Rise for the oceans
Just before dawn I take the narrow track from the house to the beach and walk the shoreline once more to see the familiar stretch and all its daily surprises. Past the high bund of coarse sand at the foot of the dune and the littoral field of gooseflesh the pebbles become on the long decline, the tidal flats are almost bare, ribbed and fluted with the sea’s nightlong retreat.
On the face of it there’s nothing here to see – an empty beach, a blank ocean. Unless a whale suddenly rises out there in the gulf, everything before me is unremarkable, event-free. And yet it holds me captive, has me returning morning and evening, high tide and low, because it’s never the same place. It holds its secret life close. Every day there are ephemeral stipples and scratches in the sand, divots where euros have stood, and tiny tractor-treads where Gilbert’s dragons have come down to cool off. There are tumbled heads of coral, mangrove trunks, an osprey feather, a scorpion in an oyster shell. With every step there is another pattern, a fresh texture, a new curving flourish, and when the sun butts up from the sea the palette changes moment-by-moment, roiling, restless as a spillage. Behind me the spinifex turns gold as baking bread and the stony ranges beyond are washed purple and pink until darkness only abides in the realm of pathless canyons.
Every day I come and most days I learn something new, but only occasionally do I really see because while I’m always looking I’m not necessarily paying attention. Half the time I’m looking at shells and stones and stranded jellyfish as if they are objects, rather than subjects. But a subject has a life. In its wake and even in its form it trails a backstory, a journey that can be as brief as that of the cuttlefish. Look – all it’s left to memory is the foamy hull of its backbone. Its death can be read in the neat curve of toothmarks left by the dolphin that claimed it. Or the backstory can be as long as that of the turtle whose bones are scattered along the house-track. That’s probably a chain of experience as long as my own. Those bones speak of many decades of oceanic questing, of feats of navigation still beyond human ken.
When you pay attention you feel the presence of the past, you sense the ongoing struggle and the yearning of all things seen and unseen. For the moment, the bleached head of coral that lies facedown in the rock pool is shelter to the tiny blue-ringed octopus that could render me dead in moments, but before this it was host to half a million lives: each hole in its aerated cauliflower surface was wrought by an organism straining to thrive, build, and reproduce. Just a minuscule part of what it takes to keep the deeps alive and therefore all life on Earth.
That, I realise too infrequently, is what lies beneath the surface of every sleepy step I take before breakfast: the resonance of a trillion lives, finished or only just begun, subjects that ache to be fed, seek the light and tilt towards increase in a creation that has been burning and lapping and gnawing and withering and rotting and flowering since there was nothing in the cosmos but shivering potential. To tread here and never pay tribute, to look and just see objects, is to be spiritually impoverished.
Back in the ’60s, when Australian governments could only measure the value of the world’s largest coral structure in terms of its uses as a limestone quarry or an oil deposit, a motley band of citizens, beachcombers, snorkellers and mangrove scientists, figured it was worth doing something to protect the Great Barrier Reef. Why? Because they dared to think it had intrinsic value. And at that time, saying this sort of thing was enough to have you marked out as a little odd. Back then the natural world was still seen as… well, stuff. Stuff that only had value once you killed it, ground it up and put it through a few pipes. Nature was mere grist. It was the fuel that warmed the cathedrals of progress and kept its high priests in power. Nature? Oh, there was plenty of that, enough to last us till Doomsday and then some. A reef – you know, the corals and fish and whatnot – well, fair enough, all that could be pretty, if you fancied that sort of thing. But if you were some sort of flower-sniffer who couldn’t be realistic about the proper place of things, well then you were probably a communist or a poofter – probably both. This, of course, was when men were men and sheep were nervous. When the peanut was king, when sputtering nitwits and bagmen could rule Queensland by gerrymander, intimidation and corruption.
So when it became obvious these newfangled sea lovers weren’t just harmless eccentrics, when they simply wouldn’t shut up about mining and drilling on the Great Barrier Reef, making their little bumper stickers and having their little meetings up and down the coast and getting their beardy faces in the local paper, well then they marked themselves out as dangerous heretics. This group, which we now know as the Australian Marine Conservation Society, had to be leant on; followed; spoken to; overheard, shall we say: they were threatened, traduced, even defamed. Back then Australia was another country. And Queensland – Queensland was another planet.
But those heretics and flower-sniffers and mangrove nerds, they didn’t shut up. They lit something in the hearts of the Australian people. They taught us to pay attention. They were the vanguard of a bloodless revolution in our society, the roots and bedrock of a new ethic that has changed this country. A nation that began with an invasion and proceeded to prosecute an endless war on nature, has slowly begun to lay down its weapons and grow up. More and more we see ourselves as a part of the natural world, interrelated and co-dependent, to feel a kinship with country, to see our lands and seas as family. To my forebears, who came here as settlers and involuntary tourists, this change of thinking would have been unimaginable. It would have even puzzled my grandparents in much the same way as it perplexes the old-world folks who cling to power in sections of government and business and the media. This transformation is non-sectarian and bipartisan. It’s mainstream. The evidence of that is palpable in everything from school curricula to the language of commerce. All this has happened during my lifetime, and it’s been a great privilege to witness it and for the past 20 years to be an active part of it. I believe it’s one of the great sources of hope for our people, something to celebrate and build upon.
Long story short, the Great Barrier Reef became a marine park, not a mine. Later it was added to the World Heritage List. Within a generation, it became the most revered natural site in Australia. Without question it is now seen as this country’s most precious piece of natural heritage. It also happens to support the jobs of 60,000 citizens employed in ecotourism. Strange world, I suppose, if you’re a visitor from 1965. Apparently you can make money from nature without grinding it up and pumping it through a pipe – who knew? Most foreign visitors don’t come here to see our architecture or our infrastructure or even, I’m sorry to say, our high culture. They come here to see the Barrier Reef. These foreign flower-sniffers and dreamers just want to see stuff. Our useless stuff. And these days we’re really proud of our stuff, our nature, our non-human, pre-invasion heritage. Really proud. We think it’s worth looking after, worth sacrificing a few things for.
This year AMCS was central to exposing the federal government’s plans to dig seven deepwater coal ports and dump millions of tonnes of dredge spoil along the shores of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. If we hadn’t challenged them on it, they would not have suddenly seen the light in their own time. We told the Australian people about it, supported many local communities in their resistance to it and became a conduit for ordinary people to make their feelings plain.
A government that had hoped to undermine the national consensus about the preciousness of our reef in much the same way as it did in the matter of climate change found that when it comes to the reef these people, this nation, is not for turning. On this issue, at least, you can’t confuse them or frighten them. Because the feeling is mature now, it’s gone too deep.
We kneel at the water’s edge and smell life. We look into the tide pool and see clouds. What we see and touch and taste and hear is beautiful in itself, it’s precious in itself. But precious and beautiful, too, because it’s bound up with us and our mutual prospects, closer than we let ourselves imagine. We live at a moment in history where we understand that our survival as a species is bound up in the health of the oceans around us, for when they die we die with them. This is our moment. Our chance to rise for the oceans.
This is an edited version of a speech given to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 26, 2015 as "Rise for the oceans".
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