From the woolshed

From the woolshed – Olympus OM-1N, Kodak Ektar 100

From the woolshed, looking out to a familiar scene
Clouds on the hill, weathered boards underfoot
The same old fencelines divide the land
Just as you remember
The Rye paddock and the Lane
The Airstrip out of sight beyond the ridge
Then other people’s land
Land you don’t know
Before the distant peaks slide into the hills
Just as you remember.

Summer battlefields

It has happened, gradually but surely – fire now so a part of every Australian summer that we head into the hot weather as though into a war zone, prepared for loss, aware that at some level loss is inevitable.

Like war zones, we watch fire on our TV screens and see the photos in the paper. Like in war there are the heartbreaking stories of survival; everyone’s favourite is Sam the koala drinking from a firefighter’s water bottle in 2009.

We watch all this on TV or turn on the radio driving home to listen. But most war zones are far away from our quarter acre blocks in the suburbs or our city apartments.

Not here, not with the fires. Melbourne, so often ensconced in its own little world, was shocked by being blanketed in smoke in 2009. I dropped in and out of the city early that year, passing through a few weeks after the fires; Melbournites were still stunned at this encroachment so close to their big safe city.

And it’s close every year, every bad fire season. Even for those of us living in the city. It’s our relatives, the farmers who grow our food and wool, the tree changers of my parents’ generation, the friends from rural areas that we made at uni or in the workplace – these are the people in the war zones of 45 degree temperatures, 40 knot winds, and fire.

I’ve never been dangerously close to a bushfire. But close enough. A spot fire over the hill, quickly burnt out due to lack of fuel load after a drought. Fires on the ridge beyond a relative’s property, flames burning down a cousin’s driveway. A house lost in the big town up the valley. Cleaning out the gutters, nailing shutters over windows and gratings, testing the fire pump. Watching the weather through the summer, worrying about the animals. Keeping in touch with the relatives to see if everyone’s alright. Trimming the horses’ tails. This is close enough.

I don’t have any of my red photos from the 2003 fires. They were all red or orange or brown; even photos inside the kitchen seem tainted by the red sky outside. So here is one of the mountains instead, years after the fires, but with the scars still present, and one brave little hut in the middle of it all.

Spargo Hut, Mount Hotham. Flickr/Tony Marsh

Spargo Hut, Mount Hotham. Flickr/Tony Marsh

The words behind the image

The morning light distils the cold air into something sweet and fresh. The layers of the hills are a patchwork of muted colours and texture at this time, as the sun, far to the north, illuminates them in turn, and the patterns on their faces emerge gradually into the light.

There is, as always in this land, a mix of nature close alongside that which is made and managed by humans. The textures of pasture and corrugated tin, of fence post and gumtree, of river water and bridge, complement and highlight one another on this land. It is land I know well, though not so well as the kelpie knows it, with her finely tuned senses and her quick feet.

On a winter’s morning in June, with the three young kelpies and the old border collie cross following me everywhere I went, I did not know that it was the dog in this photo that would end up with me. I thought – hoped – that she might, but we were all in limbo then, nothing certain.

Now we are far away, the dog and I, but I think often of that morning. A roll of slide film, brisk mountain air, trying to capture a ghost of the landscape while I still could. At the homestead, away to the left, smoke rose from the chimney.

But it was the last days, and the dogs knew it. On a day like today, the sun and cloud will be playing patterns with the wind on the water of the trough, undisturbed by us.

* * *

Perhaps a good photograph should stand alone, capable of telling a story without the need for words to explain it. But I am a writer first and foremost, from long before the days when I started to think in terms of images in a camera.

So for me part of the attraction of photography is the opportunity it presents for an interplay with words.

In previous years at Unsensored I have sought to explain or enhance my images to some extent with words. Not to explain in terms of where, why, how, but to suggest my own thoughts in relation to the image; to give a hint of what it meant to me.

This year, however, the image I exhibited bore no neat, four line explanation. I tried, covering pages with notes and images as I tried to pull out the words that would say enough, but not too much.

But I couldn’t do it – I could not condense what this photograph meant to me into just a few lines. I still can’t, but now, in the aftermath of the exhibition, with the photo on my wall and the dog outside my window in the sun, a blog gives more space than an image card could, so that I might try and say just a little of what it means.

Image: Olympus OM-1N, Fuji Sensia 200, expired. Click to view large.