Robert Godden’s musings and rants

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Ash Wednesday in the City of Trees

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I know what I was doing exactly 25 years ago today, about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and into the evening.

I was standing with a small man with a beard who played the violin badly and whose name has not survived the ravages of 25 years on my brain, the lady who ran the boarding house I lived in at the time and whose moniker is just as completely lost, and Barry.

Barry, my schizophrenic room-mate who upset me by being my room-mate; for I had moved more than 500 kilometres from home expecting a single room in the boarding house; only to find that there had allegedly been some sort of mix-up. A mix-up that saved my parents $6 per week, but that wasn’t much of a silver lining as far as I was concerned.

Due to my lack of understanding about his condition, I was a bit worried about Barry; but he was a genuinely nice man; and in the few months I was in the boarding house – before I managed to convince my parents to lift my allowance  and get out of there– he was very helpful and kind. Then again; he was on his medication. Apparently, he had tendency to believe the Russians were after him if he did not stick with the drugs.

So there we were – myself, the bearded man, the grasping landlady and Barry- standing on a front verandah in Strangways terrace, North Adelaide, looking at the orange glow on the hills as sunset fell.

Given that we lived on exclusive Adelaide real estate – I’m pretty sure there’s no boarding house there now, across from the Royal Adelaide Golf course on the fringe of the parklands – we often saw such colours as night approached. But usually we were looking west, not east. And there wasn’t the blanket of smoke.

Adelaide. I moved here in 1983 for year’s study from my home in the country. I’ve lived here ever since. There’s a strong sense of history for such a young city – 1836 seems so recent by comparison to the rest of the world.

But we take our uniqueness very seriously. To give internationals some perspective; we’ve got more land area than London with about the population of Birmingham. Spread along thirty kilometres of beaches the greater metropolitan areas is very spacious, overwhelmingly single story houses on blocks that used to be a quarter of an acre, but recent years have shaved this size at the margins, and some of the grand old houses have been ripped down and replaced with two or three units.

Our founder Colonel Light had a vision that the CBD would be surrounded by parklands, and we have clung to this with religious zeal; only a few developments breaking up the perfect ring of parks that ring the city and form a barrier in the psyche of every South Australian between ‘town’ and the suburbs.

The joy of my drive to work each morning is to crest the last hill on the Southern Expressway – a grandiose title for a road that would be little more than a small bypass In many cities around the world – and behold  the City of Trees, laid our before me with houses between jacarandas and gums, all across the plain. A few modest high-rises occupy just two small pockets in my vision.

Of course, behind me are modern developments, where McMansions are crammed together like mismatching teeth, and where there are no trees. No trees? If I believed in Hell, I’d like to see the developers burn there for this crime. Or harsher but more poetic, they should be made to live in the soulless caricatures of a community that springs from their usurious drafting stations.

There are just a million of us, spread across Adelaide. Another hundred thousand comprise the whole state. A state roughly twice the size of California with one thirty-sixth the population.

Back then, we had to include all the country folk just to make the million. A million people all thinking about fire.

It’s rare that we are thinking the same things as our neighbours and arch-rivals; the citizens of the state of Victoria, Normally we treat them with contempt; like all the other prison colonies made goods that form Australia’s other state capitals, we see Melbourne as pretty undesirable, and during the football season we bay for their blood.

Seventy-five lives later, we were united in grief. It shows us how good life is in Australia –when ten or twenty or indeed seventy-five lives are lost; it’s a disaster that leaves an indelible impression. Yet more people die shopping in Bagdad on a regular basis in these awful days.

Still, Bagdad has had a while to get used to it. In its former guise as Babylon, it has been held by the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks and plenty of others. And while the Age of Heroes was being played out between the Tigris and Euphrates; here in Adelaide on the banks of the Torrens, the Kaurna people where living alongside nature.

It’s said that the Kaurna used controlled burn-offs to keep themselves safe from fire. Our volunteer fire-fighters do that today.

Ash Wednesday should never happen again. Twenty-eight South Australian lives proved that you shouldn’t let trees touch power lines. That you need top notch communication between emergency agencies.  And that you need a bushfire action plan, which a recent survey showed thirteen percent of homeowners in potential danger spots have.

Thirteen percent?

Nature is nature and people are people. Since Ash Wednesday, we’ve lost more people to bushfires, one or two or five at a time.

Thirteen percent?

If  the bearded man, the landlady or Barry are alive today and live in a bushfire danger zone, I’d like to think that the hours we spent watching the horizon burn just twenty kilometres away has made sure that they are in that thirteen percent.


Written by robertgodden

February 20, 2008 at 7:16 pm