Share

An Ocean and an Instant

Lifesaver Station as Chinese Lantern, Glenelg. Photo: Michael Coghlan. Distributed under Creative Commons license.

In April 2015 I flew from my home in Sydney to Adelaide for the funeral of an old friend’s mother. The day before the service I went to visit my father. It was only a couple of months since I’d seen him, but he was in his 80s, and over the year or two prior he’d occasionally been distracted on the phone, ending calls abruptly, even brusquely, or, more worryingly, seeming to have forgotten conversations we’d had only weeks before. Once or twice I had even had the disconcerting sense he had become confused about the conversation we were in the midst of, hanging up moments after he had answered, apparently under the impression we had been talking for some time.

In somebody else this behaviour might have been more concerning, and certainly at least one of my brothers was quite agitated about it. But I didn’t think there was any immediate crisis. He was still working for several hours a day, mostly with texts in Ancient Greek and Latin, and although he was certainly more forgetful than he once was, it didn’t seem likely he could do that kind of work if there was any substantial cognitive decline.

It was mild and grey when I arrived. After collecting a car at the airport I picked my father up from his home in the beachside suburb of Glenelg. I didn’t have any particular destination in mind: since he had given up driving a few years previously he rarely left the area around his house, yet he always enjoyed an opportunity to go further afield. And so we meandered north, following the coast north past the Patawolonga, and on through West Beach and Henley Beach to Grange and Tennyson, before retracing our steps and heading south, through Somerton and Brighton to Seacliff, and finally, Kingston Park. Along the way my father pointed out places he remembered or were connected to his family, reminding me of stories I had already heard many times. This repetition was not boring: quite the opposite; it was somehow reassuring to be reminded of how these stories connected me to him, and my childhood. Later we sat talking on the seat on his veranda, and after a while he said he wanted to speak to me about his will.

The details of that conversation aren’t really relevant. I knew his affairs had been on his mind for a while, and I agreed to make some arrangements to help him get them sorted out. What matters is that I think the real reason he was worried about his will was that he already knew he was sick.

It is difficult to explain my father to people who didn’t know him. He was an unusual and complex man. A philosopher by training, specialising in metaphysics, logic, philosophy of language and philosophy of mind, he was exceptionally gifted intellectually, and at least early in his career, a significant figure in his field. But he was also deeply, wilfully, even perversely committed to conducting his life in exactly the way he chose.

In his professional life this translated into perfectionism in his work – despite their abstract subject matter his papers are elegant, witty, devastatingly precise, and his lectures were similarly rigorous – and a total refusal to engage with those aspects of academic life he thought frivolous or found inconvenient (categories that seemed to blur into each other more and more as he grew older).

Something similar was true of his personal life. Even when I was young he was reclusive. When we were small children we were forbidden to enter his study or make noise if he was working, and he would only answer the phone if the caller knew the secret code (let it ring twice, then hang up and ring back), and often not even then. As he grew older these behaviours grew more and more exaggerated, and by the time I was in high school his avoidance of normal social intercourse was legendary. More than once I saw him cross the road and hide behind trees to avoid neighbours or acquaintances, and he regularly hid in the house and refused to answer the door to people he did not wish to speak to. After the sudden death of his old friend Stewart in the late 1980s he wrote to Stewart’s widow to express his condolences – obviously he hadn’t gone to the funeral – telling her he had always regarded Stewart as one of his closest friends, even though he hadn’t seen him for more than a decade. His colleague, Ed, who had been his best friend since the 1960s (and whom I know he loved, deeply), saw him more than that: a couple of times a year, at least, although they communicated quite often in writing. Yet while it might seem reasonable to assume this behaviour was a symptom of shyness or social awkwardness, that was not the case. He was extremely funny, and on those rare occasions when he was unable to avoid normal social situations he was relaxed and charming.

His refusal to do anything he found inconvenient grew even more pronounced after my parents separated in my second year of high school. On one occasion when he was supposed to be minding us one of my brothers was caught shoplifting in a store in the city. The police called and he refused point blank to collect him from the station, claiming he had a headache. Another night when one of my brothers was eleven my father had to take him to hospital with what turned out to be appendicitis. My father dropped him in casualty with $20 for a taxi, then went home, took two sleeping tablets and went to bed.

I’m uncomfortably aware these stories make him sound neglectful, which I suppose in some ways he was – things may have been different in the 1980s but they weren’t that different. But even now I find it difficult to parse my feelings about his behaviour, or to pass judgement on it. Because despite these sorts of lapses he was also extremely kind and generous, especially as he grew older. And – perhaps most importantly – there was never a moment when I doubted his love for me and my brothers.

His reclusiveness was also somehow connected to his fascination with the landscape of Adelaide’s beachside suburbs. His father’s family had lived in the area since the 1870s (one of my relatives drove the first tram from the city to Glenelg, and my great-grandmother was later run over and killed by a tram outside the old Village Cinemas), and except for a few years in Sydney and Oxford, he lived in Glenelg all his life. He was born in my great-grandparents’ house on Jetty Road, then grew up opposite the oval on Brighton Road. After he and my mother married in the early 1960s they lived for a time in an apartment on the Esplanade, before moving to Ramsgate Street, where we lived until I was ten, and then to a larger house on Giles Avenue. After my parents separated he moved to Bath Street, before moving one last time to the house he and my stepmother shared on Scarborough Street.

As a result the streets of the area were freighted with significance for him. For as long as I can remember any walk was also an act of remembrance, the web of connections associated with each house or street recalled as we passed it. Over the years these stories had also become a way of memorialising the ways the area had changed, and, I suppose, of holding onto the past. In the front yard of his house on Scarborough Street a massive Jerusalem Pine leans out over the footpath: twenty years ago, when he rang to tell me had bought the house he did not need tell me the address, instead he told me it was the house with the tree. I knew it because I used to ride past the tree on my way home from school, and because I remembered him telling me he too used to ride his bike past it when he was a boy in the 1940s.

The only place he consistently avoided was the beach. Although I never really understood the reason for this it was at least partly due to his fear of sharks. Before he was born his father had seen a woman taken by a shark near Brighton Jetty (by the time I was growing up the story of the person who jumped off the jetty into the shark’s mouth had become folklore), and as a boy my father saw a huge great white swim under the jetty at Glenelg, a sight he never forgot. As he grew older his hatred of sharks intensified, so much so that my brothers and I would sometimes make fun of his reluctance to go near the water, conjuring stories about sharks wriggling up the sand onto the Esplanade to eat passers-by. Despite this I think we all understood his unease with the beach was about something more complex – anxiety, perhaps, or agoraphobia – and also a manifestation of the same impulse that led him to avoid social contact.

Over the next few months I travelled back and forth to Adelaide. By July it was clear all was not well, but it was not until early August that he finally saw a specialist. That night he called to say he had been diagnosed with a form of lymphoma. It was incurable, but there was a chance chemotherapy might keep it at bay for a while. Whatever happened he didn’t have long: a year, maybe two. He cleared his throat in the way he did. ‘I’m buggered,’ he said, his tone offhand but his voice breaking, the inadequacy of his words eloquently communicating the struggle to find a register in which to communicate something so immense.

Over the past few years I have become familiar with the complex effects of such news. There is the initial shock, followed by deep sadness, and then, as time passes, the reassertion of something like normality. Scientists speak of shifting baselines, the way environmental change, even drastic environmental change, becomes normalized, the world that was forgotten by each new generation. The same is true of the process of people dying: the weird ordinariness of the day to day business of it all somehow smooths over the wrenching grief and dislocation, pushing it underground.

I suspect this also holds true for the dying. A close friend who died of a brain tumour a couple of years ago once spoke to me about the difficulty of making sense of her impending death, the way its blank finality undid her each time she tried to think about it. She was only a couple of years older than me, but I don’t think that changes as we get older: to know death is close because you’re in your 80s is one thing, to be told you’re actually dying is another altogether. This was particularly true for my father, whose horror of hospitals and fear of death was intense, and real. But I think it is true for most of us: the idea of our own extinguishment remains impossible to comprehend, the notion of a world without us almost unthinkable.

Until the second half of the eighteenth century the world Europeans inhabited was surprisingly small. Since Galileo turned his telescope on the heavens two hundred years earlier astronomers had understood the Milky Way was not a fixed dome, but had depth, its massing light not a shimmer but vast numbers of tiny stars ‘arranged in a wonderful manner’. But it was not until Herschel turned his new and larger telescopes on the night sky in the 1780s that the notion the Milky Way might itself be part of a much larger three-dimensional structure took shape. Herschel’s discoveries pushed the boundaries of the observable universe outward in dizzying new ways.

Yet even as Herschel’s theories were altering our understanding of the physical scale of the universe another revolution was taking place in our understanding of time. Despite the new culture of scientific enquiry that was taking shape in Europe and America, few had seriously challenged the understanding of the Earth’s origins laid down in the Bible. The world was assumed to be static, unchanging, the marvellous diversity of species the process of European expansion was beginning to reveal part of a larger, divine order. The Earth was also assumed to be relatively young. Most believed it was little more than a few thousand years old – in 1654 the Archbishop of Ireland, James Ussher used the information in the Old Testament to argue for 4004BC as the most likely date for the Earth’s creation – a brevity that was bookended by the belief time would end, perhaps imminently , as the universe was brought to a close by the Day of Judgement.

As the eighteenth century wore on cracks had begun to open in this version of the world’s origins. An increasing awareness of the complexity of geological strata led figures like the Scottish physician and geologist James Hutton to suggest the Earth’s structure was the result of natural processes of deposition and transformation. On the other side of the Channel George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon suggested species might radiate outward from a common ancestor, ‘improving’ or ‘degenerating’ depending upon the environment in which they found themselves (Buffon’s ideas would later play a part in the development of race science, and by extension the intellectual justification for slavery, colonialism and many of the horrors of the twentieth century).

Yet in some ways the most important idea was that of French naturalist Georges Cuvier. Born in Montbeliard in 1769, Cuvier was drawn to the natural sciences as a child, absorbing Buffon’s encyclopedic Histoire Naturelle before his twelfth birthday. After graduating from the Caroline Academy in Stuttgart in 1788 Cuvier took a position as a tutor in Normandy, remaining there until 1795, when he joined the newly established Musée national d’histoire naturelle in Paris.

During his time in Normandy Cuvier had become interested in the question of fossils, and more particularly, their relationship to living organisms, and once in Paris he turned his attention to the mystery of the mastodon bones the museum held in its collection. Recovered from the Pleistocene graveyard known as Big Bone on the Ohio River by the Baron de Longueuil in 1739, and later presented to Louis XV, these bones had been a conundrum for more than five decades. For although the femur and tusks were recognizably those of some form of elephant, the teeth (which weigh more than two kilograms each) were not ridged like those of an elephant, but instead possessed a series of cusps, rather like monstrous versions of a human molar.

Without a contemporary creature to which they might belong, scientists did not know what to make of the teeth. Some suggested there had been a mistake, and the teeth belonged to a different animal entirely. Others, such as Thomas Jefferson and the anatomist and surgeon William Hunter, suggested the remains were those of an entirely new and as yet unidentified creature that presumably still lurked in the forests of North America.

Cuvier proposed a new and radical solution. Like Hunter and Jefferson he was certain the teeth were the remains of a new species, hitherto unknown by science. But he also went further. Why, he asked, do we find no living evidence of such an animal? The answer, he declared, was that they were relics of ‘a world previous to ours, destroyed by some kind of catastrophe’. They were, in other words, éspèces perdues, or lost species. To this transformative claim Cuvier appended another, just as revolutionary. If these species had vanished others must have as well. And in so doing he swept away the idea the Earth was essentially unchanging, destabilizing our ideas about time, history, geology and biology.

The reverberations of Cuvier’s insight are still being felt today. Along with James Hutton and Charles Lyell’s insights into geology, it paved the way for Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection, and helped consolidate the idea the Earth – and by extension the Universe – is the product of natural forces rather than divine intervention. Yet it is also difficult to avoid the fact that even as these ideas were taking shape, other processes were underway. In North America European settlers were pushing north and west, felling the forests and hunting the buffalo. In the Atlantic and Pacific whalers and sealers were slaughtering marine mammals and birds in extraordinary numbers, and the assault on the animals of the Southern Ocean was only a few years away. On Mauritius the dodo was already gone, hunted to extinction by Dutch sailors in just over half a century, while in the Bering Sea Steller’s Sea Cow, a relative of today’s dugongs and manatees that grew to nine metres in length and was one of the last survivors of the Pleistocene, had been wiped from existence by Europeans in just 27 years. For the spirit of scientific enquiry in which the work of Cuvier and others was founded was inextricably entwined with the economic and cultural forces that drove the colonial exploitation of Africa and India, the Americas and Australia. And these same forces were also laying the foundations of the industrial economy, an economy based not just on the exploitation of human beings, but on the extraction and consumption of coal and other fossil fuels.

My father began chemotherapy in August. In the weeks between his diagnosis and the treatment he began talking about the chemo as if it offered the chance of a cure. This made me uneasy. The best he could hope for was remission, and it seemed unwise to invest his hope in a treatment that couldn’t provide what he wanted from it. And indeed, once the chemo began it became clear it was going to be considerably more arduous than he had expected. His weight dropped fast and he was immobilised by fatigue and quickly began to lose his hair.

Because he was so fatigued most of my information came via my stepmother, Judith. She would break down the detail of what was happening in long texts to me and my brothers. The tone of these texts was upbeat, but it was obvious she was struggling. At first we tried to convince my father they needed help – a nurse, or even just a cleaner – but he refused to even discuss the idea, insisting they could manage.

We all knew this was desperately unfair. Although she was ten years his junior my stepmother had health problems of her own, and very little in the way of support. My brother David, who still lives in Adelaide, did what he could, but he lives on the opposite side of the city and didn’t have a car. Finally my brothers Andrew, Patrick and I, all of whom live in Sydney, agreed we would each travel down every three weeks, so that one of us was there every week, even if it was only for a couple of days.

Over the next few months he deteriorated fast. Whether because of the chemo or the cancer that was still burning through him, he continued to lose weight, and each time I saw him he looked markedly worse, his hair thinner, his skin sallower. One afternoon I arrived at his house to find he had fallen asleep in his chair in his study, head back and mouth open and for the long moment before he took a sudden, wheezing breath, I was gripped by the horrible certainty he had died.

Despite his growing weakness he always seemed pleased to see me when I was there. Yet despite his good humour with me I knew he was being fantastically difficult for my stepmother the rest of the time. From the beginning he had been unwilling to take responsibility for any aspect of his treatment, but simultaneously he was furious and resentful of any efforts to help him. His obdurate refusal to engage with the details of his treatment extended to his own care: having seemingly decided the chemo would work he behaved as if it was unnecessary for him to eat properly, or do anything that would help him stay strong.

By November it was clear the chemo was not working. The symptoms from the cancer – sweats, gut pain, breathlessness – were worse, and he was continuing to lose weight. Finally, toward the end of the month he grew so ill he had to be admitted to hospital. After some consultation with his doctor it was decided to put him onto a different chemo regime, and in early December he was allowed to go home.

In the days after his release from hospital he seemed to be making an effort. He agreed to begin eating better, and for a couple of weeks his weight loss seemed to have been arrested. But then, a week or so before Christmas, my partner Mardi’s father contracted an infection in the bones of his spine. Because her parents also live in Adelaide we flew over together, and while she visited her father in hospital I spent time in Glenelg with mine. Judith took a photo of the two of us that week. We are in his kitchen, he is sitting in his chair and I am standing behind him, my hands on his shoulder: he is looking down, away from the camera, his expression bemused, as if he feels the fuss of having his picture taken is vaguely absurd. But looking at it again it is not his expression that strikes me, but his physical frailty: he is pale, shrunken, his shirt two sizes too large, the bones of his face protruding. Three days later he was back in hospital. After some consultation with the doctors it was decided to discontinue treatment.

When I was a child my parents would sometimes take me and my brothers into the city on Friday afternoons. Afterwards we would drive home down what is now Sir Donald Bradman Drive. As dusk drew down the wide open space that surrounded the airport was transected by long shadows; in the distance behind them the hills rose, grey and red in the light of the setting sun.

I always loved that drive. Something about the low hum of the car on the asphalt, the open space and fading light has never left me. Sometimes I would glimpse rabbits near the runways, the outlines of their loping forms dark against the silvery grass.

I suppose many people know the feeling I am describing. The relationship you have with the places you lived as a child are complex, especially if, like me, you left them. Yet whatever my feelings about Adelaide, or the person I was when I lived there, the place is part of me in a way nowhere else is. The smell of it, the peculiar mix of eucalyptus and dust that hums through the summer air, the wet smell of the earth in the winter, are immediately recognizable. Other smells too. The smell of dust and old furniture in the house up the road where our elderly neighbours lived. The smell of ancient carpet and damp ashes in the house my father stayed in after my parents separated. The smell of rotting seaweed and the ocean.

Nor is it just about scent. Each time I went back over the months of my father’s illness I was struck anew by the complex webs of memory and association that bound me to the city and its landscape. Sometimes the stories were my father’s – here, for instance, is the place one of his cousins got so drunk he threw up and lost his false teeth. Here is the place the same cousin was brought before a magistrate for urinating in public, then after being released from the dock nipped down the side of the courthouse to relieve himself, only to be spotted by the arresting officers as they too emerged from court. Other times the stories were mine: here is the street I lived on when I was twenty. This is the way I used to ride home after work: on summer nights the scent of the flowers mingled with the animal stink of the zoo; sometimes the low growls of the lions or the cries of the gibbons would be audible, reverberating through the warm dark. This was my grandmother’s house. This is the garden we used to sneak through as a shortcut after school. This is where my friend who died of meningitis lived. This is the house another friend of mine and I broke into because we thought it was haunted, only to be caught by the police. This is where my great-aunt lived: she was one of the witnesses in the Beaumont case, and one of the last people to see the children alive. This was an orphanage: boys from it used to attend my school; years later I would learn many of them were systematically abused by the men who were supposed to care for them. And deeper even than these stories there is the place itself, the denuded line of the land as it follows the coast, the bluestone buildings and brush fences, the brown shape of the hills to the south and east.

These memories are of a place that is gone. The landscape I knew as a child, the low houses and empty land, has been swept away, the long stretches of sandhills and reclaimed land built over. The faded Edwardian elegance of Glenelg is largely gone, replaced by cheap-looking luxury apartments and car parks. The philosopher Glenn Albrecht writes of what he calls solastalgia, a form of existential grief caused by environmental change. His intention was to create a term to capture the psychic dimension of climate change, but I wonder whether the term might equally describe the feelings of loss associated with the passage of time.

Nor, as I write this, can I set aside my unease about the idea of a non-Aboriginal Australian talking about connectedness to place. At times Australian cities can seem haunted, their orderliness belying the violence on which they are built; nowhere is this more true than in Adelaide, where streets and buildings and civic institutions bear the names of the city’s founding families, families whose members oversaw the dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal people in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

But even in places in which the landscape is not shadowed by the legacies of colonialism the idea of connection to place is frequently problematic. As China Mieville has argued, too often it serves as a pretext for many of the darker undercurrents of political thought or is used to set up simplistic oppositions between the city and the country, the natural and the social, the native and the intruder, which blur in turn into environmental injustice, racism and worse.

Still, a desire to talk and think about place matters, because it reminds us of the degree to which our abstraction from place is bound up with a larger loss of connection to the natural world. Where once the rhythms of our lives were shaped by the seasons and the natural world, many of us now live lives so dependent upon technology we are almost entirely unaffected by the natural world. Much of the time we do not even recognise the food we eat for what it is: the marine biologist Helen Scales cites research showing one in five children in the UK believe fish fingers are made of chicken. Likewise Mardi sometimes talks of Easter holidays when she was a child, of the long drive south to the Coorong, the full moon rising over its still waters, yet only this year it was announced churches in the UK and Australia were close to a deal which would see them attach Easter to a fixed date, so as to remove the uncertainty it supposedly creates for business.

Is it not possible that seen like this the idea of connectedness takes on a different, and less reactionary hue? For in some very real sense it embodies a form of resistance to capitalism’s dream of the frictionless society. And because an awareness of place demands we think not just about history, but about other presences and other cycles, and time and the way it inheres in the landscape, a form of knowledge at odds with the perpetual zero hour of consumer capitalism. Perhaps it also tells us something about why we are so untroubled by the environmental catastrophe that is taking place around us. For we cannot care about a world we no longer even see.

Like much of Adelaide, Glenelg and the other beachside suburbs I grew up on were Kaurna country, part of a larger territory that ran along the western edge of the Fleurieu Peninsula from Cape Jervis in the south to Crystal Brook in the north. To the east, in the Mount Lofty Ranges, the Kaurna’s land bordered that of the Peramangk; in the south it abutted the land of the Ramindjeri, who occupied the land around Goolwa and Encounter Bay.

Estimates of the Kaurna’s population vary, but when settlers arrived in 1836, they are believed to have numbered 1000, maybe more. This population was organised into a number of small family groups, each of which occupied a carefully defined territory that extended from the beach up into the foothills; through the year these groups followed the movement of fish and wildlife, camping near the beach in the spring and retreating inland in the winters, presumably partly to shelter from the savage storms that pummel the South Australian coast in the colder months.

When I was a child I once asked what happened to the Kaurna. I did not know the name until much later, of course – part of the great erasure of Aboriginal history is the ongoing ignorance of non-Aboriginal Australians about the complexity and diversity of Aboriginal languages and culture. But I remember being told they had all died, or been moved westward to Yorke Peninsula.

In fact some of the Kaurna were relocated to Point Pearce on the Yorke Peninsula. But the bland imprecision of the story I was told disguised the brutal reality. In the years after settlement the Kaurna were almost entirely wiped out by disease and conflict with settlers. By 1842 their population was estimated to be a 650; fourteen years later, in 1856, records show only 180 remained, and by 1879 officials were claiming they had entirely disappeared.

The destruction of the Kaurna and their culture severed a relationship with the land extending back thousands of years. The place we know as Kangaroo Island lies south of Adelaide, off the southern tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula, separated from the mainland by the narrow and treacherous waters of Backstairs Passage. When Europeans arrived it had been uninhabited for many thousands of years, and was known to Aboriginal people as ‘Karta’, or the island of the Dead. Yet archaeological remains suggest it was only abandoned after the land bridge that once connected it to the mainland was flooded at the end of the last ice age. And just as the Narrangga people of Yorke Peninsula have stories describing a time when what is now Spencer Gulf was lagoons and wetlands, the Kaurna had stories that accurately describe geological features that have been submerged beneath the surface of Backstairs Passage for more than 10,000 years. The notion of an unbroken line of cultural transmission stretching back more than a hundred centuries is dizzying, testament not just to the complexity and depth of the Kaurna’s connection to the land they cared for, but a reminder of the richness of culture and understanding wiped away by European occupation.

The country Europeans found when they arrived in 1836 was incredibly bountiful, its waters filled with fish and shellfish, the grassland with wildlife. Birds were astonishingly abundant as well: when the painter John Gould visited in 1838, just two years after settlement, he marvelled at the rosellas and lorikeets that filled the air, writing that ‘the incessant clamour kept up by multitudes of these birds baffles description,’ going on to observe, in words that offer a presentiment of what was to come, that, ‘they are all so remarkably tame, that any number of shots may be fired among them without causing the slightest alarm to any but those that are actually wounded.’

Images and descriptions of Glenelg and the surrounding area from the years immediately after settlement reveal a landscape quite unlike that exists today. The Kaurna engaged in extensive firestick farming, and paintings from the early years of the settlement show a landscape of low dunes and scrub interspersed by wide stretches of grass and wetland. To the north, on the far side of the Patawolonga’s mouth, the coast gave way to a series of lakes and marshes that followed the line of what is now Sturt Creek, or Warriparri, and were part of a much larger system of wetlands known as Wittonga that was fed by the River Torrens, or Karrawirra Parri, Redgum Forest River. Bounded on the seaward side by coastal dunes and on the inland side by a system of red dunes, these wetlands were known as Pathawillyanga, or Place of the Swamp Gum Branches. Eastward, where the tramline runs through East Glenelg toward the racecourse existed another system of lagoons; the largest of them, once known as Hack’s Lagoon, is describes as having been extremely beautiful, and notable for the density of waterfowl and other birds that gathered there. And the stretch of coast between Glenelg Jetty and the sandhills by Minda Home, was known as Wituwartingga, for the reeds, ‘witu’, that grew in the creeks.

Eighty years ago, when my father was growing up, the remnants of this landscape were still visible. He described the land between the city and Glenelg as still only half-developed, a patchwork of farmland and open space interspersed with the occasional house or building. Likewise my great-uncle Cliff, who worked in the abattoirs at Gepps Cross before he found work in the racing stables in Somerton, spoke of catching wild horses on the banks of the Torrens in the years around the first world war when the area was still mostly scrub. Even when I was growing up in the 1970s parts remained, in particular the tracts of dunes that ran along the beach at West Beach and Somerton Park. When I was at primary school my friends and I would ride our bikes to them and spend whole days at a time roaming through them, building cubbies crafted from sticks and driftwood in the lee of the hills or racing down to the beach. At the time they seemed wild to me, untouched; later I would learn they were yet another symbol of the destruction wrought by European invaders, their contours held in place by marram grass planted to stabilise them after livestock destroyed the native grasses that once grew on them.

Elsewhere other remnants of the land the Kaurna cared for could be seen. A tree by the Torrens with the mark of a canoe in it. Pockets of bushland along the creeks, the reclaimed land that ran along the airport, its broken surface a memorial to the vanished wetlands of Wittonga. And if you looked, there were echoes of other, even older landscapes: sometimes, after storms, the force of the waves would expose reeking black mud beneath the white sands of the beach, remnants of the ancient reedbeds and mangroves that filled the Gulf when sea levels were lower. Given another million years perhaps it would have become oil, as it was it was sulphurous and foul. But for the most part it was a devastated landscape, just as it is now. Where once there were lagoons and creeks thick with fish and turtles and birds, now there is asphalt, houses. Where once there was grassland and forests in which birds and animals lived, now there is barren waste in which a handful of species survive. Of course this is true of human cities everywhere; it is simply that the destruction of ecological communities by human cities and farms is so normalised it is invisible. In human terms this process is slow, accretive, but in geological terms it is shockingly swift.

After Christmas my brother came across an article about a trial of a drug designed for the specific form of lymphoma my father had that was being conducted in Melbourne. With his doctor’s help he was admitted into the program. Whether it was the new drug or simply the cessation of the chemo he began to improve almost at once. In April I visited with Mardi and our daughters; he was better than he had been in a year.

Over the next few months I was only in Adelaide a couple of times, at least partly because back in Sydney we were in the process of moving house and settling our daughter into a new school. But every time I spoke to my father he seemed surprisingly well, so much so that in April he had laser surgery on his eyes, an investment in the future that would have been unthinkable only a few months before.

Then in the second half of the year he began to go downhill again. As his health grew worse he became increasingly difficult to deal with. This was particularly difficult for my stepmother, who was unwell herself. Eventually the situation reached a kind of crisis. The operation my stepmother needed could not be put off any longer, and because he was obviously not well enough to care for her as she recuperated, she decided she would recuperate at her daughter’s house. My brother Patrick and I tried to make arrangements to come and stay with him while she was away, but he refused, growing angry and, on one occasion, hanging up on me. Finally Patrick and I decided the situation was intolerable, and we would just go anyway. We agreed he would go first, and I would come a few days later to take over.

Extinction is a rupture in the world. Each time a species is lost it takes with it not just its genetics, but its nature, its way of being in the world. And as it does the universe is lessened.

But this loss diminishes us as well. Scholars in the environmental humanities talk of entanglements, using the term to describe the complex webs of ecological and social interdependence and interaction that surround and define all living creatures; for many human cultures these entanglements are embedded in cultural practices and rituals, shaping social life and understanding. But even for those of us whose lives are not lived in close proximity to other species, animals are a source of myth and metaphor and, perhaps most importantly, a way to imagine other minds, other ways of being. To live without the imaginative and metaphorical resources that provides is to lose something of ourselves.

This quiet dying is all around us. In my childhood summer nights were punctuated by the yips and barks of geckoes, their soft bodies moving across walls, pale in the half-light. I have not seen a gecko in a decade, maybe more. Until a few years ago skinks would gather in huge numbers in Sydney gardens; these days they are only ever visible in ones and twos. When I moved to Sydney a quarter of a century ago huge carnivorous tiger slugs emerged at night to slither across back yards; often they would congregate in our cat’s bowl, gorging themselves on her food. They too seem to have largely disappeared. When I was a child the black and orange butterflies we called wanderers were everywhere in the summer months: these days they are rarely seen. In the 1930s and 1940s my father occasionally found paper nautilus shells and seahorses amongst the banks of seagrass that washed up on the beach at Glenelg. By the time I was growing up in the 1970s both were gone, although the beach was often littered with the gleaming black shells of razorfish and the ridged and spiral shells of other molluscs; each year there are fewer of them. As a boy I spent many hours crabbing from the jetty and fishing with my grandfather on the beach at Somerton: at dawn and dusk we would fill buckets with gar and King George whiting. The last time I was in Glenelg I walked along the jetty. One man was fishing. His bucket was empty.

These are only the local manifestations of a much larger catastrophe. Species are disappearing at rates unprecedented since the cataclysm that wiped out the dinosaurs: a quarter of all mammal species are threatened with extinction, as are almost half of all amphibian species, and one in eight bird species. This loss of species is part of an even more precipitous collapse of biological abundance. Over the past forty years humans have killed at least two thirds of the world’s wild animals. In the same period we have also wiped out more than half the planet’s marine vertebrates, and 70 per cent of the world’s seabirds. A recent study in Germany suggested insect numbers have declined by up to 70 per cent in the last thirty years, a figure some scientists see as the prelude to a larger, more systemic collapse of ecosystems, and anecdotal evidence suggests similar declines are taking place elsewhere as well. Nor are these declines slowing down. Instead they are accelerating, as more and more of the world’s surface is alienated to human use. The scale of the convulsion taking place around us is almost unimaginable.

The last time I spoke to my father was by accident. I was in Shanghai, and he called me by mistake while sending a text. When he realised where I was he tried to hang up, not wanting to disturb me, but I kept him on the phone, pleased to have the chance to talk to him. I remember standing up, walking away from the group of people I was seated with and staring out the window at the city below, but I don’t remember what we talked about: being back in Shanghai, I suppose, perhaps his health. I wish I had known it was the last time I would speak to him.

When I arrived home from China I called him several times, but he didn’t answer, although I didn’t know whether that was because he was avoiding my calls or because he was not well enough to talk. A couple of days later my brother, Patrick, flew down. When Patrick arrived at my father’s house nobody answered the door. Eventually he broke down the back door and forced his way in to find my father lying in the hall. He had had a heart attack the night before and collapsed. Patrick called an ambulance and got him to hospital. An hour later I was on a plane. When I arrived he was conscious enough to recognise me, but he was confused and agitated. The next morning he was dead.

Once we had left the hospital and taken my stepmother to her daughter’s house I drove to the airport with Patrick. I had booked a hotel room for several nights, but now he was gone I did not want to stay. As we took off I stared out the window at the rows of rooves, the water, the low rise of the hills. It was like saying goodbye.

Cuvier imagined a world in which catastrophe wiped away species, a process of destruction and creation. In time his theories fell out of favour, superseded by those of Hutton and Lyell, whose theories of uniformitarianism – the assumption the forces that we see shaping the world today also shaped the world of the past – came to form the basis of our modern understanding of geology. Yet Cuvier was not entirely wrong: as Elizabeth Kolbert points out, his belief the mastodon and the mammoth had been wiped out by a disaster was correct, his error lay in misunderstanding the nature of the disaster. These days we understand their disappearance – and those of countless other species in what is now known as the megafauna extinctions – follows the wave of human expansion across the globe, the leading edge of a wave of extinction that has only hastened with the passage of time. The disaster, in other words, was us.

Grief teaches us that time is plastic. A lifetime is an ocean and an instant. It does not matter whether something happened a week ago, a year ago, a decade ago: all loss is now. Grief does not stop, or disappear. It suffuses, inhabits us. The dead are both gone and never gone, living absences we bear with us.

Perhaps something similar is true of extinction. What is lost remains with us, felt in its unpresence. The space between the megafauna extinctions of 13,000 years ago and now is just a heartbeat in geological terms, the collapsing waveform of disaster we inhabit the convergence of a past and present we can no longer escape.

A few years before my father died I saw a photo of myself. I have my mother’s looks, her family’s fair Irish colouring, but there, staring out at me, was my father’s face. I have his hands as well, his body.

More than once in the years before he died I thought about making a record of his memories. I thought it would be possible to fly to Adelaide and videotape him talking about his family, his past, the stories of his childhood I had heard so many times. I never did it: before he got sick I knew he would hate the idea, the implication he was close to death; once he was sick he was not well enough. Now, as I try to piece together my memories – of him, of Adelaide, of the lines of descent that connect me and my children to the past – I wish I had: each time the details elude me, already forgotten.

This essay is part of a new Sydney Review of Books essay series devoted to nature writing titled the New Nature. We’ve asked critics, essayists, poets, artists and scholars to reflect on nature in the twenty-first century and to grapple with the literary conventions of writing nature. Read the other essays in the New Nature series here.

We’re grateful to Create NSW for funding the New Nature project.