01.03.2009

Fields of Fire

Sometimes our comfort with the familiar hides the full extent of the danger. In the aftermath of the tragic Victorian bushfires, Adrian Glamorgan reflects on the natural forces that have beguiled us with their beauty.

Sometimes our comfort with the familiar hides the full extent of the danger. In the aftermath of the tragic Victorian bushfires, Adrian Glamorgan reflects on the natural forces that have beguiled us with their beauty.

The familiar world can deceive us. We might look around, glance at nature, and notice a gum tree. Like Henry Lawson, we call the eucalypt a "gum" tree, but are less precise in knowing which kind from among the 700 species. And why are these Australian trees so full of "gum", compared to the English willow and the Chinese silver birch? We may think gum trees are everywhere, and be surprised to learn how hard it is to find a eucalyptus in a rainforest or arid landscape.

We tend to use the first five of our senses - sight (taking in the straggly beauty of the individual eucalypt, the visual feast of a snowgum), sound (hearing the whispering leaves in the wind at night), touch (the pleasure of leaning on a trunk, and feeling the scribbly texture of bark), smell (the heated aroma of a valley of gums in summer) and taste.

Did I say taste? Although tasting trees hardly seems like a good recommendation - perhaps a leaf in the billy is as far as I'd go - we know there are plenty of other species, like tropical taro, which can be a staple, and we enjoy the fruit and nuts of many a woody plant.

Our European mind has hardly begun to investigate our Australian range of trees. Our biggest success would be a nut we now call macadamia, first traded with Europeans in the 1860s by Aboriginal people around Brisbane. Whether there's any bush tucker or medicine from the gum tree seems largely unknown - something for us to learn from Indigenous experts. Our Australian landscape is in many ways still new to the European mind.

Beyond the obvious five senses, the human imagination can investigate the nature of a tree. Goethe played with the notion that somewhere along the botanical path a leaf began to distinguish and swell and become a flower.

Ah, but what kind of flower? How is the striving of a silver princess different from the radial "summer red"? We can set our mind to play with the picture of a specific species' seed in the ground, growing from its resting place, eventually pushing its shoot upwards into the light, connecting earth and sky, trunk becomes branch, branch becomes stem, step becomes bud, bud becomes particular flower, flower dries out, flower drops to the ground, seed drops and finds its new home.

Thus the tree we see before us is not the tree, but a moment of the tree. To know a tree means to meet the full time-being of its circular life of being a tree.

Looking at many a European tree, sometimes I play this trick with myself, imagining in my mind's eye not a tree, but a fountain of water, slowed down by bark and leaves.

Passing my palm over the soft paperbark of melaleuca, I imagine how the flaky trunk draws up the water from the ground below - and may be a sign that this place was once a creek bed, before the bulldozers levelled the ground around us. The "natural" Australian landscape was once much more co-created. The Eora people kept Sydney foreshores as wooded parkland. Black Mountain in Canberra only had a casual number of trees. Aboriginal people, through their land use practices, made sure that it was not too wooded.

Trees may be slowed down to fountains, but Australian trees, like much Down Under, play and invert. For, as we have just witnessed in the south east of our continent, our beloved gum trees, along with so many other native plants, are firelighters. What we see before us is not a slowed down fountain, but a coiled up firestorm.

People who have been in a bushfire, or even its aftermath, know the familiar world can deceive. The familiar can explode all around. Flames, fire can throw balls of molten air in your direction. Tree trunks can boom and shower themselves in sparks. White cinders can drift down and caress your cheek. Rainwater tanks can vaporise. Air conditioners can draw in the burning leaves. Gutters can be trays on fire, curtains, walls of flame. The ground leaves its charcoal stain on your shoes. The plume of smoke in the distance is already too close.

With the natural blessings of this country, there is an ease that comes with possessions and the familiar, the close. When we hear of people trying to come into this country, escaping the firestorm of civil war or torture, we build detention prisons at Christmas Island, and turn on the cricket. But when we see our own in khaki tents at Yea, young people and old people, and see the heroism of those who fought the fires, and the tragedy of the ones who didn't make it, and the ones who have and somehow must make life anew, starting only with what they are wearing, we might glimpse other people's lives beyond our shores.

No matter how certain we can be about our life, the familiar can deceive us, and be undone, and there but the grace of God go I...it can all be taken away. But also, much can be given to each other, through the heartfelt generosity that tears down the beige walls of that inner detention prison which detained ourselves in our own hearts.

Of course, there are technical questions to answer. What does the "leave early" option mean? Would bunkers help? Is it okay to plant trees in the suburbs? These are technical judgements, and social issues, which need to be decided. Alongside this is the big framework. Our 5% CPRS target could become someone else's drought, or wildfire, or inundation. It is their row of khaki tents and noticeboards with "Have you seen this person?" at the top. It is our own bushfires, too, our rows of tents into the future. But in the end, whatever lies ahead, it is love of each other, and the kindness of strangers, that will make the ordeal worthwhile, and possible at all.

Lifeline can be contacted on 13 11 14.

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