A weekend away - the other side of the hill.

On Sunday we drove away from our island cottage back towards the town. From gravel roads to tarmac, from rural peace to a shopping strip. Cafes with coffee. Shops with tarot readings, crystal healing and “Native American Books” (whatever they are). The coffee appealed, the quackery did not. If I want quackery it needs to come with a sense of fun. So I went to the river to watch the ducks. Much better. Very calming. The world is improved by ducks.

Leaving town took us up through thick eucalypt woodlands dense with undergrowth and scattered with houses, some charming, some surprising, some ugly. More islands surrounded by bush. The bush here is not untouched by any means. Logged over many years, but not destroyed, it retains most of its charm and much of its wildlife. A road side tree stump was evidence of former industry. The postbox slot cut into its base allowed a plank to by inserted, and on this a saw-man stood high above the trees flared buttresses. Bypassing the natural support, toppling a giant, felling a natural skyscraper. The road leads to the summit of Mount Donna Buang.

Mount Donna Buang offers the closest snow to Melbourne, but we are deep into spring and the snow has long gone and we were not bound for the summit. We turned off and parked. It was noticeably colder than down on the valley floor. Here the cool of altitude and the moisture of a steep valley come together to make a damp gully full of tree ferns and fire sensitive trees. Myrtle Beech and Sassafras, moss covered and complex. Not the eucalyptus dominated woodland of the rest of the mountain’s slopes, but different, older. A kind of rainforest lite.

These places are an echo of an earlier, wetter Australia. A place where rain was more reliable and fires did not flare. Now they only hang on in special places, where water pools and fire avoids. They are special places, damp places, ancient places. From high above, on a viewing platform, you could look down through the layer upon layer of leaves, each with its own glimpse of the sky above. Each harvesting the sunlight, each making golden sugar through the alchemy of photosynthesis. The green engine that drives the planet.

We left the cool of the gully and headed to the other side of the hill, down a long unmade road, gravel rattle and seeping water. Not a main road, but a direct road. As we traveled on, the bush began to show signs of change. Blackened stems and trunks, patches of untouched green followed by more charcoal. Fire and eucalyptus go hand in hand. They thrive in each other’s company. This is a landscape molded by fire. Many of the trees were coated in a fuzz of green, not dead but regenerating. Tiny shoots growing direct from the trunk of the trees, coating the blackened tree in green. They seem to be gift wrapped in green tinsel, coated in a veneer of recovery.

The tree ferns were growing back as well, not from the edge, but from the centre. If it is the skin of the gums that would bring them back after fires, it was the heart of the tree ferns that survived. Fiddle heads burst up from scorched stems, looking like huge shepherds’ crooks. Or bishop’s crozier. No wonder this re-growth, this resurrection, takes on religious meaning for many. The symbolism blunt, obvious and misplaced.

The further down the hill we went the greater were the signs of fire. More black. Less green. The roadside barriers were dented down into small metal valleys where trees had fallen, crashed into them. There were dozens of these metal valleys on the main road, to the left and right, each one marking where a tree had fallen. In the distance the hills were grey, streaked with black. Bare. They seemed to be without life.

We arrived in Marysville before we realized we were there. Stopping at a junction where the town was not, we realized we had arrived. The town was missing. On February 7th 2009 a fire came over the hill to Marysville and house by house, street by street, took it. 34 people died in Marysville on that day, in their homes, in their cars, seeking shelter, fleeing the flames. 173 people died in the fires in Victoria that day. The images from that day unbelievable, the experience unimaginable.

I spent that day, Black Saturday, in the safety of my suburban home. Less than one hour’s drive from my front door people were dying. The air that day was being torn apart by a dry northern wind, temperature above 40o for the third day in a row. A day full of warnings and fear. As the fires ripped through homes and lives, it also ripped through the certainties we had built up over recent years. Stay or go? Defend or retreat? A fire index that was off the scale.
A scattering of buildings were left intact by the fire. Not undamaged, because nothing could be undamaged by this fire. The bakery on the corner, the café next door. But they are now surrounded by an isolating nothing, not the welcoming isolation of the cottage we stayed in, but a deeper, more frightening nothing. For this is a nothing that was once filled with life and now it is not. These are specks of light in a void. For many they are a marker of hope, but they are also a reminder of what has been lost.

Fire has always cast a shadow over summer, but the Black Saturday fires changed this shadow’s length. It now reaches from the bush into the lives of suburban Australians – into the lives of most of us, for Black Saturday reached out and took something from all of us.

For many it took away the certainty of safety. Towns are not meant to be swept from the map here, such things happen elsewhere, not here. It happens in countries with rotten infrastructure and corrupt governments, countries with plagues and dictators. How can it happen in a town where I took my son for a holiday? Where we stopped for coffee and cake? Where I saw my first King Parrot? In time the bush will recover, and people are determined that Marysville will recover as well.

The days grow warmer and summer approaches. How can people sleep at night without hearing the fires rush? Not the winter fire of hearth and home, of long cold nights and a glass of red wine. But a fire plucked from the pages of myth, a living monster, whips of flame, an elemental force.
But we need the fear to be real. Without it we will be trapped again by a belief that we can handle anything. People who live in bush fire areas – and given what happened here or in Canberra who does not? – need to embrace the fear and make it real. Only when that happens can we know what it really means to live on the other side of the hill, in a fire prone land.


RBenz said…
Some journeys we want to relive, some we dread. Reading your description and commentary of the Black Saturday fires and the damage caused took me on both. I remembered the visit to the area where I saw flocks of beautiful birds and experienced wonderful tastes of sausage rolls and afternoon tea. I remembered the reports I got about the fires from my remote news services and my 'on-location' connections alike. I will look back at the photos I took during my visit and remember the comments from my friend about the dangers of purchasing a house in the fire zones and foothills. Your recent pictures contrast with the serene photos I have in my Australian photo albums. Your comments and thoughts during the fires are "heard" in your most recent posting. I have learned about the importance of fire in Australia's natural history but this kind of fire is hard to accept. I am encouraged by the re-growth described by your posting, but saddened by the impact on the human environment that this natural tragedy caused. As always, thank you for your thoughts and perspective.
Hilke Breder said…
Stewart, thanks for stopping by my blog and for referring me to this post. I remember the fire; it made for horrifying reading in the newspapers. We are deluding ourselves if we think we are in charge of Nature, and are shocked and suprised again and again by tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes... We believe that our civilization will last forever, forgetting the history of so many others that have vanished.

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