How do we symbolise the power of recovery from bushfires? 

Focus statement

Students learn about how symbols are used to foster hope and a sense of renewal in people recovering from traumatic events, such as major bushfires.

Key message

Symbols, commemoration and rituals can help people to express feelings, find meaning and develop a sense of renewal in the face of the devastation caused by a major bushfire.

Activities

Demonstrate to students how an internet search about the Black Saturday bushfires will result in many references to the term ′phoenix′: there is a ′Phoenix′ fundraising effort, a Victoria police operation ′Phoenix′, ′Camp Phoenix′ for burns victims, a ′Phoenix′ computer-modelling program for bushfire response and a ′Phoenix′ newspaper set up in the bushfire-affected area.

The phoenix is a bird that appears in Greek and Roman mythology. There is some evidence that it is also found in ancient Chinese mythology.

This eagle-like, mythical and mysterious bird has a long life of over 800 years. It was famous for its beautiful multicoloured plumage, much like a peacock, but in golds, purples and reds. The Roman poet Ovid tells us that the phoenix ate spices and highly-scented plant gums, and magically reproduced itself. The legend says that as the phoenix neared the end of its life it would gather all sorts of spices, like cinnamon and myrrh, and pile these into a nest in a large tree. There it would sit and die amid the aroma of the spices, as the nest bursts into flame. From the ashes of this fire a young phoenix would arise, leave the nest and go on to live another long life. In some forms of the legend the young phoenix would also lift the remnants of its birth nest and take it to Heliopolis in Egypt to deposit in the temple of the Sun.


Ask students to suggest why the term ′phoenix′ might be so popular in this context. Point out that the phoenix is used as a symbol for rebirth, which is particularly appropriate when referring to ′rebirth′ after a fire. View the phoenix images listed in the Resources box on the right hands side of this webpage.

Ask students to supply further examples of well-known symbols and rituals in our society, such as symbols of rebirth, remembrance, liberty, freedom and sacrifice. If it doesn′t arise during discussion, introduce the idea of the eternal flame, the minute′s silence, cenotaphs and war memorials being symbols and rituals – they remind society of a traumatic event and the values associated with that event, such as compassion, courage and sacrifice. Through discussion, produce a working definition of ′symbol′ as a thing, ritual, shape or sign that stands for or represents something else.

In small groups, students can search online for examples of memorials, symbols and rituals associated with Black Saturday 2009. They can do a general online search, or you could direct them to one of the sites below:

  1. The Tree Project
  2. The Kinglake Chimney

Students select one Black Saturday memorial and construct a brief multimedia presentation covering the following areas:

  • where the memorial is/will be situated
  • the nature of the memorial
  • how the memorial was/will be constructed
  • the values the memorial expresses
  • any rituals that might take place at the memorial
  • who developed the memorial and their reasons for building it
  • the purpose and symbolism in this particular form of memorial
  • community responses to the project and to the end result.

Students could assemble their presentations using a digital tool such as Museum Box or Weebly. These tools provide a means of assembling, organising and linking images, video, audio, web links and text in ways that will enable students to construct a presentation.

Extension Activities

For years 7-8: Students take on the role of representative of a bushfire-affected community that wants to build a memorial. The local council is responsible for issuing permits for the construction of such things as memorials. The community representative must write to the local council official, arguing a persuasive case for why the memorial should be built, and convince the official to grant the necessary permission.

For years 9-10: Students write a well-reasoned editorial for a daily newspaper, explaining how important it is to have a memorial and a commemorative ritual for Black Saturday as a community symbol and a remembrance of those who lost their lives and aid to recovery.