Mr B had always lived there. Long before we arrived to make a home on the Bega River, he had built his own. His was a simple affair; a busy temple to blue that drew an annual parade of female admirers. You see, Mr B is a satin bower bird, that most industrious and enterprising of creatures.
A year ago, a firestorm devastated Tathra, a small town on the south coast of New South Wales. Our house survived, but the forest understory on our block did not. We wandered over our blackened land in a daze, and wondered what happened to Mr B. Save for a few blistered blue pegs, his bower had been incinerated.
As shocking as the torched landscape, was the silence. The glorious cacophony of birdsong that greeted every day was gone. It was eerie and disconcerting, like watching a film without a soundtrack. That silence was soon broken by the sound of machines. Trucks, chainsaws and industrial mulchers were the new soundtrack to the valley. A kind of mania swept over the town, borne of a deep urge to erase the physical reminders of trauma as quickly as possible.
Mostly the Australian bush cries to be left alone following trauma. Many native trees slip into a self-preserving coma, seemingly dead, but instead slowly preparing to live again. In the rush to ‘get back to normal’, this can be a risky strategy for the tree.
An arborist pronounced our much loved Angophora tree to be dead but we declined the offer to have it removed. Months went by with no signs of life and we reluctantly conceded that he was right. Then, after almost nine months, tiny buds of epicormic growth broke through its charred bark. The Angophoras’ tremendous capacity to store water had provided the necessary life-support to survive not just the blaze but the rainless months that followed. Today, it bursts with new growth.
We resisted the overwhelming impulse to erase. While our decision to ‘do nothing’ was greeted with incredulity by some, it became something of guiding principle for restoring our patch. The she-oaks that attract the yellow-tailed cockatoos to this region have no defense against fire. But we left their burnt trunks and fallen limbs as perches and shelter for smaller birds.
In the aftermath of disaster there are decisions to be made, action to be taken. Residents who lost homes must decide to stay or go. For sale signs continue to appear, a grim combination of under-insurance and a reluctance to go through the difficult task of rebuilding in the ashes.
The non-human world also must make its choices. Trees decide which of their damaged limbs will be severed from the supply of nutrients in the quest for survival. The more mobile must decide whether to look for better habitat or remain and make a new home. For some, the fire provides a feast. Fire-ravaged land belongs to the raptors and they were the first to arrive seeking prey with nowhere to hide.
A year on, the machines have fallen silent. The avian symphony has returned. Scorched earth has given way to carpets of bracken, wattle and native grass. New land owners can be seen pitching tents on charred land, planning new homes and learning the subtle features of their blocks.
It has been a difficult year; a year of replanting and ecological repair. And, weeding, endless weeding. For weeds, like the raptors, thrive in an ecosystem weakened by fire. Then, slowly, a forgotten feeling begins to come over us—hope.
A few weeks ago, on an unusually still morning, we heard something. Listening again, it was that unmistakable pattern of squeaks, chirps and trills, those key notes to our old soundtrack. As we had done many times before, we placed a blue bottle top on the garden table. An hour later it was gone.
Daniel Oakman is a writer based in Tathra, NSW. His latest book, Oppy: The Life of Sir Hubert Opperman, was published by Melbourne Books last year.