I love Australia. OK, so I don’t love everything about the place. Notably, I don’t love its political landscape and some of its harsher worldviews and policies. But then again, that could be said for a lot of places these days. In my book, they also have one of the worst national anthems. It’s hard to imagine the heart beating faster singing Advance Australia Fair, but each to their own — and it seems to work for the locals if the expressions on the faces of their sports teams while it’s performed are anything to go by. As anthem’s go, it’s hard to beat the line, “Our home is girt by sea”. But then I guess that was the sort of drivel churned out back in the day when such things were written. At least it only runs to one verse unlike many others including my own homeland’s “God Save” with its six verses of out-dated empirical triumphalism.
Anyway, back to ‘Stralia. It has an energy and feel all of its own. If you haven’t been there yet, add it to your bucket list. What? Australia’s borders are closed? When they re-open you’ll need to mortgage your house to fly anywhere? You might get flight-shamed anyway, so what’s the point? OK, so you may not be able to go there any time soon but you can always binge watch David Attenborough’s back catalogue which is full of advanced Australia flora and fauna. No reason why bucket list activities can’t go online like everything else these days.
I reckon I must have been a ‘twitcher’ in a previous life because I get so much joy from watching birds. One highlight of my various Outback Oddysey’s was staying in a remote camp about 500kms east of Darwin that boasted a resident pair of kookaburra’s. I’d never seen one before. This ‘laughing’ kingfisher has become a household name, not only through Girl Guide campfire round — Kukarburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree — but also as the stock sound effect used to represent the Australian bush, especially in older movies. Unlike many kingfishers, they’re not closely associated with water and rarely eat fish, although they have been known to snack on stolen goldfish from garden ponds. Treats like mice, snakes, insects, small reptiles, even the chicks of other birds are more to their carnivorous liking.
The last time I was in Oz was at the beginning of this year in late January when I went sailing with some friends in Pittwater, a tidal estuary just north of Sydney. When I arrived in Sydney at the start of the trip, the impact of the bushfires that had been blazing through the summer was everywhere. In the ash coating many cars, the smell in the air and the haze hanging over the city. Even out on the water the acrid tang of smoke was palpable in places, and we sailed past a new fire ignited by a dramatic overnight electric storm. It felt voyeuristic to be so close to the beginning of another fire outbreak… and yet, we couldn’t tear our eyes away.
One day, our intrepid crew of seven moored at a spectacular and remote waterside restaurant for lunch. Among our fellow diners were three pairs of kookaburras — the restaurant staff had been feeding them. It was a heart-warming sight at a time when the full implications of the ecological and wildlife disaster that had been unfolding were becoming apparent. We were charmed and privileged by their company. At about the same time a haunting photo of a kukaburra overlooking a fire-devasted wasteland featured prominently in the media and burnt itself on our retinas. It was a stark reminder of how fast the sands of time are running out.
The bush fires were declared contained in mid-February and over in early March. More than one-fifth of the country’s eucalypt forests were burned at un-calculable cost to the ecosystems they support. I was heartened to read recently that the burnt trees are beginning to show signs of recovery with small leafy branches sprouting from the blackened trunks. Apparently eucalypts sprout tufts of “emergency foliage” after wildfire while their leaves re-grow. This provides a boost of photosynthesis until their canopy leaves grow back. They need this break in order to fully recover. But, as fires become more frequent, it’s thought even fire-adapted tree species won’t get the break they need. The merry merry king of the bush must be struggling to find something to laugh about in these times.
The irony of that holiday was that it happened as the threat of coronavirus was casting its shadow around the world. At that point, the global nature of the virus was still only conjecture — we’d seen the impact on Wuhan and it was beginning to hit Europe — it wasn’t certain we would be affected. Looking back, that time BC seems like some strange parallel universe. We all knew there were ‘issues’, but many of us started the year with the optimism born of all the increased activism in 2019.
It felt like 2020 was going to be THE year when things finally changed. Australia burning, awful though it was, highlighted a lot of inconvenient and unavoidable truths. Who could have been un-moved by the harrowing, post-apocalyptic scenes of people being evacuated from fire encircled beaches and the dreadful toll on the animal population and the ecosystem.
On the last day of the trip, we had a leisurely lunch before we all went our separate ways. More out a sense of curiosity than anything else, we started googling what the powers of the Directors General of Health in NZ and Aus were in the event coronavirus decided to pay the Southern Hemisphere a visit. Draconian was the answer, as we were about to find out when both countries went into lockdown a few weeks later.
In five short months, so much has changed. But through it all, a common thread has been our human capacity to be resilient, create, innovate and adapt to even the most challenging of circumstances. The sheer scale and quality of creativity we saw during lockdown was a testament to this. Tying the two threads of this story together, I was delighted recently by the coverage of a 15-foot-tall sculpture of a kookaburra created by Farvardin Daliri (see header image).
I’m sure you saw the video of it being towed round ‘hood’ in Brisbane, cackling away thanks to an embedded sounds system. The video went viral, and was picked up by newsrooms around the world. It seems, Daliri had started the project during the Christmas break, but was stymied by the scale. Lockdown gave him time and the motivation to complete it as a way of cheering people up.
The kookaburra installation was intended for an arts festival, the Townsville Cultural Fest. It’s one of a series of grand scale art. Other works include a 15-foot-tall koala, a 200-foot-long carpet snake and a 33-foot-long crocodile. “When something is big, it imposes itself on you. It becomes undeniable,” Daliri has said about his creations.
I guess, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Australian bush fires last summer or the coronavirus. They have truly imposed themselves on us and it must be becoming undeniable to even the most recidivist deniers that a lot of things in our world are broken. If we could use the creativity and innovative thinking we pulled out of our collective hats and apply this to the problems, how hard could it be?