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Sickness in a fire-ravaged landscape

Published 3rd February, 2020 in MRP Guest Blogger

I’ve heard it said that it’s wrong to anthropomorphise animals. The same logic has been applied to the environment; we tend to reduce the elements and landscapes to something more understandable, more manageable, like a human mood. Personification, anthropologists say, has been done by every culture through time. It is said to foster human understanding. It is representational and has been used by many cultures to impart a moral lesson. Think of Aesop’s fables where the characteristics of the animals are used to represent particular virtues or vices—slow and steady wins the race (the hare and tortoise), mercy brings reward (the lion and the mouse), do unto others what you wish for yourself (the fox and the stork).

Animals and the environment have their own inherent nature and we do them a disservice not to view their nature as distinct (and whole and complete) from our own—but that doesn’t mean we fail to be emotionally invested in the landscapes where we live. In the most recent bushfires that saw a huge stretch of the Eastern seaboard in flames, curving round to Adelaide and claiming portions of Western Australia; it was no exaggeration to say the whole country felt like it was on fire. I found it almost impossible not to react to the powerful images of animals escaping flames and koalas being rescued from trees or offered water by passers-by. A picture taken at the Adelaide Hills fire of a koala sitting next to a fire-fighter watching as its home burnt was especially poignant. I found my nose watering and eyes running whenever I saw these distressing images of animals facing disaster; it wasn’t only a reaction to the smoke blanketing Sydney.

While these images were accumulating in tabs on my browser, I received a cancer diagnosis. My thinking stuttered as if failing to grasp the doctor’s words, but my feelings flowed outward. In my confusion and with a sense of existential dread, I felt a sense of oneness with the ground. The literal ground was burning, an event far bigger than my small life upon it, but I thought, I know what it is like to be sick. I thought about the past two years and the difficulty I’d found myself moving through each day, how a heaviness settled on my shoulders, but I gave myself a reason for this; two small children can make even a decent night’s sleep feel like it is never enough. The bloating and the difficulty with food could be put down to stress. Women are taught to minimise or dismiss the strains and stresses, the pains of our bodies. When my thinking wandered to considering there may be an actual problem, I minimised it with the usual adage of get over yourself.

All the markers of sickness that we’ve been hearing about—the fish kills at Menindee, the drying up of the Murray-Darling basin, the towns in the granite belt in Queensland relying on ‘ordinary’ citizens to truck in water so these communities can survive—all point to sickness. Meanwhile governments uses the state/federal divide to abdicate responsibility. While they choose inaction, the country faces drought and dead cattle. I was failing to understand the symptoms of my own body; we as a country are failing react to the symptoms the country is exhibiting. Drought is symptomatic. Climate change is altering the known environment; but the effects are being felt unevenly.

In recovery after surgery I doubted the time I spent in bed sleeping. Why was I in bed when there was so much to do? Guilt may be an unnecessary emotion, but it is a persistent one. We too have a history of guilt associated with the dispossession of First Nations people in this country, but guilt shouldn’t be allowed to fester into inaction. A way forward has been proposed by First Nation’s people; the Uluru Statement. It is offered as a gift to the nation but still the Government sit on their hands. This inaction is callous and unnecessary, especially when First Nations people have the knowledge and the authority to heal the land. It is however, also possible that two hundred plus years of dispossession have buggered things up a bit, but that’s no excuse for not trying.

In the street where I live there are a few Troopy carriers; the type of off-road vehicle that is often found decked out with an Australian flag or two; a Trumpian ‘Make America Great Again’ or ‘A Love it or Leave it’ sticker. There may be a P-plate hanging from the bumper bar at the back. I found myself wondering about these vehicles when they leave the city, where do they go and what do they do? What is the country they profess to love so much that it is held as a measure for the rest of us. Is it ‘out there’ or is it the suburban streets where their cars are parked. When I walk around these streets with their still-green lawns, even in drought, I look at the trees I love—the frangipanni, the jacaranda, the flame-tree and not one of them belongs here. So what is it we love? Surely in love—especially in love, there is room for ambivalence, even for doubt. If love can be defined by a slogan, the depth of its devotion must be questionable.

The narrative told to us about the country in which we live by politicians who are supposed to serve us, appears especially jingoistic. We—the voting public and the journalists who inform us—could have thought a little harder as to what it would mean to have a former ad-man as a Prime Minister. It’s not like Morrison didn’t already have a sterling track record with “Where the bloody hell are ya!” A catchy phrase any seven-year-old would have been proud to come up with and get paid for.

The thing about the Make America Great Again sticker proudly displayed on my young neighbour’s windscreen is that America historically has had a much looser reliance on, and trust in, government. Some sections of the population are deeply ambivalent about it, even hostile to its reach. In this country, with successive Liberal governments, both at state and federal level cutting the public service; selling off assets that have been used to generate income for services, we now have a government that is unable and unwilling to respond. Ordinary people (the ones Morrison wants to take credit for as his ‘Quiet Australians’) step in and fill the void. We have seen this during the most recent fires, but it’s been happening for far longer than the current news cycle. Australia mimics the global statistics; wealth inequality is increasing. It is worse if you are living in a rural or remote area.

The problem with not holding the Government to account is the trust that Australians have had in the institutions that underpin our democracy is put at risk. In the media, report after report tells of the Government forsaking its duty to serve the public as a whole. Looking after their mates has become the narrative we expect, so our expectations are lowered. This has been seen on both sides of politics. They give us the story of jobs and growth generated by the retrograde thinking of pulling down trees, digging up commodities and shipping them overseas—this is the price we have to pay for progress, for a better standard of living. I wonder if the people in Menindee with their lack of access to safe drinking water, or with their stagnant and stinking river system suffering from frequent fish kills—accept that this is the better standard that has been provided for them.

Our environments and the animals and people who live in them are suffering and dying. Perhaps if we spent more time listening to their concerns and reading the landscapes of their stories; we would think more carefully about their welfare.

KA Rees writes poetry and short fiction. Her poems and stories can be found in all the suspect places.

Her short story, ‘Butterscotch,’ was shortlisted during our last competition and published in the resulting anthology—We’ll Stand In That Place and Other Stories.

We publish high-end literary fiction, crime and the best short stories currently being written in Australia.

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