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The language of fire


Sunset and smokehaze, Flickr image by BanksideMelbourne had the strange experience, this February, of reading and listening to bushfire reports for five days while neither seeing nor smelling smoke.

1983 was a very different memory. On that Ash Wednesday night the metropolitan area was completely covered with strong eucalyptus smoke. Blackened leaves and twigs flew overhead, many still burning, to land in streets, on roofs and in gardens.

But this February, the senses felt an absence. The body lived with emotional responses but had no sensory backup connections. The winds kept blowing north. Everything was happening over the horizon. Melbourne lived the fires in its head.

When the mind has no sensory leads to interpret, words become critical. On the fourth day, Tuesday, Michael Leunig published a cartoon. It was a white rectangle containing just two things: the image of a tapering green gum leaf, and above the leaf five words, 'her beauty and her terror'.

The picture was primal. In the retreat of his mind Leunig asked for a line of poetry that helped somehow to fix what was happening everywhere around Melbourne. The green leaf represents beauty, but unstated and by implication the terror is the flaming leaf, literally a taper, falling wherever in ember attack.

Leunig knew that the line comes from a poem learnt by most Australian schoolchildren, Dorothea MacKellar's 'My Country'. By stripping the poem of its panoramic elation, we were confronted with the essence of MacKellar's vision. Again at breakfasts across Melbourne, the question was asked, 'How does Leunig get it so right?' Black humour and sentimentalism, typical Leunig features, were missing; the cartoon used the pure elements of the moment to make a notice. By week's end 'Her Beauty and Her Terror' was being used in headlines and articles like a talisman.

Effective words from leaders are part of the definition of statesmanship. Premier John Brumby's powerful warnings to stay at home on Saturday and not to drive in the country no longer sounded alarmist by Sunday morning.

The Prime Minister travelled quickly to Victoria. One of his prepared lines became the sentence of the moment, here and overseas: 'Hell in all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria.' It is a consolidated line. Kevin Rudd is half-remembering William Congreve's lines, 'Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned.' The verb 'visited' is unusual, but I wouldn't be surprised if he was thinking of its use in the King James Bible, 'The Dayspring from on high hath visited us,' words from Luke's Gospel often heard at Christmas.

Rudd uses 'archaic' English to establish authority and meaning. 'The good people of Victoria' might normally be heard as ironic or even sarcastic, especially coming from a Queenslander. But in the context the expression served several purposes. It was an inclusive statement, all Australians are with Victoria and necessarily own what is happening. To say people are good means they are not malicious, the fires are not their fault. The manicheans and doomsayers in our midst will not have the day. Good people deserve our assistance in such circumstances. Rudd, too, is warning against the language of blame.

Malcolm Turnbull did not get off to a good start. He said he was at a loss for words about the bushfires. We all knew what he felt, no one was about to say they could adequately explain or describe what was going on. But leaders have to say something, not nothing.

His second attempt was to describe the fires as a 'terrible beauty'. Was he thinking of the transformative line in W. B. Yeats's poem 'Easter 1916' ('All changed, changed utterly/A terrible beauty is born')? Or was he just mangling MacKellar? Hard to tell. There is no arguable connection between the Easter Rising in Dublin and bushfire, and we don't know if he had seen the Leunig. But to give Turnbull his due, he was at least reaching after words to describe the scale of the disaster, its awesomeness.

ABC Radio kept up a permanent report of all the fires. Fire lines were described in exact detail. Lonely hills and remote road intersections in the bush became the focus of intense analysis. The names of familiar towns, mountains and valleys suddenly provoked surprise and concern.

When a distressed man rang through to say something very serious was happening at Kinglake, it was a new name to add to the watch list. Only later did Melbourne come to the realisation that within half an hour of that call, most of Kinglake had been destroyed. Like most people later, I sat asking, How fast is that? What does fast mean? What kind of fire are we talking about here? Fast?

The Dresden word 'firestorm' was accurate in terms of fire behaviour, but firestorm has become misused in the media simply to mean any big fierce fire. Kinglake was different. Witnesses said it was a fireball and who am I back in Melbourne but to respect their testimony?

The fire was like nothing in living memory. But 'fireball' made me think. The English vocabulary for bushfire is limited. My imagination could not get past flying meteorites in sci-fi movies, or the antics of that lunatic rocker Jerry Lee Lewis. I had to think deeper.

During the week people talked about introducing a fire grading system, Levels 1–5. What words would be employed for each Level? Total Fire Ban means what it says, but a fireball is not the same. One can only ponder on all the various words for fire that must have existed in ancient Indignenous languages.

In the first week of the fires everyone started telling stories, to family and friends, but also to strangers in shops, on trams and trains, at work and over lunch. The Weather Bureau gave Melbourne its daily one word prediction for the next day. Sunny, Windy, Cloudy. Everyone dreaded another hot day. Showers appeared only in dreams.

But for Friday, the seventh day of the fires, the Bureau made a satisfactory call for realism. Indeed, it was a relief to read the change, just one word: 'Smokehaze'.

Red Cross Bushfire Appeal

Philip HarveyPhilip Harvey is the Poetry Editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: philip harvey, language, victorian bushfires, michael leaunig, john brumby, kevin rudd, malcolm turnbull



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Existing comments

Nicely written Philip Harvey. However Melbourne has more than a 10km radius. I live in Park Orchards and during the five day period there was sufficient smoke in the air that those with asthma needed to be careful. Those in suburbs such as Doreen not only could see the flames and smell the smoke at Kinglake, but also at times were on ember alert.

Mike | 24 February 2009  

The photos too captured moments of terrifying beauty that we will not forget.

Lorna Hannan | 24 February 2009  

Even in Brunswick we smelt the smoke every day, even to the extent of a virtual hay fever.

One further point: "firestorm" is often used these days for that very high temperature conflagration that burns away the very oxygen and incinerates all before it.

Thanks and best wishes,

Chris Wallace-Crabbe | 24 February 2009  

Philip, this is a gem and of permanent value. Many thanks for bringing together discriminatingly your language expertise and the recent utterances.

Max Richards | 24 February 2009  

Thank you for your responses.

One point: I live in the northeast and work in Richmond and Middle Park. Whittlesea is just over the horizon. That's a fair swathe of Melbourne. I am recording what I experienced.

Philip Harvey | 24 February 2009  

Thank you for your responses.

One point: I live in the northeast and work in Richmond and Middle Park. Whittlesea is just over the horizon. That's a fair swathe of Melbourne. I am recording what I experienced.

Philip Harvey | 24 February 2009  

What this article stirs within me is the reminder that language has suffered great erosion through the excesses of the headlines. The result is that the papers themselves can no longer convey the depth of trauma that is experienced in tragedies of this magnitude.

I once mentored a young adult student on a creative writing course. His first submission started with, 'Words can't describe what I felt when ...' I suggested that he forgo what he thought was an impressive opening and find the words to describe the indescribable. After all, the goal of the course was that he learn to use words, not the deliberate lack of them, to carry his experience into the mind of the reader. My suggestion caused him great anxiety. To write deeply, openly, engagingly of his experience meant going into it again. He did not want to do that.

Two politicians voice their feelings on the Victorian bushfires. One of them used words that come from another era, perhaps because he knew that maturity and age go together. The other of them used the deliberate lack of words as if that, itself, was going so say something. Michael Leunig, instead, rediscovers a line of poetry, hidden away in a poem we learnt by heart at school, and that line touches us and we smell the smoke.

We need people who can say what needs to be said, to convey what people have experienced, and to prompt us to listen to those who have been through the indescribable. Only through our listening can the indescribable be spoken.

Kim Miller | 24 February 2009  

Having a sense of the aftermath at Kinglake I am more like Malcolm Turnbull in the first instance, 'at a loss for words'.

sue | 24 February 2009  

What a most wonderful article ... demanding our full attention and enabling us to be emotionally and intellectually involved for those of us as far away as Perth. Thank you for demanding our attention to such a historic Australian happening.

Breda O'Reilly | 27 February 2009  

I live in Box Hill Nth, and we have been able to smell smoke every morning since 7 Feb. Some mornings more than others. Many days, we have smokehaze for all or part of the day too. The day the fires were worst in the Yarra Valley & near Healesville, there was a constant procession of light aircraft and helicopters overhead.

I also remember Ash Wednesday, but having been born & bred in Western Victoria (where the Grampians burn frequently) a greater impression was made on me when I was standing in the dust storm and realising that it was the top soil of half the state blowing out to sea, so that when the fires inevitably came, it would take so much longer to recover from them, as there was that much less soil for things to regrow in.

MacKellar had it right, but I wish that those who quote her more expansively would also get it right - her mountain ranges are rAgged, not rUgged!!

Karen S | 03 March 2009  

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