In Hobart for a week last month – the week after fires raged across the island state, consuming tens of thousands of hectares of land. Forest, homes, businesses, agriculture. Firestorms were claiming the mainland too, feeding on the dry country. In Hobart, stories were exchanged as disaster response mounted and someone tells me that, on the Tasman Peninsula, flames leapt a two kilometre strait on high velocity winds. Stories of survivors who just barely outran the rampant flames to seek refuge in the sea. My partner and I drive through that country after the threat was downgraded. Unable to find a suitable opportunity to volunteer to contribute to the disaster response, we ventured out, appreciating the importance of tourism to regional economies that are rebuilding.
Having been nestled in the cool comfort of the bayside city, where we attended a music and art festival that pulsed in an auditory world of experiment and hope, we were ill prepared for the scenes of devastation that remained in the wake of the voracious fires. In the tiny town of Dunalley, charred chimney stacks stood upright amid the cindered remains of homes along the highway. People walked through the blackened and ashen landscape, sometimes talking to others, sometimes alone. Sifting through rubble in some vain hope that something might be salvaged. The sullen quiet was punctuated by the machinic and vehicular sounds of rebuilding. Trucks sharply beeping as they reversed. Electricity wires being redrawn. Roads being cleared. It was deeply moving, even challenging – as we drove by the emergency centre, with its orderly temporary village of tents and cars, we were shaken. As we drove by a group of volunteer firefighters parked at a roadhouse, their exhaustion was palpable.
Smoke continued to plume on the mountain slopes further afield. The vast tracts of burned bushland were bereft, with no birds or other signs of life. There’s always silence after disaster strikes. The silence engulfs, like the roar of the disaster itself. Our own home state of Queensland had experienced extensive flooding in 2010/2011, when 75 per cent of the state was under water. When the flooding engulfed Brisbane, the news footage captured the roaring and churning brown river which was ordinarily placid and meandering. Last month, north Queensland experienced its first cyclone of the season – although minor compared to 2011’s category five Yasi, with its winds that roared across the ocean and waves that pounded the coast and clawed at the ground. After weakening into a rain depression, it crawled along the much of the eastern coast with howling winds and beating rains wreaking wreckage.
A while ago, when I was bike riding, a grass fire broke out; it quickly scampered along the bike path and into the dry wetlands. I was intrigued by the sound, by how hot and smoky it became in such a brief time, by how loud it became as it sparked from gently crackling to exploding combustion. Fire is part of this country’s ecology and our national scientific organisation cautions that we should accept fire as an ecological process. Australia’s notoriously extensive bushfires are inflamed by rambling winds, dry conditions and eucalypt bushlands. Their roar must be deafening, audible for kilometres. In Australia’s poetic imaginary, there is an unnerving acceptance of the land as one of ‘beauty and terror’, ‘of flood and fire and famine’. It has become an ingrained acceptance of extremes; sometimes it seems complacent. The acoustic ecology of disaster is issuing warnings in tune with the acceleration of climate change. The eminent scientist Dr Tim Flannery once said that should the western ice sheet of Antarctica break, it will be heard as far away as Sydney. The acoustic presence of climate change is heard in the soundings of biodiversity, tipping points, habitat destruction, extinctions, and natural disaster. It is heard at scales and ranges previously unknown. The earth is roaring.