The Red Coat

I bought a red woollen winter coat yesterday, in a sale at Zara. It’s 36 degrees outside. The shopping centre is shrouded in thick yellow-white smoke, like a tarpaulin tightly covering the city, letting nothing through. Not sure why I bought it. Then I remembered a photo. Images. Jane Fonda in a red coat in Washington protesting for action on climate change on  Fire-drill Fridays.

I pretend nothing bad is happening out there. Months of drought and bush fires. Communities ravaged by fires, a thousand or more people trapped in Mallacoota with fire on all sides and they can’t get out. Stranded and surrounded. Holiday makers. Ordinary families on their annual holiday with kids and pets, camping as they always do in a beautiful part of the world. Happy holidays. Not this year.

But inside this retail monolith there are no bushfires or frightened families. The lights sparkle, the music’s loud and the air is clean. Getting a good deal, meeting friends and having fun..that’s all there is. We can forget apocalyptic images of homes destroyed and lives forever changed…for the moment. I’m uneasy. Clinging to my bag containing the red coat, I head outside. It’s hard to breathe and the fires are 500 kilometres away. Insulated in the car I head back to my home in the country. No fires here. I check the emergency app. on my phone. I listen to the radio reports- 30 minutes non stop of evacuation notices, road closures, fire updates. The summer broadcaster has little experience it seems. He reads the fire information as if it were a 5 star restaurant menu. The tone is wrong. Then he complains about the number of emergency warnings and fire updates he’s had to read…“that was 30 minutes of notices. I’ll have to have some water.”  I say out loud ” I don’t care about your dry throat..listen to what you’re reading!” I turn off the radio to settle myself back into the land of the rational being.

An hour later I’m at home. The air conditioner hums, the cat stretches and the air is clear. A dear friend calls from the city. “Nor, there’s a fire on the Trentham Road. Are you leaving now? You can stay at our place in the city. We haven’t got a bed but we’ll fix the sofa. Don’t forget Gracie the cat and your documents.” There’s no smoke outside so I check my emergency app. Yes there’s a fire but its over 30 kilometeres away and heading away from this area. Two hours later its contained. All is good.

I unpack my red coat. How daft to buy a  heavy wool coat that I can’t wear for another 6 months! Why on earth did I buy it?…..oh well it was on sale.. and it is lovely…and I might wear it to a climate demo. I’m going to start attending…one day……. like my hero Jane Fonda, aged 81.. an activist…..Me? An activist in a red coat? …how silly……..!

I set the sprinklers in the garden, thankful that I have a big rain water tank just to keep the garden alive in summer. The air around the house changes as the water gives life to the dry cracked soil. The ducks from down the track make their way up the hill to my place foraging for snails and insects in the now wet grass. It’s feast time for them. Gracie the cat sits high on the terrace scowling at her prey. It’s all in her imagination. She never moves. Those 15 wild ducks are regular visitors and outclass her unless she learns to fly!

My New Years resolution says I can have a glass of wine on Friday- Sunday.. Thank God it’s Friday! Upstairs I watch the news.

NSW 140+ bushfires burning, 16 people dead, 3.6m hectares burned, 1365 homes destroyed

VICTORIA 2 people dead, 28 missing, 50+ bushfires burning, more than 784,000 hectares burnt, at least 68 structures destroyed. It’s also still early in the season. February is usually the worst month.

SOUTH AUSTRALIA  1 person dead, 17 bushfires burning, more than 100,000 hectares burnt, 88 homes destroyed

WA 35 bushfires burning, 1.5 million hectares burnt, 1 home destroyed

TASMANIA  23 bushfires burning, 8,000 hectares burnt, 2 homes destroyed

QUEENSLAND 33 bushfires burning, 250,000 hectares burnt, 45 homes destroyed

Our Prime Minister, dressed in white business shirt and tie, travels to the bush fire ravaged areas to shake hands with people and show support. People are angry. They’ve been told to be ” patient” while the only thing they have left are the clothes they stand in. People have been told  fire is “nothing new” instead of having leadership developing effective climate policy. In their anger, two people refuse to shake the hand of the prime minister when it is offered. They are frightened, exhausted, hollow, angry.  He tries to take their hand anyway. The press reports them as ” feral” and ” impolite.” Seriously!

The Defence force has been bought in to help the people of Mallacoota. Footage shows over a thousand exhausted people, pets and little children being loaded on to smaller boats and taken to a naval vessel in deeper waters at sea and 17 hours later they will arrive to the safety of the city area.

One drink turns to two and my brain says stop watching. My heart and mind say keep watching. This is your land, your community, your people. Among the tiredness and fear there are stories of the human spirit and resilience, communities pulling together, fire fighters losing their homes while protecting the homes of others.  The generosity of spirit and the essential goodness of people moves me and I ask why is it we are so good at pulling together under threat yet we can’t fix the bigger issue of climate change?

One image unwinds the tight emotional coil I have been holding on too. The image is of the people in Mallaccota waiting for the smaller boats to arrive on the shoreline. They clutch their pets and small children stand looking into the distance. The image is of a little girl of about 3 or 4. She stands alone. Her father stands nearby clutching the family dog wrapped in a blanket in his arms. The little girl has blonde curly hair and stands frozen on the spot, simply looking out to sea. Her expression is absolutely blank. Empty. Exhausted. No movement or conversation. This little girl is in shock. An image stitched in my memory forever.

Thoughts turn to my granddaughter and her wild – child, feisty head of curls. The emotional coil snaps and the tears flow. I feel so overwhelmed and powerless to stop what’s happening. But there’s enough anger and strength in me to know that this cannot go on. While politicians focus on being re-elected and squabbling semantics it’s ordinary people who will lobby and shout and refuse glib handshakes. Ordinary informed people have been powerful influences for social change. We have helped end wars and thrown out governments who have lost touch. We have fought for women’s rights,  better health care and  flexible work practices. We are intelligent and good at mobilising communities to action. We are interested in ideas and can write and speak. Change takes place one conversation at a time. But it also needs to take place urgently and in voices combined. This is more than  recycling, tree planting and offsetting carbon emissions for air travel.

I look at my red coat and I know there’s a new energy in me to find my voice and become active in lobbying for effective climate policy and leadership. The Red Coat is a symbol of what needs to be done and my role in that movement. Until winter arrives a red dress will take its place but my work starts today. I imagine that little girl with the hollow eyes from Mallacoota beach standing beside me.

4 January 2020 | Living Well


  1. Oh Dear Nora
    I want you to know that we in Canada are all glued to the TV watching helplessly the destruction of the fires. I am sure that it is the same around the world. We have nothing to offer but love and support and solidarity. I wore my red coat today too…in the blizzard.

    1. Hi Maureen
      Thank you…Having friends and relatives spread across the world is an amazing network……and the love, support but also the conversations about how we fix this is very powerful. Canada has sent over 60 firefighters to assist. Social media is a great tool for informing people at such times and stimulating conversation across the world. On Black Saturday in 2009 nearly 200 people died in the Victorian bushfires and 2,000 homes were lost. We’re better at managing fires now but the scale of fire in this season is unprecedented. Your love and support is very welcomed and precious. Stay safe in the Blizzard….!.much love x

  2. Nora dear, your words and sentiments do not read like a “five star menu”. What is happening in Australia is a giant wake up call around the world. I am presently in the USA and while programming is covering the impeachment story ad nouseam there is also heartfelt and extensive coverage of the tragic fires. During social gatherings much discussion revolves around climate change With resolve to become actively involved. My heart and thoughts are with you – I will make the colour red my personal motivation to become more involved. ..Much love

    1. Thanks Inge…I really appreciate your thoughts. Its an awful time. Australia is raw and exhausted. We need to make a big shift in thinking. I’m hoping that we can see this experience as a world climate crisis not an Australian Problem. Like the Californian wildfires are not a unique US problem. This requires a global mindset that we’re not very good at. I’m reading lots, learning lots and talking with people who are involved in different ways. Fundraising, sending supplies, connecting people and ideas. My red coat is the call to action. Much love..take care in that crazy place…….

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