Written by Eliza Henry-Jones
Bushfires have always been in my life, but peripheral. The fires of my life have been ghosts, rather than monsters. Light and ephemeral. Not consuming. I’ve driven through them in the bush and watched television footage of my family’s house engulfed by smoke in the hills. I’ve evacuated and I’ve watered down embers. I’ve grown up with stories of the world, blackened. Bushfires are not my story, but they’re the stories of my friends and my family. They’re the stories of my home.
People take notice of the weather, where I live. They notice when it rains and when it doesn’t; they notice the wind and know very quickly which way it’s blowing. They know what it means when the gum trees along the side of the roads begin to drop their leaves.
Their nostrils flare at the smell of smoke in summer.
I’ve written about the place where I live before. There is a magic here that I keep trying to capture. I’ve written about the curving roads and thick mountain ash; the tree ferns and lyrebirds and wide hillsides of vineyards and orchards. A place that enchanted me when I was young; a place I dreamt of for years before I moved here. It’s a place where nature is still felt acutely; where buildings and roads yield to the curving of the earth. Where winds and rain and heat can still isolate us from the rest of the world. Where we have a generator in our shed for the days when the power goes off; where our water and gas and sewage are all off grid. Living here is very different from living in the inner suburbs of Melbourne, where I grew up. The same birds nest each year and raise their young in our orchards. We have wild lizards breeding in our stables, their tiny, fierce little babies hissing at us from garden beds of rhubarb and pumpkin. My home feels solid during winter. In the cold and the dark, it morphs into something that almost seems like part of the land – lost in thick mists and sheets of sleeting rain. It doesn’t feel safe during summer. I am aware of the wood that makes up its shape; the high verandah; the eaves. I am aware of all the places that embers might get in and the way that fire might catch on the eucalypts clustered close by, thick with oil and dry from summer.
In summer, the plans I make are tenuous; dependent on the heat and rain. I wrote much of the last draft of Ache as the sun flared brightly and the wind carried embers and the smell of smoke across our cracked paddocks. When I think of Ache, I think of the hills. Of the trees and birds and the colour of the earth. I think of summer in the ranges and the valley. And how much the world here shifts between seasons.
I read bushfire stories when I was young, although I couldn’t find very many. They’re something I’ve always been drawn to, trying to understand the experiences of the people most important to me. Trying to grapple with the darkness of this place I always dreamed of. Reading is how I’ve always tried to understand the world, but there was so little fictional writing on bushfires, so little given what a large space they occupy in the collective mind of Australia. I think the power of fiction in portraying trauma and grief is not in the single portrayal of something huge; but rather in the collection of ways even the smallest loss can be explored, across genres and generations. How a work exploring bushfires becomes part of a constellation. It’s shape against the shape of others.
In this way, the power of fiction is like the power of place. Found in the shape of a hot little lizard or the shifting of a wind gust. Found in the towering shape of mountain ash and the cloaked call of a lonely lyrebird.
Eliza Henry-Jones was born in Melbourne in 1990. She was a Young Writer-in-Residence at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre in 2012 and was a recipient of a Varuna residential fellowship for 2015. She has qualifications in English, psychology and grief, loss and trauma counselling. She is currently completing honours in creative writing – exploring bushfire trauma – and works in community services. She lives in the Dandenong Ranges with her husband and too many animals.