In the early hours of December 31, fire finally arrived on Joe’s doorstep, fast and furious, heading over the hills from Nerrigundah and racing up the two gullies on each side of the house. He left at 4 am, activating his sprinkler system and hoping without much hope that it would last long enough to combat flames. Against all expectation it did, and the house where our family grew up survived with minimal damage.
The bush of course wasn’t so lucky. It burnt fiercely, and stands stark, revealing the contours of the land: the gully once fern-filled; the line where orchids grew; the once lush track down to the creek. All scarified.
I went out to Waincourt for a few hours on Sunday afternoon six weeks after the burning.
We walked down to the wall of the dam, where power lines were trailing through the water waiting their turn to be restrung.
Black trunks blossomed epicormically into bright colour, juvenile leaves poking through charred tesselations. Some trees were marked with ominous orange crosses, slated for eventual felling.
Burrawangs already had a growth of green spikes above their charred bases.
There was, in the midst of devastation, promise of renewal.
II: Potato Point beach: February 12
I haven’t walked my beach – or anywhere else much – since Christmas. Fire-fear de–animated me. I hunkered down and hardly stirred except to cook; to retreat to the car when the power was out to listen to the emergency channel and recharge the phone; and to evacuate when the fire got too close. My body is still aching from the tension. Or possibly, as my son suggests, from lack of ambulation.
But finally I walked, at the end of the day, stopping to yarn to a neighbour I’ve never chatted to before. Fire-talk of course. About the tent pitched down near the lake, untouched, but ringed by the marks of fire. About the search for a safe place. About the desire to avoid being in the evacuation centre. And then, about her wild childhood boating across a flooded river, and the lack of such a wild childhood for her children and my grandchildren.
I watched my son surfing the murky water. Then I hoicked my skirt up and headed north. Thick lines of ash marked the beach, because of course fire was followed by flooding and the remains of burnt trees rushed out of the scarified bush into the ocean.
Foam bubbles built up around seaweed, and there was a whole village of uprooted cunjevoi near the rocks at the northern end, with bright red crinoids hanging from their rounded turrets.
The water at the northern end of the beach was black, the ash particles the size of coins.
There is no victory this summer. The fires are out, but fish are dying in rivers, the earth is eroding, and there are toxins in all waterways￼. However, Nature is generous and the beauty of rockpools at low tide is unchanged.
II: Potato Point Beach – February 14
It’s not quite a week since the sea was black with ash. At low tide on Sunday it stretched clean at the waterline, although piles of ash still marked the sand near the dunes.
The village of cunjevoi had been dispersed, although the smell lingers. Old pleasures were returning: delight in casual seaweed arrangements; shells sitting in a matrix of receded water: feathers and crinoids.
Piles of seaweed snuggled in hollows like nesting plovers, the hollow delineated by a fine line of ash, and the surrounding sand rain-pocked. The creek beyond the bridge had water in it again, although it hadn’t been flushed out despite king tides and heavy rain.
As fire-tension faded, playfulness reappeared, constructing a sand pond for a toddler, and a tepee behind a screen of stolons.
III: Along Big Rock Road – February 15th
We began the weekend watching the electricity crew install a new power pole, ironically a spotted gum. There’s been no electricity on Waincourt since January 1st, not a problem for Joe, since his solar panels were undamaged. However, for those neighbours whose houses survived (only half in his street), using a generator is becoming a nuisance.
Bullocky’s Hut Road is burnt on both sides, the contours of the land visible now that the soil has been scarified. However, as we walk along Big Rock Road we wonder at the way the fire, which had blackened, even enamelled, tree trunks suddenly ran out of steam and burnt much more gently.
I can see into gullies that before had been mysteries until you bushbashed your way down: the hillside where nodding greenhoods popped up wherever Joe put his foot, the gully of the Big Tree and the wooden-voiced frog; the gully of clutching and grabbing walking sticks vines; the gully where there was not only a large colony of greenhoods, but also caladenias, tongue orchids, and further on tall hyacinth orchids and grass trees; the gully where I was pelted by lilli-pilli berries falling in profusion as the wind blew; the hillside where I took my chair and recorder in the days when I played obsessively as I learnt to read music; the gully of ferns we walked though with our first child in a clumsy 1970s backpack getting drenched. All scarified into visibility.
The spotted gums are a rich reddish-orange, and we become anxious about their recovery.
Ant hills are toppled, burnt and blackened.
But the house is still, thanks to preparation and a miracle (and maybe asbestos), there, and borers are already busy gnawing away at fallen trees.
Not all that far from home, maybe 2 kilometres, the bush is green and untouched, and spotted gums are going about their normal business. (Colour is different, because these photos were taken with a different camera.)
IV: River and bush: February 22nd
Joe’s dealing with the loss of his landscape by finding seedlings around burnt trees and rescuing them, the goal being a thousand. He’ll revegetate the block if it fails to do so itself.
It was a depressing week. Spotted gums were showing no signs of regeneration, and then crews came along and knocked over perfectly healthy trees, tipping them down into gulleys and leaving their roots in the air, adding ruin to ruin.
We poked around up the hill and were encouraged by enthusiastic resprouting.
At the river the glossy mud left by floodwaters (yes! Finally it rained. A lot) is cracking crazily, with depressions where trees have been uprooted and washed away and bracken and grass are pushing their way up to the light.
The river flows gently.
By the end of the weekend we are feeling more cheerful. Things other than eucalypts are sprouting: the geebung just outside the living room, casuarinas and the huge tristaneopsis by the river, even a lignotuber revealed by the felling of a tree.
Then Joe notices, against all expectation, traces of green on the myrtles he planted just below the house, although the older ones in the creek bed have completely disappeared. A forestry neighbour assures us that white trunks on the spotted gums, after great shreds have been shed, are new bark, and our son sends us a photo of epicormic growth on a spotted gum at his block, where fire swept through in September. So now, we wait, enjoying the luxuriance of what’s already happening.