Liz Stringer

Country On Fire

 

 

Me and my cousins Caroline and Jonathan. Mansfield, circa 1983. 

As I woke on the 2nd of January 2020 in my room at my brother’s place, where I stay when I’m in Melbourne, the reality of the last few weeks shuffled doggedly back into my conscious mind. Every morning, these days, my body floods with fear. This is what my nephew’s future feels like. I need to start mourning more pointedly the country, and the climate, that I grew up in. I fluttered around my room from my piano to my guitar to my books to my phone like a trapped, sick bird – the heat outside already humming on the glass doors out to the backyard, smoky from the East Gippsland front. And I watched the miners, standing motionless in patches of shade with their beaks open. They are trapped too. When will it end?

 

Jordie texted me. My old friend Jordie, a source of comfort and stability throughout my preceding decade of intense change and incessant movement. He asked me whether I wanted to put on a bushfire fundraiser with him. “There is something we can do, Liz”. And with that, he provided me with a temporary salve to the dark sickness of anxiety that had begun to spread slowly across my vision. Instantly we both directed our anger and despair into the thing that musicians do, out of necessity, as much as playing – organising.

 

It was a sanity-rescuing gift to be able to channel this fear that all of us feel so acutely into actuating positivity. And it’s a low rumbling irony that despite belonging to one of the more economically marginalised professions, being an artist has allowed Jordie and me, and countless others around Australia and indeed the world, to help facilitate significant fundraising and community mobilisation. Our communities are our institutions and our connection is our currency. And at this juncture in human existence the question is deafening. What can I do?

 

I was in familiar country in Victoria not long ago. My heart, my whole body was aching with a deep sadness that whatever is left will not be for long. With the stark and brutal reality of our future having faced Australians every day for months, let alone the years of drought and failing crops, the contingencies are now being rolled out and put into place. How do I love this country and at least try to give back some of what we’ve taken while I still can? I took my tea down to the dam, closed my eyes and listened as a symphony rose from the trees and the grasses. I tried to picture the Taungurung mobs here on their country. Before the rabbits and the willows and the rampant clearing of towering gums and scrub and the compounding of the fertile soil by slow, trampling hooves. I imagined how deafening and alive this place would once have been, how teeming and dense and fecund. How could I ever truly grasp the profundity of the damage done in only 240 years and the depth of the mourning for this country that had begun long, long ago?

 

There is so much sadness at the moment. And yet we are perversely privileged to be witnessing that which is occurring for the first time and which will never happen again. We watch the tipping unfold in front of us as we clutch the ancestral baton in sweating hands, rounding the bend into the last straight.

 

I yelled about Scott Morrison and his government at one of our Melbourne benefit shows. My body was rigid with anger, the blood rushing around my face. I’ll continue to do what I can to fight the LNP’s despicable apathy and self-interested obstructionism. But what’s happening is beyond Morrison. It’s beyond politics and science and god. It’s bigger than everything and it is everything at the same time.

 

Jordie went on to organise fundraisers in LA and Nashville, with fellow Australians Bex Chilcott and Cameron Potts. I joined them for the latter show. The overwhelming comfort of being among my international musical kin was a further salve. The fear generated by the Australian bushfire crisis has transcended borders as people around the world have watched, horrified, as the events were unfolding in our romanticised paradise. The offerings of love, solidarity and support and their benefits are real, and although not as practical as those yielded from the actual dollars and cents raised to support the people and the animals who have lost everything, it becomes clearer to me, daily, the power and potential in togetherness and community.

 

For those of us who haven’t lost loved ones or homes or swathes of beloved bush in this ongoing horror, life necessarily goes on, a cork bobbing along the surface of a stream that surges and seethes menacingly underneath. I have found myself grasping at every moment of fresh air and sunshine and running water. I am more present with my nephew, I’m tasting food properly, I notice how different materials feel on my skin and take the few minutes every now and then to watch the old magpie couple who live in the tall gums in the park opposite my brothers place. I see that these birds have their story and bring up their young and eventually become empty nesters again and that they fuss over the neighbourhood kids playing on the equipment, allowing themselves to be chased by the smaller ones. This is their house too.

 

There was so much I didn’t see before. So much I didn’t understand or value or cherish. And I take seriously my role as a member of the planet to put energy back into the grid. To take only what I can give back. Something I should have done a long time ago.

 

 

 

 

 

February 13, 2020

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