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Tell it to the Bees

Read Monday, 11 May 2015

When German writer Mirko Bonné visits Australia to explore the causes and consequences of climate change, he expects to write a story of selfishness and destructive frenzy. Instead, he meets courageous individuals – from biologists, to activists, to artists – starting conversations about the world and our place within it.

Image by <a href=””>r reeve<a> (CC BY-ND 2.0).
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The lovely light over Melbourne that first morning: as though the whole south of the world would be nothing but pale blue. I hadn’t yet seen a bird, but all night long I’d heard the twitter of an air conditioner from the roof of the neighboring apartment tower, exactly like a flock of budgies were roosting there. A sudden loud swell of windmill sails, perhaps a dream, but then a fire siren came racing down the chasms of the streets. It took me a day and a half to fly halfway round the world, from Abu Dhabi on over Sri Lanka and the Indian Ocean, past Perth and Adelaide. To wake up in such light… to wake up just once like that from the unreality in your life. From spring I flew into fall. Where was the summer en route?

I observed vast cloud fields in Melbourne, mostly flooding in from the west over the Yarra River. They seem inconceivably swift, even when the wind barely stirs the treetops. Darkness falls quickly, dusk lasting barely twenty minutes, and the weather is just as quick to change. A cool rainy morning is followed by a radiant noon, an afternoon rent by gusts of wind and darkened by towering clouds, an evening in whose orange-red sky frigate birds circle.

Am I a climate sceptic, then? Yes. Yes and no. Or actually no, I think not, only that the climate-change-sceptic climate makes me sceptical. Doubts are barely permitted any more, and yet they are only appropriate.

Climate seems to me a much larger, more complex and sweeping story than the one which I follow, which I have read ever since I can remember. I am probably a hopeless empiricist, certainly an incorrigible altruist. I read the weather, following it daily, more or less happy with rain, rain, rain; in Hamburg, after all, three hundred days of rain at a stretch are no cause for despair. In my writing, in my characters’ thoughts, feelings and actions and in the images, allusions and music of my poetry, the weather plays at least as important a role as psychology, morals, doubt or imagination. Weather for me is a constitutive factor. Climate, to be perfectly honest, does not exist for me. I couldn’t even say what is meant by the word. For me, climate is to weather much as religion is to faith. The religious is beyond my knowledge, my comprehension, my interest. Faith is of existential significance for me, a dialogue, a test, a foothold, a framework for life.

Am I a climate sceptic, then? Yes. Yes and no. Or actually no, I think not, only that the climate-change-sceptic climate makes me sceptical. Doubts are barely permitted any more, and yet they are only appropriate. Doubts are necessary – not, however, doubts in the fact that the earth’s climates, the life in rivers and seas, the airs and the forests, the life of plants and animals, the lives of peoples in cities and in the countryside is at the brink of a sweeping and, it is to be feared, long-since unstoppable upheaval. Rather, I have my doubts in the way in which we have grown used to speaking of it, this so-called climate change. For no dialogue is taking place. All we hear and hold are monologues.

Weather for me is a constitutive factor. Climate, to be perfectly honest, does not exist for me. I couldn’t even say what is meant by the word. For me, climate is to weather much as religion is to faith.

In this sense, for me talking about climate change means talking about the reasons for this absence of dialogue among the spheres of research, science, politics, art and society. Here is a situation in which people are incapable of communicating, though all of us face a common peril: losing the basis of our own existence and that of our children and their children. How can this be? I believe that talking about climate change means first of all talking about a climate of fear. It seems to me that only narratives, stories of individuals’ experiences and visions can enable us to achieve an understanding of something as all-encompassing, as unfathomable as this transformation of the world into an inhospitable and unreal place.

‘Tell it to the bees’ is an old Australian proverb. When you have something on your mind, and you try to share it with someone who has no inclination, no time, no patience for it, he’ll tell you to tell it to the bees, who seem to understand everything magically and fly off at once to make honey from your secret.

Don’t give up. Tell it to the bees.

Image by <a href=””>Viktor Hanacek.

One grey morning I travel to the Yarra Valley. The landscape is gentle and hilly, densely forested; I see more and more of the eucalyptus trees so typical of Victoria, among them the gigantic mountain ash, rearing up from the forest canopy like leafy towers. But abruptly – just as I begin to compare the landscape with the Black Forest, the Hudson Valley, the Vosges or Thuringia – the landscape opens up, the woodlands end and prairies stretch out between seemingly endless rows of vineyards.

In the Healesville Sanctuary I am shown mountain pygmy-possums, barely larger than mice. They are not disturbed in their beginning hibernation when the young biologist takes one and lays it in her cupped hand. It nestles in. The pygmy possum, says Jill, feeding the animal with a cannula, no longer exists, strictly speaking. It was thought to be extinct until skiers happened upon a tiny colony in the Victorian Alps.

She fills another cannula from a honey jar and leads me into an aviary; there among all the finches and parrots I feel like an emu. A little black and yellow bird with a long pointed beak and a vibrant yellow crest lands on Jill’s hand. It seems trusting, yet as though it lives at such a different speed than I that it does not even perceive me, its potential enemy. Several times I’m forced to dodge so that it doesn’t try to fly straight through me. Perched on Jill’s fist, it drinks honey from the cannula and gazes at me like a large hummingbird that has strayed into my perceptual grid, eyes dark as Emily Dickinson’s in the only two extant photos of her.

It whirs away, enough of the hand, enough of the honey from the plastic bill. In the whole world there are thirty-nine members of its species left, thirty-two of them in Healesville. Four of them sit on a branch in front of me, a tenth of the entire Helmeted Honeyeater population.

German has nothing but martial expressions… like ‘wiped out’, ‘eradicated’, ‘exterminated’; they ambush you with guilt, making you turn away to flee complicity.

Jill tells me about projects to release the animals back into the wild with tracking devices, of futile endeavors to protect the Honeyeater, bereft of its habitat, from birds of prey. They do not recognize raptors as enemies, any more than they do me. She tells me of aviary experiments, of Honeyeaters and raptors in the same cage, of artificial raptor noise meant to frighten birds much too friendly for this world, of protective blankets beneath which they learn to be wary and hide; she tells of charts, analyses, new possibilities, serene, without a trace of sadness.

In the Australian I read that ten of every hundred North American bee colonies died off in the winter before last; last winter it was twenty three of every hundred. What causes the colony collapse? Is it accidentally-introduced mites, monocultures, forest and bush fires, deforestation and other forms of environmental destruction, or are extreme temperatures responsible?

‘Fast ausgestorben’ in German is a euphemism. The English expression ‘nearly extinct’, used over and over in the Healesville Sanctuary, is all the more apt for its cool reserve. German has nothing but martial expressions, commensurate to the subject, but too subjective and thus unhelpful, like ‘wiped out’, ‘eradicated’, ‘exterminated’; they ambush you with guilt, making you turn away to flee complicity.

The Black Saturday bushfires eradicated the towns of Kinglake and Marysville in Yarra Valley. A small museum in the neighboring town of Lilydale has a permanent exhibition, The Art of Response, recalling the fires of February 7, 2009. One hundred and seventy-three people died in the fires, thousands lost their homes, countless animals perished, and entire swaths of land, once abundant in vegetation – including often century-old mountain-ash trees, whose oils make them burn like tinder – were razed by a juggernaut of flames that rose hundreds of yards in the air, rumbling down into the primeval valley of the Yarra.

The Art of Response is an eloquent name for an exhibition which consciously foregrounds works by local artists and students. Such was the force of the fire, it seems, that those who survived the catastrophe of Kinglake and Marysville believed only they themselves and those closest to them could find words or images for it. Age, profession, education are irrelevant. The magnitude of the trauma, both individual and collective, is rendered imaginable by means of harrowing distillation. This trauma was and remains part of the fire, smoldering on within, blazing in the silence; the objects that survived the flames, displayed in Lilydale’s museum, are not only fraught with memories, they are the truest reflections of a spirit in which Black Saturday remains branded.

A garden gnome destroyed by the Black Saturday bushfires, on February 7, 2009.

A garden gnome perches in a glass case like a Japanese teapot glazed with fly ash. Bottles slumped to half their size, glasses bent crooked in air in excess of 1300º, vases baked down to lumps are displayed. The case of a Canon camera, blown up like a metal balloon, is filled with ashy powder. I read that the camera belonged to a woman who sought refuge from the flames by climbing into the drinking water tank in her garden.

An amateur video recorded by Daryl Hall, who lived in Marysville until the town was destroyed, shows the fire consuming trees, houses, stables, cars, and everything else besides. There are images in that film that have changed my view of the world and its possibilities. They convey what it must have been like to be delivered up to a conflagration that seemed to have seized the very clouds.

Daryl Hall makes no comments on his video. Only in one brief sequence, recorded the day after the bushfire, does he breathlessly name familiar places in town, places which even he must struggle to recognize. His silence has great urgency; I find it forceful, defiant and comforting. And if you listen closely, you keep hearing a soft, perplexing singsong – it is unclear what in fact is producing it, the fiery wind or the man with the camera. In the words of the Melbourne poet Emma Lew: ‘Learn from a child’s panic: / Song means that you breathe.’ Point by point, point by point, and so on and so on, singing all the while, softly, to yourself, for the image, the image of the land, drawing humming breath and placing point by point upon the image to make it an image in the first place, as the Aborigine clans do, down thousands of generations.

Such was the force of the Black Saturday bushfires, it seems, that those who survived the catastrophe… believed only they themselves and those closest to them could find words or images for it.

The wind is powerful in the Melbourne region. Within a week it altered my image of wind fundamentally. In early February 2009 southern Australia had gone through months of temperatures as high as 46º Celsius. Water shortage, drought, plus fierce, hot wind. Who wouldn’t panic? And then there is the proclivity of individuals to prey on a precarious situation, if only to forget their own existential fear or to counter it with some eruptive reality. A scenario full of fatal possibilities.

The fire complex of Kinglake and Marysville developed out of two earlier fires that merged when the wind changed. The area that burned was the size of a New Jersey surrounded by walls of flame and flattened by a flame juggernaut.

Instead of seeking the alleged arsonists, it was claimed, the true culprits — environmental organisations and green politicians — should be pilloried.

Investigators have concluded that the fire was caused by arson. But the bush fires that devastated Yarra Valley have also been blamed on environmental organizations and green politicians who supposedly prohibited prophylactic controlled burns which had been practiced for centuries, going back to the Aborigines. Instead of seeking the alleged arsonists, it was claimed, the true culprits should be pilloried. It seems impossible to conduct a debate about the climate, its changes and their consequences, without at the same time speaking of people’s evidently changeless fears. Rooted in greed, destructiveness and self-interest, they constitute just as unpredictable a factor in the climate debate as do envy, presumption and indifference.

It took seventeen minutes for the rainstorm of February 17, 1972 to sweep Melbourne and transform Elizabeth Street, a main artery that runs north-south to the city center and down to the Yarra River, back into the creek which in the early 19th century still wound its way down the northern slopes to empty into the river sacred to the Wurundjeri and Bunurong.

In the legends of the Kulin, the aborigines of what is now Victoria, it was the eagle Bunjil – creator of the mountains, waters, plants and animals, and of the laws by which humans are meant to live – who formed the river by flying across the hilly land and scoring the ground with one claw. That was the origin of Birrarung, as the Wurundjeri call the Yarra River.

In modern, commercial Melbourne, the Yarra is nothing but a waterway, regulated and diverted when necessary over the course of two hundred years, used to death, in many places little more than a fishless, polluted cloaca, at best with a romantic or idyllic veneer. Embedded in the concrete banks of the CBD, the ‘central business district’, it is monitored for its powerful current and watched for the numerous floods, which can swell the harmless-seeming stream to considerable breadth, making lakes spring up in the middle of the city.

The old Flinders Street Station still stands on the banks of the Yarra. Here the first British settlers arrived, not by train, for the train never crossed the Indian Ocean, but with sailing vessels that came up the Birrarung and cast anchor here. There was no harbor – the Kulin needed none, the whole valley was their harbor. Where Brunswick, Carlton and other suburbs now grow out into the countryside, the creek rushed down the hills to the river.
There was a lagoon.

At the Sydney Institute of Marine Science, researchers lecture on the decline of seaweed and kelp along the Eastern Australian coast, a phenomenon ascribed to the warming and acidification of the oceans and the rising water level, and connected with the extinction of the coral reefs.

‘Do you see any grounds left for optimism?’ The marine biologist smiled. ‘No,’ she said soberly, ‘too much has been lost for that. But it would be awful if I’d stop seeing the meaning in my work, and lose my joy in it. You can’t just withdraw from the game.’

‘We lost the kelp forests’. The wording makes me wonder what ‘we’ is meant here. Photos show the ‘forests’ which grow, or once grew, to a height of sixty meters underwater. They harbored countless, often previously-unknown life forms, and were subject to currents that could be described as submarine storms. New designs for wave power plants are presented, seaweed cultivation on land in vast fields of containers. The fear is something I don’t want to pass over, the wave fear, the seaweed fear, the fear of straying into a kelp forest while swimming in the sea and losing yourself there forever.
‘Do you see any grounds left for optimism?’ The marine biologist smiled. ‘No,’ she said soberly, ‘too much has been lost for that. But it would be awful if I’d stop seeing the meaning in my work, and lose my joy in it. You can’t just withdraw from the game.’

No, we won’t give up. We’ll tell it to the bees!

Meg, an environmental activist from Greenpeace Australia Pacific in Sydney, speaks of the gulf between facts and feeling. She is in her mid-fifties, radiating anger as much as sorry. She spent the past several days in prison following protests against the clearance of large parts of Leard State Forest, an attempt by the Whitehaven coal company to expedite the opening of the Maules Creek Mine. Maules Creek is Aborigine land; the Gomeroi have lived for thousands of years in the forested region that is home to around four hundred rare and endangered plant and animal species. The coal from Maules Creek will be exported to China.

The Leard State Forest, the target of a clearing attempt by the Whitehaven coal company in a bid to expedite the opening of the Maules Creek Mine (Google Earth).

Meg speaks openly of profit-driven crimes. But she also tells of the power of stories, the magic of poetry, and how both enable us to reach people of every culture.

Meg is first person in all these meetings, lectures, conversations and tours who does not hesitate to use the word ‘God’. She talks about the faith of the inhabitants of Kiribati, a Polynesian island nation. For scientists, the anticipated rise in sea level leaves no doubt that the islands, each of them rising just a few yards above the sea, will be flooded. However, the inhabitants refuse to leave their islands, appealing to traditional tales and the Bible to justify their decision. In Kiribati there is no doubt about God’s pronouncement: never again will a flood sweep the earth.

Meg tells of Bangladesh. She asked women there what relief supplies they needed the most, and the women of the coastal region requested mobile ovens which they could take with them when fleeing the next flood.

She tells of the sounds of Alaska. The Eskimos’ names for native birds imitate their cries or songs, and for a long time now the Inuit have been discussing what to do with the names when the birds no longer exist.

She tells of the Wurundjeri Aborigines, only around a thousand of whom have survived expulsions and massacres, half of them in reservations, cut off from animals, trees, rivers, their land, and thus from their legends and their culture, their dreaming. The Wurundjeri say: ‘We won’t die out. We refuse.’

We won’t give up. We’ll tell it to the bees.

Greed, selfishness and destructive frenzy, sanctimony, ignorance and malevolence, all the shades of fear seen in the disputes about the causes and consequences of climate change – none of it lets me forget the courage, the tenacity, the inventiveness and composure with which many bring to the challenging task of starting a conversation which no one can claim does not concern them. It is a conversation, I believe, that takes place not just among us humans. Seen poetically, climate change is a conversation demanded of us with great urgency by the world, nature, creation.

Naturally, that is poetry. How is this supposed to work – telling something to the bees? Recently I read about the tropical researcher Carlos de la Rosa, who on the Puerto Viejo River in Costa Rica managed to photograph a large orange-red butterfly and a wild bee drinking tears from the eyes of a crocodile. De la Rosa discovered that French researchers had observed something similar on the Amazon in Ecuador: there a solitary bee drank from the eyes of a river turtle. Headed by Hans Bänziger at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, researchers have recorded around three hundred such observations worldwide. The insects are seeking salt; that much seems clear. In a self-experiment, Hans Bänziger was able to prove that they drink from human eyes as well. As they drank his tears, he reported, the bees could barely be felt.

Translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

This article was produced as part of Weather Stations, a global project that places literature and storytelling at the heart of the conversations around climate change. The Wheeler Centre is one of five partners in the project. Mirko Bonné posts regularly at the Weather Stations blog.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.