I’m writing this having just come back from a morning walk up the road, enjoying a sight we haven’t seen in much too long in our area—water running and singing to itself in ditches, water puddling on roadsides, water rushing into dams and tanks…Rain, rain at last! Good rainstorms over the last few days and other showers scattered over the last few weeks, with more forecast to fall in the next few weeks—cross fingers!—has meant that in our immediate area at least, things are looking more hopeful. Here in our high-country region of northern New South Wales, we have been enduring what appears to be the worst local drought since records began in the mid-19th century–we received only one-third of our normal annual rainfall in 2019. Paddocks have been turned to dust, farmers have had to sell or send away livestock, and large numbers of trees have died, especially on the free-draining granite country just to the west of us. Our own heavy clay soil might be a pain to work with in terms of gardening, but it does hold water better, even when you don’t particularly want it to. Trees have died even on our own block, including sixteen tough old cypress pines that well-predate our ownership of this block, and which my husband David has had to cut down due to their becoming a fire risk. Our thriving vegetable garden, pride and joy of green-thumbed David, has had to be abandoned for the moment, apart from the perennials.
It’s not only drought that haunts us, but fire. As people around the world know from the news, Australia is going through a terrible bush-fire (wildfire) season which most recently has seen massive, deadly firestorms tear through large swathes of southern New South Wales, parts of Victoria, and Kangaroo Island in South Australia. Earlier, dangerous fires also broke out in areas such as the Blue Mountains just west of Sydney and other areas close to the national parks that surround Australia’s biggest city to the south, north and west, while Tasmania and Western Australia have also experienced some fire outbreaks. Here in my high-country home region of the Northern Tablelands in northern New South Wales, the fires came even earlier, from September onwards. Conditions have eased in this region now since the most dangerous period across northern NSW and southern Queensland in November, when people died and many homes were lost. The weather has improved slightly and of course the brave and tireless work of firefighters has meant the threat in our area has lessened, though some fires in inaccessible forest and gorge country are still not quite put out. New ignitions and flare-ups are still a worry, exacerbated by the effects of the drought—all those dead trees attracting lightning strikes and, of course, hot days or windy ones drying out the country yet again. So firefighters are vigilant and all of us take nothing for granted, even now with that lovely rain. Like most people in all too many areas of Australia right now, we closely monitor the ‘Fires Near Me’ app which shows you up-to-date information on any fire outbreaks within your nominated watch zones. We’ve got to know well the color-coded fire alerts: Blue meaning ‘Advice’ (there’s a fire at this location but it’s not a threat yet); Yellow meaning ‘Watch and Act’ (the fire is a threat, get ready to go) and Red meaning ‘Emergency’ (leave at once if it’s safe, seek shelter immediately if it’s not). And we keep our ‘getaway’ bags packed and near the door—bags that don’t only have essentials, important documents, clothes, medicines, etc, but also a selection of those personal things you know you can never replace…
Ah, that selection! When the fires first started appearing in our region back in September, I began the process of trying to decide what to save from our many many treasures if the worst happened and our house was in imminent danger of fire. It was very hard—I was frequently in tears doing it. What about all my books, the ones I’ve written, the antique ones I’d collected, the big collection of signed books by other authors which I’d gathered? What about all the paintings and other unique artworks we’d so lovingly collected? What about the beautiful hand-made furniture created by David? But we could only have one extra bag other than the essential ones, one bag which had to be not too big, not too heavy, and easy to wheel out at a moment’s notice.
So in the end, what went in that bag were: things from my childhood and David’s, things from our children’s childhoods which I’d kept, such as drawings, school reports, little ‘magazines’ they’d created; a few family heirlooms of various sorts. Photo albums, too, of course, though as we have so many, I only put in a few of the very old ones and took lots of photos of photos of others on my phone, saving them to USB and computer along with old family videos and films, and sending them to our family Whats App group as well so everyone would have copies. I put in the folders full of family history stuff that I’d learned over the years, and accounts my parents had written for me of how they’d met, and their time together before they had us, which I’d asked them to pen several years ago. Some early writings of mine—poems, stories, the beginnings of a novel—which I’d written as a teenager and a scrapbook from my last year at school also went in. I put in a book my father gave me which is a very rare treasure: a handwritten ‘wayang kulit’ (Indonesian shadow-puppet) playscript from late 1950’s Java. My father had bought it when they were living there–I was also born there, by the way. I put in the precious folders of letters from many other writers, illustrators and other book people, both from Australia and overseas, with whom I’ve been corresponding over the years, ever since I was just starting out myself as a young writer and which is another great treasure. And I put in diaries—a diary I kept as a 12-year-old, another as a 16 year old. Not sure why those survived into adulthood, when others vanished. Into the bag also went more recent diaries, too, not the normal everyday diaries I have on the desk now, but the much more detailed yet less frequent journals I’ve kept since 1989, just before the birth of our youngest child, which have accounts both of big personal and family events and occasions as well as my own personal take on big things happening in the world beyond our home. In went the literary diaries I’ve kept since 2007, which honestly record the ups and downs of the literary life, and travel diaries I’ve kept for the last ten years, but only for ‘special’ periods of travel, such as when I was in Paris on a writing residency for 6 months in 2010. So many other things I couldn’t put in, including my own books and signed books by other people: though my heart clenched with sorrow at the thought of losing them, they are print books and could be replaced, though the signatures couldn’t, of course. Copies of my own books were also, I knew, deposited in national and state libraries, so they wouldn’t be lost, and I’d already given some manuscripts and other publishing documents to our state library.
Like I mentioned earlier, things have improved in our district now, and as we start the new year with some good rain, we are feeling more hopeful—though nowhere near confident—that the worst of the fire threat in our immediate region at least may perhaps be behind us now. But, just in case, the bag isn’t unpacked yet, and all those intimate, familial and precious items within it haven’t yet found their way back onto shelves and in boxes. And it’s only now that I’ve had really a chance to think about it properly.
It wasn’t planned, the selection of the items in the bag; it was instinctive, born of gnawing anxiety verging on outright fear—and what I realized as I’m writing this is that apart from the photos and a few other types of things, such as childhood mementoes and family heirlooms, all the other items I put in that bag were to do with the written word: and not just that, they were to do with the handwritten, unpublished, unmediated word. What does that mean? I am not sure. All that I am certain about is that I felt compelled to save them, and that I knew that even if I’d had time or opportunity to scan or photograph them, they would not give the same feeling or have the same intimate meaning as when you physically crack open the cover of an old journal or unfold the pages of an old letter.
What do you think?