Apollo Magazine (UK)
Kitty Hauser gives a view of the recent bushfires in Sydney
Australia’s worst ever bushfires have coincided with the terminal illness of my father. He, once an academic geographer who worked on what would now be called energy futures, has been warning of impending apocalypse for as long as I can remember. ‘At least I won’t be here to see it,’ he would say grimly. I thought I ought not to have children.
Is this how it happens? I wondered in November, when the fires had just begun, as I brushed little bits of black ash off my young sons’ trousers hanging on the line. Before long, larger fragments of blackened eucalyptus bark and leaves started to appear. Fire was spreading with terrible speed and fury. My sons’ cub leader, a volunteer firefighter, told me that they were working on the assumption that there would be no proper rain until February, which seemed hard to believe, but turned out to be right.
In the end, fire did not come to the part of Sydney where we live, but it was easy to see how it could have. All it would have taken was for a cigarette end to be dropped in the bushland by our street, thick with bone-dry tinder after months of drought. The leaf litter underfoot around our house was so dry that the movements of a tiny skink or spider made a noise vastly disproportionate to its size. Water restrictions ruled out hosing. Trees and plants became increasingly weak and brittle, their leaves turning yellow or brown. So it was that by Christmas during the day the house was filled with an uncanny golden light, unsettling in its unreality. From his home in Gloucestershire my father was giving instructions from his bed on how – amid torrential rain – correctly to plant (or ‘heel in’) a raspberry bush.
In Sydney, with fires to the north, west and south, a choking pall covered the city. Smoke was for months a daily (and nightly) preoccupation. It could be monitored with airquality apps – who knew there were so many? – as well as the senses. Everything hung on
the wind: its direction, its speed. If the wind was coming from the sea to the east we could open windows. If it turned southerly or westerly they had to be closed, towels stuffed in the gaps under doors, and outside events cut short or cancelled. Lots of people wore masks.
Meanwhile, photographs of the apocalyptic scenes unfolding beyond the horizons of the city were seen around the world. The images so far exceeded any conventions of the form – if it’s possible to speak of one – that they challenged any suggestion that might be made that this was normal, or anything like normal. It wasn’t just the extremity of the weather and its effects, the vast megafires and the great plumes of smoke, the tragic charred wildlife, or the deep orange that filled all four corners of pictures of otherwise ordinary places as though they were being seen through coloured glass. It was also the way in which the nation’s symbolic landscapes were scrambled, as though in a nightmare or a bad trip. Photographs of holidaymakers gathered on the sand or in surf clubs to escape the inferno turned the beach from the sunlovers’ playground painted by Charles Meere (Fig. 2) or photographed by Max Dupain into something more like a war zone or a refugee camp. This is ‘When Brueghel meets the anthropocene’, suggested the writer Mireille Juchau on Twitter (and quoted by James Bradley in the Guardian), describing a remarkable image of Malua Bay by the press photographer Alex Coppel (Fig. 1); Hieronymus Bosch, rather, someone suggested.
Even Australia’s famously climatechange-denying government has been unable to say the fires were normal, though there has been plenty of argument over their avoidability, with blame in some quarters being laid at the door of the Greens for restricting hazard reduction. The prime minister misjudged the public mood by taking a holiday in Hawaii before coming back to encourage people to enjoy the New Year’s Eve fireworks and the cricket. Rage found its outlets, like the muchpublicised refusals – including by at least one firefighter – to take Scott Morrison’s hand. In a campaign called ‘Bushfire Brandalism’ members of an artists’ collective donned hivis vests to replace the adverts in bus shelters and other public spaces with posters calling for climate action. A mural went up in a Sydney suburb showing the prime minister in a Hawaiian shirt in front of a wall of fire, making a Christmas cocktail toast: ‘Merry Crisis’. It was painted over after just three days, but lived on as a meme and on prints and T-shirts (sold with profits going to the Rural Fire Service). And in branches of Kmart, customers rearranged shelves of ‘alphabet’ water bottles to create rude messages for the prime minister that went viral on social media.
My father, like everyone else, saw the photographs of Australia on fire and its cities wreathed in smoke. It looked like it couldn’t be helped, now. He would look at the news while ripping his CD collection one by one via a black box at the side of his bed. He loved music, especially opera, and it was one of the few things he spent money on. His favourites were Bach, Handel, Janáĉek, Schumann, but the piece he loved the most, he said, was Monteverdi’s Vespers. With thousands of CDs to download, I don’t think he had finished his task by the time he died in February, but it was a kind of cataloguing – or a saving – of things so that, I suppose, they could be enjoyed by others after he had gone, and after CDs had become obsolete, another event which he had long been predicting. o
Kitty Hauser is writing a book about Geoffrey Bardon for Giramondo Publishing.