After Ash Wednesday - Mt. Macedon 1983

extract published in the age on 16th years anniversary.
- At Tanah Merah - October 1998
Jenni Mitchell - 1998
(2,330 words) AFTER ASH WEDNESDAY - MOUNT MACEDON 1983 - 1998
Jenni Mitchell
Bushfires threaten Victoria; particularly the Macedon Ranges area.
Painter Jenni Mitchell has recorded the tragedy and rebirth of Ash Wednesday; February, 1983.
On the eve of the sixteenth anniversary, she recalls her experiences.

WHEN Ken Taylor said the invite to his house at Mt. Macedon - burnt to the ground in a fire 10 days prior to Ash Wednesday - still stood as arranged, he added 'bring your paints'.

It was three days after the worst, but despite the television news images, the photos in the newspapers and the radio reports, I was not prepared for the horror of the landscape before me.

I was standing in a nightmare as I looked around the blackened scene. Ken, a poet and film-maker, stood in what had once been the kitchen of his recently renovated and extended house. Tanah Merah.

South Australian Artist friend John Olsen had just arrived from his home in Clarendon to comfort his friend - but what could he say? Leaving Ken and John I drove to the top of the Mount and I am sure my mouth was gaping as I drove. As I descended the Mount below Camels Hump I stopped the car to look around. Until then, I had experienced sound at all times - the drive from Melbourne, road noise, radio, traffic, arriving at Tanah Merah, Ken and John. I stopped the car beside the road, turned off the engine and stepped out. The silence was eerie, so much so that I jumped back into the car. I felt as if something terrible was about to happen. The deafening sound of the silence was a sensation I had never experienced before. There was stillness in the landscape; stillness and thick silence.

The landscape before and around me as far as I could see was monotone. I stepped out of the car again, stood, looked and listened. I began to feel the quiet. It was almost pulsating.

As I stood still, the first sound came. A lone bird call echoed high above in the blackened tree tops. I looked up, and then down at the bush floor. What was once undergrowth was now a soft velvet covering of mauve/grey ash. It was beautiful, like freshly fallen snow, but lighter and it held smooth shadows. Out of this softness appeared the blackened uprights of the tall Mountain Ash trees - once splendid with their silvery white trunks, now charcoaled sentries of stillness. These black skeletons once held colonies of grubs, birds, possums and koalas. They stood now as empty hollows and sculptural frameworks. Leaves that were not incinerated were dried as stiff brown attachments to branches. The mauve ash floor was littered with fallen rust brown leaves.

There were no other cars on the road or any sense of life. I felt as if the world had vanished and I was alone This was the subject of my first painting. The project had begun and that single first vision became a series of paintings documenting the Ash Wednesday Fires' effect on the landscape. When I look at this first painting now, I can still hear that lone bird call. I took many photographs of the landscape and began a journey of recording in a series of paintings of the regrowth over a period of several years.

As I moved around the blackened landscape I was aware of the apparent different temperatures the fire had burnt. Some areas ironically one was named Blackwood Road, the landscape had burnt with such intensity - it was considered the epicentre of the fire. The firestorm began here and its force uprooted trees and twisted and melted them into others. What was left were the dramatic shapes and shells of trees. It was a landscape of war. Nothing could have lived during the minutes when the fire raged. Other places seemed to have only been singed such as the gullies and more protected corners of the forest. When I looked at the Blackwood Road area, the landscape was so tortured that I couldn't set up my easet. . I was so disturbed by what I saw I needed to begin the painting from my studio in Eltham - away from the subject, reliving my observations and experience. Later I was able to return to the spot and paint on location. I had to firstly come to terms with it elsewhere. At the time I was an art student. I spent much of my time camped on the lawns during the following winter with the Taylor family. I would spend up to a week or ten days on the Mount, painting and then return to Melbourne and college with my work.

It was a difficult time for everyone. Ken had several tents erected on the only lawn at Tanah Merah which was still green. Soon there was rain and often snow. It was very cold. There was a kitchen tent that had portable benches, a gas stove and a complex array of water bottles. Other tents had bed rolls for Ken's family. Eventually hot water was available for showers - if it was sunny. The hot water came from a length of black waterpipe rolled up on the lawn. If the sun shone, the waterpipe heated up. As I travelled around the district I found it difficult to record or paint the lives of the people who lived here. I felt as if I was intruding on their very soul - their lives were raw and exposed. I wondered if I should have been more ruthless, and paint the broken houses, burnt cars and empty fireplaces that still stood on the sites that was once happy homes. Property was naked for the passer-by to see for the lack of foliage meant loss of privacy. There were people arriving to sightsee. I concentrated instead on the effect and regrowth of the landscape, the regeneration of the bush, the beauty and sign of hope as the bush began to grow and sprout new life.

Still in the early days after the fire, I returned with the poet John Anderson. We walked together through the landscape and saw the first signs of regeneration. A dense black Hakea bush had burst open its seed pods to expose a warm, honey-coloured shell - spilling golden seeds onto the grey ash floor. The next sign of regeneration I observed were the new fronds of the tree ferns that grew in the gullies along the creeks. Painting the gully along Anzac Road I found the first use for green paint. The subject was typically black, grey mauve and brown. In the foreground were the blackened shapes of the tree ferns, and just a few new green fronds. It was about this time that the grass trees began to sprout new growth. It was fascinating being able to see into the forest. Before the fire the bush was close and hidden by dense undergrowth. The clearance caused by the fire enabled me to look further and deeper into the forest and observe growth as it appeared. In only weeks many of the less heat-affected trees began to sprout erratically along their branches, it was new growth in unexpected places. It was like a person growing a beard on their arm. This new growth was generally quite dark in colour, with deep red and purple leaves. A bizarre landscape began to emerge.

Now there were more sounds across the mountain. The constant noise of chain saws began cutting into the winter air - trucks changed gear continually as they struggled uphill with heavy loads of bricks and timbers for rebuilding. Chain saws continued endlessly throughout the day Victorians and people throughout Australia donated clothing, time and money. Unfortunately as the summer finished and winter arrived life moved on for most people, but Mt. Macedon was still naked. Life became harder for many of the residents rather than easier as reaching out for the familiar, a book, a memory, paperwork they came to realise it was gone and would never be there again. They were learning to live in blackness, a bruised landscape that would take years to recover, and then never be the same. Life was difficult for the community - even those that hadn't been burnt. Those who had houses and possessions intact became guilt ridden - some of those that had lost everything became envious. Emotions were high and confused. There were many marriage break-down. Leaving my green garden in Eltham and making the journey as often as I could into their blackened lives left me feeling confused as well. I would arrive at Tanah Merah with armfuls of fresh vegetables and herbs picked from my garden. The family's emotions were electric. I watched them become positive and strong as Nic began constructing a new house. Emotions veered from depression to high hopes, loss and gain; there were signs of new beginnings, new directions. Sometimes there was silence around the evening camp, sometimes much wine and laughter. The local Mt. Macedon hotel, offered a warm environment, hot water to wash your hands and face and good company, a cooked meal and community.

I attempted to bring each family member back to Eltham for a few days out. It was hard for them to leave their property. To wake, and walk around a visual blackness with the acrid smell of a burnt house each day had to have a bad effect on the soul. Sometimes they would come but it seemed as if they couldn't stay away from the Mount for long. They were soon heading back to their home. Ken left after six months for an overseas film assignment. Two English girls arrived; they were travelling around Australia. They stayed and offered friendship and genuine help for some months and have stayed in touch with Tanah Merah over the years. As the regrowth continued, some deciduous trees came back to life out of synchrony with the seasons. A giant Sweet Chestnut tree sprouted new leaves in autumn and shed them in spring. The smell of the fire permeated the landscape for a long time. The ash and charcoal was so dense on the ground, it took many seasons to wash away. Arriving from Eltham it was that smell that first told me I had reached the mountain.

After the first year I had a break from painting on the mountain. Returning eighteen months later, I was again shocked. The landscape was not delightful tree fern and grass tree. The landscape before me was choked with bracken fern. The roadsides were thick and the bush was cluttered with fallen trees, trees that had been cut down by State Electricity Commission workers and left where they fell. It was an untidy time. I managed only one painting. Ken and Margaret appeared to have decided to end their marriage. There was great unrest in the air. I quickly returned to Eltham.

There was a break for me then before I returned in 1987 to paint the next stage of the mount's regeneration. Still the scar and the smell reminded me of what had happened four years earlier. Mt. Towrong had not recovered its vegetation and even years later remains as a dry landscape. Four years later the terrain had changed, there was a lot more greenness and new growth, the bracken had disappeared into the under-story, new trees were holding their own as beginnings of another significant landscape. Ken's garden was green, grass covered what had been grey ash and new stone walls were rising, paths had changed direction - a new life was emerging. Blackened trees had been removed and many new trees planted, a future was evident. A new Japanese garden had been constructed below the old Larch tree and now it gleamed with white pebbles and raked lines. Life on the lawn under the large old chestnut tree became a place of conversation, wine and festivity. For a moment the fire could be forgotten as the Taylors' entertained artists, writers and local friend under the dappled green of the new leaves. Blue and white table cloths, blue and white shirts, new silver service, white crockery, freshness, new beginnings and champagne with strawberries flowed once again on the Mount. Later in 1987 John Olsen flew over to open the exhibition of my paintings held in the Mt. Macedon Fire station. The paintings ignited memories. At the opening I found myself looking into the long faces of people reliving their own story. This exhibition wasn't about my paintings, it was about a community dealing with disaster and loss

Over the next two week or so I listened again to many of the stories of the residents who came to see my paintings. I was struck by the sense of loss, and how for one person the grief and loss of a loved garden appeared to be of equal intensity to another's loss of a partner. It was as if the fire had been only yesterday. Today the scar has almost healed. The trees have found their correct seasons, spring has appeared with fresh green growth along all the pathways, and daffodils are abundant among with the blue-bells, jonquils and lily of the valley. Rhododendrons grew from the ashes and Tanah Merah is now open to the public as the Liza Taylor Sculpture Gallery. The scars of the garden are not apparent, unless you have been there before -the chestnut tree has moss growing on its limbs, a line of Golden Yew trees stand as fresh sentries and Ken has a different library.

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Jenni Mitchell is a painter who has travelled extensively working with the dry landscapes of Inland Australia, particular the Flinders Ranges, Tibooburra and Lake Eyre in South Australia. She is currently working on a series of 100 Australian Poets Portraits. Exhibited widely, her work is held in many private and public collections in Australia and overseas.

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