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I’ve been looking through the posts from the last seven years to find references to the great Australian blight and although I am positive they must have landed in various posts, they did not do so with the appropriate tag. That is a pity. Summer has not officially found its way to these shores, but a few days of heat and sunshine inevitably bring out the number one Australian irritant, one which never earns a mention in any tourist videos or brochures– flies.

The Australian fly population exploded with the introduction of domesticated animals brought over from European stock. In Europe and Africa, insects called dung beetles co-evolved with cattle, pigs, sheep and horses. Given enough time, these handy little bugs manage to bury or remove the solid remains of the animals’ digestive systems, breaking down ubiquitous piles of poop into useful fertilizer. The settlers who brought over all the domestic animals had little or no knowledge of dung beetles, and even when their importance to the ecosystem was recognized, many of the beetles imported from the home country simply refused to survive in the Australian outback long enough to do their job.

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“The Australian grasslands were profoundly disturbed by the arrival of domestic stock. Prior to that the nutrient cycling is thought to have functioned smoothly in that the dung of the principal herbivores, the marsupials, was relatively unimportant and probably never accumulated in polluting quantities. A portion of the marsupial dung was buried by the native dung beetles. This burial speeded up decomposition and returned essential nutrients to the soil.

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“Dung beetles, or coprids, are highly specialised insects. Most of them are adapted to dung from the particular kinds of animals that are endemic to their region…..Pastures and rangelands in Australia are polluted with cattle dung at the rate of some 350-450 million pads each day….Unburied dung is the principal breeding site of two of Australia’s most important live stock fly pests; the ubiquitous and obnoxious bushfly …. and the tropical, block-sucking buffalo fly….”

from the Australian Dung beetle project 1965-1975 Dr. G. F. Bornemissza, CSIRO

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All of that to say there is a fly problem. The flies around here are slow and stupid, somewhat suicidal, and in certain parts of Australia the numbers are simply overwhelming. Even in the city, strollers can be frequently seen waving their hands in front of their faces. This is known to every Aussie as the Australian salute. Here’s an excerpt from one post I wrote about a bike ride on the day of the running of the Melbourne Cup.

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The flies are particularly fierce this time of year. Aussie flies have evolved with virtually no Darwinian sense of self preservation. They do not fly away when you start swatting, simply renew the attack from a different angle. Kamikazes of the insect world. Perhaps the horses here run so fast simply to leave flies behind.

I have seen people literally covered with flies. Any sign of sweat is an open invitation to land on the body for a free ride, wherever one happens to be going. You would think that a country with an obvious and overwhelming problem would have fly swatter stands on every high street selling the very best fly swatters money can buy, with twisted titanium backbones and plates of finely-woven mesh.

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Think again. I happen to be within walking distance of a hardware store that rivals the Pentagon in size and assortment. It could serve as a hanger for maintenance work on a Dreamliner. It is a small cog in a huge chain of hardware stores called “Bunnings.” The centre aisle has a long, elegant escalator offering access to the second story. In a section of the store loaded with deadly chemicals, they have one small box of “flyswats,” as they are called here. Made in China $1.86. They might be useful for scaring flies to death, triggering tiny little heart attacks, but they are not exactly the tool you want to kill the buggers. You need something with a steel backbone, something with stopping power, a FLYSWATTER. I have taken some trouble searching for one. Get real, they tell me. What would you want that for?

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Want to know the reason almost all Australians all live in cities? Think about it. Down Under, flies lord it over everyone, me included.

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I have picked up books on Buddhism over the years, starting with Alan Watt’s “The Way of Zen.” I was in my early twenties when I bought that, living as a student in Paris, haunting “Shakespeare and Company” across from Notre Dame. It was a wonderful, quixotic bookstore, the kind of place where serendipitous connections could come about just by turning a corner or letting your eyes shift from one shelf to another. It was a privilege to have met George Whitman and roamed Paris when it was beautiful but also affordable. I remember being attracted to the tenets of Buddhism, which spoke to me in a way that Christianity did not.

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That interest led to a bookshelf laden with texts and the beginning of a dabbling interest in meditation, but no further. Until this last weekend. At various times in my life I have chosen to sit in on meditation courses in diverse places. The first happened while we were living in Hong Kong, some sixteen years ago. I met someone who was a regular practitioner and he agreed to start a small group that met one evening a week over the course of six or eight weeks. He always asked for feedback after each session and I remember being stunned to learn that one of my fellow meditators had used the entire time to plan a menu for a dinner party. She was completely unapologetic about it; she had a busy life and to her this seemed a good use of the time she had carved out for “practice.”

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I finally decided that I wanted regular meditation in my life about a year and a half ago. I used a kitchen timer to start with, but I discovered a wonderful Ap called the Insight Timer. It has a selection of bells that you can use to help establish a regular practice. You can keep a journal, connect with others around the world and it automatically keeps stats. I have meditated 661 times for a total of 328 hours since I started using my IPod as a timer. I’m not interested in stats, but I love the sound of the bell at the end of a meditation.

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Over the long weekend that ended on November 5th with the the “race that stops the nation-” the Melbourne Cup, I attended a silent meditation retreat in the foothills of the Dandenongs. It was led by Jaya Ashmore, a compatriot who seems to be as peripatetic as I am. Check out the website at opendharma.org where you can hear and see her yourself.

Two dozen participants arrived and settled in, filling out a simple form, meeting the welcoming “managers,” Mitra and Anton, and Jaya if we were newcomers. We chose or were assigned chores, then unloaded our packs in the dormitory area. The retreat began to take shape when the schedule was posted and we all dropped into silence. It is odd, but not discomforting to go without words. Much of our communication is nonverbal anyway. Silence eliminates pretence and posturing, self-justification and meaningless verbal attempts to find a common ground.

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From the Open Dharma website: “To bring about a culture of awakening, we offer teachings on a donation basis and rely on volunteer staff. Breaking the mold of meditation as a competitive sitting practice, we encourage people to try lying down for meditation and to play with meditative singing while in silence. Rather than promoting short-lived spiritual fireworks, we cultivate long-term friendships. We also continually experiment with different formats for teachings and retreats with the aim of bringing love and wisdom into “real” life.”

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Below is a typical schedule, but that does not really begin to convey what happened, or more importantly, didn’t happen, what dropped away.

06:00 wake up

06:30 connected movement

07:15 rest

07:30 meditation in the hall

08:15 breakfast

09:15 meditation in action (duties)

10:00 rest

10:15 meditation in the hall with instructions

11:15 walking meditation (and some group interviews)

12:00 meditation in the hall (and some group interviews)

12:45 lunch and rest

15:45 meditation in the hall (sometimes guided)

16:30 walking meditation

17:15 teachings

18:15 walking meditation

19:00 light supper

20:00 meditation in the hall

20:30 optional meditative singing

21:00 rest or further individual practice

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The group was diverse, but drew heavily from a younger, female population. Most of the women seemed to have acquired at least some of their clothes in India or an Indian shop. It struck me as odd that we make every attempt to fit in, no matter what the context. The clothing was colourful and shape shifting. Everyone had a knit cap, which proved useful on the colder mornings. Going naked would have removed the last vestige of convention and freed us from our tendency to hide in our clothes. Buddhist Nudists. It has a ring to it, don’t you think?

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In addition to the hours of meditation, there were inspiring talks, healthy, wholesome meals, chants and what Jaya calls “connected movement,” which I found absolutely fascinating. Who knows what your skeleton can do until your close your eyes and find out. There was the music of the birds and the long, slow climb up to the clearing, the rich poetry of Wendell Berry. There was ample opportunity to rest and open up, connect and see, perhaps for the first time, some of the residual pain within that has left scars on the emotional core, kept us trapped in a carapace like Kafka’s cockroach. There was the promise of healing.

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When you are chanting along in Sanskrit and you learn that the words can be translated as– He who has a vagina can give birth to himself, you can’t help but smile.

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