In the Machine


Back in the control room I find my friend waiting for me, all smiles as usual. She must have arrived while I was strapped in the machine.

“Hi!” she greets enthusiastically. “I just saw your brain.”

I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise, given the situation. Yet I’m caught off guard. How do you respond to something like that? It feels awkwardly personal, like a housemate admitting that they heard you having sex. Is this more or less weird? I wonder.

On one hand, it’s just bits of lumpy grey matter. We all have them, and they don’t look like much. But on the other, it’s a part of you that no one normally gets to see, and it defines absolutely everything about your personality. Also my friend is a neuroscientist, so who knows what she might have been able to read into it. Was she judging me on the size of my hippocampus? Wait, does size even matter, or is it just how you use it?

She’s been watching my face, and maybe she can read my thoughts after all. “Well, only a bit of it,” she clarifies, sounding a little apologetic. “The prefrontal cortex. It was very… handsome.”

What’s going on? I’m at a Biomedical Imaging Research Centre, and I’ve just had a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan. But let me start from the beginning.

The head researcher, Paul* the PhD student, was waiting for me at reception when I arrived. I didn’t have a medical condition or any real reason to get my brain scanned. I volunteered for the study simply because how freaking cool is it to see your own brain? Pretty damn cool, if you ask me.

We went through the consent and medical forms. No history of epilepsy: check. No metallic implants or bits of shrapnel in my body: check. This last one is very important because fMRI machines create powerful magnetic fields. I assume that if you had, say metal pins in your skull, the machine would suck them right out through your face.

I followed Paul through to the control room, where I met Dave* the imaging technician. He was pleasantly spoken, and my gaydar gave a faint uncertain reading. He invited me to help myself to a platter of sandwiches and make myself comfortable. I did so. Dave returned to working away at three large computer monitors, preparing the scanning software.

Through a wide blue-tinted panel of glass I could spy the fMRI machine, looking like a giant upright donut. It was smooth and white, and very much resembled something you might find in the game Portal, or perhaps Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

How does MRI work? Well to begin with, the machine has to create an extremely powerful and uniform magnetic field. The strength of this field is typically about 1.5 tesla. For perspective, this is about five times the intensity of an average solar sunspot.

To achieve this, the machine is fitted with superconducting magnets which are cooled by liquid helium. The resulting magnetic field excites hydrogen atoms present in water molecules in your brain, causing them to emit a radio frequency signal. This signal is detected, and an image is assembled.

Dave asked me to remove any metal items from my person and follow him into the scanning room. We passed though a reinforced door which read “MAGNETUM” in imposing capitals. Black and yellow triangles on either side warned of “MR- Magnetic Field” and “High Frequency Field”. Yep, watch out for fields.

A series of panels on the ceiling were illuminated to show a beautiful image of blue sky, wispy clouds and tree leaves in the foreground, as if you were lying in a park looking up. “It’s to help people with claustrophobia,” Dave later explained to me, when I was back in the control room watching my friend’s brain materialise on the screen.

I lay down on a special table, with my head at one end of the donut hole. Dave stuffed earplugs into my auditory canals. You see, rapid changes in the magnetic field of the fMRI machine cause the magnets to vibrate, which creates a loud hammering sound. Foam cushioning was then crammed around my head, and a Velcro strap placed across my forehead to hold it in place. It was a bit of pressure and not overwhelmingly comfortable, but it was definitely not as restricting as I had been anticipating. Capillaries and neurons are pretty tiny, so I had assumed my head would have had to be fully immobilised to get an accurate reading. As it was, I could still move a bit.

A plastic visor was clicked into place above my eyes. It held a mirror which redirected my vision toward a monitor at the far end the donut. Wherever he was, Dave manipulated some controls and the table rose up and slid my head into the donut.

Paul came over to see how I was going. Just fine. He placed a controller with a large button into my left hand, explaining that I had to push the button whenever I saw the same image twice in a row. This was to be the experiment. In my right hand he placed a squeezy bulb, which I could use if I ever got claustrophobic and wanted to stop the experiment. Pssh, claustrophobia. I was actually feeling pretty excited and eager to start.

Everyone else left the room, and the quietness was soon replaced with Dave’s soothing voice over the intercom. He informed me that there would be a few scans of varying lengths. The first was to be a mere ten seconds, and would sound a little strange.

A harsh distorted electronic tone burst forth, like a synth from some Daft Punk song. I was glad for the earplugs. It held for a moment, rose in pitch, held for another second or two, and I anticipated the tone rising again – the sacred melody of neuroscience being revealed to me. It dropped back to the first tone instead. Then, quiet.

Dave’s voice dropped in again over the intercom, asking me how that was. He informed me that the next scan would take about four minutes. Ok.

Brand new electronic tones clicked and whirred. At some point the notes settled into regular monotonous pulses, and my thoughts drifted. Is this what life feels like for a photocopier? Stuck in one place, doomed to a single view, hearing the repetitive hum of page after page being scanned and printed. Or I felt like a person still plugged in to the Matrix in a little isolated pod, oblivious to the rest of the world out there.

I closed my eyes and started to feel warm and sleepy. The experimental explanatory statement reads:

“The radiofrequency waves we use to create the MR scans can cause your head and body to warm up slightly. This is not a problem, and you usually won’t notice it at all, as your blood flow will increase slightly to take the heat away.”

Maybe I noticed it.

My mind started to recite the “To be or not to be” soliloquy from Hamlet. Haha brain, “whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer”, aren’t you clever? Then I started to worry that maybe I was causing the language centres of my brain to light up, giving a misleading reading. Quick, think about maths! No wait, probably I should just think about nothing. But I don’t seem to be able to! Argh!

Finally I decided that if it was going to be a problem, they would’ve warned me in advance not to think about anything. Surely they were just checking my neural structure now anyway.

ERRRK, ERRRK, ERRRK went the machine. Then it fell silent once more.

Dave gave me one more preliminary scan, this time lasting a minute. A softer, more constant buzz hummed for the duration of this one. I imagined the magnetic fields raging and swirling around me, like some divine battle, whipping up the water molecules in my brain and battering them one way then the other. Surely that’s got to do something to one’s perception? I focused inwardly and tried to decide whether I could feel anything. Possibly something subtle… but it could easily by placebo effect. No, probably nothing.

Finally it was time for the experiment proper.

A stream of pictures flashed by on the screen: faces, flowers, buildings, abstract tessellated patterns – repeating and repeating, faster and faster. My finger twitched nervously on the button; I cursed silently when I pressed it accidentally, but grinned with pride when I matched the abstract tessellated patterns. I started seriously doubting my skills of facial recognition.

The second task involved watching coloured dots move across the screen and involved more button-pressing. I found myself feeling strangely exhausted and having to close my eyes between rounds.  At some point I remembered that they were using infrared lasers to track my eye movement, then I worried that maybe I was screwing up the experiment by closing my eyes so often.

I’m so sorry dear science.

When everything was finished, the lovely Dave burnt me a disc containing the map of my brain.  It’s really quite fascinating and gross scrolling through from one hemisphere to the other, watching the cortex burst forth, swirl and evolve as it reaches the midbrain and the medulla and corpus callosum appear, then warp and recede away as you pass out the other side.

I imagine I will treasure this map until the day that my brain shrivels up from some neurodegenerative disease, and ironically I can no longer fathom what I’m looking at. But I suppose it won’t matter by that point. The pictures wouldn’t be of me anyway.

* Name in this article have been changed.

Sin and Vice

I do not write fiction on this blog. I write autobiographical happenings. Here is another one.

*             *             *

I do not know any of the people around me; this is a cloak-and-dagger society. Entry at the door is dependent upon your ability to produce your six-digit number. We carry our number around on a plain white laminated card, a card with no other markings save a blue logo in the corner. The logo resembles three torsos being blown away. Oh, I know what blows us all here. I will probably never see any of these people again.

Surnames are anathema. We have our number. If someone must be called, it is by their first name and the month in which they were born only. Pseudonyms are welcome too. You’ll never really know who anyone is here. Unless of course, you were to see an acquaintance from the outside world. It could happen. After all, who are we? We are everyone, really. Students, young professionals, migrants, workers, the unemployed. Probably, some people you know very well come here.

Welcome to this clandestine Mecca of sin and vice: The Melbourne Sexual Health Centre.

Up an unassuming staircase nestled on Swanston Street you can find our lair. Maybe you will even join our ranks. Everyone is here for the same reason: to get tested/treated for sexually transmitted infections. As I glance around at my comrades, a thought hits me. This would be the ideal place for an accomplished swinger to pick up. After all, you can be pretty sure of two very crucial things about all the people here:

1. They’re sexually active
2. They’re responsible when it comes to monitoring their sexual health

What more invitation could you want?

But no, this isn’t happening at all. Something is wrong. A blanket of distance, suspicion, maybe even shame, is lying thick upon the whole place. Nobody makes eye contact, nobody is smiling. People play on their phones or read a book. We could just as easily be early-morning commuters as the liberated sexual adventurers that we presumably are.

But of course, I know the reason. Despite the reasonable bet that any given person here is sexually open, it’s also the one environment in which you can’t help but think “-and there’s a damn good chance that they have a venereal disease.” Is that cutie opposite you just here for a check-up, or because they’re oozing something from their nether regions?

So we sit and wait in our isolation.

Names ring out one after the other, as triage nurses and doctors poke their heads out of doorways and hallways to call in their next sample – Jason, born in December; Maple, born in April; Sigfried, born in July; Lucy, born in December. An efficient production line of genitalia being inspected, scrubbed clean and flung back out into the world to wreak further mischief. Help yourself to some condoms and lube before you go.

A man walks past carrying a clear plastic jar of his own steamy urine. Chlamydia test, probably. He’s clearly feeling awkward about carrying his urine past a bunch of strangers. I want to tell him: there’s no judgement here, hombre.

When you first arrive you have to sign in at a touch-screen computer using your 6-digit number, and there are some questions to answer. You then get to sit, wait, and watch other new people arriving up the stairs. You observe their body language and you can pretty much guess which question they’re up to.

A tall girl squints in concentration and counts off on her fingers. How many sexual partners have you had in the past year? Two dreadlocked traveller-types glance at each other. Have you ever had sex with someone overseas? A freckled red-haired guy sways his head side to side indecisively. Have you ever had male-to-male sex? An older gentleman glances around. Have you ever had sex with a sex worker?

I have some friends who also come here. Everyone’s got their own little system. For one of them, it’s a 6-monthly routine. For another, it’s every new sex partner. The nurses know her by name. You could argue that she’s wasting state-funded resources, but I guess it’s better than spraying Gonorrhoea around.

On this visit, I have to give blood because of a medical procedure I had while overseas. Oh that’s right, you can get Hepatitis C like that. Goody. But blood is satisfyingly high-info: they screen you for HIV and syphilis at the same time, which they’ll normally only do if you have symptoms or probable cause. I’m not deprived of peeing in a jar either, so who am I to complain?

You get to phone up in a week for your results.

Good luck not winning the reverse lotto, and I’ll leave you with a timeless reminder from the U.S. government:


Oh I Would Ride 500 Miles


Imagine you’re flying through the air, about to collide with the road at approximately 32km/hr. What do you feel in that moment? A flash of terror? Reflex preparedness? Fatalism?

The correct answer: not a whole lot of anything. You don’t have time to think about it.

You won’t remember the impact. Your brain skips straight ahead from that suspended instant in midair, then you’re on the ground and your instincts have kicked in: ignore your injuries, get off the road, drag your bike out of the way of traffic. Blood is running down your left forearm and one of your riding gloves is stained brown from clutching the elbow. It’s funny how no one in Hollywood seems to know just how quickly that sacred life fluid oxidises once outside the body.

You don’t really feel the pain yet; your mind is back in your apartment months ago, reliving a conversation you had with your housemate. You’d sworn you would never become one of those wanky east-siders who cycle around wearing Lycra and gloves. He advised you to at least reconsider the gloves, said you’d be grateful for it when you eventually came off. He was right.

Concentrate, stay in the moment.

The driver has gotten out and is explaining something about blind spots while a fierce old woman berates him. A couple of passers-by have rushed over and are asking if you’re ok; telling you to do things, telling you to get the driver’s details. Later on you will not remember their faces or even how many there were. It’s ok, it’s the shock. You realise you’re limping a bit. You try to inspect your elbow but it’s hard to judge with all the blood and the funny angle. It looks deep. The front bonnet of the car has popped off from the force of the crash, and you’re surprised to find you feel slightly proud.

The most realistic stories are the true ones.

It was about six months ago that I had my accident. Melbourne’s not the easiest city in which to be a cyclist. Numbers of riders have increased hugely over the past decade, but I still consider us pioneers of sorts, forging a path forward in a hostile environment for the good of future generations. This idea isn’t mere fancy- there’s a well-documented relationship between the number of cyclists in a city and the safety of cycling.

The theory is that as motorists become more accustomed to sharing the road with cyclists, they get better at looking for them. This is something I can definitely believe. Some of my best-practised manoeuvres include swerving to avoid clueless pedestrians and slamming on the brakes when a driver suddenly turns left. I’m constantly awaiting the unexpectedly opened car door that will be the last thing I ever see. Amusing door-related epitaphs welcome.

It’s early 2009 and I’m in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Right now my home state is being torn apart by the worst bushfires in recently history, in which 173 people will ultimately die. But right now I know nothing of this; my mind is in the past, occupied with another tragedy of human life: Kanchanaburi is home to the infamous Death Railway, where over 100,000 prisoners of war died during the Second World War. Having visited the poignant bridge and war museum, I’ve hired a push-bike for the day in order to see the town and visit a memorial several kilometres away. I’m weaving happily amongst motorists and motorcyclists down the main road. Bikes are common enough here that people look for you, and consequently I feel safer than ever I did in Melbourne. If I were to come off, I’ve heard stories that maybe the locals would rush over and pour Coca-Cola on the wound since it’s the only sterile substance they have easy access to.

Back in Melbourne: twenty minutes after the crash everyone has left and I’m dazed in the city clutching my elbow, wondering helplessly where the nearest hospital is. I call my best friend, who was actually waiting to meet me, and tell them I won’t be able to make it. As I explain what’s happened, my voice breaks.

There’s a special type of distress that comes from having your body damaged. It’s separate from the physical pain, born instead from the terrible possibilities of the future. Will you ever recover from the wound? What will life be like if you can’t?

I can fully feel the pain in my elbow now, and sickening thoughts are swimming through my mind of punctured bursas and severed ligaments. Talking to my friend, these thoughts momentarily overcame me. Stop being a pansy I reprimand myself. This is nothing, you’re just in shock.

On the tram to Melbourne Hospital – the only place I can think to go – the other passengers stare uncomfortably at my bloodied arm. I feel somehow indecent. Someone lamely asks if I’m ok.

Endone is an amazing drug. It’s a semi-synthetic opioid related in structure to morphine and heroin, and like its cousins, it can cause addiction. I have a nurse acquaintance who was shocked to hear that the doctor had prescribed it to me for such relatively minor injuries.

I relive its sensations: the warm tingling all over my skin, the sleepy happiness, the slight spinning of the world. It was like burying the pain in my elbow and hip under a pile of fluffy blankets. One side effect however is that it inhibits memory formation.

I lost most of the week after the crash in a forgotten drugged haze, punctuated only by random scenes like mirages in a desert. At some point I was wandering through JB Hi-Fi, awed by the lights and sounds; I was swaying through the office and my supervisor was there telling me to go home and rest; one time I was rolling around on my bed, ecstatic from the feel of the sheets on my face, only dimly aware of people watching me from the doorway.

Oh thin green nurturing strip. Somewhere to call home. A conduit for our kind, a facade of safety. Oh how I’ve followed you and yearned for you.

It’s five hours before a surgeon finally sees me. I will never be able to repay the incredible friend who stayed with me that whole night and probably suffered worse than I did, having to helplessly watch me flinch with every pass of the needle through my skin. Weeks later my sister cut the crusty stitches out using a scalpel blade.

I’m also not sure if I can describe the boredom that builds over five hours with nothing to distract you, boredom that grows into frustration and boils over to rage. Rage toward the understaffed public health system, toward the pointless waste of life, and especially toward the unapologetic scumbag who hit me. Oh yes, of course you wanted to just call it even and go our separate ways.

In the days that followed I fantasised about my assailant, about vandalising his car, suing him. Anything. I didn’t want money, I wanted justice. Why was I in bed, useless, dull pain looming just below the surface, while he was still driving around, probably carefree, probably still a threat to my other friends on two wheels? I regularly obsessed over whether the accident might’ve been my fault, but the outraged old woman kept returning to my mind to reassure me that she’d seen it all and I was in the right. I tried calling the police, the TAC. Medical expenses and bike damage weren’t great enough to claim anything, and the policeman told me there is no penalty for negligently hitting a cyclist. I stewed.

In 2003, Pucher and Dijkstra found that American cyclists are 12 times more likely to have a lethal accident per kilometre travelled than car occupants. de Hartog et al (2010)  compared several costs and benefits of cycling, including physical exercise, air pollution exposure and the risk of accidents. They concluded that the benefits were the greater by an order of magnitude. This was further reinforced by Karl Ulrich, who calculated that each year of sustained cycling adds about 10.6 days to a person’s life due to the fitness benefits- even accounting for the extra risk of accident. If you do the sums assuming 1 hour of cycling per day, 5 days a week, then your time spent peddling roughly equals your longevity gain. That is, if you spend about 10.6 days riding in a year, you live on average about 10.6 days longer. So really, while you’re cycling you do not age.

To be a cyclist is to follow water. In most cities, lakes, rivers and coastlines are the only spaces that get set aside for our species to roll along in peace. Everywhere else is the noise and agitation of motor vehicles. So we learn to love water, to see parallels in the way we both smoothly flow along, and to finally get where Sebastian’s coming from in “Under the Sea”. It’s not pleasant to leave these havens and battle with uncaring traffic in order to infiltrate the city, but I shall continue to do so. The average life expectancy of a male in Australia is 79 years. I figure that if I ride steadily for the next 35 years of my life, that’s 35 x 10.6 = 371 extra days that I’ll get. So when I hit 80 (as I statistically expect to do!), I’m going to lean back in my rocking chair with my false teeth and my Alzheimer’s disease, foggily remember that bastard who drove into me, and have a chuckle about who’s still stan… rocking.

Walk for Solar


It’s just hit 5am and I’m in a taxi heading to Adelaide airport. The taxi driver is looking at me sideways, thinking that I must be crazy for wearing shorts in this weather. What he doesn’t know is that last night I passed out fully dressed due to sheer exhaustion in the house of a generous stranger. I’d come to that house straight from an after-party, after coming straight from the biggest rally in Adelaide’s recent history, after coming straight from one of the greatest things I’ve ever done- a two week walk of over 300km with 60 other people. But I’m getting ahead of myself; we need context.

The starting point of our journey was a little South Australian town called Port Augusta, known for its two coal-fire power stations, Northern and Playford B. Despite billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies from the federal government, these stations have become uneconomical and are shutting down. A report by Beyond Zero Emissions, a think-tank of engineers and scientists, has concluded that the best way to replace this energy capacity is with concentrated solar thermal (CST).

You may have heard of this technology, or at least seen a picture. It looks like a big field of solar panels arrayed around a tower. These panels are actually mirrors, and their job is to focus sunlight onto the tower, where molten salt gets heated to 565°C. This heat is used to boil water, which generates steam and turns a turbine- just like in conventional coal-fire stations. The huge advantage of CST over other renewables though is that the molten salt can be pumped into a storage vat, where the heat is retained for up to 16 hours. It is then drawn from as needed, meaning that electricity can be generated constantly, even when the sun isn’t shining.

Several CST plants are currently operating in the United States and Spain, with countless more being rolled out globally. Port Augusta is the ideal location for Australia’s first such plant because the town is sunny, the necessary transmission infrastructure is already in place and there’s a skilled workforce available. A survey of the Port Augustan community found that over 98% of residents are in favour of constructing  CST rather than the alternative, a gas-fire station. The local council and state government are supportive, as is Alinta, the company that owns the Northern and Playford B coal stations. CST plants are cheaper than gas over a 30 year period, create more jobs and are not subject to resource availability.

The only barrier to this amazing opportunity is the upfront cost of ~$1.6 billion, which would have to be subsidised by the government.

The future of human history is a massive boulder rolling down a mountain. There’s an incredible amount of inertia, and it’s almost impossible to knock the boulder off its business-as-usual course. But occasionally, there comes a moment where there’s a jut in the path. If enough people push hard enough at just the right time, the entire trajectory of the future can be shifted. Build one CST plant, establish an industry, and the next ones become cheaper and cheaper. Port Augusta could just be the domino that accelerates Australia down the path to 100% renewable energy.

Our mission therefore was to make Port Augusta a national issue. The best way we could think to do this was by marching all the way from Port Augusta to Adelaide, talking to everyone we met along the way, generating as much media attention as possible, and bringing the message to the doors of Parliament.

This story is really the stories of the amazing people who walked alongside me.

Our group spanned the age spectrum, from an adorable 5 year-old girl right through to the retired, self-proclaimed “oldies”. Interestingly age hardly seemed to correlate with life experience or philosophy. I spoke with a fascinating Polynesian man, born in New Zealand, who moved to Australia, was adopted by an Aboriginal family and became a professional Indian dancer. I heard the story of a girl who was born in Greece while her parents were sailing around the world and spent the first year and a half of her life at sea, later living in a shed, on a boat again, and in South Africa for a year. I met a lovely German woman who moved to Australia 30 years ago, became a masseuse, and in her spare time makes huge works of art out of materials that to other people look like rubbish.

I chatted with a guy who resents being called an “environmentalist”. The word invokes images of unwashed hippies, anti-progress libertarians, naive youth. He pointed out that our group was not those things. We were primarily university-educated, relatively well provided-for mainstreamers.

It is possible, perhaps even common, to be concerned about climate change because of the human impact, without necessarily caring at all about the “environment”. This was his situation and pretty much mine as well- I see climate change as a utilitarian concern. It is the global issue with the greatest propensity to harm human wellbeing, and is thus the most logical problem for a general altruist to tackle. I spent a lot of time questioning why the individuals in our group possess such altruism. Maybe it’s some reciprocity instinct, maybe it’s a natural behaviour once one’s basic needs are met, or maybe I just have to accept that it’s a random psychological quirk some people have. Whatever the reason, the question was beyond me.

On the third night of our trek I lay in a grassy field beside two Melbournites. We were gazing up at the incredible stars, discussing whether there might be intelligent beings out there on some distant planet; and whether they too might be lying looking up at the stars, wondering whether there might be intelligent life somewhere out there, lying looking up at the stars…

At some point my mind flipped. I suddenly felt I was gazing down at the stars instead of looking up, and awe filled me as I vividly pictured myself plummeting from the face of the earth.

Later that balmy night our camp was hit by gale-force winds. Unable to sleep for the constant flapping of tent in my face, I emerged to meet a Tasmanian and a Sydneysider whose tent had caved in. We dragged our sleeping gear out behind the food van for shelter, and had almost fallen asleep when two huge metal marquees were ripped from the ground and almost crashed over the van onto us. The ensuing scene was how I imagine it would be aboard a ship whose mast has just been destroyed by lightning. There was confusion, flashing torches, people shouting and rushing and trying to dislodge the billowing sail that the marquees had become. In the grey morning a double rainbow crowned the twisted wrecked metal frames.

Blisters become obsessions. A few days in, conversations subtly shifted from complaining to stoicism, and people started enquiring about each other’s feet instead. As the trip wore on some people had whole toes turn into squishy masses, while others clandestinely practised lancing (I won’t mention which camp I was in). By day thirteen I saw blisters the size and shape of grapes, sometimes filled with blood or marbled where blister had grown upon blister upon blister. A visiting first aider warned of permanent scarring and compared some of the worse ones to second degree burns. If anything, I suspect his words hardened resolve.

We slept in fields, in paddocks, beside train tracks and highways, in farm sheds, a shearing shed one night, on stony ground, between bushes, around camp fires. In the second week several tents were destroyed by wind, mine included, and we discovered what it feels like to become climate refugees, sheltering in the backs of vehicles or huddling together in a chicken barn. Somehow the adversity increased the thrill, increased the sense that any challenge could be overcome to make this campaign successful.

On the seventh afternoon we climbed the ranges outside Snowtown, and in the glow of a golden-red sunset, reached the giant wind turbines at the summit. This was possibly my most euphoric moment of the whole trip.

Having previously only seen turbines from a distance, I’d often wondered at the thinness of the blades- how could that flimsy surface area be the best design for catching wind? But up close, the beauty of their subtle curve and tapered edges dazzled me. They reminded me of aircraft; creating lift with the same elegance as wing foils and turbine blades. I no longer doubt their exquisite engineering. Apparently in Victoria it’s illegal to build a wind turbine within 3km of a house. The noise from these turbines was undetectable until we were within a few hundred meters. The sound was comforting, easily quiet enough to talk over, and mostly obscured by the wind. It was saddening to hear of the irrational beliefs in wind turbine sickness, ostensibly responsible for everything from weight loss to cancer.

In “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance“, Robert Pirsig argues that quality is the union between subject and object. To achieve quality in a task, the trick is not to separate oneself from one’s surroundings.

I’ve never tried achieving zen. But when you’re walking for 5-6 hours, day after day through beautiful fields with mountains in the distance, it tends to find you. At times I reached a state of existing purely in the moment, almost a part of the landscape. The future was unknown and didn’t matter, the past forgotten; awareness of my aching feet faded. I forgot my destination and even my reason for being there. The mere act of walking became purpose, and brought with it a soft glowing inner happiness. If that is zen, I can tell you it doesn’t lead to any blinding epiphanies. But over time, and interspersed with conversation and reflection, nebulous inklings and feelings solidify until they become amazingly clear; you come to understand yourself.

I had a fascinating conversation with a grain farmer. He spoke with revulsion about the “fake farmers” who raise battery hens on growth hormones. A true farmer has reverence and pride in what he grows, he doesn’t defile nature in the pursuit of money. This farmer was unexpectedly positive about wind turbines, and suggested that many farmers are actually jealous of them- energy companies pay several grand a year for each turbine on your property and they require no maintenance. He aggressively told me to wash my mouth out when I asked whether any of his crops were genetically modified. He had an ideological hatred for Monsanto which seemed to transcend the necessity for rational explanation. It’s a sentiment often voiced even by liberals, and something I find particularly frustrating as a geneticist. Having had a vague background in pest management, I asked out of curiosity which insecticides the farmer uses. This was a mistake and caused him to clamp right up. I wish I knew how I’d offended him.

On the seventh night we formed a sharing circle around the campfire and opened up about why we were here. I’ve never felt closer to a group of people. I wish I could repeat everyone’s stories here in detail, but sadly it’s not my place. I hope though their owners keep finding the courage to tell them.

It came out that many in the group had gone through true hardship. Someone had been in the CFA and had their first call-out during the Black Saturday bushfires. They experienced first-hand the unapproachable heat of that inferno and saw the devastation of everything in the community afterwards- the land, the homes, the people. Someone had been the victim of police brutality; someone else had spent time in Kenya helping AIDS sufferers. We heard from a civil engineer who’d left his job in the coal industry two years ago because he could no longer live with the moral compromise. Others had left jobs for similar reasons. Several people had gone through periods of despair, anger, even clinical depression, brought on by the magnitude of fighting climate change and the sense of isolation. A father in the group brought up that it takes a whole community to raise a child, and that’s when it hit me: we were a community. I looked around at the fire-lit faces, most of which I’d never seen prior to this walk, and realised that I trusted and cared for them all, would fight for them. Together, we were the remedy to our problems. We needed each other, and now here we were. It was an incredible feeling.

That same night, hearing everyone’s most private moments, I kept asking myself: why? Why why why, why am I here? Utilitarian rationalism wasn’t a good enough answer. People’s stories about family got me thinking about my own and especially my mother. She was the one who had taken me when I was still in high school to see An Inconvenient Truth; the film that had opened my eyes and finally given me a cause. I’d always credited that film with changing my life, but just then something deep inside me cracked, and I realised I’d been missing a crucial point all this time. It wasn’t just the film; it was also my mother, the person who had taken me there, who’d sacrificed so much to raise me and who had instilled me with her values.

Suddenly I could see her from decades ago, from long before I was born, when she was still an activist with Friends of the Earth, fighting passionately in the Save the Whales campaign. At the time it was the most important issue for my mother- something which didn’t directly affect her in the slightest. Despite this, despite it being a different species, it was worthwhile.

Maybe I’d just answered my altruism question.
It was as simple as compassion.
If you have compassion, or can be taught it, the rest falls into place.

And then I knew why I’d come there, to that dark farm in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t because Al Gore had told me to. It was because my beautiful mother had taught me to care beyond myself. She was getting older now, but I had taken up the torch and would carry on her same struggle with everything I had.

As the airport comes into sight I glance down and catch sight of a scar on my pinky that I got on the second day. The support vehicle had blown a tyre and I scratched myself on the shredded wire inside. Who knew tyres have wire in them? I watch the sodium lights play across my tanned arms and wonder whether this time it’s real, or just more engrained dirt and sweat and sunscreen that will wash off in the shower.

It’s going to be difficult reintegrating into society. I’ll have to keep reminding myself that in the real world it’s not acceptable to casually urinate on a bush in broad daylight. Nor is it the done thing to poke at a friend’s wound, or enthusiastically discuss your bowel movements- although, on that note, there’s something weirdly satisfying about digging your own hole to poo in and covering it afterwards. Cats are definitely on to something. I’ve toyed wistfully these past few days with the idea of quitting my job. I can’t see how I’ll be able to endure it now that I’ve experienced something that feels so real and meaningful. I’m trying to remind myself that everyone has to work a job to get by and you’re damn lucky if it’s not menial. Similarly, now that I’ve met so many amazing like-minded people, I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep my values to myself as I’ve done for years. How can I explain to my work colleagues or friends what this experience meant? Apathetic selfishness will once again infuriate me.

I suppose the feelings from this walk will fade over time as I return to normality once more. But whatever happens, I vow to keep a secret flame going inside me, for my new family, and for the journey we shared.