Before the smoke clears – dispatches from the south-east reflecting on the bushfires, crisis and despair.

(I’ve pushed what is chronologically the fifth ‘dispatch’ to the top of the pile because it’s probably the most important).

Burnt forest just outside of Bairnsdale

Dispatch #5 (January 8th- 10th): Delivering supplies to affected areas on the lands of the Gunaikurnai nation (East Gippsland)

Just spent a couple of days delivering supplies with two friends to some of the affected areas in East Gippsland. We went as far out as Orbost, but roads were closed beyond that. Yesterday we made some deliveries around Bairnsdale and Bruthen. We decided to leave the area last night, because conditions were due to get hectic again today. These were my main thoughts from being out there:

1. In this digital age, it is surreal to take the step from following this disaster through online news and people posting on fb, to actually being on the ground out there in real time. The endless news cycle has drilled into me this sense of complete apocalypse. And the scale of the disaster is so massive, that I guess I was thinking there’d be a point where we just hit the apocalypse zone and everything would be turned to ash.

But it wasn’t exactly like that. It was a bit like a scene from that movie ‘Monsters’ (if I remember correctly) where things look fairly normal for quite awhile but then there were a few signs of what was coming up: no trucks on the road and very few cars; lots of emergency service vehicles (including riot police fuckers in their black SUV’s); road closed warnings; army helicopters flying low over the horizon.

It wasn’t til after dark, as we looped back down an inland road that we realised we’d entered an area where everything around us had been scorched by the flames. It was eerie and just quiet. Dead. We stayed on a flat, cleared bit of land on a property that the fire had already torn through, and it felt like such a strange thing to do. There was a small orange glow somewhere off in the distance that was hard to place because of the dark. It had us a bit antsy. I started to describe the horror movie that this scene would be a part of, but my mates weren’t so into horror movies.

Only in the morning could we comprehend with our eyes the full destruction to the landscape. At least the dawn had brought a chorus of birdsong, something we’d been unsure about, because maybe all the animals had fled?

One thing I realised was how few things about the behaviour of bushfires I knew with any certainty. Like how we were pretty sure that staying on already burned ground was safest, but felt like we were still guessing a bit (although this was confirmed by other folk who live out there).

2. It was awesome to be able to see people’s resilience and courage, as well as their support for others in their community even while thinking how to be safe themselves. The self-organisation, outside of anything government could provide, led to masses of supplies being delivered from less-affected areas, deep into the heart of the affected areas. This is the basis of solidarity that can go beyond the political machinations that are already happening and are only going to increase in the aftermath.

I just hope these real forms of solidarity and support that are already occurring – and that people are still trying to work out how to enact – will build connections that maintain and also shift a bit of the often hostile, angry-eyed (racist), individualistic nature of this society. And reveal all the inadequacies of the State. However, it was also just odd being in small towns where things appeared to be going on as normal, just waiting for the next alert to evacuate. I understand that continuing as normal is a form of resilience, even a way to deal with trauma. But clearly, continuing as normal is not sustainable.

3. Almost everyone I interacted with on this trip was white. And now as I’ve done the ‘just doing’ part and have some time to reflect, this provokes some questions. People talked as if their connection to place was simply inherent because they live there or grow stuff or whatever. And there’s this concern with protecting native animals affected by the fires. And again I feel this unease at white people assuming their possessive custodianship of the land. Does this concern extend to solidarity with First Nations folk in their resistance in the face of ongoing genocidal and colonial violence? Or is that a bit too uncomfortably a reminder that whiteness isn’t so inherent to this country? A conquest so complete that it doesn’t have to be remembered anymore.

I decide that I will not be part of rebuilding that. And i’m still thinking through it, but i’m pretty sure I know that this is where I stand. I was glad to be able to be useful in delivering supplies. But I also knew that I was going to draw a line at helping individual farmers or large property-holders simply rebuild. Rebuild to what? The same society that created this devastation?

I ask myself, where were the local mob and how could I have connected with them to offer support? What are their stories in the face of these fires? The vision of climate catastrophe that this disaster has brought, might seem like the beginning of an apocalypse, but (to paraphrase a line that has been used elsewhere) this apocalypse is over 200 years old for the Indigenous people of this land. And it all comes back to colonisation. The devastation now is the inevitable consequence of a conquistadorial relation to the environment where all rivers, trees, hillsides, lakes, etc are viewed as possessions from which every last drop of value must be squeezed.

Dispatch #1 (late Dec): visiting my hometown (Sydney), blanketed in smoke and surrounded by flames.

When the smoke settles, it looks like dusk all day. A pinkish haze frames the seasonal madness. You wait for it to go dark. But that’s not really the time at all.

Friends tell me that ‘normal’ life is a surreal normality.

Sometimes it looks like rain but it always seems to pass after a few drops.

Last summer (when I was still here), constant extreme storms were the sign of the times, of the environmental catastrophe that capitalism has unleashed with its unquenchable desire for every last drop of life. This summer, it’s fire.

I know that people are processing what it all means. But I feel removed from this place now. And with a distant eye, I apply an angry cynicism. This can’t be the new normal! Fucken do something!

Riots in the streets? A general strike? Not yet, not in this country. If anywhere in the world can accept a smoke-shrouded horizon as the new normal, it’s here.

The flames are coming down the mountains.

Dispatch #2 (NYE/ NYD): from the city where I live as the fires have now also ignited this southern state (Victoria).

I got a bit cooked last night. I didn’t really have fun. The coming storm shades everything in an orange hue.

I’m sad for Mallacoota. I loved the idea of that town. All on it’s own, up on the border. One road in and out. Surrounded by bush.

I’ve turned off the Princes Highway towards there on multiple occasions. Reach the town centre and head south for about 25 minutes, on unsealed and then dirt roads, and you’ll reach the Shipwreck Creek campsite. From there it’s a five minute walk through forest to one of the most stunning beaches I have ever seen. I hope you might see it one day too.

But right now, all that consumed by flames.

I know it sounds like i’m just sad in a self-absorbed, nostalgic way. But nah, i’m actually sad for the people there. I think about the folk who live out there who would have noticed how the land that they inhabit and the bush that surrounds them was becoming a tinderbox. I think about how they might have noticed the earth drying out over these years.

Now they’re huddling for shelter on the main beach in town. With no way out on that one road as the flames encircle. Just like thousands are, up and down the east coast.

Dispatch #3 (one day later): still stuck in my room recovering from NYE.

Remembered to message two friends from Sydney who are with their kids and staying at one of their folks’ places out in Bairnsdale. They’re ok. Was maybe going to go out that way to get out of town and go camping for a bit. But even if it was possible, camping doesn’t seem like a thing to do at this time. Amongst all the losses, maybe the loss of being able to simply leave town and go out to nature in the cheapest way possible will provoke a reaction from people in this country.

Dispatch #4 (Jan 5th): chats with friends as we make our individual despair collective.

Maybe we were all just coming down. If only. The void is real (as an old friend used to say).

So we gathered and firstly it was therapy. And then it was planning. No details here, but from despair, from the flames, maybe there’s space to act?

It’s inspiring sharing despair and hearing new perspectives after days being stuck in my own head. Amongst many things I take away from this chat, a new friend verbalises something important: we aren’t interested in directing our energy towards ‘rebuilding’. Rebuilding just to continue how things already are? Nah, fuck that.

I mean, there’s cotton plantations in this country. FFS. Cotton fucken plantations.

Dispatch #6 (Jan 10th): with tens of thousands on the streets of Melbourne.

Got back to town on the afternoon of this demo. And for a variety of reasons that I won’t explain here, it didn’t end up being a good time for me.

But coming from what i’d seen the previous few days in east Gippsland, to a rain-soaked protest with so many people turning out on the streets, it did feel like I was a participant in a scene from some dystopic movie (Children of Men maybe?). A collapse of some kind, leading to demonstrations in the streets, leading to a government scrambling to reassert its authority.

Sometimes it does feel like we’re living in the end times. With flames scarring the country and smoke shrouding the cities.

But unlike those films, things haven’t yet gotten out-of-hand for the State. Still the demo was enormous and there was an energy. And people were genuinely pissed off at the reactionary attempts to suggest that this mobilisation was diverting emergency services away from fire-affected areas.

(And this reminds me, to borrow from the brilliant Sean Bonney once again, that in any situation – from the small confinements of everyday life, to the bigger upheavals of disaster and mobilisation – the correct line that follows the first thought that pops in your head should always be ‘fuck the police’. And right now, as we work out how to respond to these bushfires, ‘fuck the police’ is as necessary a line as ever.)

I’m not really sure what next. I don’t think these are the end times, I think more likely will be desperate attempts to return to a comfortable ‘business as usual’ secured by an increase in power to the state and police.

Nothing to wrap up here, just stare into the void and keep throwing ourselves at it.

Flyer distributed at the demo in Melbourne

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