Tango with a tree

Paul Hutton and Belinda Fields, Long Gully Road
Paul and Belinda at their home on Long Gully Road. Photo: Jodie Harris

We’re about three kilometers along Long Gully Road from the Bruxner Highway. We came to be here ten years ago, because we found this nice little property – couldn’t afford to buy a big house – so I bought this place. It came with a couple of machines and over the years I fixed them. We had a big shed put up and about 60 big trees felled. It was very heavily wooded when we first moved in, a definite fire risk. 

We’d been living here for a while when we went through the drought. Then we had the bushfires down at Tabulam, which nearly made it to Drake. After that I got to thinking, Well, if the fires start again, they’re going to come to Drake. So I started preparing a bit more. Belinda and I spoke to our neighbors about back-burning, discussed how we would go about it. They back-burnt their property, and I back-burnt mine. 

Belinda wasn’t here at the time. When she came back, I’d done 90% of it. My permit ran out, and there was a part down below the house I hadn’t done. Our neighbour had a fence put in which was cleared a year earlier. There was a pile of bracken ten metres off the fence line on his property running all the way down to the gully. 

When the fire was coming down the other side of the gully, I was concerned it was going to catch fire to all the big piles of bracken. So we rang the fire brigade. They showed up and it was pretty dark. They had a dozen people, one fire engine, maybe two. When we introduced ourselves to them in the dark, Belinda knew it was Tony Abbott somehow, without seeing his face. I don’t know how… Psychic! But as soon as she touched his hand, she knew. Anyway, their call was that the fire won’t jump the gully. That was my concern. And they were correct. So they left. 

But the fire came down the other end of the gully and started that way when the fire brigade had gone, so we called them back again. And that’s when it went off like a bomb; started spraying hot embers straight at the house. We had a couple of fire engines here, with about eight or nine firies. They didn’t seem too concerned but I was very panicked. I had sprinklers all over the place and they said I seemed to have it all under control. 

Belinda was absolutely terrified at this stage. We’d taken our animals down to my dad’s place about a week before the fires – animals first in Belinda’s eyes, humans second. We’ve got two dogs, two cats, and she had about 26 budgies in the aviary as well. They were starting to get smoke affected so the firies put out a little bit of fire down the bottom that was blowing smoke into the aviary.

The fire brigade and a couple of guys showed up and the lady officer showed up to counsel Belinda because she was suffering from the trauma of it. It terrifies some people. 

The next day, Tony Abbott come and said hello and blah, blah, blah – welfare check or whatever it was – then came and told me what a great job odd protecting my house…Yay for me! Anyway, my house was saved, some people lost their houses. You got to work your ass off if you want to keep it. Simple as that.

Damaged eucalypts on Paul and Belinda’s property. Photo: Jodie Harris

Now, after the fire. 

No one tells you that fire will kill a great big healthy stringybark tree. Fire comes through and a couple years later they say, ‘I didn’t like that’, and they die.

There were two down there that were dropping big branches. I was terrified to go anywhere near it, take the slasher down. I was worried it may come down and kill me dog while he’s having a crap down there.

So, I went up the hill a little bit higher and chopped down two stringybarks that were dead. No branches – just like long skinny baseball bats – about 12 inches in diameter at the bottom. They fell about 30 degrees to the ground, but they were caught up in some trees and vines. I thought, Not to worry, I have a skid steer loader, I’ll just push them out of the way later. 

So, as I’m walking about another five meters up the hill there’s another tree; long, tall, skinny and dead, with one branch sticking off the top of it. So I chopped that one down and that got caught up in the trees just like the other two. I thought, Not a problem, that’s what I want. But when I chopped this one off at the base where it was still connected to the tree, it swung down and sat vertical against the big gumtree that it was hooked up in. The base of it was about half a metre off the ground. 

At that stage I’d nicked myself on the leg with the chainsaw. So I thought, That’s enough, I’ll come inside and put a couple of band-aids on it. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. So I fixed that up. Then I went to move ’em with my skid steer, but it had a flat tyre. So I spent the day fixing that.  Went back the next day to do it, tyre was flat again. So, I spent the day mucking around with that. So, two days had gone. Third day, I thought, I’ll just drag them out with my car, some long slings, and a chain. 

When I wrapped the chain around the log at the back the tree that was caught up with the other two, the hook bumped the log, and the resonance from that traveled up through the branch into the vines and broke the branch off the tree that was hanging parallel to the big gumtree. 

It made a crrrrrck noise. 

I looked up. It fell straight to the ground and the curvature of the base of the gumtree launched it towards me.

I couldn’t go left. I couldn’t go right.

I couldn’t go left. I couldn’t go right. I could only go up the hill. I was running out of time. 

I took two big steps and jumped. When I jumped, I slipped and landed on the ground. And when I landed the tree hit me across the back and the pelvis.

I laid on the ground in shock, paralyzed from head to toe, not knowing what happened. Absolutely terrifying. I went into severe shock. In and out. I was calling for help, but with a collapsed lung that was very difficult. I passed out. I was in and out of consciousness.

I don’t know how long I was there for. Eventually my dog licked me on the face. 

Belinda found me. She rang an ambulance and the Westpac helicopter came. This is what I’m told; I don’t remember anything. I just remember one guy from the ambulance was there and I had just enough breath left in me to let out one more, ‘Help me!’ And he said, ‘We’ll help you, mate.’ And that’s basically all I remember until I got to hospital.

The helicopter was flying above me. I didn’t know there was a helicopter here. That’s how far gone I was. I wound right out, and I wound right down, and I knew that if someone didn’t find me soon I was going to cark it.

It happened about 3:30 in the afternoon and I didn’t get to the hospital till probably half past eight, nine o’clock that night. But this is what I’m told. Because time was irrelevant to me. It did not exist. I was on a different universe. 

They put me on the board in the hospital. He told me it was going to hurt and, man, I had to breathe like I was having a baby. And that’s the last thing I remember for five days. 

When I woke up, I was in hospital and they were cutting me open, putting tubes in. Because of COVID I had no visitors. They wanted to transfer me about ten days later to another hospital but because of COVID there were no doctors at Casino, couldn’t go there. Because of COVID there was no room at Kyogle, couldn’t go there. So they sent me to me dad’s place, with not enough painkillers. I was there for four days – the most broken I’ve ever been in my life – and they sent me with four Endone tablets. And that was hard work. 

I didn’t have to have any surgery. They wanted to pin my bones, five broken ribs behind me lung. But they said that was broken too close to the section that they’re joined on, that there’s not enough room to put any pins in. I couldn’t roll over on the right side because of me broken pelvis. I couldn’t roll on the left side because of me lung, spleen and kidney. I had to lay on five broken ribs. Very uncomfortable. 

I tried to come home but I couldn’t function here. I couldn’t get the wheelie-walker in the door to the bathroom. Too many steps up and down. Went off me tree at Belinda. I wasn’t right. Abused me dad in the hospital for being there. I don’t know why. Me head went strange. 

Anyway, I went to Dad’s place. He has a wheelie-walker, he’s got the handles on the doors. He’s got a big house with flat floors. So I just used the wheelie-walker every day as much as I could. I didn’t injure myself once, so that’s why I made such a good recovery. And eventually I came home and all back to normal.

Photo: Jodie Harris

I’ve had several motorbike accidents and been knocked out a couple of times. You break a couple of bones through a trauma injury and your body goes into shock. But what happened with the tree was next level. 

There’s no north. There’s no south. There’s somewhere in between. 

Time doesn’t exist, and your body doesn’t exist. And you know you’re fucked. You know, you’re going to cark it. And it’s something that you just cannot explain. 

When you break a bone and the body goes into shock to stop the pain your brain’s still aware enough to say, ‘I’m going into shock.’ But when you go into severe shock, there’s no mechanism to tell you that you’re going into severe shock. You just go there and you can’t say, ‘Oh this is severe shock, I know what’s going on,’ because you don’t. And that’s the only way to explain it. 

Paul and Whiskey. Photo Jodie Harris

I never believed in this before, never. Spinning out of control like you wouldn’t believe and there’s only one thing that stands out. There was this image, clear as a bell for one and a half seconds; me laying on the ground with me gray tracky top on, me black tracky pants. And then it was gone. I wasn’t above looking down, I was standing back, looking at me. I don’t know what it would have been like later when they cut me clothes off me. If I had had an out of body experience then, would I have seen me with clothes cut off? I don’t know. 

I don’t know whether that was just my brain making something up and imagining what it looked like from there. But at that stage my brain didn’t have a body to attach itself to and it went walkabouts. What does your mind do when there’s no body for it to attach itself to? That’s the hard thing to get to grips with. 

These things do happen. Is it your soul drifting away to somewhere else? Or is it just your brain making this stuff up? Because this thing did something that’s not standard behavior for a brain. It’s not thought. It’s not concept. It’s not functional. It’s in the universe somewhere; floating, gone. I lose track of how to explain it because I don’t know how to explain it, it’s really bizarre. 

Anyway, that’s how I came to be. Belinda did a very good job of looking after me. Belinda did a lot. My dad did the best that he could by supporting me while I was there. 

And that’s what can happen from fucking around with trees that die from bushfires. They can kill you. Stay away from them. End of story.