Sunday 28 June 2015

Farewell to the No. 47 Bus

Commuting wouldn’t feature in many people’s top 10 list of most-enjoyable-things-to-do. Getting to and from work, especially in cities, is surely a big component of the grumpiness summed up as the daily grind.

Whether we’re drumming the steering wheel impatiently in a traffic jam or squeezed uncomfortably against a stranger on the bus/train/tram, few of us look forward to commuting.

[A typical Metro Bus in Hobart:
pic courtesy MetroTas]
So it may seem strange for me to say, after 24 years of the same work-a-day travel routine, that I will miss my commuting. Perhaps it’s partly owed to the blessing of living in a small, human-scale city. It may also derive from the city-ward half of my commute being always on foot, with part of that along a pleasant track away from traffic and close to bush. But it’s also that I will miss the people I commuted with, now that I have retired from full-time work; now that my commute will be the short climb into my writer’s loft.

Each leg of my commute had its pluses and its minuses. I love walking, so the city-ward trip was a pleasure in itself. I long ago decided, perhaps inspired by a brief student-years career as a postie, that “neither rain nor hail nor sleet nor snow” would prevent me from walking. At times it could become an epic five and half kilometre walk, and a good test of all the waterproof gear I could throw at the conditions. But there’s a perverse joy in pushing through gales and storms.

The walk could also yield joys of a different kind, as I’ve described elsewhere, Wallabies, birds, even the odd platypus or snake have made surprise appearances along the track. But there were also the regular walkers who I met and chatted with. The foremost, and most deliberate of these was my wife Lynne. She always joined me on her non-work days, and we invariably walked first through our back bush rather than down the road. We found that walking together, side by side, was a very fruitful way for us to discuss any and everything. And sometimes nothing at all. When we'd meandered through the bush back to our road, she would turn left for home. And I would turn right and take the Rivulet Track towards the city.

[Along the Rivulet Track, South Hobart] 
Further down the track, a popular dog walking space, I often seemed to share doggy tales with strangers and acquaintances. At other times I might discuss wildlife, or walking, or politics with other walkers. And just occasionally we’d get personal, and death, grief, love or faith would tread the track beside us.

Of course the down side of the walk was that I was going to work. As good as that work could be, it was still work. And most work has elements of drudgery or conflict or stress alongside its rewards. Given the choice I’d rather have been walking in the opposite direction, towards the mountain.

[The allure of kunanyi/Mt Wellington] 
My usual homeward commute was on the Number 47 bus, and the people on that bus became (literal) fellow travellers – and sometimes friends – on the larger journey of life. Through long exposure and a degree of pushing beyond polite chit-chat, we managed to have some amazing conversations. For us this was never a head-in-my-newspaper type of commute. Births, deaths, marriages, illness, politics, retirements: none of these seemed off limits. And because the No. 47 bus heads towards what some have dubbed “Greenie Acres”, we inevitably talked about environmental issues. It wasn’t that we all agreed on these, but it was something most of us were passionate about.

Soon after I first started catching the No. 47, I remember one commuter growing rounder and rounder as she reached the advanced stages of pregnancy. When her baby joined her on the bus a few months later, he became “the bus’s baby”. That he has now started university is both a surprise and a signal. Perhaps I’ve been catching this bus long enough. Perhaps it’s time to let the next generation make what they will of this ordinary but amazing mode of transport.

As for me, I will keep my “Green Card” bus pass, and will still catch the No. 47 bus from time to time. And the walking will definitely still happen. I even hope to keep in touch with some of the other Rivulet Track walkers, and their dogs. But no-one should be surprised if, every so often, I turn left instead of right, and head up that mountain.

[What awaits on the mountain!] 

Sunday 14 June 2015

Can You Fashion a Goose?

Aldo Leopold is one of the great names of nature writing and environmental thought. His classic, A Sand County Almanac, is still in print 66 years after its first publication in 1949. In the book, which encapsulates a lifetime of personal reflection, Leopold expounds a philosophy that he calls a land ethic.

[A pair of Canada geese]
He uses "land" to mean "soils, waters, plants, and animals" as well as the circuit of energy flowing between them. He summarises his land ethic thus.

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. 

Essentially Leopold wants us to recognise that we have ethical obligations not only to other human beings, but also to entire ecosystems, including animals and plants, soils, water and air.

What gives Leopold such on-going authority is that he beds his philosophical thought in long and direct observation of nature.  

I have seen a thousand geese this fall. Every one of these in the course of their epic journey from the arctic to the gulf has on one occasion or another probably served man in some equivalent of paid entertainment. One flock perhaps has thrilled a score of schoolboys, and sent them home with tales of high adventure. Another passing overhead of a dark night, has serenaded a whole city with goose music, and awakened who knows what questionings and memories and hopes.

[Migrating geese, Sitka, Alaska] 
This is partly an argument for the economic contribution of species via their inspiration/entertainment “value”. But Leopold goes well beyond this. For him economic value – what you will pay in exchange for something – is not the be-all-and-end-all. For him life forms have an intrinsic value. If we were, for instance, to make it extinct, who would be able to “fashion a goose” from scratch?

His quasi-biblical turn of phrase is reminiscent of God’s quizzing of Job in the Old Testament.

Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom and spread its wings toward the south? Does the eagle soar at your command and build its nest on high? (Job 39:26-27)

Both call for a similar humility in the face of living things. Sadly while humanity and humility might share many letters, that appears to be the extent of it. And so – despite the power of his words – I ask myself whether flocks of geese still thrill today’s schoolboys? And whether whole cities even notice their song? My instinctive answer is in the negative.

[Massed short-tailed shearwaters, Tasman Peninsula ... click image to enlarge]
But I try first to think of some Tasmanian equivalents. Is there anything that might send our school children scurrying home with eye-popping nature tales? Are they, for instance, thrilled by the arrival of millions of short-tailed shearwaters each spring; by their stupendous migration from the Arctic circle; or their effortless gliding flight just millimetres above the waves? Sadly if these incredible birds are known at all, they’re more likely to be observed on YouTube than over the ocean.

But turning to natural sounds, are there any that awaken something in today’s city dwellers? Are we, perhaps, captivated by the carolling serenade of the magpie; by “its silver stridency of sound”, as poet James McAuley put it? Just as I’m wondering this, my friend Paul posts a picture of singing magpies on facebook! There in suburban Melbourne, the magpies still have an appreciative audience.

[An Australian Magpie] 
And then my school teacher wife tells me a story of pelicans interrupting a recent music lesson. She’s been telling the 7 year olds about how birds have long inspired composers. In the middle of a lesson, one child calls out “Pelicans!”  Five pelicans are wheeling across the sky, making for the nearby bay. Lynne grabs the moment and rushes the class outside to take in the sight.

For long minutes they stare skyward, mouths wide open. For some there is immediate awe as the enormous birds fly over two or three times. Tellingly Lynne also observes how some of the more blasé students catch her enthusiasm and those of their peers. These are literally awe-inspiring moments, and worth a week’s worth of words about inspiration.

[An Australian pelican, East Coast Tasmania] 
So yes, I am convinced that Leopold’s land ethic, or something like it, is still called for: perhaps now more than ever. Could any of us fashion a goose, or a magpie, or a pelican if it dies out? And if I feel overwhelmed by the size of this ethical task, perhaps I need to consider that it might best be achieved one child, one bird, one street at a time.

Sunday 7 June 2015

When Long Shadows Fall

Darkness is coming early. Tonight kunanyi/Mt Wellington is hunched, her outline as crisp as découpage. The air fizzes with the chill and stars wink confidently, as though they know there will be frost in the morning.

And why not? It is winter here at 43 degrees south. It’s the dark season, the season that shrinks the lives of many, and for some brings on seasonal affective disorder or S.A.D. (surely a deliberate acronym!)

[Winter shadows, Mt Field National Park] 
Most of us feel some of that shrinkage. Not for nothing did our ancestors fear winter. It was the season that took out the weak, the sick, the old. While those effects are not completely conquered these days, most of us can be warm and well through most winters.

So what is it we feel or fear? I think it’s deeper than any race memory of killing winters. Might we have an issue with darkness itself; with long shadows; with extended nights?

[Winter night sky, South Hobart] 
In his 1928 nature classic “The Outermost House”, Henry Beston wrote

Our fantastic civilization has fallen out of touch with many aspects of nature, and with none more completely than night. 

Beston feared that we may be losing something by covering the dark with artificial light. When he wrote that, light globes had only been around for 50 years. How much further have we gone since 1928? What would he think of today’s satellite images of the earth at night, with its bright patches spreading towards every unlit corner?

[Map/image showing light pollution from space
(courtesy Canadian Environmental Health Atlas) .. 
click to enlarge] 
I suspect Beston would not be surprised by where we have gone. It seems that because we can cover the dark with our own light, we do so. Likewise we avoid silence with our own noise; and stillness with our constant activity. But are we any the better for this “falling out of touch” with nature?

Neither we nor Beston should be surprised to learn that we are suffering some consequences. Recent scientific studies on the effect of artificial light – what some call light pollution – have shown a range of human health problems. These include sleep disruption and increased levels of cancer in human populations. And in the wider environment, studies implicate light pollution in major disruptions of animal behaviour and migration patterns.

[The light returning: sunrise at home] 
It turns out we actually need the darkness, and the physiological effects it has, including the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in response to dropping light levels. It helps regulate a range of our body’s processes, with sleep levels just one of these. Studies of melatonin-deficient subjects show an increased likelihood of a range of health problems.

That really shows darkness in a different light, so to speak. Perhaps it’s time to give darkness its place; to see its nightly appearance as essential to our daily refreshing. And to see its seasonal dominance as vital to the replenishment of all life on earth.

At the personal level I think I’ll try to embrace winter afresh. I might even hope for snow (yes, we’ve had some of that already: sufficient for me, in a fit of frosty optimism, to buy myself some snow shoes). Come on winter: do your best!

[Fresh snow on kunanyi/Mt Wellington]