Attempting to make sense of the unfathomable – Australian Bushfires 2019-20
Without warning I find myself hunched over the washing machine, sobs sticking in my throat.
An ABC radio broadcast from the South Coast town of Bateman’s Bay, reveals a proud but battered community trying to navigate the aftermath of the fires, while facing the very real and ongoing threat of their return. The interviewees sound tired, frustrated, scared. Here is a town I’ve visited so many times, hit hard economically and attempting to rebuild, while still in shock and emotionally reeling.
It’s the same harrowing scene we’ve been watching play out since the start of summer, hourly, daily, all across the media. And suddenly here I am, fists stuffed into my eye sockets, the rush of emotion taking my breath away.
After weeks of stifling smoke, raging bushfires, punishing hail and unbelievable heat something has to give.
It will come for us all, in different ways, but the impact of these fires will be deeply felt and carried by those touched by them, directly and indirectly, and for years to come.
At the moment those affected by these unprecedented fires are estimated to be around fifty percent of the Australian population. Even for those cities and towns not directly impacted it’s impossible not to feel the immensity and scale of the devastation—it’s not just the cancelled sporting events, whole stretches of coastline burnt and inaccessible to locals and holidaymakers alike, the vacations called off or cut short, the silencing of celebratory barbecues, picnics and bushwalks, or even the thousands of people returning to work at the start of a new year, feeling exhausted, weary and depleted—it’s the nagging and persistent feeling that we have lost something far, far deeper. It clings to the air, filling our chests with an unnamable ache, defying our ability to give it voice.
We are a wounded nation, stifling a collective howl. The anguish is so great it can’t go unnoticed, it’s reverberating around the world.
The destabilising effect is tangible. Things that mattered once have less importance, while others take on new meanings. Along with our shopping lists, we each now carry another list around in our heads, the things we would save if the flames come to us.
Our sense of safety and continuity has been dislodged—perhaps permanently unless we can find ways to rebuild trust and hope. The weather report once used to determine a trip to the beach or an evening barbecue with friends, is now a source of anxiety and fear. Instead of sport and instragram, we obsessively check the air quality and emergency services sites. As if any words of warning could prepare us for the reality of a raging inferno or seventy meter high flames.
The warnings are in place: watch and act. But what will tomorrow deliver, and the days after? Unprecedented extreme temperatures bring with them yet more warnings, the threat of heat stress, greater destruction and the need to take shelter.
We are in retreat. Inside our homes we turn down the air conditioning, and tune into Netflix. We don’t leave the house, don masks to protect us from the smoke when we do. Yet these flimsy barriers cannot ease the nagging feeling that nowhere is immune, that there is nowhere left to hide.
Lost and found
‘Who stole summer?,’ a friend asked me recently. It’s an existential question with complex and contested answers. And yet the political battle brewing, the conflicting media reports, the vitriol and division speaks nothing, has no real answers as to what we should do with our individual and collective grief or even a way to understand what we have lost.
Our leaders supply a dizzying narrative of numbers, economic impact, recovery costs, and give pep talks about resilience, but mostly seem hell bent to return us to the mineral studded status quo. As if anything could ever be the same again.
Many of us feel mute, impotent, our lips trying to shape words that might point to what has been taken from us, and help us grasp at what might lie ahead in this startling new decade into which we have been hurled.
How can our deeply flawed institutions, our compromised government, and foreign owned media, help us face the reality beyond the headlines? The lives lost, the communities that may never recover, and those that will take years to revive. The massive tracts of our beloved forests and lands that have burnt to ash, an estimated one billion animals incinerated—and it’s still not over.
As of 14 January, more than18 million hectares have burned and counting. There is something incomprehensible about this. It’s hard to wrap your mind around, the scale of it. The ferocity.
And of course the numbers say nothing of the reality on the ground—of the silent wastelands where national parks once teemed with life, the dehydrated, injured and frightened animals who cling on, or the horrific conditions faced by the wildlife carers attempting to save and care for them.
An elderly man just saved from the flames flickers across my television screen, from which town—Mallacoota, Mogo, Lake Conjola, Cobargo—I no longer remember. He has the eyes of someone whose life has been broken apart. Thrust into the media spotlight, he appears disoriented, shaken, vulnerable, almost apologetic. I have an overwhelming desire to reach out and hold his hand. There are not the words to count the cost and dimensions of a disaster both intensely personal and extensively communal.
What we have lost is still being felt, gathered up by minds and hearts and bodies, as we walk the charred ground, travel through the landscape, attempt to collectively take stock of the many layers of the impact. We need to find a way to face it with tenderness and compassion, to not look away.
A new story
The summer of our worst nightmares is upon us and is far from over. Our best minds saw it coming. We were warned. We were complacent. Now we know all too well the meaning of those three ominous words ‘fires near me’.
And yet isn’t this narrative more of the same? More of the fearful, toxic blame game, that guilts us into feeling simultaneously responsible and powerless? A recipe for hopelessness and disempowerment if ever there was one. Forget the climate wars, the bitter betrayals. We need a new story, one that offers a sense of active hope and empowerment, a different way of relating to the issues and each other.
What will heal us is not 2 billion in ‘recovery’ funding (although that will certainly help) Nor is it mental health services and individual counselling, essential as that is. Our healing will be, and in fact already is, in communities coming together.
Regardless of politics or world views, it will be our human goodness to one another, the daily acts of kindness that will allow us to rise above our divisions to find the common ground we need to move forward. And if we are going to thrive and not just survive the current situation, this kindness needs to become a way of life.
So much left to save
When the aerial shots of burning forests flickers on my screen, the helicopters with their too small buckets, the fire line dividing the landscape in two, the staggering immensity and fragility, the enormity of what we face hits me.
I am reminded of the experiences of astronauts many of whom have described in detail the profound revelations that come from seeing our blue planet from space for the first time. From on high it’s unavoidably clear: the earth is one system, and we are all part of it.
In crisis there is opportunity, so the saying goes.
What we will make of this summer and how we will choose to rebuild is yet to be seen. But a few things are certain: It’s time to listen to our scientists and abandon the shock jocks and marketers. It’s time to listen to the people who have lived and cared for this country successfully for over 60,000 years. It’s time to stop watching and start acting, to be part of a solution, not one that will return the status quo that got us into this mess but one that will forge a new relationship, with both the natural world and ourselves.
We can’t go back to what was before, not if we expect things to be different, and nor should we want to. There is so much broken with our society, it’s time to envision a better one. We can do that best through first mending and tending our own hearts, coming from a place of peace. Rather than fear and suspicion, what if we could view the need for change with courage, creativity and imagination?
Perhaps with the flames ravaging lives and towns and encroaching our cities, we are at last beginning to understand what that change might mean, what our relationship to country could be, and the true meaning of the word ‘home’.
It’s up to each of us. We must find the examples of where good things are already happening, to see, share, support and be part of new ways of living, working and relating that will help us and our beautiful land flourish.
While it has come from loss, perhaps the good that could come out of this whole messy crisis is the revelation of the depth of our connection to this place called Australia, its unique animals and landscapes, and each other. This outpouring of love shows me that as much as what is lost, we are beginning to understand just how much we have left to save.
What happens next is ours to decide, but whichever way you look at it, this is where we live and it’s too late to leave.