Maps

Until January I had never heard of a P2 mask. Now three of them sit in my wardrobe just in case. The air outside is the worst in the world, the media keeps telling us, as if this has really put Canberra on the map. If we drew such a map, the only symbol should be that of a lung, shaded pink in areas without thick smoke or smog, and moving through various shades on grey. In the centre, we would draw a huge black lung, pierced by the giant flagpole on Capital Hill, letting out a stream of toxic gas, into the toxic air.

Every year, around this time, we’re down at the coast, swimming, surfing, birdwatching. South Durras is a tiny village, nestled between the lake and the sea. A place where lorikeets eat nectar and kids still ride bikes without helmets. Tiny fibro houses emphasise that nature is more important here than architecture; they are only places to retreat to when the beach is too hot.

But this year, and late last year, we have only seen South Durras on maps. Fires Near Me charts the growth of enormous blazes, bearing down on many villages along the coast, and further inland between Canberra and the sea. I keep the page open, check it every fifteen minutes, although it couldn’t possibly be updated that often, The roads to get there are closed, and what use would I be down there, where there is no connected town water? All I can do is check the maps, and facebook posts by those still in the area. The RFS. The one shop in Durras. Friends of Durras, a conservation group. A live blog run by the Batemans Bay Post. Then back to the maps, as if my gaze can somehow stop the killing fire.

Last time I was in Durras, we went birdwatching, and saw red-browed finches, tiny active balls of fluff, with bright stripes of crimson near their eyes. Like fire, I thought, a thought that now makes me ill, as I wonder how many of these little birds have been lost to the enormous blazes. Small birds can’t outfly a fire. My copy of Birdlife Australia’s magazine arrives, with the black-throated finch on the cover, the one that lives where the Adani mine may be. The red and black finches merge in my mind. I check the maps.

Canberra has been lucky in not burning. In 2003, people lost lives and houses when a fire burnt into southern suburbs. I walk around, trying to breathe the luck, wondering if this is the taste of the future. I won’t take the dog out, as it’s too hot for her, and she’s not young. People are told not to run air conditioning that sucks air from outside, as the air inside would become too dangerous to breathe. Our fans, though, only circulate what is already inside. Another record falls; the hottest day ever recorded in Canberra at 44 degrees Celsius. Too hot to go out and try to breathe. Better to stay inside with Fires Near Me, to see if the dark line on the map has moved.

I am ashamed that I focus on one tiny part of NSW, given that the whole country seems to be burning. Kangaroo Island loses half of its koalas, ones that do not suffer from chlamydia like many on the mainland. People are missing in most states, some presumed dead. Firefighters work to exhaustion. Some have lost everything, and who didn’t applaud the woman in Cobargo criticising the Prime Minister for doing nothing for her community, which has been through a number of crises?

And yet, when I’m alone with the computer, it’s one small part of NSW I check on the maps, where I own a holiday place. If it burns, we’re insured. If it burns, we won’t be homeless. Fires burn everything, but class still comes into it. But it’s not finances I’m thinking of, but black cockatoos and finches, possums and wallabies.

One day, during the acute crisis, I walk outside and know that something is different. It takes a few seconds to register that the difference is the small area of blue, showing between the clouds of smoke. Are we so adaptable that we forget what has been usual until a few weeks ago? Do we reset our internal maps so quickly? Usually Canberra’s skies are blue, even in Winter, when we wake to frost. Is the clear blue to be gradually eplaced with this hazardous air, this grey blanket that stings the eyes and throat? I am conscious of every breath as an effort, and go back inside to hibernate through the Summer.

At the moment, my house still stands down at the coast. I try and write poetry about what’s happening, to bring words to bear on this disaster, to map the losses in small, telling lines. But how to capture the full dread of what is happening now, the Fires Near Me, and the worry that we are setting ourselves up for more such disasters in years to come, the Fires Yet To Be? How to map the future, the future that may be, the longitude of possible loss? I cough and check the maps.

beach

Mountain launch

November 4, 2019

I just returned from Blackheath in the Blue Mountains of NSW, where I attended the launch of Mountain Secrets, a new anthology published by Ginninderra Press of South Australia, edited by Joan Fenney.

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Over 70 people attended the launch, which is quite remarkable, given that Blackheath is quite difficult to get to from any of the major capital cities. (Easiest from Sydney, and some people even commute, I believe!) I have a poem in the book called ‘Heat and snow’ about the Mountain pygmy possum, one of many Australian animals threatened by climate change. I was one of many poets to read at the launch.

The book looks and feels fantastic, although I’ve yet to read all the poems. Here is a photo of Stephen Matthews, who, along with Brenda Matthews (who was also celebrating a significant birthday on the day) runs Ginninderra Press. The poet reading is Sandra Renew, another poet from Canberra.

SM and SR

And finally, I have to include this photo of me having a drink at the pub in Blackheath, where a pipe band from Lithgow suddenly entered and started playing. That was a bit of a surprise. I’m not sure if this is a regular gig, or if it was part of the Rhododendron Festival that was also on in Blackheath. Anyway, I restrained myself from requesting ‘It’s a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll’ by AC/DC. Just.

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Next year will be a very exciting one for me in terms of publications. More on that later.

Tuesday poem and reviews

October 28, 2019

A bit of a link-fest this week! Firstly, here’s a link to on-line journal of women’s poetry Not Very Quiet, for a poem called The dusky grasswren, which is what it says on the box. This is not a dusky grass wren.

artist at work

The links to two recent reviews I have written recently; of Jack Charles’s book Jack Charles: Born Again Blakfella, and of Mike Chunn’s A Sharp Left Turn: Notes on a life in music, from Split Enz to Play It Strange. Both reviews were published in The Canberra Times.

I used to review books a fair bit, and it’s great to be doing this again. Quite a different discipline from poetry; entering into a book with an imaginary potential reader as your companion.

Tuesday poem: Fungi

June 2, 2019

Fungi

They are not one nor the other
neither animated beasts
nor sluggish vegetables.
We see them as ambiguous,
but they are what they are,
have no need for categories
to undermine like mulch.
Some have an orange that is limitless.
Ten trillion angelic spores tickle the air.
They join forests with reaching non-fingers.
They are neither sadness nor glee.
Persistent softness breaks down logs.
Some push up after rarest rain —
quaint exclamation reversed,
cap upright but no mere tittle,
and not a little ‘i’.
They mouth off.
They are easily mistaken —
or rather, we mistake them,
rejecting our uncertainty.
Poison is just a flicker from food,
kidneys breaking down like wood.
They are not one nor the other —
they have their ways.
Would that we were they.

PS Cottier

Gelbstieliger_Nitrathelmling_Mycena_renati

A new poem celebrating those things that one finds when walking, that confuse our unthinking preference for binary categorisations.

(Image by Holger Krisp, Ulm, Germany, CC BY 3.0)

This one is a Christmas poem, just published at Verity La.

The poem is about reugees. It’s important to remember those excluded and shunned all year, but it’s particularly pertinent to Christmas, when God took on the form of a child born in a stable. The outsider became the centre of the story.

There’s another poem at the site about climate change and specifically, the Great Barrier Reef. An enormous number of future refugees will be fleeing the effects of climate change. And destroying the lives of other species is inexcusable, too.

God bless us, every one! Have a wonderful Christmas.

 Onthemorningthomas1