Late last year, just before Christmas, I went to visit my grandparents in Melbourne. It's about a 12-hour drive, if I remember correctly. For a painfully long time after passing through Dubbo, the road is perfectly straight and flat, with nothing but fields of various crops on either side.
We arrived in Melbourne after sunset, perhaps 9pm. The first noticeable indications of life ahead were the distant lights of the city. The city itself was obscured by a hillside, but the lights were visible in the sky, scattered by a thin cloud. It was truly amazing, that even without fog or heavy clouds the outer suburbs were no dimmer in the sky than a rampant bushfire. That was enough to have me feeling a bit down.
The highway passes some strange modern architectural art, a light industrial zone, some expensive apartment buildings, and then crosses a large bridge, the name of which I don't know. This bridge is a pretty standard bridge, with three or four sets of supporting pillars that extend upwards from the bridge's surface; appearing as monolithic white towers on each side of the road. These pillars are lit by floodlights at night, and that was what was so very saddening.
Around the pillars, shining and illuminated when they needn't be, were hundreds of Seagulls, flying in languid circles.
Around and around
For whatever reason they remained in the light, circling the pillars all through the night. I wondered where Seagulls usually go at night, where they sleep, but I still don't know. They seemed drawn to the glowing cement as Moths are to a flame, but we don't feel much compassion for Moths, do we? I suppose that the closer something comes to being human, the more we feel for it, and seeing those birds was too close for me. Would they leave before the sunrise? I don't know.
I suppose that it takes a single event to sum up all of the feelings you've kept inside, kept even from yourself, and to make them something more substantial in your mind. Then they can stand out from the white noise made of thousands of scattered images and words in your head. For me those restless birds were the perfect symbol for all of the deforestation, oil spills, carbon emissions and vanishing glaciers that should have worried me for years before.
I kept thinking about it for the next week in Melbourne, but only told one person about it: my grandfather. I described it to him in great detail, and he simply said, "Oh yes, they're there every night. Damn nuisance, they are." Since then I've tried to keep my personal moral dilemmas to myself.
I came to realise that there was another side of the whole affair that I hadn't considered. I could clearly see the effect, but what of the cause? Why bother illuminating a huge cement pylon with floodlights all night anyway? Are we so vain that we need to admire our own accomplishments at every turn? Or are we so insecure that we need to be constantly reminded of those accomplishments, whatever they may be? I know it's human nature to seek and admire grandeur, but surely we should care more about what is rational than what is impressive.
Perhaps if I were a beach-goer I would harbour more contempt for the "rats of the sky", but it just amazes me that we take these things in stride.