I had smelled it whenever I’d been in the bush over the past few weeks: vaporous and gaseous, like something that was begging for a match to be put upon it.
Now I’d driven west, following rivers running up their fertile valleys, straw and stubble where the spouted spit of irrigators hadn’t reached. The rivers themselves had a hot glare about them. On the colourless road out to one of Pedder’s dams, spitting up a grey wash of dust, it seemed somehow like I was driving into a desert.
I was aiming for a particular mountain range, an array of queer quartzite peaks. Their summits are so often like antennae for heavy cloud and rain, in the wet south-west, where the winds of the roaring forties thrash oceanic gusts against whatever they meet. But the forecast was for days hotter than thirty degrees.
So it was that I found myself on a moraine, on a slab of quartzite and in the midst of a hot morning, sitting with an ecologist. He’d previously surveyed the golden sedgelands where we’d camped, which were now far below us. Those plains appeared clean and smooth, soothed by the fires that once rode through. Meanwhile, on odd slopes, wedged in gullies, there were myrtles and king billies. A palette of myriad greens of the south-west rainforest.
I was on a mountain range of planets and stars, Hesperus and Aldebaran and Sirius. Even in the bright day, the constellations were found in the black tarns, those indented into shelves of rock beneath barbarous bluffs.
At night, by Lake Cygnus, we were briefly walloped with stray weather. Tinny thunder rumbled around our quartzite bowl. Over the bony ridge, there were fast, fatal flashes of lightning.
From the heights we hiked the next morning, we could see a series of fires burning on Pedder’s shores, plumes of smoke up the Huon and behind several other mountain profiles. The skies were muddied with mauve haze. Apparently over a thousand strikes made landfall, in various swathes across the island. So we wear the scars of lightning without rain.
I had been on mountain heights when bushfires burnt the guts out of forests several summers ago, in 2016. I’d seen the forked lightning then too; watched a spiral of smoke coming from a landscape I loved. In the weeks that followed, my poet’s tongue contorted with furious, artless passion. It’s all fucked, I felt, and I felt it loudly. I savaged a lover because she didn’t understand.
These trees, I tried and failed to say. Their green is drawn from too far back for this. See this one? It is, itself, over a thousand years old. Yet the whole species may be extinct before I disappear.
But some land likes to burn too. Some of our commonest species are pyrophilic, as they say – ‘fire lovers’. Eucalyptus, buttongrass: fire has been healer. The old people cleaned up country with it, used it to turn ground. The torch can be an ecological tool. But other flora is tremendously sensitive to fire; these glean no hope from it. They simply die. Too much fire, and they will be gone altogether. We seem to be getting too much fire.
The fact that they sometimes live side-by-side – such different ecosystems, plants that respond so differently to fire – is one of this island’s usual mysteries.
At the end of the third day on the range, a helicopter arrived to evacuate us. We looked upon the tortured track we’d picked at, those twisted staircases of white stones between the bizarre grey boulders, the nipped ridges and narrow saddles we’d skipped upon, and those star-filled tarns, black in the broad day. It was a shame to leave it below. But everything before us was smudged in smoke, swirling upwards to the sanctuary of our summits.
Now I’m home. Silent at this distance, the fires are deafening in forests elsewhere. I know their roar, black and violent and quivering with rage. I know the hissing heat of those growing beasts, the sudden unflinching flux of leaves converted into flames. The whirling vortices of smokes are representations of our changed conditions.
We must learn the colours of bushfires, must learn fire’s moods. We must adapt to a fire-ravaged land. Perhaps we will. But there is much that simply cannot adjust itself so suddenly. I am proud of plenty of the plantlife that may not survive this overheated century; they are part of my identity as someone who belongs to this island. Perhaps we may hope that in secret pockets, those peculiar species will cling on. Yet in a sense that has less science – that an ecologist is not able to describe, clever though he may be – with each of these summer fires, another sacred stand of king billy pine is plainly razed, out of sight, in my heart.
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