A woodworker’s story: Rising from the ashes of the Australian bushfires

Aug 4, 2022 | Blog Articles

The day after the bushfires that devastated the NSW south coast on New Year’s Eve in 2019, John stood surveying the piles of twisted metal that were once his six sheds and their contents.

While John and his wife’s house near Bega had somehow survived the blaze, it destroyed their property’s fences and all their sheds – along with the more than 40 years’ worth of personal treasures and irreplaceable items that had been inside them.

But amongst the heart wrenching rubble that New Year’s Day, the 69-year-old former bank officer turned hobbyist woodworker spotted a burnt elbow of timber and put it aside with the hope of “turning it into something beautiful”.

“A phoenix rising from the ashes as it were,” said John, who attended one of Quest for Life’s Your Life Matters Rural & Regional Workshops in 2022.

While the couple’s immediate concern after the fires was to find hay to feed their sheep and cattle until the grass in their paddocks could regrow, the general clean-up at their home took a little longer. As the days and weeks passed, John’s wife worried about her husband’s mental health.

“The hardest thing I had to face was how to feed the animals that were totally dependent on me as there was simply no feed left,” John said.

“There was a small amount of hay available from donations that had come from outside the area and when I went into town to see if I could get some feed for the sheep and cattle I had to sit down and answer a range of questions.

“The situation completely overwhelmed me, and I just burst into tears.

“It took quite a few months before the clean-up around the house happened but when it did it was such a relief to be able to walk outside and not be confronted by piles of twisted iron. Since then, the grass has grown back, new pastures have been sowed and we have replaced the things that mattered to us, but I still find it too hard to watch footage of the fires when they come up on the TV from time to time. We also found the news broadcasts of the recent flooding in northern NSW hard to watch as we now understand a little better the heartache that they must be feeling.”

Asked to describe the impact of the fires, John said the sentimental, irreplaceable items destroyed by the blaze as some the hardest things to part with.

“The loss of some of the more expensive items, car, bike, boat and caravan was less traumatising as these were replaceable, but things like the old wooden sheds that were built with hand-hewn timbers are gone forever.”

“We lost six sheds all filled with the things that we had accumulated over the past 40-odd years, all our farming equipment and vintage tractors, my workshop including all my tools and woodwork machinery. Probably some of the hardest things to lose were the tools that I had which had been my father’s and grandfather’s.

“I have also restored a lot of vintage tools since the fires, beautiful old tools that I enjoy using – but I still miss the tools my dad had his hands on.”

Once he had eventually replaced his fire-ravaged woodworking equipment, John took that small burnt branch of eucalypt he found on the first day after the fires and fashioned it into a bowl. The bowl, with its visible chisel marks and charring from flames, he titled ‘A Self Portrait’.

“Any wood turner worth his salt would see it as an unfinished piece,” John said.

“There were areas where the scars of the fire still remained and other places where it was beginning to take shape and still other places where the marks of the chisels were quite obvious.

“This was not a finished work but was a work in progress and that was exactly how I was feeling – scarred, battered and bruised but at the same time I was also aware that I was OK, there was a way to go but I too was a work in progress.”

John described the bowl as a “fitting picture” of how he was feeling and how he saw himself at that time.

“Badly bruised but showing some signs of recovery,” he said.

“Scarred by the events I had been through while also facing the new reality with a pretty typical Aussie bloke’s mentality – to present the image of strength and stability, even though there was a struggle to come to terms with the new reality.”

More than two years on from the fires, John has transformed his woodworking practice into a way to help himself heal. In that time, John has sourced wood from unexpected places, including from the bases of old fence posts dug up from below ground level, “scrounged bits of timber” that had not completely burnt through, but primarily from trees killed in the bushfires.

“This is definitely something that I enjoyed before the fires but the type of work I am doing now is as a direct result of the destruction caused by those fires,” he said.

“It has given me a way to look past the destruction and find beauty hidden in the ashes and it was a huge help in keeping my head above water when my mental health was under siege.

“This focus may not be the way I always work as there will come a time when I have no more fire-damaged wood to work with, but for the time being each item I am able to create is a bit like standing up to a bully, beating my chest and declaring that in spite of all that happened we can still find beauty, we are a bit beaten up but we are still standing.

“That might sound melodramatic, but each bit of timber becomes a mystery to solve, a heartache to salvage.”

Asked what advice he’d give to other people who are struggling after the trauma of natural disaster or loss, John said it is important to have someone you can talk to and not to “put off” your steps towards recovery.

“Healing won’t happen if you don’t make a start,” John said.

“I’m not a psychologist so my words here may not carry much value, but the typical Aussie bloke’s attitude is to mutter those immortal words, ‘she’ll be right’. But nothing could be further from the truth. Most men have a large number of acquaintances but very few confidants.

“It is important to find someone that you can build trust with that will allow you to debrief. This may not even be someone you regard as your best mate – as a best friend might also be struggling. Don’t be afraid to talk. Find an outlet that can take your focus off the scars and the hurt and give you a much broader outlook because when your trauma or loss stops being all of who you are and becomes a part of who you are, its perspective is brought to a manageable level.”

The Quest for Life Foundation offers a range of programs for people affected by natural disaster, tragedy, grief, trauma, and illness.

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An interactive, 5-day residential program for people living with a variety of traumas and the challenging emotions elicited by them. If you want to heal the past, build resilience for the future, and live in the present, then this is the program for you.

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