A new type of seaweed, I thought. Black – I haven’t seen this here before. But it isn’t seaweed, washed up on the beach this morning. It’s ash. We’re 25km south of the fire that has just ravaged over 70,000 hectares of forest between Batemans Bay and Bawley Point, where I first lived when I moved to the coast. I drove 35km through that forest every weekday for 6 months. But the numbers don’t add up. The forest is dead. The buildings are protected, the human homes saved. But the trees are gone and with them the nests, the birds and the insects, the lizards and wombats, the life. And its dust is washed up on the tides, carried away by the ocean, deposited here to let us all be reminded – a great fire is coming and we are all in line.
I’ve gotten used to the Shearwater carcasses lining the shoreline by now. But this is new – a colourful parrot, strewn across the beach, and then a magpie. Charred by the fires and thrown into the waters, to be spewed up here by the ocean. We can only imagine the horror of its last moments, its world incinerated by a monstrous explosion of fire, its feathers burning crisp as it crashed into a death spiral and the waves below.
There have always been fires, like floods and droughts, in Australia. But the ferocity, the intensity, the extent of their devastation is new. This is what scientists warned us about 20 years ago and this is what fire chiefs reiterate now. Now we reap what we sow. Centuries of farming for what we could get, on this land, and millennia of profiteering across the globe, behind it. The relentless logic of capitalism, built out of the greed that drove colonisation since the age of agriculture began, turbo boosted by the machine age of industrialisation and now the exponential skywards march of the digital age. Straight up, go the growth figures; and straight back down, they will come. This is timeless wisdom, dressed up as prediction, made easy by the stupidity of our ‘leaders’.
I still swim in the salty sea waters I love. The ash isn’t too bad once you’re in. The scent is off-putting, though; not as bad as burnt hair, but a whiff of death is in the air for sure. The sun glows an eery red but the surfers are still out too, looking for a wave. I still go to work. Life goes on. But it’s changing, this year, and it’s going to keep on getting worse while we fail to face, let alone act on, the realities of anthropogenic climate change. The crisis is washing up on our shores, just as it is lapping at the feet of the Pacific Islanders, melting glaciers, extending deserts and torching even rainforests. While our ignorant PM waffles on about the cricket and anything but the emergency, the only ashes that matter this summer are already here.
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