When I was growing up, we sang a lot. At home, in church, at school, wherever. One of our family’s favorites to sing together was a tune my mom says she learned in summer camp when she was 12, in Texas, where we all grew up. I’ll remember it forever, she wrote me. Maybe because it’s such a funny name…? When my parents, brothers, and I were bored on car trips, we sang in rounds this funny ditty about a funny bird in Australia, one we had never laid eyes on, but loved in our imaginations:
Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree.
Merry, merry king of the bush is he.
Laugh, kookaburra, laugh, kookaburra.
Gay your life must be.
Kookaburra sits on the old gum tree.
Eating all the gumdrops he can see.
Stop, kookaburra, stop, kookaburra.
Save a few for me.
Nothing is funny about what’s been going on in the land of the kookaburra for the last few months. I had written Mom after I read a Globe and Mail article about the horrendous fires in Australia. In it is a picture of a regal-looking, but hardly gay, kookaburra in silhouette, perched on the sad limb of a scorched black tree, looking out onto a charred landscape. The aftermath of a fire that ate everything in its path still must rage nearby; the sky is ashen and glows orange.
Since before Christmas, before this environmental nightmare was even receiving press here, I was messaging my friend in Sydney to check on her and her family. We’re OK, but I can’t help thinking about all the poor animals trapped in the bush, she wrote. The government is blasé and apathetic, but so is the general public, and it’s global, not just in Australia… She and I, witnessing images of virtual hell on earth, are beyond flummoxed.
At last count, I read that as many as 500 million animals had been killed in the catastrophe, then it quickly became an estimate of more than a billion, but it was impossible to really count, “inestimable,” journalists have reported. It’s so overwhelming a figure that I can scarcely process it anyway.
The animals that we found so exotic and dear, are being swept away in flames. The amount of land—their habitat (not ours)—that has been reduced to smoldering ash exceeds a staggering 12 million acres. Photos of the slow-moving koalas are perhaps the most tragic sight, as they seem so cute and helpless. My friend forwards me a link to donate toward their care; it feels like an exercise in futility, but I send what I can. Kangaroos can at least jump. Wombats have amazingly been witnessed ushering other animals into their below-ground dens for safety, but what will be there when they emerge?
Camels who are thirsty and hungry are leaving the devastated lands and getting too close to civilization, so the plan is that they will be shot. The ongoing dry conditions may cause the extinction of the weirdly wonderful, bird/mammal, platypus, whose rivers have vanished. More rare still, the potoroo, honey-eater, glossy black cockatoo, dunnart, and others I’ve never even see photos of, are threatened by the destruction of their ecosystems.
Land clearing, construction, and the damming of rivers are happening on top of climate change causing the record-breaking heat waves and extreme dryness. The rain, when it finally came, brought on the opposite extreme; it was so torrential, it rapidly turned into flash floods—and ones that won’t even extinguish all of the fires or balance the drought.
All of it is caused by us humans, who continue to turn a blind eye from the devastating chaos we have wrought. It’s referred to as “catastophic,” “shocking,” “freakish,” “apocalyptic”—a “wildlife holocaust”—and yet, despite these dramatic terms, those in positions of power continue to deny, deflect, be easily bought. What is necessary to affect change? If a country immolating itself doesn’t convince, what will?
It’s all too painful to properly contemplate. I focus on this one surviving kookaburra, whose image is etched into my brain. In the shot, he looks like the last survivor on a dying planet. I now read that even birds, who I assumed could all fly above infernos, are dying, too. And on what gum tree anywhere, after all the damage has been done, will the kookaburras sit anyway?
The once-happy song of my childhood becomes a funereal dirge in my brain.
As author Clive Hamilton succinctly writes, “What have we done?”