It’s late November, the Church year is drawing to an end, Christmas carols ring through shopping malls and summer heat has already had a couple of practice runs. Which means bushfire season will commence any time now. Living among the gum trees is beautiful, but each year, as summer takes hold, I wonder if this will be our year of the bushfire.
I am in fire-ready mode. This week I will back up my computer and take the USBs into the safety of my daughter’s home. My massive size photograph album will be wrapped in a favourite scarf and also left in her safekeeping until the danger cools in autumn. I’ll pack an overnight bag and leave it in the boot of my car and place my pick-up-and-go possessions in a basket by the door. Three times last summer we were advised to evacuate our property because small fires in the area with the potential to spread.
Wherever Australians live, we are always a guest of the land but even more so in Warrandyte. Quirky, individualistic houses, overshadowed by tall, skinny eucalypts, are dotted through the ranges. Away from the Yarra River flats the soil is rocky and only offers its hospitality to plants that have always found a home there. It’s Australian bushland and it barely tolerates our intrusion.
When I made my home here three years ago, I moved from a suburban block where the original landscape had long been replaced by fencing, green lawn and northern hemisphere plantings. The land had been made to conform to municipal and neighbourly expectations. The situation in Warrandyte has been reversed. Where possible and safe, residents leave the land untouched, appreciating its natural beauty and right to be there.
People like me who choose to live in bushland, do so on the land’s own terms. It’s not cosy. There’s a whiff of ‘otherness’ about it, of its indifference to our human need for safety and security. Like the majority of residents, I live through the fire season with an undercurrent of fear, masked by bravado. We say things like, “Well, if the house goes we can always build again.” But when the CFA advises evacuation, immediately, all the talk about family memorabilia and lovingly chosen furniture just being ‘stuff’ and replaceable, feels a bit hollow.
It’s easy to say ‘let go and let God’ when it’s purely theoretical. The practicalities are a lot harder. I live surrounded by material things that I value, not just carefully chosen furniture and labour saving household equipment, but shelves of books, years of journals, clothes that are not only appropriate but that actually fit, studio portraits of long dead family, the sound of my father’s voice.
Sometimes, despite our vigilance, the bush explodes into flame. Many families have had to return from wherever they sat out a bushfire to face the heartbreaking task of raking through the blackened remains of what remained of their homes.
An act of God – maybe. Or does God weep with them?
But I don’t want to face that heartbreak – ever.