from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: O if we but knew what we do …

Anne Chappel, author of two novels about Africa: Zanzibar Uhuru & Shadow of the Hyena

December 31.

Update. Our Australian state borders are closing once more. The fight continues as countries try to stop this virus killing more people. There are numbers I have read in the media, from the UK, from the USA, from South Africa that tell a story of more infections than ever before, of more deaths per day. Numbers.

And every one of those infected people facing possible death holds a personal story. My daughter in Seattle said her friend’s father, aged 80+, is dying of Covid-19 but won’t go to ICU because he refuses to leave his wife. How many children in South Africa cannot find a hospital place for their infected father or mother because there are no beds available? No oxygen, no remdesivir, no comfort in their final hours.

Back to Sydney, NSW. It appears that the virus has spread into greater Sydney. There is now a ‘Cronulla’ cluster and various more cases where the connections to known cases is unclear. Yet still Premier Gladys Berejiklian has not mandated masks (Victoria has) and continues to stand by her decision to allow the New Year’s cricket test (Australia vs India) to go ahead at the Sydney Cricket ground. Up to 20,000 spectators will be allowed (50% capacity). This seems reckless. You only have to look back to Europe and the February 19 soccer match in Bergamo, Italy, between Altlanta and Valancia. This is now regarded as a ‘super-spreader’ event.

True, our numbers are low. 10 more cases today in NSW and 3 in Victoria (after 2 months of no community spread). But, by now, we all know that it only takes a few infected people to explode the virus into the community.

World News. The problem with world news is that its seldom happy, seldom uplifting. We wake up for the 6.30 or 7am news. For months it has not been a good start to the day. Too efficient, our ABC find every bad event around the world. Maybe that is the nature of this pandemic year; maybe, being anxious, we home in on bad news that confirms our night-time fears.

Behind all this news of the virus, the environmental news is likewise miserable. Are the harvesters and destroyers of our wild animals and wild places getting bolder under cover of the pandemic? It is likely.

Before I was a bird-watcher in South Africa, I was interested in native orchids and trees. Durban, semi-tropical with a rich soil, had many remnant native forest reserves as well as magnificent old street trees.

I have this distinct memory from some time in the 1960s, of being driven around Durban North by an estate agent when we were looking to buy our first home. We drove into a street of flowering erythrina trees (the coral tree).

My estate agent said, ‘Erythrina crista-galli’.

‘WHAT? Say that again?’ I said, for I had never heard the scientific name of a tree said out aloud. It was beautiful, like a three-word poem.

I didn’t buy a house, I learnt the name of a tree.

I was hooked, mesmerised. At some stage, we collected the brown bean-like seeds of this tree and my young daughter planted them outside her bedroom window. Very quickly one took and grew big enough to hold a bird table, big enough to develop its own generous cascades of red blooms.

My life-long interest in trees had begun. The street trees of Durban are a year-round spectacle, a demonstration of the fecundity of immigrants: avenues of Latin America’s jacarandas, of Madagascar’s flamboyant, Delonix regia, of India’s golden shower, Cassia fistula, of the dark and solid Natal mahogany, Trichilia emetica which housed the roosting flocks of feral Indian Myna birds.

When you are a birdwatcher you appreciate trees and the rest: the wild places. Hence, when we retired in South Australia, almost 20 years ago, we bought a larger property on the city edge with lots of bush and we set about removing feral olive trees and planting native trees and bushes.

The bird life we now have is nothing short of delightful. We are an oasis on the hillside.

Superb blue wren, New Holland honeyeater

We were helped by an organisation in South Australia called Trees for Life. They supply appropriate native seeds, the wherewithal to plant them and the advice of how to care for them. In such a manner you can easily raise 60, 120 seedlings in one season for your own property. A gift for the future.

https://treesforlife.org.au/

Ancient eucalypts near Adelaide, Australia, surviving drought and fire.

Maybe as you get older you become more determined – and fierce – in your views. I get most unhappy when I hear about the clearing of old-growth forests. Australia is guilty – big time – forests are still being cleared in Queensland and in other states. Our record is not good at all. The land cleared in Queensland is for agriculture – mostly for beef production. The (cruel) live export trade remains strong.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/science/2020-10-08/deforestation-land-clearing-australia-state-by-state/12535438

This week the news contained a non-virus story but still upsetting. Ancient, remnant trees in NE Namibia, in the semi-desert lands near the Okavango, are being cut down and exported to China. An investigation shows criminal elements in conjunction with Namibian elite are destroying in wholesale fashion these valuable ancient, African rosewood, Zambezi teak, and Kiaat trees.

https://www.occrp.org/en/investigations/chinese-companies-and-namibian-elites-make-millions-illegally-logging-the-last-rosewoods#:~:text=Namibia%20is%20a%20signatory%20to,red%2Dwood%20furniture%20in%20Asia.

Humans come and go, each of us takes from the world, from the environment. Huge trees are survivors, bearing the marks of their efforts. To harvest 700-year-old trees from marginal communities is criminal.

I wish you all a Happy New Year. I am sorry, it is hardly likely to be so.

There is always poetry. Here is a poignant one to finish the year.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44390/binsey-poplars

Binsey Poplars by G.M.Hopkins

felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, 
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, 
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
               Not spared, not one
                That dandled a sandalled
         Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

  O if we but knew what we do
         When we delve or hew —
     Hack and rack the growing green!
          Since country is so tender
     To touch, her being só slender,
     That, like this sleek and seeing ball
     But a prick will make no eye at all,
     Where we, even where we mean
                 To mend her we end her,
            When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
  Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
     Strokes of havoc unselve
           The sweet especial scene,
     Rural scene, a rural scene,
     Sweet especial rural scene.

From Anne in Adelaide, Australia: across the Straits to Kangaroo Island.

21 October.

Ferry to Kangaroo Island

Kangaroo Island, off the south coast of South Australia, is perhaps one of the safest places to be during a pandemic. The population of under 5000 is spread across the 4,200 square kms of countryside and villages and only a small ferry connects the mainland. They had a case of COVID-19 in April that infected two other people but that’s that. Now with all the careful behaviour there have been no cases for a long time.

While here, we have barely listened to the National news. What has come through is the welcome news from Victoria State where the daily numbers of infections have declined to well below 10. What is less welcome is their reports of the political cover up of who decided to appoint the ill-fated security detail for quarantined travellers. The Royal Commission has closed their public hearings and is yet to report.

We have come here for seven days to stay in a cottage on the idyllic Island Beach.

Roy dog at dawn

I have been getting up at dawn to take Roy, our Cairn Terrier, for a beach walk to allow the rest of the household to sleep in. It is only a pleasure.

Dawn on Island Beach

At the moment I share the four kilometre beach with no other human. However, I do enjoy the space with many pairs of pied oystercatchers. Pied oystercatchers are well dressed birds: a coat of black and white, a long crimson beak and scarlet legs. These birds are breeding at the moment and are fiercely protective of their particular stretch of beach. I watched two of them defending their territory with aggressive body arching and loud whistles of protest. The interlopers flew off. Further along a pair already have a couple of long-legged youngsters who rush into the seagrass as people approach.

Pied Oystercatchers

As birdwatchers, we are enjoying the extensive unspoilt bush land on the island. As a bonus this week we have the annual Backyard Birdcount going on, organised by Birdlife Australia. You record the bird species and the numbers you see in time slots of 20 minutes. The app registers your location. So far, with four days to go, 2 million birds have been sighted and 63,000 checklists have been uploaded.

No longer is Kangaroo Island home to the dwarf emu: wiped out by humans and declared extinct by 1837 not long after the first permanent colonists (whalers and immigrants) settled on the isand. Evolution continues. Bird species are evolving into subspecies here and one day there will be endemic bird species on Kangaroo Island again.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: that sleeping Black Swan

August 10. Black swans are commonly found in SE Australia and West Australia. They are not threatened – I would even say they are fairly common. You don’t want to say any bird is ‘common’ – apart from our marauding silver gulls and pesky starlings. Birdlife-Australia notes that, ‘Over just 25 years of monitoring migratory shorebirds in Australia some species such as the Curlew Sandpiper have decreased by 50-80%’. The UK (2012 report) was reported as losing more than 44 million breeding birds in less than half a century. (RSPB). And the story is worse in the USA: ‘Nearly one-third of the wild birds in the United States and Canada have vanished since 1970, a staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unravelling.’ (NY Times. September 2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/opinion/crisis-birds-north-america.html

This is not good news. The report went on to say, ‘Birds are indicator species, serving as acutely sensitive barometers of environmental health, and their mass declines signal that the earth’s biological systems are in trouble.’

Black Swans are big powerful birds and can be quite aggressive to humans and to one another. They can fly long distances to find suitable territory – but they might have to compete for it. Their plumage is not entirely black. The flight feathers have a broad band of white which is obvious as they take flight. Apparently, the white is a warning signal, so the flock will rise and depart when one or two birds are aware of danger. Swans are efficient swimmers – I have seen them off our coast and in one memorable Youtube video they were recorded enjoying surfing off a Queensland beach.

I did note that the Black Swan I saw recently in our Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens was resting and when I looked at him with my binoculars, I saw that he was closing his eyes.

I was first told about ‘Black Swan events’ by my brother, Mike Smithyman, sometime after 2007. I was amused because black swans originate in Australia and the first Westerner to see them caused, in part, the origin of the idea of a ‘Black Swan Event’.

In 1697, Dutchman Willem de Vlamingh was on a rescue mission along Australia’s west coast to look for survivors of a shipwreck two years earlier. He sailed up a river estuary river and was amazed to come across a flock of black swans. He named the river the Swan River which now flows through the centre of modern-day Perth.

The point is that until then swans were all assumed to be white. A black swan was inconceivable.

Apparently, we can go back to the second century Roman poet, Juvenal. He thought a ‘black swan’ would be “a rare bird in the lands”.

So, black swans were deemed to be impossible in nature until 1697.

Fast forward to 2007 when a Lebanese-American called Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’ … with a new section: “On Robustness and Fragility”. Taleb is a risk manager and statistician, and has many other skills beside these.

Taleb says his aim is to encourage society to become more aware of the possibility of Black Swan events so that we are robust enough to survive them.

(Out of interest I read that Taleb is worth over $60 billion from his business in option trading. Oh! he also speaks 10 languages.)

When I read up about Taleb he was even more fascinating: he had called for the cancellation of the Nobel Prize for Economics as he held that economic theories can cause devastation. Perhaps we need to revisit his ideas!

Taleb gives examples of Black Swan events: World War 1, the impact of the personal computer, the rise of the Internet, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the 2001 terrorist event. The event has to be deemed unpredictable, an outlier; secondly, to have severe consequences and thirdly, to be an event that people will look at it with hindsight and say … it was predictable. He does say that Black Swan events depend on your viewpoint.

Obviously, some Black Swan events are catastrophic and some are beneficial. I wish there were more beneficial Black Swans.

The COVID-19 pandemic on this analysis, is not a Black Swan event. Currently, commentators love to repeat the word ‘unprecedented’ about the pandemic. However, it was predicted by many people, discussed in many books and some countries had pandemic plans in place. So Covid-19 fails on the first test.

The central idea of his (very readable) book ‘concerns our blindness with regard to randomness: particularly the large deviations’.

‘I … make a claim, against many of our habits of thought, that our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known and the repeated.’ (Taleb – The Black Swan)

We are asleep it seems, like the Black Swan in our Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens, but woe betide when it wakes and we are asleep.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: what makes a ‘good’ day?

South African Rusks

July 19. I have had a good day. Maybe, we each have to define in our terms what a good day entails.

Some simple things. We stayed at home all day – with no committments and no energy to rush out. It was chilly and misty at first so I made a wood fire to take the edge off the cold . Later, we took our slow-walking, one-eyed dog for a walk up the road. The birds were out by then: little red-browed finches, the Adelaide rosellas, the wattlebirds busy making nests. Sometimes, we count the number of species that we see on our walk. Usually, it is not much short of 10.

Then, after a little prompting plea from my husband, I did some cooking: I made rusks. These are South African biscuits that are first cooked in a block, like a cake, then cut up and returned to the oven to dry for eight hours. They are delicious: the tradition is to dunk one (or two) in your early morning coffee – at the risk of crumbs falling into your coffee. I have been experimenting with the recipe – adding all sorts of nuts and raisins. Today, the result was spectacular. (I recommend you try the following recipe from Drizzel and Dip. All day the house smelt marvellous.

My son, David, phoned from Cape Town to tell us about their two-week-old baby girl. She has now been named. It took a little while for them to make that decision. Her name is Chloe Anne … it is charming and most popular in that both grannies are “Annes”. Both grannies have an ‘E’ at the end of Anne as well. Good choice. Chloe is a very pretty little thing. I cannot remember babies being so cute. Or so tiny.

Mid-afternoon, after a little prompting, our grandson in Seattle phoned. It is Frost’s 19th birthday (and yes, he is named after the poet). I remember him well as a cute baby and that does not seem very long ago!!

Late afternoon, I took Roy for another walk: this time through our bush. I noticed that the spring native flowers are starting to appear. It has taken many years for the native understory to re-establish itself after we cut out the feral olive trees. On the way home I harvested some of our spinach, parsley and coriander.

Dinner this evening was another success. Two in one day! And here I must be honest – I’m NOT a good cook. Honest friends will confirm that! I made a mushroom risotto and included the spinach and parsley from the garden. I love mushrooms and having grown up in Zanzibar, I love rice. Even creamy Arborio rice.

Perhaps another one of the reasons why I feel happier today is that I have not listened to the news much, nor read any online papers like the Washington Post. It is frustrating to continually read depressing news when there’s nothing you can do about it.

It is enough to bake some biscuits, take a one-eyed dog for a walk and to hear from your family.