First published in Saltfront studies in human habit(at) Issue 4, Fall 2015, Salt Lake City.
Late one golden afternoon they dropped like myths into the Cape lilacs. Their cries were harsh, exciting, yet seemed familiar. I live in white-tailed black cockatoo habitat, have been accustomed all my life to their piratical raids and raucous cheer. I am deeply fond of these birds, but glancing up, expected nothing out of the ordinary. It was the intimation of a red tail feather that had me on my feet. Surely, not? I stared up, waiting, wanting, until one of the birds delicately stretched out its wing: unmistakably carmine. Spontaneous joy is an apt response from anyone to such a visitation. In my case, a deep love of the species has been shaped by more than thirty years of camping and walking in the southwest forests of Western Australia. The Nyoongah people know the forest red-tailed black cockatoo as Karrak, in honour of their call.[i] They are rare birds – not seen every year, every trip. Over those decades, each glimpse counted as a secular blessing, conferred hope of survival. As the bird in the Cape lilac furled its wing a black thought eclipsed my elation. They’d not been seen in this part of the Swan Coastal Plain in my memory. What had displaced them to the suburban margin? It is now five years since the red-tails first alighted in the Cape lilacs. Since then, much has happened to shift my perspective.
Australia’s landscapes are harsh, exciting, and familiar to many — at least from postcards, advertisements and films. The endless sweep of coastline or desert, most evocative when apparently empty of human habitation. I love them, too. Drawn to the wilderness and sense of space, I had the privilege of travelling to Ngaanyatjarra lands — 750 km northeast of Kalgoorlie; 1050 km southwest of Alice, about as remote as it gets.[ii] Along the road, I saw glowing red empires of Sturt Desert Pea – a botanical match for the red-tails’ feathers. Drank sweet, cold artesian water pouring from a wind pump to create a pool for unseen stock. Braked for camels, wild now, but ghosted by the memory of the Afghan traders who brought them. In this space, my vision shifted. In time, it dawned on me that most of this infinite open country was a palimpsest of human occupation. Not only the Yarnangu, who have lived in their desert since the Dreaming, but also the waves of settlers who washed across the wide Western country in more recent centuries. The whole area is thickly carpeted with camel bones, desert amethyst and vanished dreams. A rough translation of Ngaanyatjarra means ‘those that use or have this’. The nightmare severing of human from landscape does not trouble the Yarnangus’ Dreaming. No doubt that is why the marks of their ‘using or having this’ land are so light: they and the landscape are a seamless entity. Reintegrating with landscape, knowing our place, is a struggle for the rest of us. Many dismiss even the possibility of such a resurrection as a misguided longing for prelapsarian innocence. While it’s true that there is no way back from our current impasse, I’m no longer sure there is no way forward.
In grief it is common to dream that the dead have returned to you. The exquisite relief is a fair measure of the depths of the pain you do not dare to plumb. I had this experience in waking life when a friend, a poet, told me of ‘daylighting’. Daylighting is the name given to the practice of liberating rivers or streams long ago buried and built over. The most famous example is the Cheong Gye Cheon (clear stream creek) in Seoul.[iii] This river was concreted over in the 1950s and Lee Myung-bak — later President of South Korea — began a three-year project costing around $AUD 530 million to free six kilometres of the river right in the middle of the city. I was heart struck hearing this. Having the impossible suddenly presented as possible showed me the depth of a grief about the world I had long buried and concreted over. It opened up hope. I want to ‘daylight’ the original landscape of my living place. It is precisely the reverse of seeing human traces in the wide Ngaanyatjarra lands. It will require an adjustment of vision.
I live in a suburb near the port city of Fremantle. A scant few kilometres to the south is Kwinana, the construction of which began the year I was born. This heavy industrial strip hugs the coastline and has left its mark on regional air quality and the seawaters and seagrass beds of Cockburn Sound.[iv] I know my home place won’t be, cannot ever be, the same as it was pre-settlement. Don’t worry, though, I’m not about to offer you some nasty anti-pastoral of the dystopian twenty-first century. You might argue that the remote wonderlands of this continent are at grave risk of damage and degradation because out of sight is out of mind — and you would be right. I would add that the same perils apply to the landscapes that we fail to see even though they are in plain view. You may be looking outwards for the vast, the visionary, the pure. I invite you instead into my small struggle, my local and impossibly compromised place. I will suffer no erasure from this place. Nor will I stand heroically alone, placing my struggles above those of the other species in my community. We all live and die in lower case around here. Listen to this story, although it may appear a strange assemblage of species and themes, a deliberately unprioritised inventory. Walk with me a while: I promise you will see a landscape manifest.
Most southerners are surprised to learn that the Cape lilacs are indigenous to Australia. They don’t look like a native tree (the great majority of which are eucalypts and acacias). They don’t behave like a native tree (they are in fact the only winter deciduous species on the continent). Nonetheless, they grow naturally in northern Australia and southern Asia. It was via imports from southern Asia, however, they made an early arrival on the colonial scene in southwestern Australia:
The inhabitants of Perth will be pleased to hear that arrangements have been made by the City Council to extend the planting of the Cape lilac tree (neem of India) in those streets of the town which are at present deficient of the shade and ornament, which these trees afford. The only trouble or expense required from the proprietors of allotments is, that they supply the plants, any quantities of which can be obtained from Mr Barrett, gardener, of Perth: the City Council finding the necessary labor. We hope the proposal will be readily responded to, and meet with hearty co-operation, as it is one of undoubted public benefit. (The Inquirer & Commercial News (Perth, WA : 1855–1901), Wednesday 24 May 1865, page 4) [v]
Almost a hundred years later, this enthusiasm remained undimmed among the creators of the 1950s garden suburb where I live. Unique in Australia, Hilton Park (now simply Hilton) was designed to house the working class in spacious greenness.[vi] It features a series of concentric crescents that embrace the primary school in the centre, dissected by radial streets that create multiple parks at odd angles – a total of 40% public open space. Wide verges, no or low front fences and modest cottages are signatures of the design. Here the Cape lilacs still garland the back fence lines. They are much despised for their habit of dropping multiple berries poisonous to people, so quite a few of them have been poisoned or cut down in recent years. Turns out, though, that one of the ‘undoubted public benefit[s]’ of the tree is that it is the only non-local species listed by the Western Australian Museum as a food source for red-tailed black cockatoos.[vii] Smart birds. Their northern cousins, the great-billed red-tailed black cockatoos, have always used the tree for tucker.
The forest red-tailed black cockatoos are listed in the almost biblical sounding ‘Catalogue of Life’. They are listed under Australian legislation as a threatened species, but their status has not yet been assessed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).[viii] Meantime, they are finding a way to hang on, partially courtesy of the Cape lilacs. The white-tailed black cockatoos, found nowhere else but the southwest of Western Australia, are in a bad way.[ix] They come in two varieties: short-billed or Carnaby’s cockatoo and long-billed or Baudin’s cockatoo. Carnaby’s have long been registered as endangered. Baudin’s – once a commonplace sight in the winter skies near Fremantle – have now received the most unwelcome promotion to the IUCN Redlist of endangered species.[x] In 2010, one hundred and fifty white-tailed black cockatoos fell from the southwestern skies, perished from heat.[xi] Very Old Testament. Now the remaining birds are starving for lack of trees. It’s down to the wire and every tree counts.
At seven a.m. on Saturday 21st July 2012, a local poet was woken by the sound of chainsaws.[xii] Instantly awake, she grabbed clothes and mobile phone and dashed across the road to put her body in front of the magnificent pre-settlement tuart tree growing on the empty lot. There had been no prior notice of tree removal. One large limb carrying a third of the tree’s canopy was already gone. It would have been the work of minutes to finish the job. But not on this poet’s watch. It was the work of minutes to phone every single activist and community group she could think of. She was quickly joined by a member of Forest Rescue – and within the hour a banner had been erected ‘Don’t Destroy Red-Tail Habitat!’ drawing more local people to join in the tree’s defence. In short order a tree platform was built and a long vigil commenced while all the usual media, bureaucratic and legislative channels were engaged.
What is it with poets and activism? Well, the connection between poets and nature is a commonplace, of course, one that dates way back before the Romantics. But this is of another order altogether, not just communing or mooning around in hope of seducing the muse. Round here, many of the poets I know are actively engaged in campaigns on behalf of local wetlands, trees, or animals. Sometimes this work goes on for years, often at the cost of reducing their own opportunities to write. Imagine if Gerard Manley Hopkins had the chance to make a stand in front of his beloved ‘Binsey Poplars’ the world would be a little poorer for not having his heartbroken elegy – ‘All felled, felled, are all felled’ – but much the richer for the living trees.[xiii] And Hopkins was no slouch at writing celebratory poems.
The local poets also, I hope, may yet find some cause for joy. Meanwhile, they fight for the tree’s cause using every trick of siege, technology and social media.[xiv] They are savvy and they are persistent. It is no idyll. They’ve weathered setbacks and threats. The phone calls, the research, the meetings and submissions are endless and wearisome. Still, they also take time to sit in and under the tuart’s branches, with an ever-changing band of supporters singing songs, sharing poems, telling stories. In the early parts of the campaign I joined them there. It was not so very different from what one might imagine happened under such trees for the past millennia. What it boils down to is an old, old concept; a concept that has the potential to heal the false split between nature and culture: the concept of community.
Nature, culture, community? Was there ever such a triptych of abstraction? Look up any of these words in any conceptual dictionary and expect to find entries that run to several pages at the least. But let me invoke just one: ecological community. At a very basic level, an ecological community is the name for a group of species that live sufficiently close together to have the potential to interact. These interactions may be mutually beneficial, neutral or favour one species at the expense of another. This sounds straightforward enough, but start trying to pin down a more specific and scientific set of classifications about particular communities and things get a lot trickier — a fact made abundantly clear in the report Threatened Species Scientific Committee Advice for The Minister for Environment and Heritage, September 2004. Take this, for example:
In the intensive land use zone (i.e. areas where development has “matured”) better outcomes will be achieved by breaking a broad-extent ecological community into smaller units that allow mapping consistent with current regional NRM mapping activity.[xv]
Smaller units? Maybe even as small as one tenth of an old quarter acre suburban block? The patch of land where I grew up is less than five kilometres from where I live now. The southwest corner of our lot harboured a secret. Something persisted there long after the housing first went in; long after the time when a local Aboriginal man did the rounds selling saplings to housewives to prop up their washing lines; long after the bush track that bordered the front of the block morphed into a six lane highway. Year by year this little untended patch, like an overlooked Ark, continued to harbour local species: Yoorna (blue-tongued lizard), motorbike frogs, the beautiful hardenbergia vine (now a nursery favourite) and a sapling jarrah. Since daylighting opened a crack in my heart that let the light in, I can now at least entertain fantasies of tearing up the six-lane highway and reinstating a wildlife corridor for those that persist. I am not buying tickets from any disreputable sort who claims they are redeemable for a one-way journey back to Eden. But I believe there may yet be passports to a healthier future. Probably not anytime soon, but such things are no longer categorically impossible.
The same month the tuart tree lost its limb and the poet stepped in to save it, I discovered a thickening in my left breast. I, too, acted promptly. Like environmental campaigns, the ensuing investigative process was full of high stakes waiting, with hope and dread alternating. My doctor referred me for an ultrasound. When the technician came back into the room with the head doctor, I knew it was not likely to be good news. He was compassionate and clear. A biopsy was urgently needed. It was late in the afternoon when I dressed and left the practice. I headed straight for the tuart tree. The campsite held a dozen or so people, chatting, drinking tea – and a half a dozen species of native birds. Weiros, pink and grey galahs, white cockatoos: climbing on people’s shoulders, eating apple cores. It was surreal. I wondered if shock had tripped some mystical switch in my brain. Then someone introduced the Bird Man, whose mission in life was to collect and rehabilitate captive native birds and the scene clarified. I sat there quietly as the twilight deepened, leaning against the tuart’s trunk, with a weiro nestled in my hair. Talk ebbed and flowed around me – gossip, strategies. Someone delivered vegie soup. There was no better place to be to be. Under a tree in the open air. In community. Content.
I did not revisit the tuart campsite after that evening, my own status having shifted to endangered. But the advice of my oncologist was that exercise helps people to weather chemo. I took up twilight walking around the crescents closest to home, morning and evening. The more I walked the more I saw just how much of this garden suburb was still home to the trees and birds that have always lived here. The garden still lives within the garden suburb. Mature marri and jarrah trees are incorporated in many front and back yards and are well represented as street trees. There’s a fair-sized patch of remnant bush land left on the grounds of the primary school in the heart of the community. It forms part of the children’s nature studies curriculum. It does the same for any passing adult willing to pause and take notice.
As I walked, I watched the indomitable willy wagtails dive bombing Australian ravens and cats – enemies of far greater size and strength, which brought to mind the poets versus developers; researchers versus cancer. The trees and parks are filled with willy wagtails, white cockatoos, pink and grey galahs, Australian ravens, doves, magpies, red- and white-tailed black cockatoos. Often the magpies, ravens and white cockatoos form ambulatory ebony-and-ivory mandalas on the verges and parks. They eye each other beadily from time to time, but share the food resources with a fair amount of amiability. Early one morning I saw a spectacular bit of avian street theatre on the front lawn of one of the more recently built brick homes – standing out somewhat among Hilton’s weatherboard and fibro cottages. A large number of black ravens and white cockatoos assembled in ranks on either side of the chain link front fence, for all the world like a visual demonstration of opposition. The split. Like any binary made visible it looked plainly silly.
At sunset on November 10th, 2012, after a vigil and campaign that lasted four months, there was a party under the tuart tree to signal closure. A Significant Trees List, with rigorous assessment criteria, has been endorsed by the local council and the tuart inscribed thereon — along with a number of other trees in the community. This document, forged after such persistence of vision, has been judged so excellent that the Heritage Council will be recommending it as a template for other councils. The tuart that sparked such a passionate outpouring of effort now has a chance of life. And even if this individual tree doesn’t survive the canopy loss or the side effects of adjacent development, the ripple effect of a widespread adoption of the Significant Trees List has the potential to save many trees, together with the species that depend upon them, including us. No small victory.
Such victories may appear insignificant when seen in the context of the overwhelming scale of the threats to the broader Australian landscape. On the other hand, the very scale of those threats can seem so abstract and so huge, they all too easily lead to compassion fatigue. Maybe we can still summon the will to donate to campaigns, sign petitions; maybe the growing sense of powerlessness means we succumb to numbness. Maybe the only way the larger work can ever be achieved is tree by tree, community by community. It’s a long, hard road to find a way back to being part of a landscape. But daylighting teaches us that what seemed impossible is not.
Five years ago I could hardly believe my eyes when the Cape lilacs were filled with karraking red-tailed black cockatoos. Now I see them often enough on my early walks. I glance at them in solidarity. All of us under threat, fighting for our lives. The cultural weight of a cancer diagnosis suffocates. The fear, ignorance, repulsion, grief and denial that cancer evokes can stifle the ability to be present to the infinite nuance of what actually is. The cultural weight of environmental destruction does exactly the same. Faced with these difficult realities, a sane response is to assess the strength and diversity of what remains, take stock of what actually is and then do whatever we can to save our communities and ourselves.
One woman willing to walk across the road to defend one tree in her community has the power to daylight our buried capacity to act. One woman walking sees a landscape manifest.
[i] http://museum.wa.gov.au/explore/online-exhibitions/cockatoo-care/forest-red-tailed-black-cockatoo [accessed 9 November 2012.]
[iii] http://www.nytimes.com/video/2009/07/16/science/1194841417596/in-seoul-an-ancient-stream-restored.html [accessed 4 November 2012.]
[vi] http://www.fremantle.wa.gov.au/files/e3264387-7e20-4148-9c0d-9e7f010ea6f8/LPP3_7_adopted_Council_25_Jan_2011.pdf [accessed 4 November 2012.]
[vii] http://museum.wa.gov.au/explore/online-exhibitions/cockatoo-care/forest-red-tailed-black-cockatoo [accessed 9 November 2012.]
[viii] http://www.catalogueoflife.org/colwebsite/content/contributors [accessed 4 November 2012.]
[xi] http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/wa/6659797/dec-to-probe-cocky-heat-deaths/[accessed 9 November 2012.]
[xii] http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/breaking/14257105/residents-protest-against-tuart-tree-removal/[accessed 11 November 2012.]
[xiii] Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Binsey Poplars’, in Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose. Selected and Edited W.H. Garner, Penguin Poets, Penguin: Middlesex, 1953, p. 39.
[xv] http://www.environment.gov.au/epbc/publications/pubs/ecological-communities-listing-approach.pdf [accessed 4 November 2012.]
Feature image via Cleveland Museum of Art collections