from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: to Mars and back to Confusion.

July 5, 2021.

We have had a busy, enjoyable week. I learnt about Mars, mushrooms, tardigrades, panspermia ….

After my Thursday tennis match, I had conversation with 2 friends. One said, ‘The rest of the world is laughing at us because we have cut our country off with this policy of ‘Fortress Australia’. I disagreed. I think the rest of the world is envious of how we have managed in the past 18 months. How normal our lives have been.

We could debate this variance of opinion. More later.

On Thursday night, we attended a Field Geology Club lecture at Adelaide University given by Assoc. Professor Victor Gostin on ‘Planet Mars, What Surprises Await us?‘ The audience of over 100 all had to wear masks because … there just MIGHT be a few Delta Covid-19 cases in the South Australian community. A miner returned from the Granites Mine in the Tanami Desert, Northern Territor, to Adelaide and tested positive. He has not been active in the local community but there MIGHT be other positive cases from the mine. Since then, there has not been any outbreak – or any cases -but the fear of the Delta variant is spooking our state premiers.

Back to Mars – Prof. Gostin explained what NASA’s Perseverance Rover has found geologically. Even without a scientific background, I was able to enjoy the lecture. Mars is without plate tectonics and so the planet is without many of earth’s features.

There are Australian connections in this Martian expedition. Brisbane-born geologist, Dr Abigail Allwood, now at NASA, leads the team who developed an instrument on the Rover’s arm that is designed to detect signs of past life. And an Australian planetary scientist, Dr Adrian Brown, is also working on the remote sensing of rocks. Rocks in some of our harshest Australian deserts – called gibber plains – resemble Martian landscapes.

Gibber Plain. Australian Plant Image Index
Australian National Botanic Gardens
Australian National Herbarium

Scientists are very excited by the Perseverance Rover mission.

https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/mission/overview/

Mars is not a place you want to visit under normal circumstances. Prof. Gostin described it as ‘hostile’ with freezing temperatures, high levels of radiation, oxidizing chemicals and no liquid water.’ The air is thin, 100 times thinner than earth and consists of 95% carbon dioxide. But once upon a time, it was different and water ran on the surface.

In 2016, NASA’s Curiosity Rover discovered glauconitic clays, and thus scientists are postualting that Mars was once (maybe a million or so years ago) habitable. But since we are making a mess of our very habitable planet, I am not sure why we would want to go and mess up another planet.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2282238-clays-found-in-martian-crater-hint-that-the-planet-was-once-habitable/

And, there might still be microbial life deep under the Martian surface. A ‘subsurface biome’ like we have kilometres deep under Earth’s surface.

Prof Gostin also raised the issue of our Moon and Mars landers inadvertently polluting other planets. In the 1950s a biologist, Joshua Lederberg, (Nobel Prize winner) alerted the USA’s National Academy of Sciences warning them about celestial contamination. Either we might inadvertently take organisms onto other parts of our solar system or we might bring them back here. Lederberg spoke about the possible ‘cosmic catastrophe’. There is a possibility that the places where the early moon landings took place are already polluted with bacteria.

Oh, tardigrades or water-bears! I must mention these tough little creatures. Why? because they might be able to travel to other planets, they are such tough micro-animals. Almost indestructible.

I was exposed to two new exciting words before I came down to our own messy Earth with all its confusion.

Panspermia (from Ancient Greek πᾶν (pan) ‘all’, and σπέρμα (sperma) ‘seed’) is the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by space dust, meteoroids, asteroids, comets, planetoids, and also by spacecraft carrying unintended contamination by microorganisms.’ (Wikipedia)

and Astrobiology.

formerly known as exobiology, is an interdisciplinary scientific field that studies the origins, early evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. Astrobiology considers the question of whether extraterrestrial life exists, and if it does, how humans can detect it. (Wikipedia).

Meanwhile at home in Australia…

Near panic has broken out amongst the politicians and politically employed medicos about the Delta variant’s appearance in Australia. Foremost amongst them is Dr Jeanette Young, Chief Health Officer of Queensland, (and Governor Designate of Queensland), who has come under fire for her emotional tirade against the possibility that under 40 year olds might choose to have the AZ vaccination AFTER consulting their doctors.

We have had a few Delta-variant outbreaks. The largest is in NSW and once more this involved an infection escaping hotel quarantine. Five million Sydney residents are in lockdown and 300 cases have been detected so far: about 30 new cases a day although most of these people are already in isolation. Borders are closed again and we had to cancel our planned trip to NSW – once more.

Politicians continue to heighten fears to justify their responses and strengthen their standing.’ The Weekend Australian (July 3-4)

Lss than 10% of Australians are fully vaccinated. This is a problem. Having had an easier time with closed (mostly closed) borders, we were slow to get vaccinated. If our Prime Minister had had perfect foresight, he would have set up custom-built quarantine facilities in each state, and have paid up front for an early supply of four different vaccines being developed – but he only chose only three. One (being developed by our CSIRO) did not get off the starting blocks, which left us with Pfizer and AstraZeneca (AZ).

Then in March, AZ vaccine supplies to us from the EU were slowed or cut – depending on who you listened to. (3.4 million doses did not turn up). Shortly thereafter, in April, the question of fatal blood clots arose – even though the odds were tiny, Australians and their politicians reacted. After all, there were few cases here, why should we rush to have a vaccine that was dicey – even if it was only a tiny, tiny bit dicey? (Much more dicey than taking an asprin every day). Then our ATAGI – Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation – took ‘one of the most conservative risk-adverse management approaches in the world‘ to the AZ vaccine (Weekend Australian July 3-4).

Then Federal Government found that the Pfizer vaccine was in huge demand and supplies were limited. On top of this our administration of the vaccination process – being done by our states – was slow and inefficient. Again – no sense of rush. For example, some states were slow to offer health workers – especially those working in retirement facilities – vaccinations, even though this was highly recommended. Foolishly, it was not made mandatory.

This is a time of complaint and whinging in Australia. And we are very good at that. However, It gets boring to listen to negativity on the ABC 7am news every morning – especially when you are aware of the real suffering going on in so many parts of the world through other media. Not an enjoyable start to the day.

Covid-19 has resulted in a bonanza for media companies. Not only are we all watching TV for entertainment but, daily, we seek information on what is going on. We rely on the experts – medical experts. But the medicos don’t agree and some are more expert than others!

In an attempt to cut through all the back-biting and confusion, PM Morrison has announced a ‘deal’ with our state premiers for a 4-stage blueprint for emerging from the grip of Covid-19. This hinges on vaccination rates. Optimistically, this is a step forward whereby within six months, we should be able to have no lockdowns, open the borders, and, eventually in Phase Four, something called ‘Covid-normal’ will allow uncapped travel for the vaccinated and Covid-19 will be managed as other serious infectious diseases are managed.

All likely to be very slow – but we will get there.

Finally, back to Mars. Here is a fascinating YouTube NASA video showing some of the exploring of the Martian surface that Perseverance Rover is undertaking. Beter than our 7 am news.

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: On the Move: Holidays, Food and Foraging

19 June, 2021

The arrival of winter rains over Adelaide

Australians are travelling once more. However, with our slow local vaccination rate and the fear of new variants, such as the Delta variant, the prospect of overseas travel is receding. So, we are confined within Australia. ‘No worries,’ locals say, ‘It’s a vast country, and I have never been to Darwin/Margaret River/Townsville/Merimbula/Broome etc’. Airbnb and Stayz are reporting heavy bookings. Popular destinations are full for the 2021 school holidays. Costs are surging.

We secured a late July booking to fly to Port Douglas: the stunning Queensland coastal holiday town on the edge of the Daintree Rainforest. We found a modestly priced apartment months ago. I have been warned that Port Douglas restaurants are full for meals and that I need to pre-book our evening entertainment.

In reaction, some of our retired friends are planning on spending big: travelling the Ghan, Adelaide to Darwin ($4,200 aud, one way per person); a 10-night cruise around the Kimberley coast ($30,000 average pp not including helicopter flights); Lord Howe Island ($3,500 for 7 nights pp including flights). Maybe these months of Covid restrictions have made us realise that the remaining time to make such trips is dwindling fast. Will I get to Zanzibar once more? Capetown to see family? The Zululand game reserves? Yellowstone National Park? Sanibel island? The wish list feels like plans made after enjoying a bottle of Adelaide Hills sparkling wine.

Life here in Adelaide remains good. (Aussies love the word ‘good’. ‘How are you?’ The answer is ‘Good’.  It’s like a check-up on your moral status). We await our second AstraZeneca vaccination scheduled for early July. Tonight, the government announced that the AZ would no longer be offered to under 60-year-olds. More cases of clotting have emerged. … called vaccine-induced thrombotic thrombocytopaenia (VITT) or thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS). It is estimated that one in 80,000 is affected. That is enough to scare people, especially with the nightly news of yet another suspected case.

Meanwhile, I have been foraging. I love foraging. There is something childlike and primeval about searching and finding food in the fields. Figs are my favourite; they fruit at the end of summer – February and March. We have a generous neighbour with many trees. This year, I also gathered plums, loquats, Chinese guavas, white sapotes, cumquats and last week, fungi.

With the arrival of soaking winter rain – a month late – the fungi have fruited. I heard that pine mushrooms or saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus) were plentiful in the Kuipo pine forests in the Adelaide Hills. Pine mushrooms are easy to identify, and there are few deadly look-alikes. It does help to have the latest book on fungi. I have Wild Mushrooms, a Guide for Foragers, by Alison Pouliot & Tom May, given to me by my Seattle daughter, a mycologist in her spare time. But it is wise to be warned, to be cautious and to observe simple collection rules: have separate packets for each species and not to collect what you don’t know.

The towering forests of mature Pinus radiata are not my favourite wild places. The undergrowth is sparse, and these forests don’t support our native birds and marsupials. But some fungi prosper there.

As the three of us began our hunt – and I had little clue about how numerous these delicious fungi were or how cryptic they would be – we met a local Chinese family who were staggering homeward with a large laundry basket full of pine mushrooms.

They pointed vaguely behind them into the depth of the woods. ‘There are many there. Five hundred metres away,’ they said.

Looking at their heavy basket, I wondered if they had left ‘many’. They made it sound easy: it was not. At first, we found nothing but luminous red and orange fungi and masses of large, slimy ‘slippery jacks’ (Suillus luteus), which form a symbiotic relationship with pine tree roots. My Wild Mushroom book says this about slippery-jacks, ‘Their slimy nature is revered by some and repulses others.’

The three of us walked in loops, searching the pine needles covering the ground. My daughter said, ‘Explore lumps and bumps in the pine needle ground.’ I think you develop an ‘eye’ for spotting fungi and we were beginners. We were not concerned about getting lost once we realised that our mobile phones still worked. As we turned for home, we struck lucky and collected about two kilos of the saffron pine fungi. I also gathered a few slippery jacks as my daughter told me that Russian people rave over these fungi. Later I found an interesting recipe for a slippery jack cabbage soup with beans and a dash of vodka. This recipe sounded like a perfect plan for a winter evening.

There is something so very pleasurable about hunting for fungi. With full baskets at our feet, the three of us sat on logs, drank hot peppermint tea and ate cheese and biscuits while watching the friendly grey fantails and superb blue wrens.

Neither of my friends wanted to cook our saffron milk caps, so I took them all home and researched their preparation.

I made pine mushroom soup, pasta sauce and an omelette with mushroom filling. The slippery jacks are more challenging as the slimy pileus can give some people dermatitis. I stripped off this surface skin and removed the puffy spore layer, although some recipes do not suggest removing the pores. I was left with a creamy circle of flesh. I fried them with the pine mushrooms. They were delicious.

It was a memorable day of successful foraging.

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: another Outbreak and the Dark Leopards of the Moon

June 4, 2021

View from Stoke’s Hill, Willow Springs, Flinders Ranges

Victoria is in lockdown. Again. And South Australia is being blamed for lax quarantine management. It is alleged that a Victorian man was infected as he exited his room to leave a medi-hotel in Adelaide after his required 14 day lockup.

The result of the South Australian investigation into this has not been released. The newly infected man travelled to Victoria and was very busy wandering around before he tested positive. There are now 61 cases from this current outbreak and a list of over 370 contact sites in Melbourne: bakeries, trams, gyms, supermarkets, cafes, hairdressers, cinemas, sportsclubs etc. Testing is flat out. 57,000 people were tested in a few days.

It is getting more and more political. Of course. There are points to be scored against the government. The medi-hotels are not failsafe. Seventeen outbreaks have occurred. This must be the federal government’s fault. Lobbying of the federal government continues: surely they must build and pay for custom quarantine facilities in each state. On another related issue, the government have already caved in and will organise some modest temporary financial support for Victorian workers affected by the current outbreak.

At one stage, the Victoria chief Health Officer, Brett Sutton, (looking rather unkempt with a growing salt and pepper beard), went into overdrive to declare that very casual or ‘fleeting contact’ had resulted in infection and this new variant, called the Kappa variant, was an ‘an absolute beast’.

‘Because it has moved faster than any other strain we’ve dealt with, and we’re seeing transmission in settings and circumstances we’ve never seen before. … This means we’re having to re-examine exposure sites — more than 300 of them — with this more contagious strain in mind.’

This was soon refuted by calmer minds and Sutton backed away from his statement. It was a matter of test results being false positives and their state government’s need to blame something or someone else – rather than their poor QR systems and widespread non-compliance with check-in rules.

‘An infectious diseases physician at St Vincent’s hospital in Sydney, Prof Greg Dore, who is running a study looking at long-haul Covid patients, said the Kappa variant was acting “the same as we’ve seen before” with other variants in Australia. “There just isn’t any strong evidence this variant is more efficiently transmitted than previous variants,” said Dore, who is also a clinical researcher with the Kirby Institute.’ (Guardian 2 June)

We now wait to see if this outbreak spreads to NSW. We are due to travel there in 3 weeks.

arriving at Skytrek Willow Springs

While all this was going on, I was once more in the Flinders Ranges, this time with a group of aged walkers.

Once more, I am taken aback by the stark aridity of the Flinders. The beauty is there but it’s a harsh land. The hills are almost bare of vegetation and on the sheep stations, onion weed appears to be the predominant plant. In many watercourses, ancient river red gums are dying and even the tough native pines (callitris) are suffering. I don’t think I saw more than 10 kangaroos or Euros. There were a few more emus than my last visit – they are browsers and probably have more food sources.

The bird life is scarce. I was keen to try and spot the rare short-tailed grasswren. This bird is a ‘mega-tick’ for any bird-watcher. These cryptic outback birds were once seen on Willow Springs where we were staying. However, the native spinifex and perennial grassy hillsides, where I hoped to find them, have suffered from the four drought years and there was little remaining cover for any bird. Except this one: a grey butcherbird.

The predatory grey butcher-bird

However, all this gloom did not stop us enjoying the Flinders. We had driven north through a dust storm.

Approaching Port Augusta in the dust storm

The late winter rains have left the topsoil of the wheatlands exposed. Overnight a short rainfall laid the dust to rest and we had clear skies once more. This was opportune as we were looking forward to the lunar eclipse of the night of 26 May. And that delivered. We enjoyed 5 hours of a moon disappearing from a brilliant starred sky. The shadow of the earth covered the moon from the right and it emerged from the lower left. I understand that this is due to the position of the sun’s shadow during this eclipse. Apparently, we were lucky in Eastern Australia as we could see the entire eclipse at night. And it was a ‘Super Flower Blood Moon’. However, I could not see the red. You had to use a lot of imagination. Maybe if the moon had been closer to the horizon, it would have turned red. Still spectacular. And while the moon was being gobbled up, over the arid hills of the Flinders Ranges we could clearly see the Southern Cross, and other constellations and listen to boobook owls calling from the dried out riverbank. In Adelaide cloud cover hid the eclipse.

Yes, these are my own photos taken with a Nikon hybrid. Hand held!

The eclipse took place just a few hours after the Moon reached perigee, the closest point to Earth on its orbit, making it a Super Flower Blood Moon.

What is a Super Moon?

This eclipse also marks the beginning of an “almost tetrad” because it kicks off a series of four big lunar eclipses in two years. Three of these eclipses are total, while one of them, on November 18-19, 2021, is a deep partial eclipse. So deep that it is almost a total eclipse.’

https://www.timeanddate.com/eclipse/lunar/2021-may-26

You can well imagine how indigenous peoples might have viewed a lunar eclipse as an omen. Perhaps it would have been frightening. I know that the San Bushmen had many stories to explain events in the skies. So I looked this up. I am sad to say: I think we might have lost imagination with the gaining of knowledge.

‘When the Earth’s shadow falls on the Moon, a lunar eclipse occurs. The Nyae Nyae !Kung Bushmen said that this was caused by the lion, putting his paw over the Moon to darken the night so he could have better hunting.’

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258805045_African_Star_Lore

This reminds me of the ‘Day of the Dead Moon’, the day in January 1879 when the Zulu army was instructed by King Cetshwayo not to attack the invading British forces under Lord Chelmsford during the day of the lunar eclipse. The eclipse was seen as a bad omen. Lord Chelmsford had marched his forces into the Zulu Kingdom confident that they would teach the Zulus a quick lesson. The Zulu army of over 20,000 sat silently on their shields in a ravine, waiting for a more auspicious day. However, a British outrider spotted them and the Battle of Isandlwana commenced. Lord Chelmsford’s camp was destroyed along with 1,300 British soldiers and probably 2,000 Zulu warriors. This defeat was a huge shock to the British. How could a bunch on untrained Zulus without Martini–Henry breechloading rifles or 7-pounder mountain guns defeat them?

I think some poetry about the moon should end this blog. WB Yeats saw great symbolism in the moon and he loved referring to the moon in his poetry. Mostly sad verses. I liked the following, Lines Written in Dejection.

When have I last looked on
The round green eyes and the long wavering bodies
Of the dark leopards of the moon?
All the wild witches, those most noble ladies,
For all their broom-sticks and their tears,
Their angry tears, are gone.
The holy centaurs of the hills are vanished
I have nothing but the embittered sun;
Banished heroic mother moon and vanished,
And now that I have come to fifty years
I must endure the timid sun.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘We’re all goin’ on a summer holiday’

21 May, 2021.

So who’s for a summer holiday? Confusion reigns among the climate gods as we move from winter directly to autumn with a vague gesture towards spring along the way, but so far with very little prospect of anything resembling summer. So a large portion of the UK population apparently wants to join Cliff Richard in ‘goin’ where the sun shines brightly … goin’ where the sea is blue.’

Tristan da Cunha

May 17th was the milestone along Johnson’s much-bruited roadmap to ‘freedom’ when international travel broke free from the bonds of illegality and, in one giant bound, became legal (with streamers of red tape attached), even if in almost all cases, according to Boris and some of his cabinet ministers, not generally advisable.   So confusion reigns there too.   And that is in spite of the elegant simplicity of the traffic light system, so much loved by those who govern us.   The minor problem with that elegant simplicity is that apparently roughly half the population (and half our cabinet) thinks that amber means ‘stop’, while the other half think it means ‘go’.  Clearly not so simple after all.  So as we explore the generous array of options for our summer holiday destination we will stick to the wholly uncomplicated green list, which incontestably means ‘Go’. 

After an inordinate delay, which greatly frustrated the travel industry, the finally published the Green List provided those in search of brightly shining sun and blue seas with a geographically widely dispersed range of twelve tempting options: Portugal, Israel, Iceland, Brunei, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, the Faroe Islands, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, St Helena, Tristan de Cunha and Ascension Island.   The only minor problem with this Green List was that for all of those destinations apart from Portugal our green list just happens to coincide with their Red Lists, or equivalents.   And the prospect of joining every other newly-released-from-lockdown Brit-in-search-of-the-sun heading for Portugal doesn’t, for some reason, hold a great deal of appeal. 

The best chance of hitting on an alternative Green List destination that won’t refuse entry on arrival would seem to be to identify somewhere really remote where they might not have heard that we have had one of the worst fatality rates from Covid per head of population in the entire world.  And the one thing that can be said in favour of the Green List is that for its size it is extremely well endowed with remote destinations, which have the added attraction after a year of isolation of not being overcrowded.  In that regard the choice would seem to come down to a straight contest between South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, on the one hand, and Tristan de Cunha on the other.  The fact that June and July just happen to be the dead of winter in the South Atlantic doesn’t necessarily mean that the sun won’t be shining brightly from time to time. 

Wanderlust.co.uk will confirm that where the South Georgia option is concerned the islands are, indeed, ‘very remote and isolated’.   So that particular criterion is met, and the website also provides a tempting list of all the things there are to do when you get there.  Top of the list is ‘communing with king penguins’.  That could be a full-time occupation, but if it palls for any reason you can also ‘immerse yourself in the history of the polar explorers and whalers in South Georgia’s museum’ and ‘visit the grave of Ernest Shackleton, whose body was returned to South Georgia to be buried.’   The only problem with a destination so loaded with irresistible attractions – unless you happen to be fussy enough not to fancy extended communion with penguin royalty, visiting whaling museums or making pilgrimages to graves – is that you can only visit via a cruise ship which, even were they currently sailing, might feel a bit crowded in the middle of a global pandemic.  Wherever they sail from won’t, in any case, be on the Green List. 

Tristan da Cunha, on the other hand, is the most remote inhabited island in the world and with only 270 inhabitants shouldn’t feel too overcrowded.  Apart from other islands in the Tristan da Cunha archipelago, one of which appropriately enough is called Inaccessible Island, the nearest land is Saint Helena, over 1500 miles away. Wikivoyage will tell you that a visit requires careful planning because you can only get there by sea and the only boats that make the five to ten day (depending on which way the wind is blowing) 1800 mile trip from Cape Town (where you won’t be allowed in if you come from UK) are two fishing boats and the South African polar research ship the SA Agulhas.  The sun does shine brightly and the sea is blue in the Antarctic regions – though generally not in the middle of winter.    

You will need to be relatively flexible where timing is concerned when it comes to getting back to Cape Town (if they’ll have you by then) because, again according to Wikivoyage: ‘Visitors are the lowest priority for passage on vessels and may be forced to forfeit their passage to persons with a higher priority (medical evacuation, officials on official business, even locals leaving on holiday have higher priority).’  Wikivoyage doesn’t give a list of ‘things to do’ on Tristan de Cunha but, as there isn’t anything resembling a beach, rock-climbing appears from the photograph to be a good option (there must be a great view of sea from the top) and waiting for the next boat back to Cape Town would obviously be top of the list.  Also on the plus side, you won’t need a visa, just a Police Certificate and a letter of permission from the Tristan Government.  If you play your cards right you might even be able to get your fare paid by the Home Office if you let Priti Patel know that you are going to Tristan de Cunha to assess how suitable it would be as an alternative to Ascension Island or St Helena for the processing of UK asylum seekers.  

Some people, presumably those who don’t have much of a spirit of adventure, aren’t appreciative enough of the amount of careful thought that has obviously gone into the compiling of our government’s Green List of possible summer holiday destinations.  George Granville, the CEO of travel company Red Savannah, interviewed on the BBC’s Today programme yesterday went so far as to say ‘If you analyse the green list it is lunacy, it’s a sort of joke list.’   

It takes a rare talent to come up with a joke quite like this one. If you can stop laughing for a minute or two, spare a thought for those who work in our £148 billion a year travel industry.

From Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: Are you missing the qualia?

National Geographic. August 2020

May 19, 2021. Across the rooms of our house: the bedside tables, sideboards, entrance desk and the bathrooms are piles of books, magazines and slices of newspapers. Flat Surface (book) Syndrome. Sometimes within these piles I come across an ‘old’ interesting article in the Economist or National Geographic.

Here is one: National Geographic, August 2020. Page 15. ‘When life turns into Quarantine’ by Oliver Whang. Oliver’s article revolves around his relationship with his identical twin, Ethan. This leads him into a discussion about the virtual world, the digital world, that has become, for many, their central existence during the restrictions of Covid-19. The resultant isolation has caused our students and workers to live their lives through their various digital devices – quite apart from their lectures and Zoom meetings, they have at their fingertips the world of video games (Overwatch (40 million players) … Fortnite (350 million) Minecraft (140 million)), YouTube, Netflix, Facebook (2.8 billion), Tiktok (689 Million) etc. Losing sense of day and night is one of the symptoms – and there are others. The digital was already invading, taking over our lives, but Covid-19 has supercharged the trend. (How many students do you know who are studying IT? No one seems to study humanities.)

Olive Whang. ‘I worry that the experience of this pandemic might convince people that we can keep living just fine while physically isolated from others. I find myself slipping towards that reality. There are entire days when I don’t leave the house, when my only human contact is with my brother as we await a turn in the bathroom.’

What if this level of isolation is the future? In this environment, something clearly is lost. I am sure of it, because I feel different when I experience things directly rather than virtually.’

And in quarantine, in isolation, we can be trapped in a half-world. ‘My fear is that going forward, some of us will never completely come out of self-quarantine: that dread and uncertainty will cause us to lose part of physical connection to the world: the qualia.’

So, we come to the qualia. It’s a slippery word that is hard to define. Perhaps it comes from the word, ‘quality’. But Wikipedia says that it comes from Latin: ‘of what sort‘ or ‘of what kind’ … is a conscious experience.

There is a convoluted discussion about the concept in the world of psychology.

The way I understand qualia is that it relates to the essence of a material thing or experience. That part of it we cannot know in a description, cannot experience through the digital world, that quality that we need to physically encounter and know through our imagination, our conscious selves.

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia-knowledge/#HistUndeIdea

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes qualia as follows: ‘the intuition that no amount of knowledge of the physical information or physical facts concerning certain experiences can by itself suffice for knowledge of what these experiences are like, i.e., knowledge of their qualitative character or distinctive qualia.’

I needed to read that definition a couple of times.

Examples of qualia include the perceived sensation of pain of a headache, the taste of wine, seeing the wind in the trees, the redness of an evening sky. To know qualia is to be human. And yet, why should not animals experience qualia?

Qualia is an interesting concept … a subjective concept. Maybe it is the ineffable nature of being.

Click to access jacksonf18.pdf

The “felt quality” of a conscious experience. – “Quale” is singular, “Qualia” is plural. There is something that “it’s like” to be conscious, to have a sensation, to see an after-image. “Qualia” is a word introduced to help us talk about what “it’s like” to be conscious.’

It is what we will be missing in our locked down world. Perhaps qualia are the central value of our existence.

Oliver Whang continues: ‘After college, I’ll enter an increasingly virtual work force. Computers are– or will be – replacing humans across the economy: bankers, truckdrivers, factory workers. Many of the jobs that aren’t disappearing are moving online. I assume that most of my friends will work in professions that involve staring at computer screens or talking on phones. As a writer, I could end up working from home every day. I’m already spending half my life online, so that prospect doesn’t feel all that jarring. Still, it’s a pretty strange reality.’

Reality is somewhere else.

Today’s trees

A long long time ago, a friend called Ruth collected her young daughter from school and said to her with excitement, ‘We are going to look at trees this afternoon.’ The daughter became an artist of significance.

Is that what it’s like to be conscious?

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: a flight and a funeral

May 13, 2021.

Today, we undertook our first flight in over 18 months: a day trip to Melbourne.

I might have mentioned before that we hold credits with 4 airlines: Qantas, Jetstar, Garuda and Air New Zealand. All promise to honour these expended monies for flights that were aborted due to Covid-19. Generous?

Not so easy to claim, I am afraid. Qantas emailed us to inform us we would have to phone them to convert our $800 into new flights. If the new flights came to less than $800, we would forfeit the balance. Since domestic flight costs seem to have gone UP recently, I did not think that would happen. So, for many days I tried to phone Qantas to make a booking to attend the Melbourne funeral of a dear friend.

Qantas are obviously very popular or everyone in Australia is now travelling domestically. All attempts to phone them resulted in my waiting on hold for over an hour. Sometimes, I was told that the wait time was over 2 hours. Since the call centre is open 24×7, I decided to get up in the middle of the night. That worked! I woke at 4 am and rang Qantas on 2 mobiles using 2 different options (after all there is a sequence of negotiating through their many menu options). You would think that they would employ the new technology that allows a ring back. Anyway, after well over an hour the call was answered by a real person and she very efficiently converted our $800 (plus another $90) into two return tickets to Melbourne.

First, we had to apply to re-enter our home state of South Australia and get a Cross Border Travel pass. Secondly, we had to apply to enter Victoria – a Border Permit. Armed with 2 printed passes for two states, we arrived at the airport at 5.45am for our 7am flight. Everyone has to wear masks in the airports and on the flights. We have been fortunate during the last 18 months in that we, in South Australia, have lived mask-less. They are not much fun as you will know: we do not own designer masks. Ours were the cheap white and blue throwaways that sit close to your mouth. Thankfully, they served a sort of snack on the flight and obviously you are allowed to remove the mask. The trick is to take a long time over the snack. The flight to Melbourne is only 1 hr 20 minutes.

Since we lived in Melbourne – 29 years ago – the city has grown enormously. It is now home to over 5 million people and sprawls in every direction. Apparently, ‘Melbourne was voted the world’s most liveable city for seven consecutive years (2011–2017) by The Economist Intelligence unit.’ (Wikipedia). Coming from Adelaide, I felt rather overwhelmed.

We were there for a short time: to attend the funeral of Eric, a special friend. My husband has known Eric for well over 50 years. We went on many holidays, together and many adventures – exploring Australia from Kakadu to the Red Centre to sailing in the Whitsundays. Eric and his wife, Lyn, were endlessly generous to us and our family over the years. He was a committed and dedicated Christian and the eulogies during the service spoke of the many aspects of his life – spoken by his children, his grandchildren and his Christian friends. So we were pleased to be there to share in honouring and celebrating his life.

And we were pleased to get home again after the process of being interviewed – routinely questioned at Adelaide Airport by the border police.

Arriving home into Adelaide

Travel is not going to be simple anymore.

We had been hoping that with the rollout of the vaccination program in Australia and worldwide, Qantas would resume international travel in late October. They had started selling tickets in anticipation of this.

This week Qantas changed the plan – delayed the international opening to late December. There is even mention of mid-2022. The tourism section had this amusing comment: ‘The tourism sector has slammed the government for its vague plans on borders, suggesting Australia could become the “hermit kingdom of the South Pacific“.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-05-12/qantas-delays-restart-of-international-flights-in-wake-of-covid/100133772

I fear more and more people will have credits with Qantas and will join the late night queues to get refunds actioned.

It’s easier to stay at home.

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: A day we shall remember

May 3, 2021

I will remember the last day of April, 2021.

Our gardener arrived early to work with us. My husband spent time cutting down branches overhanging the road, working with a chainsaw and piling up wood for our fires. We anticipate the arrival of the winter rains and have been planting indigenous plants to take advantage of the last days of warmth before the earth gets cold. Digging planting holes requires considerable effort as the earth on this hillside consists of layers of shale.

After a long day, we went to a music recital: ‘Botanica Lumina – Enchanted’, in the Santos Museum of Economic Botany (1881) located within our Adelaide Botanic Gardens.

To get to the Museum, we had to walk through the Botanic Gardens, which are usually locked at sunset. Towering fig trees line the entrance avenue. We could hear possums with their aggressive hisses and the squealing of the grey-headed flying foxes that have found a safe roost in our gardens.

Paul Haydock-Wilson – Wikicommons. Museum of Economic Botany

Adelaide is fortunate in having a rare remaining artefact of the past: a Museum of Economic Botany – the last one in the world. ‘Economic botany, simply put, is the study of plants through the perspective of their practical use for humankind.’ Our museum was lucky to escape redevelopment as some bright sparks wanted to convert the building into a wedding venue.

Fungi models made from paper mâché

The hall is filled with fascinating displays of fruit, fungi made out of painted paper mâché, wood samples and native artefacts. These exhibits were once used to educate students and the non-scientifically trained public about valuable and useful plants.

The Museum was restored to its former glory in 2008. Due to the space restrictions and distancing requirements, our audience was now limited to 30. Pairs of chairs were placed at 1.5 m intervals in the narrow corridor between the banks of display cabinets. The hall is visually delightful. You can sit and gaze at the gold and white patterns of the ceiling high above you, even more delightful when you are listening to music. The whole space is filled with light.

Beautiful Dreamer by Stephen Foster

There were only two musicians, Celia Craig, an oboist, and Michael Ierace, a pianist. Celia told us that she appreciated the acoustics of the lofty Museum. The two musicians played a series of popular and classical pieces for about an hour and a half.

However, the overwhelming reason I will remember the 30th of April is that today, before sunrise, my good friend’s daughter died. A month short of her 39 th birthday.

Tammy did not die of Covid-19 but cancer.  In a perfect world, our children would survive us. We move towards old age with the joy of children and grandchildren, looking towards their futures, the hope of a good life for them – maybe a better one than ours. Our ageing and our death we learn to accept. To lose a child is against the natural order.

Tammy was a shining light to all who knew her: a dedicated language teacher, tennis player, weekend quiz expert, beer not wine drinker, bridge player and a Lego enthusiast. Her beauty and her smile lit up every room. She faced her long, painful illness with fortitude. Such bravery comes from deep within. None of us knows how we will deal with such a difficult passage at the end.

Deeply loved daughter, sister, niece, aunt, teacher and friend to many. RIP Tammy.

‘Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world, heard in the day,
Lull’d by the moonlight have all passed away!

from Nike in Katerini, Greece: Greek Orthodox Easter

On Easter Saturday at midnight Christ’s resurrection is celebrated in Orthodox churches. Not this year. The resurrection service of midnight mass was brought forward to 9 pm so the curfews could still be in place.

Last night our curfew was lifted from 9 pm to 11 pm. Honestly, it felt as if we’d been liberated after being long-term hostages. I couldn’t help looking over my shoulder as I was actually outdoors after 9 pm.

There were police aplenty but this time not one of them was stopping anyone to check for documentation or to check on where we were going or if we were wearing masks properly. They all stood back in spite of the blatant breaking of, and frankly impossible to maintain, social distancing. Everyone was out on the street heading to church, even the non- believers, just to partake in the ritual of resurrection and rebirth.

I wasn’t going to attend: I was too busy because we can have up to 12 people to our homes if we are sitting outside. Our apartment is too small but my aunt who lives on the fifth floor has a penthouse which is twice the size of an average house and has a balcony as big as most backyards so we will be probably dining there even though I’ve set up the dining room for her. I’m doing all the cooking and preparing because no one can come and help me and the two old ladies just can’t cope any more with such activity. So, I was too busy.

But a wonderful neighbour called me and said, ‘Come on. Let’s get out of the house and go bring the holy light home.’

the holy light

I was wearing a T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms. To stop, shower and refresh and change into a suitable outfit would’ve taken too long and I was in the middle of my work so I just threw a light overcoat on top of what I was wearing, grabbed a candle to receive the light, and went.

Do you remember the old barrel organs the organ grinders used to wheel along the streets sometimes with a performing monkey? Occasionally, you still see them here in Greece. They are called laternas. They are festooned with all sorts of blooms, ribbons and in general made as colourful or as gaudy as possible. Last night there were two types of women attending the ritual of the holy light. Those, like me, who pulled an overcoat over their work clothes and dashed out to participate.

It was only my politeness that stopped me from taking photographs to show you some examples but there is one set of massive bright orange tasselled earrings so long they hit the shoulder that are still fresh in my memory.

The holy light comes from Jerusalem. Every Easter Saturday from deep within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre a light is said to spontaneously combust from beneath the marble that covers the rock which is said to be Christ’s tomb. We can argue the origin of that light for a long time but the point of this tale is to tell of how the light reaches us. How it originates is a secret the monks keep. And they can keep it.

The light arriving

The Prime Minister of Greece sends his aeroplane to Jerusalem and a guard of honour comprised of all the armed forces. As that church is primarily governed by the Greek Orthodox church, they are given direct access to the first emergence of the light and then they all get back on the plane and fly straight to Athens.

When it arrives, it is given the same honours given to a head of state with full military greeting, bands, processions, everything. It’s quite a spectacle.

But not this year.

The light arrived at 6 pm. It wasn’t able to be distributed to every city by 9 pm so the other cities further away will have had to compromise. Perhaps they can have a chat to the monks who guard the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as to how they create spontaneous combustion.

In spite of the drastically changed circumstances, my casual attire and the curfew it was the most moving Anastasi (resurrection service) I’ve ever been to.  I confess I did shed a tear. I’m far away from my adored children and grandchildren for whom I usually make these Easter feasts. I still don’t know when I’ll be back in my home in Australia but I have so much to be grateful for. I’m sending you some photographs but I don’t know that they can capture the atmosphere and emotion of the night. We’ve all suffered during this pandemic.

As I was leaving, I heard a man’s voice in the apartment next door. That man caught Covid-19 and spent three months intubated. He then spent a further three months in intensive care. He is home now so there’s a resurrection for you. On the other side was gloriously happily married couple with four amazing children, they both died within days of each other just last week, from Covid. We can’t relax yet. Another mini resurrection which means the world to us here in Greece, after literally months and months and months of lockdown, is that the cafes will open on Tuesday. I’ve never wanted to have a cup of coffee so badly. I’m going to dress up my two charges and take them out for the first time in seven months. I’ve been able to leave the house and do the shopping and minor chores those two ladies have not.

It does feel like a rebirth is happening it’s slow, cautious, but it’s happening.

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: ‘and we shall be changed’

24 April, 2021.

Nine days ago, we had our first Astrazeneca vaccination. A suite of offices, consisting of four rooms, beside our large doctors’ surgery has been organised into a vaccination centre.

The whole process was very simple, without fuss and with a certain determined cheerfulness. Outside the centre, yellow lines marked the approved social distancing for the queue. We could not enter until the waiting room was sufficiently empty for the next batch of people, so we were asked to wait outside until it was within five minutes of our vaccination time. No masks were required.

Once we were allowed into the small foyer, our details were checked and we were asked whether we were prepared to have a vaccination before we were given a sticker inscribed with our first names. Someone asked if they had had many cancellations. The young receptionist said, ‘Very few, and those appointments have been quickly filled.’ It seems to me that the scare campaign has not stopped us wanting to be vaccinated.

A nurse called us and led us through to one of the two vaccination rooms. Once more details were checked and once more we were asked if we were prepared to have the vaccination. Then a doctor came in and she asked if we had any questions. She also asked if we had had any reactions to previous vaccinations.

Page 1. Read carefully….

The actual vaccination was a non-event. Afterwards, we were given a three-page document listing all the possible side-effects and what to do if we were concerned about our reactions. We were then led through to a large waiting area which was divided into two sections: one marked 15 minutes the other 30 minutes. The 30-minute section was for people who had had some previous adverse reaction to vaccination. I sat and read through the rather intimidating listing of common, less-common and rare side-effects. After the allotted time our names were called out and we were told we could go out the exit door. DONE!

Our vaccination status is immediately registered on our digital Medicare profile. I am ready for a vaccination passport and almost ready to travel! (New Zealand authorities are looking at insisting on a digital proof of vaccination).

It is now nine days since our vaccinations. At first, my arm felt slightly stiff, Over the next four days I found that I was very tired, wanting to go to bed at 8 pm and reluctant to rise at 7 am. I was quite happy to collapse back and read awhile. This is unlike me.

Australia – not looking too impressive.

It behoves me to report on the media situation with the rollout of vaccinations in Australia. If you followed our media, you would think that there was a disaster going on here. It is true that announcments were made by the Federal government, and we were filled with expectations of a seamless vaccination routine. However, there has been a hiatus due to many factors such as the concern over the AstraZeneca vaccine, the delayed arrival of ordered vaccines and the shortage of the Pfizer vaccine. Each state premier was very quick to blame others. Of course. There is also the difficulty of organising between state and federal agencies. Many of these factors are beyond the ability of the federal government to change. But as I have said before, the Australian media love to complain.

On our ABC this morning it was almost as though they were encouraging people in the 1b category (those over 70 or over 50 with some sort of complicating factor) not to get vaccinated. The Victorian Government has opened mass vaccination centres. The ABC was critical of this whole process, siting uncertainties and saying it was hard for people to understand the online advice. In spite of this, I hear today that 67,000 people were vaccinated. And the graph of those getting vaccinated is pointing in the right direction. The government has announced that over 50’s can now go and get vaccinated.

The trouble is that we are still short of the Pfizer and AZ vaccine.

The federal government will receive 53.8 million doses of AstraZeneca, 50 million of which is being manufactured in monthly batches at the CSL factory in Melbourne.

Australia has secured 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with the bulk expected to arrive in the final three months of 2021.’ ABC

The government has now appointed a military veteran, Royal Australian Navy Commodore, Eric Young, to coordinate the vaccine rollout. After all, it is a mammoth task across this vast country. Young said he has a ‘simple mission’ to get every ‘available jab’ into the arms of vulnerable Australians. Scott Morrison has put the national cabinet on a ‘warlike footing’ to fix the delayed program.

On the way back from having my vaccination Handel’s Messiah played on ABC Classic radio. It’s good to be cheeful.

Somehow, the music seemed appropriate.

…..And we shall be changed
And we shall be changed
We shall be changed
And we shall be changed
We shall be changed

For this corruptible must put on
Incorruption
For this corruptible must put on
Must put on
Must put on, must put on
Incorruption

From Nike in Katerini, Greece: The Greek Accordion.

April 10, 2021

Accordion. In and out as required. It’s the nickname of the coronavirus strategy of Greece. Cases go up, we get locked in. Cases go down, we are allowed out. The accordion strategy has brought us to our fourth lockdown. In a few areas of Greece, they just entered a fifth, luckily, not where I am.

We are all feeling trapped in the accordion being blown around by those bellows and, and like an accordion when the bellows are moved in and out, there is a lot of noise. The unrest is loud. We have curfews too. After nine p.m. no one is allowed out on the streets unless they are essential workers or have a medical emergency. Nine p.m. is tough. Greece is geared for the night. At eleven at night, even families with babies and toddlers are a common sight strolling in parks and along restaurant strips.

But our restaurants, cafes and bars have been shut for seven months, not including the two months of the very first lockdown. Sunday mornings after church service the faithful once poured into the cafes, creating a bustling Christmas type atmosphere. Every Sunday. Not now though. It’s been so long since the matrons of Greece, young and old, have been to a church service or a café they now sit at home in their pyjamas watching the televised church services with just the clergy rattling around in huge empty churches. Greeks can’t wait to get dressed up again.

When the pandemic is eventually brought under control, I’m forecasting there will be promenades and parties so resplendent with colour and style they will become legendary. Nature has taken this opportunity to release some pressure and sent the floods, the snowstorms, the high winds. We thought we had seen it all and were feeling grateful the worst was over, then the earthquakes struck. There is nothing like a catastrophic natural event to take your mind off another catastrophic natural event.

Greece is a country of high seismic activity. Everybody is accustomed to a rumble here and there. Schools and workplaces have regular training for enduring and surviving an earthquake. There are no designer trendy desks in Greek schools. They are all sturdy with steel legs for students to shelter under and cling to in the event of a big quake. I’ve experienced a couple of small quakes of short duration in the past. Each time it was a couple of seconds of shaking. Uncomfortable, unforgettable, but inconsequential. Initially, it’s not the shaking that terrifies you. It’s the sound. A guttural groan rising from the earth. Only Nature can produce such stereophonic sheer terror. The earthquake went on for forty seconds. Forty seconds of blood-curdling screeching as if the Furies were descending upon us to tear us apart as they did Oedipus. Forty seconds of trying to stay upright and keep my wits about me.

Our little apartment is on the third floor of a five-storey building. The higher up you are the more you sway. And we were swaying so much I felt seasick. For forty seconds I kept looking at the walls waiting for cracks to appear. For forty seconds I gripped the door frame and waited for the falling to begin. For forty seconds I did not think of death. I thought of life. My only thought was to live to see my children and grandchildren again.

My poor mother was gripping the arms of the sofa and kept asking, ‘Why is the heater jumping around?’ I couldn’t get to her and if I could have, she couldn’t have made it to the relative safety of the door frame. I remember thinking, if she goes, she’ll go comfy. All I could do was try to shout over the horrific groaning swirling around us, ‘We’ll be okay.’ Forty seconds later came the quiet. I ran around checking everything in the apartment in case anything had shaken out of place. All was well. I rushed out onto the balcony and looked around. After what we had just heard and felt I knew the world was wounded. Nothing seemed out of place.

My mother’s sister, my aunt Viktoria, lives on the fifth floor. I ran up to check on her. Some of her glassware had smashed to the floor but otherwise she was well. I brought her down to our apartment and said to her and my mother, ‘Somewhere close by there is a lot of damage.’ I calmed them down with a hot meal before going online on my phone to check the news and to find out where the epicentre was. All it said was – ‘near the town of Elassona.’ The village where my father was born and is buried is near the town of Elassona. I immediately began calling aunts and cousins.‘We are fine. Very shaken. A few cracks here and there but we are fine.’ I hung up my phone as my aunt Viktoria was hanging up hers. She was pale with fear, ‘Turn on the television,’ she said. Her daughter, my cousin Jenny, lives near Elassona, in a village called Damasi. Every station was showing scenes of the earthquake. In the big red letters across the screen was written, ‘The epicentre was Damasi’.

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/3/4/we-saved-whatever-we-could-greece-a-day-after-the-earthquake

Jenny is a dentist with her surgery in a neighbouring town. She was working on a patient in the chair when the earthquake struck. They managed to get out as debris was falling. She turned back before fleeing to see her expensive and sensitive equipment shimmying across the floor. The ten-minute drive to Damasi prepared her for what she would find. There were rockfalls everywhere. You reach Damasi by a bridge which spans over a river. The bridge had fallen. She sped to the second bridge tucked away behind a bend. It was damaged but still up. She closed her eyes and sped over it. Soon after she crossed that bridge collapsed too. Her house, right on the village square, was in ruins as was every building on the square. The school had completely collapsed.

She drove over to her husband’s winery. It seemed okay. He was there with their children. Jenny ran to them and saw the situation. The wine barrels had been shaken from their shelves and smashed to the floor. All his stock was destroyed. They had lost their home and their livelihoods in forty seconds. And insurance covered nothing.The entire region was without power. Pipes had cracked making whatever water came out of a tap undrinkable. Within a couple of hours, the army was mobilised as were their kitchens to produce three meals a day for the newly homeless and they erected tents on the soccer field and distributed winter-weight sleeping bags to give them somewhere to sleep. Most slept in their cars because of the cold.

The population of Damasi slept on the soccer field that night which was just as well because the next day there was another earthquake, shorter duration but equally strong. Two days later, there was another one. Whichever part damaged buildings were still up were now rubble.The quakes are still occurring. They will continue for at least the next two months as the earth tries to right itself after the collision of the tectonic plates. One month later and my cousin, her husband and two young sons are still sleeping in their vehicles. They are lucky. They have four. One regular car each, a delivery van, and a truck. They are sleeping a little easier since the government came forward with compensation packages and rebuilding plans. They’ve also offered to pay the rentals on any temporary home so my cousin and her family are about to move into a little house in a nearby town where at least they will have a real roof over their heads again while their home is rebuilt.

Those forty seconds changed the lives of many but for many more of us it gave us a break from living in the deep, dark shadow of Covid-19. The relief was brief and stark, a brutal reminder of who is really in charge on this earth. Nature. Just as Nature sends terror, she also sends hope through sights and sounds. The dull, grey skies are turning pink and white with blossoms bursting out of dry branches, and the birds are back. The squark of seagulls heralds the promise of summer which makes me imagine the feel of sand under my toes and the salty scent of sea spray. All my senses are being activated.

For the first time in a year, I heard children playing outside, giggling and babbling. We all know the children spent most of lockdown indoors with heads bent over a phone or tablet screen. You could feel their release at finally being allowed outside to play. They will return to school next week after months of lockdown. Hearing them outside again highlighted how surreal the life we are currently living really is. Things we once took for granted, blossoms, birds and babbling, today, for me, were sights and sounds so beautiful I now understand are sacred.

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?I just received an email from the Greek government announcing they have received our applications for our vaccinations and for us to make our way to the nearest Citizens’ Bureau to proceed with booking an appointment. Do I fear side effects? No. I don’t fear poliomyelitis, tuberculosis, measles either – because I am vaccinated against them. For me, it’s a no brainer. I haven’t seen my children and grandchildren in almost two years. Being vaccinated means I will have an easier time travelling.

Freedom is only a jab away.