Meanwhile in Australia

We’re used to impossible adjectives right now in Australia. We think we will get used to what’s happening, but we never do. It’s all personal and it’s all much bigger than any news report has been willing to show.

Let me tell you about some of my people.

Mirren Hogan is a writer who lives in rural NSW. She and her family lost everything. We hear that a lot, except that losing everything is never quite what it seems. Mirren’s house looks like a pile of damaged corrugated metal. And yet, the picture she shared with us today was of a bucket of pegs. Her clothesline survived, you see, and all her pegs.  My mother tells her friends, “All the pegs!”

Jackie French is one of Australia’s best and most interesting writers. She is most famous for her stories of wombats and for the cute wombat pictures she posts on Twitter, but her work covers many genres. She lives near Araluen, just an hour from me. Except she doesn’t.

Right now she describes herself as living out of a suitcase, with fire on a ridge nearby. She’s still near Araluen because the roads have been closed for weeks. She still makes sure her wombats are OK, and her wombats let other animals into their burrows when the fires pass.

Jackie has been evacuated several times, which basically means being moved from one place to another in the hope of safety. We all tweet to her and she tweets to us and we all feel safe because Jackie represents the best of Australia to so many of us. She has also written the best of the articles about the bushfire. If you only want to read one other thing about the Australian bushfires, Jackie’s article is that thing.

You will see in the article that she exemplifies community and that community is what’s getting us through. One of my friends saved his house (twice) and spent the rest of his time fighting fires in the area. That friend is Cat Sheeley’s husband, Mike. Cat is the friend I wrote about last time.  A great deal of her town burned, but all the residents who could fought it and saved so much.

The staff members of the zoo in Mogo risked their lives and saved all the animals. All the animals. Those lion roars can still be heard from Cat’s spare bedroom, even though the house is blackened and in need of much work and her shed and garage no longer exist.

These fires have returned and returned and returned. A house lasts one pass, or two, but is caught on the third.

Australian firefighters and all the international firefighters from countries like your own are amazing. The megafires are worse than they appear outside the regions. Bigger than whole countries. More destructive than anything I (as an historian) know of. And yet these people have saved lives and homes and animals.

Paula Boer has a story. She writes fiction inspired by her horses, lost her horses when they panicked and ran into the fire that was consuming her farm. Friends saved her house, and kind volunteers gave the horses a proper burial, but one of the writers who cannot live without horses in her life now faces that future.

I have so many more stories than this. And yet… it’s not just the people I know. That’s is the thing. Every Australian has stories. We all hurt for our friends. The regions on fire are our most populated areas.

The worst of the fires, in fact, are in our summer playgrounds and it’s summer right now. One of the areas re-opened today and we’re all spreading the word. Every person who comes to Australia or travels in Australia as a tourist is helping rebuild. No summer income, no income at all in the busiest time of year is not a god thing to return to after the fires are done.

I hear so many stories about what is happening in the areas that that have lost their summer income. Everyone is busy helping. A baker might make sandwiches for fireys where they have no tourists to sell to. Summer homes are being offered as emergency accommodation for those who have lost everything.

It’s so complicated, but it’s full of stories.

It makes me ache that I can’t help. My post last time was brought to you by that frustration. I have friends making things, fighting fires, creating food packs for fireys… doing so very much. Checking the bush for hurt animals who need help or an end to suffering.  Organising meeting places and briefings.

Some odd things have come up in this extraordinary situation. One is that a few (a very few) people are allergic to the smoke. I’m one of these. I’m one of those people and can’t leave the house most days. I was evacuated in a wheelchair when even indoors became dangerous and now I’m indoors in a different city.

Australia is a place where community is terribly important. I came to my mother’s and we combined resources. She is telling all her friends and so many relatives the effects of smoke and how to read the air quality sites I introduced her to, and she keeps her home safe for me. Me, I find things I can do, for sitting back and doing nothing is not a possibility.

Over five hundred Australian writers raised money this week by auctioning off our services and books on Twitter. My donations gained firefighters $450 on #authorsforfireys and, while that was handy, I’m not finished. I’ve also offered material in a silent auction that will take place in Canberra over the next fortnight. Like #authorsforfireys it’s people from the Arts who planned it, and so many fundraisers and support groups are coming from our direction. I can’t do much, but add my small efforts to the musicians (a concert with Queen, Olivia Newton-John and many others has been announced) and maybe those of us who are unable to help on the spot, where it most matters, can support those who do the real work.

Where does government fit into this? The Prime Minister has lost support because of his inability to lead, and everyone’s hero is the head of the NSW Rural Fire Service. I check the RFS map every day to find out when I can go home, and what’s happening to my friends in NSW.

We all know firefighters, and those firefighters and what they do are, I think, one of the secret ideals many Australians aspire to. We talk about sport and drink, but…

Let me tell you a story from my childhood.

We’ve always had bushfires. When I was in primary school, my best friends mother worked for the Country Fire Authority (the Victorian equivalent body to the RFS – and just as amazing). Every December, I had a taste of Christmas with them when I helped make chocolates for presents and maybe got to put an ornament on their tree. My friend’s mother couldn’t guarantee being round the whole holiday period, however. Whenever there were bushfires, my friend was dropped off to our place (a Christmas free zone, for we were very Jewish) and she went to wherever she had to go, to make sure that the fireys had basics.

For me, this disaster that is beyond all disasters is made up of small stories, and it helps me understand the magnitude of what’s happening if I can connect it to the stories of my own past.

I have one more story to tell.

In 2003 Canberra was on fire. I was confined to my flat and had to wait to see what happened. I took pictures of the sky when it turned black and we had a red sun. I took pictures of the dead trees and burned buildings afterwards. I used these to explain fire until now.  I was trying to explain what it felt like to be nestled at the foot of a mountain that was on fire. The wind was blowing in my direction and I had no way of leaving. The wind changed direction and four people on the other side of the mountain were killed. Several suburbs were lost. The church a friend had built was gone. Friends lost everything or lost their garden. Weddings were disrupted and lives were changed.

It took me years to deal. I finally wrote this fire into The Wizardry of Jewish Women, but I wrote it as if it were distant. It was never distant.

Just a month ago a friend said to me, “I’ve finally read that book. If you’d made the fires as personal as they were on the day, it would have hurt so very much.”

“That’s why I wrote them the way I did,” I said. “Fire is personal and it never stops hurting.”

The world has never seen anything like these fires. Australia will never be the same. The reassuring moments are terribly important. The drop bear joke played on a poor UK journalist shows that our sense of humour is still unforgivable. And the amount of community and sharing and work that is getting us through this unbearable and unbelievable thing means that whatever else happens, we will remain ourselves. “

We are a country that is like a village. That love and caring emerged in Canberra when those 2003 fires hit us and now, seventeen years later, it’s defining the whole country.

Me, I’d rather not have the hurt. I’d rather we were defined by playing practical jokes on journalists.



Meanwhile in Australia — 4 Comments

  1. Thanks again, Gillian, for keeping us informed with your sadly vivid stories of what’s happening and has happened there. And thanks for mentioning the author Sulari Gentill earlier — I’m on her second Rowland Sinclair novel now, and really enjoying it! Next I’ll check out Jackie French. Hang in there!

    • I wish that less vile circumstances led you to fine writers!

      I’m reading the Australian Jewish News right now and the slant is “What Jews are already helping? Who has been hurt?” I didn’t even know about the theme park that was wiped out. That’s why I told small stories – the big one is still beyond my reach.

  2. It hurts. It all hurts. I read Facebook, and I read the news, and I weep for my friends who have lost homes or animals or health. Perth is safER, but not safe. Nowhere is safe. My drive home from work last week took me nearly an hour more because the freeway was closed. And a colleague, in our case management meeting, was checking her phone every few moments because the fire was a field away from her house and coming nearer. I won’t know until I get to work tomorrow whether her house was spared.

    • This is why I think of us as friends and as colleagues and as people who know and care. If I multiply this by the number of us who are hurting then t becomes too much, because we number in the millions.

      A part of me was worried for you and all my Perth friends and another part was saying “At least it’s safer.” Something I learned from my childhood friends (the adults, those who were Shoah survivors) is that there are ways of getting through things and this is mine. If I worry about everything I do nothing. If I focus on one thing at a time, or two, I can get through and have enough energy to offer services and books for auction. It’s odd, but focusing on the small means I can survive the big, and it also means I have enough energy left to do things. I didn’t realise til this week that I was doing this and that it came from my childhood. I wish I could tell these adults who taught me that they helped, but they’re mostly gone now. It’s a heck of a legacy.