Feature Articles / Sulari Gentill on regeneration and what community can learn from her Grand Oak tree

But even then, she was not beaten. She revived again. And now there are small and straggly, but strong branches reaching for the sun, and every time I look out at her broken and scarred form, I am in awe of her resilience, inspired by her will to overcome.

Grief and resilience live together.
– Michelle Obama, Becoming

Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.
– Confucius

There stood an oak tree beside my house. For more than a hundred years she grew, through drought, torrential rain, black frosts and snowstorms. Her branches became large and pendulous and beneath them a dappled world was created which hosted celebrations of birthdays, quiet conversations and games of high adventure. She shaded my boys as they learned to walk and ride bicycles, as they hung ropes and swings from her limbs. Our home was named for this “Grand Oak”, she was magnificent and beloved. She seemed immortal.

And then in the beginning of 2020, the mountains were engulfed by fire. The houses on our road, on the fringes of Batlow, were abandoned as the RFS was pulled back to defend the town. But trees cannot run and so my oak stood in the path of the mega-blaze. We cannot know exactly what happened, but when we returned, all that remained among the ashes was the house and the oak trees which surrounded it. The sheds, the barns, the hen house, the cubby and the gardens had been destroyed, but our Hardiplank house with its wooden verandahs somehow survived. The evergreen oaks appear to have defended the house from the fire front which came from the west. The Grand Oak alone stood guard to the north, catching the onslaught of embers and fireballs in her canopy, stopping the run of the flames, and diverting their destruction.

She was a sorry sight, my oak, her leaves and branches blackened, her bark charred. It was hard to tell if she’d survived. We pumped what was left of our water onto her and hoped. Within days new leaves had turned her canopy green and we rejoiced in her return. It would take more than an inferno to stop her.

And then, in the middle of the night a couple of weeks later, we were woken by a crack. It was not unusual. Many trees collapsed after the fire, but we had thought our oak was safe. Embers caught in the intersection of her branches had continued burning, weakening the joint until major limbs and two thirds of her canopy simply fell away.

We painted her wound, embraced her great trunk, and begged her to fight. And again, she rallied, new leaves unfurling into the gaps. She had lost some of her glory but she was standing.

And then the winds came. No longer broken by the native forests which once surrounded our property, they buffeted what was left with a ferocity we’d never before known. I left Grand Oak for only an hour that morning on some small errand. When I drove back into the driveway, I saw that she had fallen, her trunk now snapped in half.

And so, I let her go. I accepted that she’d done all she could for us, but the drought, the fires, the wind were in the end too much. I called in the bulldozers and chainsaws and begged them to be gentle as they removed the fallen branches. Only about a third of her trunk was left, and the stump of a single limb. She stood stark, a battered one-armed warrior denuded of leaves and all around was emptiness where she had once been. I suspended a sculpture from her one truncated limb and started to replant a garden in the vast exposed space that had once been in her shade. I thanked her for her service, for watching over us all these years and protecting my house from the flames, and I mourned her.

But by the Spring she had once again put out new growth, a small green burst atop a splintered trunk. We greeted it as a miracle. That first burst was stripped away almost immediately by birds looking for food in the sparse post-fire landscape. But even then, she was not beaten. She revived again. And now there are small and straggly, but strong branches reaching for the sun, and every time I look out at her broken and scarred form, I am in awe of her resilience, inspired by her will to overcome. It feels like, this past year and a half, our lives have been in rhythm with hers.

As I write about my oak tree, I hear the Prime Minister say on the television in the other room, ‘It’s all about resilience.’ I’m not sure to what exactly he’s referring. It’s probably not my tree. It might be the communities affected by the bushfires, or the floods, the nation or world dealing with Covid-19 or the state of the economy. If he were a different Prime Minister, I might wonder if he was talking about the strength of refugees, women, or people of colour who time and again persevere in the face of bigotry, violence and hostility. More likely it’s just another sound bite, a variation of ‘how good is—’ without any real meaning aside from something to say with born again conviction.

But he’s right. Accidentally, ineloquently and cynically perhaps, but even so.

Help, change, justice, even hope, all take time. Sometimes there is nothing but horror and despair and exhaustion. And it is in those times that resilience is all we have while we wait, the will to get up again and again, for its own sake.

But it is never for its own sake. Even if it seems so at the time.

In the past months we have heard much about bouncing. The analogy is marketable. It’s dynamic, and simple. And so, individuals, businesses, economies, are told to ‘be the ball’.

I’m not going to counter that by telling you instead to ‘be the tree’ but I do think that my oak offers an insight into resilience that the ball does not. The reason she revived, time and again, no matter what was thrown at her, is that she has, after one hundred years, an immense root ball. She reaches as deep into the earth as she once did towards the sun, she is anchored to an ecosystem beneath the earth which sustains her regardless of how she may be battered above the surface. And there is something in that.

I wonder if the famed resilience of country people is related to the deep roots in community and place that one tends to develop in rural towns where you know not just people but entire families and successive generations. My husband, who was born and raised in the small country town, establishes a person’s family tree within minutes of meeting them and then finds a link… a common relative or friend. That sort of conversation and connection is not uncommon in the places like Batlow where everybody knows a great deal about their neighbours and fellow townsfolk. Perhaps it is this very connection, this integration in all the lives of the community, that enables country people to withstand the increasingly unpredictable climate, the droughts and floods, the plagues of mice, the day to day deprivations of living in a small centre. Perhaps that’s why they not only survive but thrive despite repeated setbacks.

That’s not to say that resilience is the remit of country folk alone. If there is one thing that Covid-19 has shown us, it’s that community and belonging need not be about gathering in town halls. Sometimes the hometown advantage is delivered by people who live nowhere near you.

What I recall most about the bushfires was not the smoke, or the grief, or the panic — though I do remember those things rather too well — but the support we at the fire front received from people all over the world. Even when I evacuated, while my husband and son remained in Batlow with the RFS, even when we saw the tsunami of flame that was surging towards us, even when we thought we’d lost everything, we never felt alone. Messages on every social media platform, voicemails and emails sent solidarity. It seemed everybody we encountered, old friends and strangers, in the flesh and in cyberspace, wanted to help. We were anchored by the compassion of people all over the world. We were offered places to live, care for our animals; people sent packages that had been put together with such sincere and heartfelt thought. I was overwhelmed by the sense of humanity and community, and empowered by it. Getting up, carrying on, was possible.

My family has, in past year, rebuilt, battling insurance companies, replacing fences and sheds, melted pipes, even the mailbox. We cleared charred remains and planted trees. The time was spent in lockdown and social distancing, but after nearly losing out home, we were content to be told not to leave it. My husband and son, who’d both fought with the RFS through Black Summer, found a kind of healing in the restoration of our home. My husband had major eye surgery and we experienced the Sydney with its streets deserted. My father-in-law passed away and we found ourselves holding a Covid funeral, and trying to sort out estate under the restrictions. I released two books while bookstores were closed, and I lost a dear friend to cancer. It was a year in which we seemed to be knocked down by disaster and circumstance at every turn, exhausted by the constant need to adapt, and regroup. But we were able to regrow because our roots were deeply embedded in, and sustained by, the same humanity that saw people look after their neighbours, entertain strangers and cheer health workers during lockdowns, the same sense of community that makes people volunteer to fight fires, wear masks to protect others.

The last year has been almost universally difficult. All over the world the stories have been about loss, and hardship, grief and fear, and it has been sustained. The compassion, so evident during the bushfires, has been spread thin as the world fell into crisis. In the short term, the human race has been resilient. We have adapted, given up our freedom, our holidays, our traditions and our loved ones. We have voted and marched for change. And we have found new ways to gather, developed technologies and vaccines. Whether or not that resilience will be evident in the long term remains to be seen. The lasting effects of the social and economic upheaval and emotional trauma of this time will not play out for years.

As much as it would be nice to believe in an instantaneous rubber ball-like bounce back to where we were and ever higher, it is optimistic, perhaps fanciful and arguably not the best outcome. It is more likely that recovery will be a kind of regeneration, new branches growing into the space left by those that were lost, canopies thickening and extending slowly. Setbacks and revival. We will again be as large as we once were, but it will take time and we may not look exactly the same. There will be scars, knots in the wood, but we will be stronger for that. New trees will flourish, where before they would have struggled in the shade of giants and we will see things we hadn’t noticed for the leaves.

And perhaps, we will finally see how the flames, or the rising waters, or the plague, might have been averted or at least mitigated. How we might have done better by our planet, by future generations, by those who are vulnerable.  Our resilience has been tested as individuals, and communities, and for the most part, we have passed. But if we are to prove enduring as a species, there will be long-term, deep-rooted change, in our acts of resilience.

Writing NSW has commissioned ten Australian authors to reflect on the complex relationship between writing and resilience. This series is supported by Create NSW

Commissioning editor: Kirsten Krauth

Sulari Gentill is the award-winning author of 14 published novels, including the historical crime series, The Rowland Sinclair Mysteries, and The Hero Trilogy, based upon the myths and legends of the ancient world.  Her debut novel was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in the Best First Book category, her second was awarded the Davitt Award for Best Crime Fiction by a Woman.  She has regularly been short-listed for the Davitt Award, the Ned Kelly Award, and the Australian Book Industry Awards. Crossing the Lines, her postmodern standalone mystery won the 2018 Ned Kelly Award for Best Crime Novel.  Sulari was an ambassador of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, the inaugural Eminent Writer in Residence at the Australian Museum of Democracy, and one of four Australian novelists who in 2019 undertook an Australian Arts Council sponsored tour of the US to promote Australian Crime Writing.  She was awarded a Copyright Agency Fellowship to write her latest novel The Woman in the Library which will be released in May 2022.  Her books are published in print in Australia, New Zealand, the US, Canada and the UK and world wide as audiobooks.  Sulari lives with her her husband, her sons and several animals, on a trufferie in the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, where she writes about murder and mayhem.

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