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.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

River Beauty, River Threat

River of Words is an annual event that gathers poetry and art inspired by rivers from children across the globe. This year the group chose a deeply insightful poem 'Rivers' written by seven year old José Perez from Florida as the winning riverpoem for 2007.

'Rivers splatter,
hitting rocks below.
But don’t be afraid,
there is poetry
deep inside each crevice.'

River of Words (ROW) has developed curriculum to assist teachers assist children to learn about river systems in their local bioregion. They encourage the development of local knowledge, as they say, 'to help you bring your watershed’s cultural and natural history alive for your students and community.'

On the ROW website is an article by the poet and deep ecologist Gary Snyder titled 'Coming into the Watershed'. Snyder writes:

'A watershed is a marvelous thing to consider: this process of rain falling, streams flowing and oceans evaporating causes every molecule of water on earth to make the complete trip once every two million years.' Two million years!

Two million years is length of the revolving water cycle and the ongoing relationship of living river to living ocean. This dynamic interconnection over such a long timeframe is now severely threatened. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has documented the litany of threat and disaster in it report World’s Top 10 Rivers at Risk' (2007). Two of the rivers singled out are the Murray and Darling rivers, the lifeblood of this nation.

In addition to structural and flow concerns, the report outlines that another major threat to the Murray-Darling river system comes from invasive fish (e.g. carp) and plant species. For example, it mentions that in Australia, the numbers of feral fish species emanating from the aquarium trade has increased from 22 to 34 in recent years.

The Brisbane River is small fry in comparison although it too has its fair share of feral threats - some of them human. Recent media reports have raised the ire of locals through their focus on one aggressive visitor to the river, the famed Bull Shark. Locals (interviewed by the media) are decidely edgy about what is considered 'one of the most dangerous sharks in the world' (ABC Catalyst, 2003).

What is so special about the Bull Shark is its remarkable ability to live in both fresh and salt water as well as the distances it travels upstream, up to 80 kms from Moreton Bay. Fishers say they can catch 8 to 10 sharks on a good day (see Ausfish, 2004). In 2006, the Courier Mail reported a commercial fisher netting 64 Bull Sharks in the Logan River, south of Brisbane. One fisher reported: 'The sharks were so thick, it was like the water was boiling.'

Earlier this year the Daily Telegraph (UK) carried an article about the dangers of Bull Sharks and how Queensland locals are dealing with them. I wonder who is monitoring these aggressive actions against these creatures.

'There are thousands upon thousands of them ... You could catch 10 a night if you wanted to. They'll bite your boat, chew your engine. People catch them as they're cooking their snags [sausages] and prawns on the barbie....

Another local commented that he's 'caught a dozen sharks from his sixth-floor balcony in between playing video games and watching television. 'We sit in the lounge room with the rods set up and play the PlayStation, waiting for the bites.' While a third fisher sets up his fishing gear then 'retreats to his living room to watch DVDs' until he hears there's a bite on the line.

The Daily Telegraph article continued: 'Fisheries officials say they are opposed to a shark cull and people must learn to live with the potential man-eaters. 'They have as much right to be in the water as we do,' said Jeff Krause, district manager of the Queensland Boating and Fisheries Patrol'.

But the concern is that there is little attention paid to this living room culling of these special animals. Are there bag limits on taking Sharks? And how is it patrolled when people are fishing from their sofas?

Yesterday my friend told me she'd seen dolphins upstream in the river and her children were very excited. What a river! Sharks, dolphins, beauty and danger. In the words of a seven year old from Florida:

'But don’t be afraid,
there is poetry
deep inside each crevice.'
José Perez

Monday, December 17, 2007


Sandra Postel is a global water activist. She has developed the Global Water Policy Project aimed at promoting the care, protection and management of fresh waters. In particular, her program implores us to change the way we think about and use fresh water. Postel comments:

'Water is the basis of life and the blue arteries of the earth! Everything in the non-marine environment depends on freshwater to survive. Because we haven't managed water wisely in the past, many freshwater species are at risk of extinction. And because we've used water too profligately, a lot of rivers now run dry before they reach the sea, and a lot of groundwater sources are being depleted.'

Aquatic ecosystems are experiencing stress. Rivers run dry. Fresh water creatures are threatened. Water sources are at risk. So urgent action, research and promotion and communication's work are essential for changing the way we think about fresh water systems What can we do?

In an article entitled 'Ecologically Sustainable Water Management: Managing River Flows for Ecological Integrity', Richter et al (2003) suggest that ecological degradation is an unintentional by-product of water management practices. The reason? A lack of awareness about the impact these practices have on environmental flows and natural variabilty.

Environmental flows can be defined as water that is retained or released into a river system to manage its health and quality. Sustainable flows help sustain the productivity and diversity of aqua-systems. The question then needs to be asked - how to measure the sustainability of river-productivity and aqua-versity?

The federal government's Australia-Wide Assessment of River Health: Queensland AusRivAS Sampling and Processing Manual puts it this way:

'Water quality and, subsequently, river health has traditionally been assessed solely on the chemical analysis of water samples. In recent years there has been a realisation that the structure of plant and animal communities of the rivers can give us a far more accurate picture of the condition or health of our waterways. Of these biological communities, macroinvertebrates (i.e. animals without backbones, large enough to be seen with the naked eye, e.g. prawns, shrimps, crayfish, snails, mussels and insects such as dragonflies, damselflies and mayflies) are most widely used because they are abundant and diverse, and are sensitive to changes in water quality, flow regime and habitat conditions. Impacts on these animals are relatively long lasting and can be detected for some time after the impact occurs.'

What is missing from this assessment? Human interactions - both positive and negative. Perhaps, as well as considering the ecological, social and economic implications within integrated river management strategies, other relevant factors such as psycho-spiritual attitudes and values need be incorporated. How does the community think about and value the Brisbane River? What are people's modes of beneficial interactivities - for both person and river?

Community values' orientations, stories of interactions with 'aquacology' as well as attitudes towards the river, river health and rivercare can extend integrated water management beyond the physical into the psychological. emotional and spiritual so perspectives around gratitude, respect for nature/river systems as well as reciprocity - giving back to nature/river - are infused in the way river systems are stewarded.

In this process the heart of ecology becomes a sacred precious wisdom and insight which honours the spirit of the river and traditional ecological knowledges (TEKs). The heart of ecology then and as well, becomes an artistic endeavour as local poets, writers, storytellers, weavers, and others interconnect with environmental flows and scientific practices. The heart of ecology shares stories with science, poetry with water management, art with rivercare. These aspects are not mutually exclusive.

An holistic approach to the care of the Brisbane River could help raise community awareness about the joys of riverwalking and river-connecting, the plight of river creatures, the effect of the drought and the enflowering abundance embedded within aquacology.

Hoover R, 2002, 'Watching the Rivers' Flows: Talking with an Expert on Rivers’ Needs for Water', World Rivers Review, 6-7.
Richter BD, Mathews R, Harrison DL, Wigington R, 2003, Ecologically Sustainable Water Management: Managing River Flows for Ecological Integrity', Ecological Application, 13, 1, 206-224.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Climate Change or Global Warming

The famous Watergate journalist Bob Woodward was speaking on the BBC today about his working life being an investigative journalist. He said that one of the most important things he and other journalists needed to do consistently is to be tough, to demand answers.

Over 30 years ago the hard questions he and his colleague Carl Bernstein asked about corruption in the Whitehouse landed an American president, Richard Nixon, in jail. But Woodward commented that over the years both he and other leading American journalists had grown too soft. For example, he had not asked those hard questions over weapons of mass destruction pointing out that WMD debates came not long after 9/11 so America's focus including his own, was turned elsewhere.

This week attention is focused on Bali where governments of the world have gathered to make tough decisions to curb climate change. Climate change?

The investigative media organisation IndyMedia is asking those tough questions trying to get to the bottom of why many journalists in Australia and elsewhere either ignored the plea to act on global warming or spent more space covering the sceptical view, thus raising doubt in the public's minds. This worked to limit their anxiety about the issue - and their lobbying power.

Climate change sceptics used ad hominem arguments to distort and disuade. Eco-activists and scientists like Professor Ian Lowe, the Wentworth Group, and many others globally including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continued to challenge the nay-sayers but the global media was often loathe to treat their science and their warnings seriously. With Al Gore's documentary, the truth was now out in the open. The time for debate and misreporting was over.

Drought came. The river basins and river flows began to retreat especially in inland Australia. The Murray River, the lifeblood of the country, was dying.

In his boook 'When the Rivers Run Dry' (2006) journalist Fred Pearce documents the parlous ecological state of rivers globally and says of the Murray that its death is evident in the giant river red gums that line its banks.

'The trees live up for a thousand years, hunkering down during droughts and then spreading their seeds after floods. But if the drought goes on too long, they die' (2006:249).

His book tells the story of rivers across the globe whose quality and flow are under severe threat. The risk is too great but the precautionary principle, it seems, is not being applied. For example, underground aquifers are being mined - drained - water is not being replaced.

Pearce calls for a water ethos - 'an ethos based ... on managing the water cycle for maximum social benefit rather than narrow self-interest' (348). It recognizes that in many religions rivers are revered as sacred, holy places for pilgrimage and baptism. Its significance in Aboriginal culture is found in 'waterholes and billabongs ... physical manifestations of the process of creation itself' (350).

A water ethos venerates water sources, cherishes water and respects all rivers - including the Brisbane River.

Pearce F, 2006, When the Rivers Run Dry: What Happens when Our Water Runs Out, London, Transworld Publishers.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Clever Dolphins

On BBC news this morning there was a marvellous news item about the cleverness of Amazon River Dolphins. Some males carry objects in their mouths such as weeds, sticks and clay as symbols of courtship and sexual display.

After a three year study of over 6000 dolphins, scientists found that there is a relationship between object carrying dolphins and aggression. They explained that such aggression is linked to those males who produce the most offspring.

This latest study adds to the research data on the tenacity of dolphin culture. For example, in Shark Bay in Western Australia, researchers found that dolphins use tools such as sponges to rest on to protect their bodies when they are foraging for food amongst sharp and rocky terrain.

Clever dolphins like the Amazon River Dolphins and other fresh and salt water dolphin species across the globe are sadly under threat from deforestation and habitat degradation. Research from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) states that threats to the Amazon River Dolphins are also due to their use as bait for destructive commercial fishing practices in Colombia.

This year the Yangzte River Dolphin known as the Goddess of that river has become extinct. And at the 10th International Riversymposium & Environmental Flows Conference held in Brisbane in September, scientists spoke of the dangers to river dolphins in other parts of Asia, especially along the Mekong in Cambodia, the Ganges in India and the Indus in Pakistan.

At the Symposium, speakers from the WWF explained that dolphins are the watchdogs of river quality, pointing out that a decline in river dolphin numbers represents a decline in water quality (increasing polluition and toxicity) which affects both water creatures and humans alike in terms of health, wellbeing and live-ability.

The Brisbane River is home to a number of dolphins. Recently the Brisbane Times reported that there is anecdotal evidence that imroved water quality in the river over the past few years has led to an increase in dolphin numbers along the river and in Moreton Bay. But little research in being undertaken on these local dolphin species, although it's suggested that 'the relatively timid Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, one of the two species of dolphin found in Moreton Bay, could also be susceptible to urban development.'

It's been estimated that there are about 160 Indo-Pacific hump-backed dolphins in the Moreton Bay region (Hale et al 2004). According to whale and dolphin researcher Dr Mike Noad from the University of Queensland, dolphins have been coming up river possibly because of the higher levels of salinity in the river. Increasing saltiness of the river is linked with reduced fresh water run-off and low rainfall.

Scientists have been working to improve water quality in catchment areas and local streams and rivers but currently these areas in SE Queensland are suffering from damaging drought conditions. The Brisbane Times article went on to say that those 'streams that are degraded by poor riparian and catchment land-uses appear less resilient under drought conditions and therefore show declines ... [which have led] 'to high nutrient and sediment loads and low dissolved oxygen levels'. In contrast, earlier this year, the Courier Mail reported that 'Brisbane River is at a crossroads – 30 years of conservation work is finally bearing fruit – and marine biologists say it is in its best shape in years.' That's excellent news.

Hale, P, Brieze, I, Chatto, R & Parra, G, 2004, Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins. In National Oceans Office. Description of Key Species Groups in the Northern Planning Area. National Oceans Office, Hobart, Australia.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Sink or Swim

In the last couple of months globally, report after report has been published heralding severe ecological devastation, rapid extinction of plants and animal species and the irreversible effects of global warming.

Yet another report was released this week. The Human Development Report of the UN Development program points the finger at wealthy countries and climate change with this supremely urgent statement: 'Ultimately, climate change is a threat to humanity as a whole, but it is the poor … who face the immediate and most severe human costs,' (CBC News, 2007).

These costs include increasing incidences of drought, agricultural depletion, habitat destruction, water scarcity and rises in debilitating diseases like malaria. As well, scientists predict more severe storms, terrible floods and rising sea levels which will adversely affect the world's poorer nations especially those living in coastal regions.

The UN report subtitled 'Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World' predicts that global inequalities between rich and poorer nations will be exacerbated by climate change. It highlights the need to see ecological problems not in isolation but directly related to social justice programs directed at alleviating poverty and malnutrition. For this UN program, social justice and environmental justice go hand in hand.

The report concludes with the observation that 'the historically carbon intensive growth, and the profligate consumption in rich nations that has accompanied it, is ecologically unsustainable.' And it ends with the optimistic plea that with appropriate mitigation measures and 'the right reforms, it is not too late to cut greenhouse gas emissions to sustainable levels without sacrificing economic growth: rising prosperity and climate security are not conflicting objectives.'

As I walk the river trail I am reminded daily of the potential for urgent action. With active volunteer groups cleaning and monitoring rivers, pulling noxious weeds from waterways, restoring wetlands, replanting bushland vegetation, and taking to heart the need to repair local ecologies and sacred places, it is possible to create sustainable communities.

The City of Brisbane sustainable targets are set at 2026. The report on Brisbane as a Clean Green City says that currently, 30 percent of the city's urbanscape is 'natural habitat and about 84% of our residential tree cover is on private property. Patchworked together, backyards, parklands and bushlands create wildlife corridors of great environmental value'.

But then the report declares that to retain biodiversity and environmental balance, 'we must restore 40% of our city area to natural habitat'. 40 percent.

What I see each day happening along the river valley is the converse of that dream. Daily, large trees are being axed with seemingly no attempt to restore habitat and biodiversity. It is heartening to have such a forward-thinking policy agenda but terribly disheartening that there appears to be a lack of action towards implementation.

2026 is a long way off but we have to start now to achieve the report's recommendation that by 2026, 'Brisbane residents and visitors will value the contribution of the Brisbane River and Moreton Bay to our quality of life. The Brisbane River, Moreton Bay and water catchment areas will be clean, healthy eco-systems, free of pollutants and teeming with life.'

Let's hope that with the change of government federally and dedicated action locally that such policies will be backed with support to allow these action-oriented dreams and recommendations to flourish and swim buoyantly, and not sink and drown in the mire of rapid development and unsustainable construction. This is vital for Brisbane - and for rich and poor nations alike as the Human Development report outlines.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Shadowy Creatures

The river valley is awash with myriad greens - bright greens, gloomy greens, shiney leafed greens, olivey blue greens. The tumbling rain these past few days has led to the flourishing of new growth and all along the river bank the plants are glowing. This once lush verduous valley is fast being de-greened to make way for new housing.

Right opposit the river yet another house and several tall eucalypts have beed razed.

What was a bushy block of wondrous trees lies in a tangled heap; trees hacked and discarded; nests abandoned on the ground. A few of the tree stumps are still standing - a memorial to the beauty that once dwelled in this place. Who are these shadowy creatures that can't bear living with trees?

Fewer trees and less nesting sites not only mean less shade but also an increasing number of birds, bats, possums and other creatures are looking for new homes. Sadly the research on what happens to small mammals and birds who lose habitat is devastating. With increasing urbanisation and habitat destruction, these creatures have no where else to go and either try to adapt to smaller and smaller spaces, or disappear altogether.

One result of the habitat loss has been the numbers of native birds and animals now being seen as pests. Possums, Flying Foxes and White Ibis have been targeted.

Ibis are often relegated to patrolling city parks and outdoor cafe areas in search of a snack and have become very naughty. We were quietly eating our lunch one day this week when an Ibis flew up onto the neighbouring table and from there launched itself right into our delicious-looking sandwich, knocking the food, crockery and cuttlery onto the ground with a huge crash, then flying off with its prized delicacy.

According to the Brisbane City Council's Sustainable Future website: 'The Australian ibis plays an important role in natural pest management for it preys on small insects and grubs. While increasing population must be managed, their long-term conservation is necessary for maintaining biodiversity.'

But there are calls for culling these delightful birds and that is the solution in Sydney where, according to a Sydney Morning Herald article by the Wollemi Pine discoverer James Woodford (2003):

'Marksmen have also been shooting sacred ibis - about 60 adults have been put down. Around 100 nests have been dismantled and their eggs discarded. The birds have become a public nuisance across Sydney and pose health risks because they carry salmonella. At the [Royal Botanical] gardens, ibis damage the palm collection by nesting in fronds.'

There needs to be a more compassionate understanding and action plan to replant the urban environment with native species-friendly trees and shrubs to provide habitat for these homeless creatures.

Perhaps there is simply a lack of awareness of the desperate need for greening city environments for both humans and animals. But something else seems to be at stake and is used in arguments about native habitat protection in suburban areas, that is the so-called right of residents to do what they like with their block, their neighbourhood, their community. But whose rights are paramount? Do Possums, Ibis or Bats have any legal standing when so-called human rights are deemed supreme?

James Woodford says 'possum magic has become possum tragic', as numbers of Sydney's Brushtails are 'given lethal injections', while animal behaviourist, Ursula Munro from University of Technology Sydney, warns that Ibis across Australia are in trouble.

Munro points out that the colonies of city Ibis might be the last viable remnant of these graceful birds. The birds' traditional home is the Murray Darling basin and surrounding wetland habitats but the severe drought among these once abundant ecosystems have forced the Ibis to seek new homesites - and like many humans, what Ibis also desire is a nesting site with a view of water.

The Ibis, Brushtail Possums and Flying Foxes need nesting sites, foraging trees and blossoms to munch on. Native trees are not only useful for species other than human, they are an essential element in our lives - but sometimes it seems that (human) city dwellers have forgotten the very vital interconnection between oxygen and carbon dioxide, human and tree.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

River Spirit and Religion

Contemplat-ive practices such as prayer and meditation can encourage greater care for others, including the natural world. Projects such as Faith in Action link deep theological reflection with awareness and knowledge practices embedded within a mainstream religious framework. Such projects hearten thoughts on oneness, impress 'seeing in a sacred manner' and enliven spiritual effervescence with what is holy (Samz, 2007).

The Faith in Action project lays out a four step process from awareness to action to become immersed in projects to protect the other. First become aware of the issues. Then analyse what's happening, who is affected, who is involved? Reflection comes next, for example, around projects such as Earth Charter or interfaith alliances. These three steps then lead to action, involvement, solidarity and regeration. So, Faith in Action implores: 'Follow where your heart leads.' 'Walk gently on the earth.' 'Be in touch with creation.'

Getting in touch with the river is a contemplative practice deepened by falling in step with the patterns and changes of the water, the tidal flow, the movement of birds, the slithering of lizards and, with recent rain, the regeneration of habitat (inlcuding problematic plants galore). These intricate shifts in the ecosystem become sacred signifiers for co-creative encounters. This is an additional step in the from awarenss to action process but is overlooked in the Faith in Action four step program - frequent and meaningful communion with the riverscape.

Sometimes it seems as if the river is alerting me to the damage along the banks and, with the 'green' drought, the sparsity of the tree canopy, the decline in small birds and the disappearance of small mammals and carpet snakes. Through connecting to this sacred waterway, the river itself offers the opportunity for deep reflection about the health of the ecosystem and the sorts of actions needed to create healthy waterways - like getting involved in replanting, weeding and water monitoring rivercare projects.

There is a link here between the religious and spiritual practice of contemplative reflection, nature engagement and holding an action orientation towards environmental and social justice. Yet there is limited Australian research into the dimensions of this relationship between nature connection, awareness and environmental responsibility. There is little information on the meanings people attribute to natural environments (e.g. the sanctification of nature) or how this stimulates their interest in taking responsbility over water resource issues.

What research exists about these links from a religion point of view comes from the US where studies reveal low levels of environmental concern related to Christian ‘biblical literalism’ (Greely, 1993) and church attendance (Guth et al, 1993), although Boyd (1999) found that pro-environment behaviour amongst Christians, Jews and even those expressing no religion increased with the increasing frequency of prayer.

Being involved in a religion and attending church were also found to be indicators of ecological awareness. For example, research on Presbyterian church adherents in the US operationalised participants’ views on the sanctification of nature inquiring whether nature is sacred because it was created by God, whether it is sacred in its own right, or whether there was any sense of the sacred or spiritual at all in nature (Tarakeshwar et al, 2001). Responses were then linked to environmental concern and behaviour.

Sanctification of nature, considered by participants as a significant dimension of religious life, plus their level of religious involvement, were positively associated with pro-environment beliefs, attitude and behaviours. However, none of these American studies, as well as more recent research on the interplay of religion and environment, has considered nature connectedness as a variable in their research (e.g. Biels and Nilsson, 2005: Skerkat and Ellinson, 2007).

What emerges from this brief interdisciplinary exploration of research is that engagement with nature, in this case with the Brisbane River system, is located within a complex, multi-faceted relationship with water resources and nature generally, in which physical, sensory, cognitive and spiritual experiences interact with cultural meanings and values as an engaging and effervescent ‘lived experience’ of the river environment.

Biels A. and A. Nilsson, 2005, ‘Religious Values and Environmental Concern: Harmony and Detachment,’ Social Science Quarterly, 86, 1, 178-191.
Bouma G.D., 2006, Australian Soul. Religion and Spirituality for the Twenty-First Century, Port Melbourne, Cambridge University Press.
Boyd H.H., 1999, ‘Christianity and the Environment in the American Public,’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 38, 36 - 44.
Department of Environment and Conservation, 2007, Who Cares about the Environment in 2006? A Survey of NSW People’s Environmental Knowledge, Attitudes and Behaviours, Sydney: Department of Environment and Conservation.
Greely A., 1993, ‘Religion and Attitudes toward the Environment,’ Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, 32, 1, 19-28.
Guth J.A., L.A. Kellstedt, C.E. Smidt, and J.C. Green, 1993, ‘Theological Perspectives and Environmentalism Among Religious Activists,’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 32, 4, 373-382.
Kearns L., 2004, ‘The Context of Eco-theology,’ in G. Jones, Ed., Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Sherkat D.E. and C.G. Ellison, 2007, ‘Structuring the Religion-Environment Connection: Identifying Religious Influences on Environmental Concern and Action,’ Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 46, 1, 71-85.
Samz, M., 2007, Visioning the Circle of Life: Our Oneness,
Tacey D., 2000, ReEnchantment: The New Australian Spirituality, Sydney, HarperCollins.
Tarakeshwar N., A.B. Swank, K.I Pargament, and A Mahoney, 2001, ‘The Sanctification of Nature and Theological Conservatism: A Study Opposing Religious Correlates of Environmentalism,’ Review of Religious Research, 42, 4, 387-404.
Taylor B., 2004, ‘A Green Future for Religion?’ Futures, 36, 991-1008.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Potent Spirit

The Brisbane River has a potent spirit that winds from wild places to tamed urban spaces spreading its story through flow and tide, fish and frog, bird and snake, wind and rain. Listening to the river, being enticed by its spirit and attuned to its changing moods and colours, promotes a heightened sense of wellbeing and delight.

Studies into the effects of engagement with natural places, particularly beautiful and aesthetic places like the river, herald positive impacts in human health and wellbeing and quality of life. This has both short and long term physical, emotional and psychological benefits such as a reduction in stress and mental fatigue (Maller et al, 2005), an increase in relaxation and restoration (Hartig et al, 2003), an opportunity for exercise and weight reduction (Pretty et al, 2005), and a lessening of stressors related to poverty and housing density in inner-city environments (Kuo, 2001).

But green spaces are fast disappearing in Brisbane and Australian cities generally. Right across the country there has been a significant decline in green spaces (forests, bushland, riverbanks, parkland, urban trees and household gardens) and a consequent decrease in residents’ everyday nature connections, plus the ecological benefits that green spaces offer - shade, quiet places, tree houses for possums, birds and bats and fresh air, as well as enhanced psycho-spiritual effects spurting from intimacy with the natural environnment.

Despite growing research into beneficial physical and psychological health outcomes of nature encounters, few studies have been undertaken into the spiritual effects of either natural urban or river environments. For example, Dutcher et al (2007:409) suggest from their study on the relationship between environmental values and nature connectivity that ‘connectivity may be an essentially spiritual phenomenon’, yet most studies into the links between spirituality and nature have focused on wilderness rather than urban environments as a source of personal transformation, insight and experiences of the mystical and numinous (Heintzman, 2003; Stringer and McAvoy, 1992).

In another study of wilderness immersion, Kellert (1998) found that spending time in wild places gives rise to an enhanced physical, emotional, intellectual and moral-spiritual outlook, while Schroeder (1996) reported that encounters with wild river systems produced feelings of awe and wonder, an appreciation of the beauty of nature, an experience of serenity, and a deepening concern about encroaching development and its impact on the river and its surrounds. Thus, according to Schroeder's research, the sense of the spiritual and the sacred is bound up in nature connecting.

This study is one of the few that focuses on rivers. One UK study on public attitudes to local rivers showed that restored rivers were well used and highly valued by the local public (Tunstall et al, 2000). Similarly, in the US in Providence, Rhode Island, river reclamation and restoration projects have led to a revitalization of the city’s business district, heightened neighbourhood links through infrastructure and scenic walkways, created public access-inspired art programs and initiated a Waterfire Festival similar to Brisbane’s River Festival (McWilliams, 2003).

But there is no indication about whether these changes in natural and social capital have stimulated environmentally responsible behaviours although they have generated positive changes in community wellbeing, increased opportunities for exercise and improved physical fitness, and the outflowing of reciprocal and mindful relationship between river restoration and restoration of self and community.

Dutcher, D.D., J.C. Finley, A.E. Luloff, and J.B. Johnson, 2007, ‘Connectivity with Nature as a Measure of Environmental Values,’ Environment and Behavior, 39, 474-493.
Fox R., 1999, ‘Enhancing Spiritual Experience in Adventure Programs,’ in J. C. Miles and S. Priest, Eds., Adventure Programming, State College, PA: Venture Publishing, Inc.
Hartig T., G.W. Evans, L.D. Jamner, D.S. Davis, and T. Gärling, 2003, ‘Tracking Restoration in Natural and Urban Field Settings,’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 109-123.
Heintzman P., 2003, ‘The Wilderness Experience and Spirituality: What Recent Research Tells Us,’ The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 74.
Kals E., D. Schumacher and L. Montada, 1999, ‘Emotional Affinity toward Nature as a Motivational Basis to Protect Nature,’ Environment and Behavior, 31, 2, 178-202.
Kellert S.R, 1998, A National Study of Outdoor Wilderness Experience, School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University, Sept. 1998.
Kuo F.E., 2001, ‘Coping with Poverty: Impacts of Environment and Attention in the Inner City,’ Environment and Behavior, 33, 1, 5-34.
McWilliams B., 2003, ‘Providence Reclaims Rivers,’ Architecture Week, July 16,
Maller C., M. Townsend, A. Pryor, P. Brown, and L. St Leger, 2005, ‘Healthy Nature Healthy People: ‘Contact with Nature’ as an Upstream Health Promotion Intervention for Populations,’ Health Promotion International, 21, 1, 45-54.
Pretty J., M. Griffin, J. Peacock, R. Hine, M. Sellens, and N. South, 2005, A Countryside for Health and Wellbeing: The Physical and Mental Health Benefits of Green Exercise, Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, Countryside Recreation Network.
Schroeder H.W., 1996, ‘Ecology of the Heart: Understanding How People Experience Natural Environments’, in A.W. Ewart, Ed., Natural Resources Management: The Human Dimension, Boulder, CO, Westview Press.
Stringer L.A. and L.H. McAvoy, 1992, ‘The Need for Something Different: Spirituality and Wilderness Adventure,’ Journal of Experiential Education, 15, 1, 13-20.
Tunstall, S.M., Penning-Rowsell, E.C., Tapsell, S.M. and Eden , S.E., 2000, 'River Restoration: Public attitudes and Expectations, Water & Environmental Management, 14, 5, 363-370.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bark Falling

The bark is falling in sheathes from the eucalypt trunks releasing a fresh new covering. Like the snake sheds its skin, so too the gum trees lose their bark, sloughing it off in the renewal that is spring. With the coming of new rain over the past few days, there's not only the sight of new skin emerging from the old bark, there's also massive new growth spurting forth in all directions. But along with the beauty of the native vegetation comes the plethora of unwanteds, myriad noxious weeds thickening in the undergrowth.

At the 25th birthday celebrations of Greening Australia last weekend there was a great display of these noxious plant varieties and even a 2008 Calender of Weeds. Most of the weeds on display also thrive along the river bank. Weed seeds can be spread by birds, wind and water and the moving tidal river can be a carrier for these destructive invaders. The spread of such huge numbers of weeds seems insurmountable for the small group of Bushcare volunteers to deal with.

But there was a wonderful sign of hope at the Greening Australia (GA) event. All through GA's grounds there were signs of change and dedication from the committed band of volunteer weed eradicators to the art and craft workshop run by the inspirational basketmaker Kris Martin from Weaving Wizardry who crafts huge basketry sculptures out of one of the most prolific and dangerous plants - Cat's Claw.

There is an endless supply of this noxious weed infiltrating Australia's eastcoast bushland. Kris collects mountains of this climbing yellow flowering weed in an attempt to stop its destructive movement through local forests where the weight of the fast climbing vine can crush and strangle whole swathes of standing trees. When large tree colonies are destroyed, more light enters the forestscape and this allows even more noxious weeds to take hold.

Weeds are considered plants out of place. The weaving wizard Kris Martin gives them central place in his artwork and at the same time raises awareness about the damage noxious weeds can cause. What I love about his work is not only its imaginative use of these nasty weeds but also it's the wonderful forms he constructs. As well as shopping baskets and woven bowls and plates, Kris Martin also weaves gigantic tube-nosed bats to bring attention to the plight of these vulnerable small creatures. It's a lovely process of transformation and renewal.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Downpour and Outpouring

The torrential rain plummets heavily spreading its lush thick water across the parched earth. Soaked and soaking, we slosh through the puddles and celebrate the elusive wetness. And the birds do too. Butcher birds, the Magpie family and two shy Ravens come to visit; they're drenched, their feathers damp and droopy. A gang of squwarking parrots jet past as the river valley fills with the sight and sound of grey soggy showers and irridescence. The ecosystem is overflowing with renewal.

Connecting with local and wild places underlines the sprouting of what Mitchell Thomashow (1995) called 'ecological identity', or what the deep ecology pioneer Arne Naess termed 'ecological self'. These aspects of our nature selves are embedded in the ever-turning ecosystem processes of which humans too are part.

Naess' deep ecological philosophy is based on the assumption that once we connect with our ecological self, once we discover we are part of the interconnecting web of life, we will be more inclined to protect the earth. This requires a shift from an image of the self as separate, individualized and self-contained to one that is relational and mutually interactive with the rest of nature.

Sometimes I fear we live in a world oblivious to the ongoing deterioration. Today the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made the startling revelation that climate change may bring 'abrupt and irreversible' impacts - including rapid glacier melting and species extinction (but here they mean species other than human). The Fourth Assessment Report from the Nobel Prize winning IPCC makes for difficult and serious reflection.

Scientific research needs to be coupled with broader psycho-social campaigns which question the economic imperative that charges across forests', oceans' and species' lives (where species also includes the human). According to the inspirational deep ecology practitioner and engaged Buddhist Joanna Macy (1991:13): ‘What is destroying our world is the persistent notion that we are independent of it, aloof from other species, and immune to what we do to them.'

Identifying with the earth in a very personal way means that what we do for the earth we do for ourselves. If the earth suffers people suffer. If people suffer, the earth suffers. I was made very aware of this point while attending a talk on saving seeds and organic gardening.

At a public meeting in Melbourne some time ago about the importance of saving heritage and heirloom seeds in light of the onslaught of genetic manipulation, we heard the disturbing story of people in North Africa who were at war for so long that their crops were not tended and the seeds that ensured the next generation of plantings could not be collected. This left the population wide-open, once the war was over, for the distribution of genetically-modified seeds.

One of the consequences of this agribusiness approach to small-scale farming is that the people can become locked into a costly farming system from which they cannot easily escape. In addition, it may also have the effect of distancing people from their religious obligations to the land, part of which involves harvesting and planting seeds and performing ritual to ensure the fertility of the land (Cross & Barker, 1992). This story brings the notion of ‘ecological self’ right into the heart of the politics of peace.

In the process of becoming grounded in place and expanding one’s self-identity, we become encased in an ecospiritual outpouring which is enhanced by direct engagement with nature and by taking part in environmental, social and peace-building actions. Or to put it another way, as Xavier Rudd so poignantly sings:

'Please stay in touch
Because I need you in my heart
Please stay in touch
I need your touch.'

Cross N and R Barker, eds. 1992, At the Desert’s Edge. London, Panos Publications.
Macy J, 1991, World as Lover. World as Self. Berkeley, CA, Parallax Press.
Naess A, 1995, 'Self-realization: An Ecological Approach to Being in the World,' in G. Sessions, ed., Deep Ecology for the 21st Century. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc.
Thomashow M 1995, Ecological Identity. Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
Tuan, Yi-Fu, 1974, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, Englewood Cliffs & London, Prentice-Hall.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

River Religion

Connecting to the river is part of a daily pilgrimage, a spiritual and sacred practice of homage. Watching the Spoonbiil slurp through the mud along Sandy Creek is a measure of reverence for this place and its extended ecosystem from watershed to ocean. The water flowing on the tidal exchange between fresh and salt is the ritualistic dance of this river religion. The sound and sight of birds, lizards, skinks, dog wallkers and joggers, rowers and kayakers, all combine in an expression of what the early sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to as 'collective effervescence' - a religious fervour that emerges in society during periods of social change or upheaval.

At a time of increasing awareness of global warming and the need for pro-environmental behaviours to transcend the rush towards devastation, the notion of collective effervescence is celebratory.

Present day theorists of religion such as Gary Bouma (Australian Soul, 2006) and Danièle Hervieu-Léger (Religion as a Chain of Memory, 2000) note the shift towards a more experiential embodied quest for the sacred in post-industrial society. Hervieu-Léger suggests that the hierarchy, dogma and social institutionalisation of mainline religions has dwindled in the spread of what was seen as secularisation but, as Bouma has observed, there is a lingering spiritual attraction that bubbles along in the hinterland of organised religion as well as through the diversity of emergent individualised expressions of self-styled spiritualities.

On one hand the upsurge in religion as experience has spawned an outflow of emotionally-based worship; on the other, it has given rise to a range of spiritual dimensions from ecclectic self-serve new age practices to a deep engagement in ritual magick, various dynamic forms of nature religion and an ecological revisioning of mainstream scriptures and religious services.

The river and the extended ecosystem offer a stage for the outpouring of collective effervescence. The overhead shriek of the cockatoos as they descend on the eucalypt branches and tree hollows, the high-pitched delicious call of the Butcher Bird, the purring whirr of the Black Faced Cuckoo Shreik, the clever sprouting Mangroves which line the riverbank - these encounters with the wilder parts of urbania can be seen as an upsurge of effervescent feeling through mutual interaction between human and nature.

Hervieu-Léger (2000:52) citing WIlliam James says that the essence of religion is found in inner experience, the wondrous emotional connection 'at once collective and individual'. What is important, she says, is the process of religious engagement - first comes the intensity of feeling which emerges from connection with the sacred and then, in terms of organised religion, the sacred is vesselised, contained and rationalised into beliefs, rituals and teachings.

Breaking down the steps in an ecological sense removes the distinction between feeling and teaching. Wild and sacred places have the power to excite, to stimulate feelings of intensity, insight and personal transformation. They teach not only about the ecosystem services, they create an opportunity for learning about ourselves. Borrowing from Hervieu-Léger (2000:60), there is a mutual involvement of the sacred and religion, an emotional renewal that surfaces on the wavelets of this precious stretch of the Brisbane River.

Bouma GD, 2006, Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality for the 21st Century, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press.
Hervieu-Léger D, 1993, 2000, Religion as a Chain of Memory, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Offering Flowers in Courtship

There was a flash of red dancing in the branches. Amidst the lush green under-growth, a Red-backed Fairy Wren was displaying his magnificent scarlet cloak. The birdbook tells me that his deep red feathers will fade after a few months of sun and rain and this has led to the suppostition that there are, in fact, two red-backed species - one wearing scarlet, the other a deep crimson. But these differences could be due, the birdbook says, to the condition of their plumage (Frith, 1976:416).

A couple of days earlier I'd found a small delicately-woven nest lying on the trail. The image of the Wren's nest from the birdbook looks remarkably similar. Wrens create an oval-shaped home from little strips of grass and that seems to be just the same as the empty nest that lay on the path.

According to Emu, the publication of the Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union, during the Wren's courtship, these brightly-frocked males carry pink or red flower petals, displaying them towards their chosen partner.

In an observational study of of this petal-carrying behaviour among both wild and avairy-reared birds, it was found that male birds display flower petals towards the fertile female. The researchers concluded that the petal-carrying behaviour is mainly an inter-sexual event to attract the female, although in 10 percent of cases, the male birds enacted the same behaviour towards other males, leading to the suggestion that it could also be an intra-sexual aggressive display (Karubian and Alvarado, 2003).

Along the trail I meet another riverwalker who's also taking photographs. As I stroke his graceful greyhound, we chat about the Brahminy Kite that just swooped low over the water and the abundant birdlife that dwells in this special and sacred place.

Frith HJ, 1976, Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds, Surry Hills, NSW, Reader's Digest Services Pty Ltd.
Karubian J and A Alvarado, 2003, 'Testing the function of petal-carrying in the Red-backed Fairy-wren (Malurus melanocephalus),' Emu, 103, 1, 87-92.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

The Sacred Kingfisher

It seems death stalks the trail this week. Lying on the side of the path was a bunch of turquoise feathers. I picked up the small Sacred Kingfisher and held it in the palm of my hand admiring the exquisite bright blue green mantle then placed it in the earth. I'd been watching a pair of these birds for weeks. Often they'd sit on the electricity wires, the same spot every day, watching for prey. Now only one remained.

However the bird book tells me these creatures are usually solitary, only pairing up to breed. They build their nest in tree hollows or by burrowing into termite mounds or river and other earthen banks and can have three to six eggs.

Sacred Kingfishers are widespread across coastal Australia. Some migrate from New Zealand; others travel from northern Australia to Victoria and Tasmania. The result of one of these journeys to Brunswick, a Melbourne suburb, created great excitement and spawned an annual festival dedicated to The Return of the Sacred Kingfisher.

In the mid 1970s a group of dedicated environmentalists took over a rubbish tip on the edge of the Merri Creek in Brunswick. and CERES was born. There they created an oasis of community gardens, permaculture, alternative technology projects, environmental educational programs, an organic farm, native plant nursery and a haven of inspirational green activities. The creek was restored, replanted and restoried. And one day, back in 1992, a Sacred Kingfisher visited. They'd not been seen in the area for 20 years.

From then on the return of this tiny sacred bird has been celebrated at the end of November. Hundreds of school children, story tellers, dancers and songsters recreate the story of the Sacred Kingfisher's return to the Merri Creek. CERES says that the ceremony in homage of this tiny bird has 'become a symbolic community ritual, connecting people to place through the creative expression of our environmental, artistic and cultural significance.'

Maya Ward who has walked the Merri Creek (and the Yarra River) from sea to source has written 'The Story of the Sacred Kingfisher' (2006). She ends her watery journey along the Merri Creek with this poignant story of the Sacred Kingfisher and its very timely return to the CERES haven.

'Once upon a time, in a southerly land between mountains and bay, was the land of the Kulin, where the Wurundjeri lived. Their ancestors, Bunjil the Wedge Tailed Eagle and Branbeal the rainbow had created this land, and the people sang the songs to sustain the land, to thank the ancestors for creating this bountiful world. And when the people died, the Sacred Kingfisher in her clothes of sky and cloud flew away at the end of summer with the people’s spirit into the sky, while their body and soul returned to the earth. And in spring the Sacred Kingfisher returned, to nest and rest, to feed and breed on the banks of the Merri Merri, while the Wurundjeri harvested eels and blackfish, cumbungi and water ribbons.

But then one day strangers came to the land of the Kulin, who did not know lore or right behavior. The strangers stole the land from the Wurundjeri, and banished them to beyond the mountains. But the Wurundjeri walked back over the mountains, and so when the strangers had been in the land for many generations, and were starting to open their eyes and unblock their ears, to see and hear of the wrongs they had caused, the Wurundjeri were there with the stories of how this land came to be.

And so, after many many years unspoken, together the Wurundjeri and the strangers retold the story of Bunjil and Branbeal, and of how Waa the crow created a whirlwind to take them into the sky, so that they could view their creation. The people who were no longer strangers sang the song calling Branbeal to bring colour to the world. But she only comes after rain, so when the drenched singers had dried themselves, Branbeal the rainbow arced over the Village Green.

I know why she is called the Sacred Kingfisher.' (Ward, 2006).

Ward M, 2006, The Story of the Sacred Kingfisher,

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Eel

The metre long dark brown Eel was lying immobile in the middle of the trail. At times I've seen fishers at the creek but until now have not encountered their discards. Perhaps they just forgot to take the Eel with them or perhaps they didn't think to put it back its watery home. I read that Eels can live up to 48 hours out of the water because of their very oily skin; they can also travel short distances across land - slithering from place to place in search of a new pond or pool if theirs is drying up. I didn't know how long this one had been out of the water so, hoping it would revive, I picked it up and placed it back in the creek.

The day before I'd seen another Eel swimming in a nearby lake, so finding one more Eel told me something about the creatures who live here but are often out of sight.

Eels live for 50 to 60 years and have an amazing life story to tell. They live as both saltwater and freshwater creatures. And throughout their lives they journey vast distances, up to 6000 kilometres, from their ocean home in the middle of the Pacific (for Australian species) to the particular river, creek and pool where their relatives had once lived. They find their way back, it's believed, due to their remarkable ability to recognise the specific chemistry of the water from their parents' original freshwater pool site (Planet Patrol, 2007).

When they start their journey from the ocean they're known as Elvers. These tiny leaf-like creatures drift on the currents for two to three years but, it's said, only about one percent of them actually make it back to their freshwater refuge. According to British research there has been a huge decline in the numbers of young Eels reaching estuaries and rivers, estimated at over 90 percent in the past two decades (BBC Science & Nature, 2004).

As the Eels move from waterplace to waterplace they also shapeshift from the tiny Elver transforming into a translucent juvenile 'glass Eel' and eventually to the lustrous dark brown Eel I met on the trail. After another 20 or so years living in local creeks, lakes and ponds the Eels hear the call of the ocean. They need to return to their spawming grounds to breed. And then they die.

Journeying across such vast distances is dangerous. Dams act as barriers stopping the Eels moving up and downstream but sometimes stairways are created to help Eels and other migrating fish to reach their destination. Toxic pollution, agricultural, chemical and sewerage runoff also damages the Eel and other river species. Overfishing is another problem. In Brisbane and other areas in SE Queensland, urban development can also affect the Eel population. By filling in channels, swamps and pools, building weirs, disturbing riverbank ecologies and water quality the Eels can lose their pathways to the ocean.

Along Australia's east coast there are two types Eel, the longfinned Eel (Anguilla reinhardtii) which enjoys tropical environments and the shortfinned Eel (Anguilla australis) which lives in temperate waters. The ABC Science informative website says that: 'Longfinned Eels prefer flowing rivers and creeks more than the calm ponds and lakes the Shortfinned tends to inhabit'.

Longfinned and long lived, these Eels need safeguarding. A lot of attention is now going into breeding Eels in fishfarms at the 'glass Eel' stage. If you are interested have a look at work being conducted at the Bribie Island Aquaculture Research Centre in Queensland (e.g. Langdon and Collins, 2000).

Langdon SA and AL Collins, 2000, 'Quantification of the maximal swimming performance of Australasian glass eels, Anguilla australis and Anguilla reinhardtii, using a hydraulic flume swimming chamber,' New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research, 34: 629-636

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Love the planet not fear its demise

'Arguably, the challenge of the spiritual is the most significant we face in our contempor-ary world, through it may not be seen as such by many.' This sweeping statement by authors Clive and Jane Erricker (2001:xv) headlines their edited volume Contemporary Spiritualities: Social and Religious Contexts.

They arrive at this challenging point through the assumption that, 'it is necessary for every individual to establish a place of belonging in society'. But a sense of belonging, particularly to place, can give rise to inter-place conflicts when place takes on the mantle of ownership.

To discuss these contentious issues, the authors suggest spirituality is one pathway towards conflict resolution or at least is a way of reconfiguring the impact of conflicts:

'[W]e are not suggesting that the spiritual is a panacea for contemporary global conflict, an alchemical means for producing global harmony. Rather...different conceptions of the spiritual are strong motivating forces within the politics of human communication ...we ignore this at our peril' (2001:xvii).

Their frame of interaction and their desire for mutual understanding and dialogue is broad. But to narrow or highlight their intention, Erricker and Erricker define the spiritual as 'an act or process of relationship: with others, the divine, the natural world, places the emphasis on growth, reflection, responsibility, altruism and thus even denial' (xviii).

This is a significant undertaking - to promote engagement with and reflection on the other - the earth, the refugee, the person suffering poverty, the drought affected farmer, the depeleted ocean affected fisher, and/or the polluted river. The process begins with reflection then shifts to responsibility and altruism on one hand, but can lead to denial on the other, when social and environmental justice seem too hard to achieve or the individual feels too powerless to effect change.

Similar issues were raised on this morning's BBC program 'Heart and Soul'. The radio documentary discussed the relationship between religion and environment but in the macro sense. It argued that the environment movement has become society's newest religion as it preaches a moral and ethical way of living, and in a secular society, seems to have replaced mainline religion with its plea to take care of the planet. But as well as the message of hope and responsibility, the program suggested that the environment movement also preaches an apocalyptic outcome - the end of the world as we know it.

Religious organisations have, at least in Australia, tended to overlook the ecological imperative although this is slowly changing with policies and action platforms appearing in the Catholic, Anglican, Uniting, Baptist churches and other mainstream religions. At the end of 2006 Australia's religious leaders met with the Climate Institute and produced the Common Belief Report: Australia's Faith Communities on Climate Change. This interfaith group includes: Aboriginal leaders, Anglicans, Australian Christian Lobby, Baptists, Buddhists, Bahais, Catholics, Evangelical Alliance, Greek Orthodox, Hindus, Jews, Lutherans, Muslims, Salvation Army, Sikhs and the Uniting Church. A couple of weeks ago these religions combined to lobby the federal government to take environmental issues more seriously and all but the Catholic Church joined this entreaty (ABC News, 2007).

Climate change issues fill the headlines but does it make people more active in taking care of the environment, the river, the bay or their local place community?

The BBC program made the point that the environment movement has, in the past, sometimes ignored the human in its call for the establishment of refuges like animal santuaries and marine parks where humans are barred or restricted. It suggested that the environment movement has tended to have a 'blame the other human' mentality and in the process could be accused of fear mongering. In fact the message around fear is having an impact on the community. The program pointed to recent British research on children's environmental awareness that shows half the 1,150 children surveyed, from 7 to 11 years, 'are anxious about the effects of global warming and often lose sleep over it' (Jones, 2007). Amongst the fears the children mention are 'poor health, the possible submergence of entire countries and the welfare of animals'.

How do children learn about the environmental crisis? From their parents, the school, the media, their friends? The report did not look to socialisation as such but stated that 1 in 7 children believe their parents are not doing enough to look after the enviroment. It also found that most of the children are aware of the benefits of recycling although 10 percent thought that recycling had something to do with riding bikes (!)

There is a serious lesson here - how to inform the community, especially young children, about environmental problems and the need to care for the planet without raising the spectra of fear?

Environmental educator David Sobel (1999) is concerned about this kind of pressure on children to understand the dynamics of the ecological crisis. He suggests that adults, and especially environmental education programs which focus on environmental abuse, may in fact work in reverse. Rather than raising awareness and concern about environmental issues, Sobel asserts that these programs may engender a subtle form of disassociation. Children may turn off, tune out, or cut themselves off because the problem is too difficult for them to handle or even to hear about. Sobel likens this tendency to switch off to the same kind of reaction or response mechanism acted out by children who have suffered various kinds of abuse.

His antidote? 'If we want children to flourish we need to give them time to connect with nature and love the Earth before we ask them to save it.'

I began this blog talking about the role of the spiritual in relation to identity and belonging. It looked to the process of relationship creation whether with the divine, the natural world or with others, then shifted to consider the role of mainline religions in promoting a sense of identity and belonging with the natural world as divine other. It discussed whether certain religions and certain elements of the environment movement have something in common - the escatological dimension, but outlined that the dire end of the world warnings give rise to fear and trauma in young children.

The lesson unfolds - to protect the earth there needs to be another way to act and react: rejoice and celebrate the planet's wondrous and interconnected ecosystems, love the earth, engage with the outdoors, cherish a sense of play and place, delight in birdsong, relish each day and feel the allure of the divine natural world - not only as other but also as self.

ABC News, 2007, Religious leaders urge Govt to act on climate change, PM, Oct 3, 2007,
Erricker C and J Erricker, Eds, 2001, Contemporary Spiritualities: Social and Religious Contexts, London and New York: Continuum.
Jones A, 2007, 'Children losing sleep over global warming,' The Scotsman, Feb 27, 2007,

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Singing Tree

Sometimes the whole tree grove along the river is singing. Parrots, Lorikeets, Noisy Mynahs, Little Brown Birds, the trees are filled with movement and the sparkling sound of bird chatter. Shadows flit through the branches, darting from blossom to blossom, chirping, and all the while the trees seem to sway with a choir of bird song.

The spirit of this place is heightened by paying attention, engaging with all the senses, becoming attuned to the allure of sirens that draw you to them. Sound, touch, feel, taste, smell. Feeling heady amongst the honey aroma of the eucalypt grove, tasting the sweetness on the breeze. These experiences enrich the river connection and remind me of what is lost when people forget the need for these special and precious moments. Ecophilosopher David Abram (2001) (re)vitalizes the destiny role of the senses when he states: 'The fate of the earth depends on a return to our senses.'

Abram maintains that in this post-industrial era we have literally lost our senses, in particular, the direct sensory experience of the world around us. As the city loses its green shadey avenues and its heritage housing, as the birds and animals (except domestic ones) disappear from the tight urban swell, he fears we lose a part of who we are, part of our identity as both human and nature. Instead, he suggests we need to re-discover the world using 'our animal eyes' and 'animal ears' and re-invest the surroundings as sensate, feeling, animate. By engaging the senses and re-engaging with the sensory world, we rekindle the patterns and textures of our wildness, our evolutionary relationship with all sentient beings in the vibrant ecosystem. Abram puts it this way:

'The senses are what is most wild in us; capacities that we share, in some manner ... with most other entities in the living landscape, from earthworms to eagles. Flowers responding to sunlight, tree roots extending rootlets in search of water, even the movement of a simple bacterium in response to its fluid surroundings; here, too, are sensation and sensitivity, distant variants of our own sentience. Apart from breathing and eating, the senses are our most intimate link with the living land, the primary way the earth has of influencing our moods and guiding our actions.'

The earth influencing our moods and guiding our actions? As I have outlined previously in this blog, much research has been conducted on the role of green spaces, trees and gardens in enhancing human health, wellbeing and quality of life and the consequences of being removed from what Abram calls in his article 'The Ecology of Magic' (1995) those 'vital sources of nourishment' like the sight and sound of birds quivering on luscious honey flowers.

I wonder then if there is a loss of memory as if the so-called scientific modern rational mindscape has plastered over the cracks of an emergent sensual spirituality. Perhaps, and partly because of this, notions of the sacred are directed to the other worldly and gloss over the dynamism of the ecosystem as sacred process. The sense of the sacred and the full expression of the senses then become 'out of this world' rather than embedded within it. This use of the notion of other worldlyness also heightens the dualism between sacred/profane, transcendent/immanent, supernatural/natural (Piette, 1993 in Hervieu-Leger, 2000:46). Within the realm of the sensual, an emotionally-laden and experiential spirituality awakens through the process of connecting with the sacred - the river, the birds, the trees, the ecology in an embodied and feeling (eco)self.

Reconnecting with body memory, with the crazy sensualness of life, touches a multitude of experiential receptors. A sensual spirituality is enflamed and disperses like seeds on the wind into an ecospiritual sensual richness of symbolic and embodied meaning creation.

Abram D, 1995, 'The Ecology of Magic,' in T Roszak, ME Gomes and AD Kanner, Eds., Ecopsychology. Restoring the Earth. Healing the Mind, San Francisco, Sierra Club.
Hervieu-Leger D, 1993, Religion as a Chain of Memory, Trans S. Lee, Cambridge, Polity Press.
Piette A, 1993, Les Religions Seculaires, Paris, PUF, Coll. Que sais-je?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


One in ten (!) of the world's large rivers runs dry every year before it reaches the sea, the magnificent Murray is one such river. The danger to rivers globally was raised this week as part of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report: Global Environment Outlook: Environment for Development.

At the very time when the planetary crisis was announced by UNEP following a study from 1400 scientists across the globle, the courts in London were debating the validity of showing Al Gore's An Inconvenient truth to school students without an accompanying critique of Gore's conclusions. This court ruling and the scientific evidence seem poles apart.

The UNEP report made a startling statement: 'The future of humanity has been put at risk by a failure to address environmental problems including climate change, species extinction and a growing human population.'

The thought of the extent of ecological damage and the human cause of this life-threatening problem should be so shocking as to galvanise urgent action but UNEP says that governments worldwide have their collective heads in the sand. And in Australia as well.

The earth is overused and undervalued. The UNEP report found that human consumption and its accompanying ecological footprint is signficantly outstripping the earth's resources to match the demand. Biodiversity was next on UNEP's list of great concerns with 30% of amphibians, 23% of mammals and 12% of birds in danger of extinction.

There is not much more to say. It is a frightening picture.