Christmas Jottings from North Queensland

A ridiculous spectacle: Christmas in North Queensland, an event held in a land so prehistoric it makes a mockery of its human inhabitants. Cartoons and cardboard cut-outs of snow flecked reindeer stranded upon water-hungry lawns, irrelevant and incapable of surviving in these climes; the occasional defiance by the inhabitants who replace the reindeer with kangaroos as Santa’s recruits dragging his sleigh.

Another matter that is equally ridiculous: a desert religion’s celebration in the conifer-covered land masses of northern Europe, where pagan spirits fight with dedicated stubbornness against clerics and monotheistic dogma. The single god head struggles there, as it does in the heat of northern Australia, where song lines chart themselves across the land in pantheistic richness.

To have a forested backyard this part of the world is to preside over a merry bazaar of activities. Not far is an army base that is one of Australia’s largest and bound to be immolated in acts of stupidity bound to be committed by the Commonwealth government. The country is becoming a garrison state, soon to be occupied by an even greater number of US military personnel.

There are blue faced honeyeaters squeaking, the metallic churrs of the bower birds, peaceful doves cooing sweetly, Indian mynas hated for their invasive initiative and supreme guile. (The latter have inspired murderous instincts in the locals, who enjoy placing them in car boots to poison with carbon monoxide.) Then, the absurdly aristocratic spectacle of the sulphur-crested cockatoo, intruding with its mass upon the bird bowl, seizing the day, and everything else. Initially, the bird’s thick frame is accommodated; then, the bowl upturns, dropping its bounty upon the ground. All other birds are joyful: they finally can have a hack.

Rainbow lorikeets are flashes of kaleidoscopic colours hopping across the lawn like failed ballerinas. On the bird bowl, where they congregate in the absence of the cockatoos and corellas, squabbles become raging battles, rainbows aligned against each other over sunflower seed and grievance. The squawking, the screeching, the war cries stream out of their delicate beaks. And then, moments of silence – bird treaty and accord, avian solitude, feathery understanding. Munch and crunch, before the next round of bickering.

Such scenes prove therapeutic. You can take your mind off the pedestrian horrors that inhabit the screens, crowd the radio waves, and saturate the news feeds. It’s a selfish indulgence; conflicts continue to rumble along in distant geography: Ukraine, Yemen, Syria, and a number of hapless African states inured to warring misery. In Canberra, Australian politicians are readying the country for the next futile, needless intervention in which citizens can be sent to die in ignorance.

But the news, for want of a better term, remains news. On December 17, a number of supermarket chains released near hysterical warnings about contaminated baby spinach in a number of food lines. Coles recalled 11 of its Own Brand products; Woolworths did the same with two salad products. Aldi took precautions with its fresh stir-fry ingredients.

The national broadcaster reported a number of symptoms for those admitted to hospital: nausea and vomiting, blurred vision, dilated pupils, rapid heartbeat, hallucinations and confusion. Hallucinogenic salads seem to combine the anticipation of nutrition with a narcotised hit, but few seemed to be laughing.

Local news is demagogic, personal and cringingly desperate. The Townsville Bulletin is reliably all of these. There are the predictable drug busts (“Huge stash of drugs flown into NQ prison”), fears of youth crime and reports of minor thefts and local break-ins.

Encounters with crocodiles and sharks seem mandatory copy, a reminder of the estranging discomfort many in this part of the world feel with their environment. “Dehydrated, clinging to a piece of wood less than half his size,” the paper writes in hushed tones of reverence, “a fisherman has spoken of the lengths he went in order to stay alive in the Torres Strait for 24 hours.” During that time, you will not be surprised about how “sharks circled him”. Spared by sharks, the fisherman was not spared the attention of North Queensland’s infamous rag.

Then come the accidents to excite any bored voyeur. “Big hole in his leg,” screams one headline. “Listen to the Triple-0 call that saved Ted after horror ATV flip.” Another item features a brave mother who “grabbed kids and ran” fleeing an “explosive fire” that destroyed their home. If you wish for some heart-warming cheer for the holiday season, you can read about reunion celebrations for a man honoured with a commemorative jersey for founding a touch football club five decades ago.

Foreign news is only run in such publications to emphasise the strangeness of another world. The French are depicted as protest-hungry freaks prone to violence in one news item. Overseas travel is seen as dangerously unpredictable in another. “Passengers were stunned to find themselves in Azerbaijan after a Qantas flight to London was dramatically forced to change route.”

Best get back to viewing the spectacle of nature in the backyard, the rustling canopy of life, the slow and sure descent of tired palm leaves, the lawn hungering for moisture, and anticipate the next raid for seed.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.