I blog about sharks and us and the interesting and complex ways we can bump up against each other. I also write about feminism, culture, government policy, sustainable fishing, film, architecture, sustainable urban planning and much more to come. Please visit my Published Work page to see links to my short stories and poems.
The last photo of my Dad and I together is a beauty. We are at my brother and sister-in-law’s cottage in Lake Louisa, Quebec. We are in a place we both loved, a body of water, swimming in the lake, talking, unaware of being photographed. It was August 2009. It was our last weekend together as a family. The week after, he entered a hospital for a bladder reconstruction and he never came out. And, that last beautiful summer we all seemed to know, silently, that this was it for him and that we would never be all together like this again. We each carried it around silently like the extra couple of pounds after a weekend of his great cooking. The photos of that last week show a looming energy. There is happiness and joy and goofiness but there is also melancholy behind it all.
The kitchen was his domain – the place where he created delicious meals for us. He was a master in the heart of the house and nothing gave him more pleasure than being able to care for people – usually with delicious food he made but also through his inherent kindness of giving his arthritic mother’s feet a pedicure, teaching his kids and grandkids about nature, opening his home to a niece and a nephew and building a cottage for his family. I will always be grateful to him for everything he did for us all and for showing us how to have fun and how to laugh. The last photo taken of my Dad is of him in a frilly apron hamming it up in front of the stove, an empty frying pan on the burner foreshadowing his absence.
It was here that he created his last act of love for his family. The night before he returned to the city, in the tiny kitchen of his son’s cottage, he made a chicken pie for us all for dinner. It was huge so that we wouldn’t have to worry about feeding ourselves during the difficult time to come – there would be leftovers for the next day. That’s the kind of guy he was; ‘a peach of a guy’ was what his palliative care doctor called him 6 months later in the last week of his life. And she was right.
This delicious chicken pie was laced with vegetables including red peppers. The peppers were aggressively red, almost an impossible red set against the white flesh of the chicken just like the impossible parts the surgeons would put into his abdomen to create an impossible organ. We packed up the cottage and set back to the city, the leftover pie was pushed into the fridge in the city as we made our way to the hospital. It got jostled around over the next couple of days and got pushed back behind the mayonnaise and milk. My father started to deteriorate not long after.
The fridge was cleaned out and that leftover pie, forgotten and well- spoiled by then, was dumped into the garbage. Its slick contents slid out into the bin with those impossibly red strips of pepper, a bright shock to my eye. It was gone, the last meal that in our despair we had all forgotten to enjoy.
He died on this day 10 years ago. He was 68 years old. The shell of his body was still emitting a faint warmth as we walked out of the hospital into a frigid Canadian February. I looked at other people in the parking lot going about their lives as if it were business as usual while my world felt irreparably different.
Over the past ten years I have kept myself busy. I fled to China to teach for 10 weeks, my grandmother and oldest friend in Australia died, I adopted and then lost a cat, I moved into a tiny apartment of my own, I started and quit a PhD, I started and continued a volunteer teaching project in Solomon Islands, I quit smoking, I have given educational talks about sharks to young kids and I have read and written more than I ever have in the other 40 years of my life. But, what I have done mostly behind all of that was form a deep connection to grief.
This doesn’t mean that I have been inconsolably sad for a decade. Sometimes the connection is active and involves tears, sometimes passive with dull aches, sometimes I erupt into laughter or a smile slowly forms thinking of a great memory. This connection has changed over the decade but it is still there. It has become more contained and manageable. It is now like the security blanket I had as a child that my mother wisely and kindly cut into a smaller and smaller square until it could fit into my pocket. Grief is still with me like that. It is a comfort. It reminds me that I know what love is and that my grief is just all the Dad-shaped love I still have for him that does not quite seem to fit into the shapes of the others I love. I hope he knows this love is endless and still exists for him. I am glad to know it does.
February 10, 2020
On this day 5 months ago, Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris came close to burning to the ground. Five months later, devastating fires have ravaged the life-sustaining rainforest in the Amazon and the bush here in Australia. We watched the timber roof of Notre Dame Cathedral burn as we watched Greta Thunberg give a moving speech about our burning Earth. It brought tears to her eyes as well as ours. She has now sailed across the seas to continue to plead for sanity from politicians and corporate CEOs who fail to listen or act. Our Lady, Our Girl and Our Earth have all fired up. We are burning with outrage and with grief.
Five months ago, the sticky web tangled itself up in self-righteous knots of rage at how money in the hundreds of millions was thrown about instantaneously to help rebuild the Cathedral while millions of people continue to go without. The 800-year-old sacred brick and mortar symbol of Western Civilisation was compared to 800-year-old sacred song line trees here in Australia. This has stirred up difficult feelings of identity, homeland, culture and belonging for all of us.
Unfortunately in the toxic social media age, the profane far outweighs the sacred. This is a pity because the importance of history whether it be man-made or organic should not be discounted, especially in a burning world. I for one am very happy to see the filthy rich coughing up the dough to rebuild an important building – we need them to. However, we also need them to keep the trees in the ground that keep our planet and us alive and to protect important, sacred natural places for the indigenous people of the world whom we have displaced and marginalised.
The sad part is that money is the profane and its owners often only see the value in protecting the human-made sacred. Unfortunately, these billionaires do not know or care about 800-year-old trees on the other side of the world. And the billionaires here in Australia? Well, they’re the ones digging up the death rocks that are burning our planet to a crisp.
The astonishing thing in all of this charred mess is Greta Thunberg. A young woman of incredible poise and passion who is forcing the world to listen to what they do not want to hear. Her speech was given with a quavering voice and her struggle for breath was audible as she fought with the tears she tried hard to hold back. It was very difficult to watch. Here we are witnessing the spiritual and psychological unravelling of youth in despair. For the first time in history we have an entire young generation cognisant of their planet’s, and thus their own, imminent demise. Greta is staring down a future of starvation and climactic upheaval and she is despairing in her powerlessness to stop it.
Her impassioned speech was given at the UN where their own scientific reports have clearly stated that 50% of the world will be in food shortage by 2050. So, to be precise, in 30 years she will most likely not have enough food to eat and her audience know this because they are the ones who informed us of the fact.
Greta is right to cry, as are we all. But our tears won’t put out this fire. It’s time to get angry. I don’t mean social media outrage angry; I mean surround the houses of the CEOs angry. I mean block the driveways of the corporations angry. I mean striking and not moving until the decision-makers start making good decisions angry. I don’t want Greta to starve. I don’t want those song-line trees cut down and I don’t want Notre Dame to remain a burnt-out relic. I, like most people want to see some good happening in the world because I am getting exhausted watching the bad happening over and over again.
Perhaps as we approach the School Strike for Climate on September 20, we can reimagine a shiny new world where corporations and CEOs pay the substantial environmental taxes they owe us and start to rebuild the natural systems they have broken with their mining and deforesting and fishing and manufacturing and burning. Perhaps Indigenous land care can be restored to avoid the catastrophic fires that will no doubt descend on us again this summer due to colonial mismanagement and complete disregard of Aboriginal land care knowledge. Maybe the past profanity of the politicians and CEOs can finally be used to replenish the sacred and stop the psychological dismantling of Greta and her generation. That is the miracle rebirth we need. It is the one we are all praying for.
Twelve years ago Frankie Magazine published an article of mine on acquiring and shedding stuff. It was about how too much stuff made me feel full and stuck and hindered. I now live in 37sqm and have 9 lamps. I have one double bed and a pull out sofa yet I have 6 sets of sheets. I think I might have a small problem because here I am 12 years later spending a beautiful Sunday nursing a sore back from lugging stuff to and from yesterday’s Garage Sale Trail.
Call it by whatever new form it has taken, Konmari, French Filing, Swedish Death Cleaning… it’s a peculiar Western obsession this acquisition of and then obsession with shedding stuff. We are modern day reverse alchemists turning gold into detritus….in – out, in –out,…treasure to trash.
Yesterday I lugged 2 very large and heavy suitcases and 4 medium-sized bags of stuff from my 37-sqm homestead to Marrickville West Public School and pushed (and I mean pushed…I almost bullied a poor woman into buying a lamp she didn’t want just so I didn’t have to separate it from the lampshade) my wares onto the shoppers there.
Not only did I have my own stuff, but also much of it was stuff I had found on the street including a tin hat box I found on the verge in the rain two week’s ago. I would have left it there (or so I tell myself) but I knew the garage sale was coming up and I knew I could get a few bucks for it and save it from rusting in the rain and going to landfill. As it turned out, I got a fiver for it.
Why do so many of us engage in this strange ritual? Is it our longing for the marketplace, the social gathering of sellers and their wares in the great outdoors? Is it because the corporate monoliths of modern late capitalism leave us completely shamed with their waste and poor ethics? Is it our latent hunter-gather instincts coming out in what we perceive to be a softer catch and kill even though the trail of blood and carnage worldwide consumerism wreaks on the fauna and flora of our planet makes a hunting expedition seem tame in comparison? I’m not sure but the whole thing makes me uneasy.
The day was pleasant. There was live music and fresh baked goods for sale. The young girls next door were selling homemade brownies and lemonade. People were friendly and revealed secrets about themselves as they shopped “My sister has cancer so I’m shopping for her…” “My mother is Dutch so we have good genes…” “My husband’s grandfather made our lampshade but it has just broken and yours will be a good replacement…” These tiny tendrils of humanity reaching out to each other in an increasingly technical world were a very welcome occurrence. No one was on their phone, everyone was engaged, and in short it was lovely. But, the stuff….?
What’s it all about? A friend of mine says he has a fantasy of me in a single room with a table and chair à la Leonard Cohen on Hydra and that when I reach that state of pared back existence, I will be in reach of literary Nirvana and my novel(s) will pour out of me like honey. Cohen had lovers and children and a view of the sea. I have stuff, dust mites, and a view of the neighbouring red brick unit. I need the padding of my stuff to make me feel better about where I live even though having it is making me miserable. It is an addiction like cigarettes, alcohol and food, all of which I have battled.
For me, Op shops have always felt like an adoption centre for unloved things and I haven’t been able to bear seeing something languishing in there. Each find is like a prize hunt, “I win!” and I high-five my inner self at beating the big stores and saving something from landfill.
I am trying to avoid going into Op shops now as the thought of any more stuff is becoming abhorrent. At yesterday’s garage sale, I resisted going to see any of the other stalls as I didn’t want to be tempted to buy anything. In the end, I relented and bought a summer jacket for $5 and a small leather purse for $5. They were a good trade off for the 2 garbage bags of clothes and 2 boxes of stuff I gave to the Smith Family after the garage sale.
My place still feels full, but it is empty enough to think and write this piece and though it is not yet literary Nirvana, with 1 large suitcase and 3 medium sized bags all sold and given away to charity, I can at least start to see it from here.
It’s spring and a young woman’s mind turns to… how utterly buggered the world is right now. I had just finished 2+ weeks of dog sitting a gorgeous pooch who was the cuddliest spooner to ever walk on 4 legs in a big house in a part of town where the bus runs on time and the passengers on it smile instead of scowling and marinating in their own faeces as the passengers on the bus in my part of town do.
I had returned to my own little patch where the meth-heads in my local Woolies were having a domestic in the doorway and every possible item in the store was sheathed in a covering of single-use plastic ready-made to kill every species of marine life still left alive. It wasn’t the best of homecomings. My black heart kept beating in my chest more out of spiteful rage than any life-sustaining function. I carried my box and two bags of groceries across the zebra crossing without making eye contact with the drivers who resentfully stopped for me. I could feel the eyes of the young P-Plate boys burning on me as they revved their engine impatiently; a pit bull of a car snapping at my shins as I passed in front of it. This is a daily occurrence on my street. I made it to the other side and rested my bags and box on the low fence of the housing commission flats and caught my breath. This place, that store, these people; I felt nothing but blind rage at it all and wished nothing more than to be free of this horrible suburb. The sky was low and grey with much-needed rain but even the thought of that lifesaver in this drought couldn’t snap me out of my funk. But then, a rustle in the undergrowth of the housing commission garden on the other side of the low fence caught my eye. I have avoided looking at this patch as it used to be a wildly overgrown area dark and dripping with ivy and trees, looking like the haunted forest from the Wizard of Oz but the council cleared it out completely and now it is an empty barren patch of grass and discarded branches of the removed trees. It depressed me to see even more destruction of what little urban greenery we have left, but it wasn’t as barren as I thought. There was life here.
A family of Australian ravens; mum, dad and what I presume to be last year’s chick were all fossicking in the debris for nest materials. Two of them were on the ground at first and then a third arrived in a whoosh of glossy black wings that reflected the little bit of light that managed to get through the cloud cover. They hopped and waddled around; their piercing blue-grey eyes on the lookout for the perfect twig for their nest. Last year’s chick just wandered around looking a bit confused but mum and dad were hard at it and in no time they had each dragged large branches of the fallen trees out of the debris and had fly-hopped up onto the end of the low fence I was resting against. Those black beaks held sticks twice the size of their bodies and if it was a mystery how they had the strength to hold them, then it was a miracle when they both managed to fly off with them in their beaks.
I left my belongings on the wall and walked around to where they had flown. A woman and her son were walking down the footpath toward me. The mother had red lipstick on a smiling mouth and she and her son were gazing skyward as they walked. I knew that smile. It was the smile of wonder. The same smile I was likely wearing when our eyes met. “Excuse me, did you see two ravens fly past?” They both started talking at once, as eager to share as I was. “Yes!” “Wasn’t it incredible…” “Branch bigger than the bird…” They pointed out the tree and there the ravens were, making their nest in the low branches above the footpath beside the busy road. We watched for a few seconds together, sharing our wonder. “Have a nice night.” The mum said as she and her son walked away down the hill to the river. The river undoubtedly had plastic rubbish floating on its surface and toxic chemicals sinking into its depth, but for one brief moment in Marrickville, I felt a kinship with two other people who could appreciate the wonder of a family of ravens still trying to build a future for their young in spite of it all.
Last month I spent 3 solid hours colouring with a 10 year old. No bathroom breaks, no snack time, just 3 solid hours in the armchair in more or less the same position, and it was wonderful.
His mum (my oldest and dearest friend) was out with his big sister at her grade 11 Graduation. I was the babysitter. After a nostalgic dinner at Basha’s on Monkland Ave. in my old Montreal suburb of NDG and a tour around the neighbourhood, we returned to his home, broke out the mandala colouring book and went to work.
My young friend, who is a talented artist, made a plan based on the colour prism and he started colouring in the middle of the mandala with yellow and orange. So, we worked out that by following the prism that I would be colouring in pink and purple around the edges. Some of our markers were thick and others were thin but so were the designs in the mandala we chose, so everything was destined to work out. In our slow exuberance, mistakes were made and symmetry was not achieved.
Me: I screwed up.
Him: There are no mistakes, just happy accidents.
Jokes were told:
Q: What did the snowman say to the other snowman?
A: Do you smell carrots?
All that could be heard was the scratching of the markers on the thick white paper and the rhythmic in and out concentration of our breathing. It was a deeply relaxing activity and before we knew it, it was 10:21 pm. Why was this so satisfying?
For me, lines have often represented bureaucratic barriers, often hostile corporate and government delineations. It seems like such an obvious metaphor I realise but they do seem to be ominous black barricades and fixtures which good people have been fighting against for what seems like forever. ‘Towing the company line’, ‘hold the line’…forms of separation and othering and keeping apart – them and us. Lines are points of difference.
But there at night with a rainbow of choices among us, instead of separation we could draw colours in between the lines and make other worlds happen in the spaces in between. We eliminated the black and white by creating a rainbow of colour instead. This was a celebration of staying between the lines instead of a fight to break them down or move them. These were good lines, they kept a 10 year old and a 48 year old contained in a joyful place until late at night and where the task could and would be completed the next morning in the sunshine.
It was the opposite of a film (Ivory Wisdom) we made together about a carved elephant tusk we found in a second hand store in Verdun. That is a harsh line of legal / illegal, right / wrong, alive / extinct, animal / ornament. It is the line between life and death and it is expressed with the wisdom and clarity only a 10 year old possesses in so succinct a way.
This recent visit back to the country of my birth has been filled with lots of lines, endings and boundary crossing events and it has exacerbated my tendency toward black and white thinking. So, it was so refreshing to have spent time in the quiet company of a 10 year old friend who created rainbows out of black and white and who reminded me to see the potential between the lines.
I recently re-watched Sixteen Candles, the classic 1984 John Hughes movie that I loved as a teenager. I was of the brat-pack generation and loved, loved, loved all the Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe teen angst films I could get my eyes on. When I was younger, I read Judy Blume books and felt secretly naughty doing so. Then I started reading S.E. Hinton and was convinced that she had special powers of understanding teenage feelings more than anyone else in the world and as a result she inspired me to become a writer.
So, it was a stunning revelation for me when I recently re-watched a daytime TV commercial broadcast of Sixteen Candles starring the chiselled Matt Dillon-esque actor Michael Schoeffling as the hero Jake and the benchmark of 1980s cool, Molly Ringwald as the heroine Samantha. I remember loving the brooding hero and aspiring to be as fashionable as the heroine.
What an eye-opener this trip down memory lane has turned out to be.
It turns out that Jake our hero leaves his intoxicated and passed out girlfriend in his car and in the hands of the virgin-nerd Ted. Not only that, he also demeans her, shows more concern about his parents’ Rolls Royce car which he has lent Ted than her and then encourages his new young friend to have fun.
Here’s an excerpt of this exchange between Jake and Ted from the script:
Shit, I got Caroline in my bedroom right now, passed out cold.
I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to.
What are you waiting for?
I don’t know.
She’s beautiful, and she’s built and all that.
[Sighs] I’m just not interested anymore.
She’s totally insensitive. Look what she did to my house.
She doesn’t know shit about love.
Only thing she cares about is partying.
I want a serious girlfriend.
Somebody I can love, that’s gonna love me back.
Is that psycho?
(Ted reacts to Jake’s revelation…)
I’ll make a deal with you. Let me keep these (meaning Samantha’s underwear) I’ll let you take Caroline home. But you gotta make sure she gets home. You can’t leave her in some parking lot somewhere. Okay?
Jake, I’m only a freshman.
So? She’s so blitzed, she won’t know the difference. Okay.
(Cut to up-the-skirt shot of Caroline’s underwear asTed carries the unconscious Caroline, slung over his shoulder, to the car)
[Chuckles] She’s totally gone.
What a dreamboat.
So, Jake has given his drunken girlfriend to a guy he just met at his party in order that Ted can lose his virginity in exchange for the undies of a girl Jake wants. None of this is said, it is all implied. We are made to believe he is a good guy because he wants a serious girlfriend and he asks that Ted not leave her in some parking lot somewhere. In fact, Ted thinks his speech is ‘beautiful’.
This young woman is portrayed as the popular / party girl who is the predatory type and she is going to get her formidable claws into the rich / good looking / no doubt going to be a success, young man. Hughes sets it up for the (then) audience to not care if she is violated somehow. And violate her he does. He has her hair cut off in a doorjamb and then she is offered up to Ted as a deal in exchange for Samantha’s underwear. Ted then manoeuvres her into various unconscious positions while his nerd buds take photos. But it is ok because Ted is a sweet, nerdy virgin and Jake has asked to make sure Ted takes her home. So, you know, it’s ok.
The fact that she drinks and wants to party and that the people whom she invited to the party have wrecked Jake’s parents’ house are all used to allow her to be violated because, you know, she’s a party girl.
I couldn’t believe what I was watching.
It is not an exaggeration to say my mouth was hanging open.
How could I have watched this film in the 1980s and think it was ok?
Because everything else in the 1980s was pretty much saying the same thing: my parents, family, teachers, books, television shows…I’m not sure which is more surprising, that I am aghast at what I now see as a blatant and horrific message of misogyny and violence or that I was so numb to it in the 1980s.
I felt slightly nuts at the end of the viewing for my new-found feelings of rage and disbelief where once there was nothing. Luckily I am not nuts nor am I the only one feeling suitably enraged.
I just looked up the film and found two completely different readings of the film. Two articles whose line I follow and the other whose line is a manexplantion of excuses as to reasons why the film is not offensive.
No points for guessing gender.
I am so relieved to have just found two other voices of reason on this topic: Sara Doran’s (2016) blog post on having watched the film for the first time as an adult and Sara Stewart’s (2015) New York Post (2015) article which is also brilliant. Then there is Mike McPadden’s (2015) article that makes many lame excuses for the many (I haven not even gotten around to discussing the rampant racism, ageism and unfettered celebration of consumerism and greed) horrible incidents in the film. But he does it as way of explaining to millennials why it was ok.
The mind boggles at how horrible these messages were that we happily gobbled up but the heart warms to see how much wiser we have become at saying, “Not ok.” “Patriarchal bullshit alert!”
I keep searching now while writing this and I find that I am coming quite late to the discussion as many others were talking about this very thing a few years back.
However, it is never too late to talk about injustice, especially injustice which so blatantly makes others and lessers of women, minorities and the have-nots. These toxic messages were liberally served up as thick as peanut butter spread on white bread and the legacy is as toxic as type-two diabetes.
As Sara Stewart (2015) says, “Gather round, kiddies, and check out how rape and racism used to be hilarious punch lines.”
I say here’s to punching back.
As it glides past you in the water giving you a quick glance with its silvery cat eye, the tip of its dorsal fin barely splitting the skin of the surface leaving a trail that quickly vanishes as it too vanishes into the encompassing blue, do you think to yourself ‘there goes a story’?
I do. I think of a 450 million year old story formed in the deep time of the Silurian period. It is a shark story. But, what is a shark story? It’s a story that started 449, 800,000 years before modern Homo sapiens journeyed out of Africa 200,000 years ago in the Pleistocene and then the Holocene but it may well end with us, in our names, at our hands in the Anthropocene.
So, if this is the story, who is telling it? Is it co-constructed or is any story just a story of us or better still and more accurately, is any story of us just a shark story? We have never been on Earth without them. As Donna Haraway would ask, who crafted your eyes to read it and my hands to write it? Whose story is this really, theirs, mine or ours? There is no my story, no your story without sharks – there is only our story. A shark story can only ever be a become together (Haraway, 2008) story just like a snail story, a whale story and a crow story because we are one of the latest arrivals to the party and we have never known the party without them. But how to tell this, our story? Is it told through personal experience and anecdotes in the watery field? Is told through paleontological reflections of evolution? Is it told from the perspective of fishers or conservationists or both? Is it told through ethographical or ethnographical methods? Is it told from the shark’s perspective – through observations of its body movements, comportment, proximity and eye contact that I/we are still trying to decipher? Is it told from a fanciful shark POV giving it human voice as in a child’s story?
Whose company am I keeping here in this telling? I am with Haas and Cousteau? No, far too masculine, far too much spear fishing and fish killing in a boy’s own adventure story and boy’s own adventure stories are stories of culture trumping nature, human dominance over the environment, man vs nature.
This story of mine washes around with the other wet women whose work I admire, so perhaps I am keeping company with the incomparable Rachel Carson, or maybe Dr. Eugenie Clark, Valerie Taylor or Dr. Sylvia Earle? Maybe it’s closer to Madison Stewart ‘Sharkgirl’. But these stories have already been told. Am I staying with Haraway’s trouble and spending time with the shark fishers, shark finners and shark fin soup eaters? No, far too distressing, crazy making and enraging. Am I spending time with the shark callers of PNG? No, they are shark killers too, reduced to shark killing for a tourism spectacle in the tired old man vs nature story (is it just me, or is anyone else getting really bored with this story?). Am I spending time with the shark callers of the Solomon Islanders who were shark worshippers? No, because I’ve been there/done that, they’re all dead and gone and the practice went with them. Am I with Val Plumwood – yes as I agree with her on almost everything I understand her to mean but the ideas seem distant and difficult to hitch onto a living/moving shark and are far from the immediate our story time of now. Am I with Patrick Nason, yes, sort of, closer as we share admiration for the same shark loving biologists Hammerschlag and Gallagher but not quite as I am not as interested in the people as much as I am in the sharks. Am I a frustrated marine biologist? Perhaps. Am I an anthropologist? No because I am not concerned about the people involved in the shark stories. Time and again I am told that I need to be concerned about the livelihoods of the fishers and the peoples and the cultures involved in oceanic happenings but I am not concerned or interested – that can be someone else’s job – it’s not mine (harsh I know but true for me at this point in time and I have to stay true to my own story). I am interested in the sharks. I am much more interested in a shark’s potential to continue to live than a fisher’s potential to continue to be able to catch it. Am I with Leigh Gibbs? No, much as I like what she is attempting, these are 2nd and even 3rd hand ideas about ideas about sharks – and for me, there cannot be a shark story if you have never even seen a shark let alone not made eye contact with one, not negotiated space with one or not even fed one. So, this story is proving to be elusive as I am finding it difficult to tell a pro-shark story in the field of humanities (I think the root word human in the title should have given me a strong clue that this was going to be a hard ask of me). The whole process is having the feeling of trying to nail jelly to the wall – an impossible task.
As a storytelling feminist, activist, shark-loving, ocean-using, non fish-eating woman from Canada now living in Australia I have gone around in circles for years trying to tell this story. So far I have told it in published poems and short stories but I wanted to tell something bigger, bolder, a girl’s own adventure story of 20 + years of sharing space with sharks around the world. I wanted my story to be a story that could make a difference – one that had a stamp of academic approval and one that could affect change. I am slowly coming to the conclusion that this story is one that cannot exist for me in this form. I am back to where I started many years ago writing shark stories and back to 2 ½ years ago writing a PhD shark story that will never be published in this form.
I am coming to terms with the fact that this is ok, because this in itself is a story. It’s a story of trial and error. It’s also a story of victory (getting into the program and working with a supervisor who has exposed me to a whole new world) and it’s a story of defeat (realising the theory is proving to be difficult and too abstracting for me from the ‘now’ of the anthropocenic shark story I am trying to tell).
And so, here I am, again at the beginning, a blank piece of paper in front of me, as endless and vast as the ocean, with a story hidden inside of it – an elusive story like the shark swimming past, its quick glance burning itself into me, branding me, leaving me with a yearning to tell our story.
I wrote this poem in 2005 and it was published in Famous Reporter #31 2005.
Great White Shark
Swimming through eternity
Did you glide past corroborees
on the shore
lonely for the experience?
Or did you recoil from the land
with an arc of your great tail
when you became aware of
the mortal coil that binds us?
Did a drop of Jesus’ blood
make its way to you
as it trickled for centuries
down the beams of wood?
And what of the Sudanese?
Did you grow tired of the taste
of two million of them?
Or was their flesh
sweet and supple as the Tutsis,
The Kurds, Kosovars and Albanians?
You will never starve
Your belly will always
with our spoils.
And from the shore
we dare to call you
In our composting group, hedgehog, galah and I recently read this paper. We did it with reservations, trepidation and palpitations. It was very far out of our comfort zone that is exactly what we needed.
I commend her for writing this paper because it brings up the things that are uncomfortable. This is a dangerous paper. It is a terrifying paper in that it can allow us off the hook and enable us to feel ok about what we are doing to our world. Regardless of what we do to it, the planet is going to die at some point like every other living thing that has or will ever live. We often forget this fact that our planetary destiny is to collide with the sun, or have a meteor collide with us or to spin off away from the sun…death is due all life but it doesn’t mean we need to encourage or hasten its occurrence. We shouldn’t be shouting at the suicidal jumper to meet us on the pavement 20 floors down.
This paper is a brave new way to look at doom but it may just be what late capitalist forces are waiting for, a free pass to not only continue business as usual but to accelerate it and operate without the need for restraint or forward thought.
Homo sapiens sapiens are a geological force enacting change. Buck talks of us as “a collectively bland actant” which perhaps not accidently brings up the ideas of the banality of evil (Arendt, 1963) but Buck is talking about it as a binary opposite to graphic stories of destruction like say, Chernobyl or what is happening to the Great Barrier Reef. The slow, usual destruction we no longer see such as agriculture and electricity and housing, the necessities of our modern lives are still forms of destruction – albeit, not the type that shouts from front pages and sells papers, but destruction. Whether we are destroying in immediate graphic technicolour sound-bytes or slow grinding almost invisible mechanisms, we are still destroying and it is difficult for many of us to find any enchantment in it.
This type of discourse bristles and chafes against our sensibilities – it is uncomfortable, difficult and haunting and the very reason for this is that it may be inevitable. This type of discourse may enable corporations like Shell and BP to sponsor the tracking of the last whales and sharks and quolls and the museum-ification of whatever happens to remain. It can be clearly seen, “The Last Ones: This zoo enclosure is fuelled by solar energy proudly provided by Shell and BP.”
I want to believe what she is saying, that this re-enchantment is possible, because life would be easier, we could be happier and less worried and we could accept destruction and death as a natural and inevitable part of anthropocenic life. Hard as I have tried, I can’t buy it. The acceptance of living with anthropocenic loss is not a bridge I am willing or able to cross, not just yet at least. I don’t want to encourage the jumper to jump, I don’t want to be silent about Abbott Point coal mine, I don’t want undersea oil exploration to continue…This feels eerily close to Banksy’s Dismaland theme park, but it feels like a genuine option in this paper instead of a scathing comment on business as usual as it is for Banksy. When I am willing to accept these things I will buy my ticket to see the Last Ones exhibit and like a princess in a child’s story, I will let myself be enchanted.
Banksy’s Dismaland (photo courtesy CBC)
On the Possibilities of a Charming Anthropocene
by Holly Jean Buck (2014)
As I sit here in the library availing myself of the free wi-fi and the wonderful benefits of tax dollars well-spent, I have been pondering the argument I have been trying (and not very successfully conveying) about my problems with culture. I am going to use this post to think out loud about the argument I am trying to put in my thesis about the problematic nature of culture and its repeated trumping of nature.
Culture is the story we tell ourselves. They are the stories of bringing an evergreen bough into the house in winter to symbolise that despite the death outside in the depths of winter, life persists and spring will come again. It is a moon with a rabbit and a beautiful woman on it. It is three young sisters turned into stone for their own protection. Yes, they are comforting to those who know them and interesting to those who do not and they were at one time necessary but these are not truths, they are stories told to teach us lessons, give us hope, provide meaning…they are myriad in their uses but basically, they were ways of making sense of huge abstract ideas which were then unknowable and unknown by science. They were also used to form belief systems and systems of control which are often one and the same. Culture has become shorthand for othering because in a globalised world, culture is now providing division not unity.
All of these stories and basically all culture came from distinct regions and these stories united people and kept people together. They come from a time where the earth was flat and monsters existed and retribution from spirit(s) holy or otherwise was possible and inevitable.
All of these stories from all the cultures all around the world have the same three things in common:
They all come from a patriarchal perspective
They all come from the time period 40,000 years ago – 1900
They all come from a relatively stable world population of approximately 2 billion people
All world culture stems from known human time. The human population of the world was for a very long time, geographically isolated and thus culturally isolated. Land bridges and seafaring helped to shift populations out of Africa to spread around the world. Human cultural stories range from 40,000 years ago to about the 1930s all during a human population timeline of about 2 billion people. To put this in perspective, while the human population of the planet has remained relatively stable for about 40,0000 years, it has now more than tripled in my mother’s lifetime. She is 74 years old. It has grown from 2 billion to almost 8 in 74 years. Unprecedented in the history of humans on Earth.
Yes, culture was an essential tool for human survival in the pre-globalised world. The stories kept children safe, gave meaning and purpose and controlled masses with fear and rules. It kept us from sailing off the edge of the map and it averted any existential crisis. It kept communities together in a geographically isolated world.
Now, in a globalised world of both multiculturalism and cultural imperialism, instantaneous and non-stop information, these cultural stories no longer unify, they separate and divide and add to the hyperseparation Val Plumwood so beautifully warned us of. This continual separation of culture between groups of humans is also fuelling the separation of human animals from the natural world we evolved from and are a part of. Culture is continuously held up as a sacrosanct norm which must never, ever be criticised or diminished. And it is done so as felled rainforests logs pile up for palm oil, beef and sugar cane and coconuts, and as oceans are emptied of sharks for soup and savannahs are cleared of elephants and rhinos for boner pills. Why on Earth do we think this is acceptable? Why do we continue to hold up our rights to do things over the planet’s right to continue its evolutionary work of keeping itself and all living things alive?
As long as we hold human mastery over nature and certain forms of culture over others we will keep killing, destroying and denuding the very systems we depend on. Until the power of the sun as an energy source becomes a universal cultural norm, coal oil and gas will continue to kill us. Until the evolutionary integrity of our biospheric others and their ecological services are acknowledged and honoured and their lives are respected as equal to ours, we will continue to extinguish them and relegate them to the confines of extinction.
Culture must be seen for what it is – stories. Yes, stories are important. As a story-teller, I hold them dear. But I don’t want to hear stories that contribute to the continued mastery of this planet by us. I want to hear stories that unify us through the only things that truly DO unify us; the systems of this planet. We all rely on the sun’s rays to keep us alive, to melt the glaciers that provide our fresh water, to feed the plants we human animals and our biospheric others rely on to live.
This story belongs to ALL of us and in this age of the anthropocene, it seems to be the only story worth telling because it is the only story which is universally true and that is something we can ALL believe.