Tom is a young man who currently lives in my community, Moora Moora, and is hoping to become a member. Reading this story will thoroughly introduce him to you.
Diary, 2 Feb 2016
I am in Tasmania hitch-hiking. A huge truck stops and pulls up next to me. The driver gestures for me to come on board.
‘Where are you from?’ he says, as we turn the first corner, driving along the highway.
‘From Melbourne,’ I say.
‘I could tell,’ he says.
‘The way you dress.’ I am wearing my black and white comfy happy pants and a blue t-shirt with a picture of a whale floating in the sky.
‘Are you a fucking greenie?’ he says. ‘If so I’ll fucking kick you out.’
‘Define “greenie”,’ I say.
‘You know, those people who try to stop the forests from being chopped down,’ he says. ‘I used to work as a logger and they’d interfere with what we were doing.’
‘Sounds like you feel angry about that,’ I say.
‘Damn right I’m angry,’ he says. ‘You see these cleared paddocks? There were trees here once and forests… when there were aboriginals still living here, before they were all killed in the genocide. Why don’t you and your greenie friends plant some fucking trees here in these open paddocks?’ He points with his finger and gestures with one hand across the countryside, his other hand on the wheel of the truck as we continue moving fast along the highway. ‘Do something positive, rather than whinging and complaining. For every tree that’s chopped down we should plant three more in its place. Stop trying to protect the old growth forests and go plant some trees. Be seen as positive people rather than negative people.’
‘I do plant trees,’ I say ‘I have planted thousands of trees with hundreds of friends in Benalla in Victoria, as part of the Regent Honey Eater Project.’
‘Okay good,’ he says.
‘What was your issue with the environmentalists who tried to stop you from chopping the trees down? Were you angry with them for trying to protect the trees or more because of the tactics they used?’
‘They used all kinds of horrible tactics, including putting spikes in trees. Do you know how dangerous that is?’
‘You would have liked them to use more respectful tactics.’
‘Sounds like you’re passionate about environmental issues too, given the way you speak about the importance of planting trees.’
‘Damn right I’m passionate about environmental issues,’ he says. ‘We all are, us loggers. It’s just that there’s a job to be done and we have to do it. Someone’s gotta do it. Rather than trying to stop us loggers, why don’t you and your greenie friends talk to Gunns Head Office, rather than interfering with us workers? We don’t have the power to change things. Them at Head Office are the ones who can change things. Tell them that for every tree that’s chopped down they have to plant three in its place. What get’s me angry though is when they turn our trees into woodchips and send them to Japan. That makes my blood boil.’
‘Can I ask you a question?’ I say.
‘What’s your perspective on climate change?’
‘I say that mother nature is going to bite us in the arse,’ he says. ‘Things have gone out of balance. Storms, cyclones and hurricanes are happening where previously there weren’t storms, cyclones or hurricanes. Our planet is delicate and it has a delicate balance. It’s fragile. We’ve gone one degree hotter and it makes a huge difference. It makes me so angry — the politicians should have acted on it ten years ago. I just hope I’m not still around when the shit hits the fan. I’m 59 years old. What kind of future are we leaving for our children?
‘Then there’s the hole in the ozone layer. The sun here in Tasmania is harsh as. If you have fair skin you go out in the sun for five or ten minutes and you’re burned. In Sydney you can sit out in the sun for half an hour, drinking your beer, without getting burned. You can’t stay out in the sun that long here in Tasmania without it burning you. Yet they keep burning plastics, contributing to the hole in the ozone layer. It’s so fucked up, it almost makes me want to just take my hands off the steering wheel.’ He takes both his hands off for a few moments, then puts them back on, as the truck continues at 100km an hour.
‘I’m glad your hands are on the wheel,’ I say, now they have returned. ‘Would you be open to hearing my perspective on climate change?’
‘Sure,’ he says.
‘I agree with what you said about planting trees. I also think we need to protect the old growth forests. The old growth trees play a very important role in breathing in carbon dioxide and turning it into oxygen for us to breath, as well providing a home for biodiverse species of life. Also, there’s so much space in Australia and so much potential for planting trees. I think we should terraform the desert in Australia, like they’ve done to some of their deserts in China, turning them into forests. Some tribes in Africa/ The Middle east have demonstrated it’s possible to collect water from the air and create thriving oases in the desert, growing their own food. There was a National Geographic documentary about it. I think there is a need for collaboration to find climate solutions. We need to listen to each other deeply. Rather than pointing the finger at other people and playing blame games, we need to take personal responsibility for making a difference. We start where we’re at, use what we have and do what we can. When you spoke about logging the trees earlier you said “We had to do it.” I think actually we have a choice. We can choose whether to continue down the present path of destroying life on the planet or we can choose to stop. We all have that ability, to stop.’
‘We need to colonize space,’ he says. ‘We need to launch out of here. You should have seen me when I was fifteen years old. I would get so excited about space missions and looking at pictures of the universe. Think of Voyger out there somewhere beyond the solar system, taking pictures of the universe.’ He chuckles. ‘The Hubble Space Station’s pictures of star systems amaze me.’
‘Yeah they’re awesome,’ I say. ‘Have you seen the new film about the astronauts who travel to Mars called Martian? It has Matt Damon in it. His fellow astronauts leave him behind by accident on Mars, because they think he’s dead.’
‘You never abandon you crew. What were they doing? I would never do that.’
‘They thought he was dead, that he was killed in a storm. It’s a film about how he survives on Mars in harsh conditions. Yet the main theme of the film, or what I took from it is that life on earth is rare and precious and we shouldn’t take life for granted.’
‘I’ve got to watch this film,’ he says.
‘I agree that it could be great to explore space,’ I say. ‘However, I think it’s more important that we take care of earth, make peace here and feed the hungry. We have the ability to travel to the moon, but we don’t know our own self. So many people are at war with themselves. I think we need to make peace with ourselves and set things right in our relations here before we think about colonizing space.’
The truck continues at 100km. He tells me about how a few years ago he was in the Australian and the British Armies, serving in conflict zones.
‘Have you ever killed anyone?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘It was part of the job. I had to protect women and children. The fact that I killed doesn’t sit easy with me. It troubles me every day. It didn’t bother all the other soldiers but it troubled me because I’m more sensitive. I have to live with what I did and there’s nothing I can do to change it.’
‘I’ve thought about joining the army,’ I said. ‘But they probably wouldn’t accept me because I would make it very clear to them that I wouldn’t kill anyone for them. That’s against my ethics and values, because I see life is precious. You know how they ask you that question in the initial interview: what would you do if an enemy was attacking you? My answer would be that I would try to disarm them with my words. If that didn’t work and they were going on a killing rampage, killing my friends, I would shoot them, but not shoot to kill, merely to disarm them. If shooting to disarm them was not enough, I would use a stronger approach, but with the intention to minimize harm.’
‘Okay,’ he says.
‘Would you recommend I join the army?’ I ask.
‘I would recommend it for anyone. I think as soon as people leave school they should go spend three years in the army. Go spend three yours in the army, then go and do your environmental work protecting the forests.’
‘Rather than joining the army, I think my energy would be better invested in peace-building,’ I say. ‘There are so many unnecessary conflicts and wars in the world, which could be solved if people learned to how communicate better with each other. Conflict wastes a tremendous amount of energy.’
‘Fighting in conflict zones taught me about the preciousness of life,’ he said. ‘To some of our world leaders, human life doesn’t mean shit. People are just a number. But I saw that human life is precious.’
‘Do you have a family?’ I say.
He tells me about how has four children, 30, 27, 14 and 12 years old. The two youngest don’t speak to him anymore.
‘That must be tough,’ I say.
‘Damn right it’s hard,’ he says. His jaw tenses, his eyes are sad and his voice quivers a little. ‘A day doesn’t go by without my thinking about them. And I still pay their mother $250 a week for social support.’
My phone begins to ring. ‘I hope you don’t mind if I take the call,’ I say. It’s a friend, Trent, who I’ve collaborated with on running workshops about climate change. On the phone we chat about the importance of listening deeply to people and getting a sense of what people’s needs are, as we contemplate the possibility of running another series of workshops together on being ready for change and working with activists to prevent burn-out.
After we have finished talking on the phone the truck driver says ‘I have some Buddhist statues at my place.’
‘What’s your perspective on Buddhism?’ I ask.
‘I’ve watched some documentaries about it, seems pretty interesting. What’s your view of it?’
‘I discovered Buddhism when I was studying philosophy at university. Buddhist philosophy seemed to make a lot more sense than some of the other things I was studying, because it is practical and makes sense for the heart as well as the head. I’m not interested in the religious or superstitious side of it, which came later, after the Buddha died. The Buddha himself was more pragmatic interested in understanding suffering, something we all experience, and how to relieve it. He called the fact of suffering the first noble truth. People are miserable, in conflict, agitated, restless. The world is a house on fire. The Buddha noticed this. He also noticed that there is a cause to suffering, which he called the second noble truth. The cause for all anguish and misery people feel is threefold — our ignorance, our attachment and our aversion.’
‘What does “aversion” mean?’ he says.
‘It can mean hatred. Another way to describe the causes of suffering is delusion, greed and hatred. The Buddha also noticed and experienced that there is a way out of suffering, through kindness and insight. The Buddha saw that there are two sides to human nature, one that is greedy, envious and has the potential for violence, evil and cruelty. There is another side of our human nature: we are also capable of wisdom, generosity and kindness — I imagine you’ve noticed that in people too. The third and fourth noble truths he articulated demonstrate that it’s possible to become enlightened and liberated from suffering through becoming more aware of how we think and act. We have a choice about which side of our nature we cultivate.’
‘So many people have statues of the Buddha and they know fuck all about they mean,’ he says. ‘I wish people would learn about fucking history. I wish I had learned about Buddhism earlier in my life. I might’ve become more peaceful now. You’re calm, you’re peaceful. I’m not.’
Soon we reach the point where the truck driver drops me off.
‘Thanks for the ride,’ I say.
‘You’re welcome,’ he says.