Saturday, December 29, 2007

Spiders Catch the Sun

The river valley is filled with sparkling jewels and precious metals. The trail is awash with emerald, peridot and jade scattered above the the thick brown mud along the mangrove-hugging creek and interwoven within the steep and rocky embankment.

Over the past few weeks the tall Eucalypts have been shedding their bark. It falls to the ground in thin strands, sometimes hanging down in long strips as if the old bark is flowing from the tree right into the earth. Beneath the old skin is revealed a brand new trunk of lustrous bronze glistening in the sunlight. Also shining are the new leaves sprouting from the gum and wattle saplings and other bushes - sometimes glowing a bright copper, sometimes a luscious deep ruby, sometimes a blue-tinged silver and sometimes a brilliant lime-gold.

Walking along the pathway I duck to avoid the precious gold and silver threads of intricate spider webs woven between the branchlets. Within the web dead insects are wrapped as treasures; they hang from the web's centre as the spider sits and waits ... for more prey perhaps? As the sunlight catches its golden cord I'm reminded of a comment from the biomimicry biologist Janine Benyus (2005) who suggests that spiders have valuable lessons to impart. She points out that:

'A spider makes silk ... that is five times stronger, ounce for ounce, than steel. It's resilient and tough - a true miracle fibre. Even more incredible, a spider uses flies and crickets as raw material and creates the fibre at body temperature (a life-friendly temperature), because the manufacturing plant is the spider's body. Furthermore, the fibre is biodegradable, so the spider can eat the web to make more web.'

The clever spinning spider inspires people like Benyus to create biodegradable, sustainable and useful products. This is done, she says, by entering 'into deep conversation with organisms' which 'absolutely fills you with awe'. The first step for scientists is not to rush into research but first to reflect on the evocative questions she poses: 'How does nature teach? How does nature learn? How does nature heal? How does nature communicate?' In the process of contemplation, Benyus advises a respectful listening to the natural world and an acknowledgement of thanks for the inspiration it offers. This engenders an ethic of care. She says:

'Seeing nature as model, measure, and mentor changes the very way you view and value the natural world. Instead of seeing nature as warehouse, you begin to see her as teacher. Instead of valuing what you can extract from her, you value what you can learn from her. And this changes everything. ... When what we learn improves how we live, we grow grateful, and that leads to the last step in the path: stewardship and caretaking, a practical thanksgiving for what we've learned.'

This practical awareness of the spiders' gifts has been implemented by tribal cultures in the Asia-Pacific region who gather spider fibre to make fish nets and traps and capture small birds with the sticky web fibres. And I was always told that spider webs can be used to stem the flow of blood on wounds.

More recently the strength and elasticity of the Golden Orb Spiders' silky web have led scientists to research the properties of spider silk and ask how spiders actually create their silky home. They are looking to transform the spiders' clever spinning into military use as armour (e.g. bullet proof material) as well as creating their own forms of synthetic biosilk for use in textiles and other products like fishing line through the use of genetic modification (see: Borchardt, Christian Science Monitor, 2004).

For instance, Japanese scientists, reports the Times of India (2007), have genetically modified silkworms to produce soft silky socks with which they 'aim to revitalize both the wearers' feet with possible anti-ageing effects and Japan's waning silk and socks industry'. While in 2002, the New York Times (2002) reported that goats had been genetically adapted with a gene from the Golden Orb Weaver to produce milk laced with spider silk (See Osborne, 2002, an article well worth a read).

Reading about the scientific and military uses of spider thread I think again about the biomimicry perspective of Janine Benyus who advises on the need for gratitude towards nature for its teaching and guidance and wonder if her perspective incorporates the questionable ethics and morality of the spiders' genetically modified science and military journey.

Benyus J, 2005, 'Genius of Nature,' Resurgence, 230.
Borchardt JK, 2004, 'Soon, Spider-silk Togs and Mussel Glue?' Christian Science Monitor, Aug 26, 2004.
Osborne L, 2002, 'Got Silk,' New York Times, June 16, 2002

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Promoting Change

The Bioneers radio program on the ABC this week broadcast a series of thought-provoking talks from a host of social and environmental change activists. Some use poetry to promote change, others run salons in cafes across the globe, others practise deep listening. Drew Dillinger is the founder of Poets for Global Justice and his poem 'hieroglyphic stairway' is a masterful and moving display of issues confronting the earth globally and the river valley locally.

hieroglyphic stairway

it's 3:23 in the morning
and I'm awake
because my great great grandchildren
won't let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?

as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?

did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?

what did you do

I'm riding home on the Colma train
I've got the voice of the milky way in my dreams

I have teams of scientists
feeding me data daily
and pleading I immediately
turn it into poetry

I want just this consciousness reached
by people in range of secret frequencies
contained in my speech

I am the desirous earth
equidistant to the underworld
and the flesh of the stars

I am everything already lost

the moment the universe turns transparent
and all the light shoots through the cosmos

I use words to instigate silence

I'm a hieroglyphic stairway
in a buried Mayan city
suddenly exposed by a hurricane

a satellite circling earth
finding dinosaur bones
in the Gobi desert
I am telescopes that see back in time

I am the precession of the equinoxes,
the magnetism of the spiraling sea

I'm riding home on the Colma train
with the voice of the milky way in my dreams

I am myths where violets blossom from blood
like dying and rising gods

I'm the boundary of time
soul encountering soul
and tongues of fire

it's 3:23 in the morning
and I can't sleep
because my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the earth was unraveling?

I want just this consciousness reached
by people in range of secret frequencies
contained in my speech

drew dellinger

The poem reminds me of the profound work done by environmental practitioner and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy. Her deep ecological workshops ask similar questions to Dellinger's. Towards the end of the workshop, participants sit in two circles facing each other and are asked to be in the future. The outside circle plays the role of the Future Elders; in the inner circle, the young people of the future ask the Elders - What did you do when you knew the earth was unravelling, when the planet was threatened, when the oceans lost species, when the forests were felled, when the rivers ran dry - what did you do?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sylvan Riverscapes

The Brisbane River is home to the Turrbal and Yugarbul-Jagarra peoples who created pathways along the river valley linking ceremonial sites known as 'bora'. According to Kerkhove (1985:4) these pathways ran the length of the river and 'early settlers remembered seeing Brisbane Aboriginals marching in hundreds along these, or saw them tracking along them in South Brisbane at night with a blazing torch in one hand.' (cited in To Travel is to Learn, 2004).

In a paper on Aboriginal history along the river valley, local historian Ros Kidd (2000) writes that the river and surrounding waters 'provided bountiful and beautiful environment', a 'sylvan' somewhat 'idyllic' existence prior to European settlement. Aboriginal people were depicted as:

'fishing from bark canoes made from broad sheets of stringy bark or casting their heart-shaped towrow nets to encircle shoals of mullet. Others used vines to climb the trees for possum and koala which were despatched with stone tomahawks. Women and children dived in lagoons for lily roots, dug yams and collected the edible fern roots. Some sat on the banks weaving their baskets and bags from the pink and green swamp grasses while youngsters frolicked in the shallows.'

Then the river terrain was thickly wooded, swampy in places with many creeks flowing into the river. Wild fowl, fish and eel were plentiful, Bush Turkeys patrolled the undergrowth, Parrots flocked overhead, Pelicans fished the shallows while 'Ducks and [S]wans in their hundreds trawled the waterways' (Meston, 1923 cited in Kidd, 2000).

This wondrous sight is a stark reminder of what has been lost. Kidd reports Aborigines in the mid-19th century being able to pull up fishing nets filled with fish in just 'a few minutes' (Bartley, 1896:247). This was the time when the river was clear, and even right up to the 1930s, there were accounts of being able to see the riverbed 5 to 6 metres below (Young 1990, in Gutteridge, Haskins & Davey, 1996).

The abundance and natural beauty of the river has been irrevocably changed although swathes of its beauty remains, even in the heart of the city such as along the Mangrove Walk. But similar riverbank green spaces have been and are being burried under roadways, high rise development and economic progress. The spirit of this flowing place has been paved over but its spirit still thrives - in the memories, stories and rituals of the original custodians of this riverland and in the beauty of the river itself that flourishes despite an pro-development attitude that longs to smother its natural beauty.

An example of the kind of thing that is happening along the river comes from a recent ABC Radio Eye program, 'Tree poisoning, weeds and Australian native plants: Watching the Trees'. The program explored the trend in some Sydney harbour-view suburbs of people poisoning trees that hinder residents' views of the water. As a result, local authorities have installed CCTV cameras to try to catch the tree vandals and erected signs warning of heavy financial penalties incurred for destroying local trees.

Compare this action of seeing tree poisoners as vandals to the action of the local councils along the Brisbane River valley which allow unfettered tree felling in the name of development. Shade, amenity and beauty are sadly not often incorporated into urban planning decisions that affect both natural and community capital. Notions of beauty are all to frequently left out of discussions on resource management and sustainability. So a development or environmental change might be deemed sustainable even if the natural beauty of a place is destroyed.

The sylvan riverscape continues to be threatened to some extent, perhaps, because non-Aboriginal resource users and managers may not take heed of river stories told by Aboriginal people and by the river itself. This frame of reverence is sadly outside the domain of non-indigenous concepts of sustainability and environmental and social impact assessment.

Reverence, honour, respect, beauty - the incorporation of these values would shift resource management practices on land and sea to a different kind of awareness and action.

A few years ago I did some research on what was happening in Cape York and realised that my lack of awareness of indigenous issues led me to search for a description of Queensland's north as beautiful in the belief that if it is so beautiful then it must be worth saving. But there was only one occasion (that I found) where Noel Pearson (1995), now Director of the Cape York Institute, actually described the landscape of Cape York in physical, western terms. He depicted it as 'teeming with mangrove swamps, towering dunes, long stands of whispering casuarinas and groves of rustling pandanus, the buttressed, fragrant rainforests, the jewel islands and shimmering beaches'. It sounds so beautiful but I realised that my desire to reveal how the landscape looks is culturally-determined. For Pearson the land holds a far deeper significance:

'There are incredibly detailed and subtle laws governing how people should behave in particular places: in what direction should one expectorate; in whose company can one talk; which dialect or synonyms to employ in the presence of certain people; which foods are forbidden in certain places at certain times of the year to certain people; how one should sit in specific places; ... one’s personal relationship with particular animals and land forms.'

These are essential truths. Sacred values are rooted in the land and in relationship with kin and country. These sacred values are embedded in the tidal exchange of fresh and salt waters in the flowing beauty that is the Brisbane River.

Bartley N, 1896, Australian Pioneers and Reminiscences together with portraits of some of the founders of Australia, Gordon and Gotch.
Gutteridge, Haskins & Davey Pty Ltd, 1996, Task M2 State of the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay and Waterways Brisbane River Management Group, Brisbane River and Moreton Bay Wastewater Management Study, Working Draft Version 1.4.
Kerkhove R, 1985, West End to Woollangabba: The Early Aboriginal History of the District, Brisbane, Foundation of Aboriginal and Island Research and Action.
Kidd R, 2000, Aboriginal History of the Princess Alexandra Hospital Site, Diamantina Health Care Museum Association.
Meston A, 1923, ‘100 Years - Black Man to White Settlement’, The Daily Mail, December 1, 1923.
Pearson N, 1995, 'Cape York Peninsula: the land needs its people,' Paper presented to the Wild Agendas Conference, Sydney University, July, 1995.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Valuing the Beauty of Nature

Aspects of nature are so beautiful they take your breath away. But what does beauty mean in a consumer-driven busily-growing city that spreads its development footprint across the city's natural beauty. Natural capital is defined as the resources humans need to live, the quality of the land, of the water, of the health-giving natural resources that are seen to support capital, or the economic viability of society.

More narrowly, according to Green Facts, natural capital refers to: 'An extension of the economic notion of capital (manufactured means of production) to environmental 'goods and services'. It refers to a stock (e.g., a forest) which produces a flow of goods (e.g., new trees) and services.'

So natural capital by this viewpoint has nothing to do with beauty, with honouring the beauty of the river valley, with sustaining the intimate relationship and delicate balance between human and nature. Natural capital assumes anthropocentrism rather than the exquisite and intricate subtleties of natural systems or an eco- or biocentric worldview. But a nature-centred viewpoint does not necessarily assume nature is beautiful although it enacts and promotes reciprocal relationship, mindfulness and care.

What makes something beautiful? Are aspects of nature beautiful in their own right or do they become beautiful when humans declare them so? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - in the symbolic capital of a community where objects of beauty, art, sculpture, buildings are deemed valuable by that community or society. Symbolic capital is associated with notions of power, with what is deemed important in society, and as such, projects an ideological and hegemonic perspective which washes over the notion of 'beauty is as beauty does'.

In this phrase beauty is both object (it is beautiful) and process (it can affect us deeply by its beauty). I like to think that in the process of beauty making, we are affected so much that we desire to care for nature, for the river, for other than human, and work for their protection. Raising awareness, replanting the river bank, fighting against development, helps sustain community and relationship between peoples, and between people and beautiful places.

Imagine changing the notion of symbolic capital to reflect the natural beauty of the environment, the Brisbane River valley and the wealth (but dwindling numbers) of creatures who dwelll here. Imagine a symbolic capital that was not associated with consumption and human use but recognised the symbolic beauty of the river in its own right. Imagine the heart-lifting moments of relationship with the Brisbane River when the river is not regarded as something to be commodified for its view, transport or provision of water resources but as a place of wonder and intrinsic beauty.