Saturday, June 9, 2007


Aquaphilia is a condition of loving waterways, rivers, oceans, bays, lakes, springs, rain, snow and ice. It flows through our lives like a dazzling current. Aquaphilia emerges out of an immersion in waterscapes and their surroundings, so much so that we are transformed. The result is a deep respect and reverence for the life giving properties of water. Water is precious but all over the world waterways, both salt and fresh, are under threat from urban development, industrialisation, pollution, overfishing and global warming. But likewise, across the globe, there are watercarers working to protect and preserve these sacred environments.

In the past two weeks the environment has played centre stage at the G8 meeting in Germany. Sir Bob Geldof called it 'a total farce'. The major government leaders seemed to bury their heads in the sand, not seeing the urgent need to take the environment seriously, well not until or at least the year 2050.

Their lack of action flew in the face of a UN report 'Global Outlook for Ice and Snow' released last week which heralded the enormous impact that melting ice and snow will have on millions of people and environments worldwide. The report noted that 'glaciers from the Himalayas to the Alps are in retreat, permafrost from Alaska to Siberia is warming and snowfalls are becoming unreliable in many regions' (Doyle, 2007).

While the G8 nations have been at their talkfest, another important environment event was taking place in the American Senate Environment and Public Works Committee: An Examination of the Views of Religious Organizations Regarding Global Warming. One of the speakers giving evidence was the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church. Before becoming a priest she was an oceanographer, and she began her testimony merging her scientific background with her faith:

'As one who has been formed both through a deep faith and as a scientist I believe science has revealed to us without equivocation that climate change and global warming are real, and caused in significant part by human activities. They are a threat not only to God’s good creation but to all of humanity. This acknowledgment of global warming, and the Church’s commitment to ameliorating it, is a part of the ongoing discovery of God’s revelation to humanity and a call to a fuller understanding of the scriptural imperative of loving our neighbor'.

Loving our neighbour. The ocean. The river. The creatures of the water. In the animistic world of visionary and indigenous cultures, neighbours can be both human and 'other than human' - rivers, trees, rocks, birds, animals. This is illustrated beautifully in the words of the Inuit elder Nalungiaq interviewed in the 1930s by Danish ethnographer Knut Rasmussen (cited by Rothenberg, 1996:139):

'In the very earliest time, when both people and animals lived on the earth, a person could become an animal if she wanted,
or an animal could be a human being. There was no difference. All spoke the same language.'

Can we still learn to speak the language of animals, or hear the guuurrrggle of the river, the plushshshshsh of the ocean wave, or attune to the sounds of the earth? Dave Foreman (1991:4-5) passionate activist from the Rewilding Institute and founder of Earth First! in the US, says 'Yes' and declares his animism:

'We must break out of society’s freeze on our passions, we must become animals again. … Damn it, I am an animal. A living being of flesh and blood, storm and fury. The oceans of the Earth course through my veins, the winds of the sky fill my lungs, the very bedrock of the planet makes my bones.'

Perhaps the biophilia hypothesis of E. O Wilson (1986) shares, to some extent, this animistic view. Wilson explains that as humans, we have an innate affinity with with the natural world; it's hardwired, part of our genetic makeup. This love of life compels us to embrace a conservation ethic. It is only natural. We are nature and we need the otherness of nature for human survival. Physically we need nature for food and shelter, but emotionally and spiritually, connecting with nature, with the river, with sacred places, can boost emotional and spiritual wellbeing and quality of life (Ogunseitan, 2005).

If you would like to make a comment, please click 'Comments' below.

Doyle A, 2007, Melting Ice, Snow To Hit Livelihoods Worldwide, UN Says, Environmental News Network, June 4,
Foreman D, 1991, Confessions of An Eco-Warrior, New York, Harmony Books.
Ogunseitan OA, 2005, Topophilia and the Quality of Life, Environmental Health Perspectives, 113, 2, 143-148,
Rothenberg D, Ed, 1996, Wild Ideas, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Wilson EO, 1986, Biophilia, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Mud and Mangroves

Looking over the narrow bridge that spans Sandy Creek I realised it was almost time for LowTide Day as there was an unusually wide expanse of thick, deep, oozy mud along the creek bank, far wider than I had seen before. LowTide Day is significant as it commemorates the day with the lowest tide around the globe.

The LowTide event was started in 1995 by the organisation riverOcean Foundation located in southern England. It is a recognition of the intimate connection between river and ocean, salt and fresh water, and the incoming-outflowing movement of the tides. All round the UK coast, on the continent and in other coastal areas in different places around the world, communities organise discovery walks, rock pool rambles, local 'fayres', and run workshops on habitat restoration, sustainable fishing and marine and coastal conservation.

Through exploring the intertidal zone, experiencing the ebb and flow of the tides, and learning about the delicate balance of coastal and riverine ecosystems, local communities celebrate the pull of the moon and sun on the interflow of waters from one side of the planet to the other.

Witnessing the rhythmic movement of tides along Sandy Creek and the Brisbane River puts me in touch with this global event, where patterns of life, human, land and water, intermingle and flourish. Places like this where diverse ecosystems meet are known as 'ecotones', in-between spaces of rich abundance and high fecundity where plants and animals have learned to adapt and thrive amongst the constant interchange of fresh and salt waters.

One of the most amazing of plants that survives within this edgy transition zone is the mangrove. These very clever trees live in the saltiest of environments. How? One way is through their super-smart leaves which can excrete the salt that has accumulated in the trunk and roots, while other mangrove species are able to prevent the salt from entering their systems.

The salty terrain has also created a unique form of mangrove propagation known as viviparity (bringing forth live young). After pollination, the seeds, which would die in saltwater, germinate and develop into seedlings while still attached to the parent plant. Eventually these seedlings (or propogules) drop off the trunk, sink into mud and take root. And the roots of mangroves are its other very clever function. They reach upwards, exposed to the air because the swampy conditions create an anerobic environment that stifles oxygen reaching the tree-roots.

The mangroves act as a buffer, a permeable boundary between water and land. Like environmental sentinels they protect the land from potentially devastating and surging waters. Studies on the effect of tsunamis and hurricanes in coastal areas show that mangrove forests, as well as fringing coral reefs, help to moderate the overwhelming effects of severe ocean and coastal storms by providing what's described as a bioshield.

But overdevelopment, the growth of coastal tourism, widespread agriculture and the explosion of aquaculture projects have placed tremendous presssure on the mangrove tidal zone. For example, the Science and Development Network reports that 'mangrove replanting programmes in India and Indonesia are struggling in the face of pressure from developers wanting to build shrimp farms'.

In this mangrove microcosm along the Brisbane River, there is also the threat of development in the air. Condominiums are mooted. The community is fighting back. All along the river freeways and high rise apartment blocks have encroached the wild spaces, so this tiny fragment of bush is precious and needs to be cared for.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Water Cycle & World Environment Day

Today is a global celebration for the planet, for raising awareness of climate change, of melting polar ice and vanishing polar bears. A day to be even more aware of the scarcity of water on this, the dryest of continents.

Brisbane's water storages are rapidly running out of water. There is only about 18 percent of water remaining for the city. The government is trying to conserve this precious resource by limiting the length of time for showers and the number of days and hours that gardens can be watered. Is this enough? It is also encouraging residents to install water tanks, grey water systems, and solar hot water. This is such a positive step but it took a potential crisis for action to be taken.

I have often thought that we need a day for honouring the Water Cycle. This week marks World Environment Day (June 5) and World Ocean Day (June 8) and both are connected through the water or hydrological cycle. Water Cycle Day would be a day set aside for revering the connectedness between salt and fresh water, between ocean and rivers, between land, sea and sky. It would pay homage to the process that brings life giving rain.

Tonight the rain is pouring down outside, one of the first bouts of rain in the few months I have lived here. The skies had been grey all day and there was a promise of rain. In fact many days have been like this. Grey clouds, a whiff of dampness, but then the sun comes out and chases the rain away. Not tonight. The ground is thirsty and slurps up the water voraciously, flowing into the drains, the creek, the river and the ocean. The ocean is the grand storehouse for the earth's water supply, holding around 96.5 percent of all the water on the planet.

Water is also flowing in the sky, evaporating and condensing, shaping and reshaping cloud formations made up of tiny water droplets. When we were children we spent hours lying on our backs looking up at the sky telling stories of the images we could see in the swirl and dance of the water vapour. Without realising we were worshipping the sacred process of the movement of water from land to sea and back again.

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Monday, June 4, 2007

Kites above the River

High overhead and leaning right over the river sit two regal birds. Bhahminy kites. These raptors follow the coast and tidal waterways in search of food and nesting sites. The pair sit perched over the water watching the river intently. Scrutinising the surface for fish and the ground for frogs, small rodents or birds fossicking on the ground. Waiting patiently. Then, launching from their treetop vantage point, the birds plunge, catching their prey with razor sharp talons. Then they wheel into the air, seek out the eddies and glide, almost floating.

The Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds (1976:121) describes the kites as 'handome', 'quiet' and 'unobtrusive'. They have white feathered heads and glossy russet feathered bodies with flashes of dark chesnut along their wing tips visible as they fly. They are mainly solitary birds except at breeding times, from April to October in the dry season in northern Australia.

I peer into the tall branches, looking for a nest of sticks and twigs; it could be up to 11 meters above ground. But all I see are the two birds silently watching.

In other parts of the world like Indonesia Brahminy kites are in danger. This beautiful emblem of the city of Jakarta is threatened from habitat destruction and illegal capture from the wild, for sale as a pet and status symbol for the home. The International Animal Rescue organisation has set up a program to rehabilitate these endangered birds back into the wild. It is a slow and careful process and not all birds can successfully be returned, they've spent too much time with humans and have forgotten how to be wild birds. Yet in the past two years the IAR has released 34 kites with, hopefully, more to come.

This amazing photo of a Brahminy kite in flight was taken by Singaporean nature photographer Fong Chee Wai from the
Nature Photography Society of Singapore.

Frith HJ, Ed, 1976, Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds, Surry Hills, NSW, Reader's Digest Services Pty Ltd.

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Raven Tree

Not long ago, as I trotted along the riverside track, I heard a loud cawing of ravens. Not one long call but one, and another, and another, and another. A chorus of raven calls coming from just one tree. Over a dozen ravens were perched high in one eucalypt and although there were other tall trees nearby, more and more ravens kept flying into this one tree beacon. It sounded like the tree itself was singing.

But it was the sound of one call overlapping with another and another, multiplied by many birds, that created an unusual multilayered tone, at least for this environment. It was as if the birds were chanting a long drawn out 'OM'. A spiritual chant across the Brisbane River from birds known for their magic and role in mythology and fairy tale.

Ravens chanting 'OM' reminds me of a wondrous experience recounted by the Gestalt psychologist John Swanson (1997). Every year John spends time alone in wild nature on a kind of personal vision quest. One morning, as he sat on a pile of logs on the river, meditating and chanting his own version of 'OM', he was joined in his ceremony by one of the local residents. It is such a special story that I will quote John Swanson here in full:

'Wednesday morning: As I hop out to my place on the logs, the sunlight is already showing on the treetops behind me. I begin as I often do with a combination of praying, gently "ohming," and singing "thank you for this day." As the sun begins to break the horizon, I settle more deeply into the serenity of gentle ohming. The soothing sounds of my chanting reverberate within and without.

When the sun is half way up, I look to my left and sitting on the same log, about twelve feet to my left, is an otter!

I fall silent, being careful not to make any sudden gestures. I sit very still, containing my excitement about what will happen next. He -- if he is a "he" -- stays there only briefly before slithering off the log. Breaking my own guidelines which call for silence, I resume my gentle ohming chant. A few moments later, his head pops up in front of me and slightly to the right; close enough so that if I bent over and leaned out I could have touched him. Eyeball to eyeball, we look into each other's eyes for a few long seconds. Then, the otter opens its mouth, and in a raspy low moan out comes the sound, "ohm." As soon as he finishes this startlingly good otter version, he drops out of sight again. In the silence that follows, I feel astonished, exhilarated and blessed.

I resume ohming, which now resonates with special feeling for my surprise visitor. This time around I sing not only "Thank you for this day" but also "Thank you for this otter." A short while later, I notice a nose sticking out from between two logs just two or three feet to my left and slightly behind me. My otter friend has joined the ceremony. I continue to ohm and once again he responds with his own ohm sound. I am sharing my sunrise ceremony with an otter! After awhile he disappears beneath the water.

Soon after his departure, I express my gratitude for this wonderful event and start to leave. Two steps into leaving, a loud moan startles me as I step onto a log. Recoiling with dread that I might have squashed him under the log, I bend over, scanning the surface of the water for some sign of him, saying, "I'm sorry. Are you OK?" Immediately, the otter appears and swims around and right up to my right foot which he would be touching if it weren't higher up on the log. Looking right into my eyes, he "ohms again." I "ohm" back. Again, we are eyeball to eyeball. I find myself talking to him, "Isn't this a wonderful home" and "I am writing a book that I hope will help save this place and others like it for us all." After this brief encounter, he once again submerges. I pause a moment to see if he will re-emerge, and when he doesn't, I return to my campsite.'

John Swanson's book is called Communing with Nature: A Guidebook for Enhancing your Relationship with the Living Earth. Corvallis, OR, Illahee Press, 2001.

If you would like to make a comment, please click onto the section marked comments below.

Swanson JL, 1997, Prescribing Nature: Exploring the Subjective Frontiers of Nature,