In late 2019 early 2020, 33 Australians died, nine of them fire fighters in devastating bushfires. More than 3000 homes were destroyed, and more than 17 million hectares of land were burnt to such an extent that the impact could be seen from space. Losses to 113 animal species were sustained across the country and critical range was lost to many more. We didn’t have time to come to terms with this before Covid-19 arrived. But the pain lingers, and many people and communities have grief wounds which remain unattended. JULIA GRIEVES has been listening to their stories.
Psychotherapist Lewin de la Motte has looked after an area of land 30 kilometres west of Bowraville for most of his life. His mother bought the property in 1979 and up until the devastating bushfires of 2019-20, Lewin had been heavily involved in native plant regeneration there, as well as working with it as a base for facilitating regular workshops on nature reconnection and ritual.
“There was a firestorm that came through the valley at 80km an hour with a 40 metre high wall of flame,” he explains, of the fires that devastated the area in 2019-20.
He describes the place like anyone who knows a place so well, he talks of it as a close friend: “It’s a place of wild stillness, rugged and dry Sclerophyll forest. It was once rainforest before it was logged. There were patches of rainforest on the property but mainly dry eucalypts on steep hills.”
“It’s on the border of Dhanggati country and Gumbaynggirr country, and the property name, Jun Jaree, supposedly means ‘happy spirit’, but we haven’t quite been able to trace it back.”
Lewin alternates between using present and past tense. Fortunately, he wasn’t on the land when the fires hit.
“I’d left and gone down to Sydney and luckily had got my stuff out a week beforehand,” he explains.
I Just collapsed
“I had had this gut feeling that something was coming and this feeling that the fire was going to jump the ridges even though Rural Fire Service (RFS) had been containing it for a month. I knew I couldn’t prepare because my place was on a ridge and it was very steep. So I wasn’t going to be able to defend it, just far too dangerous.
“With the help of friends I managed to get all of my things. But the house, everything else was lost”, Lewin explains.
“I was in the middle of the city in a park when I heard the news”, he continues flatly.
“And I just collapsed. My three friends who were there just surrounded me and held me in the park with all these masses of people around.”
He pauses with a slight chuckle, perhaps remembering the dissonance of hearing the news in such a contrasting urban environment.
When Lewin first went back, the feeling was eerie.
“The loss of the trees was the hardest aspect. I was kind of in shock as we were driving up the coast. The whole way next to the highway was completely burnt out, so we kind of knew what was coming. There was this sense of preparing for what we were going to see.
“When we got to the property it was just an immense quietness. No birds – that was the first thing I noticed, the lack of bird sounds, and the space.
Negative space, an eeriness
“It was already a spacious place but this was like a negative space, an eeriness, where previously there had been all these gullies and valleys and dense bush, it was now just space. It felt really wrong, really disorienting.
“What I really remember though was this bizarre experience where I crawled straight up the steep mountain – the ridge that would usually take 15 minutes to get through the bush – I just went straight up through the ashes. For some reason I decided to crawl and I could almost feel the destructive force of it all through me. When I got to the top of the ridge I came to the mango trees and I think that did it; I just wailed.
“These old 80 year old mango trees. I just sat and sobbed and wailed. The grief could really come through me. Maybe the grief of the land too.
“By the time I walked back down I had kind of come back into myself and I felt like the experience had really shifted something for me in the grieving process.
“I’d had so much holding and anticipation for that moment and then just to release was really powerful. Since then it’s been a slow, gradual thing, a wave that comes through… less like the crashing wave that it was that day”.
Lewin attended to his grief as the days went on by cutting off his hair and burying it under the 300 year old grey gum that sits next to what used to be the house and somehow managed to survive.
That small but significant gesture, a ritual, helped him.
“Ritual enables feeling, and an embodiment that would otherwise be inaccessible; it drops us into a wider web of support and understanding that is constantly available to us, in addition to our own thought process around grief.
“Ritual and ceremony are these doors into embodiment and greater meaning,” he explains.
Strengthening the ropes of connection: Lewin guides us in ritual.
As a trained psychotherapist who has built a practice in wilderness therapy, Lewin has guided ritual and nature connection practices for many people at Jun Jaree over the years.
For those who don’t have much experience with forms of ritual, there are a number of ways of approaching this.
“Find something that is authentic and feels natural for you; find a process of connecting to land, connecting to your body and your emotions and connecting to a wider web, whether that’s people, or place, or environment,” explains Lewin.
“Ask yourself – what can I do in my grief to stay connected to my senses? What can I do to stay connected to the place I’m in? – even if the place you’re in is in a state of destruction. What is the nature of that place that I can still connect to?”
He adds: “Movement and embodiment really helped me stay out of the dissociation, like the crawling up the mountain that day. Also having people there to witness with you, if possible. I mean we’re all embedded in some form of community. So it’s actually about strengthening those ropes of connection and not buying into the technological ropes of disconnection that we so often believe are our only connection. Remembering those people with their feet on the ground who are around you”.
Lewin went through the death of his father at a young age and he feels there are many similarities with the grief over the destruction of a place.
“There’s this loss of self that comes with it, this loss of identity, loss of place in the web. When my Dad died I wasn’t mature enough to know how to support myself through grief as much as I do now. Back then I stayed in numbness. I found my way back down to earth very slowly with my Dad’s death. But with this one it has been swifter”.
The destruction caused by the fires raises questions that feel relevant as we begin to process and attend to the losses that have already occurred, and further planetary losses that are undoubtedly set to come: How do we find our way back down to earth amidst what has been destroyed? How might we protect ourselves from going numb?
To help deal with the unique grief, associated with losses of land and country, see the following:
- Eco-grief/eco-spirituality leader, Joanna Macy also talks about despair work at: https://workthatreconnects.org/resource/joanna-macy-befriending-your-despair/
- We will soon be sharing the story of Sue Lennox, and Bellingen’s Resilient Communites. Is this a model that would suit your community? To find out more, go to: https://www.ozgreen.org/rc
- The Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation provides Indigenous leadership, advocacy and action to protect Country through cultural fire and land management practices. Go to: https://wwwifiresticks.org.au
- For a comprehensive review of the 2019-20 bushfires, go to: https://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp1920/Quick_Guides/AustralianBushfires
- For more on grief over the 2019-20 Australian bushfires , go to:
- For a fictionalised account of the impact of the fires, go to: http://iview.abc.net.au/show/fires
- Writer Blue Robinson wrote this beautiful poem reflecting on impact of the bushfires, which didgeridoo player William Barton accompanies. Find out more bout that here