Ground zero gets bigger and we just get smaller | The Canberra Times


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The miracle came like a forgotten promise and doused the flames. For those few moments, we caught our breath, allowed ourselves the luxury of marvelling at magnanimous Mother Nature and thanked her for letting us off the hook, knowing she spared us before doing even worse. Perhaps we made a vow of our own? Lit a few votive candles (No more total fire bans, why not?). “We’ll do better, we’ll treat you better, we promise.” We looked over our shoulder, then peered down the road and began making those big, important plans again (never hurts to give God a laugh). We could see all the way to the mountains, all the way to the sea because, on hands and knees, she’d scrubbed the air clean; left it polished and sparkling, just for us. But she wasn’t finished, she was just warming up. Even with 2020 vision, we didn’t see it coming; our Annus horribilis, on the early train, supercharged and weaponised. Death from across the water, death at our door, death in the house. Simply, we’re no longer supreme, that honour goes to a facile glob of molecules wrapped in a protean protein sheath intent on nothing more than transmission. The hitchhiker we were always warned about. We’re confused. We’re hunted, we’re prey. We’re carriers, we’re hoarders. We’re the thousands thousands waiting in line. A great depression for a new millennium; PPE selfies in the Centrelink queue as we sip takeaway coffee and catch up on Coronacast through earbuds. We’re dumb (wash your hands!) and selfish (only two packets per person!). We’re not even cattle class, we’re cattle. We’re humans and we’re scared. The virus and the fires share a lot in common. They’re both fast, damn fast. Neither respects borders or money, status or class. Neither cares about your hard-luck story, your lucky streak. Neither will stop until good and ready. We’re trying to roll with the punches, change our ways (1.5m apart and about the same number of TP squares each sitting) but we’re exhausted, all of us. We feel like we haven’t caught a break and we’re being propelled inexorably towards a bleak future or back into a bleak past, we’re not sure which is more frightening. In hindsight, the first pandemic was relatively easy, more physical than psychological (even though she did fight dirty). It came quickly, in early morning coups that punched the teeth from main streets, ripped homes from strong arms and it happened slow, smoking our flesh for weeks on end. We downloaded Fires Near Me and immediately began thinking in hectares, in colour-codes. Vast spaces were reduced to scraps of time. We jumped and jolted according to synesthetic trigger points. It was our scroll-down catastrophe. Our ctrl-x-summer. Unprecedented. Unprecedented? Well, at the time, yes, but that word really is beginning to get up people’s noses, more irritating than any brain-scraping swab for COVID-19. We watched Pac-Man amoeba swarm the screen. A petri dish in our hand. The organisms would divide, clone themselves, multiply, join up. We gave them names (Currowan, Gospers) to try and own them, tame them, but they ignored us, riding the wind and the grass and a Gordian knot blood stream of tinder-dry forests. Before our very eyes, the map in our hand inhaled, exhaled. It shimmered, vanished, refreshed, reappeared; reminding us it’s all fleeting, all ephemeral. Everything. The whole show. It was a conjuring trick, a legerdemain challenge. Pick a card, any card. Diamonds, all of them. Our mood changed according to their colour or their colour according to our mood. Some days it was hard to tell because your mind was everywhere and nowhere. When there was the Sisyphean task of packing and repacking the car, the pump to prime, the gas bottles to think about (don’t forget that old one in the shed this time), the pets to consider. But, no, Dad! We have to take the rabbits! Fine, fine … but when this is all over, you can bloody well start feeding them yourselves like you said you would, it’s not my job or your mother’s … things are going to change when this is all over … when this is ends … We will! We will! Will what? Oh, yeah, right, forgot you were still there. Blue diamonds were almost soothing. Yellow got the blood going, got you all lucid. Red did what red does. Then, they’d go and throw a white one in there. Seriously? White? WTF does that mean? Enact your bushfire emergency plan … It is too late to leave … Shelter in a place and prepare for fire … Our skies became an ersatz version of the future we’ve looked out for since we were children; sort of more steampunk than The Jetsons. Helicopters, tankers and drones; big-wing, industrial thumps and teeth-grinding whines. It’s the 21st century, for god’s sake, they were supposed to be whisking us away for Daiquiri-soaked golfing weekends in the clouds by now, instead they took photos of our blackened corner of the planet, mapped hot spots, towed collapsible buckets from diminishing dams to inaccessible flare-ups, dumped oceans of pink retardant. We learned not to trust anything because everything we thought we knew was wrong. When did our backyard become our enemy? When did the trees begin conspiring against us? When did it all become as long and ugly as a dying river of gasping yellowbellies? And since when does THE BEACH BURN? Is that it? Is that part of why we’re so gutted? That the beach, our slice of heaven (just check out Bondi during a state of emergency), our favourite child, is no longer what it once was? The beach is Dupain and Meere. The beach is lazy and frivolous and fun. It’s dad with a rod and mum with sunnies. It’s kids and rockpools and crabs in crevices where the true importance of things just roll in until we’re ankle-deep in a littoral fugue state of work-life-balance epiphany. Now, it’s just a last resort. On the beach and waiting for the world to end. This was never us. This was tourist stuff. We’d sit back and smirk as they’d wail and shriek about funnel webs and snakes and crocs and sharks. “Everything Down Under will kill you!” Turns out, they were right. It was a disease all right, but it cleansed rather than infected; cauterised lifestyle, aspiration. Sadly, it was also a dress rehearsal. We know that now. Slice the kids in half and there it is, a dirty smudge signalling the stolen summer of 2019-20, like epoch captured by the growth rings of some ancient tree. A burnt eucalyptus scratch-and-sniff tattoo stamped on their psyche. Our bush babies forever marked. And if the eternal flames and the perpetual pall weren’t bad enough, what are the kids absorbing now? What are they sponging as the nightly global death toll is delivered like a weather report? As their parents agitate out loud about bills, the rent, the mortgage? The kids can’t be with their friends, their cousins, their grandparents and school, as a concept, let alone a destination, is looking more and more fragile by the hour. Were they even at school this year? It’s difficult to remember because suddenly they’re back, hanging around, haunting the corridors in the daytime, raiding the pantry with more vigour than a wild-eyed prepper zeroing in on the last can of Spam, giving us that ‘So, what now?’ look. This could go on for months. Our heads spin as we contemplate juggling working from home and trying to ensure an entire year of education doesn’t become buried under an avalanche of Bluey, TikTok and white-flag parenting. So, by all indications, it’ll be a team effort; the load shared by parents, guardians, teachers and the internet. Big data don’t fail us now (and while you’re there, how do you get the circumference of a circle again?). Who knows, perhaps we’ll learn to enjoy it? Classes in the morning, languid lunchtimes on the veranda, plenty of reading in the afternoon. We’ll revisit the classics, just as we intended when they were home all those weeks because of the fires… Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, the Banksia Men, Blinky Bill, Possum Magic, The Muddle-Headed Wombat. Hopefully they’re not all dead. Our feathered friends, with their reptilian race memory, they didn’t muck about. They skipped the escarpment and were suddenly up here with us. Species that seldom visit but when your habitat is gone the ecotone blurs, so any port in a firestorm. Lyrebirds lost all of their mystique and dug through the garden like drab chooks. They weren’t in the mood to mimic, it seemed sort of silly. Dolorous bellbirds pinged the heavy morning air as if crippled submarines sending out an SOS. Ravenous woodswallows darted across the road, sharing fence posts with put-out pee-wees. A traumatised thrush refused to leave the shade of the privet. Uprooted as they were, the volant had it better than those mugs stuck on Earth with us. We rescued wallabies and koalas and bettongs and frogs and fish. We built a fortress of sprinklers in a grove of prehistoric pines. We triaged and balmed and bandaged and hydrated and fed. We’ll repopulate, we’ll replenish. We’ll start at ground zero and move our way out. Ground zero? Where is ground zero anyway? Can we even say that? If we borrow some of that cold logic from the birds and just look at the numbers, the fires were no Holocaust, no Hiroshima. Not for most us, barely any of us, really. But it was annihilation and still is for so many. Complete and unambiguous; for the families of the dead and for those that lost the lot. It was their Black Saturdays, their Ash Wednesdays. Their tomorrows and tomorrows and tomorrows, all gone. It was their ground zero and always will be and now ground zero is expanding. It’s universal, it’s everywhere and everything. It’s the stadia in stasis, the otiose athletes’ villages, the shuttered pubs and clubs, the empty cafes and restaurants, the becalmed boutiques, the slimmed-down big fat wedding venues, the lonely funeral parlours, the ghost town airports, the silent cinemas. It’s the abandoned, bewildered, clocked-off cities, the fire towns still looking for tourists (now urged to stay away for fear of infection). Ground zero just gets bigger and we just get smaller. But while we’re in these doldrums, it is worth considering if we’re no longer the lucky country (Donald Horne’s intended irony tends to sting that little bit more when things go pear-shaped) we’re still, at least, a lucky country, especially when it counts. Evacuations. Firefighters. Healthcare. Welfare. Stimulus packages. Enough homegrown produce to restock shelves even after they’ve been stripped in inexplicable hive-minded attacks on the aisles. Coronavirus won’t stop our doctors and nurses rolling up their sleeves, manning the front line against an enemy that can’t be seen. Our researchers, our scientists the best in the world won’t stop until they’ve cracked this nut. We’ll watch out for the elderly, the disabled. Someone, somewhere will share their toilet paper. Communities will swell with extant humanity. Our own people will rise, they always do, you can depend on it (and we always do). At the height of the fires and beyond, our own people friends, neighbours, colleagues were everywhere we looked but they shed their quotidian skins and went all Steve Austin on us better, stronger, faster and braver. Some wore yellow uniforms and bobbled high in red trucks, trained and prepared for that which could neither be trained nor prepared for. They worked in shifts and when their shift was over, they just kept on working. They ran on fumes and on duty, always on duty. Others were more outlaws, genuine bushrangers with utes and trailers hauling thousand-litre cubes of liquid-gold water. A militia of “mozzies”, buzzing the boundaries, spitting the spots down with their portable pumps (and maybe a spurt from a stubby or two). Caked in dust, our own people commanded the heavy equipment, literally drawing a line in the dirt like big brothers sauntering behind us on the walk home from school and turning up just in time to dare our tormenters to try it on. Our own people ran an extension cord from the garage to an old fridge on the road and offered “cold drinks for firies”. The random act of kindness blossomed into something profound and as the grateful grabbed a bottle and signed their name, they contributed to a slice of social history; a diegetic white good obelisk for the ages, a Bing Lee Rosetta Stone for the museum. Our own people prepared camp beds and manned urns and made sandwiches. They swept out spaces that within the span of a week transformed from venues for film nights and farmers markets to sacred sanctuaries whose creaking floorboards popped their nails to rise up and embrace the latest carload of roughed-up refugees. Our own people (but let’s be honest, those horsey types are a breed apart) were at the showground taking in the farm animals, feeding them with donated bales of hay and sharing the place with a nomadic tribe of fence-fixing folk who just decided to turn up with tents and swags and pliers and enough altruism to kill a horse with kindness. Convoys of vehicles bearing the names of towns and villages from thousands of hectares away rumbled past the post office, the pub, the library. There were cheers and if tickertape weren’t extinct (and so very, very messy) there would have been that too. Not that ‘legacy’ media doesn’t so much shine in crises such as natural disasters and pandemics but serve more as the indispensable hyperlocal lighthouse keeping us from smashing against the rocks of bruit and hyperventilation (#halfcocked). We devour the words and the images from our own people who, dealing with their own dramas, still find time to hit the keyboard and tell us all they know; the facts and figures, the stories. We trust newspapers and TV bulletins to make sense of it all, provide cogent, relevant analysis. We huddle around the radio (Batteries people! Batteries!) ears ever-pricked for word of the advancing foe, an army of Old Man Fire toey on the Viagra of climate change, fuel loads and drought. “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” “Grabbed a hose and wet my pants as I waited for the hill to explode.” Decisions are made. More bravery. No one likes calling the shots (well, almost no one) because it’s lonely and enervating, because you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But our leaders stick their necks out and cop it on the chin all the same. READ MORE: So, here we go, grab the red texta and start slashing the calendar. Barbecues (banned), birthdays, (banned), presentation nights (banned), Christmas parties (cancelled), New Year’s fireworks (cancelled), the show (cancelled), the races (cancelled), knee surgery (cancelled), I’ll order oysters and cancel the ersters … let’s call the whole thing off. Oh, and all your shifts are cancelled too, indefinitely. It’s not just our leaders having sleepless nights. We question our own decision-making each time our head hits the pillow. In that mad summer, we questioned our own decisions as we waited in line for just enough petrol to get us back home from the coast. We’d barely dipped our toe in before it was an ocean of embers sweeping us away as if we were caught in a volcanic rip, dragging us from between the flags out into unnavigated existential waters. Communities and neighbourhoods around us burned to the ground. Bereft residents walked the streets looking for someone to blame (and who could blame them?). Death and destruction became our holiday reality and we were marooned in the middle of it, treading water in a neap tide of enormity. The slow-burn guilt of knowing what happened to all those people combined with the internal, solipsistic lament for our own nasty predicament. It metastasised into a lump in our throat and all we wanted to do was go home but we had to wait and wait because there was no way out. At the bowser, we allowed ourselves a sly moment of superiority when we mused over the paradox that the refined fossil fuel we so desperately required to get out of there was the very same stuff that brought this hell upon us in the first place. When we did get the nod to finally human centipede our way north, west and south, we thought about what we’d been through and how we’re so lucky compared with all the others and we knew something big needed to be done so this could never happen again. And here we are, only weeks out from that shocking start to the new decade and the worry is even worse. What next? How much more isolation? How non-human do we have to get? How low can we go? At work (before we were sent home), we’d talk about the lack of “control” we feel in these uncertain times and how people combat the phenomenon by doing the things they can control, such as turning carb-loading into a blood sport. Losing control is unsettling enough but losing one’s sense of self is even more disturbing. It’s not hyperbole to suggest we’re experiencing an apocalypse because it simply means “revelation”. And perhaps at the heart of our horrible year is the realisation we’re no longer special. That we really are all in this together.

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