Fiona McLennan, Canberra Regional Meeting
I have had a wide variety of experience of the climate events of this last summer in the Eastern states of Australia – some of which lead me to have an understanding of why it is so important for the world to hear the story, from those who were there.
Because I wasn’t at first.
In two distinct yet similar ways.
I live in southern NSW in the Bega Valley and do not have television nor read newspapers to receive my understanding of global events.
When the fires began in Queensland and the surrounds of Sydney I was aware – and it would be easy to claim my level of awareness was due to lack of media exposure and visual data but very clearly in hindsight – it was more than that.
Predominantly my level of awareness was due to the fact it wasn’t happening to me.
It was a story.
To be discussed and horrified about.
To claim righteous indignation, for some, and to be made a political agenda.
To create an intellectual construct about, all the while imagining an emotional connection that almost certainly was lacking.
It was a story.
That’s what media and our social systems make of the lives of people.
Short stories of the most flammable – pun most certainly intended – parts that quickly move to the next topic after the intense heat of interest has died.
Leaving the lives of the people in the ashes cold, dirty, shattered and alone.
Watching from the charred, desolate remains of their lives – as the next, new story becomes headlines.
Whether it is more common tragedy and drama – or the recent bushfires.
But this story – unlike the usual bite size chunks of global disaster and mayhem traditionally beamed into our living rooms through the box in the corner – didn’t end, did it?
It kept going.
And the smoke of the disaster became so much more than a bite sized chunk – and it began to choke humanity on a global scale.
All of us were involved.
And then it was me.
It was my life.
When my community and home was evacuated for the first time at 3 am on the 31st of December – I wasn’t there either.
I was “safe”, 4000 km away in Western Australia breathing fresh air with clear view of the stars without haze.
Tears begin to roll now.
Before I left for my holiday, it was suggested I pack a bag of important things that could easily be grabbed if the fires came closer to us.
Because it wasn’t going to happen to me.
It was still a story happening to someone else.
For the first week of 2020, the most common thing I heard was “You must feel so lucky to not be there”.
That was not what I felt at all.
In fact I felt very little because my survival physiology had gone into deep functional freeze.
The best description is a form of survivor guilt – which perhaps some global friends can relate to.
I felt no ability to relate to those around me in WA and they showed very limited capacity to relate to my experience.
I had become the story, out of context.
It was particularly surreal and isolating until I told my 11-yr-old son after the first week – not wanting to cause him distress in the period of time where I was most unsure that we would have a home … to come home to.
When I finally did tell him his first words were “We must go home and be with everyone – I feel like we are cheating”.
This is the best description of my experience.
From the mouths of babes.
Of course it would have been foolish to go home immediately, and various pathways were now not possible.
So we stayed.
And floated with our spirits in one place and our bodies in another.
When we finally flew into Canberra, we discovered the vehicle we were meant to travel home in had been destroyed by the golf ball sized hailstones that had battered the nation’s capital in the middle of summer.
While it burned and burned and burned up the road.
The contrast was … ridiculous … no words.
We arrived home a just few days before school began.
Travelled over Brown mountain to see our valley veiled by a blanket of the thickest smoke … that we knew was, in fact, minimal in comparison to the apocalyptic scenes from the fortnight before.
LEAVE OR DIE
WHAT TO TAKE
Our community in Tanja was beyond exhausted after the roller coaster of evacuation, return, evacuation, return.
And the background noise of constant, hyper vigilant fear.
Raw, hair trigger reactivity swirling in a soup of trauma no one had had a moment to stop and process.
Like those times in the ocean when you get caught in a continuous set of enormous waves –duck, hold your breath, come up in the chaos, snatch a breath, go under again.
Come up and float in exhausted fear for a moment with the next set looming, potentially, on the horizon.
Gratitude that our fire had twice turned back on itself before it reached our particular spot?
A guilty, confused gratitude that had to stand beside those who had lost everything.
Your home still standing in the ruins of a desecrated world is a scarred gratitude.
Making you wonder if you have any real right to feel at all … as the tsunami of grief and fear and despair dumps you over and over.
Then the first unexpected rains.
Enough to create bizarre lush greenery in the smoking ruins – not enough to touch the sides of the. monster fires.
And still – 10km away – “our” fire creeping forward.
One of so many.
Contained, moving so slow but seemingly impossible to extinguish.
It seemed nothing could stop it and we were facing that almost certainly that it would come through our community … at this point we almost wanted it to … rather than face weeks of repeated evacuation every time the weather took a turn.
No one was bothering to unpack now.
School started, two days, closed , evacuated again.
The knock on the door from the police and State Emergency Services.
We had not unpacked our bags from WA and everyone else had only just started to unpack from the previous two evacuations.
Yet it almost seemed the new normal as we all went to a caravan park in Tathra together – it was bizarrely almost a spirit of revelry due to the lesser intensity of threat and the growing familiarity with the process.
My son and I were fortunate that this more upbeat evacuation was our first actual experience.
SYSTEMS ARE DOWN
How to stay together?
Not lash and disconnect …
Stay in unity the Earth has demanded …
The new normal in danger of becoming the old …
The pain … loss … confusion … am I allowed to feel?
As others kneel in broken homes … I stand in my doorway … am I allowed to feel?
And I look over at you who seemed to push me in the charcoal mud … I look in your eyes … I catch your tears … I take your hand … hold your weary heart … light shining through the cracks … know it to be my own
We are not broken.
We are breaking through.
Can there be an “upbeat evacuation” from bushfires?
There can when you have done it enough times. that it has almost become the new normal.
When you have done it enough times that there are now grades of evacuation.
After coming home the following week – we headed to Sydney for an emotional recovery workshop.
Grief-stricken, driving the charred remains of the NSW coast on one day.
Heading down Mt Ousley with hazard lights on in the most torrential rain I have ever experienced – the very next day.
The contrasted threatening, devastating weather experiences now becoming truly, mentally destabilising.
Not just unprecedented disaster – unprecedented, completely opposite forms of disaster.
One seeming to be a saviour of the other – yet wreaking its own havoc and threat.
To have any sort of stable mind was becoming more and more challenging.
I could go on.
This is truly a very brief overview of my personal experience
Yet beyond my personal story … beyond the myriad stories and experiences of those who lived the reality of the monster fires and crazy weather events this past summer – what is the story?
The Real Story.
The Earth Story.
The Collective Story.
For me – collective is the operative word.
In the days before I left WA, I spent time with the most precious Nanna Violet.
An Aboriginal lore woman who defies description.
She requested that I “sing” the burnt country when I return.
Sing the trapped spirits of the animals.
Of course issues of cultural appropriation and humility arose – as they do in the telling – but one does not argue with Nanna when she makes a request.
One assumes she knows exactly what she is doing – in all its complexities.
So that remained my focus – as it does in the telling.
Though I have a deep personal connection to “country” – my first and foremost personal journey is as a Peace activist – human “inner peace” as a pathway to collective, social Peace.
My focus in Earth Care has always been that when we care for ourselves and each other – care of the Earth is a no brainer, natural consequence.
Natural pun intended.
Thus my thinking about extending “care” on my journey home into the heart of the bushfires – had a human focus.
However we don’t argue with Nanna and of course – Nanna was right.
So I sung.
Up and down the charred coast and over barren mountain ranges I sung.
Nanna said I would find my song and I did.
The majestic, glorious tree in the image above – answered my song.
As I laid my face in her charred skin and wrapped my arms around her – she whispered to me – “come”.
She took me through her scarred trunk deep into the Earth, where glorious, potent life throbbed in unimaginably, untouched Beauty.
Beneath Her and through Her.
Deep in the Earth.
Long … deep … together
On all Earth
She directed me to the evidence sprouting through the ashes on her branches … red dresses of new life.
She told me of how we humans tend to only see the surface chaos and devastation … never knowing the throb of Life that is below.
That is relentlessly blooming within the Chaos.
Knowing the contrast of Chaos – as the definer of Beauty.
The sunrise ever more beautiful after the storm.
She told me we see the surface of each other and ourselves, in appearance and deed – rarely sensing the throb of Life that is beneath every skin equally.
She told me that we NEED what we call “natural disaster” in equal proportions that we NEED to understand the equal throb of life in every human.
Beyond belief, culture or deed.
She told me the need to know our interconnectivity had never been greater on this planet.
Disaster brings us together.
All appearances of separateness drop away.
You can’t buy, talk, educate, posture or light work your way out of it.
When humans flee disaster together – we are one.
The burning question now is – how do we stay that way?
The Earth is clearly stating there is no longer any other option for survival of humanity.
This is not a climate emergency.
This is a spiritual emergency.
A connectivity emergency.
That’s the Story.