White patriarchy, fuelled by flame
[Christmas Hills’] Skyline Road is one of the worst affected streets in the whole state. Almost every house has been razed and those still standing, surrounded by blackened earth and forest in every direction, are the exception rather than the rule.
—the Age, 10 February 2009
A pocket of eucalypt bush overlooking the patchwork vineyards of the Yarra Valley, Christmas Hills is home to just 336—many of its residents avoiding Melbourne’s concrete courtyards, high cost of living and constant white-noise hum. A large group of the area’s inhabitants self-mockingly identify as ‘tree-changers’ while others—often less concerned about how they’re perceived—remain quiet: happy simply to exist. Me—I was born into bush: the first 20 years of my life luckily spent among the long-abandoned pine plantations and 100-foot gums. It’s lush country, freezer fresh in winter yet cinnamon-dry for the summer months—the dust from unkempt gravel roads rising in plumes, ominous, along a now bushfire-scarred ridge.
More ‘home’ than almost any landscape I’ve since known, Christmas Hills’ pre-fire forests, both indigenous and introduced, were instantaneously dissolved by the climate-flared firestorms of Saturday 7 February 2009. Our road, Skyline, was razed (a word I only understand now) between 5.45 and 5.59 pm. It took 14 minutes for everything to burn through; perhaps the time it takes to enjoy a cup of almost-boiled coffee: beans roasted under sepia skies of somewhere else and enjoyed, quietly, on busy Brunswick streets. Recognised as one of Australia’s worst recorded natural disasters, the fires that swallowed Christmas Hills’ Skyline Road make up the historical event that I have learned to remember casually as ‘That Saturday, Black—a While Back’. As a woman, a while back is yet another qualifier to add to my repertoire of many: I’m okay, It’s okay, You’re okay. In a politically proud white Australia, it is still a woman’s unspoken job to make everything okay, especially in the aftermath of natural disaster—when things are very much not.
It is easy for urban dwellers to categorise the outskirts of Melbourne as inhabitable, although these areas are increasingly becoming the only affordable option as inner-city housing prices rise. Increasingly dismissed and othered as ‘The Bush’—read: ‘live out there at your own risk’—many small communities on the city fringe are facing a growing threat from climate-caused firestorms, bigger and more unstoppable than ever. But, like the clipped-back Cootamundra of Australia’s first Europeanised gardens, the national narrative surrounding bushfire is a contained one. Essential steps are left untaken, with innovation regarding infrastructure, community collaboration—along with the acknowledgement of past atrocities regarding Indigenous landowners—all being brushed aside. An ingrained, and very blinkered, colonial narrative is embraced as soon as the first siren wails. Media-celebrated, it’s the archaic myth of (white) man versus bush.
For the binary and order-obsessed West, the firestorms of Black Saturday represented a loss of colonial control. Sitting on my parents’ newly donated couch, post-fire, I remember being shocked by the media flurry following flame, working quickly to distract with the Aussie narrative of ash-smeared ‘hard-yakka’ blokes, along with Facebook-friendly images of thirsty koalas and bandage-pawed roos. Fire also brings the deeply ingrained gender disparity of our dominant culture to light: as the physical and societal structures of small communities turn to ash we revert to the underlying outdated systems. My shoes still melted from the ash of my parents’ home, I still remember checking myself in the semi-charred Holden windscreen’s reflection—the absurdity of a learned tic, I hope I look okay. Despite being in a fire-razed, Cormac McCarthy-esque setting, I was surprised that this learned and very gender-specific self-scanning part of me remained. As John Berger wrote, decades ago, although perhaps the observation is more applicable than ever: ‘A woman … is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping … from earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.1
Years later I am not so much looking for faults in my reflection, but at the faces of women in Kinglake cafés, in Flowerdale streets. Home to stories almost no mainstream media outlet would want to cover, the women left behind by Black Saturday have been left in support roles for men who are given continuing hero status—a sometimes welcomed camouflage for varied forms of abuse: financial, domestic, drug and alcohol, the list goes on. Bushfire aftermath offers a stripped-back environment where things once-hidden can thrive: ash-loving fungi, sun-hungry silver wattle and—most insidiously—white Australia’s obsession with control.
Throughout the mainstream media coverage of Black Saturday and the more recent Great Ocean Road fires, the myth of ‘heroic’ men and ‘helpful’ women is continuously played out in images of men ‘saving’ their houses or other possessions, and women huddled and taking care of either children or the white-bread sandwiches for the CFA. Women, post–natural disasters, are not profiled as heroes or even the sufferers of PTSD, like men for example, but as caregivers. History continues as women’s stories are trumped by men’s. And the tragedy falls on everyone’s shoulders as these gender roles—brought to the surface and heightened by the stresses of bushfire—negatively impact on men and on women.
[Australians] accept that violence against women increased after earthquakes in Haiti and cyclones in Bangladesh, but nobody wants to hear that men who embody the spirit of resilient and heroic Australia are violent towards their families. The aftermath of Black Saturday presents Australians with the opportunity to see how deeply embedded male privilege is, and how fragile are attempts to criminalise domestic violence.2
With the increasing rate of climate-caused natural disasters, there is a need to acknowledge, nationally, that situations will arise that are simply not containable by the everyday ‘Aussie battler’—nearly always profiled as a (white) man, videoed in thongs with a garden hose in hand. Despite overlooking women and people of varying racial and cultural backgrounds in the narrative of Australian bushfire, this trope of ‘Aussie hero’ serves to entrench the detrimental colonial myth of man versus bush. As so neatly stated in the Australian Journal of Emergency Management:
The Black Saturday fires made it impossible for men to live up to society’s demands of their masculinity. Containing fireballs and controlling flames over 40 metres high was beyond human capacity. If men felt inadequate in these conditions, it underlines the flawed social construction of gender that expects men to have a particular set of characteristics simply because they are men.3
Every summer now I watch my father from the deck of our rebuilt house—whipper-snippering grass for hours on end. Sometimes it’s just a quiet machine hum rising from the bottom of the ridge, hidden by fire-aftermath-loving wattle that thrives understated in its silvery, green-grey way. Other times the heavier drone of blade cutting tussock combines with the sound of vineyard machinery, floating up from the Yarra Valley, below. ‘You’re really getting on top of the scrub,’ family acquaintances will say, quietly looking at my mother across the sparse lounge room—perhaps just not understanding, but seemingly judging us for staying. I sometimes wonder if maybe that’s part of the struggle of bushfire aftermath—everything is politicised in an uninvited commentary on your life. And the swipes people take—perhaps out of something like fear—are a comfortable distraction from the increasing chance that natural disaster will become more common, affecting them, too, in this rapidly warming world.
Guilt: it comes out in unexpected ways, following flame. My father, more than most, knows that nothing would have ‘saved’ our house on Black Saturday. The fire was twice the height of the tallest pines in the abandoned plantation over the road. On top of this, the East Kilmore fire rolled over our house on the ridge down to Steels Creek—where it killed seven before the wind changed—folding the front over our house again. Having escaped to the valley at the last minute, many residents of Skyline Road used the word ‘lucky’ in the immediate aftermath of the fire. However, the narrative of men ‘saving’ their houses is deeply ingrained in the national psyche. As the years pass, men’s stories tend to be revised from ‘We got lucky on Black Saturday’ to ‘Mate, I saved the house—and I’d do it again.’
The notion of the ‘heroic man’ has reportedly fed into the higher fatality rate for men in bushfire-affected areas. Summers, since Black Saturday, are now laced with the fear of what could—and will one day—happen again. When talk turns to our new bushfire plan, the proven-to-be-deadly ‘stay or go’ policy is skirted around. My mother says she’ll get out, my father won’t clearly commit to either—despite seeing the hills burn. We have had so many conversations, referencing southern California’s mandatory bushfire evacuation policies, where in 2007, 3000 homes were destroyed but only ten people died. As a part of these evacuation procedures, Californian residents were handed Sharpies when they refused to leave their homes, directed by police to ‘Write your social security number on the inside of your arm’ (the last place to burn). This was an unwelcome though lifesaving reality check for those willing to risk their lives.
Firefighter John Schauble has warned that despite increased public understanding of bushfire dangers, ‘many of the myths and erroneous beliefs associated with the passage of bushfires have persisted in bushfire fiction into the twenty-first century, reinforcing stereotypes and potentially even contributing to poor survival strategies in the community’.4
Our colonial concept of strength is masculine, often leaving women’s endless hours of hard emotional labour and socially encouraged self-sacrifice both historically undocumented and unrecognised. Just as men are expected to be physically strong—especially in white Australia’s simmering culture of individualism and self-determination—women are continually conditioned to be quiet, contained, helpful and unquestioning. We are occasionally profiled in the direct aftermath of bushfire, yet so rarely get any media attention during the rebuilding phase or the bureaucratic battles surrounding Black Saturday. The extremely gendered, culturally masculinised 2016 CFA dispute emphasises this. As Megan Tyler from Victoria University writes:
Given the masculinised and militarised nature of emergency management and disaster response [in Australia] it is misleading to consider these areas through a gender-neutral lens; they must be understood as profoundly intertwined with particular constructions of masculinity.5
A maternal and child health nurse for women with postnatal depression, my mother dealt with the aftermath of Black Saturday both professionally and personally. Bureaucratic, emotional, social—the problems caused by unprecedented bushfire arise in various ways, with women often holding a central role in addressing and containing the resulting hardships and crises, in particular a displaced and often destructive masculine anger. However, my mother’s quiet constant strength and achievement is not something I see reflected well in the national bushfire narrative. The women of Black Saturday and other disasters—both natural and otherwise—are chronically undocumented, still. As for children, apart from stories about new bikes and new beds, their stories of bushfire-related trauma also remain untold.6
Messmates, manna gums, silver wattle: my high school, Healesville, was surrounded by mixed eucalypt forest. Our history classes embraced the cultural myopia Australia is beginning to be globally known for. We learnt about Captain Cook’s meal choices rather than the iconic local Indigenous leader and ‘King of Coranderrk’ William Barack. The inherent absurdity of this is heightened when you consider that our school almost neighboured the Aboriginal reserve Coranderrk (functional from 1863 to 1924). And this colonially skewed curriculum, although arguably slightly improved in 2016, continues. In reference to Bruce Pascoe’s recent book uncovering this history made foggy by colonisation, Wiradjuri writer Hannah Donnelly writes:
[Pascoe’s] Dark Emu was so powerful it decentralised my own personal narrative of colonisation. Assimilation means that colonial myths have been bred in my blood too. I wanted to cry when I realised my own understanding of our towns and villages pre-colonisation was wrong.7
White Australia’s national doggedness in denying both climate change and 60,000 years of Aboriginal agriculture is leaving us increasingly at a loss. While the country burns, and not in any prescribed way, Australia’s self-congratulatory mainstream media is instead focused on reinforcing the idea of the great Australian spirit, resilience and community—which may be there, but which dissipate, quickly for many, when the ash blows. I still remember driving up to our bare block six months after the fire: even the frenzy of men, and they were always men (moving things, burying things, posting things: ‘Enter property at own risk’), in the immediate aftermath of Black Saturday had left. The debris of burned-down houses has been cleared for different kinds of remnants: faded coke cans, a single work glove, cigarette butts pressed into muddied earth.
The disproportionate anger directed towards police commissioner Christine Nixon on the night of Black Saturday so neatly highlights white Australia’s simmering patriarchy. Understandably, communities affected by the fires were initially shocked by the lack of communication among emergency services, yet Nixon was very quickly caricatured as an overweight, and therefore lazy and stupid, parody of herself in the media. And Australia—so often unable to admit past failings—desperately needed a scapegoat. Surrounding the release of Nixon’s memoir, the press did not focus on the achievement of being Australia’s first female police chief commissioner, but on the controversy surrounding her choice to proceed with a dinner function on Black Saturday.8 Page one of the Australian followed suit by publishing an image of Nixon eating cake, and headlines referenced ‘Hungry Nixon’—a woman failing to follow her ‘gut instincts’. As Claire Harvey writes: ‘Here is a woman who can’t control her appetite, according to the pundits in newsrooms and living rooms. That’s a moral question, apparently: if she cannot manage her own body, how can she manage anything else?’9
If the most politically powerful women are subject to body shaming, instead of well-considered criticism on policy or performance, young Australian women will grow up trying to self-protect in a way that actually silences them. As the first Young Poet Laureate for London and survivor of a man-made disaster, civil war, Somali-born British poet Warsan Shire writes, ‘We live in a world where the worst thing a woman could be is at peace with her body. We are obsessed with destroying, controlling and colonising everything.’10
Similarly, in Don Watson’s The Bush, the writer’s Gippsland farming heritage is chronicled along with white Australia’s stubborn shaping and generalisation of ‘The Bush’—a broad, umbrella term for many different kinds of Australian landscape. As Watson writes, ‘collapsing into a single word or image tropical rainforest and mulga, and all the ecosystems in between, is a natural enough convenience’. Like the Australian landscape, women are increasingly being forced into the dominant idea of Western beauty. It is one that does not allow for women’s varying features, differing greatly between the 3.52 billion of us. Recalling his childhood home, Watson writes:
The aim of the paddocks was as for the veranda and kitchen—to make a world without blemish. Making enough to live on was the first imperative, but an aesthetic of spotlessness also drove our efforts. Only in what was clean and orderly did the possibility of beauty exist.11
There were so many I’m-sorry-you-lost-your-homes in the years following flame, yet no real discussion of the wider implications. When your house burns down everyone wants to know what was left over, after. Nothing, the answer I often gave, was met with a perplexed gaze and perhaps a few clarifying questions: Not even any photos? What about jewellery? A colonial/capitalist Australian mentality links self-worth to accumulation of material objects, making us disproportionately terrified of their sudden disappearance.
Comfortably desensitised, we’re distracted by the mainstream media’s white noise. The Herald Sun’s post-fire images of ash-smeared firefighters—along with the social media–friendly photo of the thirsty koala drinking from a water bottle—trump those of increased domestic violence, suicide rates and alcoholism during bushfire’s lengthy recovery process. The national conversation shies away from issues at home, those that linger and are not neatly narrated, for pity stories of ‘third world’ failings—often regarding climate-spurred disasters of somewhere else—along with soft news stories to eat dinner to. It’s easier to shy away from a problem that will soon face many; and climate change is more difficult to ignore when you wind up on the wrong side of the increasingly saccharine news. But unless you’re a bloke, ‘hard-yakka’, or a woman, huddled, do not expect to be interviewed—the lavender-lipped reporter, in her halfhearted costume of high-vis and Blundstones, brand new—knows what story wider white Australia wants.
The chemical smell of burned insulation fleece; a wave of oven-door heat; the low bellow of an emergency siren over town: my sensory memory of Black Saturday only occasionally resurfaces as a dull thud felt in Brunswick East streets. Soy lattes, ochre linen and cafés serving things I order though cannot name: the city offers a welcome, yet guiltily accepted, distraction from something that will increasingly confront us in a warming world—the politics of climate-caused disaster.
As our stories of fire and its byproducts—smoke, charcoal and ash—become increasingly common, the simplistic Australian bushfire narrative needs to evolve. Inner Melbournians will continue to pause in the hot gridlocked February streets—smells of the burning bush blowing over. Yet, instead of returning to offices, melting macaroons and iced teas in tow, we need to really see the future of a continually warming world. It looks apocalyptic, it looks scary, but it is looming. It is not the myth of the Aussie battler—an everyday bloke on his roof, tinny in hand—that will save us. It is a new narrative.
- John Berger, Ways of Seeing, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1972, p. 37.
- Debra Parkinson and Claire Zara, ‘The Hidden Disaster: Domestic Violence in the Aftermath of Natural Disaster’, Journal of Disaster Management, vol. 28, no. 2, 2013, <https://ajem.infoservices.com.au/items/AJEM-28-02-09>.
- Parkinson and Zara, ‘The Hidden Disaster’.
- Schauble is a senior adviser to Victoria’s fire services commissioner and a CFA brigade captain in a high bushfire risk area on Melbourne’s outskirts. This quote is taken from his lecture, ‘Lost in the Flames: The Missing Great Australian Bushfire Novel’ from the ‘History of Emotions’ lecture series at Melbourne University, 5–6 December 2013.
- Megan Tyler, ‘The Country Fire Authority as an “Extrememly Gendered” Organisation’, College of Arts, Victoria University paper, 2013, <https://www.tasa.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Tyler.pdf>.
- One exception is Neil Grant and David Williams (eds), From Kinglake to Kabul, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2011. This is a collection of student responses to disasters, natural and man-made.
- Hannah Donnelly, ‘The Unnatural Way of Things’, the Writers Bloc, 2016, <http://thewritersbloc.net/unnatural-way-things>.
- Nixon defended her actions, stating: ‘It was not my job to swoop in and take control. When you have good people who are more skilled in emergency management than I am, you let those people do the job.’
- Claire Harvey, ‘Christine Nixon: What the backlash is really all about’, Sunday Telegraph, 11 April 2010, <http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/opinion/christine-nixon-what-the-backlash-is-really-all-
- Warsan Shire, ‘Shame’, Tumblr, <http://warsanshire.tumblr.com/post/26349680113/shame>.
- Don Watson, The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia, Hamish Hamilton, Melbourne, p. 36.