NatureVIRUS 2020

3 November VIRUS 2020

3 November, VIRUS 2020

315 nuclear bombs and ongoing suffering: the shameful history of nuclear testing in Australia and the Pacific. These caused untold health problems for Aboriginal people and Pacific Islanders who were at the highest risk of radiation. The Conversation

War in the time of Neanderthals: how our species battled for supremacy for over 100,000 years. Did Neanderthal military superiority delay our migration out of Africa? The Conversation

‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.’ Ernest Benn LRB newsletter headline

Smelly, noisy and awash with dead skin cells: life on board the International Space Station. The Guardian

Greater gliders live in tree hollows. Their habitat is under threat. Here’s why you should care. Australian Geographic enews

Help save the Plains Wanderer. Australian Geographic enews[1]

3.2 billion images and 720,000 hours of video are shared online daily. Can you sort real from fake? The Conversation

Treat artificial light like others forms of pollution, say scientists. Impact of human illumination has grown to point of systemic disruption, researchers find. The Guardian

After a prelude of apparent nothingness, I’m happy to see the stars, demure because of moonlight. Orion backflips over Jagun with Betelgeuse magnetised on amber (the name is Arabic (bat al-jawzāʾ, the giant’s shoulder). The Southern Cross and False Cross float over the village, the world is back inside the Milky Way, but the music is on hold.

The patterns change. The Kookaburras are still asleep. They need a good night’s sleep.

Around dusk, they find a branch, grab it with their clawed feet and squat down. These ‘passerines’ have special flexor tendons in their legs that automatically tighten onto the branch. So long as their legs are bent they are physically locked onto the branch — and this action takes no muscular work at all. And so, they can sleep peacefully throughout the night — resting their bird brains in readiness so they can again spread their wings. Karl Kruszelnicki[2]

Human illumination of the planet is growing in range and intensity by about 2% a year, creating a problem that can be compared to climate change . . . Hormone levels, breeding cycles, activity patterns and vulnerability to predators are being affected across a broad range of species . . . Rodents, which mostly forage at night, were active for a shorter duration, while birds started singing and searching for worms earlier in the day.

From reduced pollination by insects and trees budding earlier in spring, to seabirds flying into lighthouses and sea turtles mistakenly wandering inland to bright hotels in search of the dawn sun. [3]

The sea is ceaseless, today a grey-green sag shedding light as it feels the sloping ground and cracks.

A Little Pied Cormorant is bobbing about the Nambucca River  between dives.

By the time we return from the end of the seawall facing up to the sea and its impressive muscular swell, the bird is perched above looked wet, unused to life, then starts to preen.

Little Pied Cormorant


The sky is grey again. How do people live like this? How did I, in Bristol?

In Bristol, the summers are comfortable and partly cloudy and the winters are long, very cold, windy, and mostly cloudy. The cloudier part of the year begins around October 10 and lasts for 5.9 months, ending around April 8. On December 26, the cloudiest day of the year, the sky is overcast or mostly cloudy 70% of the time.[4]

Contemporary space stations don’t spin, so there’s no gravity, no up and no down. In the Russian modules, surfaces facing towards Earth (‘down’) are coloured olive-green while surfaces facing away from Earth (‘up’) are beige. This helps the crew orient themselves. Colour is important. Skylab was so lacking in colour that astronauts broke the monotony by staring at coloured cards used to calibrate the cameras.[5]

Wyn says the Ti-tree is flowering and more white flowers are appearing, so I go out into the garden of extraordinary truths.

Hibbertia scandens, Golden Guinea Flower

Hundreds of species, always happenings, deaths, new blooms.

Crinum asiaticum, Crinum Lily

The first Crinum Lily is unpeeling, the sepals are the usual green whereas in other lilies they look almost exactly like petals.

Hibiscus heterophyllus, Native Rosella

I spot the first flower on our new self-seeded Native Rosella (Hibiscus heterophyllus), bloodshed in the centre, and an Orchard Butterfly.

Orchard Swallowtail Butterfly – f
Hodothemis lieftincki, Red-arrow Dragonfly
Actinotus helianthi, Flannel Flower

The garden breathes colour and life all year round.

Melastoma affine alba – White flowering Native Tibouchina

I could have only looked at white flowers, but is that a useful category Vita? What are useful categories, black and white are not, civilized or uncivilised – what of beauty vs ugliness?

This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes “a certain Chinese encyclopaedia” in which it is written that “animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine 14 Philip Armstrong camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies”. In the wonderment of this taxonomy, the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that. (Foucault xv; emphasis in original). Michel Foucault[6]

Jorge Luis Borges abandoned poetry between1930-40 to write small stories.[7] The world is fiction in the sense that our realities overlap and we human being cannot know the scheme of the universe which, Borges suggests, should not stop us from devising our own schemes, even if  provisional.[8] In his best known story ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ (1941), he wrote, ‘In all fiction, when a man is faced with alternatives he chooses one as the expense of others.’[9] What we need to do is pay attention to the world, trust our experiences and faith in the natural and choose well.


I’m leaving the house, open the door, camera on my shoulder, watch a Kookaburra fly down and attack the gravel driveway, too interested, for me to remember the camera, for the bird to look over its shoulder.

Back again at the Nambucca. We keep an eye for dolphins, anything is possible. The ocean palms extraordinary truths.

A Crested Tern is diving between three cormorants. I snatch the tern’s wings outspread almost touching. Annoyed they peck at him. Crossing the sea north to south, three Glossy Black Cockatoos (endangered), just shapes squeezing out that call, the sound of an out-of-tune bass lyre, a quotation, notions of vulnerability.

The films, texts, and photography about the ocean . . . pose ocean life as either the vessel for heroic exploration and scientific control or a perfect specimen for aesthetic contemplation. Stacy Alaimo[10] She also reminds us that this vastness is vulnerable, that some marine ecosystems are ‘destroyed before they can even be described.’[11]

This is Gumbaynggirr Country – and I feel privileged to live here.

‘Around 600,000 years ago, humanity split in two. One group stayed in Africa, evolving into us. The other struck out overland, into Asia, then Europe, becoming Homo neanderthalensis – the Neanderthals. They weren’t our ancestors, but a sister species, evolving in parallel . . . A club to the head is an efficient way to kill – clubs are fast, powerful, precise weapons – so prehistoric Homo sapiens frequently show trauma to the skull. So too do Neanderthals . . . Another sign of warfare is the parry fracture, a break to the lower arm caused by warding off blows. Neanderthals also show a lot of broken arms. At least one Neanderthal, from Shanidar Cave in Iraq, was impaled by a spear to the chest. Trauma was especially common in young Neanderthal males, as were deaths. Some injuries could have been sustained in hunting, but the patterns match those predicted for a people engaged in intertribal warfare.’

Nicholas Longrich continues, painting a depressing picture:

‘It’s exceedingly unlikely that modern humans met the Neanderthals and decided to just live and let live . . . Finally, the stalemate broke, and the tide shifted. We don’t know why. It’s possible the invention of superior ranged weapons – bows, spear-throwers, throwing clubs – let lightly-built Homo sapiens harass the stocky Neanderthals from a distance using hit-and-run tactics. Or perhaps better hunting and gathering techniques let sapiens feed bigger tribes, creating numerical superiority in battle.’[12]



[1] In the dwindling native arid grasslands of north central Victoria, the plains-wanderer is clinging tenuously to survival. This small, quail-like ground bird is endemic to Australia and unique – so distinctive that it’s the sole member of not only its own genus, Pedionomus, but its own family, Pedionomidae. Its closest living relatives are shorebirds from South America, meaning its evolution can be traced back at least 60 million years – when Australia and South America were both part of the southern supercontinent Gondwana. Miranda Luby, ‘Paradise for wanderers: the fight to save the plains-wanderer’, Australian Geographic, 3.9.2020.

[2] Dr Karl’s Great Moments In Science, ‘How do birds sleep?’, 18.2.2014.

[3] Jonathan Watts, ‘Treat artificial light like others forms of pollution, say scientists’, The Guardian 3.11.2020.


[5] Alice Gorman and Justin St P Walsh, ‘Smelly, noisy and awash with dead skin cells: life on board the International Space Station,’ for the Conversation, 3.11.2020.

[6] Foucault, preface, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Trans, Alan Sheridan, Vintage, 1994.

[7] Some are ‘psuedo-essays’, ‘that in turning in upon themselves make the ‘plot’ (if it can called that) an intricate interplay of creation and critique.’ J. Irby, introduction to Borges, Labyrinths- Selected Stories & Other Writings, Penguin, 1979, p18.

[8] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Analytical Language of John Wilkins’, in Other inquisitions 1937-1952, U of Texas P, 1993, p231.

[9] Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ in Labyrinths, 1979.

[10] Stacy Alaimo, ‘Feminist Science Studies and Ecocriticism: Aesthetics and Entanglement in the Deep Sea,” in The Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism, ed. Greg Garrard. Oxford University Press, 2014, p193. She is a professor of English and director of the environmental and sustainability studies at the University of Texas at Arlington.

[11] Stacy Alaimo, ‘Dispersing Disaster: The Deepwater Horizon, Ocean Conservation, and the Immateriality of Aliens,’ in American Environments: Climates-Cultures-Catastrophe, ed. Christopher Mauch and Sylvia Mayer (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2012, p181.

[12] Nicholas Longrich, ‘War in the time of Neanderthals: how our species battled for supremacy for over 100,000 years’, The Conversation, Nov 3, 2020

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