Sunday, May 8, 2011

"We have still not lived long enough": Fire and history

… Try, at every step, to expose the lie of terra nullius, and so move towards a post-colonial Australia that is truly at home with its environment and history, where the Aboriginal and the Asian and the White Australian can believe in the truth of history, and the justness of a future, that is so much more than a beautiful lie.
- Tim Flannery,
in the concluding line to his 2003 Quarterly Essay
Beautiful Lies: Population and Environment in Australia

Two brown paper packages arrived on my desk at work a fair few months ago now. In the first, the 1986 first edition print of Joan Webster’s Complete Australian Bushfire Book; in the latter, three heavy volumes of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission Final Report. Two texts, different in design and style, but more or less charged with the same unenviable task of answering that plaintive question asked after one surveys the scorched earth, the smouldered homes, the vacated family Christmas seats and names stricken from the community listings – “why?” Why did these fires, these apocalyptic fires, happen? Or, perhaps more tellingly – why did we let them happen?

It was around a week and a half after the February 7th Bushfires of 2009 that Tom Griffiths, a Professor of History at the Australian National University penned an award-winning article entitled We have still not lived long enough. His title was inspired by a phrase uttered by the 1939 Black Friday fires Royal Commission Judge Leonard Stretton – that they, the people who lived and died in the forests that were hellishly consumed on Friday the 13th January, 1939, had not lived long enough.

As Griffiths points out, Stretton was not so much commenting on the youthfulness of the dead, but rather lamented the lack of environmental knowledge of both the victims and survivors – “the innocence of European immigrants in a land whose natural rhythms they did not yet understand”, and “the fragility and brevity of a human lifetime in forests where life cycles and fire regimes had the periodicity and ferocity of centuries.”