This painting developed over a long period of contemplation on the dynamics of natural relationships. Specifically, bushfire, human endeavour and luck after the Cudlee Creek bushfire (Friday, 20 December, 2019).
A reminder of perpetual change, the crazed texture represents erratic wildfire and reactions from flora, fauna, and humankind. The crimson haze represents the pink retardant dropped near the Lobethal Woollen Mill from the Boeing 737 water-bomber aircraft.
Sense of Place
The Cudlee Creek bushfire did not erase our sense of place. Most people returned to live and work and build and rebuild, but much of the flora and fauna didn’t. Things changed. Obviously. Naturally.
Two years later, there are weeds where once unique biodiversity lived. Trees stand on their heads, their charcoal torsos reaching for the sky with flurries of bright green leaves sprouting from the earth like bumfluff. Brand new houses nestle atop memories of the old. And thoughts of before and after bolster the multiplicity of place, the sense of attachment, and commitment.
The naming of this painting still raps on the door of my conscience. Do I have the right to say what delighted firefighters on that traumatic day?
No, definitely not.
Did I imagine their relief when that borrowed Boeing 737, laden with pink retardant radioed an ETA? Logically, you might say. But, relief is not the same as delight.
In using the word delight, I’ve simplified a traumatic event. I’ve assumed a raspberry-ripple kind of ice-creamery delight; a Hollywoodesque cheer from the ground for a foe-vanquishing almighty saviour. And in the metaphor overdose I highlight the pitfalls. ‘Delight’ is too cheerful and side-steps the staccato visions of that day, slapped together like gunshots of news bulletins, wailing sirens, panic, and an aircraft encumbered sky—there’s nothing sweet or heroic about it.
The knowledge that things could have been very different manifests as a condensed form of postmemory, but not for later generations (not yet), for those who evacuated. Stories and images shared in the days and weeks afterwards created bushfire trauma memories for evacuees like me. I heard the stories of what happened and what might have happened. Say, the wind had done this, the Government done that. Imagine if we didn’t have the Country Fire Service, or if embers and firestorms landed elsewhere. Imagine? In another place. Luck looks wildly different to everyone.
I had returned home to the aftermath: the blackened horizons, smoking hills, charcoal trees, razed homes and bloated koala carcasses. I heard the pain in shaking voices relaying their experiences. Their memories. My memory, second, third, fourth-hand, plays it over and over like a movie: A place, ravaged.
The threat was very real, and as we sat safely at a friend’s kitchen table, 25km away, we had an inkling of the worry of losing our ‘place.’
Ours remained an inkling, a faded feeling today as we carry on in our 90-year-old home. The vulnerability that we experienced shifted to responsibility, in support of others whose inklings became reality.
For those who stayed, fought and witnessed the bushfire, and for those who lost so much, the word ‘delight’ is inappropriate as a name attached to that day. And just because it was my initial thought of inspiration as an artist, doesn’t mean the name is permanent. Maybe it shouldn’t be named anything at all, removing it as a social object—removing it as a comment on an event, a time, a place. Removing its power to conjure meaning and emotion for many Australians who’ve faced similar devastation.
Simulacra and Space
The representations of
Firefighter’s Delight on this blog are separate from the painting’s physical state and place: hanging on a wall in New South Wales. It’s thousands of kilometres away from the place it represents, or as close as the nearest digital device.
Its new owners can call it anything, something or nothing. It is still an object in its own right, with unfinished stories, creating new human memories in a new place.
The painting formerly known as Firefighter’s Delight is an image on my screen, in my memory. Its name is erased. It is an absent presence, much like my imagined delight of firefighters at the sight of the Boeing 737 water bomber flying towards them.