Autumn has come in all its glory. With the drought, everything is desiccated already, but the long shadows of the April days gilt the edges of the red and yellow leaves in the Yarra Glen and up the Maroondah Highway.
In late afternoon a tall majestic avenue of bright yellow poplars line the road from Alexandra to Marysville. In the hills around us the low sunshine makes everything glow gold. But almost everything is already burnished copper and gold, if not from the season, from the fires.
Somehow because of the time of year it does not assault the senses as much as it did three months ago. We approach what is left of Marysville cautiously and respectfully, driving slowly past ridge after ridge of burnt forests, exposing the rocky land beneath. Aroborists have marked the condemned trees with white x marks. The buzz of chainsaws fill the air. People have died here and we remember.
The levelled houses begin. A pile of corrugated iron here, a lone chimney there. A destroyed home by a stream is surrounded by fern trees, growing again, livid green against the black. We grow quieter as we reach the town. Stopping at the little roundabout, it looks like a deserted, disassembled movie set. A single petrol station sign here, an unblemished church there by the river. The bakery lives on untouched. The resort hotel has been bulldozed away. A wishing well stands untouched in what used to be a garden.
We drive down deserted streets, our only companions emergency services people and the odd construction worker. I hear the words echoing in my head again from twelve weeks ago: Marysville is gone. As with Kinglake, it does not seem real until I see it with my own eyes.
In an old church campsite they are building granny flats for families to live in. They will house forty families here soon. Don gives us a tour of the tidy little bungalows: copper flyscreens to withstand an ember attack, air-conditioning and all mod cons in the little kitchen. Not bad. The village headman’s house has already been allocated. An embryonic playground is taking shape. Department of Human Services, Centrelink and others are already sitting waiting the Community Hub offices. If you build it, they will come.
The deputy head of the reconstruction authority rummages in my box of trauma teddies looking for one with Collingwood colours. Major General David Cantwell is younger than I’d expected, with sandy hair, an engaging smile and sensible army boots to trump my city kitten heels. He looks like a kind man. With him and Christine Nixon in charge, surely we won’t go far wrong.
The sun dips in the sky and the shadows grow longer. The blackened gum trees are emblazoned with a fuzz of vibrant green. It is difficult to comprehend how it will all grow back, but it will. Nature has already begun her regeneration. We just need to figure out how to start ours.