Bush fires and a book tour: Australia’s east coast, November 2019
I’ve just been on the east coast for a fortnight to promote my book, and wherever I went, fire followed. I saw at least eight separate bushfires on my two-hour plane trip between Melbourne and Brisbane. Across Victoria, Queensland, and New South Wales, people talked of their connection to fire. Booksellers were unable to get to work. Taxi drivers spoke of thick smog across the cities. Most people knew of someone directly affected: a work colleague fighting to save a property; a friend who had written her phone numbers on each of her horses’ shoes, before opening her gates so they could flee.
My family joined me in Queensland, and our first stop was Moreton Island. The northern part was on fire after a lightning strike, confining us to our room for much of the day as it was difficult to breathe. When we ventured outside, ash floated all around us, tangling in our hair and settling on our drinks. The watersports instructor was asthmatic and couldn’t stop coughing. Half the guests wore face masks, and the beaches were empty.
We then drove two hours south of Brisbane, venturing inland towards Lamington National Park. There was a huge fire visible from O’Reilly’s mountaintop retreat for the entire duration of our stay. This beautiful place, 100 years old and a wildlife haven, only just escaped destruction two months ago, when fire claimed the nearby heritage-listed Binna Burra lodge and forced the evacuation of O’Reilly’s – 150 cars full of guests and staff clogging the only winding road out. The place survived, but there’s hardly been any rain over the winter, and the whole forest is tinder dry.
One night we went to see the rare phenomenon of glow worms, each a dazzling pinprick of white light, together forming a mini universe in the depths of the rainforest. Our guide told us they were only alive because she’d had the forethought to start irrigating them a month ago. Without her, they’d already be gone.
We drove another five hours down the coast to visit friends close to Coffs Harbour. The trees were burning at the side of the road, and the landscape was an apocalyptic orange. Our six year old cried at the sight, and asked repeatedly about all the animals. We lied to her, outlining miraculous methods of escape that we all knew didn’t make sense. Later, as I browsed my phone I found the video of Lewis the koala, then read that he’d died. As had an entire population of 600 koalas, incinerated in the trees on a reserve in NSW. I shed my own tears, but quietly, so my daughter wouldn’t notice.
On this trip I also heard the Deputy Prime Minister’s comment about the climate-change ravings of ‘woke capital-city greenies’. I remembered Scott Morrison in parliament, laughing as he brandished his piece of precious coal. I read about the recent arrests of Extinction Rebellion protestors, and the crazy bail conditions imposed on climate-action champions like Scott Ludlam, to discourage future protests. And I recalled Yeats’s ‘Second Coming’ with a shiver.
But the best of humankind don’t lack all conviction. There are people working incredibly hard, all over the world, but they don’t have the numbers to turn things around. Not yet. Not until they can wake up the passive majority: the armchair commentators, who haven’t realized yet that climate change isn’t somewhere in the future, it’s happening right now. Or the ones who can still tune in and out of the climate problem, depending on what else they need to get done, because the impact on them is still distant. At least for today.
In other words, the ones like me, or like I was a fortnight ago, before a book tour that I’ll remember forever, for reasons that have nothing to do with books.
However, the real challenge for my family begins now, with us safely back home, where the air is clean, the sunshine is pleasant, and our experiences are fading into memory.
Because it’s just so much easier to switch off.
Postscript: To try to stave off my inertia, yesterday I joined the Climate Council (https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/join/), and signed up to the next Conversation Series from the film 2040, which is called ‘From Despair to Action – Cultivating Hope in Times of Change’, which is running on 15 December. For more about the original film and these seminars go to https://whatsyour2040.com