Author: Anne Layton-Bennett

Spark extinguished. . . . sort of

Rejection is all part of the writing game. At least it is if one is prepared to put it out into the public sphere in the hope a publisher or editor is impressed enough to print it, and ideally pay the writer for the privilege. That’s the life of a freelance journalist, jobbing writer, or just a hopeful beginner who’s plucked up sufficient nerve to test their lovingly crafted article, story or poem in the court of public opinion. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that every writer serious about their craft eventually decides to take the plunge, and send off their work in hopeful anticipation it will be read, enjoyed and accepted for publication or a competition prize.

I know I was exceptionally fortunate when I finally took this step. My very first foray into testing my writing against that of other hopeful scribblers was a competition. I didn’t win it. I wasn’t even placed, but I did receive an ‘honourable mention’. It was enough to give me the confidence to keep going. My confidence received another boost when I sent off another piece to a small press publishing opportunity, and it was accepted. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of seeing words you’ve written on the pages of a published magazine, journal, or book. It’s a thrill that doesn’t fade with time or more success. At least it hasn’t done for me.

That’s not to say I’ve not had my fair share of rejections. Like I said, they go with the territory. And despite what anyone says to the contrary, they hurt. It’s hard to get your head around the idea that the rejection isn’t of you personally. It’s just that your article, story, poem or whatever, isn’t the right fit for that particular publication, or publisher at that time. It doesn’t mean you’ve written a load of rubbish or that you’ve suddenly lost the ability to write well. I know the advice is often to rewrite the piece and whizz it off somewhere else, and it’s sensible advice but I confess to not always following it.

The background to this blog entry though is because I have just received, not a rejection as such, but confirmation my entry into the Hardie Grant Spark Prize 2022 didn’t make the shortlist. So the book I’m currently working on, and that’s already many thousands of words long, failed to stack up against those few who made it to the top of the pile. How big was the pile? Who knows. Maybe my entry missed out by a whisker, or maybe it didn’t make it past Round One. I will never know. And that’s fine because I shall just keep working on my magnum opus, and keep in my head the lovely affirmation from my friend Shirley, who encouraged me to enter the Spark Prize in the first place. When I emailed her the news she said, ‘You know you can write and this [result] doesn’t change that one iota’.

So best of luck to the chosen few, and to the eventual winner, but for me it’s onwards and upwards.

Roadkill madness

Have we reached a tipping point I wonder, in a realisation and an awareness – as well as hopefully a collective horror – about the staggering number of wildlife being exterminated on our roads?
It’s not like the issue of roadkill is new. Some of us have been urging drivers to slow down on Tasmania’s roads for years, especially between the hours of dusk and dawn when our mostly nocturnal wildlife is active. There have been multiple letters to editors over the years, from both locals and tourists, appalled at the number of roadkilled bodies lining the roadsides. There have been multiple pleas from wildlife champion Greg Irons from Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, begging people to please show caution, and to slow down, especially when driving at night or early in the morning.

It seems that people are finally waking up and finding their voices. Certainly I hope so. Suddenly there seems to be an explosion of community groups forming around the state determined to halt the carnage. Primarily in their own locality, but also more widely. Facebook pages have been established. Tamar Valley Wildlife Roadkill Initiative and Friends of Summerleas Wildlife are just two of them. Posts are being shared. The ‘likes’ are increasing. While the graphic photos being posted can be confronting, (they’re meant to be) they are also having some success in mobilising people to be more aware. And to encourage them how to be involved.

Letters to editors are good, and Council road signs reminding drivers to ‘slow down for wildlife’ are also good, but a relatively new and effective strategy being promoted by a southern Tasmanian group is posters. They have a range of different ones to choose from and they’re popping up on fences and gates across the island. Thanks to a committed team of volunteers and wildlife carers these posters are being ferried around the state. They all have a photograph of a pademelon, a wallaby, a wombat, a masked owl, a Tasmanian devil etc and a simple message that asks drivers to slow down because everyone deserves to arrive home safe and sound at night. And the cost is modest at only $16 each. Order from Friends of Summerleas Wildlife

It’s a fantastic initiative and already there are three along our road. It’s certainly not the only strategy to help protect our vulnerable wildlife, and I cannot say in truth that it’s proved 100 per cent effective yet in my area, but it’s a start and will hopefully prompt more people to be alert to our furred and feathered friends when they’re driving along regional and rural roads, because as the posters remind us: we all deserve to arrive home safely.

Dear Prime Minister Albanese

Just before the opening of the 47th parliament I emailed the following letter to our newly-minted PM. Labor was after all largely elected because they promised much greater action on addressing the climate crisis, even if many of us want and expect more than the 43 per cent cut in emissions by 2030. That’s not enough and is also why we want and expect the PM to collaborate with the Greens and the teal independents to achieve a more realistic target and time-frame. For the sake of the planet – and our country – I hope he does.

“It’s true you’ve not wasted time since winning the May 21st election, and you’re to be congratulated on mending some fences with our international neighbours, but your approach to the climate change issue leaves a great deal to be desired.

Many of us were heartened and encouraged by your comments during the election campaign indicating your willingness to work collaboratively across the political spectrum to end the so-called ‘climate wars’.
So your latest, and may I say, somewhat belligerent, reported position is bewildering to say the least. It’s also deeply and distressingly disappointing. If Australia is to move forward from the pariah status it rightly earned under the Morrison government, immediate and meaningful action on climate is essential. There is literally no time to lose. Climate change isn’t some vague nebulous future threat to our country or the planet. It’s here. It’s arrived. Just like the 98 per cent of scientists warned us it would decades ago, and who begged us all to act. And to prepare. Now it’s very nearly too late. We’re in the middle of it. The evidence is here for all to see. Catastrophic floods, unprecedented bushfires, damaging winds and storms, and harsh droughts. All have increased in severity and frequency. And they will continue to do so. The physical impact on the land and the environment has been, is, and will continue to be, horrific. The social and economic impacts from the destruction of lives, homes, businesses, and health is immeasurable. And it will only get worse.

And then there’s COVID. Arguably also a symptom of climate change. The wilful and greedy mismanagement of our global environment has resulted in the emergence of serious diseases. Scientists warned us of this probability too. With the warming climate some of those diseases are now being experienced in many more regions, and affecting many more people. Australia is far from being immune to this threat.

And yet Mr Albanese, now you are Prime Minister, you no longer appear inclined to work collaboratively with those so-called ‘teal’ Independents, and the increased number of Greens MPs. You claim a mandate for your government that has a majority of two. Please remember Anthony, these Independents – and Greens – are MPs who were elected because voters in their electorates are demanding our federal government acts on climate change. And acts immediately. And that action MUST include a swift transition from the fossil fuel industry we know is a major cause of the climate mess we’re now dealing with.

Please remember those Independents and Greens secured a vote of a good 30 per cent of the national vote. Labor might have secured a slightly higher percentage of votes, but still in the 30s, with the Liberals/Nationals securing a total somewhere in between. Your majority therefore is slim and cannot seriously be described as a ‘mandate’.

For all our sakes, and those of future generations, please waste no more time. Climate change is above political ideologies. We expect you and your government to work with those ‘teals’ and the Greens, say no to more coal mines, to close existing ones as rapidly as possible, and ensure those working in mining communities are able to transition to the cleaner and greener employment opportunities in the renewable technology options that abound in this country.

There’s literally no time to waste.

Images courtesy of Pexels

Culling – or legal blood sport

Although not widely reported, Tasmanians were made aware last week that millions of the state’s wildlife was being legally killed. The details came to light because of a Right to Information request, submitted by the Tasmanian Greens, that sought specific details about the number of wildlife deaths as part of a parliamentary Budget Estimates Committee hearing. The shocking answer revealed that the government’s Property Protection Permit system allowed landowners and farmers seeking to reduce the damage to crops and vegetation from wildlife species, to slaughter upwards of two million animals and birds from 2019 to June this year.

I wonder if those figures would ever have come to light had that RTI request not been made.

One would think this sort of number would shock people to the core. That they would be horrified, appalled, angered and outraged at hearing about such carnage. From comments made on The Mercury newspaper’s website, and its Facebook page, a lot of people were not. Quite the opposite. They trotted out the usual responses about Tasmania being over-run with wildlife, and that a good kill – sorry cull – was essential. That farmers and landowners had every right to shoot wildlife that had the audacity to peck fruit or nibble on grain crops.

Of course farmers need to protect the crops that become the food we all eat, and nobody denies some mitigating measures are necessary, but shooting surely shouldn’t be regarded as the first or only one. It’s not as though alternative deterrents aren’t available, and could be implemented. The typical excuse is they are expensive and inconvenient and the result would be more expensive food. Shooting wildlife is therefore simpler and cheaper.

I’ve no idea what it is that makes some humans killers. Of anything. Sure, we are all guilty of reducing the population of blowflies, mosquitoes, European wasps, mice and rats, without thinking too deeply about it. They are pests to be sure, and can cause harm and disease. But to actively condone the massacre of wallabies, possums, wombats, black swans and native hens? That makes no sense to me when, as a nation, Australia has allowed so many of its iconic species to become extinct since European settlement. The most infamous of which in Tasmania of course is the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger

. Until relatively recently there were serious fears the Tasmanian devil would go the same way, but millions of dollars have been spent during the last 20-odd years to ensure its survival from the fatal facial tumour disease that has ravaged the species in the wild.

And that’s the thing. Millions of dollars and volunteer hours are spent caring for injured and orphaned wildlife so the disconnect between this attitude, and the wholesale slaughter that also occurs, is shocking.

So now here we are, endorsing the murder of many of Tasmania’s wildlife species, when so little is known about the importance they have for biodiversity, or even their overall population numbers. Not to mention their importance as a tourist attraction, one that both government and industry are happy to spruik in the promotional literature encouraging people to visit so they can enjoy the state’s unique wildlife experience.

Then, when people do visit Tasmania, they are horrified at the number of carcasses they see lining the state’s roads. Because in addition to the animals legally killed under the PPPs, there are reportedly an additional 500,000 roadkilled animals annually.

Tasmania likes to market itself as being ‘clean and green’. The sad truth is it’s anything but.

Spark of hope

Awards and grant opportunities for non-fiction writers working on book projects are nowhere near as plentiful as they are for fiction writers, so when a friend sent through the link for Hardie Grant’s Spark Prize, it took me about five minutes to decide to enter once I’d read through the guidelines.

That decision was the easy part.

After re-reading the guidelines, and the submission criteria several times, entering this award wasn’t going to be quite the piece of cake it looked like at first. After all my work was in progress, I’d written multiple bios of varying lengths by this time, and I had a previous submission for a similar award offered by the Australia Institute 18 months ago. Surely a quick re-write to bring things up-to-date would be enough.

Well, no.

Needless to say I wasn’t successful with the AI award but writing a succinct yet detailed synopsis was a valuable and worthwhile experience even so. The criteria for the narrative non-fiction Spark Prize are even more stringent with their requirement to provide a detailed chapter outline of the work-in-progress. Understandably Hardie Grant want to be sure they are investing in authors serious about their particular project, and that a significant start on it has already been made. A chapter outline, detailed or otherwise, isn’t something I’d given any thought to at all. I was just ‘getting it down’ as it had been suggested I do, not get bogged down in the finer detail of what happened when, and by whom.

So that part took longer to do than expected, and the 3000 word limit that I initially thought was rather generous, turned out to be barely enough. It also meant I had to dig around in the less-than-perfectly-organised documents and files on my computer to check on certain facts, figures and dates. It was a valuable reminder of the importance of up-to-date careful filing, dating and labelling, and necessitated a spot of much needed organising and sorting. At least now information retrieval has been made easier.

My lovely mentor Robyn has generously offered to read through my completed submission before I send it off, so now it’s a matter of awaiting her verdict and hoping she doesn’t suggest too much rewriting given the deadline is only a matter of days away, and my attention now needs to turn to ongoing work opportunities, ones for which I also get paid!

Image courtesy of Google images (unlicensed)


Life can be so full of surprises

In the wake of the devastating 2019-20 bushfires that raged across so much of eastern Australia for weeks, I wrote a poem that raged against prime minister Scott Morrison’s total failure to show any kind of genuine leadership, or even common decency, empathy or humanity.

The poem was a piece of writing sparked by the words submitted in that week’s Word Expo – a word game I’ve been playing now for well over 10 years with writers from around the world, although these days limited to Australia and New Zealand. Writers submit a word, one that’s not been previously used, and from the disparate list invited to create a piece of writing. It can be anything – poetry, anecdote, story, script – the only criteria is that at least three of the submitted words are included.

While I still hesitate to describe myself as a poet, poetry is often what emerges from this weekly list of words. And most of the poems are political, often relating to a situation that’s been dominating the media in some capacity. It’s quite cathartic to vent one’s anger, frustration or despair at whatever is occurring that week in the state, the country or the world.

In January 2020 it was Australia’s bushfires, and the breathtakingly unbelievable discovery our PM had deemed it OK to quietly creep off to Hawaii with his family while half the country was engulfed in flames. His reasoning for abandoning communities whose homes had been destroyed, and landscapes, forests, animals scorched and decimated, and exhausted firefighters and volunteers, was because he ‘doesn’t hold a hose, mate’.

My poem was in the form of a letter and entitled Dear Mr Morrison. Once written it joined others in a bulging portfolio I keep in the filing cabinet, and that might occasionally be rolled out for a reading at the monthly Poetry Pedlars evening. But after spotting a call out for contributions for an anthology – planned as a fundraiser to support sanctuaries overwhelmed with wildlife victims from the fires – I offered this one, since it fitted the climate change/bushfire theme essential to submission requirements.

My poem was accepted, and the anthology was duly published in 2020. It includes impressive and moving comments and personal accounts and hopefully raised significant dollars to aid the rescue and recovery of the millions of animals and birds injured and displaced as a result of those terrible and disastrous fires. While I was not unnaturally pleased to see it in print, it never occurred to me that publication in this modest tome might prompt additional interest.

So an email seeking permission to use an extract from Dear Mr Morrison, from Australian academic Eve Darian-Smith who is based in the US, and was writing a book on the global response to climate change from a world where right-wing governments were on the rise, was completely unexpected. And she was terribly apologetic that she couldn’t offer me any payment, should I agree to her request.

To say I was gobsmacked is an understatement! Needless to say I agreed. Who wouldn’t at such an unlooked-for opportunity!

Publication was scheduled to be in early 2022, and I was promised a copy of the book. Late last week it arrived, and sure enough that extract is included (on pages 57 and 58 actually).

Sometimes you never know how, or with who, the words we write will resonate and find their own life in the world. It’s highly likely the idea for the poem was born on a Thursday, so it could be argued this particular ‘child’ was always likely to have ‘far to go’!

Voting for our future

Despite the best of intentions to keep this blog a political-free zone, I’ve decided it’s not possible. And not just because there’s a federal election in four weeks. Possibly the most important one ever, and one that could just deliver a result able to bring us back from the climate change brink, or else send us spiralling into a frightening future from which there will be no safe return.

It’s no great secret I support the Greens. I joined the party in the early years of the pulp mill campaign, as did Peter Whish-Wilson, who is now an Australian Greens senator and up for re-election. I first got to know Pete when we were both founder members of community group Friends of the Tamar Valley, and he was one of several FTV members, (including me) who stood as support candidates for the Greens either in state or federal elections.

Pete epitomises that saying about a person who ‘grows into the job’. He’s certainly done so since first entering the Senate in 2012, following the sudden and surprise retirement of Bob Brown. Big shoes indeed, but Pete’s filled them fabulously, fighting for our forests, our oceans, our state and our planet for 10 years.

He sees this election as the climate election. So do I. We are literally fighting, politically speaking, for a habitable future on the planet. This election is crunch time for Australia in my opinion, and I’m proud to be doing as much as possible to achieve not just Pete’s re-election, but the dismissal of a blind and blinkered federal Liberal/National government that refuses to divorce itself from its toxic relationship with the fossil fuel industry. This industry has contributed massively to creating the climate extremes Australia has experienced to the hilt of late. Whether it’s bushfires, drought, or floods, we’ve copped the lot and the damage to lives, to homes, communities, to agriculture and the economy more broadly has been immense. And all the signs point to all these climate-induced extremes getting worse if we do nothing. Yet Scott Morrison’s Coalition government remains complacent despite overwhelming scientific and economic evidence that says the result of inaction will be environmentally, socially and economically disastrous.

The nation’s youth are screaming too – a demographic that so far has been overlooked in this campaign. That over 700,000 first-time voters registered with the AEC on the last day before the books closed, was apparently unprecedented. Most of those are probably young people determined to have their voices heard, and an opportunity to vote for candidates who are demanding action on climate change.

A fundraiser supporting Pete’s re-election campaign is on next Saturday. Poetry for the Planet, with several slices of pizza thrown in, as well as some motivational words from the man himself. I’m one of the approximately 12 poets invited to share their words about climate change, and the environment. I’m told tickets are selling well, and that’s good. I’m also told that support for the Greens has been rising rapidly in the last few weeks. Not that you’d hear about it in the mainstream media since the focus has been almost exclusively on Liberals and Labor.

I’m hoping the Greens will be the quiet achievers on the 21st May, and will be a vibrant and visionary force in the next parliament. They’re certainly the only ones with a realistic plan to transition the country forward.

Serendipitous moment

Volunteering on an information stall for ABC Friends at Exeter Market yesterday proved to be a lot more beneficial than simply flying the flag for our public broadcaster, worthwhile though that also certainly proved to be.

During the course of the morning while chatting to a couple of guys about why whoever wins government in this year’s federal election should ensure restoring ABC’s funding is a priority, I had the nagging feeling I knew one of them. The question was from where? I was 90 per cent sure it was from the pulp mill campaign, but a fair amount of water has flowed under the bridge since then and we’re all several years older. Interestingly though, it turned out he was also racking his brains for exactly the same reason.

As the conversation wrapped up about the importance of the ABC’s role in ensuring we have a healthy democracy, and a public broadcaster free from political interference that’s able to hold all politicians and governments to account, I decided to ask him if he was who, by then, I was almost certain I thought he was. And indeed he was.

Needless to say once our respective identities had been confirmed reminiscences ensured the conversation continued for several more minutes, but the revelations that followed were pure gold so far as I was concerned. Everyone who chose to campaign against the mill did so for a variety of personal reasons but I’d never known what had drawn Rod into the fight. I do now though and what he told me was a shocking litany of Gunns’, and the government’s, perfidy.
It also included details that not only confirmed what I’ve literally just written about in my early and far-from-finished draft, but also included a lot more detail. And shocking, damning detail at that in respect of Gunns and the company’s appalling aerial spraying practices.

It was all eye-popping stuff, so having confirmed the email address that still lurks in my address book is current, and that Rod is happy to be quoted I shall now need to revisit and rewrite some of the passages I thought were complete. But I’ll be doing so more confidently, and in the knowledge I can tap into his own experiences of the kind of truly shocking forestry practices that were standard for Gunns during those early days of the pulp mill campaign. A time when it seemed to many that it called the government’s tune, and essentially ruled the state. These were also practices that confirmed Gunns, and some of its employees, were quite prepared to disregard both the health and safety of people, and the environment more broadly. It seemed campaigning to stop the pulp mill had inadvertently uncovered a can of very nasty worms.

Photo credit: Garry Stannus

Remember the wildlife

For all the bounty harvested from the garden at the moment, summer can be a distressing time of the year. Hot dry summers mean plenty of time spent watering the plants of course, but they also signal a rise in animal fatalities on our roads. It’s also the time of year that our local farmer separates the youthful steers from their mums. And unsurprisingly the mums are upset. They aren’t afraid to vocalise their distress either, keeping up the lowing and keening pretty much non-stop for three days. And nights. The mother-son bond is strong, but the bond can also be strong for wildlife. I was reminded of this the other day after finding a native hen on the roadside that must have been whacked by a car. This was an adult bird, and probably one of the parents of a family we’ve seen several times lately crossing the road from the paddock to the riverbank. Mum, dad and four chicks – now almost fully grown.

While pairing up isn’t necessarily a lifetime bond for native hens, there still does seem to be a closeness if the behaviour of one of the birds I spotted this morning is anything to go by. A bird I strongly suspect was the partner of the one that was killed was obviously searching for something other than food. I guessed it was probably his/her mate. These family groups of native hens hang around together and they do tend to throw caution to the winds when it’s time for the parents to show the kids around the neighbourhood. Out our way this can often involve crossing the road so it’s unsurprising a few of them don’t make it. Usually though, it’s one of the inexperienced chicks. 

But it’s not only native hens that come to grief as the young ones grow up. In the last week I’ve also found a dead magpie, an eastern rosella, a young rabbit, and a copperhead snake. As well as on one memorable morning of carnage, three wallabies. It prompted me to write a letter to our local community newsletter, urging people to slow down when driving, and to consider our wildlife. I can only hope it will make a difference:

“Another plea to everyone in our community to please, please, PLEASE slow down when driving along our roads, and to be aware of our precious wildlife. Recently I was obliged to remove no less than three roadkilled bennetts wallabies – all male.

One was found while walking our dog, then two more when on my way to an appointment in town. All were killed along our road. Two had been very recently killed as they were still warm, and the oozing blood was still wet.

At this time of year when vegetation is drying out and wildlife are more likely to be checking out the grass along the verges, and seeking a bit of moisture, they are also more likely to be active outside the traditional dusk to dawn timeline. All the development in our area is slowly displacing our wildlife, and reducing their decreasing habitat even further.

Please consider that this area is their home too. And it was their home long before all of us arrived. We are incredibly fortunate to have wildlife living so close. Most of us, I’m sure, value, appreciate and enjoy their proximity. So please do your bit to help protect and maintain it. It’s worth remembering too that vehicle damage from colliding with a bennetts in particular – can be significant. And expensive. Thank you.”

It’s beyond distressing to find carcasses on the roadside so to any and all who stumble across this post, please take note. And remember we do indeed share this planet with other creatures, many of whom are now living on the edge due in large part to human activity, and a rapidly changing climate.

Death traps

Mornings at this time of year are dominated by harvesting fruit. From mid-December it was boysenberries – and we have the most abundant crop ever of these wonderful juicy and slightly tart long black berries. They’re still going a month on, although have slowed, thank goodness. There are only so many one can eat after all – for breakfast lunch and dinner at the moment – and the freezer is well stocked already. Friends and neighbours have also benefitted. As have the birds. The decision was made not to net the boysenberries this year. Too hard. I was sceptical but in fact this year’s crop has been so huge the few berries the birds have taken has almost been a relief!

As well as boysenberries though there are now raspberries to pick. These vines are covered and it is rather a jungle in there despite our best efforts to keep them under control. The nets keep the birds out, but not the bees, other insects, or tiny tree frogs. The latter are attracted by the shady cool environment, and a regular supply of moisture. So there are small risks and to avoid them I need to navigate some fragile barriers as I make my way down the row. Three delicate, finely spun and ecliptic structures greet me every day. They’re a silent, sticky and visible klaxon strung across the path, their owner stretched out and waiting in the middle, shimmering in the dappled sunlight, a warning to the unwary. But I know they’re there so I’m prepared. I flicked a morsel to one of them once, by way of an apology for the daily destruction I cause to their handiwork. Or should that be legwork? I was stunned at the speed that tiny creature was wrapped, bound and suspended. Talk about deadly efficiency.

By now the iridescent proprietors of these deadly traps must know I’m coming. Perhaps they sigh with irritation at the knowledge they will have running repairs to do again when I’ve gone. I like to think they realise I’ve had the decency to disturb them as little as possible, by trying not to wreck the whole web. I can only admire their patience and resilience since they’ve yet to give up in disgust and abandon this real estate. It must be lucrative, because tomorrow those three webs will almost certainly be strung across the narrow walkway separating the two rows of raspberry canes.