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  • The Bug

Bug Spray Community Profile: Elly Bird (Vol 3 iss i)

Introducing Elly Bird for this issue’s Community Profile. Elly is the Director of the Woodford Folk Festival Welcome Ceremony, she has been working with fire in a ceremonial and performance context for more than 20 years and also directs the Fiery Finale of the Lismore Lantern Parade. She also has lived experience of disaster recovery and has a particular interest in disaster preparedness and community resilience. We are stoked to have her weigh in on some of the big questions. Let’s get to it!

Hey Elly, thanks for chatting with us! You’ve been involved with a Woodford for a while now, can you tell us what your role is at Woodford and how you’ve traditionally approached ceremony making there?

I’ve been involved with the festival for 20 years, I started my journey volunteering for the Fire Event in 1998.

I am now the director of the Welcome Ceremony which happens on the first day of the festival. I also direct the Fiery Finale of the Lismore Lantern Parade each June. We usually begin the Welcome Ceremony with traditional fire lighting, we then take that fire and use it throughout the show in a variety of ways, using hand held fire props, burning fire sculptures and using pyrotechnics. Fire is a critical element of my work, with its deep symbolism of transformation and renewal.

What was the feeling amongst the crew, organizers, stakeholders and Traditional Owners this year, and how did you adapt the ceremony to match?

We knew going into it that we needed to significantly reduce our use of fire, not just because of the risk but also because of the community trauma we are currently experiencing due to these massive bushfires and the huge numbers of people who are affected, both directly and as caring human beings witnessing such hardship.

Everyone felt the same way, we knew and understood how significant it was, and that we needed to limit our use. Our initial approach was to strip it right down to the traditional fire lighting and to using a very small number of fire torches, in a highly ceremonial, respectful and appropriate way. We went to significant effort to secure a fire permit from QFS for these elements which was granted, but then Moreton Council imposed their own ban and requested that the Festival not have any fire elements whatsoever, and WFF management chose to respect that request.

This meant we had to fully adapt to using no fire at all. I made the decision to shift our elemental focus to water. I replaced fire torches with jugs of water with lights in them, and I worked closely with the Jinibara traditional custodians to develop a ceremony that adapted the traditional fire lighting, we used a heap of fairy lights and made a whole lot of lanterns.

What was it like for you personally, as someone who works with and lives using fire in ceremony? Do you have any takeaway reflections from this year?

It was incredibly difficult for me personally, I have a deep relationship with fire it defines my work and I personally felt a lot of grief from not being able to use it. It’s not the fault of the element that things are so out of balance and I strongly believe we need to protect our relationship with fire as a nourishing, life giving, sacred and transformative element. We mustn’t demonise fire in itself. I wrote an introduction that explains where I got to with it all:

"Fire is Sacred. Fire Transforms.

Fire is life, fire is nourishment, sustenance and warmth.

Fire, like much of life, is out of balance.

So this year, together, instead of making more fire, let us tend to our fire within.

Let us cherish the sustenance and warmth we find in each other.

And let us find balance in community.”

What would you like to see other festivals and cultural events considering as we go forward learning to celebrate in new and different ways?

I haven’t given up on being able to use fire in ceremony. Yes at this time in these conditions we need to be careful, and perhaps this year we don’t use fire at all. But, I think it’s important to remember that all things can be managed with careful consideration of risk and sometimes we need to adapt rather than being totally reactive and banning something altogether. It is way too early to say we have to completely change our approach to using fire, and replace it completely at all festivals and events going forward. Culturally and spiritually we will lose too much if we do that. Human beings have an essential and intrinsic relationship to fire and I will not be an advocate for changing that, in fact I will continue to be a staunch protector of fire in its sacred form.

Anything else you’d like to include? Any community shoutouts?

Just a quick comment to readers that what we are seeing is Climate Change unfolding. We all need to get politically active and we need to build community resilience. If we don’t act now the impacts will be much greater than not being able to burn things at festivals!

Images courtesy Woodford Folk Festival: Marek Knappe, Peter Sawers Photography, Somefx, A Scott Media

1 Comment

Ariane Blanch
Ariane Blanch
Jan 24, 2020

Fire as a ritual element is also renewable if we choose the materials we burn appropriately. Many of the alternatives I've seen suggested involve the use of plastics, other consumer goods, and so on. One of the main changes I'd like to see in our use of fire is an honest appraisal of our resource use in the process, followed by plans for and a commitment to the ongoing replenishment of those resources. Our use of fire should be not just renewable in theory, but also in practice.

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