This was previously published in – ‘Mallacoota Memoirs of Recovery’ but thought it might be worth re posting here here.
The first time I cried, after the fire came by, was an evening when I was returning to my sleeping place. I saw my first kangaroos. They had ventured out of the burnt fringes of Mortimer’s Paddock at dusk. They were grazing on the edge of the green, just where Devlin goes under the tree canopy. They looked up as I was passing and regarded me with their incurious blank eyes and the tears came. There had been so much death. Our beaches were covered in drifts of dead birds and our Mudbrick Pavilion full of burnt animals. But here was life, mindless, purposeless but still with us. Hope is some sort of weird transactional deal that we humans try to make with the universe. A deal of which the kangaroos were innocent. They are wholly present being kangaroos in the timeless moment in which they live. No present danger: they were at peace.
Anyway, I cried, just to see some of them again, still alive.
One of he first and most enduring emotion that washed over me as I watched my house burn was one of relief. Over the years I had been increasingly aware and concerned over the accumulation of stuff and the hold it had over me. It was a weight. A burden. I was also increasingly aware of the weight and burden it would impose on my family and friends when I died. Now it was game over. I had owned around 8,000 books which was absurd. I will say that I had read most of them. I was unlikely to reread or even open most of them ever again, however. I regret my pictures, my body of work and some select pieces of furniture. We had insurance so use items could be replaced.
In fact, replacing them was highly enjoyable. Phil and Kate (who had been so pivotal in the co-management of the Relief Center) and I got into a bit of ‘thing’ in between lockdowns. We headed up the coast, haunting Harris Scarff (who have maintained a very generous discount to people who suffered a total loss in the fires) and antique shops/hardware/nurseries/ag suppliers as we moved into recovery. Often the car was loaded to the gills.
My cargo bike was a deeply felt loss. Especially after the family return and Max took over the use of the car. I had my blue trolly that used to tag along behind me. My friend Penelope, who M’cootians that pay attention, will have seen performing at The Muddie managed to get a great discount on a Dutch Cargo Bike. It turned up on the back of a huge semi driven by Karina. Penelope and a bunch of Gippsland Extinction Rebellion activists then went on to get over hundred bikes donated to the community and two new cargo bikes for The Sanctuary. We were still knee deep in media at this stage and a pix of my cargo bike, with their two doggy passengers, even turned up in The New York Times.
After we closed down the Relief Center, my time was divided between family, community recovery and starting to re-establish a presence on our house sites.
A primary imperative was finding a stable place for us all to live. I had holed up in the bedsit that had been left to my friend Max by the late Jo Spray. Family members were living in the house to which it was attached. The family and dependents (3 dogs and a cat) returned on one of the first flights back: Max, Peg (Max’s mum) and the boyz were staying at various generous people’s houses. There was, not unsurprisingly, a shortage of rental accommodation. Kerri Warren, unfailingly empathic, helpful, and energetic, could not produce properties out of nowhere. In the end it became clear that the only thing to do was to buy somewhere or move out of Mallacoota. Max managed to find and buy a place that ticked most of our boxes. Max had always wanted a view, the boyz needed independent living quarters and there needed to be a place for Peg when she visited Mallacoota. We found just the right place. However, the house needed work and the more we looked into it the more work it needed. Max and Peg could move in but the boyz could not. So, we scrounged some old caravans from generous friends, bought some gazebos and created our Gypsy Camp (complete with Christmas lights) at the site of my bedsit.
The boyz practiced human origami fitting their rangy selves and a mountain of I.T. gear into their vans. Patience of the Year Award goes to Taliesin’s cat Minerva for being stuck in a caravan for 6 months plus. She only reeked minimal destruction, the most notable item being a computer monitor. The dogs, being on a corner property, got to exercise their territoriality to the max and drove everyone mad. I wish to apologize to all the innocent bystanders who walked past and to their long-suffering dogs.
Work on the new house was slow as tradies were in short supply and the pandemic was an added complication. What was going to be a complete move-in at Easter protracted month by month further and further towards the end of the year. In the end we got there, and the family was housed.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, on our house site, life had become complicated and frustrating. When the contractors arrived to clear the ruins, I made submission to them to enter from the rear as Stanley Avenue sites had already been cleared. The front of our block was the only part completely untouched by fire and was very wet after the post-fire rains. The request was denied, and they put their tent on the (bewilderingly) driveway and drove their enormous truck through the garden where they got totally bogged. Another enormous truck full of rocks was deployed, and the contents dumped so the first truck could get traction and drive out. The rocks were then dug out and removed leaving a large hole. After the next rain, we christened the site ‘Elizabeth Ponds’. I contacted the contractor and requested that the hole be filled in. This was met with obfuscation and refusal that developed to the point where the contractors even denied their truck had been bogged at all.
In the shelter of a power pole and some struggling hazel saplings
The last of what was once a field of flowers nods in the wind.
This is no metaphor of the indomitable regenerative power of Mother Nature.
The Golden heads just bloom, watched or not.
There is no rapture.
No words worth uttering
Make a meaning out of yellow sex organs
Tall on the shore of a sea of mud.
Here, once flowered a home, until the fire came by.
A few weeks after the fires a friend and fellow XR activist rang me to say that she had spotted a second-hand tiny house on the side of the road in South Gippsland for an extremely attractive price. I asked her to send me some pix which she did. I bought it. There it sat in a paddock, near Cranbourne, waiting for some resolution of my contractor-initiated swamp.
In the end the bloke, from whom I had purchased the tiny house, said he had to move it on, as his local council were on his case and had already fined him once. Local Councils are the same everywhere. So, it had to be dispatched my way, Elizabeth Ponds or no. The bloke said a mate of his had a rig and so he could shift it fairly cheaply as the truck was on its way up the coast to do a pick-up and would otherwise be travelling empty. I was waiting on the block on the day of the arrival. I became aware of a low rumble and around the corner, into Elizabeth Court, nosed one of the biggest prime movers I had ever seen. The expression on the face of the driver as he came around the corner was something I will always treasure. The low loader trailer was over twice as long as the tiny house that it was carrying and the whole rig pretty much filled up Elizabeth Court. When he clambered down from his eyrie and viewed the ground, he was not a happy chap. There was a better than an even chance that the whole thing would go axel deep once it left the hard. The driver decided to risk it. I guess he did not really have much choice. Reversing out of Elizabeth Court with a truck that size would have been very problematic. The length of the truck meant he was going to have to drive through and out over Hamish’s block on Stanley Ave. The truck drove forward and was fully committed onto the block when the wheels began to spin, and mud began to fly. The only thing to do was to offload the tiny house right there and then and hope that the lightened truck could get traction. So up went the enormous tilt tray and the tiny house was winched down and left stranded, surrounded by mud and water. The truck engaged its gears and inched forward. Fortunately, the drive wheels encountered the old house stump footings that had been left by the contractors and they provided enough traction to drive through to Stanley Ave and away. Much relief.
There we were.
There was toing and froing with the contractors. I could not move my tiny house because no vehicles could be deployed because everything was too boggy.
Then Kerri, the queen of real estate, told us that 8 Stanley Ave was up for sale. This adjoined my block at the rear and had been Norma Minty’s house which had also been burnt during the fires. On the block was a burnt-out steel structure with the roof still serviceable and a Hills Hoist. The Hills Hoist clinched it. I had asked the contractors to leave the Hills Hoist on our block, but they had not. There were also some awful palm trees that had for over ten years rained big horrible, dead palm fronds onto our chook house.
A plan emerged. I would winch my tiny house across the block and winch and jack it into place on number 8 and finally take delivery of a donated shipping container. The cream on the cake was I had a Hills Hoist and I could chop down those palm trees! So, we did it.
Covid meant that all the supply chains for tool purchases were broken and it took me quite a while to locate a 5-tonne hand winch in far-off Queensland and get it delivered. I bought a trolly jack in Bega and with expert help of two neighbors, the three of us maneuvered the 5-tonne tiny house through the mire, got it jacked up and then swung the container around into my preferred position. Not bad for three old codgers.
With still no luck with the contractors I managed to buy and scrounge enough fill to put in an orchard. The ground works at the house we had purchased provided enough fill to significantly lower the water levels on Elizabeth Ponds. The boyz worked tirelessly digging post holes and bedding in posts for the orchard and the dog yard and Phil and I launched into the conversion of the derelict building into a workshop/lounge room/dining room. I found some big brass zeros in the chuck out bin at Pambula Mitre Ten and so declared the site – Ground Zero!
The conversion took many months as our time was divided between family matters, Community Recovery and The Halls and Rec Committee. All complicated by Covid. It is impossible to thank Phil Piper enough for the many, many numbers of hours he put into housing me. Without him it would have taken three times as long and been greatly inferior in outcome.
When Phil was called away to tirelessly help other people, I busied myself fitting out he tiny house. The kinder threw out their piano which was too broken to repair and I incorporated the piano timberwork into the project.
Things went backwards and forwards with the contractor. I enlisted Katie from BRV for some assistance who battled mightily. All was impasse until it got to the top. I eventually held a video conference with this dude in Melbourne with whom I related the whole sorry story for the umpteenth time. Out of the blue he revealed he had actually been on site when the truck was bogged and extracted, trucks full of rocks and all. That was an Aha! Moment. After that, resolution was quick and thorough. It had taken many months, caused upset and frustration and set my recovery back many months. In jig time Elizabeth Ponds were no more and I had a new driveway as a bonus. Much thanks to Katie S of BRV who stuck with me and contributed to the squeaking wheels and dripping taps.
While I navigated the circuits and bumps of private life much was happening in our little village. The establishment of a Recovery Association occurred and began the long selfless task of coordinating our community’s recovery. I had been invited to participate in the preliminary group that set out to explore the possibilities of such an organization. When the notion was met with broad approval, we helped to set in motion the means to facilitate its establishment. The mechanism and history of these efforts are well documented elsewhere – notably by Leonie Dawes.
Suddenly it was all about Zoom. I don’t know about you, but I think Zoom sucks! For a while there I was averaging a Zoom meeting a day. Halls and Rec, The Shire, BRV, MADRA – Zoom, Zoom, Zoom! I quickly learned that a Zoom meeting with more than about 6 or 7 members was not particularly useful. Some of the meetings had over 20… Zoom! Zoom! Zoom! Personally, I find phone calls and text messaging much more effective at getting things done. I can’t speak for Zoom as a social tool, I have never tried it.
What I will say is that the process (despite Zoom) was undertaken with care and responsibility. The steering committee took as their guiding principle: ’Do No Harm’. This tightrope demanded some dexterity. Mostly I believe we succeeded. After the establishment of MADRA the elected committee have gone onto fulfill their rolls and duties successfully, at huge personal cost and with little assistance from government agencies on any but the extremely local level. Expectations from some community members that water can be made to flow uphill, the sky should suddenly rain money or that that things can be made to go back the way they were before the fires have not been met. Probably most upsetting is the very small minority, who on one hand have broadly criticized the community-based recovery efforts and then gone on to privately profit from the disasters.
People who were personally struggling psychologically before The Fires and Covid are now finding it even harder.
Most troubling is the level of email, text, social media and phone abuse being experienced by members of The MADRA Committee and their fellow travelers. Personally, I received not a few anonymous phone calls, semi deranged or pointlessly carping emails. Fellow community members who have put their lives on hold to progress the recovery of this community are now risking psychological harm because of ego-laden, uninformed, viscous attacks. The bad behavior is mostly generated by community members suffering the effects of trauma caused or magnified by the recent fires and pandemic. Sadly, these unfortunate people will do what they will do and deserve our compassion. However, they are not worthy of our approval. Failure to call out such behavior is tacit approval.
There has been a tragic failure in the moderation of some of our local social media pages. One in particular has been shockingly egregious. The damage wrought by these failures has inflicted lasting, and in some cases, I believe, permanent damage to our social fabric. When people’s lives have been upended and they have suffered loss, charity and generosity of spirit are often a casualty. it is easy to become reactive, become tribal and defensive. Our horizons shrink. It is at these times that our (often self-proclaimed) gatekeepers need to be especially attentive, empathic, ethical, and caring. Things have not been improved by some notable shortcomings in some of our institutional leadership.
Over the past year (and for many years previously) my friend Max has been teaching at Cann River. Driving every day, she was a witness, first to the black-stick devastation and then the slow donning of green pajama by the trees along our forest roads. The people of Cann River had been left to their own devices during the fires and without the selfless intervention and commitment of local contractors the town and inhabitants would have been lost. The school has been a model of supple buoyancy. An example of well lead teamwork triumphing over trauma and disorder. They and their community are an inspiration.
Not too long ago my friend and I were involved in a car accident. That we walked away, almost uninjured, was the source of incredulity on the part of our first responders. We were victims of dropped oil, no doubt from one of the massive, long haul trucks driving a road that no amount of rejigging will ever make safe. A government, in thrall to the oil industry, is never going to meaningfully promote the railways.
As we walked across The Princess Highway from the hospital to the car sale yards opposite, to buy some wheels so we could get home, I experienced that lapidary feeling of clarity that you get when riding a post shock adrenalin high. The world was bright, and I was clearheaded and felt capable of anything. We humans run the most amazing software.
The car accident experience irresistibly drew my recollection back to the hormone rich weeks and month after the fires. Even though I had lost everything there were still things to do. There was much in which to be immersed. As we worked towards the creation and launch of a recovery association, assessed our personal material and intangible losses, and encountered each other’s reactions, pain, and enlightenments I was increasingly aware of the role of the hormones stimulated by the crisis (in the medium term) were having in my and other’s behaviors. Some people seemed to be stuck in an exhausted formless panic and could not rest. Others kept reliving the experience repeatedly. There were people faced with the loss of all their possessions and the radical change that had overtaken the community and were overwhelmed by a post-adrenalin, deep existential hopelessness. Then there were those who faced with destruction and loss, looked around, rolled up their sleeves, and burnt the hormones, working for positive future oriented activities and solutions. There were those who were driven to immediately look to a rebuild and others who could not wait to flee, cut their losses, and leave the area.
Reactions seem to be being moderated by two quite different fundamental subjective viewpoints that could be expressed in both positive and negative ways. There were spectra. At one end some seem to view themselves as being the lead role in their own private movie, while at the other pole, other seem to see themselves as the member of the cast of a documentary constructed by some disinterested third party. Some people defined themselves by what they owned, others by what they did. The post fire emergency often showed us quite starkly what made us tick. I learned some quite unpleasant truths about myself and was affirmingly surprised by others.
The last year has been a journey that has constantly surprised me. In a totally unsystematic way things have turned out well or turned out badly. On a personal level I have had health challenges and the roller coaster of sudden realizations of particular things I have lost. By contrast it has cemented some wonderful friendships and provided a vantage point from which to view ranges of creative possibilities.
For me, the deepest grief is reserved for Country. The Big Country that is our planet and Country where we live. The death of billions of animals and birds and the extinction of whole ecosystems have changed everything forever. It has been an honor to hang out and work with our local First Nation Mob and experience how deeply and clearly they Get It! There is a contrast between them and some of our fellow community members who see the protection of their fence lines and the ‘right’ to (despite all the warning signs) continue to live within the catastrophic illusion of continuous growth and limitless environmental exploitation. As an environmental activist this has a special poignancy highlighting as it so clearly does the greedy, careless, anthropogenic forces ranged against us and our planet.
If we are willing to learn, Country can be our teacher. It has been such a gift to be a witness to the slow emergence of new life from the charcoal of the disaster we have wrought. The emerging first epicormic growths, the tree ferns like green flags, tiny orchids pushing up through the charcoal captivated us.
The birds are slowly coming back. Across the lake a sea eagle has returned to its nest in a stag tree and the power lines are rich with galahs. The lyre birds seem irrepressible and boinging around Mortimer’s Paddock just as they did before the bottom fell out of everything.
Almost straight after the fires The Lions Club and friends employed their expertise and build access points so we could all return to our beloved beaches and walk the tide line. I took our two hounds on early walks and always found them, their hi-vis badged with black, building steps and walkways. The dogs looked on impatiently and encouraged them with their usual idiot barking.
The hiatus caused by the pandemic has been problematic. As the forests surrounding us slowly began to begin to repair and everywhere you looked there was a fuzz of green, we humans were in danger of falling into lockdown-limbo. All the social markers like market, meetings and performances had stopped. We responded by mobilizing The Net. Web Pages, positive aspects of social media, various apps and mobile phones kept us connected however imperfectly.
With school holidays approaching and the first lot of Covid restrictions winding back, the anxiety levels in the community blossomed. Tourists not only represented a source of infection but also a source of unwelcome curiosity. Many of us had already experienced looting from our house sites. So, some of us were asked to create some community signs to request visitors to show respect and to abide by Covid precautions. My shed site became an improvised studio and we got to work. Eventually they went up in the center of town. There was the usual carping criticism, but they were mostly well received. One day, maybe, I will get reimbursed for the materials. We had a lot of fun painting them. Julie Parker is an expert at this sort of thing, and I learnt heaps from her during the project.
Following on after their great work during the fire emergency our local radio station 3MGB fulfilled a major creative role in post fire/covid reality. The dedicated few who year in, year out keep the station going should achieve much more recognition than they do.
With the school shut down and no Mouth, 3MGB fulfilled a vital role. Not the least for the Christians amongst us. After lockdown locked us down The Rev Jude and I set up a bit of thing on Sunday mornings called Radio Church on 3MGB. The Rev presented a religious service to her flock.
As the 18th Century French philosopher- scientist Laplace famously quothe on the matter of God: ‘I have no need of the hypothesis.’ However, I found it stimulating operating the panel while The Rev did what she did. It is exceedingly rare for me to be systematically and repeatedly exposed to a person of faith. I know The Rev to be a person of intelligence and compassion and to hear what she had to say and the manner in which she said it gave me a great deal to think about. Not since being a teenager had I witnessed the systematic espousal of faith. It has not in any way changed my position in regard to religious belief, but greatly increased my appreciation of those whose faith is activating and dynamic. The Rev was a rock during the fires and in their aftermath and has proved indispensable in the unfolding of our community recovery and is a tireless support for the vulnerable.
As I write there are MADRA community consultation events around the shape of our recovery. The process has been severely attenuated by Covid, the hierarchical risk averse nature of State Government bureaucracy and the dysfunctional nature of our Shire Council. Hopefully most everyone will contribute positively, and our community will end up stronger and better resourced than it was before fire and plague.
There are a number of people in Mallacoota who you can really count on. They may belong to a local community organization, often many and sometimes none. These people will volunteer first to help in community events/enterprises and be the last to leave. They come from all walks of life and their primary impulse is to help. You will rarely hear from them or see them on social media because they are too busy being useful. It is difficult to imagine how our community would function without them. I want to pay tribute to these humble, helpful people.
My personal wish for our community is that we take on the challenge of a carbon free future and learn to cohabit our country with our fellow animals and honor the integrity of all that is green and/or growing. I am not fond of words like ‘resilience’ or ‘sustainable’ because they are more often than not used in compromised and self-serving contexts. I also am not keen on going ‘forward’ because life is a scatter of data points not a line. The only things that moves in a line is the arrow of time and that will continue whatever we do. Everything is contingent. Viewing things through ‘a ‘lens’ means the image is distorted and out of its broader context. We must be incredibly careful how we use language – the medium is very often the message.
My family is finally getting its collective heads around planning a new house to replace our beloved 5 Elizabeth Court. I do not think any of us have any illusions about how difficult it will be. We are planning on a petro-chemical free build with entirely passive heating and cooling. We want to include a food forest. It remains to be seen on how The Shire planners will react but stories from others who have gone before do not bode well.
It was a great loss to me that nearly all my life’s work were taken by the fire. A cause of great anticipation is a project Yolande and II have undertaken to produce an illustrated book of my poetry about the fires and their aftermath. What is past is fuel for the future. This is exciting.
What the last twelve months have taught me and others who pay attention is that in the timeless words of The I Ching – ‘perseverance furthers’. When people ask me how I am, I often answer, ‘I’m not dead yet.’ It is the only thing I can confidently affirm that is undeniably true at that moment.
The trees are wearing green pyjamas
Sapphire on ebony a wren twigs and goes.
Our young brave flags in the dawn wind
The pinch of star stuff
On which we slip and slide.
Caught in the blowing hair
Of the stellar wind.
Bowls down the alley of Light