A place is not just a name; it has a feeling, a smell and a chorus. Ingeborg van Teeseling retells her first meeting with the once-unfamiliar Australian landscape.
Before I came to Australia, I had never experienced real nature. In Holland, all nature is man-made. In fact, without human intervention, most of the country would be under water and nonexistent. The Dutch have used their water, from the North Sea and myriad rivers, for centuries as a major defence in times of war. During the 1600s, when we were fighting the Eighty Years’ War of Independence against the Spanish, the Prince of Orange came up with the idea to flood the land as a protection against enemy troops. Later on, the same method was used to stop the armies of Louis XIV during the Franco-Dutch wars of the late 1700s.
The city I was born in was founded by the Romans, and a few years ago it celebrated its 2000-year existence. It too was nature-free. As a child we supplemented our pocket money by digging for Roman coins and artefacts and selling them to the local museum. My connection to my homeland is one that has to do with humans, not nature.
My upstairs neighbours in the city of Utrecht once opened up their ceiling to replace it, only to be bombarded by WWII guns which had been hidden there years earlier by members of the Dutch Resistance. In every building, street and tree you can hear the footsteps of people. They have defined the country, and nature, real nature, has been so thoroughly buried under layers of man-made history that it is all but forgotten.
My first confrontation with Australian nature was through sound.
Lying in bed in the morning and hearing the screeching of the cockatoos and the laughing of the kookaburras. In Holland, birds know their place. They sing quietly and blend into the background of the usually grey skies. Here, they were loud and coloured and big and in-your-face. Soon I realized that this was the way this country works: Nature overrides humans. It is bigger, more powerful and more there than in most European countries. The smell of the jasmine at night almost chokes you, the ozone in the ocean air instantly clears your sinuses and the chirping of the crickets in summer often counts more decibels than a freight train. People mow their lawns a lot, because they know that the Australian grass would otherwise take over their houses. One night I was in the country and for the first time experienced a proper night sky. It was enormous and multi-layered and strangely claustrophobic, like it was about to fall on top of me and crush the little ant I felt I had become.
Or, as Tim Winton writes in his new “landscape memoir” Island Home, in Australia “the night sky sucks at you,” it is “not the safe enclosing canopy it appears to be elsewhere.” In fact, humans feel a “twinge of terror,” because we get “an inkling” that we’re “a small part of a larger process.” “In an uncompromising landscape like ours, a person suddenly confronted with their essential smallness will often panic, become angry, disoriented, afraid,” Winton says, because we are very aware that this country is “not humanised, as other continents are.” We don’t run this place, this place runs us. That is something newbies like me, migrants, refugees, long-time visitors, need to come to terms with before we can really belong here. We have to allow the land to become part of us before we can become part of it, and that is not an easy or painless task.
From the start of white occupation of this land, it is this predicament that has confused most new arrivals. The British started planting cold weather crops and roses and got angry when they shrivelled and died. They sent discoverers into the bush to look for mythical in-land seas and found them dry, barren and hiding. Settlers and convicts renamed geographical features according to their emotional response to them: Hell Hole Creek in Queensland, Foul Bay in South Australia, Useless Loop in Western Australia and Never Never Creek in Tasmania (although that was next door to Promised Land). Lexicographer Jay Arthur once wrote that for many decades, and maybe even still, new Australians regarded this land as a Default Country, a place where nothing behaved the way it should. Here trees lost their bark instead of their leaves, rivers ran underground and lakes were “unnatural.” Only when colonists started to literally “break” the land, did it become (in their view) more acceptable and less dysfunctional.
Our national myth became that of the bushman, fighting and taming the land, and his female counterpart, the drover’s wife, who kills a snake to protect her four children. Winton rightfully says that Europeans saw Australia “through the lens of their own hemisphere,” and that it “offended them” because “it seemed deranged and perverse.” Their solution, like the bushman and the drover’s wife, was to adopt an “attitude to the land has been almost exclusively warlike,” aimed at “subjugation.” Over time, we added a new problem to our relationship with the land: Our realisation that we had stolen it from Aboriginal people. That it was not terra nullius and never had been. This made our connection to it fraught with guilt, shame and insecurity and made us ask the question whether we had the right to love something that we had taken by force. It was an important query, because despite our fear of it, we had started to love it regardless. In fact, as Winton writes, this “land is carried within, as a genetic connection.” It’s kith and kin, family, something that we feel we belong to and that belongs to us.
Belonging has been a major topic in the HSC for many years now, and that is not for nothing. We have started to realise, as social researcher Hugh Mackay once said, that land “symbolises deeply embedded cultural values.” From your primary school playground to Kokoda, “places have shaped our attitudes, our values and our vision of what might be possible for us.” They give us that fabled sense of belonging, to a community and to ourselves. They are “tribal grounds” and from them we understand something about morality: “Only when we feel connected to others , do we seem willing to accept some responsibility for their wellbeing,” Mackay wrote, and this makes our bond with a place almost the most important asset we have. Without it, we are drifters, unmoored from not only the world around us, but from humanity in general and our humanity in particular. Ask refugees and new migrants what that feels like: Like you don’t exist and don’t matter. It is thoroughly undermining and unsettling.
In the late 1990s, the Republican Movement asked some Australian writers to come up with a new preamble for our Constitution. Without exception they wrote about the land. Tom Keneally said that “Australia is a continent of immense extent and unique in the world, demanding as our homeland our respect, devotion and wise management.” Delia Falconer inscribed it with “special status as an island continent, generous in expanse and heart, linked and looking outward to the ocean.” Historian Mark McKenna rightfully concluded from the writers’ contributions that this showed that “Australians being owned in spirit by the land,” and that this was fairly unique, seeing that most countries’ preambles talked more about political or legal matters than “the poetics of place.” Although the land still frightens us with floods, bush fires and drought, ours is also one of the only national anthems that focuses on our “golden soil”: “our home is girt by sea” and “abounds in nature’s gifts, of beauty rich and rare,” with “boundless plains to share.” It is a very different anthem from the one popular at the moment, the French Marseillaise, which implores its citizens to “grab your weapons” so “blood water our fields.” Australia, we seem to agree on, is not necessarily a country to kill and die for, but a homeland to love and celebrate.
After ten years here even I am starting to agree. It took me a while to shape my body, soul and mind to the continent, but I am getting there. A few weeks ago I was in New Zealand. Great country, nice people, much better organised and in possession of hundreds of shades of green. After two days, though, I missed Australia’s roughness. The screeching of the birds, the enormous spiders at my backdoor, the python in the tree at our suburban creek. When I opened the door at the airport in Sydney, it was 44 degrees and throbbing. And suddenly I felt at home.