A Magical Evening With Mem – A Real Gem!

Two books by Mem Fox.jpg

When an invitation from our local federal member, Mark Dreyfus QC appeared in a Facebook newsfeed, I didn’t hesitate and replied straight away. 

It was no ordinary invite from a politician. Not a party political event or publicising an election campaign, but a delightful opportunity to meet and greet and have a Q&A with Australian writer and children’s author, Mem Fox.

Wow! (Said with the expression of a groupie.)

Convenient because it was happening at Doyles Hotel, Mordialloc – and exciting – there are few families in Australia who haven’t heard of Possum Magican iconic picture storybook, which still sells today!

When I congratulated Mark on the event he gave all credit to his electorate officer,  Jacob Chacko who works in his Mordialloc office. Well done, Jacob who also did a great job as the emcee that evening.


Few Australian homes would not have one of Mem’s books on a shelf – she’s written over 40, and more than half are international bestsellers. 

For those wishing to write children’s books, the advice on Mem’s website, an excellent resource, but perhaps her best advice delivered that evening was for would-be writers to envisage the target audience sitting on the floor in front of them.

If the children fidget with their shoelaces, stare out the window or start being naughty your story needs editing and revising!

Remember you are writing for children today, not writing a book you read as a child, nor writing a book to be read by adults because they think that’s what children should read!


the crowd for Mem Fox
an eager crowd – mainly women but also some men


My daughters are 31 and 28 years old now and treasure many of the books from childhood, especially Mem’s. Like so many in the audience (almost 300) I cheerfully queued to have my daughters’ books signed and have a chat.


Mem is a writer I admire for her books, but also her views on social justice, evident in her latest picture storybook, I’m Australian Too. A book she wrote to celebrate Australia’s incredible multicultural heritage and which sold out in its first three months (March-May 2017) and has been reprinted.

I love the recommended readership for the book – for readers aged 0-95.


Ambassador for Literacy

Mem is also ‘an educationalist specialising in literacy,’ and although retired, she was Associate Professor of Literacy Studies at Flinders University, South Australia, where she taught teachers for 24 years. 

She now spends most of her time writing presentations urging parents, teachers, and others to read aloud to children aged between 0-5, and she travels the world doing it. We were lucky to have in her Isaacs on her current tour travelling Australia promoting literacy and the importance of reading.

We should also thank Melinda Shelley of 123Read2Me who is currently collecting children’s books to give to those kids who don’t have them. I think she was the one who invited Mem to visit Victoria.

If you have quality children’s books in good condition please drop them off at The Lions Club Opportunity Shop in Mordialloc Main Street and Melinda will find them a good home.

Mark and Mem.jpg

In her talk and answers to questions from Mark and the audience, Mem was entertaining (she did study drama) along with giving good advice about writing and teaching literacy.

Although born in Melbourne, Mem grew up in Africa, attended drama school in England, and returned to Australia in 1970, aged 22. Along came marriage and motherhood and attending university as a mature age student in her early thirties.

She studied children’s literature at Flinders University and during that course, she wrote the first draft of her first book: Possum Magic, as an assignment. Mem said she was inspired to write a book about Australia for Australian children because at that time books were either from the USA or UK, or written like those books.

Possum Magic was rejected nine times over five years because it was ‘too Australian’!

It went on to become (and continues to be, to this day) the best-selling children’s book in Australia, with nearly 5 million copies sold. In 2004 its 21st birthday was celebrated with parties and events in thousands of schools and other places around Australia, and a new re-designed edition was launched. The colours of the original film of the illustrations were fading because it had been reprinted so many times. They now look gorgeous again.

Mem Fox

Mem explained the inspiration for some of her other books. There was one she wrote in her head, sitting daily beside her grandson’s incubator when he was born prematurely and struggled to survive. She focused on his perfect fingers and toes and ears. She read to him too and recounting this story she urged mothers to read to children in their womb – it is never too early to read to children.

We laughed when she said she was thrilled her grandson had perfect ears because she had one ear bigger than the other and it juts out.

I loved this anecdote because I have the same affliction. When we chatted afterwards I whispered to her that I shared the imperfection regarding ears and her passion for writing and teaching, just wish I had her talent! We laughed together – and she has a raucous laugh!

Mem confessed she preferred teaching because the writing was a nightmare!

And that I could empathise with too! As do many writers.

dr seuss quote

Her latest book begged to be written because travelling around Australia, she realised the majority of people living here are welcoming and fair-minded yet it is the strident minority of people like Pauline Hanson who seem to dictate the heartless and cruel policies of successive governments against asylum seekers and refugees.

The loud, shrill voices encouraged politicians in our major political parties to act in shameful, illegal ways.  Many people are shocked and say ‘not in our name’ yet because the major parties have similar policies, the human rights abuses continue.

She let Mark Dreyfus know that she was disappointed in the federal ALP policy and he diplomatically asked another question.

The Responsibility of Writers With a Social Conscience

 I happen to have a loud voice myself—I’ve just woken up to the fact—and am now determined to use it, to drown out the others if I can, on behalf of the rest of us.

Mem Fox

 I’m Australian Too, takes Mem back to where she started: her passion for Australia. She hopes it will spark spirited discussions about ‘Australian-ness’, create an awareness of Australian immigration over the centuries, and begin to calm what she says is the appalling rising racism in this country.

There have been amazing positive responses, especially from schools and community centres:

We were so excited to read your book to our wonderfully diverse community of children at the service, who in turn were delighted to finally see and hear their culture represented so beautifully in the book, including the refugees and families seeking asylum, which are often forgotten…


Mem recounted how she had personal experience of feeling ‘the other’ when she lived in Africa (Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) where the authorities pulled her out of a local school because she was white and forced her to attend a European school, where she was bullied and laughed at for ‘speaking like an African’.

Fast forward to February this year (2017)  when she attended a conference in America a few weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and was challenged by Border Control Officers

I was interrogated as if I were some kind of prisoner, in a holding room, in full public view and hearing of everyone in the room—and was kept standing throughout, imagine because I was earning an honorarium from the conference. The Border Control patrol officer said I was ‘working’ and had come in on the wrong visa. He was wrong, as it turned out. I was right. I knew I was right. It was my 117th visit to the USA, after all.

I am ageing and white, innocent and educated, and I speak English fluently. Imagine what happened to the others in the room, including an old Iranian woman in a mauve cardigan, in her 80s, in a wheelchair. I heard and observed everything. We all did…

… the irony of my book being about welcoming immigrants …

… my story has snowballed to include the airing of stories of the many others who have suffered similarly disgraceful treatment by immigration officers makes me proud, even though my telling of the story was neither brave nor purposeful, simply an accident of timing. The focus is where it should be, but the question remains: if this can happen to me as an ageing, educated, articulate, white English speaker, what on earth happens to those who aren’t like me?

What indeed?

Writing For Children Involves Lots of Reading – Especially Other Writers!

students learning by the River Don, Inverurie, Aberdeen

Listening to Mem talk about her teaching, her understanding of children and the deep love and interaction she has with her daughter and grandson was delightful and insightful.

Write from the compost of your own life, feelings, experiences, hopes, joys, disappointments, and so on. If you do that, the reader will be able to connect with your story because it will be based on the authenticity of universal understandings.

She talked about her favourite writers and the importance of learning the craft of writing by appreciating the talent of other writers.

Currently, she was reading Elizabeth Harrower’s novels reprinted by Text Publishing. “Marvellous stories, wonderful writing … check her out…’

She reads a lot of books while travelling around Australia – real books, not digital. If going overseas for a length of time then she’ll have her Kindle because it is convenient and light, but always print books are the first preference.

As an educator, she begged young mums not to put a screen in front of young children or encourage reading on an iPad. The visceral experience of reading a print book with a young child can never be replicated by swiping a screen!


All evening Mem stayed on message: read, read, read – widely and carefully – but don’t forget to support Australian writers and tell modern Australia’s stories. Read to learn as many different ways of using language as possible. (She praised Indian writers who in her opinion, wrote the most grammatically correct English today!)

Write, write, write but know your audience, if writing for children make sure you have the rhythm right, not necessarily to rhyme, but the perfect placement of syllables in a sentence or in verse.

And remember you are telling a story that children can identify with – a little boy who was born in Lebanon shouted for joy when he heard Mem mention “his” birth country in I’m Australian Too.

The free evening was billed as 6.30pm (for 7.00pm start) – 8.30pm. It was closer to 10.00pm when I walked home. I met up with several people I knew from being a school mum (primary and secondary school) and made new acquaintances standing in line waiting to talk with a sociable and chatty Mem who was more than generous with her time.

She signed books yet did not sell one, or have any to sell – this was not a marketing exercise or sales pitch, yet I’m sure she could have sold a box of books to the adoring crowd!

The vibrant atmosphere abuzz with joy, the sharing of stories of when we first read Possum Magic, what other books are favourites, and how thrilling to meet the author in person and have books rather than sport lauded as an Aussie success story.

I left Doyles clutching my signed treasures, satisfied and smiling and laughed aloud because someone had added sunglasses to the horse statue out the front decorated for the up and coming Spring Carnival…

horse outside Doyles

I wonder what stories he/she can tell.


Nothing Poetic About Sacking Climate Scientists!


On Saturday, along with friend and fellow writer, Glenice Whitting, I joined others at the State Library of Victoria to rally against the savage Federal Government cuts to the CSIRO.

Prime Minister , Malcolm Turnbull and his ministers are stripping CSIRO of the funding it needs to continue critical climate research. This latest attack on climate science and environmental research compounds the untold damage already done to public science and our understanding and ability to cope with climate change.

On 4 February, Larry Marshall, the CEO of CSIRO announced a sweeping cultural change and restructure of Australia’s premier research organisation.

The jobs of many scientists will go, ostensibly because a “renewal” of staff was needed to pursue goals of being ‘more innovative, more impactful and aligning more closely with industry.’ This translates as hundreds of jobs lost locally in Kingston, years of important research abandoned or mothballed and homes like mine put at risk because of global warming.

Marshall, a former venture capitalist, said that a “worst case scenario” would see around 350 staff affected. ‘That’s the sort of number of people who will have to adapt, not move on,’ he said. ‘It will be up to them and their abilities if they stay and go.’

In May 2014, 1000 CSIRO staff lost their jobs!

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The CSIRO has built a well-deserved international reputation for world-class science that has contributed much to global understanding of climate change. In a dramatic gesture at the rally, and rolled out like a red carpet, a list of over 3000 scientists from around the world who signed letters of protest about these cuts and offered support for CSIRO scientists. International condemnation of the cuts includes criticism from the New York Times, Former Vice President Al Gore and international diplomat Mary Robinson.

These cuts have achieved unprecedented front page news for Australia across the world and it’s not good news! Not all publicity is good.

Several speakers spoke at the rally, organised by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), CSIRO Staff Association and Australian Youth Climate Coalition. They were introduced by CPSU Assistant National Secretary Michael Tull who called on the Turnbull Government to act immediately and use May’s federal budget to secure the future of CSIRO:

 Australians are deeply concerned at cuts to science and research. If Mr Turnbull won’t fix CSIRO funding in the budget, he should expect the public to seek a solution to the problem on polling day.


  • Iconic Australian actor and activist Samuel Johnson spoke passionately and received the loudest cheers from the crowd.


‘Molly star Samuel Johnson quit acting to raise money for cancer research. His announcement also attacked fundraising cuts to CSIRO, denial of climate science, alternative medicine, and conspiracy theorists who are “stupidly assuming that our scientists would dare allow big pharma to hide their discoveries.

At the rally he joked about being ‘that guy who rode a unicycle’ but his commitment to science research for the public good is unquestionable. After his sister was diagnosed with breast cancer he rode a pink unicycle around Australia to raise money for breast cancer research. It was her third diagnosis since a bone tumour in her leg at age 11 and a tumour in her womb at age 22.

Samuel raised $1.4 million in his first year, that fell to only $800,000 in the second year and $200,000 in 2015, but he promised to raise $10 million for the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. He won’t stop “until we get to that $10M and show those faceless f***ers at the top end of town just how serious we are about research here at ground level.

As someone who has had breast cancer and the recipient of scientific research I too have a personal stake in maintaining the great science for the public good research programs at the CSIRO.

Federal Labor MP Mark Dreyfus QC spoke very well and reiterated many of the points raised at the excellent forum he hosted in Aspendale recently. With the dramatic rise in global temperatures – including the hottest year (2015) on record – we need the knowledge and expertise of Australian climate scientists now more than ever.

Australian Greens Senator, Janet Rice spoke about being shocked when discovering the enormity of the effects of climate change over 20 years ago when graduating from Melbourne University. Determined to make a difference with better policies she joined The Greens and has been fighting for the environment ever since.


We heard from CSIRO workers from laboratories across Victoria, including those from Aspendale and Geelong where the cuts will hurt the most. They spoke eloquently and sincerely about their love of science, their achievements, their hopes, their belief in science projects for the public good. Their fears for the future if science research is only motivated by money and commercial interests.

Climate science – particularly research based at the Aspendale Laboratory – is under threat.

Dr Marshall has also indicated he plans to cut jobs from Land and Water, Minerals and Energy and Digital Productivity which may impact on Victorian jobs.

Planned cuts to CSIRO Manufacturing may result in significant job losses from Melbourne’s Clayton Laboratories.

Amelia Telford (SEED) and Kirsty Albion from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition were the final speakers and it was heartening to hear their commitment to solving the problems of climate change with renewable energy, fighting pollution and raising awareness among young people. Amelia explained how her people, the first people have maintained and cherished the land for thousands of years.


News this week about bleaching of the coral on the Great Barrier Reef being the worst in history is further evidence we need to be expanding the CSIRO and its amazing research programs.


As I left the rally I watched a chess game outside the State Library


Do the participants understand that politicians and government appointees are playing with the country’s future and even making moves hampering other countries in their climate change research? I hope they paid attention to the rally speakers!

Are people so complacent they don’t understand how horrifying the results of these cuts and sackings will be?

Thank goodness we have dedicated organisations fighting for the Environment and hundreds of supporters prepared to take a stand and work for a better future.

Environment Victoria have set up an Enviro Hub in Frankston to ensure voters in Dunkley and surrounding seats like Isaacs, Flinders and Holt are aware of the importance of using their vote for the Environment. The enthusiasm and commitment of the people at the launch gave me some hope that many people are taking this crisis seriously.

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In deference to NaPoWriMo 2016, I wrote a Verbatim or Found Poem on the CSIRO Cuts carried out by our conservative government over the last two years.

Business As usual in Australia
Mairi Neil

Stunned scientists
moved into new roles
unrelated to their specialty
Australia, the nation
driest on Earth
shifts in rainfall
but global research community

young climate scientists
without direction
the situation depressing
climate capability gone
climate modelling cut

This is not about just Australia
readings of CO2
from Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and Barrow, Alaska
confirmation of humanity’s dominion
over the climate.

It is mind-boggling
Australia is ground zero for climate change
1,000 positions eliminated,
science easily commercialised

CSIRO’s management
focus on commercially viable projects
climate change now settled science
basic research no longer needed

Paris last year certain
humans are altering the planet
but Australia’s government
isn’t serious about climate change
business comes first!

(Words found in ‘Australia Cuts 110 Climate Scientist Jobs’, article in Scientific American By Gayathri Vaidyanathan, ClimateWire on February 8, 2016)


Catastrophe for Science, Catastrophic for our Community

CSIRO innovate dont obliterate.jpg

In response to the government initiated CSIRO cuts, which will result in almost 100 local climate researchers losing their jobs as part of a nationwide cull of 350 jobs, I attended a forum organised by Mark Dreyfus QC MP.

CSIRO forum 1
Great to see so many interested people
CSIRO forum 2
People took notes because not often do we get the chance to hear directly from scientists
CSIRO Forum 3
There were many questions asked
in the crowd at CSIRO forum
Me,head down in the crowd behind the two schoolgirls in red blazers
CSIRO FPanel Mark Dreyfus.jpg
Mark Dreyfus QC MP introducing panel

Over 200 people crowded into the hall at Aspendale Primary School on Tuesday evening, March 22, and it was heartening to feel the energy in the room and to know so many people cared about the issue because as Mark explained, in the electorate of Isaacs an 80cm rise in sea-level will devastate 9,500 homes.

CSIRO data for Melbourne.jpg
Climate Change in Australia Projection for Australian cities, CSIRO 2015

I’ve lived in Mordialloc for 32 years and like many living bayside I’m forever conscious of the fragility of our environment: erosion of cliffs and sand dunes, the need for the perpetual replacement of sand on some of the beaches, the close proximity of the water table and propensity to flood, importance of the wetlands for bird migration and propagation, history of the swamps and flooding in certain areas.

In Mordialloc Writers’ last anthology Kingston My City longtime residents mentioned the engineering efforts to control the sea when creating the suburb, Patterson Lakes.

Now of course with the reality of climate change there will be other stories to write as we see our world change. And change it must according to the CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research Centre in Aspendale, one of the most important carbon research centres in the world.

CSIRO NEWSPAPER ARTICLES.jpgCopies of newspaper articles were shared at the meeting revealing how the scientists in Aspendale have been responsible for some of the most significant findings in climate change research in the past 50 years. These job losses have caused outrage and dismay  throughout the world even attracting stern criticism in the editorial of The New York Times.

Meaningful scientific research takes years: painstaking and methodical, it must be thorough and consistent. In the CSIRO’s Southern Slopes Cluster Report 2015 climate change is:

A change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. by statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period of time, typically decades or longer.

CSIRO Kathy McInnes .jpg
Scientist Kathy McInnes, joint author of Climate Change in Australia, answering questions

The same report predicts with ‘very high confidence’ a continued increase in sea level with the rate of rise in the 21st century larger than the average rate during the 20th century as ‘radiative forcing from greenhouse gas emissions continues to grow.

For 25 years the scientists at Aspendale have  monitored sea levels and changes in the Pacific Island region helping the island communities be forewarned and forearmed to cope with the devastation that is already happening. The CSIRO part of the answer whereas our current Federal Government “leaders” choose to joke about the threat to our neighbours.

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Australia’s changing climate represents a significant challenge to individuals, communities, governments, businesses and the environment. Australia has already experienced more frequent hot weather, shifting rainfall patterns and rising seas.

For decades, Australia has run the most advanced and comprehensive atmosphere and ocean monitoring programs in the Southern Hemisphere, providing critical information not only for a nation that is already the driest on earth and fast getting drier, but also for a world in urgent need of such data to search for ways to cope with climate change.

Last month, to the dismay of climate scientists around the world, Australia’s federally financed science agency — the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, or CSIRO— announced plans to shift its focus to commercially viable projects and cut or reassign 350 researchers. The decision, as more than 3,000 climate scientists have declared in an open letter to the Australian government, demonstrates a deplorable misunderstanding of the importance of basic research into what is arguably the greatest challenge facing the planet…

Long-term research on carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, and on changing ocean and weather processes, is essential to learn what lies ahead and how to prepare for it. Moreover, as the open letter from the scientists put it, Australia is a “canary in the climate change coal mine,” spanning different climate zones and experiencing steady decreases in rainfall.

The cutbacks could also obstruct Australia’s role in supporting the landmark climate agreement reached in Paris in December, which, among other things, calls on scientifically advanced countries like Australia to assist developing countries with advice and support.

Many people thought ridiculous decisions were going to change when climate change denier Tony Abbott was deposed as Prime Minister, but it seems for Malcolm Turnbull the prize was the title not the responsibility.

Each speaker at the forum condemned the Federal Government for not opposing the cuts  but also the starving of funds to the CSIRO for many areas of critical research. A rally in support and to save the hundreds of jobs is organised for Saturday April 2.

CSIRO Rally.jpg

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The World Meteorological Organisation earlier this week said “Australia will find itself isolated from the community of nations and researchers devoting serious attention to climate change” if the key research programs were lost.

And the Political gets Personal

As if to emphasise the importance of climate change research and the effect global warming is already having on our community, I spent this Easter removing a dead tree from the back garden.  The tree succumbed to El Nino‘s initiated drought, heatwaves and an unseasonal storm we suffered recently, fortuitously crashing down behind the shed and not on it!

“We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Aldo Leopold, American conservationist.

In 2009, I attended the Melbourne festival of Ideas at Melbourne University where novelist Kate Grenville was the keynote speaker on Artists, Writers and Climate Change. Kate and other writers discussed and debated how writers could use their words and ideas to encourage deeper thought on environmental issues, or even if they should!

We all know what we could be doing to help the environment. We could install solar panels, or drive hybrid cars, or use fewer plastic bags. But there’s often a big gap between what we know we should do, and how we actually behave.

Kate Grenville argued that it is the role of artists and writers to inspire and move people to act on important issues like climate change. She spoke about the way art and literature excites a response in us and the role that plays in understanding ourselves.

As someone who thinks deeply about many issues and has a passion for words and writing I have never been in doubt about expressing how I feel. If  my writing is considered to be a ‘political message’ so be it. Some issues are too urgent for subtlety!

Here is a poem, Pollute and Perish, from my second book More Small Talk, poems for children, 1995:

pollute or perish poem.jpg

Other more recent poems:

The Wind
Mairi Neil

A whispering lullaby
serenading soothing sotto voce
scattering seedlings with abandonment
An explosion of fresh mint
unwrapping a tempestuous embrace
storm warning trumpet blast ––
Beware of changing climate!
An ogre howling in the dark
snatches trees, pelts rocks
reshapes the earth
as he huffs and puffs
to blow Man’s house down.

The Snow
Mairi Neil

Misty mother breaths
soundlessly wrap a cub
in comfortable crocheted shawl.
Lying ‘neath snowflake patterns
curled and asleep
dreams of spring and summer…
A safe white cocoon
soft stellar soundproofed
unaware of the deadly grenade
of melting icebergs…

3.05pm Flinders Street to Frankston 

Mairi Neil

He shovels a healthy salad
into bearded mouth
his bamboo fork environmentally friendly –
but not the plastic container…
She swigs Kamboucha
for inner health
What about Mother Earth’s digestive tract?
Blocked by the plastic bottle and cap.
Fast food aromas embedded
in train carriage upholstery
waft in the air, cling to clothes.
Junk food litter clutters floor
peeks from discarded plastic bags…
Excess packaging the norm
as the world chokes
and even those who profess care sucked in
and swallowed by consumerism
Land fill dumps grow garbage


There is no ‘away’ in throw!



Mordialloc Beach and Climate Change
Mairi Neil

The day is calm. Tranquil. A great-to-be-alive day. The scent of eucalypts and pine compete with salty air and whiffs of abandoned seaweed.
The cyan sea a mirror for whipped cream clouds. Dainty dollops on a baby blue plate. Gulls sit or glide atop the glassy surface. Bathed in brilliant white sunlight I imagine I too float and dream.
But in the distance, palm tree fronds tremble casting lacy shadows on hot sand. The clink of moorings and creak of masts drifts from the creek and a sudden gust of wind whips sand to sting my legs and face. Airborne seagulls now screeching origami kites.
A dark veil unfurls from the horizon shattering the steel blue mirror swallowing the fluffy clouds.
Peaceful contemplation disappears, waves soap around my feet, slap at ankles, sunlight fades. I retreat to the shelter of groaning eucalypts and pine, the taste of salt bittersweet.



The Speech a PM Should Make in 2016

Mairi Neil

Men and women of Australia
And those who identify as other
There is no time to waste
You must listen to our Mother

Mother Earth, I’m referring to
The mountains, snows, and sea
The seasons, soil, and sunlight
Providing sustenance for you and me

But Mother Earth is terminally ill
Man has definitely not been kind
We’ve raped, polluted and poisoned
For wealth we craved to find

Addicted to manufactured comfort
We’ve gouged mountains into craters
Safe harbours are now wharves
To accommodate gigantic freighters.

Explosions altered landscapes
Concrete towers replacing trees
Animals hunted to extinction
Polar ice caps no longer freeze.

Climate change is not a phrase
But reality for the natural world
Global warming’s rising tides
Cities consumed as tsunamis twirl

Leaving disasters in their wake
Human structures or nature’s design
Mother Earth almost beyond healing
Unless permanent solutions we find

Climate deniers knuckle draggers
As are those mouthing ‘innovation’
Drought, bushfires, failed crops
The word should be desperation!

The time for procrastination gone
Also the sand for burying your head
Earth’s lungs struggle daily to breathe
How long before humanity is dead?