Storytelling for the uncanny present

Uncanny sunrise, descending into Sydney

While overseas in November, I caught snippets of news from home: unprecedented bushfire smoke choking major cities; koala populations declared functionally extinct (not all koalas); heritage-listed rainforests burning; farmers traumatised by the screams of dying animals.

From afar, these unsettling accounts seem fictional, like the ‘raining frogs’ in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Except in Anderson’s film, the uncanny frog-storm is a narrative device used to pull the disperate plotlines together. In Australia, politicians are instructed not to link the catastrophic bushfires with climate change, led by prime minister Scott Morrison who sends ‘thoughts and prayers’ to affected communities but publicly suggests Australia could increase emissions without worsening the fire season. As science journalist Ben Lewis asks, if now is not the time to talk about climate change, when is?

As my plane descended, the landscape looked more Mars than Sydney. Walking through the tunnel connecting plane to airport, the smoke further discombobulated me – days before, that same smell wafted from the chimneys of Averill Park homes, as Timo and I crunched through Autumn snow to the residency. Autumn and spring should smell worlds apart.

48-hours after arriving home, my sensitive sinus reacted to the smoke particles with a gnarly middle-ear infection and a throat full of ulcers. A week and a bundle of antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals later, I’m still deaf but I can lie down without searing pain. I cannot imagine how those closer to the blazes are suffering.

6pm sun in Sydney. I worry photographs like this aestheticise the problem.

In a recent project, I borrowed Margaret Atwood’s term ‘the everything change’, which better encompasses the cascading changes associated with a altered climate. Bushfires devastate landscapes, communities, creatures and exhausted rescue services in their paths. As I’m now painfully aware, bushfires also impact those sensitive to smoke pollution and the medical services we require. There are social and economic impacts, with increased sick days and closures of schools, offices and infrastructure when the air quality is too poor to venture out. There is psychological distress, not just the trauma suffered by victims and rescuers, but also associated with a world changing so fast we barely recognise ‘home’.*

The term solastalgia refers to a homesickness experienced while still at home, a nostalgia for a familiar place made strange. Returning from a month overseas to an uncanny version home, I feel solastalgia keenly.

3.30pm Leichhardt. Sunset is 4 hours away.

Collecting Raph from daycare at 3.30pm in apocalyptic pink haze, at a time of year I associate with blue skies late into the evening, I realise this is what spring is to him. A time of indoor-only play, a season when his mum squints constantly from sinus headaches and pleads for quiet, when water restrictions prevent planting a spring garden and soot-blackened ocean swims are unappealing. His childhood cannot be like mine.

How can I prepare a child for a world I don’t recognise? What stories can I tell him, to prepare him for a future that makes a climate scientist think twice having a child at all? What stories can I tell myself, to avoid infecting him with my anxiety and solastalgia?

On aeroplanes, adults are instructed to fit our oxygen masks before helping children. This advice seems relevant for storytelling.

At the residency, Timo and I unpicked our personal motivations for this Precarious Birds project. I hesitantly brought up motherhood, and my mild embarrassment about the cliche of developing environmental concern after having a child. Timo affably encouraged me to get over it.

I am not, directly, performing this project for Raph. Nor for my students. Yet searching for ways to actively notice the ‘overlaid arrangements of human and nonhuman living spaces‘ and to ‘stay with the trouble‘, I hope to see the world anew. If I can find ways to better comprehend the uncanny present and unknowable future, I will be able to narrate these ways of being within the world back to both Raph and the students in my care. Storytelling is a form of action, and without action there is no hope (to paraphrase a conversation with Timo).

* I am not equating feelings of solastalgia or my gnarly sinus/middle ear pain with the trauma experienced by those directly impacted by fires. That trauma is beyond what I can comprehend, and hope to never experience. I’m writing this as a personal response to an environment I’m struggling to recognise as home.

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