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

Tuesday poem: Future lungs

December 9, 2019

Future lungs

Everyone mining air
and everyone a canary —
the future is coughing.
Invest in inhalers.
King Asthma ascends —
his sceptre
a smoke cigar.

PS Cottier

travelers-lured

I’m sitting in Canberra at 11am, and it’s almost like twilight because of all the smoke in the air from the bushfires near Braidwood, and possibly even from down near Batemans Bay. We may be having a foretaste of the future, when even the bravest firefighters (like those we have now) won’t be able to put out the climate change induced fires.

There may be no more telling the kids to ‘leave that computer and go outside and play’, because they might find breathing a tad difficult.

Still avoidable, but only if we did something serious about tackling climate change. The Firefighters Union knows what it is talking about.

I just had a poem called ‘On Nothing’posted at Right Now: Human Rights in Australia, on the subject of climate change, inspired (if that’s the right word) by Peter Dutton, when he was recorded saying ‘Time doesn’t mean anything when you’re about to … have water lapping at your door.’ This was in reference to people living on small Pacific islands, who are already suffering obvious and dangerous effects of climate change. You can read it here.

This gives me an excuse to post one of my favourite images again.

giant-drink-stream

What I see is not forever

Around the world we hear
that sweetness is dwindling;
at least the bee-borne sort.
They’re in my garden though,
have claimed the bird bath
as bee bath, sipping relief
from forty harsh degrees.
Colonies are collapsing.
Sudden buzzless fields,
quiet stingless grasses —
husk bodies whisper warnings.
Yet here, this weird abundance,
writing a million hovering lines.
How long? I ask the bees.
But bees know neither science
nor faith, except, perhaps,
that this shallow bath
holds water, and may yet
cup a cool tomorrow or two.

PS Cottier

spring-day

Read about hive collapse syndrome: http://www.smh.com.au/technology/sci-tech/australian-scientists-may-have-solved-the-mystery-of-bee-colony-collapse-20150209-13a6ss.html

I am always frustrated by the kind of comment to articles about climate change that says ‘Well it’s cold in [insert locale] now so global warming is nothing to worry about!’.  This got me thinking that the abundance of bees in my garden may be something that could disappear quite quickly; that one person’s eyes are never enough to give a comprehensive view.

Whether the fate of the bees is directly related to climate change is something I don’t know, but their dwindling numbers is a worrying phenomenon.

 

‘…Transient creatures that swarm and multiply…’

Galaxies expanding —
every grass patch blinks
with five hundred petalled suns.
Bees travel between them
mining pollen from stars.
Aliens hover amongst us,
just like us in gold lust
and frantic accumulation.
For us, though,
it’s always spring,
exempt from rumours
of compromising change.
Our ears are buzzing
with far less than bees.
The canals are Martian,
quite epically empty.

P.S. Cottier

daisies

The quotation in the title is from The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. The quote refers to microscopic creatures, but we shall not quibble. The canals on Mars, exploited in the poem for a pun, turned out to be mere features of topography (Here I must insert a green alien saying ‘That’s what you think!’ followed by a sinister laugh. It’s compulsory.)

Mining anything from stars would be a tad difficult, I know, but I’ll flourish my poetic licence on that one, to any cruising and literal minded traffic cops of the blogosphere.

There’s a great tradition of books about creating a breathable atmosphere on Mars, and I’m also harnessing that to a poem partly about our rabid experimentation with earth’s climate.

It’s amazing where a patch of daisies can lead you!

UPDATE: So the gutless NSW Premier has changed his mind on banning greyhound racing. Cruelty 1, Compassion 0. I’ll be interested to see what the ACT government does in response.