Change without return: postcard of a northern NSW holiday

Light, reflection and illumination in Falbrook

It is because of the joy in my heart
that I am your fit mourner.

Judith Wright “Letter to a Friend”

art of 2020’s breakdown story for me is personal: at the age of 41, the partnership of love and labour that defined my life in my twenties and thirties came to an end. Many other things are coming to an end. Forest ecosystems, ecological relationships, the Great Barrier Reef, the temperate climate of the Holocene epoch. Temperance itself seems to be vanishing.

In the spirit of widespread unravelling, the break with my best friend, mentor and confidante unravelled me likewise. I found myself needing and able to take an unusually long time off work. I bought a car, cleaned my flat, said some farewells, and drove north from Newcastle. What I found during a month of travelling was stress and change that seemed to have no way of return. Amid this sorrow, though, there are altered and profound joys.

Change is apparent in the land. In the north east of New South Wales and its magnificent forests and coastal woodlands, there are thinning canopies and skeletal dead branches of dying eucalypts. Large parts of Queensland and northern New South Wales are suffering rainfall deficits that go back years. In the northern Murray Darling Basin, the deficit is frighteningly deep, wide and long. In the usually wet and green north east, rain that fell earlier this year in the aftermath of fire does not seem to have penetrated a profound dryness that augurs permanent change. It is not just eucalypts. Acacias are mysteriously dying. Casuarinas in coastal heaths are crashing grey to the ground.

Perhaps this is a natural process of senescence and succession: casuarinas and wattles do have shorter lives than grand forest trees. Ecological processes unfold slowly over time so short observation is not enough to understand them properly. My own and my people’s brief acquaintance with Australia’s ecology and the profound changes it has been subjected to during that acquaintance leave me ill-equipped to understand what is happening now. And yet, I sense an arrhythmia. This heat, these fires, this dryness, are widening the gyres. (Note: As I publish this, a week after returning to Newcastle, several of the Northern Rivers are under flood warnings, which says something about the extremes of experience our stories are going to have to continue accommodating.)

I also found stress and change among people. North east communities were marking a year since the bushfire cataclysm. Commemorations were being held, some official, others organic. Weather-eyes were turned to the approaching summer, and the many summers to come, as a mass of hot air moved across the continent in late November. A mass of people also seems to be moving, escaping the cities to small coastal and hinterland communities, buying or renting homes sight-unseen, driving up prices and occupancy rates. A friend told me her parents may have to leave Mullumbimby after three decades living there, because there is not a single place on offer to rent — a situation declared by a sign displayed in the local real estate office. This is not entirely new. Demand for housing was already creating rental stress and already leading to precious remnant bushland being cleared or slated for clearing (in Byron, Evans Head and Sawtell for example). It was already prompting the local water authority to consider drowning remnant rainforest for a new dam just down the road from the site of the blockade that triggered rainforest protection in New South Wales in the first place. The way we live now means forests have to be saved from razing over and over again and somewhere in our future lies the dead end of suburbia.

Abject lack of sustainable building standards, transport and water supplies confronts people personally and collectively. Hot houses demand high energy use. Lack of trees, lack of buses and shelters, lack of cool, sheltered and non-commercial public spaces, all of these factors trap and isolate people. Trees at least have each other, but in our tattered society, the weight of responsibility for dealing with stress bears down on individuals. If you’re poor, you must fill out forms. If you’re not a go-getting hustler, you’re jetsam. If you match the nihilism of your people with your own personal nihilism, you become an object of their fear.

Witnessing the breakdown, environmental advocates I have known and admired for many years are candidly expressing a deep sorrow, distress, despair that feels, like the dryness and the heat, to be an expression of an altered condition and a changed trajectory. This is not Saṃsāra: it is a step outside the cycles of death and rebirth, transformation and sympathy, into a new unsettled state of being, bonds loosened, patterns disrupted. Unlike most of humanity, those of us raised in temperate luxury in the second half of the twentieth century have not generally had to contend with the weather and the stress of survival in this way, with sorrow that can’t be alleviated by invention or work. The problem of shelter and the danger of living unsheltered have been obscured by affluence.

It may seem hyperbolic to begin with stressed trees and shrubs, pass through housing stress and arrive at the end of ancient natural cycles, but our failure to connect these signs is another symptom of atomisation, the narrowing of our stories to the merely personal. Our method of story-telling — interior, intimate and discontinuous — is straitened in its vision and regards the grand processes of the earth merely as static background. For all earthlings, now, the processes that we made invisible, but on which our lives have bloomed nonetheless, are disintegrating. I feel a great urgency to write stories about it that make good this want of vision and perception.

All of this struck me powerfully on my journey between the Hunter Valley and Border Ranges and back in search of solace, healing and direction. Counteracting this bleakness, however, I was equally and reciprocally illuminated by my contact with the world, its people, wildlife and water. During a stopover in Kalang, a novelist friend gave me Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence to read as part of her encouragement of me to become a writer and share what I am trying to say in book form. Baird’s book has touched chords for many. She brews and passes like healing tisanes to her readers a state of feeling she experiences in contact with the non-human living world that I know very well. I share her urge to share it. Baird calls it “awe,” but I would add more words to convey this experience, which is not simply emotional, but spiritual, intellectual and moral. I will come later to why I approach this differently from Baird, but turn first to the world and its miracles.

My journey took me through forests, beside rivers, and around the coast. From my home on Worimi country I passed through Wonnarua country and stopped in Biripi country and Gumbaynggir country on my way to Bundjalung country. I was blessed to have the time and sensibility to be moved and altered by the experience and to have a network of friends who gave me shelter, books, advice and produce from their gardens on my way.

I began by sitting for three days beside a stream high in the catchment of a major tributary of the Hunter River. There I encountered tiny frogs, a huge eel, thornbills, honeyeaters, riparian herbs and teems of wanderer and common brown butterflies. I saw light reach down from the sky to the creek, where it split: it bounced back up and it plunged down. It stroked with curved light-bands the rocks and eel below and the leaves festooning above. It reflected the canopy on the water’s surface, superimposing an image of those leaves onto the subsurface rocks so that gazing at the creek meant seeing depth, height, surface and substrate all at once. I need an expression more complex than the word “awe” to share this experience of illuminated water because it moved me greatly and seemed to me to encapsulate a coherence that the times demand of us. Imagine if your attention were light and you could see things wholly — perceiving depth, surface and context at once and making mirrors to show those visions to others.

In other places on my journey I met nudibranchs on an inter-tidal rock platform, watched a bird building its nest and another washing itself in a stream in a World Heritage rainforest, stood quietly while two Glossy-black cockatoos — refugees from last year’s fire in Bundjalung National Park — nuzzled each other. These experiences mean much more to me than a diversion from my personal or work concerns. The consolation they offer is profound. And this is what I want to impress on you all: there is consolation, even for irretrievable loss, for those that are willing to accept it, in rocks, light, water and wildlife.

Non-human entities impress me first with their sufficiency: I am utterly irrelevant to them and that is such wondrous tonic. But they also invite me to own my kinship and continuity with them in ways that are no longer the habit of my people. I would like to help mend the breach that turned these entities into spectacles we gaze at in wonder (or ignore completely) from across a gulf that separates “human” from “nature.” Continuity is our lost shelter and our lost community. Julia Baird’s lovely and masterfully counter-cultural book touches on it, in its evocations of bright people and the world’s beauty. I want to take it further, and turn isolated images and encounters into a coherence that challenges my people’s alienation from their world. Continuity demands context. To appreciate the consolations of Dirawong Reserve, for example, we need to know that it is Bundjalung origin country, to know it was taken from them and was the site of a massacre and the first successfully settled Aboriginal land claim in New South Wales. We need to know that it is maintained by volunteers, that it was spared in the bushfire cataclysm and is now refuge habitat for threatened birds.

It is necessary to see and acknowledge the things that have been done and not been done which have led to this place where we now stand and walk.

What we perceive as ends and objects they really are cross-sections of means and processes through which time and energy are always moving, as they move through us. It is necessary to see and acknowledge the land and history on which your easy temperance rests, the inheritance you carry and the debt you are laying on your descendants. It is necessary to ask yourself who has access to the beauty you honour and who does not, and why that is. There is no awe without this wholeness. The world is surface, substrate, canopy, water column and the light of your attention must illuminate all of them at once so that we can see the leaves above, the movement of water and air, the eel resting on the rocks below.

Poet and environmentalist living and working on Awabakal and Worimi land