Surviving the worst

There haven’t been many articles about the Australian bushfires in the international press during February. The reason is quite simple. The rains came to Australia. Despite long term forecasts that called fo an 80% chance of below-average rain, the early fall weather has brought lots and lots of rain. It was just what the firefighters needed in order to gain relief. The fires came way early to Australia, beginning in the dead of winter, in July and since then 5.4 million hectares of land have burned. 2,439 homes have been destroyed by over 11,000 bushfires. It was all part of an unprecedented drought which now, finally, has been broken by the rain. The nation’s largest city, Sydney, had been under water restrictions since early spring when its reservoirs fell below 45% capacity, is now reporting reservoirs at 80% and more. The recovery has been dramatic with over 30% gain in the last week.

It makes me wonder what Australia is like.

It is a very strange thing watching fires from a distance, which is the only safe way to observe them. Having grown up in and around Yellowstone National Park, it is very familiar to me. In 1988 and 1989 when huge fires consumed a lot of trees in the park, the only way I could observe what was going on was through the lenses of television cameras. We did have an airplane in those days and we did fly over the corner of the park, but the special air traffic restrictions for firefighting aircraft and the dense smoke prevented me from taking the kind of close look my curiosity desired. So we watched the news reports. And the thing of those reports was that they used very long lenses to get dramatic pictures without risking the safety of the camera operators. Long lenses collapse distances. So it looked like the flames were virtually licking at Old Faithful Lodge and it looked like there were no surviving trees at the West Entrance and it looked like the Lake was surrounded by burning trees. When we were finally able to drive through the park in 1990 I was struck by two things. The first is that the fires weren’t as extensive as I had imagined. The fires formed mosaics in the forest leaving a remarkable number of trees unburned. The second was how quickly life returned after the fires. Even in the West Thumb area, where fires burned so hot that the soil was said to be sterilized, there were green shoots showing through the ashes. Now, more than three decades later you can still see fire scar, but it is easier to understand how fire is a part of the natural ecology of the park. In some ways those fires helped to restore a balance that had been affected by over-aggressive firefighting tactics since the 1950’s. The new management plans, which allow for a limited amount of fire help to control fuels and prevent the kind of massive fires we witnessed in 88 and 89.

So I don’t know how it is in Australia. I only know what I see on the Internet. It has been pretty devastating.

It is fair, however, to say that I have mostly viewed Australia from a huge distance. It has been a country of my imagination and I have lifelong friends who live there, so I do pay attention. But I have only visited once and that was a whirlwind trip that allowed us to visit the cities of Melbourne and Sydney, fly to the heart of Australia, view Uluru, see Alice Springs, and take a quick tour of Tasmania from Hobart to Launceston. We saw a lot in a short amount of time, but it would not be fair to say we really got to know the country. But we did drive through gum forests in Victoria that have since burned. We did enjoy Sydney on crisp winter days when the air was perfectly clear and free of smoke. And we visited the desert when it was not at its hottest, still experiencing temperatures that neared 100 degrees F.

I’m going to venture a guess that despite all of the fires, despite the mudslides that have come from heavy rains falling on burned slopes, despite the record high tides and other major events, Australia is still the same country. The land has a resilience that is truly remarkable and this planet keeps finding ways to restore life and go on in the face of the effects of dramatic weather and the worst of human-caused problems. There is no doubt in my mind that I will visit again with great expectation should the opportunity arise.

It is often that way with what we humans call disaster. This planet with all of its life-giving resources is more able to regenerate than we sometimes imagine. Life will go on. From a theological standpoint, God continues to create in the present. Creation is not just an origin story of something that happened and is now over, but rather an ongoing process of active participation in the creation by the Creator.

The power of the land to recover is an important sign for me as I strive to be an effective minister in the midst of trying and difficult times for our people. This week, with the death of a child in our community it is especially important to be able to tell the stories of resurrection. It is critical to believe that despite the deep pain and grief that has overwhelmed our people, joy will return - the joy that no one can take from us. It is critical to know that hope survives. It is critical to know that love never dies. I keep repeating these truths from the stories of our people. Today may not be the day for unrestrained laughter, but that day will come. We will not get over the events of our lives, but we will get through them. We are survivors. God is still creating. New life emerges in the darkest of moments.

I give thanks for the rains in Australia, and I hope that those who live there will be able to see the rainbow. I’ll be looking for rainbows here as well.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!