Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Essay - notes on current reading and writing

Major floods in the US, a dam break in Jakarta, both major events bringing tragedy to many. They are a reminder of the way in which nature can sweep all away.

In Saturday Morning Musings- Australian prehistory I talked about past shifts in Australian sea levels and climates. In reading, I was struck by the size and variation in past sea levels and climatic shifts.

Much of the discussion about the effects of climate change focus on the impacts as projected by the models. I think that it is equally interesting and perhaps as useful to look at the past.

Here I am not talking about the past in the context of the climate change debate, but about what the past actually tells us of the timing, scale and effects of changes.

Over the last twenty one or so thousand years, sea levels have moved in perhaps a 136 metre range, from 134 metres below current levels to two metres above.

Generally the changes have taken place over millennia, imperceptible to those living at any point. However, around 13,000 years ago there was a major surge; sea levels rose 25 metres in 1,000 years, 2.5 metres every century, 25 millimetres a year.

Writing about this made me wonder about the wisdom of some of the planning responses to climate change. However, that's another story.

The long period of human occupation of what is now Australia, as well as the continent's relative isolation, make the continent a fascinating case study in human cultural and physical evolution.

The 5,500 or so years since the first invention of writing are only a small part - a few percentage points - in the life of the current human species. Australia is a window into a now vanished past.

As one outcome of my training reading, I have been meaning to write a summary of Australian pre-history - the Wikipedia article is not too bad, but doesn't really bring it out as a story and is also affected to some degree by current events. I don't know about you, but I find things easier to understand and remember if told as a story.

From my viewpoint, I am most interested in the Holocene period and especially the last few thousand years. Aboriginal cultures were not static, and this most recent period was a period of very major change in Aboriginal Australia. 

Drawing from Geoffrey Blainey, Long, lean, lanky - Australians' changing form discussed the impact of environment and life style on the physical form of Australians.

As an aside, I wonder when the words "unpack" and "push-back" entered Australian English? They are both very popular just at present.

I have always used analyse, deconstruct or un-tangle variously to describe the processes covered by unpack. The word seems to be another example of jargon.

I don't mind unpack because the meaning is quite precise.

Push-back, too, has a precise meaning in the context of negotiations. The other side makes an un-reasonable demand, we should push back. Despite this apparent precision, the word with its sporting overtones makes me quite uncomfortable. I need to think about this to "unpack" - I really do prefer the words specify or define here! - the reasons why.

Returning to Blainey, a fair bit of my reading at present all connects in some way to understanding what I think of as the main fault lines in current thought - areas of difference, of prejudice and about prejudice or intolerance in all its many forms. I am also concerned at the way those fault lines affect our thinking about and writing on our own past.

To understand all this, I have been digging back along a number of dimensions, trying to put my own perceptions aside.

At one level, this is quite impossible.

The very process of reading and writing is an interaction between the material and I. I cannot help responding. A lot of the fun lies in my responses to the material.

What I can try to do, however, is to seek to understand what people thought and meant, to try to define their perceptions. For that reason, I have been deliberately selecting books written at different times and from different perspectives. Not just biographies or travel stories, but also histories.

At times, I have found this quite unpleasant, quite depressing.

In Sunday Essay - Race, Eugenics and the views of J H Curle I talked about the links between eugenics, Social Darwinism and varying views towards race, nations and peoples.

Today many people in Western countries, assuming that they were prepared to finish the book, would put it aside as clap trap. Yet Mr Curle's views are back, assuming that they ever left, just in different forms. 

In similar vein, I ended up quite depressed in my exploration of Balkan history because of the way it confirmed the causes and long historical continuity of ethnic and religious divides. 

At other times, I have found my exploration intensely fascinating and quite uplifting.

We humans are funny animals, riven by contradictions, capable of killing our fellows, of immense and conscious savagery. Yet we actually fight against our weaknesses, we aim for improvement, we try to do better. What's more, quite often we succeed!

How, on earth, does all this link back to Geoffrey Blainey and the changing physical form of Australians?

Well, it's now 9.49am. I am going to leave this hanging and come back to it in a later post!

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