Twenty years on from Canberra’s most devastating day, writer Barbie Robinson and now South Coast resident, artist Ian Robertson, have collaborated for the third time to produce Phoenix and Ralph, a picture book about the Canberra firestorm and its aftermath.
Drawing on their separate and shared memories of the 2003 fires, Barbie and Ian have created a work about loss, grief, human kindness, natural and human resilience and the importance of caring for our precious environment.
For both of them it was an important journey through difficult memories.
Barbie witnessed and photographed the advance of the fires up the Tuggeranong Valley and over Mount Taylor. The photos were later exhibited at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre with proceeds going to bushfire relief.
She also published a collection of poetry about the fires with her friend Jo Forestier and the pair then created fire recovery diaries they donated to each family who had lost their home.
Landscape artist Ian Robertson is now a Shoalhaven resident but lived in the ACT until 2020. After the firestorm, he was a volunteer counsellor in the emergency evacuation centre. Barbie’s words in Phoenix and Ralph stimulated Ian’s many vivid memories of this challenging time.
“I didn’t lose anything – the fires went over Mt Taylor and whipped away, but so many of us still hold painful and traumatic memories of those who lost their lives, their houses,” Barbie says.
“The press cycle moves on, but people at the scene of these things, including all the emergency workers, hospital staff, everyone who deals with this hold those memories. I noticed that when the fires came back [in 2019] it was like a bodily sensation. The memory of what had happened in 2003 was still there in my bones.
“As we see more and more climate disasters whole populations will hold those memories and need to heal.”
Barbie believes that picture books are particularly well suited to the task of sharing and healing.
“We have a very strong emphasis on visual literacy now – children are bombarded with images on social media. The thing about picture books is they contain two stories in the images and the text, so there are many ways to access the story from what’s portrayed.
“It’s a beautiful genre of writing that plays with all different areas of our brain, the parts people use to draw and paint and make pots. I think of Shaun Tan, some of whose books contain no words at all, and Jeannie Baker. Both of them use images to tell very serious and sometimes very dark stories.”
The book is not only about the devastation of climate change disasters but also the capacity of human beings and the natural world to rise, recover and flourish. And it stars those brilliant songsters, Canberra’s magpies.
“In the aftermath of the firestorm, Canberra was like it should be all the time. People were kind, they helped each other however they could,” Barbie says.
“I wanted this book to bring out that goodness in people, because that also helps us to heal and build resilience.”
Barbie imagines Phoenix and Ralph will be shared by parents, grandparents and children from mid-primary level onwards.
“I grew up in an Enid Blyton world by contrast with what children are exposed to today through social media,” she says.
“This book is quite dark in places, but it’s important to children with the capacity to process issues like the loss of life, the damage to the environment and understand that it’s good to speak about difficult things, but also kindness and resilience.”
Phoenix and Ralph has been independently published and will be available initially in Canberra bookstores and then internationally and nationally through online sellers from mid-February.
A memorial service for the 2003 Canberra bushfires will be held on Wednesday 18 January at the ACT Bushfire Memorial, Stromlo Forest Park.
Community members can visit throughout the day and rosemary will be available in remembrance. Anyone who wishes to stay for the official ceremony can bring a picnic blanket or chair and watch from a grassy area nearby from 6:30 pm to 8 pm.
The ceremony will pay tribute to the four people who lost their lives, those who were injured and displaced when 500 homes burned and all those whose lives were changed on the day the fires came.
You can find more information about the ceremony here. Barbie Robinson writes a monthly column for Riotact celebrating Canberra writers.