Sunday, July 31, 2011
Saturday, July 30, 2011
I noticed a striking similarity to an approach described by Libby Hoffman in a talk I attended before leaving for Australia about her film Fambul Tok (family talk), which follows reconciliation and forgiveness in post-conflict Sierra Leonean communities. Instead of jails and negative forms of punishment, she described villages that traditionally took a more positive approach to transgressions by community members. The transgressor would stand in the middle of a circle, surrounded by his community, and each person would provide positive statements about his worth and value in that community. The film's website states that the Sierra Leoneans "often repeat a local saying-- 'There is no bad bush to throw away a bad child,' meaning that even bad members of the community are needed and must be rehabilitated for the community to thrive."
Thursday, July 28, 2011
What a day. Earlier this week, my external hard drive stopped working. Today, after an unsuccessful attempt to recover my files with the help of the Clinton School’s wonderful Kari, I finally had to face the fact that it had crashed completely. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just my backup drive. It was my main repository for 4 years of photos, music, and archived things like college essays and parts of the film I made before graduating from Barnard. I’m crossing my fingers that I can find bits and pieces of this stuff on various computers back home. Otherwise, here’s to hoping Vimeo and Facebook never die.
By mid-afternoon I was starting to feel a little crazy. My head was buzzing, I was antsy, and I couldn’t seem to get any work done. So I went to the pool! It was great to be in the water again. Whenever my mind started to wander towards my disappointments, I just swam harder and focused on my stroke. I kept swimming until my severely out of shape body couldn’t drag another arm through the water, but it was enough to get my head screwed back on to my body and temporarily stop me from obsessing over things that are beyond my control.
But that wasn’t the end. When I got home, I realized that I had misplaced my swim suit somewhere between the office, the bus, and the walk from the bus stop.
While no doubt a let-down, I couldn’t care too much because I had seen something on the way home that made everything alright. For the first part of the ride, I had my eyes shut against the glaring sun shining directly in through the window. When I opened my eyes I noticed, in a spread of sheer winter cloud out to the side, a colorful little sun dog. Then, on the walk from the bus stop I admired the stringy bark hanging from the eucalyptus trees and the reddish tinge of the tall grass on Mount Taylor and I couldn’t have been happier.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
The extraordinary amount of breathing room takes some getting used to, but it has its charms. For example, we saw kangaroos grazing on the Governor-General's estate! And a giant herd of sulfur crested cockatoos:
Also, there are bike trails everywhere-- around lakes, amongst the forested hills, and through each town center. It's a bicycle paradise, really. The mountains in the distance are all part of a national park that seems to be well utilized by the sporty residents of the Australian Capital Territory. I could literally leave my house, be in the wilderness within minutes, and stay there for weeks. A little further south and you enter the Snowy Mountains, where you can hike around to tiny huts and shelters, some of which are old drover's shacks and settler's homesteads.
I got an informal drive-by tour of the different embassies in Canberra and saw a few things of note. Most of the embassies are fairly modest, small buildings. Then you drive past the American embassy. And drive. And drive. We've got a HUGE compound surrounded by a tall, white, wrought iron gate. The compound is filled with massive colonial-style buildings of red brick. Way to be ostentatious, 'murrica. Then you round a corner and there's a fenced off section of forest backing up to the American embassy. A sign states that this is supposed to be the site of the Iranian embassy. Maybe it's an incentive for them to get their act together: look at this lovely slice of bush we've reserved for you!
When we passed the Chinese embassy, my lovely tour guide told me that when the Chinese remodeled their Canberra embassy a few years ago, they found a number of spy devices the Australians had planted in the walls. Apparently that didn't go over too well :)
Monday, July 25, 2011
Many of my classmates have discussed how their experiences abroad this summer are putting things in perspective for them. I’d add that reading about their experiences is putting things in perspective for me across a wide range of situations and cultures. One thing that particularly struck me was reading about the severe lack of basic drinking water in the Tanzanian village where Fernando is working. People in his village sometimes have to walk for a full day in search of water, and there have been multiple deaths from dehydration and exhaustion. I’m so impressed with his recent efforts working with the community to fund, design, and build a rainwater cistern (and this is outside of his normal work).
In comparison, even after a decade-long drought here in arid Australia, towns and cities in the Murray-Darling Basin still had access to water for what they call “critical human need.” Some towns were very close to running out, but the rains came just in time. The debate here rages at a very different level-- how much water to allow for agriculture and industry versus the environment. Drinking water is rarely mentioned, though it has been highlighted increasingly in past years since fears were heightened among local government officials during the drought.
Many Australians I’ve met have said that they are raised to think they live in The Lucky Country, full of natural resources, natural beauty, and peaceful, content people. Although they are a rather dry continent, Australia is the widely-acknowledged leader in arid zone water resource management.
However, many factors are contributing to rural decline in Australia, as around the world. While rural communities here may have their basic needs provided for and a functional welfare system to pick up the slack, people are still dying. In addition to major youth outmigration and crippling household debt, increasing rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, nutritional issues, and inadequate mental health care are also weakening rural communities. For those reliant on agriculture and facing additional water cuts under the latest round of water reforms, these health and wellness factors are at an all-time high. From the perspective of the village in Tanzania, access to water alone would be cause for celebration. In rural Australia it is a given and so most resident’s sense of fulfillment has been built on a more complex system of expectations related to farm infrastructure, tertiary educational opportunities, quality health care and education, good harvest years, and access to technology, among others. These expectations are currently being dashed and people have few avenues for coping mentally. Several people have described the process as similar to grieving.
I feel like I’m looking into the future. In a country or world where development has been capped, what is the fallout for those who have built their identities and will to live around expectations of achieving a certain standard of living that is no longer possible? I’m curious about the psychological impacts that rural Australian communities are experiencing and whether that provides a glimpse into the way other developed countries might react to the necessary end of growth. The reality is that water is a finite resource. Efficiencies can be developed to some extent, but each level of efficiency is increasingly more expensive and difficult to attain. What happens in your head when your community, once thriving and successful and ever hopeful for a brighter, more prosperous future, reaches the end? Is it possible to avoid the suicide and depression by changing one’s attitude, or will it take generations for humanity to come to terms with a new way of looking at the world, one that doesn’t rely on constant development and more money to attain happiness? My question is specifically targeted at the US: will it be possible to cut back our ingrained expectations about what constitutes the good life and be content with alternative ways of being? Do we have a looming mental health crisis on our hands? I’ve never quite thought of it this way before.
Ultimately, though, this idea gives me hope. It’s easy for people of my generation to despair—we’ve been handed a really messy planet. But a new question has been sparked in my mind—despite the realities, can changes in attitude and mindset help us get to a better psychological place to handle an uncertain future? Rather than seeing the end of growth as something scary, what if we viewed it as an opportunity and actually helped it along? What if we could reframe the message about the future? What if the end of growth meant that families became closer, people regained a sense of appreciation for the natural world, soccer clubs thrived, nutrition improved, and crime decreased?
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Saturday, July 16, 2011
"You'll stay with me?"
Friday, July 15, 2011
"What side was Arkansas on?" is a question I have been asked several times about the American Civil War. Australians have a vague sense when I mention the South that the war was a big deal for us. I complicate their notions by explaining about Arkansas's sparse population and split loyalties at the time.
Suddenly all hell broke loose; heavy shelling and shrapnel fire commenced. The ships that were protecting our troops returned fire. Bullets were thumping into us in the rowing-boat. Men were being hit and killed all around me... the sight of the bodies on the beach was shocking. It worried me for days that I couldn't stop to help the men calling out.
It was the nineteenth day of August 1915. I had been on Gallipoli only six days short of four months and I want to say now that they were the worst four months of my whole life. I had seen many men die horribly, and had killed many myself, and lived in fear most of the time. And it is terrible to think that it was all for nothing.
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Monday, July 11, 2011
Thursday, July 7, 2011
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
The Kurilpa Bridge was described by one blogger as "one of the most audacious and technically ambitious bridge designs of recent years." The style is known as "tensegrity" and, like the Big Dam Bridge (the longest purpose-built pedestrian/cycle bridge in the US), Kurilpa has a hilariously specific claim to fame: The World's Largest Tensegrity Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge.