from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: We forgot to be Afraid.

2019-2020 Australian ‘Black Summer’

26 March, 2021.

The disasters keep coming. We keep telling ourselves in Australia that we are the lucky country. Covid-19 has not devastated our country; the numbers of dead are low – 909 with under 30,000 confirmed cases. Our lives have been little affected when compared with others. And vaccinations are now underway.

Yet Australia remains a country of extremes. At the beginning of 2020 we suffered the worst bushfire season in living memory. That summer is now called the ‘Black Summer’. Over 18 million hectares were burnt, almost 10,000 homes lost, and 479 died (including smoke inhalation). The toll on our wildlife is hard to comprehend. Billions of creatures died. In terms of cost the fires are estimated to have cost Australia 103 billion AUD. This is our ‘costliest natural disaster to date’ (Wikipedia). No one can count the cost of the CO2 emissions.

No sooner had the fires abated than Covid-19 arrived.

And now we have another disaster: floods. This is the result of the La Niña (little girl) weather pattern. Until recently this was OK – cooler summers and more rainfall, nothing extraordinary. And then a week ago, a weather system came down the east coast, settled and intensified – from Sydney up to Queensland.

A severe weather warning was put out for the entire NSW coast. Dams could not contain the inflows and rivers overflowed onto floodplains that for over 100 years had been thought to be flood-free. (Some 134,000 people had settled on these flood plains over the decades.) The rain came with high winds and high tides along the coast. The Defence Force were called out to help evacuate thousands of people. Animals were swept into the swollen rivers. Some farmers lost their entire dairy herds to the flood. Facebook was used to post images of rescued horses and cattle as well as dead animals washed up on beaches. One iconic video showed an intact house floating down the Manning river near Taree: the owners were due to get married that day.

The quantity of rain is hard to comprehend. Rivers rose up to 16 metres.

Rainfall totals in excess of 400 mm were reported along the coastal areas and Central Tablelands in New South Wales, and a number of locations in Queensland’s central and south-east coast districts. Locations in the Hunter and Mid North Coast districts in New South Wales received over 600 mm of rainfall, including the highest weekly total of 991 mm at Bellwood in the Mid North Coast, which has exceeded the long-term autumn rainfall average less than one month into the season.’

http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/rainfall/

Our annual rainfall for Adelaide is an average of 520mm and Sydney is 920mm a year.

The Australian insurance council has declared a ‘catastrophe’ for NSW as over 11,00 claims have been filed. However, I heard that many people could not afford the expensive flood insurance.

And now for the mouse plague. The generous La Niña rains allowed grain farmers to have a bumper year. And with this came an explosion in mice numbers in inland NSW and Queensland and the plague is moving south. Female mice can breed every 6 weeks and can give birth to 50 pups a year. The images are confronting: mice streaming across the fields at night in their tens of thousands. People are trapping 500 mice a night. Hay reserves held in barns are being destroyed. Locals describe the swarming mice as being in ‘biblical proportions’.

ABC image

Images from our ABC are confronting. The ABC reports that hospital patients have been bitten by the rodents. Those of us who dislike the idea of ONE mouse in the house would freak out!

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-03-18/mice-plague-nsw-worsens-and–affecting-crops/13255486

Apparently, mouse control is an expensive business and winter crops are threatened.

Meanwhile, I have been reading a couple of books that have darkened my view of the world. The first is the Booker prize winner, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. (Why has McCarthy not been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature?)  I first read The Road soon after it was published in 2006 and I remember I spent a month affected by its story. His vision of the post-apocalyptical world is devastating to say the least. I re-read it this month to give a presentation to my reading group. And the re-read is worth doing as I was prepared for the horror and could appreciate the beauty of the relationship between the man and his son. And what poetry is in his language! But still, it is a depiction of the end of times and the loss of civilisation. How thin a veneer is our behaviour in this society?

2006 wake-up call

The other book is Plague by Wendy Orent (2004 Free Press). Orent covers the 1,500 years of plagues across our world and wrote of the dangers that lay in wait for us (prescient!). Her presentation of historical accounts of plagues is mind-blowing. This is history that was not taught to us. How slow it was for humans to realise that the fleas on rats were the vectors of the plague. Alexandre Yersin in 1894 and Jean-Paul Simon in 1898 made the breakthroughs. It was not until 1947 and streptomycin that a cure was available. For centuries people believed miasmas (bad or night air) caused the plague. All this is not long ago and we might have made medical advances but it seems that we quickly became complacent.

We forgot to be afraid.

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, South Australia: Did you see the Christmas Star?

December 22.

and an UPDATE on Christmas travels.

We are still in Adelaide. Sadly, we cancelled our booking to fly to Sydney as the situation got more complex. The cluster hot-spot in Sydney’s ‘Northern Beaches’ became more problematic as it was ascertained that infected people had visited locations across Greater Sydney and even the Central Coast. All other Australian states and territories began tightening the rules for arrivals from the hot-spots, Greater Sydney and from NSW. There was a rush of people leaving NSW. Flights full. At the very least, we would have had to quarantine on our return to South Australia. Most likely that quarantine would be allowed to take place in our own home but we might have been sent to a medi-hotel.

As of today, South Australia has not made our border with NSW a ‘hard’ border as other states have done. What we also feared was that the border would be firmly closed and we would be stuck in NSW for an indeterminate period of time. Once the announcment is made, you get very little time to rush home – most often 12 hours.

Our granddaughter was hoping to travel from Canberra (ACT) to NSW to join the family for Christmas, but she is now unable to do so.

The situation is complex and changes every day. It is hard to keep up with the various directions and the language used. ‘High community transition zone’. What does that mean in regard to new rules? Our South Australian state police were confused a day ago: they incorrectly turned back some arrivals from NSW at the road borders and told others they had to go into quarantine – when it was not mandatory until the midnight deadline, six hours later. Compensation is being sought.

Stars and Rainbows.

Last night, we waited for sunset hoping that the horizon-wide clouds would clear. They did! At about 8.15pm (sunset is now 8.29pm as it’s the summer solstice time) we could clearly see the bright star in the south-west. With our binoculars Jupitar and Saturn were distinctive. Jupiter was larger but we could not pick out its moons through our bird-watching binoculars (10×42). Out came our birding spotoscope which has a magnification of 20x and is stabilised on its tripod. Then we could see 3 of the 4 of Jupiter’s bigger moons in a line. One was surprisingly far away from Jupiter – probably the beautiful Ganymede. I read today that Ganymede is the largest but not the brightest and is bigger than Mercury. Jupiter has 79 moons – that have been discovered so far.

from the internet
taken in South Australia by photographer, Sandy Horne- see the fourth moon

Saturn looked squashed and perhaps that was due to its rings.

I remember that the bushmen of southern Africa had such amazing eyesight that they could see Jupiter’s moons without any aid.

After another 20 minutes, as the sky darkened, the stars were even more outstanding. However, my camera could not handle the lack of light and all I got were hazy pinpricks. We shall try again tonight.

Many are excited about this planetary ‘Great Conjunction’– the best night-time conjunction sighting in 800 years. It is astonishing that in the 17C Johannes Kepler calculated how planetary orbits worked and found there was a triple conjunction (including Mars) in 7BCE. Could that have been the star that the wise men followed to Bethlehem? Who knows, but it’s a lovely idea.

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/the-great-conjunction-of-jupiter-and-saturn

double rainbow over Adelaide

This morning, after the overnight rain, and our sighting of the Christmas Star, a double rainbow hung over Adelaide. One rainbow end seemed to position itself at the bottom of our hill. We think a rainbow is a fortuitous sign. Is it a godly promise that he/she will inflict no more total-world natural destruction –  by floods or any other way?

However, instead of a world-encompassing deluge or fire, we have a pandemic and there is little sign of it ending.

But these were positive signs in the heavens and morning skies. My husband said he remembered a negro spiritual about the rainbow sign given to Noah. So, we found the song.

God Gave Noah the Rainbow Sign sung here by the Carter Family.

(James Baldwin used a line from the lyrics for the title of his 1963 book of essays: The Fire Next Time).

‘God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, but the fire next time
Hide me over, Rock of Ages, cleft for me.’

Corruption and violence have not gone away. Maybe what we are enduring across the world really is the ‘fire next time’.

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: has the horse bolted?

The weekend Australian December 19-20

Tomorrow at 9.55am, we should have been aboard an early flight to Sydney with luggage filled with Christmas presents and our beach clothes for our 9 nights at the coast north of Sydney.

Today, we postponed our departure for two days. Sydney is partly in crisis over an outbreak of Covid-19 on the ‘Northern Beaches’, an area along the coast north of the harbour from Bondi to Palm Beach – 21 beaches and their suburbs extending a long way inland. This area has been declared a ‘hotspot’ by all other states and territories.

Once more it is partly a case of poor management. You would have thought that councils, states and governments would learn from one another, would have their antennae alert to the mistakes and successes of other jurisdictions, other countries. Not so. Premier Daniel Andrews of Victoria state made a few blatant well chronicled mistakes but he did not stand down. Now it’s the Premier of NSW, Gladys Berejiklian’s turn to admit they have made another mistake (not an acknowledged mistake – they are merely changing their ways. A major error was the handling of the docking and disembarkation of the passengers from the cruise ship, ‘Ruby Princess’ in March).

Until now, crews from international flights have been required to self-isolate either in hotels or private homes for 14 days or until they left on their next flight. More than one hundred international flights have been arriving into Sydney Airport per week. This comes as there has been great pressure on the Australian government to facilitate the repatriation of Australians ‘stuck’ overseas.

Often its not what they did, but what they did not do. Crew members have been seen wandering around Sydney. From next Tuesday, airline crew will be taken to two designated hotels near the airport and the hotels will be monitored by the police. Don’t move out of your hotel room! No more taking in the sights of our marvellous harbour city!

What was the source of this outbreak, this new cluster?

They don’t know. However, a Sydney Ground Transport bus driver who transports international flight crews tested positive this week but he is not regarded as the source of the new outbreak.

Could the source be one of those airline crews who has since returned overseas? This is possible. NSW Health are doing extensive genomic testing and announced that they believe that the strain is from the USA. But ‘patient zero’ has not been located.

We cannot stay isolated from the rest of the world for ever but it is apparent that a sprinkling of international passengers are carrying the virus and it does not take much of a slip up in the process of their quarantine for an outbreak to occur.

What is obvious is that our tracing abilities of contacts have improved no end. Every few hours various locations and transportation routes are announced on the NSW Covid-19 site to alert the public to the fact that a positive case was there at the time indicated. In an attempt to restrict the spread to the Northern Beaches, all residents have been asked to stay at home as much as possible for 3 days. QR codes have been used in NSW since November 22. There are hour long queues at the new testing sites across Sydney. So there is hope with such improved processes.

I told my daughter in Seattle, USA, about the outbreak.

‘How many cases?’ she said.

’28,’ I said.

’28!!’ she laughed. ‘Overnight in Washington State we have had almost 900 new cases.’

(Population of greater Sydney is 5.3 million, Washington State, USA, is 7.6 million)

So, we must put our outbreak into perspective. However, we have all learnt this year that it takes only one busy, undetected, infected person in a city for the virus to totally escape. Our Australian state premiers and our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, have learnt that its necessary to overreact to outbreaks. We don’t want to get complacent when vaccines are just over the horizon.