Starfish Flingers

Running along Cable Beach very early this morning I passed a couple who carried small plastic bags of a primrose colour. The two peered and bent repeatedly, picking up small items unseen and popping them into their yellow bags. I’d seen people at this before, collecting pippis, also known as cockles. Some collect them for bait (whiting love them) while others eat them cooked in garlic and herbs and wine. I sang to myself as I ran one of the old songs Dad used to sing with us kids as we travelled by boat or by car:

 

 

She was a fishmonger

And sure ’twas no wonder

For so were her mother

And father before

 

She wheeled her wheel barrow

Through streets broad and narrow  

Crying, ‘Cockles and muscles

Alive, alive O…’

 

 

I ran a long way before retracing my steps. On the return I passed the cockle collectors. I changed course to inspect their catch. ‘Are these to feed you or to feed the fish?’

‘They would have fed the fish, but not now,’ said the woman, a person in her early sixties, her skin fair beneath her tan. ‘Take a look.’ I looked into the bulging bag she held: no pippis, just sandy cigarette butts, scores of them. Her husband held his bag open. More butts, many more.

 

 

‘He collected 160 of them today,’ said the woman, ‘Same number yesterday.’ I stood and mused for a bit. The woman explained: ‘People sit on the beach and smoke and drop their butts on the sand. Later the incoming tide washes the butts out to sea where fishes see them and take them for food. After a fish swallows a butt it swells up in the belly of the fish and the fish suffers and dies.’

 

 

‘Look at this, and this’ – her husband pointed out filter tips – ‘These filters catch all the poisons and toxins, and if the fish happens to survive you might catch it and eat it.’

 

I looked at the man, his build compact, his face a scrotum. The white hat he wore had seen better days and even the best of those days wouldn’t have been much good. I liked the cut of his jib.

‘Are you locals?’

‘No. Bunbury’s home for us.’

I pictured the couple walking the beaches from the south of the state all the way north to Broome, collecting cigarette butts. One hundred and sixty butts a day.

 

 

 

And I recalled Jonathan Sacks, the immediate past Chief Rabbi of the English-speaking world (by which term I mean to exclude the USA), who quoted a vignette of two men strolling along the seashore which was littered with starfish washed up and freshly stranded on the sand. One of the two bent repeatedly to pick up the starfish and to throw them as far as he could out to sea. His companion watched and mused and finally spoke: ‘There are so many, hundreds, probably thousands. You can’t possibly save them all; even if you labour all morning, your effort won’t make any appreciable difference…’

 

The first man paused, starfish in hand. He regarded the creature, still alive, then threw with all his might. He said, ‘To this one it makes a difference.’

To the Rescue 

 
About three years ago my grandson Miles became increasingly nervous about the warming of the climate. He learned of melting icecaps, rising seas, drowning isles and the fate of our planet. He decided to act. He wrote to the man who was soon to gain fame as an onion muncher:

 

Dear Mister Abbott,

 

In Grade Two we are learning about the climate and the danger to our planet. Please protect the environment or all people will suffer.

 

Yours truly,

 

Miles

 

The Prime Minister wrote back:


 

The Prime Minister did act. Speaking of yet another great black hole in the ground he declared, ‘coal is good for humanity.’ And there the matter rested. The PM went on to his encounter with the onion in Tasmania and thence to the back bench.

 

 

Last week saw the election in the United States of a new leader who knows and cares less about the climate than my grandchildren. My youngest grandson Joel, aged five, learned the ice caps are melting, the seas rising, the polar bears are under threat, and the world is in danger. He felt worried. At bedtime last night he was afraid to go to sleep. His mother asked Joel, ‘What do you think you can do to help the planet?’ Joel thought a bit and replied, ‘I should become prime minister and protect the earth.’ There followed a discussion of the process of actually becoming PM. ‘The people have to choose you. They do it by voting’, said his Mum. Joel said he would offer rewards to people who protected the environment. His Mum responded, ‘In that case, I’ll vote for you, Joelly.’

 

 

With one vote already in the bag and with his program for saving the planet under way, Joel was ready for sleep. And all of us can now rest easier.

 

Abbott and Abbot: The Ethics of the Fathers

One of the more accessible elements of the rabbinic literature is PIRKE ABBOT, a collection of maxims, proverbs, pithy sayings and principles of early post-biblical sages. Literally translated, Pirke Abbot should be ‘Chapters of the Fathers’, but ‘Ethics’ is generally preferred. By curious chance ‘Abbot (fathers)’ is a homonym of ‘Abbott’ (Prime Minister of Australia).

Pirke Abbot makes lively reading. It includes some very golden rules
for living. Such are the maxims of Rabbi Hillel, a sage beloved for
his humanity. He wrote: ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself what am I? And if not now, when?’
My nine-year old grandson Miles, much troubled by predictions of a
world where temperatures would rise and life be threatened, noted our
government’s anaemic response to the matter and wrote to the Prime
Minister echoing Hillel – if not now, when?
‘Dear Mister Abbott’, he wrote, ‘Please protect our planet before we
run out of water and every living thing will die.’
Mister Abbott, as befitting the Father of his country, wrote back to
the child he’d sworn to protect:

letter from tony abbott

(In summary:)

Dear Miles,

Thank you for taking the time to write to me. It is a very good thing that you are
interested in the wellbeing of our country. I hope you will continue
to show this interest in the future.’
The letter was signed (in ink), ‘Tony Abbott.’

Miles was not reassured.

“Mummy, he did not even mention the environment and what he was going to do about it.”
When Abbott succeeded Turnbull as leader of the Liberals, I felt
Australian politics might become more interesting. Here was something
novel, a potential prime minister who happened to be a conscience
politician. Noting Abbott’s sincerely held opposition to abortion and
the unpopularity he had courted in his restriction – on principle – of
an ‘abortion drug’ much sought by both doctors and patients, I
thought, ‘Well, I don’t like his politics, I don’t think he’ll last
long, I don’t much like his style, but I respect these signs of
integrity.’ Meanwhile the urgers in the Murdoch press drooled in a
chorus of relief at the eclipse of Turnbull and of the climate.

Of course, I had misjudged Tony. Moralistic but never simply moral, he
achieved a professional politician’s capacity for the flexible
backflip. His ‘style’ flowered into an idiosyncratic misreading of the
public mind that robbed the poor to enrich the already rich; and
culminated in advising the woman whose job it is to create knights to
dub her husband, a non-Australian, Knight of the Order of Australia.

At this stage the public gasped in disbelief, Abbott’s own party
gagged and even the Murdoch Urgers looked about for a successor to
anoint. Commentators commented – that’s what I am doing now – and we
all had a wonderful time frothing at the inevitable (if not imminent)
fall of this man of hubris.
Enter another grandson, Joel, aged nearly four: fresh off the plane
after three years’ exile in Britain this young citizen observed the
image of Tony Abbott appearing day after day for on the front page of
the paper.
He asked: ‘Who is that man, Mummy?’
‘He is the man the people of Australia chose to look after us, darling.’
‘Why is his picture in the paper?’
‘People are feeling cross at him.’
‘Why?’
‘You know how people in this family try to be kind to each other?
Well, people feel cross at that man because he hasn’t been kind to the
people he should look after.’
[At this stage I need to inform the reader of the Corrections
Protocols operating in Joel’s household: in the case that one child
having many toys withhold a toy he isn’t using from his smaller
sister, who then purloins said toy; and that older child then belt the
younger, the older child’s conduct is designated as ‘not kind’; and
that elder child is directed to take some time out. He is sent to the
staircase where he must sit and reflect upon his unkind action until
he feel ready to seek forgiveness and make amends]
Joel, regarding the image of the Prime Minister pictured descending
his aircraft’s steps in Canberra, said: ‘That man needs to go to the
time-out step.’
In the event, ignoring Hillel’s second clause of selflessness, the PM
followed only the sage’s first clause: ‘If I am not for myself, who
will be for me?’ He brought forward the party room meeting to deprive
plotters of time to plot. His party met and voted him not time out but
more time in.
Abbott vowed he would change. He’d listen. He’d become consultative.
Good government would ‘start today.’ No-one believed he could change.
I do not believe he can. But how miraculous would it be to witness
such change, how interesting to watch a small spirit grow and enlarge
and show kindness?