‘I love you,’ I whisper to the waterhole. When I wake up tomorrow, will it be gone?

<span>‘This summer I am learning to hold everything lightly. A beloved waterhole can be lost and recovered and lost again in the stretch of one week.’</span><span>Photograph: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP</span>
‘This summer I am learning to hold everything lightly. A beloved waterhole can be lost and recovered and lost again in the stretch of one week.’Photograph: Daniel Ochoa de Olza/AP

This summer, despite a shift to El Niño, my region – northern New South Wales – has been plagued by flood warnings. We are, of course, thankful it is not fire. Flooding here, especially in the warmer months, is normal, though nothing feels normal after the “one-in-one-hundred-year” flood in 2017 that swept away a cabin on my property, or the “one-in-one-thousand-year” flood in 2022 that submerged many of our low-lying townships and reduced much of our highlands, through landslips, to rubble.

Related: Before the floods I thought climate change wasn’t my problem. Now, I’m not waiting for someone else to fix it | Ella Buckland

Since then, the warning system app Hazards Near Me has been updated, and my phone now pings with flood warnings. It is hard to assess how seriously to take these pings when they are so frequent. If there is a flood warning, and it gets late, should I try to sleep or should I pace about in the pouring rain with a torch attempting to gauge the danger?

I have lived in the same home place for most of my life. In the before times, when floods were not “one-in-one-hundred” or (gulp) “one-in-one-thousand” all that would happen here is the creeks would rise and fall.

I live in the midlands, my house built high above a creek system that winds around the perimeter of the property. There is a spot in our forest garden where you can peer over the edge to look down at the waterhole. When it floods, the water turns dark red with mud and silt and the creek doubles or triples its ordinary size. It no longer flows gently downstream but rages.

My body’s alert system runs amok. I don’t know how to bring down my terror

As children we loved a flood as it flushed out the waterhole, rearranging it in subtle but welcome ways. Deeper here, shallower there. Once-slimy pebbles became clean underfoot. We could sense if rain was “flooding rain” by its tempo and duration; we didn’t need a warning system. We were never flooded in but, if the water rose over a particular rock, many of our school peers would be, especially those with causeways over low-lying driveways. Everyone was prepared for the downtime of floods: stocked cupboards and board games. No one I knew lost their home.

Things are different now. Two years ago the sound of the rain was like nothing we had ever heard. Overnight the roar of the creek became so thunderous it drowned out even the rain. In the dark I could no longer tell when the rain stopped or started. I lay awake, nostrils filled with the rising smell of mud, imagining landslides, imagining my house being washed away, imagining the trees in the forest around me falling.

But we were lucky. All this happened in neighbouring gullies, not ours. Landslides so monumental they took out whole houses and roads and forests. Bridges and power and communications were lost. We were trapped, not knowing if our loved ones were safe. Downstream our townships went under. While the devastation was broadcast to the country at large, we could not see anything. Cut off, surrounded by debris, we were alone with our fears.

Two years on each new flood warning fills me with dread. When it rains, I lie awake, watching the BoM’s mesmerising radar – stomach churning, adrenaline high. My body’s alert system runs amok. I don’t know how to bring down my terror. In northern NSW, flood-PTSD is rife.

In the 2017 one-in-one-hundred-year flood, we lost the waterhole below our house. The shape of the creek remained, the curving perimeter as graceful and wide as it had always been, but the pool was now shallow, filled with debris. This waterhole had seen me through a lot. Family tragedy – multiple losses, long-range grief. Staying in my home place, I had learned to cohabitate with the past, but I had done so while held by the forest, the creek system, the waterhole. These places had supported me, when everything else gave way. Steeped in memories and years of pleasure. Unaccountable hours of skin-to-skin contact. The waterhole was the most nourishing place I knew.

Flooding has become so frequent that the water course is endlessly shifting. It is hard to keep track. After every flood I go to check the waterhole to see what else has piled up. Once debris is caught, it tends to collect more, but, during this latest spate of flooding, the waterhole emptied out. In this summer of dread it was an unexpected miracle. Not everything that is destroyed remains so.

Related: I’ve moved back home to Lismore just in time for the third La Niña. The sound of rain brings dread | Kate Stroud

I take my granddaughter down to the waterhole for a swim. She is 18 months old, with a smattering of words. “Hi!” she says to the water when we arrive. “Hi!” she says to the rocks. She seems to see the waterhole as an entity, brimming with entities. Alive. When I wrap her in a towel and pick her up to leave, she calls out – “Bye!” – waving. She blows the waterhole a kiss.

This summer I am learning to hold everything lightly. A beloved waterhole can be lost and recovered and lost again in the stretch of one week. I make myself swim daily because tomorrow it might be gone. Lessons in impermanence. I listen to the tinkle and swish of the rapids, watch the feathery trees above, feel the stones beneath my feet. I’m trying to imprint the memory. “I love you,” I whisper to the waterhole. Submerged, I slide my hands through the water. There is nothing to grasp, it run through my fingers. I will never stop loving you, even when you no longer remain.

  • Jessie Cole is the author of four books, including the memoirs Staying and Desire, A Reckoning. Find more about her here