by Rebecca Giggs
Ah, better the thud of the deadly gun, and the crash of the bursting shell,
Than the terrible silence where drought is fought out there in the western hell;
And better the rattle of rifles near, or the thunder on deck at sea,
Than the sound — most hellish of all to hear — of a fire where it should not be.
— Henry Lawson, The Bush Fire (1906).
On Tuesday fires on the north-western edge of Sydney festooned the city with strange atmosphere. Smoke, covert as a cat, let itself into the house. I rushed downstairs to check in the grill before looking out and noticing the sky: bruise yellow, pear green and roiling. I often write on a small balcony that juts from the rock-face our place is set into, and there, unnoticed, my laptop had become flecked with grey soot. Under a sulfurous haze, I worked the rest of the day with ash stuck to my lips and stippling my forearms. Even now, a few of the books appear to have been pored over by a mysterious cigar-aficionado — granules from the fire-front mark the pages of my progress.
The first day of spring was struck off the calendar only last week. But after 342 consecutive months of higher than average temperatures worldwide (that’s over 28 years), the equinoctial boundaries that divide the seasons are beginning to seem less a palpable phenomena, or even an occasion for festival, than a fossilized trope of children’s literature. (If it was ever befitting to attribute those four European seasons to the Australian climate). In the evening a toppling wind barreled along the gullies of the CBD. Down where I run, clumped grasses thrashed like head-bangers buried up to their necks. Overnight it grew cooler and still.
In my filing cabinet I keep a folder entitled “A Cultural History of The Burning Tree”. In it are notes towards a future essay on Australia’s artistic responses to fire: poems, news-clippings, photocopies of paintings, a handful of tarry gumnuts. Red Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, Black Thursday, Black Christmas, the Alpine Fires. One day I’ll sit down to write that essay, but with a burnt taste still on my tongue it seems more apt now to compose some thoughts not about the fires that rage through books, but the ones yet to be documented — out there in the summer that’s rushing to meet us. A scorcher. We’ve called it that already, casting our unsteady gaze out to the horizon. Controlled burning programs throughout the damper days of spring aim to forestall the worst and shape the land’s reaction to heat and dry lightning strikes.
Paradoxically, fires burn best in the temperate quadrants that humans most profit from, enjoy and occupy. Places that are persistently dry won’t burn — their biota is too sparse and compact. Rhythms of wetting and parching cultivate fire prone zones, where rainfall fosters the growth of combustible vegetation and aridity packs it for ignition. So deserts will burn only after flooding propagates a widespread, but short-lived, mantle of plants as flat as bookmarks. Bushlands that enjoy good rainfall will combust in drought years, but are typically slow to catch. The cadences of the local climate, more than any specific geography or history, are what best predicts a fire. Pattern recognition, that is — something writers have a great capacity for, along with farmers, firefighters and environmentalists.
At least, this is the received wisdom; fires burn best in flux regions, tight with biomass. But fires are also uncanny, and becoming uncannier. An aside in a 2007 review by Nicolas Rothwell in The Australian Literary Review has stayed with me — how logs of desert oak can smolder as embers in campfires for years, so that you might pass by your un-wooded camping ground many seasons hence and still find a flame to kindle there. Fire is patient. It can learn to eat slowly. In 2010, wildfires in Russia that met with natural impasses, such as rivers or cleared land, went underground and burnt the seams of peat that run there, until fuel above brought them to the surface again. Those fires burnt under snow. And during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria there were reports that flames took hold mid-air, nourished on oil that had aerolyzed from the eucalyptus trees in the extreme conditions. It must have seemed like hell’s analogue on Earth, to witness that.
We have lost the beat. The cadence has shifted, and we’re yet to catch on. Scientists are questioning whether even the El Niño and La Niña currents — our two most defining climactic influences on the East Coast — are reliable indices for the weather. There are different kinds of patterns to pick out, or try to. Here’s one that causes me unease: in his book The Still Burning Bush (Scribe, 2006) Stephen Pyne notes that during the Carboniferous era although there was more volume of plant-mass and higher levels of oxygen, great fires were few and the bulk of packed vegetation was buried. These are now the coal-bearing strata, that bank of geological prehistory that we draw upon to fire our power-stations, in turn to ferry to us electricity for cooking, writing, lighting, making. Coal — combustion — energy — creation. Is there not then, some terrible irony that pole-top fires have been held to account for the incineration of large swathes of bushland and property in Australia? As if the process were reversed, and now our reliance on unburnt leafage is doubling down — bringing climatic conditions conducive to fire, as well as the matchsticks with which to light it. Destruction — energy — combustion — coal.
Fires are of course, not all ruinous. See the green pick return; seed life germinated in the pyric blast. Far from snapping the tether between us and the landscape, fire — even the potentiality of fire — has the capacity make us more sensitised to country, and bring us into a moral relationship with it. To pre-burn, or not, is a decision that requires empathetic recognition of the competing claims on the land. Claims of animals, claims of people, claims of trees. It is this aptitude that fire teaches us, and which we must now augment to the new, uncanny order of fires started in these invincible, man-made summers. For modern fire concerns more than mere local planning and regional firefighting resources. Fires today entail thinking about energy consumption, the claims of future lifeforms, future generations, and other fire-prone regions far flung. Smelling smoke on the wind, is it not possible to reach further?
[photos courtesy of Lucy Giggs]