When you hear terrible news, there is always a silence. Here I am, on the end of the line, shaken and mute. I feel nauseous and suddenly exhausted. ‘Are you there?’ He says. ‘Yes, Dad. I’m here.’ But I’m not. I’m far away already, sorting through a catalogue of memories, wondering which ones will never be replaced. Disrupting this is a kind of relentless flash of images. ‘AUSTRALIAN HEATWAVE’, bold and capitalised on the front of the paper, ‘CFA warning WATCH AND ACT’, google search, ‘UPDATE: FIRE – OUT OF CONTROL’. While the threat of this has always been there, we never thought it would happen. Not to us. Not to this place. ‘I can be philosophical about it.’ He continues, ‘I’ve been expecting this for 30 years. There’s a difference between the house and the place. You know?’ I listen to what he says but only hear a very measured and brave front. ‘This is good for the land. It was bound to happen. We can rebuild.’ Actually, this is the amputation of part of this man’s being. This is the death of a part of who he is – a devastation so complete that it must be hidden away for now, at least until he is sure, at least until he is properly free to mourn. What we know is this: the fires have ravaged the area, that everyone has been evacuated and that there is very little hope that any structure is left standing. The roads are still closed. The fires are still burning. There has been little footage or communication because the area is so remote but an image surfaces of a 30 ft wall of flame engulfing the area that is/was next door to the house. I can’t breathe.
Much later, I go to ring my partner but can’t remember his number. I have to look it up. I’m not sure how to explain. How do you tell this story? How do you make someone else understand how big a loss this is? The first thing my father said when I became pregnant with my twins was, ‘ I can’t wait to take them to the house. I’ll show them the land. I’ll teach them about the Eucalypts.’ And maybe that’s the best way to begin. Beneath the trees, where the landscape stole his heart. It was from a distance, as a 16 year old boy, mustering sheep on a friend’s farm near Coolah, that he came up over a ridge and saw the Warrumbungle Mountains for the first time. From somewhere deep within, he knew that this would be his home and by 22 he found himself sitting under a tree in the rain, looking out at a property that had come up for sale. It was a small, isolated valley deep within the mountains and the point in the ranges where the lightning struck ground in a storm. It felt charged with energy and alive. It had a presence and a spirit and it spoke to his soul. Back in Sydney he bought it outright, for $2,000, in Rushcutter’s Bay Bowling Alley, from one Harry Harris.
Over a period of years he built a little 3m X 3m, 3 storey house in a natural clearing amongst the trees, living in it as a kind of hermitage, communing with nature and learning its rhythms. This is where, at 28, he met my mother – an architecture student on a photographic expedition – sent his way to see the ‘treehouse’. She never left. In fact, they have been together ever since, only moving away later so that they could bring up their family. Education became the issue and the city called for them to return.
Then, almost 15 years ago something happened. Some local teenage boys found and ransacked the house. More appalling was that they ring-barked – and in doing so, killed – one of the Scribbly Gums. These extraordinary trees that have grown up and accommodated the building, never invading the space it occupied and graciously reaching for the sun around it. Inevitably, my partner knew all of this. It is a huge part of our collective family history. Stories of the house had spilled over into many conversations and there was always, of course, a promise to visit and to be a part of its magic. What he hadn’t seen was the impact of this incident. The way my father trembled when he first saw the damage. The way horror gave way to anger and anger gave way to profound sorrow. And to think that it was deliberate – he wept. At some point, in the days he had spent there alone, the distinction between him and the land had been lost. They had become one.
As children, he introduced us to a way of living that was minimal. When we visited, everything was simplified. The water was fed to the house by gravity from a natural spring. We gathered wood for the slow-combustion stove and lit gas lamps at night to see. Time seemed to change while we were there. We’d wake with the sun and go to sleep early with the onset of a night that was so black it gave you invisibility – free from city lights but filled with the glorious illumination of a thousand stars. We learnt to cook with self-reliance and with what we could find. Many times we made stinging nettle soup, baked our own bread and scavenged what we could to experiment with from the pantry – the inner walls shelved with big glass jars, canned fish and dry goods. We were encouraged to play and to explore and to make our own fun. A flying fox here – however precarious, a cubby there, an adventure to be had wherever you looked. We would often leave early and come back late. Each evening, as the sun set, the mountains would glow red and we learnt that this was true beauty.
As I am reaching for the last time I was there, I think of more detail. The AM radio permanently tuned to Radio National ABC, the hand-wound wooden skipping girl Dad made for me as a little girl, the extra plank of wood and chain that made the bottom step of the stairs the perfect breakfast table for my brother, sister and I. Once upon a time, when we were young, where we’d eat our cereal. I think of the animals. The way my father would call us over with excitement so that we might see the magnificence of a baby brown snake, a spider or some other creature. The goanna that appeared the year my brother was born and returned only when he was around. The sugar glider nesting near the house. The koalas, the roos, the emus. Now, all gone. Goodbye.
Not so long ago, a month or two, his longing to be back became too much and he drove 13 hours to be there for a day. ‘It was worth it.’ He said. ‘I love being home.’
When I speak to him, after the alarm has been sounded, after the people have been evacuated, after the news has hit the headlines, he simply says, ‘It’s all gone.’ ‘Maybe not,’ I plead. ‘Maybe, by some miracle, it’s been saved.’ There is silence and then a heavy sigh. ‘There’s a chance’, he says.’ There’s always a chance. Although, I don’t think it will ever be the same.’