Tessa Campisi shares a heartfelt reflection on the Lismore floods, for Chain Reaction #142.
I sit in the bones of what used to be my home on the Lismore flood plain.
It smells of disinfectant and flood slick; strangely sweet like fermenting fruit, with overtones of decay and petroleum. We’ve scrubbed the walls five times over, yet still the smell creeps in through the cracks in the floorboards.
I suspend time for a moment and wander through my memories.
I see the painting of the scaly-breasted lorikeet on the wall; the jars of wild foraged mulberry jam; the fairy lights and potted ferns and cookbooks falling over one another on the shelves. So very recently I had nestled into the corner of the red corduroy couch and laughed with my housemates as we played cards and made music and brewed endless pots of tea. The anxious onslaught of worry about deforestation, nuclear armament and coal mining would slow to a trickle, and for brief moments it could feel as though everything was right in the world.
And here is the grief, heavy and dark as storm clouds, welling up from the deep. I find it in the juxtaposition of the richness of what this home had once been and the echoing emptiness of the walls which tremble as the dump trucks trundle down the street. It is a grief laced with fear, with the knowledge that the true damage caused by this flood is just beginning to emerge.
We didn't realise it would be this bad. The flood of 1974 - the highest on record, had only come a metre into the house. We thought the water might lap at the back steps, perhaps the floorboards. We danced around our beautiful home singing ‘It’s Raining Men’ as we put our precious things up on tables and benches. We thought we were being overly precautious.
That afternoon we kayaked across the cricket pitch over the road and laughed as the dogs tried to fetch sticks that floated by. I imagined the river as an inky creature slinking across the landscape, unstoppable and formidable as the migration of wildebeest across the Serengeti. I sank into the sounds of frog calls and rainfall that hushed the rush of water moving beneath and all around us. I felt safe, cradled by the security of what we thought we had prepared for, and marvelled at the sheer force of the Earth System.
But safety is a feeling, not a fact.
The rain grew fiercer as we anxiously waited for the newest update from the Bureau of Meteorology. Spiders and frogs climbed up the walls as the river climbed the back steps one by one. Slowly, slowly and then all at once, awe collapsed into terror.
Most days my climate anxiety is like a dark cloud - omnipresent yet silent, as it casts shadows across my mind. The complexity of the Earth System makes it hard to look Climate Change straight in the eyes. We are offered a glimpse through the lens of science, our intricate instruments of observation mapping shifts in rainfall patterns, sea surface temperature and atmospheric CO2 levels. The picture painted by this data is alarming yet abstract, relying on understanding and trust of the scientific method which the public often does not fully comprehend. It becomes a concept based on facts that dull and blur into the background noise of life.
As we huddled in the tinny at 5am, ducking under powerlines and manoeuvring through the fast-flowing waters 2.5 meters higher than any flood in Lismore’s colonial history, climate change shifted from the abstract to the immediate in a heartbeat.
The floodwater subsides surprisingly quickly, so that the entire town is still in shock as clean-up begins. It is extraordinary to experience the myriad of social networks which criss-cross the region. pulling together like the laces in my steel cap boots - fluid and reflexive to the needs of one another. Droves of volunteers flow into the town brandishing generators and rubber gloves and disinfectant and egg sandwiches, and so we scrub and shovel and mop and haul. We call ourselves the mudlarks, rebuilding our lives out of the thick alluvial sediment that has nestled into every crevice.
I feel like I am in a dreamscape, where familiar places exist only through a morbid, mud-caked lens. Washing machines and wooden pallets are suspended from trees at the dog park, and swollen mattresses are piled up along the main street. On the floodplain where the water hung around for longer, a thick layer of festering sludge has rendered most things unsalvageable. It feels entirely too intimate to walk past the knitted teddy bears and lacey underpants and shattered photo frames from which peer somebody else’s treasured memories.
In this lavish stage of late capitalism, it makes more sense to throw belongings away and claim insurance than try to repair them. It’s not like anybody has the time, anyway – we’re all too busy applying for relief payments or ripping up carpet or just trying to get some sleep. The refrigerators and the microwaves and the clothes dryers huddle together on street corners, with all the metals mined and petrochemicals refined in their manufacture now destined for landfill. I imagine Harvey Norman - the King of Whitegoods - looking down on Lismore from the Alstonville plateau, laughing to himself with the percussion of the cash register.
One sunny afternoon we discover a mish-mash of mountain bikes that have been chucked into a pile on the curb. They have disc brakes and good tread on the tyres but are just little mangled. We spend the rest of the day tinkering with chains and tightening spokes, and giggle as we ride our schmick new bikes up and down the street as if it were Christmas.
As the days turn to weeks, Lismore pulses steadily to a syncopated beat.
There is the whirr of ADF chinooks, the slam of bobcats, and the crash of couches being tossed from second storey windows. It is quickstep, all hands on deck, let’s get this mud out before it dries into a putrid crust and the mould begins to sprout from the walls. Sleep is elusive and we rise at dawn with a crook back from the shoddy mattress of the fold-out sofa.
The crisis is now.
And then there is something more subtle, a soft hum in a minor key that shifts like the slow-moving waters of the riverbed. It is the despair of the housing crisis which has gripped the Northern Rivers as investors cash splash and stash away title deeds, pushing rental prices up and up. It is the steep rise in insurance premiums in the flood zone, the last suburbs with any affordable housing in Lismore where those with low incomes and little social mobility reside. It is the severe shortage of disability support workers, or Auslan interpreters, or psychologists. It is the crushing pressure on healthcare workers who have worked tirelessly through the pandemic and are now treating wounds that have become septic from the fetid floodwaters.
The crisis was here all along.
Quick quick, slow; a tango, Lismore dances between cascading disasters. The 24/7 news cycle fixates on the visually harrowing floodwaters, yet the Lismore community is grappling with the cracks in its very edifice. When the Prime Minister comes to town he plays hide and seek and announces a disaster relief package from behind a line of police, unabashedly funnelling extra funding to his party’s own electorates. Meanwhile, behind the piles of debris that line the streets, a couple sits on the stumps of what was once their home, contemplating the asbestos in the walls and their $100,000 mortgage. People were drowning here before the east-coast low was even a blip on the radar.
The reality of the disaster is terrible to behold, yet in some ways I have never seen with greater clarity in my life. I watch as emotions pass through me in waves - loss, anger, gratitude, despair, resolve. I notice the threads which tie me to the community, and the community to the river, and the river to the Earth System, and the Earth System to our actions. As a child of the Anthropocene, this time of synthetic abundance, vast inequality, and climate chaos, I stand here at the edge of the Great Unprecedented and wave goodbye to the fantasy of stability.
The future is unstoppable, unknowable, but it’s the only one we’ve got. And so every day I pull tight the laces of my steel cap boots, wave good morning to the river and the mudlarks, and go down into town to help pick up the pieces.
Tessa Campisi is a geography nerd with an interest in the interplay of human society and the environment. In her spare time she carves wooden spoons and campaigns for forest protection
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