A Taste of Hell: Fires, Landscape, Emotions and Renewal

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Bushfire sketch. By William Strutt, c. 1851. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.

By Grace Moore, The University of Melbourne

While they farmed the land and built houses in the countryside, many nineteenth-century European settlers experienced a sense of alienation from Australia’s arid landscape, with its curious flora and fauna. The sudden and brutal destruction of the bushfire often compounded this sense of displacement, with a serious burn leaving colonists feeling ill at ease with their new surroundings. Seeking to create a home that appeared as European as possible, and importing northern hemisphere farming techniques pretty much wholesale, settlers misread and mismanaged the land, not always understanding that its otherness meant that it might require different treatment, rather than ‘taming’ or ‘mastery’. The landscape that settlers attempted to create was shaped by nostalgia, even while its vast scrublands and twisting gums resisted efforts to impose a European model of the pastoral. The pains they took to shape an environment that resisted attempts to recreate the north in the south impacted upon many migrants’ ability to settle. Rather than embracing the otherness of this new world, for many, the land seemed unruly and hostile, and the threat –and anticipated threat – of the bushfire played a significant role in this unsettled form of settlement.

Fire was perceived to be an enemy in need of eradication and, as Benjamin Wilkie expresses it in his wonderful post from the Meanjin blog:

To the nineteenth-century Europeans, fire was a threat. It could destroy their land, their livestock, their homes, and it could take their lives. As the European settlement of Australia and its peoples went on – often into areas cleared already, it seems, by bushfire – the Indigenous fire and land management regimes ceased to operate. Europeans used the land differently. The controlled burning stopped, and dense, ground level vegetation returned where it had not been in 1788. With changes to flora came changes to fauna, and many animal populations had declined or disappeared by the middle of the nineteenth century. Along with the cessation of fire regimes – allowing scrubby, low-lying bush and grassland to establish itself where it had not been before – fuel loads increased, and, when weather conditions were right, so did the intensity and frequency of bushfires.

What Wilkie captures here is the rapidity with which altered fire regimes interfered with Australia’s ecology, along with the bitter irony that these efforts to Europeanise the continent in fact compounded its difference. Nostalgia and the actions that it generated became the enemy, as attempts to create an affective (and commercial) relationship with the land made it more susceptible to burning, and therefore less familiar and increasingly threatening.

***

A poem like ‘Forest Rambles in Tasmania’, which appeared in the Tasmanian Mail on 13 September 1879, offers insights into the vexed settler relationship with the fire-prone environment. It also reveals how a European aesthetic interfered with acceptance and, to a degree, understanding of Australia’s ecological extremes through the writer’s efforts to render the forest familiar and welcoming. The poem – which is long, and of dubious literary quality – begins with several stanzas evoking a dreamy arcadia, drawing upon well-known conventions, including ‘rocky dells’ and ‘elfin palaces’. There are ‘caverns’, ‘bubbling wells’, ‘gushing brooks’ and ‘sequestered nooks’, as the author – identified only by the initials ‘R.L.A.D.’ – creates a romanticised, and rather clichéd portrait of the forest, only to disrupt it.

While the poem’s speaking voice doesn’t recount the actual witnessing of a bushfire, s/he returns to the spot at the end of the summer to find that a fire has passed through. The piece’s tone shifts abruptly, with the speaker comparing the forest site to a ‘funeral pyre’, and grieving for the burnt idyll. The fire thwarts the sense of familiarity that the speaking voice had previously imposed upon the woods, and the poem’s fairy tale dream seems to be well and truly over:

 I turned aside into rocky dells,
And looked again at the rock-built cells;
The beautiful, fairy-like, elfin homes,
That now were merely the catacombs
Of countless, fragile, and delicate things –
Of lichens, and shells, and butterflies’ wings,
Of numberless insects bright and fair,
Which had fled from the fire for safety there;
But the treacherous smoke, with her stifling breath,
Had wantonly put every one to death.

Toe-curling though the verse may seem to the un-sentimental reader, the lines reflect a real anguish at the destruction caused by the fire and, as the speaker looks for signs of the forest s/he loved, the repeated phrase ‘in vain’ captures both anger and a sense of futility. While reptiles emerge from logs where they had sought shelter, the speaker feels only hostility towards these scaly survivors and the ‘loathsome sound of their dismal croak’. The voice reflects on the ‘horrible stillness everywhere’, before lamenting:

So everything that I saw was dead;
And my soul was filled with a morbid dread –
A horror of something undefined –
So that I dared not look behind,
For fear I might see some terrible thing
Which my brain was imagining.

The ineffable ‘terrible thing’ is an unspecified something that haunts the settler imagination and which appears in many forms and media, from the nineteenth century to the present day. Often, it is not the bush, but rather latent settler anxieties about who or what might be lurking there that create perceptions of uncanny land and soundscapes, as I’ve written about in the past.   Indeed, as Meaghan Morris – among others – has argued, guilt surrounding the capturing of the land is displaced onto concerns about its uncanniness, and the perceived hostility of its inhabitants, both human and animal. In this case, I read the ‘terrible thing’ that troubles the speaker as primarily an expression of despair at the terrible blackness of the fire-stricken forest, but also as what emotion theorists Jan Plamper and Benjamin Lazier have termed ‘fear of a safe place’.[1] What I mean by this is that a space which had seemed to be a sanctuary, recognisable from the old world, is transformed by fire into something desolate, terrifying and unknown.

The nineteenth-century philosopher Alexander Bain expressed the lingering trauma associated with catastrophic events like bushfires when he wrote of the afterlife of fear, emphasising its characteristics as a ‘depressing passion’ and noting that a traumatic event could lead to a ‘distrust of good and anticipation of evil’.[2] Those who survived fires then, often found themselves unable to return to daily life, tending a landscape whose unpredictability meant that it could never again be considered home. J. S. Borlase’s ‘Twelve Miles Broad’ (1885) offers a memorable and melodramatic depiction of a young woman whose bushfire experiences leave her unable to contemplate the view from her window, and the story ends with her husband outlining his plans to move away, in the hope that leaving the burnt landscape behind will aid her recovery. While ‘Forest Rambles in Tasmania’ ends rather more triumphantly, registering that ‘the forest would rise again’, this recognition of a natural cycle, with renewal on the horizon, is loaded with the implication that the fire, too, will return. The safety of the ‘safe place’ is thereby shown to be illusory, and the ‘terrible thing’ which cannot be fully articulated is the fear of future fire.

Realist writing (particularly fiction) offers a space where western society frequently rehearses its anxieties, and as a result the bushfire swiftly made its way into settler literature. Often, the fire’s role was melodramatic, and in the early decades of the nineteenth century, it was used as a plot device, sometimes to provide exotic colour for readers back in England, and frequently to bring couples together whose match might not have seemed appropriate without heroics and a dramatic rescue. In many of these stories, the bushfire is almost incidental, but like ‘Forest Rambles in Tasmania’, a significant number of these works capture the settler community’s emotional relationship with the land as well as telling us some of the more practical details about their interactions with the environment. They also, often inadvertently, reveal ecological mismanagement and the strain that European agriculture placed on the terrain.

Louisa Atkinson’s posthumously published novella, Tressa’s Resolve (1872),[3] explores some of the disjunctions between settler expectations of the land and their actual experiences. Atkinson’s inexperienced and rather inadequate hero, Tyrell Love, purchases 40 acres and sets about clearing it almost immediately, figuring the space as a ‘garden of Eden’ and fantasising about bringing the heroine Tressa to live there as a ‘sweet Eve’. The narrator describes the metropolitan character’s surprise at the vastness of the countryside, noting:

Hitherto Tyrell Love’s acquaintance with the bush had been the barren scrub around Sydney; here was a new style of country. Trees 200 feet in height and of huge girth; the rich vegetable mould carpeted by ferns of the most exquisite forms and lively greens. (46)

While Tyrell surveys the wonders around him with something approaching awe, his feelings shift as he begins to develop a working relationship with his 40 acres, rather appreciating it from an aesthetic perspective. Atkinson describes the clearance process with great emotion, all the while drawing attention to Tyrell’s shortcomings as a labourer:

What strong emotions witnessed the fall of the first great forest king; felled with such infinite labour – so many strokes of the axe. First the great tree trembled, then a few sharp snaps, then a moaning sound as it slowly overbalanced and crashed to the ground, tearing away branches and smaller trees in its fall. It was a moment of victory for Tyrell, and he would not draw the inference from this first essay that to clear even one acre would be the work of Herculean toil and of time. One by one must the huge trees fall, and when fallen they must be burnt and the brush cleared away… (47–8)

Atkinson here effectively combines her knowledge of the toil involved in pastoralising the land with a subtle lament for the fallen tree and the many that will follow.

The tree’s majesty sits awkwardly alongside Tyrell’s labours, while its trembling and moaning remind readers that what is being cleared is not simply an inconvenient object, but a living being. Continuing to fell his second and third trees, Tyrell is then approached by a stranger who emerges from the bush (settler literature is filled with these people, and they are generally catalysts for catastrophe). He identifies Tyrell as a gentleman, unsuited to farming, and laconically informs him, ‘I wouldn’t like to see one of my boys in a place where there is nothing but work and ruin before him’. (49)

Inevitably, the sheep farm becomes a money pit and, fearful of being mistaken as a fortune-hunter, the novel closes with Tyrell ‘suffer[ing] and struggl[ing] in silence’, unable to own his love for Tressa, who is condemned to a life of waiting and caring for her sickly aunt, who will in time be her benefactress. Lest we miss Atkinson’s point, a parallel plot involving Tressa’s sister Bessie sees the older girl working as a paid companion for a spoiled young woman named Adeline in Northern Queensland. Adeline’s husband, Andrew Murray, is even less able than Tyrell, attempting to run a sheep station in drought conditions so severe that not only are the livestock dying of thirst, but when Adeline falls ill they have to leave the station to find pure water.

With the heat of the sun mirroring Adeline’s deathly fever, they encounter a bushfire which, we learn in an aside, has happened because, ‘the blacks had fired the grass to the windward’ (88). Atkinson, whose knowledge of Queensland vegetation was gleaned from her husband – the explorer and botanist James Snowden Calvert – has nothing more to say about indigenous firing of the land, electing instead to focus her attentions on the drama of her characters’ escape. However, when juxtaposed with the stories of two migrants who are thwarted by their environment, this fleeting reference to an older and more effective form of land management seems resonant, although we have no way of knowing Atkinson’s views on the question.

***

What both of these pieces of settler writing reveal, is that in order to prosper in their Australian present, settlers needed to abandon their affective relationships with the European past, accepting their new land on its own terms instead of defining it against the world they’d left behind. As a migrant myself, I’m well aware of just how challenging such willed amnesia can be. However, rather than being the new Eden or Arcadia that it was frequently represented to be, Australia was for many ‘a taste of hell’, as the anonymous author of a short piece in the Town and Country Journal put it. The image of hell was deployed with great frequency, but not in a sustained way, not quite registering that an extreme, infernal climate might require a form of interaction that was not tailored for drizzly, cool climes.

As we attempt to rethink and reconfigure our relationship to Australia’s climate, we see, philosophically if not practically, ‘mastery’ and ‘management’ giving way to conciliation. Historians and fire ecologists tell us that living with fire, or alongside it, is a more practical solution than fighting it. Furthermore, looking back to where our attitudes and emotions originated has an important role to play in this rethinking process, allowing us to confront the ‘taste of hell’ and perhaps to move beyond it.

Grace Moore is a Senior Research Fellow at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (The University of Melbourne node). Her present research project is on nineteenth-century representations of bushfires. Her broader research interests include crime writing, Antipodean ecology, ecocriticism, the work of Charles Dickens and piracy. She has also written on how reading about bushfires may contribute to the recovery process: http://theconversation.com/bushfires-are-burning-bright-in-australian-letters-and-life-36141.

[1] Jan Plamper and Benjamin Lazier, Fear: Across the Disciplines (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012), 99.

[2] Alexander Bain, The Emotions and the Will (1859), 56–7.

[3] Louisa Atkinson, Tressa’s Resolve (1872).

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