How to fall in love with the world as it unravels
Things I learned as a taxi driver for injured wildlife
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During lockdown in Melbourne in 2021, my partner Rebecca and I signed up to volunteer with Wildlife Victoria. Two days of training, then we were issued licenses confirming us as animal rescuers. And so we began.
We didn't have a house where we could take care of recovering marsupials, and we were't ready to perform emergency CPR on injured roadkill, so we started out as animal transporters. This means providing a taxi service transporting injured animals from vet clinics to foster carers, and vice versa.
We signed up to WILDNET, Wildlife Victoria's online database, and we started to receive text messages about wildlife incidents in our area. 'Injured Ringtail Possum in BOX HILL SOUTH with wounds, barely moving.' 'Sick Kookaburra (110gm) needs transporting from ALBERT PARK to MONA VALE.' 'Can you rescue 1 large Lizard in SUNSHINE, exposed on branch, need small ladder.'
Whenever we could accept one of these jobs, we'd load up our car with blankets, baskets and heatpacks (marsupials need to be kept warm) and head to the collection point - usually a suburban vet clinic. Because of covid, we couldn't enter the building, so instead we'd be met in the carpark by a vet nurse, who would hand us a wriggling pillowcase and leave us to it. We'd make the animal as comfortable as we could in a basket on the backseat, then drive across town to deliver it to the home of the foster carer who'd committed to taking care of it.
What we discovered is that there's a whole network of animal carers and transporters scattered throughout the city. We learned about the corridors and hotspots of activity for different animals - birds, reptiles and marsupials. We started to get a sense of the seasons and rhythms for different species and for the risks they face.
A few hours on WILDNET provides a snapshot of the hazards facing Victorian animals. A heavy storm is followed by a flurry of reports about possums injured by falling trees. Holiday traffic means a spike in orphaned kangaroos on the outskirts of the city. Spring time means a rise in the number of animals attacked by cats and dogs.
Of course it's sad to encounter these animals in the moment of their distress, but it was genuinely uplifting to meet this community of carers opening their homes to injured wildlife. And in the dull flatline of lockdown, with a five kilometre limit on travel from our home, and my practice as a theatre artist on indefinite hold, it was delightful to feel this pulse of life and movement in the world around us.
One of the most hotly debated topics in the world of conservation is the idea of 'rewilding'. The term first appeared in the 1980s to refer to a set of tools to help wilderness areas recover from the damage done to them.
In the 1990s, rewilding came to focus on creating large core protected areas, ecological connectivity and keystone species. This was the '3Cs' model of rewilding: 'cores, corridors and carnivores'.
Today, rewilding has come to mean many different things to different people. Like nature itself, the meaning of rewilding is both adaptable and contested. It's adaptable because the meaning keeps changing. It's contested because no-one agrees on a single definition. There's a general agreement that the idea is important, that it matters, but beyond that, everything is up for debate.
Like a lot of people, my first encounter with the word 'rewilding' was in relation to the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. In 1995, a pack of wolves was released in Yellowstone Park in the United States, seventy years after the last Yellowstone wolf had died.
Throughout the seventies and eighties, the population of deer in Yellowstone had been getting out of control. As soon as the wolves returned, they began hunting the deer. That not only reduced the deer's numbers, it also changed their behaviour - deer started to keep away from the valleys and rivers where they could be easily caught. That meant that the trees by the riverbank could grow back with the deer no longer grazing them.
The new trees provided cover for fish, habitat for songbirds, but most crucially, they encouraged beavers to return. Beavers gnawed through the trees to create dams - which created habitat for otters, muskrats, frogs and reptiles. The trees also stabilised the banks of the river, reducing erosion.
The wolves also hunted coyotes, which was good news for the animals that coyotes hunt - rabbits and mice. More rabbits and mice meant more prey for hawks, weasels, foxes and badgers. The carrion left behind by wolves also provided food for bald eagles, ravens and bears.
Within a few years of the return of the wolf, the diversity and health of the ecosystem had rebounded beyond all prediction.
The Yellowstone wolf is an example of perhaps the most high-profile (and divisive) form of rewilding: reintroducing animals to an ecosystem where they have previously gone extinct.
There are many arguments for restoring animals to areas where they once lived. But for some people, this veers dangerously close to the practice of introducing species - which, in Australia alone, has led to the uncontrolled outbreak of rabbits, foxes, cats and cane toads. For farmers, reintroducing predators like wolves (or dingos in Australia) to a rural region is utterly unacceptable.
This clash has led to one of the more fascinating phenomena in the world of conservation: guerilla rewilding, the secret and illegal reintroduction of animals into an ecosystem. There have been a number of cases of beavers being secretly released into British wetlands. In Australia, activity has been more circumspect, but there's no doubt that guerilla conservationists have released Tasmanian Devils into the Snowy Mountains, returning them to an ecosystem they haven't inhabited for nearly 3,000 years.
Some people want to go go further still – not just reintroducing animals to old ecosystems where they used to live, but introducing brand new species to new parts of the world.
This is the idea behind the plan to introduce rhinos to Australia. Australia has never had a population of wild rhinoceros, but we did use to have the Diprotodon – a sort of wombat the size of a hippo. A browsing herbivore that filled a similar sort of niche to the rhino, the Diprotodon went extinct in Australia around 30,000 years ago.
Rhinos are going extinct in Africa, but it’s possible they could survive in Australia. Advocates for this plan - including martial arts film star Jean-Claude Van Damme - make the point that globally, we rely on a few countries in Africa to do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of preserving our remaining wild megafauna. Maybe wealthy countries like Australia should be doing a bigger share?
Of course rhinos aren’t Diprotodons, and Diprotodons haven’t been around for 30,000 years, so who knows what would happen? But Australia already has more wild camels than the entire Arabian peninsula, so it's not like we're protecting a pure ecosystem. If rhinos could thrive in Australia, shouldn't Australia try to take them in? If Jean-Claude Van Damme thinks it's a good idea, is that an argument in its favour or against it?
These are just some of the debates raised by rewilding.
Rewilding seems to encourage bold and optimistic plans that look towards the future, rather than the slow losing struggle to preserve a vanishing past. But at the other end of the spectrum, some people argue that rewilding is not something we do to ecosystems - it's something we do to ourselves.
In his controversial rewilding manifesto Feral, George Monbiot argues that rewilding is not about nature for nature’s sake - it's for us. Rewilding is something we should do for our own health and wellbeing – and to shake off our 'ecological boredom'.
As Nicole Seymour points out, conservation is traditionally a dry and serious endeavour. Caring for the environment tends to involve a lot of sadness, shame, guilt and anger - and not much else. That kind of emotional range is great for some people, but for others, it's not a very inviting space to step into. Rewilding is a chance to reframe this approach, to open ourselves up to other emotional responses to the environment.
Rewilding can mean entangling ourselves in the environment. We can let nature under our skin, freak us out, fuck us up.
Seymour argues that queer environmental activists have led the way in this approach. She points to the ecosexual movement, spearheaded by pornstar and activist Annie Sprinkles and Beth Stephens. Their tongue-in-cheek manifesto says: 'We shamelessly hug trees, massage the earth with our feet, and talk erotically to plants. We are skinny dippers, sun worshippers, and stargazers. We caress rocks, are pleasured by waterfalls, and admire the Earth’s curves. We make love with the Earth through our senses. We celebrate our E-spots. We are very dirty.'
Caring about the environment in the 21st century means metabolising a huge amount of loss and grief. The loss of environments and species you grew up with, the grief for those losses still to come. We live in a depleted, fraying biosphere made up of agricultural systems, feral animals and pests.
And yet despite that, we have to find a way to fall in love with the world around us. We only have a few years in this world, and grief and loss is not a foundation to build a life on. We have to fight for what we can save, care for what we can keep, and help bring the new world to life - and that's going to take all of our lives and many lifetimes to come. There's time for sadness and shame and guilt and anger, but there's got to be more than that. There's got to be delight, curiosity, fascination, awe and laughter.
I don't know how to fall in love with the world as it unravels around me. But last winter I felt something new. Driving a frightened possum through the outskirts of Melbourne at sunset, helping it nestle into a warm blanket in a dark room, getting a text message about another delivery to do before dawn, the birds settling in for the night and teenagers buying drugs in the carpark where we're collecting another possum - isn't that love, that comes over you then?
NEWS AND PROJECTS
I was delighted to learn this week that Kill Climate Deniers has been featured in 100 Plays to Save the World, a new book by Elizabeth Freestone and Jeanie O'Hare. It's a series of essays on 100 plays that mark out the scope and breadth of climate theatre. I'm honoured to be a part of it (alongside some great company), and also I really enjoyed the book. Go on, dive in.
Tickets have just gone on sale for my season of You're Safe Til 2024: Deep History at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this August. If you're in Scotland this summer, come hang out!
This month I read and loved Thomas Halliday's Otherlands, a series of snapshots of different eras of prehistory, starting from the end of the ice age and working backwards over 500 million years to the end of the Cambrian. I fell into it, like a daydream, or a fever.
I also dug Holly Buck's After Geoengineering, a survey of the current technologies and debates in this space. This is the thoughtful, politically progressive read on this landscape that I needed.
Rebecca wrote a wonderful review of a book about animals and gender in the Atlantic - perhaps the best opening sentence you'll read in a review this year.
Musically, the new Carly Rae Jepsen is a perfect groove, it lifts me right up. And I've been going back to the first Skee Mask LP and losing myself in those rolling flowing beats.
And finally, here's a pic of me with a wombat joey - the weird little aliens.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.