I grew up in a small Tasmanian mining town on the edge of immensity: one of the last great temperate rainforests in the world. What remains is today known as the Tarkine.
In 1966, aged five, I was asleep in the family car as we were driving the muddy track that was the only road out through the Tarkine’s primeval forests. As we made our circuitous way into Hellyer Gorge, the car slewed to a halt. I awoke to find my parents outside searching in the weak glow of the headlights for the Tasmanian tiger – even then a mythical creature – that had just crossed the car’s path.
The last-known tiger – a wolf-like marsupial with the striping of a tiger and a pouch in which it carried its pups – had died in a zoo in the capital Hobart in 1936, but sightings such as my parents’ in remote wildlands continued for a few decades. Thylacinus cynocephalus was declared officially extinct in 1982. So much of the world from my childhood has gone with it that it sometimes feels as if some nameless, unremarked revolution swept it all away.
Yet unlike in many other places, just enough remains in Tasmania to remind me that we live in the great autumn of things. In the bushland next to my home I still see swift parrots, of which less than a thousand – one study puts it at less than 300 – are left in Australia. Forty-spotted pardalotes, birds little bigger than moths and numbering in their hundreds, still drink in the gutters of what was my writing shack on Bruny Island.
The smooth handfish was declared extinct in summer last year, the first marine fish species in modern history to be so. And a few bays from where I write, its cousin, the red handfish – an ancient species with punk-rocker looks – is down to less than a hundred adults, its existence imperilled by salmon farming, which has already driven another species, the Maugean skate, to the brink of extinction.
The salmon are fed, among other things, soy, transported across the world from plantations established in what were once South American rainforests. This destruction in South America drives global heating which in turn drives the destruction of Tasmania’s globally unique rainforests – including the Tarkine –which, already reduced by logging and mining, are now warming, drying and beginning to burn.
When I started writing, I wrote tales of cities and crowds and loneliness, the great tropes of European modernism. Every word was rubbish. I’d never seen a city or known a crowd and knew nothing of such things.
All I knew was that immensity, unsayable and unwritten. Within it, the measure of things was not man-made and it was not possible to feel alone, but rather struck by being part of something infinite, at once a place of humility and of liberation. Finding words for it was, in one sense, my life’s work and my life’s failure.
It is not just that world we oddly disdain as the non-human – as though somehow we are separate from it – that is vanishing. For what is also being lost is a different, larger way of being human than that propounded by European art and thought. What remains is a growing sense of panic and terror.
It would be for the English as if they were seeing St Paul’s and the Tate and Shakespeare’s works disappearing. It would be as if Lear’s speeches now rained down as ash remnants with the next ember storm, along with the still-glowing fragments of Turner’s canvases, pieces of carbon that turn to powder the moment they are touched.
I write, you see, from the front line of a war about which most in the UK have no idea. Perhaps it is a lost war. But you cannot understand it until it comes to you – until fireballs the size of buses roll down Home County high streets.
Recently I met an official from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I asked what can be done. “It’s simple,” he said. “We need to produce less, and we need to consume less.” He had the odd, fixed smile I associate with the survivors of great trauma. “But that will take a revolution.”
At the edge of immensity, on the cusp of the abyss, one question cries out above all others. It is the question of our age, the only question: are we to begin – or end?
Richard Flanagan won the 2014 Booker Prize for “The Narrow Road to the Deep North”. His most recent novel is “The Living Sea of Waking Dreams”