Rainforest Living: The Winds of Change

Herein, we continue our Tales of the Woods. Today’s installment deals with the weather.

Fires and Storms

When you tell people you’re moving to the hills – to the forests – and, more specifically, to the Dandenong Ranges – you generally get the following response (said in a voice of restrained, mild panic):

“Aren’t you worried about bushfires?!”

Some background here: the Ranges don’t catch fire in a major way that often, but when they do, and when it is not managed by the extensive network of CFA stations, they burn like hell. I used to live in the same area when I was a teenager, about ten kilometres from where I sit right now on my couch. I have actually been evacuated for a bushfire. To a fire shelter. From which we were subsequently evacuated, to another fire shelter. Good times. We were fortunate, and the fire only came within about a kilometre of our house. Whenever the siren went off, you dropped everything and waited. Just waited. To see if it stopped. To see if the sky went red. To see if there was smoke.

So, in its own way, it really is a fair question, and I feel I’m answering this with a degree of realism and personal experience.

But here’s some more background: the specific location we were moving to, in our Mountain Fortress, exists in a micro-climate. It’s on the watershed side of the mountains; it’s always green, it’s covered in ferns, and it is, above all else, wet. We have leeches down in the bottom of the yard, and when it rains, the bottom of the yard basically turns into a swamp and I go through many towels and buckets of warm water getting the mud off my dogs (well, Abby, anyway. Amos tiptoes through the mud. He seems to find it icky). The only time we have to worry about fires is if the suburban town at the bottom of the hill catches fire, and it heads uphill; it would then become a crown fire and we would need to haul arse. This doesn’t actually happen, as a rule. It’s not impossible, but it’s very unlikely. Even in summer, it never dries out here. In fact, we light fires on purpose throughout most of the year. I didn’t mention it in my post about yard work, but a big part of maintaining our property is sensible burning-off of debris. I think Husband has assembled and supervised about fifteen of these sessions now, maybe more; he does a few of these every year to clear up bark, fallen branches that are no good as firewood, and leaves.

It’s important not to be stupid. You have your fire plan. You have your bag of essentials. You have your conditions under which you load your pets and valuables into the car and high-tail it off the mountain. And, of course, you schedule your burn-offs very sensibly. But, overall, there is nothing to really panic about where we are when it comes to fires.

Most importantly (to understand my response to the panicky question), prior to our shift to the rainforest, we were living in the semi-rural northern suburbs of Melbourne. Open grasslands and dry scrub. Massive grassfires, every summer, almost without fail (particularly Kangaroo Ground which I understand to be more or less constantly on fire).

So I’d get this question from understandably concerned friends, and I’d look at my dry, grass abode with its open rolling hills, and then picture my wet, swampy, rainforest abode, surrounded by gigantic mountain ash trees.

“No,” I’d say decisively, to an expression of disbelief. “I am not at all worried about bushfires.”

“But-”

“I’m worried about storm damage.”

Yessir, the greatest concern to our safety and wellbeing where we are is the very real risk that one of the numerous fifty metre tall trees in our yard will decide, in a high wind, to go kamikaze on our asses – or, more accurately, our roof.

We have a large skylight in the lounge room (actually, we have about five skylights in total, but more on that in another post). Through this skylight, I can look up and see the trees swaying in the wind – and believe me, they do sway, even on a lightly windy day. Eucalyptus regnans is a bendy sort of tree up on the top end, and I can see why evolution favours that construction. If they were rigid, they’d snap right off.

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Sometimes I get an inexplicable urge to duck sideways.

And crush us.

Our first experience of this occurred about six months after moving in. Husband and I were sitting up in bed, reading. It was about ten pm. Soon it would be time to turn out the light, and get some rest.

What happened next was decidedly un-restful.

There was an almighty crack. I can’t really describe this sound properly, except to say that it was all-encompassing. It was followed by a series of similar cracks, rustling, snapping, breaking, falling, crushing – and this falling took a long time. We were sitting there for a good fifteen seconds, I think, before we heard the deafening WHUMP of a mountain ash diving to the ground. To be fair, given the slope of our yard, it had to fall below parallel, and it took two or three sycamore maples with it (the extra cracks and thuds), and crushed a fern (which simply decided to grow sideways, because ferns are pretty badass up here), so getting to the ground was always going to take a little while.

We just sat there while this colossal noise was going on all around us.

When we tell people this story, we get another question (again, delivered in a slightly horrified voice):

“Why didn’t you run away?!”

Honestly, I would have tried to make sure I was much further from the impact than I was when I started. I would have. Honest. I am perfectly happy to run away! The problem was that there was absolutely no way to tell which direction the noise came from. If we had made the wrong call, we could have ended up running towards the fall. It seemed like the tree took a long time to fall, but it’s not enough time to make that judgement.

So we sat there, books set aside and forgotten, both of us staring up at the roof, hearts pounding, waiting for the noise to stop.

We got up, donned dressing gowns and Ugg boots, grabbed torches, and went out to survey the damage, where we found our neighbours, and we all stood there laughing hysterically.

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While this is a very unflattering mug shot of yours truly, the expression on my face accurately captures my surreal puzzlement at the event. This also doesn’t quite capture the size of the tree either. (taken next day)

That time, we got lucky. The tree fell exactly parallel to our fence line, about two metres from our carport. It crushed three trees, as I said above; it crushed a retaining wall, and our side gate; and the extended branches managed to partially damage the fence between us and our equally bemused neighbours.

It took over a year to get rid of the debris, repair the retaining wall, and the gate, and clean up the fence, and mostly that was achieved with the assistance of my father and his five foot chainsaw (I am not exagerrating. It’s a Husqvana and it is nearly as long as my dad is tall. My dad is sort of short).

Since then, we had the twin to that tree removed (they were growing from the same root, and there was fungus damage). Dad has helped us take down a dead blackwood in the backyard which fell and was supported by another tree. There are two more trees in our yard that I think need to come down, but if we can’t fell them in a straightforward way with Dad’s help, it costs thousands of dollars to take them down (because they are very tall and robust trees in very tight quarters, surrounded by other trees).

It’s not for the faint of heart. Amos has acquired a modest fear of the wind. Being a laid back sort of dog (relatively speaking), his expression of this fear is to hide under Husband’s desk or lean against my leg. He doesn’t throw tantrums, or bark in a panicky way. He just requests safety and reassurance.

I mean, uh, he boldly protects us from under the table. That’s right.

This is fair enough, considering that I came out one morning after a storm to find that, instead of having a sleepy dog on the couch under the skylight, I had a couch covered in rainwater, pieces of plastic and wood, and apparently, no dog. I glanced around to discover him running around on the verandah.

I put the pieces together (not literally. The skylight was freaking toast). A branch (and from that height, it might be very small) had broken off one of the towering trees overhead, plummeted down onto the skylight, and smashed it. Shards of plastic and one of the wooden frame supports fell down, and landed on my dog, along with copious amounts of rainwater, who understandably woke up from what was most likely a comfortable snooze, freaked the fuck out, and managed to get the back door open and run outside into safety – a feat he had never managed before and has not managed since (Abby has. She opens things. If she drank beer, we’d never need to buy another bottle opener again. Although we would have a different problem to solve at that point, i.e. a drunk, yeast-farting 40kg rottweiler).

So. We put up a tarp. We ordered a replacement skylight. We mopped up the couch with towels. And we now have a dog that gets a wee bit nervous in high winds and heavy rain.

There’s not a lot we can do about this. It’s just a fact of life here. Getting trees assessed would help, but that raises further problems (a story for another day).

Apropos timing

This post has been sitting in its unfinished state for about two weeks, and today in Melbourne we had a day so very hot that even our Mountain Fortress (which, given the altitude and the protection of the canopy, can be up to seven or eight degrees cooler than the city) reached 36 celsius. We had escaped to an air conditioned cinema to see Episode VII, having filled a kiddie pool with water for the dogs and dumped a freezer full of ice in their water bucket, and I was admittedly shielding my screen and checking my phone every ten to fifteen minutes to see if the CFA app had updated.

The power went out at the shopping centre, due to the heat, about 60% of the way through the movie. We got evacuated. So I still don’t know how it ends. We get replacement tickets and think we’ll probably try and see it on Thursday.

What really made this appropriate was that, after the day started to cool down, we started getting thunderstorm warnings, and suddenly I was really worried about not being at home with the dogs. When it’s hot, the dogs have plenty of options to stay cool. They can hide in the fallen tree (it’s hollow, and very cool), they can dig out little hollows in the mud at the bottom of the yard near the creek (which Amos absolutely does, and I can tell because his belly is covered in dried mud, which normally he avoids like the plague), they can stand in the kiddie pool and cool off their feet (Abby apparently does this, but Amos is still skeptical).

But they don’t have any way to deal with storm damage. Amos doesn’t panic properly, so I doubt he would lose his shit the way that some unlucky dogs do, but he would be upset, and if a falling tree takes out a fence, he might get out. Or they might get crushed by falling trees (notice I’m not worried about Abby getting upset about storms. She doesn’t give a rat’s backside; other dogs? Strange people who are too big? High visibility vests? Terrifying. Catastrophic storms? Pfeh, whatever). And there is no way to prepare for that.

So it sort of illustrates my point, which is that it is absolutely beautiful up here, but there are drawbacks, and it really isn’t what you’d expect. For the most part, we really aren’t worried about fire, but we spend most of the year being concerned about storms.

As does Amos. This is his concerned face.

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Concerned dog is concerned.

Permission to be sad, Captain?

I am sick and tired of positive thinking culture.

There.

I said it.

I am sick and tired of a world that demands you explain yourself for being unhappy, that you repress and suppress all the unhappy feelings that you have, that you crush it all down into a little ball and let yourself express only brightness and joy. This is a world that implies that, somehow, if you are sad, you have failed. It is never the world that has failed you. It is never that people might have hurt you, or let you down; it is never that all the hideous unnecessary suffering and bigotry and cruelty in the world just kind of bothers you; it is never that there might actually be a chemical imbalance in your brain that requires some treatment.

It is never acknowledged that sadness is a perfectly sane and appropriate – and freaking healthy! – response to so many things.

No, no, it’s your attitude that is the problem.

This isn’t really a radical or original idea. Even Pixar/Disney, purveyors of brightness and joy, have made a point of saying that it is important to allow yourself to feel a full range of emotions and understand your own sadness. In the land of happy endings, that’s a big deal. It’s not a revolutionary idea to say that, if you don’t understand your own sadness, you can’t even have a happy ending.

If you’ve read my social media rant, you’ll know that I pay close attention to the Facebook feeds of my friends. I live miles away from most of them, so it’s how I best stay in touch.

Here’s something that I see a lot:

A friend posts something about how they are so sick of struggling and fighting, so sick of someone’s behaviour (usually not named or detailed, because my friends are sensible and thoughtful people), and they feel overwhelmed and tired and anxious and miserable.

Sympathy wells up in me. I know them feels! I go to comment on the post to share sympathy, or to say “Hey, you can call if you need to,” or whatever is appropriate for the level of closeness that I have with that person.

“This post does not exist.” Or has been deleted. At this moment I can’t recall Facebook’s wording for that particular phenomenon.

“Oh,” I think. “They must have thought better of sharing their private emotions on Facebook. That’s fair.” And some people do. I rarely share the depth of my sadness or rage or worry or fear in public; even deep down joy is something I tend to keep to myself. For me, deeply felt emotions are a private thing. There’s a story there, a very long story, and it’s why this post makes me feel naked and sick, but I leave it up because I think some stories are important and need to be told and I keep reminding myself that there is nothing shameful in it, and it’s more important that other people in that situation don’t feel alone with it, than for me to enjoy my safe privacy on that issue. And one day I may write about why I am so very private with my emotions, but, as Aragorn once said, this is not that day.

I consider whether I should message this friend privately. Depending on who it is, and how close we are, or how private I know they are, I may or may not do so.

A few seconds later, something like this appears in my feed, from the same person:

“Sometimes life is hard, but you’ve just got to stay positive! I am so thankful for all the good things in my life! Onward and upward!”

And I feel… ugh. It’s hard to describe what I feel. A strange mix of horror and resignation and anger – not towards the person in question, but towards a damaging belief system that makes them feel like they have to be happy for an audience.

Before anyone gets outraged, I’m going to tell one more story, and this is a personal one with actual personal emotions, but it’s very short. Here we go.

A few years ago, my step-mother, Joy, died of terminal lung cancer. When she was diagnosed, she was given six months to live. I believe she eked out an extra week or so. It was rough on everyone – her family, my father, me. The ripples of anger and shock and grief spread out everywhere.

There’s a public myth about cancer, and about how people who experience cancer – or any terminal illness – should present themselves. They should be brave. They should be positive. They should be determined and fearless and somehow at peace. It’s an awful, awful trope, because it puts all the pressure on the person who is really fucking sick and suffering to be strong for all the people around them, and it doesn’t allow for the realities of the situation, which is basically that people with terminal illnesses tend to die, and they don’t tend to die in a comfortable way (if there is such a thing). Those of us left behind find that incredibly difficult to face, so we try to bear with a kind of denial, and we expect the sick person to support us in this.

Where they are supposed to get the emotional energy to support us while they’re probably thinking, “Holy fucking shit, I’m going to die, this is horrible, I’m not finished, how do I deal with this shit?” is a complete mystery to me.

Joy was put on anti-depressants. She was surprised by this, as she was generally a very positive and up-beat sort of person. Her warmth and acceptance and kindness made her very easy to be around even at the worst of times, and she had a genuine gift for making the best of a bad situation, so she had trouble accepting that she was sad, even though she had every reason to be incredibly sad and upset.

She knew I had experience with depression (I’m not shy about it), so she spoke to me and told me how she was determined to stay positive and upbeat and strong and cheerful.

“No,” I said. “I mean, yes, it’s good that you’re doing that, and keep that up as long as you actually want to. But that’s exhausting. It is emotionally and physically exhausting. I just want you to know that it is okay, some days, to let the depression win. It is okay to give yourself a day just to be sad. To rest. To gather up emotional energy to get back to the fight the next day.”

No-one had ever said that to her. Everyone had been telling her to keep a positive attitude, to stay upbeat, to focus only on the good things.

No-one had ever said, “It’s okay to be sad.”

I was furious.

I am still furious.

People give this advice with the absolute best of intentions, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely understand that. And there is a grain of truth in it, which I will get to in a moment, but the key point here, the really crucial point, is that you don’t owe anyone your happiness. What people forget is that when you need all your energy to get out of bed and walk around, you don’t have anything left for smiles and laughter.

There are times when you will want to be private about your feelings. For me, that’s most of the time. It’s obvious when I am sad and when I am perky, but the depths or heights of those feelings are kept in whenever I can do so. I feel that I owe it to co-workers and colleagues to be – well – mellow. I owe it to them to be approachable, and civil, and relatively easy to be around, and professional. I do not owe it to anyone to be happy, or pretend to be happy, if I am not. I’ve had bad days. It doesn’t always work. You just do your best.

But you are allowed to be sad. You are allowed to be angry. You will usually have good reasons for those feelings.

Here’s the other problem I have with this positive thinking idea: there is that grain of truth I mentioned previously. It comes with basic cognitive training, a technique that is very useful for people with mood disorders. You teach yourself to pull out of the “everything is shit” spiral. It is very, very hard psychological work, and it takes a long time to learn it. It’s not as simple as it sounds. It involves a lot of self-awareness, and a lot of self-discipline. What’s more is that all it does is take the edge off. It makes it a bit easier to function and get by and be happy on occasion. It’s good, but it doesn’t always work.

Learning to appreciate that you do have some things to be happy about is fair, but it’s not a cure-all. Looking on the bright side is a useful skill, but that’s not what is usually being promoted with “stay positive”. The way people often apply it – and I’m not saying this is deliberate – is not so much “focus on the fact that not everything is awful,” so much as “completely ignore that anything is awful at all.” It’s the “how dare you be unhappy when you have food” argument all over again. It’s great that you have food. So many people don’t. But the fact that other people don’t have food, and you yourself will never go hungry, does not mean that your pain is invalid. Getting perspective is helpful, and useful, but again, it’s not a cure-all.

Essentially, “stay positive” should mean “acknowledge that this is difficult, understand why it is difficult, accept it, and try to move on while carrying that knowledge by looking at things in your life that give you a lift,” but that’s not how we use it.

We usually use it to try and discredit sadness.

And that is an awful and dangerous thing.

So here I am, declaring that if you think you need permission to be sad or angry or open about those feelings, then fine. I give you permission. I, Kate, have decreed that you are allowed to experience the full range of human emotion and the sensible responses to your life. I have decreed that you shouldn’t feel like a failure, or a loser, because you have a full range of emotions, or because life gets you down sometimes. There is no embarrassment. There is no shame.

You’re just sad. And that’s okay.