Monthly Archives: February 2019

A poem for 10 years

“Are you saying the fires were a good thing in your life?”

Yesterday I spoke on Jon Faine’s special broadcast to mark the 10th anniversary of the February 2009 fires. 173 people lost their lives during or immediately after the fires and an equally sad too many thereafter. Thousands of homes, businesses and community facilities were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest and farming land were razed. Communities were shaken to their core.

Image contains: burned ruins of a home, some exterior mudbrick walls are still standing, there is twisted metal and a melted bath. Behind the home are many burnt trees in a forest.
What remained of my home, and the forest behind.

What followed was a truly remarkable response from all levels of government, charitable organisations and, most importantly, thousands of ‘ordinary’ people who helped in countless ways: donations of money, provision of shelter to people and animals, goods, labour and services, listening patiently, fostering creativity and advocacy. The relief effort is ongoing.

On the program I discussed the experiences of the displaced, especially those who didn’t return to live in the fire-affected areas. Not everyone rebuilt their homes. I mentioned the difficulties experienced by people like me, which were different from those who remained in place. I was accompanied by Professor Lisa Gibbs, from the University of Melbourne, who has lead an extensive body of research into community, recovery and resilience after bushfire. Details of the Beyond Bushfires team and research can be found here. I stressed that, for me, the experience of the losses from the fires have lead to post-traumatic growth: my life now is richer. I am grateful for the positives the disaster has brought me. Jon Faine suggested that the listeners at home might wonder “are you saying the fires were a good thing in your life?” And I would have to say, yes they were. But they were also awful. They’ve left me with psychological scars and have changed my relationship with the bush forever. If I had my life over, I would not have been on that mountain on the day. If I had my life over, those powerlines would not have sparked that blaze.

Last year, on the 9th anniversary, I wrote this poem.

If only
our subsequent tears
had rained
on those errant
sparks

Image contains: a circular path around a 10m high iron tree with a canopy of hand-forged eucalyptus leaves.
The Blacksmith’s Tree, Strathewen

This year, I was asked to write a poem to contribute to the City of Whittlesea’s ‘Growth’ commemorative event. I grabbed a notebook and headed to my local café, only to discover the notebook I had in my hand was the one that I carried for months after the fires. I mined it for this poem.

10 years since the fires

I’ve been asked to write
a poem

last week I sobbed
forecast 45 degrees
memories hot
raw dread fear

I’ve been asked to write
a poem

café, tofu and soba
old notebook
2009
full of lists

insurance policy numbers
building code advice
real estate agents
grants to apply for

Phoenix Taskforce
documents to find
wound clinic appointments
support group dates

donated goods
people to thank
contacts at Grocon
trauma psychologists

what we need for the baby
relationship counsellors
re-establishing contents
family lawyers

I’ve been asked to write
a poem

walk to the café
scribble down words
boys are at school
barista knows my name

flick pages
catch breath
frown at names
no longer recognised

at home
greying dog
freshly picked plums
ready for the preserver

post photo online
new friends, new fella click ‘love’
profile now declares me
a poet

I’ve been asked to write
a poem

my green notebook
2009
full of lists
a poem

Image contains: view up from underneath Australian tree ferns, with a shaft of sun shining through
Ferns at Tarra Bulga National Park, close to where the Callignee fires swept through in February 2009


Thank you to everyone who has supported any person affected by the 2009 fires. Thank you for remembering. May we all continue to heal.

Do we really recover after disaster?

Image depicts an olive green paper leaf with the following handwritten text: After the fires we put out our epicormic growth, captured the light, and grew. Some of us were seeds, blown on those stormforce winds. We grew in new places. Thank you for remembering. Kim
My leaf for the tree of remembrance at the Museums Victoria ‘From the Heart’ exhibition.

recovery (n):

  1. A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.
  2. The action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.

(Oxford English Dictionary)

I’ve been pondering recovery, 10 years after the 2009 Victorian Bushfires (often referred to as Black Saturday) razed my home and community, changing my life forever. Contained within that opening statement is the obvious problem with using the term ‘recovery’ to describe the process that occurs following significant trauma. My life has been forever altered.

Recovery supposedly entails regaining possession or control of something lost, but it’s clear that I will never regain possession of Mum’s pearl necklace. My home will never be rebuilt. The car was long ago mined for usable scrap metal. The rhododendrons will never again herald the arrival of spring on the mountain. What little remains of the garden has been under someone else’s stewardship for several years now. Instead, I have a necklace crafted from the nuggets found in the bottom of my charred jewellery box and a blue car to replace the green. My new home, 10km from the CBD, is approaching 100 years old and on some days the garden could feed our suburb. The miraculous rhubarb I transplanted from the mountain is especially tasty.

And our understanding of recovery also implies that we eventually return to a “usual” state of being, a pre-disaster state that was supposedly the pinnacle from which we fell. So, what to make of the fact that my health now is probably a shade better than it was in February 2009? Over the past 10 years there have been times when I was gravely ill and others when I was the fittest I have ever been. When the wind and heat flare I am anxious, unsettled and prone to tears. This is not very different to when I lived on the mountain, only now I fear for the lives of others, rather than my own. I feel safer in the suburbs. I cry more often. We don’t go on holidays in the summer. My children grow into thoughtful, caring souls. I have a broad, rich new community of friends. I make jam for the school fête. My work is fulfilling. I write and perform poetry, a surprise development. There’s a new relationship, more than six years old now, which brings healing and laughter. My life bears little resemblance to what it was on the morning of February 7th 2009. I still prepare for disaster, since disaster seems inevitable, but I’m convinced that I will cope when it comes. I am the happiest I have ever been. I am the product of what is described as post-traumatic growth. Many would say that I have ‘recovered’.

But I don’t think recovery is the correct term. It can create impossible expectations of return to pre-disaster life and implies a tangible endpoint for a process that will be lifelong. Those who experience trauma are indelibly altered by it, for better or for worse, but mostly both. Perhaps a better term would be ‘evolution’. Or perhaps we could think of ourselves in the same way as the landscape, which has undergone ‘regeneration’.

The ‘From the Heart’ exhibition, which commemorates the February 2009 fires is free for those affected by the 2009 fires. The exhibits focus on regeneration and progress since the fires and would be suitable for most children.

https://museumsvictoria.com.au/melbournemuseum/whats-on/from-the-heart/

My thanks to Dr Alexis Harley for her editorial assistance with this piece of writing.