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 a 6 week period.
The Barking of Dogs
Hinting at the Social Effects of Global Warming – Part #2
By Graeme Kinross-Smith
All dogs are generically hunters to one degree or another. Their natural food is the flesh of other animals and birds – even fish. They are not natural vegans. Can dogs be trained to be vegans?
When dogs hunt they generally hunt to gain flesh. Not all dogs have the opportunity to hunt. But all dogs have in them instinctive skills in hunting, whether they often have the chance to employ them or not, whether at this moment they are highly developed or not.
Some dogs are more efficient hunters than others. Breeding and training and practice make for perfection of technique.
Some dogs are more selective hunters than others. Some dogs are specialist hunters because of their bodies’ build, or can be trained to become specialized hunters because of it. Dogs can be trained to deny themselves the flesh they have sought in their hunting.
Some dogs are hungry and therefore are unmediated hunters and killers.
Some dogs are not hungry and are content and maybe lazy – for the time being at least, and possibly for the whole of their lives. It’s a dog’s life.
Whatever the case, it is never the fault of the dog.
Now I am in the city. I can hear time. Time comes with the banshee of wind in the wires, with the barking of dogs. It’s three years after what people call ‘the first run’. When does India swelter in its first succession of days over 50 C? What are the social effects of such enervation and stress on infrastructure? When does my city, Melbourne, have its first experience of such heatwaves? Remember those early years of the third decade?
I have seen a lot. I sometimes seem to know what will happen next. I know there’s no dress rehearsal. We must do what matters to us before it inexorably becomes too late. The dogs bark, some falsetto, some deep bass. They are streets over across the suburb, but we’ve learned to listen and assess distance. That can save our lives.
The vet is an expert in animal behaviour. All dogs have the potential to pose a danger, he says. But not all dogs prove to be dangerous. Dogs, he says, have two generic ‘fuses’ that prompt them to hostile action. The less threatening to humans and other animals is the fuse of the territorial imperative – the dog, in policing its learned and familiar landscape, may attack a stranger entering its territory if it is startled by the intruder, even if the intruder has already made voice contact with the dog’s owner, sometimes an insurance against attack. The other and more dire is the predatory fuse. It is triggered when something annoys the dog and carries its reactions beyond the territorial, or when something – a bird, another animal, a small gauche child – behaves in a way that reminds the dog of prey. Then the dog attacks it to kill it as prey, just as it did when it was a wolf thousands of years back in its conditioning, as in some dog attacks on young children. And that is when, as many farmers will tell you, other dogs become aware of the prey and the sounds of prey and come in for the kill also, even sharing with their enemies. It is a primal scene. The predatory fuse can work hand in glove with dogs that are hungry and thirsty…
Sometimes I find myself wondering what we stand to lose when the sheer effort to survive global warming and its physical effects begins to bite us, eat into our waking hours, chew into our preoccupations and spit out precious pieces of our cultural and artistic underpinnings. Scenes and faces play before me – Socrates’ taking of the hemlock, Swift’s writing of Gulliver’s Travels by daylight, by candle-light, Breughel stumping through the Dutch snow, Confucious, Tolstoy at his dacha, Emerson among the New England leaves, Patrick White in his boots stalking along the fences at ‘Belltrees’, the hills looking down on him and the huge shearing shed, as he nudges the deep wicker fleece-basket and wonders where his future lies… These things, these thoughts, these human beings who enquire and think and create, these minds, these words – I clutch them to me, so as not to lose them. They are perhaps not nearly so precious to most people who are of other callings. But I hear time coming for them. By the fourth decade do we find these statements that explain us to ourselves in good and evil swept into incomprehension? I hear time’s wailing in the wind and in the barking of dogs. I hear the words drowned out in the thundering of the need for physical survival. It is close. There is no dress rehearsal. We live the Anthropocene. It is the planet saying enough.
He’s a big man. But once the tan dog, snarling, launches into his neck and chest like a savage bolt, he falls and he can’t get up, we see, before they are on him again – particularly the tan hound. The man’s food bag – it looks to be empty – lies in the gutter five metres from him. Some of the others among the eight or so dogs, even some of the big ones, are followers and stay on the outskirts of the attack, but the tan hound romps upon him, snarling, biting, then jumps away ten metres, celebrating, then turns, propels itself at him again, tearing at him, burrowing teeth into his upper arms, his chest, his neck. Smaller dogs jump in too. It’s a deadly game of prey. When the time comes the dog knows how it will end, but the end is not yet.
Don has the gun but doesn’t risk firing. The movement across the road is too fast, the targets hard to follow, as he knows from past experience. And there’s the risk of ricochet with the target so low to the pavement and other faces at windows opposite. We’ve seen it all before. All we can do is lock ourselves inside the iron grille and watch, helpless. He should not have gone alone, should not have gone without carrying at least a machete…
I often rewrite in coffee shops. Even as I scribble on the draft against the humming of voices and the clash of cutlery and cups I think I hear a guitar stating something slowly, while through a trailing fretwork of leaves that a high wind is trying to flatten to earth there is the first splutter of a chainsaw, then a pause and then its high snarling as it goes to work… but it’s all imagined, all an intuitive fiction set against time…I’ve seen a lot.
Yes, I tell lies to test my awareness of possible truths.
I can tell you that I have no children or grandchildren to inherit dystopian, fan-forced oven landscapes – thank heavens. But you cannot trust me.
I suppose even now, somewhere, there are children growing weaker and eating the last grass in the hollow where the sun can’t get. There’s some moisture in it still. It’s something to fill the stomach. I think it’s the third decade or the fourth. It’s a long time after the looting framed in glass, strenuous bodies choreographed in the inner darkness, then the yellow stabbing along the walls, a wild roving. Someone’s got a torch. Then the light is gone.
There is cynical looting for profit, for greed, for possession, but we’re beyond that. There is the looting of food and equipment from fellow citizens, the unknown faces in one’s own kitchen, their violent entry complete, their violent departure life-threatening. It is called a breakdown of social control. And then there is desperate human looting for anything – food and liquid, body covering – for stark survival, to keep a child alive for just one more day.
Having a big dog – perhaps a ‘protection-trained’ threatening dog – is part of what it is to be a man, say the Los Angeles men in their various ways, standing beside their dogs, as they talk to Paul Theroux in his 2014 TV documentary. This is the First World, where people can afford the expense and trouble of keeping a show-case dog, often a big-standing dog. Dog and man: man and dog. Woman? Woman and dog: dog and woman. Identity? Self-esteem? Is there a price already for others to pay for this felt need? Let us quantify the increasing incidences of dog attacks and dog-bites treated by hospital emergency departments, many times involving the savaged cheeks of children…
What is intuition? I suppose I’ve seen a lot since my father takes me as a boy into Melbourne, the city that always seems to purr in the continuous present beyond our hill in Camberwell – and I see American sailors in white hats threading the wartime crowds on Prince’s Bridge. It is the time of the Brisbane Line. What I see, what I remember, helps me to sense what will happen next.
Now I am thinking of fire. There has always been fire. Why do I find myself thinking of a return to the axe, the knife, the woodheap, rows of vegetables in rock-hard ground, the waterbutt, the small killing houses in paddock corners, the trowel, the fruit-tree, the campfire pot and its lid, the candle-stick and the waiting white bolts of candles, the billy, the spade, the pick, the long-handled shovel, the brace and bit, the chisel, the hatchet, the hurricane lamp, the hessian divider in the dimness of the dugout? There has always been fire.
Can I be trusted? Can I trust myself to be thinking clearly, when the world goes on with its often necessarily shallow preoccupations around me – the quotidian, the domestic, the celebrity in words and pictures, the sporting, the food and indulgence? I have to pinch myself to keep imagining…
Now it is this place. Where the shadows of the trees fall so far across the creek paddock in the afternoon. Where the moon rises like a golden sovereign. It is where the white sheets of my writing lie on the table, where the journals I have written now for more than fifty years sometimes see the light as I add to them, are sometimes hidden away in the dark. On this side of time it’s as though some things never happened. But on the other side I can still hear the sounds of our 25-pounder howitzers firing in the 1950s early mornings, as we send the shells away into the dry hills north of Seymour, or of a woman crying, or of a statuesque tree surrendering its own huge, implacable weight into the fragile fine bones of the scrub. I can smell the precious cigarette smoke of the others as we all lie resting in our fatigues in the dry, grassless depression in the artillery firing range miles north up the Hume Highway from Puckapunyal. Or I can taste the fish and the simple vegetables that still carry the smoke of our campfire as we eat. We are camped at the Parker River gate at Cape Otway. Later, as the moon rises, I can stoop into the tent to touch the silk of the foreheads of my sleeping children. Or I pad down the Parker River track in the moonlight to wait for the owls to glide silently across darkness above me. That’s how time is. Time washes over place. My shadow cast before me on the track by moon’s light. Place offers up its face to time, like someone offering their lips, their eyes to a kiss. But sometimes, I know, time’s response is brutal. Some of my stories are about that.
On the other hand, place, given the world’s light, can reach out its long, sensitive fingers, I know: place can grasp time and bend it beautifully into meanings that have never been declared before. The realisation that that is occurring stabs the heart with dread and joy and is often the necessary drama of fiction and poetry and the stage and opera and film. Christina Stead knew that. So did Delius. So did David Campbell. So does David Malouf. So did Marguerite Duras and Judith Wright. So does Peter Carey. So did Proust and Chekhov and Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Emerson and Herbert and Donne and Wordsworth and Aaron Copland and Lao Tzu and Thomas Hardy and Brett Whiteley. So do Bill Henson and Peter Sculthorpe. So do Margaret Atwood and Alexi Wright and Les Murray and Robert Bly. What about Marc Chagall? – ‘a poet with the ways of a painter’, says Henry Miller. What about Diana Krall, a storyteller whose tales come to us in piano notes and voice? They all are enquirers, possessing that continuous curiosity to which Ezra Pound pointed as the abiding quality in writers and other artists. They offer us the human record. Albert Camus says it for all of us: ‘Every great work makes the human face more admirable and richer – and that is the whole secret’. It is not the political face, the economic face, the religious face that he is pointing to – it is the broad and neighbourly and fallible and questing human face. In another work he qualifies his first statement: ‘Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future.’
The future? A future? Where is the future?
I’ll never finish all I need to say about the earth’s spaces and the time in which humans live and move, or about place that sits in time…
There are 51 direct or oblique references to Global Warming or Climate Change in the Bible. There are references to fire. They all occur in the New Testament. The Pope and the Evil Empire in its nation state have intellectual property rights over them. Nevertheless, they may be of use to us when the time comes. No divine intervention thus far – but maybe He/She is waiting for us to experience the earth’s coming stress so that we know what is at stake and so the stock-in-trade exertion to instil guilt in us can begin?
Behind it all I hear someone say there has always been fire.
Ah, the new fires. First we hear Perth, then Adelaide, then Melbourne’s west. We hear whispers of Sydney and the Illawarra. The heatwave licks its lips, prods two suburbs with one fiery finger propelled by driving wind, then with another and another. There has always been fire. When we’re in the paddock or on the headland, the little yellow radio sucks in the sun’s light for its battery to tell us about it. The South Bank radio generators must still be going, pumping words out – but only an hour a day. We may be gone soon, they say. But in the meantime hope for sunlight! Hope for sun?? A bitter joke. Hope the battery ekes on a bit further. The sun sucks us dry, cauterises our mouths, dries our eye sockets.
By the time I write my novel Long Afternoon of the World early this century I have been concerned for years at overpopulation and industrial development and the inroads, already sometimes shown to be irreversible, that they make on the natural world. Species cease to exist. When I write that story, though, I can still persuade myself that my predictions of a horrendous future for the earth’s living creatures may be erroneous or exaggerated and that the afternoon of the world’s time and our time might possibly continue – with some bearable modification of the way we have experienced it, lived it and understood it. Perhaps the world’s afternoon, I think then, will persist in the way that Delius’ slumbrous, solemn and thoughtful afternoon chords and rhythms and refrains arising out of landscapes suggest it to us?
I can no longer persuade myself of that future.
It seems that the continuing warming of the planet and its effects are already omni-present, many apparently irreversible and possibly accelerating in their growth – climbing wind speeds; the increasing rapidity with which one weather system succeeds another; wind destruction; thunderstorms; dry and wet lightning; rampant fire that enlists high wind and rapid and violent wind change to assert itself outside the control of the emergency services; extremes of cold; more frequent drought years that have farmers shooting their dying stock in arid paddocks; deluges that pour down a year’s rainfall in a few brief days; heatwaves that batten on the bush and beckon to fire or which over the days warp the psychology of city dwellers towards desperation and ruthless self-concern; rapidly proceeding ice-melt; inundation along river systems and coasts; rising tide levels; flooding and sinking in cities; cyclones; multiplying of tornadoes and hurricanes with their power to twist vegetation out of the ground, to spin objects of great weight into the heavens, fires that create their own powerful updraught tantamount to a mini-weather-system…
Each element affects each other element. Item: irresistible wind speeds ensure the carrying of ember attack in fires, so that warnings come too late of fires that have jumped kilometres of country, often negating the value of control burns, and placing impossible demands on firefighter mobility.
Here sits Melbourne along its river. You know those slopes – before European settlement a gumtree and wattle forest descending from where the Houses of Parliament now stand – that run down to the banks of the Yarra. They are the country and the dreaming for 40,000 years and more of the Wurudjeri clan of the Kulin Nation. I walk on the hill around the Wurudjeri ceremonial tree now swallowed by banks of cars and scurrying football fans and the storms of sound coming from the AFL crowds in the tiered MCG stands. I ride my bike past the indigenous voices that bring me across the bridge to Birrarung Marr. It is first the traditional owners’ country and river and dreaming down the centuries – and then becomes also my city and my much more limited but ineradicable lifetime dreaming and memory.
But do you remember Melbourne, my city, the southern Australian capital, in that year 2013 – all those years ago – when it sits in a continent that has probably never suffered such heat in all the 40,000 years that have seen the Wurudjeri gather for ceremony, for meetings and corroboree along the river. Every corner of Australia has seen its hottest twelve month period from October 2012 to August 2013. But the months, the years cannot wait. The months from October 2012 until September 2013, you will recall, immediately break that record for warmth. This becomes part of a remarkable sequence of warmer-than-average months for Australia from June 2012. By end of year in 2013 it sits beside the setting of another peak – the hottest calendar year ever recorded for the continent. It is as if the national measurements sit waiting for their next move as they surround Melbourne and Victoria – Australia’s warmest month, warmest September, warmest summer, warmest 12-month period, longest period of high-temperature days over 30C, warmest July. As we move in and out of our dreams we think of Melbourne in its 47C heat on Black Saturday 2009, when the state is ablaze and lives are snuffed out not far from the city by the flames that the winds rush down on us. We think again when in 2014, with the year barely begun, Melbourne experiences the hottest 30-day period in its existence. Place-names that back in time’s monitoring have spelt fire, destruction, desperation and death begin to re-emerge – Powelltown, Kilmore, Warrandyte, Orbost, Omeo – and new ones emerge suffering fire in the smoke – Rokeby, Deddick, Morwell, Dadswell’s Bridge, Hall’s Gap, Dereel, Mount Mercer, Riddell’s Creek, Gisborne, Beveridge, Kilmore, Kal Kallo…
We don’t know what is meant by all of this. It is the second decade. Professor Tim Flannery and others publicise these climatic observations, these mounting weather statistics, these instances of fire. Prime Minister Abbott, and Minister Hunt and many others among their successors, cast Professor Flannery and his colleagues as being alarmist. You will remember that global warming is kept to a secondary place in the concerns of the major players in the 2016 Federal election, preceded by such things as jobs and trade and economic growth, health care, education, an ageing population and its needs. The subtle and intricate connections of all these elements with the underlying effects of global warming are not given expression in the election hubbub, even though ‘adaptation’ is already taking place behind the scenes at local levels. Queensland still awaits the funding to restore infrastructure – roads, bridges, buildings etc – destroyed in its last ‘disaster season’, while holding its breath as it awaits its next ‘disaster season’…
Again, in the distance, I hear the barking of dogs.