Sunday, December 24, 2006

Australian Pines

My journey to Antarctica takes me through Australia first, the sixth continent I visit. I am traveling with my life-partner, Juan Carlos “JC” Espinosa, who is going to collaborate with me on the installations we create in Antarctica from December 28th, 2006 to January 12th, 2007. JC and I thought to spend Christmas in the land down under, before bringing in the New Year in the southernmost continent.

We left Miami on the afternoon of the 19th of December, stopping in Los Angeles for a 10:30 pm departure across the Pacific. Hungry, the ocean ate December 20th somewhere along that 14 and a half hour flight. We landed in Sydney on the morning of the 21st.

As we drove out of the Sydney Airport and to our hotel, I noticed the trees of my youth lining Joyce Drive. Their prickly pinecones would make us tip toe over the blanket of brown needle leaves they would deposit beneath them on the Bear Cut and “El Farito” beaches of Key Biscayne. Every now and then the eroding sand would make one of them topple, exposing a shallow root ball that stood like a wall against the shoreline. I grew up watching these Australian pines, having family picnics beneath them, burning bonfires after football games near them; thinking they were the most natural backdrop to my Miami landscape.

On August 24, 1992, Hurricane Andrew leveled the Australian pine forests on Key Biscayne, tearing the invasive exotics from their roots and sparing the more adapted natives from destruction. It wasn’t until then I realized that these pines really didn’t belong there. Along with Melaleucas (which also lined Joyce Drive on the road from the airport), Australian pines were planted all over South Florida to “drain the swamps” and make room for development. It took a category five hurricane to undo what man did; it was nature’s way of giving native plants an opportunity to recreate their original environment.

The Australian pines that greeted me on Joyce Drive, however, weren’t planted for the same reasons as those in Florida. This tree-lined highway was landscaped not with exotics, but with Australian natives. Doing so was a right step towards conservation (more adaptable natives used less resources and provide natural habitats for local species).

It turns out that what was familiar, what I took for granted, what was customary wasn’t quite right. Planting and keeping Australian pines all over Florida was a shortsighted landscaping choice, unless one was trying to undo Miami’s natural ecosystems. Sadly, as individuals and as a society, we continue to be shortsighted in our thinking, and self-destructive in our actions. In our everyday lives, we ignore the consequences and perpetuate bad choices simply because they are familiar, customary or easy. One can’t rationalize doing bad just because it’s habitual. It is my hope that as the causes (and consequences) of global warming and other environmental catastrophes become more evident, we begin to rethink and break our bad habits.

Our work in Antarctica is to explore our interconnectedness to one another and to our planet. It’s about trying to find more balance in the way we coexist with nature. This simple story of the Australian pine serves to frame the discourse. It also served as an invitation to engage in creative pursuits as I explore the local culture and history, a kind gesture traveling always brings me.

Our first night was spent at the Sydney Opera House, where we took in a local holiday show. The audience –mostly local families with their children, just like those anywhere -- was asked on four separate occasions to stand and join in singing traditional Christmas carols; we readily complied. We also watched one of their acclaimed opera singers jump on stage like a kangaroo as he sung an Australian Christmas tune (Four Baby Boomers).

On the 23rd, I returned to the opera house, climbed up its steps, and waved the flag I am soon to plant 337 meters away from the geographic South Pole. I had marked that ochre colored-flag with the year 1973 and the coordinates for Sydney (33 S 86, 151 E 22). The flag will stand at the point on the moving polar ice sheet where the South Pole stood (90 S) in 1973, when the Sydney Opera House was completed. It will join 49 other flags, each spaced 9.9 meters apart, each marking important events across all continents that have moved the world forward since 1956, the year when humans first permanently settled in the South Pole. A lot has happened since, but a snapshot of time when compared to the other 149,950 years it will take for that moving glacier to reach the coast of Antarctica at the Weddell Sea.

On the 26th, Boxing Day they call it here, we’ll head out of Sydney and on to Christchurch, New Zealand – point of departure for Antarctic journeys, historic and current. There, we’ll grab our garb and head South.

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