Fire writing and Emotional Health

Image: ‘Bushfire burning through undergrowth’. n.d. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

By Grace Moore, The University of Melbourne 

Earlier this month, after almost eight years, survivors of the Black Saturday bushfires of February 2009 learned that they would receive payouts in settlement of a class action against power companies and the State of Victoria. Those who spoke to the media as news of the legal victory broke drew attention to the emotional impact of the fires and the subsequent lawsuit on both individual lives and entire communities. Several also highlighted feelings of deflation and disappointment.

Lyn Gunter, the mayor of Murrindindi at the time of the fires, noted – in an interview with the ABC – the stress and trauma involved in the compensation claim. She commented, ‘It’s been very traumatic for a whole lot of people who are involved as it has gone back into the past and regurgitated it all again’. While Gunter anticipates packing her boxes of legal documents away as a form of closure, she also astutely notes a sense of ‘real disappointment’. These feelings are partly on behalf of those who have lost loved ones, for which no amount of money can ever compensate, and partly a result of the emotional slump that follows a prolonged and concerted effort like that required of the plaintiffs.

Although it is often materially essential in the aftermath of a disaster, litigation can impact upon the recovery process, in part because it forces survivors to put certain feelings to one side, but it also requires people to replay their experiences while evidence is gathered and analysed. The compilation of witness statements is, though, distinct from therapeutic work in that it attends to the facts of a case, often downplaying emotional responses, or connecting them directly to the deposition process.

Psychologists with expertise in the field of post-disaster recovery emphasise that rebuilding a life can take years, even without the pressure of a protracted court case. Dr Rob Gordon outlines the stages in Moira Fahy’s 2014 documentary, Afterburn, which follows three families through very different journeys. As Gordon explains it, initially adrenaline will help with immediate practicalities, but prolonged exposure can lead to emotional slumps. Psychological wellbeing can be pushed to one side, as issues like insurance claims or rebuilding a house require immediate attention.    12Mar_Afterburn_TGriffiths_1

Creativity can play a significant role in the recovery process, as is evidenced by the great popularity of workshops run by writers, artists and musicians in communities affected by fires. Not everyone who takes part in these classes, or who writes or paints in private engages directly with fire. For some, the exploration of feelings is paramount, and while these emotions may have been triggered by the catastrophe, they may be about an unresolved event from the past, which the fire has forced them to confront. Many survivors do, however, choose to write about the fire, sometimes as a way of confronting and assimilating the experience, or as a way of taming it by finding its beauty or creating a new narrative to surround it.

Within Australian settler culture, there is a strong tradition of writing about bushfires, with newspapers and periodicals regularly publishing poems and short stories from the nineteenth century onwards. The earlier stories in general treat the fire as a spectacle, emphasising its thrilling and exotic qualities, and viewing the blaze as an adventure. Henry Kingsley’s chronicle of migrant life, The Recollections of Geoffry Hamyln (1859) includes a vivid account of an escape from a bushfire, which the narrator describes as like ‘a million tongues of flickering flames’ (203). The speaker tells the reader, somewhat nonchalantly, ‘I had seen many bush-fires, but never such a one as this’, before continuing to describe his dramatic escape:

I rode as I never rode before. There were three miles to go ere I cleared the forest, and got among the short grass, where I could save myself—three miles! Ten minutes nearly of intolerable heat, blinding smoke, and mortal terror. Any death but this! Drowning were pleasant, glorious to sink down into the cool sparkling water. But, to be burnt alive! Fool that I was to venture so far! I would give all my money now to be naked and penniless, rolling about in a cool pleasant river.

To a modern-day reader, this dramatic and pacy scene might appear to be pivotal to the plot’s unfolding and to the protagonist’s psychological development. Yet once the narrator has recounted the ‘heat, blinding smoke, and mortal terror’ and checked on another family, ‘perfectly safe, but very much frightened’ (204), the story moves on. None of the characters mentions the fire again, and it is swiftly assimilated into the novel’s many stories of Antipodean life. There is no sense that the characters might be traumatised or need help – they have simply had a lucky escape.

Kingsley was writing primarily for the British domestic market and, along with novelists like Anthony Trollope and Rolf Boldrewood, his bushfire accounts emphasised the excitement of escape as part of a melodramatic plot. Kingsley is unusual in that he presents Geoffry as a seasoned observer of fires, whereas most other novelistic accounts tend to treat the bushfire as an isolated catastrophe. These kinds of story were important in forging a sense of settler identity, and in representing the strangeness of Australia’s ecology to readers in the northern hemisphere. Yet these stories also contributed to a social environment in which survivors were simply expected to get on with things.

Image: ‘Black Thursday, February, 1851.’ Engraving by F.A. Sleap. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

The many anonymous poems that were published in newspapers, or which can be found neatly copied into diaries seem to have served a purpose that is closer to today’s therapeutic writing. A poem like ‘The Charred Stumps’, published anonymously in 1857 provides an outlet for the melancholic feelings that a burnt landscape induces. Its author writes of ‘bereavement sore’ and sees only desolation in the wake of a fire through heartbreaking lines including,

The charr’d stump stands, and turns to gloom

The very rays that on it fall.

While there are a large number of poems that focus on rescue and escape, there are just as many which explore fire’s emotional aftermath with a brooding, contemplative tone. While their authors may not have considered them to have a role in their recovery, the fact that these thoughtful works are generally anonymous suggests that their authors felt a reluctance to own their feelings or to put them on display.

Some of these poems appeared immediately following a fire, while others were published in the middle of winter. There are also works to be found only in archives, possibly because the act of writing was itself enough for the author. What they all point to, though, is the value of creative writing as a way of channelling trauma, allowing space to reflect on a disaster’s emotional repercussions.

As we move into another fire season, this tradition of fire-writing offers a connection with survivors across time. It allows readers to explore the creative responses of those who have shared their ordeal, and can offer reassurance to those for whom summer is a time of flashbacks and terror. Most of all, it reminds us that writing can be a form of self-care at a time when emotional health can be pushed to one side.

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 in The Conversation

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