Reflecting on a Year of Challenge and Change
My annual reflections this year begin from when we drove up Princes Highway from East Gippsland for a Sydney Christmas at the end of 2019. I remember feeling a deep sense of dread. Despite what we had seen on TV, we had not expected to drive through smoke the entire way. The fires in East Gippsland had not really taken hold as yet but as the New Year rolled on, the attention of the world media was well and truly focused on Australia.
It was a surreal experience as we drove with headlights on in the middle of the day. Many parts of NSW recorded their worst ever air quality with parts of Sydney being deemed the worst in the world at almost 30 times safe levels. We downloaded air quality index (AQI) apps and learnt that a ‘Good’ AQI level was under 50. There was a day when I screen shot my app where the AQI was 428.
When we purchased the last box of P2 masks from Bunnings at the end of 2019, we never dreamt we would still be wearing them a year later but for a completely different reason. There were no reusable masks available then.
It was comforting to see Sydneysiders come out in their thousands to demand our government step up and take action to address climate change. Our Prime Minister when taking office had thanked the quiet Australians for his victory. It was satisfying to see many of them at the rallies, having realised their children’s & grandchildren’s future depends on them speaking out.
While conservative media outlets and politicians blurred the truth with smokescreens that blamed arsonists, climate scientists were in no doubt that global warming was a factor. Australia experienced its hottest year on record in 2019 with temperatures at 1.5 degrees above average. We had reached a Tipping Point. It was time to rethink our next steps.
Throughout January, the highways leading both North and South from Sydney were closed for extended periods and we were grounded for 2 months. We saw the dawn of a New Year on TV while house sitting for our friends Helen and James. The debate about fireworks raged but the Harbour Bridge was lit up again. We felt overwhelmed by climate grief, watching places we knew so well go up in smoke.
Regional villages and towns were evacuated as people lost their lives, their homes and their livelihoods. A report commissioned by WWF we now know that nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced during these devastating fires. Australia wept.
For the first time during our life on the road we felt uneasy. While spending time at the home of our friends Paul & Heather in early January, we made a calculated decision to move back to Hornsby in April. It would coincide with the 5-year anniversary of when we started our nomadic journey as well as the end of the rental lease on our home.
The last thing we did before we left Sydney was to participate in the Barangaroo Vigil, on the eve of Australia Day. As we sat on the grass and looked out to sea, imagining that first invasion of ships and what that must have felt like for the First Australians, we reflected on our history.
We shared this experience with some of the young people in our life. We sat around a fire and listened as Aboriginal Australians YARN about their culture and practices like fire stick burning on Country. The Aboriginal way of life had enabled this land to thrive for more than 100,000 years. Perhaps it was time to finally listen. We were subdued but it felt like an awakening.
We finally drove out of Sydney at the end of January, celebrating my birthday on the way to Bellingen. The fires in Northern NSW had subsided by then and Bello was healing.
It had felt refreshing to see green fields, water in rivers and happy cows. For months my Facebook feed has been lit with the colours of red and orange. Images of homes and forests burning, dead & injured wildlife and destroyed forests had filled me with a sense of dread. Now, right here were signs of hope. We had come to hear the Council adopt a new Housing Strategy with an action based on our submission to “provide support for alterations to planning controls that would be necessary to facilitate a pilot eco-village project.”
It was a major milestone in our quest to implement Steve’s PhD research, enabling the design and construction of Circular Economy Villages around Australia.
My sense of doom lifts when I see birds nesting in the trees and hear their cries of joy in the forest. So many people have remarked that they will never take these things for granted again. No, the threat of fire has not abated in Australia but at least here in Bellingen they have had enough rain that the Level 4 water restrictions have been modified.
Despite the threats we are facing in Australia, the Forestry Department intends to log the old growth and native forests upstream. The forests have not been logged for decades and play a vital role in keeping the waters in the rivers clear and in providing habitat for many species.
The rains that followed the fires brought a new set of problems for farmers making me think more deeply about food security. We realised there would also be contamination issues with our drinking water if the ash washed into the storage dams in Sydney.
After our visit to Bellingen, the road south was open and we could finally drive to Victoria. The road was paved with the sights and smells of blackened forests.
The images of climate refugees escaping by boat, koalas begging for water, children in gas masks, the sun a scary orange blob and rainforests burning flash through my mind as we drive. I wonder if our carefree summers of backyard BBQ’s and lazy days at the beach have forever been lost.
Our sense of foreboding, briefly replaced by hope, has now become despair.
We know that bushfires and pandemics are just two of the symptoms of a much bigger and more systemic problem — the extractive growth economy we operate in. I know we cannot give up working for a better solution.
One of the reasons we came to Victoria was to attend the National Climate Emergency Summit. Professionals, scientists, activists, politicians, farmers and small business owners have gathered at the Town Hall in Melbourne. A young farmer talks about her experiences of dust storms and survival. The stories from the frontlines were both inspiring and a wake up call. Greg Mullins, a former fire chief rose to prominence because our PM had refused to listen to what he had to say, earlier in the season.
The other reason we came to Victoria was to start my artist residency on FLOAT, a floating art studio on Lake Tyers. We are grateful to Andrea who accepted my proposal to document the stories of locals transitioning to a Circular Economy.
Spending time in isolation on FLOAT, when ISO was not a thing, was one of the most thrilling experiences we had this year before COVID restrictions mandated it. During my residency, I would collaborate with Catherine van Wilgenburg, who would record podcasts of the locals I documented. Here are a few of their stories…
Tom Crook is a passionate ecologist working to to protect threatened ecological communities. Josie is a local artist whose family has lived here for many generations. Her work is inspired by the lake and what it has to say. John Hermans and his family live off grid in Clifton Creek and grow much of their own food. They stayed to defended their home from the fires that destroyed much of this area. Jack and Grace Whadcoat were the early environmental activists of Lake Tyers. The Lake Tyers Coast Action group was born out of their early efforts to protect the dolphins from commercial fishing nets.
Andrew and his wife Juanita run a sourdough bakery from their home garage. They relocated here from the Blue Mountains. Wayne started the Red Bluff brewery and turned his passion of home brewing into an income generating business. We had many visitors while on the vessel including Dr Jessica Reeves and her students from Federation University. Jess is passionate about the interplay between humans and their environment through time.
Besides my work as an Artist in Residence, we were able to meet with the local council, consult many locals and tour the area to get a sense of the place. It was a relief to see the forests recovering after the fires. We are grateful to Phil who took us in his ute to areas that would have been inaccessible in our motorhome so we could bear witness.
It was wonderful to be embraced by the local community and share our ideas at the Tavern Tuesday meetings.
We loved their community sprit, passion for the arts and environment and their resilience during a testing time. You could never really get tired of the sunrises and sunsets. I photographed glowing fungi for the first time and am grateful to Frank who gave me a guided tour to where they could be found. The only access to the artist studio is by this punt operated by hauling on the ropes. Locals like Andrea, Josie, their husbands and many other volunteers work hard to keep this studio afloat. The experience is all about simplifying your life so you can amplify your creativity.
There were so many festivals and agricultural shows that we enjoyed during our time there. The Waterwheel Beach Tavern is the hub of activity for this small community. Dancing to a visiting Irish Band, Seo Lin was one of the last fun things we did before the pandemic lockdown.
With minimal contact on FLOAT we didn’t realise how things were spiralling out of control. By the time my artist residency ended, there was no toilet paper left anywhere in Lakes Entrance. People were beginning to panic buy a lot of things and we realised that it was time to head home.
We had planned to go back for the Orange and White exhibition at the Slipway. Restrictions in Melbourne meant it was postponed. Now it’s our turn in Sydney with borders closed again. I had to mail in my pieces and we are still looking forward to that road trip south.
Our time on the road was coming to an end but we wanted to catch our breath before we headed back to Sydney. We headed down an unpaved track to the Glasshouse Campsite to unwind. We had only spent one night when Steve’s mum called to say that borders around the country were beginning to close and that we should hurry back home. Camping now felt eerie and unsettling as we hurried across the border. I couldn’t fall asleep at night but was that because we had ended up in Belanglo State Forest?
Interestingly, our last campsite was where it all began. Our last few nights on the road were spent at the TRAKKA showrooms in Sydney (where we purchased our vehicle), waiting for our home to be vacated.
I cannot describe the sense of relief I felt when we finally moved back home. I had been nervous that it might not eventuate. We walked in to find our tenant had left us 4 roles of toilet paper as a thank you gift. It is one of the most thoughtful gifts I have ever received as our own supplies had not been replenished. The house was thoroughly cleaned. I felt the stress begin to lift from my shoulders.
Perhaps for the first time this year I finally felt we could begin to relax…
The world outside felt scary in April. Our pharmacy boarded up. We ordered groceries online and began the process of unpacking a few boxes and settling in.
It is hard to describe how wonderful it is to wake up in the valley, on the edge of Berowra Valley National Park. Some days the valley is covered in mist. Other days bits of colour in the sky tell us there’s a wonderful sunrise somewhere on the horizon. Most days the kookaburras are laughing outside.
If Climate Change had not galvanised people into action, the breakdown of global supply chains due to COVID had brought home to most that we needed to act local. For us, food security is a major part of the solution and we will keep expanding our garden.
We re-started our worm farm and compost bin and also introduced a tumbler system. We were determined to make as many transitions as we could to a Zero Waste, Circular Economy.
Now we were home, it was wonderful to cook again on a grill and oven. We made our own bread, experimented with yogurt & pizza dough, enjoying most meals outside on the deck.
Brewing our own kombucha was definitely one of the positives of being home. We re-installed a bird bath which was clearly a win-win. Harvesting our own food has been gratifying. We became self sufficient in greens and have grand plans for next year.
There were some sad times. We lost our dear friend Emma Floyd. We also lost Steve’s aunty Fotoula and my maths teacher Sriyakanthi in Sri Lanka. There were also happy times. Our niece Rania married under COVID restrictions. Once these were lifted in Sydney, we had socially distanced bush walks and picnics with local friends. We did some entertaining, one family at a time and I finally connected with my Russian friend Natasha who I had said goodbye to back in 1997 while teaching English in S Korea.
We did a lot of webinars and guest lectures including to university students in Athens and UNSW in Sydney, and also spoke at conferences and workshops. We wrote papers for Journals & Publications and continued our consulting work. Steve has been working hard on his PhD thesis and is now on the home stretch. We are looking forward to that first draft next month. I have enjoyed going back to my roots as a volunteer with Hornsby Council so I can talk about catchment remediation once again.
Focusing on my photography has been a meditative experience. We converted the guest room into a photo studio and I started experimenting with new genres of photography and lighting. I did workshops online and in-person, zoomed with my photo club mates and started entering competitions more seriously, ending the year by obtaining my first honours — Licentiate of the Australian Photography Society (LAPS). I have also been shortlisted in some competitions including making the first shortlist in the PHOTO OF THE YEAR category in Australian Photography Magazine.
I launched my website Narratives4Change this year so I can document inspirational stories of transition. My local club finished in the top 10 at the 2020 Australian Cup. Watching the sun rise in the Blue Mountains while it was snowing was a breath-taking experience during a workshop run by Ignacio Palacio, an award-winning Landscape Photographer. It was fun to experiment in my home studio. This Still Life was inspired by the Van Gogh exhibition in Sydney.
This oil and water macro was inspired by Mieke Boynton, one of Australia’s well known aerial and landscape photographers.
I persuaded my nieces to do some modelling as there were only so many ways I could photograph Steve. Waking up for this Symphony at Sunrise with a local group of shooters who FOCUS on landscape imagery was another highlight. Photography is a subjective pursuit so winning the trophy at my local photo club in the Digital Category for most points in 2020 rewarding. I enjoy using my art as part of my activism for creating change.
It has been an emotional and difficult year for everyone but especially hard for those who were impacted by the fires, contracted Covid, lost loved ones or lost their homes and/or their jobs. Different states in Australia have gone through the highs and lows of lockdown but it has been especially hard on Victorians. Just as we began to relax in Sydney, a cluster in the Northern Beaches has resulted in restricted celebrations over Christmas. Masks and empty shelves were back on the agenda. We celebrated Christmas quietly with close family. We are debating the fireworks once again but for completely different reasons.
We look to the New Year with uncertainty, yet make plans because we cannot live in fear. We hope to turn our garden into a food forest, install a water harvesting system and a smart meter to better manage our energy use and hope that whatever the New Year brings, it will teach us to be more resilient and to take care of those around us.
I didn’t expect to see empty shelves where toilet paper used to sit during this second round of restrictions but nobody appeared to be panicking so that was good. We are grateful that we were able to have small celebrations with both of our families. A Christmas Eve celebration with my sister and her family. Followed on Christmas Day with Steve’s younger brother and his family.
Over the past 7-years we have been researching and discussing how the solutions in the word cloud below might be integrated to create a new paradigm for how we live. The convergence of disruptions like renewable energy, mobile communication platforms and automation make it possible to imagine a new future. One that might be more inclusive of people on the edges. One where systemic racism does not exist. Covid restrictions have just been an accelerator for the changes that were already happening. I am back to feeling hopeful. If we work together to create a better future, a new world is possible.
As Arundathie Roy once said,
“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
All images are ©Nilmini De Silva Photography