Fire Recovery, Ongoing

Dear Friend

I’m sorry that you still limp
down the corridors of pain.
I turned back and held out my hand
but it turns out we were
in different worlds by then:

you, in a bureaucratic nightmare
with mud on your shoes,
me, weeding on a hillside in a sun shower
getting wet, amid daisies.

What can I do? I bend my ear
to the daisies and they tell me
this is the time of my healing.
The earth works constantly
on becoming fertile, and I must
look forward, not back.

But, my friend, your nightmare of pain
will end, it can’t not, if you keep walking
one step, at a time.
Therefore keep hope, keep hope.
I’m waiting for you on this hillside
amid daisies.

Moss and Running Postman (Kennedy Prostrata)

This poem was written for people who lost their houses and are not yet rebuilt.

If you think that the fires were a long time ago and that people should be ok by now, you’re wrong. Some of us are, but do not judge others on the luck and support systems of a few. The majority of people who lost their homes are still struggling, daily, with bureaucracy and mud and shortages caused by the building boom. Among other things. Did you know there is not enough wood? Welcome to the future.

It is very hard on these people to struggle like this. Ervin and I had it easy. Relatively. The Recovery Center was still running when we moved in to our new house. They had helped us in innumerable ways. But in March that was closed down. And now the only other form of communication, a facebook page, has been shut down too. We were told at the beginning to expect that recovery would take five years! We were promised support by all and sundry.

It is very hard to watch these people suffering, knowing what they’re going through, and knowing they have no support, knowing the federal government promised support that was never forthcoming, knowing they go to the mental health group that was supposed to offer free counselling only to be told “But the fires WERE eighteen months ago.”

I feel privileged and my heart aches for them, but there is nothing I can do. I am not an advocate and even if I were, I wouldn’t have the energy. Plus I think it’s important for me, now, to follow the path of healing. Since I can’t help others whose shoes I have been in, then I need to heal enough to do the work of the future. I hope my work will make the world a better place. Who knows?

Presently of my work now is outdoors: trying to control the weeds, cover bare earth, plant habitat for the birds and animals who I dearly hope will come back and breed here again. I can now count our birds on two hands. Crows, magpies, cockies (three types, including correllas. Shudder. Their first act was to severely prune my freshly planted apple tree), thorn bills, shrike thrushes, willy wagtails, and blue wrens. I think I hear Wattle birds. And that’s it. And that’s two hands. But where are the nectar eaters? Well, where is the nectar? Hence all the planting.

The bush part of the block looks beautiful. Last year’s weeding helped.

The use of the daisy in the poem is because they are some of the pioneer species after fire. They put down decent root systems, draw nutrient up, and add to the build up of humus. they increase the fertility of the earth and create habitat for other species to sprout. after a few years, I am assured, they begin to dieback and other elements of the bush take over. Now, I’d prefer that they were yam daisies (and there probably are some), but if dandelions and cape weed are cloaking the earth in the interim, good.

There are still major things to do, like making an all weather track to the top of the hill, fencing, putting in and plumbing a bore, (and that’s been a bureaucratic nightmare.) But my tiredness and struggles are nothing, nothing, compared to the problems of people who are still trying to build.

I have survivors’ guilt, it seems to me.

No shortage of moss. And no shortage of these little fellas, some of which are huge, and whose common name is Laughing Gym (Gymnopilus junonius)
On dead pine wood

Crow’s Nest

This house is build on the footprint of one 
that burnt when all this country burnt. 
Oh Crow, we humans were different 
before. We were innocent like animals,
waking each morning to sunshine 
or no sunshine. The only complication 
was the mind playing with its abacus. 

Well, we are still simple, sound of body, 
but with burnt edges, the mind a chaos
of new growth and charred wood. 
But Crow, what we were before, we’re not. 
Is that why you surround this new house 
with your songs of life? Yours is a dark beauty
but your vision of life springing from death 
is as true the magpies’ who melody about love 
in the skeleton trees on the ridge.

. . . . . . .

Another crow poem. There may be more from now on because:

Before the fires Ervin fed magpies. We watched generations grow up, witnessed the shifting power structures when a dominant pair died, were entertained and delighted. One year we even raised a baby. We were magpie people.

Since coming home (and it does now feel like home) no magpies come. Crows have taken the space, they come for the meat morsels, they sit on the railings of the deck and drink from the birdbath. So far, and surprisingly, they have not crapped there.

Magpies fly by with indifference. 

I don’t understand much, but, for the want of better words, it is like the totem of the land has changed. 

We have changed. Perhaps when you traverse the threshold of trauma something essential changes. For some unknown reason it seems apt that crows would be the dark messengers of growth for me at this time.

Brain Tree

In my brain is a tree. 
Its trunk is the brain stem,
its leaves are thoughts, a myriad of them, 
many that look the same. 
Its roots spread out along the byways 
to the very edges of me where they take in 
air and sunshine and sustenance.
The trunk divides in two, one leader 
in each half of my brain, and in each, 
amid the complications of branches is a crow. 

They sing. 

Now, you may not recognise the voice of a crow 
as song because they’ve had a bad wrap, 
but they sing of sunshine and wings, grubs, 
the dank delicious flesh of the freshly dead, 
and they sing of love and babies, just like we all do. 

And what they sing with, is air, like the air 
on the intricate surface of our skin 
or in each alveoli of our lungs, 
the air that courses through 
all of those byways of brain and body, 
and trunk and leaves. 

No wonder they sing. Wouldn’t you?

Lessons from Plants

(after The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry)

Sometimes, when I despair at this view,
this wide and beautiful view that once
was the intimate domesticity of trees,
I go and lie down under
the blackened corpses of giants,
amongst the groundcovers and mosses,
the lilies and the weeds, and I feel
their thrum of life, their steady growth, their
complete lack of judgement or grief, and I think
that I too could be as simple as that, and I too
could just get on with growing.

. . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . .

It’s a long process, fire recovery. Before Christmas I was involved in an exhibition at Fabrik called ‘Regenerate‘. It was gorgeous, as their exhibitions usually are. I had some art works in it, some brown paper bags on which I had drawn little things that I had noticed during the year since the fire. And I wrote and performed a poem about keeping on going through this long and involved process of recovering your life. It was not just for those who had lost tangible things to the fire, actually, but for everyone, because the whole society is suffering a level of trauma after that year, 2020. I made people cry. Great. Job done.

But anyway, the process of thinking towards that poem had me thinking about the word ‘regenerate’. It is a word we often think about when we think of the bush after fire, but I felt the word was not quite on the mark somehow. I thought, ‘This growth isn’t RE-generation. It is completely new.’

I think that is worth thinking about. We seek to get things ‘back to normal’ because we are uncomfortable. But what if we can create something new that is better than what was normal in the past?

Here’s to that.

Eucalyptus seedling and moss

Walking Through Walls

(replacement house after fire)

This new house is a skeleton on another skeleton. 
It’s as if the old house still exists in this space.
I walk through its walls.
I stand in the bedroom beside the old bed. 
If I close my eyes I can look out of the old window 
at the vibrant plum tree and into the eyes of cattle 
that have since become meat. 

It’s odd. 
The memories dissolve into reality:
the cool concrete underfoot
the quietness of double glazing and fine joinery. 
The wind flutes across the chimney
louder and longer than the old one. 
It’s a sad sound, like mourning. 
Well, of course there is mourning. 
That prior life is just below the surface of now, 
all the lost things, the sunlight 
on the bathroom wall, for example. 

But, lets face it, 
it was trouble, that old building, 
with its moving joints and broken things.
This new one is attaining soul 
slowly but surely. 
One makes a home by sleeping there.
And the presence of the old building, 
its warmth, and the love in its crevasses, 
are still there, just out of sight 
and sometimes, I walk through its walls.

Afternoon light, bathroom, old house
Petals on floor, new house
Morning light, old house
Erma and my shadow, morning light, new house

New House, Three poems

New House 1 

The hollowness of a cave, our voices resound in all of its corners. This summer sunlight streams in, as blinding as the darkness of mind, catacombs remembered, all the lost libraries and bones, skulls as clean as this new house where we tread with our charcoaled feet, ground memories, things you can’t place or find. Never mind. We bring the stuff of a life: cushions, slippers, doonas, the hard backed chairs, wooden spoons. What to do now? How to think? How to clear the charcoal from the mind? Hang pictures, place trinkets, bury self in days of solitaire, wait for the cloud in the fish tank to settle. There is no fish tank, that’s a metaphor, but there is a lot of dust. The topsoil is lose, windborne. That is true, but it’s also a metaphor. 

Come now heart of mine, settle down here, you have been walking through miles and miles of charcoal and bones in glaring sunshine. But now you are home. Now you can draw blinds, close eyes, rest your head on feathers. Sleep. Dream. Wake. 

Here, another game of solitaire?

New House 2 

I don’t want to whinge because everything is hunky dory. It is. Couldn’t be better. Probably this agitation is a habit of mind and will pass. But I don’t want you to think that when it’s over, it’s over. There is still cutlery to put away, and other trinkets, and the mind is a vast cupboard. Where did I put the chopping boards and how did I end up with so many saucepans, none of which work? But look, here comes another saviour bearing pots that do. Thank the living for saviours. I plan to become one soon. What else is life for? 

Come, saviour, my friend, my loved one. Have coffee more delicious than ever before from this new machine. Sit down here on this new old chair. Help us fill the beautiful corners of this building with what it is that makes a home. Laughter is good, but if it’s too early for that, then love will suffice.

New House 3

At home in a house made of some unknown material that you could take a blowtorch to, I briefly mourn that I can no longer say, ‘my little wooden house’, but what’s gone is gone. My dead stand behind me with their hands on my shoulders. They instruct me to loosen the muscles in my neck, to lean towards the sunshine like it’s a friend, to take what’s now and make poetry of it. Poetry, according to my dead, is life in black letters, and they crave it. Even the dead have desires, they tell me, and instruct me to live as if I would die next minute: that alert, that open, that excited. They say it is lovely that I once had a little wooden house. They say, tell us one thing that is not made of earth, and instruct me to take the house that is made of unknown materials and live in it as if I would die next minute: that alert, that open, that excited.

. . . . .

My mother’s friend used to say of her, ‘The trouble with Topsy is that she doesn’t know when flowers are dead.’ Like mother, like daughter. I’m rather enjoying playing house.

A year and a bit ago I began this record of the life of one fire victim and I feel the need to see it through. I can’t speak for anyone else, not even my husband, because when you’re close with someone through a trial like this, you do a lot of surviving. As a couple you try to support each other and you also try not to bring the other down. So sometimes you don’t share everything. It’s a delicate line to walk. Of course we’ve walked like this before, Ervin and I, when our son died for instance.

But I feel some obligation to continue to plot this path of recovery on this blog. As I said in poem 2, everything is fine. We all love happy endings, and our story has a happy ending. But there are still the vestiges of trauma, certainly in me, and I suppose it will take a while to heal. Perhaps endings are like the fringe on the end of a rug, not clearly defined.

Moving into a new house is just plain weird! Every now and then I wake up and realise this is MY house. I tell you, it feels weird! Good, very good, but weird. We need to grow into each other.

I feel as if I need to continue to talk about this stuff not so much for me, but for other victims because the expectation is that everything will be fine as soon as you move into your new house. But each experience is unique and we all need to support each other even when the reactions are unexpected.

I guess what I want to say is, life is messy, so don’t expect too much of yourself. Just take it as it comes and do what you need, even when it’s not what others expect. Find a way to express it and someone to talk to about it. Also listen to others. Have compassion and zero expectations. Accept.

But I guess that advice holds true for any situation in our strange human lives, and any minute now I, also, will heed it.

The Bag of Grapes

Eventually I read the small print 
on the bag of grapes and saw
that they came from America 
and suddenly my desire for grapes 
diminished. 

It wasn’t politics, it was trade 
that soured the grapes. 

How, this year of years, 
with California burning again
while I my nails are black 
from weeding the burnt soil 
of my Australian home,
can grapes wing their way at altitude 
from the other side of the world? 

How is it not illegal, while the earth burns?
Do you think you’ll escape the effects of global warming?
Do you think it is simple?
Do you think will be solved by air-conditioning?
Do you think that COVID is not a product
of the works of man?

Workers and old folk and babies die from a disease 
that is a direct result of clearing forest for farming. 
Wild animals are stressed and they shed viruses.
Is this not simple enough for you?
Do you need to blame politicians?

Forget plandemics, People. We bought 
this disease in the supermarket 
with food we couldn’t live without: 
fruit in winter, frozen cheapness. 

Here on the burnt lands
the wild herbs of spring are especially fruitful. 
I call them weeds 
but bring some home for the soup.

.

This picture has very little to do with the poem. It just shows part of our place. The soil of the vegetable garden didn’t burn. It had a lush layer of Warrigal Greens, (a native edible fleshy ground cover) that probable saved the soil. In the autumn, because we couldn’t live there, I planted a few flowers (the everlastings) and greens and apart from some limited weeding let them fend for themselves. Most of what you see here, (calendula, parsley and geraniums are either self sown, or growing from unburned roots.

Edges

The performance poem I wrote for the exhibition, Solastalgia, at Fabrik, in Lobethal. More details about this series of exhibitions, here.

The drawing is mine, drawn with charcoal from my burnt home. It ended up being about 13 metres long on the beautiful wall of this gallery. It is as ephemeral as my home apparently was, and will be washed off that wall eventually. But all kudos to Melinda Rankin (director of Fabrik) for facilitating it.

Also kudos to all of the people involved in the exhibition, especially Jo Wilmot (creator of Solastalgia, The Exhibition) and Evette Sunset who said I mentored her when it was the other way around. We all learn from each other anyway, so who needs labels.

Thanks to my good friend David Salomon of Simply Splendid Productions for recording and creating this movie.

Charcoal Drawing With No Name (detail)

Unexpected Lecture on Global Warming from a Bird

This morning a Brown Treecreeper 
tapped on the window. 
‘Wake up!’ he said. 
But I was already awake because 
he’d been tapping on the mirror 
of the van in which I’d been sleeping 
since it was light enough to see.

Perhaps you don’t know the Brown Treecreeper.
He hops around on the ground,
quite game, pecking at goodness knows what,
tiny things, insects, ants.
And he shimmies up tree trunks with his weird legs
as if there was no such thing as gravity.

Anyhow, when he tapped on the window beside my face,
he said, ’Wake up! It’s time to wake up.’
And added, as if it was unimportant,
‘Wake up to this beautiful world.
Save it. Save us. Save yourself.’