At the time I write this, Australia is burning. I’d planned to post on a different topic, but I can’t get my mind off the fires that are eating up our forests, killing wildlife, domestic animals and humans, destroying farms and small towns and livelihoods, and filling the air with choking smoke, even in cities like Sydney and Canberra. This cataclysmic event dominates our media. There are the dramatic stories – evacuations in small boats through a thick smoke haze under a dark red sky; heroic deeds by our firefighters, many of them volunteers; the woman who carried a burning koala to safety, wrapped in the blouse she had stripped off. (The koala was transported to a wildlife rehabilitation centre but later died of its injuries, one of many thousands of innocent lives lost.) There are the tragic stories – a woman dying of a heart attack after being evacuated from the smoke zone; a father and son, both pillars of the community, perishing in their car on a lonely road; a farmer weeping as he shot his burned cattle one by one.
I live on Australia’s west coast. There are fires here too, but (so far) not on the same scale as those in the east. I won’t launch into a political rant about our current federal leadership – this is not the place for that. But people are angry. They’re furious. And people are hurting. Not only those who have suffered personal or business losses, but also those of us struggling to accept the destruction of habitat that will take many, many years to regenerate, if indeed it can, and the mass deaths of our native animals and birds, with some species likely to become extinct. This could have been ameliorated, if not prevented, had our leadership heeded wise advice on climate change years ago. They also might have agreed to a meeting requested by concerned fire experts after last year’s unusually hot summer. That they did neither is hard to accept. I’ll allow a more informed and more fluent voice to speak for me about this.
On the heels of this disaster comes rage, and with it despair, anxiety, and often a feeling of helplessness. The scale of the destruction is so vast, and without insightful leaders I doubt our capacity to prevent a recurrence next summer, and the next, until there’s nothing left to burn. It’s all too easy to lose hope, and with it the will to act. So what can we as writers do to address such a situation?
The strongest tool we have is our writer’s voice. It allows us to speak up about what matters to us. We can do that in all sorts of ways – just as well, because writers are by nature a mixed bunch. Here in Australia we’ve seen many people who work in the creative and performing arts leap into fund-raising action, with some stellar results. Comedian Celeste Barber raised a phenomenal $40 million within just a few days. We’ve heard passionate voices, not all of them Australian, using the forum of the Golden Globes award ceremony to spread the message. Every donation counts, whether it’s five dollars of saved-up pocket money or the million or more from an international celebrity.
This morning I saw a sad and beautiful art work posted on Facebook, of a weeping figure representing Nature cradling a koala to keep it safe, while she herself was on fire. The artist, Melina Mitchell, posted fund-raising links and generously agreed to let people share the piece. This struck me as a wonderful way for a creative artist to help, using her talent and her social media network. This image has now been shared quite widely. You can find it on her artist page.
Other writers I know have written and shared poetry, opinion pieces or accounts of their personal experiences during the fire. It’s not always for fund-raising, though I’ve been impressed by writers here in Australia who are auctioning everything from signed books to critiques to mentoring sessions. We need people’s wise thoughts and observations and their balanced appraisals to help us get through any time of great crisis. We need stories to keep us strong and balanced, and to give us heart. That includes stories that on the surface may seem purely for entertainment. A group of romance writers is working on an anthology of stories about firefighters, with all profits to go to an appropriate charity, and they’ve received a wonderful response. I salute their creativity!
Use your voices, writers. Don’t fall into despair and inaction. Rise above tragedy, rise above difficult times, stay strong and wise. Perhaps you cannot change the world right now. But you can spread a message of truth, and you can help others hold on to hope. You can console and cheer and warm, you can stimulate creative thinking, you can awaken people’s curiosity and lead them down new pathways. You can be a light in the darkness.
How will you use your writer’s voice in 2020?