Looking back on this year of wonders

The exceptional experience of living through 2020

Our memories of this remarkable year will depend entirely on our circumstances.

It has been a horrible year for people confronted by summer’s monster fires, or laid low by COVID-19, or damaged by the lockdowns. But to those who’ve been able to avoid the worst outcomes the pandemic has offered a chance to reflect.

That has been a godsend for writers like Delia Falconer, whose natural inclination to isolation saw her relieved at the pause in human activity, “taking pleasure in a world temporarily stilled”. With 24 other Australians, Falconer wrote about her 2020 experience in a new essay collection edited by leading non-fiction writer Sophie Cunningham, called Fire, flood, plague.

There is much in this little gem of a book from which we can take comfort. Not least is a host of examples of people rising to the occasion, setting aside differences and making the effort to come together (subject of course to social distancing) in a spirit of cooperation and mutual support.

Fire, flood, plague is a unique snapshot of personal experiences in this year of wonders, drawing together many strands of thinking and feeling from a wide array of backgrounds and experiences – professional scientists, historians and journalists alongside activists, novelists, poets and all manner of other writers.

“Wonders” seems almost inadequate to describe a year in which those “natural” events of the title, fire, flood and plague, are just some of the string of surprises that have regularly intruded into our news feeds. What about last week’s official finding about our most celebrated soldiers? Or the assault on democracy in the United States?

Or what about Black Lives Matter, including the way it was interpreted in our own country? One of the book’s contributors, Brenda Walker, touches on this in contemplating the strangeness of a 2020 Anzac Day without its Dawn Service in Kings Park, Perth.

Kings Park, she points out, “has been an Indigenous dreaming place for tens of thousands of years. The war memorial lies above the meeting of wide rivers: a place of sky and water. There is a memorial to the Boer War, but no memorial to the Frontier Wars…”

Indeed, not here and not in any Australian city, though each of them has its war memorial. And in a year in which an iconic Australian mining company deliberately destroyed an ancient Pilbara rock art gallery, it behoves us to reflect deeply, with several contributors to this book, on why Australian history has for so long been deemed not to have begun until 1788.

It goes without saying that a book featuring last summer’s fires will have much to say about climate change, specifically what is in store for us in Australia. Pointing out that climate change was the main driver of the fires, ANU climatologist Joëlle Gergis is especially forthright:

“We are being forced to come to terms with the fact that we are the generation that is likely to witness the destruction of our Earth. We have arrived at a point in human history that I think of as the ‘great unravelling’. I never thought I’d live to see the horror of planetary collapse unfolding.”

One Fire, flood, plague contributor deserves special mention. Perth-born, UK-based Rebecca Giggs is the author of Fathoms: The world in the whale, about this remarkable creature and its ocean habitat, published recently to global acclaim.

Giggs begins her 2020 narrative in January. After sitting in her London flat watching shocking video of Australia’s bushfires, she considers the fate of fire-ravaged ecosystems in her native land, where plants needing absent insects to spread their pollen, slow-budding re-seeders like banksias and birds with specific diets will struggle: “The new bush will not sound like the old one.”

People suddenly hearing songbirds in locked-down London, says Giggs, were looking to nature for solace: “The pandemic might ravage the hospitals, but there would remain woodlands, berries agleam in the hedges and things to flutter and soar.”

After watching birds from the roof of her flat as they faded with the twilight, she began to notice lights of living rooms and kitchens. “In the darkness I saw how many of my neighbours stood at their windows, listening with me, for what moved in the air between us.”

In the end, this is what it all comes down to. Company. After generations of treating the rest of life on Earth as if it doesn’t matter, when things fall apart that’s where we turn. And coronavirus or not, we’ve never needed those other myriad species more than now.

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