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Weathering the journey


Australians (my apologies to overseas readers) have experienced an amazing summer of turbulent weather. Bushfires ravaged the east coast from Tasmania, Victoria, in New South Wales and in parts of Queensland. February, traditionally our worst month for fires in the southern states, is now upon us.

In Queensland and northern New South Wales, the slow moving rain cell that developed from cyclone Oswald hit us very hard.  Television footage presented graphically the water inundation in areas such as Bundaberg and, more locally to me, in the Lockyer Valley and outer areas in the southwest of Brisbane. We registered over 200mm of rain at our home in the Brisbane southeast ‘burbs over the Australia Day weekend. Our rain tanks were overflowing after nearly six months of near emptiness. We had a tree keel over from the turbulent winds and a lack of stability in its root system. Fortunately it was a small fruit tree and caused both little damage and some worthwhile exercise.

This water impact has been distressing for many, especially those putting the final touches to their repairs from our significant flooding of only two years ago. There was widespread community angst as the murky, creeping floodwaters threatened to rival the 2011 floods surrounding Brisbane. In some areas much further north, such as Bundaberg, this is some of the worst flooding on record. They are in for a long haul in recovery. In Brisbane, the third largest Australian city, there were threats of domestic water shortage as our water purifying systems struggled with heavy mud and mineral deposits. Electricity outages and failure in communication systems, such as access to the Internet and use of phones, were widespread across the state. Food in lukewarm fridges could not be used, the ability to keep medications at the right temperature failed, and other basic services that we take for granted, such as sewerage and public transport, struggled in so many areas. We were spared most of this.

What are some reflections and some things to learn from these and other events? A recent conversation with a client provided some insights.

His family was isolated for a few days on a family farm, not that distant from Brisbane. As he said, “You really come back to what is important – family, food, water and shelter.” Not a bad list.

We seem to accumulate a lot of stuff that is jettisoned in times of natural disaster. I contrast this with what some of my family members and me observed in a post Christmas gathering in Cambodia, where we met up from different parts of the globe.

We were close to the daily lives of people living in villages and along the roadsides as we traversed Cambodia by challenging road travel. We were often in the throng of children heading to or from school, sometimes three small children precariously sharing an oversized pushbike on narrow, crowded and treacherous roads.

We stopped regularly to look at the food growing in the fields or at the plethora of roadside markets. We talked with people when we could. We observed simple one or two room dwellings built on poles with eating and family space underneath. Small earthen ovens were nearby in the open. Most dwellings had a small dam at the front with ducks or hens. Some had on their tiny acreage a cow or a goat for milking. As far as possible these country folk appeared self-sufficient, even if it was only in a very rudimentary way. The widespread poverty in the rural regions leads to a very simple way of life, and not without other associated issues such as health, hygiene and the misleading entrapment of some young girls into prostitution in the cities. I do not romanticise this existence.

Floods, fire and other significant events point out to us how much of our infrastructure is at the mercy of the elements. Urban planning, architectural fads and building styles have something to answer for, but our own dependency on power, water and food supplies from external sources shows how distant many of us are from basic survival skills. What do we grow or make for ourselves? How long can we manage as a family unit or neighbourhood in such times?

Our hunting and gathering skills are reduced to trawling the aisles of supermarkets – and this is one of the benefits and the price of progress. We can be ‘put out’ when the power goes off for a few days, when we can’t access the internet or social networks, when we realise that for all of our competencies we cannot control nature – except by honouring it more respectfully. Such experiences of temporary deprivation can be a challenge for many of us, and understandably.

Yet for others who share our planet this kind of deprivation is their regular experience. Many of us in our so-called ‘developed countries’ can appear to live ‘in a bubble’. My London-based daughter, who works for a large international newsgathering and dissemination organisation, points this out to me repeatedly. She views footage and engages with stories daily from around the globe, some of which do not make it to Australia. Some of this footage she describes as horrifying.  She informed me that the Queensland floods were big news in Australia but insignificant compared to concurrent disasters and events elsewhere. As one of my mentors used say, “It sure puts your sore toe in perspective.”

These recent experiences close to home have reminded me of that old religious concept of ‘penance’. It may not be such a bad thing after all.  It can be challenging to do without or to jettison whatever has become an overindulgence for us – positional power, material possessions, status and image, food, grog, sarcasm or cynicism, dependence on social networking, or narcissism. In these recent days some of us have become increasingly aware of the penitential acts we owe to our natural environment – from taking it for granted.

I hope that these are worthwhile reflections for you as we enter the Christian Season of Lent on 13 February, Ash Wednesday – a period of forty days that invites us to pause, reflect, be a little more penitent and do good works. We all might do well in trying to live more simply. That is one of my resolutions for 2013. I would welcome others weathering this journey with me.

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