Guest Blog by Jolie Wills
No reading and research can ever prepare you for the real life and long term personal ramifications of a disaster. I have researched, read and heard a great deal about the communities impacted by the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria. However, on my visit to Kinglake, Toolangi and Strathewen this week, it hit home that there really is no substitute for meeting the locals, hearing the personal accounts, seeing the blackened (now rejuvenating) gums as far as the eye can see, and visiting the small close-knit communities where multiple neighbours were lost – listening, absorbing, reflecting…. I feel honoured to have been entrusted with these stories and grateful to have been received with such openness and genuine warmth. I am much richer for it.
As a kiwi, the capacity for the Australian eucalypt (gum tree) to revive from the devastation of fire is too astounding to fully comprehend. Gum trees explode when their natural oils ignite and the bushfires burn with an intensity capable of melting steel. How on earth then do eucalypts survive this onslaught only to sprout new leaves and regenerate? Rather than smolder to ash, eucalypts are designed to rejuvenate – but this doesn’t make the process any more fathomable. Seeing blackened trunks and branches sprouting new growth brings to mind a potential parallel with the human recovery journey. Like our own journeys, the stages of rejuvenation are varied and five years on, rejuvenation continues in an ever changing way. Whilst the tree will forever carry indelible signs of the event, its capacity to renew and grow are astounding. Powerful imagery akin to human recovery you might say. As local resident Fiona Leadbeater attests, for some witnessing the gums’ renewal has brought solace and hope, but for others the gums’ renewal is a confronting and lonely reminder that the world moves on at a pace which threatens to leave them behind. Recovery occurs in the physical environment around us whether it be the renewal of flora or erection of buildings, but when social and psychological recovery occurs at a different pace, the world can feel off kilter. So yes, perhaps the renewal of the eucalypt is an analogy for recovery but no set trajectory or pace can be imposed on the widely varying and individual human experience of recovery. This is a reminder to me that respect for and consideration of the multiplicity of human recovery trajectories is vitally important, along with consideration for those who may be feeling left behind.
Jolie Wills led the psychosocial recovery for two years for New Zealand Red Cross in earthquake impacted Canterbury. Jolie is now working as the Psychosocial Knowledge Sharing and Research Advisor working to learn from, capture and inform some of the psychosocial aspects of recovery.
Awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship, Jolie visited communities and organisations with experience working in disaster recovery in Australia, Japan, Europe and the United States over 7 weeks in May and June 2014 with the aim of learning:
How do we support those people who are working so hard to support long term recovery often whilst impacted themselves?