From Essays from Near and Far


The Nature of Death

In Spanish, recordar means to remember. Recordar comes from the Latin ´re´ (return) and ´cordum´ (the heart) – ´returning to the heart.´ Memory is more than a collection of dead people, dead feelings and dead moments. We remember to keep things alive, to recognize that they still have a place in the present, to trump death.

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A Tale of Two Mines

Isidro, though only eighteen years of age, was the leader of our group on account of having worked in the mine for eight years. I had to pinch myself. Here I was, close to five thousand metres above sea level, in Potosí, Bolivia, with no experience, working as a miner inside the notorious ´Mountain that eats men alive´. It is a world where as many as eight million Andean Indians have died since the Spanish discovered its silver in 1545, and where the average life of a miner today, is thirty-eight years of age. Six months later, I spent a day at a ´comparative´ mine in Rosebery, Tasmania, to see how a miner´s life in Australia differs to the lives of those working underground in one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

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Unyielding Imagination

It is often said that without the rule of law humanity would descend into chaos. This is perhaps true, but it is not laws themselves that keep people from such chaos. More fundamental to cohesive humanity are hope and empathy.

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Austral Reflections

Tasmania and Patagonia, which encompasses the southern latitudes of Chile and Argentina, are long separated Gondwanan sisters. Gondwana, the ancient supercontinent, once contained most of today’s southern hemisphere land masses. But the sisterhood goes so much deeper…

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Ch’alla to the Women of Potosí

Cerro Rico is famed for the harsh conditions faced by its miners. But, as James Dryburgh discovers, it is not only men who are ‘rock-breakers’ in Bolivia’s Potosí region. Women too, some as old as 81, work in the shadow of the sacred mountain.

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Chico’s Story

Surrounded by horror, Chico escaped El Salvador in the early eighties and was eventually granted refugee status in Australia. As I look at my surroundings, I wonder what makes someone leave twenty-five years of comfort, safety and luxury in Australia to come back to a poverty stricken country that killed most of his family. Dripping with sweat, and caked in dust that feels like it could still be settling from the civil war, I begin our conversation.

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Those eyes have not seen sadness or horror, only love, care and adoration. They look up, so innocent to the world that will soon begin to infuse those tiny oceans. I dream of keeping them pure, uncontaminated, but no ocean can remain wilderness. I hope to be a competent guide on his journey and a loving place of refuge whenever he needs it.

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Brighton’s Open Hand

The Tasmanian Mail of 10 January 1885 described the Brighton district as an open hand. Bridgewater was the end of the wrist, Brighton Plains the palm, Dromedary the thumb, and Broadmarsh, Bagdad Valley, Tea Tree and Old Beach formed the four fingers. The hand remains today, albeit with a few more lines on the skin. For thousands of years the area was a meeting point and hunting ground for Aboriginal tribes. These hunting grounds would later save Australia’s starving early settlers. Last century, as the world shook, Brighton became a homely prison to Italian prisoners of war and offered a new life for Polish refugees. In 1999, the municipality became a temporary refuge for Kosovars fleeing the Balkans war, and most recently it’s been home to asylum seekers, mostly from Afghanistan, also fleeing persecution and war. This latest chapter came to a close earlier this year and offers a point of reflection on Brighton’s metaphorical open hand.

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by Pete Hay

James stands in the counter tradition, the Enlightenment tradition that mandates the hard light of fearless critique. We should all read this book. To do so is to encounter a prose of power and a fearless critical intelligence.

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Launch Speech – Essays from Near and Far

Good evening, or as they say in France, Bon Jovi. What do you say at launch your first book? I’ve been to a couple and most people say why they wrote the book, ramble on for a while and then thank people. I’ll go with that. But first please indulge me. I want you to be someone else for two minutes… Read more… 



An Act of Creation

“in the history of humankind, every act of destruction meets its response sooner or later, in an act of creation.”

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The Hat

“The Hat is a place of initiation from boyhood to manhood, of brotherhood, respect and mutual care. A place where the human world and the natural world merge, and sadly, a place of life and death. It is a place that has helped shape my life and the life of others.”

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Mother nature needs her daughters

“Perhaps then, a more peaceful and sustainable world would be more likely to come in to being if there was a more feminine approach to power, decision-making and our interactions with the planet and with each other. The creators of Homeward Bound believe so and they are doing something about it.”

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“Our Rarest Human Asset”

“All the talk is about jobs and growth, jobs and growth, when what we should be talking about is de-growth and defining jobs that are meaningful into existence. If we want to have a planet and a reasonable life in future we’ve got to do that. It’s pretty hard to see how our present society is going to survive, it’s just not possible. We need to go into a de-growth stage. We need to recognise that jobs are social fantasies, they’re not real things. We need to reduce our economic activity as much as we can to those activities – like square dancing – that don’t use any resources.” And there’s that roar of laughter again.

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The Balfour Correspondent

Balfour is a ghost town, which is fitting, for I come in search of a ghost – the ghost of Sylvia McArthur.

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Australia: Becoming the “Other”

James Dryburgh explores the rise of the “Other” in Australian political discourse.

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A Tale of Two Islands

The environment shapes people, particularly when they must have a close and dependent relationship with it, and it was Norfolk Island’s environment that shaped a large proportion of Tasmania’s earliest settlers.

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Green Shoots of Hope

James Dryburgh reports on how recent collaborative efforts to save the Critically Endangered Norfolk Island Green Parrot are proving to be a great success—and it’s not just the parrots that are benefitting.

With endemic vegetation gradually reclaiming Phillip Island and the not-too-distant prospect of the Green Parrot arriving too, it is possible to imagine that with a few more years of good work, a flourishing ecosystem and travel destination can be achieved: something akin to the Galapagos, but where travellers visit less to witness Darwinism than to experience a unique environment that was miraculously brought back to life.

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Souvenirs of Replacement

This article, first published in Tasmania 40 South, is the second in a two part series. The first article explores mementos of migration, loss and homelands through the stunning work of Tasmanian artist Elizabeth Lada Gray with Tasmanian migrants. This article explores Gray’s follow-up project: the souvenirs migrants sought out when, often decades later, they eventually visited their Motherland.

The object’s story reflects the complexity and flux of their owner’s story. They attempt to defeat homelessness, reminding the migrant owner that in their mind, there is an alternative to homelessness – to have more than one home.

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Mementos of Displacement

This article, first published in Tasmania 40 South, explores mementos of migration, loss and homelands through the stunning work of Tasmanian artist Elizabeth Lada Gray with Tasmanian migrants.

They remind us of the countless stories we don’t hear, the mementos lost and forgotten, and the plight of today’s refugees – the stories being written as you read this. Mementos remind us that even though in recent times the sound of its beating has been muffled, within Australia there is a generous heart that has offered hope for thousands of diverse people fleeing despair.

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Green Shoots In Latin America

First published on New Matilda. Brazil goes to the polls this weekend, and the outcome could influence the global enivronmental movement for decades to come. James Dryburgh explains.

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On the Abolition of All Political Parties

What would the Australian political landscape look like in the absence of political parties?
Island asked a number of Australia’s more thoughtful commentators to respond, as an act of political imagination, to this very question. The question was inspired by this interview with Simon Leys regarding his translation of Simone Weil’s 1943 tract, On the Abolition of All Political Parties.

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Walking in the footsteps of Archbishop Romero

David Rodriguez was a catholic priest. In the early eighties he took up arms and led guerrilla fighters during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. Today he is a member of parliament. This is his story.

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Potosí: Tribute to a city and a work of art

I gaze up at Tasmanian artist Bobby-z´s tribute to the people of the mines, then look past it to the conical hill that for over 460 years, has given humanity so much, and yet taken so much away. Millions of Andean Indians were swallowed by ´´the Mountain that eats men alive´´. Hollow, but still standing at 4,860m above sea level, she has not once slept during this time. She is tired, but not exhausted. Today´s dust-coated miners continue to work like ants, extracting minerals from the man-made arteries of their giant nest. Miners and their families continue living in poverty and dying at an alarming rate. This hill has shaped Potosí and its society, but its story also defines the post-Columbus history of Latin America, and indeed, the cruel relationship between rich and poor, the world over.

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Travels without a Donkey: Venezuela

It is important to begin these impressions of Venezuela by explaining that our time in this country, in which we have been lucky enough to get beneath the surface, has confirmed suspicions that 90 per cent of what we hear about Venezuela in Australia is utter nonsense. It’s not in the paper it is on the wall…

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El Salvador: Truth and justice still denied

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the murder of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed on March 24, 1980 by one of El Salvador’s infamous government-backed “death squads”. The passing of another anniversary raises the issue of whether the war is now a closed chapter or whether the pursuit of truth and justice remains relevant as the country seeks to move forward.

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The Radical Rationalist, Anote Tong

James Dryburgh explores one man’s vision for the future of a low-lying nation in the face of potentially catastrophic climate impacts.

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Tsionawit Gebre-Yohannes

Tsionawit is passionate about the power of social research and hopes that better knowledge will lead to more informed decisions… But it’s also clear that her motivation includes a desire to allow people to stand in these women’s shoes; to create understanding of why Ethiopian women do this; to redress the under-exploration of the voices of African women.

“I always had a sense of owing due to the good fortune of being able to move to Tasmania and receive a good education. As a young African woman, I have a privileged position. I have the power to do things – to justify my existence.”

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Julian Burnside QC

Julian Burnside is one of Australia’s most renowned barristers and has appeared in many high profile cases, including acting against the Australian Government over the Tampa episode. For an hour, we discussed language and law, art and asylum.

“Well, I’ve always thought Conservatives embraced fundamental ethical notions, like decent treatment and so on. I may be wrong about that, but that’s my impression. I think the fundamental issue with asylum seekers isn’t actually about politics, it’s about ethics, it’s about simple human decency. It’s got tangled up in politics because Howard demonstrated that it could be exploited for political gain. But the issue, the problem that needs to be dealt with is, above all, an ethical problem.”

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Omar bin Musa

Omar bin Musa is a poet, hip hop artist, novelist (Here Come the Dogs) and all round good bloke. Described as writing with “swaggering exuberance” by Irvine Welsh and “tough and tender, harsh and poetic, raw and beautiful” by Christos Tsiolkas.

“I think because poetry is as essential to human experience as breath or blood. I think because we’re taught oftentimes to express ourselves in a really limited number of ways, particularly as young men I think, you know, expressing ourselves through sport or violence or material things, and I think it just provides another facet – a productive and positive way of expressing yourself and telling a story.

And the world’s just better with it – isn’t it?”

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Ingrid Betancourt

Ingrid was a presidential candidate for Colombia in 2002 when she was captured by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). She then spent the next six and a half years as a prisoner in various parts of the Amazonian jungle, despite several attempts at escape. Some of this time involved months at a time of marching through the jungle to keep ahead of the Colombian Army, whilst at other times Ingrid was chained by her neck to a tree. The fight for the freedom of Ingrid and her fellow prisoners was global with Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela emerging as key players.

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Martin Lynch

Martin Lynch has been one of the leading playwrights in Northern Ireland for around 30 years. Martin authored the Chronicles of Long Kesh – the story of the infamous prison camp outside Belfast.

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Enrique Peñalosa

Former mayor of Bogota, recent presidential candidate in Colombia, Enrique argues that “the great city is not one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can go safely everywhere.”

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Charles Parkinson on Stage

I have come to interview Charles Parkinson, Artistic Director of the Tasmanian Theatre Company, to hear about his vibrant career and discuss theatre and the state of the arts in Tasmania, but somehow we are talking about Churchill and Roosevelt. Churchill – as Charles reminds me – because it was reported that when Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he replied, “Then what are we fighting for?” Roosevelt, because when he created The New Deal, one of the things he invested in heavily was theatre.

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David Rodriguez: ‘You must be with the people’

David Rodriguez was a priest who, in the early 1980s took up arms and led guerrilla fighters during the civil war between the FMLN and the US-backed military dictatorship. Today, he is a member of parliament in El Salvador.

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Stories & Other Things

Weary Birds

A little story-ish thing.

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