Today is proving more difficult than I had anticipated. Now that the fog and cloud have lifted we are left with the smoke haze, which renders the light orange. The same light I remember from the 7th February 2009. Although it distresses me, I find I cannot look away from its strange glow. It has been haunting me all summer, so why should today be any different?
red-shifted light reaching us from distant stars is evidence of an expanding universe
today our home star’s light is once again auburn waves reflected by airborne remnants of the land
aerosolised forest, homes the smoke holds even the lungs of creatures, who once breathed clean air
a summer of warnings Instagrammable sunsets P2 masks, closed windows and contracted lives
“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.
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
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
Thank you to everyone who has supported any person affected by the 2009 fires. Thank you for remembering. May we all continue to heal.
A return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.
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.
I cannot smell the smoke
but above me the sky is tangerine
or perhaps blood orange
Why do we so often seek edible metaphors?
Unlike the fruit
this sky contains no moisture
In refracted light
we load life’s cargo
mine is quiet
my son’s red-slicked face
too fearful to contemplate
we calmly pack the car
I leave you now
your misguided hero’s carapace
impervious to my pleas
I toss the woollen blanket inside
a stupid, careless gesture
its ember pocked fibres
your shield from glass-melt heat
there will be times I wish
I had taken it with me
The car noses out of the driveway
it could drive this road itself
on this surfeit of molten tarmac
we travel alone,
our descent slowed by a water truck
its load splashing, a liquid hypnotist
each pearled drop a promise
fluid counterpoint to peripheral flame
I glance to the right, for look I must
this fiery thunderhead inhales
sucking my lullabies from the air
it would inhale the car
but for the firmness of my grip
we reach the town but do not stop
smoke flanks that bitumen ribbon
I have threaded fire’s needle
This afternoon Radio National’s program Poetica featured an anthology of poetry in response to bushfire. Many of the works are deeply evocative of the experience of wild fire. Jordie Albiston’s ‘Six Black Saturday Squares’ frame the story and are beautifully crafted. Lisa Jacobson’s ‘Girls and Horses in the Fire’ never fails to induce tearpricks in my eyes. Others feel as though written by outsiders, spurring me to better express my insider’s view. Listen to the program, have an opinion and share it with me.
Front Door, a new online community arts project is underway to engage those dispersed by the Black Saturday fires. Creating ways for those living distant from fire-affected areas to communicate has been identified as an important gap in the bushfire recovery process. We do not know the stories of many of those who now reside over a broad geographical area. They remain unheard amidst the dominant paradigm of ‘rebuilding’. I know some people who have left fire-affected areas have felt invisible at times and have not known how to find others in a similar situation. We hope this project will go some way towards improving this.
Front Door is a website that will encourage participation by suggesting projects for people dispersed by the February 2009 fires. The first is to take a picture of your front door and tell us what it means for you. With each new project there will be an example to act as a guide or inspiration. I am curating the site. The project will allow people to participate openly or privately. As much or as little as you like. Using words, images…whatever!
It is three years today since my life, and those of so many others, changed forever. Anniversaries provide us with an opportunity to reflect. We remember the 173 people who lost their lives. We remember the homes, livelihoods, communities and ecosystems lost or irrevocably changed. We remember our anguish, uncertainty, fear and grief. We remember the love and support of people both local and distant. We remember the heroes both sung and unsung. We acknowledge that there will always be a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. We reflect on our lives following the fires. Our journeys, if you will.
Look at the trees. They are recovering but they are not unscathed. The land is healing: at its own pace, in its own time.
Today is a gentle day. It is cool. The sky is overcast. The wind temperate. A good day for growth and healing.
From a distance
we appear unchanged
as the timeless hills
shaped over millennia
impervious to disaster
witness our charred trunks
framing new vistas
we stand testament
we hold our losses close
our stasis perilous (if we stand still…)
without leaves we cannot capture light
Much has been written about heroes, especially men, in the wake of disaster. Societal expectations are such that this is the role expected of men. Not all men are heroes. Some women are. Research and feminist analysis of gender roles in response to Black Saturday has been conducted by Women’s Health Goulburn Valley North East. An e-book detailing the stories of 21 women (including me) can be found at http://issuu.com/womenshealthgoulburnnortheast/docs/beating_the_flames. The formal report ‘The landscape of my soul: Relationships after Black Saturday’ will be released soon.
The way you tell it
we had an infallible plan
arming us against catastrophe
and your efforts alone
prepared our home
The way you tell it
your quick thinking
saved the day
you rescued us
and we escaped
ahead of the inferno
while you remained defiant
you reinvent the narrative landscape
cast yourself in the starring role
paint me with passivity
render me invisible
Your truth is
the shrieking wind
hurled flames through the air
you fled, fought and survived
You weave a fantastic tale
by which you hope to be judged
inside is just self-hatred
and in seeking to repair
your tattered psyche
brush me with your loathing
I understand, even forgive
but this is not the way I tell it
The last Express Yourself writing workshop was held yesterday. I wrote a poem about the memories of my five year old son. It may contain the kernel of an idea – or it may be a sow’s ear Why do we malign the sow? I must investigate the origins of that expression. In any case the poem as it currently stands is not fit to share. Our second exercise was to describe a journey, which I uncharacteristically undertook in prose. Arnold Zable felt that it might be the beginning of a short story and suggested that I use the ‘daring’ approach of moving to the second person when discussing my ex-partner’s role. Weave the story of my escape from the mountain with that of the relationship – and, indeed, a second escape. Here is what I wrote yesterday – clearly it’s a draft. What do you think?
Leaving the mountain
The air escaping the back of the car is even hotter than that around us. And that air is the hottest I have ever felt. Sweat evaporates before it has even thought to exit the glands on my skin. I cannot smell the smoke but above me the sky is tangerine or perhaps blood orange. Why do we so often seek edible metaphors? For, unlike the fruit, this sky contains no moisture – only refracted light and ominous promise.
We load the car with tubs of photos, dutifully packed before the first day of tremendous heat and sinister wind. I cannot lift them. I am spent from a morning preparing for such an eventuality. The pump stands primed, ready. Hoses are uncoiled. Buckets, mops, torches, radios and countless bottles of water are positioned around the house. Clothes are ready. The plan is on the fridge. Preparations made, we calmly pack the car.
I am breathless. Belly swollen, the baby due in a mere three months. He is quiet now. My son is at my feet. He has finally stopped screaming, his face slick with shiny red goo. The remains of the placatory red icy pole offered him. He has been woken from his nap. He is tired and frightened. I have no time to comfort him.
Now I plead with you to leave.
I have never been happy that you wish to remain. Your misguided masculinity. Your sense of self bound up with the notion of being a hero. And yet, you are so unprepared, your psyche unlikely to withstand the coming inferno.
So I must leave you. Photos, laptop, a few toys and clothes jumbled in the rear of the car. I throw the woolen blanket out of the boot. A stupid, careless gesture since its purpose is to protect us from radiant heat if trapped by fire. When the blanket is found five days later, ember burns pocking its blue check, we realise it has saved your life. There are times that I will wish I had taken it with me.
The car noses its way out of the driveway. It could drive this road itself. I say no goodbye, do not look back and head into the uncertain.
I am honoured that Women’s Health Goulburn Valley have used a line from my poem ‘Gossamer skin’ as the title of their report into relationships and domestic violence after Black Saturday. The e-book Beating the Flames documents women’s stories of the fires, demonstrating that women played an active role in protecting their families, property and community – often alone. I await the report ‘The landscape of my soul: Relationships after Black Saturday’ with interest.They are inviting submissions of stories, art and poetry for inclusion on their website.