Book review: Into the Woods by Anna Krien

Deep down in our bones we must know – we must know that nothing we do is done in isolation. Cause and effect: how did it get so noisy in between?

Into the Woods

It’s hard not to talk about the climate and weather when it’s so in your face, and you spend a significant amount of your spare time cleaning up after it. We had a hailstorm with the ferocity of a tempest last weekend. One moment I was in the vegetable garden doing a bit of weeding, the next I was running for cover as hailstones the size of golf balls were hurled from the sky. Water tanks overflowed, gutters strained under the weight of the ice, paths washed away and torrents of water formed creeks where none had run before.

It was another of those moments, increasing in their frequency, where I marvelled at the awe inspiring ferocity of nature as she strives to demonstrate for humanity that climate change is real. Meanwhile many of our political leaders still grasp desperately to denial and the power bestowed on them by lobbyists, the powerful elites in the mining industry, and the likes of the Murdoch Press.

…those that have the power to change the situation are too scared to do anything in case they lose that power.

Into the Woods

I am half way through reading Anna Krien’s beautifully written narrative non-fiction book Into the Woods about the struggle over Tasmania’s wilderness areas, the people who exploit them and the people who try and protect them. Krien’s work is an exploration of the polarised and conflicting convictions, motives, emotions, power dynamics and allegiances of those involved in the struggles over the forests.

On the rear window of almost half the cars I see, there are stickers in eternal argument with on another. ‘Tasmania: The Corrupt State’ and ’Save the Styx’ versus ‘Greens tell lies,’ ‘Greens Cost Jobs’ or simply ‘Green Scum’ – slightly tamer versions of older stickers that read ‘Keep Warm This Winter: Burn a Greenie.’ It is said each glut of car stickers in Tasmania signals a new chapter in this intense and deeply personal debate that has been going for forty years.

Into the Woods

Krien speaks to everyone on her investigative search for information and understanding: activists, greenies, loggers, politicians, resident citizens. The only obviously absent voice, because they refused to speak to her, is Gunns who hold the economic monopoly over the logging and wood chipping industry in the state.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that deforestation and forest degradation contribute 17% of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions

Into the Woods

Reading Into the Woods has echoes of the debates that happen all over the world in places where natural heritage and human greed come into conflict. Big companies chasing profits by selling products for humanities insatiable appetite for consumption of oil, coal, gas, timber, minerals, and land. Big public companies motivated by shareholder profits that have significant influence over the politicians they lobby and fund, stand in opposition to the passionate defence of forests and rivers and oceans by activists and environmentalists, with politicians riling the camps to maintain conflict in order to further their own agendas. Because conflict demands taking sides and creating allegiances, and allegiance translates into votes.

The activists tread a fine line between drawing attention to threatened areas and provoking resentment that can ultimately backfire against the forest.

Into the Woods

We are all complicit in the supply chain that leads to the destruction of our environment. We influence it in the day to day decisions we make about consumption, by how we vote, what we will tolerate, and what actions we are prepared to take to preserve the natural environment that sustains us. Krien’s work meditates on the world we have made and the complexity of the choices we must make. Into the Woods has astonishing resonance for the current re-ignition of the climate change debate in Australia as bushfires continue to rage across the country.

Most people travelling through Tasmania will never know of the long-running game of hide-and-seek taking place in the labyrinth of logging roads beyond the bitumen.

Into the Woods

It is often not until something impacts us in a direct and personal way that we take notice. This summer it seems that Australia is getting a taste of the future. It is an experience that has bought the issue of climate change into the fore again, while politicians of the day continue to try and smooth the way for them to get back to doing very little about it.

If anything there appears to be an indignant kind of mateship here, a loyalty that precludes empathy

Into the Woods

As I have been reading Into the Woods and Krien’s struggle to understand Tasmania’s relationship with the wilderness I had been pondering our current governments stance on climate change. Is it some kind of misinformed ideology? Religious beliefs? Naivety? Ignorance? Shape-shifting party power dynamics that mean being bold would result in loss of power, possibly being knifed by your own colleagues with the help of the Murdoch Press?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a logger or a greenie,’ she says, ‘it’s the fact that our government thinks its electorate are a bunch of dimwits.’

Into the Woods

The rhetoric about maintaining the coal industry is about jobs, but I am reminded of a section in Into the Woods where Krien notes the primary argument for logging in Tasmania was jobs. Then she goes on to write that in reality machines may be a bigger threat to timber jobs than ‘any greenie’. I suspect the same applies to the coal industry, which is increasingly automated. Then I saw a piece of Michael West’s investigative journalism called Dirty Power made for Greenpeace. It’s a social network analysis of connections between the Coalition and the Coal Industry, and is fascinating viewing. After seeing it I concluded the primary motivations to maintain the status quo must be a particular blend of allegiances, greed and power.

Standing on a lookout with the maps spread out around us, I can imagine how easily deals might be done in boardrooms, where wilderness is reduced to abstract numbers of hectares and its fate sealed with a handshake.

Into the Woods

While Krien was writing her book, I was studying climate change at university; reading Thoreau, studying bushfire behaviour with Kevin Tolhorst, and reading documents like the Intergovernmental Panels on Climate Change reports predicting would happen without action to reduce greenhouse emissions. I am sad to say it all appears to be starting to come to fruition in a much more obvious way.

Why Tasmania?’ Barry Chipman once asked me. He’s right–in the greater scheme of things, the island is nothing but a drop in the ocean. But its story is universal–and what goes on in Tasmania goes on in the mainland, goes on in the Pacific islands, in other continents, until it comes straight back over the ice to Tasmania again. You can follow its story like a ball of wool, get tangled in it and unravel it.

Into the Woods

Once the summer is over and the fires are out, when the smoke has cleared and the first green shoots start to appear in the charred remains of Australia’s forests I can’t help wonder what will happen. Will we all breathe out a sigh and go back to doing what we’ve always done as our memory of what happened fades? Or will our collective shock at what we have done to our planet, and its consequences maintain enough rage to motivate citizens to drive our coal loving, climate change denying political leaders and their allies to take steps to make the changes we need to at least try to get a different outcome?

Some scientists are beginning to describe the modern geological era as the Anthropocene, the sixth in a series of mass extinctions, all said to be caused by extreme phenomena, in this case the harmful activities of humans. Perhaps even more poignant is biologist Edward O. Wilson’s description of the period that will follow. Wilson says it will be ‘the Age of Loneliness’–a planet inhabited by us and not much else. In his version of the future there is no apocalypse, no doom, no gates of hell, no wrath of god or mass hysteria, only sadness. I wonder if perhaps the Age of Loneliness has already begun, its effects far more complicated than we realise.

Into the Woods

I highly recommend reading Into the Woods, for its insights into Tasmania, the politics of forestry, its resonance with the global debate about climate change and for the beauty of its writing.

Our beds are burning…

Happy New Year! This is not a writing post. It is another rant about some of the things I thought about whilst enjoying a beautiful evening in a bushland setting on the Yarra River on new year’s eve. Feel free to turn away, normal writing programming will resume next week.

I had mixed feelings about celebrating new year’s eve when catastrophic bushfires were raging across the country destroying some of Australia’s most precious bushland, decimating wildlife populations and ravaging human communities in their path. Despite the valiant efforts of underfunded volunteer fire fighters, Australia’s east coast has been burning since September 2019. Many of the fires remain out of control and will likely continue that way throughout the summer unless significant rain falls on the fire grounds.

Canberra was rated to have the worst air quality in the world on Wednesday due to smoke, killing one elderly woman on Thursday.  Meanwhile Scotty from Marketing (aka PM Scott Morrison) kept up his ‘nothing new to see here’ stance over champagne at Kirribilli house and entertaining the Australian and New Zealand cricket teams. On Thursday he delivered a press conference, and was on the back foot.

Of course Scotty from Marketing’s claims that climate change doesn’t cause bushfires, and Australia has always had droughts are technically correct, but incomplete and misleading. Suggesting the best way to respond to natural disasters is by ‘doing what we’ve always done’ sounds like a commitment to kick back and allow the problem to perpetuate. And saying Australia cutting emissions will make no difference globally is shirking responsibility. I bet he’s thanking his lucky stars that the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide released by the current fires don’t count toward the countries emissions footprint or he’d have to do a lot more creative accounting than he is already to meet our Paris targets..

Climate variability does influence fire and the changes we are experiencing will make fire management more complicated because it alters ecosystems function. Fire is a physiochemical process that can be represented by a simple equation: fuel + oxygen + heat. Remove one from the equation and fire cannot take hold, turn up the volume of the elements and the frequency and intensity of bushfires increases.

Climate change contributes to creating the perfect weather conditions for dangerous bushfires. CO2 concentration impacts the amount and composition of fuel loads because it alters the growth rate of plants, and thus the frequency and intensity of fires when they occur. Increased and more extreme temperatures reduce humidity and moisture content, compounding drought conditions caused by diminished rainfall. Drier conditions bring vegetation closer to its ignition point and ensures it burns hotter and faster once ignited. Extended drought reduces fires intervals and the wild winds caused by changes in air pressure create perfect conditions to drive wildfires to their most dangerous conflations. Wildfires themselves then contribute to perpetuating climate change because they release a lot of greenhouse gas.

We are fast heading toward a new normal of longer, hotter, drier fire seasons and more intense fires. In Gippsland, rainforest that has never burnt are being engulfed. It’s likely that some plant and animal species may not recover because available habitats for some organisms will be diminished and shorter fire intervals may not allow time for even fire adapted plant species to mature. The result could be local extinctions due to an absence of seeds.

Contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth…reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Darwin, The Origin of Species

We do not survive in isolation from our environment. We are like the frog, who when placed in a pan of tepid water that is slowly bought to boil, does not perceive the danger of its situation, does not attempt to jump out and gets cooked. We are blind to our own growing vulnerability. Despite the scientific evidence, the Australian government has no credible policies to address climate change – either to reduce our greenhouse gas pollution and transition to clean energy, or to invest in disaster management and adaptation to build resilience to cope with the new normal. Thoughts and prayers and patience will not solve this wicked problem and I suspect history will reflect poorly on many of the current world leaders.

In the absence of political leadership we place our hopes in the likes of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg to remind us of our collective failings and inspire action by uniting young and old to tackle contemporary environmental issue. Scott called for patience on Thursday, but it’s time to stop being patient and force the hand of the global political elite who prefer denial and maintenance of their ties with fossil fuel industries to carefully considered policies to a more sustainable way of living. My hope is that this bushfire season will spur more citizens into action. That we demand our governments take climate change seriously, start to think long term about minimising our contribution to emissions and begin to make the structural adjustments we need to build climate resilient communities.

Images: contemplating all that could be lost

The nostalgia of mysteries: horses and politics

This week I’ve been thinking about the mystery novels I read and loved years ago.  I hoovered up Dick Francis books as a teenager because I was obsessed with horses. I suspect that was also when my fascination for mysteries was born. As a consequence Francis holds a nostalgic place in my reading memory despite eventually coming to believe that horse racing should be banned. His novels were fast-paced easy reads full of muddy race tracks, crooked bookies, cheating jockeys and brutal owners.IMG_1172

Francis had himself been a jockey and horse trainer and all his novels revolved around the English race tracks. He wrote most, if not all, in collaboration with his wife, a former school teacher and expert researcher. Some people viewed him as the horse worlds Agatha Christie, but Francis was way more brutal than Agatha ever was in the way he physically and mentally tortured his protagonists.

One of my first jobs out of high school in the mid-eighties was as a track rider for a race horse trainer. The job reminded me of Francis’s tough masculine characters every day I went to work. I have one vivid memory of giving a young jockey a lift home and staring in horror when he leaned out of the car window, whip in hand, and cut a female cyclist across buttocks as we passed. When I threatened to turf him out of the car he just laughed. It could have been a scene from one of Francis’s novels.

When Dick Francis said he always tried to think of a dirty deed, and build a plot around it he captured the heart of the mystery.  They open with some kind of disruption to the social order that creates a puzzle our hero must solve. Along the way they uncover secrets, are diverted by red herrings, meet unexpected surprises and have their physical and psychological limits tested. They always prevail and set the world to rights again IMG_1135 (1)enabling the reader to experience the tension vicariously and discover the hero within.

By the late nineties I had started to move on from horse riding as a profession and got what my parents called ‘a real job’ in a more politically leaning pursuit.

One of Dick Francis’s last novels, 10lb Penalty (1997), blended racing and politics and was the last of his books I read. Some time after that I discovered Shane Maloney who introduced me to the use of mysteries as a form of literary protest. Who wouldn’t be excited to find politicised crime fiction novels set in their own town?

Maloney set his novels in 1990’s Melbourne and bought our political and social fabric to life on the page. His public servant protagonist Murray Whelan shone a light on the absurdity of the political landscape that emerged in the Jeff Kennett era. He satirised Australian politics well before The Hollowmen and Utopia came to our screens. Though the latter have demonstrated that the world of politics continues to be ludicrous in a very frightening way.

Maloney’s books edge into the world of the subgenre ‘apparatchik lit’, some say he invented it.  The term lends itself from the word used for bureaucrats in the Russian Communist Party and explores the intimate workings of politics, the machinery of government and lobby groups and how they impact the social fabric of the society they are set in. I love the way Maloney used suspicion, humour and play as a cover for more sinister events in his novels.

While some of the stories that emerge in this type of fiction (or tv series) appear beyond absurd, you’d be surprised how close to real life they can be. A friend who works in a government department once told me that the day after one episode of Utopia their Minister called the office demanding to know who had leaked information about an IMG_1162-1issue that had appeared on the program…

It’s fair to say that the arrogance of our politicians, their moral hypocrisy and power games continue to be ripe for the picking. You only have to turn to our own national political landscape for endless examples at the moment.

The novel I am currently working on is placed in Melbourne but draws on material from recent (mostly) national politics in an attempt to shine a light on some contemporary political absurdities.

If you have any suggestions for more Shane Maloney type novels, particularly if set in Australia – let me know.

 

Main image: Horses at Warnambool

Inset images in order: Horses at Warnambool; Parliament Drive, Canberra; Parliament House, Canberra.

Is writing fiction a political act?

“…our stories influence what we see and what we believe is possible or impossible in the world.” – Ethan Miller

My post last week was a response to events in Australian politics that I found exasperating. The political circus continued to get my goat so much I wrote a letter to The Age. unspecifiedMy week of political writing got me thinking about the role of fiction in relation to politics.

When we consider politics and writing we generally think of journalists. If a journalist fabricates content it is a betrayal of public trust, but making stuff up is the very purpose of creative fiction so does it have a role in politics? Is there such a thing as fiction that is not political? Is writing fiction a political act?

Many say they are not political (or not interested in politics), but the sociopolitical environment in which we reside shapes our entire lives. Politics determines the haves and have-nots.  It tells us who’s experience is legitimate. For example governments determine whether IMG_4092medical facilities exist to ensure we survive childbirth, dictates if we get the opportunity to learn to write at all, the price of milk, who we can and cannot love, and the type of death we can have. Our very existence is enmeshed in, and shaped by the political environment(s) we live in and are exposed to.

Work of the creative imagination, be it fiction, poetry, art or drama, is shaped by our own experience and our views of the world – in other words our own sociopolitical lens. The world shapes us, and then as writers we try to shape the world. We question or bend reality, invent new worlds and invite readers to consider a new perspective. To understand the other. We pick out themes and create personalities that we sew together into a plot to show, magnify or transform how a particular set of circumstances can impact on the world now, or in the future.

What reader would not be able to name a book that had a significant influence on their lives? Writers, story tellers and poets have been holding a mirror up to reality for centuries. They often say what would otherwise be considered unsay-able in public.

The threat writers pose is evident when we study the history of censured, banned or IMG_4359burned books. Examples of fiction works that have been subject to some kind of censorship or ban at one time or another include Dr Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Catch-22, The Da Vinci Code, Doctor Zhivago, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Satanic Verses, Sophie’s Choice, The Well of Loneliness and Ulysses. The more restrictive a political regime, the more likely it is to see text as a threat. Over 25,000 books were burnt in Munich four months into Hitler’s regime for being ‘unGerman’.

A lesser known but poignant example of how literature can threaten and intersect with politics was a book called New Portuguese Letters (Novas Cartas Portuguesas) by Muria Isabel Barreno, Muria Teresa Horta and Maria Vento da Costa. The book, published in 1972, was a post-modern collage of fiction, personal letters, poetry, and erotica inspired by the original letters of a Portuguese nun, Mariana Alcoforado to her lover, the Chevalier de Chailly, at the time of Portugal’s struggle for independence against Spain. When New Portuguese Letters was written the Portuguese had been living under a dictatorship for almost fifty years and the book exposed the tyrannical relations that existed between the sexes.

The authorities banned New Portuguese Letters soon after its release – though not before a copy was smuggled to French feminists in Paris who arranged for its translation. The three Marias were arrested and allegedly tortured by the regimes secret police. They were charged with ‘abuse of the freedom of the press’ and ‘outrage to public decency’ by a censorship committee. The three women were criticized because they wrote like men. They were sexually explicit, frank about their desires, fantasies, sexuality and bodies.  They critiqued patriarchal structures, family violence and political repression.

The trial dragged on for two years, made worldwide headlines and gave rise to protests IMG_1892outside Portuguese embassies in Europe, the United States and Brazil. On 25 April 1974 a bloodless coup overthrew the regime. It was called the Carnation Revolution because red carnations were put in the ends of soldiers’ gun barrels. Soon after the coup the case against the three Marias was dismissed, the women freed and the book became a literary symbol of women’s liberation, erotic art, and the Portuguese revolution.

At its essence politics is about power and the rules we impose on society as a way of maintaining order. Do all authors strive to effect change in the world through their writing? If we don’t, why do we hope to be published and read?

What about genre fiction? Is romance gender politics at work? The genre is often dismissed as unworthy. Is that not itself political? Is to disregard romance a dismissal of women (the main consumers of romance), their views on relationships and their sexuality?

Is mystery fiction social justice at work? It often explores and gives voice to the fringes of society – drugs, prostitution, the dispossessed, or the underdog taking on the powerful elite. The very essence of a mystery is about who holds power, who abuses power and how the imbalance can be redressed. That is political. Mystery authors often use their writing to bring to light the concerns of minority groups and to provide commentary on a societies moral issues – Val McDermid’s lesbian protagonist, Lindsay Gordon; Emma Viskic’s deaf character, Caleb; Barry Maitland’s Aboriginal protagonist in the Belltree trilogy.

Reading a novel uncouples us from our ordinary lives and transports us to a self-created world through our interaction with a work of fiction. We read fiction to get ‘lost in a book’ or to ‘escape from our own existence’. Reading is an opportunity for some kind of small transformation.

DSC02842Writing is a way to contribute to the development of a liberal and democratic society. We implant meaning and messages in our plots that we hope will influence how our readers think, not only entertain them.

We judge and unpack what we read and ascribe a value to books. That is political – just read any book review or go to a book club meeting and listen to the debate about a novel to see how a single story can take on different contours and unique significance for individual readers.

How do you hope to influence your readers?

Main image: DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, Prague;

Inset images in order: Letter to The Age; Street Art, San Francisco; Guggenheim museum, New York City; Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane; Threat and Sanctuary, Museum of Modern Art, New York City