Freelance Science Writer & Editor

The cool shade of trees

An occasional blog about plants, people and landscape.

The age of last chances

Viki Cramer - Wednesday, March 22, 2017

I was at a gathering of school mums the other night and, in somewhat of a surprise to me, the topic of coral bleaching came up.  



It was a short conversation at the kitchen bench while we prepared cheese boards and dips, our sentences disrupted as one of us disappeared behind the fridge door or another attended to a child’s demand for a snack.

It was one of those moments where your mind hovers momentarily, like a hummingbird before a fuchsia, deciding whether this is the moment to attempt a conversation about the science around coral bleaching. The sentences begin to form in your head: ‘Well, there’s just been a paper published in Nature describing just how bad the bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef was last year and that those corals may never recover…’

It is but a moment before your social intelligence shoos that bird away—a busy kitchen bench surrounded by distracted mothers with champagne glasses waiting on the verandah is not the place.

So my contribution was blunt. Take your children to see coral reefs now, I said. They are dying.

*****

When I was twenty-one a friend lent me Douglas Adams’ Last Chance to See. We were about to head off to Indonesia for a couple of months, first as part of a university study tour on Java after which we would travel along the archipelago to West Timor before flying into Darwin.

It was my first trip overseas. This was back in the last century, before the rise of budget airlines made travel by plane seem more like a right than a privilege. For years I had endured 12-hour bus trips between my university’s city and the regional centre an hour-and-a-half’s drive from my home town. We drove to see family in the south. We drove to where we holidayed. Mostly these trips were one and the same. For a kid like me from a home of modest means, to fly anywhere was extraordinary.

In his book, Adams travels around the globe with zoologist Mark Carwardine in search of endangered animals that it may well be their last chance to see: aye aye in Madagascar; kakapo in New Zealand; Komodo dragons in Indonesia, to name a few. Adams’ prose, of course, is insightful and hilarious. The idea of travelling to remote locations to view endangered species that few other people had seen deeply appealed to me. It had everything a young ecologist could want: adventure, remoteness, bragging rights. And so, over the years, I’ve had a list of ‘last chance to see’ species that I refresh and update from time to time when it floats to the surface from the depths of my mind. It’s a prompt to future holiday plans, both realistic and of the day-dreaming variety. Not all species on the list are threatened, they just appeal to something in me. Some are obvious, perhaps even cliché: tigers in India; polar bears in the Arctic; snow leopards in the Himalayas; whale sharks at Ningaloo. Just a glimpse of a jaguar basking on the banks of an Amazonian river. Others are esoteric or arise from childhood fascinations: puffins on their cliffs above angry northern seas; stinking Rafflesia in the mud and litter of an Indonesian forest; red-footed boobies because—too late—I realised my Galàpagos boat didn’t go to that island; the red crab migration on Christmas Island (and hey, there’s red-footed boobies there too).

But now things are shifting fast. We are in the Age of Consequences. Coral reefs are dying in the intensive care unit while they wait for the transplant team to deliver a future where atmospheric carbon and ocean temperatures are stabilised. Down the corridor in the geriatric ward, once-resilient trees of great age slowly fade away as the rainfall dripping into their circulatory systems lessens and becomes more erratic each year. Meanwhile, in emergency, it’s Saturday night, and a cocktail of high temperatures and strong winds sees the usually mild-mannered wet forests explode into violent flame. The Mediterranean-climate woodlands have been in every Saturday night for weeks.

It’s beginning to feel like it’s not just a matter of the last chance to see species anymore. It’s beginning to feel like it’s the last chance to see entire ecosystems.

*****

By any estimate, I have led a fortunate life. I have flown—not as much as some, but more than my parents could ever have imagined for themselves. That jaguar may forever allude me, but I have seen her cousin, the puma, slip through the slight stems of a Patagonian forest. I didn’t get my itinerary right for the red-footed booby, but a pair of waved albatross let me creep close and then danced for each other like no one was watching. I have floated above manta rays and green turtles; I’ve seen and heard the noisy bustle of life on coral reefs on both sides of Australia. I’m holding off on meeting the whale shark because I don’t want to meet him alone. I want to meet him with my son, and he’s not ready just yet to jump from a boat into the open ocean.

The nature writer Robert Michael Pyle used the term ‘extinction of experience’ to describe what he considered as an ongoing alienation of people from nature. Pyle was writing in the context of the need for children to have direct contact with the nature they would encounter in everyday life—in parks, in vacant lots and, in his self-described experience, in ‘ditches’. But we are facing another type of extinction of experience when remote and largely wild places become depauperate shadows of their former selves. When healthy coral reefs and Arctic sea ice exist only in people’s memories and in the glorious ultra-realism of high-definition BBC documentaries.

Take your children to see coral reefs now. The irony of my selfishness does not escape me. Fly, take your children to see the coral reefs that are now dying because there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere, to which air travel has contributed a disproportionate amount. That a modern consumer life of buying what we want and going where we want, when we want, is pretty much what got us in this mess in the first place, despite all the recycling and not using plastic bags and not turning on the air conditioner until it gets really hot.

Climate scientist Sophie Lewis has movingly written of her ethical dilemma of emotionally wanting a child but intellectually knowing that the pitter-patter of tiny Australian feet ‘is inevitably the pitter-patter of giant carbon footprints’. My son has flown more in his first six years than I did in my first thirty. Like Lewis, I am full of internal conflict about how I can pass on the beauty and opportunity of my own life to my child in a way that means there will be equal beauty and opportunity for his children, dare he have any. I want him to experience wonder as I have, directly, not through the cold and flat intermediary of a screen. Intellectually I know we should live locally but emotionally I want to take him and travel far, to fly.

We live in a region brimming with biological wonders within less than a day’s drive from our home. We don’t have to travel far to see rare plants and animals in spectacular landscapes. We don’t even have to leave the house: threatened forest red-tailed black cockatoos roost in the trees around us and endangered Carnaby’s cockatoos wheel overhead. Our everyday landscape is bursting with experience. The Leeuwin Current brings warm water from the Philippines down the west coast of Australia to the temperate latitudes of Perth and so tropical fish gather in the waters around Rottnest Island, a short ferry ride away.

And yet, and yet. It’s not the Great Barrier Reef; it’s not Ningaloo. I want him to see these coral reefs in all their glory, soon.

I am but human.

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Science Writer and Editor Perth Australia
Viki Cramer   PhD BSc
Freelance science writer specialising in ecology and the environment.
Ecologist - Science Communicator - Editor
Perth, Australia
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