December 2019 to April 2020.
Tamsin finally bought a tiny radio from Eddie the local gadget guy. The local radio was invaluable for keeping everyone in our district informed about the fires. From not bothering to listen to radio at all, we were suddenly glued to it, sitting around the old wooden kitchen table in a horrifying reenactment of a scene from World War II.
The smoke was so thick we couldn’t tell where the next threat would come from. How on earth did people cope during the war period, knowing a bomb could hit at any minute? What were their coping mechanisms? This was exactly the same. The constant threat. The fear. The trauma. The uncertainty. The anxiety. The stress.The survival mode.
The radio told us where the winds were. Where the fires were. Where the firefighters were. It was our main link with the world. That and the reports on Facebook from the Braidwood Bugle.
“Mum, I need a hug.”
Our daughter, like me, is a highly sensitive person. We operate differently in the world. We have heightened senses which can be a gift or a burden depending in which world you walk. I prefer to see it an important gift for the planet. The Sensitive are needed. We discovered her panic attacks told us if we were in danger or not. Her body’s radar device. It wasn’t pleasant but as time went on we depended on it for clarity. Are we in danger? No.
“Mum I need a hug.”
Breathe, slow down. Hug with all the love you have. Calm. Even knowing there are a million things to do today for the survival of Australia’s largest sanctuary. And you are one short because Tam also hurt her back and can’t feed out.
“I’m scared. What if I can’t get them all safe?” she said over and over, tears in her blue, blue eyes.
“It’s okay. You’re okay. Feel safe in my arms. Feel my strength. We are going to be okay.”
Going outside and doing ceremony, opening sacred space, and calling in the directions… we could feel the spirits with us. And that would calm Tam’s tender wild spirit.
“Mum, I need hug.”
Breathe, calm. We are safe.
Except we didn’t really know if we were or not.
And still we kept up the daily feeding of hundreds upon hundreds of animals as we opened the doors to the wild, and fed them along with our own. They had nothing left. And they looked as shocked and traumatised as we did. One old man roo held out his hands the second day I left him food. He knew the food would save him. I cried when he did that. It was such a moving gesture from a race of being so close to our own. Holding out your hands — a gesture common to us both.
On the other side of our property. the non-bush part, a little mama roo and her child hopped over to me when I fed the wild horses, and made a big display of hugging each other in front of me. Very close. I knew what they were saying. “Thank you.”
That part of our land always felt safe. Merlin and his family of wild equines stayed cool. It would calm me to be there. Michael and Copper, Equinox and Midnight, Red Moon and Winter, and all the others who belonged to Merlin the big grey brumby stallion, they were my saving grace. Their calm made me calm. It was so important to stay calm.
But my body was in shock and nothing broke through that state. There was no luxury of reading or writing or sleeping in. It was just living in a war zone, dealing with the shock of government betrayal, feeling incredibly alone, feeling gratitude to our fire fighters who came back to our place over and over to put out spot fires. Not knowing where the next threat would come from.
It was summer. Our days were spent trying to figure out how to keep everyone safe. And we fed out, as usual, twice a day. Filling the cars with hay, and delivering it to the horses, cows, sheep, goats and geese who called our land home. At night we would go out at 7 pm when the heat of the day had left, and by the time the wild were fed and the water pumped from a far away dam and delivered to the thirsty animals on the trough system, it would be 2 am, and we would collapse into an uneasy sleep in sheets that were increasingly dirty from dogs and dirt, smoke and soot. I sighed. It was war time. We lived with it, because we couldn’t wash. Or shower. There was no water.
I couldn’t eat at all. My face was constantly black with soot, especially after feeding the wild in the burnt area. The traumatised area. I would feed them late at night, enjoying the company of Mrs Roo and her teen, or Ferocious Mama the wombat with child who growled at all the other wombats when she saw me coming. Going up during the day was traumatic. The shock of the fire damage sent the adrenaline rushing again. It didn’t feel safe.
We had been so so lucky. So far.
Another delight was the discovery of Missy and her kittens up in our hay shed in the burnt area. Born by the house, the fire interrupted our plans to trap them and take them inside. I felt real loss when they disappeared. So it was back to feeding and befriending , chatting to them with the wombats and wallabies who also got fed in that neck of the woods. The animals lifted my spirits. Without them the world seemed really, really empty, and not very friendly. I was so grateful for them turning up and lighting up our smoke-filled world.
Over a billion had been lost in these fires. I couldn’t think about that. There was a dead body on our drive way, just next to the forest. A poor wallaby who didn’t make it to the safety of the dam he was running toward. I did ceremony and prayers and spoke to his spirit and made sure he knew he was loved and witnessed. I did a lot of forgiveness the Hawaiian shaman way. Ho’oponopono. “I love you. I’m sorry. I forgive you. Please forgive me. I release you with love.” I rang bells and sprinkled flower essences and rescue remedies and chanted medicine chants. Everything to heal the shattered peace of the mountain. And the souls who fled the fire.
It was so hard going up to that part of our land. It had been burnt. The trauma was palpable. But there was no way I would stop. The animals needed us. So we would drive late at night in the thick smoke and go to the burnt land, make our offering to the animals who all sought refuge, made friends and drove home, often losing our way in the paddock because visibility was zero. And chatting to the cows who caught onto our routine, and begged for more food. I always left extra hay or veggies for those smart ones. The ground was just dirt.
We had no water. The kitchen was piled high with dishes and the garbage piled up so much I couldn’t breathe. We run a sanctuary. Cat litter gets changed every single day. We put it all in feed bags and longed for the day we could take it to the new waste transfer centre. It was freezing cold at night but we chose to shiver than light the fire. Everything was so tinder dry. The fire was coming back through the burnt areas, feasting on fallen leaves. The fire was a dragon, hungry and caring for little.
We had so little water we just bought paper plates and limited ourselves to one mug and one spoon. We couldn’t cook. A staple was cold beans with chips. A kind of cold nacho dish. It filled a gap. Some days all I managed was a banana. Living without water is another kind of hell. I wondered how they coped in other countries, the other dry countries. I didn’t have time to not cope. It was just about getting on with life as best we could.
I longed for showers and clean sheets. I gave the animals clean bedding and the dirty washing just grew in piles. Cope. Breathe. I can’t breathe. Just breathe anyway.
The fire haunted our district and little township over two long months. We lived on little. My hair went harsh and dry from the smoke, even on the rare occasions I washed it. Washing off the dirt was a luxury we could barely afford. We had to buy water from towns an hour away, and they would be so busy delivering, sometimes they arrived in the night, lost in the thick smoke, calling us to meet them at the front gate to lead them through the dark to the water tank on the hill.
We were grateful. Andrew was exhausted and I worried about him constantly. On top of everything else, his water cartage from the dam to thirsty animals was the thing which threatened to break the camel’s back. Seeing the sheep cluster around him to get a drink pushing and shoving because they were thirsty broke my heart. So to be able to buy water and have it in the trough system was incredible. We had to buy a load every week. And there were queues for it. Because our district was in water shut-down. The Shoalhaven River had stopped flowing altogether.
I refused to listen to people in fear talking about water wars. I was grateful we still had dams to pump from, and for the cows and horses to drink from. I couldn’t think of the future. Just today.
The fires from hell didn’t end that fateful day on November 29, 2019. But that was the day when the life of our sanctuary changed forever.
The shocks kept on coming.
After the Fires
The wind was incredible and all our top soil. exposed from three long years of drought, went flying trough the air. And then I realised, it was a dust storm. Everybody’s top soil.
The wild horses and the cows in the hills had both found sheltered places for us to feed them, relatively out of the wind. But the next day there was a tension colic in a young filly. More work. More calming them down The 24 horses on the hill were not happy. The kangaroos had taken over their winter paddock. About 70 of them. I put out feeding stations for them and hoped their rich poo and leftover hay would go a little way to repair the paddock from over use during the last three years of drought. There was no water in the troughs, so the horses couldn’t go back until there was and the roos were welcome to whatever they could find to survive, and the food and water we provided them.
The filly survived. She just needed me to say it was all okay. They all needed to feel safe.
And then the flash flood came. The rain was sharp and hard and heavy. I couldn’t get across the suddenly wildly running creek to feed the horses, sheep and cows and I went into a whirlwind of emotion and panic — mine and the animals mixed in together, I’m sure.
“If I can’t get across to feed them we’ll have another colic in the horse herd,’ I said to Andrew as we stood by the rushing creek in dismay. It was too high and fast to even try and walk it.
Tamsin had gone to town to get supplies when the flooding rains hit. She had our only four wheel drive and said she would cross the creek to feed everyone from the supplies we had in the bushland shed. It took her hours to get home because of the flood waters. But she fed out and the waters calmed enough for her to finally get home.
It was wonderful to get the rain, but it turned the water black. All the ash fro the burnt mountain filled the dams and water ways with black gunk.
I hated giving that ash water to the animals or letting them drink it out of the dams.
How can I keep them safe? How can I keep them healthy? It was the only thing on my still shocked mind. How do I keep them all going?
Meanwhile, our work with the wildlife had gone relatively viral for us and the donations poured in. For the first time in a very long time we were supported enough for the charity to keep buying the loads of hay we needed every five days. It was a point of immense gratitude and relief in a time that was so so harsh. One thing we didn’t have to worry about. Because neither of us could work at that time. Not with spot fires and feeding and monitoring and delivering water. I couldnt get my brain to function much at all. I realised I was still deep in shock.
Going to town was hard. Everyone in town had shock in their eyes. Everyone was exhausted. People had lost their homes. People were waiting to lose their homes. People were being evacuated over and over and over. We reached out to each other in kindness. Not one person was untouched by the fire dragons.
The rains finally came and eventually put the fire out. Our world turned green. And our creek ran crystal clear. I couldn’t take my eyes off the creek. It was like a miracle. But with the rains came a new problem. Our old Rav completely died and the only way to feed out was for Andrew to stay across the creek and feed the cows, horses and sheep there from Doris the ancient Ford ute, and for Tam and I to use our town car to feed out the horses, goats and sheep on the island we found ourselves on.
And so Tam and I were alone, ready to deal with whatever came. Because Doris wasn’t going to get through the mudbanks the creek suddenly had from the flooding. She just wasn’t.
And then it happened. Andrew called to say one of the wild horses on his side had colic. I jumped in the Nissan and gunned it though the creek to find our oldest brumby Finn looking very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable he let me in to treat him with acupressure and homeopathics and oils. And then I noticed Cinnamon, his wife.
Two of them.
I worked with them until they were comfortable, and with the energetic help of Sinead Mcann, from Boyne Equine Health. Invaluable. And then we moved them to their old paddock where the kangaroos had recovered. There was water there now.
No more colics. They needed to come home, off the mountain. Away from the trauma.
Getting the water going was another challenge. The pipes all broke.There were leaks every time we pumped. And then the pump broke. Andrew moved the pump he used to pump from the dam and set it up at the creek. So much patching up and getting things going, after over three years of intense dry. Even the washing machine and dryer were reluctant to wake up.
Finally, after over three years, I took my first shower in my own home. And I dragged in all five dogs for a much needed wash as well.
“But I still don’t feel safe,” I said to friends in town.
“Yes, the green is nice but you just have to look up at the burnt mountains for it all to come rushing back,” agreed one.
“I’m so exhausted. Still so exhausted,” said another.
Andrew’s 60th birthday on March 9 came and went. We missed the Council’s bush fire recovery plan because we were flooded in. We sneaked in a small party in town for Andrew the following weekend, gathering friends together for much needed solace.We needed to download about the fire. By this time, the coronavirus had hit. We gathered in the nick of time. And had our first experience of not hugging each other. The next week, gatherings were starting to be banned.
Suddenly, all our own sanctuary recovery was impacted. We had two lots of offers of large groups of volunteers and I excitedly thought of all the recovery we could do. The list was endless. Our old house was badly in need of a paint. We needed the cat enclosure built, and fences repaired. So much fencing was lost in the fires and floods. The sheep still hadn’t been shorn, the fences on the paddock where the brumby boys were supposed to live until they got gelded, needed major repairing. The colts had been let out during the fires for their own safety. They had already chosen wives. So much disruption.
And now there was more.
The three of us live pretty isolated lives anyway so the pandemic rules and regulations didn’t really change much of what was going on. With the grass growing, the water flowing and a bit of money still left in the charity account for hay, I finally felt creative and ready to launch courses and new website and almost finished books. I was back. I could support the sanctuary through winter I thought.
And then I got the letter from Parks and Wildlife telling us they would lay 1080 baits just one km from our boundary in a program that was “ongoing and continuous.”
The old shock came back. I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping. I rang them with wild pleas to not put out 1080. It fell on deaf ears. So I went to work in a kind of shocked frenzy. Reaching out to the press, lawyers, politicians, and animal protection agencies. (Scroll down for a pic.)
My world was unsafe again. Baits containing this horrendous poison could travel anywhere. It could kill my eagles, my roos, certainly any random fox, any meat eating bird, and my dogs and Missy the wild cat and her family.
I swore to keep the dogs close, and to trap Missy and her family as soon as possible. But I needed an enclosure for them. And I couldn’t get to the shops. I had to mail order.
I once again found the world unsafe. Not for myself. But for the animals I loved and the wild animals who had become my friends. I had to be careful the stress didn’t make me sick. I didn’t know how to fight an uncaring system which believed one-eyed they were on the best course. Or perhaps they had another more economic agenda where money was more important than any life. I don’t know. it just felt surreal and I had to work hard to make sense of it. Why were we the only landholders to get notice? How could I do all the work I had to do and fight the unfightable? How could I make it shift and go away. I felt trapped in a nightmare. continuing nightmare, because I knew what 1080 did. And I didn’t want anyone who survived the fires to have to die by that kind of hideous, agonising poisoning. That wasn’t humane. That wasn’t kind. It was just ugly and cruel and barbaric.
This poison is banned all over the world, except New Zealand. it is supposed to be for foxes only. “Pests.” But as much as the government says it is “target specific,” it is not. (And just leave the poor foxes alone!)
The astrologers say of this tumultuous year to expect the unexpected. The last thing I expected was to have to fight for the lives of all animals, going up against the government. I loathe conflict, but I am passionate about animals and their welfare. This is insanity and all my tension and inner panic is back.
Breathe, Billie, breathe.
I went to my trees for help. The spiritual suggestion was to ask Mother Earth to transmute the poison. I understood what they were saying. it was an extension of the work I learned when I was studying the ways of the Andean shaman. Was I strong enough for that? I was exhausted beyond exhausted.
I knew belief and intention made energy work strong. I had set the physical wheels in action and so had thousands of other concerned Australians. Petitions, news stories, lawyers. We had been fighting the use of 1080 for decades. To no effect. Perhaps by working on the collective matrix, with others of like training, we could make a difference.
2020 is a year of change. The spiritual community, the astrologers and the indigenous elders all say the same. This is the time we have been waiting for. We are dancing in the void of change, in the darkness of uncertainty. Polarity has never been greater.
But perhaps this is the time 1080 will finally be defeated. As a people, we want kindness. We are considering other beings outside of us.
Perhaps, just perhaps, there is hope.
NB Since this was written we haven’t seen our beloved eagles, although they returned after the fires. Please help us fight 1080 poison It needs to be banned.
Billie Dean is a writer and runs the Deep Peace Trust Farm Animal sanctuary in NSW Australia with her family. The sanctuary is the largest of its kind in Australia, home to hundreds of rescued animals and run on ancient spiritual principles. To support the animals please make a donation on www.deeppeacetrust.com/donate. The animals need you. Thank you.