I put off writing Christmas cards then I thought of a couple of people I’d like to send one to, then that turned into a list and I started writing the cards and crossing off names but when I looked for their addresses I saw other names I should write to and when I looked up one name in my mother’s old address book I saw her desperate, increasingly large and shaky letters writing out the same name again and again and when I put my address on the back of each envelope I remembered that Martin and I had made a stamp that we used to press gleefully during our annual Christmas card writing evenings.
In October 2020 I received an email telling me that I had been awarded a fellowship for 2021 at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in Perth. This was the biggest and most exciting award for my writing that I had ever received. Dates were set and changed and held in limbo while the WA lockdown dragged on. I put my excitement, like the dates, on hold. But eventually, unbelievably, I was packing my bag, getting in a taxi, and going to the airport.
This is the report I wrote about my time as a fellow at KSP, June 6 to 19, 2022.
I’d forgotten the tedium of airports and boarding planes, the extreme act of faith involved in packing yourself into a tin can to fly across the country. I’d forgotten the exhilaration of take-off, of watching the earth glide by below, reduced to patterns and hints of life.
My tin can took me to Perth, and a taxi took me to Greenmount. I found my keys and my cabin, opened the door onto a cosy room with a giant desk. I breathed it in, dropped my bags, and went out for provisions. I did battle with tardy taxis and dreary supermarkets but finally I was back with bags of food, coffee and lactose-free yogurt. There was a knock on the door. It was Chris, from the top cabin. She and Ashley, from the bottom cabin, had been worried about me and were glad I was there. I was glad I was there too.
That night, making our first dinner together in the kitchen, we each made a simple meal and talked about the joy of being at the beginning of two weeks of writing. Ashley and Chris had plans for each day. I had a manuscript of 65,000 words and a bag of notes.
The next morning I sat at the enormous desk, stared out the window at the bees buzzing around the tree trunk, and spread out the notes that I had been accumulating for the last six months. Little bits of paper on which I’d scribbled snippets of conversations, explanations for actions, my characters’ characteristics. To incorporate them into my manuscript took minutes for some, hours for others. I crossed out each one as I used it and threw it away. At some stage I ate lunch. At some stage I went for a walk, tramping up Old York Road to admire enormous gumtrees with massive gumnuts, twenty-eights singing on their branches, galahs flying overhead. Coming back I saw little furry figures, low to the ground, dashing through the grass and behind my cabin, and I realised I’d been lucky enough to see the quendas.
And that became my life. Wildlife, desk, manuscript. Walking, shopping, dinner. I compiled the remaining notes into two documents: One-offs (something that just had to happen in one place) and More than one-off (something that was a feeling or a general idea). I worked through them, striking through each one, and then they were done too. I listed issues I wanted to consider for continuity of actions and characters and checked through them. I drew up a sort of map with a range of pretty colours showing how my two main characters felt in each chapter, then used that to make changes that gave their actions and interactions psychological continuity.
On day 9 I wrote in my diary, ‘Want to stay here forever.’
On day 11 I knew I needed to make sure my manuscript wasn’t just a patchwork of notes and ideas. I printed it out in Katharine’s room and walked back to my cabin, holding the pages like a newborn baby. I read through it and made more revisions.
On day 13 I put my novel aside. A UK organisation had decreed it was National Flash Fiction Day [see my previous post] and was putting up one prompt per hour, all with a theme of ‘eleven’ for their eleventh anniversary. The first prompt was to write a flash of eleven words. Apart from the one I sent them, I wrote four more.
Lizard eats snail. Magpie sings fluidly. Parrot gnaws branch. I’m leaving.
Rain pours down. Bees are sheltering. Quendas stay hidden. I’m leaving.
Writing went well. Book took shape. Words still missing. I’m leaving.
New friends made. Good advice given. Keep in touch. We’re leaving.
Extra note: I started this novel some years back and very quickly gave it the title ‘The Dogs’. When John Hughes’s novel of the same name was published in 2021 I cursed, and started thinking of a new title. When ‘The Dogs’ became embroiled in plagiarism charges I cursed even more. What a waste of a good title.
June 18 was national flash fiction day, as decreed on the UK NFFD website, and they posted a prompt every hour at The Write-in. All of the prompts had a reference to ‘eleven’ as this was NFFD’s eleventh anniversary. Well that was a fun way to spend a few hours. Looking forward to NFFD 2023 now.
Here are my published responses to four of the prompts.
Prompt 0: a flash using eleven words
Prompt 1: Reactions (because sodium is highly reactive and is atomic number 11)
Prompt 2: a modern fairy tale
Prompt 5: Hit the highway (a real means of transport that includes the number 11)
For the past three or four years I’ve been participating in the Writers Victoria Flash Fiction challenge. Each morning in April they send out a prompt, and the challenge is to write 30 words in response. Here are my 30 entries for this year (plus one extra – after encountering her on the street, I couldn’t resist writing about the little girl in the dusky pink coat on April 21 for the prompt, ‘Gold’).
Alex operated stealthily, secreting $20 notes in toilet rolls, stacking strategic piles of clothes like tidiness. But somehow Barry got the hint, ramping up surveillance, his tentacles of righteousness quivering.
Of course she’d believed him. She’d swallowed it whole and bathed in its glow. The gifts, the flowers, the candlelight. But if he was pyrite, that made her the fool.
The glow of those first days remained for years, cocooning us in a world where everything was good. I thought we could only emerge as butterflies, our wings delicate, together.
The rainbow spread colours across the bay. We ran to the headland to seek our fortune in the rockpools, finding instead a ghostly stingray pup, undulating in slowly swirling seaweed.
We’d always laughed at the icon on the shelf, its tealights and oranges. Tonight it laughed at us, faces grey, toying with noodles. ‘Who’re you gonna call, atheists,’ it chuckled.
‘Yes, his good days are becoming more intermittent,’ she agreed, remembering that there was a time before ‘good days’ and ‘bad days’. There had been a life lived together, unquestioned.
You were no bright star, neither steadfast nor patient. Your moving waters more restless than a river. No swooning, no death for me when the pillow of your breast disappeared.
Solemn-faced, they’d given her a year. Twelve rotations of the sun, or thirteen of the moon. She chose the moon, her hope shrinking with it, swelling with it by turn.
‘You “appreciate” that I “perceive” it that way!’ she echoed, fingers working overtime on air quotes. ‘You appreciate …’ She shook her head, slamming the door on her way out.
Jean was careful with knives, not so careful with people. She could skewer you with a sharp look, metallic twinkle in her eyes, while cutting onions to a fine dice.
Emmy squeals. Shiny, green! Picks it up. Sticks it on her arm, then her leg, her cheek. ‘Don’t put the sequin …’ I start, ‘in your nose,’ I finish, lamely.
There had been a time. There was a photo. She’s smiling, laughing. He must have been behind the camera. The memory shimmers, just on the horizon, just out of reach.
You had been to Granada before, her ghost there with us. She could have the golden altar in the cathedral, but I wanted the Alhambra’s glory for our eyes only.
I had anticipated clouds appearing on the horizon, eventually. They’d be little white fluffy things, puffing up, ebbing away. I hadn’t expected this solid bank of bulbous purple and black.
I wake, screaming, from a nightmare. A room full of subdued people. Decorations – streamers, balloons – hang forlornly. From a screen, Antony Green says, ‘We’re starting to see some trends here.’
At midnight it had seemed romantic. Now it seemed, well, ill-conceived. You’d been more shake than sheik. Trudging back to the oasis, sand chafes. Ill-conceived! That might be tomorrow’s problem.
We used to walk in dappled light among these crowding trees.
It’s your ashes that I’ll put here now. You’re always close to me.
In Agrigento, the light was failing. We ate pomegranate on the terrace. Faint calls crossed the valley. Small shapes careered down the hill, guiding goats into pens. Darkness set in.
It became awkward to have her children visit. Their blinking, averted eyes, their silences and wooden smiles showed what they’d overheard, and what they thought they knew of me.
I’m wavering now. Is he really gold, or just pyrite? An oasis for my resurrected heart or just another mirage, his glow vanishing where the dunes blink on the horizon?
1851. Sydney. City emptied, roads clogged with wagons and walkers. A dusty, shuffling corridor of people, miscellaneous tools at their shoulders. Gold fever lured them. Typhoid fever struck them down.
The little girl wears a dusky pink coat and matching bonnet. She stops in the driveway and pulls off the bonnet. Lips, mouth turn down, arms cross. Gold standard toddler.
Margaret tapped on the grid. ‘What about this one?’ she said. ‘Eleven letters. “Shine in verbal naughtiness until the wee hours”.’ She looked longingly into his ever-sparkling eyes. ‘Ah! Scintillate.’
I have hope without expectation. Hope in the shape of a tiny kernel. It may grow, it may overtake me with its winding tendrils. Or it may rot.
You came into my life like, like what? Like unexpected rain on a dusty roof. I suspect you had an inkling of how it would turn out. I didn’t.
I dream of a prime minister whose intelligence sparkles. This one is a puffed-up meringue, a confection of promises spun from highly-processed sugar, vanishing in your mouth as you bite.
We sit with our backs to the ocean. She has ice-cream. I have coffee. We talk about seagulls, watch them hover and swoop. Her neon smile lights up my life.
This time has softened me, making insistence less attractive, knowledge less sure. And it’s hardened me, closing off the pores in my skin, stopping them from hungering for his touch.
‘Things were simpler when we were kids,’ she says. Yes, I think. We only had the flash and the mushroom cloud to fear. Not this perpetual grinding away of hope.
He had the softest hands. He had a roving eye. He had an angry ex. More than one angry ex. Both knocked at the door that morning. ‘Shhh!’ he said.
Oh my poor heart. This glimmer of care you make embryonic. You bud arms and legs, eyes and ears. From this speck you confect faces smiling stupidly, vows and evermore.
At 8.30 am the air is still a little crisp, but the pot of salvia is in full sun. There are a few blue-banded bees (Amegilla murrayensis) on the pink-tipped Hot Lips flowers, some sucking from the sides but most delving deep into the flower, its petals swallowing all but their quivering round stripy bottoms. I’m reminded of that description, ‘nectar robbers’, that I discovered in researching my previous blog (here) and its inherent judgement of bad behaviour. Today I’m noticing that the bees go to the sides of the thinner flowers, and plunge into the ones that are more open. Maybe they only ‘rob’ when they can’t get into the flower by other means, and if their behaviour is to be judged, it should be seen as pragmatic rather than illicit.
At 11 am the flowers are surrounded by a haze of tiny Tetragonula carbonaria, doing more hovering than harvesting. Once they do select a flower and land on it they spend some busy time there, collecting. A blue-banded bee hurries in, tongue already out, ready for action. This one hurtles into the centre of a flower and stays there until I move, and it moves. A couple of honey bees glide around. One is repelled by a tetragonula in one flower even though the honey bee is many times larger. A hover fly darts in for a look, slips sideways from one flower to another then flies off again.
At midday the miasma of tetragonula is still there, searching. A honey bee flies in, targeting the flowers that look dead, brown and limp. Some fall off as it lights on them, but most produce what it wants, and a packet of yellow pollen develops on one back leg as it digs and scrapes.
At 1 pm the honey bees are favouring the shadier undergrowth of blue salvia, leaving the wilder reaches of Hot Lips to the tetragonulas.
At 1.30 pm a blue-banded bee hovers in the middle of a wire basket, little wings beating, apparently at frequencies of up to 350 Hz. There is nothing in the wire basket but the bee, and I wonder if it’s performing some sort of arcane mating ritual with its own shadow. If it would just sit still I could see if it has 4 bands (female) or 5 bands (male). A honey bee is still pursuing the dead flowers, now checking out the last little wispy bits of flower that have dropped to the ground. More than a memory, it calls up the sensation of walking with trepidation in bare feet on a path covered in jacaranda flowers – followed by exasperation at my own stupidity when the inevitable happens and the sole of my foot is stung by a bee hidden inside those wilting purple trumpets.
The afternoon clouds over. When the sun re-emerges it appears as a ball of brightness behind the trees. With each moment it falls, its gleams shifting as they hit trunks and branches.
At 4.15 pm, one lone blue-banded bee buzzes its noisy buzz in the pot of salvia.
A year ago, after the bushfires, when everything that wasn’t burnt was scorched or looking like it had heat stroke, I planted a big pot of salvia for a quick burst of flowers for whatever insects had survived. It became a gathering point for native bees and honey bees alike, and every time I looked at it I felt I’d done something good. This summer it reflowered, and it continues to flower: an enormous coronet of ‘Hot Lips’ salvia with its circus flowers of pink and white; smaller, more compact, deep purple salvia beneath. Earlier this morning there was a dragonfly on its stalks, and just now two blue-banded bees (Amegilla cingulata), with their familiar buzz, careering around, dipping in and out. One is carrying a big yellow bundle of pollen on one of its back legs.
Not for the first time I wondered about nectar and pollen. Does the flower just keep exuding nectar, or does it run out? Why do the bees choose one flower over another? Why do they sometimes pop into one then pop out again immediately? And why are the blue-banded bees sometimes in the flower and sometimes under the flower, below the base of the petals?
Many hours later I have some answers. But first, I had to get some definitions.
Nectar is a sweet, nutritious secretion produced by a flower’s nectaries. It is mainly sugars (fructose, glucose and sucrose), but may contain traces of other elements, such as amino acids, salts and essential oils. Its composition varies enormously, depending on the plant species, soil and air conditions. Fascinatingly, the connection between a plant and its pollinator may be built in to the nectar:
All these substances often impart a particular taste and odour that may be essential for maintaining certain pollinator groups.
Nectar is secreted from the nectaries in a distinctive pattern for each species, maybe in response to or just in tune with the different pollinators’ needs. The sugar levels may change as nectar is taken, or not. One study of nectar production in salvia showed varying levels of nectar production through the day, depending on the type of salvia, with average production ranging from lows of less than 0.5 µl to highs of 1.75 µl per flower between 9 am and 2 pm. The researchers found that most of the flowers stopped producing nectar after 2 pm. Removal of nectar, either by the researchers or by bees, did not stop the flower from producing nectar.
The position of the nectaries is not fixed within the flower.
To ensure that ideally only legitimate pollinators can access the reward (and in that way successfully transfer pollen), flowers are often “built” around the nectary or the nectar.
However, nectaries are usually found at the base of the stamens, so the pollinator comes into contact with the pollen as it goes into the flower.
Pollen, and other parts of the flower.
At this point I had to go back to flower terminology. Pollen grains contain the male gametes of plants. They are found on the anther, which is at the top of the stamen. When pollen is transferred to the stigma, it (hopefully) germinates. A pollen tube grows from the stigma down the style to fuse with the female nucleus in the ovary. The style and stamen are those fine upright parts of a flower, typically visible in the middle of the petals. So the importance of attracting pollinators lies in the fact that pollen may be being produced in one flower at a time when its stigmas are not receptive. The pollen carried by the pollinator to another plant’s flowers may find a more receptive stigma, leading to germination.
Putting it all together.
So nectar attracts bees (and other pollinators) in the hope that they will pick up some pollen and carry it around, leading to the survival of the species. Nectar is often exuded in small amounts to attract many different pollinators throughout the day, improving the chances of spreading the pollen around.
And those blue-banded bees sucking at the base of the flower?
Some insects, known generally as nectar robbers, bypass the sexual organs of the flowers to obtain nectar, often by penetrating the outside of the flower rather than entering it. In this way, nectar robbers ‘steal’ the nectar reward without facilitating pollination.
Ooh. Nectar robbers!
Here is the final post in my series exploring the effects of the dominance of masculine language.
Here is the third post in my series on how we are influenced by the dominance of male vocabulary.
Here is the second post.
In 2019 my story, ‘Still Life’, was published by Margaret River Press in their anthology, We’ll stand in that place and other stories, and in 2020 MRP invited me to be one of their guest bloggers. For a long time I’ve wanted to do some research on how using the male pronoun as a general pronoun affects our perception. This was my chance to explore. I had four posts to do it in.
This is the first post.
9 October 2020
Miss you already, my fifty word habit. One last kiss as I say goodbye to you, slumped on the couch in your tight party clothes before being hustled out the door by the designated driver, poured onto the back seat and driven deep into the night on dark, rain-soaked streets.
8 October 2020
The seeds we germinated, the trees we planted are no longer ours. They flourish – I hope – in that garden we built from a paddock of kikuyu. The garden beds are tended by other people now – I hear – and they live in the house that we built. It shelters others now.
7 October 2020
The children are asleep. The tumult and the shouting have died, but that anthem is awakened in my mind. The only one I would sing at school assembly, avoiding saying g-o-d, yet loving the swell of the music and emotion. Contrite. That’s a word you don’t often hear these days.
6 October 2020
My father’s favourite phrase – family motto even – was ‘Sufficient is enough’. While there was no arguing with its assertion of synonymity, I always found its lack of breadth of vision disturbing. Today I would rather quote another phrase that my father liked using: ‘You can’t be unlucky all the time’.
5 October 2020
A moth is stuck in my room, veering towards the window then lurching away. Can’t you hear the wind calling you moth? Can’t you hear the trees shaking, the air whipping its way along the street? Don’t you want to leave this room and be carried on the calling wind?
5 October 2020
A kookaburra sitting on a mound of dirt watches me, as I watch it through my kitchen window. Yesterday glossy black cockatoos watched us as we watched them, then a tawny frogmouth. Hard for us to spot it, silent as a branch; easy for it to spot the lumbering humans.
4 October 2020
As we come down the hill our guide stops us. He can hear sacred kingfishers. He points. ‘Two pairs. Fighting for territory.’ Now we see their small bodies darting rapid rings around one big old tree. ‘It takes 180 years for a tree to develop nesting holes,’ our guide says.
3 October 2020
From the top of the hill I see sea haze blurring over the water. Then Bombo Beach is on my left and I try to catch glimpses as I rush past with the traffic, of its greens and blues I have no names for, solid colours that shape-shift the waves.
2 October 2020
A chance sighting of a bank of cyclamens, a crowd of pink in deep shade on the twisting road between Sapri and the Greek ruins at Ascea, returns to me now. I won’t tell the cyclamen in its windowbox about its wild Italian cousins, for fear it will lose heart.
1 October 2020
Amongst my mother’s things I find an envelope of photos for me. One is of a small girl, a pigeon perched on her head. Trafalgar Square, 1962, and the pigeons were famous then. She holds her hands out in anxious excitement. My hands. I almost remember that jacket, that smile.
30 September 2020
Drinking coffee with a friend of twenty years, talking of work and idiots we have known, I slowly reassembled who I am. It’s not hard to lose all sense of being, be thrown into chaos as tumbled as a gully where magpies dive and rustle, where the sky just disappears.
29 September 2020
I was last in a mall months ago. Today, in the overbright lights and constant barrage of music that is almost familiar, a sense of nostalgia was beginning to creep up, a nascent desire for a visit to a mall to be commonplace, when I saw shelves of Christmas merchandise.
28 September 2020
Of course it was just for the four-year-old that I stopped by the side of the road to delight in tiny black-faced lambs, leaping behind their mothers in the paddock. And only for her did I accept the farmer’s invitation to feed the lamas that nibbled soft-lipped at our hands.
27 September 2020
After a day in the Wattle Garden, with prostrate wattles, and swamp wattles, wattles with leaves of diamonds or fluff, leaves that droop or splay, in greys and greens and grey-greens, covered in little balls of yellow, my eyes have to adjust outside Bowral to a neat bed of ranunculus.
26 September 2020
Can I mention that in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the answer to the meaning of the universe is 42, and that it’s 42 years since the radio program first aired. And that Ford Prefect and Arthur encounter survivors from Golgafrincham, a planet wiped out by a virulent disease.
25 September 2020
People have put their rubbish on the street, as if this wind won’t take it and distribute the pieces, the box upended behind a car, the plastic wrap flapping out across the road, the polystyrene booming down the road to flop in front of a too-fast truck and be shredded.
24 September 2020
We first see the train as we turn at the end of the street. ‘We’re following it!’ my granddaughter laughs, and so we are. We see it again across the paddocks, reduced in size, a matchbox train. ‘It’s smaller because it’s further away!’ my granddaughter exclaims. Both rational and magic.
23 September 2020
Down in the street two young teenagers are walking, shoelaces undone, school backpacks drooping. His arm is draped over her shoulder. They both smile dreamy smiles of contentment. They kick across the road in the benevolent afternoon. Mild sun warms their backs, and a breeze is animation in the trees.
22 September 2020
The woman at the playground tells me that her baby is seven weeks old, then that her daughter is two. I tell her that my granddaughter is also two, and we compare birth dates. ‘Never come across anyone so stubborn.’ She gestures towards her daughter. ‘Except me,’ she adds grimly.
21 September 2020
The sky is enormous with shredded white clouds. Signs warn us of endangered seabirds but an illiterate raptor sweeps past, eyes on the nesting sites. Magpies, swooping in rotation, tiny in the sky, chase it down the beach. The pied oyster catcher digs in wet sand as the waves retreat.
20 September 2020
Looking for the river we drive to Bangalee Reserve, then follow a sign beckoning, ‘Start of walk’. Past an ancient forked bunya pine, with razor-tipped leaves. Slabs of cliff hold rock orchids in flamboyant bloom. Palm trees and stinging trees in sheltered pockets. Views of the river ebb and flow.
19 September 2020
Fairy lights and swathes of material have transformed the old green shed, now fit for a celebration. Plates of food make way for guitars and singing. Jenny will only dance to Dancing Queen so here it is. John jumps up for Jumping Jack Flash. Not bad for an old guy.
18 September 2020
It’s a good day for curling up in bed – damp, soft grey sky – and the sea-eagle chicks have nestled down. Just when you think the white one has finally dozed off it scratches itself, or cleans under its wing, jostling the darker one, making it wriggle irritably in its sleep.
17 September 2020
Bundanoon is beautiful with opulent magnolia and pink-tinged snowy-white blossom. Waving yellow wattle and delicate droops of sweet pea. I push the pram into the butcher’s shop as a passing woman wearing an ankle length wrap of finely-woven wool articulates to her companion, ‘How did you discover this little place?’.
16 September 2020
I knew, even as I chopped the carrots, that they were a mistake. They would turn my dinner into a mess, diluting the flavours with their lumpy blandness. Suddenly I understood why my daughter had always picked the carrots out of stews. But I kept chopping, and added them anyway.
15 September 2020
The swimming lesson has moved to the other end of the pool. I sit on raked steps to watch my grandson. Behind the blue and white lane markers two women walk, as stately as cruise ships. Behind them, a turbulence of aquarobics. Behind that, a stretch of shimmering, unruffled water.
14 September 2020
Day twenty-five of my fifty days. What to write about to celebrate this auspicious moment? Being a great-aunt, the mystery of dust, the sudden shaft of western sun falling on the house across the street? Or maybe it’s time to consider the fast-approaching milestone of one million deaths due to
13 September 2020
A woman near the markets is wearing a shirt that says ‘Sunday’. Recently I bought some soft white sheets, on sale, called ‘Sunday sheets’. I think I get the allusion, but I don’t think either of us – she in her shirt or me in my sheets – is living the dream.
12 September 2020
My friend from primary school days messaged me this morning. Usually she’s found an old photo of us, usually playing with our guinea-pigs. This time it’s to say her partner has taken a turn for the worse. The palliative care team is looking after him at home, beautifully, she says.
11 September 2020
I should sit on a rock in the bush more often. Below me, a tiny purple orchid. Around me, a grass with a spray of yellow flowers like a constellation. A swelling banksia flower, yellow as butter inside, hooks of fiery red. Fresh leaves at the base of a eucalypt.
10 September 2020
The baby is moving into toddler territory now, frowning at me in the café because I forgot her yoghurt. Back home, after wrestling herself onto the stool, she sits at the little table drawing with crayons. I hold her to me when she’s tired. She still pulls out my earrings.
9 September 2020
There’s a plover on the edge of a neighbouring roof, motionless on spindly legs. Last year we watched a plover from the 11th floor hospital window, exposed on the flat pebble roof to those weeks of beating sun and pouring rain. When she sat on her nest, she disappeared completely.
8 September 2020
‘I call them beach flowers,’ my grandson says as he and his sister pick the squat flowers in every shade of yellow. We make roads in the white sand, looping around each other. A choppy wind is blowing, the waves splashing inelegantly. ‘Why are there even beaches?’ my grandson asks.
7 September 2020
Last night’s news reported the survival of the glow worms in a damp tunnel near Newnes, spared, unlike the devastating three billion animals killed or displaced in last summer’s fires. ‘They’re like nature’s Milky Way,’ one person enthused. In these circumstances, you’ve got to get your laughs where you can.
6 September 2020
A dinner party! How extra ordinary. So much good food, gaiety and laughter, catching up on years of being too busy for this, remembering the importance of that simple connection of friendship. We lose track of time and leave way after midnight, promising to do it again, and meaning it.
5 September 2020
I saw that man yesterday too, headphones on, towel slung over his shoulder. Back from the pool already. Soon new leaves will cover the street trees, cutting me off from the dog-walkers and pram-pushers, joggers and coffee-carriers. Maybe the butcher bird will return soon, its voice as pure as Callas.
4 September 2020
These voices calling through light rain and grey sky remind me of Rome, that apartment behind Campo dei Fiori, the windowseat, the window onto trailing vines. They remind me of that agriturismo outside Agrigento, those children calling from the hillside, across the valley, running their goats down along the fences.
3 September 2020
Opening the window for the first time in months, the warm air is unseemly. The beep of a backing truck, the whirr of a starting car, the voice of a person squabbling – all strangely unfamiliar as they burst into my bubble. Someone plays the drums, badly, petulantly tapping the cymbals.
2 September 2020
The telegraph wires are mysterious at night, loops and stray pieces of wire forming shapes of enigmatic language. In the morning they shine like innocent children, laughing at my fancies, displaying their true twists and accretions. But a spider’s web, seen as a gauze in the streetlight’s slant, has vanished.
1 September 2020
The aquarobics music pumps and the teacher bounces, booming to her bobbing class. Lane markers, dark blue in the aqua pool, pucker on their edges, serrated like a breadknife, rippling like ric-rac. As my grandson learns overarm, the water surface melts. I sit in a Hockney with a Motown soundtrack.
This is what I was wondering today as I deleted old emails from my bulging inbox folders. Working from a vague sense of data centres that use a lot of CO2-emitting energy, I felt the halo glowing above my head. But was that halo deserved?
I have found a number of sources that quote the figure of 4 g of CO2 emitted for a simple email, up to 50 g for one with an attachment. The emissions come from the electricity used by the devices (such as your laptop and wifi) you use to send it, plus the energy use of the data centres the email goes through. However, these figures are over 10 years old, and according to the BBC’s Smart Guide to Climate Change, may have increased.
Data centres store and process data in large quantities. They are ‘the cloud’. And not only is ‘the cloud’ here on land, but transmission between countries takes place via cables laid on the ocean floors. The Conversation tracked down the physical location of some Sydney data centres in Alexandria, making their existence even more earth-bound.
Data centres use an enormous amount of energy to process and store data and for temperature control. In 2013 they consumed 7.3TWh (26.3 PJ) of electricity in Australia (3.9% of national consumption). More recent figures for worldwide use show data centres consumed at least 1% of global electricity. If a data centre uses green energy, this is a lot less polluting than fossil-fuel energy, but how can I know where my email is going, or what sort of energy it is being transmitted by? Once it leaves my house (powered by green energy) the answer is, I don’t know. Search as I might, burning about 0.2 g of CO2 with each search, I can find lists of Australian and NZ data centres, and information about Telstra’s data centre ownership, but what does that mean for me? My internet is provided by Telstra so presumably my emails and internet searches go through them, but are my photos stored there too, or in an Apple data centre? Following these assumptions, I can find no information about their power sources.
Of course a lot of internet use is creating efficiencies, letting us email rather than send a letter, or Zoom rather than travel, but at a time when we have to look at reducing our CO2 emissions, and quickly, every reduction counts.
So, did I deserve my halo? Yes! Deleting emails means they’re not stored in the data centre, requiring processing and cooling to survive. Better still though, would be to have fewer emails in the first place. I need to go through the emails I subscribe to and unsubscribe from the ones that I don’t read. Even those aspirational ones that someone I admire recommended but which I never seem to have the time for. And in the future, please don’t think me rude if I don’t send a ‘Thanks’ by email. I might send it by text instead, and just use 0.014 g of CO2.
I know I know! There are 1 million grams in a tonne, so you’d need to send 250,000 simple emails to generate 1 tonne of CO2. Trimming your inbox isn’t going to save the world, but it does remind you to do so.
PS If you’re willing to use an extra 0.2 g of CO2 (maybe you can economise elsewhere) here’s a good infographic to take you through the figures for all types of internet use.