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Written By

Bianca de Loryn

College/Division

College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

11 December 2020

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How do people experience cyclones?

Cyclones are a constant threat in Northern Australia’s summer months. Dr Chrystopher Spicer writes about cyclones in literature in his new book Cyclone Country, and he tells us why the red flag above the Cairns post office was so important during cyclone season.

When Dr Chrystopher Spicer started researching cyclone experiences in fiction, initially for his PhD thesis and later for his book Cyclone Country, he was surprised that no one had looked into Australian cyclone fiction and poetry before. “We have a rather unique region in which people are living, with a constant threat of extreme weather. So we were thinking, how do people live with that and how do they incorporate that into their lives?”

Chrystopher was especially interested in the relationship between people and nature, and how literature depicts people coping with the sometimes traumatic events of a cyclone. “Because we don’t just live in a paradise,” he says. “We live in a paradise that is constantly under threat of being ripped apart by this really extreme weather.”

The Australian Aboriginal perspective on cyclones

Australia has a relatively short history of written literature, but it has an oral storytelling tradition that goes back thousands of years. However, Chrystopher found that oral history does not tell us much about extreme weather events.

“Although the ancestral serpent Taipan is regarded by Aboriginal people of Cape York and the Gulf country as the maker of cyclones, floods, thunder, and lightning, their oral history does not usually recount cyclone impacts in detail for good reason.”

The red flag – and traumatic cyclone experiences

It wasn’t that simple for Queensland’s sedentary white population, though, that had to go through often traumatic cyclone experiences. In the early 20th century, Queenslanders didn’t have cyclone safe housing and, more importantly, there was no warning system as we know it today.

“We are only a few decades away from where the first warning of a cyclone was when someone raised a red flag over the post office,” Chrystopher says. “I’ve met people who still could remember it. You would be probably going back to the 1940s or 50s. That was, of course, when Cairns was still a small place and you could actually see the post office.”

Chrystopher Spicer
Cyclone Country book

Predicting weather means predicting God?

As a matter of fact, many Queenslanders at that time were not in favour of scientific weather predictions. “There was this interesting debate about forecasting, about long range forecasting, about whether you were trying to predict God in any way by predicting the weather,” Chrystopher says. Of course, there were also people in favour of setting up weather stations, such as on Willis Island in the late 1920s. This was a big step forward in terms of Australia’s early warning system for cyclones.

The 1934 Cape Tribulation cyclone in literature

In his book, Cyclone Country, Chrystopher also goes into different and evolving perspectives about the relationships between people, place, weather and regional literature. “I was looking for books that spoke of the different kinds of relationship to the catastrophe,” he says. “Vance Palmer, for example, spoke very much of the regional experience of the catastrophe in his novel Cyclone. Because he had been in Cairns just before the 1934 cyclone.” The cyclone had caused a 9.1 metre storm surge near Cape Tribulation, and at least 79 people died during the storm.

Vance Palmer was originally from Bundaberg but had lived on Green Island near Cairns in 1932. “He knew people who had been affected and who lost their lives during the cyclone. He knew exactly what the area looked like. He had that regional experience of the catastrophe and then he wrote about it in his book.”

The modern Aboriginal perspective on cyclones

Successful Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers are few and far between in Australia. Alexis Wright, however, is an exceptional artist, and her book Carpentaria has a special place in Chrystopher’s book. “In Carpentaria, we go back to the Indigenous experience, and the impact of cyclones as part of the culture in that part of the country,” Chrystopher says. “That is where I’ve got the title from, Cyclone Country.”

Carpentaria is a novel about a mining community and the notion that a cyclone can also be ‘apocalyptic’ in the sense that it offers humans a fresh start. “It is possible for us to have a satisfactory relationship with our environment, with nature,” Chrystopher says. “But we have to listen to it, we have to be ready to learn from it.”

From wrath of God to Mother Nature

In his research for Cyclone Country, Chrystopher discovered that the way people think and write about cyclones has now come full circle. “We start out with this whole idea of nature being ‘a tool of god’, if you want to think it that way,” he says. “If we had a cyclone, the local minister would start preaching sermons like, ‘you have all been sinful people, and you better repent’. So, you get this really judgemental attitude about it.” That was in the early 20th century.

Today, however, in the early 21st century, things only look different on the surface. Religion has been replaced by something else. “Now we think of Mother Nature as having the same kind of spiritual clout. We have gone back to speaking of Mother Nature’s revenge, that nature is punishing us and seeking revenge on us for us treating her badly,” he says. “We have just replaced one spiritual term for another spiritual term.”

A personal cyclone experience

Chrystopher hasn’t only written about cyclones, he has also experienced cyclones first hand. In January 2011, when Cyclone Yasi hit North Queensland with wind gusts of up to 285 kilometres per hour, he spent hours worrying if the roof of his house would be ripped off.

“I think it certainly does remind you of the mortality of life,” he says. “That things can change very, very quickly, and that your whole circumstances can change very quickly. That sort of thinking does remind you about the true nature of the world we live in.”

Living with cyclones in Queensland

In Cyclone Country, Dr Chrystopher Spicer explores the cyclone in the Queensland literary imagination as an example of our cultural response to extreme weather in a unique regional place.  Cyclone Country can be ordered online from Amazon.

If you are interested Australian literature, find out more about studying Arts and Social Sciences at JCU.