CONTENT WARNING: NSW/Victoria Bushfires, Climate Change
“It will be fire” – the unceasing echo of David Harsent’s 2014 poetry collection, Fire Songs. Harsent’s apocalyptic images of environmental catastrophe and damnation seem, read today in one of the worst bushfire seasons ever seen in Australia, apposite and freakishly prescient.
The collection of poems is bound in flames, metaphorically and literally. Contained within are four eponymous ‘Fire’ poems around which all else is structured. Fire’s power to cause ruin – to human life, to love and truth, to the earth and our environment, and to human reason – is one of many leitmotifs that run through the work: “it burns. Whole libraries on an updraught. Cascade of wings. / Substructure meltdown. What the night-sky brings. / Ashfall. Stars failing, fading. Unbreathable crosswinds. / Torrent of wildfire”.
The poems, with their images of destruction and environmental catastrophe, call up images of the bushfires that have caused wide-spread devastation over the southeast of Australia and been ever-present on news and social media platforms since September last year. 2019 was Australia’s hottest year on record, 1.52 degrees Celsius above the long-term average recorded by the Bureau of Meteorology. This eclipsed the previous record of 1.33 degrees Celsius above average set in 2013. In fact, every year since 2000 has been above average, with the five hottest years on record all falling since: 2017, 2018, 2005, 2013 and now 2019. The conclusion is obvious: Australia is getting hotter.
This has come hand-in-hand with harsher bushfire seasons. At the time of writing, this 2019 to 2020 season so far has brought the destruction of 10.7 million hectares of land, over 5900 buildings and killed 29 people. Towns along the coast of NSW, in Victoria and in southern parts of Queensland have been devastated by bushfire damage to property, land, livelihood and life. The human cost of these fires is immeasurable.
The fires are of an apocalyptic nature mirrored in Fire Songs. In Fire: End-Scenes and Outtakes, Harsent’s image of a town bears resemblance to towns currently devastated by fires: “the crackle and flare / of phosphorous, mother and child taken up as one, / the horizon ablaze, just as the fires / rolled in on the settlements”. A similar image is created in Fire: A Party at the World’s End: “the trek / to the sea under thin white skies, the firestorms at their backs, / their burdens, their weeping cries, the way the line / would lean as if for emphasis into a driven pall / of dust and dreck”. This bears resemblance to people in Cobargo and Mallacoota (and Batemans Bay, Jervis Bay, Bermagui, Mogo, Nowra, Moruya…) seeking refuge from the bushfires on beaches and the coast.
The smoke currently enveloping NSW, Victoria and now even New Zealand also has a parallel in the collection. In the poem Icefield, “there was a time… when the skyline was set / clean as a scar on glass… now the horizon’s a smudge; now there’s a terrible weight / in the air and a stain cut hard and deep”. Icefield, coincidentally, was commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia, an agency now fundraising for the bushfire emergency. Smoke emanates through the work, folding, shrouding, covering, choking, of a nature with which we are all now familiar.
Also contained within the collection is a ternary poem Tinnitus, split between three sections of the work. Here, Harsent manifests the human propensity for lies within a central metaphor: “a single note drawn out / beyond imagining, / pitched for a dog or a rat / by a man with a single string / on a broken violin…. too sharp and shrill to be anything but lies”. This false and urgent shriek changes to the clamour of violence in the second section: “rough music in the lane, / the love-child lapped in blood / and safe at her breast, the pain / echoed in wood on wood, / steel on steel, as they come”. Finally we only hear the rattle of approaching chains: “now chains on gravel. Make of it what you will. ” The trajectory is from lies to violence to judgement.
Truth is absent and lies are everywhere in the collection. In Fire: Love Songs and Descants, the written word is thrown on the pyre: “so leap these on, letters, cuttings, poems, diaries, notebooks… everything said wrong, everything said in haste”. Old writing, old lies, are described as “all that’s left of counterfeit and fear”. Perhaps this is a response to our current state, replete with echo chambers, agenda-heavy media, ‘fake news’ and information overflow. Even in the current bushfire crisis we have seen some of it, in the ‘disinformation campaign’ carried out by fake social media accounts pushing arson as the cause for the fires, undermining the connection between bushfires and climate change. The Fool at Court is a poem of a single couplet – there is, after all, no substance to a fool – that could truly be applied to some modern-day politicians: “he wears seven colours in his coat and lies / with the Queen at night, and lies and lies and lies.”
With these parallels, Fire Songs seems to prophesy. Written in 2014, it is, in this respect, similar to many environmental studies conducted through this century and the last of the dangers of accelerated climate change. Many studies warned of an increased risk of bushfires due to rising temperatures, the increasing length and severity of droughts, changing rainfall patterns and other climate change-related phenomena.
For example, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Co-Operative Research Centre has been modelling the increased occurrence and severity of fires – which they suggest is highly likely tied to increasing temperatures in Australia – since 2003, the year it was founded by the Australian Federal Government. Similarly, the 2018 combined report of the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO showed a one degree Celsius increase in Australia’s climate since 1910, an 11 per cent decline in rainfall in southeast Australia since the late 1990s, and long-term increase in extreme fire weather across large parts of Australia.
Many studies appeared to predict the 2019 to 2020 bushfire season catastrophe, such as the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review, which stated: “recent projections of fire weather suggest that fire seasons will start earlier, end slightly later, and generally be more intense. This effect increases over time, but should be directly observable by 2020”. Similarly, a report from the Climate Institute of Australia predicted the number of days with a ‘very-high’ fire danger, by the Fire Danger Index, to increase by up to 30 per cent in NSW and Victoria by 2020.
We have been given the information necessary to put in place protection mechanisms, safeguards and adaptation strategies. The failure to do so before this catastrophe has resulted in the widespread shock and anger at political institutions over Australia. That our governments have ignored such warnings is justifiable cause for anger.
Further cause for anger is the lamentable lack of effective climate change policy; in the recent 2020 Climate Change Performance Index, Australia was ranked worst out of all 57 participating countries, with “the dismissal of recent IPCC reports, the government not attending the UN Climate Action Summit in September, and the withdrawal from funding the Green Climate Fund”, as well as the failure to propose renewable energy or emission reduction targets, resulting in the lowest possible overall score, 0.0 out of 100.
We are not acting on climate change. Bushfires are a catastrophic and manifest danger that have resulted directly from increased temperatures. The devastation caused to lives, homes, livelihoods and land are only direct consequences. We are also facing decreased food security and increased cost, displacement and bushfire refugees (adding to the millions upon millions of people already displaced in the context of disasters and climate change worldwide), damage to our water treatment and supply infrastructure, and a serious water shortage – country towns in NSW and Queensland are approaching Day Zero for water, and it’s only mid-January. There are also many other dangers of climate change: longer and worse droughts, rising sea-levels, the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef, of rainforests. Fire Songs again prophesies: “it will come to fire, so they say, despite the roar and roll / as continents calve from icefields, as rainforests fall, / as the sea first takes the lowland then takes the rest, / fire nonetheless, fire on the skim of the sea, fire at the core”.