World building, travel and the bush fires in Australia

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?

3 thoughts on “World building, travel and the bush fires in Australia

  1. Well, there’s Melbourne, of course. Not to get dramatic, but it’s scary to be here and know you have family and friends in the area–thankfully, everyone’s okay, but a friend bought a car after years of living without one so that she could get her dogs out if the fires got any closer to her.

    NYC. I still can’t comprehend the WTC isn’t there. I keep reading about it and asking friends from Manhattan “What did you do then?” In my current ms, some of the characters are from/have lived in NYC, and that day has shaped them in ways they don’t even realize.

    New Orleans, because I know it but also because my best friend and cousin got out just ahead of Katrina. The way it shaped them, too! The way, a month later when I saw my cousin, she sat and cried as she spoke about what she’d been through–23 years old, thousands of miles from home, surrounded by strangers who had lost everything. The way my friend would wake up panicked for months after.

    The thing about disaster, though, is it brings out the best in people. And that’s another thing I love about blogs, how it helps us be aware on a personal level of things we might not otherwise have been aware of. So many people are coming to the help of those in trouble this week, and that’s amazing.

  2. Sue

    Burma — Myanmar. We visited before the last military junta took over and imprisoned every dissenter. It’s an amazing country: incredibly literate and very gentle. The Buddhist religion is so strong; yet, the generals sow fear and terror everywhere. Watching the monks resisting just a short while ago made my heart ache. There are still no changes in that country.

    Thailand — before the tsunami and government protests. Again, it’s a beautiful place with kind, loving people. Seeing whole areas destroyed makes one realize the value of now. It bears constant repeating, I guess.

    My manuscripts tend to focus on “now” and doing whatever you can within your means to make this world a better place. Disasters, like wars, tend to bring out both the best and the worst in people. I want my heroines to grapple with being the best. Thanks for asking the question, Barbara.

  3. NYC, yes, Gabrielle. One of my editors at the time couldn’t go back to her apartment for weeks and weeks. It changed her life, that attack.

    Thanks for the insights into Burma, Sue. It helps us to touch each of those places.

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