It’s over a year ago now that I watched from my parent’s garden as the sky turned a deeper, dirtier red. The birds were gone, replaced by camps of bats silhouetted black as they circled above us, confused and disorientated. The next morning, we saw Lake Conjola devastated on the news. My cousins cut our New Year celebrations short, quickly packed their things, and left. The highway clogged with escaping tourists.
Our small seaside village on the South Coast of NSW suddenly fell quiet. The day before I had struggled to find a parking spot, driving in circles around Huskisson. Now only a few of us locals remained, committed to getting on with our routines as the smoke cleared briefly. At the chemist the regulars made conversation. Leave or stay? An old woman admitted quietly that she had no car and nowhere to go anyway. She was on her own, like so many.
Others were confident and waved away any concerns. Then the roads closed and how everyone felt didn’t really matter anymore. Either way we were stranded. A man in high-vis and steel-capped boots – only here for a day’s work – wandered up and down the main street, not going anywhere, unsure whether to book a night at the local motel. This was our limbo, the first circle of hell, dark and deep and hopeless. Only it wasn’t fog, as Dante described. It was smoke.
We had moved here eight months earlier, looking for a seachange, and purchased a tiny cottage perched on a hill, surrounded by five acres of thick bushland. Idyllic. A local lyrebird to keep us company. Now home felt like a trap. There was really only one way in and out, and it happened to be the Princes Highway, the same arterial road that was jammed with traffic from further south – and then suddenly closed.
The day they reopened the highway we packed our possessions into the car and dropped everything off at my parent’s house nearby in Jervis Bay. A favourite pair of jeans, some of my son’s toys, photo albums, my grandmother’s wedding ring. This unfamiliar feeling (despair, perhaps) in the pit of my stomach as my husband and I tripped back and forth from the house with armloads of bags and bits and pieces – a jumbled assembly of family life.
This happened three times over several days. The fires came closer each time and continued to behave erratically. The second time the tourists were evacuated. The third time emergency services warned residents to be prepared, and we left for Sydney. We returned a few days later to find the edges of the neighbouring property smouldering, about one kilometre from our small weatherboard cottage. We drove to the top of the hill to see the fire soft and low – nothing like the images we’d been bombarded with for weeks. This fire had burnt for 74 days and now it was petering out nearby. I watched from our kitchen window each morning as the smoke curled from the tree line below. While we waited, our son collected blackened gum leaves from the lawn and we started reorganising our home; we unpacked the boxes and had our tanks emptied and cleaned. The water had been contaminated by the smoky run-off and was now undrinkable.
That summer seems long ago now. At the time I couldn’t write it down. I read accounts by people who experienced the fires and those in cities affected by poor air quality and had a writer’s guilt that I should be part of the conversation. But there was only time for packing and waiting. And waiting meant listening to the radio for regular updates, making sure we had enough food and water in case the highway closed again, triple checking our house insurance details. I was exhausted by the waiting.
Exhaustion, I suppose, was only one reason why I didn’t write. Well, I did write: the tireless grind of lifestyle articles for money. That I could manage easily enough, with a mercenary attitude. But here was something to write about. It was like looking through a dirty window unable to make out the view; I couldn’t manage a word. Iris Murdoch experienced a similar sense of disconnection. ‘I have a very shallow mind and I’ve been skating round these last four years on the crust of it,’ she writes in a letter to Frank Thompson, dated 1943. This was how I felt at the time, skating on the crust of it all.
In between the packing and the waiting, nothing made sense. I turned to description instead, struggling at the time to move beyond observation to any deeper understanding. I took notes of shop owners standing out the front of empty stores, staring at the sky; Dad hosing the ash off my car as his grandson watched, fascinated, like all children, by hoses; trees with alien regrowth barely recognisable as trees. I’m unable to pull these images into anything more than vignettes. I take no deeper meaning from them, there’s no larger plot to hang them off.
And without physical access to a space where writing and thinking happens routine evaporated.
In the month following the summer fires, I returned to my part-time marketing job. This was an hour-long drive away, involving long lengths of dirt roads. At any moment a wombat or kangaroo might emerge. It’s a beautiful but isolated area and didn’t fare well during the Currowan megafire. We, my colleagues and I, were warned about the destruction along the main access road before we returned. Some of us chose to drive in together, a slow morning convoy through charred bushland, vast in its emptiness, appearing as if larger and deeper now that it was stripped of life. Before, in every leaf and animal, this place hummed with life. Now stark and empty it was overwhelming on a different scale. Everything familiar replaced by a strange and quiet landscape.
It was different at home, where nature suddenly became unruly. A second male lyrebird moved onto our property, challenging the established bird’s dominion. They battled through song – all day, they sang. We could hear them from every corner of the house. Copycats, my husband called them. But they are more than that. With every imitation each bird adds something all his own, a flourish, an ending, a lilting – ahahaha. They steal from the kookaburras and the black cockatoos, but I don’t think the other birds mind. They quietly watch his shaking, bowing body as he sways beneath them, tail curled tightly above his back, hearing an echo of themselves against the canopy. Perhaps in this painstaking imitation they find something new as well.
Six weeks after the threat of fire passed, our thin tin roof gave way, and the water came down the walls and dripped from light fittings. The river in town rose overnight and higher again the next day. It felt like all the rain we had prayed for over summer was falling all at once. Nature laughed at us. You wanted rain? Well, here it is. Someone jokes that next we’ll have a plague. Then came cicadas so loud we had to take our phone calls inside, and even then, people commented on the noise, asking whether the line was bad. This happens every nine years or so, a neighbour informs us, when all at once, several generations of cicadas emerge simultaneously from the ground.
The millipede invasion arrived just as the pandemic started. These creatures denied their usual nocturnal behaviour and turned up everywhere. You can’t kill them because that only brings more, to feast on the crushed bodies. I learned to sweep each one up carefully and quickly throw them into the garden, my son delighting in the tight balls of their bodies. Suddenly both my husband and I were home, fighting for space and time as our two-year-old demanded more of us. My capacity for work halved, and then halved again, because more time at home only means more housework and caring responsibilities. I remember hanging another load of washing on the line and hearing a crunching sound. No one else was around. Crunch. I looked up, into the trees. A large flock of glossy black cockatoos, birds I only ever saw from a distance, quietly crunching gum nuts in the trees above my head, watching me.
These sudden infestations were our small private challenges when social distancing separated us from work and family. Still, the distance was almost welcome, at least at the beginning. I no longer had to drive through scorched bushland. Instead, I attended Zoom meetings via a 3G internet connection, technology that has been outdated for over ten years. The trees transformed, growing outwards instead of up, and the rest of Australia seemed to forget about what had happened here.
Somewhere within it all the words started to come back. So slowly at first, I barely noticed, then suddenly like a flood. I wrote every morning and began to feel more at ease. In hindsight, it was grief that opened up the gates. The private grief that came with pregnancy loss. Shock lifted the fog that had descended at the time of the summer fires.
The danger was too immediate then. I couldn’t write about it because I couldn’t see it from any distance. I was too close and looking back now, I understand that at the time of its unfolding, catastrophe refuses allegory in its immediacy. That comes later, once the threat passes. Retrospect conceives the example we later use to understand what’s happened and, hopefully, this allows us to learn from it. Our representation of these events can begin to normalise these experiences, covering up the exhaustion and the fear. It never felt normal, though, not even for a second. This is how things, events, become reflections of themselves in an estranged way, as hindsight.
Now I can say it was smoke, not fog, as Dante wrote. I can remember the man wandering in high-vis and place him in this story as a lost soul. But at the time, I only noticed he looked as tired and confused as I felt, in his heavy boots, stranded in a town without hope, bats circling overhead.