We’re trading horror stories again today — about places that are otherwise considered beautiful. With all the violence in this planet’s history, almost every unspoilt view has been a battlefield at some point or other.
But instead I have a personal tale, about the beauty — and the power — of nature.
My wife and I have recently moved to Perth, Australia, to be close to her family. She grew up in a village surrounded by forest on the outskirts of Perth called Roleystone, in the same house her dad and three sisters still live in.
Heaven in the hills
Her hometown is an amazing place — far enough from the city that urbanites consider it part of the outback, yet close enough to have those things that make modern life so convenient, like mains water and electricity.
It’s a ocean of tranquility, a haven for wildlife from bandicoots to parrots to possums to kangaroos. All of them can be seen in the back garden of the family house, which is built into half an acre of steep, wooded hillside.
It is utterly beautiful.
To live in that house is to experience peace — at least until the possums start fighting on the roof! During the period when we lived with her family, I used to wake up every morning to bird-song and dappled light streaming in past the trees that shade the windows.
But then, in February of 2011, tragedy struck in the form of a raging bushfire. Most Australians have nightmares about bushfires at some point or other, but out here in the forest it becomes real all too often.
Fire is a way of life for much of the native flora; the cycle of summer burnings is so regular that seed pods from the honky trees only split when roasted in several-hundred-degree infernos. The vegetation is designed to burn, charring the outer layers of bark on trees that have adapted to cope with — indeed, have come to require — this treatment. Iconic Australian species like grass trees and gum trees couldn’t reproduce without fire to crack open their rock-like seed casings. It’s just another cycle: natural, predictable — and unstoppable.
Especially when it gets out of hand.
Because humans aren’t like those trees. The colonizers of Australia have learned to live with the harshness of its environment — but there’s one thing that can never be withstood, and that is fire.
Hell in the hills
The blaze that engulfed Roleystone was started by accident (as so many of them are). A local man, using an angle grinder outside the front of his house, caused the sparks that set the bush alight for miles around. In a matter of hours, the neighborhood was surrounded by fire, dozens of properties were ablaze, and street by street, as the fire advanced, residents were told to evacuate their homes.
My wife and I were back in England at the time, dealing with some issues of our own, so all I could do was scour the Internet for news while she studied Facebook for updates from her family and friends.
My wife’s father and her three sisters had packed their most precious belongings into the car. Photo albums went in first — the only truly irreplaceable things in the house, containing the last memories of my wife’s mum.
As the wind picked up and the flames grew closer, the next street over was evacuated by fire service volunteers. Helicopters thundered past overhead, carrying giant buckets filled with lake water.
My wife’s whole family sat by the radio, listening to the emergency broadcast, waiting for their street name to be announced; waiting for the call to flee.
It never came.
The wind changed again and the fire swept past less than half 500 metres away, incinerating the village on the other side of the hill.
My wife’s family never had to make the choice between leaving their home for good, and staying to risk their lives defending it. They were luckier than many of their neighbors — though thankfully all of them chose wisely. No one stayed, and no one lost their life.
What they did lose was absolutely everything else.
71 houses were burnt to the ground. Another 39 were damaged, along with two schools — and the main bridge into the village, which collapsed.
Almost two years later, the local landscape has started to recover. The legacy of the fires is, as always, new growth; everywhere new trees and under-brush is flourishing, dark green against the black. The charred portion of bark reaches three or four metres up the trunk of every tree, and still dominates the woodland when viewed from the road — but the trees themselves survived, and will prosper because of it.
Unlike the houses.
Now, we drive through that scorched, blackened forest almost every day. Houses have been rebuilt on many, but not all, of the vacant plots. Life has returned to normal in Roleystone, bordered as it is by charcoal-coated trees. It’s a reminder that living here, in such a volatile environment, is very nearly as dangerous as it is peaceful, beautiful and idyllic.
And so as not to end on a downer, here’s one of my favorite quotes from comic fantasy book writer Terry Pratchett:
Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.
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So, Displaced Nationers, share your stories with us! Have you visited any beauty spots that are tinged with horror? We’d love to know about them.
Let us know in the comments, or catch us on Twitter: @DisplacedNation
STAY TUNED for Monday’s guest post, a horror tale of a different kind.
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Images: (left top) Arulen Botanic Park (aka Heaven in the Hills), Roleystone, near Perth, Australia, by Tony James Slater; (left bottom) bushfire, by Michael Roper, courtesy Flickr; (right) regeneration of the trees in Roleystone (TJS).