As the car snaked along a slippery, paved path, an army of myrtle beech trees watched attentively on either side like ladders extending into the clouds. The misty day engulfed the car so it felt like we were driving inside a cloud, leaving layers of dew dripping from every overhanging branch, leaf and flower.
It was hard to believe this place had ever been on fire.
But on the 7th of February 2009, as I sat in my air-conditioned house one scorching summer’s day, Marysville was in flames. Located 97 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, the small Victorian town lost 90% of its land to the Murrindindi Mill fire of Black Saturday.
As Steph and I drove into Marysville that Tuesday morning, it was both difficult to imagine and impossible to forget the tragedy of Black Saturday. The entrance to the town was flagged with a fire danger rating scale. The words “PREPARE. ACT. SURVIVE” painted below the scale sat inflated against the low-moderate rating of the day.
We pulled up at a parking bay and huddled under an umbrella as we walked around the town centre. The rain had washed away any window shoppers for the day, so we took our time browsing through the local milk bars and cafes. Within two short minutes, Marysville delivered all the small town charm one would expect: a self-pay petrol station, a paddock of horses amongst houses, a handwritten sign in a shop window that read: “It’s a boy! Born 11:42am, 3.7kg and healthy!”
But this was also a town with holes. Buildings sat apart from each other as though waiting for old neighbours to return between them. Large areas of land waited longingly for someone to pull out their “for sale” signs and build them back into homes. Perhaps it was because of the dreary day but Marysville felts empty and lonely the day we decided to visit her.
It seemed like it was going to be a disappointing day – Steph and I had intended on visiting Steavenson Falls which, cascading 84 metres, is one of Victoria’s highest waterfalls. But the rain made us feel like we were already in a waterfall, and we did not wish to get any wetter. That is how we stumbled across Bruno’s Art and Sculpture garden, located a few hundred metres from the waterfall on the corner of Falls Road.
A modest “entry” sign, barely visible behind a hanging succulent, directs visitors around to the back of the house. We were greeted with a small wooden bridge and a money box that read: “Admission $7.50 each. Please ring bell for change.” A smiling, middle-aged man with a white beard and hands crusted in orange clay accepted our small contribution as he stood on the porch to welcome in his only guests for the day.
“There are 107 sculptures,” Bruno told us. “Go slowly or you will miss them.”
The garden is a plethora of greenery, vines and wooden bridges that organise the walking path like a labyrinth, each corner offering a dozen more sculptures resting against trunks, hidden behind shrubs and camouflaged between rocks. A mother stands stoically with her child clutched to her core. Her cheeks, lips and knuckles has been painted black by the fires, but she has stood her ground as the world regenerates around her. Two soul mates sit within a vase, eyes closed and foreheads touching tenderly in prayer. A girl and her dog are curled together in rest as clovers grow over and between her limbs. She looks like she is degenerating back into the earth. A rich witch extends her hand for more coins while her arms overflow with gold and silver donations from previous well-wishers. A man made out of mice grins as he dares you to find all 26 throughout his body. The gentle soundtrack of trickling water is orchestrated by a small stream that follows you as you walk.
Bruno’s garden is a trove of emotions: thought-provoking, laugh-inducing and mesmerizing. Like the town it exists in, the gardens seek to both commemorate the loss of life and celebrate its regeneration.
In a moment I stole to myself, I found a photo from the Black Saturday aftermath hammered to the scorched trunk of a tree. Black and grey, a sculpture of a young boy drinking from a fountain that doesn’t exist anymore is the only life that was left after the fire. Seven years later, the scene behind the photo stands proud and defiant: the same boy in the position he was left. But now, he is drinking water from the cascading fountain that flows from a mighty hand, and all around him is life.
I went to Marysville expecting a town haunted by fire, but instead I found a place dripping in rain and regeneration. In a town where the wounded trees continued to spout green leaves, the burnt sculptures continued to smile and the people built back the home they had lost, I was reminded that life will always find a way to go on.