A sunset below the clouds with a line of ibis flying home to roost
Ibis coming home to roost, Byron Bay. Image courtesy of the author

I am addicted to clouds. Odd for an Englishman but, perhaps, not so odd for an ex-Pom transplanted to this land of flat horizons and gigantic sky.

Looking at a cloud was almost impossible in my youth because when I looked up it was almost impossible to look at anything but clouds. Looking up at the more than fifty shades of grey that define English skies was pointless and depressing, so I didn’t.

I looked at the shades of grey in the people and in the paving stones instead.

Whenever I could I escaped from the city to Dartmoor and took refuge in the spiked vibrancy of green and yellow gorse, which contrasts nicely against grey.

I walked the city at night when artificial colour brought a sheen of excitement to drab places. There were almost no stars to be seen through the light of the city. Just once I remember seeing a starry night there – because there had been a power cut.

Mostly I just didn’t look up.

Then, quite randomly, my life changed and I found myself in the ruler-flat landscape of Western Australia surrounded by a blue that burned through my eyes and into my heart.

I didn’t even have to look up, just out. Blue was everywhere around me. Light danced.

Western Australia’s deserts do something extraordinary after rain. They bloom.

The earth is red or sometimes yellow, crusted with clay and stones. Plants struggle to attain more than knee height, most barely get to the ankle. They are sparse, tough, wizened and hard. They store their water as best they can and wait. Then, weeks after the good rain comes, as it does – did – every few years, they explode in blazing yellows, purples and pinks, smothering the landscape to every horizon.

No photograph can capture it. No fractal virtual reality experience comes close. No psychedelic can compare.

And above this over-saturated landscape the all-encompassing sky burns blue.

The east coast of Australia isn’t as flat as the west. It rains more here than in the west so the landscape never explodes with simultaneous colour in quite the same way.

The greens of my youth are more vibrant than the greens of Australia’s eucalyptus forests. Their green is mixed with grey but when the sky burns blue these trees shimmer and dance too.

I look up a lot more now. This sky’s repertoire is more varied. Clouds tower and unfurl streamers, they stride across the sky in rank and file. From my earth-bound perspective they slide in different directions, merge and detach, thicken and fade.

Sometimes they even fill the sky like the clouds I was born with, but there’s a difference. Even the most monstrous clouds, the ones that darken everything and throw hail like cannonballs, cannot hide the burning of the blue above them. Light in Australia is never still, it always dances.

Until this summer.

Bushfires encircled Sydney almost twenty years ago. The sky turned orange and smouldering embers fell in my inner city garden. The beach at Bondi was sprinkled with ash and the ocean waves were muted by a black shroud.

I swam in the ash-encrusted waves. It felt apocalyptic but strangely removed, strangely safe, like sitting in cinema comfortably watching a horror movie.

Safe because the burning blue was still there, dancing behind the temporary orange curtain in the sky.

The orange curtain has returned, but it's different now, thicker more widespread, less comfortably temporary.

It’s mid January and the world has been watching Australia’s bushfires for the last few weeks. These fires didn’t start a month ago – or even in October as some of the more sensible news services are wrongly saying. They started in early September, three months before the ‘traditional’ bushfire season.

I had a personal journey to make in early September. I needed to go to a small town in Queensland on the inland side of the Great Dividing Range. A four hour drive from my home in a rainforest near Australia’s most easterly point.

A week after I returned from that familiar place, now so shockingly dry it was barely recognisable, the road I drove was closed by out of control bushfires. Those fires are still burning.

I’ve been wearing a filter mask on and off since October, depending on which way the wind blows. Even when the sky was orange in Sydney I never needed a mask, bushfire smoke in the city was always something temporary, an occasional nuisance easy to avoid.

Until this summer.

This summer Australians are breathing the death of rainforests – places that have never burned, cannot burn. But they are.

A week after I returned from Queensland, before the smoke descended for the first time, I became aware of something in the sky that I’d never seen before.

It was subtle. So subtle that for a couple of days I was swapping between my sunglasses and my normal glasses. Was I seeing something real or did I need to see my optometrist again?

I squinted and peered upward into the intangibly muted blue.

I asked my friends and my partners if they could see it. It seemed clearer through polarised lenses.

It was like the after-image of a bright screen that temporarily stains the retina and makes white space seem mottled grey.

It was impossible to be sure whether this amorphous, indistinct stain was really there. Was it in the sky or in my eyes?

Then it rained and with the rain came a fine dust carried in the raindrops. The leaves of the rainforest were thinly dusted with something dark.

The sky danced clear blue again the next day.

It didn’t last. It hasn’t lasted. For three months whenever the smoke cleared I looked up with deepening dread to see if the blue had again stopped dancing.

For three months whenever the wind came from the west or the south or the north, the stain in the sky returned.

Ash was muting the sky as it had muted the waves at Bondi.

The dancing, burning blue that I love was being hidden, obscured, stilled by the funeral pyre of Australia’s forests.

The little patch of far eastern Australia where I live has had some rain and the stain has returned less often since late December.

But it hasn’t gone.

It will vanish, I’m sure, when the flooding rains come to extinguish the bushfires.

I fear it will return again and again until the silver grey eucalypts, the brilliantly blooming desert and the vibrant green rainforest alike are all burned up to feed it.

The stain in the sky that I saw in September has now travelled around the Southern Hemisphere, over New Zealand, over Chile and back to Australia. It has deposited the remains of Australia’s forests across glaciers and mountains across the planet.

The stain first seen in the Australian sky will soon become native to the sky of every land – as forests, grasslands, tundra and permafrost all begin to burn with an unprecedented, inextinguishable ferocity.

When the stain in the sky comes to you, wherever you may be, look up and see the indelible mark of humanity’s arrogance as we still the dancing of the blue.

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