On Thursday afternoon the cars began arriving at Christine and Chris Watts’ Paynesville farm.
Parking in an empty horse paddock, people lay out tents and swags, pull on work shirts and boots and introduce themselves.
All of us have been drawn here by the desire to help out after the fires.
Among the twelve volunteers is a young economist, a retired nurseryman, an arborist, a nurse and two organic farmers – who themselves had been burnt out three years previously.
At 6.30am the next morning, Penny, our volunteer coordinator gets us out of bed for a briefing.
Under a makeshift shade beside drying racks filled with Creole, Silverskin and enormous fist-sized Russian Garlic, Penny explains that over the next three days we will be trimming and cleaning more than a ton of garlic.
And so we make a start – clipping stems, talking, snipping roots, talking, rubbing off skins, talking.
Fair Food has been buying Blue Sky Organics garlic since Chris and Christine’s daughter Madeline harvested their first crop as an eighteen year old ten years ago.
The Watts grow their garlic up on their Murrindal River flats property north of Buchan Caves.
On New Years Eve the fire went through their farm.
It was a week before Chris and Christine were allowed back in, escorted by police.
When they got to the farm they couldn’t believe what they saw; everything had burned bar their drying garlic, a historic cottage and their tractor.
With the fire continuing to flare in the surrounding bush they decided to bring the garlic back to their place near Paynesville for cleaning.
That lunchtime, our economist also our cook, has prepared an amazing spread from an abundance of food donated by farmers and organic businesses.
Everyone wants to help; there’s milk from Schulz, bread from Dench and Loafer, eggs from Zanker Farm, apples from Hazeldean, veg from Peninsula Organics and Timbarra, bananas from Organic Growers Group even a delicious biriyani from Crofters restaurant.
As we eat Christine Watts confesses they haven’t been cooking much lately – being adrenalised for a month has left the family in a collective brain-fog that manifests in inertia, forgetting and bursts of anger.
Early the next morning we drive up the Buchan Road to the Watts’ farm in Murrindal to collect two more trailer loads of garlic.
Everything is normal until we hit Sarsfield, 19kms outside of Bairnsdale. Houses have disappeared leaving ghostly white concrete stumps. You can feel the panic from the hastily cut trees – dropped and shoved aside.
We follow a truck loaded with round bales through kilometres of blackened forest.
Already epicormic leaves are sprouting from eucalypt trunks but so many more seem too burned to come back.
Recent rains have painted farm paddocks bright green. The contrast with the black trees gives everything an oddly benign feel.
We pass burnt houses here while others stand untouched and I recall lines from my old friend Pete Auty’s Black Saturday poem…
I don’t understand. Why this and not that?
Why burn on the ridges and not on the flat?
The little pink cottage surrounded by black,
The mud-brick houses reduced to wrack.
At the Watts’ farm the fire has burnt the bush on the ridges surrounding the property.
But the grass has come back making the burnt-out hay baler sitting on its rusty wheel rims just a few meters from the garlic racks seem completely incongruous.
We load the garlic stems and a kookaburra’s call builds and fills the river valley below us.
Chris says when they first returned to the farm it was silent. But now the birds are coming back. Later on the way home we see a lyrebird scampering across the road and our spirits lift.
Back in Paynesville the news isn’t good; the Russian garlic we’ve begun cleaning seems to have been cracked by the fire’s heat. Christine hopes it’s just a bad batch but as the day progresses it becomes clear that 90% of the crop is affected.
Most of these bulbs were to be sold as seed. Christine doesn’t know if they will be viable now. Everybody feels the strain and works on.
By dinner though we are sharing food and smiling once again. We eat and tell stories and later over ice cream, organiser Carolyn Suggate, explains that the most powerful part of the Appeal is the deepening of our relationships with each other, with our food and our land.
When I leave the following day I feel like I have been here a couple of weeks – the openness of Christine and Chris, the way shared manual work brings strangers together the opportunity to help, to learn, to appreciate and to bare witness is a privilege.
You can volunteer or donate to the Organic Farmers Bushfire Appeal here
Have a great week