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On the walk down to the river, I tread slowly on the powdery red dirt of the path. In the scrub on the side of the track the oak leaves are already turning crisp and brown. Too early. It's a stress response to the ongoing drought. I've raked up wheelbarrows full of the crisp, curled leaves from the big tree outside our door this week. Hoping the tree has seen years this bad in the past; knows how to mitigate the worst of the impact, preserve its core functions, survive.
When we get down to the bend at the bottom of the valley where I like to swim, the specks in the air are impossible to ignore. I can catch the flakes on my fingers. I rub them together and see a black streak. It's ash falling from the fire that just popped up, twenty kilometres or so away. Close than the big fire which decimated the national park a few weeks ago. That one burned for ten days or so; 10% of the precious ecosystem destroyed.
It's hard to know what to do during fire season.
I've donated to the organisation rallying support for the shepherds whose flocks usually graze the wild slopes of the Serra.
I've gone to community meetings where we try to untangle how to break the cycle of burn and recover.
I've cleared our farm, packed our bags, prepared the kids for what might happen if we needed to leave.
Today, I turn my back on the black cloud, take off my clothes and step into the water.
My brother and I swim out across the bend, so we can gaze upstream at the quiet water. It's lower than I remember it being but the river still flows. When I stop moving, shoals of tiny fish nibble at my toes. Leaves float gently down into the water.
As the specks of ash join them, I exhale, feel my core temperature drop. Dunk my head below the surface, pad my hands across the soft sand of the river bed. For this moment, the green trees shade me and I feel restored. For this moment I switch off the fear and the thinking and float, out of time.
The fear-adrenaline sends up back up the hill more easily than I've ever walked it before. My limbs are zinging. Nick and I set alarms through the night to check if the wind changes, but by 2am it's registered as "in conclusion" on the fire service app.
We go back to sleep, switch off our internal alerts for another day.
Fire season tests us in so many ways. I notice how, under stress, our behaviours change. There's a sudden proliferation of Facebook groups and articles and community meetings and hushed, urgent conversations.
This week I’ve been trying out a practice of becoming present to the sensations in my body. Trying to name and describe the feelings accompanying each moment, in physical form. If I say I am "adrenalised" or "angry" or "excited"or "fed up" what doe I mean - where exactly is the sensation, and how would I describe it?
It’s been really hard!
In paying greater attntion to these bodily sensations, I notice that a lot of the chatter and noise, the conversation and explanation, is an effort to soothe a physical discomfort.
A discomfort like fear… for the future, for the present, our safety.
Like grief… of what is lost. Of what will never be. Perhaps (drawing on Frances Weller), of the idea we once had of what our life would be like.
Like helplessness and loss of control.
You might not be experiencing wildfires. But I’m sure you've experienced the same thing during times of stress. I've noticed 3 ways I try to soothe myself when things feel difficult.
#1 I try to find out more. To feel as though I'm gathering information that will help somehow.
(In my case that’s the fire map, the weather forecast, and the articles speculating why this is happening. You might have a favourite news site, a podcast, a trsted friend.)
And I want to know WHY this is happening. (It’s climate change, geoengineering, eucalyptus monocultures, arsonists, lithium mines, and a global plot, in case you’re wondering. No wait! It’s communists, socialists, bureaucracy, ineffective firefighting, drought, foreigners...)
#2 I engage in conversations where I state my opinion on what's going on.
It's grounding and encouraging to have an authoritative take on things. To tell everyone else why you’ve assimilated the perfect, balanced, rational view.
#3 I try to fit the crisis into my existing worldview.
I tend to seek out evidence that supports what I already belive. It helps me integrate the state of emergency into a frame of mind I already have, and ignore or treat with scepticism evidence which challenges that view.
I'm not saying any of these are "wrong". But I notice that it's this thinking work of trying to rationalise and explain and understand what's happening that only really serves to soothe a physical experience.
I look back on the time I spent reading articles about coronavirus and lockdowns and pandemics and contagion and vaccines and all the rest... and now I think, my god, I was tired and frightened. That was all. I didn't need to know any of that, really. And most of it I think I've forgotten now, though once I'm sure I had an opinion on flattening of curves and virtual learning and R-numbers and all the rest.
When I come back into my body I notice the feelings of heaviness. Of tiredness, a desire to lie down and close my eyes. It’s a lot.
And, after some deep breaths, I notice that my own priorities include:
- Learning Portuguese so I can communicate better with my local community. This is perhaps the most important goal in my life at the moment. I cannot possibly participate fully, support fully, until my language skills are more advanced.
- Quieting my nervous system, in myriad off-screen ways (sleep, laughter, reading, doing nothing, stretching, walking, swimming in the river even if ash is falling down).
- Being realistic about what I commit to. Yes I want to take part in every group, comment on every conversation, take every action. But I need to not be exhausted.
- Paying attention to what others really need (listening to what they are telling me, not assuming.)
- Remembering my existing priorities. I'm already orienting my life towards a more sustainable way of being. I don't need to drop everyhting and change what I'm doing. Change is slow and gradual, reforesting and restoring ecosystems takes time, and so does healing trauma.
More and more I'm reflecting on how my response to tiny upsets and challenges is a fractal of how I respond to bigger crises.
I start to understand my craving for connection and community as part of a deeper resilience, the kind that will prepare me for all kinds of shocks and challenges. That might prepare all of us.
And so, I try to train myself to ask:
What am I really feeling or noticing right now? Without looking at a screen?
What are the unsexy, long term, really big things that will make a difference?
If I tune out from the noise and come back to the human-level connections, what do I discern the situation needs?
What are the small ways I can take care of myself and the people around me so that AT THE VERY LEAST we are not an additional burden on those bearing the brunt of the crisis?
And I also remember to take a breath. To sink into this moment, and remember that everything changes.
Once the rain comes and the equinox turns, everything shifts once more.
The oak tree and I let go of what isn't helpful.
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