Here & Now with S Sorrensen
Larnook. Wednesday, 5.40am:
I have travelled a bit through SE Asia. Yep. And there's no wildlife.
The tigers, leopards, bears, rhinos, deer... everything is pretty much gone.
Rich white men from the US and Europe used to travel to the highlands of central Vietnam right up until the late 50s to shoot stuff. For fun. (Imagine someone shooting an animal for sport…)
The forests where the wild animals lived have been razed for palm oil and rubber plantations. The rivers stink with industrial effluence. Capitalism destroys life.
I've seen monkeys though.
There's a monastery near Mandalay that has hundreds of monkeys just hanging around, like the monks, and getting free tucker from the villagers, like the monks. There's a lake in northern Cambodia where the monkeys can spot any fruit you're carrying (even in your bag - they have x-ray eyes) and will bail you up with some pretty aggressive begging.
In central Laos there's a remnant of jungle where you may be lucky enough to see a wild elephant. But you probably won't. And it's heavy work backpacking in elephant treats.
In SE Asia you're lucky to see birds.
Well, you're lucky to see birds outside of a meal situation. In a village market west of Hanoi I've eaten grilled pigeon. And from a street stall in Stung Treng in central Cambodia I tried some 'quail' which tasted remarkably like the pigeon.
In Yangon, there are huge flocks of pigeons that hang around on street corners where women sell little bowls of corn kernels to passers-by to feed the pigeons. It's a Buddhist ritual - you feed the birds and you get good karma. (Better karma than feeding on the birds.)
Some women near Shwe Dagon temple have wicker baskets containing lots of fluttering sparrows. You pay some money (about 30 cents) and you get to set a sparrow free. Once again, good karma. I did it. I set two sparrows free and it felt good.
Pigeons and sparrows are hardly wildlife though. They're domesticated in a wildish way; like the dogs that hang in differently coloured packs at Yangon intersections. Or the Burmese cats that spend all night having extended and what sounds like very painful sex in stairwells and on rooftops.
When you wake up in the morning in SE Asia you don't hear birds.
You may hear a cock crowing or a pig snuffling or the monks chanting or the rubbish woman singing for rubbish as she pushes her rubbish cart up the street. But there are no birds.
Here and now, the birds are going off.
It's a cacophony. No! It's a symphony. It's a rare experience to hear so many birds heralding the new day. The hills are alive with the sound of life!
I listen to the sunrise sonata from the bed in my shack under the cliffs at the end of the world. Like a sparrow set free, my spirit flies high on the multiple melodies. I can't help but grin when a kookaburra mocks a magpie who is articulating something quite complex.
I hear the dragging shuffle of the old goanna making a hopeful line past the pond where once it struck pay dirt with a few fat goldfish. I hear two bush turkeys scratching hyperactively through the leaf litter under the fig tree.
I never realised how noisy it is around here; how deliciously, excitingly, vibrantly, healthily, naturally, reassuringly noisy.
I'm a lucky man.
My home is where the birds still sing; where the water is still clean, where people vote; where people realise that our tribal lands are precious and must be protected from the destructive ravages of rich white men.