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River Red

My father-in-law Andrew loves a long drive with visitors, usually to go see trees. He will drive halfway to Cudgewa to show you a lonely cork oak in the ruins of a schoolyard. Or the far side of Tumbarumba to walk a bosque of sugar pines, a cathedral of old-world trunks amid logging coops. He’ll take you up the dirt-side of the Murray to a derelict arboretum, fire-bit and choked with blackberry yet home to a dozen rare specimens, some sown by Ferdinand von Mueller in the late 19th century.

Closer to home at Jingellic, Andrew will shift the Toyota into low gear and head up the forest track beyond his farm’s back gate just to show you an unusual branch, a circular one spotted on a slow solo drive one afternoon. A circle that someone, at some point in the last few centuries, bent and spliced at a spot overlooking one of the prettier stretches of the Upper Murray Valley. A birthing tree perhaps. Who knows. So much has passed and only the trees still stand.

River red gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) dominate the flats below the house. Each gnarled tree has character in spades but one in particular has extra pull. The one Andrew and my mother-in-law Anne will take you to stand near, if you’re up for a wander. Its power comes from its immense trunk and canopy, ten metres in girth and thirty metres high. You have to crane your neck to take it all in. It is home to countless birds, bats, insects, reptiles and gliders, but it is also special because it is old, because of the time that has passed since it germinated from a seed of a single millimetre.

The tree has witnessed every change on the banks of Australia’s largest river for the past 500 years. From a recent family wedding to massive flood events not recorded in newspapers anywhere, it has seen more of life than we will ever know. It has weathered every peak and trough in successive waves of European settlement, back beyond the passage of the first explorers and long before it received a scar the shape and size of a Wiradjuri canoe. It has stood in red gum forest on both sides of the main flow, and perhaps midstream when the Murray was braided and uncontrolled and ran a more meandering course. The tree makes you wonder about the deep past, and our future, though most of its life remains a mystery.

FIRE POURS OUT OF THE HILLS a few days after Christmas, lit by lightning. All morning it keeps to the bush, but by late afternoon the fire is big and hot and unrelenting, reaching onto the farm in long streaks. It takes a few goes but it burns nearly everything. Eucalyptus, kurrajongs, figs, cattle hooves and udders, every last blade of grass. The maples finally getting away along the laneway are cooked too – the mulch around their base keeps the fire hot. Soon the farm is black from backblock to riverfront, despite the efforts of fire crews and the farm team.

A young volunteer firefighter, his first kid on the way, loses his life. Sam McPaul is on top of a ten-tonne truck when it flips. Another volunteer is trapped underneath and severely burnt. I hear this and think they must have turned awkwardly on one of the steep hills. But no, they were on the flat and the truck flipped end-to-end, a toy tossed by wind from the fire.

Much later, Anne shows me a phone video taken from the far side of the river. The mountain behind the house is dwarfed by an immense vortex of roiling smoke and flame corkscrewing to the heavens. It’s a firestorm – the sky is on fire and the fire is making its own weather. The pyrocumulus column is mountain-thick, eight kilometres high and roaring like nothing you’ve ever heard.

Andrew, his son Tom and the rest of their team are working a front at the other end of the farm when the column hits cold air in the stratosphere and collapses. Wind smashes out in all directions, flattening the forest higgledy-piggledy and blowing out the gullies with staggering force. The truck is in the wrong place at the wrong time – a little more forward or back it might’ve just rocked on its wheels. A firefighter in another unit a smidge to the side later describes the instant – the sky flicks from red to pitch black and their truck is pelted with scorching debris in the dark. When the light returns, it’s clear to see a narrow line of destruction. It runs straight through the upturned vehicle and on to a tangle of poleaxed trees at the river.

The fire jumps the Murray at multiple points up and down the valley and rips through the Victorian bush too. It destroys farms and hamlets all the way to Corryong, travelling eighty kilometres overnight and incinerating pine forest, fences, fields, homes and bush alike.

Though other buildings are lost, Anne and Andrew’s house is okay. A local contractor dozed a berm around the house in the morning. Firefighting units, including Tom’s own driven over from Holbrook, wetted down all the buildings as much as possible before the front hit. All the chooks keel over from the heat, though, and every last garden leaf curls up brown, from the big elms to the magnolia at the kitchen window.

Alethia Casey. From A Lost Place photographic series, 2020. Photographic print, brushed with ink.

At some point, the firefighters retreat to protect the townships and other homes under threat up and down the river. Anne and Andrew’s farm looks done. But the farm team is still there, and stay at it deep into the night. They try to smother flare-ups still chewing through anything that remains. Mostly their efforts are unrewarded. At times they wait for the fire to show its hand, then try to get in behind it, outflank it to extinguish the flames. But every time they look up, there is fire burning all around and in the end it all turns to black. By three or four in the morning they’re just about spent.

Andrew looks around in the night. The sky and hills are jewelled by fire scraps and zinging embers. There’s a strange beauty to it. Something that’s difficult to express alongside such loss of life, but it’s there, nonetheless. Tom recognises something of that too. He also describes being in the middle of it, the hills all around him on fire. The grim scenes, the charred cattle, the burnt-out, up-turned truck that remains in the paddock for weeks. ‘It was just like a normal bushfire, but more.’ He says. ‘Like a lot, lot more.’

Later, Tom sometimes gets a split-second start when he sees cloud low behind the hills. Memory of the fire lingers. But back in the wee hours, while still fighting the fire, he starts to feel something like relief. It can’t happen again now, not for some time anyway.

As they’re returning to the house for a rest, Andrew sees the fire getting up in the last untouched stretch of swamp, right at the foot of the big River Red. He considers the other parts of the farm they could still defend. Most of what’s left can be replaced, but not this tree. Not a gum that old, not when so many have already been lost. The tree is like a friend too, a presence in their lives. And an even older friend of the land around it.

On a day when all their efforts have seemed futile, this big old gum is still worth trying to do something about. Andrew gathers the rest of the farm crew and they descend to the fire one more time.

ANNE RETURNS THE FOLLOWING DAY with fuel for the pumps and other supplies. The fire front still rages in the distance. She picks her way along the River Road around fallen trees and powerlines, most just a shadow of ash on the ground. Only buckled metal crossbeams remain. Curls of smoke rise from blackened stumps. Slow flame still eats at the detritus of collapsed buildings. A pall of smoke hangs over everything and not a skerrick of life can be seen. The scene is otherworldly.

Friends and strangers follow in Anne’s tracks, almost immediately. Some have driven through the night from far afield to help. Mainly other farmers. They assist with cattle – euthanasing the injured, burying the dead, loading uninjured survivors onto trucks destined for Tom’s farm. They reconnect water and power services, and set to myriad other tasks that precede a full scale clean-up, the enormity of which is too great for one family and their exhausted staff to address on their own. Andrew says it is the most overwhelming thing, this unexpected help, and deeply affecting.

WITHIN WEEKS, the land greens again. It’s almost a surprise. Paddocks become lawns of native microlaena, or weeping grass, named more for its growth habit than what it follows. The bush, too, becomes vibrant again, bright with epicormic growth popping against the background black. Not all of it, but a lot. It lifts the spirits.

Andrew tells me within a day of the fire passing he sees lines and lines of ants carrying seeds across otherwise barren, blackened dirt. I also hear stories of dams having a dozen or so lyrebirds camped in them till the fire passed, of marsupials and reptiles creeping out of holes, having survived. There are other hopeful stories. Stories about communities coming together during and afterwards, the outpouring of volunteer effort from across Australia to help people rebuild and recover. They’re stories to hold dear, to hold on to against the knowledge of what has been lost, what we are hellbent on losing.

DURING AUSTRALIA’S 2019-2020 BUSHFIRE SEASON, thirty-three people died, more than 3000 homes were lost and eighteen million hectares burnt. The fires in South Eastern Australia alone, including the Green Valley Talmalmo fire that started behind Anne and Andrew’s, eventually burned 1,506,193 hectares. Prolonged dry conditions meant fire behaviour was erratic and hard to predict. An unprecedented number of fire-initiated thunderstorms occurred. Excluding insects, more than three billion animals are estimated to have been killed or displaced. In some areas, loss of plant life – and seed in the soil – was total. Some species and unique habitats are now believed extinct.

An avenue of pin oaks has been planted along the River Road at Jingellic to commemorate Sam McPaul and honour the community’s efforts during the fire.

The Jephcott Arboretum at Ournie, established in 1874, survived again.

The 100-year-old sugar pine grove at Bago State Forest was destroyed. Some of the timber has been salvaged and a new plantation established.

The big River Red still lives.

Other people along the Upper Murray Valley suffered far greater devastation to their lives and livelihoods than Anne and Andrew, though at their farm much remains lost. The ancient kunzea are gone forever. The farm laneway has odd bends in it that no longer round trees. Andrew says he can’t pass where some old eucalypts once stood without thinking of them. ‘They had so much character. Like old friends, you know?’ He has not looked for the circle tree again.

I ask Anne about the losses. She says some have been replaced, but mostly she tries to find other things to look at.

Post cover image: Alethia Casey. From A Lost Place photographic series, 2020. Photographic print, brushed with ink.