By Vita Forest
We had met at the cafe near the station and looked at sketches from previous occasions – Neil’s idyllic rainforest scene, drawn and coloured on an iPad, Tomas’ panorama of Cockatoo Island in scratchy blank ink and Fiorella’s book of treasures – page after page of details – a chair, a gnarled stump, a delicate tree fern.
We had drunk our coffees and teas and set off to find our own sweet subjects – what would catch our eyes today? I love meeting up again in a few hours time and seeing howal though we all start at the same spot, our eyes take us in all sorts of different directions.
I started with a tree, an old twisted dead thing whose bark twisted over the trunk. Whose trunk was scarred with the stumpy remains of branches from long ago and pocked and grooved with deep fissures. I like a tree with character. I also liked that I could fit the whole tree on my page, composition being something I’m trying to improve on. So I got out my trusty graphite lead and shaved it to a point with my knife and sat cross-legged on the grass and drew that tree in the shade of another tree, a living tree whose leaves shaded me from the hot sun. Ants crawled along my knee and a breeze swept through carrying with it the smell of smoke.
Sydney is burning. Parts of it. The autumn so far has been summer hot and the bush fire season has extended. We have hardly had any rain and there’s lots of dry branches and leaves turning into brittle fuel on the ground.
When I finished my drawing of the tree, I walked further into the park and along a path that edged a gully. Down one side of the gully they had done some back-burning. Possibly yesterday. The smell of smoke hung in the air and here and there little scribbles of grey smoke rose from still smouldering coals. The other side of the gully was still a lush green but this side looked scorched and barren.
I put my bag down on the path (away from the blackened leaves beside it) and began to draw this surreal scene. There would not be too many opportunities to draw the effects of fire.
I noticed that the fire must have scorched over the earth and then been extinguished almost immediately. There were trees with one side of their trunks burned, the other side spared. There were piles of charcoaled grass but here and there a stem of fern still stood (though it was blacked and shriveled as if drawn in ink). I stood and drew the stand of rocks beneath the trees, the charred remains of strappy grass and the flaky ash that had crumbled over the soil. Pedestrians marched past, some turning to look down the slope, a few stopping to snap a couple of photos.
I stood on the side of the path and remembered my dreams of fires and my concern one time that saw me taking my keys and walking outside at midnight – just to make sure I couldn’t really smell the building burning. And later I sat on a seat with Fiorella, swapping stories and showing each other the contents of our pencil cases and talking about the plants that need fire to germinate.
And I remembered peering down that charred slope and seeing a kookaburra dive into the ashy dirt and snatch up a lizard as a cloud of smoke slowly rose around it.
There is life there yet.