Contemporary Histories is pleased to present the serialisation of Graeme Kinross-Smith’s recent work, ‘The Barking of Dogs: Considering the Social Effects of Global Warming’. This piece will be serialised over the next 6 weeks.
THE BARKING OF DOGS
Hinting at the Social Effects of Global Warming – Part 1
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 Chalice. 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 Even as I write it, it becomes pretty rapidly out of date. If you are a member of the Federal electorate, I must warn you, there seems to be a considerable statistical likelihood that you won’t like what it has to say. Nevertheless, this is where I start. Perhaps the 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.
I often write to you and others in the semi-dark of a deconsecrated, weatherboard church in a dairy valley not far from the Twelve Apostles on the Victorian west coast. I’m addressing you in the first person. That letter ‘I’ of the self is very powerful. It carries conviction. But I’m not possessed of the full truth. The ‘I’ of the first person is most times me, but sometimes not. At other times it becomes a projection of me. Sometimes I’m tempted to change place names. Port Chalice, for example, is the name I have already chosen in place of the real name in the novel I write early in this 21st century. But here I can declare it – Port Campbell.
You’ll notice also that I write to you in the present tense – I write in the continuous present…
Where I am now I can see the cliff and the dry creek-bed running under it. No water from the creek has reached the bay in seven months. But this dry summer is very early on. This is still 2013. Farmers in the valley near me have been shooting their new calves because although they have the hay, they cannot get water to them in these heatwaves and drought.
The cliff, the dry tongue of the creek reaching the shore, the tourist figures I can see further up the rise treading through the scrub towards Midden Bay, the pale, torn edges of the caves that the waves pry into one after one – it’s all unreal. It seems to belong to another time.
I think quite a lot about time and place. Again, in my mind’s thinking, I hear far off the barking of dogs.
Dogs die. People die. The crows gather this morning for a far, caa-ing conference down my valley where I write when I am not in the city. They set me thinking of my dairy farmer neighbour who one day baits carefully for foxes with strychnine, siting the baits well out into the paddock, safe from the explorations of visiting recreational or tourist dogs. Lift a flap of soil with the spade, leave the bait buried, but not too deep, so the fox can smell it. But this time the crows pick up a couple of baits and drop them within reach of his two best working dogs in the yard – he comes home to find them both dead on their chains.
Same property, another time, after a fox shoot by local farmers, two fox carcases are left hanging on the fence. Next morning they are skeletons, gnawed to the bone by surviving foxes. Foxes are dogs. Wolves are dogs. Hyenas are dogs, aren’t they? They are of the Canis genus.
Then I remember in my teenage past the stultifying news about a Teacher’s College friend of my mother, who in later years breeds dogs – German Shepherds, I think – on her lonely farm in the sandstone gullies of Galston Gorge. She has not appeared at the Post Office for a couple of days, and a neighbour notices a white form on the ground not far from the house as he passes. He goes in to investigate. He finds my mother’s friend lying two-thirds eaten by her own dogs in their broad yard. The Coroner’s Report is full of questions. Has one dog turned on her and drawn blood? Has she stumbled and fallen and become prey in the eyes of a couple of dogs and have they then set on her? Have the other dogs come to join in as they get hungrier and are drawn more strongly to the smell of blood?
I’ll never finish what I have to say about place and time. I’ll always be searching for the way to say it. I’ll never know what further there is to say. I’m writing about what I don’t understand but about what is infinitely precious to me – even though some of it is intriguing mystery. I am always writing to say what it is like, to discover something, to try to make sense of happenings that tell me that I am a human being on this planet.
We are sitting in the old church not far from the ocean at Port Campbell in the unforgiving heat. It is where I write thousands of words in the quiet. We can all see our Fire Plan where it lies on the table between us. It’s a smiting day of 49 C, a torrent of north wind reaching gusts of nearly 140 km per hour that punches holes in the small trees, wrenches branches from trunks and hurls them, flattens the creek paddock of dry, blond grass. I think it’s the third decade. The weather is insupportable, seems improbable. Now add sudden fire and smoke funnelling up the valley.
Remember those days in the second decade when there was debate after the fires as to where people should build, whether they should rebuild? That preoccupation seems irrelevant now. We can afford no such expectations now…
I remember a shrub, spangled down its side with jewels of rain that flash in the afternoon sun. That is in a garden. I still remember gardens…
My first uncertain whiff of the world’s approaching dilemma comes when I am a student of Economic Geography at Melbourne University in the mid-1950s, poring over the year-by-year reports from the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East. As I read I begin thinking – with uncertainty and acutely doubtful of my young intuitions, aware of my lack of knowledge and expertise as a mere student – that the exploitation and urging towards ‘progress’ and ‘prosperity’ and ‘economic growth’ and ‘development’ reflected there in combination with high population growth and lack of education cannot continue on its path without grave consequences for the environment and the world’s people and resources.
I have no idea, then, that the world’s human excesses will express themselves through a warming planet and eventually govern our lives.
Remember how the Nazis loved their dogs. They gave them ‘protection training’. They used them ceremonially. They used them nefariously – to threaten, capture, disable, disfigure, even kill – unsqueamishly. They represented power. When 9/11 occurred I surmised that it would turn many things on their head – and it has. The advent of the suicide bomber changes the rules for human interaction. Such terrorism has turned some reaches of civic morality upside down, so that what was unacceptable is now deemed acceptable. In these euphemistic days of ‘rendition’ it has given permission again for the use of dogs among other things to exercise power. As I write it is almost certain that somewhere a dog is being used to threaten, attack, ridicule, bring down, demean, savage, sodomise, disable, or kill a human being.
Damaging winds, the radio voices say to us those years ago – is it at the end of the second decade or early in the third decade? The throb of the bikes comes to us in waves from the highway. Even the bikies find it hard to get the fuel to keep moving about on traffic-empty roads. In the near streets the trees are down, grey branches like huge wrists clenching.
No-one needs to tell us these days that there are physical effects of the warming of the planet. It is the third decade now. No-one need stress that following on the physical changes to the environment around us, there are social effects that dictate our actions and our lives. How do we live, survive, stay alive? How much time have we to change our mind-set?
Damaging winds, say the radio voices then. Great temperature differential, bringing violent change and devastating wind, say the voices. In the first decade we are used to hearing the Extreme fire danger ratings coming through on the media voices. Now we are used to hearing ‘Catastrophic fire danger…catastrophic…’ Protracted heatwaves, raging winds and squalls, and too many fires to handle, say the voices in our heads. Destructive winds, no longer merely damaging, the radio voices say now. We don’t know what to think. We cannot imagine change will move so swiftly in the second decade. It is the third decade.
I am in the city. I can hear time. It’s time coming with the banshee of wind in the wires, with the barking of dogs.
There’s no dress rehearsal. We must do what matters to us while it gets later and later. Now the barking of dogs comes again, some falsetto, some deep bass. They are streets over across the suburb, but we’ve learned to listen and assess distance. That might save our lives.
But when is this? When is now?
When the power first starts going down during heatwaves in the second decade the servers in the supermarkets are urgently shoving cardboard boxes into the freezers as packing above the food to try to save losses…Later, after the looting, after the steadily mounting deaths to dogs, after the end of air-conditioning, after the streets become cemeteries for cars turned in on each other like insects seeking company, it’s far too late…and the little sun-seeking radio staggers on intermittently and then is gone, although the battery might still eke something out if it’s there…everyone is slumped along the wall, hands grabbing their knees…
Time quakes like a planetary yawn and I am born in what is called the past. I am born into this, my city, Melbourne. And what I plunge into from that moment is not a dress rehearsal for something else.
I am born in Epworth Hospital, Richmond, and come home to a leafy, bird-singing street in Hawthorn, Melbourne, called Kooyongcoot Road. It’s 1936, just a month after Hitler and his henchmen have orchestrated the Berlin Olympics in order to persuade the world to think well of them and National Socialism. To think of it is to set two places against a time. I know I will never finish all I have to say about place and time.
Some of my father’s New South Wales friends have been to the Berlin Olympics and come home impressed with Nazi organization and tidiness and efficiency and are prepared to discount rumours of hidden darknesses in the Germanic soul. My father does not know what to believe. He is never to travel out of Australia and all his life nurtures a xenophobic, almost fearful, suspicion of foreigners, foreign languages and foreign climes.
I am born in another time – a time of huge suffering and trauma for humankind.
I can only speak personally.
I love my fellow humans, what they do, how they move – their smiles, their frowns, their playing with their children on the grass, their tears, their delights, their gestures of welcome, their insights, their stumbling creations and expressions of celebration, their pretence and denial and vulnerability, their turns of phrase, the hidden hurtings they carry around with them, their forgiveness, the winds of emotion blowing briefly across their faces and then gone. As a writer I am a people-watcher. I watch people’s clumsiness, their forgetfulness, the flashes of need that they hide day to day, because they are my own too. I love their wondering tourism in my city and on my coast. I love their unique and secret tattoos. I love girls’ legs and my partner’s shyness, her soft body, her steadying eyes. I love people’s joyous hysteria. I even love people’s comical self-centredness. And laughter, pealing, generous laughter. Without these things there is no art.
I try not to hate, but I despair of people’s greed, their unwitting narcissism and self-serving, their insensitivity, lack of empathy and imagination, their violence and rejoicing in cruelty, their prejudice, their arrogance and dogmatism, their calling on God, their unreasonable expectations, their arrogance and their yearning for privilege and power over their fellows. I can even despair of that aforementioned self-centeredness. But without all that I am bereft as a writer and photographer. I need good and evil. I’m in no doubt about the presence of evil infiltrating the good. My primary resource is humankind – good and bad.
I hold learning to be very important. I hope to go on discovering and changing. I trust that learning what is involved in being human is central to existence – the examined life. If it is not, then I have largely wasted my time on this planet.
Refrigerator doors gape open in dim rooms. The power has been down for five days now. This is my city. There is the stench of rubbish. There are packs of dogs in the streets…
He’s the only one near the truck when the wind turns like a wild genie and the fire lashes its tongue down again over the road as though to reassert its right to it. He can feel the heat taking his breath. The wattle heads, the mops of eucalypt leaves, are flaring on the ends of the high branches, puffing into intense flame one after the other, coming towards him – like roman candles suddenly discovering themselves. His breath is sucked away. It’s the heat rather than the smoke this time. He scrambles to the truck’s high front door, opens it, closes the window, grabs one of the blankets, slams the front door shut, climbs into the crewcab back seat, grabs the door shut behind him and flattens himself face down across the footwell , dragging the blanket over his midriff and shoulders and head as much as he can. Still some air. He’s breathing. He tries for a place for his knees, and hears now the fire is upon him, the roar, the dump of a big branch, the roar, the roar… Then he hears close to his ear a bubbling, astounding, like a jug almost ready for a cup of coffee. Weird! It teases his brain. He can feel the truck’s floor coming hot under his gloves and legs, heat starting to peel his face, the last air becoming unreachable. The bubbling? Weird! Ah, then he realises – it’s the fuel tank boiling! This is the dizzy limit…!
These days I see quite a bit of the rural working dog who cannot afford to be complacent and who can do things with its mobility that human beings can never do and takes pride in its work that saves its owner tens of thousands of dollars a year. It may fetch $3000 if well-trained and experienced. I also see the often neurotic urban dog, who can afford to be complacent and often is, but who doesn’t realize what a blinkered dog’s life it is leading, who doesn’t know the exhilarating air of the tray of a farm truck that sets the same two dogs yipping with their own importance and their joy in life as they pass down the valley outside my writing lair in the sharp mornings. My mind also carries images of dear dogs that have been of great human use – those dogs trained and ticked off to sniff out explosives, who sometimes give their lives; those dogs ditto, represented by Lassie, who I see in a film as a kid and who carries messages from unit to unit in the snowy crags of the Aleutian Islands as the Americans battle the Japanese in the Pacific; the drug-discovering dogs; companion dogs who shadow the steps of lonely old people and become their life-centre; the customs and fruit-detection dogs who scramble industriously and with a cheerful smile over baggage at airports; the dogs who can detect diabetes in their owners and warn them to take care; and the guide dogs of my few blind students over the years, who slump under the table with an occasional yearning gaze upwards, as the stridency of student voices changes in the tutorial.
….to be continued…to be continued…to be continued…