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27 October 2021

Thomas Keneally on climate loss: Midwinter Sydney days reach 24°C, and I dream of glacial mornings

In the bush town where I started school, the dairy farmer’s kids had chilblains in winter. The chilblains are gone now.

By Thomas Keneally

In my far-off childhood, Australians were in part still misplaced Europeans who sometimes found it hard to adjust to the mysteries of season and topography and climate. Our view on what all that should be was still based on European film, art and literature. I miss the pre-global warming winter, which provided just enough variable light and cold to give us an inkling of what Keats meant by “seasons of mist and mellow fruitfulness”.

In trips to Britain and Ireland, I found the great foggy overcast which my Cork forebears and sisters shared with the English was somehow familiar and welcome to the soul. Australians aren’t meant to say this, but an old Australian like me must admit it: sometimes, Mother Earth, we get wearied or even a little gorged by blatant Sydney summer days, and dream of subtle mornings when the 9am temperature is a glacial 16°C, and we can put on our puffer jackets and warn our children of hypothermia.

In Australia’s extensive Alps – the ones Europeans know bugger all about – it was once easy to ski from Perisher to Charlotte Pass in New South Wales, through vivid snow gums and ground that seems to beg for fir or aspens. But pine-less! Because the Australian landscape never misses an opportunity to remind you, “You’re not in some low-rent version of Europe. You’re in bloody Australia, mate!”

[see also: Richard Flanagan on climate loss: Tasmanian tigers are lost to us now – and the rainforests they roamed could go the same way]

The problem being that now midwinter days in Sydney can reach 23-24°C. Much nuance, much moderation is gone. Old sods my age swim kilometres in the open sea from Shelly to Manly beach on such days, and others walk their ten kilometres in shirtsleeves and a bright morning. Greeting each other in this Amalfi Coast weather, we say, “We’ll pay for this come the summer”. And we do.

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In the bush town where I started school, the dairy farmer’s kids had chilblains in winter. The chilblains are gone now, and even in the winter the fires that will consume the headlands seem too close already.

Thomas Keneally is the author of “Schindler’s Ark” and “The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith”

This article is from our “What we lost” series. Read more reflections from our writers here.

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