Signs and Wonders
The essay, if you haven’t noticed, is having a moment. It’s as if, in the age of the Anthropocene, as we face the end of the world as we know it, reality has finally become too real for make-believe. Delia Falconer’s Signs and Wonders is a collection of essays on subjects as diverse as gum trees and the decline of the paragraph, but its overriding imperative is to confront the reality of climate change. Exactly how it is to be confronted is a problem we all face. Falconer’s essays aim for a sophisticated mixture of reportage and philosophy, with healthy doses of outrage and despair.
In the title essay, Falconer observes the dwindling numbers of fish in the bay, sees photographs of seabirds with guts full of rubbish and reads about the disappearance of bogong moths and other species in mass mortality events. For Falconer, such events are signs, “omens of the future”, which need to be read in the way that the augurs of ancient Rome once interpreted “the weather, the flight of birds, and the entrails and movements of animals”. The comparison is profound; the message is urgent. However, such signs can be so easily missed, especially if we’re not living in a country that we know in the way First Nations people have traditionally known it, or if we’re distracted by what Falconer describes as the “bright and slippery parallel reality” created for us by capitalism and consumerism.
“Coal: An Unnatural History” is another highlight: a fragmentary and eclectic assemblage of facts and anecdotes about coal and coalmining. Falconer relates, for instance, how there was a coalmine under Sydney and the miners used to hear the clunk of ship’s anchors above their heads. However, she also tells us about the 2016 mass-bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef, when “a quarter of the organism, which is large enough to be seen from outer space, died”. The essay concludes with a sinister vision of Scott Morrison caressing a lump of coal in parliament, chanting, “Don’t be afraid.”
Falconer is afraid – logically so – and also angry. Indeed, these essays pack their greatest punch when she gives license to those feelings. In “Terror from the Air: Fire Diary 2019-20”, it is Falconer’s son, stuck indoors on New Year’s Eve thanks to the ash clouds of Black Summer, who starts kicking the furniture and yelling, “‘The Fucking Prime Minister!’ ...‘What can I do? … ‘I’m just an eight-year-old kid!’”
Simon & Schuster, 288pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 2, 2021 as "Signs and Wonders, Delia Falconer".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial