To Tim Watts: This fire is different

Dear Tim,

I am writing today to share my thoughts and feelings as well as my outrage about the ongoing bushfire crisis. As a member of your electorate I am not in immediate physical danger from the fires, however I hope that the piece below (which I wrote earlier this week) communicates the significant and very real personal impact of this terrifying, unprecedented disaster.

I furthermore urge you to escalate pressure on your colleagues and the government to act swiftly and decisively on climate change for the health, safety and security of current and future generations of Australians, and for this land we call our own. 

Thank you for reading.

Best regards,

Mandy

Williamstown VIC

Burnt leaves and ash washed up on Kianga Beach, Narooma

For the past couple of years or so I’ve found myself drawn to fire, even becoming a little bit obsessed with the idea of celebrating my mid-winter birthday rugged up on a remote, windswept beach, gathered around a crackling bonfire with my favourite people. There’s mulled wine, moon and stars, sea spray, a symphonic background of crashing waves, the strumming of a guitar, easy conversation and laughter. The fire not only warms us, but encourages reflection and connectedness, with each other and with nature. We’re mesmerised, invigorated and soothed, somehow, by its power and beauty. It’s a tonic, a reprieve from the day-to-day stuff of life that takes a toll on us emotionally, mentally, spiritually, physically. It reminds us that we’re in this thing together. It echoes that friendship and love and this planet we live on are precious, inimitable, wondrous. It insists that there is more to life than our frenetic work-focused realities suggest. So much more. Fire, in this imagining, is a force for good.

But this fire is different.

This fire is violence, writ large. This fire is terrifying. This fire is the antithesis of good. This fire is heartbreaking and sickening and a force of an entirely different kind. This fire is death. More than that, this fire is the epitome of selfishness, bravado, wilful ignorance, negligence. It’s an abandonment of both common sense and good judgment, an unforgivable, indefensible failure to act, to lead, to protect. It’s a catastrophe and a tragedy of such monumental proportions that it will scar us literally and figuratively for years to come. And the hubris and astounding lack of empathy that our PM continues to show in response is an indictment on the toxic masculinity that pervades politics today and fuels the separate spot fires of ignorance, scepticism, denialism, dereliction of duty and accountability. But he and his cronies insist that now is not the time to talk about climate change…

A dear friend asked me last week if my relationship with summer had changed, given the devastation and horror that this summer (and, in fact, spring) had so far wrought. I answered without really thinking, that no, I still loved summer… The feeling of sunshine and warm breeze on my skin, the scent of freshly cut grass, birds waking me at dawn and the cacophony of cicadas at dusk, swimming in the ocean, exploring nature, laying under a tree gazing up at the blue, blue sky. Freedom. These are not only amongst my favourite memories, but an enticement, a light at the end of the tunnel of each bleak Melbourne winter. Waiting for the slow unfolding of mind and body, the luxurious release of tension, the recalibration of my soul. Summer, my happy place.

But…

The season we are now experiencing is nothing like summers past. The blue sky has been replaced by mammoth clouds of smoke and ash, blocking the sun’s rays. The ocean is scattered with the same ash and burnt, blackened leaves. Dead birds, feathers also blackened, wash up on shore. Exploring nature is mostly out of the question, as great swathes of the landscape have been annihilated or cut off, and the simple act of breathing is hazardous. The green, green aroma of cut grass has been replaced by the smell of unimaginable things burning, acrid and choking. And all the grass has died off anyway during the monotonous, relentless drought leading up to this planetary and humanitarian crisis, now right at our doorstep.

Sunrise at Mystery Bay

Today I’m in Melbourne, inhaling drifting smoke particles but safe from serious physical harm, reflecting on the dreadful week gone by. I feel crushed, depleted, dumbfounded and so incredibly, inconsolably sad at the loss and trauma inflicted on so many living beings, on this piece of Earth we call home. Perhaps even sadder because my childhood summer holidays were spent on the south coast of NSW. Perhaps because just over a week ago I was there again, watching the sun rise in angry, brilliant colours through the smoke haze, and swimming in an ash-littered ocean. Perhaps because my partner and I drove through beautiful, historic Cobargo less than 48 hours before a firestorm tore through the town and beyond, incinerating buildings, trees, animals, people. Perhaps because we stopped on a bush-fringed coastal road to let an echidna cross slowly, clumsily in front of us, and I now can’t stop thinking that death by car would have been better, kinder, faster than the horrendous fate it may have since met. Perhaps because I know people who have lost their homes, and others who anxiously await the next onslaught, unable to sleep as they anticipate a change in the wind, or a stray ember. Perhaps because this isn’t an abstract, distant prediction of a changing climate, its cataclysmic impacts, its unknowable ripple effects. This is our worst fears and most terrifying nightmares come to life. This is hell on Earth, here and now. We knew it was coming, but we didn’t stop it.

So, as the fires continue their merciless, deadly assault, I can now say that my relationship with summer will and must change. My hope though is that from the ashes we will rise stronger, more focused, and more fucking determined to effect change and demand action from those in power. I know and must believe, for my sanity and emotional wellbeing, that the devastation and profound, visceral sense of loss felt by so many will fuel a different kind of fire. A fire that channels not only our collective grief, our anger, and our sorrow, but also our hopes and dreams, our ability and responsibility to build a pathway to a different, safer, kinder, more just future.

Fire as a force for good.

To Tanya Plibersek: The nightmares are better

Dear Tanya,

Normally when we write to politicians, we outline a problem, and what we want them to do about it. But you already know. You all know. Both about the problem and the solution. Its climate change. And we need to get to zero emissions, asap. No coal, no gas.

So here’s how I am feeling. You might not know this.

For over 8 years I have taught students at university about climate change. Over that time, I’ve been forced to gain skills on the run as a counselor, even though that should not be my job. My students cry in class, regularly. Sometimes they don’t show up and I worry about them. One of them once told me they were thinking about learning how to use a gun, so they could protect themselves when our food ran out. I can’t remember what I said, because I didn’t know what the fuck to say. I couldn’t have told her not to worry; these fires show she is right to worry. People are already struggling to find food – and water – in Australian towns, because of climate change. This is not a distant dystopia, it is here, it is now. So that makes me feel lost and inept. As a teacher, I am supposed to support and guide my students; but we don’t have a roadmap for this.

I’m writing to you because you are my MP, but you are also the Shadow Minister for Education and Training. So education professional to education professional, I want you to know this. Students don’t learn much when they are in the toilet retching with climate anxiety. Kids don’t learn much when their schools are closed, or evacuated, or burnt to the ground, because of climate change. Or rather, they don’t learn what you want them to, but they do learn other things. They learn that this shit is real. They learn what climate change feels like – terror, grief, hot flushes, the sting of vomit in your nose. They learn that decades of Australian politicians have abandoned them and their futures.

Smoky Sydney Sky
Smoky inner-Sydney sky

Across this summer, I’ve read the news every day, and sometimes watched all day, as these fires burned. That’s a lot of news. Its hard to do my job, or maintain relationships with people, when you can’t think about anything else. When you can’t sleep because you keep dreaming that you are frantically fleeing from flames, even though you’re nowhere near the fires. And then when you do wake up, your first conscious thought is that you don’t want to wake up because its happened. What you knew was going to happen, what you have worried about, taught about, talked about, what was predicted with incredible accuracy by scientists and firefighters yet was still literally unthinkable, happened. So you’d rather go back to the nightmares, because your world has ended. So that makes me feel childish, helpless, guilty, selfish and weak, because I am nowhere near as badly affected as those who were actually in the fires, and staying in bed is not an option.

Five years ago I wrote the following in a journal: ‘The future for me is dark, cloudy, a black hole of uncertainty.’ This was the visual that came up when asked to draw my feelings about the future in a climate grief workshop. I literally drew a black hole. Until now, I thought of it as metaphorical. I find it hard to make life decisions, because I don’t believe that any of those conditions that you normally assume will remain stable when making such choices will remain stable. How can I choose a job, a career, where to live, whether to have kids, when everything could unravel anytime – as these fires have shown. We know things will unravel, just not exactly where or when. I actually can’t envision growing old, or even older. My mind goes blank when I try to imagine such things. It’s a kind of living day-by-day, even though I am really well off.

Burnt leaves in hand
Burnt leaves in inner Sydney

But never did I think this vision would be a physical experience. I live in your electorate, the most inner city in the country, and I have blackened leaves falling in my yard. My windowsills are black with ash. We can catch it raining on us when we leave the house. Its blackening my lungs too, and knowing that the eucalypts live on, in a way, in my body, is not the nature experience I had hoped for when moving to Sydney. For those in Mallacoota, and Narooma, and so many other places along our east coast, the world around them has literally turned black, sky dark as night for hours of the day. But its longer term too: their whole worlds will be black with burnt bodies, those of trees, sheep, stumpy tail lizards, kangaroos, the whole place. It will be this way for a long time. So that makes me feel shocked, yet not surprised. And deeply, deeply sad. Even now, trying to write this letter, I can’t think about it; it hurts too much.

I didn’t want to write this letter because despite watching the news with an undercurrent of adrenaline, I’ve managed to maintain some sense of numbness. In some ways, I feel like I am losing a terminally ill relative – I’ve anticipated this coming for so long, and although I thought it wouldn’t be this bad for a couple more decades, I still feel that I have done part of the grieving already. So I am only partly shocked, or, I am somehow managing the shock. As a colleague said, after dreaming of this for so long, it now has a weird déjà vu quality to it all. So, the preemptive knowledge combined with utter shock makes me feel unreal. Like a fictional world has become real; but in reality it is the facts that have eventuated, and a fictional world – the one built on lies about economic growth protecting us from the environmental damage it causes – has ended.

I try not to tell people around me, but I do feel hopeless, useless and resigned. Like many, I feel I’ve been giving this my all for a while, and I don’t want to have to do it anymore. Of course, we have no choice. Those who lost their lives – including the animals and trees – didn’t have a choice. We have to keep fighting for them. So while I feel absolutely gutted, and totally exhausted, I also have moments when I feel energized. We must make this a turning point for Australia, and more importantly, we can. And you personally have more power than most.

So that’s how I feel. It took me some time to sit down and process this. What do you feel, in your heart? I encourage you to take the time to reflect on that too, and really ask yourself: can you really sit by while Australia continues to pretend coal is anything other than a death sentence for people, for places, for wildlife, for economies and for political careers?

Sincerely

Blanche,

Newtown,

NSW.