At dawn on Anzac Day 2020, I lit a candle and took it to my front gate, with a transistor radio tuned to the ABC broadcast of the service from the Canberra War Memorial. My neighbours slipped out too and we stood on the roadside, four women keeping vigil. Our candles barely flickered in the stillness. As the bugle of the Last Post travelled through the radio we came to understand that other notes were floating from the darkened houses up and down our valley. Buglers and trumpeters and trombonists, all playing in isolation, making an orchestra that held us all. As the music faded for the Minute’s Silence the birds filled in the space, our own magpies adding their wardles to the raven caws from Canberra. Time and sound and life looped in a moment of copper light and brass notes and birdsong, of candle flame and radio waves, of communion and remembrance for what has been endured.
At the year’s beginning the air had been thick with the smoke of burning forests and animals. We lived with the scream of sirens and the thrum of helicopter blades and fingers of flame along our ridges and clifftops. The valleys were charged with fire until February, when strafing rain brought floods. We coiled all this fear into our chests and forgot how to breathe.
And then the pandemic.
Concussion happens when the frail vessel of a body hurtles towards something and is suddenly stopped. The collision and agitation alters our brains – the first psychologists of the Great War attributed shell shock to concussion, thinking it was caused by sound, percussion, instead of by trauma. The virus stopped us. The shutdowns separated us from each other and our critical moments of connection: our Blue Mountains Music Festival, the Anzac Day marches, Winter Magic, every musician’s gig, the dancing, the choirs, the libraries, our jobs, our families. Everything that made us human; our embraces, our very breath, was a danger. In the shock we became inarticulate and distracted. Time lengthened, and slipped.
In those days I walked in Darug and Gundungurra country. Fire and rain had stripped the plateaus back to elemental forms, to rock and carbon. I could see the bones of the country, the layers of sandstone and lava. Horizons once wooded looked like rows of burned match heads. The trees that survived had dropped their bark in tiles and their ivory trunks were etched with smoke stains. There was no birdsong, or insects.
We are emerging from isolation. The fire grounds are changing. Grasses begin to run across the scorched soil, little threads of hope. New leaves spin from the carbonised trunks of gum trees in stained glass colours; ruby and emerald, brass and copper. The landscape fills with young xanthorrhoea, their bases like a brocade, exploding pale green.
From each one rises a single spear, sheathed in a bridal lace of tiny cross-stitched flowers and spangled with sweet nectar. They are beacons, pennants borne by the vanguard of regeneration.
No battle leaves things unchanged. The fragile new bush is volatile. The smoke from the fires still circles the planet in the stratosphere and the pandemic continues to rage.
Something very big is happening in Australia right now as the entire eastern seaboard and the Great Dividing Range burns out, taking human lives, homes, farms, businesses, livestock, wildlife, threatened species and sacred places with it. I was in Narooma on New Year’s Eve with my partner Neill, having headed to the south coast of NSW in the hope of respite from the month-long anxiety of living between two big unpredictable fires in my Katoomba home. On the way down we stopped with mountains friends in their holiday home at South Durras. They said they’d had word of something happening near Narooma and warnings of extremely adverse weather conditions but we couldn’t find out much. We arrived to blue skies at Bateman’s Bay – the first blue I’d seen for a month. When we approached the road to our AirBNB near Corunna Lake there was a sign saying it was closed due to bushfires. Our hosts were mystified – they hadn’t heard a thing. There was nothing much on Fires Near Me. It was 22 degrees. There was no smoke. It seemed fine.
A massive thunder crack at 5.30am signalled the lightning strike on Cobargo, which was just 20km from where we were sleeping. We rose at 8am to sky so dark we thought it was dawn and found our hosts had pulled in their staff and kids to prepare for the conflagration. We decided we would get out of their way. We drove into town to find no traffic lights and that all roads out to the north and south were cut. By 9am we were settling into the evacuation centre at Narooma PCYC, with friends and safe, but without communications, electricity, access to shops, fuel, banks, or any information about what was happening in the hills around us. We are all such babies without our smartphones and EFTPOS – by 11am most of us had no reception and later that night the mobile services were all diverted to emergency services so phones did not work at all. Fires Near Me crashed completely (it links to 000 callouts, which were apparently coming every four seconds from Cobargo, Bateman’s Bay and Malua Bay) and Live Traffic and Google Maps conflicted. Everyone turned to ABC radio, listening in using the precious batteries in our cars.
We all sat there under a deep red sky, with the air filled with smoke and ash, and a light drizzle that put black streaks over everything. By 11am the sky was black overhead (that was Cobargo) but you could see the fire roaring through the hills to the west – a foreboding glow on the horizon. Puffs of white to the north-east were, we later found out, fires in Bateman’s Bay, Malua Bay, Rosedale. And to the north was Mogo and Lake Conjola and Bendalong. Lots of people had come in a hurry, woken by a knock on their door in the early morning and told they had to leave, and no one would be able to defend their properties. The day was long in the gloom of the PCYC but what else could we do but settle in. Suspended animation, literally.
I hasten to add here that we two were fine – we had cash, some food, and a car full of petrol so we knew we had the capacity to leave if the roads ever opened. We weren’t worried for ourselves and none of our kids were with us but we felt for those who had houses in the line of the fire and my friend with her young child and baby. Still, it was sobering to see how long it took for the state government agencies to arrive, and how hard it was to rustle up enough generators, fuel, water, medicines, nappies, blankets and foodstuffs to keep everyone going – even in a country area where properties are often equipped with such things. There was plenty of initiative on display – local butchers, bakers and cinemas came by with the stuff from their now useless freezers and community and church organisations whipped up tea and coffee and sausage sizzles (no vegans were catered for). Someone filled a car boot with dog food. Anglicare Disaster Relief and the Red Cross were there and began asking everyone to sign in. The ABC radio was a godsend and big thanks to Telstra for offering free use of the payphones and wifi points, where dozens gathered. Eurobodalla Shire Council did a superb job of keeping people calm and informed and the RFS were great at telling us what they did and did not know (the latter outweighed the former). Regular meetings outside the PCYC with the disaster liaison person, the police and the RFS were a key source of information and helped put paid to the whispers of what was really happening. We were safe but we were cut off and we knew nobody was really in charge.
We managed pretty well. The 500 or so people in and around the PCYC, and the couple of thousand in the town, were good and kind to each other. The dogs (so many!) were serene and seemed to understand the situation required them to be sensible and sedate. Cats sat silently in a line of boxes near where the tea was being made and horses ate grass on the foreshore. A friend in the mountains reached us via facebook in a rare moment of mobile reception and put us onto her mother, who had a waterfront apartment, and there we waited, safe and comfortable, wondering what would happen next. We got her gas BBQ going so we could eat and wandered about the town on New Year’s Eve, up to the candlelit golf club and down to the foreshore, where a disco mounted by the ‘Renegade Fire Services’ entertained a group of dancers and dogs, many of them stranded in town like us. A DJ spun tunes from the top of a demobbed fire truck to welcome in the New Year, sending laser lights through the smoke and making a sublime moment of people dancing and smiling despite everything.
Waking up the next day was a time to count the many losses. We heard of lost lives. We heard that other towns had no water or sewerage. People were still coming into the evacuation centre but the roads opened momentarily to the south, presenting the first opportunity for those who had petrol enough to get right away to Canberra or Eden. Of course the locals could not so easily flee.
We waited one more day and walked the town and its beaches. The shoreline was full of crumpled black leaves that looked like shards of silk; like widows’ weeds. We laughed with Blue Mountains locals who had also come to the south coast with the same dumb idea of escaping our own fires. We found new friends in Narooma and at a phone box I ran into a former workmate who lives there now. The next morning we headed out ourselves, driving south although the northern route was technically open (it turned out nobody got past Ulladulla that day). We drove through poor blasted Cobargo, through smoking black paddocks (not bush, just paddocks and scrub and open land that is normally green and should not burn like that). We climbed Browns Mountain, through the noxious gas laying over the bare-eaten Monaro Plains, and to family in the choking air of Canberra. The next day we threaded our way up through two more fires, and got home to Katoomba. At home we endured the disgusting heat of Saturday, watching the ABC as the disaster rolled over even more of the south, knowing the southerly buster we all used to pray for would bring more death and destruction. The tiny bit of rain we got yesterday only prolongs the agony.
If this fire season is the new normal, we aren’t ready for it. This country needs extraordinary resources to fight the fires but also to deal with the people displaced by their arrival. An emergency is only one lightning strike away from anyone and it’s going to be a challenge to keep communications up and maintain evacuation routes. And what do we do about the air that is poisoned and the black slicks in our seas and the animals starving because the whole land is burned?
I’m really pleased to announce that a couple of months ago I was notified that I’ve received a project grant from the Australia Council for the Arts to further my work on Musquito. This funding means I can take some time out and write, and I am so very grateful!
This morning I had the pleasure of doing breakfast radio in Canberra with the wonderfully clever Dan Bourchier, to talk about my work here as writer-in-residence on The Level and Endeavour House, where I am hosted by the Australia Institute. It was a great interview and if you care to listen, it’s about 1:45 into this segment.
I’m really pleased to announce that I’m starting my new year in Canberra, where I’m the inaugural writer-in-residence for the Australia Institute at The Level, in Endeavour House. It’s a funky co-working space in Manuka, and I’m very happy to be here.
I’m working on my long-cherished project about Musquito, and I can’t begin to tell you how encouraging it is to receive this support from the Australia Institute, which is an organisation devoted to progressive ideas and social change. Great people, and as well as that the food in Manuka is to die for! It’s quite strange to be entirely alone and have no one to look after, but also wonderful.
In March I addressed a lunchtime seminar of the Royal Australian Historical Society and talk to them about the book. The Society then suggested I turn the talk into a podcast, so I had a go. It was interesting recording the podcast – I tried to use the radio trick of talking like you are having a conversation with a friend, except if I really was having a conversation with a friend it wouldn’t sound as formal or polite as this.
There is no MP3 for this, you have to watch it on YouTube, but that’s cool because then you can see the images I’m talking about.
Megalong Books invites history buffs and students and teachers to an afternoon at Katoomba Falls Kiosk with Katoomba local Dr Naomi Parry and Sydney University’s Professor Stephen Garton, two of the four authors of a New South Wales and the Great War, a new book that Governor David Hurley called “visually arresting and authoritative account of NSW during and after the Great War”.
When the Great War began in August 1914, the people of New South Wales took up the call to arms. NSW sent more people than any other state to serve overseas and many more worked and volunteered to support the war effort. But the economic, political and emotional strains of war, and the loss of so many young men, and some women, in the service of their country, fanned social and political divisions and wrought lasting changes to the society to which serving men and women would return.
New South Wales and the Great War tells this story. It is drawn from the rich visual and written records held by the Anzac Memorial, the State Library of NSW, NSW State Records, the NSW Department of Education and the University of Sydney, as well as collections from Bourke to Gilgandra and Newcastle to Lithgow.
It is the official publication of the NSW Centenary of Anzac Advisory Committee and over summer it was distributed, free of charge, to all public and Catholic schools in New South Wales and to most libraries.
This event is an opportunity to meet the authors and the publisher learn about the writing of this important publication. Venue: Katoomba Falls Kiosk, Cliff Drive, Katoomba Date: Sunday 30 April 2017 Time: 2-4pm
Entry by gold coin donation. Megalong Books will be selling copies on the day.
Workwise, it’s all been good and I’m pretty happy with that particular life choice. My son was born 18 months after I started my PhD, which I don’t really recommend, although he is the best thing I’ve ever done. Once when he was four and tucking him into bed he told me he wanted to stay up to help me write my PhD. It seemed like it would take forever and it did because he was six before I was done with it. Now, of course, he’s six foot two. Ten years. Wow.
I’ve just come back from Tasmania, my home country. Today is 50 years since the 1967 bushfires, which devastated southern Tasmania. More than 60 people died. The Huon and Channel were also devastated and the town of Snug ravaged, leaving many dead. The fires raged so hard in the foothills of Mt Wellington that authorities contemplated setting off a line of explosives across West Hobart to stop them penetrating into the CBD.
Big fires leave scars. I wrote this in 2015, in an essay I contributed to Dee Michell, JZ Wilson and Verity Archer’s Bread and Roses: Voices of Australian Academics from the Working Class:
We arrived in 1974, at a time when there was little reason to hope in the valley. At intervals in the green rolling hills you could see ash-coloured chimneys, twirled with sheets of whitened corrugated iron and bed springs, marking places where people had lived before the 1967 bushfires, but were too scared or dead to return and clean up. The deaths spooked me as a kid. Tales of people who had hidden in water tanks and boiled had a horrible relevance when you heard that the fires had touched the very corner of your new bedroom. It is only as an adult that I’ve come to appreciate the economic loss that went with those other, profound losses.
There’s a Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery exhibition on at the moment that talks about it, and some brilliant ABC Tasmania and LINC photo galleries that really show how awful it was. As climate change intensifies, we could all face this. I really hope we don’t.
I just got news that I’ve been accredited as a professional historian by the Professional Historians’ Association of NSW & ACT. This means I can add another set of letters after my name: MPHA.
It’s very exciting to be accepted as a peer by a bunch of historians I respect. On a more personal level, way back when I was a baby heritage practitioner, just after I arrived in Sydney, I worked with some fabulous professional historians. I used to wonder how they got their jobs and now I guess I know.