'To care is an assertion, and a balm'

| 10th January 2020
Reflections on care and trauma as Australia's fires take the lives of at least 480 million animals.

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I am living in a wooden house, in a clearing surrounded by recovering rainforest, on the edge of Mt Jerusalem national park in New South Wales, Australia.

The gumtrees are so tall, their bark a skin peeled back to show the beluga white of their bellies. They stand long and upright like bleached fingers of coral above the deep green of their neighbors crowns.

The ground is red, and dry. Some days since I got here, the sun is blood red and then you can look directly at it. The sky is peach and pink, the smoke makes the light of twilight, so that all day is the rush and anxiety of the day already ending.

Setting off

The smell of smoke from the forest fires keeps my body awake to danger when I am trying to sleep. 

And yet there is so much life that shimmers here, so brightly. So much that at first it unnerves me. One storm that heralds the first day of spring, when suddenly the lightning seems to wake everyone at once.

The immense rain and the flying ants that come after it and the blue-tongued skinks that come after them. Cicadas start up, and reptiles come out of hibernation on mass to bask in the sun that comes after, and hundreds of madly coloured birds hover at the blossom trees.

Snakes mate in an ecstatic coil, dangling from a tree next to the kitchen. A flying-fox returns to the banksia outside the window at the same time most evenings, to greet the banksia and spread its pollen far throughout the forest, keeping the populations genetically healthy. I don’t know if it is the same bat that keeps coming back, but I let myself think it is. 

We take the tin boat out on the dam one evening, just as the sun is going down. This hissing sound of a single flying-fox that skims the surface of the water in front of the boat, wetting its chest to cool itself.

Two feelings

Soon, we are surrounded by diving, skimming bats, around ten of them, Little Red flying-foxes, beating their impossible plastic wings against the glassy water, the air thick with the sound of frogs and cicadas and thumping wings and the tissssss of their bodies across the water.

It looks like they are bowing to the water and kissing it - a prayer. They see us at the last moment it seems, they upward swoop over our boat. Then they regard us haughtily, almost over their shoulders, but under their shoulders, from above. It feels like a gift, to be regarded by them. 

I’m holding two feelings at the same time. For one, I have never lived in a place so very teeming with life in such abundance. There is something that just feels good and right, about a bat that keeps returning. Maybe, because I know what it feels like to live without ecological abundance in Britain, I see the shimmering of the biosphere here all the more vividly. All the things that are there as they should be. 

And yet, there is panic that follows like a spider on your shoulder. Because where there is more with which to be acquainted, there is more to likely lose.

I know that Australia has one of the fastest extinction rates in the world. And I worry, that living more closely to it all means investing in the loss.

Grief

My days become an astonished role-call of animals, it seems. An echidna in the kitchen, its strange long snout seeking the ants that gather there, it tucks its nose into its armpit when I enter, as though this will make it invisible.

A long-nosed Bandicoot skipping skittish for my discarded eggshells, like it has just found the best thing in the world. A giant skink, limp and lolling like a tongue, its thoughts inexplicable.

Strange creatures that appear to me altogether mythical. At the same time that my heart soars for them, I feel a looming. 

There is a reason that solastalgia has become such a leant-on word, for a particular grief and loss and lacking. I think because many of us are consoled to finally have a word for the ache, in a way. It works in relief for me here; a contrast that brings about the panic. 

I join a wildlife rescue group, as a small assertion against this powerlessness. Some action, for the sustenance of life at large, at least. It is almost inconsequential but it makes me feel better.

I’ll help to pick up the injured and shocked bodies then, taken them out of immediate danger. Give them care, and hopefully set some of them free again. I'll feel sad when it is not enough, which I’m told will be often. 

Revelation

It is with morbid irony that a refrain is repeated to me in the evacuation centre, along the lines of real authentic Australian experience, hey or what an initiation! Accompanied by nervous laughter, because we are too shocked and shaken to react without deflection.

We smile at the friendly people in bibs as they register us with the Red Cross. We talk very fast to strangers at plastic tables, eating wet quiche from styrofoam trays, as if all in agreement that silence breeds something we would rather not dwell with.

My Britishness is commented on again and again, usually wrapped in an apology, as though sorry for their country’s inhospitality.

We trade in our proximities to the fire. Good to get out ahead of itAh yes, closer to you. A hush that follows the revelation of the ashen faced who only just got out in time.

On iPads we refresh the Fires Near You app, willing the static crescents of the fire front not to jump closer to where we came from, exchanging weak smiles to others who wince at the movements. 

Tipping point

For nights before we left I couldn’t sleep, I was imagining the wind as wails from the forest, I was dreaming of being burned in my bed. To be in the path of a forest fire is be pretending, trying to go on as normal, watering the vegetable garden, insisting effectualities until the last comfortable minute.

Then, very suddenly, the panic reached a tipping point, and the fire was a pack of dogs baying just over the ridgeline and would certainly surround us. Our neighbors towed out their lives in caravans, loaded their furniture onto trucks.

We left at 3am, having spent the day hastily stuffing plastic bags in the gutters and turning on the sprinklers, packing as much as we could fit into the van. Crushed, we left behind my partner's family cows, Bella and Mooka, hoping very hard that they would be safe in the cleared areas.

Others sprayed their phone numbers onto the sides of their livestock, patted their sides, left the gates open. 

Days later, the fire has changed direction, set out on a new frontier of fear. The feeling isn’t relief, but exhaustion. The anxiety can’t be sustained, and people trickle back to their homes.

Relief and sorrow

All it would take is for the wind to change direction again, but our reserves have been spent. Life needs to go on, until the next interruption.

We return to the land and it is only then that we actually see the fires just behind the ridgeline, closer. But we are too drained and resigned by now, we look at the plume, we shrug and laugh again. 

Then, the danger has passed. Life returns to some regular pattern. Instead, we are reading about the atrocities as they occur in some place else.

4000 people sheltering on a beach because they have nowhere to go. And then the sirens are sounding, and they are getting into the water. Families are up to their shoulders in water that gets too cold in the night.

It reveals the uncomfortable dynamic that wishing the fires away from yourself means wishing them to turn elsewhere. The relief is tempered with sorrow and the guilt that some place else, the fire proceeds.

Blistering images

There are subtleties to that I had never anticipated. Every liquid ounce of it accumulating, until you feel your heart can’t hold any more. But it will, you will find room for it.

I collect them perversely, habitually, these horrific shards of glass. Blistering images that will come back several times a day when I am elsewhere; sewing a hole in my quilt, slicing a cucumber -- 

Smoke so thick those late evacuating must leave in hand-holding chains. Burned out cars on roads that were overrun while fleeing. Unique weather systems created because of the intensity of the fires, which catch birds in pyrocumulous clouds, suffocate them so that their perfect bodies fall from the sky, into the sea, and wash up on shore totally intact.

Strewn across the beach: owls, parrots, kookaburras. The sounds, that those who go into the fire grounds afterwards are hearing, the half dead animals of the forest, screaming. 

Care

I met a woman when I first arrived who wanted to give me her utensils of care. She had quit wildlife rescue after years because she ran out of steam. She told me that quickly, the sadness would outweigh the good parts.

What difference does nursing them back to health have, when the entire ecosystem is collapsing? Why exert all that emotion in caring, when even the lucky ones who make it to release will likely end up stuck on a barbed wire fence, or starved in a drought, or suffering from a disease exacerbated by climate catastrophe? And now these fires, ripping through and decimating everything. 

My very first rescue was to a pademelon that had been hit by a car. Pademelons are gorgeous, tiny macropods, scaled down kangaroos like a muntjac is to a red deer. She was stiff when I got to her, but the kind man who found her called in because her furred belly was squirming.

I pushed my fingers inside her pouch and we peered in at the small pink thing in there, eyes fused shut, but wriggling with so much will to live. I took a penknife from my care kit and cut the elastic skin of her pouch, which has no blood vessels.

I snipped the teat the joey was attached to and placed its tiny writhing body into a hand-knitted pouch, put this on a hot water bottle in the care box. ‘Will it be okay?’, the man asked hopefully. I said we would do our best.

Survival

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that despite his efforts, the joey was just too small to live without its mother. I took it quickly to the vet where it was gently euthanised. 

I am part of the auxiliary. I rescue the animals and bring them to the carers. I am under training to be a part time carer, but I’m not there just yet.

For the full time carers, it is a whole life. A young animal’s best chance of survival is to be taken into care by one surrogate human for the entirety of its development until release. A wallaby joey takes a full year from its viable age of surrogacy until it is fully weaned. A possum joey takes 250 days. The babies must be fed several times throughout the night. 

Caring is exhausting. It takes nights on call for emergency newcomers, and someone must always be home with the animals.

It takes strength to let the animals you have raised go when it’s time for them to return to the wild, this sweet sadness again and again. And strength also to know when and how an animal has taken too much for your care to matter, how to put an end to its suffering.

Rupture

Delivering a perfect little possum with yellow fur worn like pantaloons into care, I meet a woman who lost everything in the fire - her home, her care facility, and the wallabies she spent the year raising.

She released them a week before the fire came through, and they haven’t been seen since. All the love, all the energy, to release some lucky, thriving wallabies, for them to be lost immediately. 

The people I have met doing this care work are so in love with their native fauna. So besotted and committed they will risk their lives - there is a rupture through the rescue community when we hear of two veteran carers caught in the southern fires, now in critical care with burn injuries, because they stayed behind as the fire advanced to help their many animals.

All of this, against a background of futility. It is predicted that 480 million animals have been lost to this years unprecedented fires, and that is a supposedly conservative estimate.

This will set back conservation efforts by decades. It is expected that when this abysmal summer is over, several extinctions of endemic species will become apparent.

How can caring matter when it seems to have little weight against the uncaring, in a country where the democratically elected leaders are overseeing the decimation of the Great Barrier Reef, and of a deeply set drought, drying up creeks that haven’t dried up in hundreds of years, their hundreds years old catfish left to bake in the sun?

Aversion of the worst effects of climate catastrophe requires a rapid transition away from coal burning. But it is the exportation of coal that has kept Australia out of recession for 27 years, and so the majority don’t vote for it. Extractvist colonialism is bringing the land of Australia to its knees as it sustains the middle class lifestyle of its majority voters. 

Devastation

Solastalgia is felt more acutely by those that live closest to their environments. There are proximities, then. For Aboriginal people in Australia, the devastation the land faces is the loss of entire life-webs and identities.

I cannot begin to imagine the pain at witnessing, so closely and in that way, the severance of a connection that has persisted for sixty thousand years. And the carers, and their lifetimes of caring. And me, only just learning how to lose. 

But there is something, I need to think, in the ache of loss that is beautiful because it reminds us how much there is to love for. Solastalgia says something of the power of loss that is dark at the same time that it is beautiful.

The intensity of traumas in people torn from their environments, or that have had their neighbors torn from them, tells us how strong these care bonds can be and how much they are core to who we are. Loss can bring despair, but it can also make affirmative action feel so absolutely crucial. 

Amongst all the suffering, there is this incessantly joyful assertion, over and over, of creatures saying yes to life and to flourishing. Because when you do release a flying fox, you know it will find its way back to a flower if it can. When you release a lizard, it will skitter away to hiding then get on with plucking insects from their worlds, as it always has.

Exceptionality 

Life wants to thrive, and when we see it shimmer, we can’t help but be caught by it. No animal is common, it is a spectacular iteration of the evolution of life.

Every act of care for every individual animal is a stand, for faith in life’s meaningfulness. Every orphan taken in by a human is a mantra for a certain kind of world. 

It is statement against the onset of the Anthropocene, an era brought about not by all humans, but by humans with a certain idea of what makes a ‘human’ exceptional.

We are, in ways, exceptional. We have a distinguished ability to wreck life-worlds on a vast scale. But there are many different ways of using our distinct gifts; we can utilise our particularly strong ability for tacticity and intention. This can be our gift then, to bare witness and to offer care. 

In a letter to my local newspaper here, a woman called Mary Gardner wrote in support of the Australian youth climate strikers. She offered them this advice: “The most important thing you can do is become skilled, caring people, ready to help out in this new world”. I have the clipping pinned to my wall now. 

Onwards

I know this - it is going to be so hard. 

We know that changes are already underway, that to engage at this time means accepting the morbid proximity, the curse of watching closely as the things you love topple over the edge.

We are going to lose many irreplaceable species along the way. Any recovered ground will only be partial - if these burning forests recover, they won’t come back the same.

But still - to care is an assertion, and a balm. It is a resounding yes to life. 

You can donate to the Fire Relief Fund for First Nation Communities and to the Emergency Fund for wildlife.  

This Author 

Abi Andrews is a writer living on the edge of Mt Jerusalem national park in New South Wales, Australia. She is the author of The Word for Woman is Wilderness, published by Serpents Tail.

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