Archive for the ‘Sydney’ Tag


Last week I went to my first rugby league game. My mate is a big Manly Sea Eagles fan and he got me and my wife into Brookvale Oval with is family to see the Eagles take on the Parramatta Eels. It was a sparklingly perfect winter Sunday afternoon here in Sydney – which, for a New Yorker, felt more like spring.

The Sea Eagles are one of the better and more popular teams in the NRL; between that and the great weekend weather, the place was crowded. I can follow rugby league all right, and enjoyed the game – the Eagles absolutely crushed the Eels, who are apparently having a terrible season. We got to see the Eagles’ star David Williams, known as the Wolfman due to his bushranger-chic look, score three tries (touchdowns) right in front of where we were standing.

But mostly I was just taking in the atmosphere. Brookvale is a venerated place to watch footy – the Sea Eagles have been playing there since 1947, but it dates back almost a hundred years as a sporting facility and showground. It holds 23,000 people (there were 17,000 there that day), so it looks and feels more like a minor league park in American terms. This is partly due to the fact that at least half the teams in the NRL are based in greater Sydney, with teams representing specific areas of the city much the way London football teams do. The Sea Eagles draw fans from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and probably just about anywhere north of the bridge.

But the small size of the place is why Brookvale has such a great atmosphere. All the seats are general admission, and there’s a big open seating area on a grassy knoll that I’m told is one of the last of its kind in the league. (This was done in American ballparks back in the day too – the old Yankee Stadium had a grassy knoll beyond right field that could seat thousands of extra spectators.) The combination of history, tradition and intimacy results in a vibe that’s much like what Wrigley Field or Fenway Park are for baseball fans – except Brookvale is even more intimate. Wrigley is called “the Friendly Confines” that that tag suits Brookvale too.

It was a great day. The sharp colors (blue sky, green grass, maroon and yellow uniforms), the geometry of the pitch – the white boxes and lines forming a perfect, contained world for this brutal contest – and the ebbing and surging crowd noise lifted my spirits in a way that felt very familiar and comfortable, never mind how foreign the sport is to me. The sun setting over Beacon Hill in the distance and engulfing the pitch, the fans and the gum trees that encircle the grandstand and the grassy knoll in amber light was one of those prolonged moments that makes me fiercely happy to be living in Australia.

Reasons for me to get into the Sea Eagles, should I decide to do so:

  • My mate Dave’s opinion counts for a lot in all things
  • I feel a strong connection to the Northern beaches
  • Lots of history on the team’s side
  • You could do worse than maroon and white for colors
  • I grew up supporting the Seattle Seahawks, and there’s a nice correlation in the name
  • I like birds of prey
  • The Wolfman seems like a cool guy
  • Spending more winter Sunday afternoons at Brookvale Oval sounds good to me


1. What Happened to My Eternity T-Shirt

After six years, the lettering on my Eternity T-shirt has for some reason started to bleed and smear. It’s a shame, and it’s messy too; but it’s also kind of cool, because it now looks even more like Arthur Stace’s original chalk graffiti.

2. How I First Heard About Eternity

If you’re not from Australia you may not know about Arthur Stace. A true Aussie folk hero, Stace was a reformed alcoholic and born-again Christian who spread the gospel by writing chalk graffiti all over Sydney for decades in the mid-20th century. His one-word message was ETERNITY, written in a beautiful copperplate script despite the fact that Stace was otherwise illiterate. He’s estimated to have written the word 500,000 times over his career. As a longtime friend and graffiti aficionado/perpetrator says, “Dude got up.”

I first read about Stace in Peter Carey’s 30 Days in Sydney, one of a series of travel books written by famous authors. The Booker Prize-winning Carey is probably Australia’s most highly regarded living novelist. I read 30 Days in Sydney in 2005 while still living in New York, shortly after my first trip to Sydney, after I had already started dreaming of migrating here. (As it happens, Carey lives in New York.) Subtitled A Wildly Distorted Account, it’s a feverishly brilliant, sometimes hallucinatory meditation on Carey’s hometown that reads like a work of fiction; it’s one of my favorite books. In many ways I think it’s the best thing he’s written, though it’s probably considered a footnote to his career compared to bestselling novels like Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelley Gang. Reading all of these books was an important part of my preparations for migrating – among other things, they gave me valuable glimpses of the dark side of life here.

In 30 Days, Carey interrupts his drunken, sometimes nightmarish misadventures while on holiday here in Sydney to muse on the enduring local appeal of this legendary figure and his ministry.

I had been at home in New York on the eve of the millennium celebrations and at seven forty-five on that Friday morning, while my wife and sons were still sleeping, I ran quietly down the stairs to witness my other home enter the year 2000… I turned to NBC, where I saw the opera house, the habour bridge. Then Sydney passed into the next century and the bridge suddenly exploded.

Few cities in the turning globe would equal that display at millennium’s end, and yet I, the sentimental expatriate, was less than enchanted and my emotion suddenly cooled. I’d seen this trick before. These fireworks were very similar to that display at our bicentenary in 1988. Then too the bridge grew green and fiery hair. OH WHAT A PARTY the Sydney Morning Herald had written then, and it had been true, the whole town was pissed. We had a classic Sydney rort and we disgraced ourselves with our total forgetfulness of what exactly it was that had occurred in this sandstone basin just two centuries before.

In the heat of our bicentennial celebration, the 50,000 years that had preceded the arrival of the First Fleet somehow slipped our minds. All right, it’s a white-settler culture. It’s what  you might have expected, but that does not explain why we forgot the white people too, or most of them. In 1988 we commemorated the soldiers, but the men and women beneath the decks just somehow were overlooked in all the excitement. The twin forces of our history, those two cruel vectors which shape us to this very day, had been forgotten and what we celebrated instead was some imperial and bureaucratic past towards which we felt neither affection nor connection.

Twelve years later I stared balefully at the fiery bridge but as the smoke cleared I spotted an unexpected sign. Just a little to the left of the northern pylon… a three-foot high word was written in illuminated copperplate.


Seeing this, all my spleen was completely washed away, and I was smiling, insanely proud and happy at this secret message from my home, happier still because no one in New York, no one but a Sydneysider, could hope to crack this code, now beamed through space like a message from Tralfamador. What fucked-up Irish things it finally meant to me, I will struggle with later, but I cannot even begin to imagine what it might mean to a New Yorker.

An Aussie brandname? Something to do with time? Something, perhaps, to do with those 50,000 years of culture that this city is built on top of? But although 50,000 years is a very long time, it is not an eternity, and it is not why the people of Sydney love this word, or why the artist Martin Sharp has spent a lifetime painting it and repainting it… The secret of Eternity does not belong to Martin but he has been one of its custodians and I was determined to talk to him about it…

The man who designed Cream’s album covers for “Wheels of Fire” and “Disraeli Gears” looked all of sixty when I saw him, hungover, with his handsome face unshaved, and creased with a classic smoker’s skin. But I am of an age myself, and if I noticed the creases, I also noted with envy that his hair, though greying, was thick and strong.

I first saw Eternity when I was a kid, he told me as he rolled his second cigarette. I came out of my house and discovered this chalk calligraphy on the footpath. No one ever wrote anything on the streets in those days. I thought, what’s that? I didn’t think about what it meant. I didn’t analyse it. It was just beautiful and mysterious.

For years and years no one knew who wrote this word, said Martin. It would just spring up overnight. We now know the writer’s name was Arthur Stace. We know he was a very little bloke, just five foot three inches tall, with wispy white hair and he went off to the First World War as a stretcher-bearer. Later he was a ‘cockatoo’, a look-out for his sisters who ran a brothel. Then he became an alcoholic. By the 1930s, when he walked into a church in Pyrmont, he was drinking methylated spirits.

The church had a sign offering rock cakes and tea for the down and out.

Well, Arthur went in for the cakes but he found himself kneeling down and joining in the prayers. That is how he gave up the grog and got ‘saved’ but the God-given task of his life would be granted to him at another church, the Baptist Tabernacle on Burton Street in Darlinghurst.

On the day Arthur came into the Tabernacle the Reverend John Ridley had chosen Isaiah 57:15 as his text. For thus sayeth the high and lofty One who inhabiteth Eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.

Eternity, the preacher said. I would like to shout the word Eternity to through the streets of Sydney.

And that was it, said Martin. Arthur’s brain just went BANG. He staggered out of the church in tears. In the street he reached in his pocket and there he found a piece of chalk. Who knows how it got there? He knelt, and wrote Eternity on the footpath.

According to the story, he could hardly write his own name until this moment, but now he found his hand forming this perfect copperplate. That was sign enough. And from then on he would go wherever he felt God call him. He wrote his message as much as fifty times a day; in Martin Place, in Parramatta, all over Sydney people would come out onto their street and there it would be: Eternity. Arthur didn’t like concrete footpaths because the chalk did not show up so well. His favourite place was Kings Cross where the pavements were black.

Actually, God did not always send Arthur to write on the footpaths. Once, for instance, He instructed him to write Eternity inside the bell at the GPO although, Martin Sharp told me, the dark forces may have tried to rub it out since then. Of course he didn’t have permission. Arthur always felt he had permission ‘from a higher force’.

I didn’t have anything directly to do with that word appearing on the bridge, said Martin, but I have kept it alive; I suppose you could say that I have continued Arthur’s work. The paintings you know, but I have also just finished a tapestry of Eternity for the library in Sydney. I’m pleased Arthur’s work is finally in a library. He was our greatest writer. He said it all, in just one word. Of course he would be amazed to find himself in a library. And imagine, Peter, imagine what he would have felt, on that first day in Darlinghurst, to think that this copperplate he was miraculously forming on the footpath would not only be famous in the streets of Sydney but beamed out into space and sent all around the world.

I stayed with Martin talking for a long time, but we said no more about Arthur Stace. So it was not until much later that [sleepless] night… that I attempted to pin down the appeal of his message, not to Martin whose fascination seems both spiritual and hermetic, but to the less mystical more utilitarian people of Sydney.

You might think this is no great puzzle. But it is a puzzle – we generally do not like religion in this town, are hostile to ‘God-botherers’ and ‘wowsers’ and ‘bible-bashers‘. We could not like Arthur because he was ‘saved’, hell no! We like him because he was a cockatoo outside the brothel, because he was drunk, a ratbag, an outcast. He was his own man, a slave to no one on this earth.

Thus, quietly reflecting on what might be the idiosyncratic, very local nature of our feelings for Eternity, I began to follow the vein back to its source until, like someone who dreams the same bad dream each night, 200 years just vanished like sand between my fingers and I was seeing Arthur Stace as one more poor wretch transported to Botany Bay.

3. Why I Think Peter Carey Is Kind of Wrong About That Last Bit

Carey says the appeal of Eternity to Sydneysiders is “a puzzle” because “we generally do not like religion in this town.” Maybe. But which town is he referring to? The one he is familiar with, one populated with artists and writers? Sydney is a big place, made up of all kinds of people. Just recently I heard an elderly lady speak about the founding of the Uniting Church in Australia in 1977. It was a momentous occasion, the uniting of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches into one entity with a decidedly progressive agenda – the church’s founding statement called for peace, human rights, the eradication of racism, justice for the poor and protection of the environment, streets ahead of its time compared to the Aussie mainstream. This lady proudly spoke of being there at the commemorate service at Town Hall 35 years ago. Perhaps Carey and his artist mates weren’t paying attention, but it was a big deal all the same.

Just to name one more example, Sydney also has a huge community of Polynesians, many of whom are churchgoers. A lot of them are into hip hop, and might therefore appreciate Arthur Stace as a graf legend as well as a man of faith. See what I mean? Which town are you talking about? What if someone said “We generally do not like art in this town.” It would be a pretty rude and dismissive thing to say, and someone who had devoted their life to it might object, but it might also be true. I recently read the autobiography of Robert Hughes, art critic and author of The Fatal Shore, the essential history of Australia’s convict experience; he had some very bitter things to say about his countrymen and their lack of taste. (Like Carey, he too lives in New York.) So it’s all about perspective.

“We could not like Arthur because he was ‘saved’, hell no! We like him because he was a cockatoo outside the brothel, because he was drunk, a ratbag, an outcast.” I get it, you’re suspicous of religion; and it’s true, there was something a little crazy about him. (There’s something a little crazy about all Christians, or there should be. Christians, and graffiti artists.) But I don’t think it’s fair to Stace to give all the credit to only the first half of his story. And anyway, who are you calling a ratbag, mate?

It’s absolutely true he’s an easy figure to love because of his humble, even miserable origins. And Carey’s spot-on in connecting Arthur’s story to the injustices of the convict past. But the crucial thing is that he was, as Stace himself would have put it, born again. If he had just stayed a drunk, none of this would have happened. He was inspired, and driven, by the tremendous feeling he got from being saved, and he did it in the most elegant and unintrusive (and yes, humble) way – while still getting that mystical, beautiful-yet-terrifying word out to everyone in the city for decades. That feeling is tangible when you look at that word; it speaks for itself. Can you imagine the same impact with a different word – a more pedestrian or “utilitiarian” word? UTILITY! Not really. That, I think, is the reason he’s a legend. Carey seems to have made a puzzle out of something self-evident simply because the faith thing jams his radar. Which I understand; I’m not trying to say you have to have faith to ponder eternity – not at all. I’m just addressing one lapse in his emotional logic. If you think I’m biased feel free to ignore me, but I think this case shows that even people who don’t partake can appreciate the power of faith if it’s genuine and comes from a place of love.

Not to nitpick Carey too much – his tripped-out perspective on Australian life and history constantly informs my own since migrating here, and I’m eternally grateful to him for teaching me the secret of Eternity. It’s something I’ve always taken as a sign that I came to the right place.

lindfield rocks

My great downfall is that I can’t blog about just one thing. If you’re one of the seven or eight people who read this page with any regularity, you know this. One week it’s something about surfing. Then I’m going on about current events. Then it’s a review of a falafel joint. I have too many interests.

But if I was the type to focus on only one subject, one thing to blog about, I might make this a page about Lindfield, my neighborhood.

If you don’t know Sydney, trust me on this one: Lindfield is epically suburban and boring. But this is not a dis. Lindfieldites (I don’t know if that’s what they’ve been called previously, but I’m unilaterally declaring it the official demonym starting now) are proud of their boredom. It’s why anyone lives here. It’s safe and green and friendly and really nice – as boring as you wanna be.

But still, I think if someone blogged about this place and did it well, it’d be really interesting. It’d be like a document of suburban life in Australia – a multidisciplinary study involving anthropology, zoology, history, architecture. It could cover the the animals and birdlife native to the area – everything from parrots and wild turkeys to the world’s deadliest spider – the history of the Pacific Highway (one of the oldest roads in Australia – it runs right past our place), the independent bookshop down the street, the behavior of the kids on the train platform, the simmering controversy about high-rise development. It could include more abstract and moody pieces: snapshots of random things that define life here, from the little lizards that constantly scurry underfoot to the twisted piece of wire I saw in the street yesterday that looked like contemporary art.

I’ve already done some of this: I’ve written about our organic garden, and posted video of the local bat colony. But in general I’m not really thinking of imposing such a limit on myself – I’d only get frustrated after a while and be tempted to cover the book about Dubai I just read or my favorite Mexican restaurant in Byron Bay. And I’d get – well, bored. But if I was going to blog about this area in earnest, I’d start with Lindfield Rocks, which has become one of my favorite places to be.

When I call Lindfield “suburban,” I mean by Australian standards. Most Americans who live in metropolitan areas would be impressed by how wild this place is. We’re a ten-minute walk from Garigal National Park, a huge reserve that stretches for miles along Middle Harbour. When you’re inside this reserve – a thickly wooded range of hills and valleys bisected by the Middle River and featuring lots of hiking trails and huge picnic areas – you would never know you were still in greater Sydney, the most populous area of the continent. In most places you can’t see any development or hear traffic at all. You can hike all day, clamber up and down the hills and dells, get lost in the woods, commune with the kookaburras and goannas, blur your eyes and imagine what life was like here before 1788. It truly lives up to its billing as a national park. We’re 10 minutes’ drive in the other direction from the equally sizeable Lane Cove National Park. And there are smaller parks and reserves all over the place. There’s so much nature here I don’t know what to do with it. This is one of the reasons I migrated here.

Lindfield Rocks is at the edge of Garigal, along Two Creeks Track, a hiking trail that runs from our neighborhood to Middle Harbour, some 10 kilometers away. It’s not far from the intersection of two major roads, tucked away down a slope behind a tennis court, hidden in plain sight as it were. I can walk there in 15 minutes – and I often do. Being there always chills me out, makes me feel good about where I’m living.

I first heard of Lindfield Rocks from a friend, a fellow American living here in Sydney who’s an avid rock climber. It’s cherished in the rock climbing community as one of the oldest bouldering sites in Australia. Bouldering basically means climbing rock walls that are relatively low to the ground – so that if you fell you might not die instantly. It’s a kind of freestyle climbing, usually done without a lot of safety gear – as a workout, or just for the sheer pleasure.

I don’t know anything about rock climbing. It’s a pretty involved sport, with its own funky subculture, and lingo as impenetrable as that used by sailors. (Multi-pitching, atomic belay, panic bear, beta flash.) I respect and admire climbers – but I’m not great with heights, so I don’t think I’ll be scaling a cliff at any point. Lindfield Rocks, however, looks pretty manageable to me, and I kind of want to give this bouldering thing a go. I often see climbers at it when I walk down to the rocks, especially on a nice day. They seem to come from all over. It’s probably the only thing in Lindfield that brings outsiders here on a regular basis – the suburb’s greatest distinction, and I wonder how many of the residents know about it. (It’s also just about the only way you’d ever see a beard in this neighborhood.)

I like seeing the climbers when I go there, but I don’t really like to stand around and hawk them while they do their thing, and in general I prefer it when I find that I’m the only one there.

You walk through the woods behind the tennis court, descending the slope on a dirt path, right through a number of big round weathered sandstone rocks, harbingers of what’s down the hill. It’s already much quieter than it is back there on the road, the sound of everything absorbed by the pine needles, the air close. You can hear the sound of the traffic on Eastern Arterial Road, but can’t see it. It sounds strangely pleasant and natural, as if a fast-flowing river lay over there down the hill.

You reach the edge of a shelf, and there’s a staircase cut right into the rock, like something out of Tolkien. It’s the kind of man-made but faintly mysterious detail you find all over these national parks. And at the bottom of the staircase, you realize you’re here – these are the famous rocks suddenly looming right in front of you. A great blunt mass of sandstone, burnished and mottled by millenia of exposure, up to 25 or 30 feet tall in places, stretching away for a hundred yards or more into the woods. There’s a wide flat area at the base where you’re standing; beyond it the hill continues sloping down to the unseen road below.

The thing that strikes you about the rock face is its perfection. It’s perfect for climbing, no doubt – with cracks and rills and folds and other subtle and weird features that only rock climbers have names for running up its surface – but you don’t have to be a specialist to appreciate it. Sydney sandstone comes in many colors and erodes into the craziest forms and shapes – it’s a constant source of wonder no matter where you go in the region – but there’s something in particular about this outcropping. You just want to stare at it. I’m not sure how to explain it. Even with all the flaws it’s so remarkably uniform and vertical for sandstone; as if its changeable nature were suspended for a moment in time, like the parting of the Red Sea. The word wall is right: it really does look like a fortification, a fortress.

Up close, there are a million details. Colors and textures that are different everywhere you look, that seem to change from one day to the next; walking along the wall is like watching a stream constantly change shape and hue as it reflects sunlight. You really understand why rock climbers get so into it – the desire to just be close to and touch this rock, understand the way it flows.

It’s one of those places where nature rises up, reaches out to amaze, makes you stand still and stare, even in a place as prosaic as Lindfield. It seems like it’s… communicating something. I’ve heard the same thing about Uluru. Not that I’m comparing the two.

But though Lindfield Rocks inspires awe, and something a little deeper and harder to quantify, it’s not really a heavy feeling – it’s not ominous, like something’s out to get you, as in Picnic at Hanging Rock. Maybe because the most genteel of suburbs is just around the corner, it feels like a benign place. And it’s so perfectly, so hilariously realized as a thing for people to climb on, or to just look at and enjoy, that it seems like it was done on purpose. Out of friendliness. Despite the sheer weight and dark mass of the thing in front of you, there’s a lightheartedness that bubbles up when you take it in.

It always makes me think of Andy Goldsworthy, the artist who creates surreal and sublime works using only the materials from nature that he can improvise on the spot. His pieces – weird leaf sculptures, capricious rock formations – always look like they might have been left behind by the most primitive humans, or better yet, like they might have just happened by themselves. Many times his pieces are designed to collapse or decay in interesting and beautiful ways – the way a limestone rock does, over vast stretches of time. “Process and decay are implicit.” Part of the point is to make us see the art that’s all around us in nature in the first place – the beauty in all the process and decay. And after a while, it might make you fleetingly wonder why we bother with art at all.

When I visited Istanbul last year I was amazed by a couple of artifacts that were built in remote antiquity, including an Egyptian obelisk brought to Constantinople by the Byzantines that was carved over 3000 years ago. But I wonder if I should be so impressed with bits of granite or marble fashioned by puny men, when Lindfield Rocks has been here for ages and ages longer, and is just as beautiful and – dare I say – artistic. When the Garigal who lent this park its name arrived here 40,000 years ago this wall was already very, very old. Sitting here all this time, waiting for people to come along and make use of it. I wish I could know what the Garigal thought of it. I imagine they liked being here too.

Note: I looked, and could not find a good, comprehensive page about Lindfield Rocks from a rock climber’s perspective, with history, anecdotes, and notes about the various routes (or whateveryacall’em). There are a few pages that are part of larger climbing or travel sites, but all of them are pretty dry and scanty and leave a lot to be desired. Surely there’s gotta be a few rock climbers out there who are also bloggers or web designers? Let’s get to it guys – this place deserves a nice online tribute.

reverse garbage

Last Sunday I visited Reverse Garbage, a non-profit organization that collects all kinds of junk and secondhand goods – especially industrial discards – and sells it to the public out of a warehouse in Marrickville. The concept is sound enough; it’s the type of thing I think we can all agree we need more of. But the experience of the place itself was unexpectedly inspiring and fun.

The first thing you see in the unkempt lot outside Reverse Garbage is a huge sculpture, welded together out of scrap metal, imposingly postapocalyptic, roughly the shape of some sort of larger-than-life toy mobile. Suspended from one of the arms of the mobile is a scrap-metal creature that’s part giant spider, part praying mantis, with the lithe torso and head of a bare-breasted mannequin. You know, I’ve seen a lot of found-object installations in my life, and a lot of them really lame, but something as well-executed as this still has the power to amuse and disturb. The only way it could get any better is if this she-monster were robotically animated and did battle with a cyber-scrap giant wasp.

Behind this attraction is a junk yard-cum-art garden, featuring an ugly foam sculpture of the Sydney waterfront and a bicycle graveyard, leading you to the warehouse. Inside is the largest collection of used stuff I’ve ever seen. In the front it looks like a garage sale or a vintage shop, except it goes on and on and on, tables and shelves full of decor, toys, jewelry, stationery, lighting, kitchenware, pottery, knickknacks, bric-a-brack, sundries, hand-me-downs, flotsam and jetsam and whatnot stretching for what seems like hundreds of yards into a haze in the far reaches of the building.

It’s hard to know where to begin. There’s an entire shelf full of sheets of stickers, the kind that are used to decorate kids’ schoolpapers and notebooks. Honestly, I get lost just with those. There’s some nice furniture here. Over there are plastic flowers, and some weird old VHS tapes. Further back are heaps of used speakers and other audio equipment, some of it unidentifiable.

Moving into the far corners of the warehouse, you find the purely industrial detritus, some of it hilariously, almost childishly alluring, stuff you just wanna play with: rectangular portions of pink foam stored in clear plastic bags bigger than I am, vast shelves loaded with cardboard tubes. Out back is the hardware, the unclaimed makings of infrastructure: metal pipes, lumber, restaurant equipment, PVC tubes.

Out of everything here, what draws me in the most are the loose ceramic tiles. They come in many forms and colors, the loose and haphazard stacks defying the geometric order we naturally associate with them. The cool feel of the tiles, their surprising weight as I pick them up, the earthy scraping sound they make, is strangely appealing. Especially as I was recently in İstanbul (tile central), I’m seized by the urge to take a bunch of them home, break them into pieces, and teach myself to make mosaic art. But I reckon I don’t have time for a new hobby – I have too much on my plate as it is.

Obviously the main clientele here will be artists. I see a couple of them milling about, with their piercings and boots and torn stockings, longingly touching the cardboard tubes. The pink foam alone would be enough raw material for an entire group show. And, perhaps to make them feel at home, there are more of the found-object sculptures here – a life-sized T-rex skull, and a smiling robot towering overhead, its readout saying WOMEN NEED TECHNICAL JOBS NEED WOMEN.

Often secondhand shops depress me. This is particularly true with records. As much as I love music, sometimes sifting through bin after bin of beat-up old records and CDs gives me a terrible sense of how much bad music has been mass produced. Reverse Garbage, on the other hand, makes me feel lighthearted. I think it’s because it’s not just an inert pile of trash, but a living collection of quality goods, lovingly tended and promoted with activism and a definite aesthetic. Like an enormous punk-industrial antique shop.

But honestly this place also makes me feel a little guilty. Yeah, I’ve spent money at Ikea recently. And, why, why, WHY? Considering the cheap fiberboard and plastic crap they trade in will crumble to dust before any of the great old furniture on display here, or anything I could fashion for myself with the lumber and PVC in the back if I was halfway clever enough to learn how. (I’m so damned unhandy it’s not funny.) If there’s one lesson to be learned at Reverse Garbage, it’s that we as a society probably can probably just stop manufacturing things right now. There’s enough material and resources in all of the mountains of stuff that’s already out there in the world to get by just fine. The indictment of our consumer addiction and our environmental crisis is too obvious to go on about in depth, even for me.

I find myself thinking again about İstanbul. There you see men pulling big wooden carts through the narrow streets, calling for people to bring them their junk and scraps – dead appliances, bits of metal, anything. And people do; the carts get filled up, the stuff gets re-used. You get the feeling that nothing there is wasted. It points to an economy of conservation that we’ve almost forgotten about in the West, where we’re taught to feel self-conscious about a faded polo shirt or a TV that isn’t brand-new and perfectly flat.

What’s even more impressive about Reverse Garbage is that the secondhand wealth on display isn’t limited to the one facility. Stretching around the property are a number of other storage buildings open to the public, inviting us in to survey more collections of junk and ceramic tiles and used speakers and tubes. And out in the grassy, tree-lined area between the buildings is a big Sunday market: dozens of stalls offering local and organic produce, wine, the inevitable jams and chutneys – and more used stuff, much more.

Taken all together it’s a zone covering a few city blocks in which everything is used or handmade or locally grown or DIY. It’s like a castoff carnival. Rejects rule. You could come here every Sunday, shop for the apocalypse, and never go to Coles or Ikea or Target again.

urban farmers

My wife and I recently started an organic vegetable garden in one of the communal flower beds of our suburban North Shore apartment building. We’d been talking about growing vegetables for years – owning a bit of land one of these days and producing food with it is a key goal for us. When we got back from Abu Dhabi a couple of months ago, we finally had the will and the downtime to give it a test run. The flower bed was full of compost. Summer was approaching.

There were a couple of harbingers that the garden was meant to be. A cherry tomato vine had taken over much of the flower bed during the four months we were out of town. Though it had nothing to climb on, and was just sprawling on the ground, still it had produced lots of fruit – some of it harvested by my mother-in-law, some of it still on the vine, or falling off into the flower bed. I was sorry to have to pull it out to make room for new seedlings. And among the weeds I also pulled out, I found a little nondescript cucurbit seedling right at the edge of the bed. I wasn’t sure if it was a cucumber, a melon or a squash. But any of those possibilities were welcome. I left that one, carefully clearing away the long grass around it, to be the flagship seedling of our new garden. Both of these plants were volunteers – the seeds had come from the composted vegetable scraps we’d been systematically burying in the flower bed earlier in the year.

I was so happy to see with my own eyes that winter in New South Wales is mild enough that a tomato plant can grow and produce by itself. That’s totally alien to my experience in New York, where the growing season runs from April to November at the latest, and there’s not much for farmers to do over the winter but catch up on TV watching and go through seed catalogs. The mild climate here is one of the many reasons I migrated of course. You really can grow veggies right round the calendar here if you know what you’re doing.

Which we don’t, really. Neither of us have ever done this before. We both spent formative seasons working on organic farms when we were younger, and I spent ten years working in the organic produce business, but it’s very different when you’re growing your own.

It’s not easy. The host of problems we’ve experienced comes across like the lyrics to a bad folk song about hard times. The roma tomatoes have blossom-end rot. The summer squash have downey mildew, and they’re not pollinating. The habañero pepper plants aren’t producing at all. The jalapeño plant produced one lonely pepper, now it’s just sitting there. The yellow beans were attacked by slugs. The onion seedlings died a miserable death. The radishes are being eaten by… something. Seriously, I wanted to take some more snapshots to post here, but so far the outlook is pretty grim.

But some things are going well. The heirloom tomatoes (pictured) are looking great now – big green things that will theoretically be blackish-purple and juicy in a couple of weeks. A new crop of beans is growing. The herbs – basil, thyme, sage, marjoram and parsley – are really thriving in the hot weather and regularly contribute to our kitchen. Same with the rocket, mizuna and rainbow chard. And the little volunteer cucurbit has grown into an enormous vine that’s taking over our front lawn. Turns out it’s a butternut squash, and the fruit on it is getting bigger all the time. We’ll have plenty of squash this year if nothing else. (Figures the volunteer is the one that’s really producing. There’s a lot to be said for just letting things happen.)

It’s going to take years to get good at this – that’s what everyone who knows tells us. I have such great memories of helping my grandpa with his garden on long summer days in Oregon when I was a kid. I’m not sure if it’s the haze of nostalgia, but it seems the beans and tomatoes formed perfect rows of ten-foot-tall plants, and the crookneck squash and cucumbers exploded out of the ground. My grandpa had been doing it all his life. It’s not going like that in our small, overcrowded garden. There are a hundred mistakes we’ve made, a hundred tricks we haven’t learned yet.

But it’s amazing how satisfying it is, how it makes me feel like myself, how quickly the stress melts away and I get into my right mind when I’m down near ground level with the skinks and the ladybirds, weeding or mulching or just observing the plants. I mean to spend the rest of my life doing this. Even if it has to be part-time.

Once I thought I wanted to move to the country and become a farmer – get back to the land and get off the grid. It didn’t take me long to realize I have a lot more city in me than that. I just don’t want to be that far away from all the fun and the danger and the film festivals. Not yet anyway. At this point I think I’d be happy with a kitchen garden on a half acre. And maybe some chickens, like my mate who lives in downtown Denver. But this is the point I’m coming to: you can do a lot with that – you can grow a lot of food on a little bit of land.

I’ve always struggled to incorporate the different elements in my life: music, writing, film, a love of history, a love of everything nautical, a strong belief in organics and sustainable living, vegetarianism, a commitment to spiritual living, a passion for baseball. At times I think I just have too many influences. Sometimes the lifestyles that spring from these interests seem to contradict each other. How does playing funky urban beats fit in with growing food?

Well, the phrase I had stuck in my head as I was thinking about this entry was urban farmers. That happens to be the name of a house music production and remix crew from England; they released a couple of my favorite late-90s jams on the 20:20 Vision label, including this one:

I have no idea why those guys chose the name Urban Farmers. Might’ve just been random. But the point is it inspires me.

Then there’s the Rurals, a house-music collective from Devon, England led by a husband-and-wife team who live and produce music in a farmhouse in the country. They’ve made a career of incorporating pastoral concepts and imagery into their projects (contrary to the hyper-urban or futuristic motifs that are the hallmark of electronic music), naming albums Farmyard FlavoursNettle Soul and Farming Grooves. The sleeve design of Messages, with its birds and bees and floral patterns in a tribute to old-school printmaking, is one of my favorites. (It was done by Studio NMO.)

So it doesn’t have to be either/or. Anyway I’m starting to realize that the so-called contradiction between urban and pastoral urges in my life could represent possibilities for integration, mapping the way my life can fit into a sustainable future. I can take what I’ve learned about organic growing and apply it to city living. You could say this is a necessity. The world’s population is urbanizing at a crazy pace; farming is going to have to become more urban to keep up with it. This is the crucial next step in the local food movement.

Take a walk around the neighborhoods of the North Shore and you’ll see plenty of gardens, some of them pretty ambitious – beanstalks or cornstalks towering over the fences. It’s not a new idea. People have always loved growing a couple of tomatoes and some basil with their extra garden space. But I think more systematic, widespread and large-scale food growing in the city and suburbs should be considered. The population density of greater Sydney is skyrocketing. Suburban living as we think of it, with its wasteful and selfish tendencies, won’t work anymore. Nor is crowded urban living desirable for anyone. Medium density is the way forward. We’re already seeing it in classically suburban Lindfield: apartment blocks are replacing detached houses in some places. The paradigm is shifting.

Integrating urban food production into the region’s economy seems to me a great solution for this medium-density, mixed-use future. Increasing the land’s productivity, reducing supply lines while decreasing fossil-fuel use, making food a more immediate and involved experience for more people: win, win and win. It will be especially important here in Australia, the nation with the most urbanized population on earth. Much of this continent is not suitable for growing food, and the little that is has often been mismanaged and damaged. (This issue is tackled in Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which I just finished reading.)

But think of all the fertile land that exists in the suburbs. It’s like a huge untapped growing region made up individual plots of land. Most of it being used to grow lawns. But there are alternatives. Recently my wife visited a home not far away in posh, über-suburban Killara that had a huge and very productive garden taking up the entire backyard, with a chicken coop on the side.

And growing food is something everyone can do. As much as I’m going on about the problems I’ve had, it’s not something you need a degree or a certificate in. It’s part of everyone’s heritage. And it’s something you can do while also having a job and having a life. We just have to find the collective will to make it practical and desirable for more city and suburban people to do it – in backyards, in containers, on rooftops, in little flower beds like ours.

So, yeah. Urban farmers. The other day I was in Hyde Park (in Sydney’s city center) and noticed a container flower bed full of vegetables: kale, chard, lettuce and lavender. Purely for ornamentation you know. But just think of how much food we can produce like this when it comes down to it. It’s gotta be another sign.

first night

First time I’ve written anything here for a really long time, and it’s about my first experience of Sydney Festival First Night. Kicking off the sprawling three-week-long Sydney Festival, the event has been a much-celebrated happening since it was inaugurated a few years ago.

This year, as summer began, the holidays passed and the start of the festival approached, there was a current of bubbly excitement about Festival First Night in conversations with friends and strangers alike. Plans were made to attend as a matter of course. I had no idea what to expect. But lately I’m down for anything.

The Saturday afternoon begins with another first: my first time DJing on the radio in Sydney. I’m at the 2SER studios on Broadway, playing a few tunes for a new friend, El Chino, on his long-running mix show, Departure Lounge. Shaking off the rust; feels pretty good. Making things happen on the Sydney scene. No train wrecks.

Leaving the station, I walk up to Hyde Park, headed for a meeting with my wife and our friend. It’s a lovely day. It’s summer in Sydney, I just played on the radio and I’ve got nothing to do but hang out in the park and check out a festival. But I’m tired and hungry. I stop at the first lunch counter I see, a kebab joint. I order falafel – my first Australian one. The counter lady asks me if I want cheese with that. I shouldn’t make fun; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them stuffed with French fries in the UAE.

I park myself on the grass in front of the ANZAC War Memorial, and down the falafel. It’s… interesting. But edible enough. Across the park there’s a commotion that sounds suspiciously like a festival under way. The girls arrive. They explain a bit more about what First Night is. They show me schedules and maps. Turns out Arrested Development and Emmylou Harris are involved. Emmylou, huh? Bigger than I thought.

We get in motion, head for the other side. Across Park Street, up the wide stone steps and under the huge trees that frame the old park’s central walkway. Elaborate decorations are set up on either side. Some of the trees are wrapped with fuchsia cloth. It looks sort of like lingerie. There are huge disco balls hanging in the trees. Soap bubbles, somehow processed to look like snow, whirl all around. We join a parade of people making their way to the center. A sound system blasts “Blue Suede Shoes.” Maybe it’s the atmosphere or maybe just me, but the tune seems to have a glimmer of its original raunch and camp. Other, bigger sound systems beckon in the distance. The parade gets more packed in. I realize there’s a huge stage set up over to the left and there are already thousands gathered.

We want no part of the thousands, for the moment anyway. We break away, out of the park. On our way out I see there’s another setup in another area, this one a big movie screen with a silent film showing on it. Hundreds more watching. Sounds like live musical accompaniment. We’d like to check it out, but drinks are a priority. We cross College Street to the plaza in front of St Mary’s, around a barrier to get to the bar. We elect a two-fisting strategy. Then realize we can’t cross the barrier again. That’s why it’s there, to keep drinks from getting out. OK, fine. We sit in front of the cathedral to skull our two each.

My beer’s not going down very well. Headache coming on; I feel a bit out of it. There’s another screen set up in front of us by the cathedral, this one looking like a big inflatable TV. But there’s only some festival collateral projected onto it. The sound system’s on, giving off a loud power hum that tunes right into my headache.

We take our time. Seems the festival’s going on without us, but it’s a great evening to just sit and drink and talk. Eventually we muster ourselves again and decide to head back across to grab some gözleme and see what’s afoot.

The park’s center is jammed now. There’s a queue just to get into the queue in the food corral. There’s some burlesque musical comedian on the big stage. Apparently his schtick is campy music with humorously violent lyrics. Why a headache now anyway?

Gözleme line’s way too long. Aussies love their gözleme, and for good reason. Line’s not moving at all. I wonder how those poor Turkish ladies can ever work fast enough making the dough and frying them. We settle for wraps (salad sandwich, anyone?), and more drinks. Amo can’t find Panadol in her purse. But this third beer picks up my spirits a bit.

From where we’re sat on the grass in the food corral we can’t really see out into the main area. Catching a glimpse at the big monitor, it seems the performers from the raunchy circus/cabaraet Smoke & Mirrors (which I’ll catch in the Spiegeltent in a few days) are doing acrobatic things on the stage a long way away. Festival’s going on without us. Back into motion, this time up Macquarie Street, headed for Chifley Square. Or maybe the Domain. We’ll know where we’re going when we get there.

Macquarie Street has been pedestrianized for the evening. Listen, pedestrianizing city streets is how to get on my good side. Hundreds of people of all ages, all races fill the street, in good boisterous Aussie spirits. Off to the right a crowd gathers and waits in front of the Mint. There are two dozen or more drummers in formation on both the ground floor and the second-floor balcony. They’re not drumming, they’re waiting for some signal. Arrayed like they are, evenly spaced between the columns of the historic building, all wearing identical black T-shirts, with big drums of several types below and little drums above, it’s apparent they’re very serious about making a lot of noise soon. All kinds of people in their ranks, too, including a couple of older ladies.

Still waiting. We can hear drums thundering from up the street. We’re not sure why those drummers are playing and these ones aren’t. The feeling of being perpetually in between whatever is happening. But while we’re waiting we get some ice cream. It’s been a busy day: the guy’s sold out of everything except drumsticks. (Aussies have another name for drumsticks but I’ve forgotten it.) Is ice cream good for a headache?

We give up on the drummers at the Mint and move up the street. The crowds thicken. The noise from the distant drums increases. Now we’re right in it: I realize there are batteries of drummers all up and down Macquarie, as far as I can see and hear. One battery is even elevated high above us on the balcony of an office tower. And now they’re all at it, pounding away in sequence. Each battery has a conductor with a baton; the conductor in turn has an earpiece. It’s clear they’re remotely coordinating the rhythm and sound. And it’s a huge sound: not so much deafening as all-encompassing. It seems to come out of the ground and occupy the air for miles. It’s electrifying. I’m thinking of how drums make people move – dance – fight. Never experienced anything like this. I’m truly impressed and say so to the girls. (Later I’ll learn the name of the ensemble, or tribe or whatever, is TaikOz.)

We’re moving still, that big sound behind us, down to Chifley Square. More pedestrianized streets. There’s another massive installation down here: images are being projected on the façades of tall buildings, but I can’t make out what they are, there are no screens, it’s all lost in the windows and architectural detail. An overworked sound system is blaring something that sounds like an old radio show. It’s meant to be about the history of Polynesia, but it’s difficult to latch onto. Still impressive though. Another crowd here, watching and listening. I wonder if they get it. But we give up. As we step away, up a side street, the distorted sound echoes off the buildings all around, becoming something ghostly and fascinating. Is this is the whole point of the installation, to be perceived as a huge haunted noise from blocks away?

Martin Place, not far away. A Senegalese reggae band is playing for hundreds more people on yet another stage, yet another sound system. Arrested Development will be on soon. The scope of this thing starts to sink in. They’ve basically shut down the center of the city and turned it into a gigantic party, a carnival, with attractions and distractions in every direction. We still haven’t found anywhere to be, but I’m beginning to love this.

We leave Martin Place and cross over into the Domain. There’s still another stage. Turns out this is the really big one. There are thousands more people here. Emmylou will be on in a little while. We find a spot on the grass. After all the drifting, it feels good to lay down and stretch out. Considering this is prime time, there are some, uh, quaint opening acts. A pair of young women playing old standards on ukeleles (their band name: you guessed it, the Ukeleles) are soon joined by a stout indigenous lady who sings her own regional variation on “Waltzing Matilda” and baas like a sheep, imploring us to baa with her.

Don’t want to make too much fun of the lady and her sheep. She’s happy to be here. So am I; it’s really pleasant. The broad meadows of the Domain stretch out before us, the Botanic Garden and the Harbour somewhere behind. There are people everywhere – laying on the grass, milling about, queueing up for food, working – but it’s a mellow and oddly cozy scene. From over here the big stage looks like a an expensive toy castle, lit from within. Beyond loom the buildings of the CBD, but they too seem far off and unreal. From somewhere over there in the city, searchlights quietly swoop through the glowing overcast sky overhead.

Emmylou comes on. She’s a tiny figure, but her blazing silver hair is an unmistakeable beacon. I’m a fan and have been most of my life. I saw her once before, at Carnegie Hall in 2003. Maybe this is too obvious, but it’s so interesting that life could bring us both, separately, two Americans, from there to this meadow on this night eight years later.

The first part of her set is much more country than we ware expecting, and she doesn’t seem to have written any new songs in eight years. Soon the crowd’s energy dissipates even more. It’s too mellow. I thought Aussies were into their country; but maybe not Sydneysiders. We all agree it probably wasn’t the best programming decision for opening night. I try to fight it, but somehow this musical legend has become a mere soundtrack, just another installation. An exquisite soundtrack it is: but we’re ready to move on.

Back at Hyde Park. One of the movie screens has clips from old Busby Berkely musicals being looped on it. A fedora-sporting DJ on the stage to the right of the screen is playing a set of house and breakbeat tunes that sample old jazz standards. Old movies, jazzy new music, get it? He’s making a performance out of it, bobbing his head, dancing around. The crowd – maybe a couple of hundred in all – is sat on the grass, just watching and listening, as if it was a conventional movie screening. Hanging over the stage is a massive crystal chandelier. Not sure what they are trying to do here. But I’m hypnotized by the impossible formations of dancing girls onscreen. I can’t always tell Berkeley’s wild choreography from the the video artist’s cheeky cutups.

There’s exactly one guy dancing on the lawn in front of the screen: middle-aged, with white chinos, a hot pink T-shirt and a shiny bald head. He’s dancing in place, staring at the screen, oblivious to the stares of others. The soft ambient light from the screen illuminates him like a saint. He’s awkward, he may be on something, but he’s feeling it and who can argue? As many people watch him as are watching the kaleidoscope of dancing girls. I hear a stranger ask another, How long’s he been at it? Oh, about half an hour.

Finally a couple of young girls get up to join him. He breaks into a huge grin and finds new reserves of energy, leaping about, hands in the air. Just like that, more people are up and moving over to dance with them. It took half an hour for anyone to join him, now they’re coming in droves, and it’s a party, something truly interesting, uniting music and film in a way  both new and natural. They all dance, while the girls on the screen looming behind them spin in complex loops, the DJ rocks, the chandelier hangs overhead. And the music is –

– wrapping up? Yep, the last record fades out, and nothing replaces it but power hum. The thing’s over just as it was getting started. Oh, well. This is the kind of night we’re having.

Down the central walkway of Hyde Park again, past a huge illuminated inflatable rabbit selling Chinese New Year to the masses. There are still masses in the park, untold numbers in the semidark, looks even more like a carnival, kids running around shouting and giggling, drunk adults, under the huge trees, under the disco balls, under the artificial fog and lasers.

Yes, there are lasers in the trees, green ones and magenta ones. Bright bold beams, cutting the fog, seeming more real than everything else. But something different happens when they touch the leaves of the trees high overhead. They splinter into thousands of little lights reflected off the leaves, like swarms of colored fireflies. I could stare for a long time. I feel a bit foolish, as if I’m acting like a kid, but I look around and realize a lot of other people, adults and kids, are stopping and staring too, pointing into the trees, getting snapshots. It’s like a celebration of something. Childlike wonder, maybe.

But we’re gone, leaving again, or going home. I’m tired and the headache never went away. Never did find anywhere to be. Quite a first night.

plenty more

I couldn’t help it; yesterday I drove to Wahroonga to check out the train platform where those fig trees were cut down.

Wahroonga’s not far away, about 15 minutes north on Pacific Highway. But of course once I was there it took me longer than that to find parking. It was three o’clock, and this sleepy suburb was as gridlocked as a city center at rush hour. More than once I found myself at a standstill on residential streets. This is how it is here, even in the far-flung suburbs. Sydney’s population has skyrocketed past four million, but there never was a good set of plans to accomodate it with roads, infrastructure, or mass transit. It’s a mess. As sensible, relaxed, and reasonable as this place is, you won’t know it when you’re driving — the traffic is murder. Meanwhile the population is expected to be in the tens of millions in twenty years or so. So I came looking for one kind of suburban blight and found another.

Anyway, Wahroonga seemed like a pretty nice place, making my own neighborhood seem downmarket by comparison. Oh, they have a sushi joint in the shopping village? Nice. I’m jealous.

It was raining but I walked over to the train station to get a look at the trees. I have to say it didn’t resemble an ecological disaster. There were no jagged stumps surrounded by yellow tape. They’d already planted young trees to replace the fallen figs. If I hadn’t known there were huge, old fig trees there just two weeks before I would have thought the platform looked nice. Beyond that, the train tracks are surrounded by stands of trees. Wahroonga is very leafy and green, just like every suburb in the North Shore including my own. It’s not like there will be a shortage of oxygen, or beauty, with these figs gone.

But when I walked to the other end of the platform and looked at the two remaining figs, which are scheduled to be lopped down in turn this October, I got angry all over again. For one thing the trees are just amazing. They’re massive (though not nearly as big as figs can be, thanks to decades of pruning), and the wonderfully gnarled boughs are densely packed with lovely dark green leaves. Just looking up into the canopy towering overhead has a calming effect. I started thinking about how fig trees are intrinsic to so many ancient mythologies and religious traditions.

And the so-called safety hazard is a lot of hype. Sure the asphalt is a little disjointed where the roots are. But it doesn’t look anything like a situation screaming out for drastic action; it doesn’t look more dangerous than any other sidewalk you’d see in an average walk to the grocery store. The trees have been there for decades, and most of the supposedly helpless oldies RailCorp implies they are protecting have been too, and are probably used to stepping around the roots. This is where liability and paranoia take the place of common sense and enjoying life. I don’t want to live in a world that’s flat, sterile, uniform, and completely safe. A friend wrote, “I’d rather have a hair in my food than look at someone wearing a hairnet.”

There’s also a good deal of hypocrisy and thickheadedness about this “safety” excuse. Many of the train stations have a plastic safety strip running along the edge of the platforms. The bright-yellow or blue plastic surface is studded or cleated and is no doubt meant to keep people from slipping as they step on and off the trains. It’s the exact same thing you see in the New York subway. The only problem is when this surface gets wet, it’s actually far more slippery than concrete or asphalt. I can’t tell you how many times in New York I slipped while stepping on this stuff. RailCorp even have signs up warning people about slipping on the safety surface. (Try to get your head around that one.) So, if they were really all that concerned about safety on their train platforms, wouldn’t they remove these useless and dodgy plastic surfaces?

Fig tree massacre = epic fail.

Wanna read something incredible? While I was looking for articles about these trees, I saw this thread on a private forum for railworkers. These guys are actually gloating over the removal of the trees. The running theme is that the very few complaints about the trees’ destruction are coming from whingeing posh old ladies and tree huggers. Sample thought: “Fig smig. Plenty more where they came from.”

I guess a bunch of mullets have nothing better to do in their spare time than make fun of old ladies? Tough guys, hey? If I honestly related my thoughts about these yobbos I’d have to worry about my blog being flagged. Let’s just say not all residents of the North Shore who care about trees are polite old ladies. I’d like to meet them and give them a firm handshake.

It’s always liberals that are labelled “knee-jerk,” but this is a case of conservatives being knee-jerk. (Which probably only proves that everyone is knee-jerk when it comes down to it.) These guys probably never thought about those trees until it became a controversy. If they ever saw them while working on the trains or in the station, they probably enjoyed them. No one hates trees. But as soon as someone has the nerve to question what’s taking place, they come out of the woodwork, with dismissive slogans they learned from talk radio (or maybe, in this case, from their superiors at RailCorp).

I should appreciate these guys for their refreshing honesty, and for reminding me of the mentality we’re dealing with. That’s definitely an Aussie trait. For example, if an Aussie doesn’t like Aborigines, or immigrants from India, they usually won’t hesitate to tell you.

Anyway they sure are getting the world they deserve.

Mind you it’s not the trees I’m concerned about as such. In a way, that attitude about “plenty more” is exactly right, maybe just not in the way these guys think. What, me worry about the planet? Check out what George Carlin thought of worrying about the planet.

I first saw this performance when I was 18, already a bit of a budding environmentalist, and it was hugely influential on me. I’ve been thinking about it a lot again lately pertaining to the situation in the Gulf of Mexico. True, his nihilism leaves me cold at the end of the day (he’s also famous, of course, as a raving atheist); but sometimes you need a pinch of salt to keep things in perspective.

Lately, probably because of a pervasive doomsday mentality in our culture, some scientists, engineers, and other thinkers have come up with various scenarios to describe what would happen to our buildings, our monuments, and our infrastructure should we suddenly disappear. I gave up worrying about the end of the world a long time ago, and I don’t exactly believe in the insignificance of the human race; but I find this stuff pretty fun to think about academically.

If the planet is doing fine overall, it’s doing even better in Australia. Nature rules here. This is one of the underlying themes of The Tree, the new film that got me interested in these local figs in the first place. And indeed, the relationship of people with this indomitable wilderness is a basic element of much Australian fiction. This continent is the size of the United States, with less than a tenth of the population; only a tiny part of its vast wilderness has been tamed by people. The rest never will be, not in a thousand years, if you accept the theories of environmental determinists like Jared Diamond — whether jungle or desert, it’s just too unforgiving, too harsh, too much for our meager knowledge and technology to control. If Aussies let things go, nature would consume our achievements here with relish, like so much buttered toast and Vegemite.

This might explain the yobbo resistance to environmentalism. Living in a place where people feel they’ve had to scrap for what small space they occupy on the land, a place where nature is so formidable and even deadly, why worry about it? Why shouldn’t people do whatever they want if there’s never any danger of nature succumbing?

But as I said, it’s not nature that’s in trouble, it’s us. And I’m not just referring to large-scale problems like climate change. At the risk of sounding shortsighted and offending George Carlin (I know he’s out there somewhere), what pisses me off about the removal of these trees is that it contributes to making our urban environment that much shittier. It’s not only about oxygen and preventing soil erosion. It’s about the health and well-being of the community, and preserving what’s unique and beautiful about the local heritage. It’s also about progressive planning: making sure our urban and suburban centers aren’t miserable, traffic-choked places with the same crap architecture and the same mulch-lined succulent gardens.

One of the protesters in Wahroonga pointed out that if she wanted to live in a place with no trees, she’d live in the western suburbs, which have an unfortunate reputation as an overdeveloped wasteland. And in turn, one of these railworkers wrote, “Typical North Shore attitude. I remember not that long ago, RailCorp removed the massive tree from High Street station. How many complaints? Zero! Westies have got bigger issues to deal with.” Presumably their sportscars and their barbecues.

So we’re seeing a supposed culture divide here. You’ve got the posh old ladies and the fruitcakes vs the tough, no-nonsense yobbos. I’ve been dealing with this dichotomy my whole life, because I grew up in a blue-collar community that viewed environmentalism as misguided at best. Well, I refuse to buy into it. Westies need green spaces and good planning too, even if they won’t admit it. Everyone needs sustainable living.

You know what? Forget it. Why should I keep explaining myself? Forget those yobbos. Forget George Carlin’s nihilism. Anyone who’d cut down a hundred-year-old fig tree without a really great reason (something on the order of possession by evil spirits), or anyone who’d justify it, is an asshole.

fig tree massacre

More follow-up to The Tree, the fine new Franco-Australian film which closed Cannes and recently debuted here in Oz at the Sydney Film Festival. It’s a narrative about a Queensland family’s odd relationship with the Moreton Bay Fig in their yard and their struggle to keep it from being cut down. (My review is on my other page; my last entry here is about French director Julie Bertucelli’s affection for Australia and her Redback boots.)

A few days ago, while getting samosas in the neighborhood, I happened to pick up one of those free local papers you see in every suburb — the ones you never really look at because they’re filled with non-news and lifestyle features for old people. But this time something grabbed my attention. To my surprise and dismay, I saw that life had mirrored art a little. The front page story was about the destruction of some one-hundred-year-old fig trees at a train station not far from where I live.

Apparently RailCorp, the state-owned enterprise that runs the commuter trains throughout New South Wales, decided the fig trees that graced the platform at Wahroonga train station were a menace to society. So they are doing away with them. Three of the trees were cut down last week; the other two will get the chainsaw in October.

Here you can see the trees as they were, strikingly situated right on the train platform.

Apparently the issue was the roots of the trees. Fig trees have very aggressive root systems that can cause a good deal of structural damage. (This is prominent in the plot of The Tree.) RailCorp claims the roots were irreversibly destroying the platform along with other infrastructure, creating public safety hazards, and that there was no cost-effective way to deal with the problem.

From what I can gather it all happened pretty fast. Wahroonga is an affluent neighborhood, the kind of place where you’d expect nice old trees would have some allies, but any opposition to this carnage was too little, too late. There was a hasty, badly-organized public forum; the mayor of Ku-ring-gai Council (the local governing body) appealed to RailCorp and various politicians to no avail and was eventually reduced to pleading; NSW Premier Kristina Keneally was alerted but she seems to have sniffed her nose at the problem. So down came the trees.

The maddening thing is there was no actual support for removing the trees, no outcry in the community that led RailCorp to make the decision. Now the community has lost the historic trees that beautified the platform and provided shade for decades, and no one’s happy about it — no one’s gained anything. It’s the worst sort of bureaucratic laziness, apathy, and penny-pinching that led to this outrage. To cut down one-hundred year old trees because they are supposedly in the way — because you can’t come up with the resources or imagination to work around them — there’s something willfully obnoxious or hateful about that. It’s a kind of violence.

There’s a lot going on in the world right now from Gaza to the Gulf of Mexico. But for some reason this ugly business has angered me most of all since I found out about it. They say you should think locally. This stubborn, mindless act by Railcorp represents everything that’s wrong with the way we conceive of and care for our living environments. I mean, call me a hippie or whatever.

I found two WordPress blogs written by local advocates of historic trees that cover this incident pretty well:

  • Saving Our Trees has plenty of information showing that RailCorp’s reasoning about why the trees had to go is a lot of bollocks.
  • Save Our Figs offers a great overview of architecture and design solutions for living with historic trees. Too late for the three which fell last week, alas.

By the way, I didn’t make up the title of this post: I found this phrasing on more than one online account of the story.

acknowledgement of country

One morning a few weeks ago I attended the official launch of the Sydney Film Festival at Customs House. The launch is essentially a press conference to announce the festival’s program and start the process of hyping it, with a presentation of the ad campaign, trailers for some of the films, and some speechifying. A couple of high-powered names showed up to add weight to the proceedings, including Miranda Otto, star of the festival’s Opening Night film, South Solitary.

The first speaker was Virginia Judge, Member of Parliament and Minister for the Arts for New South Wales. Before she spoke, she made a point of acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land, and thanking them for their cultural and spiritual legacy. Then she went on to more mundane thanks and acknowledgemnts — the board of directors, sponsors, and so on.

I was pleased but slightly astonished. I have to admit it made me disposed to give extra consideration to everything else she said that morning. But I could not figure out the context. It certainly seemed done in some official capacity, and not on any sort of whim. Yet I’d never heard such a thing, and it seemed very fresh and unusual to my ears. Suffice it to say that no elected official or bureaucrat in America would go there unless there was a reason for it — unless they were stumping for a crowd of Native American voters, or commemorating a massacre or something. But I couldn’t see an overt reason Ms. Judge would do that in downtown Sydney (where there is not a significant indigenous population), at a film festival press conference. There were no particularly Aboriginal themes or collaborations of note, and I didn’t think there were any special guests of indigenous heritage.

That day I posted some of these observations on facebook. I mentioned that it made me feel good, even if it wasn’t off the cuff or from the heart. My friend Larissa, who is from here but now lives in England, responded by informing me that indeed, it’s an official thing. It’s a set of protocols that a growing number of organizations here in Oz follow at the start of functions or activities. It’s called Acknowledgement of Country. A more formal version, called Welcome to Country, involves an Aboriginal elder being present to officially bless an event or gathering. Sometimes a Welcome to Country can include a special fire ceremony.

I wasn’t surprised. Maybe I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t witnessed some sort of spontaneous gratitude on the part of Ms. Judge. But the more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of such a protocol.

Last week I was at the festival’s Opening Night at the State Theatre. Before the program started, an Aboriginal gentleman, a representative of some cultural body, came onstage and addressed the crowd. He was quite a jolly chap and started by warming up the crowd with a couple of joking asides. (Before speaking, he bumped into the microphone, causing some feedback, and theatrically muttered, “Bloody hell!” earning a big laugh). He also magnanimously apologized for the rainy weather. But after a minute I realized I was witnessing a Welcome to Country. He explained that we were on Cadigal land; that the Cadigal band, part of the Eora nation, were and are the traditional custodians of the land on which Sydney is built.

He then welcomed us to Cadigal land — welcomed us warmly, welcomed us several times in fact. He was pretty articulate and polished, but chose to use a lot of slang for effect — for example, he referred to the Cadigal as the “mob” who run this place, and said that whatever mob we came from, we were welcome here too. He rambled a bit but I liked the way he talked. He called us all his brothers and sisters. I don’t think you can ever go wrong with that kind of outlook.

After he was done with his welcome, more functionaries and guests came onstage with introductory remarks. (Actually there were a few too many of them, and a few too many remarks. The crowd grew quite restless as the christening of the festival approached an hour.) Each speaker acknowledged the country briefly before moving on to the business at hand.

Being newly aware that it’s an official thing gave me a different perspective. If it’s not terribly sincere — if it’s just done by rote before some official stream of hot air, doesn’t that take something away from it? And what good is all the acknowledging of the “traditional” custodians anyway, since the Cadigal were decimated by smallpox before being systematically driven off their land? What claim do they actually have on the real estate value of this land and the tremendous amount of commerce that goes on here? What good does it do the indigenous people of Australia to take part in bureaucratic functions, and to have the right things said about them by well-meaning politicians, if living conditions are still so bad for most of them? What good are words?

Actually, words are pretty powerful. They say watch your words, for they will become your actions. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s easy enough to be cynical about the government saying nice things. But coming from a place where it’s much less likely for the government to acknowledge the Native American legacy — not to mention the crucial part in our history played by slavery — it’s pretty refreshing. So I think it’s good there’s an apparatus in place to oblige these official types to say these things. Mere acknowledgement is not enough, but it’s a start. It’s also yet another new thing I’ve discovered that’s utterly and unmistakably Australian. I like it.

So, come to think of it, I too would like to show my respect and acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land I live on, and elders past and present, and would like to thank them for their cultural and spiritual legacy and its contributions to my writing and everything else I do.

Here are two links for information about the Cadigal and other indigenous people native to the Sydney area:


There’s another WordPress blog that auto-linked to mine some time back, written by a Peace Corps volunteer in Belize named Shannon. The reason it linked is because Shannon has a problem with spiders too. Her blog is new (she just arrived in Belize) and she’s established a widget on her page to track her Scary Spider Count. I looked the other day, and the count was 0; this morning it’s up to 2. Apparently her arachnophobia is pretty severe. I wish her well.

My scary spider count is rising too. When I first wrote about huntsmen (large spiders that are dismayingly common here), I had only seen one — and that one was being subdued by a spider wasp. For a couple of months they occupied my mind in anticipation; I kept expecting one to jump out at me every time I turned on the kitchen light. But nothing ever happened, and eventually my nerves settled down a bit.

But then I started seeing them. There was one on the wall of a dank bathroom at work. (Needless to say I turned and left without unzipping my jeans.) Then I saw one in the yard early one morning as I was leaving for work. Looking over my shoulder as I backed out of the driveway, I saw it perched on a fencepost like it thought it was a goddamned sparrow. I saw it again in the exact same spot the next morning too, and again later that week. This really bothered me. I had thought hunting spiders roamed about and did not keep “homes.” It was a small comfort to believe my little adversaries were not likely to shack up in (or near) our place permanently. But as my wife reminded me, even hunting creatures are territorial. So I suppose our fence is for that spider like a mountain lion’s rocky outcropping — the place she sits every night to survey her domain. (Yeah, watch out for the wasps, bitch.)

Huntsmen are “scary” to me because they’re over a personal size threshold: they’re big enough that they bug me out no matter how brief or controlled the encounter. It’s funny how the sight of them stays with me. I can still picture the one on the brick wall of the bathroom, poised facing the floor, just sitting there as still as a little statue, yet full of potential energy. I didn’t go back in that bathroom for days. And the one on the fencepost really got to me: I stared at it for a moment with the car’s engine running, before continuing on to work with a bad case of the creeps. It was as if I thought it was going to fly six feet through the air and come right through the glass windshield and get on me, like in a horror flick. I spent the rest of the drive with my skin crawling, paranoid there might be other spiders in the car.

But wait, let me back up for a second. Even getting the car out of the garage every morning is a challenge for me. Our garage is small and quite confined; the ceiling is not much higher than me. To step into this small, musty, warm, dark space early in the morning, knowing it’s an ideal place to find a spider — a freaking spider condo — I always have to pause for a moment and screw up a tiny extra bit of courage. And I tend to rush as I’m unlocking the car and getting in, sometimes bumping my head or cracking my shin, before slamming the door in a hurry.

It’s not easy to admit this stuff. Okay, it’s fun to write about it, but at the end of the day it makes me question myself. Should grown men have phobias? I can’t imagine my dad having any. (Though he does often say he’d rather jump out of an airplane than ride in one.) But I thought it was telling when I was getting out of the car early one morning and suddenly a big bat, with a wingspan of two feet or more, rustled out of a tree right in front of me, flapping its wings almost in my face before flying off in a flurry. It didn’t scare me at all; hardly registered in fact. And in Mexico, we stayed in an open cabaña with lizards everywhere: huge iguanas walking around outside, little geckos coming right in the room, running up and down the adobe walls all day and night. I slept just fine. I like lizards.

So the thing about big spiders is specific, and consistent, and contained; it’s like a solid thing in my mind that I can recognize but can’t quite understand. I’m the first to admit it’s irrational. It just won’t be intellectualized. It’s one distinct signal on one channel that jams my radar every time.

Smaller spiders don’t bother me near as much, unless one happens to get on me. And orb-weavers don’t cause me any problems, even if they’re sizeable, because they stay parked in one place on their webs; they don’t have the awful surprise factor of hunting spiders. I can walk right up to their webs and look at them without getting too creeped out. As must be obvious, my dread of spiders goes hand in hand with fascination. And of course the webs are just amazing and beautiful. Again: my attitude rapidly changes if I walk into a web unexpectedly.

So I’m not freaking out every time I see a spider. But they’re everywhere here. I mean all over the bloody place. As Amo helpfully pointed out in a comment on my other spider post, we’re surrounded by the orb-weavers. You can’t walk any distance here in the suburbs without seeing the webs on everything, every shrub and mailbox — sometimes huge and prolific, with six or seven of the yellow-and-black “St Andrew’s Cross” spiders hanging out together. Just now I got up to fix hot chocolate, and there’s a pretty big spider suspended on a web a few feet outside the kitchen window. Mowing the lawn once, I ran into a web and got one on me, and, sure enough, it shook me up for a while.

At my job, in an organic produce warehouse in Homebush, I can expect to see them all the time. They build webs on the brick walls, in the corners, under the shelves and wooden pallets, in every available dry space. I looked between two shelves the other day and beheld an amazing forest of webs and countless little spiders. Sure the little ones don’t bother me, but the sheer number made me pause. And they live in the bins of produce: travellers from the farms in Victoria and Tasmania, feeding on the bugs that also come along on the leaves of silverbeet or cabbage — the bins forming little cardboard ecosystems. I guess I’m getting used to reaching into bins of cabbage or pumpkins or watermelons and finding spiders. Okay, not really.

I’ve somehow landed in the middle of a plague of spiders, a spider apocalypse, which is apparently the normal state of things here in Australia. And I haven’t gotten to the dangerous ones yet.

Not long ago at work, a young woman opened a box of organic grapes and found a redback spider. She took it pretty well — chuckling about it a few minutes later as if it had been a prank. Maybe because a bite from a redback would probably not kill her, but merely hospitalize her for a day. Or maybe because she’s an Aussie, and Aussies have a way of being nonchalant or even happy-go-lucky about dangerous animals, killer rip currents, skin cancer, and dying of thirst in the outback. “Ha ha, don’t worry mate, a redback won’t kill ya. If one bites ya, just skull a couple of Panadol to keep the swelling down and call the ambos! Now if a funnel web bites ya that’s another story, hey!”

Redbacks are common everywhere in Australia. They actually proliferate around human dwellings as they prefer the warm, dry, enclosed environments we provide. Because of this, redbacks are spreading around the world via Australian cargo ships. They are not unknown in New Zealand, Japan, and even UAE. Unlike their North American cousins, the black widows (which they resemble), redbacks are not very retiring, and are notorious for popping up to scare or bite people in the damnedest places, especially toilets. You could say they have a lot of character, a cheerful fuck-off Aussie attitude. That, along with their sleek comic-book markings, are the reasons Aussie humans have affectionately taken to the redback as a national symbol, a wicked alternative to the kangaroo. You see them depicted everywhere in art, in crafts, on T-shirts, surfboards and skateboards, race cars, jewelry, tattoos. My wife’s parents have little sculptures of redbacks in their living room. The name and image is used in all manner of branding and logo design. I googled it and saw Redback Surf & Snow, Redback Studios, Redback Networks, Redback Creations, Redback Mufflers, and some weaselly marketing entity called Redback Solutions. I saw other companies pushing motorcycles, hot sauce, and beer named after the spider. And of course there’s Redback Boots, makers of work boots and shoes and a popular rival to the classic Blundstone. I myself recently bought a pair of Redback chef clogs. So I’m walking around with spider logos on the soles of my shoes. Maybe I should go on and get a tattoo.

Aussies are chillingly (if cheerfully) specific about bad spider encounters. “Make sure you always check your shoes for funnel webs, and when one gets in your pool, don’t play with it.” “Don’t worry, you will find a huntsman in your car one of these days; just hope you’re not driving when it happens.”

Fuelled by morbid fascination, I made the mistake of reading up about Australian spiders when I first arrived. That’s how I found out about things like the redback’s fondness for toilets, and that huntsmen can run very rapidly and are known to exhibit a “clinging reflex,” so that when they get on people it’s often hard to get them off. (My wife had one on her shoulder once when she was a little girl. Crikey!) Then there are the funnel webs…

Atrax robustus, the Sydney Funnel Web spider, is among the deadliest of spiders, one of the world’s most dangerous animals full stop. Aussies can joke about redbacks, but no one wants to meet a funnel web. Unfortunately their main habitat is one of the most densely populated suburban areas on the continent — and it also happens to be right where we live, the North Shore of Sydney. It’s crazy to look at an otherwise green and idyllic wooded area in my neighborhood and know there lurks such terror. It must be like living close to tigers or polar bears, except there are thousands or even millions of them, small and well-hidden killers.

How is it possible such a small creature is so fantastically venomous? Why does it need enough neurotoxin in one bite to kill an several grown men when its prey is small insects? As for what the venom does to people, I won’t go into detail, but it’s like something out of Clive Barker. (Just keep checking those shoes.)

Reading about the funnel webs, there was just no good news at all. I found out they are bigger, more aggressive, and more free-ranging than I had previously thought; they run fast, can survive underwater for hours (indeed a funnel web in a swimming pool is a common suburban experience), and their large fangs can penetrate soft shoes. And they look sickeningly fearsome too, resembling little black tarantulas.

When I posted about funnel webs on facebook, a friend wrote that spiders are the perfect monsters — and the last monsters we have in this world. We don’t believe in goblins or vampires anymore. But spiders, bloodsucking predators with their eight legs and many eyes, able to run up walls or glide down on us from nowhere, and many of them able to seriously harm or kill us with poison, are real monsters that won’t go away.

Mind you in speaking of poison we’ve gone past arachnophobia here. Spiders, and poisonous spiders, are filed in two totally separate compartments in my mind. I don’t want a big spider near me, no matter how harmless; and I don’t want to die painfully after being injected with a powerful neurotoxin by anything, spider or not. The first attitude is not rational; the other one is.

I’ve tried to explain this endlessly to people here. But most Ausies just don’t seem to get arachnophobia. And it makes sense: if you grow up around something, you are less likely to fear it irrationally. Arachnophobia is a syndrome of cold, northern places, where creeping things are historically vilified and kept out of homes. In the tropical places of the world, where nature is so rich and dominant and there’s not the same dichotomy of “inside” and “outside,” people have a more accepting and holistic attitude about fauna of all kinds great and small. If you’re used to having tarantulas in your shack or bamboo hut, why fear them? Hell, in southeast Asia they eat them, as a delicacy, the way Westerners eat crabs or prawns. (I’m a vegetarian, so it’s kind of all the same to me.)

But Aussies aren’t exactly keeping huntsmen as pets or serving them for brekky, so you’d think they could at least try and understand why I might feel the way I do. But talking to some of them about it is like talking to a little kid.

ME: Sheesh! There was a huntsman in the toilet. God, I hate those things.

AUSSIE: Aw, they won’t hurt ya.

ME: I know that, but they just bother me.

AUSSIE: But they won’t hurt ya; they’re harmless.

ME: Well, yeah. Maybe. But anyway they’re not exactly harmless if they scare the hell out of me or make me feel sick.

AUSSIE: But why should they scare ya if they’re harmless? It’s the funnel webs ya gotta worry about, mate. There was one in my pool yesterday…

ME: I just don’t like spiders, I don’t care if they’re poisonous or not. Especially if they’re big.

AUSSIE: Aw, they won’t bite ya. They’re like daddy long legs.

ME: Huh? No, they’re not. Daddy long legs are —

AUSSIE: Because they’re harmless.

ME: –daddy long legs are a completely different kind of arachnid —

AUSSIE: Daddy long legs are the harmless spiders with long skinny legs.

ME: They’re not spiders. They’re related — they’re arachnids — but they’re not —

AUSSIE: They’re harmless.

ME: I know they’re harmless; but they’re not spiders.

AUSSIE: [pointing to the corner] See, there’s one. That’s a daddy long legs.

ME: That’s not a daddy long legs. That’s a small spider with skinny legs.

AUSSIE: Same thing mate. Anyway, you’re new here. You’ll find huntsmen won’t bite ya.

ME: I don’t care if they bite me or not! I don’t like them. I just don’t want them near me.

AUSSIE: Aw, you’ll get used to it mate. You just don’t want one on your face when you’re driving. It happened to me once…