Awareness, acceptance and compassion: John plans for the future after the fire

Before the fires John Pettit kept to himself. Since the fire, he's had to frequently come into town, and so has had the chance to meet his community around him.
Before the fires John Pettit kept to himself. Since the fire, he's had to frequently come into town, and so has had the chance to meet his community around him.

Retired chiropractor John Pettit lives on a shared plot at the very end of South Arm.

He'd spent months driving around northern NSW with his son while searching for 'the' place to make his escape from the city complete.

The first time he walked up the drive to the property he's lived at for seven years, he knew he was coming home.

"It was indescribable - just a feeling you get," he said.

After a rough start - beyond his control - and which left him destitute, he regathered and found a new rhythm to life, and a simplicity which suited him.

He's spent the past three years turning "rock hard clay" into a self-sustaining vegetable garden replete with over 120 sub-tropical perennials.

"At any day of the year I could go outside and pick 10 or 20 varieties of vegetable," he said.

It was his slice of paradise.

On that fateful day last November John met his neighbour, Chris Savva, at the bottom of the drive up to his property.

There was an urgency in Chris' eyes as he told John not to go back.

"It's too dangerous," Chris had said to John.

John followed Chris back to his house to have a cuppa. Instead the pair worked frantically to douse the flames they discovered had encircled Chris' property.

"It's funny, it never got to the point where I thought it was getting serious," John said,

"After I helped Chris put his house out, I drove back to my place ... but it was already gone.

I just put my head in my hands and screamed 'Not Again!'

All that was left of his beautiful bespoke home were the ruins of the river rock walls.

Since November he's been living in a campervan generously donated by Carol McGuire and Peter Walder.

"They said 'here mate, take it - it's yours for as long as you need it'," John said.

The passenger seat functions as John's living room while he plans his next move and plays the 'waiting game'.

But this story is not really about the tragedy so much as it is about how John has chosen to accept his experience and move forward.

"Do I allow myself to burn down with the house? If I allow myself to love myself enough, I can come out of this much more easily," he said.

"My house has burned down - whether I feel good, bad or indifferent, my house has still burned down.

And there's a life force in the ground - it's still there. The trees are going to come back, and so will I.

After months of talking with people who have lost everything, reliving their trauma with each telling, I feel like I too have absorbed some of that pain.

Listening to John was the soothing balm I needed, after so much hurt. Thankyou, John.

This is John's epilogue, in his words...

Looking to the future

So much at home has changed. This whole valley is scarred. It's now three months since the fire and life is returning, and despite so many thousands of trees re-greening, vast hillsides still appear skeleton-like.

Visually this place of mine is forever changed. My rustic old river rock and wood house will be replaced with a small kit home or some variation of a shipping container.

But if home is where the love is, it'll be home.

To some extent my life here will be changed from now on. By the look of it I'll have to bulldoze about two hundred-plus trees, a horrible outcome.

Much of my future life here will have to be re-calibrated. A large part of my vege garden is regrowing, particularly the taros and the chaya, and despite the visitations from unwelcome cattle the asparagus and comfrey are flourishing, but alas those cattle appear to have finished off the rhubarb and the yacon that re-sprouted after the fire.

Despite so many people this end of South Arm losing everything they possessed some people still allow their cattle to take the little that their neighbours try to salvage from the ruins. And, for me personally, this is probably the biggest disappointment to emerge in the aftermath of the fire.

And so despite that, a rebuild has to begin, and what you've had to do once, or even three times, you can do for a fourth, but hopefully not a fifth.

And upon reflecting on the rebuild ahead, at some time in the future, like we all have at times, one can stand on a verandah and look back at our handiwork and find oneself shaking their head in some form of disbelief, somewhat tongue-tied in coming to terms with all that has been accomplished.

That whole hillside has been slashed, one hundred holes dug, so much of it then covered in cardboard, and then in the straw from the slashing. Two winters in the making, yet the actual number of hours spent in performing the task so small. Memories of what was once considered such a barrier, of what was once such a daunting task now knowingly smiled at, acknowledging the you that got there, the you that did it.

And although that verandah no longer exists, and that handiwork has been destroyed, firstly by cattle, and then the fire, I live with the knowledge that if I could do it once I can do it again. And as the Chinese proverb reads; "To move a whole mountain one begins by picking up small stones." And within the reality of life, half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the afternoon, repeated day after day, any large task becomes small.

Many people have remarked to me about how calmly I appear to be taking the fire and losing everything that I had. And I have to admit that in this regard I've surprised myself, because I am taking this disaster well I think.

But I shouldn't be. At my stage in life I'm like the fresh-faced sixteen-year-old leaving home to enter the big bad world for the first time on his own, i.e. he's got nothing in the way of physical acquisitions to take with him, but a lifetime ahead in which to acquire those acquisitions. Unlike that 'kid' however, most of my lifetime is well and truly behind me.

It's how we allow ourselves to interpret ourselves, especially when things go bad that makes the difference, I think. It's just simply allowing those aspects of ourselves that we want ourselves to be, and denying those aspects of ourselves that we don't want to be.

One day in the future each of our lives will end. And on that day in my future, if I allow myself to look back over my life, I don't think I'll be looking back on the pains or the sorrows. It'll be the happy times and my personal satisfactions I'll recall. And despite life's upsets, such as this fire, I do what I can to deny any lasting impact of sorrow to cloud the totality of what is my life. Paul Keating was wrong when he stated that; "life wasn't meant to be easy". Because in what way was life meant to be hard Mr. Keating? And who would I be if I allowed sentiments such as Keating's words, or a loss such as this fire, to become my view of my world? What an unhappy life I'd experience.

This fire took so much from me, and from so many others, and there's no denying the loss we've all individually suffered. And like every single one of the people affected by these fires I just want my life back again. And I want it back on my terms, but sometimes my terms have to be adjusted, because life just is, and so often we need to be able to adapt to and change as circumstances dictate. And at the end of each day it's up to me, and me only, to become that being that can deny the heaviness of sorrow, and allow instead a basic acceptance of happiness to emerge out of any situation that confronts us, even a 'disaster'.

In the past few months so many people and organisations have stepped up to help, some large, some small, just so many, too many to name. To the locals of Bowra, thank you is all I can say. I hesitate to mention names because invariably some names will be left out. And then there are those of you that I don't even know. But you know who you are, don't you? To the many good people in this tiny country town just know that what you were able and willing to do really did, and does, mean something to those of us you were and are continuing to help.

As an Australian, from the time I was old enough to understand such things, bushfire has always been there in the background, it's just so much a part of our country. But like 99% of we Australians bushfire for me was always confined to images on a screen or words in a newspaper. Three months ago, hose in hand, I found myself in the middle of the real thing.

And to sit back looking at is a very different reality to actually experiencing it firsthand.

So to you firefighters, what can one say? Your efforts on behalf of our entire valley really do leave me speechless. You are all just simply amazing.

The large organisations alluded to above have provided enough cash that I can now realistically look at putting some form of roof over my head again. With that done the water pump and the other necessities of life will begin to arrive. This fire is an experience so many of us lived through, and a very unpleasant one to boot, but despite that, for me personally, my budget for the year has been drawn up, and come the end of this year life will be back on track once again.

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