I’m thinking a lot about world building, and have been writing a blog about it which I hope to post soon. One aspect of world building is context, and I’ve been thinking about that the past two days because of the horrific fires north of Melbourne in Australia.
When I returned from Australia last fall, the thing that most stuck with me was the way Australians talked about “bush fires.” Before I visited, the worst fires I knew about were in California when the Santa Anna winds blow. They’re fast-moving, terrible fires. But not even Californians talk about fire the way Aussies do. I wrote about it in a blog when I returned:
Which is exactly what it becomes in the dreaded bush fires, which burn so fierce and hot that people really do speak the word fire in a way I’ve never heard it spoken. With respect and a bone-deep dread.
Looking at the forest floor, knee deep sometimes in those cast-off curls of long, thinly shredded bark, you can understand it. How hot and fast the fire would burn. The sap of eucalypts is prone to exploding, making it even hotter and more fierce yet.
I couldn’t stop wondering what the biological purpose of the shredding was. It nagged me through our time in Victoria and on to Tasmania, where I found a park ranger with the answer: those trees are shedding that kindling because it iskindling. Because they want the fire to burn. They can stand it. It gets rid of the competing trees and allows the sun-loving eucalypts to grow stronger.
There is often a feeling that travel is too expensive, whether ecologically (that carbon footprint!) or physically or monetarily. And it is expensive, in all those ways, but it is also important for this very reason: the value of travel is in having a context when the news comes out of Heathrow or Italy or New York City. Hearing the stories coming out of Victoria today, I had a context. I understood what made those fires so fierce that they overtook fleeing people in their cars. Those trees and the profound drought (women I met at the conference in Melbourne had not had a bath in a tub in a year–they were so excited at the chance to soak!), and then because I had been there, I noticed the news when someone said the temps had been over 40 C (about 110 F) for days in a row last week.
When the fires erupted with such devastation that they led the news on Sunday night in many markets here in the US, there were human beings I wanted to make sure were okay. There were landscapes I had met that might have been in the path. Suddenly, that far away land belonged to me in some very small way–I was vested in its thriving, in its people and patterns. The news lost its distance and become prominent because I had connections to that land, that place, those people. In truth, we are all that connected all the time. Travel simply gives us a sense of context.
The fires wiped out entire towns. The flames moved so fast that people racing away in their cars were overtaken. They are far, far worse than the fires that roar down the California coasts, chasing away inhabitants of those canyons. There was no time to be chased out of a canyon in the Victoria fires. The fire simply moved too fast, like a hurricane inferno, devouring everything in its path.
Context. I care because I know about this place. It’s something I’m going to be thinking about in my writing the next few days.
How about you? What do you know about that gave you context for a cataclysmic event? How can you apply that to writing?