The viral video that became a book
Here is a bold statement to begin: try to read this book without crying.
I didn’t even make it half-way.
Initially, I found To My Country while in a rush to buy Christmas presents because it looked pretty. At the same time, the orange cover and burning leaf stood as a motif of the year that we had gone through, so I bought it. Looking back, it felt as if the Australian bushfires were the beginning of our trials, and they started in October 2019. In comparison to the world events of 2020, something that we thought would define the year quickly became overshadowed by more terrible circumstances.
The brown and orange colours of bushfire are stark and heavy with impending blaze. They demand attention.
I was not prepared for the rush of emotions reading it out loud to my parents when I got home. Now to the poem.
When Ben Lawson filmed himself in his kitchen in Vancouver in January of last year (aka the Summer of Hellfire), I am sure he didn’t realise this spoken poem would become a published work but here it is. His original video is captioned ‘To my country, from an expat’, and he is one of so many that weren’t home – and couldn’t get home – so had to sit and watch their country ablaze via their screens.
Ben is no stranger to the spotlight. He’s an Australian actor who has been in television programs such as Neighbours, The Good Place, 13 Reasons Why, Modern Family and Designated Survivor. His brother Josh is also an acclaimed actor, and together they played the Murdoch brothers in Bombshell that came out in 2019.
This poem is about us, the weird upside-down ones, so far away from the connected continents to our north. As Ben writes,
‘We smile when people mimic us, quote Crocodile Dundee. To them we sound absurd; I guess we do to a degree.’
With a strong sense of Australian pride and patriotism we look to each other in times of need. We find each other in far-flung places all over the globe and we
To My Country is about our strength and pride and immense love for our home and how much it hurts when we look around and see destruction. This poem brings to the forefront how we all should feel about climate change, about our earth burning and the disappearance of our rainforests, flora and fauna.
It’s also about the apathy that our governments seem to be feeling about promising clean energy solutions because they will not bring profits, they will bring restoration instead.
When Ben checked the news in January last year, we had bushfires larger than the United Kingdom burning up and down the east coast of Australia. Celebrating Christmas and New Year wasn’t an option when people were losing their lives and their homes. The gift of that festive season was just making it out of your town alive. There was nothing to be joyful about as we heralded in a new decade.
‘I had to sit; I couldn’t quite believe my own two eyes. She looked unrecognisable; I’d never seen those skies. Not in the place where I grew up, that’s not what I remember. Bushfires never started up so early as September.’
I am glad that there were words to describe the ache that we all felt. We all have stories of waking up to red skies and new fires combining and close calls by loved ones. An Instagram comment on his video sums the collective heartache well – ‘Magnificent and tragic we all feel the same way here.’
(You can watch the video here)
It’s a poem that combines very intense emotions, as Rebecca Levingston describes in her chat with Ben on ABC Radio Brisbane Mornings in December 2020. At that time, Ben said that things ‘felt very dark’ and there was really ‘nothing to celebrate’.
For fear of history repeating itself, that’s also what this New Years Eve felt like too, as Sydney and most cities went back into lockdown and families whose attempted plans for Christmas were dashed. There’s isn’t really anything to celebrate at the moment, except perhaps that Australia still holds its title as the lucky country with it’s comparative COVID cases around the world.
I think reading this poem at the close of a year that we are desperate to forget is a reminder of how important it is to remember. To remember that climate change action needs to be widely supported at all levels of government as well as on an individual level. To remember that our wildlife and our natural beauty is what Australia is known for and it is under threat. To remember that together we will get through this.
‘And though I found myself so far away when she was ailing, I know I’ve never been so proud to call myself Australian.’
Thank you for these beautiful words, Ben; I cried with you. But I’m also ready to be angry at whatever inaction comes next.
Ben’s book is “dedicated to all the firefighters who fought and continue to fight to protect our land and every living thing that inhabits it”. The proceeds of buying For My Country support the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital.