Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis
by Malena Ernman, Beata Ernman, Svante Thunberg and Greta Thunberg
Published March, 2020
Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia
by Victor Steffensen
Published February, 2020
‘The sky was red, black ash fell like snow, and smoke choked the whole east coast – even New Zealand felt the effects of our fires. All while the government keeps selling our water and land,’ Bee Cruse said of last summer’s inferno. Cruse’s Monaro-Yuin Nation is one of the worst hit communities. Yuin man Warren Foster from Wallaga Lake said, ‘We need our country to be healthy so we can be healthy. We need the animals. If that is all lost, our spirits die when they die. This might be a wake-up call for them now to listen to us Indigenous people on how we do our cultural burning.’
I sat on a Yuin beach in mid-March this year holding blackened wood that the tide had swept in. It was my first time on Yuin Country and I was taking a moment to tell the spirits who I was. I expressed my sorrow for the devastated Country taking steps to heal itself after the bushfires. I had not been to this place before the fires. I spoke to Yuin Country as a Murri from south-east Queensland who could not comprehend what was no longer here, what had been lost – for my closest exposure to last summer’s fires, in November 2019, before fires had started burning in southern states, was a blowover of smoke.
I remember the National Indigenous Football Championships on Gubbi Gubbi Country north of Meanjin and after a day playing fixtures in almost 40-degree hot thick blistery conditions, getting home and not wanting to move. My symptoms (sore throat, cough, chest pains, trouble breathing) were beyond the fatigue and slight dehydration that was expected from a tournament, and I still wasn’t feeling better after fluids and rest. The next day I realised I had become sick from inhaling bushfire smoke from fires burning just over one hundred kilometres away. Advice not to exercise in such conditions, especially for asthmatics like myself, would come later, as fires swept the nation. My sore throat healed in a matter of days but the fires would take months to burn out; at one stage we thought the country would never stop burning.
From the safety of my lounge room, in front of the television, I watched the many, many fires on television in a state of mental anguish. Thirty-three human deaths, more than one billion native animals and plant deaths, 113 species threatened with extinction, 5900 buildings including over 2800 homes, immeasurable sacred sites. Over 18 million hectares burnt, two years’ worth of CO2 was released into the atmosphere, smoke so thick it reached birthing suites. Ten per cent of children affected by the New South Wales and Victoria fires are Indigenous, despite First Nations people in those states only being 2.3 per cent of the total population. Authors Bhiamie Williamson, Jessica Weir and Vanessa Cavanagh explain how First Nations people live with ‘perpetual grief’, and how grieving after the fires is vastly different for mob than it is for non-Indigenous communities.
On Yuin Country, I told the ancestors I would tread carefully. I explained I was there on invitation from my friend, Cam. Cam had planned a week away many months earlier, when we had talked about being ‘burnt out’ by our city lifestyles. How silly that phrase would feel now. We further explained our intentions on Yuin Country to the Yuin spirits: ‘to love’. Cam and I spent our days phone-free, bushwalking and ocean swimming. Nights were for scrolling COVID19 news but we obsessed less than we did in the city. The disease seemed far away from us and the quiet spot we had found but we knew restrictions were about to take effect. Cam helped me finish a poem on the kitchen table in which I speculated what might happen in the next few months.
how will we be in lockdown
will we sing like the Italians
cheer for front line workers like the Spanish?
love our Elders
nurture affective relations
share our pasta
The infection rate doubled while we were away and I knew I had to get home. We rushed the three hours to Sydney airport. The airport was a mess. There was protective gear strewn all over the floor and hardly any people. I told Cam not to wait around, I didn’t want to expose her to the virus. I waved, not sure when I would see her again, and boarded what felt like the last flight back to Meanjin.
At home, I buckled in for iso with my family, making our house tidy and warm. Anguish continued. I worried many people would forget climate change as a new major event went ‘live’ around the world. Because of course, it was hard to worry about so many things at the same time.
We couldn’t hug our beloved Aunty Tina but we did leave toilet paper and food by her gate. She texted ‘thank you’ afterwards and sent me a meme, which I since have discovered has been very popular on Blak Twitter and the other socials.
I think this meme has particular importance for blackfellas ‘cause we need a reason for this, to know that the ancestors had a lesson. One billion animals don’t just die without retribution. Some strong message was saying that were doing things all the way wrong and that a shelter-in-place could provide some food for thought on what we could do next.
2019 was the worst year on record for the climate, as we know. What of 2020, now that COVID19 takes up 60 per cent of the news coverage? ‘The challenges COVID-19 presents right now are huge. But they will pass. The challenges of climate change are not being met with anything like COVID-19 intensity. For now, that makes perfect sense. COVID-19 is unambiguously today. Against this imperative, climate change is still tomorrow,’ write Rod Lamberts and Will J Grant.
Climate change, as activist Greta Thunberg points out in a new book Our House Is on Fire: Scenes of a Family and a Planet in Crisis, has never moved beyond 1 per cent of reporting. Our House Is on Fire credits all four members of the Ernman-Thunberg clan as its authors but is solely narrated by Malena Ernman, Greta’s mother, with input by the others. Malena is a revered opera singer, maybe obscure for Australian readers, but a household name in Sweden after being a shock winner of Melodifestivalen in 2009 – and the country’s entrant for Eurovision Song Contest that year. Malena and her partner, Svante, as successful entertainers performing all over the world, believed they were providing a special meaningful life for their two children. ‘Our everyday life was like no one else’s. Our everyday life was absolutely marvellous.’ But this all changes when eleven-year-old, Greta, refuses to eat, and the youngest, Beata, refuses to leave her room, and doctors can’t find a cause. They are fumbling in the dark searching for answers.
The book is arranged into ‘scenes’, short punchy chapters, more visual than reflective. Scene Six is called ‘Gnocchi’ and it shows Greta’s parents, with great anguish and tested patience, recording everything Greta eats and how long it takes to do so; in this case, five pieces of gnocchi, two hours and ten minutes. Greta has also stopped talking and struggles to attend school where she is bullied by her fellow students. The school isn’t helpful, saying that it’s Greta’s own fault, for ‘behaving strangely’. Luckily Greta’s teacher teaches her in secret out of school hours. ‘I’ve seen too many highly sensitive, high-functioning girls fall apart,’ she says.
When Greta’s eating improves, neuropsychiatric assessment takes place and she is formally diagnosed with Asperger’s, high-functioning autism, obsessive compulsive disorder and selective mutism. In this century there has been a sharp increase in children being diagnosed with mental illness. As Malena says, it should be a joke, children being diagnosed with chronic fatigue. Why is that, Malena speculates, writing about Greta as a way of writing about a generation.
Greta’s unwell state arises from tension inside. She knows about a planet in crisis: oceans full of plastic, temperatures increasing, 80 per cent of insects disappearing, species extinct – and she can’t reconcile this with the behaviour of adults like her mother, who flies all over Europe regularly for work, contributing to the CO2 emissions in the biosphere, putting the economy over ecology. She can’t compute the lack of action from the people around her and the government of one of the richest countries in the world and one of the biggest ecological footprints in the world per capita. When Greta begins to articulate her thoughts and use her voice, her wellbeing dramatically improves. ‘Everyone is a climate change denier,’ Greta insists, and the book cleverly features a tongue-in-cheek meta narrative with potential publishers while the book is being written asking the family to ‘lighten up’ the content and provide ‘hope for readers’, all of which of course, is opposed. Greta rebuffs the idea that the topic is too big to talk about and should be sugar-coated; she demands responsibility from those around her.
This leads Greta, at fifteen, to envision the School Strike movement, taking affirmative action to raise awareness for the cause. ‘I’m going to be so incredibly hated,’ she says to her dad as he drops her off at Parliament for her first day of strike. And hated she will be. Ridiculed she will be, by those she dares to stand up to, nationally and globally, Donald Trump and other conservative leaders, conservative broadcasters and social media trolls. The attacks against her will be sexist and ableist – but they will illuminate the power and truth in her words. Statements like ‘you have stolen my dreams and my childhood’ both provoke and frighten her detractors. I applaud a particularly honest passage of writing where even Greta’s parents admit that they may have reacted poorly if they had seen a fifteen-year-old girl protesting outside Parliament. ‘Would we have been upset by the striking girl? Even hated her? Would we have chosen to look the other way so that we could go on like before?’
Greta anticipated a backlash. Perhaps she could not have anticipated the scale of the support, the understanding of her family, the millions who have come to ‘sit beside her’ in all across the world. When schoolchildren first approach her at the protest site she tenses: ‘I’ve never met a group of children that haven’t been mean to me,’ she tells her dad. She begins to relax, joining up with children who are White, Black, First Nations, Asian, Arab, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, with young leaders from Africa, Australia, South America, knowing that to achieve what she has set out to do, she must be with others.
Greta Thunberg’s story is not over. Our House is on Fire is the origin story of a voice of a generation, a voice at the birth of digital activism (during Covid19 digital strikes take the place of physical strikes), and a family who become closer during a crisis.
‘Everyone should take a few steps back,’ Greta says, and these words are even more timely during these strange housebound times. She recently tweeted, ‘In a crisis we change our behaviour and adapt to the new circumstances for the greater good of society.’ We will not benefit from inaction but we will not benefit from misguided panicked action either. For those itching for a way to get back to normal, as Naomi Klein says, ‘normal was a crisis’.
Fire Country: How Indigenous Fire Management Could Help Save Australia by Victor Steffensen is a memoir of persuasion. Steffensen is a descendant of the Tahalaka people from Gulf Country in north Queensland. He was raised by his mother and father in Kuranda, a small rainforest village. He grew up ‘knowing very little’ about his heritage, partly because his mother’s mother, who had been removed off country in the 1920s, passed away when he was five.
From an early age he is fascinated with fire: Steffensen describes lighting his first fire when he was eight in beautiful visceral detail. His banana leaf fire spreads quickly and soon threatens the family house and chicken coop. Steffensen’s father steps in at a crucial moment, extinguishing the fire with buckets of water and saving the chickens. ‘That would be the worst trouble I had ever gotten into from lighting a fire. Little did I know that I was going to light a lot more fires in my lifetime.’
This account of fire, responsibility and consequence, moves ten years forward. After a short-lived stint studying in Canberra ‘the last of all places you would expect to see a North Queensland boy’, Steffensen returns home and follows friends north on a fishing trip to country near Laura. In Laura, he meets two revered Elders, George Musgrave (Poppy) and Tommy George (TG) and a lifelong purpose begins. Steffensen stays in Laura working as a ranger, TG gives him a place to stay, and in time the brothers become mentors for young Steffensen. (The brothers received honorary doctorates from James Cook University in 2005. Dr George Musgrave (Snr) passed in 2006 and Dr Tommy George (Snr) passed in 2016. In an Australian Story episode their grandchildren say they would be very disappointed to see the 2019-20 fires.)
Readers of Alexis Wright’s collective memoir Tracker will see the value in the honouring of the incredible Awu-Laya men, the last speakers of their language, and keepers of the old ways, who, in an incredible story of survival, managed to avoid being taken away by police when they were younger, hidden in mail bags by the local station owner. The two brothers find a vessel in Steffensen to carry their immense cultural knowledge into the future. And it is Steffensen who encourages the men to light up Country that has been in European control (and decay) for a few hundred years. The fires that the European invaders first saw when they arrived in Australia started dwindling as First Nations people were murdered and a culture went into hiding. ‘The genocide that was cast upon the people is still affecting the country today.’ The Elders and Steffensen seek to make their land right again, and in turn, make their people right again. Their roadblocks are the three ‘Ps’ – the police, parks and wildlife and the pastoralists – and the watered-down native title rights that do not allow the old men to live on, practice culture or cultural burn their ancestral land. This is heartbreaking. Bigoted views denote First Nations knowledge as just plain trouble and something to be intimidated by, which serves the hypothesis of Is Racism an Environmental Threat? Ghassan Hage’s 2017 book, which proposes that ‘both racism and humanity’s destructive relationship with the environment emanate from the same mode of inhabiting the world: an occupying force imposes its own interest as law, subordinating others for the extraction of value, eradicating or exterminating what gets in the way’. Indigenous and non-Indigenous value systems are at a head here – poles apart – different sides of the river. Over time Steffensen is able to create a bridge between those two worlds and sell the value of the right fire.
Through interpreting signs in the landscape and talking to the spirits, First Nations practitioners burn the country slowly, so the animals can escape. They burn coolly, so the fire only reaches the vegetation it needs to, cleaning up country, providing food security, supporting waterways. Cultural burning is in sync with the seasons and breeding times of animals. Steffensen reminds us we can’t see property as the most important thing to protect – we need to take a holistic approach.
Steffensen joins up with other mob across the continent and establishes fire workshops and education programs. Moving from the local to the national, this book is an incredibly detailed account of all types of fire country – from gum-tree country to sand-ridge country – and how and why to burn it. ‘The trees are the key to reading country, they are like the traditional Elders of each individual ecosystem.’ Steffensen celebrates life and knowledge, pointing out animals’ knowledge of fire too.
Perhaps the most powerful descriptions of all are of what country looks like when it’s burnt properly. Positive results are able to be seen in a matter of days, unlike the apocalyptic charcoal aftermath of last summer’s fires. These could have been easily prevented had governments listened; the combination of drought, fuel, wrong vegetation created a time bomb. Properties on the South Coast that were burnt by Steffensen or another Indigenous practitioner were spared damage, as if held by an invisible line. This book was largely written before last summer but includes a conclusion written by Steffensen as the events were unfolding, his phone constantly ringing – landholders and communities wanting help, fire chiefs wanting to start cultural burning programs, schoolteachers frustrated with the educational system wanting content to teach children. Cynically, we could say this interest is too little too late, but Steffensen says ‘it is exciting to see people starting to change, it is just a shame that it takes a massive disaster to make it happen. But it is better late than never; even if it was too late then we must at least die trying.’
The Bushfire Royal Commission has begun, examining the preparedness, response to and recovery after seventeen community forums in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. It aims to hand down its findings before the start of the next bushfire season.
Both books have a charitable output. For each copy of Fire Country sold a dollar goes to Firesticks Alliance, an Indigenous-led network which aims to re-invigorate the use of cultural burning by facilitating cultural learning pathways to fire and land management. All proceeds from Our House on Fire go to Greenpeace, World Wildfire Fund and other non-profit organisations through the Greta Thunberg Foundation.
Both books remind me of the ‘emerging’ discipline of planetary health, which is the scientific naming of what our ancestors already know, which is that people and place’s wellbeing are connected. A healthy planet means fewer diseases. We know that higher death rates of COVID-19 occur in places of higher levels of air pollution; further, our encroachment on fragile ecosystems contributes to the spread of zoonotic diseases.
There is a poignant scene in Fire Country where Elders give way to the children. They realise a sit-and-listen approach doesn’t always work for a generation easily distracted by smart phones. So they get the youth to do the actions of the Elders, and they become the teachers. During COVID-19 our children teach us how to be instinctual, resourceful, creative, calm and selfless. During COVID-19 children of remote communities hold up hand-made signs urging travellers not to stop to protect Elders. Our children teach us to be critical of systematic exclusion and Western Ways of thinking. The protest site is a site of education. Our children teach us language, music, cooking, gardening and Country. Our children are leaders. Our children are heard.
At the end of his career, Steffensen wants to ensure there are one thousand fire practitioners, continuing the knowledge transfer, and making sure Country is First Nations-managed. This book could be one of the most important books in Australia. It could be. I’m talking about how wouldn’t it be great if we, in ten years’ time, saw this book as part of a turning point in how we do things as a country, listening to First Nations people, giving back autonomy, and the country and the house never burned like it did in 2019-2020 again, and the ocean did not teem with ash and blackened wood. Let this be the new normal.