A COUNTRY ON FIRE
It’s hard to imagine 2020 as anything other than COVID-19, but last year began very differently for Australia. Before COVID-19 dominated our news feeds, we were faced with a different kind of challenge. The 2019 – 2020 Australian Bushfires brought devastation, burning more than 46 million acres which is roughly equivalent to the area of Syria. During that time, I was scared both for myself and those close to me and so, I turned to science and writing to find hope in the face of fear. I would now like to share with you the piece which I poured my heart into.
Written in January 2020 by Macinley Butson
The fan swirling its incessant rhythm above my head; the taste of salt water on my lips; air sticking to my skin and the muffled hum of the television. This is unmistakable; my Australian summer.
And yet this year something strange is threaded through these moments. The holidays which should be relaxing, a reprieve from the repetition of everyday life, have been stolen.
Instead they are replaced with a haunting scent from which I can no longer separate fear. And no matter how many wet, rolled-up towels I shove under the doors it always finds a way through, determined to make itself the centre of every waking moment. Permeating into every room, every crack, every piece of clothing, every conversation, every thought.
These days the wafting smoke and accompanying nausea wake me before the sunlight has a chance to reach through my window and touch my cheeks. I check my phone, reading through the string of short messages which let me know my friends have made it through the night. For a second I am thankful, until the obscenely orange sky mocks me, a bitter reminder this assault isn’t over. Our country was built to burn, but not like this.
I no longer open the windows when I turn on the fan. The salty water on my lips only reminds me of water our country doesn’t have. The air is a veil I can no longer see through, and the television projects only images of desolation. I can’t see the sweeping plains or ragged mountain ranges. I don’t feel flooding rains, only this lingering drought.
I don’t see a sunburnt country. I see my country on fire.
Emergency, catastrophe, crisis. These are just a few of the words being used to describe the reality which faces Australia.
Bushfires have burnt 15 million acres with the number set to rise amid unprecedented temperatures, erratic winds and the ever-continuing drought. Friends are fighting them, family is fleeing, a land of people watch on with fear. From outrage to suffering, the diversity of emotions is a display of humanity and the rawness reveals that we are undeniably human. In these desperate times, just as our bush has been stripped, our people have been also.
However, amongst the adversity I find Australia. I feel the undeniable mateship which defines Australians, the outreach of a hand from a neighbour to do more than offer condolences. I see the endless bravery of our firefighters and volunteers on the ground tirelessly to protect our nation. And I see something less acknowledged, I see our nation’s scientists working behind the scenes. Those people who we’re relying on for our lives, predicting and providing the data which is minimising the impact of this trying time.
I hear our youth population not conceding to their circumstances, but being the change. I had the privilege to meet a young boy a couple of years ago, still only in primary school, from a small town called Cobargo of less than 1000 people and about 5-hour drive from the city I lived in. Being in a horse-riding accident and losing his fingertips, he had every imaginable reason and excuse to give up. But after enduring months of physical therapy, he knew he couldn’t. Instead, he designed and developed a horse reign capable of snapping so no one else would have to experience the pain he had.
That same town who welcomed me so warmly has now burned, the bushfires sweeping through on New Year’s Eve without discrimination; houses, business, property and lives, lost. The main street I walked down, reduced to ash. This young man’s life upturned again, but we can learn something from his story. Devastation within the situation doesn’t define us or our ability to change what surrounds us. We hold that potential, and as long as we do, we hold hope.
Our country is harsh, but this same hostility has forged the resilience of our environment – in the wake of bushfires we can see a rejuvenation of the land. Serotiny, is the ecological adaptation in which the spread of seeds requires an environmental trigger, a common example of such a trigger being wildfires. A primary example of this are species within the Eucalyptus genus, which characterise much of the Australian landscape. Their gum tree seed pods are often a hard, wooden capsule encased with resin and when the bush burns, seeds rain from the canopy onto fresh ash beds. They’re wrapped in a thick, tough outer layer of bark which acts as a sheath for a new set of leaf buds – the extreme heat activating chemical reactions which cause them to grow. In fact, their leaves are concentrated with oil, making the tree tops abundantly flammable and protecting the inner heartwood from prolonged fire exposure
Just as our land rises from the ashes, so will we.
In the face of what now seems to be an increasingly barren terrain, instead of despair I see hope. I see the potential for new life in both our land and people. Our young people are willing to rise, to stand up and be the change they want to see. Whether this be through researching solutions for our global challenges, or a primary school bake sale to raise much needed funds, or raising awareness by raising a voice for what they believe in. I see an undeniable action within this generation, not standing in solitude, but in solidarity amongst each other. As a young researcher, I see fellow influential scientists, tasked with modelling the fires, well beyond the brink of rage and determined to correct the models that aren’t currently standing up to the bushfires erratic nature. They forge the path of change and this same spark that lights a fire in the scientists, I feel in myself.
“Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.” – Anne Lamott
‘Hope’ originates from the old English “tohopa” which not only means hope, but is coupled with connotations of expectation. Hope is not the product of whimsical fantasies which aren’t plausible – it’s the expectation of a better future. A future in which this generation will aid in shaping. This is how young people see the world. This is why we create action. And this is why I always ask myself, “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”.