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When nature is the enemy

Smoke clouds, Flickr image by jetyDuring one of the days of recent grinding and relentless heat, I suddenly remembered, in graphic detail, a scene from a very different place and time.

At Glyndebourne in 1996 my wife and I went to the splendid new Opera House to see Handel's Theodora. At the long interval — designed deliberately to allow the audience a leisurely mid-performance meal — we retired to our reserved table on the wide, curving verandah overlooking the svelte, embowered gardens and dined on all sorts of marvels and drank very good champagne.

What was especially English about it was that we did so in a freezing wind that unfurled long lashes of rain in under the overhang of the roof, just failing each time to reach our table and its load of goodies. We didn't get wet and spirits remained high, but it was a heavily overcoated, scarfed and bonneted meal.

We stayed that weekend in the nearby village of Firle — white cottaged, murmurous with birds and cattle distantly lowing; raucous and welcoming down the pub end, steepled and lit by a cold sliver of moon at the cemetery end. Firle, where the cricket pavilion is the best new building in the village, and where, as we entered the cacophonous pub on Saturday night, a bloke at the door reassured us: 'Don't worry, they're noisy but they're only cricketers.'

Nudging through the flannelled fools towards the bar, it took only minutes for us to be identified as Australians, which gave rise to much cricket wit, many predictions, a couple of bets and a dare or two.

Though sliced up by far too many roads and menaced here and there by industrial and other incursions, the English countryside remains nevertheless one of the sleekest, most beautifully tended landscapes in the world. To Australian eyes its daunting constriction and sometimes prissy neatness are mitigated by breathtaking beauty, 'where every prospect pleases'.

Generations of Australian schoolchildren until well into the 1950s grew up with that English landscape, or some idealised version of it, dominant in their imaginations because those scenes were the main subject of the poems and stories they were given to read.

A distant world of hedgerows, barns, snow covered fields, smoke adrift in freezing air, spring arriving at last like soft brilliant shrapnel exploding through a grey land — these it seemed were the stuff of landscape, of Nature.

In comparison, the antipodean natural world seemed, until we learned to see it and understand its shy and withdrawn beauties, not landscape but simply terrain and space: the huge and remote blue sky; a hot, dessicating gale blowing dust and the whiff of fire; small corrugated iron-roofed buildings squatting at the empty intersection of bush roads bursting out of one mirage and wobbling distantly into the next; curvatures of white beach edged with long slow surf and not a single soul for a hundred miles.

As for spring: no burst of energy down here, just Nature's shrug as the sun imperceptibly warms.

At least, that's how the comparison used to go. Climate change has redrawn that picture as profoundly as it is redrawing many other assumptions and expectations.

More and more, we are being forced to think of climate not as a phenomenon that ranges and alters across the hemispheres, helping them assume their separate identities, but as a vast and global event in which we are all rather helplessly taking part: floods and fires; unprecedented storms and snow and ice; murderous cyclones; wave after wave of heat; floods and fires ravaging simultaneously within a few hundred kilometres of each other.

None of them is apparently any longer confined to their time honoured places and seasons but bursting out of the ancient seasonal and geographical rhythms.

Like the financial storm but with potentially more catastrophic and irremediable effects, climate change is ubiquitous. Nature is no longer our familiar element and, as once was the case, our inspiration. It's running amok. With the passing of each season, whether in the north or the south of the globe, Nature is becoming the enemy.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple down the road: the life and times of the MCG.

Topic tags: Brian matthews, climate change, english countryside, nature is the enemy



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Existing comments

Very nice piece Brian. I think I remember that very beach.

Rick & Sue | 11 February 2009  

A perceptive and beautifully written piece, Brian. Thank you!

Ivan Page | 11 February 2009  

On of the best things Eureka Street does is to keep bringing us Brian Matthews' pieces. Thoughtful always, and each so inventively phrased, so beautifully written. Thanks Brian and thanks ES.

Joe Castley | 11 February 2009  

How true: "...climate change is ubiquitous ... Nature is no longer our familiar element. It's running amok. Nature is becoming the enemy."

Let us not forget that it is our BEHAVIOURS - the behaviour of each one of us - that has brought us to this sorry pass. Nature is not behaving in the ways we are experiencing apropos of nothing at all.

Are we able to change our behaviours? Yes indeed!

Are we likely to change our collective behaviours SUFFICIENTLY to save our home here on Planet Earth?

For one possible answer, look at the collective sorry record of humanity down the millenia.

As a GREENS colleague emailed yesterday: "Its (not it's) been nice knowing you!"

dee aitch | 11 February 2009  

Brian's closing words 'Nature is becoming the enemy' lie alongside the almost tangible possibility that Nature is fighting for its life.

Lorna Hannan | 11 February 2009  

The implication here that the floods in North Queensland or the fires in Victoria are consequences of climate change is simply not supported by the evidence. Look at the climate records and you will see that these are extreme events but within the parameters of the climate as it has been for the whole period of instrumental record (the last 150 years).

Brian Finlayson | 11 February 2009  

I beg to disagree with Brian Finlayson's comments. Fourteen consecutive years of drought and the smashing (not just breaking) of temperature records we've seen recently are not 'within the parameters' of anything previously experienced in the 150 years of recorded weather in southern Victoria.

A University of NSW climatologist on TV this week compared what had happened to Melbourne's temperature records to a cricketer breaking Bradman's batting average by 50 runs!

Terry O'Neill | 12 February 2009  

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