Tuesday 12 August 2014

The Wombat holocaust and the sad loss of Robin Williams

The Bare Nosed Wombat.
I have been doing an acutely stressful article for my web magazine, IndependentAustralia.
The article concerns the outrageous activities of loggers in the south-east of NSW.
Down there, in the Glenbog Forest, the forestry contractors have been burying wombats alive in their burrows in the quest to destroy the forest for woodchips.
It's heartbreaking stuff, and is another example of the governments of this country going out of their way to destroy the environment to make profits.
Among the heart break is that most of the damage could be avoided of only a little more care and attention to detail.
But it seems they aren't even prepared to do this.
Burrows have been covered by roads, other burrows have been covered by logging debris.
Wombats can famously dig, but the local wildlife carers have told me that not even these strong diggers of the forest can remove the amount of debris that has been deposited on their homes.
I, and I suspect, many of you, really like wombats.
For me there is something infinitely beguiling about an animal that just wants to be left alone to trundle about the undergrowth and do its own thing.
However, those loggers operating down there obviously don't share my love of the beast and so have been doing their damnedest to end their lives.
Or perhaps more accurately, not wishing the wombats any specific harm, but simply not
caring enough to do anything to enhance their welfare.
Deep under this debris is a wombat burrow.
Local wildlife carer Ray Wynan is trying to dig it out.
Local wildlife carers Marie and Ray Wynan have been doing their best to dig the covered animals out alive, but they can't be everywhere.
So I did my article, but it has affected me.
I simply don't have words to describe the ongoing frustration I feel when having to cover a story like this.
Having to write for the umpteenth time of governments callously consigning animals to death to make a few bucks.
Just so you know it is the state government of NSW under Mike Baird, and particularly the minister for primary industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, who are the people responsible for the death of these wombats.
So it was acutely stressful hearing about, and looking at pictures of, wombats dieing and put me in mind of how I first became concerned with the fate of the world's environment.
It turns out it was in 1972, when I was aged seven, and in second class at primary school (elementary school for American readers).
One Sunday night the local TV station showed The Lorax by Dr Suess.
Some of you may remember this wonderful cartoon, but for those who don't here is a brief synopsis.
The Lorax is a vaguely hippy figure who speaks for the trees.
The trees in question are the Truffula trees.
These trees do everything wonderful trees do, provide shade, keep the water flowing, all of that.
Sadly their bushy crown of leaves is wonderfully silky soft foliage and has great demand in some manufacturing process or other.
The upshot is that some nameless bastards come along and start cutting the Truffula trees down to use in industry.
As their methods become more sophisticated, they begin to remove more and more Truffula trees from the landscape, which begins to resemble more the moon than the Earth.
Then the Lorax appears and tries to intercede on behalf of the trees.
However it is all to no avail and then the last Truffula tree of all is cut down and hauled away.
As I watched that Sunday night all those years ago, I was irreparably sad, I even broke down into tears.
Something just not done in my emotions-are-bad-and-must-be-hated-and-repressed-family.
So broken was I by this that it even got through to my mother, a woman so self-centred that she makes Kim from Kath and Kim look like the Dalai Llama.
With this breakdown into tears, she actually did something to help one of her sons.
She called a contact who worked in the public service for National parks.
She told him about my tears and arranged the next day for my brother David and I to donate $2 to National Parks.
A symbolic gesture of course, but it was comforting to know that in a tiny way my family had done something for the environment.
BTW: As far as I can extrapolate, using a meat pie as an economic comparator, A$2 in 1972 was about A$50 today, so quite a substantial sum from my normally tight-fisted mother.
Anyway, the reason I mention all of that here is because Dr Suess was telling us in 1972, forty years ago, that we were cutting down too many of our trees.
Yet we seem to have learned nothing.
While some progress has been made in the intervening years, we now seem to be going backwards again.
Destroying our environment to make money.
So all I would say in the end is that if you have time to do a microscopic little thing for the environment, sign a petition (GetUp! have many good ones), vote to save trees, that is something.
Don't get hung up on the "this will do nothing", you can't do it all, but you can do something.
My article will not, sadly, keep any wombats alive, but I felt microscopically better to know that I had done something.
I have spoken out a little about environmental injustice.

EXTRA PIECE: When I went round to get coffee from my friend Rodney's coffee shop, Barefoot Roasters, I was more touched than I could say.
One of the staff members there, Rio, bought me this small stuffed wombat.
I'd told him how upset I was of having to write of the death and maltreatment of the wombats of the south, and when he was in the shop he noticed this wombat and bought it for me.
Thanks Rio, that's the sort of thing that friends do to keep friend's mental state intact.


Robin Williams

And so we move onto to another episode of profound sadness, the death of Robin Williams.
I was still feeling the effects of the wombat carnage when this news came through.
It really is a sad blow as Robin was a great comedian, a genuinely funny man.
And it seems that suicide is factor in his death, sadly not an isolated incident when we are talking of comedians.
My first encounter with Robin was on his hilariously funny sitcom of the seventies Mork From Ork.
I was sadly not allowed to watch this show as it was on commercial TV.
However, I do remember snippets of it, so I obviously sneaked a view of when my parents were out, or otherwise distracted.
Silly as the premise was, Williams played an alien from the planet Ork, on Earth to observe, the show was basically a vehicle for Williams to do his stand up comedy on screen.
And it was hilarious stuff.
One I remember, and I'm probably doing him a disservice by relating it here, as nothing can capture his charm and humour.
Anyway, in the guise of Ork he went to his first Earth basketball game.
Later back at home he relates:
"So first a load of Earth females [the cheerleaders] came out and danced. I really liked that and when I stood up to clap, I spilled my coffee in the lap of the man next to me, and then it was his turn to dance."
He then went on:
"Soon after that I had to go to the bathroom, I entered one of the cubicles, and sat down. While the seat was more comfortable, I couldn't see the game."
The cause of death for Williams is not as yet known, but already suicide is being mentioned.
If so, that would not be a surprise.
It is well documented now that comedians have a lot of trouble with mental illness.
And I'd just like to draw in here from other professions.
It is famously said that dentists have the highest suicide rate, and this seems to have some credence, with one website indicating that dentists' propensity to take their own lives is 6.64 times higher than the rest of the working age population.
The reasons given there are:
"Dentists suffer from relatively low status within the medical profession and have strained relationships with their clients--few people enjoy going to the dentist."
I would add that it can't be any fun facing that first mouth on Monday, bad breath and all, and then knowing you have a week of it.
Police likewise have serious trouble with suicide, and for many allied reasons to dentists.
They often suffer low status in the general community - the "social disease" as they themselves refer to it - and rarely are people happy to see police when they show up for a work related reason.
One of my favourite American authors, Joseph Wambaugh, explores this theme in his books.
Wambaugh's novels are of police in general, and he is probably most famous for his book, which was made into a film, The Choirboys.
This book explores police of Los Angeles and describes the unbelievable pressure they are under.
Hated by the public, no real support, either emotional or professional by their higher-ups, all of that.
So this particular group meet after their shift in a run down park for "choir practice".
Choir practice involves heavy drinking to dissolve the stresses of their work, and highlights the dysfunction rampant in their heads.
Eventually one of the younger policemen, Baxter Slate kills himself, and Wambaugh writes:
"Sergeant Yanov came to the briefing and without preamble says, 'Baxter Slate is dead, he shot himself yesterday.' The blood drained from the assembled officers' faces as they realized that one close to them had succumbed to that most contagious of police diseases - suicide."
So we can get some sort of handle on suicide in dentists and police, but in comedians it is much more nebulous.
I think we can understand that a policeperson seeing a whole family dead in a car accident for instance, is a massive stress and cannot leave the officer unaffected.
So what of comedians, and creatives in general?
And of course, I'm nobody's expert, however I have tried my hand at stand-up comedy, and am a very minor creative of sorts here in this blog.
Anyway, I feel that with comedians the pressure comes from having to be funny all the time.
And just a brief recourse to my most unsuccessful comedy career.
I was direly bad, hopelessly so, and the stomach-knotting embarrassment of thinking of myself on that stage, with the audience embarrassed for me, and wishing they were elsewhere, still haunts me occasionally today.
And I do remember as I came off the stage those nights to relieved applause - relieved that is because I was going - that this life was not for me, there was simply too much pressure.
If you're a bad comedian you are under pressure to get better, and go through many nights of no laughs, honing your act, till you get laughs.
To do this you have to have a skin like a rhino to take the lack-of-laughing, and the barbs of hecklers.
I simply didn't have the emotional strength to get up there and be heckled time after time.
I might add, most of the heckles I got were funnier than anything in my act.
Yet even here, it was so easy to sit anonymous in the crowd and launch tried and true heckles - "Don't give up your daytime job" - from the comforting darkness than get up there on the stage and put yourself out there.
Anyway, if you're a bad comedian you're under pressure, but if you are a successful comedian, then the pressure moves to an unholy higher level.
Billy Connolly put it quite well when he said in interview, "What many don't understand is that I've still got to go out there and be funny to the audience who bought their seats months ago, even if I have just had bad news from home".
If the rest of us had have bad news, a child sick, a relative dieing for instance, the last thing we want to do is to laugh.
Yet as Billy pointed out he still had to put those emotions away and make people laugh, talk about pressure and pain.
And when I think of those comedians who suddenly have an unexpected microphone shoved in their face, and know that if they aren't immediately funny at the drop of the hat, that is what people will remember about them, it shows the pressure they are under.
And sadly, Williams seemed to be the most iconic representation of this.
He was always on.
Whenever he appeared in the public eye, he had obviously set out to make people laugh.
And clearly that pressure got to him in the end.
He was, like so many of this profession, a user of substances.
And boy do I know what that's like.
He entered rehab not long before his death, but sadly it didn't have the effects he was hoping for.
There's so much more we don't know about his death, but I'll just say in closing that, I'm more sorry than I can say that he is gone.

So after all that, I turned to The Simpsons to make me feel better.
I don't want to appear flippant about either the deaths of those poor wombats, or that of Williams, but as a life-long depression sufferer, I know the value of turning to non-substance solutions when I'm feeling down.
And for some reason the episode where Homer goes into space came to my mind.
This episode starts with the awarding of Employee of the Month at the nuclear power plant where Homer works.
Everyone has got one, including Tebor the guy who doesn't speak English, except Homer.
However he feels that this is his day, for sure he is going to finally get the award.
However when Mr Burns and Mr Smithers take to the balcony to announce this month's recipient, the award goes to an inanimate carbon rod.
Homer is incensed.
Beyond rage.
And so in an attempt to show that he has the measure of the rod, he yells up at the balcony, "I'll show you inanimate!!!!!"
Which he then proceeds to do by standing inanimately motionless for the next ten hours.
So then the episode proceeds and for various plot related reasons Homer ends up going into space.
The two real astronauts however, have quickly had enough of Homer's crisp-munching presence, and a fight breaks out, during which Homer goes to brain Buzz Aldrin and breaks the door handle.
This leaves them in a quandary, as they are now at risk when the capsule re-enters the Earth's atmosphere.
The carbon rod during the parade.
If the door flies open upon re-entry, then they will all die in the burning wake of the space craft.
However, when Homer went to brain Aldrin, he picks up an inanimate carbon rod, and when he swings it back behind him, it catches in the door slot, and they realize it may just hold and get them home.
It does, and all three of them arrive safely back on Earth.
Then the episode ends with Homer waiting to get salutations for getting them home safely, but is once more frustrated when the inanimate carbon rod he used to hold the door gets all the congratulations and the rod is even given a ticker tape parade to celebrate the fact.
It's funny stuff, and certainly helps break up my regular bouts of depression I can tell you.
Another thing I like about the Simpsons is that everything catches fire.
This is a brilliantly done piss take of Hollywood's infinite capacity for loving an explosion.
Mythbusters have also dealt with this well.
On that show they showed that a cigarette dropped into a trail of petrol, while it looks suitably dramatic, does not ignite the fuel.
Likewise, firing a bullet into a car's petrol tank, will not make the car explode.
Anyway, there is an episode where Homer has to be Mr Burns's personal assistant while Mr Smithers is away.
On the first morning he has to make Mr Burns's Breakfast.
He smashes the door of the microwave and puts some sort of kebab inside and that, not unreasonably, catches fire.
So then he reverts to a more mundane breakfast, and goes to make some toast, and the bread - and the toaster I might add - catch fire.
So then he gives up on that and decides to make Mr Burns simple cornflakes.
He pours out the flakes, then tips in the milk, and that catches fire an' all.
Funny stuff.
There was also an episode, which sadly I can't find a picture for, where Homer drives the family car into a frozen lake.
The car descends to the watery depths, and for a moment all is silent, then it catches fire under water and pieces of the vehicle rain down across the landscape.
If only Hollywood would take note and put some of the real world in their offerings.
See you next week for more moaning.


  1. Thanks Lachlan,

    I am sickened by the wombat story. I spend a fair bit of time in and around the state forests out Oberon way, and one of the few fauna that have carved out an existence in the ecological wasteland of pine is the wombat. I have enjoyed watching these miniature bulldozers getting about, as you say, doing their own thing, neither scared of or interested in me.

    I wince every time I see one dead on the side of the road, and that is every time I go up there, at least one and sometimes five or more.

    The foresters and farmers out there seem like otherwise very decent folk, but they have a blind spot when it comes to wombats. Apparently if an animal impedes the business of farming or logging in any way a deep hate at worst, and a strong disregard at best, emerges.

    All part of the primacy of the human project, a notion that will kill us in the end.

    Vale Robin Williams. He came along right as the rest of the world was telling me to stop being silly and showed me that silliness is a holy act, a blessing and possibly the most acute response to a world of adult self importance and venal stupidity.

  2. Thanks Stokesy.
    As Gerald Durrell put it "humanity is sawing off the branch upon which it sits."
    Horrendous stuff.