Review: Kristin Ottoon Robert Kenny

A perfect pyre: Gardens of Fire: An Investigative Memoir

‘We are not used to fighting for our lives.’

Many authors have produced books and articles on the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires containing other people’s experiences. Gardens of Fire’s great distinction is that it is by a writer and historian, Robert Kenny, who fought for his life and won, but lost almost everything. The valuable contribution he makes in his first-hand account is to combine the personal with the broad sweep of his literary and cultural knowledge, recording not only the event but the aftermath in lucid, insightful prose. Like the crime novel he is reading at the start of the book, and as indicated by the subtitle, Gardens of Fire is a historical and psychological investigation, during which Kenny reconstructs his life and self.  From the smallest moments of practical immediacy, to a consideration of the fundamental nature of humankind’s relationship with fire, multiple strands of narrative are expertly woven, with no more than the currently expected amount of editing shortfall.

Kenny was at home in Redesdale, country Victoria, on Saturday 7 February 2009. By mid-afternoon, an advancing column of smoke could be seen from his old farmhouse. He was prepared to defend what he describes as ‘most of my life … this house, library, paintings – my own and those by others – manuscripts, notebooks, sketchbooks, correspondence, photographs, family heirlooms’. He readied himself and fought the fire for several hours.

He describes in detail what happened and how he dealt with it, as the fire loomed and the preceding ember attack began to ignite his home paddock. He writes of the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles, who believed the four elements – air, earth, fire and water – existed in a cyclical relationship, driven by the competing forces of love and strife, and that fire forced them into being; Empedocles, who threw himself into the volcano at Mount Etna, saw fire as a source of birth, renewal and death. Kenny also gives the historiography of fire mythology, from Ovid and Aristotle, through the Judaeo-Christian tradition, to how we perceive it today, via the periodic table and the laws of thermodynamics.

But fire is not an abstract concept in this ‘investigative memoir’:

As I watch two-metre high flames rise from apparently barren earth and turn water into steam in the raging wind, I know the four elements are in frenzied reunion; they have negated creation and returned the world to chaos … the fire hits the house.

He is inside it. ‘Out the windows is the Inferno …’ His mobile rings: it is his mother. He keeps trying to put out the fire. Plastic fittings on the water tank melt. Bushfire is inexplicable, he thinks: why does one building not burn, yet the next is ash? He reinterprets the Bible: was the Fall acquiring knowledge of fire?

Like many others, Kenny repeatedly telephoned emergency numbers without success. He then tried the main switch of the company, Telstra, and got their appalling automated voice recognition system. Finally, he was connected with a real person, who was possibly not on the same continent, had certainly never been to Victoria, and had no idea what his location meant.

He quotes Vitruvius, author of ‘probably the most influential book on architecture in the world’, who believed that humans were wild beasts until they discovered fire. He retells the ‘Melbourne legend’ of James Frazer, of Golden Bough fame – an Aboriginal narrative, taken from nineteenth century transcriptions by Brough Smyth and A. W. Howitt, of Bunjil the wedgetail and Waa the crow, of the women of the Yarra flats and the seven sisters (the Pleiades star cluster), and how Kulin  people first owned fire. He considers the use of fire as a weapon, from the Iliad to Vietnam, in the forms of gunpowder, incendiary jelly and aeroplanes flying into buildings.

Kenny lost his house. The book’s opening depicts him after the fires, and in recovery. He reads about Andrea Camilleri’s character, Inspector Montalbano, searching for a lost receipt, constantly distracted by pieces of paper that are evidence of his memories. Letters and photographs, this process of remembering, of physically touching the evidence of one’s past – all of this is now gone for him. His memories have been taken, along with almost every physical possession: his room, his bed, his books, the buildings. He is in shock, reliving every moment and struggling with a ‘complexity of feelings’: euphoria at surviving, adrenalin at the thought of what needs to be done, and the incomprehension of loss.

Callers would hear his landline ring when they telephoned and upon connecting to his voice message would assume the telephone and house around it were still there.

Joan Webster, author of CSIRO Publishing’s Essential Bushfire Safety Tips (2012), observed of the Black Saturday fires that ‘No data was obtained by the royal commission on how many people safely and successfully defended their homes’. An extraordinary opportunity to acquire this knowledge was lost, perhaps the most valuable information that could have been provided. If we do not understand what did work and why, how can we make properly informed decisions – decisions which may determine whether we live or die? Webster quotes the Review of Fatalities in the February 7, 2009, Bushfires (2010) by John Handmer, Damien Killalea & Saffron O’Neil, with its range of statistics: ‘a quarter of the cases did not have a general awareness they were in a bushfire risk area, while 39% lacked knowledge on what to do.’ They also state: ‘We do not have data on how many people stayed and defended their homes and survived – this would be a key set of data for further policy assessment.’

The remains of Kenny’s home became a classic image of the Australian landscape – brick chimneys and a pile of twisted roof metal. When paintings depicting such scenes were exhibited in 1950s London, they were described as as surrealistic. But they are not if you are in Australia and look at what is in front of you. A refusal to see what is in front of us, to acknowledge our physical surroundings or have a sense of place, remains a problem in Australia. ‘Those that gather at Gallipoli celebrate a struggle of blood that seems to denote here but does not,’ writes Kenny. ‘The attraction of the Anzac legend is that it happens over there, away from here, away from the past on this continent, away from dispossession … As a history of place it is no history at all.’ We are yet to admit to being Australian in our buildings or our history. We act as though we are in another hemisphere, build and live as though we are in a void.

We have forgotten much that was known in nineteenth century Australia. Today most of us are not used to fighting for our lives, and yet vast numbers of Australians should be mentally and physically prepared to do so, not only in the bush, but kilometres deep into the urban fringe. When firefighters talk about houses topographically ‘sitting on the top of the chimney’, they really mean inside it.  When a house is built on timber stumps with a timber floor and space underneath, it’s like constructing a barbecue. In the wake of the Black Saturday fires, homes have been rebuilt in fire affected areas with absence of thought and knowledge. Some land should not be built on and should be bought back. Some has been. But driving through ranges that are close enough to the city for metropolitan phone service, yet rated at eight minutes to burn from bottom to top on days of extreme fire danger, it can seem like being in the midst of mass psychosis, knowing that people still live there. Dozens of Australian suburbs fit this description, particularly those with picturesque, non-straightforward access.

Kenny covers the technological origins and history of construction in Australia. The ‘conventional Australian home’, he observes, is ‘a perfect pyre’ – just like the 1940s house he was standing in as it burned down around him. Having experienced first-hand exactly what happens when one is in an inappropriate building while it is on fire, Kenny sees the new Australian Standard AS 3959 and Bushfire Attack Level (BAL) regulations as underdone. Conversely, after pressure from local government and some landholders, the Victorian Planning Minister announced in December 2013 that changes would be made to pull back the Bushfire Management Overlay (BMO) ‘to allow residents to be able to build on their properties, particularly on land that’s been deemed unbuildable at this point in time. What we’re going to do is ensure private land private risk.’

Kenny is piercing about the processes of ‘community’ recovery, with its band of professionals and their spin, right down to the powerpoint presentations and the lollies. He describes attending one ‘community consultation’ meeting where such professionals outnumbered community members.  Spending of the massive relief funds was restricted to items not within government purview, so that, for example, in a different area to Kenny’s, the suggestion from someone whose home had burnt down that some of the funds be used for a new water standpipe was rejected, while other high six figure projects were pursued. That area still has no public water access. In Kenny’s area, someone’s genius idea of ‘community recovery’ was to have a winter solstice bonfire – this supposedly for people who were seriously fire affected and suffering post-traumatic stress. To this day, the spin of ‘community consultation’ is endemic in local government.

Weeks after the fires, Kenny stayed at a friend’s holiday house in South Gippsland. Everywhere he goes, he imagines his surroundings on fire, and sees death traps. ‘All I think is how difficult it will be to fight or get away from a fire in this place.’ And he’s right. While he is in Gippsland, Wilson’s Promontory National Park is burning. He thinks – quite reasonably – about ember attack in the event of a wind change, and makes a mental fire plan of where he will go, what he will do. In this, he is not neurotic or suffering from post-traumatic stress – this is how we should all physically apprehend where we are during fire season, though perhaps it takes living in a fire affected area to get this way.

Victoria has a litany of fire history that is always worth recounting, and Kenny does: Black Thursday 1851, Red Tuesday 1898, Black Sunday 1926, Black Friday 1939, Ash Wednesday 1983. There are also the no-name examples of 1944’s conflagration, which destroyed 500 houses, killed twenty people and burnt out a million hectares, and the fire in 1969 that burned 250 000 hectares and killed 23 people. There have been plenty of others in between. This is a serial event. Red Tuesday was ‘one of the greatest bushfires in Australian history’. Though the official figures for 1898 are ‘only’ 260 000 hectares burnt, 2000 buildings destroyed and twelve lives lost, that fire changed the landscape of South Gippsland, creating green hills and valleys from forests of ash. As Kenny points out, descriptions of that fire suggest the toll was much higher. Geoffrey Blainey commented in the wake of the 2009 fires that in earlier conflagrations, such as 1851 (5 million hectares burnt) and 1939 (1.4 million hectares burnt), it could not be known how many people were living in the bush and how many perished. Those fires destroyed a much greater area – up to a quarter of the state – and today all our lives and homes are on file, but we dwell in far higher densities nearer to cities, creating the potential for destruction and loss of life on a large scale in a much smaller area.

The superlatives we use – hottest, longest, biggest – should be qualified with the phrase ‘since records began’.  We are not dealing with the grand span of this land’s existence, but with a sliver of continental time – that brief period of record keeping after European settlement. At a controversial seminar at University of Melbourne’s Australian Centre in 2009, Kenny hears about mosaic burning, Aboriginal land management of the continent for 40 000 years, and the symbiotic relationship of indigenous ecology with fire.  He comes away from the seminar ‘with a head full of recognition of how the fire I experienced a month before cannot be separated from the history of this continent but nor can it be separated from the growing moral authority given to “nature” in debates about the environment and about what it means to be human.’

‘It’s hard not to see Black Thursday’s underlying cause in the ending of Aboriginal fire regimes and the enacting of European ones,’ writes Kenny. ‘Instead of the mosaic of controlled burnings, broad plains of lethal fuel had been allowed to build up, so that when it caught, it caught almost everywhere.’ He comments, too, on the ‘myth of nature’, observing that ‘to suggest that pre-settlement Australia was “pristine” is to place Aboriginal Australians in the category nature and deny them humanity’. Before 1788, people living on this continent measured their land title by knowing their water catchment, and managed their country with fire. We are yet to achieve the same. We have a short public memory. It is as though there is no history, as though fire is an unknown force and water disposable.

Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (2011) begins with ‘three facts about 1788’.  Page two, point three: ‘There was no wilderness.’ This should be taught by rote to every Australian schoolchild in much the same way they once pledged loyalty to the Queen, and so should its continuation: ‘The Law … compelled people to care for all their country. People lived and died to ensure this.’

‘For the Aboriginal Australian the physical characteristics and features of his or her “country” contain stories, family spirits, the sacred places of rites,’ notes Kenny:

They contain the knowledge of who one is. This is true of the things of a home, and particularly for me the library … The outer world of things, of my things, that once surrounded and walled me in an emotional as much as physical shelter, has disappeared.

People offer him books, but

What would be the point of shelves of strangers’ books?  [Alberto] Manguel describes the personal library as autobiography … To stand and look at the spines of books is to see beyond those spines into the realm of each book.  Each spine is a door, so that many dimensions are added to the room in which they, and yourself, are housed.

Kenny considers the ideas of Frank Lloyd Wright and notions of one’s home as ‘an extension of self’. If you live alone – as he does – ‘your relationship with the house becomes your prime domestic relationship’.

This is why he chose not to go, but stayed and fought the fire:

those things that could not be replaced, my library, paintings, photographs, papers, correspondence, family heirlooms …  To defend these things was to defend more than material objects.  It was to attempt to preserve the incalculable capital of experience held in [them]. … I can understand that urge, that connection between self and things, and the will to risk everything in the same way a parent would for a child … when well-meaning people say, At least you are all right and that is the important thing, I feel spurned.

‘Confusion owns me these months,’ he writes. Kenny spends much time redesigning a new house that will be as fire safe as he can make it, but his sense of loss remains: ‘What I miss most, the loss that makes me feel so rudderless, is my library. Not having that as I try to write is like having half my mind removed; my consciousness as an intellectual has been diminished.’

In mid-June 2009, Kenny received two letters, opening them when he got home to the empty space where his house had been. One was his new building permit. The other was from the Prime Minister, not another cut and paste sympathy letter, but a personal letter telling him that his book The Lamb Enters the Dreaming: Nathaniel Pepper & the Ruptured World (2007), had won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History. Coincidentally, his co-winner was Tom Griffiths, historian of the Victorian ash forests and fire. ‘Yes, I think, looking down at my dusty workboots as I lean against a car brown with dirt, I am a historian and a writer.’

There has been a spate of books published about the Black Saturday fires, including Roger Franklin’s Inferno: The Day Victoria Burned (2009), Karen Kissane’s Worst of Days: Inside the Black Saturday Firestorm (2010), Jane O’Connor’s Without Warning: One Woman’s Story of Surviving Black Saturday (2010), Danielle Clode’s A Future in Flames (2010), Adrian Hyland’s Kinglake-350 (2011), Christine Hansen’s & Tom Griffiths’ Living With Fire: People, Nature and History in Steels Creek (2012) and Peter Stanley’s Black Saturday at Steels Creek (2013). Many writers have contributed to the literature of these fires. Novelist Carrie Tiffany, as Editor of Victorian Landcare magazine, produced a special issue on fire recovery. Footsteps in the Ash (2010) by Mac Gudgeon and Jim Usher was self-published as a fundraiser for their local fire brigades.

Gardens of Fire has been published by the University of Western Australia Press, a small firm on the other side of the continent from Redesdale. Other publishers may have believed there was no return in the market for yet another fire book, particularly one by an author with no media profile that does not contain descriptions of great heroism or personalised fatalities, and does contain a fair bit of intellectual content. Yet Gardens of Fire is a valuable book because Kenny was there. He went through the whole process of destruction and rebuilding, bearing witness – as a fine writer – to the struggle of his life. Such an account is rare.

A multitude of stories containing details of heroism, suffering and death from generations of bushfires remain publicly untold. These stories are sometimes known within small regions or families; they are occasionally uncovered before disappearing from living memory. Weeks before the Black Saturday fires, in a small old timber hall close to the Warburton forest, half a dozen 90-year-olds made their capacity audience sigh, laugh, gasp and weep with their first-hand accounts of the 1939 fires. Author Don Charlwood was in the crowd, researching the young men who, after surviving and fighting those Black Friday fires, marched off next to the Second World War and Bomber Command.

It is vital that we not only preserve any bushfire history we have, but recognise its significance, because seventy-odd years later it seems that little has changed. We are back at the words of Judge Leonard Stretton in his Report of the Royal Commission To Inquire Into The Causes of and Measures Taken to Prevent the Bush Fires of January 1939, and to Protect Life and Property And The Measures to be Taken to Prevent Bush Fires in Victoria and to Protect Life and Property in the Event of Future Bush Fires:

The experience of the past could not guide them to an understanding of what might, and did, happen.  And so it was that, when millions of acres of forest were invaded by bushfires which were almost State-wide, there happened, because of great loss of life and property, the most disastrous forest calamity the State of Victoria has known.