Learning about fire

“We teach our children how to swim don’t we?” Uncle Dave Wandin asks us. “We need to teach our children about fire in the same way. Running away from it isn’t the answer.”

I am riveted by this simple yet powerful reality he is presenting to me. It is the thing that stays with me after a day of stories and learning at the Sunbury Rings, organised and attended by local Landcare groups.

Uncle Dave Wandin is a Wurundjeri Elder and part of the Narrap team that manages the properties owned by the Wurundjeri Council. He is giving us a stories folded within stories of his people’s history. Questions always invite further stories and we listen attentively and respectfully. We are all interested and pretty informed folk who want to know more. We care for country too and it is in this shared intention that we come together to learn about this significant site for Indigenous peoples from this region.

The day before we did the annual burn-off at Riddells Studio, something I look forward to with a bit of devilish glee. I like the energy of the fire and the beauty and power of it. This year due to my own vulnerability I am more cautious. There are two big piles from a big manna gum, ripped apart in the high winds experienced this winter. With its fall it took other smaller trees, littering the creek with timber. I am learning all the time that this is the way of the bush and how these life cycles influence the shape of the creek line, the flow of the water and the delicate stability of the banks.

The fire takes off with a satisfying crackle. I wait till the bigger red flames sink before feeding it with the extra limbs. The eucalyptus leaves ignite in a mini explosion. If I put too much I note the smoke goes dark brown. I don’t like the look of it and wait, constantly aware of the proximity of trees nearby, the neighbours’ property, and the falling ash. Too close for just a minute and I smell my hair burn – then a small piece of ash brushes my ear and it burns. Just seconds but I respect the intensity and get a woollen hat to cover my head and ears. It feels much safer.

We always wait till the weather is right – no wind or very little, damp ground after recent rains but you can never be certain and fire creates it’s own winds. Whilst I am burning it changes direction multiple times. When Uncle Dave poses this question about fire he also says you have to learn to read a fire, the smoke … that dark brown smoke is not good. I realize I have been learning and am excited. I am getting an idea from watching closely, listening and being humble in the face of the power of fire. Just like I am with water. My mother lost her first child through drowning – he was my oldest brother. I never knew him. He existed as a ghost throughout my life. The grief a constant in my mother’s life. We all learnt to swim and my mother learnt to swim at 40. My brother taught her. My sister and brother were champion swimmers. My brother, elegant and lithe, as he still is in the water. My sister, powerful and determined, as she was in life.

The morning unfolds in as Uncle Dave insists “Aboriginal time not whitefella time”.When lunch arrives we are all peckish and satisfied with time spent together consolidating connections through learning about country. Uncle Dave is a continuously generous and consummate teacher. I want him to help us learn how to burn Barrm Birrm – opposite the studio and property. Learn to cool burn in the old way so that we might have a chance if or when fire does come through. I look at him and see how thin and fragile he is. He has made it his life to learn from his elders and he only began recently. We could lose him too soon. I feel this keenly.