Black Saturday Bushfire Anniversary. A ten year old post.

Today I’m sharing a post I wrote 10 years ago. It was written on February 12, just 5 days after the Black Saturday Bushfire, Febrary 7, in 2009. I remember writing this in my daughter’s house in a confused and anxious state. It appeared on Blogger, a platform that I used back then. I have added these photos: the rest is unedited. After 9 months, all my writing just vanished overnight, thanks to a takeover, without warning, of my registered domain. This piece was mercifully preserved by Pandora Archive- National Library of Australia.¹  I’m sharing it again today because I want my children to keep these records. They need them more than I do. As I re-read it, I can’t help but think of all those people throughout the world who experience displacement on a much grander scale than I did on that day- refugees from war-torn countries forced to flee to other lands, to live in camps for years, those displaced through flood or cyclone, left homeless for years. I understand how fortunate I am. The gifts and financial assistance offered to us was overwhelming during the first year and deserves a post of its own, simply to document and thank every individual and organisation. It’s a huge list. Here’s that original post from February 2009.

Citrus grove, post fire 2009

And the Nightmare Continues

” I have been looking back on my previous posts. That life last week, up until February the 7th, seems so distant already, and yet only 5 days have passed. Each dawn brings the fear of more bad news, more neighbours and friends who are dead. My dawns last week took me to the vegetable garden or fruit trees for the day’s picking, or the chookhouse to gather the eggs. So many beautiful dreams for the future of the vineyard, the olive trees. Colourful imaginings of salads of tomatoes in four colours. The figs, although the leaves had already dropped in the furious heat of the previous fortnight, clung bravely to the branches, reminding me each morning that autumn would be along soon and figs would be part of the menu or preserving plan. My partner had planted Albarino grapes, he was excited by this Spanish variety as they are said to be drought resistant. Each morning or late evening he would move water from one dam to another to ensure that these new grape plantings would have sufficient water to survive this summer’s blasting heat. This was our work, these dreams kept us too busy, we had hopes for a small wine making barn, we planned to preserve the tomatoes in the old Italian way, to breed prettier hens, to pickle our young olives, to cart our excess of produce to neighbours, family and friends. It was work, it was our identity. And that’s what we lost in last week’s inferno.

We are reminded daily of the horror that was last Saturday as the death toll rises. We grieve beside our friends, we hug neighbours and are so pleased to see them again as they walk into the Community Centre. We cry as we get over our embarrassment and accept donations. We laugh sometimes as we model our donated new or second-hand clothes. We are overwhelmed by the generosity and the food that comes from unknown people who arrive at the community centres with car loads of items.

We eat food as a matter of course and are very grateful to be offered it from family and strangers. But nothing tastes the same anymore. Like travelling, you are always waiting to eat something that is normal, homely, nourishing. Displacement from a life, from a lifestyle is not about ownership or things. It’s an identity loss.

We are the lucky ones who left St Andrews early. Part of the nightmare puts me back in the house, unprepared for the inferno, like so many other poor souls who have lost their lives. I can’t remove this fear, it’s disabling.”

Electricity pole took a week to burn out
Vineyard. 2009
We were not allowed back into our properties until after February 10, three days after Black Saturday, February 7, 2009. We had no idea what we would find, what might be left. As it turns out, everything was destroyed except for a few amazing items. One of the most insane things was a red plastic petrol container which sat beside the dam. It survived, with all the petrol intact!

¹https://pandora.nla.gov.au/historyachievements.html

Black Saturday Bushfire,10th Anniversary. Finding a Way to Memorialise.

Memorialisation takes on greater significance and more noble heights during milestone years. After one, five, ten, twenty- five years and so on, commemoration of significant events in history or in our personal lives is important to remember, celebrate, mourn or commiserate and in some instances, to learn. As Victorians begin February, they are being presented with an intensification of 10th anniversary events commemorating the Black Saturday Bushfires of February 7, 2009, the day that a firestorm of unseen proportions killed 173 people, destroyed over 2000 homes and left more than 6000 people homeless. These are the figures that scream the loudest. Further facts and figures reveal the impact on the whole State.¹

The commemorative events are many and will appeal to different sections of society: academic presentations at a symposium, a flurry of new documentaries and films, books, interviews, art and photography exhibitions, talks, church services, meetings, newspaper articles and many private commemorative get- togethers. Most of the fire survivors I know will avoid these events. I can’t help thinking that there is a considerable level of opportunism in the timing of some of these new books and films which deal with this national disaster.

One of my deepest residual psychological blocks from 2009 is the issue concerning those who overstepped the mark in terms of opportunism and lack of sensitivity. Within days of losing my house, the vultures were out – first came the tourists with cameras, but they were quickly dispelled thanks to the installation of road blocks soon after the fires. Then came the media, artists and photographers. Some behaved appallingly during those early days, eager as they were to cash in on the spectacular nature of the event and, in the process, make a name for themselves. During a time when people were mourning the loss of loved ones, or their homes, their way of life, the ‘recorders of bushfire’ were on a mission to get in early, at a time when the army was still scouring the hills for bones of the dead, when the helicopters above buzzed like a scene from Apocalypse Now, and when ancient eucalypt trees glowed red in slow death, the white ashen ground still hot.

Media journalists at the time lacked an ethical framework for dealing with a national disaster of this size.² They were simply told to go; get the scoop, the best story. Road barriers were often ignored, especially at night if unmanned: in the day time, fabricated identities were used to gain entry. Some behaved like paparazzi, while others, when faced with the enormity of human tragedy they witnessed, revealed respect, restraint and empathy in their reportage.

Now that ten years have passed, I need to purge this anxiety, a sort of PTSD, from my memory. That’s the plan. I did try to do this back in July 2009. I took up the offer of 10 free psychology sessions at a nearby clinic. I had a rather naive plan in place- the sessions would help remove all that adrenalin from my brain, which included this distaste for these bushfire vultures. I lasted only 3 sessions. I wanted to talk about fire issues: my anger at telcos, bureaucratic nightmares, the insensitivity of media: my psychologist was heading somewhere else. I lost faith in the process when I watched her eagerly jot down some notes after I mentioned the word ‘MOTHER’. Just another Freudian obsessed counsellor. I left, not in a huff, but with all my residual angst firmly intact.

I won’t be attending any major memorial events, I won’t be looking at any documentaries or films with bushfires roaring in the background: I have never watched any TV news or documentaries dealing with fire over the last ten years. Some of these blazing reports are now appearing on my Facebook feed: Facebook, everyone’s pocket TV. I won’t be sitting in the local hall watching the latest film offering, and I won’t be attending any art exhibitions portraying bushfire. No churches for me, no gatherings in silence with a cuppa. No trip up into the hills to see how my old bush block is recovering. But I do plan to do a few things on the day and during the following year. I will look out for an eagle in the sky. It was mighty Bunjil circling in the overheated and smoky sky who warned my dearest friend to leave her home on that day. I will also visit a local gathering in Hurstbridge, one being organised by Helen Legg, an amazing and dedicated volunteer who gave most of her days to assisting those who had been affected by bushfire for two years: a drink is on the agenda. I will give thanks, once again, to all those who assisted my family after that National Disaster. I also plan to read a lot more about fire. I’ll start with works by Stephen J Pyne.³ It’s time to learn from sources that are objective and well researched, especially as the reality of global warming makes wildfire more common around Australia and around the globe, in places that have never experienced them before.

Old man tree with tin and wire.

¹ Wikipedia Stats included in full here.

  • 450,000 ha (1,100,000 acres) burnt
  • 7,562 people displaced
  • Over 3,500 structures destroyed, including:
    • 2,029+ houses
    • 59 commercial properties (shops, pubs, service stations, golf clubs, etc.)
    • 12 community buildings (including 2 police stations, 3 schools, 3 churches, 1 fire station)
    • 399 machinery sheds, 363 hay sheds, 19 dairies, 26 woolsheds, 729 other farm buildings
  • Agricultural and horticultural losses:
    • Over 11,800 head of livestock,consisting of 2,150 sheep, 1,207 cattle, and an unknown number of horses, goats, alpacas, poultry, and pigs
    • 25,600 tonnes (25,200 long tons; 28,200 short tons) of stored fodder and grain
    • 32,000 tonnes (31,000 long tons; 35,000 short tons) of hay and silage
    • 190 ha (470 acres) of standing crops
    • 62,000 ha (150,000 acres) of pasture
    • 735 ha (1,820 acres) of fruit trees, olives and vines
    • Over 10,000 kilometres (6,200 mi) of boundary and internal fencing destroyed or damaged
    • 7,000 ha (17,000 acres) of plantation timber
  • 98,932 ha (244,470 acres) of parks damaged, 90 per cent of which was national park. It was claimed that 950 local parks, 70 national parks and reserves, and over 600 cultural sites and historic places were impacted or destroyed
  • 3,921 ha (9,690 acres) of private bushland
  • Over 55 businesses destroyed
  • Electricity supply was disrupted to 60,000 residents
  • Several mobile phone base stations and telephone exchanges damaged or destroyed

² https://apo.org.au/node/19735

³ Stephen J Pyne’s works are listed here, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_J._Pyne

A film I may consider watching might be Afterburn- in the Tigers Jaws. ‘The Steels Creek community invited the research team to use them as a case-study because they believed that something lasting had to come from this terrible tragedy and future communities would benefit from partnering with the academic and creative industries. Afterburn has the potential to influence future policy development at all levels of government in the areas of collaborative community recovery and the long-term impact of trauma on communities and individuals.’

On my block in April, 2009. Autumn had softened the disaster zone. I’m wearing a red armband, as did all those who lost their homes. This indicated our identity to the police staffing roadblocks. I wore it for nine months and still have it tucked away.

I have great admiration for a few journalists whose work stood out from the pack during Year 1. Thanks to Ian Munro of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers and to Gary Hughes, a St Andrews resident and Warkley award winner, who wrote so poignantly of his own survival. And to Jon Faine, radio presenter from the ABC, whose broadcasting efforts and interviews, particularly in the Strathewen community, were remarkable.

In My Kitchen, February, 2019. Ten Years Ago.

There’s a lot on my mind this week as we approach the 10th anniversary of Black Saturday, the monstrous bushfire of February 7, 2009, that redefined my life and that of more than 2000 other Victorians. I’ve started to look through my old photos today, the first day of February, to renew my acquaintance with my old house and kitchen from 10 years ago. I’m still coming to terms with why things changed so much. In the end, it’s not really about the possessions, the things. Something else happened on that day, an indefinable sense of loss. Was it the house itself or the setting, the way it incorporated the rising moon through the kitchen window?

Front door near kitchen and hand built pizza oven, 2008

We began work on the building of our old house in January 1980, and moved in around August that year, just before my youngest son, Jack, was born. No electricity or running water back then but we didn’t care. The initial house, constructed in mudbrick, consisted of one huge central room with a soaring ceiling, a hand crafted fireplace, old Victorian four panelled doors, leadlight windows, and a staircase leading to our mezzanine bedroom which was neatly tucked into the ceiling at one end. It was, in many ways, an impractical design, hard to heat in winter and rather hot upstairs in summer but we loved it. We were idealistic, young and ready to embrace our new life. The house came to symbolise everything we were choosing ( and rejecting) at the time. This was not a suburban house: its design and quirkiness grew out of the mudbrick movement that was prevalent in the Shire of Eltham, a romantic building style that began with Montsalvat and was developed further by Alistair Knox. This local style was adapted throughout the 70s by other mud brick builders. The house reflected our new life in the bush which centred around the ‘back to the earth’ ideology which incorporated self-sufficiency in food production, small-scale farming, wood gathering for heating, and a building culture based on a preference for natural and recycled materials, mud, straw, large old bridge timbers, Victorian doors and windows, second-hand red bricks, and any other ‘found’ materials that could be recycled. The more modern notions of ‘tree change’ ‘sustainability’ and ‘repurposing’ had not yet enjoyed linguistic currency. The materials used made each house in the area quite unique. Many of these houses were destroyed on Black Saturday and current building regulations now make them too expensive to replicate.

Hopes and Dreams. A new vineyard planting of Albarino grapes struggled with the drought of 2008.

As the children grew, so did the house. The first addition was a small two roomed mud brick cottage out the back of the house. Each weekend friends arrived to help on the construction: they soon mastered mudbrick wall building and rendering along the way. I pumped out the pizzas and other goodies from the kitchen in the main house. Then in 2004, we added a new modern kitchen and dining room to the main house, an expensive project that took more than a year to complete. That huge farmhouse style room became the focus of my life as a cook and a grandmother for the following four years. It was the place to bath a baby, celebrate a birthday, enjoy a wine, stroll out to the BBQ and terrace, make a mess, play guitars or listen to music. It was a kitchen dedicated to my family. I’ve never really found that life again: the disruption after the fire was too great. Of course I see the family in my current home, but that old ‘hearth and home’ feeling has been lost. The moon rises in the wrong place. I know my children feel this too though they say little.

Most of the internal shots below were taken in my old kitchen. It’s a media file so you can scroll through these by clicking on the first pic in the collage.

These few photos of my old kitchen and pre-fire life have been acquired thanks to friends over the last ten years. Of course our PCs died in the fire on that day, and so did the history of our life in that house, but there were a few pics on an old laptop, and others have been sent to us. 

Today’s post is the beginning of a little series I have been working on to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Black Saturday. Words and stories have been swimming around in my brain at night for months, keeping me awake. I hope these see the light of day and finally get transferred to the digital page. I know more thanks must be given, more pictures aired, some myths dispelled, and some anger vented too. And after this year, I might let it all go.

Funky old house.

Thanks Sherry at Sherry’s Pickings for hosting the monthly In My Kitchen series. I know there’s not much kitchen stuff going on in this post, but at least I’ve made a start on my memorialisation and for this I thank you.

The header photo shows apples baked by bushfire. See also my In My Kitchen post on this topic from 6 years ago.

 

 

 

 

Black Saturday 8 years on. Questions and Answers

Today, on the 8th anniversary of the Black Saturday Bushfire, many locals in our small community will gather quietly at the Community Centre to reflect on the loss of loved ones and homes. Some will do this privately with family, while others, like myself, hope to meet up with dear friends who also experienced that similar life changing catastrophe on this day. There will be Prosecco no doubt, and a toast to the Wedge Tailed Eagle, Bunjil, and stories to repeat about our mad lives, lives lived in parallel, indelibly etched in Technicolor, like a Mad Max sequel that has unscheduled, insidious reruns in our dreams. The extreme level of adrenalin coursing through our veins throughout that first post- fire year was almost addictive. Living life on the edge, post traumatic stress brings extreme highs and lows, paranoia and hurt contrasting with overwhelming love and respect for those who helped us through it all.

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View from our driveway after the fire.

On February 9, 2009, an unprecedented firestorm, the worst in living memory, destroyed more than 2000 homes and killed 176 people in Victoria. In my nearby community, 69 houses were destroyed and 12 people were struck down. Most of the residents in St Andrews considered themselves well prepared before this event. Many residents belonged to Fireguard groups, and had done some basic training about protecting their homes in the event of a bushfire. The advice, at that time, was encapsulated in the slogan “Stay and Defend”. I am so pleased that the advice has now been radically altered to “Leave and Live”. Understanding the ‘Leave and Live‘ message is based on the principle of early self evacuation. You don’t wait for a fire to descend on the district: you leave on days of Severe Fire Rating early in the morning and only return when conditions change. Every one seems to have a different trigger point when it comes to self-evacuation. Some still have none at all.

Making a birthday speech for someone. My old house, full of stuff.
Making a birthday speech for someone in the family. My old house, before the fire, full of stuff.

People often ask me questions about that day, the first enquiring whether I was there at the time of the fire. I wasn’t. I left early: in fact, I left on Thursday, February the 5th, given that conditions were so extreme at our place. Temperatures were in the high forties that week, and it hadn’t rained for months. The bush was tinder dry. The eucalypt trees continually dropped their leaves, the lack of humidity in the air made stepping outside quite frightening, and the whole countryside seemed to be charged and expectant. I could sense this. We had experienced an ongoing drought for years. I also recalled this fire triangle, a simplified diagram included in a short unit of study in year 10 Geography, a subject I had been required to teach in the preceding years.

fire triangle - an important Geography unit taught in Victorian schools
The fire triangle – an important Geography unit taught in Victorian schools.

The next question always concerns insurance. Yes we were insured but like many others, we were vastly under-insured. After the fire, we received a payment for our contents and destroyed house fairly promptly from our insurance company. The figure was based on our specified premium for contents and house, which had not taken into account rebuilding labour costs, escalated costs of building materials, and the 2009 replacement value of our possessions. If you live in a bush fire prone area, I would advise you to re-calculate these things annually, and to carefully adjust your premiums to reflect current costs and values. Go through each room and consider everything in it. You will be surprised how much it adds up.

special brick
Special brick. This handmade convict brick came from my grandparents chimney in Port Albert. We used it as the keystone brick in a chimney built by our stonemason friend, Tony.
Teh footprint of our old house. We saved one of the handbuilt chimneys in teh separate cottage. after getting an engineers report . It is still there today,.
Part of the footprint of our old house. We saved one of the hand-built chimneys in the separate cottage. The local Council wanted it removed but we contracted an engineer to provide a safety report. It is still there today and I hope it can stay. We stacked up all the usable mud bricks for future use.

The other question people ask is if we rebuilt. No we didn’t. We fully intended to, but knew that this would be a long, drawn out process and would probably cause more stress than we needed. Our grandchildren were then aged 11, 4, 22 months and 12 months old, with another one on the way. I found it almost impossible to care for them in our temporary accommodations. My children, who had grown up in that house and on that mystical land where the moon rose over Mt Everard, often seemed more devastated and disoriented than we were. We decided to sell the land and bought a house in the neighbourhood. It was, in hindsight, a sensible thing to do. We could be an extended family again, a tribe with a home and a big table to share.

People still ask questions and I am happy to talk about it, especially if I can save one life by repeating these fire warnings. That old adrenalin and paranoia creeps up on me from time to time, especially on anniversary days like today. I am sure the fire took its toll on my mental health in many ways, but I can happily say that on extremely dangerous weather days when I evacuate, I take nothing much with me, other than my camera, phone and laptop. I don’t value anything in my new place. I do have new possessions but they hold no intrinsic value. It’s liberating.

My other posts on this topic are here and here.

Local Joy, Local Madness

There’s nothing more local than a home garden. I often wander around with my camera, capturing seasonal change, growth and decay. The garden takes me away from my moods, my inner chatter, my inside world. In any season, il giardino is quiet and full of sensory pleasure.

Another ock for my buddha
Another rock for my old Buddha

This Buddha sits close to our house. It is the stone Buddha from our old garden, one of a handful of surviving objects from the Black Saturday Bushfires of 2009 which destroyed our home. When I find an interesting looking stone or rock, I add it to Buddha’s feet. Bushfire is a hot topic in the local area, with extremely divergent views on how to deal with the bush. One local plant, Burgan, is at the centre of this debate, a bush known by the CFA, a fire fighting association, as ‘petrol bush’. Due to its high flammability and tendency to spread like an invasive weed, most locals like to keep this pest under control on their bush blocks. Permit requirements to clear Burgan were dropped by our local shire council (Nillumbik) after the Black Saturday bushfires. Seven years after that fire, which razed a quarter of the shire, with 42 deaths within the council’s borders and hundreds of homes destroyed, the local council plans to reinstate permits to clear this bush on privately held land. Our local Council has become wedded to an extreme ideology which is at odds with reality. Local Madness.

front
View from my front door.

View from my front door. A dam is a wonderful thing and was the first improvement we made on our land after arriving in our current home almost 7 years ago. It is our local water supply for the vegetable garden, a local water supply for the CFA fire brigade should they need it and is also a local watering hole for native animals and birds. Can you believe that our Local Council does not approve of dams on private property? New local planning laws have become fraught with red tape. A line has been drawn on a map which includes this wonderful dam. It is now part of a Core Habitat zone, which, in effect, prevents us from removing any local plants from its perimeter or fixing the walls should it spring a leak, without resorting to a lengthy and expensive local permit process. Local madness.

Echium
Echium in flower.

Planting in purple and blue attracts more bees to the garden. The local bees have been sleepy this season as the weather has been too cold and wet. Now that the sun is shining and the Echium are out, the bees are returning. This blue flower is often completely covered with bees.

Borage in Flower
Borage in flower

Borage flowers can be used in salads, but more importantly, bees also love borage. Many of these flowering shrubs, because they are not native to the district, are viewed as weeds by some prominent local environmentalists. Without bees, our vegetable and fruit supplies would vanish very quickly. There are also many native Australian flowering bushes in the garden. Bees like diversity and so do I.

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A purple native Grevillea plant and the winter flowering Hardenbergia violacea in our garden. More bee attractors.

Spooked by the Weather and a Spring Pasta.

Two weeks ago I was whingeing about the cold, lack lustre Spring weather here in Melbourne. Today, as the mid afternoon temperature hits 35°C/95 °F, with a wind speed of over 50kph, I take this all back.

It’s October 6 and the seasonal warnings are ominous. The morning radio warned of a Godzilla El Nino year, and the CFA (Country Fire Authority) has seen plenty of action today. Small grass fires are appearing around the State, some escalating into emergencies. The air smells of smoke: the sky is a strange colour: it is not yet mid Spring.

Below is a screen capture of the radar of the smoke pattern from the fires today.

Displaying Screenshot_2015-10-06-15-29-58.png

3pm and the sky is pink and ashen
Early afternoon sky, pink and ashen.

A few hot days in a row also sees the Spring herbal abundance bolt to the sky. The seeds of these bolters don’t set until summer and then it’s a little too late and too hot for them to germinate. I’m working my way through the tasty greens and will need to sow parsley, dill and silverbeet on the next wet day, greens that are our summer mainstays.

Today’s pasta recipe, before I became totally spooked by the weather.

orecchiette, dill psto and
orecchiette, dill pesto and ricotta

Orecchiette con Aneta e Ricotta/ Orecchiette with dill and ricotta.

For 4 as a light lunch.

First make the sauce in a food processor

  • one large bunch freshly picked dill, woody stems removed
  • two garlic cloves
  • one handful pine nuts
  • 1/2 teas sea salt flakes
  • extra virgin olive oil to mix
  • 100 gr ricotta.

Add all the dill, garlic, nuts and salt to a food processor and process well, scraping down the sides as necessary. Add the oil slowly to the dill mixture and process until the mixture resembles pesto. Then mix in the ricotta, process to barely mix. Taste for salt.

Then

  • Cook 300-400 gr orecchiette pasta according to packet instructions.
  •  Drain. In a warm mixing bowl, mix the pasta and enough of the herbal sauce to coat well.
  •  Plate. As this is a mild tasting dish, you may wish to add parmigiana cheese at the table.

Note. By omitting the ricotta, the dill ‘pesto’ makes a lovely sauce for grilled fish or chicken, or could stirred through a pile of cooked white cannelloni or borlotti beans (fagioli scritti).

Sunday Stills: Wildflowers

Wildflowers are the focus this week on Sunday Stills. As late Autumn becomes darker and colder, there isn’t much happening in our nearby Australian bush so its back to the digital files.

Image

This photo was taken in late 2009. These wild flowers, Xanthorrhoea, were the first to emerge along our track, providing a stunning white display in contrast to a black and charred environment.  They must have loved the bushfire as they were far more prolific, larger and more spectacular than in any other year.

Some brief notes.

Xanthorrhoea  ( there are 28 species )is important to the Aboriginal people who live where it grows. The flowering spike makes the perfect fishing spear.  It is also soaked in water and the nectar from the flowers gives a sweet tasting drink. In the bush the flowers are used as a compass. This is because flowers on the warmer, sunnier side of the spike (usually the north facing side) often open before the flowers on the cooler side facing away from the sun.

In My Kitchen – February 7, 2014, an Anniversary Story.

In My Kitchen, I dream, plan, write, contemplate and meditate as well as chop, weigh, cook, time, taste and decorate. Friends and family come and go, drink wine, tea or coffee, laugh and gossip. Little ones open the pantry door to inspect the contents. Older ones with longer legs climb up on chairs to lift the lids of secret tins at higher levels. One of our many computers resides in the kitchen; it is a source of vital information during the summer months. We constantly monitor the weather, temperature, humidity and wind speed as well as checking the CFA site ( Country Fire authority).  We listen to ABC radio, our national broadcaster and independent icon, which relays up to date reports of fire and emergency warnings. We are vigilant and at times very uneasy. We self evacuate often. It hasn’t rained for weeks. The land is bleached and too dry. Beauty comes at a price.

As February 7 approaches, the 5th anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfire in Victoria, my mind wanders back to my beautiful pre- fire kitchen and the things that were there and the life we enjoyed in it. To be truthful, I think about my old kitchen quite often: it doesn’t need an anniversary to take me back. I can see the long jarrah wood benches, the green and cream Mexican tiles, the moon rising in the East window, the overloaded antique Australian pine dresser, the kookaburra paintings on the walls. I admire the apple green Fowler ware bowls on the shelves and the Italian plates collected from trips to Italy. There is a marble island bench for pastry and breads and a walk in pantry. In the centre of this large room stands a huge antique farmhouse table of kauri pine with black wood turned legs, antique kangaroo chairs, spindle backed chairs still retaining their original paint, and a quaint kangaroo high chair painted red. There is music and dancing, Nanna’s disco, laughter, cooking and food. This beautiful kitchen, as well as the house itself, was destroyed by the bushfire in 2009.

As the anniversary draws near, I reflect on two important perceptions:

  • the overwhelming generosity of Australian people during times of national disaster, and in this case, the Black Saturday bushfire of 2009, and
  • The ephemeral nature of material objects and the importance of non attachment.

I look around my current kitchen and am reminded of the generosity of the Australian people who donated goods, some new, some second-hand, money, and labour to those who lost everything in that massive fire storm.  In the first year following the fire, a year of temporary accommodation in converted sheds and house minding, we would visit Bushfire Relief and Support centres, to acquire the basics to begin life again. At first our needs were simple- underwear, second-hand clothing, towels and sheets, toiletries.  With each week, new needs arose- tools, spades, wheelbarrows, buckets to assist in the clean up of our blocks.  Then came the non perishable food items such as canned foods and pasta, the pots and pans, cutlery, crockery and so on. Some of these support centres were small and very personal. One centre in particular, the Hurstbridge support centre, run by the energetic Helen Legg and her team of tireless volunteers, became a special club- a place to chat with others, to share a laugh, a coffee, a weekly breakfast. If anything fabulous was donated to that centre, Helen held a raffle. Sometimes odd donations would arrive, for example a crate load of incontinence pads. Helen and co liked to  parade around wearing these napkins as hats.

Another bushfire relief centre was the size of a warehouse. It was a big day out going to Clayton, as it took three hours to view the massive aisles of donations. Most of the items, except food and toilet rolls, (!) were second-hand. It was a treasure trove. In terms of the kitchen, I found a classic old Kenwood mixer, some wonderful little entrée plates once used in first class on Qantas flights, and numerous pots and pans. There were second-hand towels, still with plenty of life left in them, sheets, and toys.  Lost amongst the boxes, I found a little gift wrapped parcel, containing a hand towel, some soap and some pegs. Attached was a neat hand written note. “I hope this will come in handy. Best wishes”. This was typical of all those who donated. It was given so freely and anonymously. Big and small, all was appreciated. I received a wonderful  white platter from a friend of the mother of my son-in-law. I use it all the time. A friend of my niece passed on a colourful purple bowl, made by Leon Saper of St Andrews market, now deceased, knowing that I would have owned some ( she was right).  My niece sent a new copy of The Cooks Companion, by Stephanie Alexander, but made sure it was the original orange one! it is  inscribed, ” Zia, Spring will come again. Louise”. Family members were exceedingly generous with money and donations. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul, the Country Women’s Association, The RSCPA – on and on it goes.  People who remark on our Resilience may not know that we owe this to the Australian people.

The second perception, the ephemeral nature of objects and non attachment, was dramatically reinforced during that life changing event. Let’s visit my Kitchen of five years ago.  To be precise, this visit occurs from February 11th as we were prevented from returning to our destroyed homes for some days as the police and army searched for the dead- although some photographers made it their business to jump the control lines and to this day I still feel ambivalent about this.  Some photographers saw beauty in the charred remains of the bush.  We only saw terror. A small digression!

We enter the smashed and gnarled house: nothing appears to have survived. We discover a small terracotta plaque hanging on the crumbling wall above the wine cellar.  It is Balinese and depicts a scene from the Ramayana. I attempt to lift it from the wall. It disintegrates into invisible dust. It doesn’t crack, crumble or break- it simply vanishes. It survived on that wall for three or so days until a human hand touched it.

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My cook books had a dedicated bookcase – they are transformed into a snow white blanket. The ashen pages can still be discerned.  The following day, a strong wind removes any evidence of their existence.

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Green depression glass is welded and re -sculpted by fire. Antique Chinese Buddhas lose their heads and ears. A dishwasher sags, there are still items left inside.  The Ilve stove, still young, is a burnt out shell. Plates are smashed and cutlery blackened.  A sink lands on the ground. Pottery enjoys its time in the new kiln, but smashes under the weight of falling walls.

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The photos of My Old Kitchen below are aired today – I haven’t looked at them for a long time. Value what you have but don’t be attached to objects. We have a lend of them for a while, then they vanish as we all must.

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I would like to thank all the Australians who donate during times of disaster. This fundamental goodwill and generosity makes me proud to be Australian. And lastly, thanks to Celia of Fig Jam and Lime Cordial, the amazing host of this monthly expose of In My Kitchen. Please visit her site to see other inspiring February kitchens.

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