Best of 2009: Fatal firestorm's distant witness

First published February 2009

I sit in my room in France and the distance between here and there has never seemed so great. It's a time of grief and open tears, and it's very difficult to be away from home at a time like this.

No doubt it's harder on the blackened ground, particularly for those who have lost loved ones, homes and whole communities. But these are the moments where, as a nation, we realise who we are, what defines us, and how much we need each other. I sit outside that circle. As the internet bursts into flames and heavy snow falls outside my window, I sit with my family and watch infernos rip through towns.

I want to get on a plane and go home. Not because I have any special skills to offer, or have loved ones to say goodbye to, but because this is a moment that defines us and makes us realise what we face collectively. This is when we turn to those of us who have suffered and hear what they have been through.

On the day of the National Apology the emotion was palpable over the seas. Then I realised that there's something different about being there, standing on the same dirt as your fellow countrymen, facing the same national stage side by side. It cannot be replicated on the internet or television. Because it is the slow conversations that unravel during and after the event — the sharing in the kitchens, playgroups, work places and on the street — that make the tragedy and collective sorrow real and understood.

But that event was welcomed. This is different.

My sister sent me an email on 8 February after coming back from our parents' place in the bush. She'd been crying for hours and said 'I drove back from Mum and Dad's this morning and this may sound weird but it was like everyone in all the cars in the traffic were all thinking the same things. We were all in shock and mourning together, and were connected. It was so quiet and calm.'

My friend in Melbourne was in the supermarket and people commiserated down every aisle. One woman yelled into her phone, 'I know the Red Cross are there but I just want to get in my car and go help'.

My sister went to give blood but couldn't get past the crowds of people thronging to donate. At moments like this an invisible connectedness arises in public spaces between neighbours and strangers. The sober act of focusing on someone else's suffering mixes in the air between strangers, until an unquantifiable, collective compassion helps the healing.

It's not the same here. People listen to me talk about the bushfires, shake their heads, and ask if I know anyone in danger. There is compassion, and they say they can't imagine what it would be like.

And that's the kernel of difference. I can imagine. I remember Ash Wednesday. I have lived in the bush where my father fought fires from the roof of our house. I have driven though decimated towns and know the combustible qualities of gums.

Naturally my French friends don't recognise that the father who lost his child sounds just like my brother, or the house razed looks like my parents' place, or have memories of that beautiful town in the hills which is now rubble. They don't have friends in Healesville, cousins at the Whittlesea Community Centre or know people living alone in the Yarra Valley, and they don't know what CFA really means.

But they know the value of human life because regardless of nationality we all have families and loved ones we can't imagine losing.

So I connect via the internet and listen to fathers break down as their daughters are rescued by their brothers. I see women weeping on the roadside with nothing but the clothes on their back. I see red and outside it's white. I turn off the computer. Not to deny the outpouring of stories, but because my need to connect feels contrived. I am not there, and 'watching' without helping seems vicarious. All I can do is hope, pray and give something material.

At a time like this we are reduced to the bare bones: simple grief for what has been lost. I have never been prouder of my people, nor as sad for what they are enduring, and it doesn't really matter whether I am here or there. What it's about is making sure that the connections built in the past few days sustain those who need them, and there are plenty of people on the ground to do that.

Other countries have civil wars, despotic governments and lethal levels of class difference as their Achilles' heel. Ours is a tough landscape that, when ignited, is unforgiving, riding over us as if we never existed. It's that revelation of smallness, that humility before such indiscriminate power, that binds us. We share the same dirt and know that 'there but for the grace of god go I'.

We all know this truth regardless of how far we travel from home.

Red Cross Bushfire Appeal

Bronwyn LayBronwyn Lay lives with her family in rural France, over the border from Geneva. She is currently enrolled in a Masters of English Literature at the University of Geneva and is working on her first novel. Previously she worked as a legal aid lawyer in Australia with post-graduate qualifications in political theory.


Topic tags: bronwyn lay, victorian bushfires, red cross



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