And the world itself has never looked quite right to me. But when I came here to Wicklow in Ireland twenty two years ago, I felt I had come to a place that had always existed in my imagination. That here I could somehow come to myself at last. Is that what home is? Finding in the outer world a place that coincides with an inner landscape? What makes a landscape? Is it the contours, the colours, the light, the rock, the things that grow upon it? What is the mysterious thing that touches us and says 'This is your place'?
As a descendent of immigrants from another, very different land, I’ve always felt as if I had a foot in two worlds and belonged to neither. This country is the only home I’ve ever known, I know its rhythms, its seasons, its beauty and its frustrations. But culturally, spiritually...this land remains a cipher, a mystery that I cannot take part in beyond a superficial level. This land has a people whose deep and abiding affinity with it has survived against all odds. But I am not of this people, and I cannot truly share in the knowledge they have. I can learn aspects of it out of intellectual curiosity, but I can never embed myself within their culture, I can never belong to it or learn its deepest secrets. I will always be an outsider.
As a child growing up, the stories I read, the cultural traditions I learned, the spiritual teachings I was given were all imported from somewhere else. They did not arise here, out of the soil of this country, in a symbiotic relationship between people and land. They rose out of a different landscape, they were the tales of my ancestors, stories that spoke to my soul, things I seemed to already know even as I was discovering them for the first time. Myths that made my heart sing...and ache. But they did not fit. There was a huge and impassable gulf between the land in the stories and the land beneath my feet.
Great stories, the ones that survive and are most loved, I believe are not created out of the aether, but rather they grow out of the land. They are embedded in it, linked inextricably to it. They have a sense of place and their role is to teach each new generation what that sense of place is. How to behave with respect for the land and its spirits (be they ancestors, or animal spirits...or faeries), how to belong, how to honour the earth beneath your feet in the place where you live so it will continue to sustain you, the place your ancestors have lived for generations. Stories like this hold vital lore. In oral societies it is the only way to pass down from generation to generation the important information that is vital for the survival of the community. Stories are the living library preserving knowledge of what plants are good to eat and when best to harvest them, or which leaves and flowers cure headaches or toothache or soothe a fever. When the animals that are hunted for food or fur will be on the move and what signs to look for. Everything you needed to know.
But what happens when these stories are cut from their roots and transported thousands of miles? Rather like cut flowers they live for a time, but deprived of the soil that sustained them, they eventually wilt and lose their vitality. They no longer speak secrets of the fields or forests they came from, but become something pretty and meaningless to put on the mantelpiece and nothing more. As a child I revelled in stories about faeries and bluebell forests, old magic oak trees and hedgerows, standing stones and King Arthur. But it was all abstract. I’d never seen a bluebell...or an oak tree...or standing stones. I had no idea what a hedgerow even was. And King Arthur was a name. There was nowhere I could go to see where he might actually fit into the landscape. I knew of Elderflower wine, but I didn’t know what an Elderflower was. And conversely, though I know there are many edible native plants, like most Australians I haven’t got a clue which ones they are. If I was lost in the bush, I wouldn’t know what I could eat and what I couldn’t. I have no LORE passed down about them. If you blindfolded me and waved a distillation of ‘the bush after rain’ under my nose it would make me hopelessly homesick. But if you said “what is that plant, what is that animal?” I probably cannot tell you. If you point to a wallaby, I can tell you it’s a wallaby. But I can’t tell you which particular kind, what it eats, or its habits. And, more than that, I cannot tell you its stories. I know quite a bit of folklore and mythological associations of animals like foxes, ravens, deer, wolves, cats, dogs, horses, cattle, bears, salmon...and so on. But I don’t know the stories of the wallaby, or the dugite, or the redback spider, or the pink and grey galah, or even the magpie (probably my favourite Australian bird). I can probably find out but they won’t be MY stories. Not the stories of my ancestors. They won’t belong to me and, perhaps even more important, I won’t belong to them. They might be in my head, but they won’t be deep in my bones.
As I grew up, I wanted to be many different things, but I suppose even more than an artist (which I took as a given), I wanted to write. I wanted to write stories like the ones I loved reading, the stories of oak trees and standing stones. But isn’t the first lesson of being a writer, ‘write what you know’? Every time a story bubbled its way into my brain, I’d be stymied before I even started because I didn’t know how to root it in a landscape I could only imagine. And the other possibility is even more fraught with danger. To take Australian indigenous stories and rework them could be considered ‘appropriation’ of the worst kind. How can I give my stories roots in this land when the traditions I grew up with don’t work here, and the ones that do I’m not permitted to use?
Many customs and traditions and folklore didn’t survive the journey across the oceans. The traditions of Easter and Christmas did arrive with my ancestors, but they’re empty of a great deal of meaning here, they are celebrated in seasons that make no sense. Easter is filled with bunnies and chocolate eggs and baby chickens...just as autumn is beginning to kick in. Christmas is celebrated with plastic pine trees, the original symbolism of an evergreen tree completely lost in a land where leaves don't fall even in autumn, let alone summer. I remember the excitement I felt as a child when spray-on fake snow appeared in the shops...we could make our windows look like something out of ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Dickens. Just like a REAL Christmas! Except of course our houses didn’t look right and it was too hot to even pretend it had snowed. It’s no use just swapping the seasons around, celebrating May Day in October for example. Our winter is short and mild...a pleasant respite from the harsh summer. I don’t feel at all like celebrating when it’s on the way out and summer is rushing headlong in. Yet spring brings with it a burst of colour as even the desert blooms, and summer is our harvest time. But again, it is harvest time for imported species. I don’t know what is fruiting among the native flora. Spring brings daffodils out, and in November every street nearby is awash with mauve as the jacarandas bloom. Summer here is cherries and peaches, apricots and grapes. These are my indicators of seasonal changes. Aliens to the land I live in. Nothing I know fits.
And yet I love this land deeply and I don’t know if I could ever live anywhere else. Perhaps for a while, but my heart would always be where the sun sets over the sea by white beaches, where the smell of eucalypt trees after rain is like a magical essence powerful enough to wake the dead. Where the first flush of green after the long, brown summer makes my heart sing. The smell of peppermint trees down by the Blackwood River, the utter beauty of Green’s Pool near Denmark. The sound of the dawn chorus...could I live without the sound of magpies warbling?
So what can I do? I want to find a way to live (and perhaps even have a go at writing) that roots my traditions, my ancestors’ stories, into this land so that they truly live and breathe and grow in this landscape, a way that harmonises with but does not in any way compromise the traditions of the people who have been here for more than forty thousand years. It’s got to be possible, somehow. Because I honestly believe that until we late-comers find a way to truly belong to this country, we will carry on misunderstanding it, exploiting it, destroying it, and denigrating its first people and their traditions. We need to create lore (rather than law) of this land in a way that roots us here, making us part of the intricate web that binds everything. Because until we do that we’ll only ever be visitors, temporary residents scratching the surface. We will never truly be home.