We too have seen the orange afternoon sky, and felt the soft, strange sensation of soot falling like rain, and watched the edges of the curtains glow in an amber haze long after nightfall.
We too have purchased masks and air filters, and had windless days where it’s been hard to breathe, and inhaled smoke from thousands of kilometres away and wondered if we should be worried about a wheeze that wasn’t there before.
We too have had our social media feeds clogged with unusually anti-inspirational and frightening content: an eye-of-Sauron sky, tops of trees ablaze, the juxtaposition (some so surreal they look like bad Photoshop) of a wedding party, a golf tournament, a crowded beach with an epic fire raging in the background.
We too lost a summer and in long, fretful walks made our own trails along trails of ash that marred the beaches – dashes and dots of soot, a morse code of distress – as if the elements had conspired to deliver a lengthy screed, rolled out across thousands of kilometres on sand.
We too lost homes and loved ones, mourned ancient forests and wildlife, watched the sky and breathed the rancid air with tightened throats, and read the nightmarish dispatches from the frontlines also with tightened throats (“Her hair was singed, her mouth looked almost black, and her bare feet were severely burned.”)
We too felt a new and special way of being afraid. There was the fear of the thing itself – the wall of flame and its greed, fire chomping through entire towns down to the water’s edge. Then there was the other fear. Flashes of a deeper dread – an apprehension of an ending.
The most rational and Earth-bound among us, not given to hysterical proclamations, fear or strange theories or fantasies about End Times, started to talk in a way that scared us.
They talked of the Pyrocene age and how they read somewhere that there are only 100 harvests left and the friends of friends they heard about who left the city and found a place in a valley with its own water supply.
For a small population that likes to be noticed by the rest of the world, Australia grabbed global attention last January. But there was little comfort being the world-beater this time. “If you want to gaze into the hellish future of human existence on Earth, look to Australia,” so went an article in Wired magazine.
With that stench in the air and the red sky above, a different, more melancholy exceptionalism emerged last summer in Australia. It wasn’t the exceptionalism of being first, or brilliant, or special or talented. It was the exceptionalism of being the first to be last. Of thinking the line stopped with us, that maybe this was it.
All summer existential questions were raised not in abstract but in earnest: is it fair to have children? Is it monstrous to raise them in the eye of the Pyrocene? Will they turn on you later? All throughout that summer, Australia’s climate marches were led by children. The marches made no difference.
In our fear and our fury, we too faced the gross insult to our intelligence: politicians and popular press telling us (embers still burning, the fires raging on, joining other fires now) that it’s not man-made climate change that is to blame.
It’s arson. Its forest management. It’s just one of those freak things that happen and soon “it’ll start getting cooler, you just watch“.
And we too have had our usually apolitical fire chiefs and the emergency services leaders try and speak truth to power only for them to be gaslit by our political leaders. (“We were ignored and trivialised,” wrote one such leader, Greg Mullins, a former commissioner of Fire and Rescue New South Wales).
Dear America, we can tell you what happens next – we’re almost a year ahead, your friends at the bottom of the world, speaking from the future.
We can tell you that in the months after the event, when you can breathe again, women who were pregnant during the fire gave birth to babies facing potential long-term health risks.
We can tell you that even the worst fire season in living memory was not enough and that three billion animals dead or displaced is not enough and species pushed to the brink of extinction is not enough and even the birds falling from the sky in a “mass die-off” (a portent so obvious that it feels straight out of the Old Testament) is not enough to make the leaders panic and DO SOMETHING about man-made global heating.
We can tell you how soon such intense fires are obliterated from the collective memory – blasted as if by high-pressure hose – by other events of 2020. Locked in our houses we order other, different masks and forget the taste of ash on our tongues.
Good luck and best wishes.