Trees, Change and Island Homes

“Ovid tells the story of two immortals who came to Earth in disguise to cleanse the sickened world. No one would let them in but one old couple, Baucis and Philemon. And their reward for opening their door to strangers was to live on after death as trees—an oak and a linden—huge and gracious and intertwined. What we care for, we will grow to resemble. And what we resemble will hold us, when we are us no longer. . . .”

Richard Powers, The Overstory

By opening our hearts to strangers, the reward is we become what we love. Anyone who has travelled can relate to the delight felt when strangers help you find a hotel after arriving late at night, or offer food when you’re tired and hungry. Those times when the Lonely Planet wouldn’t cut it, and the grace of strangers helps you find your way.

This book The Overstory, opened me up to a new way of seeing trees. How god damn generous they are, and how humans can be influenced by them. How the author himself, left a steady teaching post at Stanford after a research trip to old growth forest had him feeling better than ever before, and saw him move to the mountains.

‘Let me sing to you now, about how people turn into other things’

I did an energy course a few years back, which talked about energy as the ‘current that animates us’. I realise that the blindspots I had at the time now make more sense. I feel this shows how slowly we become the new ideas we introduce. This is both liberating and alarming, the power of metamorphosis and we can see how dangerous ideas can actually be, they take on a form and become reality.

Another way of describing this is ‘intention‘. We set an intention for an action or outcome, practice it as real and thus it becomes our reality. Is this super power stuff?

Maybe this was once mumbo/jumbo or at least removed from conscious belief, but in today’s world of pandemic and global politics, we can see the power in polarising beliefs and misinformation (although exactly what is truth is always a matter of perspective on some level, and thus becomes someone’s reality). How quickly algorithms feed into confirmation bias and fuel the obsessions, hates, biases and passions of our pattern seeking minds. Add a pandemic and genuinely fearful scenarios, and we have skyrocketing paranoia, conspiracy theories and hoarding, all symptomatic of declining mental health. It feels like a whole new world, that’s why 1984 and A Brave New World were being sold on display in the local gift shop over these holidays.

It’s enough to want to check out for awhile.. It reminds me of the resigned automated British voice of my son’s Bop-it toy, which after a minute of no one pushing buttons, says ‘I think I’ll switch off for awhile’.

Except all we do as a species now is switch on our devices, in an attempt to numb out and distract ourselves from any unpleasant thoughts about our impending doom. Gord, it’s got serious all of a sudden. Why don’t we just chill out? Shop? Spend? Socialise?

Some things are harder to do in a pandemic, others as easy as swiping.

We recently visited my brother on Norfolk Island which in many ways is a microcosm of our larger world. He works in waste management and it’s a juggling act on an island with limited budget and options. Located about 1, 470 km equidistant between Australia and New Zealand, a resilient, isolated, fiercely independent population originating from mutineers off the Bounty and a dozen Tahitian women (plus six men) they kidnapped afterwards. Nine mutineers left the Tahitian islands to hide from persecution from the Crown and in 1790 started their own colony on the very steep and small Pitcairn Island, two miles squared cited as the most remote community in the world. Within 3 years, in-fighting saw only one mutineer left. Rumour has it the women orchestrated this leaving a man to chop the wood. The community was found in 1808 when an American whaling vessel stumbled across this tiny island.

Meanwhile Norfolk Island had been discovered by Captain Cook in 1774, who described it as a useful island of mast shaped pines and flax, great for sails. It became a British settlement in 1788 and briefly became Sydney’s ‘food bowl’. It later became a penal colony associated with the likes Port Arthur. Sandstone buildings still stand today built by convicts, along with roads and water systems. By 1850s, the island was abandoned due to its isolation, and a particularly treacherous port that has claimed many ships, including the flagship of the first fleet, the Sirius in 1790.

Meanwhile over on Pitcairn, the breeding program continued and the island was now overpopulated facing starvation. Queen Elizabeth offered more land on the now abandoned Norfolk Island. 196 Pitcairners arrived by boat in 1856 who are the descendants of the current Islanders. These family groups were given their own 26 acre lots to build houses and farms. Norfolk is now largely cleared for farms, and grows most of its own fruit and vegetables, which is an asset instead of relying on air and ship deliveries which are costly and delayed at times. Killing your own beast is common and a family can live off the meat for a year.

It is a step back in time to a simpler life. Yet it is not without its challenges as the politics of joining Australia was fiercely debated and divided the community. The island was self governed until 2015 when the pot ran dry after taxes were never paid. The bailout by the Australian government was necessary and brought much needed services to the island, especially Medicare. When Covid struck, many businesses were entitled to government support for the first time in their history. Yet a tent embassy exists outside Government House still in denial about the Australian presence although its numbers have dwindled to single digits over the years.

Why are we so resistance to change even in the face of rational potential? I guess our emotions and sentimentality come into play. Norfolk Islanders passionate about their heritage and individuality, do not want to lose that within a larger big brother British colony of Australia.

My brother is trying to influence recycling policies, to replace the archaic incineration, and simple ‘roll rubbish off the cliff into the ocean’ practices. Again, change seems to be daunting, and humans reticent even in the face of science. Climate deniers exist, budgets can’t be stretched and are needed for telecommunications and upgrading the airstrip. He has had some wins though with importing recycling machines. Progress is happening, yet spending a week with this environmental engineer, who recognises the dire need for water storage on a porous island where dams don’t hold water, a war on water is a real possibility. On a global scale, as the world gets hotter and drier, less rainfall, trees cut down, populations grow, we can all do the maths.

Again, this is a tough pill to swallow. It’s easier to check out (distraction) and look elsewhere (avoidance). When the truth is hard to bear, we develop coping strategies of deflection, denial, wishful thinking and even unrealistic optimism, even leaders in policy and government do this. Climate change anxiety is now a recognisable term and our children are especially susceptible. Focusing on positive adaptive strategies that require taking action can help to reduce anxiety- what can we do at home to reduce our waste and manage our water usage. Social groups formed around important issues close to your heart (choose one or two is better, than overextending and feeling overwhelmed), balanced with good self-care to maintain healthy routines and find joy/fun in these uncertain times.

Of course, none of these things are going away, just like Covid is the new normal. Humans haven’t gotten to the apex without mastering adaptability, both physically and mentally. Such tenacity, maybe we have much more in common with the humble cockroach than we’d like to admit.

I’ve had my sometimes-closed eyes opened. I better take my own advice. A state of flux is the only constant even our cells are continually changing and regenerate every 7 to 10 years. I’m very grateful for 1) getting to go on holiday amidst lockdown, 2) spending time with cherished family and little nephew, Alexander 3) time in the truck with my brother PJ showing me every square inch of the island and 4) learning how to not look away from the hard facts, and assimilate what I can into my lifestyle to assist rather than blatant/ignorant wastage of my everyday resources. It feels precious and not as infinite as once believed.

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