of a country disappearing altogether seems a part of the way-off future—when the fish are belly up, and we go to museums to see trees. The forces working against Tuvalu are far too many, with beachhead erosion, coastal engineering, environmental mismanagement, overpopulation, deforestation, and deteriorating coral reefs just some of global warming’s teammates. A 1989 United Nations report on the greenhouse effect stated that Tuvalu would entirely recede into the ocean in the twenty-first century unless our attitudes and practises affecting global warming dramatically changed. Yet it is the United States that is the world’s largest overall polluter, and Australia takes the trophy for highest greenhouse-gas emissions per capita, and both countries continue to take scant action on climate change.[4][5]

The spotlight first fell on Tuvalu in 1997. While I was in nappies, crying about a dropped dummy, Tuvalu Prime Minister Koloa Talake addressed a collection of world leaders at the Kyoto conference in Japan. Talake pleaded that immediate action was required, in order for the effects of global warming to stop from growing. While most nations agreed to reduce their emissions, neither the United States nor Australia supported the Kyoto Protocol at the time. Again, in 2000, then Tuvalu Prime Minister Ionatana Ionatana focused international attention on Tuvalu by addressing the United Nations to speak on global climate change and the impact it would have on indigenous cultures, security, and sovereignty. Australia finally ratified the agreement in 2007, but it is clear this reluctant attitude still lingers. Since then, there have been multiple global conferences that have grown in frequency, where the leaders and members of the Tuvaluan public have campaigned for climate change action.

I was already touched down dry in Sydney when I heard of the floods in Whakatane. It was at home that I began to wonder about the surrounding Pacific Islands. I wondered about the phone calls being made, whether any crackly lines voiced that it could be contributed to climate change?

Amongst the stalls nearby Whakatane beach that February I first became aware of an organisation called 350 Pacific. It is an organisation dedicated to connecting individuals from the Pacific islands who are trying to campaign and raise awareness about climate change. As a Maori girl, I was intrigued. Scrolling through the Facebook groups, I stumbled upon that of Tuvalun multiple global conferences that have grown in frequency, statuses of some of their young and active members, such as Betty Melton.

When I Skyped Betty, she was in Perth where she studies at Murdoch University in Engineering, majoring in Renewable Energy. She believes renewable energy is how we will save the world. Hesitantly, she told me of what life is like in Tuvalu, her home.[6]

The biggest change, she says, is that there are no longer seasons. ‘It’s more than thirty most of the time, it didn’t use to be that hot’. What I’m most interested in, however, is not so much the physical. I want to know how the community feels living where the impacts of climate change are so tangible that they are forcing people to leave. In 2014, for the first time, New Zealand granted a family from Tuvalu legal residency as refugees from climate change.

‘Yes, a lot of people have migrated because of this, gone to Fiji New Zealand. They go in packs. But even the people that have stayed have had to move their homes more than once.’ Most of the people are anxious, she tells me. Mothers and grandmothers are worried about their children’s future. ‘They are worried that, in the future, Tuvalu won’t be there. You know what the scientists say, that Tuvalu will be the first to go.’ Yet when I press her about the perspectives of the older generation she continues that in fact, ‘most don’t agree with what the scientists are saying. They say that climate change is happening but they don’t believe it [Tuvalu] is going to go. They say scientists have been saying that for a long time, but yet we are still here… Back home, they are really religious… they have the hope of what God provides. We do believe in climate change because we are experiencing it, but we still have the hope.’

Since 1990 scientists have mapped the increasing number of tropical storms and cyclones that Tuvalu experiences. In the years between 1970 and 1990, only three tropical storms, hurricanes or cyclones struck Tuvalu. However, between 1990 and 2005, the islands experienced thirteen. 2015 then brought on what Betty described as the worst that Tuvalu had seen, causing over $360 million dollars of damage.[7][8][9]

High tides are probably one of the biggest problems that Tuvalu faces on a daily basis: the constant creeping water. I canreepingly one of the biggest problems that Tuvalu faces on a daily basis over $360 million dollaring. How could you plan for a future so uncertain? ‘Yes,’ Betty agrees, ‘the government talks about it a lot, on social media and they use the radio for educating people about climate change, most of their trips overseas… Most of what they do is for the climate. Our government and our people do not want to move… that is not a choice.’

Fifty-Fifty seems a rather casual way of describing the chances of your nation surviving, that’s how Betty puts it. ‘We are working on the fifty increasing,’ she laughs.

‘Do you believe it is possible to undo the damage?’ I ask.

‘Reversing the effects are impossible, but we can minimize,’ she says through the screen. ‘If we are sinking, there will be another island next.’

‘Do you think these effects will have an impact on Tuvaluan culture?’

‘It hasn’t had any effect on the culture. That is still there.’ What I was hinting at though, was what the possible impacts might be on the culture of a community spread across the globe.

As she tells me these things, I wonder why it is the first time I have really heard them. Is it because the populations are small that these stories do not receive sound? Perhaps, once in a while when the Very Important (Orange) Man takes a break from his tweeting:

‘Global warming is an expensive hoax!’[10]

Some days at the bottom of the pages a mention of the changes the earth is going through will appear through vicious scrolling. Perhaps a picture of a polar bear will win some kind of award, and we will all nod our heads ‘how sad, how sad.’ We won’t hear though, about the man who moved his brothers grave three times because of the changing tides. As Vlad Sokhin, a photographer of the effects of climate change in the Pacific said, “this is a story about people who stand to lose everything—people who may need to flee their native home and never come back. These people are refugees, but they’re not running from war or an oppressive government. They’re seeking asylum from climate change.”

It is easy to think that New Zealand is untouchable, that the home of the skyrocketing Mount Cook will be a refuge for the other smaller nations to cling too. However, the recent flooding in Whakatane is a reminder that New Zealand is also, just a collection of Pacific islands like Tuvalu. Two larger islands, to be specific. As Betty said if Tuvalu goes, who will be next? 10,800 residents of Tuvalu are by no means the only ones at risk of losing their homes to climate change. While the estimates of future migrants vary widely, from tens of thousands to one billion, there’s little question that an increase in climate refugees is on the way. There is meaning in what Betty and 350 Pacific campaign say, that if we save Tuvalu, we save the world.

As I write this, a past leader has just made a statement about climate change being good. He believes that climate-related deaths will be beneficial.

Injustice to the planet, injustice to the people.

The threat to the Pacific islands is more than a means of measuring how truly troubled our planet is, this threat to Tuvalu is a threat to all countries. And given the much greater connection to the land that Indigenous people have, their loss will be the greatest. It is also somewhat frustrating that places like Tuvalu with the smallest contribution to climate change are receiving the consequences. Kylie Loutit, who wrote her thesis on Māori interactions with Climate Change and discussed how vulnerable populations, such as indigenous people (like that of New Zealand and Tuvalu), face risks that are disproportionate to the relatively small contributions they make to greenhouse gas emissions.

It can be considered, however, that climate change may provide a stage for Indigenous empowerment and advocacy of Indigenous worldviews through involvement in climate discussions. Empowerment and cultural understanding might even contribute to Indigenous resilience against climate change. As despite making up only four percent of the world’s population (between 250 to 300 million people), Indigenous people use twenty-two percent of the world’s land surface.[11]These areas reflect eighty percent of the planet’s biodiversity and are near eighty-five percent of the world’s protected areas. [12] Maintaining important fisheries, water systems and regenerative forestlands are all part of Indigenous peoples profound knowledge base.

There might be one way that climate change can be addressed, by listening to the people who are being most affected. To change the perspective that Indigenous peoples are merely victims of climate change. That they are the drowning people. The knowledge of Indigenous People should offer them certain opportunities and platforms. That there is the potential to mitigate the risks and disintegration of their lands, such as those of Tuvalu, as well as address the centuries of marginalisation.

It is unlikely that climate change will mean a group of Indigenous people rise to become the world’s most powerful players, but I wonder what that world would look like?  Though, when I watched the woman stand in the shallows of Whakatane beach, I did not think of the waters as rising. I was watching the Wakach ride the bay.

 

[1]Canoe

[2]“This outrageous and completely over-the-top attack on Australia Day by mad leftie council”.- Tony Abbot 16 August, 2017.

[3] Maori meeting house

[4]Justin Gillis, Nadja Popvich ‘The U.S. Is the Biggest Carbon Polluter in History. It Just Walked Away From the Paris Climate Deal’, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/01/climate/us-biggest-carbon-polluter-in-history-will-it-walk-away-from-the-paris-climate-deal.html.

[5]Uma Patel and Naomi Woodley, ‘Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions rising, Government figures show’http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-12-22/australia-greenhouse-gas-emissions-increasing-environment-report/8143110

[6]Betty thought I was a scammer when I first got into contact with her about Tuvalu.

[7]AJ Smith, Klima Tuvalu ‘http://klima-tuvalu.no/tuvalu-and-climate-change/the-consequences-of-climate-change-on-tuvalu/’

[8]AJ Smith, Klima Tuvalu ‘http://klima-tuvalu.no/tuvalu-and-climate-change/the-consequences-of-climate-change-on-tuvalu/’

[9]United Nations Development Program, Crisis Response, http://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/crisis-response/past-crises/tuvalu.html.

[10]Tweet by Donald Trump, https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/6/1/15726472/trump-tweets-global-warming-paris-climate-agreement

[11] N Alexandratos, World Agriculture Towards 2030/2050: the 2012 Revision. http://www.fao.org/3/a-ap106e.pdf

[12] The World Bank, The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Biodiversity. https://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTBIODIVERSITY/Resources/RoleofIndigenousPeoplesinBiodiversityConservation.pdf

Planet Earth, Red Alert, Rima Martens PDF

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