J. Sterling Morton, About trees (Review)

One of the first Library of America stories I wrote about here was John Muir’s “A wind-storm in the forests“, so when I saw one titled “About trees” pop up recently, I had to read it. By recently, I mean April – as the Library of America published it to coincide with Arbor Day in the US which occurs at the end of April. J. Sterling Morton is credited as the originator of “this tree-planting festival” – in 1872.

JS Morton, ca 1890s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

JS Morton, ca 1890s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

According to Wikipedia, J. Sterling Morton (1832-1902) was a Nebraska pioneer, newspaper editor and Secretary of Agriculture for President Cleveland. According to LOA’s notes, Morton and his wife moved in the mid-1850s “to a bare, windswept 160-acre homestead in newly incorporated Nebraska City”. This is when, LOA says, his “mania for tree-planting” began. I don’t know much about Nebraska – and what I do know has come from Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia (my review), which was published in 1918 but set around the 1880s. The landscape Cather describes in that novel rings true to LOA’s description of Morton’s Nebraska. Anyhow, like other successful pioneers, Morton gradually expanded his original small house into something much larger – in his case, a replica of the White House, no less! His estate is now the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum.

Now to the article, “About trees”. It is, LOA tells us, the prefatory chapter in a pamphlet titled Arbor Day Leaves that was compiled in 1893 by the chief of the US Forestry Division, Nathaniel Hillyer Egelston. It was intended as “a complete programme for Arbor Day observance, including readings, recitations, music and general information”. Some pamphlet, eh?

Morton starts by praising trees as:

the perfection in strength, beauty and usefulness of vegetable life. It stands majestic through the sun and storm of centuries. Resting in summer beneath its cooling shade, or sheltering besides its massive trunk from the chilling blast of winter, we are prone to forget the little seed whence it came. Trees are no respecter of persons. They grow as luxuriantly besides the cabin of the pioneer as against the palace of the millionaire.

Sherbrooke Forest and Eucalyptus regnans

Sherbrooke Forest (Vic) and Eucalyptus regnans

He says trees are “living materials organised in the laboratory of Nature’s mysteries out of rain, sunlight, dews and earth”, and are the result of a deft metamorphosis. He explains this metamorphosis by telling us more specifically how an oak grows from a planted acorn, and how the earth, through the roots, provides food such as phosphates while:

foliage and twig and trunk are busy in catching sunbeams, air, and thunderstorms, to imprison in the annual increment of solid wood. There is no light coming from your wood, corncob, or coal fire which some vegetable Prometheus did not, in its days of growth, steal from the sun and secrete in the mysteries of a vegetable organism.

I love the John Muir-like romantic prose here! Animal and tree life are, he says, interdependent. Trees are “essential to man’s health and life”. Without vegetable life and growth, animal life would be exterminated:

When the last tree shall have been destroyed there will be no man left to mourn the improvidence and thoughtlessness of the forest-destroying race to which he belonged.

It’s worrying that over a century later, we have Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott stating that “We have quite enough national parks. We have quite enough locked up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked up forest.” (For one academic’s assessment of the issue, check out forest ecologist Rod Keenan’s* article,  “Abbott’s half right: our national parks are good but not perfect”, at The Conversation.)

Morton argues that “in all civilisations man has cut down and consumed, but rarely restored or replanted, the forests”. In some parts of the world, this has changed, due largely to initiatives like Arbor Day, Earth Hour, not to mention the creation of national parks and reserves. Of course, replanting with (obviously) new trees does change the ecological balance and no matter how carefully managed it is, it is based on knowledge that we know is imperfect. Better then, as much as possible, to preserve forests and let them renew naturally – or so it seems to me!

Anyhow, Morton concludes by reaffirming the importance of planting trees “to avert treelessness, to improve the climatic conditions, for the love of the beautiful and useful combined”.

Arbor Day is, he says

the only anniversary in which humanity looks future ward instead of past ward, in which there is a consensus of thought for those who are to come after us, instead of reflections concerning those who have gone before us. It is a practical anniversary. It is a beautiful anniversary.

When Arbor Day Leaves was published in 1893, forty-four of the USA’s then forty-eight states observed Arbor Day (and by 1920s all states were practising it). What a great legacy.

Later this week, I will post on Australia’s first Arbor Day … watch this space.

J. Sterling Morton
“About trees”
First published: in Arbor Day Leaves (ed. N.H. Egelston), 1893
Available: Online at the Library of America

* I’m no expert, and Rod Keenan is not the darling of all environmentalists, but he offers a reasoned perspective.

Angela Savage, The dying beach (Review)

Angela Savage, The dying beach

Courtesy: Text Publishing

When I received Angela Savage’s novel The dying beach out of the blue last year as a review copy, I didn’t put it high in my list of reading priorities. I had – and still have – a pile of books waiting patiently, and I rarely (never say never) read crime novels. However, two things changed my mind. One is that Christos Tsiolkas dedicated Barracuda to Savage, and the other is that this year, for the first time, I will visit Thailand, which is the novel’s setting. So, I read it!

The dying beach is apparently Savage’s third Jayne Keeney novel. Jayne is a Private Investigator, an expat Australian living in Bangkok. Like many female PIs, she’s gutsy, hard-living, resourceful, somewhat of an outsider, and rather inclined to bristle if her independence is questioned. (Perhaps this latter is not confined to female PIs, but can be said of many women working for a living in a male dominated environment.) In this, her third outing, she’s holidaying in Krabi with her new (I believe) business and romantic partner, Rajiv, an expat Indian. They are a bit of an odd couple, but we all know about opposites attracting:

Jayne had never imagined she could find love with a man five years her junior, whose background was so different from her own. But Rajiv gave her a whole new way of viewing the world. As if he’d walked into her life and drawn back the curtain, revealing a window she hadn’t even known was there.

I love that image of “revealing a window she hadn’t even known was there”. Savage’s writing is pretty direct, keeping a good pace appropriate to its genre, but that doesn’t mean that it lacks lovely descriptions and turns of phrase. Indeed, the language is one of the delights of the book. Without disturbing her pacing, Savage regularly surprises with telling descriptions. This, for example, gives you a perfect picture of Jayne in full flight:

She was like an appliance without an off switch that kept accelerating under pressure until it threatened to short circuit.

The novel opens with a sort of prologue in which Sigrid, who doesn’t play an ongoing role in the novel, finds a body floating in the water at Princess Beach. Sigrid is surprised to discover that it’s the tour guide Pla whom she’d spoken to only that week. She notices some bruises around the neck suggesting Pla “did not die gently”. The novel proper then starts at Chapter 1 with Rajiv and Jayne in bed. It’s here (in the chapter not the bed!) that Savage provides us with the necessary background to their relationship, to where it stands at this point, and implies tensions that may play out in the future – as indeed they do. There is, in other words, a love story to this crime novel. At the end of this chapter they front up to the counter at Barracuda (surely a little homage to Christos Tsiolkas) Tours planning to book a tour with the “exceptional guide” they’d had a couple of days previously – the unlucky Pla, of course. And so the scene is set for their holiday to become another job, albeit unpaid, something that bothers the practical Rajiv but not our justice-seeking heroine.

I’m not going to write a lot more about the story, because it’s the sort of book people read for plot and surprises, and I don’t want to give them away. I will say though that it offers lovely insights into Thai character and culture. It is also unashamedly political with its plot revolving around the conflict between economic development and environmental degradation. The title itself refers to the fact that mass shrimp-farming results in the destruction of mangrove forests which in turn causes the beaches to “die”.

Savage also presents a critique of Australia, when she has Jayne contemplate why she is living in Thailand:

Truth was Jayne had long felt an outsider among her peers. Since her final year of high school, in fact, when she spent six tantalising months on a student exchange in France. When she returned home, her passion for the outside world met with a lack of interest, if not downright hostility – as though it was disloyal to find anywhere as attractive as Australia. […] For all that Australians like to boast about the national larrikin spirit, in reality only irreverence was tolerated. Unconventionality was not.

It’s a little didactic, but ouch! There is, unfortunately, some truth in this.

The final point I’d like to make relates to its narrative style. Having read several complex novels recently, that is, books with shifting points of view and intricate chronologies, I rather enjoyed reading something more straightforward. I say this, however, comparatively speaking, because The dying beach does not have a simple, linear chronology. Not only are there a few flashback chapters interspersed strategically through the book, but occasionally the narrative focus shifts from Jayne and her cohort to a couple of characters who appear to be implicated in at least some of the murders. The voice is essentially third person omniscient, though sometimes we seem to shift inside a character’s head. Savage does it well, and I enjoyed the change after the intensity of my recent reads.

The dying beach is a compelling page-turner that also makes some points about cultural difference and tolerance, the challenge of tourism, and the complexity of environmental management in developing countries. It achieves this without, to the best of my admittedly limited knowledge, deviating dramatically from the conventions of its genre. And that is a good thing, because the result is the sort of novel that could appeal to a cross-over audience. The challenge, though, is how to get readers, like me for example, to cross over.

awwchallenge2014Angela Savage
The dying beach
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013
Cover design: WH Chong
ISBN: 9781921922497

(Review copy supplied by Text Publishing)

Bill McKibben, Oil and honey (Review)

Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey

Courtesy: Black Inc

It’s coincidental, but nicely appropriate, that the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) published its Provisional Statement on the Status of the Climate in 2013 last week, just as I was finishing US environmental activist Bill McKibben‘s latest book, Oil and honey: The education of an unlikely activist. It’s likewise coincidental that, three days before WMO’s announcement, Stefanie (of So Many Books) published a post titled Gardening for Climate Change* containing her thoughts on her garden and how climate change might affect it.

WMO’s statement says, among other things, that “During the first nine months of 2013, most of the world’s land areas had above-average temperatures, most notably in Australia, northern North America …”. As you know, I live in Australia; Bill McKibben and Stefanie live in the northern part of the USA. We are seeing (feeling) the changes, and are concerned. What I’m going to say next is pretty obvious, but I’m going to say it anyhow because I always like to start with the basics in discussions like this. There are two critical issues in the climate change debate: Is the climate changing and, if it is, Is it human-caused? It’s hard to imagine, given all the data available, that there’s anyone out there who really believes the climate is not changing, though I believe there are still some who think it’s simply a case of “climate variability”. These people think that the climate will get back to normal (some year soon, they hope). The trickier issue, however, is the causal one. Most of the deniers are not so much denying that the climate is changing, but that we are causing it. This brings me to Bill McKibben.

McKibben does not, in Oil and honey, spend time trying to prove that humans are causing climate change. For him it’s a given. Rather, he shares how he changed from being an environmentalist, who researched and wrote books, to an environmental activist who campaigns (and writes books). It’s an interesting, clearly written book about one man and his path, but can also be read as a how-to for those who want to get active.

You may now, though, be wondering about the title. Oil and honey? I’m sure there’s an ironic allusion here to the biblical “land of milk and honey” (which we are not heading towards), but there is also a literal meaning to the title. The narrative shifts pretty seamlessly between his two main passions. One is to do with bees, honey and good farming practice. The other is oil, or the fossil fuel industry, and how to stop its impact on the climate. Oil and honey, climate and farming. It’s all related.

You may also be wondering, particularly if you’re not American, who Bill McKibben is. As the blurb on the back of my edition says, he has written over a dozen books including the New York Times bestselling Eaarth and The end of nature. He also founded the environmental organisation 350.org and “was among the first to warn of the dangers of global warming”. Despite all this, he did not until recently see himself as an activist. After graduating, he worked as a journalist for The New Yorker for five years, but quit in 1987 when its long-term editor was forced out of his job. Since then he has been a freelance writer.

Oil and honey is his latest book. I’d call it part-memoir part-manifesto, because it is both the personal story of his transition to full-blown activism and the story of his passion for saving the planet. The personal aspect of the book helps make it a good read. We get to understand his thinking, we feel his anxiety about becoming not only an activist but a leader of activists, and we learn that his activist philosophy is inspired by the non-violent resistance ideas of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. We see his love for nature and for working close to the land on the bee-farm he bought for his friend Kirk Webster to run. This farm functions both as respite and as a place for him to see land stewardship working.

That’s the memoir aspect. In the manifesto aspect, he shares with us the development of his ideas and strategies. We learn of various campaigns he has been involved in since 2009, including Step It Up, Keystone XL,  Do the Math. And he explains how he and his co-activists have shifted from focusing on politics and politicians – through such activities as sit-ins at the White House and lobbying politicians – to directly tackling the fossil fuel industry. He came to realise, he says, that the situation was/is becoming so dire there’s no time “for slow graceful cultural evolution”. Consequently, the last part of the book deals with the goal of encouraging educational institutions to divest their investment portfolios of fossil fuel industries. They’ve targeted educational institutions because students represent a significant percentage of climate change activists. For these students the question is simple:

are you paying for our education by investments in an industry that guarantees we won’t have a planet to make use of that learning?

I’ve only touched the surface of what this book covers. Like many books of its type, chances are that it will only be read by the converted. That’s a bit of a shame, but it’s not useless says McKibben:

You might think it’s a waste to preach to the choir, but the truth is, you need to get the choir fired up, singing loudly, all out of the same hymnal. The choir is there, but most of the time it’s just humming in the background, or singing so many tunes that no distinct harmony emerges.

So, if you’re part of the choir, this book is still for you. And if you’re not, think about joining. It could be the most important thing you do.

Bill McKibben
Oil and honey: The education of an unlikely activist
Collingwood: Black Inc, 2013
255 pp.
ISBN: 9781863956178

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc)

* Stefanie has since posted a link to a British blog called Climate Change Garden.

Louis Nowra, Into that forest (Review)

Louis Nowra, Into that forest

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

Louis Nowra is one versatile and prolific writer, having written novels, non-fiction, plays and screenplays, essays and even libretti. Into that forest is his latest work. It was shortlisted for the Young Adult Novel prize in the 2012 Aurealis awards and the Ethel Turner Young People’s Literature prize in this year’s NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. I read this for my reading group. We don’t often do youth literature but every now and then one pops up that we think might interest us … such as a book by Nowra.

The first thing to say is that the novel is written in a unique voice. Here is its opening:

Me name be Hannah O’Brien and I be seventy-six years old. Me first thing is an apology me language is bad cos I lost it and had to learn it again. But here’s me story and I glad to tell it before I hop the twig.

And what a story it is … this novel feeds into several Australian, and wider, literary traditions. There’s the lost child and the feral child motifs (reminding me of Dog boy). There’s Tasmanian Gothic, and there’s also a bit of the fairy-tale about it. Subject-wise it covers some significant ground: environmental issues (involving both the extinct Tasmanian tiger and the whaling industry) and what we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This might sound rather mechanistic, but there’s no sense of “ticking off”. It’s not didactic, and it’s all logical within the framework of the book.

Set in the late 19th century, it tells the story of two young girls, Hannah (then 6) and Becky (7) who find themselves lost in the bush (oops, forest!) after their boat capsizes in a storm and Hannah’s parents drown. They are taken in by a Tasmanian Tiger pair, and live with them for four years. Meanwhile, Becky’s father, Mr Carsons, is out looking for her. Eventually they are found, but the process of re-integration is not easy. The novel has a small cast of characters, which keeps it tightly focused. Besides Hannah’s parents who die near the beginning, there’s our two young protagonists, Becky’s father, his friend Ernie, the “tiger man”, a few other minor characters – and of course, the tigers, named Dave and Corinna by Hannah.

As in Dog boy, the description of life with the tigers is pretty visceral. At first Becky resists living like a tiger – perhaps because she still has a father whom she hopes will find her – but eventually she too succumbs, if succumb is the word. It is, after all, a matter of survival. And so they shed their clothes, start to move mostly on all fours, and develop keen animal instincts (of sight, hearing and smell). They also develop a taste for raw food and become adept at hunting. The descriptions of killing and eating the prey are not for the squeamish – “I were starving and the taste of blood made me feel even more hungry” and “What were ever in that shiny pink gristle surged through me in waves of ecstasy” – but they are important to our understanding of what their lives had become. Hannah says:

God knows where me sense of survival came from. Maybe it’s natural cos humans are just animals too.

There is a bogey man here – the tiger man or bounty hunter, whom Hannah had met before, through her parents. To the girls he is more brutal than the tigers. He’s “evil”, kills tiger pups, does “stuff to himself that were rude”. But, perhaps, he’s just another survivor, albeit a not very pleasant one?

While Hannah is the narrator, Becky’s character is the more complex one. She struggles more with the change forced upon them:

She didn’t want to forget. Me? I thought it were stupid to try and remember like Becky did. I didn’t see any use for it. Me English started to shrivel up, like an old dry skin a snake gets rid of. It just lies there in the grass rotting away and then vanishes with the wind. I took to talking in grunts, coughs and hoarse barks like the tigers. This annoyed Becky no end. But it were simple – the tigers understood me. Becky warned I were making a mistake. You will forget your language. You will forget your parents. You are becoming an animal, she’d say. Why argue with her? She were right on every level.

Becky initially fights against the brutality of the hunt – there’s a horrific description of the tigers attacking seals – but then surprises Hannah by rather fearlessly exerting some dominance in the pack. She was of course desperately hungry by then, but it shows Hannah that:

she were really stubborn if she wanted something. She were brave, she were stubborn, she were smart, she were tough.

Unfortunately, Becky is not as tough – or as adaptable – as Hannah thought, and consequently precipitates the novel’s rather shocking conclusion.

It’s a pretty bold novel – but less so than, say, Lord of the flies. There’s plenty to discuss, particularly regarding the subjects I suggested at the beginning of the post. The big theme, though, the one common to feral children books, has to do with defining our nature. What separates human from animal? What would you do to survive – and what would that say about the essence of humanity? Good stuff for young adults, and a gripping read too for we older readers.

Louis Nowra
Into that forest
Crow’s Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2012
ISBN: 9781743311646 (Kindle ed.)

Tim Flannery, After the future: Australia’s extinction crisis (Review)

Quarterly Essay No 48 Cover

Quarterly Essay 48 cover (Courtesy Black Inc)

Tim Flannery is an Australian palaeontologist-cum-environmentalist who has been on the public stage for a couple of decades now. He has published several books on environmental issues, some best-sellers, including The future eaters and The weather makers. He was Australian of the Year in 2007, has starred in three television documentary series with comedian John Doyle, and is currently Chief Commissioner of Australia‘s Climate Commission.  With the environment being his passion, he is used to controversy, but many of us regard him as a national treasure. There, I’ve shown my hand!

Needless to say, I enjoyed his current Quarterly Essay titled After the future: Australia’s new extinction crisis. In it he analyses the causes of the second wave of extinctions, and suggests solutions.

The essay is divided into 8 short sections. Near the end of the second section, Flannery writes

I hope the message is loud and clear. Australian politics, and the bureaucracy that supports it, is failing in one of its most fundamental obligations to future generations, the conservation of our natural heritage.

It’s scary stuff. On the preceding page he discusses public ignorance, arguing that most people are unaware that a new wave of extinction is happening, and that those who are aware “commonly believe that our national parks and reserves are safe places for threatened species”. I fall into this latter camp, I’m afraid. I knew it wasn’t all hunky-dory but I had assumed that the parks and reserves were working. Apparently not. The reasons are complex. Funding is of course one aspect and underpins some of the issues he raises, such as the lack of resources and support for effective planning and management, and a decrease in scientifically trained staff able to research and monitor the situation.

However, Flannery argues there are more systemic issues, mostly relating to “politics”. One is the increasingly risk-averse behaviour of governments, resulting in their being prepared to do nothing rather than risk failure. Another is the fact that the environment is no longer the bipartisan issue it once was, with the right increasingly seeing the environment as a left issue. The conservatives are, paradoxically, losing interest in conservation! Environmental stewardship, Flannery argues, once inspired leaders of the right, like Theodore Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan in the USA, and Malcolm Fraser in Australia. It was Malcolm Fraser “who first used federal powers to prevent sand mining on Fraser Island, who proclaimed Kakadu a national park, and who ended whaling in Australia”. However, the rise of green parties (here and in other first world nations) is alienating the right, and yet are not always friendly to conservation. “Animal rights issues, such as opposition to the culling of feral species”, for example, “can sometimes get in the way of environmental stewardship”. The result of environmental issues being seen through the lens of party politics and ideology is that the effort to discredit conservation has resulted in the rejection of science as “a guide to action”. This, says Flannery, is dangerous territory.

While Flannery spends around a third of the essay setting out the problem and discussing the causes, his main thesis is that the current focus of environmental programs on preserving ecosystems is not working – and he presents some convincing arguments for changing the focus to saving individual species. He describes programs in the Kimberleys which are managed by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (with which he is connected) in partnership with indigenous groups, using their fire management techniques. But his most impressive example is a privately managed program in Papua New Guinea, the Tenkile Conservation Alliance, focused on saving a tree kangaroo. He argues that it “is a prime example of saving an ecosystem by concentrating on saving a species”, and asks:

How is it that one Australian couple has almost single-handedly transformed the fortunes of a people and the biodiversity of a mountain range while trying to save  an endangered species of tree kangaroo? The answer is simple: the Thomases [zoologists] set clear goals, used scientific methods to monitor their progress, and reported back to the people.

I’m not sure I’d call that simple. Or, perhaps I’d say the process is simple, but deciding on environmental priorities and finding the right mix of people/organisations to manage it is not so simple. Flannery’s solution is there needs to be:

  • a legislative commitment to zero tolerance on further extinctions;
  • the establishment of a Biodiversity Authority [yes, I know, another bureaucratic body] that is independent of government, that has “unequivocal targets”, and which faces strong consequences [what, I wonder?] on failure to deliver; and
  • the acceptance and formal involvement of non-profit organisations in managing biodiversity programs.

The Conversation, an Australian academic and research sector blog, is currently running a weekly series on endangered species. A commenter on last week’s post suggested outsourcing the listing of endangered species to peak groups, pretty much mirroring Flannery’s argument regarding partnerships between the government and non-government sectors.

Overall, the essay is clearly argued, but occasionally Flannery makes a statement that jars. One is his statement that “even under Labor governments with a strong green bent, national parks are not always safe” which he supports using the example of the Bligh Government’s starting the process of de-gazetting a part of the Mungkan Kaanju National Park with a view to returning it to its traditional Aboriginal owners. He doesn’t elaborate on this. I wrote in the margin, “Is this wrong”? Not surprisingly, at least one indigenous leader, Marcia Langton, took offence. I suspect it was a case of Flannery finding a poor example to support his argument regarding national parks being threatened even by supposedly sympathetic governments, but I don’t know.

Despite odd moments like this, I did find his argument convincing. However, as I’m sure he’d say himself, it’s not a guaranteed solution. Early in the essay he makes a point of discussing scientific method, arguing that “science is not a search for the truth” but about “disproving hypothesis”.  The hypothesis he proposes here is surely worth testing given the failure of current methods. It begs his early questions, though, regarding political and social will, which may in fact be the critical variables that we need to resolve.

Tim Flannery
“After the future: Australia’s new extinction crisis”
in Quarterly Essay, No. 48
Collingwood: Black Inc, November 2012
ISBN: 9781863955829

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc.)

Mary Austin, The scavengers

I’ve never heard of Mary Austin but when I saw this story (essay), “The scavengers”, appear as a Library of America offering, I had to read it, because it’s about the deserts of California – and I love those deserts. Mary Austin (1868-1934) was an early nature writer about the American southwest. LOA’s notes tell us that she moved in the literary/artistic circles of her times. She met Ambrose Bierce (whose work she admired though she was less pleased with the man!). She collaborated with Ansel Adams on Taos Pueblo, a hand produced photographic essay. And Willa Cather apparently wrote the last chapters of Death comes for the archbishop while staying in Austin’s home in Taos. Austin and her husband were also involved in the California Water Wars, that were documented so dramatically in the film Chinatown.

According to LOA, she was “among the first to write with careful attention about the desert, and to do so in a way that managed to capture its beauty without indulging in undue sentimentality”. This essay “The scavengers” was first published in 1903 in her book of essays and stories titled The land of little rain, a book that was so well received it enabled her to write for the rest of her life.

Coyote in Death Valley

Coyote in Death Valley, Dec 1992

And so to “The scavengers”. It is a short essay describing, unsentimentally, the buzzards, vultures, ravens (or “carrion crow”), coyotes and Clark’s crows (or “camp robber”) which survive on the death of others. The essay opens on a vivid image:

Fifty-seven buzzards, one on each of fifty-seven posts at the rancho El Tejon, on a mirage-breeding September morning, sat solemnly while the white tilted travelers’ vans lumbered down the Canada de los Uvas. After three hours they had only clapped their wings, or exchanged posts.

She was, clearly, a careful observer. A major theme of the essay is nature’s balance which, in this case, means that when there is drought some creatures die and others (the scavengers) thrive. She graphically describes the slow death by starvation of the cattle with the buzzards waiting patiently for the end (because they will not feed until the last breath is drawn):

Cattle once down may be days in dying … It is doubtless the economy of nature to have the scavengers by to clean up the carrion, but a wolf at the throat would be a shorter agony than the long stalking and sometime perchings of these loathsome watchers.

She goes on to describe vultures, comparing their qualities with those of the buzzards, and then moves on to the other previously mentioned scavengers. She sees the raven as the “least objectionable” of them, partly because “he is nice in his habits and is said to have likable traits”. I particularly enjoyed her observation on “the interdependence of wild creatures, and their cognizance of the affairs of their own kind”. She suggests we may never fully credit this, and she’s probably right, though she’d probably also be astonished by how far science has come in the last century in terms of ecological knowledge. Anyhow, I liked the following description of animal behaviour as coyotes bring down an antelope:

… Rabbits sat up in the chaparral and cocked their ears, feeling themselves quite safe for the once as the hunt swung near them. Nothing happens in the deep wood that the blue jays are not all agog to tell …

She wonders how much of this knowledge of each other is learnt by experience and how much is taught by their “elders”. Austin surely would have loved David Attenborough – or even been him (if you know what I mean!) – had she been born a few decades later.

As I said, a main theme is the balance (or economy, as she calls it) of nature but she concludes on another idea, and that is the role of mankind. Nature, she says, cannot account for the works of man:

There is no scavenger that eats tin cans, and no wild thing leaves a like disfigurement on the forest floor.

Mary Austin
“The scavengers”
Available online at Library of America
Originally published in The land of little rain, 1903

Anna Krien, Into the woods

How can so many people all be looking at the same thing and see it so differently? The man moseying around in front of me looks at a 300-year old tree and sees a nursing home, while an activist twenty minutes down the road sees a block of flats for furry and feathered creatures.

Vive la différence? Or not! Anna Krien’s Into the woods is an exposé of the decades long battle in Tasmania for its forests, particularly its old-growth native forests. For those who don’t know, Tasmania is Australia’s southern island state. It is famous for its beauty and its wilderness but also, it seems, for its Vs, that is, vitriol, violence and vigilantism. You see, being a small island state, with only 500,000 people, it’s a challenge to keep its economy in the black. Sawmilling and, more recently and more controversially, woodchipping have played an important role in maintaining its economy. It is this controversy – particularly surrounding woodchips – that Krien explores in her book.

Anna Krien, Into the woods

Cover image (Courtesy: Black Inc

On the cover is a “blurb” by Chloe Hooper who wrote The tall man about the death in custody of an indigenous man on Palm Island. This provides a clue to the book’s style, and that is that the author, like Hooper, engages personally in the situation, meeting with parties on all sides of the conflict. In Krien’s case this meant meeting ferals, environmentalists, politicians, loggers, whistleblowers, craftsmen and businessmen.

Krien has organised the book into five thematic sections:

  • Ratbags: the new generation protesters, or ferals, who live pretty primitively on/near the site  they are protecting and who are often in conflict with older activists
  • Loggers: the logging industry workers who range across a wide range of jobs in the industry and are also often conflict with each other
  • The company: Gunns Ltd, the main player in the Tasmanian logging industry, meddler (if so benign a term can be used) in politics, and initiator of the Gunns 20 lawsuit
  • Groundswell: change agents such as whistle blowers, proponents of the “rights” of nature, and shareholders wanting ethical investments
  • The mill: Gunns pulp mill saga, the beginning of the an end?

The story is a complex one, delving into competing interests within the logging industry itself – sawlogs versus woodchips, old-growth versus regrowth native forests versus plantations, public versus private forests – not to mention dissension amongst environmentalists and some very dirty politics. It is a story about jobs versus the environment and the “rights” of nature, of different value systems that set “unmanned” pristine forests against “manned” ones. It is a story of blaming and buck passing. And it is a story of half-truths and distorted truths, all in the name of defending one’s own patch. “I am on a journey through selective truths”, she writes at one point in the book.

This issue of “truths” is beautifully conveyed in her discussion of the timber industry’s language:

I find myself constantly having to decipher new words. Nature needs “disturbance”, logging is “harvesting”, deforestation is “afforestation”, burning woodchips for electricity is a form of “bio-fuel” or “renewable energy”. Woodchips are “feedstock”, while the non-commercial attributes of a forest are “non-wood values”.

The word-games though work on both sides. As she says, “evoking napalm, Hiroshima and the holocaust to describe logging is manipulative”.

A major argument presented by the logging workers is the economic one – jobs – but Krien estimates from the information given her that forestry “accounts for no more than 3% of the workforce”. In fact, she suggests that machines may be a bigger threat to timber jobs than “any greenie”. The more cynical amongst us might think that it is not so much about “jobs” but about “big business”. Sometimes, of course, big business means jobs, but that’s not always necessarily so, not if much of the work can be automated (or, sometimes, though not necessarily here, moved off-shore).

I can’t begin to convey all the information she presents in this book – the history, the statistics, the science, the criss-crossing relationships, not to mention the people, the overt and covert deals, and the truly horrifying violence (both actual and threatened). There are times when I started to feel bogged down in the complexity of it all, but I was reassured when I realised she was feeling it too. She is, in fact, like Hooper, taking us on a journey – but it is a journey that, despite her very real efforts to explore the whole story, does lean to one side, that of those who wish to protect not destroy. As she says in the last chapter:

I’ve tried to balance my seesaw heart, carefully weighing up each argument. But there is something about this island that wants you to choose sides.

I can understand that – it is, in many ways, a magical place. However, I do have one complaint about the book – my ongoing one for books of this ilk – and that is its lack of an index. It is jam-packed with people, events, places, philosophies and theories but how can the casual reader or researcher find them?

And so, is there a resolution to it all? Well no, but there is, she says, a universal story:

… in the greater scheme of things, the island is nothing but a drop in the ocean. But the story is universal – and what goes on in Tasmania goes on in the Pacific islands, in other continents, until it all comes back over the ice to Tasmania again. … Deep down in our bones we must know – we must know that nothing we do is done in isolation. Cause and effect: how did it get so noisy in between?

How indeed? Read this thoughtful, throughly researched book, and you will, unfortunately, find out.

Anna Krien
Into the woods: The battle for Tasmania’s forests
Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010
ISBN: 9781863954877

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc)