West Footscray factory fire, 30th of August 2018. Photo by Ben Schubert.
We walk out of our house.
An apocalypse is here.
Black plumes of smoke spew dust up into heaven, polluting the home of god. My Lover holds my hand as we stare at this beast of holocaustic consumption.
The sky is on fire. Smoke black as pitch vomits violently into the sky. It gulps in the air and gobbles the wind, spitting out thick plumes; it is terrible and beautiful, everything darkened in its rage.
The sky is on fire.
The sky is on fire.
This breaks all of Bunjil’s laws: to keep mind of people, of wildlife, of future, of water, to never harm children, to, to —
The sky is on fire.
An apocalypse is here.
Black smoke flumes high in the big western sky and angles across Birraranga, out over to Narrm. Snaking tendrils whip across the sky and leave bold streaks over industrial suburbia, and afterimages of smoke, where poor people live, but now can’t afford to leave.
More and more people flood into the streets and stand gaping, recalling the insistent sirens from the small hours before waking, alarming us dreamers for the carnage to come. The puzzle pieces lock into place with this sight.
Bunjil sweeps the sky with authority, bears witness to the damage.
He summons cumulous clouds from near and far to rally over the burning factory, heavy-bellied monsters coalesce and squat overhead, making a soft wet ceiling over black belching smoke, smothering its escape. The clouds suck up the particles into their moist guts, absorbing chemicals into wetness.
Bunjil, conjurer of rain, invokes the clouds to weep for him, to water his land with tears.
When their low hanging bellies are full, the clouds pull themselves apart and break their own waters, releasing their captive cargo to the earth. The downpour rains down and drenches the earth with chemicals; onto houses, onto schools, onto the earth it drips, into the creek, over people, onto wild animals and birds and pets and children.
The runoff swims into the creek, and sinks into the ground, filling up aerated soils where the soft skin of worms absorb the acetone. It sinks in and makes everything stink, makes us all itch and feel crook at the smell of the air.
As brave fighters battle the fire, particles fly into their lungs and make their homes there, and wait for future opportune times to make blood pour from their noses.
When the sun sets on this terrible day, mandarin light streams across the land from the west, brightening gold under the darkest of canopies.
The hospital groans, anticipating the onrush.
Acetone is a clear and colourless organic compound, a volatile, flammable liquid that is miscible with water. Tonnes of it are produced worldwide every year, mainly for use as a solvent in its own right used in cleaning in laboratories, or an ingredient in nail polish remover and paint thinner. It is used in the production of methyl methacrylate and bisphenol A (BPA), whose presence in plastics can leech into food.
Acetone is normally present in blood and urine; it is produced and disposed of in the human body through normal metabolic processes.
Stony Creek swims from the west to meet the mighty Yarra under the West Gate Bridge, which then rushes out to the ocean in Port Phillip Bay. Its upper reaches emerge near Sunshine. The water has been redirected underground until it springs up at Matthews Hill Reserve. In its inland form it’s a concrete stormwater drain, then becomes an avenue lined by trees before running through industrial areas.
Stony Creek runs through the place where the factory fire wept tears of smoke into the air, then runs through Cruickshank Park, near our house; a wild verdant haven in the middle of the west’s industrial and suburban sprawl. I walk through Cruickshank Park to get to work every morning, and I visit the park for pleasure, as does a multi-cultural community of dogs and their owners who make use of all the space and the air.
Along Stony Creek’s route, acetone sticks to the banks and evaporates into the air. Everything smells like fancy nail shops where skilled artisans paint stamp-sized works of art on the talons of their clients, perched up like queens being fussed over.
Near the outdoor gym equipment in Cruickshank Park, officials in hi vis yellow vests and hardhats set up a white marquee over white plastic table and chairs, and they sit there all day and night, intermittently scooping up samples of the water in test tubes and checking the levels and chemical composition. They set up huge floodlights, ungodly bright, that shine into our kitchen window all night; our feeble aluminium blinds can’t block out the glare. As long as the cleanup is underway, it never gets dark enough to sleep properly.
Dogs and their owners are replaced by scientists in white contamination suits who patrol the creek, netting sludge out. Their inhuman suits frighten me: a lifetime’s consumption of science through fiction tells me it’s unsafe to be near the creek without wearing one. I can’t see their eyes so I don’t know if they’re hopeful or just going through the motions.
They cordon off the creek banks with bright orange tape. They hammer in signs warning English and Vietnamese readers not to drink or swim or fish from the waters, and to not let pets play in them too. They lay sludge booms across the width of the creek at strategic points; these are covered in fabric net and snake like, and supposed to absorb the chemicals as the water threads through them.
Space suits stalk the creek as black smoke belches its last into the heavens.
Acetone sinks into soft skin, inflames pores and oozes, absorbed by capillaries, fed into bloodstreams from vein to heart, then pumped around bodies through arterial highways.
My Lover’s skin flares with red scaly patches, breaks out in splotches that crust and scab. My urine smells dark, my bladder can’t hold much for long any more. My Lover’s scalp cracks and blisters, head weeps from nails too long to handle its itch.
Our young neighbour’s eyes weep yellow pus; her father’s loud lungs are rent through and rusty. Whenever I walk past nail shops or fresh street art lurking bad smells I feel sick and tired. Neighbourhood dogs bark all day and rub themselves along fences, and possums scratch their fur coats inside our walls. Cats prowl the streets and fight when the sun goes down. Fish die, frogs die. The proof of life — bird song — stops.
On my way to work I stop on the bridge and watch the milky water. Green moss trails lazily in the acid creek. Sludge forms shadows that hide away the sins of genocidal industry; oily scum on the water refracts rainbows in the gentle sun. The weeping willow, ancient tree of Babylon, hangs its head in shame beside Stony Creek. Its long hair drips into the water. Its leaves grow pale, colour leached out by sun and chemical bleaching.
Suspended over the creek, between solid ground, the tears I give burn my eyes and scratch my skin as they spring from my tear ducts. They water the creek, a sacrifice, absolution. I walk away from the park, burning lungs grieving for cleaner air.
On my commute every morning I listen to podcasts that talk of ecocide and apocalypse. All day: I read and write about capitalism and colonisation and climate change. Most of the words I consume and excrete are horrifying histories and terrifying futures. These things are part of me, bodily, and they poke old wounds and open up new ones. But I was brought up in community and I take my cultural responsibilities seriously, so every day I summon the will and the imagination to write my people into the future — something that many authors haven’t given us the common courtesy of doing.
Every day I walk home through the park and my tears itch ravines through my cheeks. At home, my Lover wipes my face; my tears burn those gentle hands.
I begin to walk the perimeter of the park at dark each night. I walk the creek and breathe in the acetone, take it into myself to heal the water. The more in me the less in the air, the less inside children and dogs. I walk alone so my Lover does not have to see my tears; I walk in dark so I can cry properly.
This time last year I moved to Melbourne. Wattles burst brightly, I’d fallen in love. This is a time of plenty: flowers everywhere, water-plants put on green leaves, snakes and lizards are active. Birds migrate home from the north.
I study Boon Wurrung seasons to align myself with Country; they are different to the greener Bundjalung seasons I’ve moved away from. Aboriginal seasonal patterns are intuitive and emergent, so different to western European seasonal maps imported here and imposed.
In early Spring, people moved slowly towards the lower lands as the temperatures rose. Once upon a time, mountain flow to the floodplains refreshed the waters but the flooding was stopped long ago. The ghosts of unborn tadpoles swim in the ponds under the sludge that blankets the stream.
Acetone holds no colour until it bursts into flame, til it erupts from stable nothingness through chemical reactions of heat and friction, the way this fire consumed the building that had hidden it away. Acetone itself is harmless, but only takes on the shape of the actions that own it. The intentions of those responsible for this fire infused it, it was their choices that ignited it.
This was the evil of lazy industry, the careless storage of chemicals that owners need not care for because they live too far removed from the consequences of their inactions. This was badly stored mistakes that ignite and cost lives, made of refusal to do the right thing: to store danger safely, to keep mind of others. Another notch on the belt of fat capital swollen over the fruits of community labour.
The carelessness of maniacal capitalists let industry’s monster sit for years, to seethe and stew in its own flaming potential, to simmer and bubble then burst into possibilities for destruction. This is what colonises the creek, holds life in a chokehold, with the power to drown water itself in its waste.
In the coming months, acetone and worse circulates around the sky and the waters, in the bodies of people and fish and pets, in the roots of trees and vast webs of fungi; the chemicals will be inside these systems for years. The water stinks like apocalypse, the smell makes me wild.
Any change in weather refreshes it anew. The sun heats it, releases it: the chemical smells sit still inside the air. The rain touches it, releases it: the creek fills up and brings the smell on afresh. I smell the death of life for years to come. I think violent thoughts whenever I breathe.
Frogs don’t ribbet on the creek banks no more. The silence of the frogs and the birds has been grim. The lands that the creek sluices through are now mute.
In dreams I trace this back to its beginning:
I slide out of bed, crawl through the house and slither out the kitchen window, fly over my fence and splash into the creek. I follow the water upstream like a terminal salmon making one last stand, I jump and throw myself up rocks to make it. I bruise my soft belly and break brittle bones and graze my protective scales to trace this disaster back to its source.
When I get there I grow, I stretch and I stand. My shape shifts to orangutan, long-armed spectre of burning palm forests. I bare my long teeth, I scream and I leap. I bound over barbed wire and bounce onto the grass, roll under the doors and into the building. I sniff out the rogue tubs of fuel easily. I know their smell better than my own Lover’s skin.
I gather them inside my long arms and crouch then lift off, breaking through the ceiling to the sky and beyond, and fly them like superman into the sun, away from the fragile carpet of grass run through with bubbling creek below.
I explode in white flames, melt away to nothing.
When I wake up I go on with my day.
A brief timeline of Melbourne’s factory fires at the time of writing:°
– Feb 19, Springvale: Firefighters stumble upon a giant cannabis crop in a factory fire.
– April 13, Wantirna South: Fire at the Knox Transfer Station is so fierce it starts spot fires in nearby paddocks and sends smoke billowing over EastLink.
– June 2, Somerton: Fire destroys family-run pasta factory.
– July 7, Coolaroo: Huge fire at SKM Recycling, the same plant that was the scene of a 2017 blaze that blanketed Melbourne in toxic smoke.
– Aug 23, South Melbourne: Almost 50 firefighters needed to bring blaze under control at multi-storey warehouse.
– Aug 30, West Footscray: More than 50 schools and childcare centres close as toxic smoke billows from massive factory fire after illegal chemical dump site was set alight.
– Sept 25, Campbellfield: Nearby residents told to stay indoors to avoid smoke and “strong odour” from fire at nut processing factory.
– Oct 4, Highett: Fire at furniture removal business.
– Oct 6, Wantirna South: More than 400 mattresses catch alight at the Knox Transfer Station.
– Oct 12, Kilsyth: Man suffers serious burns to his face in an out-of-control fire that destroys factory.
– Oct 14, Thomastown: Fire guts factory.
– Nov 4, Brooklyn: Fire at waste management centre.
– Dec 12, Mordialloc: Fire tears through food processing factory.
– Jan 19, Campbellfield: Residents heard explosions coming from a factory used for recycling batteries and other machinery.
– Feb 7, Maribyrnong: Cars found ablaze in suspicious warehouse fire.
– April 1, Dandenong South: More than 100 firefighters battle to contain a fire at a converted factory that houses the Star Entertainment Complex.
These fires have many histories and futures.
History isn’t linear: multiple threads from the past converge to the singularity of now, and what we imagine as ‘the future’ are multiple strands of possibilities that emerge from the present.
An apocalypse is less a singular event, more the ramifications that continue destroy and decay. This is end times, apocalypse, small one but long one, reverberating down the years like all the others have done. It’s just another small horror in a long line of the same — another poisoning of country, another killing of cultures. Just one end time of many, and there are many many many more end times to come.
This apocalypse echoes around the continent, around the world.
This is the future.
This is the past.
This is the future.
Rivers are the veins of country.
All over this continent, the veins of country have been collapsed, drained, and poisoned for hundreds of years.
In some areas, the Murray-Darling is dry as the bones of the cattle that starve nearby; in other places, fish suffocate and float in mass graves.
For the first time in tens of thousands of years, Brewarrina’s fish traps are seeing the light of harsh sun.
Water needs to be shipped into the people of Walgett in because their own has been stolen from them.
When I drive up north I camp at Gundagai, where the Murrumbidgee once flowed mighty. Where I camp it is no more than a green puddle for ducks to splash in.
All over, artesian waters are siphoned off by the pythons of late-capital and marketed as artisan water, filling single-use bottles destined for landfill. This mass extraction dries the land in preparation for coming bushfires.
The plum blossoms bloom slowly this spring. Green buds of stone fruits sit tight, hard and small. Fruit grows precariously, the struggle of wood to become flesh. Possums and birds patiently await the juicy plum meat. Bunjil circles the air in a ceremony of healing.
In high summer, I leave the plums on the trees for the possums. I am able to buy food from the supermarket, but their food and water have been poisoned. They wage war over the plums, in screeching shaking battles of life and death. They hiss and scratch in our roof, but we don’t tell the landlord because we know they’ll be killed. As the summer advances, the land dries out, and people flock to the bay and beaches following the blueprints laid out by the Boon Wurrung.
After the dry hot, the late Summer rains arrive and the days became cooler and longer, but the ground is still warm and new growth stretches green. Wattle gum, banksia, honeysuckle, long-leaf box and silver-leaf stringy-bark come into blossom, providing sweet nectar, attracting birds who flock and feed before heading north for the winter, to be replaced by other birds who will soon start to arrive from Tasmania.
At Ararat, we form blockades to protect sacred Djab Wurrung trees. Bunjil builds his nest. At home, possums make love in our roof and wage wars. Their noises seep into our dreams.
One silver morning I am cutting up store-bought fruit in my kitchen. It is gently raining outside and a small bird of prey alights on the seat under our smallest plum tree, holding something furry in its talons. Through the kitchen window I watch the bird tear into its prey with its fierce beak. The ripping and chomping sounds reach my ears through the glass window. When I go outside that afternoon, pieces of possum fur and bloody sinew are stuck to the seat.
As the weather cools, some people oppose the poisoning of the Great Artesian Basin, but more people vote for it to happen; I learn for the millionth time that democracy is violence. Direct action is now the only option for justice because electoral politics have failed us again. This is firmly in the hands of the people.
In cities across the world, children flood the streets with righteous rage, refusing to accept their futures being poisoned away from them. The power of the young people gives me strength.
Late Autumn rains clean the soil and the creek. I rub healing salves into my Lover’s dry skin, and dream that the people who care are enough to make up for the people who don’t.
Thanks and acknowledgements:
I learnt much of what I have written about Boon Wurrung country and culture from yarning with local people, and particularly from listening to N’arweet Caroline Briggs: from her possum-skin cloak yarn at Melbourne Planetarium on the 6th of March 2018, and at the Blak, Beautiful & Queer BBQ at Testing Grounds on the 13th of April, 2018. Any inaccuracies are accidental and are my fault, not hers.
I donated most of my prize money to Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners, to the Djab Wurrung Heritage Protection Embassy, and to FIRE’s Support for Walgett and North-West NSW communities.°° I strongly encourage everybody to support them in their fights too. Indigenous peoples make up less than 5% of the global population yet our caring for country practises are responsible for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. This is not a coincidence: our cultural life ways are coded for regeneration. Any serious climate action must therefore centre Indigenous peoples and our knowledges. In your commitment to climate justice, please prioritise Indigenous efforts to assert sovereignty and protect country. Pay the rent by showing up: with boots on the ground where possible, or otherwise with financial aid.
° Information from ‘Massive Campbellfield fire at factory where chemicals stored causes toxic smoke plumes’, by Rachel Eddie and Hanna Mills Turbet, The Age. Updated April 5, 2019, 3.24pm, first published at 5.41am.
°° This piece won the 2019 Grace Marion Wilson Emerging Writers Competition in the creative non-fiction category, judged by Kirsten Krauth. It was first published by Writers Victoria in the October-November 2019 edition of The Victorian Writer magazine. Buy this issue here.
© Mykaela Saunders, 2019