I wander down the wide corridor of the crunchy fire trail. Both sides of the track are lined with scaly black matchsticks sweeping up to the sky. It has been six months since I was last here and almost a year since the fires of the New South Wales Black Summer. The change is dramatic in this time. The matchsticks are now coated with a fuzzy layer of vibrant green epidermic growth, and fresh grassy whiskers punch out from the burnt forest floor. The music, however, is still sparse. From what is usually the chatter of the noisy friar and lyre birds is now just the echo of my footsteps and the gentle hum of the cicadas. At least the cicadas are back.
It is hot, at least thirty degrees and it is only spring. I look for shade, but it is few and far between when the trunks are only half dressed. I walk on and encounter a fallen soldier, a lost log laying across the dusty track. I place my hand against its skin searching for a heartbeat, feeling the rippled wounds from fire and beetle attack. It is cool and rough, the outer layer of skin peeling off to reveal its smooth cambium in streaks of clay pink and turmeric. I run my hands further along the cracked layers, wrinkled and folding with age, protecting its insides from falling out and which once held in moisture and blocked out pathogens when there was life.
I seat myself at the trunk’s ripped base, feeling its muscles wrap my hips in position. This low to the ground I have a stronger sense of the arboreal mortuary of this forest, the trees around me as living gravestones. The product of the dead tree matter and fungi now decomposed into rich humus. I pick up a piece of charcoal next to me and crumble it gently into the palm of my hand, forming tiny crystals, then dense black dust. It turns sticky with my sweat, and I wipe it off onto my bare thighs. I close my eyes and smell my hands, the scent leaving a pungent impression of place and the disaster that unfolded here. The words catastrophic and unprecedented were used over and over to describe the fire crisis. Starting in the winter, it was the state’s worst on record due to its length, intensity and magnitude of areas impacted. It ran not for days or weeks, but months, destroying over twenty per cent of Australia’s forests, instead of the expected two per cent during an average fire season.
Something rustles in the grassy whiskers below me and a small lizard emerges from beneath the fallen soldier, pupils wide and alert, staring directly up into mine. The fires revealed some astonishing survivors like these creatures, which had taken cover in burrows, and some surviving birds that had flown to safety expected to return. I look back to the trees firmly rooted into the earth who were not able to take step and evacuate, so how did they withstand the inferno?
The German forester Peter Wohlleben suggests trees communicate to build social security systems to survive, age healthily and withstand turmoil including fire. They use their smell and taste as language when there is danger including predators or drought. For example, some species release specific pheromones to repel a herbivore or an invasive insect when they are attacking the leaf. Trees partner with fungi, and the fungi transmits signals to neighbouring trees to help exchange news about the present threat. The tree sustains fungi by feeding it sugar and fungi feeds the tree with water and hormones that direct its cell growth, as well as minerals and nutrients for the soil. When there is an abundance of sugar in one tree, fungi help to equalise the differences between the strong and the weak by passing the excess on to those who are short.
The American anthropologist Anna Tsing writes about how Western science has inherited stories from the great monotheistic religions that fuel assumptions about human exceptionalism and the control of nature. Consequently, we see our human species as one that is autonomously self-maintaining, but Tsing asks us to reimagine a human-nature interspecies dependence, the same way trees live relationally and dependently with fungi. This is an extension of the idea of companion species, labelled by American scholar Donna Haraway, which expands the pet-lovers’ term companion animal to speak about interspecies relationships and the rich ecological diversity that humans are dependent on for their survival.
I lean back into the fallen soldier and imagine its collapse during the inferno or the windy aftermath. When a mother tree dies and hits the ground, it snaps a couple of waiting seedlings on the way down but opens a gap in the canopy for the others to capture the light and begin photosynthesizing. Those who survive must reach the opening before the older trees fill the gap. I look around for any children and reach over to touch a silky young trunk next to the soldier. I look closely at its tiny leaves, the narrow slits marking its lungs to inhale carbon dioxide.
Australian historian Bill Gammage says about seventy per cent of Australia’s plant species either tolerate or encourage fire, through their ability to reseed or re-sprout. The swamp gum is the most fire sensitive tree in Australia and during a bushfire, whole swamp gum forests disintegrate into rich ash with thousands of seedlings racing up into the light to form tall forestry again. Eucalyptus buds are set deep under their thick skin of bark, which insulates and protects their cambium from heat and damage, thicker and deeper than the skin of any other species. Most of the time, the traumatic image of the roaring flames wrapping a mother trunk in a blaze is not in fact the tree on fire but rather the buds being stimulated to re-seed, without the life of the tree being threatened. However, there are rare times, like during the recent mega fires in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, where the blaze is so powerful that forests are burnt to a crisp and unable to recover.
Amongst the ash flecked earth, I recall the satellite images of Australia’s coastline in January 2020. Blackened scars through green. Zoom in. Ginger paddocks, dams like small silver coins and vibrant coloured smoke. Zoom in. A maze of charcoal trunks, steel grey and baked rust skies. And now against the black, there is chartreuse, lime, fern and emerald, shamrock, parakeet, and mint—a sea of green.
Understanding the adaptability of the natural world, and writing this piece in the place of burning, I can see the incredible resilience of our bushland, and the return of life after destruction. Despite this natural cycle, it cannot be ignored that the character of the Australian bushfires has changed in recent decades and not from natural causes. With warmer temperatures and increased drought from climate change, as well as reduced hazard burning and excess use of water in land management, the intensity and frequency of our fire crisis is becoming ruinous.
I have lived inside this bushland for years, rising and sinking with its chest, echoing the calls and cries when there is fire and storm. I take a breath and notice the sun has begun to creep into my companion’s shadow. I imagine how the landscape has changed and transformed over centuries with the ice ages, the deposition of sand dunes nearby, and the caring for country by the local Yuin people for thousands of generations. I think of their relationship of living with the land and how their sacred knowledge of the ecological functions and patterns in climate are needed now more than ever. Booderee National Park meaning ‘bay of plenty’ in Dhurga. I turn my head shamefully to the scars of the burnt stumps, knowing this time it has been worse.
Aboriginal writers Bruce Pascoe and Victor Steffensen, as well as Bill Gammage among others, discuss how traditional Aboriginal fire practice brings balance to ecosystems, transforming the country of the dead into healthy and productive landscapes. Aboriginal people deliberately used flame to shape vegetation using firestick farming or patch grass burning. This practice of regular fire burning of all land in patches (rather than just in key areas) enabled fuel to be reduced so the fire was more easily controlled and allowed animals to move between patches to feed and shelter. The size of the patches could be adjusted, and the timing and frequency of the burning could be controlled locally. This practice was skilfully used by Aboriginal people to stimulate fresh growth, lure low grazing animals for hunting, create safe pathways for travel, and prevent the deadly fires that we have today. It involved strategic burning to target particular plant communities, addressing each one’s diversity, from swamp margins to dense forests, allowing a template to be created and applied across regions and seasons.
In Victoria, a sacred Directions Tree on Djab Wurrung country was recently irreversibly destroyed to make way for a highway. This tree held a deep and intimate connection for Djab Wurrung women living alongside birthing trees over 800 years old and had been protected by an embassy established for almost 900 days when it first came under threat. In response, Sissy Eileen Austin, Djab Wurrung woman and a member of the First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria shared, ‘Country is who we are, Country is what guides us and what grounds us all, in all that we do as First Nations people … Our bodies are at one with the country, we can feel the chains of the chainsaw grinding through our souls, our spirits. The sounds of those chainsaws will haunt us forever … There are no words to describe the emptiness we as Djab Wurrung are feeling right now.’
The country’s national parks and protected areas are recognised as extended homes to traditional owners, but when fire-fighters are sent to preserve identified endangered ecosystems and key cultural sites, or when development threatens its preservation, this activity is never imagined as the protection of home. Western society’s anthropocentric view of nature, grant it as something to control or utilise. Descartes’ hierarchical structure of life, informed by the older Aristotelian idea of the great chain of being is one example which supports this. A theory that divides unthinking matter (minerals, plants, animals, and the human body) from the thinking mind exclusive to humans and God. This suggests we are the only species who can feel and experience the body and the mind. American ecologist and philosopher David Abram argues that this theory overlooks our everyday participation of the world around us. And this is something essential to our unique and sensory experience of it, needed to develop connection with it.
As the sun evolves into a golden glow and begins to sink behind the fluffy matchsticks, my muscles yearn for sleep. The fallen soldier is now in complete shadow and shelters me from the air that is beginning to cool. My thoughts slow, and my eyelids draw heavy. This relationship I have with this landscape is one that reciprocates me, responding to my emotions and mine to its. This is in no way a rejection of science but rather a call for science to acknowledge it is rooted in the same world that we all engage in our everyday lives, through our senses.
I cast my gaze downward to watch a kingdom of ants march one by one along a blade of grass. At the same moment, a flock of soaring black cockatoos cry above me signalling a change to dusk, like pterodactyls flapping out of a cave. The melodic cicadas amplify with the sun setting, while the ghosts of animate powers begin to show in the changing light, known only by their spirits that once lived within the depths of the bush. In the nearby swelling waters of the great Pacific Ocean, there are silent powers living among the alien sea forests of coral and shell, living alongside others that are bounding, leaping, and diving making themselves heard and seen. Is this diversity of life-forms not part of our planet’s value? Then what is this hierarchy and what are the rights? Is it the human intellect that really differentiates us from our non-human counterparts, or is the human intellect rooted in our disconnect with them? It is our human intellect and reason that empowers us to urbanise cities, develop new technologies and virtual interaction, and prioritise capital trajectories. However, we cannot classify our exploitation of nature as part and parcel of being human since long-established Indigenous cultures have lived symbiotically with the lands that they have inhabited for vast periods of time, without disrupting the ability for the earth to replenish itself. That is, human supremacy has not been a feature of most cultures throughout human evolution, and this is evidence that human societies are not necessarily destructive by nature. Yet perhaps it has something to do with the style of awareness we have when in a place, one which Western society assumes to exist outside of the bodily world.
Phenomenology seeks to describe the world through our senses, presenting a refreshing way to explore the human-nature relationship in writing, science, and research. That is, immersing ourselves in and being curious to the diverse lifeways that constitute the world around us, we can build a deeper connection with it, an interspecies relationship, and more responsible stewardship for it. Here, in a bush landscape recovering from fire, I can attune my senses to the lively world around me and the ecological victims that have suffered. This brings a new understanding of the human-nature landscape into being, one where the writer and the object are not separate. We can explore the affective dimensions of grief and healing, perhaps animating the landscape to give voice to something that might not normally be heard. So, when there is fire, storm, and destruction we mirror the calls of their suffering, we grieve a shared loss, as we do with family and with home.
After losing her house in a bushfire in Sydney’s Blue Mountains, Australian sociologist Katrina Schlunke wrote about fossicking, a recognised process in disaster relief, which she described as the means of searching, sifting and rummaging through the burnt ruin of her home, ‘trying over and over to find a treasure, and/or to create some sense of what matters and what does not, and/or getting used to being homeless, and/or saying goodbye touch by touch’. She described it as the time spent both with and as the material of the home, in which we experience new ways of being and feeling out a new home through the body. There is a need to redefine our firefighting of our bushlands as an activity of protecting the home, and perhaps the act of collective fossicking with our companion species is one way to feel out the grief, experiencing the layers of mourning and bringing the ruin or the place close to our sense of home. Fossicking can be a way to continue homemaking, to consider the origins, lives and stories behind remnants left from the fire that cannot be erased. This experience requires listening and translating between products of the ruin, to create a new relationship between the one who inhabits and the home. This involves recognising the Indigenous lands and ecological complexities that are transformed during the homemaking process, and the marks in the landscape from the arrival of a non-Indigenous community or an introduced species.
We know that nature is resilient, but the threats of climate change and current poor land management methods are threatening the future of our planet. Our time encourages us to reimagine a new conversation with our landscape, one which listens more deeply to the voices and languages of the non-human, understanding them as the ecological diversity that we are dependent on. We can challenge Western thought’s idea of existence with nature as something outside of the body because it affects how we interact with a place. A defining feature of being human is our imagination and creativity to experience a place through our senses. We can learn from the wisdom of native cultures and explore the relationship between perception, sensation, and reality to connect the human-nature relationship in writing, science, and research. We can explore our process of grief and healing, amplify the unspoken voices in the landscape, or even practicing fossicking with our companion species to experience the loss and change through the senses. This can build a deeper connection, and help form new interspecies relationships, in the same way that trees live relationally and dependently with fungi. This could help reorient our view of the landscape as home so our practices of managing it and caring for it can be more sustainable and risk averse.
Remnants of sunlight have moved into a brushy lavender dusk, and the watery radiance of moving shapes are now still, as though the power of remembering the fires has morphed and evaporated the physical world around me. The black trunks are now a blue silhouette. I notice a silvery swirling mist pass in, and I think of the burning eucalyptus gas, igniting into a fireball. I pull myself up out of the soldier’s shelter, its coat damp with the arriving dew. I take a breath through my nose, the musty change tickling my nostrils, before following the steps down the crunchy fire trail.
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