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  • Writer's pictureSimeon Ayres

How We Face The Dragon

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

By Simeon Ayres


Corryong


We’ve just held the fire front as it backed down the hill and threatened a

farmhouse and hay shed. We’ve refilled the tank with water and the hoses

are stowed away in the back of the truck. Here the country is too steep to

drive, the roads snake the valley floor following the widening mountain


creeks. It’s bare rock and hungry soils. The sheep tracks crisscross the hill-

side, wearing hieroglyphics into the earth.


The old farmer knows we can’t drive the truck up the hill; at best, we

could stretch five lengths of hose together and hold a line of the unburnt

country a little up the rise. He wants to save his sheep though, he’s still got

600 or so up there, he wants to save what precious grass the hot summer has

left still standing. But what can we do? This is a hillside for a dirt bike not a

seven-tonn truck.

We watch as he drags an ancient bulldozer from a tumbledown shed.

She’s painted with the yellow of a faded municipality and pockmarked

with rust. He fills her with diesel and kicks her into life; a growl and clatter

rends the air. He hitches his water cart and firefighting pump to the dozer,

pulls on his leather gloves and a face mask of a torn towel, and is ready.

‘Keep an eye on me from the road,’ he calls over his shoulder as he sets off

up the hill. ‘I can still save my sheep.’

There are some places you can go to – you can follow, you can lend a

hand and save some things – and then there’s the impossible. So, we watch

him disappear over the rise into the smoke, the ancient bulldozer moving

at little more than walking pace, an errant knight aboard his trusty steed,

off to face the Dragon.

The line of flame slowly fans down the hill. He’s started the pump now

and is spraying the fire; he holds those flames back for a few short minutes

until they rise again and sweep back towards him. Then the water must be

all but gone, for he’s upped a gear and is heading back towards us, the flame

patiently following, swallowing his precious grass.

And when he’s back, there’s more urgency in his voice, although he

chokes a little as he speaks; he points to a lower rise of unburnt country.

‘There, that’s where they are, if we can get a truck or two up on the hill,

we can hold the flame back, and I can muster those sheep back down

towards the pens.’

Three trucks go up there with him, clinging to the steep country. It’s

darkening and chaotic now, the wind has picked up and the flame is stark

against the hill and sky. For about an hour those three other tankers are

gone up over the hillside, while a wall of flame pushes back towards us and

we hold the thin line that keeps these flames from jumping the road.

You don’t count time when the fire comes at you, you hold onto square

feet and inches and beat the flames down if you can, and you pray just a

little to the fire gods. And comfort shrinks back a long way away; she

abandons you, leaves you out there on an edge, hard against the face of

nature. Tonight the earth exhales spark-laden smoke to swirl between blue

emergency beacons.

Later still it’s quieter, the fire front has retreated from the grassy hills of

the sheep country to the thicker forests. Dark has descended as two of us

drag the blackened canvas hoses onto the deck of the truck. The old farmer

drives slowly up behind the tanker on his quad bike; his eyes are red raw

with smoke and tears.

In the middle of the road, he stops and touches my arm. He nods a

perfectly understated bow of thanks, for he has lost at least half of those

sheep, but between us all we have saved a good many of them. It’s raw

moments like this that live on in me, passing glances that sink into the

heart.


Strathbogie


These days of 40 degrees in the shade and a hot northerly wind blowing

steadily. These days of cicadas and the slow whing of hot cockatoos, when

all the country seems to be belly down to whatever cool it can find. These

days when the air conditioner is earning its keep, and outside is a country

we would rather not visit.

It’s a day like this when our watcher on the hill spies a column of smoke

rising four kilometers from our township. The bells ring and the siren

bleeds and the pager shakes us to panic, and we the people must respond.

Called from around the compass to fight the fire.

Here though, I want to suggest more: I want to imagine wildfire as a

living breathing Dragon, risen from the dark soil to ravage our country.

This day she has raised her fiery snout, she has broken her shackles and

chains, and now she gallops over the gullies and forests and farmland to the

south of us.

She’s supercharged by the north wind and the heat, and she feeds off

whatever lies in her path. Everything that can burn will make her stronger,

and sometimes everything wants to burn. It’s she that would devour the

world, and all that we have to stop her is us.

The community is the fire brigade, and we are a collection of the most

ordinary of people a district can throw together – perhaps our innate

ordinariness sets us apart. From the little communities of our plateau and

of the surrounding valleys, and from the flat country to the west and the

mountains to the east, come our brothers and sisters in arms. We race from

our huts carrying pitchforks and shovels and wooden buckets sloshing

water. We are a human chain passing water along to the Dragon’s thirsty

jaws. For we’ve seen her rise before, we’ve seen the twisted mess of her wake,

the black wastelands she’s claimed.

I want to tell you how together we subdued the Dragon. How we

cornered and pushed her back despite the wind that fanned her, despite

the country she chose to hunt across; how we beat her back into the earth

and quenched the last of her glowing embers. I want to tell of friends and

neighbors and perhaps old enemies who would dare stand together.

I want to tell you of a community that holds us while we head off into

the smoke, who stand by our homes and care for our children and feed our

animals. I want to tell you of strangers who come from afar and work with

us, and I want to thank them even though I do not know their names.

I want to tell you how humbled I become as the heat marches on through

these summer months, and comfort seems to ebb away, and a healthy fear

rises in me. Sometimes I want to dare say something else that matters too.

To speak the quietest of thanks to the old Dragon herself, to praise her


where praise is due, for without her I think we would be less of a commu-

nity. We might not have a chance to stand together side by side; to be


humbled, to become more deepened and dignified as the fire asks of us, a

people brought together, a community literally forged in the fire.


Cudgewa


That first day we entered the little town of Cudgewa, we arrived perhaps

seven hours too late. The fire had roared through this tiny hamlet during

the night, houses and buildings destroyed, a landscape littered with the

carcasses of animals.


Sometimes I wish it were possible to un-see what I have seen, to un-know

what I have come to know. Sometimes I wish that it was merely one small

manageable Dragon that we faced, that we humans were not so hell-bent

on cooking our planet.

When you stand on newly burnt country, what strikes you besides the

black, is the silence. This is a country in a state of shock, where the myriad

voices of plant and beast and bird have been consumed by fire or fled. I

stand looking out onto a blackened valley, watching as the swirling wind

blows through the fire-ground, and the burnt trees refuse to move with the

wind, holding on tightly to any leaf they may have left.

It is not possible to walk through the endless black without being tainted

by it. It is not possible to witness destruction like this without some part

inside becoming hollowed. Besides the soot and the ash in my eyes and


hair, the burnt ground enters me, and I carry its despair. I find myself turn-

ing away from those that I care for, not wanting to show myself. But I do


care, and I do feel, and I’m touched and ripped apart and broken and put

back together again in a strange and unfamiliar way.


Late that afternoon on the fire ground, I find myself watching the micro-

cosm at my feet, the skinks and spiders and beetles and ants fleeing from or


rushing towards the grass fire in complete confusion. There is an enormity

of the tiniest of life held within a square metre, there are trillions of square


metres burnt. There are pictures of burnt koalas and kangaroos on the tele-

vision, a billion wild lives lost they say. But no one counts the minuscule,


and all these numbers blur into a kind of economy that seems too mean-

ingless without our grieving to substantiate it.


After a 20-hour day, that first day in Cudgewa, I crawl into my bed at four

in the morning and sleep. It’s the songs of magpies and the shrike thrush

with their praise of the new morning that wake me a few short hours later.

The fires have not touched this place; this country could be a million miles

from Corryong, save the ever-present smoke haze. With my coffee, I sit bare

feet upon the earth and praise the world around me, alive in this summer

morning.

I know this too: summer is far from finished and I’m sure that we’ve

not heard the last of the Dragon. They say, with these years of drought and

rising temperatures, that the fire Dragon will spawn many offspring, that

she’ll be out hunting more often, that she’ll be hungrier.

After fire, the fire

When the rains eventually do come, and the nights lengthen, the fire glows

happily in our hearth, warming us as autumn leads into winter. Yet the

thoughts of another summer won’t leave me, the horrible knowing that the

fires will only get worse. I know the odds are becoming increasingly hostile,

already we are outnumbered and outpaced.

Let’s face it, I’ve been burnt, the fire scorching the soles of my boots, the

smoke snaking into my lungs. Some running splinter of flame has entered

my body.

They call it PTSD, that’s when something latches on to you, follows you

home, gets inside you and smolders away, slowly hollowing out tunnels

and caverns in your psyche. The fire is inside – I’m a burning man and the

world has shifted upon its axis, and I can no longer hold the enormity of

it all. I know that with our current inaction to halt the changing of the

climate, the fires will just get bigger, and there is nothing I and my fellow

firefighters in our little red truck can do to stop it.

I find myself gazing into the middle distance, disconnected and adrift in

unfamiliar feelings. My loved ones are out there on the periphery looking

in, yet I’m surrounded by a wall of fire and can’t for the life of me leave the

fireground. So I begin a mission of sorts, ringing government agencies,

demanding to know their climate change policies, what will they do?

Don’t they see that a handful of men and women are all that’s keeping

these fires at bay, don’t they see that the Dragon will just get bigger.


Eventually someone in the Country Fire Authority recognizes my symp-

toms of PTSD and sends me off to counselling. Off to the city to speak to a


bright-eyed young woman, who knows all the words to circle trauma, but

who simply cannot help me to touch the burning inside. I last for three

sessions and give up.


Out there the hills of the high country slowly heal, new shoots of possi-

bility rise again, the miraculous indeed. Then an old friend from my days in


London puts me in touch with a specialist in the Metropolitan police force.

A wise woman half a world away, buffeted by experience, who has come to

know trauma and all its insisting fingers intimately. And what’s more she

offers to speak once a week for nothing.

So begins a time of integrating a left and a right brain, of dousing the

smoldering tunnels inside. A slow soak of cooling waters that reaches

those hidden places where the heat still lives.

Why, from half a world away, would you offer this to a stranger?

Maybe I know the answer. The world needs to grow and burn and heal;

the Earth always seeks to make itself anew and this means inside too.


And then water

So, what are we faced with, my crew of yellow-clad firefighters, battling the

Dragon? For even if we miraculously manage to halt climate change in the

coming years, our communities will have to find a deeper resilience. We

will have to live with heat and fires and extremes, to learn to cope with the

losses that will come, not only the human-centred, but also those in our

broader communities of belonging, forests and birds and wildflowers and

meadows. How are we to repair the torn fabric of our young culture? What

an overwhelming question.


The mythologist Martin Shaw says of our current crises: ‘Much opportu-

nity is fast headed toward us disguised as loss! And we’re going to need


stories – deep, powerful, alchemical stories – to help guide us through such

a time.’

I’ve carried these words of Martin’s around for several years now. I’ve

remembered them as trees have died in the paddocks, as the wetlands

and creeks have dried and sunk back into hard ground, as the spring rains

don’t come and the hot spells lengthen. I’ve wished at times that I was wise

enough to understand his words.

Yet now, after that long summer and the ensuing time of healing,

maybe I have begun to find some meaning from Martin. There are stories

out there to point us in the right direction – I’ve heard them. If you look, or

if they’re looking for you, you’ll both meet. The strongest story though is

us, all of us. For there is a choice in the midst of loss.

I can stand on the scorched earth, my feet hot at its touch, I can be

overwhelmed, inundated, I can curl into a ball with my head beneath the

blankets. I can cry and grieve for all this loss I witness, for the changing face

of the Earth, for the quieting of all the world’s voices. And I can dare to

celebrate, when the white-faced heron returns to nest in the peppermint

gums by the gate, when the nodding greenhoods flower once again on the

mountain. When, out of the 200 trees we have planted in the hollow at

Yerim, 150 are still growing strong even though the old rock wallaby nibbles

their new shoots.

And I still praise when my people come together once more to face the

Dragon. I can praise the faithfulness and tenacity of all that remains.


THE END

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