Essay: Amy Thunigon bushfires

Swimmers and smoke masks

The birds fell silent this summer. For three days we didn’t hear or see them. Every morning and evening we stepped into the heat and haze to place containers of water wherever shade could be found.

The closest fire is 15 kilometres away and out of control. We are not in immediate threat from the fires here, but the smoke is thick. I am worried about the wildlife and our elderly neighbours. We’ve cleared the gutters and bought some drinking water in case the town supply gets cut off. As we walk around the yard, what is left of the grass crunches underfoot.

‘Mum, it’s too spiky, there are bindis’, complains my son as he hops behind me. But there are no bindis, the grass is just dead.

Our home is on Awabakal Country, it is old and small, has no insulation, and the tile roof needs replacing. But out of every window we can usually see kookaburras, magpies, cockatoos, eastern rosellas, lorikeets, and tawny frogmouths. At night, possums run across the roof, making noises that make me think of pterodactyls. Our kin creatures visit us in the day, and in the evening come the bats – though I haven’t quite figured out where they live. But today they are all nowhere to be seen. We have had three days of heat over 45 degrees Celsius. I hope they are okay.

I look at my kids as we try and manufacture safe conditions for the wildlife and our pets. We didn’t have much when I was a kid, but we at least had rain and Christmas beetles.

At morning tea, the smell of green apples – sharp, fresh – reminds me of childhood summers on Yuin Country. Pop cutting an apple into chunks, then holding me aloft as I would hand-feed possum from the back step at Great-Grandma Lucy’s house. We’d never try and feed the grumpy poss in the back shed, us kids were too scared to even go in there. We’d track sand and dirt up from the beach and river, walking down daily to swim in the waters now known as Shoalhaven River. We’d hose off in the yard before coming inside. In the evening, before I fall asleep Pop tells me he is going fishing in the morning, but I can’t come along, I am too talkative, it scares away the fish. In the morning Pop takes me with him anyway. We walk down the river, sometimes as far as the beach and fish as the sun rises. Sometimes the octopus steal our bait. I talk the whole time.

When the Christmas beetles start to show up, I know my cousins will start showing up too. We will all be here at Great-Grandma’s soon. I hide my best toys in the boot of the car, so I don’t have to share and risk my older cousins accidentally breaking them. We find ways to cram into the house. The kids are sprawled on couches and mattresses in the living room. We live in our swimmers and spend the days rescuing Christmas beetles from spiderwebs. In the evening storms roll in, bringing heavy rain and the sweet, heady scent of water hitting hot concrete. Mum lounges in the front room reading, Grandma Lucy naps in her favourite chair, and we kids don’t come inside until the storm or the mosquitos force us.

Mismatched tables and chairs are dragged together in the evening so the adults can play cards. They gamble using match sticks – no kids allowed. We love being in the always-salty air, and take turns helping Grandma feed the chooks. She gets all of our names mixed up, but she is kind and wears a hat that ties up at the back. Sometimes we walk down to the corner shop for hot chips and we carry groceries back with us in a blue netted bag.

Before I finish primary school, my Grandma passes in that house, the one with the room filled with books, and an outhouse that had my older sister’s feet immortalised in the slab. We won’t be able to holiday there anymore, but I reconcile that loss with the idea that other children will grow up walking the river, fishing those waters and feeding the possums.

This year we planned to visit Yuin Country with our own children, on our way home from Naarm. But the past two decades have seen Country hurting – everywhere is too dry, fire is spreading too quickly and is out of control. Everything is out of control. The roads are closed and we can’t approach our destination. Entire towns and Grandma’s old house are cut off completely by fires. Our friends are evacuated. We are forced to drive home via inland routes, driving for hours through dark, smoke filled roads. Eventually we end up stuck for a beat in a town big enough to have a McDonalds but small enough that the influx of travellers stuck from road closures have all the staff in a panic.

We return home to our neighbourhood where the lawns have turned brown.

Christmas comes and goes. I do not see a single Christmas beetle. It is estimated that over a billion of our kin animals have perished in these fires. A billion. But the Government says, ‘business as usual’. They release propaganda advertisements; people get angry and argue at the authorisation, but still, the riots do not come. Storms roll in, but they are unlike the storms of old, generated instead by these fires that produce their own weather. Thunderstorms build within the fire’s plumes, bringing dry lightning, more destruction, but no rain.

We all stan Commissioner Fitzsimmons, and rage at the news that the Government won’t listen to the fire chiefs.

People are dying.

We stop watching news on the television. It’s scaring the children so we use our phones instead. Day after day spent inside. We can’t go for walks, we can’t swim, the air quality is officially hazardous. I order P2 smoke masks online and stock up on Ventolin. Sometimes I find myself daydreaming about actual leadership emerging within Australian politics, leadership informed by Indigenous knowledges, scientific consensus, and a centring of community.

But like the rain, it doesn’t come.

The Prime Minister, reluctantly home from lounging in Hawaii, keeps using the word ‘season’. I wonder if he uses the term in the biblical sense, leaning into the Christian adage: ‘He is the reason for the season’. People are deriding him for being uneducated, what a strange thing to say when the man literally has a Science degree with Honours. People would prefer to project incompetence and ignorance onto him rather than acknowledge the malice and white supremacy that underpins his Government.

There are more references to ‘seasons’ and I wonder what informs that term, and how Morrison’s leadership might look like if he – as someone who loves the Shire so much that he named his $250 million prime ministerial jet after the Cronulla Sharks – actually had an understanding of Dharawal seasons. How empowered and cared for might his electorate, and all Country be if he observed Burran, Marrai’gang, Burrugin, Wiritjiribin, Ngoonungi, Parra’dawee.

I’m due to have surgery. The staff ask me if I am well and I mention that I’ve had chest pain and a sore throat for several days. They look me over and I am assured that it is from the constant exposure to bushfire smoke rather than a virus. The surgery can go ahead.

Business as usual, the Government says.

I miss Christmas beetles and rain.