Pattern and Forecast (Vol. 8)

Summer, Sydney, 2020

This is the eighth entry in a series in which writers give a report on the weather. Any meteorological statements made may range from the personal to the scientific, from observable weather to the felt.

As a kid I was always up with the sun, stumbling into a day that resembled the last one. In Sydney, at our house, we had this routine: I’d fetch the paper for Dad while he started on tea. Every day the squawk of one cockatoo, then another; the rising bubble of the kettle; the thwack of rolled-up paper as it hit our front door.

But then there were occasional mornings, periodically in my childhood—a hint of burn in the air, a wash of haze to the sky. I’d wake up with alarm before Dad could reassure me: everything is normal. Fires happen every year to rejuvenate the land. Aboriginal people have always known this, that not all fires are the same—certain conditions allow for Good Fire, and prevent the risk of Bad Fire; we back burn in the spring so there’s less fuel to burn in the summer. Some years, Bad Fire still breaks out. But those are usually accidents, or crimes—those shit-for-brains arsonists, sickos who get off on watching stuff burn, or dickheads who toss their half-lit durries to the ground. Except for them, there’s nothing to worry about. That burn you smell? That haze? That’s all normal.

In 2019 there’d been no time for back burning. The land caught fire in spring, as early as September. I watched it happen from afar, from my apartment in New York, a disbelieving and distant witness. I finally flew back to Sydney in December, by then steeped in three months of news coverage and social-media updates. I’d been shocked by the photos and the maps and the numbers, the anecdotes from friends and family. But there are certain realities you need to process first-hand; I had to step out of the airport into the land I’d been raised on. Not just a hint of burn, nor a wash of haze, but a whole sky choked in smog, the sun burning red. My family lives in the city’s suburbs, somewhat removed from the active fires. Our house would keep standing, but still—whatever home I’d come back for felt partially lost.

I tried to imagine if I had a kid, how I’d explain it to them. I couldn’t use my dad’s words and say everything is normal. We used to back burn, I’d start, to prevent Bad Fires, but now the land’s getting drier and the temperature’s rising, and there’s science on climate change that’s continually ignored. So now the fires are burning, earlier and hotter than ever. Fireys are flying in from New Zealand and America but still, people are dying. Entire towns are evacuating, homes are being destroyed, and residents-turned-refugees are stranded on shores. Animals are burning while whole ecosystems collapse; there are pastures of cattle herds-now-corpses, and joeys charred to crisps. Even the koalas, if you can believe it, are heading toward functional extinction.

I’d grown up believing Bad Fires started with Bad People: individual and identifiable, exceptionally disturbed or exceptionally careless, people with fingerprints and faces who could be held accountable. But now, Bad People were everywhere and nowhere, detached from their ongoing crimes. Bad People sat on the boards of Big Mining, puppeteering more Bad People in parliament; Scott Morrison, of course, was totally AWOL come December, holidaying in Hawaii just as temperatures hit new records. But then there was us, the people in the cities—Bad People, too?

In most years there’s drought and water shortages but still, people in the city begrudge the inconvenience of water restrictions—how’s my lawn supposed to grow if I can’t use the hose? We fill our trunks with Christmas presents while lamenting the could’ve-been carwashes, ash accumulating on windshields. We pop out to the shops to get strawberries for the pavlova, then complain about shortages, spikes in cost. We watch birds who are desperate for a drink, darting in and out of the pool, but can’t stop stressing that the water level’s too low for a swim. Every summer sees this kind of unholy symmetry: the bushfire season overlaps with the “silly season,” as we call it, that drunken fugue state throughout Christmas and New Years. In many parts of the country, there are back-to-back festivities; in other parts, there are back-to-back blazes. In the city we’re accustomed to this tradition, enjoy the privilege of cognitive dissonance.

We’d spent years perfecting these habits, so there was no reason to stop in 2019. But then the fires burned through spring and into summer, toward December. I’d watch the news from our air-conditioned living room with simmering dread, flipping between stations: different reporters asking different experts some version of the same question, would you call this unprecedented? The fires kept burning, into December toward Christmas. Still, reporters continued to ask—by then it was less of an inquiry, more an attempt to accept that yes, I’d call this unprecedented. The more they asked the question, the more confirmation was needed; there were never enough experts, enough evidence, enough smoke in the sky, to combat our collective denial. We’d grown up seasonally adapting to states of “new normal,” so it was harder, in a way, to call this year “unprecedented.”

Though was it denial we were feeling, or just despair? We sometimes tried to donate, occasionally volunteered, and in some cases protested. Then eventually a new routine emerged, an everyday absurdism that churned through anxiety, apathy, then alarm. As in: wake up and check the Air Quality Map, then the NSW Rural Fire Service, to see what direction the fires are burning in, and how big. Those two super-fires have collided into mega-fire, surrounding the city in a blazing ring—that’ll mean the air quality’s pretty shit, so the beach is off limits, but what about some Christmas shopping? Open Facebook to see friends are marking themselves “safe” from particular fires, sharing links to GoFundMe pages, forming groups that knit joey-sized pouches. Click to share; copy link; paste in iMessage.

            Leave the house, board the train, watch the stations rush by—Redfern, Central, Town Hall. Settle into the rock of the train, the stench of the peak-hour crowd, everyone crammed together and sweating through their collared shirts, necks straining toward their devices. Think about what Mum wants for Christmas, how she’s impossible to buy for, then—LATEST UPDATES TODAY FROM THE BUSHFIRE CRISIS, WITH THE DEATH TOLL RI——follow the turning heads towards a bloke by the door, who’s sheepishly jamming his headphones more securely into his phone. Swerve the wavering gaze of strangers, now suspended in silent guilt: how are we living like this, catching the train like this, like this is all normal?

On New Years Eve smoke billows from the Harbor Bridge fireworks and from the fires. When January10 arrives we celebrate my niece, Jade, turning three-years-old. We set down party pies and sausage rolls on fold-out tables, remark to each other how bad the fires have been, how poorly they’re being managed—poor fireys! But, actually hey, how lucky are we that today, the smoke’s blowing away from the city? Hope that’s a good direction for the fires, but in any case, of all the days to celebrate, how good’s this one! We spent that day outside, in the backyard, staining our teeth with bright blue jello and playing all the games I’d enjoyed as a kid. Between tries at the piñata and the thinned out haze, we felt closer to normal than we had that whole summer. The next day, in our family’s group chat, we all agreed: what a lovely day we had celebrating. Does anyone have any photos? Also—is anyone sick? Did anyone else wake up with a sudden, violent cough? 

But even that reality feels distant now, given the onslaught of coronavirus; like everything else in the Before Times, the bushfires seem to be wrapped up in another world entirely. Quarantined in my New York apartment, the air-conditioning unit whirs steadily, giving way to the occasional siren. On some days, char from the ground-floor neighbor’s grill wafts up and through my window—only then does Sydney’s summer feel closer, as this second, strange summer slouches onward.

From inside I’m tracking Google Trends: search entries containing “normal” have reached an all-time worldwide high, while rates of the question will life ever go back to normal? have doubled. Like any unprecedented event, this pandemic has forced us into a new normal and in doing so, cast our old normals under a different lens. For some, the lens is nostalgic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in New York, where you almost miss the rush-hour subway, yearn for the mass of midtown crowds. For many, though, the pandemic has been clarifying: across the globe, COVID-19 has revealed the inequity of exposure, the way risk tracks onto the people whose bodies are most exposed—not just the bodies of the immunocompromised or elderly, but of the homeless, the incarcerated, and the poor; abused bodies who are trapped in violent households; precarious bodies we’ve deemed essential, who are unable to work from home or take a pay-cut. In most cases, these comorbidities are symptomatic of society, this exposure a product of that pre-pandemic “normal” so many of us are missing.

As COVID-19 made its way to Australia, I wondered whether Scott Morrison would mishandle this emergency as badly as he’d screwed up the last. If many were keen to boot him out after this season’s bushfires, I sense that in quarantine opinion has settled, if not shifted in his favor. Facetiming back home still feels like a portal unto a parallel universe: Australians entered quarantine later than Americans did, yet emerged from it earlier; despite recent resurgences throughout the eastern states, friends and family all-too-frequently resolve at least it’s not as bad as where you are. While it’s true that Trump has set a subterranean bar for emergency management, it seems that Morrison’s response appears successful only by a comparative and misleading illusion.

Emergency management, or lack thereof, is a comprehensive litmus test of whose bodies are valuable, which losses are negligible, and whose interests are important. The Australian government’s response to COVID-19 doesn’t zero-out its lack of response to the bushfires. In fact, the inconsistency between these responses affirms the consistency of their priorities—more accurately, the prioritization of a privileged majority over many vulnerable minorities: those in regional and rural areas, Aboriginal Australians, poor people, asylum seekers; not to mention the future generations who will be left with the charred detritus of accelerated climate change. Morrison’s recent attentiveness to public health scientists should be examined alongside his anti-scientific stance on climate change; he’s trained in selective hearing that only registers an emergency when there’s a threat to his own interests, ones that correlate with economic growth rather than sustainability or social equality. A quick survey of the Australian economy confirms this agenda: we’re one of the world’s top coal exporters and a major exporter of natural gas, dubious qualifications made possible by disregarding scientific advice, side-stepping international treaties, and ignoring the visible destruction of ecosystems (read: the once Great Barrier Reef).

The Australian writer McKenzie Wark described the bushfire crisis as “the schadenfreude of history,” a type of self-destructive feedback loop: while extracting natural resources from Australian land secures the nation’s development, it’s also directly contributing to the climate change that’s making our home “unstable and unlivable.” In Wark’s model of “schadenfreude” there are echoes of what literary scholar and cultural theorist Lauren Berlant terms “cruel optimism,” a condition in which “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing.” Here, Berlant is alluding to the American Dream, that hamster wheel of desire and despair. Though if Americans are dreaming of upward mobility, struggling within a stagnant pyramid scheme, then Australians are dreaming of inexhaustible wealth on a land mined dry. These are fever dreams, to be sure, unsustainable habits we just happen to call normal life. In each case, major crises have disrupted, perhaps demystified, these dreams: they’re just nightmares that are normalized, empty promises of possibilities that can’t coexist. That a global Black Lives Matter movement mobilized during this pandemic, and on the heels of unprecedented natural disaster, is symptomatic rather than coincidental: our hegemonic extraction mentality has exploited both human labor and natural resources to disastrous extremes. Call it cruel optimism, or schadenfreude; call it karmic retribution, or just a major bite in the ass. By any name, these unprecedented disasters are crucial wake up calls from deep and destructive reveries.

As we enter an age of intensifying emergency, countries like Australia will be the rule rather than the exception: all of us wading through the swirl of interrupted normals, trying desperately to find our footing. For most of the world, this pandemic cleaves a decisive break between normal and unprecedented. But for anyone who was in Sydney this summer, it feels like struggling out of one crisis only to fall into another; a preview of the future, maybe a chance to prepare for it. Now that I’m back in the United States, most of my conversations with Americans involve some mention of “Sydney’s doing so well,” or “at least y’all have universal healthcare,” as if we’re winning the pandemic event in the emergency Olympics. But the sense of accomplishment feels unearned, and for all the disasters that will mark this year, perhaps the most devastating would be surrendering to some kind of collective amnesia. Reckoning begins by considering this pandemic the way Australians have experienced it: not as an isolated event, but as the latest in an ongoing series of unprecedented disasters.

As a kid I was always up with the sun. This summer I woke up—every single day—to smog. The sky in Sydney’s since cleared but the situation has not; we’re still stirring out of nightmares, stumbling through a tired out dream.

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