Contemporary Histories today begins a much-anticipated initiative – the serialisation of Graeme Kinross-Smith’s recent work, ‘The Barking of Dogs: Considering the Social Effects of Global Warming’. Here is a small sample of what is to follow, in serialised form, on our site, over six subsequent weeks. With great thanks to Graeme, we look forward to coming weeks.
The Barking of Dogs
Hinting at the Social Effects of Global Warming
By Graeme Kinross-Smith
Initial author blurb and baloney…
No. Blurb perhaps, but I hope not baloney. In my mind the subject matter of ‘The Barking of Dogs’ is far too urgent and important to permit baloney. ‘Dogbark’, for short, is concerned with the effects we face already from global warming and will almost certainly face in more severe form as the decades advance, even if from this moment we employ much more stringent measures to at least limit the results of climate change…
I tell the story in an unusual way, perhaps – in modules that move about and cross over each other, as life events do, in time and place, in subject matter, in refrain and repetition, in personal revelation – to examine imaginatively, as just one of the many possible and relevant indices, the role and place of the omnipresent and consumer-item dogs we see around us every day, and how they are likely be treated and to act under the pressure of the possible breakdown in infrastructure and the loss of social control contingent on increases in the speed and severity of climate change.
Here follow just a few tastings, to whet appetites for a later full serialisation of ‘The Barking of Dogs’:
…Exchange of stories is how we get to know each other and share our mutual humanity for good and ill. So this is where I start.
Sometimes I come away from keyboard and screen and find myself making notes towards the next module I’ll work on. There before me are my spare words against the white of the paper – my handwriting is becoming more like the looping beauty of my father’s as I age.
A police wagon speeds up behind me and then passes as soon as it is able half an hour ago as I drive into Port Campbell. It disappears ahead of me over the rising bend near the old schoolhouse.
This is where I start. I am speaking to you. This is an essay. But you have probably never read an essay quite like it before. It is not academic. Even as I write it, it becomes pretty rapidly out of date. One difficulty is that I tend sometimes to find myself marching to quite a different drummer from those around me. So I might lead you astray. In addition, my skill is limited. There are also huge gaps in my knowledge. Like many writers I have had to become an expert at conjecture. You will discover, too, that I play games with time and space – because I am a poet, a novelist, and I write short fiction and take professional photographs. You might not even be able to trust my tone of voice.
As I write I hear the barking of dogs.
# # #
An animal behaviour expert is talking. With growth in urbanization and its dominance by market forces, he says, we have engendered for ourselves a loss of our control over dogs. This makes the dog owner’s conscious effort and concentration on training and care of the dog all the more essential. Many owners can’t be bothered. They haven’t the heart, the patience, the imagination to train their new young dog – preferably also taking their kids into their confidence along the way, so that they understand why firmness in training is necessary – to establish at the outset what they will expect of the dog, showing and rewarding what they want as good, using body language and voice and sanctions to show what they will not allow, until the dog understands, remembers and deduces its situation. Whatever happens, it will not be the fault of the dog. But supplying pups and younger dogs to this consumerist market is now an industry. In this industry, the expert points out, dogs are no longer conditioned to deal with all sorts of occurrences as they once were from puppy-dom in the village. They are often shut away from experiencing the necessary variety of human behaviour, shut from a variety of life’s noises, shut away from other animals, from children and the evidence of the importance adults attach to the welfare of children. – all things they should imbibe, with their owners, in their first three to eight weeks of life. Nowadays, however, owners don’t buy their dogs in the main until this period has passed, so unless the breeder offers this experiential variety before he/she sells the dog to a home, the dog is deficient in its reactions from the time it encounters the wider world – and its reactions may be dangerous to human and other animals. We have lost, the animal behaviour expert points out, the ‘village’ sanction we once had in our dealings with mean dogs. The old ‘village’ system – of culling surly and dangerous dogs by taking them behind a barn for a final efficient and humane reckoning – seldom occurs in modern cities where the overwhelming bulk of us live. So the surly dog lives on – at the least a nuisance, at the most a danger, to people and other animals around it.
But it can never be claimed to be the fault of the dog.
# # #
…I think I am someone who cherishes thought and dignified human expression and intercourse. Here I am again conjuring up what I have gained from the world’s good-willed creators and wondering if their work – their celebration of life and even the memory of themselves as creators – may soon be lost, if the focus of ordinary people world-wide shifts to stark survival, shifts to evading violence or the threat of drowning or of dying by fire or of being crushed by masonry, as many of us may have to do? Perhaps we will rediscover the role of singing in elevating our spirits, if only briefly, when the going gets desperate. Moments of revelation in my life’s course run before me again. I think of literary inheritance. I think of James Joyce. I think of how he inhabits Mollie Bloom’s meandering recollections as she lies warm in the bed. I think of Gertrude Stein and how she and Alice survived the Nazis. I think of Rachmaninov – the second and the third piano concerti. I hear Robert Bly reading his prose poems quietly, then playing his dulcimer. Much further back I listen in the 1950s to Professor Ian Maxwell intoning Milton in the tutorial room in the Old Arts Building room of Melbourne University, close to that tree – a globular marvel of crabapple blossom – in the walkway that still takes students towards the Union. I can smell the Professor’s pipe, hear the saliva softening his words in the dim room. And then later there are his unforgettable lectures on Rabbie Burns. That too is an experience that has in part made me what I am. Positives, celebrations, memories! Can I cling to them, retain them? What does time think now about those happenings, those places, those touchstones of self?
Can I trust myself? Sometimes I can scarcely believe it’s me speaking. Am I a narrator? Whose story is this? It’s my calling to tell stories. I’m aware that the surge of time taking this world forward is narrowing, is becoming more and more precious as the earth warms. But I am not absolutely sure, for a start, just what my tale is. I sense, though, that there are many people who might want to hear the story, even as the planet groans around them towards a possible endgame with the coming together of over-population, climate-change, and the frequent perfidy and social divisiveness – the historic violence and dogmatic intransigence – of institutional religion….
# # #
… I parse it to myself again. A wolf is a dog – in fact probably the progenitor of all dogs. Is a hyena a sort of dog? Is a jackal a dog? It has the requisite 42 teeth. Is a fox a dog? It is certainly of the canis genus. Much of the time it behaves like a dog. When and why does a dog’s behaviour get to the stage of being a nuisance? When does it tip over into being a danger? I have countless questions.
# # #
It is all that time ago, in the second decade. All that time ago, in 2016, I hear discussions of the importance of expanded Australian tourism as part of world tourism driven by the middle class in India and China. I hear restaurant and motel owners on Victoria’s west coast attesting to these groups as the foundation-stones now of their continuing existence. I see busload after busload of the visitor faces at their elevated windows, looking down as they pass this day on the ocean’s timeless blue passivity, looking down the next day on the ocean’s white-over-green strenuous force and ferocity. These tourists have come to Australia by plane, not desperately in asylum-seeker boats. Mention of overpopulation and climate change in the discussions? No – the dialogue is of money, the economy, jobs and growth, and the replacement of the billions generated by the mining boom as its earning swagger lessens. Is there general discussion of the ways population growth underlies everything that occurs and that in combination with other factors, religion high among them, is spelling growing social unrest as we watch humanity’s numbers and expectations grow rapidly for the whole of the twentieth century and up to the present? No. That is then in time’s continuous present. Where is now?
# # #
We are told, all those years ago in 2013, in that second decade, that the earth’s human population of 7 billion will probably double by the year 2030. That might prove to be an under-estimate. When will we reach 10 billion? Already the predecessors to these added billions are predominantly living in high density city environments and largely divorced from the natural world, as will be those newly born. With them, in their cities, towns and villages, it is estimated, live well over 500 million dogs, mainly ‘domesticated’ but also many unowned, stray, or ‘wild’. Dog numbers may soon be impossible to determine accurately because of the climatic emergency and the consequent break-down in control of breeding and care and registration and recording of canines. Dogs need to be fed and watered if they are to remain reasonably ‘domesticated’ – so that they are not forced to revert to their genetic nature as carnivorous hunters seeking flesh and blood – or their substitutes – every day. Where is then? Where is now?
Is poetry and its cool water the only way to ponder it all? As Kenneth Slessor had it: ‘Poetry says what otherwise must remain unsaid.’