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 is the final instalment of Graeme’s work and we thank him for allowing us to share his work.
The Barking of Dogs
Hinting at the Social Effects of Global Warming – Part #6
By Graeme Kinross-Smith
Concomitant with news of impending dangers from many of the elements of ‘the Spike’ come accounts of the danger of uncontrolled dog packs in indigenous communities and elsewhere – teachers having to run the gauntlet of packs of dogs to reach their schools; ‘domesticated’ dogs and feral pigs out of control in the Tiwi Islands, where culling has failed to keep pace with the problem and further attempts at culling encounter the obstruction of owners of ‘pets’ – both dogs and household pigs; or news of people killed or seriously mauled in town camps by dogs that have developed a taste for attack and human blood.
These examples suggest that ‘domestication’ of dogs is a wafer-thin protection when hunger, natural instincts and malevolent human intervention make their influence felt in the relationship between dogs and human beings. What are dogs made of – sugar and spice? Dogs are made of dependence when food and comfort and joy in play and satisfaction in skill and work done are on offer. Dogs are made of ruthless seeking and dedication to survival when the above are not on offer and they are alone with their kind and must find food and drink. They survive like those other innate survivors – the fox and the wild pig.
No grounds for optimism, therefore, in hearing a student of current British street violence explaining that the knife as weapon of choice in gang violence or criminal street violence is now passé – weapon of choice now is the attack dog. Hovering behind the thought is the scene in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold – the village dogs eager to get at the newly fallen corpse, exposing a genetic rapacity within so-called domestication and training. It is the terrible irony of dogs.
Radio news tells me of airlines ‘hedging’ their fuel supplies against the unknown of the next two or three years. Smaller airlines go to the wall. Alitalia goes to the wall. Peak oil? Overstated supplies? The shutting down of production sites by war or extreme weather events? Transport drivers suffer thefts of diesel from their rigs – not worth locking the fuel-caps because the thieves will then destroy them and damage fuel tanks, incurring further costs beyond that of the stolen fuel. Almost every news bulletin, every page of informed comment in the responsible news media, brings further intelligence about the multiplication of factors that are leading to gradual deepening of human desperation, in turn making for greater and greater difficulty in maintaining social and civil control – and, among other things, the more and more likely approach of an endgame that might well feature starving and ferocious dogs. New studies indicate that the Arctic ice-sheets, part of the world’s perma-frost, is thawing much more rapidly than formerly thought – entailing huge releases of carbon and other greenhouse gases that may produce a cycle that feeds upon itself in quickening global warming and in turn prompting more rapid melting, rising temperatures, extreme weather events, displacement of people, loss of social control.
Relatively late in the last century I work on a photographic assignment for a literary magazine. It includes the recording with the still camera of the constant, fortnightly putting down of dogs at the Geelong Animal Welfare quarters. It is an experience given to very few, and to few dog owners. It is a compassionate drama that one does not forget. Soon after I write about it in words in a prose-poem titled ‘Consumerist Tableau Featuring Dogs’:
‘There are 33 dogs chosen for this morning. Two seasons ago they squirmed among Christmas wrapping. They bit at rugs. Now it’s September on the bay’s pale blue pastures. Now they are big and their eyes are knowing dishes. There’s constant barking from the cages. It’s to check who’s there, who doesn’t come to her water-bowl. It’s to tell the sea beyond the trees that it might as well rest as smooth as new paint under the sun.
Now each girl in turn, like a priestess that Rubens must have painted in her smock, brings one dog at a time into the small room from the yard of concrete and mesh that is out of sight. Here is this dog that leapt into children’s dreams eight months ago. It enters and stands as tight as cauliflower with expectation. A game? The three figures standing ample in green gowns seem to say not, so she merely stands and ticks off time, waiting like someone queued for cash at the bank. Then suddenly there are sure, quick arms clasping her, lifting her, bunching her legs beneath her. Fingers she has smelt slip a lead over her snout and draw it tight. She is cradled now under a strong elbow, paws and bottom resting on the table’s high, stainless plain. Pinioned, she nevertheless receives as genuine these words of love that drop out of the fluorescent light. That’s it, beautiful. There you are! You’re a beautiful girl, aren’t you. If she could she’d lick the fingers she smells. Now the priestess peels off a black plastic bag beneath the table, flaps it open, comes breathing to the stainless steel. The strong-elbow assistant mumbles away at ‘Just the Two of Us’, then like someone looking at a wedding ring, teases out a forepaw and proffers it to the light. Now the vet’s gloved fingers come to admire.
She is soon to be dead. Her eyes, like those of a patient spreadeagled at the dentist’s, must study the bricks of the wall intently, blinking. She will be soon dead. The barking from the outside cages comes to the room distantly. In the far lassoes of sound the rich water-fields of the bay ride in the sun. The vet leans in to flex the forepaw like a man preoccupied, probes for a vein, finds it, inclines his head to snip some hair away with scissors that have finicky short blades. Now the scissors drop on the metal – the sound of closure. Here is the syringe, green-filled. Here are the fingers she can smell. After a couple of deft rubs of the exposed forepaw, the vet starts to sight along the syringe, guiding, guiding the needle in, breaking the skin, slipping into the vein. Guiding. Now a measured plunging, a steady plunging to the haft, to leisurely green exhaustion, like slow-motion Beethoven. Then withdrawal. Ah! Better than the bullet. Better than the knife or the machete. The dog sees the ceiling briefly, then the lead comes off her snout and is thrown to the corner. She sprawls, staggers, declines on the table like a disbeliever, eyes open on the sound of children, on the smell of fingers. Her head and body find their limp level on the steel plain. The vet eyeballs her eye, swivels her to reach for heart, for hidden artery. She spins on the table under his hands like a plaything. Then the vet’s nod is scarcely a nod. The black plastic bag is waiting. The priestess inserts rear paws and the body becomes tawny liquid under the lights: eyes, muzzle, forepaws flash away together into darkness. The girl priestess hefts the bag onto the pile of bags in the corner, knowing how it will slide, jockey for a place among the others, how it will finally settle.’
I take stock, look back down the tunnel of my personal history and try to think what the history of my grandchildren will be. I’ve been observing the world since the time of the “Brisbane Line’. I see again the summer twilight crowds in St Kilda Road punctuated by the white gob-caps of American sailors on leave, the khaki of Yankee soldiers, men intent on the dancing at the Trocadero. I’m aware even as a child that they are there, displaced from their homes and inclinations and comforts, because of a world in the midst of upheaval, violence and death. My earliest consciousness as a kid is surrounded by something called ‘the War’. Our street is a War Savings Street. One day an American Liberator bomber lumbers across the sky over the Camberwell hill and its silhouette of houses. We’ve been told by the papers to expect it. I go to school with kids whose fathers are away at the War. Young men I know at the shopping centre or from the streets where I later do a paper round are away on the ocean, in the jungle, in the desert. Then we hear people talking in the butcher’s shop or the milk bar or the barber’s and know that one of them has been killed, and then another. We can look for them, but we will never see their faces again.
Nevertheless, we are the geographically and culturally fortunate ones who are spared European or Asian invasion. Even then, in the War’s vast suffering, and at so many points later in my fortunate life, I’ve never anticipated the universal trouble the planet now faces, never the possibility of an endgame featuring dogs that reaches into every valley, every plain, every city on earth. History teaches. Is poetry’s cool water the only way to hint at all this?
It seems I cannot do without galleries, without concert halls. I need the sad joy of jazz and blues, its diminished scale, its hymns to the essentially human, its echoing of the heartbeat, its vitality and insistence, its inventiveness. Ekphrasis seems natural and instinctive to me – I like to speak my words, read my poetry or short fictions against music, drawing in and out. I like to write pieces arising out of fascination with, and admiration of, visual images – photopoems, so-called. I yearn for the breathless revelations of a long lens, the land’s haunch and breast, the quiet breathing of bookshelves in libraries, the birds’ early morning reminders. Photography and jazz bring out the human immediacy and variety of happenings. These are precious pages of the human and natural record. I find it hard to conceive of being separated from forest cathedrals and the sea’s secret rooms and the city’s thronging faces and daily exhaustion and renewal – and my celebration of them through words and photographic images. I need the world of leaves and seasons and time of day and days passing. I grow up as a kid worshipping in a climbable Silver Birch in the suburbs and sometimes walking in the weekend wonder of the giants of Sherbrooke Forest reaching from the forest gullies’ damp bark and closed light to the reverberating reaches of the cirrus sky.
In 1974, on Christmas Eve, an extreme weather event takes 71 human lives in the city of Darwin and leaves 70% of dwellings uninhabitable. Wind speeds sometimes topping 300 km per hour and averaging between 250 and 290 km per hour wreak the damage. The extreme weather event is called Cyclone Tracy.
Dangerous social and civil chaos follows. Police and other emergency services personnel – some of them brought in from other states – must move through the wrecked streets to find bodies, assess damage, assist injured survivors, help restore services, electric power, food – and prevent further injury through building collapse. And in the desolation surrounding them as they work are dogs and their owners. Some of the detail is spelt out starkly in Sophie Cunningham’s recent book about the tragedy – Warning – The Story of Cyclone Tracy.
People behave as threatened and endangered people will behave. There are cases of men dressing as women in an attempt to be offered evacuation sooner. Many people refuse to board rescue planes at evacuation centres unless their pets accompany them. Some residents hide their dogs, some abandon their dogs and cats, some ask others to take care of them, some defy orders to bring their pets to police stations to be put down humanely. Authorities observe the formation of dangerous packs of stray dogs and have to order that dogs on the loose must be shot, so there is further hiding of dogs. Abandoned cats escape the net more easily than dogs – and the feral cat population multiplies around Darwin in the months and years following.
One emergency worker detailed to check house to house and assess damage and possibly to find undiscovered bodies describes the danger in simple, untutored terms: ‘In one place I got in and found, when I got to a bedroom whose door was not locked but closed, that there was a pack of dogs in there and they were by this time extremely hungry – and I was lucky to get out the front alive…’ After several similar encounters he is persuaded, against his better nature, that the shooting of the dogs is a regrettable necessity. It falls to the police in the main to carry out the sad task. One new policeman has the harrowing duty of killing between 20 and 30 dogs.
I think it has become the time to say this. We live now in a new unreality.
On a Spring morning at the midpoint of this second decade of the century I wake again, as I have countless times, to the sun that mounts through the early mist of my part of the planet. I watch it climb the near hill that always makes my horizon in this particular place – but as the day and its story advances it seems the touchstones of the world have changed. I find myself unable to ignore images and revelations that make for deep concern in the news that floods in on me with a new suddenness. I somehow hear my own voice in the revelations. I hear the voices of others in them. I have many questions.
Will there be further normal mornings – and how many?
Does everything ultimately affect everything else? Have we been warned of that? Does history teach us that? If it is true, what will be its implications, in the light of new events, for human existence on the earth? I am full again of questions that suddenly have a new drama to them.
What forces are at play in human affairs? The desire for power? The need for compassion? The existence of greed? The valuing of freedom of thought and opinion? Sharing of cultural particularities? The central place of the family group – parents, children, grandchildren? The genetic imperative – survival of a species of animal called human-kind? Have these forces always been present? Has the nature of them and their effects begun to change significantly? The forces go on. What of the sense of the sharing of a common humanity represented in children, in the aged, in fecundity and creation, in illness and health, in new life and death, in the universality of common emotion – fear, humour and laughter, love, grief, loss, desolation in the face of suffering and pain, joyousness in hope and well-being?
I have been monitoring for decades the growing seriousness of the elements of what Damien Broderick dubbed ‘the Spike’ – all those geo-political, economic and humanitarian problems grounded heavily in over-population that are coming together to plague us on planet Earth. But have they ever been moving so fast as now? In this crucial month of the second decade there rapidly appear a range of simultaneous and disturbing phenomena that taken together perhaps will indicate what it will mean to be alive on this planet henceforth as a human being. They vie for attention in the minds of those who think about them because they seem to make necessary a widening of human concern. Am I right? We listen to them. We look at the images. They run on unavoidably in our minds, sometimes represented by places on earth, sometimes by populations and ideologies, sometimes by historical national antipathies, sometimes by marvels in the natural world, sometimes by the huge interventions that human ingenuity has made possible but which are not necessarily desirable. Again I listen to them. Again and again I seek to understand – Sudan’s religious and subsequent tribal conflict; Nigeria’s not dissimilar conflicts backgrounded by enviable natural resources; Libya and its loss of civil control after freedom from dictatorship; China and its neighbours in conflict over the earth’s and the ocean’s resources in the South China Sea; exploitation and sometimes mercenary murder of displaced people and refugees; the more internal and closely social and yet international evils of child and women sex-trafficking; Ebola and the death that creeps further out of control in African cities, towns, villages and the mercifully waning predictions of its infiltration of Europe and America; the growth of antibiotic-resistant TB in Papua New Guinea and its possible movement through the islands of the Torres Strait; the spread of the Zika virus and its legacy of deformity in new-born children; the Syrian conflict that pits a brutal regime against neighbouring and imported Islamist brigades; pan-Islamism that spreads the Syrian conflict into tribal and sectarian religious fighting in Iraq; Israel confronting Hamas rockets and mortars; the harrowing deaths of unarmed and struggling Palestinians whose destinies seem underwritten by Hamas militancy that in turn invites deadly Israeli airstrikes; the historical irony of a once-brutal Shinto Japan awakening now in its new generations to Chinese suspicion and possible intimidation, retribution, revenge; Russian fostering of border incursions at the point of the gun by single-minded and irresponsible separatists in Ukraine, almost certainly responsible for shooting a civilian plane and its 298 unsuspecting passengers from the sky, while Moscow propagandises its metropolitan population through censorship to believe otherwise; China and its exclusionist claims in the South China Sea; China and Russia perhaps again sharing expansionist interests; jihadists recruited world-wide in democratic states to fight and kill towards the establishment of Islamic caliphates in other parts of the world; Shia beliefs and interpretations bitterly at war with Sunni beliefs and interpretations; Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood; Turkey’s equivocation and the Muslim Brotherhood; and now an obscene level of violence and arrogance, never before depicted so openly – a seven-year-old holding aloft a severed head – of Sunni-inspired ISIS militancy in Iraq and Syria, carried world-wide in news images. Meanwhile the religious populations of Indonesia and the Philippines wait in the wings for the playing out of these violent and inhuman uncertainties. God is called on to serve so many purposes.
I have a multitude of questions. Am I right? There are nevertheless stretches of time in our day-to-day movements when things seem to be reassuringly normal.
On this morning in the second decade I seem to be a witness to a world more and more likely to be predicated on human conflict and killing – for which in the first decade the televised horror of 9/11 began to prepare us. Am I right? Did 9/11 forcibly change the ground rules in our way of thinking of respect for the lives of our fellow human beings? Did 9/11 demonstrate the impossibility of negotiation with terrorism’s absolutes? Did it not generate in a more profound and widely spreading way the fear that leads to human defensiveness, violence, retribution, slaughter? Did it not make possible, more likely, and even necessary, government actions previously deemed unnecessary and unthinkable? Am I right?
It’s probably a truism to say that the media which brings me the world’s events, with their own new sense of unreality, is in a state of transition. Built into the media’s news and commentary as the sun climbs into this bright Spring morning in Australia is a seeming willingness now to grant greater weight and time to social media’s vox populi pronouncements that are all too often obvious, ill-considered, ill-informed – and that degrade what is valuable in expert analysis. But, am I right? Are these short grabs often anti-intellectual and misleading? Do they cloud the debate?
Whatever – we now apparently need also to accept that the media in the broad brings into our meal-time viewing images of killing that have previously been regarded as so affronting as to be unsuitable, insupportable, inappropriate, unwelcome, unthinkable? Do you recall what once was called ‘family viewing’? Am I right in thinking that such a concept, involving as it has until now the relative innocence of children, is no longer possible? The images I see in news outlets insist that I think about death and ways of dying. It seems I am doomed, with others, to contemplate how one might die violently – the merciful bullet; rape and beating to death; hanging; stoning; stabbing; garrotting; crucifixion; dismemberment; throat-cutting and beheading. Has it come to this? If so, it comes to this via evidence of a new level of human depravity – and I regard it as my duty as an adult, informed and concerned citizen to know and enquire about these things. Newsgatherers – men and women who are journalists, photographers, writers, commentators and others – have given, are giving, their lives to inform me and the world of this changing state of human affairs. I have myriad questions. And yet there are times when things still seem to be reassuringly normal.
It seems that national security settings against terrorist attacks are being hastily upgraded across the globe. Will air travel become more problematic? Will public spaces feel more vulnerable as we walk through them? Violence will beget violence. It will not be long before we are forced, in the face of a multitude of violent groups with agendas similar to Islamic State, to return to a description that has been used in the past but has temporarily fallen from favour – Pan-Islamism – to denote the challenge the world faces. It is one of the newly revived elements spinning off and interacting with the multiple earthly problems of ‘the spike’. They seem to be moving and changing very fast before our eyes. Am I right?
I sense that other writers, commentators, journalists, academics and experts steeped in long experience are increasingly feeling what I am feeling. I detect it in their choice of words, in their body language – a mounting concern. Am I right? As I observe ordinary people turning off the news because it becomes overwhelming, I hear governments across the world saying what governments would say, what in many cases they have to say. They have constituents. They must instil and maintain confidence. They have responsibility. They have trade and the economy to preserve.
Such is the seriousness of these new levels of instability, violence and breakdown of social and civil order, from which we in this fortunate southern continent are so far largely separated, that the ongoing and steadily increasing ravages of global warming seem for the time being to run less significantly beneath them like an undercurrent in our minds. Yes, concern at the decline of the Great Barrier Reef; yes, discussion of the shrinking of the Renewable Energy Target; yes, warnings of yet another imminent dangerous bushfire season; yes, more violent and more frequent weather events; yes, concern at further mining of coal and gas; yes, growing loss of species; yes, sea level rise and loss of glacial and Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets.
So it goes. But for the time being we have seemingly had our focus torn away from the fact that climate change will inexorably infiltrate every valley, assail every mountain on earth and profoundly threaten at one level or another every human being and all other creatures and living organisms on the planet. The hundreds of thousands of people marching the streets of New York, marching the streets of Australian capitals, come to remind us of this again. These are concerned humans, who include the United Nations Secretary-General, registering their concern ahead of the United Nations Climate Summit – a gathering which our Prime Minister has pointedly declined to attend. Do we imagine this crisis? Running beside it will be stretches of time when things seem to be reassuringly normal – even surpassingly beautiful.
The bread and circuses – the bread and football and celebrity and other preoccupations – will almost certainly go on till the end in the face of generous humanitarian and scientific efforts to arrest physical and social decline – to avoid mayhem. Neville Shute caught the sense of it all that time ago in On the Beach. His picture at the end of the novel is one of human denialism – and denialism is not denial. It is every individual’s attempt to cope with what is beyond denial. None of us knows the best way forward with any certainty.
I doubt if the god in whom I do not believe intended this increasingly likely fate for humankind. I doubt that the universal or higher intelligence intended it. I doubt the solar system that nurtures earth intended it, nor our galaxy, nor the known universe, nor the posited meta-universe – infinite or finite possible other universes – intended it. I doubt that humankind intended to inflict it on itself, but it surely has. I think of human proliferation and self-seeking and greed. I wonder what will succour me through the daily, deadly unfolding of unreality and threat. Music, the whistling of jazz standards? The faces of friends across the table? Discovery in my newly minted words? Childrens’ eager eyes exploring? Her beautiful voice somewhere close, her laugh, her body waiting? The valley’s long, contented shadows? I think of the things I want to save – human nobility in action and thought and art, where it occurs, in triumph over what we call evil. I think of how that nobility is often prompted by the gravitas, the dignity, the breathless beauty, the grandeur of planetary transcendence and the earth’s natural processes and renewal. Perhaps until my final breath I should honour it through allegiance to the sun that like the ocean in its serenity or fury, like the forest in its cathedrals, cares nothing for me, but has never failed me through all my worldly days…
I persist in believing that many people are capable of being kind, loving, empathetic and altruistic, that they are innovative and inventive and generous in crisis. When things run normally they seem in the majority to be democratic and considerate, at least in my fortunate living-place on the planet. People, for me as humanist, are all we have, good and bad. The battle of good and evil in us and our fellows is never-ending. But is even that too sensitive, too idealistic for the 21st century? I want to share, to communicate my humanity and curiosity, my imperfect wondering, with the human family – my story, their story, your story. But has my humanism been overtaken by God and market forces and the sense of unreality accompanying the need for essential survival? I am full of questions.
I’m a storyteller. I love telling stories to children and watching their wonder. I give people photographic prints, offering choices. They are visual stories that they can take away, put on a shelf or a wall somewhere where they’ll enjoy seeing them again and again as they pass.
Am I seeing the warmth I sense in the human family coming up against the facile dogmatism of religion’s claim to know, against monetary and megalomaniac coldness? Still my interactions with others are a paramount source of joy and the subject of my creation in words. My setting for this joy and human subject-matter is this still a beautiful but embattled planet.
Yes, I love the people around me. Often I am reaching out to everyone I encounter, and all else I reach with my senses, bearing love. Everything for the moment is beautiful. Can I trust that dream? As I write I’m watching Canberra’s Spring pollen drifting in the wind like never-ending clouds of small questions above the trees. I’ve forgotten that Canberra is often at its most dramatic and beautiful among its hills, against the Brindabellas, late in the warm-month days, when the cloud builds in huge towers from the west. But Canberra’s weather is changing. Sydney’s weather is changing. Melbourne’s weather is changing…Oodnadatta? Bourke? Brisbane? Perth? Katherine? Hobart and Strahan? Taree? Coober Pedy? There is the weather. There is fire. There has always been fire…
Do I belong to this world? How do I reconcile my loving and this evidence? Are those around me often too clever for me? I cling to beauty in words and images and notes of music and the movements of the human body. I’m fortunate to have been continually salaried through teaching – which I love – and thereby have supported myself in bringing forth words and ideas. But to what new world am I about to belong? I’m full of questions.
I have warned you not to trust me. I cannot necessarily be believed. My intuitions might be quite misguided and wrong. The ASX and the All Ordinaries are still both upbeat, aren’t they? The steadily repeated political refrain is about economic growth, with little mention of a warming planet. So it’s likely that much of the foregoing will be considered to be alarmist.
I’ve admitted to repetition and use of the emotional charge of a refrain, as well as presenting variations on a theme. The trouble is I think like Alan Marshall, of I Can jump Puddles. I can hear him now as he leans back from his crutches at his writing desk as we talk all those years ago. ‘I tell lies to get at the truth,’ he says. I think like Picasso. ‘Metaphor’, the painter says haltingly, ‘is a lie that makes us to realise the truth, at least as far as the truth is given us to understand…’
But one must not employ repetition. One must not distort the truth. Metaphor is suspect. Pragmatism – and preferably economic growth – is paramount.
I protest too much. You will have realised long since that my scenes involving dogs are nothing more than metaphor, a mere fictional strategy. They are, aren’t they? Don’t panic! They are – aren’t they?