The season of green and black

‘The fire only made it as far as your boundary,’ the real estate agent confirmed, indicating some fence posts with blackened crowns. She painted pictures in our minds of our prospective new home being a safe haven, an untouched oasis.

Not fully trusting her vested interests, we looked closer and found charring on trees up the gully, above the dam and nearer to the house. We learnt two homes further along the road were lost in the Black Summer fires of 2019/20, which devastated almost the whole of the Australian East Coast.

But we bought the property and made the move to the country, making an informed choice, aware of the risk of a future fire. The risk is not particular to this property, but almost any. Here we know some of the surrounding land is cleared for grazing, most of the closest trees between us and the state forest are in our orchard and probably less predisposed to fire than eucalypts. We’ll buy a slasher to keep the grass short. We’ll put in more water tanks and pumps. A friend admitted that after those fires he’s now obsessed with pumps and backup pumps, generators and backup generators.

During our first day at our new house, we received our first mail delivery – from the NSW Rural Fire Service. Welcome, and a reminder to get bushfire ready. Welcome to the country, and the responsibilities of owning a property.

What it was like, back on that day of the fire, here on our not-so-untouched haven and oasis? Were the previous owners bushfire ready? They left us two pumps in separate pump houses down at the dam. The smaller one irrigates the orchard, the larger supplies flow to the fat fire hose, coiled and mounted in a shiny red casing close to the house. When we started this pump, water sprayed in an arc halfway up the hill toward the house, where the plastic transfer pipe had melted in the fire. At the very time it was needed, the fire hose was rendered useless by the fire itself.

If you’ve driven any part of the Australian East Coast over the past two years you may have seen land struggling to heal. Much of the bushland I’ve seen is fire-affected, but with some new green growth sprouting from the charred black remains. It’s the season of green and black. But where the fires burned too hot, trees are faded to grey skeletons, the ghosts of gums that will not recover.

Communities also are struggling to heal. Local councils still employ coordinators to assist recovering residents and communities, and seasonal workers camp at rural showgrounds as contractors to replace fencing for property owners with disaster recovery funding.

During that terrible firey season, 5.5 million hectares of land was devastated, 2,448 homes destroyed, and 26 lives lost. Many native plant and animal species are now extinct or endangered. Cossetted in my city home I wanted to do something. Thoughts of injured and suffering kangaroos, koalas, wombats, and birds plagued my nights. Like many people, I sewed ‘koala mittens’ and ‘batwraps’, donated money to WIRES and community fundraisers.

I’d like to think those fires were an anomaly. I’d like to think it will take years for the regrowth to sustain another large fire. I’d like to think that we’ve had recent rain and there’s no immediate danger. That we can get on with fun and exciting activities like house improvements, establishing a vegie garden, planting a food forest, buying chickens and maybe goats; instead of preparing for a potential bushfire. But I know this thinking may mean we’re not bushfire ready when we need to be.

We need to replace the melted hose pipe and bury it deeper underground. We need to learn what the ‘SWS’ (Static Water Supply) sign affixed to our front gate means – presumably, we need to provide easy access for an empty fire truck thirsty for our water tanks and dam. If a fire does come, where will we move our vehicles to? Which of us will look after our pets? How and when will we decide whether to defend our home or evacuate?

I’m here to live closer to nature, more in tune with her cycles. Summer and bushfire season is part of that cycle. It’s summer now, but we’ve had lots of rain. The dams and tanks are overflowing, it’s lush and verdant. Now is the season for appreciating the rich colours, the abundant growth. The season of green (and black). But this is Australia, so now is also the time to prepare for future seasons.

Note: photo is not our property, thank goodness.

Meeting the new house

I knew immediately I needed to slow down. Slow down to meet the house on its own vibration. Bringing my big-city buzz through the door would stop me connecting with this quiet, tired cottage that has nestled here amongst established eucalypts for forty years.

Driving those few hours to our new property, to finally move in, I was anxious to check the reality of my new home and country life against the preconceptions I’d developed. Will I feel safe in the country? Will I miss city cafes, bootcamps, walking to the shops and other conveniences? Will I be overwhelmed by the renovations required and the reality of looking after country acres? Will I still love this house or will this all be a terrible mistake?

I’d thought of various ways to introduce myself to our new home with more ceremony than simply walking through the door. I could light a sage smudge stick and waft pungent cleansing smoke through the rooms and into every corner, clearing old energy to make way for new beginnings. I could rub some soil from the bank of the dam under my armpits and sprinkling it into the water, to announce my arrival. (An idea inspired by ABC TV’s Back to Nature, ) I could say hello to the spirits of the traditional owners and let them know my intention is to care for land and wildlife, to be respectful.

I drive along those final few undulating kilometres of gravel road, skirting the national park, threading between huge gum trees in an area listed as critical koala habitat. As I round the last bend and glimpse the rusty A-frame roof and views down the valley, the house greets me like a sigh of relief. I know this is where I’m meant to be.

I also know my convoluted plans to announce my arrival are not necessary. My smudge stick will stay in my suitcase, the soil at the dam, the traditional owners undisturbed.

This cottage, on its ten acres, has witnessed floods, drought, and the terrible bushfires of 2019-2020 when almost the entire East Coast of Australia was on fire. Who am I to land here from the big city with my big ideas, to come in as the new owner and start pushing things around? I’ll move slowly, get to know the land over time. The patterns, the seasons. I have much to learn.

Getting to know the property began simply that first day. Cleaning. My husband and I rolled up the ancient, filthy carpet and scrubbed the concrete slab beneath. I started cleaning high inside the house and worked my way lower. Vacuuming what I could reach of the vaulted ceiling, squeegee mopping the walls, then the windows and floors.

We unpacked the sound system and learned of the beautiful acoustics provided by the solid walls and soaring ceilings.

My husband had arrived at our new home yesterday, while I packed up the last of our city belongings. I asked him how he’d slept last night on a mattress on the floor. He hadn’t slept well. Kept awake by rustlings in the cupboards, scurryings in the attic, and scamperings along the gutters and over the corrugated iron roof. I was glad our furniture had been delivered. Although the bed was one of the few items unpacked, at least tonight we will be sleeping up off the floor. After vacuuming droppings from cupboards and corners today, I knew we were not the only occupants of the house.

Exhausted we flopped onto the bed. So far there’s no scamperings or scurryings. We chat about how different the night sounds in the country. No sirens. No drunk people stumbling home from the pub, post COVID lockdown. There’s no hoons in loud cars. No neighbours dragging their Thursday night bins out.

So what can we hear? Frogs. An owl. Crickets. Our heartbeats. And nothing at all.