This december, we celebrate a very important 30th anniversary: it is 30 years since Jo Vallentine was elected to the senate.
ON OCTOBER 19 I WAS INVITED TO PARTICIPATE IN ‘MEN OF LETTERS‘ in Sydney – an occasional departure for the wonderful women of letters team. Ten of us were invited to write a letter to a woman who changed our lives. This was mine.

Dear Jo,

With JoI can remember standing at the top of St Georges Terrace with my mother and father and little brother. We are 25 or 30,000 strong that day. A gathering that stretches from Kings Park half way down the terrace into the city. I am maybe 12 years old.

I don’t really know why I’m there; I’ll have to piece that together many years later. It turns out you and a tiny handful of friends and allies have been working for months to bring us together that bright Palm Sunday.

This cheerful procession of casual defiance, homemade signs, flags and streamers; my brother perched on dad’s shoulders.

Some few thousand kilometres north, just over the range from Ningaloo’s pristine wonderland, there’s a field that grows only steel masts. This forest of needles tethered to the earth holds communion with a silent fleet that still haunts our ocean to this very day.

So many years after that Palm Sunday crowd dispersed for coffee or a swim; discovering for myself the reason you brought us together with such passionate urgency.

The thighbone. The flaked arrowhead. The crossbow. The musket rifle. The maxim machinegun. The bomber.

This quarter million-year arc delivering, in our own age, the ballistic missile submarine, designed for the singular purpose of surviving the first wave of a nuclear attack so as to be able to return serve and bring a holocaust of blast waves and black rain.

Humanity’s closing chapter written in fevered final hours; a long, tortured epilogue of radioactive winter and the ruination of the human gene line.

When the audacity of these men referring to this weaponised insanity, this intergenerational suicide pact, as a policy of defence got too much, you didn’t look away. In fact you set your course directly at them, and won a place as the world’s first democratically elected disarmament campaigner.

Senator Jo Vallentine; thirty years later it still has a nice ring to it, and if the grey old bastards thought proximity to power would cower, what a home-cooked selection of signature treats you served for them. One lone voice; our voice, amidst the men; so many men.

Hostile, calculated, premeditated; smug in their rationality and yet behind their condescension I wonder whether, when they spoke, behind their words you heard the winds of nuclear winter, when they opened their mouths you’d imagine the fission products and burning graphite that spewed from Chernobyl’s inferno.

I wonder, mostly, how you managed; you’ve told of so many tears and yet you never looked away. How much it cost; the costs you’ve spoken of and those you hold close. The soundproofed stairwell in Parliament House where no one will hear you, no matter how loud you scream. Somehow, young family in tow, you wrote the template for the activist legislator.

The faded committee-room portraits of you amongst the men; so many men. The days of cocooned isolation in that echo chamber on capital hill; but then you’re over the wire at Pine Gap. You speak for me and three generations of those who put their fragile bodies on the line; arms in pipes or linked across access roads… they can’t arrest us all.

Your humour; everything with a twinkle in the eye – your compassion, and insight, like in the old Shambhala story. The importance of ritual. But also, your rage; undeterred and unforgiving of the industrial stupidity, the pointless futility of our age.

Whenever I see you, you ask me: remember to touch the earth once a day. It sounds so quaint but I think I know what you’re asking. Remember to touch the earth once a day; don’t forget where you live.

There is a pulse here, if you choose to hear it. The tidal rhythm of our orbital companion, the roll of the seasons, the ringing of distant earthquakes through billion-year-old granites. She is inconceivably deep and old, and that is who you remind me of when you ask me to remember to touch the earth once a day.

Since the first time you reminded me to do that, my footsteps have taken me to places where the earth will never safely be touched again. From the uranium province at Jadugoda in India to the evacuated village of Iitate a few dozen kilometres from the wreckage of Fukushima, where they harvest only cesium.

I’m only just starting to realise how many twists and turns there are in this labyrinth, and yet, there’s a day, just out of reach, where we home-port that fucking fleet, put the reactors into cold shutdown and dismantle those tokens of mass-murder that ticked subliminally behind our march so long ago.

And on that day, maybe we, or those who come after us, will take a slow, quiet turn around the labyrinth you drew on the earth at the foot of capital hill, and breathe… out.

Thankyou dear Jo, for all that you do.

Scott Ludlam
October 19, 2014