published in the age on 16th years anniversary.
- At Tanah Merah - October 1998
© Jenni Mitchell - 1998
(2,330 words) AFTER ASH WEDNESDAY -
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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