On a day like this it is inevitable that at some time fire will start. It’s just the where and the when. Later it’s the how and the why. Maybe a dry lightning strike, one of those fronts from the south teasing with her dark clouds but carrying nothing but thunder and forked tongues of lightning. Maybe a spark from heavy machinery, a steel blade dragged across rock, maybe a hot exhaust on dry grass, a careless camper ignoring the fire bans and cooking billy tea mid-morning, or an arc from a welder or a spark from an angle grinder. Fires happen here, it’s part of the cycle, part of the circle. Sometimes it feels as if the country wants to burn, all that combustible material leaning in, leaning close, the wave of tall dry kangaroo grass and the ribbons of candle bark. In 40 degrees it all wants to burn and as the day heats up the trees will shed more leaves and more bark. The air heavy with eucalyptus oil, all waiting so patiently.
They say that this country, like everywhere else, will heat up, that there will be more and more days over 40 degrees, that there will be less rain, stronger winds, it will all dry out quicker. Doesn’t take much to realise that we will get a fair few more bushfires.
Every small community has a fire brigade, a fire truck or maybe two, the whole village fights a fire. We have modern equipment, pagers, fireproof gear, four-wheel drive, 3,000 litres of water, retardant foam, huge Psi, multiple hoses, all to throw at the fire.
The pager goes off mid afternoon, buzzing and whistling, and I don’t even stop to look at the details, just grab the bag with my boots and helmet and overalls. It’s breakneck speed for the two miles down to the fire shed, who ever turns up at the fire shed will crew the tanker. You don’t choose the crew, time and space, fate dictates. If you get on to the tanker, you work together. In some way we are lucky to have a common cause, a common enemy to fight, it’s one of those rare things in life that brings us together, asks us to work as one.
And when the extent of the fire is seen, tankers are called from all the communities in a great broad circle around the fire. From Boho and Creightons Creek, Marraweeny, Ruffy, Tatong, Violet Town, Caniambo. They come out of the hills and the flat country heeding the call, all manner of people, dropping whatever they were doing to fight fire. When I first saw this, all the willingness to come and fight, it blew me away. This unwritten law of aid, we all fight the dragon together, stand side by side, as one day it will roar over the back fence of our homes. It is well into the night before we rest up.
So the fire has burned 1,200 hectares of forest and scrub and high grazing country, no lives lost, no houses or sheds destroyed, the edges are contained and now the crews must go back over the country and black everything out, extinguish burning stumps and fenceposts, fires still funnelling up through hollow eucalypts. This can take days, and it must be done. Save the next day into the 40s with a high wind, could pick up a spark or ember and carry her glowing five kilometres and here we have another fire. I guess it’s a thankless task , but it is a more relaxed and stress-free task than facing a fire head on.
We meet down at the fire staging area at 7.30, there are 24 tankers going over the country. I am a crew leader, means I control the tanker with a crew of four. It’s my job to make the calls, the risk assessment, to look after the wellbeing of my crew, hydration, safety, protection. I take my orders from the strike team leader. The strike team is made up of six tankers.
At the briefing I’m handed the maps, our sector of patrol, and briefed on the task ahead. The community has come together to feed and refresh all of the firefighters, and we are fed a good cooked breakfast. Then it’s out to the fire ground there to drag fire hoses up the sides of rocky hills and down through dry creek beds.
So just before hopping on the tanker, I stop to take a piss. Here in the urinal by the football club oval is a large black house spider. She is soaked and drowning, drowning in our collective piss. And brave me stands above her, me the big fireman, the hero of the day, and I can’t for the life of me summon the courage to rescue her, to hook her out of the piss trough. Because something in me can’t stand to raise the jeers of my fellow firefighters, those big burly blokes in yellow. What if they caught me bending over the pisser, hooking out a little bloody black spider, something that most of the world would be happy to screw into the ground with the heel of their boot. So I leave her there in the urinal with the vague hope that she will crawl out. And I carry her around all day.
I’m thinking of the parts in the old stories where the mouse is asked to remove the splinter from the lion’s paw, where the hero is asked to step aside from his quest and rescue the drowning bird, to guide the beached pike back into deeper water and to give his last meal to the hungry wolf, that place where we are asked to wonder from our tracks and projections, to help, to perform a small task to maintain the fabric of nature. And I’m not thinking of these tasks as a way to some unseen reward, to the hand in marriage of the lovely princess, to the holy grail. I’m thinking of these tasks as an absolute responsibility to the world that we live in.
I’m wondering how much louder that lovely spider could call to me. That maybe if she were to cast her golden web about my head and to scream in my ears, oh, then I’d rescue her. No I’m afraid not, I’m still stuck in the world of appearances and I’m bloody sick of it. When my shift that day was over I returned with my tanker and crew intact to the staging ground, filthy and exhausted. I went back to the urinal and there she was, that lovely black spider, as I expected, dead. Drowned in our piss.
There has come a point in my life where the old tales and passed-down stories, they have begun to seep in, where mythology so hems its way into nature, where its every word is so intricately woven into the fabric of time and space, its delicate golden threads skate precariously through the unseen and just for the briefest of moments flit into the seen. There are kings and heroes, brave knights and scaly dragons to fell, there are lovely eight-legged damsons to rescue and possibly a princess is bound and trapped at the top of a doorless tower.
Our ancestors asked us to listen and to look, to pay attention to the details, the inlaid filigree of minute details that we are faced with moment by moment. And if chance and circumstance should have it we can for a moment shake our clumsy learned habits of looking good and saving face and shake off the caked-on layers of shame, then perhaps there is a possibility that we can actually meet this world full in its beaming face. You see to listen and to watch, to truly inhabit our common senses, is to begin to speak the secret language of the world, the language that we two-leggeds have forgotten. The language of creation.
I’m one of those lucky people that gets to live and work in part of the world that is still filled with birdsong. There are still chance meetings with the otherness of the world, with ringtail possums and wombats and sugar gliders. I can still gaze up into the sky and see a wedgetail eagle floating at an impossible height, the yellow-tail black cockatoo still brings news of coming rain and in late winter unruly mobs of firetail finches dance through my garden. I guess there was a time when we all spoke this broader language, when our meetings were part of a much more intricate speech, and our here and now was a far, far wider plane.
I have to tell you now how that spider entered me, how she crept inside, whilst I was busy fighting fires, how she has built the most intricate web deep within my consciousness, in a corner unhurried by breeze and human movement somewhere deep in the centre, between potential and regret. Here she waits, with all her lovely patience, waiting for the minute vibrations, the frightened beating wings and heart beats of tiny insects. And when she moves, when those long black limbs and knees begin their deliberate path to the kill. When her skinny spider shins and fingers tickle some part deep within, then this is when I’m alerted to the world around me, to move out of my mind and into the greater sphere of being.
Tears still well up all these months later.
However there is a kind of postscript to the story. The next time I was out on the fire truck was in late winter. We were burning some piles of brush on a road that heads into town, there’s four of us, burning of these piles. And on the side of the road there is a dead tawny frogmouth owl, she has been hit by a car, maybe the night before, her eyes are still bright. She is beautiful, her feathers and plumage the softest shades of grey. Those eyes, that depth of night pools, that doorway into another world. I’m holding her cradled in my palms, wishing her back to life. I’m squatted down by the side of the road, a rake in one hand and a dead owl in the other. And I’m suddenly brought back to the world around me by my fellow crew members standing in a circle around me. ‘What are you doing with that dead bird, Simmo?’ And I’m so happy to be holding this, this lovely otherness in my hands, there is no embarrassed or ashamed. And I hold her up and point out the miracle of her feathers, the curve of her beak and the depth of her eyes, I uncurl her claws and the conversation turns to being a vole and the surprising hurry of death as the owl attacks and night vision and the calls of nightbirds. And why plovers make their nests out in the open. And I’m not surprised that my fellow firefighters are intrigued and enchanted by the otherness of nature. And here I am standing with the last tawny frogmouth in the world, and by the way gentlemen if nobody here minds she will be riding in state in the front of the fire truck, and of course nobody does mind. So she comes home with me, and she’s buried out by one of the big peppermint gums by the gate.
And deep inside, a black house spider returns to her place in this vast web to watch the world.