Woods essay_crop
Type
Essay
Category
History
The earth

Myth & consequence

In these early decades of the twenty-first century, we continue to grapple with the scale and pace of climate change and whether there is still time to do something about it. To write about place at this moment requires one to confront the loss and degradation that we, as humans, hasten every day. In a 2016 Overland article, Alison Croggon writes of the struggle to come to terms with despair in a rapidly changing world and the futility of writing as a response to calamitous events: ‘it’s hard in times of crisis, to know that art is no consolation, that art solves nothing.’ I have some comfort to offer: literary art may be the only consolation – and the only path to a solution. But to take this path we must write with a scope that encompasses time and change.

The scale and pace of planetary time is too grand for most of us to comprehend. For a rainforest fungus that arrives and dies within a day, a giant myrtle appears immortal and unchangeable. The fungus might write poetry in which the myrtle is a static and enduring backdrop to the drama of its own brief fling with life. With global warming, the spectacle of change has been brought into a time perspective that a single human life can understand. The comforting illusion of immutable environments has fallen away. In my working life I engage in the environmentalist conceit of arresting change – saving the regent honeyeater, stopping rising greenhouse-gas emissions, preserving an old-growth forest in a steady state – but as a writer, I strive for a broader perspective.

As we bear witness to the warming, we begin to comprehend change intimately, though not for the first time. This is the second rapid disruption of our country in a relatively short period. In the myrtle’s lifetime, the pace of change has been dramatically accelerated by colonisation, dispossession and urbanisation. That change is still underway, its consequences yet to be fully understood. In the aftermath of invasion, the country’s forests and woodlands have been removed, riversides and wetlands have been filled in, pathways have been ripped up, species have been exterminated, communities have been displaced, and storylines and genealogies have been disrupted. Writing about place is one way in which we can make sense of these changes.

I write to overcome the arrhythmia of my people. I turn to the everyday records kept by landscapes, listening closely to epochal rhythms nestled deep within. Time recorded in place.

I honour the time and change that has already created our country’s landscapes and ecosystems. I acknowledge the devastating change my people have brought to the land and to First Nations people. These destructions and creations – some slow, some rapid – can be read in condensed form in the landscapes around my home city, Newcastle, and the Hunter Valley beyond it. The land keeps a record of what has gone before, and it will lay down records of this century, too. If we can be expansive enough to allow our writing about place to encompass time, then we can reconcile our role in bringing about destructive change. There is also the possibility, in Adrienne Rich’s words, to ‘reconstitute the world’, just as it is falling to pieces.

 

I have never seen the Pilbara, but I think often of its ancient minerals being laid bare and beaten into steel. The colours of the Pilbara record in place the Great Oxidation Event that produced the atmosphere we are now irreversibly altering. Cyanobacteria are thought to be among the first living things to create oxygen as a by-product of photosynthesis. When the earthly and oceanic oxygen sinks became saturated, the gas was expelled into the atmosphere, leaving the red rust of exposed iron oxide in the Pilbara. We are not the first species to produce cataclysmic atmospheric change. It was done by those blue microbes billions of years ago, bringing great disaster for life forms that couldn’t survive on oxygen and setting the stage for the arrival of new creatures.

Randolph Stow captures something of the lithography of time and change in Western Australia’s ancient landscapes in ‘From the Testament of Tourmaline’, his homage to the Tao Te Ching:

There is no going but returning.

Do not resist; for Tao is a flooded river

and your arms are frail.

The red land risen from the ocean

erodes, returns; the river runs earth-red,

staining the open sea.

Stow condenses vast time scales into this image of the red land rising from and returning to the sea. It’s cyclical time embroidered in repetition and the symmetry of his images. Overlaid on this cyclical time is the linear movement of the river, part of the cycle but giving the impression of passing without returning. Our frail arms cannot contain such epic movements.

On the other side of the continent is a landscape I know very well – the Hunter Valley. The Hunter is a place of meeting and transition. In the south, it gathers water from the Goulburn River and Wollombi Brook, which spring from the salty sandstone escarpments of Wollemi and Yengo national parks and their dry eucalypt forests. On the northern side, the blue-brown Paterson and Williams rivers, Glennies Creek and the Hunter itself come down from wet sclerophyll forests, rainforest and pockets of montane wetlands on Barrington Tops’ basalts. In the west, the Pages and Merriwa rivers and a series of other tributaries draw from the box-gum woodlands of the Liverpool Range. The Hunter flows into the ocean at Newcastle, through a large and productive estuary.

The last time the planet was this warm was in the late Permian period (at least 252 million years ago). A sudden rise in sea levels stopped-up the broad river deltas of the Hunter, Bowen and Galilee basins and flooded the marshy Glossopteris forests of Gondwana, swamping the dead leaves and trunks and laying down coal beds in pages of lithographic storytelling. We know Gondwana now by reading the recurrence of the Glossopteris in her former territories. The whole genus perished during the Great Dying at the close of the Permian age, the most severe extinction event in Earth’s history.

Not all of this story is buried. At Swansea Heads, south of Newcastle, you can walk on the remains of a Glossopteris forest, flattened 250 million years ago by the force of a volcano. Trunks of petrified trees lie among the rock pools, pointing westward to the sunset in solemn frieze. Living on the edge of the river mouth, I regularly see these rock stories being shipped away, buried in the bellies of bulk carriers with names like Sincere Pisces, Global Triumph and Corona Infinity, attended by tugs like cherubs around Venus. We are coming around again to the warm times and the high water times. We are coming to the dying times. It helps to understand this change as a cyclical process, albeit a frighteningly swift one, and one of our own making. It’s the task of writers and storytellers to develop and spread this understanding and to make a reckoning for our actions.

In Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, Henri Lefebvre characterises time as both cyclical and linear, and argues that arrhythmia is produced as these shapes of time cut across and disrupt each other: ‘Great cyclical rhythms last for a period and restart: dawn, always new, often superb, inaugurates the return of the everyday. The antagonistic unity of relations between the cyclical and the linear sometimes gives rise to compromises, sometimes to disturbances.’

Cyclical time is mythic time. It’s the time of the gods, of powerful beings who embody epic and inexorable natural forces. The gods’ stories are cycle stories: the planet’s revolutions, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, the flexing and decay of power. To make sense of where we are going, we need writing that reaches for the mythic, writing that transcends the quotidian by quilting it into grand scales beyond our fathoming.

In a 2006 article for Heat, Waanji novelist Alexis Wright describes the two principle questions she sought to answer in her novel Carpentaria: ‘firstly, how to understand the idea of Indigenous people living with the stories of all the times of this country, and secondly, how to write from this perspective.’ Carpentaria is written in the spellbinding register of myth. It opens with a Dreaming story of the river where the action is set, followed by the more pitiable origin story of Desperance, a once-thriving colonial port built on the river, but left behind when its course suddenly changes. Wright’s most recent novel, The Swan Book, extends her mastery of writing ‘all the times of this country’ and is set in the future, in the roiling time of climate change – an endless present, defined by a struggle for survival and memory.

When I describe Wright’s works as mythic, I am not trying to diminish her narrative abilities. Just the opposite, in fact. We have taken to using ‘myth’ as shorthand for untruth, but I mean it as a mode of storytelling not constrained by linear approaches to time. It’s this conception that Wright describes when she calls Carpentaria ‘a novel capable of embracing all times’. What strikes me when reading Wright’s novels is the failure of my own people to understand consequence. Perhaps it was not always this way. For hundreds of years we began stories with the mystical phrase ‘Once upon a time …’, an opening that gestures to a mythic perspective. It’s a phrase that Wright uses in Carpentaria. Writing this way brings place into consequence; it tells how the past became the present and how the present creates the future. This will come to pass.

Does it change the way we write about climate change to know that the Awabakal people of Newcastle and Lake Macquarie have a Dreaming story about coal? It describes a volcano, Kintiirabin, which, a ‘long time ago, when the Earth and Sea were different to today,’ brought forth great darkness. In ‘How Coal Was Made’, as told in Awabakal Dreaming Stories, people came from all directions to work out how to restore the light. The elders decided that the only way was to cover the darkness and so the men, women and children concealed it with rocks, sand and bark. Once buried deep underground, the darkness became nikkin, coal. Even after burying it, the people feared ‘that the ever-burning fires deep in the ground would release the darkness again’.

In her prizewinning Island essay ‘Endlings: On Love and Extinction’, Harriet Riley draws comparison between the Great Dying and our own fraught times, seeing a repeat of the runaway climate change and swift alteration of planetary conditions. The last time this happened saw a near-total extinction of life on Earth, from which it took the planet millions of years to recover. This is how we ourselves came to be. Riley explores the grief we are experiencing as we witness climate change accelerate and slowly grasp the damage it inflicts. She feels it as ‘a deep primal pain – a disturbance in the force’. She is not alone. Climate grief resembles the longing people experience when the landscape of their home is radically altered, described by geographical philosopher Glenn Albrecht as solastalgia. Albrecht coined the term in reference to Hunter Valley communities living with the radical change brought about by open-cut coal mining. They were still home, still in the same location, but the place had changed and was lost to them, and they grieved for it.

Our understanding of the change our places are undergoing is both technical and intimate, but often fails to enter our collective psyche with the intensity of myth and storytelling. Writers of place can undertake this translation.

In 2012, I was in the foyer of the Department of Environment and Energy in Canberra. I was there to speak about a proposed coal mine in the Galilee Basin, Queensland, and its potential impacts on endangered flora and fauna. While waiting, I picked up a report from the coffee table about the risk to Australia’s wildlife from climate change. I opened the report at random and read that the short-tailed shearwater, the east coast’s most abundant seabird and Australia’s most abundant predator, is threatened by rising seas because it nests close to the water line. I have spent many exquisite hours observing shearwater flocks from the rock platform behind the Newcastle Ocean Baths, watching in awe as they scrape the lips of waves, sit on the water’s surface and wheel in mesmerising arcs, one after another, on storm winds. The prophecy of the ecological forecasters struck me with force. This will come to pass. There will come a time of absence, when these flocks exist only as memory and story.

To know that change is occurring, and that worse is yet to come, is a terrible feeling to sit with. I can no longer write about short-tailed shearwaters without foreknowledge. The task of a writer is to communicate consequence without falling under the illusion of control, or into the dead-end of self-flagellation or, worse, finger-pointing. We can participate in efforts to prevent the worst of the damage, to foster natural and social adaptation, without indulging in the hubris that we can prevent change altogether.

 

My home in Mulubinba (Newcastle), in Awabakal country, is on the shores of Coquun, the Hunter River, which lies between Awabakal and Worimi country. Coquun is neither fixed nor eternal. It has been blocked up by rises in sea levels; it has been silted and opened; it has changed its course. Perhaps, in time, the river will leave the city stranded. In the time that the Awabakal and Worimi people have been here, the sea has risen a long way, covering old walking paths with sand and cunjevoi. If we are to write time and rhythm into our stories about place, if we are to pay adequate homage to the land, then we should open our imaginations to the epic perspective of those who have lived here before, of those who can chart tens of thousands of years of continuous and changing cultural and spiritual connection. And we must do this without repeating the mistakes of the past, without stealing voices and memories in the same way we stole land.

The lands and waters of the Awabakal and Worimi have been colonised, and I am a descendent of the migrants who followed the invasion. In that time the shoreline has been cleared, concreted and filled with toxic residue from industrial fertilisers, explosives manufacturing and steel production. Its myriad islands have been cleared and turned into industrial badlands. I know too little of the lives of the Awabakal and Worimi people who occupied this site 30,000 years ago. I imagine they would hardly recognise the place if brought here now. But would they? Perhaps they told their children stories that brought massive geological changes into the logic of one life and its cycles? In the same way the Awabakal Dreaming looks backward at the volcano that made the darkness, perhaps they also had stories of what was to come, when the darkness was brought back to the surface.

Professor John Maynard has written of the climate-related changes through which Awabakal ancestors lived and of their manipulation of the landscape through fire and other means.  According to Maynard, the Awabakal clans quarried stone in order to manufacture goods and weapons that could be traded with inland nations. Through his knowledge of Awabakal history, Maynard is able to see the industrialisation of Newcastle – though brought about through the devastating barbarity of invasion – as re-establishing a link with ‘its traditional Awabakal past’. To quote Wright again, ‘The Indigenous world is both ancient and modern, both colonial experience and contemporary reality, and the problem right now for us, is how to carry all the times when approaching the future.’

This place will change again. The sea will rise and claim more territory. It will cover the wetlands and smother the paperbarks. The land under Newcastle’s three coal export terminals will be liberated and submerged into the estuary. The giant stacker-reclaimers, whose wheels scoop mouthfuls of coal from the darkness that was once buried, will sink and tilt and rust over, unused. In the bushland fringing the coast, fire will sweep through so often that the peachy twists of coastal smooth-barked Angophora and apple-green spotted gum will be replaced with heath. A record of this change will be left in the landscape, buried and hidden as the Glossopteris was. I know this will happen because these things have been foretold: inundation of coastal cities … increased bushfires … radical alteration of ecosystems across the country. We have maps and projections outlining how this will come to pass.

What we don’t know is what will come after the disruption. In ten million years, when the turmoil has settled and biology shifts out of panic mode, what life will emerge? This imagining, too, is a role for writers of place – to cast forward and tell stories of the time to come, when the cycle turns back to life again.

As Stow wrote in ‘The Testament of Tourmaline’:

The loved land will not pass away

World has no life but transformation.

Nothing made selfless can decay

The loved land will not pass away.

I dream of that future time, of life forms unimagined by zoologists. The current era’s phyla and classes of animal life will be recorded in the strata pages of the geological book. They will have been replaced by different and inventive ways of laying out a body-plan, regulating temperature, absorbing fuel, excreting waste and reproducing. I think about these creatures. How the intelligent among them might excitedly brush rock dust off the petrified forms of my beloved Angophoras, positing theories to explain how they came to extinction so suddenly, taking clues from mineral deposits that indicate high levels of carbonic acid in the oceans, or suddenly more frequent fires that burned everything that had grown here in the very brief Holocene.

It seems too much to hope that our writing – and the clues it contains – will survive till then. The oldest artistic records we have now, painted caves in Arnhem Land, are more than 28,000 years old. We have no way of knowing how old the story of Kintiirabin is. Our storytelling, we must presume, held as it is on paper and computers, could not possibly last so long, let alone for the millions of years it will take for these new life forms to evolve. Instead, our writing about place, about changes to land and life, is written for each other, to sift time in place and find solace and understanding. To write in honour of consequence.

We have blazed here as briefly as a day-living fungus. In the time to come, the smear of our short period in the lithographic record will be so thin that it seems it could hardly do justice to the complexity and beauty that bloomed here so fleetingly. But it is all the justice that can be done.

 

 

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is an activist and poet working and living on Awabakal and Worimi land in Newcastle, Australia. An earlier version of this essay was shortlisted for the 2016 Nature Writing Prize.

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