Picture taken from the roof of our house – water bomber overhead – fire approaching
An exhausted evacuee as we set up the evac beds in the Church
Traditionally, by Christmas Eve the Christmas beetles are filling the vestry. They meet us at the door where the lights are on, sometimes even flying around the church as we worship. This year there were none. But as we always do, we told the story of Wombat Divine to the children on Christmas Day. With hand puppets of native animals, emu, kangaroo, bilby and more we share Wombats longing to be part of the nativity play; his disappointment at missing so many parts and his final triumph when he lands the role of the baby Jesus.
This year the beetles were missing, as were the shearwaters on the beach. And we’ve not seen nor heard any black swans for many weeks. Usually their morning and evening flight overhead and their distinctive honk is a reminder of the rhythm of days and of our meditation practice. I hope the beetles knew ahead not to come this year. I hope the swans heeded some invisible call to leave early.
When the phone rang at 6am on New Years Eve morning, with the sound of an alarm and a voice telling us to leave now as our lives were at risk, I was glad that we had prepared to leave. We knew what we would do. The car was packed and facing in the right direction. I just needed to put the cat in, and we were off. Anthony, my husband, had decided to stay and defend the house. I went into town (Moruya) and opened the church and parish hall for others who began to arrive that morning shaken and anxious. A young family, partners of those out fighting the fires, some parishioners and others including various animals found their way in during the morning. We parted the pews to make sleeping cubicles, one family camped in the vestry, others in the hall and office. Now we waited, glued to the Fires Near Me app that showed the frightening extent of the growth and size of fires as they began to join up. Later we lost power and communications. As I looked in the direction of Mossy Point, our home, I was horrified to see those now familiar massive fire clouds glowing red. Contact with Anthony had gone. We could only wait and pray. We were fortunate that day. Although the sand dunes nearby caught fire the southerly came literally in the nick of time. Many others lost their homes.
Over a period of 10 days we had 3 evacuation orders. By the third I had decided to stay. And in the end the conditions were milder than expected. Over that same period, we were mostly without power and reliable communications, including our usual lifeline the local ABC radio, roads were cut, food and fuel were at times in short supply. For many weeks we have breathed in the smoke of so many fires raging around us. At times thick, acrid and cloying the smoke now permeates everything. Day after day and night the sun and moon both glow red behind a veil of smoke. We live with apocalyptic images. It’s frightening to think that we might become used to this as the new normal.
Australia has lost 28 human lives, an estimated one billion native animals and at least 2,000 human houses since the fires started burning in September. 9 million hectares, an area the size of Ireland, are burnt. Much of the eastern seaboard and ranges are a massive scar in the landscape. In places the fire has burnt the very soil. A 4th generation farmer who lost her home near here told me that the bare dirt was burning. “There’s no coming back from this’ she said. Sorrow, grief can come only in small doses. Too much is overwhelming. The deep howl within us comes out only very occasionally and quietly. Most of the time we simply get on with what needs to be done. But I have a sense of desolation in the very air around us; the awareness of incalculable loss.
During one of the worst days, when we were refugees in our own church, I wrote up a list of activities for the day in order to keep us occupied. The kids loved the pom-pom making. And I invited people to meditate at various times during the day. I cleared a space in the parish office and a few of us gathered there. Amid fear and anxiety, swirling orange smoke, and the constant sound of planes filling up with water from the river, we joined in wordless prayer. As we finished one session, and remained sitting in silence, I knew God in the stillness at the heart of it all. Our little evacuation centre became a place of grounded care. And I’m sure that the prayer that the church has held for over 120 years and the living faith of those of us holding that space in those few days enabled a sense of safety and calm for those who came.
Nevertheless, some of the images of the ‘fire fields’ in Australia have been described as apocalyptic. Presently there are massive dust storms in western NSW that have been described in the same way. Even non- religious types have been using such language. The real meaning of apocalypse is the revealing of that which is hidden. What do we need to see at times such as this? Clearly, one of the realities that we need to wake up to very quickly is that humanity cannot go on living as we are in relation to other-than-human life. In Australia, in places, the infernos have incinerated all life. Native worms, spiders and other humble ground-dwellers that ‘till’ the soil have been destroyed. There is a real chance of local eco-systems collapse. Fish are dying en masse due to asphyxiation as ash from the fires extinguishes oxygen in the last remaining puddles that were once rivers. Many of us now have entered that feeling state known as Solastalgia* as we live in a parched and burnt environment. Solastalgia is the sense of homesickness we know not because we have left home but because our home has changed so much. Sadness, grief and yes, rage, are commonly encountered. Our politicians seem utterly incapable of grasping the fact of their own failure in responding to the reality of climate crisis. Our political landscape is as desiccated and degraded as our once beautiful natural landscape. We lament the loss and grieve for what we love.
On Sunday, our Bishop, speaking at our church, referred to Walter Bruegemann’s categorising of the Psalms into three groups: psalms of orientation, disorientation and re-orientation. The disorientation of the last weeks has been significant. The movement now must be towards re-orientation. However, if we imagine that re-orienting means to go back to things as they were then we have got it very wrong. If we fail to see what this ‘apocalypse’ is revealing, then our destruction is assured. Our re-orientation must be towards Life rather than death. We must rapidly learn to live in a mutually enhancing way with the rest of the earth community. We have taken up too much too much space, we are committing eco-cide and potentially omnicide. We cannot ‘jolly’ ourselves up with the ‘hope’ that things will go back to normal. The climate crisis, and this bushfire crisis present us with a choice.
As I sit here, having returned to where I left off writing, there are many birds feeding in our garden and drinking from the bird baths. We have spread seed, fruit and small bits of meat for the maggies and kookaburras. Decimated habitat has brought creatures closer. Here in Mossy we are one of many small oases. And rain is falling. We have heard about how wombats, during the fires, shared their burrows with snakes and quolls; some say they even shepherded other animals to the safety of their burrows. Its raining now. But we must not forget the fires of 2019/20. We must remember. And we must let this remembering be the spur to act on what they have revealed to us. Lest we forget.
On Jan 23, the fire took off again and licked the edges of Moruya, destroying many more homes. Our Shire is now into Day 63 of these fires and the fire fields cover most of our once beautiful landscape.
Sermons & Reflections from the Rector and others
THE BALANCE POINT
The Assistant Priest, Rev'd Rebecca Newland, has a weekly blog where she reflects on spiritual disciplines including the practise of silence and contemplative living. She also occasionally writes about social, environmental and political issues. For those who are interested please click on this link below: