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 #4
By Graeme Kinross-Smith
Five days over 50 C. We hear of fire and the Adelaide Hills. We hear of fire marching in the Bunyip Syphons, while Melbourne holds its breath to the west. We hear fire and Powelltown, now, to the north, and I see the flimsy fall of the hessian curtain giving into the dark of the dugout all those decades ago and the snatch of the others’ dim white faces, waiting through the roar for the fire to pass. It is 1939, in time’s continuous present, when the state is ablaze, when the apparent refuges of road culverts become fan-forced death-traps for farmers and fire-fighters – and now again. The years of fire state themselves in the drying spittle of time – 1939, 1967, 1976, 1987, 2009, 2014, 2017, 2021. The Wurudjeri will tell you. There has always been fire. But not as we know it now in its ferocity…
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 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 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.’
Confession time! I have been misleading you. There are in fact only 47 Biblical references to Global Warming in the New Testament. Whatever the case, the crucial thing to keep in mind is that physical effects are followed by social effects as night follows day and social effects will reflect our stumbling humanity and test it.
The Biblical references to same-sex marriage are put at only twelve. Chiming with this, there is strong evidence that Mary and Joseph kept the intimate details of Greek society from Jesus for as long as they could.
Are these figures trustworthy? Am I trustworthy?
Of course my constant mentioning and re-mentioning of dogs is just a story-telling ploy to gain attention and provoke thought. It is, isn’t it? Anyway, it’s someone’s Jack Russell terrier I see – but two larger dogs, both black, have got hold of it and are pulling it apart, limb from limb, on the bare-earth nature strip…
I have been uttering further untruths, as you will have discovered. I do have children, now in their forties and fifties. I do have grandchildren. I fear for them, as I drink in their enquiring and expectant eyes and feel the lively current of their life-force and energy and hope – just as I fear for other people’s eager, curious children. In teaching it’s always the eyes that are so compelling and informative. Irresistible, questioning, rejoicing, fun-loving, eager eyes. – although here and there these days replaced by somewhat complacent and uncomprehending screen eyes…
The planet speaks to me. The yellow arc of the moon is setting low in the sky beyond motionless branches. I stand in the still night. It is 3 am. I hear the sobbing of each wave five kilometres away in the darkness at Loch Ard Gorge, where I will dive when the swell settles.
If I stand off from myself and try to capture what I’m thinking and how I feel in time’s circle in the years 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, all on time’s inexorable path, I feel a sense of imminent threat, run through by an energy that confounds me – an energy that comes from the quest to use time urgently. Because even now, week by week, month by month, season by season, year by year, as it must, the planet’s beauty, against all the grim evidence of its decline, still reaches out to me in the great good fortune I enjoy in time and space. I find I am constantly reminding myself of my good fortune in my time of birth, my luck in time and place.
Will the expected, if lamented, inequitable mix of fortune and ill-fortune that bears on human activity on earth, and always has for thousands of years, stumble forward for much longer in the way it has to date? The evidence around us seems to suggest that humanity is heading inexorably for something more hideous. We have over-indulged and I think will soon pay a stark human price. Many millions of people have already for decades been paying the beginnings of that huge price. Most of them do not get half-way to comprehending why – and seek in vain for alleviation as they die.
Am I right in feeling this sense of quite imminent and insupportable change for the human race and for other living things on earth? I don’t know. I know it comes at me from many points. As a writer I am attuned to Wilfred Owen’s statement at the time of The Great War when he said that a writer can do little more than warn about impending events. Then again, my fellow writer Carrie Tiffany, poetic novelist, and I, are talking recently about the situation in general, and just as I am about to confess it to her, she takes the thought, the fear, the words out of my mouth and unbidden, states it for me. ‘These days I monitor the news and wake in the morning half-expecting to hear some cataclysmic announcement that will change our lives perhaps totally…’, she says.
I think I am attuned to the advance of the planet’s desperate illness. I think my fellow novelist Carrie Tiffany in her silence is attuned to it. I think Robyn Davidson, who knows deserts and their magic, is attuned to it when she says, writing about the signs of decline in the Australian deserts: ‘Old Giaia shifts around to regain her equilibrium, but we simply don’t know whether the new equilibrium will have a place for us. She could shake us off like dust and continue on her long geological way. Species disappear: they always have. Why should ours be any different? Unfortunately for us, we are not wired to be frightened of the slowly unfurling catastrophe…’. I think Tim Flannery is similarly attuned and possibly despairing when he strives to explain what he has discovered in interviews. Human beings, it seems to me, are just one earth species among many – but a species with inordinate power to create and inordinate power to destroy. Have we become our own destroyers?
Who has put the realisation facing us more succinctly than Lord May? In 2008, visiting Australia at the invitation of the Lowy Institute, he is quoted as saying: ‘The continuing growth in human numbers, multiplied by the growth in consumption per person has brought us to the point whereby human activities are on the same scale and scope as the natural biological, chemical and geophysical processes that built the biosphere…and that’s never happened before.. it is clear that you cannot have indefinitely sustained growth of population. There has to be a point in the history of any inhabited planet when the number of people multiplied by the impact per person does rival natural processes…’
We are living the Anthropocene…
…You cannot trust me. You can’t trust my tone of voice. I can’t trust myself. 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, for a Scot listening to a Scot, 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.
I want to sleep. It could sometimes be a sleep to shut out grief. I can feel what it will be like to cushion my right cheek in the pillow, turned just a fraction to the side, with the sheet hovering over my left ear.
Am I a narrator? Whose story is this? It’s my calling to tell stories. And now that the surge of time taking this world forward is narrowing, is becoming more and more precious as the earth warms, I feel the responsibility to make the tale complete and to tell it with urgency. But you cannot trust me. I am not absolutely sure, for a start, just what the tale is. I sense, though, that there are many people who will want to hear the story, even as the planet groans around them towards a possible endgame with the coming together of climate-change, overpopulation, and the perfidy, social divisiveness – the violence and dogmatic intransigence – of religion.
I hear the roll-call again. It has always sat with me. It is about Christina Stead and Proust, about Robert Bly and Socrates and Marguerite Duras and Lao Tzu and James Joyce. I could add Jorge Luis Borges and Sappho and Rilke, Chopin and Solzenhitzen and Miles Davis, Virginia Woolf, Henry Moore and Shakespeare and Henry Handel Richardson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt and WG Sebald and Louise Bourgeois and Keith Jarrett and Marian Anderson and George Harrison and Ginsberg and Thelonius Monk and Oodgeroo Noonuccal and cheeky Nureyev and a thousand others. I could add the cave painters and Nolan and Tucker and Boyd and Gascoigne and Olley and Bill Henson. The creations of those human beings reflecting what it is like to live on earth seem suddenly to be achingly relevant. Will we lose them, after all the centuries of human thought, human endeavour? What will happen to the human record?
This is what I do as a storyteller. I shuffle my own experience and perhaps the fine detail of the happenings of history and my surroundings in human affairs and the questions I want to ask – and I shape them into the lives of characters in a fiction or the soft suggestions in a poem or the universal capturing of a human moment in the world’s offering of light, which is what photographs are. It’s a juggling of elements – the elements of story, each with its own emotional freight and significance for fiction or memoir, and waiting, digging for the appropriate word, the phrase, the sentence that will make a happening luminous. Do the happenings then become lies? I suppose it’s something of what David Marr discovered when he edited the Patrick White letters. White seemed to be writing down the happenings to have them visible on the page, to hear them with his ear, so as to confirm to himself that they took place, to test their veracity, even to reassure himself of his own existence. That seems to be a parallel to my reason for keeping a journal for over half a century. Some writers do: some writers don’t. Are my journal entries lies? They stab me now with an awareness – in their great and intricate detail – of how much is already lost, how much more there is to lose. I think my account of how my life has led me to this is by and large accurate. But can you trust me? I think these things have happened to me. It has always been urgent that I find how to say them, test them on the page. Who knows the truth? Who knows their significance? Is it all one elongated lie? Is it a convincing dream from which we will nevertheless awake?
I’ve seen a lot. I have long sensed the power of repetition in telling a story, of the refrain that sounds again, of the fugue, the return with variations – all of these writing strategies, however, are suspect modes of telling in an essay. I am not to be trusted.
And still, when I think about the future, when I think about taking the story further – I hear the barking of dogs – 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 last efficient and humane final 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 am in the city.
I watch the sparrow waiting on the next chair, ready to reconnoitre the plates on the tables as soon as they are unguarded among the dozens of office-worker faces and blouses and shirts busy grabbing lunch in the big food court. I’m watching the competition for space among knapsacks and business cases, laptops, ipods, tablets, smart phones, fingers at keyboards, eyes at screens. By and large it is the young – they are so young, even the 50 year-olds.
Now I am in the valley, where the black cockatoos row wisely through the evening air up the creek and I hear the stuttering of a dairy pump over the hill towards the sunset. This is finger-wave territory. My neighbours driving on the upper or lower road, or the farmers I pass on the way to the harbour – all greet me with the finger-wave above the steering wheel or perhaps a brief pump on the horn.
I think of city. I think of country. Country depends on city. City depends on country. But when the time comes with its sirens and shouts of desperation and darkness, it’s city that will bring down country.
Now I’m watching them from a patch of sunlight on the wooden steps of the old church where I often write – the small sugar ants. They’re moving fast, are very intent – but each one, nevertheless, high-fives every close passer-by as they busy themselves on the ant-trail from the concrete path to the spaces inside the wooden walls of the building. I am often to be found writing at a desk holding down the huge wooden lid of a concrete baptistry inside a church in this dairy valley not far from the swells that come in to sweep and purify the beach supporting a penguin nursery that tourists are kept unaware of, close to Victoria’s Twelve Apostles. The ants are moving fast. Despite the sunlight, there is renewed rain coming. The weather systems succeed each other more rapidly and more violently these days. The high winds come, born of steep and sudden temperature differentials. If I’m on rough ground along the cliffs, if I’m temporarily unbalanced, they bowl me sideways, bring me to my knees…
The maintenance crews are burned alive as they try to retreat. Twelve men. It’s the third decade. Across the lower country the power pylons stride towards Melbourne in the smoke, bearing nothing. It’s called the grid. Fires have taken out several parts of the grid in south-eastern Australia. I think it’s the fourth decade but might still be the third. Now that the winds are so strong, we know, nothing can be done against them when they decide to run flames flat and fast across the country or leaning out like reaching red arms into the sky from the trees bearing embers that fly. There has always been fire…
There are beards again, rocking to the words in people’s mouths. I see desperate eyes. Billies are back in fashion. Music is a parallel universe of retreat – a snatch of voice. But I hear echoing announcements from multifarious loud-speakers. They countermand the music in our souls. At first the helicopters look down on the dog-packs. Children cry. Someone says I’ll kill for a bike. Someone says what was beer? There is the renewed prizing of hard-copy words on paper. Bells, bells sound, far and near. What are the bells’ meanings? Where is now? Is it then? Which tomorrow will be now? What is never? Dark beards hang on the waiting faces. We wait to learn new ways of adaptation. We learn again to squat on our hams near the fire. Do you remember the care lavished on gardens? I hear voices discussing martial law. Lightning’s orchestrations arch over us in the sky – one crescendo surmounting another in the firmament, the lightning suddenly fastening our images to the walls. Then deep darkness again…
I am hearing them again – the whispers. They come from the second decade. I hear someone talking about Iceland and how its economy is transforming as ice-sheets recede and bring forward fishing opportunities never before thought possible. It’s a whisper of a changing planet. I hear an Australian expert on the fighting of fires speaking of those with nothing but a background of city experience who still think that fires are quenched by water. Consider the new strength of winds, he is saying in a whisper, think of the accompanying temperatures in the high 40s, he is saying, consider ember attack kilometres in front of the main fire, think of men and women caught in the inferno when the wind changes from westerly to south-easterly and creates a new wider and advancing fire-front in less than 20 minutes. Do you know, he asks, the difference in flammability of forest on a north-facing slope and forest and forest-floor on a southern one? His voice is fading…Someone is speaking of polar bears swimming ceaselessly for up to nine days to find ice-floes that will support them with stable sea-ice.
But there are further insistent whispers, including my own. My earlier facetious nonsense about Biblical references to global warming, about the preservation of intellectual rights, about the tardiness of divine intervention, are my whispers pointing to the words of people with important roles in the political process and communal decision-making – some Australian politicians, accompanied across the world by Texan fundamentalists, by Pentecostals, Evangelicals, Islamists and others. The words – and the actions – are those of men and women who assert the primacy of their Judeo-Christian and other religious values – they mistrust science, they say. Changes in climate, they are repeating, are merely part of God’s omniscient historic planning.
Here are the precious touchstones again – treasures of the years, treasures of experience. Herbie Hancock explores all we know among the apples of the piano’s notes on time’s circle, time’s continuous present. There is the duo of Chopin and George Sand in the Swiss snow. I see George Johnston walking unbelieving in the Chinese valleys of the dead in 1940. Simone Young sows the air with shades of sound. Zubin Mehta raises his arms in a dark passion of understanding. I look at the touchstones and ponder them again. They are what we inherit – and still in the main European for me. I see inspirational thinking anew – Louise Bourgeois’ bold framing of human absences. Sylvia Beach outstares the Gestapo. Plato sips the dark of his cave. But 2014 is long ago. 2015? 2016? 2025? We can hardly remember. We cannot recall what we thought then. It hardly seems to matter now. We will be unaware of the ocean reaching its new levels predicted for the end of a century. We will have been striving for decades to find ways to stay alive, with death all around us…
Further whispers come out of the shadows – underground water…life force…sacrifice…rasping dry grassheads… cultural differences… ISIS dressed in black…human rights… genocide… marauders… Israeli settlements…equity…Palestinian children… turtles… privilege…the dreaming… God’s will… corruption… forwarding across the globe…seagrass… snakeman… body scars… saltpans…caliphates…women’s business…beheadings…songlines…swamplands… cockleshell…paranoia and ICE addiction …the unreality, the violence…
Then I hear another whisper – it’s the word ‘rabies’. Rabies. And I see a young mongrel with pointed ears prospecting the cluttered deck of a fishing boat. I see the green-crowned islands of the Indonesian archipelago slipping away astern two kilometres away in the wash of sunlight…
…to be continued…to be continued…to be continued