Tuesday, 5 December 2017

In Japan

Now where the hell is the lift?! We’re struggling with our suitcases to get down to the platform at Kanayama Station in Nagoya, Japan. There’s usually a lift but we don’t know the station. Out of nowhere, a woman points us in the right direction. No request from us: she just reads the situation and throws us a little help in the middle of her daily commute.

I’m in Japan for the First International Landcare Conference. The formal courtesy of the Japanese makes an immediate impression. Endless hellos and goodbyes, thank yous. Surprising at first, then charming, then a little tiring, until I give up and go with it and bow. Behind this formality lies a sensitivity to social space: a stranger reads a traveller’s predicament and helps. She’s not a stranger of course - this is her home, and her social duty is to help.

Travelling with seven Australians and one Kiwi on the preconference tour, I am struck by the way we address the space between. We don’t temper our noisy outgoing natures. We’re friendly and well-meaning, but blunt, lumbering about in a culture where the first move is to bow out of respect not just for the other, but for the business of negotiating a shared social life.

We’re visiting Shinshiro, a rural area 100 kms out of Nagoya, to meet with Akira Takahashi, a forester supporting the local community make more of its timber resources. Planted post-war, the cypress pine in these steep valleys made good money until international supply in the 1980s brought the price right down. People took jobs in neighbouring manufacturing areas, and gave up looking after their lots. Families have forgotten what they own, and children don’t think much of owning a bit of rural land. The few who still work the forests are in heading into their 80s.

A well-tended Cypress Pine lot

Akira introduces himself as a forest detective, tracking down who owns what in the forests, and showing the locals how they might go back to using local timber for heating houses and greenhouses. We head into the forest to see the pines, well-managed lots climbing up the slopes and those that have been left to grow untended. The afternoon light catches the shift to autumn in the deciduous trees.

Akira Takahashi, Shinshiro
Next morning at the community centre, we find that Akira has a couple more strings to his bow. Timber harvested locally buys a sum in a local currency that can be used to buy services from local businesses, or cashed in (if people choose) for hard cash. The 30 or so timber harvesters gather monthly to hear what has been harvested and what has been spent locally. Keeping track of the local currency brings them together and strengthens their commitment to harvesting. It builds the motivation to bring other families and their forgotten forest lots into the scheme.

He’s an outsider, Akira says. It has taken time for people to trust him. I’m struck by his vision and his patience. He’s using a local currency to make the value of logging visible in the community. The scheme is leverage too to bring local government in with a subsidy added to what the market will pay for local timber. He senses the space between himself and others, and what it will allow. As we put forward our questions and suggestions, I watch him attending to the space we make together. That’s the learning I take with me as we pile onto the bus, rowdy Antipodeans, for the next leg of our tour.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare, ross.colliver@bigpond.com

By the fire

All those months of cold, waiting for warm days, and now I’m sad. It’s the fire, you see. I need the fire less and less, and I miss it already. The summer I moved to Riddells, Fred Barlow helped get my wiring in shape. He was solicitous but insistent - I must set myself up with adequate heating. ‘We have long winters here,’ he said. ‘You don’t want to get cold.’

I settled on a modest steel box from New Zealand, just enough to heat my small house, with a window that would let me see the fire. Eight years on, we have formed a close relationship. When people ask me if I have a dog, I say, no I don’t, but I’ve got a fire. They seem similar to me: I tend the fire through the day and the evenings, and it gives me companionship. Warmth, yes, but more than that, it demands my attention and care. The fire responds precisely to my care or lack of it.

There’s the work of fetching wood, stacking in a load for the week ahead, getting a range of sizes ready, from great lumps through to smaller pieces good for instant flame. This year’s firewood was not fully dry (I had words with my supplier), but the stack from last year is bone dry and good to mix in with the damp wood to get it going, and I’ve played them off against each other.

Then I must understand where the fire is in its cycles of arising and falling away, and think ahead to what I and the fire will need. Is the evening coming on cold? An extra log then, so that all is well-established before I tamp it down in an hour’s time and head for bed. Or, the house is warm now from the morning sun falling through the windows, but it’s still cold and there’s cloud around. I’ll keep the fire ticking over low, so I can stir it up if the day closes over.

I must read the fire’s state precisely, and make good decisions. Which pieces are right to take it from its dawn slumber to morning warmth? And now, at the start of the evening, I have loaded in a broad meaty chunk of red gum to carry me into the night. I know the fire has the body for it, a glowing bed of coals and half-consumed pieces, ready to wrap themselves around this old tree from up along the Murray River, bringing its next transformation. The flue settings too require artful attention. I must let just the right amount of air through to let the fire offer up the heat the house needs at each point of the day and night.

There’s a way of thinking that we have, when we switch on the light or fill up the car or go online, that these basics will be available to us as a constant stream. Uninterrupted. At our command. For us. When the constant supply is broken for some reason (the power fails, Telstra is down or overloaded), we are disturbed, unsettled, indignant. Our servants have deserted us, and our anger speaks of our sudden vulnerability. It points to our hubris too: we assume that the world should be on tap for us.

Relying on a wood fire, the starting point is my vulnerability and my dependence. I must care for the fire if the fire is to care for me. The same reciprocity applied when we grew our food, grains and vegetables, digging yams, hunting the roo, slaughtering a sheep. We have lived like this for so many generations, it must have entered our genetic code. We need to wake this reciprocity up, for the denial of our dependence on the natural world is at the root of our indifference to its present anguish. We are earthly creatures. If we care for the land, the land will care for us.

A couple of years before her death, my Aunt Beth replaced her fire with a gas fire: too much work she said. As my hands get weaker, I can understand that, but I fear the day I can’t tend the fire. I would lose this intimacy with another living being, my constant through winter. I give, and the fire gives back. Coming out at night, awake for no good reason, to sit beside its deep glow in the dark of the night, no lights on, just the lick of flame around the dark wood, the tick of coals falling slightly apart: what better company can a human have?

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare, ross.colliver@bigpond.com

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Close to the wild

So here’s a full page advertisement in the Fairfax ‘Good Weekend’ magazine, offering a journey with the Sami people of Lapland during their spring reindeer migration. A gorgeous photo shot from above, by a drone presumably, of a reindeer herd peeling around a human.

The relationship is symbiotic: the reindeer have come to depend on human assistance to survive through the winter, eating the lichens their humans uncover in the snows. Fourteen days in Lapland would be wondrous, but the realities beneath the gloss of tourism make me mad.

White people have only just finished taking Sami children from their families to rear them in 'white' families: now we’re good friends, soaking up a life lived close to the wild. A little bit of danger to ease our urban ennui.
In the fine print, I see that those of us who can afford it will be 'skiing between islands on frozen seas', and sleeping in ‘luxury domes specially shipped from Switzerland’. We'll be flying in from around the globe for this indulgence, the whole exercise accelerating the melting of the Arctic ice on which this way of life depends. Get it before it melts, and let's hope the Sami make a buck out of it too.

Can’t we do better than this? Not on the other side of the globe, but right here, in our own country? I’m working on the Country Plan for the Wotjabaluk Peoples, Wimmera mob. Yesterday, I located a photo for one of their special places, a place called Goyura, near Hopetoun in the north east Wimmera. The Barengi Gadjin Land Council holds title to a 2.02 hectare freehold property, and manage it on behalf of the Wotjobaluk Peoples, whose connection with this place goes back a very long time. There are woodlands with the grassy, saltbush understories that once graced this landscape, and remnant River Red Gums across half the property. Traditional food plants are plentiful and there’s evidence of gatherings and food collection near this property.  

Now here’s a place to get closer to the wild, camping out with the people from this Country, if they wanted that. Drive 3 hours from Riddells, set the stew cooking in the camp oven, sit around the fire. Talk. We might hear stories of this place, stories of dispossession and persistence, of families torn apart and knitting themselves together again. If we paid for the company of an ethno-botanist or an archaeologist, as these high-intensity tours do, perhaps we could contribute to piecing together a shared appreciation of Country. Yarning around a fire would go a some way to healing our relationship with Country.

We could do this, if we had the imagination. It would do as much to sharpen our care for this land, I mused to myself this week, as measuring its destruction. I had an email about a new analysis by Robert Costanza, an ecological economist at ANU. Costanza was one of the guiding hands behind the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2001 to 2005, which brought together the work of more than 1,300 experts to assess the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. A decade on, his latest study lets us choose our future from four different scenarios: depending on the scenario, the global value of ecosystem services will decline by USD $51 trillion/yr or increase by $30 trillion/yr. That’s handy to know, but only if it fuels our advocacy and a bit of local action.

Talking of local action, Alice Aird and Helen Scott from Newham and District Landcare came to our AGM and briefed us on what they've have been doing to protect roadside vegetation, that nondescript bush flicking past your car window.... until you stop the car, let your senses settle, and get down close to these remnant grasslands, tiny wildernesses Alice called them, a tightly knit association of grasses, lilies, mosses, ants, native bees, worked out over millennia. Right here, right now.

Feel the wonder and fragility of it, and send our prayers to the Sami.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare

Thursday, 24 August 2017

For more than the view

I know a couple who walk in the Macedon Ranges. They drive out from Melbourne for the day, and their idea of walking is to cover territory. 18 kms, 20 kms, in all weathers. They arrive back at our place for a cuppa, glowing. I listen to their talk about the distance covered, in what time, with that bemused attitude the old have in the face of the energy of the young.

They used to invite me, but I declined. I don’t want to walk that fast, and there’s always work that needs doing around the property. The one time I did say yes, some years ago, we went up a stony, exposed slope so fast that I found myself unaccountably out of breath, my heart running very fast. This was the tachycardia I had been scrupulously ignoring, that came and went and came again until I and half a dozen medicos settled the matter in an operating theatre. Alright, I had very little to do with it, though they couldn’t have done it without me!

Anyway, I’d written off that kind of walking as ‘not my thing’, and my friends had given up inviting me. Then one Saturday recently, she was busy and he still wanted to walk, and out of obligation really I said yes, plus there was a promise of a short walk, just 12 kms. We drove up past Mt Macedon village, turned right into a steep cleft in the range, and parked beside what the map told us was the Macedon Ranges Walking Trail. Tight steps winding up, a slope as stony and exposed as the last time I was here, and winter’s chilling wind.

This time, my pulse lifted and levelled to a satisfactory work rate. Up the slope, onto a broad hilltop of small trees and grasses, then to a good dirt road. The blood and oxygen flowed, with air so sweet and cool! With the benefit of a little altitude, I found my breathing rhythm and my stride. Trees rose on every side, and the track wound on ahead. Then it came to me, or truer to say, I walked my way into it: ‘Ah, this, this is why you come here!’ My companion nodded, beaming - ‘But of course!’

We walked. The sun came out, lighting up the hillside, then retreated behind cloud. The trees and understorey adjusted themselves in the most subtle ways to changes in slope and aspect. We traversed a living land. Eventually, we came to the picnicked parts, rounded the lake and headed back down the same track, different taken this way and as fresh as the upward journey. Thigh muscles complained but held good down the final steep slope to the car, and then to sausage rolls at the Trading Post. Magnificent!

The next day, I was digging through digital folders, tidying up, and came an interview with John Berger. After his success with ‘Ways of Seeing’, Berger turned his back on London and the art scene and settled in the mountains of the Haute Savoie in France. A passionate intellectual, he lived and worked alongside the peasants there for the rest of his life. Of that place, he said: “This landscape was part of my energy, my body, my satisfaction and discomfort. I loved it not because it was a view – but because I participated in it.”


Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare

Friday, 14 July 2017

Bush Ranging

I’m just in from my first patrol through Barrm Birrm in my new Subaru Brumby. The elderly among you will remember the Brumby. 4WD, highway speed of 90 kmh. Tough as old boots—I had one once on a property, used it as a motorised wheel barrow. Carted a lot of field stone from my neighbour’s paddock.

Now I’ve got one care of my dear friend Tom, the itinerant academic, who’s gone to a real job in England. A couple of weeks ago, getting ready to go, he said: “How about I leave my Subaru at your place. Then you can drive me to the airport on Sunday night.” I’ve been wondering what to do with the Brumby. Took if for a run down to the shops, and everything seemed to work okay. On the way back, I saw fresh tracks going off into Barrm Birrm, and thought, time for a bit of 4WD action.

I poked my way up the track, and blow me down, there’s a couple of lads from Sunbury cutting firewood. Now that’s bloody stupid, first because the trees in Barrm Birrm are useless as firewood, second because fallen trees are habitat, third, and most distressingly, the lugs who cut timber insist on driving off the tracks to park right beside the tree they’ve chosen. I appreciate that the point of having a 4WD is that you can go anywhere, but this damages the complex of grasses, lichens and small shrubs that holds the surface together.

A campsite that appeared late this summer. Significant damage to understorey and trees.

Nature Lovers, there’s a lot more of this happening. The hills are alive with the sound of chainsaws. They’re coming from Sunbury, they’re coming from Romsey and Gisborne, with their “go anywhere I want” attitudes, to get firewood and most recently, to camp out. I like these guys (typically, they’re guys). They like getting out into the bush. They’re not slumped in front of a screen. But with Sunbury set to double, we have a problem! As visitors increase, so does the rate of degradation in Barrm Birrm, this year, by an order of magnitude.

Clipping on my Bush Ranger badge, I stopped the Brumby and we had a yarn. The Brumby turned out to be a good starting point. I empathised with the need for firewood, but managed to say on parting that driving over the grasses stuffs them up, and that if they wanted to be environmentally responsible dudes next time, they could park the big machine on the established track and carry the firewood to the vehicle. Carry it 10 metres. In these small acts hangs the fate of our planet (sigh!).

13th August, 3-4.30, join us at Riddells Landcare’s AGM, and we’ll pursue the theme with Alice Aird and Helen Scott from over the hill at Newham and District Landcare. They’ve been campaigning to get residents and the Shire to look after roadside vegetation. I think of them as Bush Rangers, a species of citizen scientist, out on the ground, keeping a look out for what’s happening, ringing bells and insisting that people think a lot harder about the impact they are having on this beautiful place we live in. Google “Riddells Creek Landcare” for location details of our AGM, and please know that you’re very welcome.

Ross Colliver, Riddells Creek Landcare, ross.colliver@bigpond.com