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Melanoma Country - a poem on bushfires, climate, politics and society

What is this sunburnt country Of smoke and threatening flames Of blackened mountain ranges Of dust and absent rains? This land that once was beautiful That nourished heart and head Now keeps us up at night with thoughts Of hopelessness and dread. And as we face this danger Our heads are in the sand We're doing bugger all to help This dehydrated land. We squabble and we dally We ignore the facts and truth Our PM says "Don't panic" While our firies mutter "Strewth!". We've an ad-man, prayer-man, coal-man And his brethren at the wheel With an attitude of "She'll be right, Let's keep an even keel." "Why risk it for a biscuit - We're too small to help, besides - Let others do the lifting To curb the rising tides." But it's more than absent leadership And policy 'slip, slop, slap' It's the sunstruck zombie voters Who don't seem to give a crap. Is that who we've become A land of mindless three-word slogans Of quiet, shameless selfishness Of comfy cashed-up bogans? That's not Anzac, that's not Mabo Why not punch above our weight And lead by good example Before it's way too late? 'Cos thoughts and prayers won't cut it Nor will ignorance and blame We need to act with purpose – now Or hang our heads in shame. For when our children's children Turn and look us in the eye And ask us what we did to help The water, land and sky Our answer will be feeble It will simply sound insane They'll wonder if we had a Melanoma on the brain. But more than that, they'll question Why we didn't make a start They'll sense the rot went deeper - Melanoma of the heart. (Melanoma Country, by Dr Jonathan Happold, a veterinary epidemiologist in Canberra.) The ABC Science Show presented this poem on 18th January 2020

Jonathan Happold is a veterinarian and epidemiologist based in Canberra. He wrote his poem, Melanoma Country on 2nd January 2020 as south east Australia was on fire. He included the following:

I wrote Melanoma Country in the hours before evacuating from the South Coast of New South Wales, Australia, on 2nd January.

As an Australian – it was simply an expression in response to the bushfires. Shortly after Christmas, I drove to the coast through dry and dusty paddocks, and forests of tall Spotted Gums that had been rendered black and sepia after fires in early December. I walked through tinder-dry patches of unburnt forest to the edge of a national park that was unrecognisable in its bleakness. Earlier, I’d been on the edges of an active fire ground, helping mates on a farm prepare for the threat that loomed on a dark and reddening horizon.

The words of Dorothea Mackellar’s famous poem came to mind – ‘I love a sunburnt country... of droughts and flooding rains’ – and the words didn’t resonate as once they might have done. In the face of climate change, the romance of droughts, floods and a perpetually ‘sunburnt' country is wearing thin. 

And hence the idea of Melanoma Country – Australia isn’t just sporting a tan anymore: it's ‘sunburn’ (read: effects of climate change) has become dangerously cancerous.

As a veterinarian – I’m deeply saddened by the loss and suffering of wildlife and livestock, and worried by the impacts of climate change on our farming communities. Images of burnt animals are horrifying and it’s hard to get your head around the scale of destruction of wildlife and their habitats.

Also as a veterinarian and epidemiologist, I work in an area of science that is fundamentally about understanding cause and effect, and critically appraising evidence. So it concerns me greatly that denial of human-induced climate change still appears to have traction in some quarters of politics, the media and society.

As a father of two young kids I am worried about their future. It saddens me that they won’t be able to enjoy many of the places of natural beauty in south-eastern Australia that I enjoyed as a kid. It troubles me that the ‘new normal’ that they inherit may well be – in so many ways – less secure and less nourishing for mind, body and soul. And it angers me to see policy and politics in Australia being so incredibly short-sighted and bereft of a deep sense of what really matters.

And as someone who senses the urgency of the climate situation – it is time to get serious about addressing the mess that we’ve created. The effects of climate change are happening now; it hurts and it's really costing us. We need to turn this thing around through mitigation, not just adaptation. I don’t want to adapt to summers like this! And we need to do it through personal responsibility and political action. When I wrote the poem, it seemed even more futile than holding a hose to 20m flames. But if every single one of us does something, then perhaps there’s cause for hope.

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