The bush still burns

Trying to find the ups and downs of the disaster down under.

A kangaroo rushing past a burning house in Lake Conjola on Tuesday.

Australia is finally getting the world’s attention. For a small-ish and remote nation this is not every-day fare – but neither is the current situation of fires spreading, homes being destroyed, and Aussies becoming refugees in their own country.

Or is it? Bushfires are definitely nothing new for Australia. The even refer to it as the “bushfire season,” almost something you would casually hear in the weather report.

My own brushes with fire
I’ve seen my share of action while visiting and living in Australia. I was in Melbourne on Black Saturday in 2009, scorching in the 45-degree heat, and seeing fires first-hand from the air on a flight to Sydney that night. These are my photos:

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Weeks later, I could see the smoke from the same fires in New Zealand, more than 2,000 kilometres away.

My parents’ house in Sydney bordered on a small patch of woodland. They were spared during their nine years living there, but I clearly remember one time while I was visiting, where a blaze had sparked across a nearby gulley. Coming back to the house from a brief walk I found my mother hosing water on the house, the car packed with passports and photo-albums, just in case. The wind turned the other way, however, and we avoided evacuation.

In the local church, I recall a guest speaker from the U.S., who had titled her sermon “The bush still burns,” in reference to the old-testament story of Moses and the burning bush. The unintended pun did not go un-noticed, as this was high season for fires. It was also in this church I first experienced modern people seriously praying for rain.

All of this happened in the 2000’s. The fires in Australia are no laughing matter, and they are not new. This year is different in magnitude, though.

Disaster gone wild
Months of drought have fueled massive fires which have burned down more than double the size of Denmark, destroying thousands of homes, razing entire towns, killing 25 people and more than 1 billion animals.

Badly hit areas include places I fondly remember visiting, such as the Blue Mountains and Batemans Bay, NSW, and Kangaroo Island, SA.

Image result for australia thirsty koala

Images of thirsty koalas, red skies, and people fleeing by boat have gone viral. In my native Denmark, for instance, the Red Cross have had to set up a donation fund based on popular demand, which has already attracted donations of more than AUD 50,000 in just a few days.

Mallacoota mother Allison Marion took this photo of her son Finn

(If you do want to donate, I recommend ADRA Australia, who have a strong local presence in Australian communities.)

Climate change or human folly?
The big question, though, is why. And this is where it becomes nasty, because people in power – as with most other issues – do not agree.

One consensus is blaming climate change, fully or in part. The New York Times pointed out that “Australia is normally hot and dry in the summer, but climate change, which brings longer and more frequent periods of extreme heat, worsens these conditions and makes vegetation drier and more likely to burn.” This is not untrue.

They also took a stab on the country’s energy policy, which has long favoured fossil fuels. But they fail to recognise that climate change is a global issue, and Australia’s emissions are only a fraction of global outputs. The climate will change or it will not – it’s not a revenge game played by the weather gods on those who failed to cut emissions.

But climate change is not the only answer. This piece in the Daily Telegraph recently pointed out the frustration from farmers, who are repeatedly told “now is not the time to have that conversation,” only to see nothing happen until the next fire a few years later. What they do point out, for instance, is the repeated lack of hazard-reduction burns – which might have prevented at least some fires from spreading as viciously as they have.

This map shows the statistics across each state of Australia where people have been charged for lighting fires

Finally, a series of arson cases are adding fuel to the debate, enabling some politicians to hide behind one-sided arguments and battle each other, instead of doing something useful.

I think the reality is not one simple answer, but a combination of factors:

  • Australia is dry and hot, and always has been.
  • Climate change and other weather phenomena are making it even more so.
  • Human interventions have not been enough, and have been marred by red tape and ideologies.
  • The morbid appeal of lighting a bushfire is a real threat, as are inadvertent lightings.

My hope is that this great nation comes together not only to fight the fires and help the victims (human and animal), but also actively enact measures that can make a real difference in alleviating the threat in the years to come. I think everyone can at least agree it will not go away on its own.

Destroyed property in Conjola.

Ten years and ten thousand miles away

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It is a painful realisation to accept that today ten full years have passed since I left Australia for good. So why even bother to reminisce? Melancholic narcissism aside, I think it is important to recognise a place and a phase which has affected my life immensely, even though the impact has become less tangible over time.

When my parents left our native Denmark in 2000 to live in Sydney, I did not physically or legally move with them. My life, studies, and work were here, and I was happy to build my own life and adulthood in Aarhus.

I did, however, travel down under to visit almost once a year, and over time, I came to accept Australia as my second home by choice, weird as that may sound. It was certainly a wonderful holiday setting, but it became more than that; I gradually started making friends locally and getting under the skin of this fascinating country’s culture, history, and national spirit.

After a total of seven visits, the eighth and last one was different still. This time I went to stay for almost a year, bringing my would-be wife with me, with no fixed plans for the future. At the time, we were somewhat open to staying permanently, and while things didn’t work out that way, we have often thought about it in the years since.

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We moved back to Denmark in 2009, and later that year I reflected,

“With eight visits over the course of nine years, Australia has given me much more than just an accent. It has been my home away from home, a source of constant joy, an always-welcome refuge, an endless summer, a wide new world, a spring of inspiration, and a never-ending dream.”

And again in 2011, I wrote,

“Sitting on the train, watching my umbrella dry, my mind wandered south. To another world, another hemisphere where summer should now be approaching. A world in which rainy days are an exception, where the wind doesn’t threaten to blow you over, where people smile and welcome you, where everything is beautiful year round, where you don’t exclaim ‘Oh, the sun!’ as if it’s a rare visitor. A world of beaches, surfers, barbecues, friendly people, world-class business and dining, kangaroos and koalas, possums and kookaburras. A world down under, but in most ways coming out on top.”

Even today, ten years after leaving, thinking about Australia brings a pang to my heart. I still call Australia home. I really do. But I don’t think about it daily or even weekly anymore.

So what happened? We settled. Randomly, perhaps even half-heartedly, we settled. But settling is good. We have a good life, a wonderful family, and a good home. And as my children grow up, this part of our past becomes gradually more distant, as memories they were not a part of in a country that is not their home.

However magnificent those memories are, my obligation as a parent is to live in the here and now and focus on the memories which we create every day for our girls. They may not take us anywhere near Australia for the time being, but that is secondary to the daily calling of building a home full of security, stability, and love.

One war to remember, and one to forget

One hundred years ago, a force of Australian and New Zealand soldiers landed on a beach in Turkey, as part of the Middle Eastern campaign during World War I. Kemal Atatürk’s army wielded fierce resistance, and between them the two armies successfully killed more than a hundred thousand people at Gallipoli.

For the young Australian nation, losing 8,709 soldiers was a massive tragedy, and the event was a strong unifying force. Ever since, April 25 has been celebrated as Anzac Day commemorating the tragedy.

As with WWI in its entirety, many have wondered what, exactly, they were fighting about. Thus, while Anzac Day can serve a patriotic purpose, it should also be a reminder of the atrocities of war. Eric Bogle’s chilling song “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” captures it well:

“And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore.
They’re tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, what are they marching for?
And I ask myself the same question.”

Today, 10,000 people, mostly Australians are gathered in Anzac Cove in Turkey for a memorial service. Turkey and Australia became friends and allies soon after the war, and they acknowledge a shared tragedy in Gallipoli.

It is ironic that modern Turkey welcomes today’s commemoration, but vehemently opposes the one yesterday: the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Same war, same empire, different enemy. Across Europe, Turkey’s envoys raise the same objection whenever the massacre of the Armenian people is remembered: “hey, we didn’t do it”.

The foundation of peace in Europe is built on forgiveness between neighbours who readily acknowledge their previous mutual aggressions. It would become Turkey if it could live up to its atrocities towards neighbouring people, and not only those on the other side of the world.

Sydney is a State of Mind

The summer that never was finally ended. Never mind that last weekend was exceptionally warm for October, setting records all across Europe. When I got up this morning it was much darker than yesterday, colder, and raining. There are still limits to global warming, apparently.

So sitting on the train, watching my umbrella dry, my mind wandered south. To another world, another hemisphere where summer should now be approaching. A world in which rainy days are an exception, where the wind doesn’t threaten to blow you over, where people smile and welcome you, where everything is beautiful year round, where you don’t exclaim “Oh, the sun!” as if it’s a rare visitor. A world of beaches, surfers, barbecues, friendly people, world-class business and dining, kangaroos and koalas, possums and kookaburras. A world down under, but in most ways coming out on top.

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Walking in the dreary Danish autumn twilight, I can smile and think of that other world. I can relish the hope that lives on in a dream which will never die.

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But Australia is not just a dream world. It is for real, and even after many visits and the extended stay of a year the passion never waned. Does that mean the place is perfect? No, of course certain downsides could be mentioned (long travel times to the rest of the world, poor traffic planning, minor xenophobic sentiments), but only the first one is a real discouragement. Too good to be true? I have still not come to that conclusion.

So often, and in so many ways, I still call Australia home. It has been two and a half years since we left, and we are still in the process of settling in as Copenhageners. I wonder if I will ever settle in, or settle down. Is it just wanderlust? Or is it the frustration of having to choose between two countries with no obvious compromise available?

Gratitude

Oz 14-107It is with mixed emotions we celebrate Thanksgiving today.

We have a lot to be thankful for: each other; family and friends in close vicinity; job, house, material needs fulfilled; an opportunity to spoil ourselves and others with loads of great food. This is our first Thanksgiving as a married couple, and the first in our new home region of Greater Copenhagen. We live in a home with plenty of room for occasions such as this, and I’m looking forward to tonight’s festivities.

On the other hand, I look back to last year’s first and only Thanksgiving in Sydney. And this very week, my parents have left Australia for good, moving east to the U.S., the home of Thanksgiving. While this will give me a chance to return once again to my childhood home and doubtlessly bring countless new experiences, I’m leaving a big part of my heart down under.

A year ago, we were thankful for the good experience of coming to Oz to live, and for good friends that we were able to spend time with. And with eight visits over the course of nine years, Australia has given me much more than just an accent. It has been my home away from home, a source of constant joy, an always-welcome refuge, an endless summer, a wide new world, a spring of inspiration, and a never-ending dream.

Australia was where I proposed to my wife, and where we did much of our wedding planning. And especially this time of year, with Denmark turning dark and cold and wet, my heart wanders south. To a place which, in one sense, is no more. But in another, it still lingers. We are not done with Australia. The dream never dies, but more than that, we will return – somehow, someday.

My parents may have moved on, but – to quote Peter Allen – I still call Australia home.