A different kind of fireside story.

So far this year we have been lucky. It’s been cooler and damper. The fires that have flared have been small, contained and, in the end, extinguished. This is more to do with luck than good judgement. Things have gone our way this year. This is in stark contrast to last year.

The Black Saturday fires that ripped through bush, communities and people’s lives last year are the ones that people remember. That’s understandable. But they were not the only fires that flared at that time. Others burned as well, and in these we can see the other side of Australian fires.

On Sunday 8th February Victoria awoke and tried to comprehend the unimaginable. How could so many, so much, have been taken in a single day? Such things should not happen here. On that day, as the news from elsewhere became worse and worse, lightning struck near Sealers Cove, on the east side of The Prom. The fire that was sparked did not claim any human lives. It did not burn any buildings. This fire was started by nature, not the hand of man. Dry lightning and drought are nature's fire starters, one the flame, one the kindling. Not all fires here have such origins.

Running with the wind the fire spread, burning over 25,000 ha. The Park was closed, the visitors evacuated. And the fire burned. It threatened Tidal River and this was protected with fire breaks and back burns. Robbing the fire of fuel, hoping to starve it to death. In some places the fire ran until it reached the sea. Only then did it stop. We may fight these fires with all we have, but sometimes it is only nature that can stop them. Rain. Sea. Barren sand or rock.

Nature started this fire, nature helped the fire flow and nature called a halt. And in the end nature will be in charge of the recovery as well. Many beautiful places were burnt, but this story does not have the grief and loss of the northern fires. This is a different kind of fire side story. Here you can visit and see the recovery without the guilt of voyeurism. You are not walking through the graves of strangers for your own pleasure.

(In Gallipoli, I felt the same discomfort at my presence. There were bones in the soil and you were careful where you put your feet. While the streets of Marysville had been swept clean, you were still careful where you put your feet.)

Burning for over five weeks, more than half of the park was flamed. As the fires passed the ecological clock for the habitat was pushed back towards zero. A kind of successional blank slate. Here was a pattern that had happened before and will, without question, happen again. The bush was not destroyed as was claimed on the news. Such statements ignore the fact that fire was here before humans and has shaped the landscape of this droughted land. Humans may have changed the way fires are, but fire is a constant.

When people look for an image of Australia they may often think of the Red Centre and Uluru. This is the public face of Australia, but the hidden face is fire. Fire shaped and will continue to shape many of our ecosystems. Climate change will not alter this. In fact it may bring the hidden face of our ecosystems into an even brighter public gaze.

I first visited the Prom's fire sites in April, when many areas were still closed. Fear of falling branches, litigation, damage and caution kept the paths closed. The land was in the first stages of recovery. Small shoots. Fragments of green. But life was everywhere. This was not an ecosystem that had been destroyed, just traumatised. Intensive care came in the form of rain and time. Both smooth over the damage. Both act as a balm to a fire scorched land. From hidden buds, buried roots and scattered seeds, life recovered.

Different plants react in different ways to fire. They cannot run, they cannot hide - they must find other ways to endure. Some give up their lives but throw their genetic legacy to the wind, only releasing their seeds after the fire has passed. A fertile seed bed made from the ash of their parents nurtures the growing seedlings. Sibling rivalry will be strong, many will fall by the way side. But the fire-opened seed pods and cases will rain life on the land. Such plants don't just survive fire, they need it. For the protective pods will only open in the presence of smoke and heat. In the end a lack of fire would kill these species, overtaken by plants that do not need to be licked into action by the fire's tongues.

Other plants take cover under the soil, or hide behind insulating, thickened bark. Sprouting back from secured living tissue, they may have given their limbs and leaves to the fire, but inside their fire shelters they persist. Seeds and secured cells bring life where there only seems to be death. I visited this place at Easter and knew that others were telling stories of resurrection. At The Prom there were no myths, no symbols, but there was life after death and a vision of persistence. Our ecosystems have not survived this far without adaptations that match the challenges they face. Natural selection has tooled them for success. Fire had rolled a stone across the grave, but adaptation pushed it back and life burst forth. People said the Prom had died, but I saw it living that day. Need we really look elsewhere for inspiration?

The fires did not sweep cleanly across the ground, it rushed here, slowed there and in doing so built a patchwork of burn. Sprinting up hills and running along ridge lines. Faltering where any dampness lingered. You could see this in the colour of the leaves. Some leaves burnt to brown paper crisps, that still fell in the wind almost two months after the fire. Some trees still with last year’s leaves, scorched, but still green. Often you saw such trees within meters of each other. The fire burnt the wooden support of a park sign and left the plants around it untouched. It melted road signs and baked path-sides hard. In places you could see where the fire had stopped. On one side ash, a meter or so further on, deep leaf litter, untouched by flame. It was as if the fire had said, enough is enough, and had just stopped. In some places it made no sense at all. Half way up hills. One side of a tree.

But even after only eight weeks the amount of growth was remarkable. Many trees were tinsel wrapped in leaves. Sprouting from trunk and branches. A burst of growth to kick start the recovery. Grass trees had a brown fringe to their wiry leaves. They looked like cheap fibre optic lamps, with the ends a dull brown and the base a vivid green. Fiddle heads of bracken pushed through the ash that had been soil. If you got on your hands and knees and looked, tiny flecks of life could be seen. A green economy rushing full tilt from a recession.

About 10 months after the fire the recovery had continued. Green streaks ran down the hill side where the water ran. Better than recent rain had helped. But the scars were still there. On the sides of the road near the grass strip air field - Icon Field as I call it, for in the winter wildlife icons collect there, seemingly for the benefit of tourists - the fire breaks were still bare. The first flush of flowers that had carpeted the road side had bloomed and gone. I thought that the place had gone backwards.

But I was wrong. On the road to Millers Landing, open now for the first time, the grass trees flowered like I have never seen before. Flower spike after spike, stretching into the distance. In the past these areas had been dominated by a dense low scrub, but this had been burnt off by the fires. Now the verticals in the landscape were the flowers of Grass trees, looking like clusters of spears. I had been glad to see one or two in the past, now there were thousands. Honeyeaters flashing from plant to plant, and with a relaxed and indifferent look Eastern Grey Kangaroos cropped the green pick of new growth.

In the streams the rain from the hills flowed to the sea's edge, the plants hurried towards maturity. The vivid green of the new growth and the black of the old stems, an abstract painting, with rapid, bold brush strokes.

Fire is a central process in Australian ecosystems. Remove it and they will change. We value them for what they have now, and what they have now is due to fire. This means we must come to value fire in our landscapes, as well as fear the things it can bring. Such a balancing act, between fear and value, will be a considerable challenge.

Walking with Ghosts.

It was wet on the way to work. Yesterdays rain still in the gutters, on the pavements, on the leaves of the plants pushing out over the path. Leaves, gum nuts and lost twigs were heaped in the gutter and packed under the tyres of parked cars. Water bottles, scraps of paper, random litter, buried in the flood line high point of the water's flow. But the sky had a blue tinge, the cloud was thinning, the rain gone. It had moved north. All that was left was its ghost.

As I stepped over the puddles and around the flood-washed wreckage I was walking through the past. Ghost water from yesterday sitting in today.

We are surrounded by ghosts, but mostly we don’t see them. Old trees. Old houses. Long abandoned signs on the sides of shops. Even the names of the suburbs I walk through are ghosts of a different time, when all things pointed to the north west where the point and source of it was. These ghosts tell a tale of a different time.

Our landscapes are full of ghosts as well. Ghosts of the missing and the ghosts of unintended actions. Only in Africa can you see a living mega fauna, elsewhere they have gone. Wiped away by humans, climate change or both. But the ecosystems still echo to the sound of their presence. Such huge animals would have shaped the land and without them we see a very different place.

According to some, even the way that fires now burn in Australia is a ghost, produced by the death of the mega fauna. These animals were huge lawn mowers, the evolutionary version of the suburban Sunday archetype. Just like their modern equivalents, they cut down the vegetation and recycled it. Early morning browsing, late afternoon sleep. But when they were lost the plants grew tall, for there were less mouths to eat them and over the years they built up. Tinder dry and waiting. The fires that they produced were huge and different. They had to be responded to. Fire was used to fight fire and country was cleaned up by small, cool patchwork fires. But when the next wave of change drove the people from their land the fires returned. And now summer brings fear as never before, and even in the urban heart of our cities, in the heat of the summer, you may not be free of a summer fire. Canberra proved that. We should all be aware.

In other wooded land the ghost is not fire but the ring of the woodman’s axe, the sweep of the saw. Many woodlands are as they are because they were cut down, many, many times over. And because they were then left alone they came back. Different but still there. A ghost of some wild wood. Some trees gone, some trees more common. Harvested and shaped into a form that we call wild, but relies on the hand of man, and often the mouths of cattle and sheep.

Red Gum Forests are haunted in another way. Not fire or axe, but by flood. The high tide of floods lays down a line of river mud, leaves and seeds and from this line new trees will spring. Or at least they used to. Now dams, drought and extraction mean floods are rare. So new Red Gums are rare as well. Lines of trees of even age, not in solider-like ranks, but running along the contour's edge, show where past floods finally lost the battle against dry land and laid down their nutrient rich cargo. A flood made seed bed, a watery nursery for a new forest. A ghost of rainfall past.

Even the language of our landscapes is full of ghosts. Are the open moor lands of Northern England called “fells” because of what people did to create them? Woods produce wood and timber is something else. Wood is burned and timber is not. We have timber framed building and wood burning stoves. A small wood may be a copse, but when was the last time it was coppiced? Sustainability is not a recent invention. Surviving landscapes may echo to a way of life that did not change, and had no need to change, for generation after generation. Our failure to understand this will haunt us for years to come.

If our rural landscapes are shaped by ghosts, then our urban landscapes are truly haunted. Street names and memorials to the famous and the fallen fill our towns, our villages. My home village has a war memorial. One of many. One of too many. Half way up and half way down the hill, it sits at the point where three roads meet. And along those roads flow pride, remembrance and loss. Here at the centre of things they meet at a lettered cross, where name after name was written by a haunted nation that promised it would never forget. But needed to be reminded in case it did. For a few brief weeks at the dying end of the year, wreaths of blood red poppies will sit at the foot of this cross. And for those few brief weeks we will remember not to forget.

On every other day, when the flowers had faded and gone, there were other reminders of where these ghosts were from. Small, dark cottages pressed around the junction of road and hill and church. And in these small dark houses old women, single old women, lived out their days. And each day as they walked out they saw the names of the men they may have married. Did they always see them and the children that are missing? But fire and steel and gas and mud stood between them and the men of the village, and as the men died, lives changed and many were haunted for the rest of their lives. Those women are gone now too. And we are at war again. And new names are added to the crosses, to the walls, to the sacred places where we gather our dead.

If the silent could speak, what would they say? What mute messages would they scream from the crowded halls that hold them? Would they ask us to remember the ghosts? Would they remind us that we promised not to forget?

In some places people reach up to touch the names, to bring that person back for just a moment, to say hello to those who are not there and, in the silence that this brings, to listen to what they say.

But not all ghosts weigh us down in this way. Some of the spirits are light and playful and show that windows into the past need not be full of loss or regret.

It is February and Christmas is long gone, but its ghosts are still here. On nature strips lie Christmas trees. Browning in the summer sun. Wedged behind street trees, lying in front of estate agents' boards, slowly sinking into the droughted ground. In one place I found the ghost of a ghost. A triangle of rain washed tinsel glittered on the ground, marking where the tree had been. Just visible through the tangle of grass was a single glass ball. Golden, like an egg. Waiting for its due season.
In one garden there is a snow man sitting in a bird bath. Do the birds feel cooler when they drink there? I doubt it! By February having a snowman in your garden seems a little odd. Holding on to a ghost beyond reasonable hope of life. Investing too heavily in what you hope it may mean. Hanging on, like the memory of your first kiss. Heavy with symbolism, but often stripped of meaning.

All of these ghosts are a merging of the past and the present, and are the only grasp we can have at continuity.

Ghosts are messages from the past, brought into the now so we can read them. Some simply speak of times past and are valuable just for that, but some are more important. Some need to be read so we can use them today, to rebuild that which has been lost. To restore what we have damaged.

Some need to be read so we can see what happened in the past and make sure it never happens again.

Our lands are full of ghosts and we should pay attention to them, for they are the lessons of the past. We need to remember them “for it is the doom of men that they forget”.

West Side Story.

Cut into the south coast of Victoria is Port Phillip Bay. In typical style this is shortened to The Bay by most people. If you are from Melbourne this makes sense. There is only one bay for Melbourne, so there is no risk of confusion.
The Bay is no neat apple shaped incision into the main land, and the way to the sea is narrow and dangerous. The Bay’s entrance is known as The Heads, and within this is The Rip, a narrow passage of shoals and rocks, through which the water does literally rip . The spelling is significant here. If you miss the 1 km of navigable water R.I.P could be for you. Rapid currents, reefs, contrary tides, all guard The Bay, and with it the entrance to Melbourne.
The Bay covers almost 200 km2 , but nowhere is it deeper that about 25m. Just like that other shortened location, The Prom, the Bay is a flooded landscape, brought about by the melting of the ice sheets as the last Ice Age dripped back from its maximum.

People chase fish where they once hunted on foot. Massive wombat like creatures – the size of compact cars, but with less acceleration – once lived here. Piles of shells can still be found from age old feasts and meeting places. If the last Ice Age is barely over, this is a landscape that has barely begun. The Yarra flows into the head of The Bay through docks and ferry terminals, past old industry and modern revival, over the long sediment of pollution and the silvered backs of bream and snapper. The history of the country could be read in the liquid ooze held under the bay – flood, fire, death, loss, the boom and bust of industry, dust from the countries red heart, brought by the hot breath of droughts. Ships entering and leaving the bay hug its western shore, following the path of the old Yarra, following the path it would have taken when the land was drier and the sea lower.

The eastern side of the bay forms a sweeping arc that comes to a point at The Heads. The west is less refined in its geometry. Out past Werribee and its sewage, out past Geelong and its industry is the Bellarine Peninsula.
Squat and chunky it sticks out into the bay. This is a place of old fishing towns, open coastline, golf courses and beach holidays. Some parts refined, other parts simple. Less developed than its neighbour across the bay and more attractive because of it. This is no wilderness, but there are hints of wildness here and there.
Time and tide, sand and wind, all lay a veil across coastal places. The solid is unusual, the dynamic the norm. Coasts bring a flux of energy, a here today, gone tomorrow feel. Fixed points are few and far between and often human, maintained with effort or threats of fines, hammered into place. Before we returned to navigation by the stars, such fixed points were rare and when found, were protected with vigour. A fine of £100 was a great deal in the past, and for some people it still would be. Here was a fixed point about which human travel could revolve. But the sea and the sand move on regardless. When time and tide conspire the sea can bring an energy to bear that is hard to resist. As waves crash and flow along barriers of stone you can feel the human world shake. Old stones are moved and new ones brought. People are drawn to the waves – to be splashed, to be soaked, maybe to feel a power that they know is really beyond them. With the waves, sand becomes a weapon to be flung against coastal defences. Each grain a bullet of erosion. In the end the invasion of the land by the sea will be complete here and the points and bars will be washed away. But at the same time, elsewhere and often unseen, the sea loses its energy and new land is being formed. Although it may win the battle here, it is losing elsewhere.
On the beach before Queenscliff the sea is winning. The cliffs are undercut and there is a danger of collapse. Signs that warn of collapse are undercut and fall. More signs are needed to warn of falling signs.

Each day the sea brings new things and wipes others away. Waves wash away old castles, children’s footprints, yesterday’s indiscretions. And they bring a cargo of finds. Some human, some natural. A strand line speckled with colour, flecks of plastic, specks of weed. Shells. Old rope. And the dead.

That the sea would deposit its dead on the beach is not surprising. What is surprising is the little death you find. Penguins, Shearwaters and once a wounded Gannet, dragging its broken wing. This bird was alive in name only. It may as well have been dead already. Sometimes the dead are larger, a Fur Seal, a Dolphin and once an Albatross, with its huge wings flapping in the waves. Dead but still flying. Gulls gather round such things and shriek their protests as you approach. The sea may give up its dead, but the living are unwilling to forsake it.

Cutting rocks push up through the sand to catch the bare footed unaware. Children cry, adults swear and dogs seem to pass through unharmed. Some beaches are Dog Beaches, where old sea dogs chase waves and tennis balls. They shake as they emerge, with a wave of movement that starts at the nose and seems to end just beyond the tail. Salt spray and dog hair – not a winning combination. Flat patches of rock, cushioned with weed stick though the surface, often crowned with a gull, or sometimes an Oyster Catcher. A pair of Oyster Catchers plays tug of war with a beach worm at the surf's edge. Young gulls beg for food.
Down where the waves die is the best place to walk, water firmed and solid. Out to sea birds flash past. Gulls, terns, gannets, cormorants at sea level. Pelicans and once a Sea Eagle higher. Gannets are all points. Bill, tail and ink dipped wing tips. Never common on these shores, always welcome, they breed on a semi circle of rock in The Bay. Sharp eyes spy a silver flash, a circle dive and fall, with their wings collapsing back just before impact. In that split second, as they pass from air to water, their life depends on the form that they become. Like a collapsing model plane, a failed toy, the wings fold back along the body in a mockery of their prior form. Bird no more, they become nature's spear, an air flung arrow. Seconds later they re-emerge, wings held in the water, dripping wet and often hungry still. But sometimes with a thrashing fish. Sometimes with a meal.
Finding fish is like looking for living silver. The shine of fish seems clear on the fishmongers slab, but in the foam and stir of a brightling wave they are less so. You see them as they go. In the end you look for shadows rather than things. The dark patch on the sand more reliable than the flash in the water. Mullet, Bay Trout and Toad Fish dart away and tease with fleeting glimpses. Still fish would die or starve. They are as mobile as the water in which they swim.

Each day the sea brings new news. The sea, the sand and the gifts that the currents bring. This is why we keep coming back.