Heart Burn

Kate Mildenhall returns to a special summer place and finds it – and herself – forever changed.

I’ve camped at the same place on Bidwell and Gunai Kurnai land – East Gippsland – with my family every summer for more than 30 years. Best friends, first kisses in the dunes, driving lessons, bringing in the new millennium from the top of the lighthouse, a marriage proposal, my first-born turning around the wrong way in my belly weeks before she came out.

Is it wrong to worship a place? In her book Beyond Climate Grief, science writer Jonica Newby calls them “heartplaces” – places we fall in love with, in part so we might better protect them. And summer places are especially sacred, as much about all that happens there as the landscape: the friendships, the laughter, that slow summertime. We pay attention more, stay in the moment even before we know that is a thing we are supposed to do. We go at the speed of the tide, of cooking on a campfire, of a three-year-old learning to ride a two-wheeler.

I’d already had 30 summers there when it took a fire to make me realise I couldn’t take this time or this heartplace for granted.

We had only 15 minutes to evacuate our campsite when the fire roared down the coast towards us in December 2019. We left all our stuff but got everyone out. Weeks later we gasped at the pictures Parks Vic sent us for insurance: the kids’ bikes melted, the axle of our burnt-out camper trailer in a blackened landscape. The bridge into the campsite burned and split in two. The bridge that had always been the portal into summer.

Living on the bushy outskirts of Melbourne, I’ve grown up in the shadow of fire, but I’m one of the lucky ones. Towns that are only a stone’s throw from my own still reel from the physical and mental aftermath of Black Saturday 13 years on; fortunately, I’ve not had to bear witness to my home turning to ash. I have not had to shelter my children on a beach under a woollen blanket like my friend did during Black Summer, while trying to work out whether it would be safer in the pounding surf or facing the heat on the sand.

My heartplace that burned during those terrible Black Summer fires isn’t where I live. I can’t even claim that I hail from East Gippsland. My connection to it is fleeting (and problematic) when compared to the connection of Gunai Kurnai, Bidwell and other First Nations people to this place.

So where do I put my grief on the scale of loss?

This summer, we went back to our beloved, burned place. From the new camping spot we were lucky to find not far away, our group travelled to where fire destroyed the campsite. We drove through luminous green regrowth on black trunks and thrilled at the spots where the tree ferns have sprouted. We cried at the broken bridge and hugged each other hard as we recognised a melted kayak, a charred coffee pot, the skeletons of camper trailers and bikes. We reminded each other through tears, “We got out. We got out.”

And slowly, we saw the beauty: vines tangled through the incinerated remains of campsites, fat purple berries of the dianella, wild raspberries glowing pink in the undergrowth. On the beach at the sheltered bay at the end of the track, the sea was as it always has been. The orange lichened rocks, the grey-black driftwood that marks high tide, a pair of hooded plovers skittering along the shore. And the river, the river. The newest of our clan had her first swim in its waters – a baptism.

Fire has drastically altered this place. So too have huge tides, gouging out sections of the fragile dunes that have held up the road to the lighthouse for so many years. Even if they can rebuild the bridge, the amenities and reroute the road, the place we knew has gone. Here, for the first time for me, solastalgia – that painful feeling about an environment changing – became visceral.

Driving back down the highway at the end of our summer, we joined the throng of campers heading home. We have thong marks, new freckles, muscles sore with bodysurfing, hearts full with where we have been. Maybe our collective love for the places we camp will stand us in good stead for what is to come. Maybe our losses will galvanise us to fight harder to protect them.

As I write this still filled with summer bliss – sand between my toes, shush of the waves in my ears and piles of unpacking littering the house – I wonder how to hold the lingering grief for the land. Grief is the price we pay for loving, and I found somewhere to put my grief this summer, diving under a breaking wave and nestling it into the river sand.

By Kate Mildenhall (@KateMildenhall).