When Tom Goldner chose to produce a work examining ecological destruction through the subjects of fire and horses, he chose subjects that remain intrinsically connected to the history of humankind. While vastly different in nature, where they are similar is that Australia is having to reckon with each in profoundly new and difficult ways. Brumbies (feral horses), an invasive species long loved, are finally entering the popular consciousness because of the environmental degradation they create. Fire, a long time frenemy of Australian people, has clearly shifted into territory of uncharted destruction. What unites these changes is that they each are caused by us.
Do Brumbies Dream in Red is a book that is simultaneously sad and absurd. The sadness is often rooted in the sympathy Goldner shows each of his subjects. Ruined houses look appalling. Dead brumbies seem so pitiful. Burned out forest so achingly wrong. Yet, there lies alongside this sympathy an element of confusion. Why is there a house here? Why are there wild horses here? Why do we take hope from the faintest regrowth among the near total char of the wrecked forest? Is it just me, or does that dead horse look like it’s smiling? The absurdity, the bare-faced stupefied quality to some of the images enriches the sympathy and calls to the root of these problems: our choices.
Avoiding the obvious position that invasive species and bushfires are bad, Golder succeeds in showing audiences that while both are harmful, there is more to see than just blame. To put this another way, Goldner shows audiences that Brumbies may well be bad, but it’s impossible not to feel awful seeing them die in fire. Bushfires do, undeniably, destroy so much, but in the soft waft of smoke afterwards there’s a tranquility and stillness that’s seductive. Invasive species cause suffering, but they also call to us.
Goldner is keenly aware of what it means to be Australian. We are a country propped up by problematic history and extractive industries and our iconic nature is in an environmental collapse that is as shocking as it is accepted.
There is, though, one subject shown critically: industry. In some ways, industry is the ultimate invasive species: pernicious, vampiric and happy in its new home. Among the wreckage of the bushfires, logged trees and steel trucks seem oddly normal. A subtle critique, but a damning one. Goldner also shows readers through images of industry that the whole house is fragile: human structures piled up and sunken stand in sly critique of the notion that industry lasts. In this jenga stack of a situation we call Australia there is only collective loss and collapse, nothing escapes unscathed.
With these two elements – the balanced look at nature, the insightful critique of industry – Goldner is keenly aware of what it means to be Australian. We are a country propped up by problematic history and extractive industries and our iconic nature is in an environmental collapse that is as shocking as it is accepted. This work dives deeply into two subjects to chart these themes, and does so with awareness and sympathy. It takes a lot to find a more mature middle ground in such heated topics and this work provides a substantial insight into our past and present without resorting to cliches or well-worn talking points.
Regardless of one’s knowledge of Australia’s history, regardless of what one knows about invasive species. Regardless of what an audience read about bushfires, drought, logging or forestry, Do Brumbies Dream in Red allows any reader a sympathetic look at what we harm and how we hurt what’s around us. Undercutting the whole work is the hardest emotion of them all: shame. This project is a call for many of us to see extreme death and tragedy as a product of what we’ve become and, in the face of that, who could possibly feel anything else?