A personal story, set in Maasailand, Northern Tanzania. Performed at Perth Poetry Club, October 2012; published by Hypallage, 2013.
We met on the edge of a cliff
gazing into our own negative image
folding limbs and lips into caresses that we had always craved
floating on the words of our deepest desires uttered by another’s mouth
bridging worlds with hearts, weaving continents with cups of tea,
melding beads with blessings, black with white, Sabbath with savannah,
mother tongues, and mothers.
pulled by shared aspirations to climb mountains, swim oceans
and create another world.
Unsure just how we landed where we did in this unfolding of history
we rowed into unchartered territory with readiness.
and while the earth gave us laughter and texture; soul and pain
the trail that we had followed was washed away by rain
we met on the edge of a cliff
with one wing each
the ground was far below us
out of reach
warned about strange birds
far flung nests
we had chased the rainbow
blinded by her colourful promise
the cliff’s edge crumbled
our destiny stumbled
we were enveloped by sky
our only hope was to fly
and we held eachother
each wing beating as hard as it could
flagellating with all of the rhythms we knew
but our wings beat out of sync
rivers of tears grew
and why – God only knows. We never really flew
no. we tumbled. we fell
through shivering winters
through hot summer rains
and old buried things
we broke our crowns
our hearts gashed open
our lips cut, dry
our voices hoarse with screams
until, in turn, we stopped.
there is always a branch to catch
if you are determined to get out alive
and now all I can do
is pick myself up
nurse my wounds
and weave my own second wing.
© Keren Gila Raiter
A few years ago I conducted some research about the threat of an exotic plant disease called ‘dieback’ (Phytophthora cinnamomi) to plants of significance to Noongar people on the south coast of Western Australia. Noongar (also spelled Nyungah) is the name for the Indigenous people and traditional custodians of southwestern Western Australia. I had the honour of going out into the bush with some of these people, and learning about their bush tucker and bush medicine. I also had the sadness of learning about the destruction caused by this introduced plant disease: beautiful under the microscope, ugly in consequence.
This clip was recorded in June 2012 at the Denmark Festival of Voice, Western Australia. The words follow:
Autobiography of a Plant Killer
They first found me rotting away in a cinnamon tree,
And I am a malaise of modern, mobile, society.
Virile, though sexless,
I am newcomer to these age old rocks.
And I am a detail by which technology killed the world.
I am small, almost microscopic, my translucent whiskers are shapely, charming, miniature versions of the coral reefs that lie stretched out beneath the oceans.
And like the reefs, I am huge too, my coralline whiskers have slithered, swum, and hitched from Sumatra all around the world, to the ancient woods of Tasmania, the famous proteas of southern Africa…
In the mud on the tyres of your four-wheel-drive-ly.
I stowed away in soil on ships and I now ravage the tall hardwoods of the Americas, and the great wildlands of southern Australia, where every peak in the landscape is a story from creation; and now the bush foods of the local ones are becoming less, and less, and less.
The old Noongar, she talks about the bush tucker.
She tells of the honey from the banksias, a good healing tonic.
Dead banksias now.
She calls me Drastic
They call me Insidious. Tragic. Deadly.
They call me Phytopathogenic Pseudofungus.
They call me Biological Bulldozer.
they call me Phytophthora cinnamomi.
They call me Worse Than Salinity.
I ignore signs. I ignore boundaries.
I ignore laws that say ‘no taking of native flora’; ‘no destruction in a national park’. I destroy the hillsides, I destroy the valleys. And those plants; I take half.
I take half and leave their skeletons, grey and dead.
They call me dieback. But I am a front. And I am in front.
And somehow it comes to be that my unconscious, mouldy evolution has outsmarted all the power and knowledge and gadgets of the human race, and all they can do is watch me do my work, try to grapple with my epidemiology, and hope to live longer than my victims and tell their story.
“Gotta speak good story”, they say.
I ain’t no good story.
I love the rotting of the living.
I scour the roots with which the windswept trees grip the ancient soil, as they turn red with silent, underground rage at their doom.
You see, I believe in simplifying the world. Just what clarity is there in a biodiversity that stretches from here to the moon? Why worry with those
all them that are Myrtaceous
(words that your common physicist couldn’t even spell)
when you can so easily manage
sedge, after sedge, after sedge.
I creep underbark, through vessels built for water and food and all things good. I creep leaving lesions scarring up tall, strong trees that withstand wind and rain and the turning of centuries, but cannot resist my deathwish.
Parched, thirsty roots dying silently.
Cells without integrity once I’ve been through.
and so, even before full-scale industrialisation,
I took advantage of exponentialization.
While young male patriots ran up and down the wild magnificent mountains, learning how not to fall over,
And pioneer farmers with high hopes cleared land for their woolly herds,
And roads were built,
And gravel was spilt,
I, without guilt,
flagged a ride on their shoes.
© Keren Gila Raiter 2012
(Originally posted on Sustaining Ecology)
I was recently invited to contribute to the Wilderness Society’s exhibition of art inspired by the Great Western Woodlands, as part of an event held to celebrate the incredible but threatened Helena-Aurora Range, and gather support for its protection. To learn more about the event, the need for protection of Helena-Aurora Range, and ways of supporting its protection, click here.
The images and text that I exhibited and performed follow.
All photographs and text © Keren Gila Raiter except where noted
A take on the nuclear fuel cycle. Inspired and informed by, and in gratitude to the amazing crew of Footprints for Peace, the Ngalia, Wankatja and Wangatha people of central Western Australia, the deeply nourishing and inspiring work of activists (some of whom I’ve had the honour of meeting and walking with) that stretches across Australia, France, Italy, the US, New Zealand, and all around the globe, and Helen Caldicott’s book ‘Nuclear Power is not the answer to global warming (or anything else)’ – I reference this book heavily. For more info, hear Helen Caldicott talk on Youtube.
Hear this poem on soundcloud:
I am on a field trip out to the Great Western Woodlands, setting up transects to investigate the effects of tracks in otherwise undisturbed landscapes on predator activity and interactions. We normally camp in the bush, far away from electricity, reception, and heaters (other than the good old fire-pit variety) but yesterday rain turned the roads to mush and we sought shelter at a mine camp.
I’m just a fledgling haiku writer; here some are trying their wings.
as far as the eagle can see
my spirit can soar
the fox that walked here
a month ago
still witnessed in the clay
flowers hide in spindly bushes
like smiles on miners
dust settles on fresh tracks
swag blankets relax around
fire pit nestled between swags
morning finds them frost-laden
between sunset and sundown
I try not to slide
the smell of dust
when it becomes mud
sun and stars watch over
even when obscured by clouds
And for anyone who is concerned by my disregard for the ‘conventional English’ approach to Haiku – the 5,7,5 syllable rule; i recommend that you read Maureen Sexton’s inspiring writeup on the topic, at www.wapoets.net.au/mari-warabiny-haiku-group/info-on-haiku/
In my day life, I conduct ecological research on the Great Western Woodlands. Daily I am baffled with the mysteries and complexity of our natural world and the fascinating ecosystems that abound around us (sometimes despite even our worst intentions).
Scientists try to figure out what we can actually know about the natural world, and sometimes this requires applying complex statistics to help us discern the patterns that are often hidden by chance and complexity. It amazes me that numbers, as abstract as they are, can tell as concrete stories as they do. Sometimes it’s useful to have concrete facts in this world, or as close to them as we’ll probably ever get.
Lately I’ve been working on designing an experiment to detect the effect of a road on the activity of feral and native predators – cats, foxes and dingoes.
I’m planning to use infra-red motion-sensor cameras to photograph these creatures as they walk in front of the cameras, but they are cryptic animals and one of my challenges is about getting enough data to be able to draw strong conclusions from my results – and more generally about having what’s called a statistically powerful investigation. What has made it even more tricky is that I can’t assume that the data is distributed in what’s called a ‘normal’ way, and the software I was using to try to figure it all out, GPower, had some very cryptic definitions for some of the symbols it was using.
On top of this, I had pretty much forgotten the statistics I learnt at uni and had to grabble with seemingly alien concepts such as different types of degrees of freedom, numbers of tails, variance, and how to calculate what’s called the ‘effect size’ amongst it all.
This was my therapy:
violating even the meekest assumptions of normality
nine lives; two tails
seven degrees of freedom
cryptic hunters from another continent
devouring a half-dozen between dusk and dawn
leaving just soft padded prints in the sand
and sometimes you’re the
sometimes the denominator
restricted by dingoes, foxes, (and moonlight?)
while I, armed with GPower and infrared
decoded the alpha
struggle to sense you, squish you into a statistical equation
your chance encounters
threaten a lot of nothing
and I am a naïve marsupial
but will you show me your effect size?
a workshop exercise…
ancient pillars ankle deep
only stilted clowns stay dry
red stockings, tartan shorts
clown’s hat and painted shoes
do not save you from drowning
we are flooded
ancient jokes high and dry
above city streets