burnt tree trunk

A World of Ashes

8 January 2020
Fires incarnate in vivid ways the double meaning of the Anthropocene – an era of unprecedented human control and of its dramatic demise. Sophie Chao reflects on the indiscriminate destruction of life that combustion depends upon.

By Dr Sophie Chao, Research Associate, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry & Charles Perkins Centre, University of Sydney

‘There is... no justice for all those and all that that serves as fuel for the pyre of world history; no satiety or quenching of need after the process of combustion has fizzled out; no bright light flowing from the remains that challenge the power of the spectacle. In the closure of metaphysics, when everything has been consumed, the light of the ashes themselves replaces the shining-forth of phenomena, and the fading afterglow of fire gives way to the obscure trace of its victims.’

- Michael Marder, Pyropolitics: When the World is Ablaze, p. 162. 

On New Year’s Eve, I walked with my partner across Cathedral Rock, a national park some 500 kilometers north of Sydney, nested between the Guy Fawkes River and the Macleay Range. Amidst the rubble of incinerated vegetation and blackened rocks, a single wallaby followed us cautiously – the only sign of life in this otherwise deadened landscape. No birds in the sky. No movement on the ground. No colour in the canopy. No water in the creeks. Around us, the acrid smell of gum trees slowly burning from the core lingered in the air, their collapsing trunks crumbling to dust at the touch of a finger.

Above us, a weary sun sat cloaked in heat and haze. Beneath us, a thick layer of ashes and sediment – the remains of countless plants, animals and fungi incinerated by the flames. Inside us, there is heaviness, sadness, and unbound anger. There are no colours left in this landscape, and yet we see red. We slow down, stop, resume our walk, and stop again. We sit beside the remnants of the gentle vegetal giants that once offered their shade and shelter to those in passing. We look around and under our feet. We tread on the dead.

Media footage of the fires that ravaged Cathedral Rock – alongside countless other ecosystems across the continent – reveal their shocking and unprecedented force and scale. After the dramatic events of flame and fire, we are left with its powdery remains – a world of ashes. Ashes, my silent companions on New Year’s Eve, are the indistinguishable residues of other-than-human lives violently obliterated by human greed, exceptionalism, and apathy.

Ashes are the muted embodiments of that which has been irrevocably destroyed and that which remains of once-lively multispecies worlds. They are the uncontained yet lumped existences of beings no longer individuated or recognisable, and yet all there, dismembered and conflated, in a dispersed, dusty mass. Ashes – the myriad particles that once composed and animated forest beings – are what we take into our bodies when we breathe the smoky air around us. Our most basic act of survival – breathing – thus makes of us unwitting participants in a macabre, atmospheric communion with more-than-human extinguishings. We inhale and exhale. We con-spire with the dead. 

Fires incarnate in vivid ways the double meaning of the Anthropocene – an era of unprecedented human control and of its dramatic demise. Living in the aftermath of fire also requires thinking and staying with ashes, because ashes remind us of the indiscriminate destruction of life that combustion – intended and unintended, industrial and metabolic – depends upon. As I collect the ashy remains of a bloodwood tree in Cathedral Rock, I think of the word my indigenous Marind friends in West Papua use for ashes: “abu- abu”, which also means “grey” and “uncertain.” For these communities, devastating fires are nothing new. They face them every year, when oil palm corporations burn the forest to make way for monocrop oil palm plantations, killing off the many plant and animal species with whom Marind share kinship and companionship.

Ashes, as Marind’s own term suggests, blur our atmospheres and our capacity to see clearly. They produce an ontic and material crisis in visibility. But ashes also remind us of what it means to reduce multispecies worlds to dust. And so, we must allow ashes to haunt us. Ashes will spread across land and water, human and non-human bodies, settling in other lands and lives, carrying with them faraway deaths and suffering. We may escape the fires, but we must not evade the ashes. We must travel with the dead.

In the West, ashes have long been an ancient symbol of grief and repentance, and of transformative rebirth and regeneration. Ashes are both what was and what remains. They are the deposits of cultural and biological memory, embedded in places, species, and bodies. In this, ashes both epitomise and resist endings.

Like ash, we cannot allow ourselves to accept the Anthropocene as only an ending. We cannot because ash reminds us that too many multispecies worlds have already ended and that many more – present and future – demand our continued care. Thinking and being with ashes in other words is a way of mourning endings, without resigning ourselves to them. Ashes can transform the world – much like they can regenerate soils and species – if we take on the labor of re-imagining and responding to, the myriad bodies and lives rendered unrecognisable within them, as they fall apart into a plurality of traces.

Unearthing multispecies justice in the ruin and rubble of fires requires relentless action, protest, and refusal. This includes refusing to forget the ashes. In the aftermath of destruction, we must salvage the remains of worlds irrevocably destroyed. This demands a practice of active resistance, but also of remembrance and grieving, with and through, the tangible remnants of frittered multispecies futures. 

Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sydney’s School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Oriental Studies (First Class) and a Master of Science in Social Anthropology from The University of Oxford. Sophie’s PhD at Macquarie University was funded by an International Endeavour Scholarship and received a Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation in 2019. Sophie’s research explores the intersections of capitalism, ecology, and indigeneity in Indonesia, with a specific focus on changing interspecies relations in the context of deforestation and agribusiness development. Her current research deploys inter-disciplinary methods to explore the nutritional and cultural impacts of agribusiness on indigenous food-based socialities, identities, and ecologies. 

Header image: Photo by Jannet Serhan on Unsplash

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