My September challenge

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A couple of weeks ago I decided to set myself a challenge: to do something personal about climate change each month. My challenge for September was to find out which was the least damaging petrol for the environment. Spending time in the bush at Tapitallee is a wonderful antidote to the pressures of city living, but driving down here is an environmental burden.

It turned out there was no simple answer to my question. And the answers I found were dispiriting – more evidence of woeful environmental leadership in Australia. The articles on the subject were unanimous – ‘compared with most of the rest of the world, our fuel is filthy’[1]  and ‘… this country still uses much dirtier fuel than most of the rest of the world. Indeed, Australia is ranked 70th in terms of fuel quality because of the relatively high percentage of sulphur permitted.’[2]  and ‘Australia’s 91-octane standard fuel is allowed to have sulphur levels as high as 150 parts per million. The world standard in markets such as China, Europe, India and Japan is 10 ppm.’[3]

The levels of sulphur in our petrol are a problem because our petrol is ‘pumping significantly more sulphur dioxide – a common cause of breathing problems and generator of acid rain – into the atmosphere than other OECD members, creating excessive engine wear for consumers and even costing us more at the pump, because the dirty fuel doesn’t burn as efficiently as if it had less sulphur.’[4] Moreover, because our petrol has these high levels of sulphur, ‘the latest-technology, low-emission engines cannot be supported in the domestic market. “If you go to a higher quality fuel, the vast majority of vehicles on our roads automatically (become) more fuel efficient,” said Mr Weber [chief executive of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI)]. “There would be an improvement in the fuel economy of vehicles across the fleet of 17 million vehicles in Australia, not just the new ones”.’[5] The FCAI has said that ‘improving Australia’s fuel quality would offer a “3% to 5%” improvement on CO2 performance “overnight”.’[6]

We have four types of petrol available: 91RON, 95RON, 98RON and E10. (RON means Research Octane Number – ‘Octane is the measure of a fuel’s ability to resist the phenomenon known as ‘knocking’ … [which] is the uncontrolled combustion of fuel that can destroy engine internals.’[7]) 91RON petrol has a 150 ppm sulphur content, while 95RON and 98RON have a 50 ppm sulphur content. So even our best petrol has five times more sulphur than the world standard.

E10 is not the obvious choice either. ‘E10 is a blend of regular unleaded (RON 91) petrol and between 9% and 10% ethanol. Blending the ethanol at this ratio increases the RON to 94.’[8] So E10 has 90% of the sulphur of 91RON petrol (so, 135 ppm). The manufacture of the ethanol is probably less environmentally detrimental than the production of petrol, and ethanol ‘is a clean burning fuel that produces less greenhouse gases than unleaded petrol’[9]. However, ‘the sustainability certification of Australian produced ethanol is not transparent. We know from studies conducted by organisations including the European Commission that when coal is used to produce ethanol, it can result in “little or no greenhouse gas emissions saving for ethanol compared to gasoline” on a well-to-wheel basis. This is a significant consideration for Australia, given our current reliance on fossil fuels.’[10] Also, ‘E10 has around 3% less energy than the equivalent amount of RON 91 petrol. On average, this can translate to an increase in fuel consumption of around 3%, which has about the same effect on fuel consumption as driving on tyres with inadequate air pressure.’[11]

So what, I hear you clamour, is our government doing about this? High levels of sulphur polluting our air and choking our people; dirty fuel leaving us unable to use the latest technology of low-emissions vehicles; unclear certification on ethanol – surely they’re keen to listen to the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries and improve our CO2 performance ‘overnight’?

Well, in December 2016 the Department of the Environment and Energy released a discussion paper called ‘Better fuel for cleaner air’ which set out the problem succinctly:

  • Motor vehicle emissions can be split into two categories: noxious emissions which affect human health and the environment and contribute to respiratory illness, cardiovascular diseases and cancer, and greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change.
  • Petrol fuelled light vehicle emissions are one of the major causes of air pollution in urban Australia. Our expanding vehicle feet, increasing urbanisation and aging population mean that further action is needed to improve air quality and reduce the health impacts of air pollution.
  • Improving fuel quality can help reduce the level of noxious emissions, which improves air quality and health outcomes.
  • Some advanced vehicle technologies (including advanced emissions control systems and certain fuel efficient engine technologies) require higher quality fuel to work effectively. The quality of fuel influences which engine and emission control technologies can be supplied to the Australian market.

It also states that ‘Catalytic converters in vehicles are designed to filter emissions and reduce noxious substances emitted from vehicles. Sulfur clogs the catalytic converters making them less effective.’ It then outlines five alternative approaches, ranging from ‘no change’ through to the staged introduction of world standards from 2020. Sadly, the decision that was reached was closer to the ‘no change’ than introducing the world standards[12]. The sulphur in petrol will be reduced to 10 ppm – from July 1 2027. The aromatic content in petrol will be reduced from 42 per cent to 35 per cent, effective 1 January 2022, to be reviewed and reduced by 2027. [‘Aromatic content’ refers to chemicals like benzene, toluene and xylene used to increase the petrol’s octane rating since lead was banned. The effect of these chemicals is being increasingly questioned. ‘The chemicals get released into the air as nano-sized particles – ultrafine particulate matter, or UFPs – that can be absorbed through the lungs or skin. Studies in peer-reviewed journals like the Journal of Environmental Science and HealthEnvironmental Health Perspectives and Particle and Environmental Toxicology, have linked these particles from aromatics to diseases ranging from ADHD to asthma.’[13]]

So where does that leave us? I’m thinking that E10 is only 10% ethanol, has 135 ppm sulphur, is less efficient, and even the production of the ethanol is not necessarily clean. So for now I’m opting for the petrols with less sulfur (RON95 and RON98). But I’m also looking into carbon offsets, and electric cars. My October challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] https://www.whichcar.com.au/features/australias-petrol-is-one-of-the-dirtiest-in-the-world

[2] https://www.afr.com/opinion/cleaner-petrol-a-bigger-help-than-electric-cars-20180124-h0nnfg

[3] https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6079636/our-poor-quality-petrol-slows-the-drive-to-improved-emissions/

[4] https://www.whichcar.com.au/features/australias-petrol-is-one-of-the-dirtiest-in-the-world

[5] https://www.caradvice.com.au/714921/why-australia-needs-better-quality-fuel/

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/sep/02/eu-to-push-australia-to-clean-up-petrol-standards-as-part-of-free-trade-deal

[7] https://www.mynrma.com.au/membership/my-nrma-app/fuel-resources/can-premium-fuels-clean-your-engine

[8] https://www.e10fuelforthought.nsw.gov.au/facts

[9] https://www.racq.com.au/cars-and-driving/cars/owning-and-maintaining-a-car/facts-about-fuels/ethanol

[10] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-07-04/e10-cheapest-petrol-fuel-emissions-biofuels-ethanol-australia/9922938

[11] https://www.e10fuelforthought.nsw.gov.au/facts

[12] https://www.environment.gov.au/protection/fuel-quality/standards

[13] https://morningconsult.com/2015/04/22/growing-chorus-of-complaints-on-chemicals-in-gasoline/

Sydney ferries

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I’ve been reading an article about seafaring and trade between Australia and Papua New Guinea that describes the distinctive boats of the Motu people, with crab-claw shaped sails, and their well-established trading set-up dating back at least two thousand years. But the boats I want to talk about are the Sydney ferries, that have been operating for about 150 years.

In 1861 the North Shore Ferry Company started running the first formal ferry services on the harbour, between Circular Quay and Milsons Point. By the early 1930s Sydney Ferries Limited was the world’s biggest ferry operator, carrying 40 million passengers per year. When the Harbour Bridge opened in 1932, patronage dropped to 14 million passengers per year and the number of ferries was reduced by half.[1] The ferries were recycled to a number of different uses, with Kuttabul being converted into HMAS Kuttabul to house seamen at Garden Island. On May 31 1942 three Japanese mini-submarines entered Sydney Harbour and released a torpedo – possibly aiming at the US warship USS Chicago – that hit the sea wall at Garden Island. The explosion sank HMAS Kuttabul instead. While the incident was kept as quiet as possible, eventually 19 Australian and two British men were declared dead from the action.

Sydney ferries still carry about 14 million passengers every year. In the twelve months April 2018–March 2019, over a million trips were made on Sydney Ferries each month. The highest month was January, with 1,620,000 trips made and the lowest month was August, with 1,103,000 trips.[2]

There are currently 29 wharves in the ferry system throughout Sydney, from Manly to Parramatta, but ferries were used far more widely in the past. In 1900 there were ten different ferry wharves for Balmain alone, from Elliott St on the north side of the peninsula, round to Reynolds St on the south side,[3] and in the 1940s there were eleven public wharves on the Hunters Hill peninsula.[4]

These days eight lines of Sydney Ferries have routes around the harbour and to Parramatta along the Parramatta River, with seven of them running from Circular Quay and one from Pyrmont Bay to Watsons Bay. There are six classes of ferries, with three of those being catamarans. The Freshwater class ferries are the large ferries that operate in and out of Manly (when Sydney hosted the 2000 Olympic Games, Collaroy (Freshwater class) carried the Olympic torch across Sydney Harbour); the First Fleet class ferries are the smaller, jaunty little ferries that ply their trade back and forth across the harbour to destinations such as Taronga Zoo and Mosman; Emerald class ferries are the latest introduction to the fleet, replacing the “Lady’ class ferries in 2017, on inner harbour runs; the RiverCat class ferries operate on the Parramatta River and all seven are named after famous female Australian athletes; the HarbourCat class ferries operate on both the Parramatta River and inner harbour lines, and are also named after famous female Australian athletes; and finally the SuperCats which operate on the eastern suburbs and cross harbour lines. A number of private ferry companies also run ferries on Sydney harbour, including the fast ferries to Manly.

International company Transdev has been running Sydney’s public ferry routes (‘on behalf of the NSW government’[5]) since 2012, and has recently won the contract to continue until at least 2028. To celebrate their extended contract they have quietly changed the name from ‘Harbour City Ferries’ to ‘Transdev Sydney Ferries’. They have also raised doubts about keeping the Freshwater class ferries running after next year[6], despite the mooted replacement ferries (Emerald class) only carrying 400 passengers compared to the Freshwater class’s capacity of 1100 passengers. In more privatisation news, developers and infrastructure groups have been asked to submit plans to redevelop and run the wharves at Circular Quay.[7]

[1] https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/ferries

[2] https://www.transport.nsw.gov.au/data-and-research/passenger-travel/ferry-patronage/ferry-patronage-top-level-chart

[3] Max Solling and Peter Reynolds 1997. Leichhardt: On the margins of the city. Allen & Unwin.

[4] Ewald, C. 1999. The Industrial Village of Woolwich. The Hunter’s Hill Trust, p24.

[5] https://www.transdev.com.au/media/14136/190227_press-release-transdev-australasia-to-operate-sydney-ferries_final.pdf

[6] https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/sydney-s-beloved-manly-ferries-face-prospect-of-last-sailings-20190404-p51awh.html

[7] https://www.realcommercial.com.au/news/shortlist-for-sydney-ferry-wharves-overhaul-narrows-to-two

Centennial Park

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For a very long time before Centennial Park featured a purpose-built waterplay area and ‘wild’ garden for children, it was a source of food for the local people. But in 1811 Governor Macquarie proclaimed 490 acres to the south of South Head Road as common grazing land, and the area that was to become the Centennial Parklands (Centennial Park, Moore Park and Queens Park) was cut off from its previous users.

A report by Val Attenbrow, assessing the evidence for the use of the area by Aboriginal people prior to colonisation[1], finds that the parklands would have provided many types of food and other resources. There were ‘plants that provided fruits, berries, seeds, tubers, nectar as well as leafy vegetables. They also provided wood, bark and fibres used to make tools, weapons and other pieces of equipment.’ It gives examples such as banksia, collected for nectar; melaleuca, ‘used as a wrap/blanket on which children were laid and in which babies were carried’; and grass trees (Xanthorrhoea) – the stems were used for spear shafts, the resin was used as an adhesive to make tools, to patch canoes or baskets, and to fasten objects into people’s hair, and the fronds were used in headdresses in ceremonies. (page 9)

Animals that would have been hunted in the heath and wooded areas of the parklands include ‘kangaroos, wallabies, possums, gliders, echidnas, bandicoots, fruit bats … birds, snakes, goannas and other lizards’. The freshwater wetlands would have been habitat for many types of fish as well as eels, tortoises, frogs and shellfish. Waterbirds would have been present in good numbers, and their eggs could have been eaten as well. Additionally, ‘emus are not on the current list of birds that inhabit the Parklands, [but] they would have been there in the past.’ (page 10)

I suppose the children of those times played in the water, hid from their parents and grandparents and balanced on logs, just as ours do today.

The local Aboriginal people would have used resources from a wider area than the parklands, so the report includes archaeological evidence from the surrounding area, the eastern Sydney peninsula. One find was at Sheas Creek at St Peters, where dugong bones were discovered when the creek was being turned into the Alexandra Canal. The report says:

Cut marks and scars on the bones suggest the animal was butchered and thus killed for food. Two ground-edged hatchet heads found in these deposits at the same time come from ca 70 m away from the dugong bones and whether they were deposited at the same time is not clear. The dugong bone has recently been dated to around 6000 years BP.[2]

The dugong is a sea creature, ‘a large grey brown bulbous animal with a flattened, fluked tail … no dorsal fin, paddle like flippers and distinctive head shape.’[3] They are mammals and can grow to 400 kilograms by grazing on sea meadows. They are thought to have inspired the idea of a mermaid, but you would have to say it was a mermaid with a very unfortunate face with their huge droopy noses and tiny eyes.

I keep thinking about that dugong. At that time, 6000 years ago, the coastline would have been roughly where it is now (18 000 years ago it was 12 km from the present coastline and the sea level was 140 metres below the present level) but that’s still a few kilometres from the spot where the bones were found. Why would you carry a dugong all that way? The creek itself was shallow, surrounded by swamps, so maybe the dugong got trapped there, having travelled up the Cooks River, making it easy prey. These days, when the Alexandra Canal is described as ‘the most severely contaminated canal in the southern hemisphere’[4], and the Cooks River has the unenviable title of ‘Australia’s most polluted river’[5], a dugong would die before it got anywhere near the bridge over Ricketty Street.

[1] https://www.centennialparklands.com.au/getmedia/e32ae90a-e730-4c28-82c4-4b17e9e3c5e1/Appendix_S_-_Pre-colonial_Archaeology_report_Val_Attenbrow.pdf.aspx

[2] Pre-colonial Aboriginal land and resource use in Centennial, Moore and Queens Parks, Val Attenbrow 2002, p22.

[3] https://australianmuseum.net.au/learn/animals/mammals/dugong/

[4] https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/from_sheas_creek_to_alexandra_canal

[5] https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/cooks-river-20190110-h19wqs.html

Convict makes good

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My mother tells me that, when she was very young, she was told by a great-aunt who was very old that she, the great-aunt, when very young, had met her (the great-aunt’s) grandfather William Spikeman, when he was very old.

This chain from me to my mother, to her great-aunt, to her grandfather carries us back exactly two hundred years to February 1819, when two young men were convicted of ‘theft from the person’ at the Old Bailey in London. They were charged with stealing a handkerchief. The owner of the handkerchief, Henry James Lloyd Esq, stated that at midnight on February 16 he was coming from Covent Garden Theatre when he turned and saw, ‘one of the prisoners reaching his hand to a person behind him – I saw my handkerchief on the ground which the other person was picking up.’ The two young men were sentenced to be transported for life.

One of the young men was William Spikeman, 18 years old with no formal education but experience as a labourer in his home town of Devizes in Wiltshire, attracted to London by who knows what tales, or forced to leave Devizes by who knows what hardships. Later that year he was sent with another 134 men – average age between 25 and 26 – on the Canada to Sydney. Their journey took 130 days, arriving on September 1.

Spikeman was initially sent to the newly-built Carters’ Barracks. Demolished in 1901, they were located on the edge of the Old Burial Ground, where Central station now stands. Convicts housed at the Carters’ Barracks worked with a horse and cart, picking up and dropping off loads of produce at the brickfields and the wharves. In 1822 Spikeman was listed as being a bullock driver at Grose Farm, on the edge of the city. In 1823 he was assigned to Reverend Samuel Marsden, who took him to the missionary settlement at the Bay of Islands in New Zealand to work as a herdsman for James Kemp at Kerikeri. Three years later he was allowed to return to Sydney to obtain his ticket of leave. He is recorded as having had savings of 17 pounds, from a salary of 20 pounds per year.

Convicts could apply for a ticket of leave half way through their sentence – for those transported for life this generally meant after 7 years, as they could be freed after 14 years. Obtaining a ticket of leave depended on having good references from your employer, and gave you greater freedoms, such as being able to conduct your own business.

Spikeman continued to obtain stable employment, possibly as a cedar cutter on the south coast of NSW. In 1832 he was granted his certificate of freedom, and in the same year he married Mary Ann Noonan, a young woman who had come from Cork on the Red Rover in 1832, one of a group of girls from orphanages and asylums.

Together, William and Mary Ann Spikeman went to New Zealand and bought land in Kaeo Valley from the Maori owners, remaining on good terms with the chief, Ururoa. When Mary Ann died in 1842 after bearing three daughters, Spikeman and Ururoa’s daughter, Mary Tiki Mangatae, formed a relationship and had five children together.

Spikeman went on to own 1420 acres of land, employing 12 people in his timber business, and became the first postmaster at Kaeo. He died in 1881, with many of his descendants living in the area.

So it’s a big hello to my Maori cousins in this 200th anniversary year of our great-great-great grandfather’s journey to the south.

Australia day

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Warami.

I’ve been learning a new language, but it’s the language of the country I come from. It wasn’t spoken by my ancestors but it’s all around us. I’ve never learnt this language before but I’ve spoken it all my life.

Enough riddles? I’ve been learning Dharug – at least, as much of the language and culture as you can learn in seven and a half hours. It’s the language of the Sydney basin and we use it every day when we go to Parramatta or Cabramatta or Mulgoa, Maroubra, Dural, Bondi, Coogee. We use it when we talk about a wallaby or a wombat or when we call out to each other in the bush. Coo-ee.

I’ve been learning that warami means hello and yanu means goodbye. That dyin means woman and mulla means man. That bada-la means let’s eat and walan means rain.

I’ve been learning that it’s an agglutinative or polysynthetic language – you have a stem, generally a verb,  with a series of suffixes that add meaning such as tense, a pronoun, whether it’s an imperative (command), location.

I’ve been learning about the seasons and how to understand the place where I live. Our climate is best understood in six seasons, indicated by the movement of the animals, the flowering of the plants.

I’ve been learning how to wash away the whitewash.

I’ve been learning that it’s a language and culture that doesn’t like to say ‘no’. We paused and thought about the effect that would have had on brash colonisers.

I’ve been learning about the complex kinship system that ensures that there is a place for every person, and the sophisticated culture that developed this inclusive society over tens of thousands of years. An inclusive culture that taught every member how to live within their society, with a generosity that extended even to the people who tried to destroy it.

 

Sea fog

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I was sitting at a café at the south end of Coogee beach on Wednesday with two friends, laughing about how cold the water had been, how long it took me to get fully immersed, when the beach started to disappear, a veil falling softly over it and its occupants. As we watched, the north headland succumbed. The haze thickened and soon we were marooned, our headland the only open space, all the beaches and headlands north of us blotted out, apocalyptically, as if they had never existed. ‘Sea fog is thick today,’ one of our neighbours said. The sea fog settled then shifted, exposing small sections of view then covering them again. We returned to our coffees and when we looked again it was gone, the golden beach littered with bodies on the sand, the waves coming and going, casually.

I was sitting on the harbour side beach at Manly on Friday, building a castle that became a birthday cake for all of my three-year-old companion’s friends (‘They’re pretend friends’, he explained. ‘We’re real’, he added, pointing first to me then to himself.) when the buildings started to disappear. ‘Look!’, I said. ‘The sea fog.’ My companion looked across, disturbed by the sight of the trees disappearing, the usual buildings behind them vanished by a mist that devoured everything in its way. ‘Will it come over here?’ he asked anxiously. ‘I don’t know’, I said, but later it did wisp across, like spirits whose allegiance you could only guess at.

The ferry captain had been unusually talkative on my way to Manly, replacing the usual drab explanation of the location of the lifejackets with an energetic announcement. ‘I don’t know where we are on the timetable any more! The sea fog was so thick earlier this morning that we’re just running as fast as we can, unloading and loading up and heading off again. We hope we’ll catch up with ourselves eventually.’ He talked on a bit more in this excited way, describing the speed of the vessel. ‘There’s not much traffic on the harbour this morning’, he added. ‘But quite a few fishing boats.’ As we approached the heads we sped past a cluster of small boats, tinnies mostly, with fishing rods hanging over their sides. Ahead of us the distinction between the land’s cliffs and the sea’s wash blurred, smoothed out by the opaque air. A sparse shimmer of sunlight opened a path between the two headlands, and the grey waters parted to make way for its silver sheen.

Bennelong

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Bennelong must have been a very adaptable man. Captured by the British in November 1789 he stayed in captivity, learning the English language and customs and teaching some of his own to the British – an act that seems voluntary as the man captured with him, Colbee, was able to escape almost immediately. In May 1790 Bennelong went back to his people, but returned to the settlement after Governor Phillip was speared at Manly in September – an event that Inga Clendinnen convincingly argues was a ritual spearing, designed to redress the many wrongs that the colonists had committed since settling the area.[i]

Not only was Bennelong willing to change from a life within the only framework that he and his relations had ever known – he was then willing to sail, with Phillip, and Yemmerrawannie, to England. They left Sydney in December 1792. Bennelong was presented to King George III in 1793, and didn’t return to Sydney until 1795, with Governor Hunter. Yemmerrawannie succumbed to respiratory disease in the damp British climate, but Bennelong survived, adopting the new clothes and customs that he found.

It’s hard to imagine a more courageous act than the steps taken by Bennelong and Yemmerrawannie onto the Atlantic, sailing with strangers, on a strange vessel, to a completely unknown land, when only five years earlier their physical world had been defined by what could be walked or travelled in a canoe.

Bennelong was from the Wangal people – most sources say that their territory extended from Goat Island to Auburn and Silverwater, although other sources say it starts further west at Leichhardt.  He told the colonists that Goat Island (more tunefully called Me-mel) belonged to him and his family. Judge-Advocate David Collins noted:

… Bennillong, both before he went to England and since his return, often assured me, that the island Me-mel (called by us Goat Island) close by Sydney Cove was his own property; that it was his father’s, and that he should give it to By-gone, his particular friend and companion. To this little spot he appeared much attached; and we have often seen him and his wife Ba-rang-a-roo feasting and enjoying themselves on it. He told us of other people who possessed this kind of hereditary property, which they retained undisturbed.[ii]

Bennelong’s understanding of ownership would have been very different to ours. Heather Goodall explains it as:

In Aboriginal societies, individual men and women hold particular relationships to land, inherited from parents and arising from their own conception and birth sites … Yet despite the specificity of these relationships, they do not allow automatic rights. Instead they confer obligations and responsibilities … It is the fulfilment of one’s obligations, the active embracing of responsibility, which allows a custodian to be accorded the fullest benefits of their landholding role …[iii]

So if you were barred from carrying out your responsibilities, by a fence or a gun, you would lose your whole heritage.

[i]Inga Clendinnen, Dancing with Strangers, Text Publishing, 2003.

[ii]An Account of the English Colony of NSW Vol 1 by David Collins, Appendix 1X. http://gutenberg.net.au/first-fleet.html

[iii]Heather Goodall, Invasion to Embassy: Land in Aboriginal Politics in New South Wales 1770-1972, Allen & Unwin in association with Black Books, 1996, p9.

A wombat

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At dusk – that soft time of day when the fading light brings out the fantastical – a wombat wandered into the yard. I saw it under the wattle tree – yellow flowers reduced to grey, billowing scent and heady hum of bees vanished with the setting sun – tugging at a tuft of grass, scratching the hard earth with its no-nonsense paws. I crept off the balcony and slowly made my way across the yard. The wombat gave no sign of seeing me, yet somehow the distance between us never varied. I would creep, it would waddle nonchalantly, even stopping to attack another clump of grass, but I didn’t seem to get any closer. It went around the end of the shed, past the chairs that it had clearly knocked over on a previous expedition. I thought to cut it off at the pass, but it veered off, again turning its large square rump to me.

It made me realise I know very little about wombats. Could it hear me, or see me, or detect me in some other way? Or was it simply unafraid? All I knew of wombats I had learnt in Tasmania, at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary (‘Here, knock on that’, the assistant invited us, and we each took a turn of knocking on the thick square bony bum of the obliging wombat, each of us astounded in turn by its solidity. ‘If it’s in danger it ducks into its burrow head first and blocks the entrance with this rump’, she explained. ‘It can crush a dog’s head against the side of burrow,’ she added cheerfully.)

So I turn to the Australian Museum and NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment websites for information on wombats. Ok, so I can’t go further without mentioning that I was intrigued to read the museum’s section on Conversation status – unfortunately not a section on how to converse with wombats, but nevertheless pleasing as it reveals that the Common Wombat (our wombat) is not listed as being under threat, even though its distribution has been greatly diminished in the past 200 years.

From the websites: The wombat is a marsupial with an average length of a metre and an average weight of 26 kg. They are very strong and can run at up to 40km/hr over short distances. Females tend to be slightly larger than males. They are usually seen after sunset, when they leave their burrows to graze. (Yes!) Their main food is fibrous native grasses. They are generally solitary animals, although they can share their burrows. They are very territorial about their feeding grounds, and will defend them aggressively. I like this bit about communication from the Australian Museum:

A warning call is usually a low guttural growl, but when a wombat is alarmed or angered, rasping hiss can also be heard. The animal repeats this high, loud call as it expels air. Sometimes the call can be a more aggressive ‘chikker chikker’ sound and/or a more guttural sound similar to that of an angry brushtail possum. Communication is also apparent between younger animals and their mothers. Young make repeated, softer ‘huh huh’ calls when they lose sight of their mother, and she usually responds in the same manner.

Wombats usually have one joey at a time. It gestates for about 30 days then makes its way to the mother’s pouch, where it grows for up to 10 months. It leaves the pouch after that but remains with its mother for a further 8–10 months before becoming independent. The pouch faces backwards so the joey is protected when the mother is digging (or diving down her burrow). Mating takes place after an exhausting series of chases over a wide area and includes much rump biting.

It’s neither of those websites, but the Wildlife Rescue South Coast website that answers my questions about the wombat’s perception of my stalking presence:

While their eyesight is poor, wombats have a keen sense of smell, excellent hearing and very large brains.

So yes, it knew I was there, it maintained the distance between us, and it was in no danger of me taking a better photograph.

Black lines loom above us

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Blooms are appearing on the wattles by the side of the road and on the tree in the middle of the yard. The activity of the birds increases, week by week, as they intuit the coming of spring. Birds that I don’t know in this dry sandstone country, so different to the rolling hills and green valleys, rainforest, rivers and creeks of Gloucester. I have to start again with our massive, cumbersome Cayley’s What bird is that? ($20 at a second-hand shop many years ago – a purchase that seemed Quixotic at the time – pointless folly – but which has given us hours of entertainment and illumination, even when it has to be cross-checked with the two volumes of A field guide to Australian birds by Peter Slater).

A black and grey flycatcher in the wattle darts out and then, as if it realises it has forgotten something, darts back to the tree. There’s a black and white treecreeper on the gums behind the house, then on the poles near the pizza oven, making its hopping way up and around. When I went down to the chook house I walked past the canopy of a eucalypt full of silent silvereyes, giving themselves away only through the sudden flutter of their wings as they flew from branch to branch. From another tree nearby came a deep and melodious ‘whoo’, rising from ‘wh’ to ‘oo’: a white-headed pigeon, its large white belly puffed out. Closer to the house a different ‘whoo’ – a repetitive, shortened ‘whup whup’, very low, very rhythmic – a bird I’ve heard before and searched for in vain. It’s not the loud and proud wonga pigeon that we used to hear at Gloucester, its unstoppable call filling the valley, but almost the antithesis with its sombre, nearly sub-hearing vibratory noise.

Next to the house there is a little cloud of tiny birds in the eucalypt making their weightless way from leaf to leaf, searching, needle sharp and fast, for insects. Looking up towards the sun it’s hard to make them out, but maybe there are dots, and golden yellow bellies. Maybe they are weebills, or spotted or striated pardalotes. When I consult Cayley I think I can rule out the spotted pardalote, which is described as having ‘a monotonous call-note, like “slee-p ba-bee”’, as they cheeped constantly and vivaciously, but my imprecise ear hasn’t retained the difference between a ‘wit-e-chu’ (striated pardalote) or ‘weebill’ (weebill). Striated pardalotes would be so exotic! Even though they occur all over Australia, I’m yet to see one. I remember my upswelling of jealousy when a visitor to the farm told us of the pardalotes who return every year to his property in Victoria, to nest in a tiny gap in the wall of his house.

I haven’t had one full year here at Tapitallee yet, so I have no way of knowing how the bush has changed over the past 10, 20, 50 years. I can only observe the now. Yet, I’m sure it is changing.

Today’s news story from the Copernicus Climate Change Service says that it looks like July was the warmest July on record, following on from June having being the warmest June on record. Average temperatures in Europe were more than 2 degrees C above ‘normal’ (whatever that is now) and the global-average temperature was about 0.1 degrees C higher than the previous warmest in 2016. A graph on their website showing the daily average temperature for Europe in June has a dark line of dashes snaking above a tangle of other lines – the dark dashes represent 2019, the others represent every fifth year since 1979. The previous warmest year was 1999, but that never reaches the consistent heights of 2019. I can’t help but see the heavy black lines of the warmer years dominating the gentler pink and blue lines of other years, leading them to rise ever higher, a horrible metaphor for our world.

We can see now that climate change isn’t just affecting us this year, or last year, but for many years past. After many years denying the warnings of scientists, and more years believing it was way in the future, we are feeling, not the first faint stirrings, but the full and mature effects of a radical change to the climate.

It’s NAIDOC week

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Governor Phillip’s voyage to New South Wales and the first year of the colony are recorded in a book published by John Stockdale in London in 1789[1]. There can be no question, from reading these accounts, that the British understood that the land they had started to clear and plunder was owned by other people. Much of the volume reports their encounters with tribes of Aboriginal people – people who took them to their encampments, who helped them to find water, to make fires, to find shelter. People who Phillip realises, within his first 12 months in NSW, were farming the land with fire, knew how to process foods to make them edible (removing the ‘noxious qualities’ from ‘the kernels of that fruit which resembles a pine-apple’ – the cycad[2]), and ‘are not without notions of sculpture’[3] – his response to the rock carvings of ‘figures of animals, of shields, and weapons, and even of men’. He holds their apparent lack of clothing or permanent shelter against them, but contemplates on the fact that they have developed ‘the arts of imitation and amusement … [which] seems an exception to the rules laid down by theory for the progress of invention.’[4] He follows this train of thought by adding that it may just be that they don’t need clothing and shelter and that ‘had these men been exposed to a colder atmosphere, they would doubtless have had clothes and houses, before they attempted to become sculptors.’ He has a high regard for their courage and bravery and their ‘lack of treachery’.

Phillip’s main purpose in his dealings with the Aboriginal people seems to be based on a blind belief that British influence will improve their lot. He cannot help but believe that, once the Aboriginal people start to mix with ‘their new countrymen’ they will ‘enrich themselves with some of their implements, and to learn and adopt some of the most useful and necessary of their arts.’ He allows himself the doubt ‘whether many of the accommodations of civilized life, be not more than counterbalanced by the artificial wants to which they give birth’ but steadies himself with the thought that they would be teaching ‘the shivering savage how to clothe his body, and to shelter himself completely from the cold and wet, and to put into the hands of men, ready to perish for one half of the year with hunger, the means of procuring constant and abundant provision, must be to confer upon them the benefits of the highest value and importance.’[5] This despite the fact that he has previously acknowledged both that their needs for clothing and shelter are limited, and that his colony is depriving them of their food stocks.

He believes that the land can only be improved by blind adherence to British principles too.

Nothing can more fully point out the great improvement which may be made by the industry of a civilized people in this country, than the circumstances of the small streams which descend into Port Jackson. [By clearing the streams of all obstacles they will flow more freely, be ‘more useful’, and the adjacent ground will be drained] … habitable and salubrious situations will be gained where at present perpetual damps prevail, and the air itself appears to stagnate.[6]

Phillip acknowledges that the presence of the British is not welcome. In a journey of exploration between Port Jackson and Broken Bay his group encounters a party of about 60 Aboriginal people: “Some hours were passed with them in a peaceful and very friendly manner, but … they seemed best pleased when their visitors were preparing to depart. This has always been the case, since it has been known among them that our people intend to remain on the coast.”[7] Despite this sensitivity to the feelings of the Aboriginal people, Phillip has no qualms about digging open a mound, suspected of being a grave. What punishment for grave-robbing in England?

 

[1] The Voyage of Governor Phillip to Botany Bay, London 1789 (facsimile edition Hutchinson 1982)
[2] p135
[3] p106
[4] p107
[5] p141
[6] p98
[7] p133

The bombing of Sydney Harbour

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Seventy-seven years ago today, on Sunday May 31 1942, three Japanese mini-submarines entered Sydney Harbour. The Sydney Morning Herald didn’t report it until Tuesday, June 2, 1942:

First news of the attempted raid was contained in the following special communiqué issued at General Headquarters, Melbourne, yesterday. It was: “In an attempted submarine raid on Sydney three enemy midget submarines are believed to have been destroyed, one by gunfire, two by depth charges. The enemy’s attack was completely unsuccessful. Damage was confined to one small harbour vessel of no military value.”

The ‘one small vessel’ was HMAS Kuttabul, housing seamen at Garden Island.

Wounded Man Interviewed: Seaman Eric Davies, who lives in Allum St, Bankstown, and who played soccer football with St George, said that soon after midnight he went to bed in a hammock on the lower deck of the ferry. He was asleep for about an hour when the roar of an explosion awakened him. It was the bursting of the torpedo. ‘The flooring of the deck above must have been torn right open,’ he said. ‘I was thrown up into a hole in the woodwork, half through to the top deck. I had to struggle to extricate myself from the splinters of timber into which I had become wedged.’[1]

The torpedo – possibly aiming at the US warship USS Chicago moored nearby – went too low and hit the sea wall, with the explosion sinking the Kuttabul. A casualty list was published on June 3 on page 7 of the Herald – eventually twenty-one (Allied) men were quietly declared dead from the action, the Sydney men buried with full honours in the naval sections at Rookwood cemetery.

One of the submarines had caught itself in the Boom Net that protected Port Jackson, stretched between Georges Head, Mosman and Green Point, Watsons Bay. When they realised they were trapped, the two Japanese sailors scuttled the submarine, killing themselves in the process. The second submarine was the one that fired its torpedo then escaped from the harbour – its remains located only in November 2006. The third submarine was attacked as it entered the harbour, but it recovered and made its way to Taylors Bay, between Bradleys Head and Chowder Head, where it was destroyed by Royal Australian Navy fire. [2] The two sailors on board also killed themselves.

The two submarines in the harbour were retrieved, and, on the order of Rear Admiral Muirhead Gould (Naval Officer in Command, Sydney), the bodies of the four Japanese sailors cremated in a military ceremony – their remains were returned to Japan, a gesture that is still remembered with gratitude by Japanese officials and relatives of the men.

On June 8 one of the ‘mother’ submarines that had brought the midget submarines this far shelled Woollahra “from Rose Bay to Bradley Ave, on the heights of Bellevue Hill”[3], possibly targeting the flying boat base at Rose Bay that had been expanded across Lyne Park to accommodate the huge flying boat patrol bombers. The mayor, KD Manion, reported that he had inspected the ten areas that had been shelled, and that only one person had been injured.

Shell tore through wall above bed. [The shell] tore a hole through the two brick thicknesses above the head of Mrs Hirsch’s bed, skidded along the wall flanking her bed, bursting the bricks through in a large gash … then pierced the third wall of Mrs Hirsch’s room below the end of her bed, tore through the two walls flanking a hall and finished up on a staircase between the first or second floors.[4]

Newsreels from the time show the unflappable inhabitants of houses and apartments displaying the remains of curtains and holes in their walls – the people laugh as they tell how they put their hands through the wall; little boys play in the rubble, looking for souvenirs of shrapnel.

The abject failure of Sydney’s defences in May/June 1942 was hotly denied by officials. Peter Grose calls it ‘The Battle of Sydney Harbour’[5] and suggests its importance was downplayed – including the failure to award medals – to avoid proper examination of flaws in communication, equipment and lines of command.

One contributor to a book of memories about life in Kings Cross recalls that after the sinking of the Kuttabul: “The Cross was a strange sight – Macleay Street and other streets full with house removalist wagons. I remember standing outside ‘Macleay Regis’ and counting 28 flats vacant. The owners of ‘Franconia’ offered us a flat for two pounds ten shillings per week just to have people in the building …”.[6] One commentator suggests that misgivings about living near the harbour were not completely dispelled until the building of the Opera House.[7]

 

[1] SMH June 3, 1942

[2] http://www.naa.gov.au/Publications/fact_sheets/fs192.html

[3] Jervis, J. The History of Woollahra. Municipal Council of Woollahra, 1960 p.144.

[4] SMH June 8, 1942

[5] A Very Rude Awakening. Peter Grose, Allen & Unwin, 2007

[6] Memories: Kings Cross 1936-1946, Kings Cross Community Aid and Information Service, 1981, p108.

[7] Peter Webber, ‘Chapter 1: The Nature of the City’, in GP Webber (ed.), The Design of Sydney, The Law Book Co Ltd, 1988, p1.

Anzac Day

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On February 24 1916 The Sydney Morning Herald reported that a hospital ship had arrived at Woolloomooloo wharf, carrying the last men from Gallipoli.

Rain was falling heavily. The whole scene was a study in gloom, and the voluntary motor cars of the Red Cross Society were splashing high the mud of a road under repair … Quite a number of people, mostly women, had taken up places as near to the wharf as they were allowed to go.

In 1916, people weren’t sure if they wanted to commemorate Gallipoli or just try to forget it. There was strong attendance at talks on Gallipoli, such as the Rev. T Gordon Robertson, Chaplain of the 6th Light Horse, who spoke at the Pitt Street Congregational Church of his experiences, or Ashmead Bartlett, an English war correspondent who gave a series of lectures at the Town Hall: ‘With the Anzacs at the Dardanelles’.[i]

There was almost daily discussion in the paper about the best way to commemorate the actions of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. Some writers of letters to the Sydney Morning Herald felt that the name ‘Anzac’ was being used too freely, and that this diminished its sanctity (29/1/1916) or, as one woman put it: “As a mother of two Anzac men I read with sorrow that it was proposed to name roads, avenues, tramlines after that most sorrowful of all names to so many.” (5/2/16) Others proposed various routes for ‘Anzac Avenue’, and one bold person suggested that our capital city be renamed ‘Anzac’ to commemorate “those brave and valiant boys of ours, who … by their universally acknowledged un-paralleled heroism and ‘grit’ re-discovered Australia to the masses of the western world, and incidentally the eastern also.” (10/2/16)

But there was more muted discussion about the idea of commemorating April 25. Mr P Board, Director of Education and under-secretary to the Department of Public Instruction, spoke strongly for the celebration of April 25 1915 as “an Australian Empire Day … [when] Australia passed beyond a partnership resting on the mere sentiments of kinship into a partnership of national sacrifice” (SMH 22/2/16). But even at that stage, after months of debate and with only two months to go, the NSW government hadn’t decided whether to mark the day. Maybe the whole Empire would celebrate the landing at Gallipoli – maybe there should be a day to commemorate all the large battles of the war, and that day should be set at the end of the war. On March 1 the Herald reports that Anzac Day will definitely be commemorated in Brisbane, but that it is not to be a fundraising event, and “no provision is to be made for rejoicing.” A letter on March 3 suggests that April 25 should be a day “set aside as a day for a street collection throughout NSW” for war widows and their children.

On April 25, 1916, the first Anzac Day parade in Sydney gathered in the Domain before marching down Macquarie, Bridge, George, Liverpool, Elizabeth Streets, then back to the Domain.

As the troops passed through the streets, the crowds received them warmly, very kindly, yet with a sort of awe. There was much hand-clapping, but little cheering. The people pushed and crowded to see the world-famous ‘Anzacs’. There was pride in the faces of the men, and tears in the eyes of the women, as the little groups went by; for in every group, almost, a man was to be seen without an arm, or with shattered features, or limping painfully with a stick. Fifty motor cars, carrying soldiers unable to walk, made a marked impression upon the onlookers.[ii]

The collection of funds was like a release for the people in the crowd.

The rattle of money-boxes kept pace with the marching troops. Lady collectors were everywhere at first, but a working partnership quickly developed between the cheerful invalids in the cars and the girls with the boxes. The collectors rode in the cars or on the footboards, and the soldiers pushed the boxes under the noses of the public. If coins came freely before, they came with a rush now. The people had been eager to do something to show how keenly they felt towards the ‘Anzacs’, and the ‘Anzacs’’ appeal for money provided the proper opportunity. Coppers were literally showered upon some of the cars, and the soldiers gathered the coins in their hats.[iii]

Little boys ran alongside to pick up the coins that fell, and ‘every penny was scrupulously placed in the collection boxes.’

[i] Sydney Morning Herald, February 12 1916.

[ii] Sydney Morning Herald, April 26 1916.

[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, April 26 1916.

It’s St Patrick’s Day tomorrow

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The Irish made up about one quarter of all those transported to Australia in the nineteenth century, and nearly half of all assisted passages between 1829 and 1851. There were 2253 Irish orphan girls sent to NSW between 1848-1850[i]. My own great-great-great grandmother, at the age of 18, was one of 140 female orphans sent from Cork and other Irish towns to Sydney in 1832.

Huge numbers of young Irish people arrived in Australia without the means to return, never seeing their families again. They set about creating a sentimentalised and untouchable version of Ireland, complete with a revival of Gaelic speaking, Celtic symbols, little people and shamrocks.

In 1898, when the Devonshire Street cemetery was reclaimed to build Central Station, the Irish community carried the remains of Michael Dwyer and his wife triumphantly in a procession to Waverley cemetery. Dwyer had been sentenced to transportation in 1803 for his role in one of the Irish Catholic uprisings, the insurrection of 1798, yet he received a pardon in 1810 and became high constable of Sydney in 1815. By 1820 he owned 620 acres of land, of which 100 acres had been granted to him.[ii] The Sydney Morning Herald reported with unmistakeable sentiment on Monday, May 23 1898:

The first celebration in honour of the Irish patriots of 1798 took place yesterday, and was made the occasion of a great public demonstration. The remains of Michael Dwyer and Mrs Dwyer, which were during the week exhumed from the Devonshire-street cemetery, were placed in a coffin and mounted upon a catafalque in St Mary’s Cathedral during yesterday’s service. At 1 o’clock Cardinal Moran … pronounced the final absolutions and delivered a brief address, eulogising the patriotism of the Irish chieftain and exhorting his bearers to cultivate a similar love of country. At a quarter to 2 o’clock, when the coffin was placed in the hearse, an immense concourse had gathered without St Mary’s Cathedral.

It took the procession two hours to reach Waverley cemetery, the march attended by many thousands of people and the streets lined with ‘great numbers’ of people, ‘and green was displayed from many hundreds of buttonholes’. When they reached the vault, prayers were said, the Irish flag was raised and the foundation stone for the Irish monument laid. Speeches dwelt on ‘the heroism and patriotism of the Irishmen who rose in arms in 1798’.

The strength of the Irish as a community grew: in October 1916 it led to a political crisis. The Easter uprising of 1916 in Dublin had dulled the willingness of Irish people the world over to cooperate with the British. In Australia, the waning Irish support for the war effort helped to bring in a ‘No’ vote on the referendum on conscription.

By June 1920, when a banquet to honour Melbourne’s very Irish Archbishop Mannix had failed to include a toast to the king, the Sydney Morning Herald’s mood had changed. Under the heading ‘Sinn Fein in Australia’ its editorial thundered against the Irish:

It is impossible to escape the conclusion that here in Australia is a force which works steadily for mischief, which seeks ever to bring about disruption and schism … there is no room for disloyalty in Australia … there is also no room for the perpetuation of old-world feuds; here we are all Australians, whatever the land of our birth … if the malcontent cannot give expression to their opinions without offending our most cherished convictions and sowing strife in our midst, let them be silent.[iii]

We still hear this language around us, and it is just as dangerous today as it was then. There are still people insisting that there is only one way of thinking in Australia, that everyone agrees on what our ‘cherished convictions’ might be, and for anyone who even wants to ‘give expression to’ opinions that differ, ‘let them be silent’.

[i] O’Farrell, P. The Irish in Australia. UNSW Press, 2000, p23, 69, 74

[ii] CMH Clark. A History of Australia Vol 1. Melbourne University Press 1962. P.388.

[iii] Sydney Morning Herald, June 19 1920.