Review: Signs And Wonders by Delia Falconer

Climate scientists have a word for when changes to weather patterns statistically become distinct from the past, they call it “departure“. It’s one of those wonky scientific terms that’s oddly evocative of the ways that the planet is getting strange, leaving behind the brief stability of the Holocene and taking us with it. Departure implies change, wonder and loss, a moment of old meanings cast aside and new ones to be discovered. In the 13 essays in this collection, Delia Falconer attempts to wrestle with those meanings. “Can the stories we are used to telling still sustain themselves?” she wonders. “Can feelings forged in a more stable age help us to try to look after our world or carry us into an unthinkable future?”

Falconer has lived through the decades when it became undeniable that people (or, at least, a certain way that people live) are having a global and catastrophic impact on the Earth’s environment. Just look at a graph of any measure of our impact — plastic pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, land clearing, mobile phones, reality TV shows (presumably) —in the exponential rise at the end of the 20th century you can see why some have called this time the Great Acceleration.

In the title essay that begins this collection, also published on the Sydney Review Of Books, Falconer explores how the evidence of this change is becoming all too obvious, prompted by her awareness that the fish she used to watch in Sydney Harbour had disappeared. She catalogues the appearance of animals in odd places, and the emergence of things that have disappeared a long time ago like mammoth calves from melting permafrost or the hunger stones that emerged in drought-stricken German rivers. To live now, she writes, is to live in a permanent state of self-questioning, “another sign of disorder, or a souvenir of a joyful chance event?”

Falconer follows this line of questioning through the collection, in contemplations on coal, birds and dinosaurs, gum trees and the arrival of a seal in the park near her home in Sydney. Three diaries record her observations during the two most recent experiences of “global disarrangement”, the Black Summer fires of 2019-2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic. Another three essays contemplate how global change might be affecting the way we tell stories, whether the typography of paragraphs, or the proliferating naming of objects in writing, or the genre of “hysterical realism”. In these Falconer finds the fulcrum of our times, the departure from normal, in the September 11 terrorist attacks. It’s a curious analysis. The Great Acceleration began many decades before (indeed one start date for the Anthropocene is the 1950s) and the moment when everyone everywhere all at once seemed to be talking about climate change happened more recently. However there’s a compelling idea here; I remember in 2004 National Geographic putting climate change on the cover, a harbinger of its emergence into the Anglophere’s public consciousness.

There is some fine nature writing and careful observation throughout Signs And Wonders, burned koalas with their “heads on chests like old men, backs against the base of tree trunks, as if they have simply given up”; russet flying-foxes with the bellies “the same red-brown as the velvet inside a banksia pod”. Overall Signs And Wonders is characterised by its wistfulness, a turning backwards to simpler times; wandering the quiet streets of Sydney during the pandemic lockdown Falconer contemplates the world with 2 billion fewer people. Where it succeeds is evoking the vibes of the times, the aching and yearning, the grief and awe. There is not so much analysis of the political and economic structures that have led us to this point.

The exception is Falconer’s pointed critique of “glamour” across two essays. One begins with her returning to John Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez logbook, the other, joltingly, is an aesthetic analysis of the TV series CSI. Glamour, for Falconer, is the epitome of consumerism, a nexus of beauty, celebrity and false abundance that everyone can buy a bit of. “Our most powerful and fatal fiction,” she writes, “the one that kills us all”. Glamour is distraction, “a kind of violence that beautifies the deathly comet tail of endless consumption it trails behind”. Although we should be wary of analysis that positions individual consumers as the primary actors in addressing global change, it is undeniable that in Western nations we are using way too much stuff. Middle class Australians are among the worst offenders; if everyone lived as we did we’d need 4.5 Earths to sustain our consumption.

Glamour, Falconer points out, is the verb used by vampires in the series True Blood to describe their bewitchment of victims, and it is an apposite description of the affect of brands, advertising, marketing and PR. In its distractions Falconer finds the roots of many contemporary ills, from the rise of populism to climate denial (although ironically she ignores the way fossil fuel companies have “glamoured” us with decades of deliberate doubt-mongering around climate science). “Dying … can be very beautiful”; we’re in “the charismatic phase of environmental collapse” Falconer concludes, but as this critique suggests, we become distracted by these signs and wonders at our peril.

Gay rating: not gay.


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