My Favourite Window

February 3, 2012

Fear of Fire

As I walk around the garden this cool damp day, I remember that today is the anniversary of The Fire.
I sometimes talk about the fire risk here, and know that even in the periods between the moistness, the grasses that are maturing and drying are easy tinder on a hot windy day.

There are reminders here and there, of that nightmare day sixteen years ago, before I had returned to live on this homeland.

Huge pine stumps are decaying along old hedge lines, providing at different stages of de-composition, habitat for diverse wildlife.
Huhu beetles were early colonisers, their thumb-sized larvae gnawing their way noisily out of felled wood, opening it up to the elements, and making space for other insects and fungal spores to rummage about in. By the time Elwin and I came with our children and a house to live here, the stumps had rotted enough, for a pair of kingfishers to nest in one, and raise their young in full view of our verandah. A kingfisher makes a hole much bigger than a huhu grub and so the process of breakdown speeds up.

But at the end of that day the rasping of giant mandibles scratching into warm still air; the sketching of rotting root runs by basket fungus and the courtly rituals of kingfishers were unforeseeable.

Though even then we were counting our blessings: nobody died and although fire found its way into the roof space of the Skudder House...

Firemen saved it.  A tell-tale gloved-handprint remains in the stairwell as a stark reminder of their presence .

My brother had been mowing long grass when the fire started, and the Nor' Wester fanned the spark that started the fire.  Although so much of the land was swept black by the fire which spread into the nearbly river catchment, the home orchard and close-mown lawns around the house escaped damage.

There it is - this land - the green patch, in the bottom left-hand corner of the photo.  The tall pines which surround it are gone now but for a few rotting stumps, and the orchard and ornamental trees that survived the fire have become Lady Mondegreen's Secret Garden.

Seedlings that rose phoenix-like from the ashes have become trees in their own right.

With the passage of time, the Fear has all but evaporated: the sweating palms and racing heart every time the fire siren sounded in Rangiora; every time I glimpsed a tell-tale column of smoke rising from dry scrub in the river bed; every time I smelt woodsmoke on a hot breeze.

They danced there at the edge of the fire; without hankies or bells or whites; Ian in his jeans and un-tied office shirt and Tony in shorts and a polo shirt. The jig should have been unremarkable.  But without bell-jangle and only the piping lament of the whistle to accompany the shuffle of back-steps in ash, the dance transcended genre.  It stepped back in time to when all dance was the same – feet treading rhythm, bodies twisting in firelight. One dancer leading, wordlessly but expressively: the other hesitant at first but knowing the shape of the dance, matching his companion in display
           Hera watched them, their faces and limbs up-lit by the fire. It was burning low, but sending up sparks, the embers becoming hypnotic.  Starting out of entrancement, Hera curled her fingers into her palms.  Her hands were warm, but not clammy with sweat.  She listened to her heart; breathed slowly and deeply; and marveled that tonight fire held no fear for her. 


Owen said...

May you future stay forever fire free...

I can think of few things less terrifying than raging fire.

We have an aunt and uncle here in France who lost their lovely home to a criminally set forest fire a few years ago, in the south, between Marseille and Nice. They had bought the place and retired there, and only were able to enjoy it for a couple of years before the tragedy struck. They were fortunately away at the time, as it burned to the ground. I saw the ruins some months later, it was devastating, a total loss. I'll never forget the sight of the melted glass of the heavy glass coffee table they had, it had run like lava, and then solidified again. The same for wine bottles in the garage, they had melted in the heat... the wine vaporized...

Owen said...

errr... "your future", of course...

Jeneane said...

Thankyou Owen. When I hear a story like your relatives' experience, or the Australian woman who came to dance with us in January who lost her home in the Victorian bush fires, I realise just how lucky we were.

the cuby poet said...

Fire is the most terrifying of the elemental forces may you be safe for the rest of your life. The kingfishers made the most of the tree stump for you to enjoy your privileged view. Interesting blog post.

Jeneane said...

Thank you Claire for your wishes of safety. The kingfishers were part of the healing process here weren't they :-) We watched him making his burrow - a false start, and then a new site - then coaxing her with gifts that wriggled. She sat in the old willow enjoying the attention while he busied back and forth a-hunting. Then domesticity and babies saw them both, darting azure, back and forth to the river, where sometimes we recognised them "our kingfishers" fishing. And the climax before the family disappeared was one of the fledglings actually perching on our verandah: a blessing indeed !

NB The NZ Kingfisher or Kotare is a different species to the ruddy- breasted one seen in Britain. Halcyon sancta vagans is larger with a creamy breast.