What now of our future?

This was written for my weekly page in the Molong Express of 23rd May, 2019. It reflects my own views and not necessarily those of either the Molong Express or any other person associated with that paper

Lake Nanine, Western Australia. Once rich in fish and birdlife, the climate crisis and overuse have taken their toll on Nanine – and most of WA’s lakes

Well, the election is for the most part done and dusted and the country is awash with recriminations and back-slapping, with gloating and the gnashing of teeth. The most surprising thing about this election is that the outcome was in large part decided by three very rich, very selfish men whose views on the distribution of wealth just happened to coincide with those of their front man and now the elected Prime Minister. But there are no winners.

Clive Palmer may have achieved his goal of blocking a Labor victory and at the same time guaranteeing he will gain approval for a vast coalmine in Queensland, and the father-and-son team who have all but total control of Australia’s media may have once again proved to themselves and their hangers-on that they are among the world’s most powerful men and answerable to no-one, but they still find themselves in the same leaky boat to which they have likely condemned the rest of us.

Australia has been sentenced to another three years of inaction on the crisis now facing the world. Even if the new government goes to the polls early – over the past 25 years the average time between elections has been 27.5 months – time that could have been spent in mitigating some of the effects of global heating will have been wasted. Time we can ill afford.

The Coalition has already wasted six valuable years, six years spent in argument among its members. The Biblical brigade fought the more progressive bloc over same-sex marriage; members of all factions fought over the climate crisis; the coal at all costs Lignites argued against renewable energy while we experienced the hottest summers on record, rivers ran dry and ordinary citizens donated to farmers whose lives were being crushed by drought. And in the eight months leading up to the election, the People’s House sat for less than a month, largely so the government could avoid scrutiny according to many commentators.

And nothing has changed. The climate crisis has slipped back down the agenda – not that either of the two main parties were really serious about it in the first place – and the government will soon be back to blaming the “latté-sipping city dwellers” for alarming their beloved “battlers”. This conveniently ignores the fact that voters in most blue-ribbon seats would fall in the former category and the latter will continue to be denied penalty rates, meaningful training and, for the unemployed among them, an increase in the unemployment allowance – benefit is too generous a word.

Nationally, we must get our head out of the sand. All the legislation in the world becomes meaningless if the climate crisis is not addressed but this is unlikely to happen. The Coalition seems hell bent on following the lead of the USA in allowing a noisy minority of climate change deniers and born-again Christians, aided and abetted by the very forces that have pulled the rug out from under the “middle classes”, to dictate policy.

A US political commentator once said that when America doesn’t have a war it needs to start one, so great is the political influence of the military-industrialists. Donald Trump seems to be drooling at the prospect of a stoush with Iran, and if he plunges the US into yet another futile conflict, then it’s London to a brick-on that our government will follow him. And it’s not only the industrialists who will celebrate. Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians all over the world, Australia included, would rejoice at the approaching “End Times”, the end-vision of Christian Dominionism made real.

If there is an invasion of Iran, there will be another exodus of refugees at a time when the world is awash with the displaced and desperate. Someone once said that communism flourishes where there are empty bellies. To this I’d add that terrorism flourishes where there is despair and injustice. When the ranks of those displaced by war are swollen by those uprooted by the climate crisis, it will be almost too late to act; governments may be all but powerless against the tide of human misery unless they all join in cooperation, and given the present mood, there seems little likelihood of that happening.

The climate crisis must be addressed now, yet already we see that the government cannot act on any of its election promises until the new financial year. Financial legislation will dominate Parliament for weeks or months after that and it will be another six months at best before our most pressing emergency is even mentioned.

We are in danger of alienating our young people even more than we already have. Worldwide they are demonstrating by their actions that they fear the future they are being left, and soon they will become angry.

And who could blame them?

Murujuga, Mosul and the new Vandals: who are the worst?

Upwards of a million petroglyphs in a landscape almost as old as time
Upwards of a million petroglyphs in a landscape almost as old as time

The understandable outcry and revulsion felt in the face of the mindless vandalism by lunatic jihadists against the beautiful and old – by European standards – artworks at Mosul, prompted me to resurrect this piece, written for a US site some years ago. Goose-stepping in formation with the lunacy prevailing in the Middle East, Australia still sanctions the ongoing destruction of art that was already ancient when the rest of the world was discovering agriculture

Australia is an old place, so ancient that mountain ranges once as high as the Himalaya have been worn to nubs. At just under 7310 feet, Kosciuszko, the highest mainland peak, is a mere hillock by world standards, while on the other, older side of the continent, in Western Australia’s Pilbara where there are rocks almost as old as time, Mt Meharry reaches to a mere 4100 feet, flattened by the weight of millennia and slumped under a sun so fierce as to be unimaginable to most folks in the northern hemisphere.

Beautiful Mulga Downs - part of the Pilbara landscape
Beautiful Mulga Downs – part of the Pilbara landscape

Ancient also is the culture of the people who occupied Australia’s mainland 2000 or more generations give or take before Europeans were even aware of its existence – so long ago that their stories tell of climate change, generations of great cold, long ages of dreadful drought and the disappearance of species. Their folk-beliefs accurately describe the inappropriately named “Hobbits” whose skeletons have been excavated on the Indonesian island of Flores – the Yuurii is just one name for them.

The first Tasmanians – once believed to be of a different race – had reached the far south of the continent by at least 40,000 years ago, 32,000 years before rising sea levels separated them from relatives on the mainland.

Poems by Denis Kevans
Poems by Denis Kevans

So long have these people inhabited the old brown land that whenever a documentary on the human migration “out of Africa” is shown, their epic history is usually mentioned only briefly, relegated to the too-hard basket. Their still-living culture is as wonderful and mystifying as the Universe itself, embracing a complex philosophy and with a kinship system so complex that a prominent anthropologist once said that any European who claimed to understand it fully was “almost certainly lying”.

Their origins, they say in English, are in the Dreaming, a past, present and future governing everything existing in the Universe. A rock can represent an ancestor and/or the ancestor in person and/or the result of an action by an ancestor, and so must be sung appropriately to ensure the continued order of the cosmos and everything within it. The people are the country and the country is the people. Failure to sing the country at appropriate times results in chaos: the breakdown of social structure, the disintegration of complex ecosystems, the failure of rains or extreme weather events at inappropriate times. When an Aboriginal laments misfortune brought on by cultural breakdown he will cry “poor fella my country”, for he and his country are one and the same: “poor fella my country, poor bugger me”, ‘country’ and ‘me’ being two words for the same thing

These people are custodians of stone arrangements, earth mounds, bora grounds and artworks so old and with messages so fraught with meaning that they defy the European imagination. In the east are the paintings of giant Kwinkan beings; there are carved  trees – many of which were deliberately destroyed by opponents of Land Rights legislation; you can find giant river red gums that as saplings had limbs bound together so that they would grow into huge circles high in the branches, like openings in the sky, making the base of the trunk a safe and appropriate place for women to give birth.

In the west are the awe-inspiring Wandjina, who in the Dreaming established the weather patterns of the north-west then implanted themselves in the rock faces they inhabit today. It has been claimed that their “haloes” represent aliens’ space helmets, explaining why no mouths are to be seen on the figures, but the people whose job it is to sing them disagree. When asked about the absence of mouths, a custodian once replied: “What would they have to say to humans?”

Also in the west is what is now known as the Burrup Peninsula and its 88 sq km of ancient rock engravings or petroglyphs – up to possibly one million of them. Forming Earth’s largest collection of rock art, the most recent of which are at least 10,000 years old, they are now under threat of almost total destruction by the industry that brought you the disasters of Ok Tedi, Deepwater Horizon and almost numberless other acts of vandalism large and small.

Burrup is the site of huge, new industrial development including gas hubs to serve the North-West Shelf and other projects, and a fertilizer plant of huge proportions. What survives the construction process – and much has already been destroyed – will almost certainly be hugely affected by acid fall-out from these plants.

Of course the mining industry is not solely to blame. Equally complicit are State and Federal governments and the people who have allowed their elected representatives to transfer power to the miners. So cowed are the miners’ lickspittles that in the year I left Western Australia, siteworks were being permitted at Burrup while yet another “committee of inquiry” was sitting. There are other places for the factories and less intrusive alternatives, but why bother when they have governments to do their bidding?

In the face of huge protests, Amax Iron, and CRA in 1980 drilled on a sacred site at Noonkanbah, Western Australia,  after the State Government provided their oil-exploration rig with a police escort for its 1000-mile plus trip through the outback. The well was dry but that wasn’t the point. They showed they could fly in the face of public opinion, of legislation and of ethical and spiritual values and have the support of government while they did it.

Almost immediately after Shark Bay received World Heritage listing, the miners sought – and got – permission to “explore” for minerals on its very edge. The same at Ningaloo Reef, a whale-shark hotspot and fringing coral reef off the north-west coast. It’s listing for World Heritage has been opposed because local businesses claim it won’t help tourism. Apparently World Heritage listing should enable vested interests to make more money rather than protect natural wonders and great human works. I feel the hot breath of the miners here also. They told us a couple of years ago that they wanted to drill for oil on the edge of the reef and are so clever that they can do so with no ill-effects whatsoever.

Why? To prove their power, that’s why. Mining interests have opposed Aboriginal Land Rights legislation since it was introduced in the 1970s and through its toadies in governments continues to have it overridden in some cases and ignored in others. Environmental laws mean nothing to the miners. Why should they? Governments are only too happy to change them or adopt “temporary suspension” of protection measures to suit their interests

When Native Title was being argued in the courts, Western Mining, led by Hugh Morgan, published a map purporting to show how much of Australia would be closed to miners if Aboriginals were given land title. Some 30 years or so later, John Howard – who with Western Australia’s Court dynasty was among the mining industry’s greatest assets – was brandishing the same map to show us the extent of the “land grab” if he were not to alter legislation that had given the greedy Aboriginals title over some of their traditional lands.

It’s all very well to give the Indigenous peoples title over land we took from them in the first place as long as it really is of no use to us. But if there’s minerals on it, it’s a different story and the miners should be allowed to run seismic survey lines all over the place. Who cares if they turn into erosion gullies? It’s only worthless scrub anyway – only good for blackfellers. Unless it’s got minerals in it of course, then it’s a valuable natural resource and the government can’t allow a noisy minority – egged on in past times by Red agitators and now by white Greenies – to act against the best interests of the vast majority of decent, sensible Australians.

And so I return to Murujuga, as Burrup is properly known. Its destruction is up there with the destruction of the libraries at Constantinople and Alexandria, Mosul, and the giant Buddhas of Afghanistan. When it is gone then there can be an argument mounted in favor of almost any act of vandalism. Why not put a bulldozer through the Louvre or St Peter’s and replace them with theme parks? Monuments to human endeavor will count as nothing and the wonders of nature…well really? What wonders?

Perhaps some day – and one day soon I hope – the Wandjina, no longer able to remain silent, will leave the ancient Dreaming sanctuaries to visit a dreadful judgment on the destroyers of the ancient places and bring some sort of peace to the land as old as time. But I fear it may be too late.

Another place, another life

There was just something about them. This team is carting bagged wheat in the days before bulk handling. It could have been taken any time between the 30s and 50s
There was just something about them. This team is carting bagged wheat in the days before bulk handling. It could have been taken any time between the 30s and 50s

When I was a little kid temporarily living in a Perth suburb, the hours and days were measured and enlivened by horses. Early in the weekday mornings I’d lie awake following the progress of the milk-man by the sound of his horse’s shoes on the road. Clip, clop; clip, clop; then clip-te-clop, as it dragged a toe. The float would stop outside our house and I’d hear the gate open and the soft scuffle of the milkoh’s sandshoes on the path. Then the muted clank as his half-pint measure tapped against our milk billy, followed by the clink of our pennies into the leather bag strapped around his waist. Pad, pad, pad back down the path, the clack of the gate latch and a soft whistle: clip-clop, clip, clop, clip-te-clop, an occasional, soft “Whoa there”, another whistle, and the sound faded away in the pre-dawn, down the street and around the corner.

Two or three days a week we’d see the baker’s cart, one of dozens owned by a large bakery named, with delightful irony, Brown & Burns. Beautifully painted in maroon and gold, wooden wheel spokes and felloes trimmed in the same colors, they were set high off the ground with small wooden doors at the rear of the box body giving way to an interior lined with tin or zinc. The driver stood on a small step at the rear of the cart, looking over the top. Brown and Burns’ horses were all bay or brown half-draughts; quick on the trot, sure-footed – they had to be on the tar roads criss-crossed by steel tram lines –  and intelligent.

The driver’s standard uniform was shorts, sandshoes and a snow-white sleeveless singlet protected by a short canvas apron of pale green. Around his waist was a brown leather bag with compartments for change and a receipt book for those respectable or solvent enough to run a weekly account. The bread was carried in a heavy wicker basket and covered with a sheet of the same material as the apron. No gloves for the driver and no plastic or paper to mask the stomach-tightening, spit-raising smell when he opened the breadbox door or uncovered the basket.

“Bah—aaaker!” and the women and kids would come out of the houses to gather round: “Half a sandwich loaf and a poppy-seed, please.”  “Just a milk loaf thanks, baker.” The driver would whip the loaves from his basket, flirting with the women all the while – a good cartside manner no doubt sold more bread.

“Half a loaf and no stale rubbish, driver.”

“As if I’d sell yesterdee’s bread to someone with those legs!”

“Yer’d sell stale bread to yer own grandma yer cheeky sod…and don’t forget I know ’er!” This from an older woman.

Meantime, the kids would be at the horse end of the cart, slapping the bay’s neck and inhaling the heady tang of salty horse sweat.

There were occasional visits by other hawkers and their horse-drawn carts: a greengrocer; the bottle-oh, collecting scrap and empty bottles; the rabbit-oh, corpses of bunnies, Australia’s scourge, trapped on the outskirts of Perth, Fremantle and further afield dangling from his cart to be skinned on the spot when you bought one. More rarely we’d see a fish-oh, probably an opportunist with a cart who’d bought a surplus from the professional fishermen on the river or at Fremantle, packed them in ice and drove them around the suburbs till they were all gone, the price decreasing as the day drew on.

Once a week the iceman drew up in our street, his insulated van drawn by a big, brown clumper with a nose like the King of China’s silk handkerchief and an inquisitive, bread-seeking upper lip. The blocks were dragged from the icebox onto a board where the iceman – also in shorts, singlet and apron but with a leather pad over one shoulder – expertly broke them into the required size with an icepick. When we could afford them, we could just squeeze two threepenny blocks into our little green and cream ice chest, where it would last almost a week. Everything was green and bloody cream in the 40s, even the enamel water jug in our kitchen. When we didn’t have ice, we used the Coolgardie safe.

Some districts still had “night-soil collection”, as it was delicately referred to by the good aldermen of the time – it was still a fact of daily life in some houses we lived in up to the early 1950s. Two or three times a week the “night cart” would clip-clop down the back alleways, stopping at each dunny. The dunny man would lift the trapdoor at the back of the outhouse and remove the full bucket – galvanized sheet metal reinforced with iron bands – from under the wooden bench seat and replace it with an empty one smelling of the cup or so of Phenyl that sloshed about in it. The full “pan” was emptied through a heavy sliding door near the top of the Nissen Hut-shaped tank on the cart and placed with the other empties in a compartment at the rear.

The dunny man was a legendary figure in my boyhood and we kids even sang a song about him, to the tune of Ghost Riders In The Sky:

The municipal dunny cart was full up to the brim;
The municipal dunny man fell in and couldn’t swim;
And as he was a-sinkin’, a-sinkin’ like a stone,
He heard the maggots singin’: “There’s no-ho place like home”.

All this horse traffic meant occasional deposits of steaming manure – a bonus in the days when vegetable gardens were more common than not. There was a sort of collection roster, unwritten but strictly observed. A tail would lift and whoever was at the top of the roster that day would order a kid away to fetch the spade and bucket. Thup, thup, thup. If the horse was a quiet one, and most were, the treasure would be scooped up almost before it hit the ground

Leggings: Concertinas and workaday “Springsures” similar to those that one of my grand-dads wore.
Leggings: Concertinas and a pair of workaday “Springsures” similar to those that one of my grand-dads wore.

Among our favourite horses were the police mounts. The WA Mounted kept a stable of bay thoroughbreds for State occasions, but it was the equine proletariat used for crowd and traffic control at footie matches and other really important events that attracted us. Light greys – a colour that set off beautifully the royal-blue saddle blanket with its police crest – leaning towards the military packhorse type: big boned, big footed and broad across the bum but with a nice head and intelligent eye. The kids loved them – if you thought the copper wasn’t watching you could lean against a front leg and feel the horse return the pressure until the trooper pretended to have just noticed what was going on and growl: “That’s enough of that, Sonny Jim. Git orf his leg or ’e’ll step on yer foot.” You and the horse would exchange knowing looks and you’d give him a bit of a pat on the nose so he’d know it wasn’t your fault the camaraderie was broken.

The troopers, or “traps” were also a great favorite of the younger boys, just below their horses, and there was always a lot of jostling to stand in one of the two choicest positions: close to the horse’s head, handy to its silky nose, or by the stirrups where you could cast envious glances at the chrome-plated, government-issue spurs and the much-admired concertina leggings – much flasher than the workaday springsures of the drover – worn by the trooper. A smart rig of blue shirt, black bum-freezer jacket, black peaked cap and light-khaki jodphurs completed the uniform. But it was the spurs and leggings that did it for the boys.

They’ve gone now, the workhorses of the cities and towns, only the police mounts survive. I wonder do kids still rush out into the street to pat their noses and feel their warm, moist breath on their faces, or are their parents too frightened they might catch something? A sense of awe and wonder perhaps?

A boy’s catalogue of useful things

It pains me to say it, but if you’re a 21st-century kid, please don’t experiment at home with anything mentioned here. Not only is there a risk of injury to yourself and others – indeed, in some parts of the country you may really get eaten by a crocodile or Admonished by a Stranger – but, and perhaps this is worse, your parents may be thought too poor to buy you an X-box.

There’s an old Australian poem with a chorus that goes something like: Stringybark and greenhide, it’ll never fail ya! Stringybark and greenhide, it’s the mainstay of Australia. By the time I was old enough to be aware of such things, greenhide was still in common use on the big cattle stations – probably still is in some places – but farmhouse roofs of stringybark had long been replaced by that enduring symbol of Australia, corrugated iron. Relatively cheap, easily transported, white-ant proof and to a large extent fire resistant, it was the wonder material of the 19th and early 20th centuries. To an Australian kid growing up in the 40s and 50s, discarded corrugated iron, no matter how small or damaged the piece, was a commodity more precious than gold and number one in childhood’s Catalogue of Desirable And Useful Things To Have. This catalogue, verbally handed down through generations of child-artisans had at its head three items, the first two of which were scrap lead and Number 8 fencing wire.

Hard to come by, the lead was assiduously hoarded to use as a trade good or to make sinkers for fishing lines. Easily melted in a jam tin over a fire in the backyard, the metal was poured into sand moulds formed in another tin, or dropped by the teaspoonful from shoulder height into a bucket of water. Number 8 wire could be used for many things, but if you were lucky enough to score some offcuts in good condition, reasonably rust-free and more than a couple of feet long, they could immediately be converted into bob wires for the entrance trap on a pigeon loft or, in the case of AAA-grade samples, into tines gidgeefor a gidgee, the three-pronged, barbed fishing spear, the design and name of which came to its makers from the Nyungar-speaking peoples of the south-west.Three lengths of wire were hammered straight then one end of each was bent at 90 degrees to fit into holes burned with wire into a shaft made of a very young sapling, preferably tea-tree or paperbark. The other end was heated and bent into a tight tick; the bottom of the vee sharpened as much as could be without weakening it too much and the upstroke highly sharpened at its end to make a very effective barb. The tines were then fastened to the shaft by wrapping with finer wire or, if you were lucky to have a piece of the right size, by forcing a short piece of water pipe down the shaft and over the tines. Gidgees were used to spear flounder, mullet, blue manna crabs and cobbler, the large estuary dwelling catfish whose poisonous spines made their delicious flesh a perilous prize.

Wonderful stuff lead and wire may have been, but it was corrugated iron that topped the list. A piece 60 cm or so long could be folded lengthwise, belted flat with a length of pipe – fathers’ hammers were precious things, reserved strictly for nails – folded and flattened again then bent over at the centre to form a vee. This was a kylie, the south-west’s hunting boomerang and another legacy of the Nyungar, used to throw into the shoals of mullet that in those days schooled in shallow water by the tens upon tens of thousands during the annual run. But all these desirable things paled into insignificance if you found a sheet big enough and sound enough to make that most prized of all possessions – the tin canoe. Such a treasure was lugged or dragged home and laid reverently in the backyard, weighted down with old bricks or coondies – big stones – until the other necessary materials could be gathered: a fruit crate, preferably an orange dump; some flathead case nails – these could sometimes be salvaged from the crate; a short length of 2 x 4 or thereabouts; and some tar, gouged from the roads on hot days or scrounged from council patch gangs. The rest was easy. The corrugations at each end were hammered out as well as could be done with a piece of pipe or heavy wood, the stern was one end of the fruit crate nailed in place and the bow was the 2 x 4 similarly attached. The tar, heated over a fire, was used to patch nail holes and the “seams” around the wood. A thin board from the side of the crate was sawn in half to make the hand-held paddles, the use of which was an art in itself, almost as difficult as balancing and steering the canoes whose combination of construction method  and materials often made for interesting forward progress.

With a good kylie and a well-made gidgee you had dominion over the denizens of river and shoreline, able to provide a bounty of fish and crabs for the table – if they weren’t so badly damaged that your Mum made you feed them to the chooks. The “thwoock” as a kylie caused panic among a school of mullet was enough to wipe away the cares of the world and three feet, a metre, of cobbler – okay, okay, two feet then – wriggling on the gidgee made the sky blaze with righteous light. But a canoe made you King of the World; Master of River and Swamp; intrepid explorer of Hitherto Unknown reedbed and billabong and beholden to none. Until, that is, you heard your little brother yelling from the water’s edge: “Ma said if yer don’t come home for yer tea she’ll bastard skin yer alive.” Dan took a while to master the art of swearing. Image