There are times when gardening becomes a luxury, when the forces of nature remind us that our understanding of our domestic environment, is tenuous at best. This past week has been such a time.
Our scorching, drought-stricken summer has, predictably, delivered an onslaught of bushfires in the central west. For at least a week, my home town, Mudgee, has been surrounded by major outbreaks. Whilst Mudgee has not been in any danger (the nearest fire about 60km away), our local climate, and the natural environment as observed in my back yard, have been altered by the impacts of the fires.
“Fires Near Me” app screen shot, Sunday 18th February
The thick smoke hanging in the air, combined with very low humidity, has particularly affected the birds. Currawongs, normally flying frenetically to and fro, making their distinctive late summer calls, have been quiet. With the magpies, they have been walking around on the grass with their beaks open, presumably looking for water, or attempting to cool themselves. This has been a distressing and unnerving sight. Concerned for their survival, I put out extra dishes of water, and they immediately attracted the birds.
Another time, I looked up into the branches of my elm tree, to see a dozen or so currawongs, each perched on a separate branch, sitting still and silent. I’ve never seen this before. The blackbirds (despised as they are by many, but favourites to me), which are usually seen hopping energetically around the garden, scratching the earth for food from dawn to dusk, have lately only ventured out of their shady refuges in late afternoons when there is a marginal cooling of the air.
The effect of the smoke on the light, changes colours, alters perceptions and contributes to a surreal, other-worldly sensation. The horizon disappears. Dusk occurs at noon.
In such conditions, apart from the necessary watering to keep favourite plants alive, motivation is lost and gardening almost seems irrelevant.
When I studied climatology, in my first year of university in the mid 1970’s, climate scientists were debating two major theories. One was that, if current trends continued, increasing air pollution caused by particulates, would cool the earth by impeding sunlight. The other theory was that, if current trends continued, increasing carbon dioxide emissions generated by the combustion of fossil fuels would warm the earth.
Since the late 1970’s, significant anti-pollution legislation has been enacted globally, halting and then reversing the trends by mandating the cleaning up of the formerly “dirty” air. No more stacks belching offensive plumes of pollutants.
Carbon dioxide, being invisible, has not been so effectively controlled.
Are the bushfires the result of global warming? That’s not the important question. Is global warming happening, and has human activity caused it, even in part? I don’t have the scientific knowledge to form a view on that. So I’m going to accept the overwhelming weight of evidence and scientific reasoning, which answers “yes” to both those questions. Summer is no longer the idyllic time of year, but a time to focus on what needs doing, to ensure the survival of our gardens and the nature that inhabits them.