This month, I’m writing words and posting images relating to the landscape of memory. I hope to write poems most days and also share photos, quotes, and more prosaic thoughts related in some way to memory, nostalgia, longing for place, remembering and forgetting, landscape, dreamscape, landscape’s memory and memory’s landscape, the intersection of the layered historical physical world with personal memory, the frames that both landscape and memory use to contain and order our focus, the landscape of childhood, the landscape of devastation, how memories lie and tell the truth, the fragmentation of memory, how landscapes shape us and our memories, and so on. All the posts will be linked to the Introductory Page as they are posted. Thanks for visiting.
Today, a story of destruction, death, desolation, and the beginnings of resurrection of an Australian landscape, from “The Man Who Writes Lists: A Fire Story,” in Planthunter, written by Claire James, daughter of Max, about her 71-year-old father’s love of his land and the fires that have scarred and charred it, burnt it to ashes.
Retired botanist Max James lives on 50 acres of bush named Riverbend, in Wangarabell in the far east corner of Victoria, Australia, on which he’s planted hundreds of trees, including more than 50 heirloom apples, 30 or so pears, plums, nashis (Asian pears), and figs, and a two-acre arboretum of “40 different magnolias, 60 camellias, Californian redwoods, ginkgoes, birch and cedar, black walnuts and maples and many trees that he just had to have.” He listens for the birds and keeps a list of them. He knows his land, knows the plants and animals on it. (Image above is of part of his garden before the fire, taken by Claire James.)
“Over the past twenty years, Dad has walked slowly around every corner of his property. … If you grew up with a parent who is either a keen bird watcher or botanist, or both, you’ll know how excruciating walking with them can be. Stop, start, stop, stop, stop, start, reverse, stop (as kids, my sister Kate and I found this incredibly annoying!)”
(Anyone who’s walked with me when I am looking for mushrooms, plants, amphibians, etc., or checking on what’s happening in the garden, can sympathise.)
He knew the fires were coming:
“Dad could hear Mallacoota burning, 50km away. The sky was blood red. The wind was wild and lashed the trees and the air was too hot. … Dad spent days preparing the property – blocking the windows and skylights in his sheds with corrugated iron, ripping out the long grass around the house and removing everything off his deep veranda. I could tell from his voice, when speaking on the phone, that he was totally exhausted and scared.”
Eventually, after securing what he could, protecting what he could, and watering, feeding, and unfencing the 35 chooks (a kind of chicken), he and his partner and her dog had to leave. As they drove out, he “watched two lyrebirds trying to outrun the fire along the track, knowing that they had nowhere safe to go. This image still haunts him weeks later.”
It’s enough to make you weep for years, thinking about the animals trying to escape, unable to escape.
When he and a neighbour were allowed to return, this is what awaited:
“His front gate stood in a foreign landscape. He was home. The 20 tonnes of carefully chain-sawed, collected, split and stacked firewood that dad had spent hundreds of hours stock-piling was erased, a pile of white ash. His garden was beige where it wasn’t burnt black. The force of the heat wiped the colour from the landscape. The shed, workshop and tractor shed were still smouldering. Inside was every tool Dad owned. As well as camping gear, canoes, machines and all of the things that a 71yr old ‘collector’ has in his sheds. Gone. The three 30,000 litre water tanks had melted and collapsed like Dali-esque objects.”
Somehow, all but 7 of the chooks survived, and so did his house. But Max didn’t seem to care about the house; he just wanted the bushland to live. He left out food for any wildlife that might have escaped the blaze. He started a new bird list, “Birds, after fires, Jan 2020,” on which only 12 species were listed at first. He was able to walk further into the creek beds than he’d ever been able to walk before, and he could see the land’s form more clearly, now that the vegetation was thinned.
Finally, it rained, and with the rain shoots began to emerge from the soil, sprout from burnt tree trunks, start to sway again in the creek. The bird list rose to 77 species. But the land now is “much emptier and quieter,” the absence particularly of insects translating to nocturnal silence, and the morning birdsong diminished.
“How does an ecosystem so complex recover without all of its elements? I cry for the gliders and other beautiful marsupials, the birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects who have disappeared. I can’t bear knowing how much is lost and I can’t bear how much my dad hurts.” Still, “over a pot of tea, Dad will add to his daily bird list, job list, burnt things list and shopping list. Step by step, bird by bird, leaf by leaf, day by day things will change from black and white to colour.”
Please go to the article at The Planthunter to see more photos, before and after the fire.
And if you haven’t stumbled on The Planthunter before, I urge you to check it out. It’s a large-format online magazine, free but donations are welcomed. The topics, writing, and images are beautiful, intriguing, and soul-satisfying.
Featured image: The garden at Riverbend before the fire, ©Claire James.