Will and Anna Polak lost everything in the Black Saturday bushfires and spent years building their new home up from the rubble. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)
In any other home, the clutter lining Will and Anna Polak’s shelves would not be remarkable.
The Polaks built this house themselves from sustainable materials — they cut local hardwood for the floors, and most of the labour that went into its construction came from Will.
But behind the polished wood and the overflowing cupboards is a tragedy.
The Polaks’ previous Kinglake home was among more than 2,000 homes destroyed during the Black Saturday bushfires that swept through Victoria in 2009.
“I like the paradox of the bushfire house,” Will Polak said.
“That it’s fire-proof on the outside but full of wood on the inside.”
The family lost everything and spent years building their new home up from the rubble.
Ten years on, Mr Polak said the family of five now face a more mundane challenge.
“We went back to that same problem [we had before] of cupboards full of stuff or shed full of stuff and the constant need to clear out and take to the tip or take to the shop or get rid of stuff,” he said.
The Polak family built up their home from nothing after Black Saturday. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)
For Mr Polak, his family’s story is one that is relevant for everyone.
“It’s about how easy it is to accumulate stuff and how easy it is to get stuff,” he said.
“And how hard it is to get rid of it.”
After the fire
Kinglake was at the epicentre of the Black Saturday bushfires, one of the worst in Australia’s recorded history.
By the time it was over, 120 people in the Kinglake area were dead.
When the Polaks returned after the fire with their two children, they found an empty plot where their house once stood.
Their only possession was a rug they had loaned to a friend to soak in water and protect her children during the fire.
After some time in hospital, Mr Polak said he felt he couldn’t return to full-time work, and was forced to confront what he would do with his life.
“The only thing that made sense to me was to build a home that would outlast me and my family and that I could feel confident was safe for anybody who lived here thereafter,” he said.
It also was the start of returning to normal life — and accumulating clutter.
Books, kids’ toys, plastic containers — all the usual items of family life started to pile up in boxes inside the house and the garage.
Will Polak said his family’s story was about “how hard it is to get rid of stuff.” (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)
Their more mundane struggles came amidst other social hardships the fire left in Kinglake: trauma, loss and devastation.
“Getting more stuff began in the context of having absolutely nothing at all,” Mr Polak said.
“Even what we did have, we really needed to throw away.”
Although much of the Polak’s stuff is recycled or reclaimed, they say the hard part has always been throwing things away.
Kinglake does not have a hard rubbish collection; there are no charity shops nearby to drop unwanted items.
The Polak house was built with their own labour and using timber they cut themselves. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)
But Mr Polak said there are other reasons that have prevented them from decluttering.
“The hard part about getting rid of stuff isn’t the nostalgia,” he said.
“For me, it’s more the environmental impacts. It’s the way it might be useful one day.
“Every time I throw something away, I feel guilty about what resources I’ve used and what resources I’m putting back into the land that can’t be recycled.”
Professional organiser Natalie Morey often has to help clients cut down on their possessions.
She said decluttering a whole home can be overwhelming for most people, let alone those who have been through a traumatic natural disaster.
“I find most people just get so intimidated by that, they just don’t know what to do,” she said.
“So whenever we do a client’s home, we always break it down.
“And the first thing that we do is pick out those key areas that people are having issues with.”
Ms Morey said she advises clients like the Polaks to pick the problem room in their home and then break that decluttering down into small, achievable tasks.
And be aware what you bring into the home — everything has to earn its place.
“Chunk it down into small areas, one shelf at a time — don’t look at the entire space,” she said.
“Set the timer, give yourself ten minutes, and then start the cull.
“Get things grouped into categories, like items by like items, categories for donate, rubbish and keep.”
Letting go of the bookshelf
Outside temperatures on Black Saturday neared 50 degrees, and Mr Polak remembered an eerie, bluish vapor haze among the eucalypts outside the family’s front door.
His first sight of the fire was a puff of smoke.
“I was still thinking I was going to stay and defend,” Mr Polak said.
“I was filling up the gutters with water and I looked across the rest of the field and then a forest across the road and over the top of the trees in the fields on the other side, I could just see like a wall of fire.
“And then the world went black.”
Will Polak said he has realised the important things in his life. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)
As he rebuilt the family home, and watched it fill with stuff, Mr Polak said the hardest thing to abandon was his dream of a room with walls covered in books.
It was, in his mind, a place of relaxation, somewhere to sit and read and drop out of the stresses of the world.
He never had books in his childhood home — so immediately after the fire, he started to make that his reality.
“After the fires everybody offered us books,” Mr Polak said.
“Relief centres were full of books, so I scoured the books and found all the best.
“And I collected a number of large boxes and suitcases full of really awesome books.”
Will Polak had to downgrade his dream of having a room full of books. (ABC News: Danielle Bonica)
The books, however, sat in boxes in the shed for six years.
It prompted a realisation that is crucial for decluttering: letting go.
“I had to say to myself ‘No, I am no longer a person who needs to be surrounded by books,'” Mr Polak said.
“At that point, all of the books and all of the suitcases and all the boxes and a lot of the stuff off the shelf started to go.”
Ms Polak said it was a lesson the family learnt after the bushfires.
“It’s like you realise that the only important things… are each other and other people,” she said.
“The things that really matter is like your favourite dinner and your favourite days [with other people].
“And it comes down to the water and the air. It’s really all we need.”