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We all smell the smoke, we all feel the heat. This environmental catastrophe is global by Alexis Wright
This prescient piece from May 2019 by inimitable activist and writer Alexis Wright is worth revisiting as we reflect on the summer of 2019/20, and extract from the tragedy a plan for the future.
‘We no longer think, Oh! that won’t happen again in a hurry, so there is nothing to worry about. There is not one among us in this country who is not feeling the heat of hotter and more extended summers. We smell the smoke of major environmental catastrophes and ask how safe we really feel in hotter summers, and we will become more anxious, as each extreme weather event comes by.’
Following The Fires by Harry Saddler
Recalling the terror and devastation of the 2003 Canberra bushfires, Harry Saddler writes of the horrendous consequences of lessons unlearned, and delivers a scathing indictment against the system that has allowed – indeed enabled – history to repeat itself.
‘The settler-colonial mindset on which this country called Australia was founded lives in stubborn denial of the reality of the landscape it inhabits… having seen once in my lifetime a community brought to its knees by fires I can tell you: nobody gets out of this unscathed… I’m writing and thinking about the Canberra fires of 2003 because if I stop to think about the fires all over Australia of these last months instead I don’t think I’ll be able to stop crying.’
Inside Australia’s climate emergency: the new fire zone produced by The Guardian
Beautiful, compelling, and affecting storytelling by The Guardian’s new multimedia series The frontline. This episode is a devastating firsthand account of the razing of historic Binna Burra Lodge, nestled up against lush Gondwana rainforest in the World Heritage-listed Lamington National Park in Queensland – country that does not normally burn.
Tony Groom – whose father founded the rainforest retreat in 1933 – surveys the charred remains of Binna Burra with his daughter Lisa, who grew up at the lodge. Pointing out a now lifeless tree that Tony planted for his late wife in 2007, the pair reflect that precious memories of family are so intimately bound to this place, magnifying the sense of loss and tragedy… ‘there’s ashes for my wife spread right around the house and here. And ashes for my mother around that tree… To me it’s everything. It’s the reason for living, the reason for being. It’s all that and more.’
Catastrophe, chaos and community spirit: How can Australia move on from the bushfires? by Huw Kingston
Writer and environmentalist Huw Kingston returned to Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands of NSW from England on the final day of 2019. He writes of the terror of the following days, ‘heartwarming stories among heartbreak’, and how Australia’s inaction on climate change has changed everything.
‘Scorched leaves and ash fell in the dark, as the wind blew strong. But the fire was still 12 kilometers away and emergency services believed it would not reach us that night. But all hell broke loose soon after 10pm. My phone pinged with warnings—the first fire, a second one, a third, a fourth… For decades, I have been proud to tell people I’m Australian. Invariably the reaction is positive. How they love Australia: Our landscape, our weird fauna, our people. Now I’m a little less cocky.’
The End Of The World As We Know It by Tim Hollo
As fire rages in Namadgi National Park near his home in Canberra, a heartbroken Tim Hollo reflects that even in the darkest of times, a laughing kookaburra can bring joy and be a harbinger of hope and deep change.
‘After months of breathing in the ghosts of gum trees, of koalas and cockatoos, how could we deny that we are all connected? Battered by fire, dust, floods and hail, how could we pretend we’re not completely reliant on the natural world? … If, at this moment, we learn the lessons of ecology and translate them into our politics and into how we work for change, this doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It could be the beginning of the next.’
Trapped by bushfires on the NSW south coast, my young family saw the very best of humanity by Timothy Lee
Timothy Lee woke up in Narooma on New Year’s Eve to a thunderclap, falling ash, choking smoke, and a sky his son described as ‘weird and wrong’. This moving story describes the family’s three-day journey back to Sydney, during which time fear, anxiety and overwhelming sadness contrasted with the love, generosity and ‘plain fucking human decency’ of many others caught up in the fires.
‘I feel great personal sadness for everything my dad and Sally have lost. But they still have their home and their lives. I feel a broader sadness for everyone down the south coast who has lost so much more. And I fear what is still to come for the area. I’m angry and frustrated and a bit hopeless at the lack of leadership and refusal to come to grips with what’s driving this catastrophe, and that with the onslaught of worsening climate change this is going to become a kind of new normal. I’m in tears.’
Mourning a disappearing world as Australia burns by Jessica Friedmann
Writing of ‘the fear of fire [that] runs so deeply’ and of the inferno that recently threatened her hometown of Braidwood in the Southern Tablelands of NSW, Jessica Friedmann acknowledges the undeniable link between 250 years of land mismanagement, our changed climate, and the unprecedented ferocity of the fires Australia experienced this summer.
‘The hardest burden is knowing there is no help coming. A month after this particular fire started – our fire, I have begun to think of it as, the fire that, of the all the conflagrations up and down the East Coast, is the one that has the power to devour or deliver us – Prime Minister Scott Morrison has declined to send extra firefighters. Instead, he offers thoughts and prayers… My anger is so ferocious, it has died down into exhaustion.’
Living hell by Bronwyn Adcock
This truly harrowing account of the NSW South Coast bushfires demonstrates how the distance between journalists and the trauma, sadness, and devastation they cover collapses in a climate-changed world.
Bronwyn Adcock fled the Currowan fire as it surrounded her property, but spent a terrifying hour in limbo waiting to hear if her husband – an RFS volunteer – and their home had survived the deadly blaze.
‘The wait to see if your home is still standing is a dark night of the soul. That night, I’d been told that while the RFS got Chris out, it was too dangerous to stay and protect our house, so I should expect the worst.’
And then, the day that will be forever etched into our national psyche and landscape – December 31 – unleashed a fresh wave of fear and anxiety as Bronwyn’s brother and his family were evacuated from Cobargo.
‘I turned on the RFS scanner and it was horror and utter chaos. A plea to stop multiple residents from the historic town of Cobargo fleeing straight into the path of the fire. News that shops in the main street of Cobargo were on fire. And a desperate voice: “There’s no bloody trucks, so we’re buggered.” By morning, around 4000 people were sheltering on a headland in the little coastal town of Bermagui, including my brother and his family. Sitting at the kitchen bench at Bawley Point, around breakfast time, I heard a report: “Mate, I think we could be one hour from impact on Bermagui and we have no trucks there.” I thought I was going to vomit.’
The ‘Forever fires’ and Australia’s new reality by Konrad Marshall
This piece explores important questions raised by this summer’s diabolical fires, as well as revealing the emotional toll exacted on several photographers who captured the devastation on film.
Justin McManus of The Age was at Mallacoota covering the naval evacuation in early January… ‘At night, watching the devilish light of the fires reflected on the surface of the lakes there, he sensed rising anxiety in parents, and desolate confusion in the eyes of kids forced to wear gas masks. One morning he was told that birds had begun washing up on the shore of nearby Tip Beach. “I walked along that beach for half an hour, and there were just dead birds, entombed in this tide of black debris,” McManus says. “They’d been blown out to sea during the firestorm, and washed back up on this beach, as far as you could see. All these amazing, beautiful Australian birds. Rainbow lorikeets. Black cockatoos. Honeyeaters. Whipbirds. King parrots and crimson rosellas. That was heartbreaking.’
How surviving cancer helps me cope with the climate crisis by Katerina Cosgrove
A deeply personal and moving reflection from writer Katerina Cosgrove which shows how the darkest of times can provide strength and illuminate joy, even in the face of climate catastrophe.
‘My cancer diagnosis has given me a useful metaphor here. It has allowed to me to live – perhaps not comfortably – with this potent mix of dread and freedom, and to move – however clumsily – into a lightness which counterpoints the dark… I too have been through the flames. I too have survived.’
Breathing Fire by Georgina Reid
This exquisite piece about loss, suffering, and love says it all, really…
‘I’ve found it hard to breathe over the last months as I, like millions of others, watched my country burn. It was not just the ash and smoke clogging my airways. No, the constriction began deep in my stomach, wound its way through my chest and crept quietly up my throat. Breathing in brokenness, day after day, bruises a heart like an avocado squashed at the bottom of a shopping bag.’
Strength from perpetual grief: how Aboriginal people experience the bushfire crisis by Bhiamie Williamson, Jessica Weir and Vanessa Cavanagh
An important article articulating the unique grief and anxiety felt by Aboriginal people in response to the fires and climate change more broadly, and how these feelings compound the ongoing trauma of colonisation.
‘How do you support people forever attached to a landscape after an inferno tears through their homelands: decimating native food sources, burning through ancient scarred trees and destroying ancestral and totemic plants and animals? … For Aboriginal people, who live with the trauma of dispossession and neglect and now, the trauma of catastrophic fire, our grief is immeasurably different to that of non-Indigenous people.’
Toronto-based writer Ali Wines’ powerfully moving piece on returning to a climate-changed Australia over the summer, where suffocating heat, dead kangaroos, and dystopian dust bowls left her shocked, saddened, and uncertain about the future.
And then, the fires…
‘Shock and denial have turned to clawing grief and a knotted pit of anger. I don’t know who exactly to be angry with, because the cause of these fires is so multifaceted, but fundamentally I’m angry with greed… This grief and anger belong to all of us. This planet is our home, and there’s no more looking away: It is on fire.’
Black Summer by Paddy Grindlay
‘I’m trying to do what you want, Scott Morrison, “live optimistically,” to find upbeat notes in a scorched summer. I’m watching the cricket in my middle-class living room with a picture sharp enough to distract me from the hints of smog that loom over the gum trees hiding behind the screen. … But when I go to sleep, Scotty, I look upon the bushland out of my bedroom window and am reminded that my childhood home is in a spot not dissimilar to the hotspots which are now ashen. … Don’t shake my hand, do something.’
Pregnancy in the apocalypse by Gemma Carey
‘Why if I have no hope like my friends am I so determined that I’ve now become pregnant for the third time in a year? There are two answers to this. One is that I hope the hope will come. The other is that in choosing between the sadness of living a childfree existence because I do not believe the Earth can survive us, and the sadness of having a child whose future may be limited – I choose the latter.’
‘Being pregnant in a climate emergency is an existential challenge. Having a miscarriage in the epicentre of a climate disaster is a logistical one. … Our hospital rooms are full of smoke. MRIs and other machines are non-functional, their smoke alarms prohibiting them from working. … I don’t know what I will do from here, whether having lived on the frontlines of climate collapse will mean I choose to not get pregnant again.’