these fire days

It hasn’t felt right to sit and write while my country burns, while traumatised humans recount the moments they imagined to be their last, to see eight tonne firetrucks, caught in a firestorm, be flipped with the lightest of touch, and know that death has come for some.

Last week journalist Brigid Delaney wrote a piece in the Guardian about attending a wine-tasting function at a harbour-side mansion in Rose Bay when Sydney’s air pollution was at its worst. She was shocked when comments of ‘Great day for it!’ were bandied around while the red sun seared through the smoky haze. People mingled poolside sipping wine, ‘seeing but refusing to see what was all around them.’

Delaney sipped her wine as ash landed in it, and realised she was likely ingesting the ash of the burnt forests and animals many kilometres away and that this devastation was now part of her. That even here in the middle of Sydney she could be got at, and she felt afraid.

On New Year’s Eve I went out into the garden on dusk. I was oncall for work so F and I had had a quiet meal at home. The sky was clear, a thin sickle of moon carved out in the darkening blue.

A few days before I’d listened to a Brené Brown presentation about choosing courage over comfort. At the time I thought about my pony and how I needed to be braver in doing some (a lot of) things better. We were mid-summer lesson intensive and Aoibheann and I were enjoying having horse and human friends close. Brown referred to a Theodore Roosevelt speech given in 1910 and it seemed fitting to my pony and being in the arena and about ‘daring greatly’ no matter what.

But as I stood in the backyard staring up at the night sky it was my fellow humans I thought of, those smack bang in the middle of the arena of these fire days.

‘It is not the critic who counts; not the (hu)man who points out how the strong (hu)man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the (hu)man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; …who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…’

I thought of the firefighters risking their lives for their communities. I thought of those who stayed to defend their homes. I thought of those huddled on the beach in the red glow of the fires at Mallacoota and hoped they would be safe. I thought of those who died trying to save their homes, their animals, protecting their loved ones. All daring greatly.

The garden stared back at me. Normally I’m not that attentive to growing things this time of year. I tend to let things go. I stood there listening to the cicadas, the cockatoos breaking open the not-yet ripe plums, the cool passages of air. I looked down at the violets and realised I needed them to stand up a little and show me their small open hands of leaves as an offering that there was still life, new growth, and in this, some kind of hope.

I lined up some small black plastic pots and filled them with potting mix. I took cuttings from the plants closest to me, anything that might grow, anything, and, started sticking them into the soil, watering them in. The smell of the earth, the cooling night air, the occasional sound of celebrations a few streets away, grounded me, for I felt Delaney’s fear. That I was got at. That I couldn’t look away. That I needed to step into this new world in a new year.

Yesterday I stood in a dry paddock at a friend’s horse property in South Gisborne and watched smoke fill the sky from the Sunbury fire. Would we be next? The wind was blowing away from us and we knew we were safe. But for how long? What if the wind changed? That moment of not knowing, that fear. Is everything about to change?

As I write this a friend is leaving her home just out of Tathra. As she pulls out of the driveway she won’t know what will happen next. That goes for all of us. We need to look out for each other and to be kind.

This morning I sat alone in a shady Gisborne park and ate my lunch after a riding lesson. A woman pulled her car in next to mine and got out, changed into her runners, and opened the back door. There on the backseat lay a greyhound. She appeared to smile at me as I caught her eye, serene-looking, happy with her lot.

C’mon, said the owner.

She looked at me and didn’t budge, a look on her face that said: Do I have to? Can’t I stay here where it’s safe and coolish, where nothing can get at me, where I can rest my beautiful face down here just to one side of my long legs?
With some encouragement from her owner, she eventually emerged from the car, shook herself off, and walked off down the path, one paw in front of the other.

The sirens at the Kyneton CFA have just sounded. I’d better check my app.

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