Megafires and Mass Extinction: Searching for Hope at the End of the Natural World
Robbie Arnott on 'Longing for a Wilder Time'
During the Australian megafires of 2019 and early 2020, around 3 billion animals were killed or displaced. Of those animals, 2.5 billion were reptiles, 180 million were birds, 153 million were mammals, and 51 million were frogs.
Big numbers. Bezos numbers. A smaller one is 30,000—the number of koalas that make up those 153 million dead mammals. Barely a percentage of a percentage, yet they represent a huge fraction of the species. In some places, over 70 percent of the population. As a result of all this death, koalas were reported as being functionally extinct (the term given to species that still exist, but without enough members to produce future generations or perform their function in the ecosystem). Scientists have since corrected that terminal diagnosis, but the future for koalas remains extremely grim, as it does for platypuses, quolls, and other unique Australian fauna.
Given what followed in 2020, these fires sometimes feel like they happened a decade ago, not a year. But many of us will remember the footage and images we saw. The walls of flames. The satellite maps showing the Iowa-sized scope of the blazes, and the ensuing sea-blanking spread of the smoke. The orange-black skies. The masked survivors fleeing coastal towns in dinghies. The singed koalas, stumbling on burnt footpads, lunging at water bottles offered by the creatures responsible for the incineration of their homes and the sting of their wounds.
At the time of the fires, I was writing a novel about a shape-shifting, weather-influencing bird called The Rain Heron. The book is set in an unnamed country that’s recently gone through a military coup, and follows a hermit living in a cave on a mountainside, whose isolation is disturbed by a group of soldiers in search of the mythical Rain Heron. They seek to coerce the hermit into helping them find the creature; the hermit tries to convince them it only exists in legend.My escapist other-world had become a dark mirror of the world we live in.
For a variety of reasons, I was writing this book to try and escape from the real world. I wanted to write a nature fable, with a narrative and characters that only marginally reflected reality. I didn’t want to write about climate disaster too directly, because I was worried I’d create something that was too didactic to be of any use or pleasure. I thought that spinning myths into a story of human violence and greed was a better way of telling this story; of capturing how the world felt.
But as I wrote, the fires burned on.
Australia is the world leader in mammal extinctions, the undisputed champion of furry death. Humans have lived on the continent for over 65,000 years, but these manmade mass killings have only been present for the last 230. Since the beginning of the British colonial regime in 1788, 28 species have been ripped out of existence. That’s about one or two for each decade, and accounts for 35 percent of the world’s modern mammal extinctions. At the moment, 56 species are classified as threatened. Another 52 are near-threatened.
There are a variety of reasons for these extinctions. Deforestation, human activity and the ruination of natural habitat have all contributed. Predation by feral cats and introduced foxes has devastated many smaller species. Slow-moving marsupials, like koalas, are susceptible to car accidents and dog attacks. Hunting, driven by greed and misinformation, accounted for the most famous animal from the part of Australia where I’m from, and the most iconic of the nation’s vanished creatures: the thylacine.
But it’s only recently that weather has entered the list of causes. It’s only in the last few decades that our overheated climate is drying up the streams and rivers where the few remaining platypuses live. That entire forests of the specific type of eucalypts koalas need to survive are exploding in flame.
It’s not as direct as shooting a Tasmanian tiger with a rifle, or chopping down an ancient forest to make room for grazing sheep. It’s not even direct as loosing a swarm of cats onto bandicoots that haven’t evolved alongside such predators. And yet it’s still our fault.
When I learned my cousin was trapped in Mallacoota, with a bath-warm ocean on one side and an inferno on the other, climate disaster began entering the world of the book. The myth I’d imagined about a heron made of rain stayed, and so did the country I created for it, but the pages began to crease under the weight of environmental chaos.
The mountain of the first part of the novel remained clothed in a northern hemisphere conifer forest, but in later sections trees more known to me, such as cider gums—beautiful highland natives threatened by fires caused by the dry-lightning strikes that have become common in Tasmania—began to sprout across the landscape. Storms brought snowy death to previously calm sanctuaries. Peat fires burnt underground. Fishing grounds emptied of life. Palm trees had their roots snapped fast by frost.
The characters, too, began exhibiting behaviors and desires reminiscent of our current time. A compulsion to control the natural world. An instinct to run from the horror of what we’ve done. Greed and self-interest, dressed as righteous progress. The habit of rationalizing destructive actions by saying we’re not as bad others; to console ourselves as being the lesser of inevitable evils. A longing for a wilder time that’s perhaps been lost, or perhaps never existed at all.
My escapist other-world had become a dark mirror of the world we live in. I thought about cutting it all from the text, but couldn’t. What would be the point? If the touristic branding of my homeland is marked by the striped image of a creature we erased, why should I erase destruction from my work? If animals are going extinct out my front door, why should my fiction contain anything other than extinction?
And yet I couldn’t help but search for hope—both in the writing of the book, and everywhere else.
The planet is the hottest it’s been in the last 12,000 years. Here in Australia, there is little political consensus on whether or not climate change actually exists. Many members of both major parties openly campaign for the construction of new coal-fired power stations. Deforestation continues at pace.
Megafires will return, if not this summer, then one soon. Blackened koalas will drop from the canopy, trailing smoke as they descend towards a carpet of bright embers. It seems inevitable that the last platypus will die before I do. If you have seen a platypus in the wild—if you have witnessed the intense character present in the way they splash, dive and writhe through the water—you will know the shape of the grief that knowledge brings.
I know it doesn’t make much sense to hope for things to change or improve, but I do. I can’t help it. There are enough clever ideas, and there are enough kind people. I may be naïve, but the thought lingers: we only need to coalesce behind what the world is telling us, or we will lose its colors.
I also know my book won’t solve anything. I know it’s only a novel, with no bearing on policy or action. But if it falls into your hands, I hope its myths, strange creatures and impossible landscapes provide you with a kind of solace. I hope it paints you something vivid. I hope rain finds your fires.
The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott is available via FSG Originals.