‘Are you alright?’ The text message comes in late at night at the very end of the decade. I don’t understand my friend’s concern until I recall telling her our campervan road trip plan. For the Christmas break, we were heading to Wangaratta, Corryong, Canberra, and back home via the coast. Now, apart from Wangaratta, every destination in our plan is either on fire or surrounded by it. We turn tail and head back to Melbourne.
Hours after we arrive home a call comes in. My 94-year-old mother has had a major stroke. There’s a long evening in Emergency at Box Hill Hospital and after midnight we sleep in a nearby street in the campervan.
That night curtained off from the street, I enter the cocooned time of vigil where nothing else matters and everything matters.
The following day the medical staff tell me that my mother will not recover. Her Advanced Care Plan is our guide, for she can longer speak or move the right side of her body. In the instance of brain damage, my mother has documented that the only intervention she would want is pain relief. The staff assume she can hear and speak to her with quiet respect, explaining each small action and intention.
While I stay by my mother, I glean only the edges of the news; already the horror of the fires has been at full stretch. In the quiet room where my mother lies, I think of people trying to sleep in unfamiliar environments, refugees from the fires.
When we were on the road we’d been checking with friends in areas under threat. One loses her house in Mallacoota; another finds thousands of dead birds on the beach at Lake Tyers. An extended family member is in the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales. We don’t try to contact him except to cancel our plans to visit.
I spend long hours sitting with my mother. While she sleeps, I try to rest. Periodically I check the numerous messages on my phone. When I gaze out of the window, there is smoke across the horizon.
I think of the people who will be in burns units, the agony of the fires written into their flesh. I imagine the ones who will be speechless having witnessed trauma they have no words for. Very few will have the luxury of a peaceful space in which to come to terms with loss.
Mum’s room is filled with flowers picked from home gardens and handwritten cards delivered by people who come for brief visits and take their time alone with her. When my brother calls from overseas, he tells me he’s going to sing her a song. I place the phone next to her ear and leave the room so she can listen alone.
The people in the fires will not have the privilege of saying farewell. They’ve had little warning to leave behind a life, a livelihood, beloved animals, and landscapes. I think of the caregivers in forests and animal refuges. Creatures are gone now in unthinkable numbers.
My friend from Mallacoota tells of a bloke who lives out of town and runs a refuge for injured animals. He had to leave his land, not knowing what might happen to the wallabies and wombats, the eastern grey kangaroo and many birds he feeds out of money eked from his pension. When he flees, he sets up water and feed, and against the prevailing wisdom, leaves the door and windows of his caravan open.
Returning, he finds his caravan rimmed by a patch of unburnt forest. The sky is yellow tinged with amber. The bush is silent. Waiting at the caravan door is a small band of creatures, inside is the eastern grey kangaroo. They have made their way back. Just before the fires, he released three wombats. When reports come back to him of a couple of wombats in the vicinity of their release, he beams with contentment.
Last Spring, in northern New South Wales, rainforests were on fire. Mount Nardi in World Heritage-listed Nightcap National Park burns. Leah White reports on the ABC Science Show that ‘Terania Creek rainforest itself burned for the first time in 1,120 years. Hundreds of brush box and other rainforest trees, many over 1,000 years old, have fallen in flames, their bases eaten out by fire’.
I text my friends who grew up in the northern rivers area. They are bereft.
Eco-philosopher Thom van Dooren teaches at Sydney University and lives in the Blue Mountains. In 2019, when I first speak to him, he describes the task of bearing witness to species extinctions. I talk to him just weeks before these unprecedented ravages of fire erase forests and habitats.
Thom quotes his mentor, the late Deborah Bird Rose. In this age of the Anthropocene, she urges us not to look away but to tell the stories of the creatures who are disappearing.
Rose says you can only miss what you love. She describes the emptiness and possible cynicism of a world denuded of creatures: ‘The emptier Earth becomes, the emptier are those who remain alive. That emptiness may produce a particular gaze, a “mere life” gaze that refuses to live fully because it refuses to face all this death’. With powerful understanding of the interconnectedness of the human and more-than-human world, she says, ‘Without them there is no us’.
In a piece titled ‘Instructions for Life’, the late poet Mary Oliver describes bearing witness in seven words: ‘Pay Attention. / Be Astonished. / Tell about it’.
From a bedside surrounded by kindness, I keep watch by my mother. The medical, nursing and palliative care staff are acutely observant. They do not turn their backs on us.