I read a post the other day by Sue at Whispering Gums about Place in Australian Literature and it got me thinking. I grew up in cold, rugged Tasmania, with hills on every horizon, very few sweeping plains, and very little sunburnt countryside. The Tassie landscape has everything else, though — from the towering forests of the south-west and the chocolate soil of the north-east, to the barren, tundra-like central highlands. It’s a place where you can be the sole wanderer on one of its long, white beaches, beside an ocean as flat and blue as the sky overhead, and where, within the hour, that same surf can be crashing under a billowing, grey sky. And, how about the take-your-breath-away cold of its oceans!
I now live in Western Australia, and whenever I see photos or video of Tassie, I feel like I’m looking at pictures of a dear, departed relative – it’s so familiar and my heart starts to yearn…
It’s my father’s fault. He took us to the bush and the coast, where we camped and fished and swam. He preferred swimming in natural water bodies over chlorinated pools — the North Esk River at St Leonard’s, the Basin at the Cataract Gorge, and his favourite, the ocean on the east coast. The sky might have been grey and the tide straight from the Antarctic, but he’d be the first to strip off, run out, and dive into the wave just as its tip was starting to curl.
He took us fishing. He knew how to spot where they were biting, what type of fish they’d be, and the best bait with which to catch them. He knew the name of every fish species we ever caught—I don’t recall him not knowing one. After a while, we’d get bored with staring at our rods, and start chattering and mucking about on the shore. Dad would sit in silence, watching the river, patiently waiting for the fish.
‘Shshsh… I just saw one jump,’ he’d say, and we’d turn to the water and watch, hoping another one would leap.
Or he’d say, ‘Listen…’ and we’d strain our ears for the bird call he wanted us to hear, and he’d tell us what species of bird it was, and whistle back, imitating it. We’d wait, willing it to answer, and sometimes it would, and Dad would whistle again, and the bird and Dad would have a conversation.
Other times he’d stop us as we were walking and point out a track, or some dung, and tell us which animal had left it.
He knew ‘bush remedies’, like splitting the stem of a fern and rubbing its juice on bull ant bites so they didn’t swell or itch.
I thought he knew everything there was to know about the bush, the river, the ocean, the sky. He could read them as easily as reading a book. It came naturally to him because he’d grown up fishing and camping and swimming in these places. The knowledge given to him, he was passing on to us, not consciously and not through words, but by taking us there, giving us the experiences he’d had, showing us the beauty of the bush and the ocean, and how much it meant to him.
When we stayed at our shack on the east coast, he’d go flounder fishing of a night, on his own with his spotlight. He liked solitude. He was a quiet man, who kept most of his thoughts and opinions to himself, a do-er more than a talker. He never said much about how he felt about this country. Sometimes, we chatted about indigenous Australians. ‘We could learn a lot from them,’ he’d say. Another time, he said to me, ‘They (indigenous Australians) aren’t the only ones that feel a connection to this country, you know.’
At the time he said it, I thought, You have no right to say that, Dad. This is not our country. Yet, his comment has stayed with me ever since. He was saying he loved this country, too, and how connected to its landscape he felt. I know what he meant—I feel it, too, and the older I get, the stronger I feel it. Eight generations of my family are now buried in its soil, and each time I set a bare foot on it, I feel connected to them and to this land in a way that is quite spiritual. This is my home, the only one I’ve ever known. Whenever I go away, I miss its smell, its night sky, even the way the light falls. I feel an overwhelming sense of homecoming on my return. This soil and this land have fed me, it’s in my bones, and one day, my bones will go back to it.
But there is always an associated disquiet and unease. A sense that I have no right to feel this way—this is other people’s country, it’s not mine to feel connected to, I’m a foreigner and shouldn’t be here. I don’t even look like I belong here, with my pale, freckled skin. My sense of home and place is always tainted by the decisions of the past.
Sometimes, I think recent immigrants feel more at ease talking in glowing terms about their ‘adopted’ country than we who call ourselves Australians yet are not native to the country. At least, recent immigrants have requested permission to come here. (How I wish the English had done that in 1770!)
I hope this blog post is taken in the vein in which it is intended: I’m trying to convey the depth of connection that I feel towards this country in which I’ve grown up, but also the discomfit that goes along with that, knowing we’re here through stealth. I do not mean any disrespect towards the original custodians of this land—that’s the last thing I’d want to do.