Mallacoota and my mum
A story of blood-red skies, post-apocalyptic tent towns, and towering fire fronts the size of nightmares.
Extract from Beyond climate grief: a journey of love, snow, fire and an enchanted beer can by Jonica Newby, New South Publishing
31 December 2019
It’s the morning of New Year’s Eve, and I awake, groggy, to the taste of smoke. Reaching half asleep for the Fires Near Me app, I see emergency red all over the south coast and hinterland. I switch immediately to the Victorian website for updates on the Mallacoota fire.
My skin goes clammy and tears run down my face. A new alert was issued a few minutes ago. The fire will hit my mum’s place in ten minutes.
No no no no no.
I call my mum. Yesterday, she’d phoned to say she and her husband, Lester, were getting out. A truly terrible day was forecast for New Year’s Eve, particularly for Victoria, with many areas to hit the 40s and a big wind change expected. Festivals were being cancelled and people told to evacuate East Gippsland. The Vic Emergency app was advising it was too late to leave Mallacoota as the roads south into southern Victoria were blocked by fire. But locals were told the road north into New South Wales was still open. (The poor communication between states and the confusion of having to switch websites to work out what’s happening on state borders should be part of any future enquiry.) She and Lester and a number of friends had evacuated north at the last minute, and she’d ended up in a motel across the border in Cooma.
Mum answers straight away. ‘The house is under ember attack,’ she says bluntly. She’s just heard from friends in Mallacoota; it is pitch black there. Everyone is down at the jetty – thousands of people. Mum tells me she’s calm and as prepared as she can be for losing her house.
‘We’ve got everything we planned,’ she tells me.
‘What did you take?’ I ask, fearful.
‘We’ve got our papers, and enough clothes for a few weeks and I made sure I got the little Boyd painting,’ she says. What I hear is what she didn’t take: all my family memories – all the pictures of my Norwegian grandmother and grandfather, all the eighteenth-century bedroom furniture that has come through four generations of women and was meant to come to me. I won’t cry on the phone to Mum, not if she’s holding strong, or trying to. I will try to keep myself under control, and only leak fear-grief tears a little.
‘OK, Mum,’ I say gently, and we hang up.
I recognise what’s happening; she’s shut down her emotions. Her adrenalised mind has hit a calm halfway state between acceptance, action and denial that this is actually real. I recognise it from my own strange days of semi-euphoria after Robyn’s cancer diagnosis. I’ve heard of people as they evacuate grabbing an un-installed toilet, but forgetting their photos. One woman threw a few clothes in the car, the dog and an iron. My friends in Nymboida told me they wished they’d had a second evacuation list, one to pack if they’d had more time, because they didn’t take everything you would really want if you lost your home. Many of us evacuate-pack as if for two weeks away. We don’t really think disaster is going to happen to us. That’s for other people – the people on TV.
Now the people of Mallacoota are the ones on TV. And from here on in, the jumbled fragments of vision from television and the internet will be the main contact I’ll have with what’s happening there. The south coast is shut down – roads are closed everywhere. Mum’s friends can’t see from their vantage point down on the water what’s happening to her home – it’s up the hill in the fire front and the air is too thick and too dark, the glow of flames too vast and fire trucks can’t get up there.
For all of this horror-filled day, my mum’s home will be as Schrö- dinger’s cat: neither alive nor dead. Or perhaps both. In a quantum state until someone is able to open the box and look.
Cour-r-rage, I whisper to myself, and to Mum, and to the south coast people I see trapped by the blood-skied apocalypse on my TV. Cour-r-rage.
While we watch on in shock, in Mallacoota the community itself starts losing touch with the outside world. It happens in all the towns and properties when the flames come. They are curled into disaster-land; their worlds shrink down to each other, and The Beast.
The morning before, Dale Winward, captain of the little wooden tour boat the MV Loch-Ard, drove a group of hikers into the surrounding national park. It was a clear day and the group was oblivious to the possibility of danger, although Dale did try to talk them out of it, given the predicted fire risk. On the way back, Dale saw smoke. Then an alert came on the VicEmergency app. A fire had appeared that morning at nearby Wingan River and taken off. Concerned, Dale headed home and fetched his fishing boat – the roads were already impassable. An abalone diver with a ready smile and an appealingly open face, Dale set off down the coast, hoping the hikers were at their designated camp near the beach. He spent the day getting groups of hikers out. Late that afternoon, while my mother was making her escape northward by car, Dale sailed back up the coast and got his first true look at the monster.
‘It was like an atom bomb,’ he tells me when I finally get to Mallacoota weeks later to see what happened to Mum’s home for myself. ‘There was this thick column of smoke shooting 20 000 feet into the air and billowing out like a mushroom.’
This was a pyrocumulonimbus – where the updraft from the fire is so immense, so strong, it reaches into the stratosphere and creates its own cataclysmic weather of crackling thunderstorms and lightning. Dale will hear from ‘firies’ that the firestorms bearing down on East Gippsland contained an unheard-of 13 of these epic-scale columns.
By the time he returned to base, Mallacoota was in lockdown – the long road out closed indefinitely. They were on their own. Houses emptied as folks trudged to the lake jetty in town, to the little T jetty at the bottom of Mum’s hill, and to the community hall, which had been designated as protected areas. There were more than 6000 people in total – three-quarters of them tourists, many of whom seemed blinkingly unprepared. They hunkered down for the night in sleeping bags if they had them, in trailers or just on the grass, covered in wool blankets. After emergency briefings, children sat quietly with their families, the tone hushed.
Fire trucks quietly formed protective rings around each cluster of refugees. And they waited.
Dale, meanwhile, along with a number of those with boats, had loaded their craft with families and taken them out onto the lake for the night. A small flotilla huddled by a little island a kilometre off shore. And they watched.
When New Year’s Eve morning comes and the monster arrives, while I’m shaking back tears in my bed and my mother is sitting calmly in a motel, from the lake Dale can see what those on shore cannot. A panoramic view of the sheer, awe-inspiring scale of the thing.
It begins with sound. ‘You could hear the fire coming for hours beforehand,’ he says. ‘It sounded like two jumbo jets.’
The nerve-jangling roar soundtracks a dawn that never comes. Early on there’s a sort of half-light, but then by seven o’clock the sky is blood- red, then black.
Out of the darkness, Dale sees the black sky shot through with pyrocumulonimbus lightning, orange, red, black. Then the immense glowing presence of the fire looms up out of the horizon. It’s like the Fire Gods have come.
‘It was whistling. It was biblical. I can’t think of another word for it. I thought there wouldn’t be a house left.’
On the shore, they are about to enter the awful lottery of whose home will be spared, whose will not. Here the fire is closed in, confusing, chaotic.
When the half-light of dawn turns topsy-turvy back to night, my friend Justin is down with the refugee group at the T jetty, deciding whether to enact his extreme evacuation plan: the canoe. Justin lives up the hill at the bottom of Mum’s garden. Literally. A small stone path leads straight from Mum’s to Justin’s, which I’ve walked every visit, because Justin is just one of those people you want to hang with. A red-headed Irish-looking man, he’s warm, generous and so funny you can’t spend a minute with him without laughing. He’s also a talented musician – one of Australia’s best harmonica players. Like many artist friends of mine, he doesn’t have a lot of money, but he hand-built and loves every stitch and rivet of his pretty little cabin in ‘Muso’s Gully’ as Mum calls it. It’s in the forest, though, along with nearly a dozen other houses nestled among tall trees. While a few residents in Mallacoota have decided to stay and defend, Justin knows that in a catastrophic fire his home is a potential death trap, so yesterday he evacuated with some of his precious musical instruments and his escape plan – the canoe – which he’s considering now.
‘By 7 a.m.,’ says Justin, ‘it’s getting dark and there’s wind swirling round, like turbulence. Just as I was getting the canoe ready, this guy came up to me, this American tourist with his girlfriend. And he said, “Look, I don’t know what to do. We’ve just arrived.”
‘So I said, “Can your girlfriend swim?” She said, “No.” I said, “OK, I’ve got a life jacket.” And he could swim. I said, “It’s probably going to be too dangerous to drive back into town. This is as good a chance as any, and this is where I’m staying.” So we got his girlfriend into the canoe. And I said, “I’ll paddle with her out to the back of the jetty, in the water, and you can walk out onto the jetty. And if we see a fireball come over the hill …” It didn’t – but you just don’t know what to expect.’
At this point it’s calm – eerily calm. Whether huddled on the T jetty, or clustered in boats, or on the main jetty in town, or shut in the hall, or standing by their fire trucks, or waiting, skin prickling, in twos or threes with buckets and hoses and rakes to defend their homes, everyone who spends this last day of the decade in Mallacoota will remember how quiet it is. Unnaturally quiet. There are no birds.
Then, startlingly, the siren sounds. It’s like a starter’s gun.
‘And then the wind started to whip up,’ says Justin, eyes fixed on that vivid scene. ‘It was frightening. I didn’t know what was coming over the ridge.’
Meanwhile, four kilometres away across town, blue-eyed Rachel is clutching her professional camera, her daughter and her dogs inside the community hall. With fire trucks circling the building, they’d been ushered inside quickly. That’s when a different kind of horror started for her.
‘We went to the hall and a fire person came in and said, “We are now going into bushfire survival mode,” and they blacked out the windows of the f$%#ing hall!’ Her face almost seems to sweat as she says this. ‘And so, we couldn’t hear and they put on Frozen, the movie Frozen, so that it was like a big cinema.’
‘Oh my god!’ I gasp.
‘So, they put the movie Frozen on and suddenly the hall just filled up with people. It just filled up. It felt like if you were on a plane and the plane was going to go down.’
When the hall fills with smoke and she can’t tell what’s going on outside, Rachel feels so desperately trapped, at one stage she kicks the door open. ‘I was like, “I just want to get out and I need to see.” And the man said to me, “You can’t go out.” And I was like, “F$%#, I need to see this.”’
Shut inside while the big-screen Disney princess sings ‘Let It Go’, Rachel fields a text from her friend in Melbourne. ‘Please tell me you’re somewhere safe.’
‘That’s when I started crying,’ she says. ‘And I texted back, “I’m not sure I am.” That to me was the true horror. Feeling so powerless.’
Back at the T jetty, in the blackness, Justin finally spots flames on the ridgeline. All of a sudden, the explosions start.
SSSSSSSSSssssss, like the whistling of a World War II bomb, then SSSSSssssss, another, deafening at times. It’s the gas bottles exploding. Crash. Pop. Crash. A house exploding. It’s sensory chaos. The smoke is so choking that even with a mask Justin is worried about asphyxiating, and he’s now moved with the two tourists to a covered boat which is under attack from flying bits of tree and debris. He makes gentle jokes to settle them. A dog comforts the children, sitting quietly, huddled under the protection of blankets. People are wetting down boats, the grass. Fire trucks are picking up water and heading up the hill where they can find roads not blocked by debris – but most stay with the families. First the ridgeline is engulfed – houses exploding along Mum’s and Justin’s streets – then flames flow down the gully, leaping high into the air on the foreshore itself, crossing the 100-metre narrows to the trees across the lake. But with the smoke so thick, no one can tell whose house still stands.
Over at the main jetty, where the biggest cluster of refugees pull blankets over their heads, ambulance officer Janine is kept busy treating stinging eyes as the 747-like roar of the fire is riven by explosions of gas bottles and houses. There are trees on fire, houses on fire. Black leaves raining. People edge as close to the water as they can get as streaks of flame reach treelines on the nearby water’s edge. They maintain their calm, but then residents who stayed to defend start joining them on the foreshore, pushed back by the heat, filthy and fire-eyed, speaking of homes lost. Distress spreads. Jittery shock. Grief.
The Beast this day will singe everyone. But it has a particular horror ahead for the few dozen ordinary residents who stare right into its mouth – the amateur firefighters who’ve decided to stay and defend.
A couple of kilometres away, our friend Postmistress Pam is already in full adrenaline-fuelled superhuman action, leaping fences as if they were not there and putting out spot fires on her own place, her neighbour’s, another neighbour’s. Her home on the outskirts of town was one of the first to be hit by the firefront. A wiry, game woman with a delightfully acerbic wit and sentimental heart, she is determined her home will not go down without a fight.
You see, Pam is in her late 60s, yet her lovely home, with its soft blue wooden façade and white trim, its wraparound deck and unusual hexagon second-storey turret, its pretty wooden furniture and oodles of light, is the first home she has ever owned. She bought it just six months ago, and she loves it with a ferocity I recognise in my own love for my little home. But Pam, like Robyn, like me, is science-minded. Not long after she bought the place, her heart turned chill as she read of the fire conditions and the unseasonably early Queensland fires and let the evidence show her the future. She has been preparing for this battle ever since; doggedly clearing her land of overgrowth, ordering extra fire gloves, P2 masks, goggles, batteries and torches, fire-resistant clothing. So when last night she teamed up with the only two neighbours who stayed, she was able to pool her equipment with the husband and wife pair’s generator and fire-pump as they readied themselves for the fight of their lives.
Their war begins around 6 a.m. A friend – a member of the fire brigade – calls and delivers words to the effect of, ‘You’ve got about half an hour, and you’re f$%#ed.’
The siren sounds and it’s on.
‘The ember attack – it just came out of the sky,’ says Pam in horrified wonder. ‘But it was branches. Burning branches. And then the birds all start falling out of the sky.’
‘Oh shit,’ I cover my mouth reflexively in horror. ‘Still pitch black?’
‘Absolutely. It was worse than pitch black. You know even pitch black at night, midnight or whenever, you’ve still got light, there’s reflection … This is the total absence of light.’
Heartbreakingly, Pam loses sight of her own house because, knowing she has to stick with her neighbours or perish, she is 100 metres away, in their section of the settlement, hoping that if she can stop fires taking other houses her own can survive too. But as the onslaught intensifies, she’s losing faith.
‘It went on for hours,’ she says. ‘Hours and hours.’ At one point, she is holding the hose when she realises something weird is happening in her pants. ‘Somethings in my legs,’ she mimes, ‘Something’s in my legs! What the ?’ she half laughs. ‘And I had to take my bib and brace overalls off, and it was a little bird. It’d fallen down, fallen down my front …’ She almost can’t finish at the ridiculousness of this moment.
Pam picks up the bird and pops it in some shrubs. And keeps on leaping fences and fighting the fire.
But the monster has only been playing. Now it really comes at her. ‘The ember attack was …’ she’s lost for words for a second, eyes wide, ‘I just thought, that’s it. Just – we’re not gonna make it. We can’t do this. ’Cos the whole bloody place was alight.’
Fire is everywhere; sparking, flying, disorientating, overloading. ‘I just stood there. You couldn’t move, you didn’t know where to go. It was just this swirling red. And the wind was horrific. It was like a whiteout when you’re skiing, only black and red. You lose your orientation.’
Unable to get her bearings for three minutes, five; trapped in the eye of a whirling red hellfire; in that moment, Pam is sure she is … finished.
‘The bloody thing was malevolent, that fire.’
Then tangible space appears in her torchlight – the open carport – so she runs. The raging swirl of burning air and embers swooshes in with her and there’s nowhere else to go. But inside, in a covered cage, is a koala, Kevin, who her neighbour rescued the day before. And an old, deaf enormous pig called Squizzy. He is steady and quiet. Overwhelmed, Pam walks over, puts her arm around Squizzy, and together they sit.
Whatever else Pam feels in that moment, as I listen to her story I am struck by one thought; if this indomitable woman had not been so organised, so prepared with her clothing and equipment, there’s no way she would have survived the open mouth of The Beast.
And The Beast is vast. A few kilometres away, Terra Nova Drive is exploding under its onslaught. Nicholas is one of less than a handful of homeowners here, puny figures silhouetted against unimaginable flames. He is slim, late 30s, dark hair and beard; husband to the daughter of one of my mum’s friends, and father of two young kids. They’ve just bought their first home. And he’s never fought a fire before, though he’s been briefed by his father-in-law, who has also stayed to defend. They think they’re organised with their walkie-talkies, but when the full fire- front arrives, Nicholas finds himself isolated, patrolling one end of Terra Nova and his own home on Bastion Point Drive, while his father-in-law and a neighbour wage war at the other end of Terra Nova, walkie- talkies useless in the ear-shuddering fire-roar.
‘There were just fireballs … The fireballs were coming through the tea-tree. And then it was,’ he looks up, remembering, ‘the embers were like showers, like squirly kinds of showers. And that’s when things started catching on fire. That was time to, right, react.’
Unexpectedly on his own, fortified with the desire to protect the life he’s built, Nicholas enters survival mode: running up and down the street, fighting spot fires with buckets of water, occasionally a hose.
‘At one point … a power line came down on the road out the front of my house. And it all started sparking.’
‘Oh god.’ My hand is at my mouth again.
‘And then everything was blazing behind me, and then everything in front of me was on fire as well, and I just thought, “Well, I can’t go inside the house, ’cos all the houses are burning,” and then I thought, “Well, if things get too bad I’ll just zip down to the beach on my bike and I’ll kinda hide under the cliff face,” that was my genius plan.’
‘Good one,’ I nod. ‘It worked?’
‘Well, not really,’ he laughs. ‘So I jumped on my bike, and then I head to the beach.’
Like a scene from a movie, he pedals like the wind down a corridor of fire – all the houses ablaze, all the tea-trees ablaze, flames flying four times their height, fireballs arcing overhead.
‘It was just raging through the air, and I get there, and there’s a staircase that goes down onto the beach … and that was on fire, and I ditched my bike, and then I ran down the burning stairs, but the fire actually came down the cliff face. And the beach was on fire! All the tussocks, and I saw them start burning down the beach and heading into town, and I was like, holy shit. And I couldn’t go that way, and it was burning down the cliff face, so I ran to where the boat ramp is. I got up to the top, and my bike, it was burned to a crisp. And then another front came through, but on the other side. And it went all the way down to the boat ramp. And I was kinda stuck in the middle, then. So I had to run through the golf course.’
My jaw is on the floor as Nicholas describes running from the flames, ending up doing a two-kilometre high-speed loop around the back of the firefront to the other end of Terra Nova Drive, checking in on his father-in-law, then sprinting back to his end to pick up a bucket again, where, if anything, conditions are worse.
‘There was fire everywhere. Pretty much every fence was on fire, and then the bushes, trees, houses … and then it kind of escalated.
Houses would catch on fire, and then the next house would catch on fire. Everything at that time was just chaos, really, I was just running … just putting out fires. No communication, the isolation, the noise, the smell of the burning houses.’
Amid this sensory and emotional overload, with ten houses burning around him, Nicholas’s brain encodes a new knowledge: the dreadful keening sound a home makes just before it dies.
‘It starts chuffing. Like it’s burning on the inside. It starts chuffing, and you can see it, the windows start to bend, and then bam, the windows pop, and it … it just explodes like a fricken bomb.
‘And then just the thought in your head, like the … the animals … all the trees.’ Nicholas looks up, grieving. ‘It’s like all the things, the beauty this place has to offer, is burning … in front of you. And it’s out of your control. You know? There’s nothing … really, you’re … you’re just a person with two buckets.’
I’ve talked of heroes on this journey. And this day, set cataclysmically on the cusp of the new decade, is suffused with them. Ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. All of whom find the hero within; doing things, surviving things they never imagined. I’m not just thinking of those on the active fire front, but also those who sheltered one another, made a joke when a joke would help, organised and protected the strangers on their shores, cared for injured animals. It replenishes your pride and hope for humanity, for our future response to global warming, just listening to the courage displayed during these fires.
In the street that loses more homes that day than any other part of Mallacoota, unbelievably, Nicholas, the first-time firefighter, ultimately saves his. As does his 70-year-old father-in-law. But the area is left a bombsite; the fickle hand of fire has smashed house after house into crumbled dead witches hats, and the grief for so many starts to sink in.
Rachel eventually escapes her Frozen hell and emerges blinking to a different town – smoke-filled, ash-filled, and while her house on Terra Nova Drive still stands, most around hers are gone.
Postmistress Pam, who’d thought that if her time was up she’d go holding Squizzy the pig, turned out only to have needed a little quiet space for her brain and body to reboot. Soon, she was back in the fight – and like every good hero, this time it was personal.
‘I declared war! On that fire from that moment. That was it. It was on!’ she laughs. ‘And so we just kept patrolling. Hours and hours had gone by, but things were still so smoky, we couldn’t see anything and there were flames everywhere. And all of a sudden, and this would’ve been about midday, all of a sudden I saw the roof of my house appear. Through the smoke. And I thought, you’re joking. You are joking!’
She breathes out and looks in wonder at me. ‘That was the best moment of all.’
‘Oh Pam,’ I say, eyes prickling.
Down on the waterfront, by midday the sky is beginning to shift from black, to eerie red, to orange. Dale brings his little boat full of families ashore, heads up to where, to his surprise, his house still stands, and puts out surrounding spot fires, saving several houses.
Justin, meanwhile, is with the tourists and most of his neighbours and the dogs and the kids and families at the T jetty. Finally, they see the ‘firies’ rolling up their hoses.
‘It was like, it’s over. And I just sat in my car and wept. I just wept. It was like the release of something. Because it was like being in a house, and there’s two people out there with guns, walking around, trying to get in.’
Justin isn’t alone. A big burly fireman gets out, weeps, and then gets back in his truck. ‘And then we all just clapped the ‘firies’. Everyone,’ says Justin. ‘It was a real moment.’
In the armageddon of this blackened landscape, with emotions releasing like gas bubbles, he hears a small child say, ‘Mummy, is this real?’ Justin is wondering himself.
A man comes back down the hill and sees Justin. He shakes his head. ‘I’m sorry mate.’
Justin’s beloved laughter-filled cabin, hand-crafted repository of all his memories – it’s gone.
Far away on another planet, in a smoky little cottage in Gerroa, I have no real idea what has happened. I’ve been checking the TV, the apps; seen children with masks under red and black skies, witnessed mind-numbing scenes, but have no sense of the time frame or where the fire is, or what has happened to my mother’s home.
Bizarrely, as I force back tears yet again and accept not knowing, I am preparing a dinner party for 14 people. It is New Year’s Eve – the launch of the 2020s. I’d contemplated cancelling, but in the end don’t. We have this tradition, we hold it every year, and old friends are coming to stay. And it may be nice to share my nervous powerlessness with those who care.
The party starts, and I tell just a couple of my dearest friends what is going on. It’s comforting. Mum, on the phone, thinks the house might be OK, but we’re not sure, it seems so unlikely.
This New Year’s Eve, there are no fireworks at midnight. My guests, the ones who don’t know, come to hug me and say Happy New Year. I can’t say it, it sticks. ‘Welcome to 2020,’ I offer. It feels prophetic.
Later, as the last guests leave, Simon, who is staying overnight with his wife, looks up from his phone and says, ‘Mogo is gone.’
‘What do you mean, Mogo is gone?’ I’d only focussed on Mallacoota.
‘I mean it’s gone. Burned,’ he says. He looks a little more. ‘And Cobargo.’ I shake my head. These pretty historic towns I drive through on the way to Mum’s – my brain can’t process it. We go to bed. In the morning, it’s true. Mallacoota wasn’t the only place hit by the Fire Gods last night. Cobargo, where my good friend and ski-buddy works, has had its main street decimated. Horrendously, lives have been lost. Mogo, a delightful little village, has been crushed in an inferno. Mogo Zoo and all its animals was only just saved by courageous staff. Malua Bay saw a thousand people clustered on the beach, trapped between fire and sea. A video emerges of Lake Conjola, just south of here, where a cluster of SUVs drive into the shallow lake as the firefront consumes the land.
Hundreds of homes have been lost.
But, amazingly, Mum’s house has survived. I don’t know how. All four homes across the road from hers are now smouldering dead witches hats. Then an intact house. Then more dead houses. Justin’s house just below Mum’s is dead. Her rubbish bins are melted, her garage scorched, a tree against her home caught alight but a neighbour put it out.
Shaky, we both have intense survivor guilt.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines horror as an extremely strong feeling of fear and shock, or the most frightening and shocking character of something. Other definitions, including those going back to Darwin’s seminal Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, add dread, revulsion or disgust.
As an emotion, it baffles me a little. I understand its power, because I feel it, like any other human. An entire genre of storytelling is based on it. But its evolutionary purpose, especially in the wake of real-life horror, feels opaque.
Once again I call Professor of Psychiatry, Sandy McFarlane for clarity. He was the one who first raised horror with me some months ago. We’d been talking about courage, and out of the blue he’d said, ‘What I’m particularly interested in is the under-recognised emotion of horror. Because that’s what I see in all my work with PTSD – that’s what people describe – that experience of horror …’
I’d had no intention of following up and writing about horror, but after the events of New Year’s Eve, I know I must, and that Sandy is the one to guide me.
‘Horror, I think, has been relatively unexplored by science,’ he says, ‘which is part of why I’m so interested in it. When I think about horror, it’s something about suffering and destruction. Horror is a shocking violation of the normal order of things, and it’s often related to another powerful emotion – disgust – like if the insides of a body are suddenly outside … trailing.’
As he describes this, I think of the horror of birds falling from the sky, or Nicholas’s horror at watching the beauty of the landscape violated, the disbelieving horror of seeing the entrails of what yesterday was your home.
‘Does it have an adaptive purpose?’ I ask. ‘Or is it one of those by-product emotions – like grief is the cost of love?’
‘Oh, it’s powerfully aversive,’ Sandy replies. ‘Aversive emotions like horror are very important from an evolutionary perspective as they do create profound learning. When I think about what fosters survival behaviours, having really strong negative emotions is powerful. It’s like disgust or revulsion – they tell us what not to eat, or how to avoid getting sick. Horror also works at a cultural level. It’s important for taboos, like against killing.’
Horror is one reason most of us won’t kill, even if we thought we could get away with it. It’s why soldiers have to be trained to overcome their aversion. It revolts us, disturbs us, deters us.
Horror is so intense, it leaves scars. We learn, but we are marked.
Later, watching a haggard politician who lived through the Malua Bay fires on NewYear’s Eve, I spot horror’s shadow on his tired eyes as he says determinedly, ‘I never want to go through anything like that again.’
As the new year begins, I’m already wondering what we will learn as a nation from these horrors. Will we learn that a hotter world brings ever-worse fires, and act to reduce our carbon emissions? Or will we distract ourselves with nonsense and noise, and mistake the lesson for something else?
Such reflections have no space at the moment, though. Deep down, I am anxiously aware I will have to make an emotional reckoning of all this eventually. Somehow bring together all the strands of these extraordinary events to find meaning, even wisdom, within them and address the question that underlies it all and launched my research: how do we live a good and happy life under the weight of the fearsome knowledge of climate change?
But not yet, not now. Nothing makes sense right now. Our summer of horror is far from over. Like most, I can only think a day or two ahead at a time as we brace ourselves for whatever comes next.
So what emotion will best describe the next few weeks of summer, the first of our brave new decade?
I think first of grief, for all those who’ve already lost homes or loved ones or are mourning scorched wildlife or black-wounded lands. I think of shock, for all the travellers who, having yearned for their Christmas holiday heart places all year, instead whisper ‘apocalyptic’ as they sleep in cars, queue for fuel or food, or even steal when electricity and cards fail. I think of fear, for the tens of thousands still on high alert in the hot- breathed path of the rampaging Beast. I think of disbelief, for burning ski resorts, mass evacuations, orchards and farms going up in flames.
But in the end, there’s only one term that encompasses the adrenalised mental state many of us have entered.