We were staying at a friend’s house halfway down the New South Wales coast, partly as respite, an escape from the threat of fire that was lighting up the east coast of the nation, and partly as a staging post. Assuming the Currowan fire was past its peak and the highway was opening to traffic, we hoped to travel to our holiday home on 5 acres, midway between Mogo and Malua Bay, 4 and a half hours south of Sydney. It had been a family retreat for 35 years. It was full of stories. The ashes of my mother stood on a shelf in a corner, above jigsaw puzzles, Cluedo, Monopoly and playing cards. Every piece of furniture, every photo on the wall, every plate, cup, saucepan, bed, blanket and toy told a story. The bed bases made by my father. The hole in the fly screen above the kitchen sink, (legacy of a curious possum). Christmas decorations in a box on a shelf in the linen closet and three decades of discarded boogie boards in the laundry. Memories and stories continued outside the house. Trees, hills, rises and falls in the paddock, occasional streams, patches of thistle: the ‘briar patch’, home in recent times to a family of rabbits. Bonfire sites here and there. The tree shelter favoured by kangaroos. And, at the base of the hill below the house there was a dam. Home to eels and mosquitoes, a watering hole for horses and the roo family that traversed the valley. Here This was where ten-year old Jim caught an eel that escaped when it bit through his fishing line and five-year old Owen came back from his first solo tramp with leaches in his boots. And Martin, a friend and near neighbour, declined to help clear scrub on the far side. “Tiger snakes, mate” he said. Five acres is not a lot of land, but it is enough to wander. And wonder. Fallen trees to rest against, tree bark to crunch underfoot, perspective to be gained, imagination to invest: a vege garden (made safe from plundering animals), beehives, solar panels feeding the grid, a tyre swing, a tree house, a music festival perhaps, in our own little amphitheatre.
And yet, distance required that the place was neglected much of the year. Used mainly in school holidays, and not every school holiday, nor for the whole of the holidays. But surprisingly, despite neglect, it was in reasonable condition. Animals kept the grass down. Rain, when it came, kept the pasture a shade of green. Big, arcing gums and smaller mischievous wattles continued to grow, providing privacy and shade. We were almost invisible from the road. Not even Google Earth could spot the house. And the house itself: the walls were sturdy, the roof solid, the front deck sheltered us from the heat of the morning sun and the metal box fire kept us warm through winter. Occasional problems with spiders and rats and snakes and possums but these were manageable. Not a place we could, or would want to rent out, it was for us. I loved this place, and when my parents died I had the privilege of inheriting it, with my family. It became ours. And we loved it as much as they.
Then in the morning of New Years Eve 2019 the wind picked up a fire, burning south of Nelligan, 15km inland and 25km northwest of our place, and threw it in our direction. Since September fires had been raging to the north. Along the east coast forested bush had been primed by months of dry heat. The front of our fire must have been fifteen kilometres wide. The heat, reportedly immense, the air bristling dry, the wind pushed the furnace south and east. I doubt much could have been done. The south of Bateman’s Bay was clipped and some way south the north of the tourist town of Mogo was fiercely set on fire. Back from the highway, numerous houses in the streets of this long standing aboriginal Yuin town were destroyed, along with the recreation of a colonial goldmine and plenty of bush-bound dwellings. And while it skirted but did not ignite the famed Mogo Zoo, more than twenty houses on acreage, on our road, around the corner, exploded: a small portion of the 2,000 or so lost in the area overall.
There were three main torrents of fire that day. All driven by shifting winds. “It just picks it up and throws it at you” said Diane. The first came through from Mogo, through the catchment for the local dam, which backs onto our place. It savaged us and lots nearby, circled, then surrounded Malua Bay, as hundreds huddled on the beach, with children and horses and precious goods. Martin had to double back at 6am when he got the evacuation call. He went towards the fire to collect horses agisted on nearby properties. “Burnt hooves and frightened, but ok.” As in so many cases, the men held back, delayed their departure or doubled back for various reasons and the wives and children were sent to safety, to wait. And fear.
The Malua fire circled south. It enclosed Mackenzie’s Beach It took out everything in North Rosedale, then wound back in our direction again. Another flame front came from the south, it landed at the outskirts of Broulee, which was perfect fodder for fire, flat, open, dry and unprotected, but before much damage could be done the wind tripped this one north as well.
One couple who stayed by their house, towards the sea, across the ridge from our place, saw the fire cross three times as they circled their house with hoses putting out embers for over eight hours. Despite protective clothing their arms, hands and faces were pock marked with burns. Soles of boots melted. Their house survived. Diligence, location, luck and shifting winds. And four sheep survived on another neighbour’s block. While their wooden pole house was condemned to burn, despite three days of hard graft preparing for fire. The sheep gravitated to the gully, and in the mud and moisture managed to live.
We were called by Diane, who was among the last to leave. It was about 10am. She just said, “it’s gone.”
I wasn’t able to go down for ten days. The highway and local roads were closed and most burnt sites were declared too dangerous. When it became possible the journey was through devastation. Outside the towns the highway was lined by burnt forest from south of Nowra almost to Moruya. And that was only the highway and only the route I travelled. Inland, north, south, southwest the devastation must have been unimaginable. In two hours of driving I saw houses that had been saved, some miraculously surrounded by burnt trees and many that had been destroyed and kilometre after kilometre of forest after forest after forest after forest blackened otherworldly. Finally, at our place tree remnants, stumps and logs, were still smoking. I parked on the road and walked down the drive. Fences wrecked. Huge black stalks of trees everywhere. The sky seemed to reflect the darkness. Life in black and grey. The gate was open, the sheds alongside a ruin. The wood that framed them had vapourised. Burnt, buckled metal strewn across the ground. Woodwork tools and steel framed cabinets charred, split apart and discarded, as if, no resistance, no significance. Only the metal trunk my father bought back from WW2 was identifiable. Baked, but identifiable. Then there was the house.
A few months later I was asked to talk in an online seminar organised by the University of Lucknow, India, celebrating World Environment Day. Previously, I had written a book chapter that concluded, “The Anthropocene is not something that is occurring out there. It is local, it is everyday and it is personal. In effect, I am the Anthropocene, and I take responsibility.” The theme of the Lucknow talk was derived from this: we are living the circumstances of our own creation. We are it and it is us. With this in mind I chose to talk about the fires. In retrospect, I had no choice. I was still amidst them, constantly calculating them, they were over this shoulder, then that. This dream, this conversation, this child’s fear, this child’s silence. As a family we seemed to be inhabited by them. In trying to explain my connection to the flames and the social ecology of their creation, I wanted to move my Indian audience beyond what which they already knew. And an Indian audience knows a great deal about the relationship between society and ecology. Their gap between the natural world and human experience is far less cultivated. We in Australia, who encounter the world through screens, hide death behind doors and spend much of our time in urban spaces deliberately designed to keep the natural world at bay, do not tolerate sacred cows in peak hour traffic in the same way as Indians do. In taking responsibility I wanted to treat the fires as something other than a natural event or an alien other arriving to bedevil. I wanted to acknowledge our complicity: our intelligence and our creativity, in relation to fire. In effect, our contribution. I wanted to acknowledge it as damage we did to ourselves. I said,
This is my nature, my land, it was a place for my family, my people, my history, and it is my fire. I live in it and through it. Val Plumwood, an Australian eco-feminist was taken by a crocodile 20 or so years ago. She escaped. She said it was her fault. She said she was in the crocodile’s territory. Was I in the fire’s territory? Or perhaps my house was. Or am I wrong to give fire characteristics of this kind? Learning? Responsiveness? Perhaps they should be given to the wind that blew the flames or the drought that dried the land. Our wind, our drought and our flames. We live within a knowledge system: a complex web of inter-relationships that determines the form that life takes. And how it burns. We built our house. It burned to the ground. I am the fire, and I am that which remains.
The day I travelled down, ten days after the fire, I stood close by while a lone kangaroo, its brown fur soiled, perhaps singed, leapt across our newly darkened land. I saw other roos feeding by the roadside, when previously they would not have. I wondered the fate of the possum that broke the fly wire screen in the kitchen. What consequence, the fire?
I went to the support hub, set up in the aftermath to help those who had been affected. The Salvos made sandwiches. Numerous people asked if I needed to talk. My main priority was getting help to clear the debris, the remains, the tons of wrecked house, from the site and my questions saw me referred from one desk to another. Finally, when I was sent back to the desk I first asked at I gave up, solicited a sandwich and sat in the sun, watching army reservists play cricket with children.
By my next visit gum trees were sprouting new green through charcoal bark. Rain had fallen and burnt branches were caught in the flow of water and emerging growth. The debris remained, but not for long. A government agency cleared the house site. Thank you. What now? I surrendered. I placed the problem at a distance, beyond consideration. No thoughts of the future and despite irregular questions, no thoughts of rebuilding. Why? Why become this vulnerable again? The neighbour on the hill had a steel framed construction in process before the fire. He continued afterwards. It didn’t make sense. I didn’t know him well enough to ask. I returned to Sydney.
Nonetheless, we booked a house nearby for the next school holidays. In that time we came and visited the site and wondered, mostly silently, how we might aid recuperation. We looked more than took action; talked more than did things. It was overwhelming. It was too much. Beyond action. We found fragments of memories scattered in the soil: parts of earthenware bowls, ceramic shards from the purple toilet, bits of primary school pottery. We looked for remnants of the new bathroom, installed in October. Specially chosen tiles and taps and… nothing recognisable. We wandered further. The water tank had melted. 100,000 litres must have cascaded down that hill. Two garden sheds were standing, blown out, the walls convex. Inside the metal ends of garden tools, a rake, a pick, a shovel and a mattock, their wooden shafts non-existent. Only a heavy metal post hole digger retrievable. The orchard nearby, that we had cleaned up two months before, unrecognisable. The hay shed no more than a roof turned into a corrugated iron floor. We bought gloves and a tree saw and heavy-duty branch cutters with the intention of clearing fence lines. A token effort. Bulldozer or, at very least a bobcat required. We sat on our haunches on the old house site and looked down and across the growing grass and the mystifying bleakness of the damage. And to an extent we remembered. Perhaps we were numb no more. Feeling somehow and missing the house and the holidays but more than that, the welcome comfort and convenience of a place we knew deeply – part of ourselves – as distinct from a holiday rental.
Finally, one day, we landed on the possibility of a way forward: an architect’s drawings of an earth-covered house, made of compressed earth blocks. Not only was it beautiful, two tunnels built into the slope, with a soil and grass roof, four bedrooms in one tunnel and the kitchen, dining and living space in the other, and a large sweeping front window that gathered acres of sun. Insulated by the earth, cool in summer and warm through winter, it was in the earth, almost of the earth, not an imposition, built on top. Perhaps this was the answer. Not a target, no exposed timber, not a fire cave to shelter in while fire raged but a house, a home, a perfect fit to an existing site with, according to the architect, near certainty it could survive a conflagration like the last one. Not a place to shelter in while fire raged, but a structure that would not burn to the ground. It would be the ground. Fire shutters would protect the windows; nothing flammable externally. My interest rose from three storeys beneath consciousness. The words mildly enthusiastic might even have been muttered.
We talked further with Steve, the architect. We discussed further possibilities. He sent images of options. The first was two tunnels in parallel, both facing north, with a linking door. Then two tunnels pivoted at 45 degrees, from the rear, one facing north, the other north east; then the tunnels pivoting at 45 degrees from the front with a covered deck providing the link; then parallel again, with one tunnel raised higher than the other to aid runoff and reduce water pooling between the tunnels. So, water pooling was an issue, which means waterproofing is also an issue, and then of course, water collection, because we are not on town water and there is no conventional roof. We talked more with Steve: a genuine, friendly guy, who seemed to know his stuff. We discovered he grew up in the same region as me, knew people I knew, knew people who knew my brother, who is also in the building game. This project was coming home. Then he set up a meeting with his builders on the coast: Harry, who seemed more like the project manager, who had the machine to make the special bricks needed to support the arch, and Frank who led the building team. They answered our questions, all of them, confidently, coherently, comprehensively. They worked to allay our nervousness, they promoted the concept, talked up the site as already ideal, minimal preparation required, reckoned the numbers of earth blocks needed, discussed septic tank and water storage practicalities, described the membrane designed to waterproof the ceiling and joked with us about parking cars on the roof, when finished. And they gave us an early calculation of cost – within budget – and projected a likely finish date. October 2021. “Ready for Christmas.” Fantastic. A practical solution, low impact, exceeding flame zone regulations and affordable. What about Council? “They love it.” They’ve already approved one? “No, they know about it. Four weeks max.” Nothing standing in our way. We imagined our place anew. The view once again off the deck, early morning as the fresh orange sun rose over the trees. The dew on the grass glistening, the magpies warbling, children stirring before rolling over and back to sleep again. Almost quiet. Almost alone. Almost safe and secure. Almost home. All that remained was the actual construction.
Meanwhile, we booked a tradesman to replace most of the fencing. We arranged a bobcat to clear the line. It was done well. The first lump sum was extracted from the insurance payout. I imagined the ground being prepared for the slab, the slab being poured, and I imagined the truck delivering the first load of locally made compressed earth blocks. This was the earth’s response to the fire, an acknowledgement of the intersection of the social and the ecological, sensitively responding through aesthetically grounding human needs in gently sloping land. Minimising the intrusion, hiding us beneath the ground, looking out, not disturbing. Plants climbing up from below, threading their way through the soil atop the tunnels. Greenery sprouting. Wildlife feeding on our roof. Sacred cows in peak hour traffic across our five acres. I am the fire, and I am that which remains. Human ingenuity synchronised with the cycles of nature. A contribution to forward thinking: to planning for a collective, sustainable future.
Then the phone call came. Human ingenuity, too clever by half. Turns out Harry did not actually have the machinery to make the bricks. Turns out Harry had taken deposits from other people on promise of delivery of bricks, which he did not have the machinery to make. And Steve was refusing to deal with Harry and Frank had unwittingly become the vehicle through which other property owners were billed. And the flame proof underground house was burning down. This time there were no lightning strikes, the flames were lit by humans. This time it was arson. The results were the same. No house, no home, no dream.
The place remains, the land, and we are determined to preserve it and to pass it on. It never was and hopefully never will be just an investment, something to cash in at a later stage. It is valued, cared for and loved for what it is and what it might become one day with careful and considered stewardship. We know our neighbours down the valley, some of them, and our lives intersect as do our access roads, fence lines, pastures and spreading trees. And the animals that jump over and slide through the wires that divide us. They are joint responsibilities, so is our care for our place and our stories of our experience of the valley. All of us dispossessed of our houses, have shared needs. We talk of the present and we imagine possible futures. We hope, lose hope and hope again. This community, these affections extend further, beyond the physical immediacy of our individual and shared environment.
I teach. It has been central to my employment, and to an extent, my identity for thirty years. I have learned from remarkable people and places and experiences and I have integrated this sufficiently to be trusted to deal with the learning of others. I do this with commitment and a strong sense of responsibility. If I am to apportion the role of teacher to the land, to my place, to my environment then perhaps I need to apportion it commitment and responsibility as well. At the very least to respect this potential. Part of my human consciousness seeks agency in the world beyond. In other humans, other vertebrates and invertebrates, in living reality I seek understanding and inspiration. If I, and by ‘I’ I mean ‘us’, for as a species we are cojoined in love, are to survive, we need to do it in relationship to the world beyond our fences. Fire has no cognisance of fences, nor wind, nor drought, nor spreading green. All triggers for us to breath in, breath out and tell stories. I am the fire, and I am that which remains. And remains. And remains.