Desert Traditions
…where new journeys into life, tradition & culture begin

Parallel Lanes

Last weekend we drove to Newcastle – not to carry coals – that is elsewhere on the planet. This Newcastle, for those of you not familiar with Australian geography, is a city in New South Wales160 km more or less north of our home in Manly. We thought it would be an easy run but our anticipated two and a little bit hour journey took just over three. It was the traffic through the suburbs that slowed us down. Lumbering four-wheel drive vehicles – especially those with trailers attached heading off to the local landfill site with garden and other waste clogged the arterial route to the freeway. Springtime in our part of the world always prompts frenetic bursts of energy as we clear out the winter backlog and make way for new growth or new outdoor furniture – if what we saw on some trailers was destined for the dump! Despite current whinging we are an affluent society. Once on the freeway we were clear to move ahead albeit with some degree of caution on this accident-prone stretch of road. Mike and I tend to amble along in the slow lane staying just under the limit and ignoring would be speedsters who sit impatiently on our tail. We don’t mind taking our time and taking advantage of the break in our usually busy routines to catch up on everyday stuff, to find out about each other’s world and to explore current issues. The two that currently monopolise our media and polarise public opinion (and have done so for several months) are Australia’s proposed solutions to the arrival of ‘boat people’ and its obstinate stance on climate change.

The country remains divided on both. I am embarrassed and ashamed that we lack a humane solution for asylum seekers who risk their lives to reach our unwelcoming shores. On the issue of climate change the government’s solution to reducing our impact on the world’s climate – the introduction of a carbon tax – causes continued and heated debate. The climate change sceptics provide a convenient ‘loophole’ for those who resist change at any cost and public will is weak. So as we drove, fully cognisant of our contribution (bring on the fast rail), we imagined this same stretch of road in a thousand years’ time. It helped to pass the time. Nothing was solved, but given that the climate will change and new ethnic groups will continue to settle in Australia, it was thought provoking to imagine transport systems, urban development, food production, the demographic make up of our population and the ensuing cultural shift in a future way beyond our own lifetimes. I prefer to believe that the human species will still be around and thriving and living in structures that resonate with the land; Mike sees a landscape that ‘grows’ solar and wind energy systems unlike anything engineered today and we both envisage highways without personal vehicles. And well before we had begun to think about health, procreation and learning systems or even intergalactic travel we were in Newcastle. We quickly switched the channel from future to present and went about our business. Later, as we drove into evening with the car pointed towards home, we switched off conversation, switched the channel to Radio National, lapsed into quiet mode and began to listen.

Sometime before leaving the motorway and beginning our descent into Saturday evening urban traffic chaos we caught a large segment of a documentary ‘Northern Lives’ on Radio National’s regular program Awaye. We were captivated as Daniel Browning led us on a journey with the nomadic Sami reindeer herders of Norway on their annual migration across the tundra in search of fodder for the animals with which they coexist. We listened with mounting sadness as we learned of their tenuous future on land that melts under their feet. We listened all the way into our garage and then rushed into the kitchen to hear the last minutes of this remarkable story. I needed to hear it to its end. I had almost forgotten the power of words to set my imagination free, to fill out the sounds with imagery, to roam across white expanses and to wander in my mind through a land where the sun does not quite set for months and the northern lights flicker in a twilight sky. The documentary also took me back to childhood and for the first time in decades I recalled a book my mother bought me that gave me my first glimpse into a world beyond my own backyard. I recall the title ‘Lars and the Reindeer’ – although no amount of Internet searching has yielded it up – but it’s enough to remember a story set in Lapland that made reference to the northern lights, had illustrations of sleighs, reindeer and richly embellished clothing (not a Santa in sight) and which certainly set in place a yearning to see these for myself.

Some things do come to pass. I have witnessed the aurora borealis during years of living in northern British Columbia- standing on crisply frozen ground in below zero temperatures and watching as the lights rippled and dipped in a shifting electromagnetic colour field; I have delved into the world of physics to help me understand the phenomenon but I have not yet been to Lapland to see reindeer herders. I may never do so but I am deeply saddened by the prospect of another culture disappearing through our collective carelessness. The rate of ice melt due to warming is unstoppable; scientists predict that within 20 years there will be none at all thus leaving the Arctic Circle wide open for oil and gas exploration. I am deeply saddened at the plight of indigenous peoples across the planet whose lands are seized for mining, for gas extraction and for industrial development – the Huichol of the Sierra Madres in Mexico whose ancient rites will fail under the destruction of their sacred (ore rich) mountain, the Aboriginal people of the Kimberley region whose land and coast are to become a giant industrial site for the extraction and shipping of gas and for the traditional fisher folk of the Arabian coast in India where mangroves have made way for coal fired power stations.

And do we really believe that we are invincible and that climate change will miraculously turn itself around or miss us completely? That one day CO2 levels will drop of their own accord to those of pre industrial times? I’d like to think that we will all learn to leave the car in the garage; bring on the fast trains; create the technologies we know will slow and eventually reverse the process; use land for food production and leave coal and gas where they belong and, while I remember, that we will also graciously make room for the displaced of the world just as our ancestors made room for themselves in this, their new world. I choose to believe that if we begin in earnest right now future generations might just survive another thousand years and a reindeer herder live to take part in another migration across the tundra.

I have no ready images so I’ll invite you to engage your imagination and fill in the pictures that surround these words.

1. You can listen on line to the Arctic story on

2. Our trip to Newcastle was to visit the New Fibre Arts Gallery ‘Timeless Textiles’ owned and operated by Anne Kempton. Well worth a visit to admire and enjoy the creativity and ingenuity of local artists who work in the medium of textiles and most of whom display great environmental ethics in their uses of natural materials and plant dyes and creative reuse.
Visit Anne at