Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Writing in the apocalypse



In 1986 I had the good fortune to be appointed Scholar in Residence at the University of Oregon in Eugene USA and, during that time, I visited Ashland to attend its famous annual Shakespearian Festival. 

Burnt trees at Kangaroo Island (Photo by Monika Lancucki)

In a recent essay the multi-lingual, award-winning American journalist, McKenzie Funk, describes present day Ashland as a ‘beautiful… surprise cluster of civilisation just north of Oregon’s border with California … It has twenty thousand residents but swells during the academic year with students and in warmer months with tourists, many of them here for the summer-long Oregon Shakespeare Festival… The town’s economy relies, above everything else, on its quality of life.’

In the mid-eighties, neither American residents nor visitors saw any particular irony in the name Ashland. Admittedly, just across the state border there had been ‘wild fires’ from time to time in the Californian forests, and residents were properly conscious of both hazards and precautions, but in those days summer life in Ashland’s ‘flower-filled parks’ and brilliant Shakespearian venues seemed immutable.

I’d never heard of McKenzie Funk until I came across his marvellous review essay, ‘Smoked Out’. He and his family were moving across the country because his wife was making a massive mid-career change. This kind of sudden, decisive reorientation was familiar territory to me and, of course, I had my own, thirty-five year old memories of Ashland. So I eagerly read on beyond the genial opening paragraphs of ‘Smoked Out’. Almost immediately, I found myself on familiar, if deadly, ground.

With their former life in Seattle ‘wrapped up’, Funk and his sons were poised to ‘drive the nine hours down Interstate 5’ and finally reunite the family. But there was ‘bad news: “The smoke started [his wife] said. It came early this year.” Although there was little imminent danger of its spreading to Ashland, the nearest fire — the result of a lightning strike… was just nine miles from our new home… In a town like Ashland, smoke blots out the colour of the houses and the hills, rendering everything in grayscale, a slow-burning diminution of the way life here used to be… On the afternoon the boys and I arrived, the town and the Rogue Valley, where it sits, were surrounded by nine separate wild-fires. The next day, Ashland registered the worst air quality in the United States.’

Struggling their face masks on and off from house to house, meeting to meeting, shop to shop, people began to speak of what came to be called ‘a new normal’, a phrase that writer Meehan Crist describes in her own essay, ‘California Burns’, as designed ‘to make increasingly unfamiliar and unsettling circumstances bearable.’


'... people began to speak of what came to be called 'a new normal', a phrase that writer Meehan Crist describes in her own essay, 'California Burns', as designed "to make increasingly unfamiliar and unsettling circumstances bearable."'


So, with smoke from the unfolding disaster on Kangaroo Island rolling through the Fleurieu Peninsula where I live, I tried to do some research. I made a fair start on Funk’s award winning, utterly riveting Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming. Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave and Going Solo, called it ‘a gripping account of how banks, energy companies, engineers, and entrepreneurs have turned a global crisis into a golden opportunity, harvesting short-term profits while sowing the seeds of future ruin’.

And I did my best in the short time available before deadline to get at least a handle on a couple of the other books Funk discusses in ‘Smoked Out’, namely Todd Miller’s Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration and Homeland Security and Edward Struzik’s Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape our Future, in which he describes ‘fossil fuel-driven human activity emitting the greenhouse gases that are warming the climate and triggering atmospheric disturbances, driving wildfires to burn, bigger, faster, hotter and more often.’

Bigger, faster and hotter, for example, in Mallacoota where the navy moved in to rescue residents desperately gathered on the beach, and bigger, faster and hotter on Kangaroo Island as ferries ran most of the night across Backstairs Passage to evacuate islanders pushed like a retreating army to Kingscote and then Penneshaw.

In Australia we have writers as courageous and as brilliant as Funk, Struzic et al in their evocation of the climate emergency — Nick Feik, Greg Jericho, Judith White, Tim Flannery, Jeff Sparrow to name a few.

But even their resonant and determined voices struggle for effect in an atmosphere of ‘utter and complete denial’ in which ignorance and philistinism are celebrated — by Craig Kelly MHR for example, who reacted to an English meteorologist’s arguments by calling her ‘an ignorant pommy weather girl’, or by Senator Pauline Hanson cogently assessing the situation with ‘If you are going to have a royal commission into it, throw bloody climate change out of the window and let’s look at the pure facts of why we have had the bushfires…’. In one of the climate dispute’s more gnomic utterances, she explains, ‘The climate is changing pure to nature itself and our relation to the sun.’ And on it goes.

Funk’s essay has an alternative title: ‘Travels in the Apocalypse’. Apocalypse is defined as ‘an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale’.

Sounds about right so far.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Image credit: Burnt trees at Kangaroo Island. (Photo by Monika Lancucki)

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, McKenzie Funk, bushfires



submit a comment

Existing comments

Loved the hilarious description of Pauline Hanson's views as "cogent" and "gnomic utterances". She would no doubt require a "please explain" if asked to comment!

john frawley | 06 February 2020  

It has been an apocalyptic summer. With notable exceptions, our politicians have not done themselves proud. One in particular, the NSW State Member for Bega, Andrew Constance, is amongst the exceptions. Mr Constance's home at Malua Bay was threatened by fire on New Year's Eve. He fought alongside other volunteers to save his home and other homes. Constance has now taken leave from his job as Transport Minister in the NSW Parliament to stand with his people as together they face the aftermath of the catastrophe. Big pat on the back for his stance. I must add: McKenzie Funk, a wonderful name!

Pam | 10 February 2020  

It is amazing how you serendipitously find something. I would recommend another writer most of us in Australia have probably missed, John Michael Greer. His writing on the current ecological crisis, including Dark Age America is particularly relevant to today's situation. What he says about America is just as relevant to us here.

Edward Fido | 12 February 2020  

Similar Articles

When will they listen? A school striker's lament

  • Gracie Ryan
  • 28 January 2020

Among the bustle of hundreds of thousands of teenagers with clever signs, mild sunburns, and a palpable disdain for major party politics, there was a sense that we could change the world. The noise we made felt so deafening that no one could ignore it. And then we were promptly ignored.