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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

16) Australian Plague Locust

Chortoicetes terminifera

At ten o’clock on Tuesday morning last week I wheeled my bike down the hallway of my house, opened the door to the late winter sun, unlatched the gate, and set off to get some breakfast.  This is something I do fairly often, at least a couple of times a week, but last week was the first time in a little while that I haven’t had to don a jacket and gird myself against the cold.  When I got home the sunlight was warming the bitumen of the road and stretching towards the front of my house, and as I shut the gate behind me I noticed a long and elegant Grasshopper (Suborder Caelifera) perched vertically on the gatepost.  Inside the house an early-season Fly (Order Diptera) was buzzing frantically against the walls, trying to find its way back outside to where the sun was curling around the nascent leaf buds on the exotic trees and bushes planted in my back garden.

Melbourne’s weather is never stable, and the following day was windy and rain-flecked and bleakly cold – as had been the entire week previously.  Now, a week later, we’re enjoying a blissful run of clear blue skies – but chances are the cold will return before the city finally shakes itself loose from winter entirely.  So it will go, back and forth, back and forth, but as the Melbourne spring gradually unwinds the weather will eventually tilt conclusively towards warmth, and the wildlife of the city will start to come back to life.

As ever, the first conclusive evidence of the gradual turning of the seasons has been the appearance of insects.  They started emerging in numbers a few weeks ago, when the first burst of warm weather indicated that a winter which has on occasion been the coldest in years was creeping towards its end.  With the coming seasonal abundance of insects all those many animals – birds in particular – which predate them will rouse themselves from their months-long silence and passivity: already the Australian Magpies (Cracticus tibicen) are starting to dart and squawk at each-other and engage in bursts of combative singing to mark out their territory for the coming breeding season.

I like winter.  It’s actually my favourite season.  But there’s an undeniable joy, an irrepressible lightness of the spirit that comes with the first few signs of spring.  Spring is a time of ease and comfort, at least for those of us fortunate enough to live in areas of relatively mild climate, and when the night air first starts to smell of clematis nobody can fail to grin in delight – not even a cold weather lover like me.

The truth is that for all the famed changeability of its weather, Melbourne’s four seasons are as distinct as those of any of the European cities to which it is often compared – and just like Europeans, people in Melbourne are quick to take advantage of the first sign of winter’s end.  As soon as warm sun hits the grass Melbournians flock with beer in hand to the numerous public parks scattered throughout the city to while away the days in blissful, drunken indolence while the going’s good, before the weather turns again.

So far, though, it’s just a prelude of things to come.  Summer’s coming, it’s not too far away now, and though Melbourne doesn’t really have any beaches worth the name that doesn’t stop people here from embracing summer just as wholeheartedly as they do anywhere else in Australia.  I never used to like summer before I moved to Melbourne; it’s still a season that I dread, knowing that each summer here is guaranteed to have a handful of days on which the temperature blazes above forty degrees centigrade; yet since living in Melbourne I’ve found myself starting to enjoy summer for the first time in my life.  The changeability of Melbourne’s weather is a large part of that: it’s easier to suffer through a heatwave if you know that in a couple of days the temperature will halve.  But I also love the spirit of the city in summer.  Melbourne is a city that knows how to relax, and it never relaxes more than in summer.

Which can make it easy to forget that summer is a season of tension in Australia.  It’s bushfire season: the time of year when the country’s forests and grasslands turn dry and yellow and the winds are hot and blasting; when electrical storms crackle across the land and lightning ignites the great sloughs of leaves and bark cast off by the eucalypts; when some people, out of illness or mischief or outright maliciousness, head into the bush and deliberately set light to all that natural fuel, starting fires that can engulf vast areas and destroy countless lives.

And it’s not just fires: last summer Queensland suffered through devastating tropical cyclones and some of the worst floods in living memory; huge areas of Victoria, too, were flooded; and as if that wasn’t enough, Victoria also suffered a major Locust plague during the summer of 2011 to 2012.

This last was the least reported: understandably so, perhaps, because there was so much else going on, and because unlike cyclones and floods Locust plagues don’t directly threaten human life.  For a nation which relies on a large extent to its wheat-growing industry, though, a Locust plague is a disaster.  Even so, it seems as though the Locust plague last summer barely registered in Melbourne: there were a few reports in the news, and occasional public safety announcements on TV about what to do if you found yourself driving through a Locust swarm, but that was about it, at least as far as I saw.

On two occasions over the summer, however, I was reminded abruptly of the Locust plague outside Melbourne, and in quite unusual if rather direct circumstances: last summer, in inner-city Melbourne, I saw two Locusts.

The first was in my back garden, clinging in that remarkable gravity-defying insect way to the side of a flower pot.  I’d never seen a Locust before, and it looked exactly like a Grasshopper, but from the size of it I knew straight away that it was something different, something that I’d never come across previously.  I think we humans have an instinct for that, something residual from when we had to rely on senses and gut feelings to a much greater degree than we do now: we know when something’s not quite right, when something’s new even if it takes a superficially familiar form.  I can’t remember what I was doing when I saw that Locust, but I know that I wasn’t paying any particular attention to the flower pot, or looking for insects.  I may well have just been glancing out of the window.  But the Locust caught my eye, stationary though it was, and the instant I saw it I knew in my gut what it must be.

A couple of weeks later I saw another Locust, in the bluestone alley next to Carlton’s iconic La Mama Theatre, of all places.  By that time I knew exactly and without any doubt at all what it was that I was seeing, because after noticing the Locust in my garden I’d immediately gone online and searched for images of Australian Locusts to confirm that the creature was what I thought it was.  The internet’s remarkable that way: all that information available with only a few key-strokes.

And yet the internet is not the great universal force it’s often claimed to be.  Great areas of the planet are still unconnected, they’re the great silences in the global babble, but that doesn’t mean that nothing is happening in them.  Just take the Victorian Locust plague: internet availability in rural Australia is notoriously bad, and while I don’t think it would be right to say that that’s the sole explanation for the lack of media coverage of the Locust plague, I don’t think it’s wrong to say that it was probably a part of it.  We’re so accustomed now to reading online about the minutiae of daily life from every corner of the planet, that it almost seems as if anything that doesn’t happen online doesn’t happen at all.  There are countless stories, and lives, and phenomena, happening every minute without ever catching our attention.

Animals, though, can be messengers from other places.  They can be ways into those other, unseen worlds.  Animals are forever taking wrong turns, or getting blown off course, or being displaced due to habitat loss.  Just recently an Emperor Penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) was found on a beach in New Zealand – as if a small piece of the Antarctic had suddenly presented itself to an entire nation.  The two Locusts I saw last summer in Melbourne reminded me, if only briefly, that there was another world out there, beyond my experience, and that it was facing very real problems regardless of how little attention I or anybody else may have been given it.  No doubt this is an obvious insight – but it’s one that we could do with being reminded of from time to time, I think.

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