Last week the Shaping the Modern program hosted ‘Fire Stories’ at the University of Melbourne, a conference dedicated to examining emotional responses to fire across the ages. The event brought together academics from a range of disciplines, curators, survivors of bushfires and even fire-fighters in what turned out to be a fruitful, cross-disciplinary gathering.
Following on from the ‘On Species’ symposium, hosted by the Australian Centre on December 4, ‘Fire Stories’ began on a high note with a beautiful Murnong Song. Performed by artist, Indigenous languages expert and Wurundjeri woman, Mandy Nicholson, the song engaged with fire through the Murnong flower, which regenerates after a burn. Danielle Clode of Flinders University then gave an extraordinary keynote, exploring emotion and evolution in response to bushfires and addressing issues like risk-taking and preparedness.
Papers through the day included a panel by CHE members Richard Read, Giovanni Tarantino and Charles Zika, which explored fire-fighting, Apocalypse and the interpretation of ‘fire from the sky’. Michelle Smith, Kate Rigby and John Schauble addressed bushfire-writing for both children and adults, sparking a stimulating debate as to why there are so few novels that are centred around this form of fire. Education and Outreach Officer, Penelope Lee gave an inspiring lunchtime floor talk at the Dax Centre, where she gave delegates a taster of the Bushfire Exhibition that will open in 2015.
In the afternoon, Malcolm McKinnon, Lindy Allen and Donna Jackson spoke of their work ‘Illuminated by Fire’, which drew in members of the community and encouraged them to respond creatively to the idea of living with fire. Another panel, featuring Tom Bristow and Joshua Comyn, considered representations of fire in contemporary writing. While Joshua presented a detailed consideration of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and its apocalyptic undertones, Tom spoke of the fear of fire that haunts John Kinsella’s Jam Tree Gully. John Kean, Irena Zdanowicz and Eric Riddler formed a wonderfully diverse panel, which examined a range of artistic responses to fire. Jessica Sun, Jane Southwood and Aleksondra Hultquist represented a more literary group, looking at fire in the works of Aphra Behn, John Donne and Marguerite Yourcenar.
The last panel of the day was presented by Christine Hansen and Amanda Reynolds, who offered two wonderfully complementary papers. Christine used the chilling phrase ‘all gone dead’ as her starting point to consider two different fire stories, separated by 170 years. Amanda spoke of her collaborative work at the Melbourne Museum’s First Peoples exhibition, telling the story of Waa the crow and his gift of fire.
The day ended with an outstanding keynote by Bill Gammage (ANU), whose talk built on his research into indigenous fire practices in 1788. ‘Burn, and burn regularly’ was Gammage’s advice to modern-day land managers, as he pointed us to the past for lessons on how to live with fire in this sunburnt country.
Day two began with an energetic and wide-ranging study of beacon fires by Alan Krell (UNSW/CoFA), whose astonishing talk moved from flames in ancient Greece to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Arguing for a reading of the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria as a form of monumental sublime, Krell also considered signal fires as emotional markers or beacons. Lauren Rickards, Terry Twomey and Jana-Axinja Paschen delivered an excellent set of papers, which revolved around emotional landscapes, paying particular attention to that most emotional of issues, climate change. Rachel Fensham and Andrish St Clair offered a panel addressing performative responses to fire, which was followed by a dance performance in which Ellen Davies demonstrated a balletic response to the bushfires of February 1926, ‘Spirit of the Bushfire’. The breathtaking performance was organized by Rachel Fensham and accompanied by Jack Tan, who provided an excellent rendition of Schumann’s Sonata Opus 22 on the piano.
The afternoon saw bushfire survivors present on their experiences, with Daryl Taylor theorizing some of his own fire memories. Katrin Oliver talked about her experiences as a social worker, helping Black Saturday survivors to deal with trauma through creative work. Artist Louise Foletta then spoke of the danger to her farm on February 7, 2009, while showing a selection of her extremely powerful paintings of the catastrophe. Artistic responses to fire continued to be a key concern for art therapist Janine Brophy-Dixon, who spoke of her postcard project, which enabled bushfire survivors to represent their personal fire stories through annotating and illustrating cards. Chris McAuliffe then went on to think about visual depictions of fire from the nineteenth century, most notably William Strutt’s famous Black Saturday of 1862.
Art historian Julia Alessandrini combined with literary scholars Christine Choi-Williams and Jack Tan to create a panel that revolved around fog, fire and smoke in nineteenth-century literature and culture. Authors Carmel Macdonald Grahame, Kate Rizetti and Karen Throssell read from their contributions to Delys Bird’s superb anthology, Fire (Margaret River Press, 2013), while also discussing the research and affective responses behind their work. The proceedings ended with a brilliant keynote by Pat Simons (U of Michigan) who took the audience on an astounding and incisive tour of fire representations from the ancient to the modern, focusing particularly on the hearth.
As CSIRO scientist Phill Cheney noted in 1995, ‘At the moment fire is considered as a dangerous animal which charges across the countryside whereas, in fact, it’s as natural as the rain spreading across the land.’ ‘Fire Stories’ examined both how we have lived and how we must continue to live with fire, teasing out the conflicting emotions that it generates and examining the creativity that it can inspire. The calibre of the papers was consistently excellent and the conference has begun an important sequence of debates that will contribute to the Shaping the Modern program in years to come.
The full program for the ‘Fire Stories’ conference is available here: http://www.historyofemotions.org.au/events/fire-stories.aspx
Posted by Grace Moore
 Country in Flames: proceedings of the 1994 symposium on biodiversity and fire in North Australia – Biodiversity series, Paper no. 3 Deborah Bird Rose (editor) Biodiversity Unit Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories and the North Australia Research Unit, The Australian National University, 1995.