Author: Anne Layton-Bennett

Exploiting the ‘No’ vote

The ugliness of those dissenting voices in the Referendum for the Voice has been brewing from the start but with three weeks to go it’s escalated. The Referendum has exposed a division that was certainly there, but which seems to have grown like a many-headed Hydra. It’s been politically hijacked by the federal Opposition, and is being exploited by various extreme right-wing groups for their own poisonous ideologies that seem to be based on hating anyone and everyone who doesn’t agree with their particular view.

As if the world doesn’t have enough hatred going on with conflicts and war in so many countries, never mind planetary reminders that we should all be turning our attention to that runaway climate change train that will force us all to put aside all these quarrels in the effort to simply survive.

It was fantastic to witness the support for the ‘Yes’ vote last weekend in so many rallies and walks across the country. I hope that support will be sustained and strengthened in the days to come so the polls are proved misleading and incorrect, and the ‘Ayes’ will indeed have it.

I expressed my view in a poem that was another entry in the Independent Australia’s writing competition. As with almost all these poetic creations, this one began life as a result of the weekly Word Expo word game. But I very quickly rewrote Exploitation and it’s now been published. I can only hope that it might just contribute to changing the minds of a few of those who read it – especially if they were veering towards voting ‘No’.

A dog’s life

All those who have a companion animal in their life, be it dog, cat, rabbit, horse or sheep, is fully aware that animal is likely to depart this planet before they do. I’ve buried several dogs and cats, and a couple of rabbits, and it doesn’t get any easier when it’s time to say goodbye. But who’d be without an animal in their life if they’re able to have one? Not me, that’s for sure, but realising the time to say goodbye to Della might be considerably earlier than we expected has come as rather a shock.

We’d noticed Della was carrying her left hind leg a bit a few months ago but thought little of it initially thinking she’d perhaps just sprained her foot. But it didn’t get any better, so we rang the vet. Paul had just left for an overseas holiday and wouldn’t be back for several weeks so we had to take Della into a different clinic. The young vet there was very thorough, and I’m sure knew her stuff but she couldn’t find anything definitive, so we left with a box of anti-inflammatories, and advised to come back if they didn’t do the trick for what we and the vet suspected was the beginning of arthritis or rheumatism. Della is around 11 years-old – she’s a rescue dog so the RSPCA could only estimate her age – so this diagnosis was entirely plausible.

Initially we thought they did do the trick. They weren’t necessary every day so the box lasted several months, and we also trialled Rosehip-Vital – a natural treatment to relieve arthritis and rheumatism.
Despite all our efforts though Della’s limp became more pronounced, so it was time for another visit to the vet. Our own this time. Paul explained the situation as tactfully as he could but it’s obvious he believes Della has cancer, and it’s in the legbone. There’s a chance it’s a badly torn and inflamed cruciate ligament but it’s a slim chance. We’ll known on Wednesday when she has an X-ray.

It’s true Della has slowed down a bit from her younger self. She was a very timid and subdued dog when we picked her up from the RSPCA in December 2013. We’ll never know the reasons behind her being found wandering the streets, thin, starving and with obvious signs of mistreatment, but the trauma has never completely diminished over time. There are triggers. But it was a moment to celebrate when she finally felt comfortable and secure enough to really run when we walked her on a neighbour’s property, and where she had the freedom of paddocks empty of livestock. And could she run! She went bonkers doing that crazy circular dash that dogs do a few times just for the pure joy of it. Whatever her exact ancestry there’s certainly some well-honed hunting instincts involved, adding to the basenji traits, that we’ve been told is certainly a factor in her parentage. She has characteristics that are common to the breed.

Next week we’ll know if it’s time to say goodbye to Della but until then I’m hanging on to the possibility it’s that 25 per cent chance the problem is cruciate.

Here we go again . . .

When I started this blog I was determined not to make it too political. The website was to remain – mostly anyway – an activist-free zone. But it’s hard sometimes. I’m not sure what it is about Tasmania but all too often its people tear themselves apart over controversial issues. So far, since I’ve lived here, there have been dams, forests, pulp mills and poker machines. The forestry issue has been ongoing for decades, and with no signs of a resolution. We nearly had one with the hard-fought forestry agreement that for an all- too-brief-time saw an end to the ’wars’ between timber workers and conservationists. The Liberals tore that up when they won government around 10 years ago. Now we’re back to where we were – a situation neither side wished for.

The latest controversy involves football. The AFL version, not soccer – which is of course the ball game of the moment, given the Women’s World Cup Championships, and Australia’s Matildas surpassing all expectations by making the semi-finals. And may the best team win.

But soccer aside, what’s concentrating the minds of Tasmanians is whether the price of finally getting a licence to have a state team in the national AFL draw should depend on building a massive new stadium. The outgoing AFL boss insists it’s a condition of the licence. The premier apparently didn’t say boo to this rather high-handed demand despite most Tasmanians being outraged at the decision. And why not really when we already have two stadiums. One in the South and one in the North. Both have hosted AFL games for years – to audiences that haven’t always filled either stadium. Both stadiums have also successfully hosted other sporting events, as well as concerts.

So once again Tasmania is a state in conflict. The business case for a new stadium is extremely optimistic at best. More than one economist has picked a multitude of holes in it. And with so many other pressing social needs such as health, hospitals, housing and a homelessness crisis, requiring funding, building a stadium is considered the height of reckless extravagance by over half the population. The predictable if depressing result is sides being chosen, sleeves being rolled up, and preparing for another conflict to consume time and energy – for both those who are for it and those who are opposed.

A poem I wrote describes my opinion of the project. I entered it in the Independent Australia competition where I hoped it might at least get published – and raise awareness of the issue on a national platform – but I never believed for a second it could be a winner. But so it is: the July winner in the Fiction/Poetry category. At the No Stadium rally being organised later this month I’ve been invited to read it out.
So once again another poem I’ve written has resonated. I continue to be amazed – but if this one helps to change the hearts and minds of our government, and force a rethink on the terms of the contract, it’s done its job. No to a new stadium. Yes to a team.

Graphic designed by Marion Curtain

Feeding the birds

We first noticed the arrival of a pair of turtle doves on our property around three years ago. Since I knew the species isn’t native to Tasmania I wondered where they’d come from. Their distinctive cooing call reminded me of visits to my grandmother’s home in the south of England when growing up. The birds weren’t common in the North, or not where we lived anyway, so hearing the gentle coo coo always takes me back to the lush rural landscape of Highclere, in the UK.

Nowadays though that pair of turtle doves has grown to over 20 birds, so as well as being successful in the breeding department, they’ve clearly worked out where their bread is buttered. Or where there’s likely to be a feed of grain. It no doubt comes with having a few chooks, and the doves – along with various parrots, eastern rosellas and sparrows – have clocked on to when breakfast is served at our place.
Finding food in winter is always a challenge for many bird species, especially those who rely on seeds, flowers or insects for their sustenance. These are all scarce during the colder months, but even so we can’t remember quite so many birds turning up at chook meal times before.

I’m conflicted about feeding wild birds regularly, although have been obliged to turn a blind eye to John feeding the small troupe of magpies on a daily basis. We inherited the magpies with the property thanks to the previous owner feeding them. At least I’ve encouraged him to reduce their feeds to once a day rather than two.

But as it’s winter, and recognising finding food is tough, we’ve relented enough this year to buy a bag of seed designed for wild birds. To be honest it looks pretty similar to the mixed grain ‘muesli’ seed the chooks have, but at the moment after I’ve walked Della dog, I now juggle two containers of grain in my hands each morning. One for the chooks, and another for the doves, sparrows and rosellas that are swinging on the wire and waiting patiently and optimistically for their share. At least there’s no squabbling and they all seem quite happy to mingle as they peck away.

Humans could learn a lot from their behaviour.

A surprise success

I still find it amazing that some of these poems I write, and that I rarely agonise over, take hours to compose, or even – really – take terribly seriously, nevertheless strike a chord or find favour in a publication. Of course they wouldn’t ever do that unless I took the time (and had the confidence) to submit them, and I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t feel they were perhaps worthy, given the majority are unquestioningly and unapologetically political. But even so . . .

In the case of this most recent success, I wrote the poem initially for a Greens’ Fossil Fools Trivia Night fundraiser where the theme was obviously the ongoing climate change risks associated with mining and fracking coal and gas. Two of us were invited to read poems during the evening, and I was one of them. Mine was well received on what was essentially a fun night, albeit with serious undertones, designed to poke fun at the former Coalition government’s failure to take climate change seriously – and to try to help the election of our Greens candidate in the forthcoming Legislative Council. A big ask, and we didn’t succeed this time, but if you don’t try . . .

I filed the poem away in my increasingly bulging folder and gave it little thought until I read the details of a competition and publishing opportunity offered by online media organisation Independent Australia

Despite subscribing to IA for several years it’s the first time I remember it has invited readers to submit articles, fiction or poetry for consideration for such an opportunity, and one that is running for around three months. Winners and short-listed entries are announced each month, and a selection will be published on the website. To be eligible for consideration all entries, regardless of category, have to be on a current affairs topic, be that political, social justice, environmental etc.

I remembered my Fossil Fool poem and fished it out of the folder. I read it through again. With a bit of tweaking I felt it certainly fitted the brief. So I reworked the last stanza and added another one, completed the entry criteria and sent if off, not really anticipating I’d hear anything back for a while – if ever.
So it was a genuine surprise to learn it had indeed been published, and with its own Mark David cartoon to boot!,17603

Whether ‘Fossil Fools’ will progress any further in the IA competition remains to be seen. I won’t know that until sometime in July so watch this space as they say!

Grey invaders

The UK’s squirrels have been immortalised in Beatrix Potter’s ‘Squirrel Nutkin’, as well as in numerous Christmas cards with the traditional snow-covered landscapes, as they nibble on their hidden cache of nuts. These are Britain’s native red squirrels though, a species that has disappeared from many regions across the country since the introduction of North America’s grey squirrel during the 1890s. Grey squirrels are just as cute of course, smaller in size but with the same distinctive bushy tail, but as well as being prolific breeders, they also brought the squirrel pox disease with them and it’s this that has contributed massively to the decline in red squirrel numbers.

Although carriers of the disease the greys rarely succumb to it. The reds though proved immediately and fatally susceptible, so along with being out-competed for food red squirrel populations have dwindled despite ongoing and determined conservation efforts to help save them.

I’ve certainly not spotted any red squirrels during my time in Yorkshire this year, but the greys abound. They are more commonly dubbed ‘tree-rats’ due to being so prolific and a pest, where I often walk my niece’s spaniel, Lexie, it’s a rare morning I don’t see one of them scampering along the ground or racing along the branch of a beech tree somewhere along the woodland track where we often walk.

The greys have their champions of course and it’s certainly far too late to even consider eradicating them now, but even so I suspect these invasive and destructive pests are quietly culled by farmers and landowners as the scientists and conservationists work on developing a vaccine and/or cure for the deadly squirrel pox, alongside working to protect those few red squirrel populations that continue to hang on in the more isolated northern areas of England and Scotland.

An example to follow

It’s no secret that the British are a nation of dog lovers. So back in the land of my birth for the first time in four years (thanks to Covid) it hasn’t taken long to resume by morning walks with Lexie – a rescue dog like our own Della – owned by my niece’s family.

Lexie very soon twigged I was pretty reliable when it came to walking her in the morning. Usually before breakfast but not always given the morning bathroom rush for everyone in the family either getting ready to go to work, college or school.

There are two go-to dog walking spots in this Magdale area – an unexpected and discreet woodland oasis given this outer suburb’s proximity to a former dour northern industrial mill town once renowned for its textiles and fine worsteds. So many dogs are walked in one of these special public areas – the site of a former water mill – which has successfully avoided development thanks to a proactive community that now owns and manages it. A dedicated group of volunteers ensure the extensive natural space is maintained and respected by all those who use it. And people do respect it. There’s very little litter, and with strategically placed dog poo bins, very few owners fail to clean up after their dog. I suspect if they do, and there’s a witness, they’ll be called out and strongly taken to task!

Since my last visit some lovely timber structures have been added, presumably carved and donated by local craftspeople. The river of course is a huge attraction for those dogs that love the water. Lexie, being a spaniel, is certainly one of that number, but she almost came to grief this morning. Determined to have a swim she slithered into the river down a particularly steep bank and then had trouble getting out again. Her quick dip turned into an impressive swim for an ageing dog as I had to coax her downstream to a shallower spot where she could clamber out.

The Holme is nowhere near the size of Tasmania’s Tamar River, but sections must still be good for fishing since there have been a couple of hopeful anglers chancing their luck in the few days I’ve been here. Perhaps it’s more an opportunity for quiet communion with nature than a serious attempt to catch their evening meal.

This park area is definitely a popular spot for walkers though, with or without dogs or toddlers. And as it’s an off-lead area it’s brilliant to see the dogs all getting on. If only humans could manage to do so. Big or small and regardless of breed I’ve yet to see any unpleasant interactions among the many dogs enjoying their exercise in this fabulous public space. It’s a refreshing change given our delightful Della, who while great with people, becomes a Jekyll and Hyde animal when it comes to meeting and greeting her canine cousins. Since she wasn’t always this way I can only assume it’s because she was attacked while still a young dog (and by a St Bernard of all things), that has caused her distressing personality change. Sadly it’s meant we can never let her off the lead to romp about and follow her nose exploring smells and scents, and to generally behave as dogs love to do off leash.

When it comes to pollination – don’t forget the birds

We are frequently reminded about the importance of bees when it comes to pollinating flowers, vegetables and fruits. But while most people these days are aware of the critical role bees play in pollination, birds are just as crucial and many bird species are struggling to survive.

Climate change is a threat for birds globally, just as it is for us all. Rising temperatures, and more frequent extremes of dry and wet seasons that lead to floods and bushfires are all affecting birds’ ability to feed and breed successfully, and even just survive. Additional threats are human activity, deforestation and land clearing, invasive species, and predation – in particular by domestic and feral cats.

Certainly in Tasmania the threat of habitat loss from land clearing and logging is right up there, with iconic species like the swift parrot, masked owl and wedgetail eagle under severe pressure of becoming extinct. Introduced species like sparrows, blackbirds and starlings are also aggressively displacing smaller native species in the fight for food and nesting sites. It’s no wonder our native bird species are at risk. Adding to the stress in both urban and regional areas is the increase in light and noise pollution at night. These stimulants can disturb birds’ feeding, and sleeping habits, and ultimately their breeding cycles.

As though bird populations don’t have enough to contend with, a further threat to their survival is the latest iteration of avian influenza, or bird ‘flu. European ornithologists, conservationists and scientists spoke out publicly about this potentially catastrophic threat to birds recently. The only regions that continue to remain free of the most recent strain of the H5N1 virus, are Australia and the Antarctic, but this isn’t expected to last. The rapid spread of infection, and the fact so many bird populations across the world have never previously experienced the virus, makes them particularly vulnerable.

What can we all do to help the survival of our local native bird populations – and help to minimise the biodiversity loss that the loss of birds would accelerate? Well, wherever you live a good start would be to plant more bird-friendly native bushes and trees. Native bushes, shrubs and trees can provide ideal habitat for some species, and the flowers and fruits are a vital food source, especially for some of our honeyeaters, parrots, and wattle birds. To help insect-eating bird species, consider limiting the hours the light outside your home at night is burning, or at least lower its brightness. Security is important of course, but so is the survival of our lovely birds. How shocking it would be if the scenario Rachel Carson wrote about in the 1960s, in her most well-known book ‘Silent Spring’, ever came to pass.

Photo credits: Wedge-tail eagle – Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary; Swift parrot – BirdLife Australia

Importance of community

Although not written initially as a blog post, it’s certainly relevant in the context of the larger work I’m writing. It’s also relevant in the context of the importance of community in today’s world, and why communities everywhere need to be nurtured, and not deliberately smashed to pieces for no good reason that anyone can see, as ours has been.

Whatever the reason behind our local café owner’s decision to make the life of leaseholder Fleur so difficult she’s closing the business, he has certainly succeeded in ripping out the heart of our community. His unreasonable attitude means we’ve all lost something infinitely precious, and potentially irreplaceable, and it’s left many people – myself included – both devastated, angry and deeply disappointed. Not only for Fleur, but for our community as a whole. In the words of Joni Mitchell’s song: You never know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone. But some of us do know. And only too well.

The word ‘community’ has become something of a buzzword. Politicians use it all the time – especially during and since the emergence of COVID when the importance of community was suddenly considered essential to wellbeing. Which it is. A strong and supportive community is also powerful. Our community has proved that many times over the years. And since it first opened, central to all those times, has been the the East Tamar’s Windermere Shop/Café.

A short history lesson
There was neither shop nor café when we first moved here. If you needed another carton of milk or loaf of bread it meant a drive to Mt Direction Service Station, or to Newnham. There was no highway either, or not as we know it now. The highway included John Lees Drive, and for the first several months we lived here it ended at Rocherlea. That last bit from Landfall to the university exit hadn’t been completed. No wonder people equated living out here to being in the sticks. Dilston, Windermere and Swan Bay were relatively isolated and largely separate communities, where immediate neighbours could be several paddocks away.

Maybe that isolation prompted long-term resident Mike to establish the volunteer fire brigade. From all accounts this brought many neighbours from each of the three communities together as fundraising events at Dilston Hall were organised so a fire truck could be purchased. The fire brigade was also the catalyst for our community newsletter Smoke Signals. It was former resident Eric’s contribution to the brigade. His health precluded him from being a firefighter, but his computer skills, at a time when PCs were still relatively uncommon, were significant. But those early issues of Smoke Signals helped to inform new and existing residents about the various opportunities in our area. The aptly titled Smoke Signals contained contact details for local activities such as the playgroup, walking group, book group, sewing circle and garden club – as well as the fire brigade. And joining these groups was how many in the community first met each other.

We’d lived here for a couple of years when the first hints about a corner shop opening were heard. The knowledge we could soon have a local convenience store was exciting. Sure, items were more expensive than the supermarket, but I doubt I was alone in ensuring a few staples were bought there each week to support the fledgling business and the local family who had decided to set it up.

Over the years various people have run the shop/café, some more successfully than others. The years when it was operated by Kerrie and Maree were undoubtedly among the best. Their warmth and friendliness drew people in. People dropped by just to have a chat as they picked up a newspaper or packet of lollies. These years straddled much of the pulp mill campaign. For those unaware, this was an environmental fight to stop failed timber company Gunns Ltd build a massive pulp mill near Bell Bay. Google it to find out more, but suffice to say the campaign was long, hard, bitterly divisive and exhausting, but it was the strength of the community that ultimately ensured the project failed. That it did was due in no small measure to the efforts of those in our East Tamar community, as well as the Tasmanian community more broadly.

It was the pulp mill campaign that also resulted in the long-awaited tick of approval for the bypass that finally diverted traffic from thundering through Dilston. The diversion wasn’t necessarily such good news for the café though. Lack of passing traffic meant a drop in the shop’s takeaway food business. To compensate Kerrie and Maree took a huge risk with the first of the Thank God It’s Friday evenings. The instant and enormous popularity of these weekly gatherings took both by surprise.

But so many of us knew each other by now, and the TGIF evenings ensured many more in the neighbourhood did so too. Several new arrivals were welcomed into our community, settling in quickly to become valuable friends and neighbours. Such was TGIF’s reputation, people chose to buy here because of TGIF’s reputation! These were the years when the shop/café’s position as the hub and heart of our community was cemented. Fleur came on board during this time and the café became the go-to place for so many events and functions. It hosted birthday parties, music afternoons, book and garden club lunches and dinners, fundraisers for various organisations, as well as providing a safe and supportive space for many people in our community who were facing some of the challenges of life’s ups and downs.

Thanks to our strong and proactive community we have a safer exit onto the highway from John Lees Drive. Again the pulp mill campaign is largely responsible. We all knew each other by the time this was raised and were aware of the wealth of engineering expertise among certain individuals. These were people able to point us in the right direction, and to argue convincingly and knowledgeably to ensure we received the safest infrastructure option.

Likewise, when the NBN was being rolled out, and our region became a political football with the off again/on again situation, we knew who to call. That this community was finally included on the NBN map is down to committed members of a strong community who met regularly at the Windermere Café to work out the best lobbying strategies.

Most recently it was our feisty and motivated community that gathered together once more to ensure funds were raised to prevent the Anglican Church selling off our historic St Matthias Church to help pay redress to victims of abuse.

The café then, not to mention Fleur herself, has been instrumental in forging the strong community bonds our region is renowned for. So it’s bitterly disappointing that the café’s owner apparently neither cares, appreciates or understands the café’s importance for our community’s collective health and wellbeing.

Maybe one day he will. Before it’s too late.

Ageing companion animals

Our lovely dog Della is showing her age. She’s had the tell-tale white whiskery face for some time but was as lively as ever until very recently. Perhaps it’s the first early signs of approaching autumn and that unmistakeable morning chill as we set off for the morning walk before the sun has properly risen. Whatever the cause Della has suddenly become a little less enthusiastic to emerge from her basket, and a lot less bouncy first thing in the morning. She’s also noticeably more stiff in the legs, especially her left rear leg which is clearly giving her trouble.

I mentioned it to Paul, our vet when I took Della in for her vaccination booster recently. He confirmed my suspicions. Della is showing the first indication of arthritis or rheumatism. Not yet serious, and medication not yet recommended but the day will come when she may need some pain relief. It seems none of us are immune to the ravages of age.

Since she was a rescue dog, we aren’t exactly sure how old Della is. The RSPCA thought she was about seven months old when we picked her out as our new dog to replace the lovely and recently departed Mona. We collected Della earlier than expected because she’d been able to have the necessary desexing op due to a last minute cancellation, so she was a lovely surprise Christmas present that year.

But in common with far too many rescue dogs Della’s biography didn’t make cheerful reading. She’d been found wandering the streets as a half-grown, thin, starving and fearful dog, who’d obviously been ill-treated. Why people want to mistreat animals is beyond my understanding, but they do, as we know. In spite of her timidity though Della was pathetically eager to please, but she’s remained needy in many ways. And even after so many years of love, care and security we have to remember not to surprise her with a sudden sharp movement that could be interpreted as the precursor to a blow. This is especially so if we are holding a broom or some other implement that might be likely to cause her pain.

Those early weeks and months of trauma obviously still run deep, suggesting animals don’t forget abusive behaviour any more than children do. They are sentient and emotional beings after all, so it shouldn’t be surprising. In the first few years there were several embarrassing encounters that saw Della highly distressed, shaking and frothing at the mouth in fear if a visitor – it was always a male visitor – came to the door. We can only assume the person – often a tradesman – resembled in some way the fellow who was responsible for the early cruelty and abuse she suffered.

Hopefully we’ll have Della for several more years yet but as winter approaches I can see there will need to be some adjustments to the daily walk routine. That might not be a bad thing since I’m not getting any younger either! And it’s certainly more pleasant to walk in daylight and sunshine than it is on autumn and winter mornings when the moon is still visible in the sky, and the sun is barely up.