If I could turn back time, sang global icon Cher in her 1989 hit. If I could turn back time I’d remove the smell of smoke from the laundry basket, I’d take the twice washed clothes from the line, I’d erase the blisters on my toes which rub against the bedsheets. If I could turn back time, I would not have spent yesterday with my boots submerged in shin-deep grey ash on the edge of the valley, wading through an environmental massacre looking for lost cattle. If I could turn back time.
Three days earlier.
It’s after 1 am when my love and I pull into the car park of the hotel at our halfway point. A haze covers Wagga Wagga that looks like fog but smells like fear. Everyone is an insomniac tonight. Kitchen lights and screens blink beyond the edge of blinds. Something is awry.
The air conditioner above our bed rattles like the cough of my childhood neighbour who had emphysema — it was always worse when he was in the garden smoking.
Smoke. Fire in the sky. Smoke. Light my fire. Smoke. Hendrix. Fire. Where there’s smoke there’s…..
Professor Tim Flannery of the Climate Council writes that catastrophic weather events naturally occur roughly every 350 years. With increased carbon in the atmosphere that cycle has been cut to just 8 years. If Australia and the world fail to take action on climate change now, by 2040 our cities will average 50 degrees Celsius in summer, he refers to this new era as a dark age in human existence.
The sunrise is an eerie orange glow. I pull back the curtains and the strange light cuts through the glass, I push my head against it to make sure it’s real. There could be boats out there in that hazy swamp, Conrad’s heart of immense darkness has arrived; I feel the ache in my chest.
Preparing to depart we text family, unsure of estimated arrival time as roadblocks and detours await. Smoke tinged air filters through the air-conditioning of the car and we breathe it in, again. Each breath is a reminder of the mistakes of man, the disruption to the finite balance; it’s palpable this balmy December.
Once upon a time, we weren’t so far from nature, the indigenous people of the world knew, and have always known. In his poem ‘My people’ Albert Barunga ( Mowanjum) describes the relationship between humans and the earth ‘….people who rose with the sun. As strong as the sun they had laws. Traditions co-existing with nature’
I play Cher on the car stereo to break the mood and tell my love how I adored her music as a 5-year-old child. We laugh at my child’s mind; such naivety. I knew nothing of the subject matter or the infrastructure behind the music to create a hit record, I simply liked listening to a song. I wind the window down — so cliche — and sing it loud anyway, into dry vulnerable paddocks — maybe this one’s going out to you nature, ‘if I could turn back tiiiiiime’
In Charles Massy’s eloquent manifesto ‘Call of the reed warbler. A new agriculture. A new earth’ Which is equal parts call to action for regenerative farming and equals parts holistic land management and above all promotion of co-existence. Massy points out insight from Jesuit ecological thinker Thomas Berry, which helps in understanding the altered relationship with the natural world. Berry writes that humans now see ourselves as transcendent beings, that we are somehow separate from nature. Berry illustrates that we have forgotten the fundamental truth of all living organisms. Similarly, cancer physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukerjee writes that to understand an organism you must first understand its genes, and he quotes poet Wallace Steven who advises that ’In the sum of the parts, there are only parts ‘and thus, a thread of undeniable interconnectedness emerges, where choices have consequences far wider than the self, in the natural world these choices can impact generations and ultimately lead to the extinction of homo sapiens.
At our halfway stop I offer my ceramic travel cup to the cafe staff who advise a 50 cent discount on coffee in a Keep Cup. Like a post-modern chalice that will right all of our collective environmental wrongs I pass it across the counter and realise that Keep Cup has become a proprietary eponym, it has wended its way into the contemporary lexicon; shorthand for ‘doing what I can’ — with any brand of a reusable cup. These are not inconsequential actions, yet it’s so easy to trivialise when you can hold a form of positive environmental change in the palm of your hand.
Late morning heat berates us through the windscreen, we listen to a podcast about the importance of food culture in connecting people to nature. We discuss — not for the first time — the environmental impact of large scale food production, and long for the simpler times of our childhoods on opposite sides of the world when we knew who grew our food. The blurred, barren paddocks out the window look like a different landscape to that of my childhood and I wonder if it will ever look the same again.
This barren landscape forms part of an increasingly common global phenomenon known as desertification. It is the process that describes land degradation as a result of multiple factors including climatic variation and human activity such as deforestation and development. Desertification has knock-on effects such as displacing hundreds of millions of people, largely in poor communities who are forced to become climate migrants. Desertification is a consequence of the post-industrial era, including industrial agriculture and the implementation of farming practices that favour scale over sustainability.
The Industrial Revolution began in the mid-1700s and refers to waves of change across the globe for the following two centuries. A key component was the application of power and purpose and scaling production through the use of technologically advanced machinery. It triggered unprecedented human expansion and fundamentally shifted the human experience, in positive and negative ways. The industrial revolution also paved the way for industrial agriculture, large scale food and crop production became a reality. In short, the Industrial Revolution took from the people; a sense of place, purpose, and connection as they left rural lands — lured by the prospect of a better life — to work in urban centres. Industrial agriculture took from the land; machinery replaced hands and horses and the land could not keep up with the rapid changes to regenerate effectively as man stripped it bare with his machines.
45 minutes from my parents’ front door in town I find the mountain line on the horizon where our family farm is. I tell my love that we will visit during our stay, as I turn left turn and our farm disappears in the rearview mirror. I think about the volcanic soil that always stained my jeans ochre and the joy I’d feel each time they’d return from the wash with a piece of terra somehow still in the denim, I’d instantly feel reconnected to the land and softened by the simple beauty.
This delight and awe at the sheer beauty of the natural world are best described by the biophilia hypothesis which is the subconscious human affinity to connect with living things. It tethers nicely with a Hebrew phrase Jewish physician and author Rachel Naomi Remen writes about known as ‘Tikkun olan’ meaning restoration of the world, but that it’s about more than just restoration in the global sense, it’s ultimately about healing the world that touches you, that’s around you. It’s not difficult to wonder, perhaps if we all had a little more terroir in our denim we’d all be a little kinder.
We’re in what we jokingly call the East Wing of my parents’ house, it’s late and I smell smoke. My lips are ruby courtesy of the local cabernet sauvignon. I write in my journal ‘the air feels stilted. No movement. No flow. I’m not sure how to categorise such a feeling. The smoke surrounds us. It’s in us, yet it’s this ‘other’, invading personal space, territorial, impinging on our liberties, but whose liberties are they anyway? I’m unnerved by the presence. Unsettled by the fires burning across NSW. Nature is screaming right now. Will we yield to the calls or leave future generations to live like this?’ It’s the final thought I’m left with before I try to sleep, like the smoke, it lingers.
Farmers Markets signal Christmas preparations have begun, there’s excitement at the prospect of Christmas breaking the existential dread soiling the already soiled air. In the afternoon a beer in one hand, and sticky tape in the other we wrap gifts, a little Frozen II-themed piece of normality. The wrapping party is cut short when a friend in the Rural Firefighters Service calls Dad. A large fire they’ve been fighting has jumped the highway and is now out of control. If the forecast wind changes tonight the fire front will cut through the valley, move up into the dry bush, and finally onto the plateau above, our farm. There’s no time to have a carrier transport the cattle off the property, the fire is moving too fast, we can quickly move them close to water, and just hope the fire leaves my Great Grandparents’ empty house untouched.
A half-hour later I look from the truck window to find smoke on the horizon above our farm, and not the sickly, soft haze, this time huge billows of dark smoke. We quickly locate and move the terrified cattle close to the largest dam. The wind gathers pace, hot gusts spit burning gum leaves like smoking confetti across the dry paddocks. I spy an immense red ball on our border fence and for the first time in my life I don’t merely smell the smoke, I feel the immense heat of a bushfire. The fire has left the valley. Suddenly it all seems so inevitable, this is no longer some abstract thing. It’s here, I can feel it, it is here to destroy our farm, and there isn’t anything we can do about it.
On the other side of the property a second larger, red-bellied plume appears, the crackle and pop of the trees and the screams of the birds fleeing are bone-chilling. With one road in and out if we don’t go now we could be trapped if a spot fire starts. The RFS arrive, the red lights of their trucks bounce off the trunks of the stoic gum trees, they advise they will continue to try to slow the fire but can’t promise anything.
Mum beeps the horn of the truck, the engine is running, doors are open, time to go. Dad is frozen on the spot, he knows the finality of this next action. I shout over the wind and crackles ’DAD, we need to go. NOW!’ ‘I know, I know’ he gently replies. I try to give him a moment to say goodbye to a century of his family history but the primal fear is in my throat now, this is not an environment for humans to survive in. He turns for the last time to look at the house and the cattle by the dam ‘I hope they’re ok. Nothing we can do now’
Joni Mitchell once sang ‘Each incendiary soul’ and this lyric seems achingly apt at the beginning of 2019/2020 Australian Summer when each of us is in someway inflammatory through action or inaction. The entire property has been razed, every paddock burned, two dead steers singed and alone, stiff dead kangaroos and lorikeets lie frozen — like macabre still life paintings their feathers are vibrant even in death. Hope in such a defaced landscape is found on a lithic outcrop near a cliff edge — somehow fire-free, the rest of the herd safe on their inland island. If there is a higher power maybe it is a bovine after all.
I recognise the metal tuning pins of Great Grandma’s piano in the grey rubble of where the house was, a symbol of simpler, more connected times when friends and family would gather around to share a song, not a screen. A time when an object didn’t have a use-by date; a lick of paint or opening the toolbox would provide new life. Just a generation or two ago we didn’t live in this disposable society.
In Nichomachean Ethics Greek Philosopher Aristotle contends that ‘happiness is the best, noblest and most pleasant thing’ in the last century humans have leaned into hedonism; sold an ideal that comfort is king and consuming is everything. We’ve forgotten that it’s not sufficient to be happy or for everything to be pleasurable, these acts must also be noble.
It’s Christmas Day and there’s a new baby to snuggle who loves to nap with her ear to my heartbeat. My nieces want to run in the backyard, 2 and 4, their outdoor time has been severely capped the last few weeks — they’re itching to get their toes into the grass ‘Come and run with us!’ ‘What’s that smell?’ It’s the smoke gorgeous girl’ ‘I don’t like it’ ‘I don’t like it either’
A coat of smoke crowns our idyllic rural town as we enjoy Christmas lunch. More families and more wildlife will be left homeless tonight. Despite our loss we know, we are the lucky ones, but what kind of world are we leaving for my nieces?
Philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote that ‘to understand is to perceive patterns’ Which is to suggest, that we do not need to turn back time, instead, we can learn to leverage time in a kinder, more humane, and connected way, by touching that which is closest to us.