Sunday 31 January 2010

Behind the Blue Fence: Further Adventures With The Green Pharisee

What is it about walking to work? And cars! This time I am completely in iPod World, blocking out three lanes of Macquarie Street traffic noise. As I approach the city, my peripheral vision catches a cat “doing dohies” in the middle of the road. So wrong! I suddenly realise that the white and ginger tortoiseshell has been struck by a car while trying to cross the road.

I am no friend of cats. I have owned them, and despite their furry, purry charms, I am troubled by what they do to wildlife. Our meek “Miffy”, a small and rather lovely black cat, had assassinated everything from a rabbit and a bandicoot to birds and rodents and reptiles of almost any size. This despite two bells and a locked-in, night-time curfew. If only we’d been able to train her to discriminate, I might have tolerated her killing ways. Rats, mice, rabbits – and maybe starlings? Go for it ... but leave the rest alone! But no. So once Miffy died, the rest of the family didn’t need much persuasion for us to go catless from then on.

Back in Macquarie Street the pretty young cat swerves erratically in broad circles. The traffic has slowed. Somewhere behind the glass and steel, the engine noise and morning radio there are humans. Do we all fancy the cat is gradually winning its way to my side of the road? I will it to make it. But its radar is failing, and it keeps circling back to the centre of the road.

I turn, judge the traffic to have more or less stopped, and step onto the road where the cat is now turning its sick circles more slowly, a wind-up toy running down. I reach down, grasp it around its shoulders and chest, firmly keeping its claws as far out of reach as possible. I carry it back to my side of the road, noticing its pretty markings and wide, scared eyes, and place it gently behind a blue fence. If it can still flee, it might do so safely from there.

But it lies there twitching and trembling in what I take to be a terminal manner. A car horn beeps, and I look back to see my iPod lying in the middle of the road where I have dropped it. I acknowledge the woman driver’s thoughtfulness, and retrieve my device.

Back where pedestrians should be, I look once more towards the cat, judge I can do no more, and turn to walk away. About 50 metres down the road, I see a worried-looking woman coming back up the other side of the road, searching – I guess – for the cat. She mouths across three lanes “Where is it?” Not the owner, I’m guessing, perhaps the guilty driver. I call back “behind the blue fence” and point up the road.

Once again I start to walk on, but not before being joined by a man in early middle age, who says “well done mate. I wish I’d been able to do that.” We walk the rest of the way to town talking about pets and life in general. I hear about his ex-cats and ex-dogs, even his ex-wife.

For a short time we are joined in a strange bubble of male intimacy. And then he turns and crosses the road to go to work, saying a quick good-bye. His final words are “And thanks again”. I’m not sure I’ve done much, but at least this time I haven’t walked by on the other side.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Walking With Ada 2 - Great Pine Tears

[Photo: some of the dead pencil pines on Great Pine Tier, Tasmania]

[part 2 of reflections on a recent bushwalk]

In a country with a dearth of conifers, the Tasmanian highlands boast several species, most notably the two in the Athrotaxis genus: pencil pine and King Billy pine. These relicts of Gondwana have closer relatives in New Zealand and South America than they do in mainland Australia. Of the two only pencil pine will grow in virtually pure stands, especially in parts of the Walls of Jerusalem National Park.

To walk into a pencil pine stand is to change climate; change light levels; even to feel you have changed hemispheres. There is a cool, dimly-lit quiet, aided by the thick foliage and the soft carpet of needles. Time itself seems to take on a different quality, as though picking up on the pencil pines’ slow-growing, long-lived nature.

As gymnosperms, they mainly regenerate via the shedding of cones, although even this is an unusually unhurried affair, occurring only every five or six years. In peat they also appear to spread vegetatively via suckering. Neither method allows them to spread far from the parent tree. Given their slow growth – they average 40 years to reach just one metre, and can live to well over 1 000 years – they don’t appear to do anything hastily. I find it hard to resist ascribing entish characteristics to these lovely conifers.

Their tactic in the conditions they seem to find themselves in – a drying part of a dry continent – is to wait out bad times and take advantage of good times. That climatic good times may be in long-term decline is just one problem for them. Another issue since European take-over is the spread of herbivores such as rabbits, sheep and cattle. All of these find pencil pine seedlings more palatable than do our native species. In historic times this has created further pressure.

But one bad time factor far outweighs all others. Fire is the deadly enemy of the pencil pine. Having evolved in wet or even water-logged conditions, where fire is a rarity, pencil pines have few defences against bushfire. Recovery is via slow spread from surviving trees. In a drying, fire-prone future this is a high risk strategy.

This January a walk with the Ada map took me to Great Pine Tier, an upland only modestly higher than the surrounding plateau. But the tier distinguished itself, and was so named, because of the prodigious stands of pencil pine that historically stood there. That was until 1960. Between October of that year and February of the next, a series of catastrophic, deliberately-lit fires in the area burned through an estimated 1300 square kilometres of alpine vegetation. Geographically that took in much of Ada and many of the neighbouring map sheets. A significant proportion of the area incinerated contained pencil pine, deciduous beech (or fagus) and ancient peat.

Without knowing the full story of this fire, my friends and I were meandering between the myriad lakes around Great Pine Tier. But when we reached the epicentre of the fire we could hardly have mistaken that we were late witnesses to an ecological catastrophe. Half a century after the event the area still looks like a war zone. With gallows humour we remarked on how easy the walking was thanks to the fire. In truth we were aghast.

For miles around us we could see pencil pine stags, literally by the thousand. Their vertical persistence in death is owed to their tightly-packed, borer-resistant, resinous wood. Bleached white by the icy winds, they stand like a vast wartime graveyard, a ghostly reminder of the glory that once was.

In patches, particularly on the western rim of the tier, small stands of pine forest persist. Walking into one of these felt like walking through a door to another country. Everything was different, the contrast heightening the helpless and hopeless sense of what has been lost.

Beyond such patches, the slowly burgeoning new growth is dominated by other species. There is a changing of the guard, with fire tolerant eucalypts and other flowering plants now taking over. It’s fair to say that pencil pines have been made locally extinct as a result of that single fire event.

You would therefore think that such an event would be burned into the Tasmanian psyche, much as the Hobart area’s 1967 bushfires are. Yet most of us have no clue that this tragedy occurred. So I recall with a chill my recent discovery of a fresh fire ring butted up against a living pencil pine near the West Wall. Some cold or heedless walker has ignored that they were in an area where only fuel stoves are allowed.

If these last stands, and especially that around Dixons Kingdom, succumb to such stupidity, there may be generations of Australians who never have the chance to see the glory of these gracious old Gonwanan forests.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Walking With Ada 1 - No Lack of Lakes

[Photo: A few thousand lakes as viewed from Mt Jerusalem, Tasmania]

[A new piece inspired by a recent bushwalk]

I love walking with Ada. Ada takes me to parts of Tasmania that are high, wild and remote, even if they lack the cachet of some of our better known wilderness areas. If I want to wander off-track Ada, the Tasmap 1:25 000 map, will take me there.

The map extends westward from Lakes Ada and Augusta to Lakes Ball and Toorah. To the north it stretches from the centre of the spectacular Walls of Jerusalem National Park to places like Pillans Lake in the lake-dotted Central Plateau Conservation Area. Its southern margin reaches to the Little Pine and Pine Rivers, while the whole is diagonally bisected by Great Pine Tier.

It is 200 square kilometres of quintessential Central Plateau country, all of it in excess of 1 000m in altitude. Yet eyes trained to expect the drama of Cradle Mountain or the jagged peaks of the south-west, may find it flattish, bleakish and somewhat parched, despite its high rainfall.

Once imprisoned by a glacial ice sheet hundreds of metres thick, the plateau appears to have greeted liberation with restraint rather than exuberance, at least in terms of vegetation cover. For the most part the rainforest and thick scrub found in other parts of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area are lacking here. Heavy frosts, snow, strong winds and shallow soils favour straggly grey-green eucalypt forest or low-growing alpine heath over more luxuriant vegetation. And generally the understorey is less tangled than its south-west counterpart.

The one legacy of ice that is unrestrained here is the sheer number of lakes. The slowly moving ice sheet, which departed around 10 000 years ago, has scraped a phenomenal number of hollows, depressions, grooves and gouges out of the mostly doleritic bedrock.

I once started the eye-watering job of trying to count the number of lakes on the Ada map. I gave up after counting 350 in one typical 10 sq km strip. Given there were 19 such strips still to count, I think it’d be fair to estimate between 5 000 and 7 000 lakes on the Ada map alone.

And there are literally thousands more in the neighbouring high country. You could walk here for a lifetime and still have no chance of seeing them all. It is one of the factors that makes walking with Ada so endlessly fascinating. That and the chance to see some of the last large stands of Tasmania’s pencil pine (Athrotaxis cupressoides).

[Part 2 coming soon]

Friday 8 January 2010

Mere Words: Can Nature Writing Make a Difference?

[Photo: Buttongrass showing off its "mad metronome" stalks]

[The award speech for the 2009 Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize - adapted from a presentation given at the Wildcare Conference.]

I want you to come with me over the back of our mountain. With strong wings we can be in the far south-west in maybe 30 minutes. Once there we find a tweedy buttongrass moorland sprouting from the sodden ground all around us.

It is blustery, and the top-heavy buttongrass stalks wobble like mad metronomes to the wind’s wild music. As we walk we see that this tawny buttongrass carpets every valley out here. It laps up against the odd crag, smothers all more rounded eminences, and relents a little only in the creases and crevices. There it shares some space with scrubbier, woodier species, conceding a few contrasting greener swatches.

Extracting our boots out of yet another coffee-coloured bog, we are startled by a sudden rush of wings. A brownish/greenish blur arcs across the track, at a low trajectory, and settles deep into the buttongrass some 20 metres ahead. We walk towards it, but each time we approach, it repeats its ground-hugging aerobatics, doing so for well over a kilometre. In all that time, despite having a good bead on the whereabouts of the bird, we never actually spot it on the ground before it takes flight.

What we are following is, of course, a ground parrot (Pezoporus wallicus). It’s one of only three ground-dwelling parrots in the world, and is the species we have come here to see, and to help protect. Our team is an alliance of can-do, hands-on types, including rangers, scientists, land managers and people from potential funding and support bodies.

While the ground parrot is not an endangered species, it is rare, being found only in a few isolated places around the Australian coast. The heedless tread of human feet is one of its major threats. So, ironically, we’re walking here to see what can be done to protect a bird from people walking here.

Earlier advice has recommended that a boardwalk of parallel planking will help keep walkers on track and away from the ground-nesting birds. Our group agrees that this looks like a good project proposal, and funding is likely to result.

But let’s pause the scenario at this point. I want you to notice two things. One is that a worthy and practical conservation proposal is about to be funded – in an ideal world at least. Once the money is given, the professionals will get busy, and the volunteers will add their considerable weight to the cause, via bird observation, field assistance, administrative help and so forth.

But the other thing to notice is that a story is being shared about a place and a species that someone cares about. And the story involves putting into words, perhaps for the first time, something of how some of us really feel about a creature and its place. That is what nature writing is about: carefully and lovingly putting into words some of our connections with nature, whether in the wilds or in the cities and towns in which most of us live. It sounds straightforward, but in this country it is as rare as Pezoporus wallicus.

And that is part of the story behind this prize. The Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize is seeking to make words about nature a more central – dare I say more natural – part of our writing. It is about prompting us to find words – considered and caring words – about a natural world that gently insists we ignore or mistreat it at our peril. And it’s also about seeing Tasmania, this little island where wilderness is literally just over the mountain, as an eminently suitable place for a word-led resurgence of such thinking.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

The Green Pharisee

[Photo: a currawong near Marion's Lookout, Cradle Mountain, Tasmania]

[a new piece probing hypocrisy in relation to conservation]

I am an admirer of currawongs. They are canny, adaptable birds with a sleek and swarthy handsomeness. To me their infectious caroling call is a signature sound of Tasmania’s mountains. And they round off their regal bearing with piercingly intelligent golden eyes.

One morning as I walked past the Cascade Brewery on my way to work, I was surprised to see a currawong sitting in the roadside gutter: a prince in a pauper’s ditch. It appeared to have been injured, and despite my approach, it barely moved. It just sat there, looking at me with unblinking eyes.

Mobs of his kind fly between the tall water silos on one side of the road and the temptingly full apple boxes on the other. Now and then they time their swoop poorly, and collide with passing traffic. As this one must have done.

As I looked at the stricken bird, I was torn. I love animals, and hate to see them suffer. But I am no vet, and wouldn’t know the first thing about avian first-aid. Animal euthanasia is even further beyond me. I’d learned this once in New Zealand when some friends and I came across a cow that had fallen off a cliff. Its legs had been broken, and massive internal injuries had already started to bloat the poor beast. Yet somehow it was still alive.

A quick bullet through the brain was called for, but we were miles from the nearest road or farmer. All we had close to hand were large rocks, which we decided to use to put the poor cow out of its misery. We failed on all counts, distressing both the cow and ourselves through this horrible and futile stoning.

I could not inflict the same “mercy” on the currawong.

Yet I also knew that if I had somehow managed to bundle up the bird and take it to my work at the Parks & Wildlife Service, the wildlife management people there wouldn’t have been able to do much for it.

So I walked on. Like the Pharisee of the parable, I crossed to the other side of the road. And I hastened to my work, where I would go about the business of helping to conserve wildlife and the environment. And of course bringing about world peace, in which I also believe!

Monday 4 January 2010

Nature Writing: A Personal Primer

[Photo: winter scene, Walls of Jerusalem National Park]

[Some reflections on why nature writing is important to me. Originally published in ISLAND in 2005. Short extracts have appeared here before.]

It was about 20 years ago that, as a would-be writer somewhat obsessed with the natural world, I attended some readings in Hobart by the great Australian writer Eric Rolls. I had read his wonderful “Celebration of the Senses”, and for me it ranked alongside Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” as a seminal contemporary book about nature. Moreover it was about Australian nature. So at the end of Eric’s reading I asked him where in Australia a nature writer might hope to be published. He laughed and said “nowhere”. If I recall correctly he may have added something about first disguising your nature writing as something else!

Unable to take “nowhere” for an answer, I began searching for recent examples of Australian nature writing in the hope that I might find some long-lost market for what I was hoping to write. Even minor provincial newspapers in the UK have regular nature columns, and in North America there is a thriving market for contemporary nature writing. Why wouldn’t there be a tradition, albeit somewhat hidden, within Australian literature?

My initial investigation pretty much confirmed what Eric had told me. That research was turned into an essay called “A Half Open Door”, submitted with a mixture of optimism and naivety to Cassandra Pybus, then editor of Island. I will always be grateful to Cassandra for taking a punt on that green piece of writing, helping to tidy it up and publish it – ironically alongside Eric Rolls – in Island #53, Summer 1992.

Part of my naivety in writing that essay was that I thought other people might read it; other people might take it on board, and that other people’s attitudes towards the literary depiction of Australian nature might somehow change. Instead I’ve realised that the essay has become something of a job description for me: in short if I wanted to see these changes take place, then I’d have to look for practical ways of lifting the profile of nature writing in Australia.

This realisation was slow in dawning. So it wasn’t until 2000 that I packed my environmental cringe in my bags and headed off to England, Ireland, Scotland and the USA to study the roots of nature writing in those places (assisted by a grant from Arts Tasmania). I discovered many interesting things on that trip. But what most intrigued me in the current context, was that there appeared to be no international nature writing prize for unpublished writing anywhere in the world. So the Wildcare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize, which has recently been awarded for the second time, is one of the concrete results of that trip.

Behind the prize is the desire not only to lift the profile of Australian nature writing, but also to position Tasmania as the natural hub for such environmental literature within Australia. We are one of the few places on earth that still has the chance to excel when it comes to intact environments. But that may not remain the case unless our concern for the environment is expressed in our literature as much as in other ways.

Run every second year since 2003, the prize has so far attracted around 350 participants. They’ve come from all states of Australia and several overseas countries. And they’ve been characterised by high levels of both skill and passion, as you will see from the examples that follow. [extracts not included here - see ISLAND magazine for examples.]

* * *

But before turning to those writers, I want to explore a little of what nature writing strives to do. One of its other names – place writing – gives us a clue here. It is a style of writing that wants to take special note of place; to celebrate the particular.

Kentucky writer Wendell Berry is one such celebrator of place. In Life is a Miracle he observes that the life of each place “is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never repeated.” As a result he sees “that life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving.” (Life is a Miracle, Counterpoint, 2000, p. 45) Robert Macfarlane, Cambridge academic and writer, concurs. “It is harder to dispose of anything, or to act selfishly towards it, once one has paid attention to its details.” (“Only Connect” in The Guardian, March 26, 2005). Conversely a place that is unnoticed, unloved, is an orphan: who will care for it, who will keep it from harm?

But lest we see place as merely supine and passive in the face of humans, the concept of belonging to place is also important here. Aboriginal and Celtic traditions, among others, have a strong sense of this. In Aboriginal lore the land owns its people, while the old Gaelic word duchthas encapsulates the concept of people belonging to the land. Similarly in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the land belongs not to the people, but to God.

The task for the place writer then is to find ways to both sense and express the particularity and unique importance of place. But how? Perhaps if travel broadens the mind, then staying at home deepens the soul. The soul that really watches and listens to a place can begin to discover the hiddenness of what is all around. This uncovering can start, perhaps must start, with simple questions in our own backyards. Embarrassingly elementary gaps in our knowledge may need dealing with. In recent years I have had to ask such basic questions as: Where do possums go in the day time? Which bird call was that? What time of the year will my banksia bloom? And I find myself repeating some of the same questions year after year, until it finally takes root within me that, for instance, the spring blush of new leaf tips is golden on bluegums, but ruddy on stringybarks. Or that juvenile muttonbirds take their first flight in early May, sometimes crash-landing in perilous places – like our doghouse – in the process.

Perhaps this need to take the time to observe makes nature writing the “slow food” of literature. Its gratification is not instant, and the mastery of it isn’t the work of a few hours. As Robert Macfarlane has put it “landscape cannot, on the whole, be mocked up; cannot be dreamed into descriptive being.” (“Only Connect” in The Guardian, March 26, 2005)

A childhood obsession with silk worms helped me to realise that all our senses are vital to this enterprise. As much as I might have been sated and stained by its glorious fruit, it was the shape, colour and texture of mulberry leaves that is forever imprinted on my memory. Our neighbour Mrs Thompson would turn a blind eye to leaf thieves as we surreptitiously sought the best leaves as food for our silk worms. I swear I could detect the gratefulness of the grubs when fresh fodder was placed in their box. And today I could still pick out the vivid, pleated and rumpled green leaves in any police line-up of leaf look-alikes.

Such visual, seasonal particularity may be the legacy of our hunter-gatherer past. But it can also be a good way for us to re-learn how to treasure the places we call home. Being able to recognise things that belong together – a visual sense of what fits – is one way of safeguarding the integrity of place.

But if our soul can be deepened by the particular sights of our home place, it can also be stretched by particular sounds. I didn’t realise how large a part aural memory played in my sense of place until jolted by unfamiliar sounds in strange places.

I am on the north coast of NSW a few springs ago. I am sleeping in a strange room. The hour is early. Not being a morning person, it is not my custom to bound from bed for a dawn abseil or a bracing surf. So to me it is half past bloody five when the cacophony of birds starts.

A rainbird winds its meteorological interrogative ever higher; turtledoves answer several dozen more times than seems absolutely necessary. “Is that so?”, overlapping one another (“Is that so?”) in their enthusiasm (“Is that so?”) to make their point (“Is that so?”) A baby magpie asks a different question over and over . . . and over, with the same nagging upward inflection. I wonder how such a raucous aural ugly duckling could ever become that sweetest of carollers.

And a bird that I don’t recognise has me thinking of my own hungry little boy. Actually he’s not little any more. He’s 21 and taller than me, and often wiser. But still sometimes we call Stuart “Choo”. And I hear this bird – above “Is that so?” – gently calling “Choo” singly, repeatedly, transporting my soul back over Bass Strait to home.

* * *

In my dreams I might have hitched a ride home with the muttonbirds which fly past this coast every spring. For them Bass Strait is merely the home strait in a marathon annual flight from the Arctic. Over the Strait, down the white sanded east coast, and around the imposing doleritic chunk of Tasman Island. Then, as easy as you like, into Storm Bay and up the Derwent estuary. The dominating mass of Mt Wellington, bolt upright above the forested valleys bordering the river, would have told me I was near to home. And here the muttonbirds, little interested in mountains, would have bade me farewell.

Ah the rock of home. Silent but speaking volumes; an igneous ode in dolerite, reminding me that the sense of touch is also vital to the sense of place. Fluted Cape and the Organ Pipes might be named for dolerite features, but this earth material depends less on the music of language than on its rugged good looks.

But what is it really like? What kind of neighbour does it make? To the walker and climber it is friendly and reliable. Feet and hands find it answers their needs with a sureness that can be comforting, at least on casual acquaintance. Our dog might have told a different story after a long day on the Western Tiers. His regular habit of covering the ground three times – out, back to check, out again – combined poorly with the shark-skin roughness of the rock. Towards the end of the day the pads of his paws were abraided so badly that they bled, and he limped wretchedly. Even so he would neither slow his pace nor alter his rule. We finally had to pick him up and carry him the last kilometre back to the car.

So I should have learned. Yet many years later I found myself learning afresh the lessons of dolerite on a high level traverse of Mt Massif and Falling Mountain. The navigational difficulties presented by its enormous boulders forced us to clamber up, over, around and down countless dolerite faces. As I slid face, feet and fingers down my umpteenth rock wall, pressed hard against it by my heavy pack, I gained the kind of intimate acquaintance with this rock that had me feeling like a failed rock-whisperer. If only I could have commanded the rocks to throw themselves into the sea, I might not have ended the walk with raw and bleeding fingertips. Or perhaps I could have worn gloves!

Still such close and painful acquaintance can have its compensations. Who, for instance, could fail to be impressed by the ubiquity of lichen on dolerite? The rock’s often finely pitted surface, its native acidity, the clean air of its favoured haunts all help it to contrive myriad niches for lichen.

And who could remain unmoved by the lichen’s amazing variety of colours and textures? What from a few metres away appears a flat grey turns, on closer inspection, into a symphony of subtle tones. There are unnamed shades of grey, green, black, red, orange, yellow, brown and white.

And that is just the clothes the dolerite wears. Let your walking boot dislodge a small boulder and you may literally scratch the surface of this impressive rock. Beneath its surface – providing you and your companions survive to inspect it – you will see a hidden masterpiece in grey and blue, with accents supplied by the sparkling faces of crystals coming to the light for the first time in perhaps 150 million years. If you also detect the flinty whiff of freshly concussed rock, you may be thankful that bleeding fingertips is the worst you have.

So wherever I may journey, I will always return to these places. I will grip again this rock of home; see again the spring blush on the stringybarks; hear again the whipping flute-call of Jo Wittee. Because these are the things that grip me, that enfold me, that join with the people I love and who love me, in making a home place for my life on earth. And in expressing wonder in the face of these things, perhaps I am agreeing with Wendell Berry that this life is absolutely worth having, and these places are absolutely worth saving.

Sunday 3 January 2010

The Whole World Groaned

[John Howard with Tony Abbott. Photo by Andrew Meares, from the Sydney Morning Herald.]

[Feeling nostalgic about the "Howard Years"? I wrote this political piece just after John Howard's 2004 election win. It was published in Famous Reporter #30, December 2004, with the subtitle "A Lament from the Christian Left". Not exactly nature writing, but ...]

I happened to find myself in Canberra on the night of the 2004 Federal election. It was a short night, but a long morning after. As the day stretched out ahead, some words from 4th century theologian Saint Jerome came to my mind. Strange as it may now seem, what leaders and thinkers believed about Christ once literally determined the shape and colour of kingdoms.

It was in the year 360AD that Jerome, beleaguered champion of orthodox christology, uttered his famous lament: "the whole world groaned to find itself Arian." The details of that theological debate and the nature of what Arius argued needn’t concern us here. But Jerome’s saying was consonant with my own thoughts after the election. It seemed that the whole world – or at least a significant majority of the Australian electorate – had acceded to the Howard view of life and the universe. And that left me deeply unsettled and not a little pessimistic.

Yes the people had spoken; yes I was able to take comfort in having the right to choose our government, and the right to dissent the choice of others. But the source of my discomfit went deeper than an initial desire to emigrate to New Zealand and/or cast suspicious looks at my fellow voters. (Is it the circles I mix in? I didn’t come across a single person who would openly admit to voting for John Howard!) What disturbed me more than anything was the alignment of the Howard view with the Christian faith.

A couple of weeks later a remarkably similar scene was played out in the USA. This time there was an even more explicit alignment of the Bush campaign with certain Christian views. Not only was Bush able to retain the Evangelical vote, but even John Kerry’s own Catholicism benefitted him little, blunted by some Catholic leaders as good as declaring that a vote for Bush was a vote for God. They inundated churches with guides identifying abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research as "non-negotiable issues."

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, the highest-ranking Catholic leader in Colorado, saw an express link between these ‘evils’ and a vote for Kerry. "If you vote this way, are you cooperating in evil?" he asked. "And if you know you are cooperating in evil, should you go to confession? The answer is yes." He may have observed the letter of the law regarding the strict separation of church and state powers in the USA, but he had hardly observed its spirit.

In Australia religion is much more a private matter. It might even be argued that our tradition sees religion as quite marginal to how we run our political system. John Howard himself has been keen to silence the occasional dissent from "meddlesome priests" in the past. But this time around there was a peculiar alignment of conservative thinking, including many in the church and the media, that enabled the Howard government to remain unchallenged on a significant number of moral and ethical issues.

Instead the Liberals, aided by groups such as Family First, openly if unofficially aligned with the Christian denomination the Assemblies of God, were able to tap into the socially conservative religious sentiment of a significant number of Australians. For these Christians the Greens are "extreme"; Labor is risky on economic and sometimes social grounds; and Howard is a fellow believer. For them material prosperity is a sign of God’s goodness, and the Howard government can help deliver this. So Family First gave and received preferences from the Liberals, and as a consequence looks likely to have an influential place in the senate.

In both Australia and the USA this identification of conservative social/moral views with religious faith has gone largely unchallenged. From where I stand this is a major distortion of the Christian faith. How can lies about weapons of mass destruction and children overboard, or the extent of innocent victims of the war on Iraq, not carry the equivalent moral weight of abortion or gay marriage? How is it that the lives of Middle eastern citizens, refugees and asylum-seekers have less value than unborn Australians? And how can a US soldier about to attack the city of Falluja say on prime-time television "the enemy’s got a face … he’s called Satan" and fear no rebuke? Where are the voices from the pulpits and microphones pointing out the slick hypocrisy of these comfortable positions? Is there no truth filter through which such issues can be put?
Surely for those who profess to follow Christ there is at least his teaching. The following examples seem instructive.

"I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. … Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25:35-40, abridged)

"Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:44)

"Do not judge and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven." (Luke 6:37)

"Blessed are you who are poor … you who hunger now … you who weep now …, (but) woe to you who are rich … you who are well fed … you who laugh now." (Luke 6:20-25, abridged)

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed." (Luke 4:18-19)

"What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose … his very self?" (Luke 9:25)

It is well to remind ourselves that it was precisely the religious who most strongly opposed Jesus during his life. He wrapped some of his most powerful messages to them in story form. For instance one hypocritical religious leader is depicted as loudly praying "God, I thank you that I am not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." The same tax collector "stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner." (Luke 18:11-13) Jesus not only tells us that God heard the prayer of the latter, but demonstrates it in his own life by being known as "a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (Luke 7:34).

In one particularly shocking passage Jesus said to the religious of his day: "You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life." (John 5:39-40) This is a pointed challenge to today’s Evangelicals, those with whom Bush is most identified. As "people of the Book", the test of his teaching is to ask yourself: "Which has my prime allegiance: Christ or the bible?" There may not often be a conflict between the two, but if there is, it is clear that the Christian should choose Christ.

Another major challenge to the comfortable "private" Christianity to which Bush and Howard so readily cosy up, is the issue of prosperity. That God can bless his people economically is only one side of the truth at best. There is far more weight given in Christ’s teaching to the dangers of wealth. For instance "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Luke 18:25) There are also powerful warning stories such as the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12) and the parable of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16), in which the rich loose everything including their souls.

Why do I emphasise prosperity here? There seems little doubt that the hip pocket nerve was tickled during the election. Contrary to the opinion of most major banks and economists, the Australian electorate perceived that interest rates were more likely to stay low under a Howard government. That a good proportion of the "Christian" vote – as concerned as anyone to preserve their personal prosperity – was swayed by this thinking, is an indictment of the depth of their theology. Certainly the teachings of Jesus are no political manifesto, and they don’t prescribe economic policy. But to reduce Jesus’ teaching to a code of personal morality, and ignore its social and political implications, is to castrate it. To claim to follow Christ and yet have no critique of "mammon" is to risk ethical amputation.

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And so in Canberra, the day after the election, my thoughts remained gloomy. But they were eventually nudged forward nearly 1200 years from the time of Jerome to the time of Martin Luther. There were Christians in Luther’s day – also one of great turmoil – who were tempted to seek comfort only in the second coming of Christ. The trials and travails of this world would then be over, and God’s kingdom would be forever established. Someone asked Luther what he would do if he knew that Christ were returning the next day. A man well versed in paradox, he is reported to have replied: "If I believed the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today."

My Canberra friends probably had more 21st century thoughts in mind, ones that related to Canberra’s ongoing recovery from the devastating 2003 bushfires. But whatever our thoughts and feelings it was more than therapeutic for us to join over 300 Greening Australia volunteers in planting thousands of trees in the warzone that had once been Deek’s Forest. It was a powerful reminder that there are many good things that will outlast the rulers of this age. And there are still actions we can take that will make a difference whoever our rulers might be.