Nourishing Terrains; or, Solstice
For Deborah Bird-Rose & for Kirli Saunders & for my Children
I find myself in unfamiliar territory; I’ve been here all my life.
At night the country is scented with pasture and drought.
How the air smells, when I pull into the river gravel of my drive and sight the pines and kill the engine and step from the car, is Here. Not merely that my day’s journey has ended but that I have arrived where I live. But that I am my self again.
Scent is a choir, more lyric after dark: it sings a silent forty-part motet. One senses place more at night because one is not distracted by seeing; one inhabits more of the genius loci at night because the air earth cools and its breath rises, replete with itself and what grows here and all it ever was. One stands in the night as in a spem in alium, in which run lapsed agriculture and carpentry and property development and basalt lying over sandstone; sometimes, like tonight, there’s the taint of fallen liquidambar leaves that want a rake; there is woodsmoke, domestic animals, sleeping children and distance.
In the scent of night, all that a place is and all it means, all that it has been and may yet be, the ‘marvelous and the murderous,’ as Seamus Heaney put it, seems to sing itself and want one in the song: all the Bowrals, the lives that ran and ended here; the marriages that swam and sank here; the rocks beneath the rocks and the soils on top; the massacres, the dispossession, that cleared the way for this self-satisfied and pleasing suburb among hills, which I now inhabit. The air smells of geology and the eros of erosion; it smells of the pain all change, all becoming, costs; it smells of garden plant and winter grass, and it’s rank with disenfranchisement and entitlement, and it’s bittersweet with the powerlessness and delight of children. In the air I taste the forests that prospered here, some of them still standing, and the creeks that run, most of them low just now, and the springs that rise, and the stars that fall; I overhear the lost tongues and the stolen generations and the orphaned and the lucky, the violated aspirations, and the resilience of the wisdom and belonging of first peoples, and the happy, largely blithe, aspirations of the second; I catch the pepper of the bracken fern and the sickly sweet of native raspberry; somewhere in what I inhale is the rumour of the nests of dollarbirds and the carcasses of baited rats, the night-breath of the cows and horses; and here, too, is a hint of the dry inlands the prevailing winds carry here—tonight with the suggestion of snow.
I step out into the scent of night, the world hereabouts in its many lives and tenses at once, and for an extended moment, I am here. Here, where I stand, is not only where but who.
I am, of course, far from all that’s here. The place is the story, and I am a syllable in its telling, and soon enough, in geologic time, I won’t be, and yet I never will not have been. So that, on another night in a century or two, when someone else stands here, or when an owl flies or a dog wakes, the memory of me will greet them, infinitesimal, in the odour, this olfactory music, of the night.
When I lived here the first time, it struck me each time I stepped out of the car that, having driven home from teaching or some poetry gig, that even though I’d travelled barely a hundred kilometres from Sydney, I was in another place, almost another time, entirely than the sandstone realms the city stands on, down along that shore. And so it is tonight.
Last month I moved back to live where my children live. I came back to breathe the same air my children breathe, to walk the same streets they walk and run the same rivers they run. I’ve returned to the town where, for seven years before my marriage ended, I lived with them: in Bowral, Gundungurra Country, along the Wingecarribee. For four years, I have turned up where they school and play sport, and I have kept houses for my children elsewhere. Fine places: Balmain, Newcastle, Picton, Kirribilli, and Picton a second time. But without the daily and intimate company of my little ones, I have felt unhearthed, unnourished, unselved.
It has been asked of me to fashion a life in exile from that arrangement of allegiances we called family, ‘we never really know before it ends’ (as James Galvin phrases it in ‘Depending on the Wind’). And I have failed; in this life I have not flourished.
And so, I’ve come back to landscape I knew and loved, and where I would have told you I belonged. I hadn’t realized how much less my sense of place meant to me than my sense of self, and how much of that sense of self had become my being a father to children I love. And I’m wondering now, while I piece that family together again as well as I can, if it’s possible to nourish the terrain of an anguished self, and of one’s children’s unsettled selves, by renewing a kinship with the more than merely human family of things, as Mary Oliver puts it, that surrounds one. I’m wondering if I can learn a way to become a place again, a place in which one’s remorse, one’s anguish and longing, one’s children’s plight, are merely other parts—each another azure kingfisher, another reed-warbler, another night heron, another night of rain, another swamp or Paddy’s River Gum, and each of these things as worthy of my care as what I carry in my head, and each of them as capable of healing me and mine.
Lived as a place, not just a story, lived as country, perhaps a life may become more habitable and happy.
Perhaps a place is a mind one can learn to share. Perhaps a place is a body one can inhabit and care for as if it were one’s family, one’s lover. One’s self.
For most of the human occupation of the earth, most cultures have sacralised the land, understood place as imbued with mystery, meaning, divinity, wisdom, lore. Before Descartes came along and defined a human being as a thinking mind and the Enlightenment demystified reality and rationalized nature and set us human beings apart from it—all cultures have shared an understanding of the world beyond the merely human as sentient and conscious, a Self from which we humans drew large parts of our identity; for most of human history, human beings have not merely occupied but been occupied by the country in which they lived.
Of all the cosmologies of belonging human cultures have known the Indigenous apprehension of country is perhaps the most lyrical and sophisticated. One feels, as a descendant of the disinheritors, an illness of ease speaking of Indigenous knowledge. I do so, humbly, and encouraged by Indigenous people I know, and from a sense that deep down, though it is unique, what Indigenous wisdom knows best and articulates more beautifully and has done for longer than any other, is what has been known and said in so many cultures.
The house I’ve moved to has been turned about face.
It’s a stucco place, put up I’d guess just before or after the second world war, just a kilometre out of town. A line of nine pines stands along Kangaloon out front. In its day, this was a small and unassuming house on a large Bowral block. Now it’s a small and unassuming Bowral house on a small Bowral block. I wonder who’s lived here. It has a family feel. At what is now the back door, there’s a bell that doesn’t ring, and inside, two hanging tubular bells of unequal length, which, if you flick your finger across them, make the archetypal two-tone chime of doorbells all across the western world. Inside the box from which the bells hang is a sheet of foxed paper, on which in deco typescript are the instructions for installing the ‘electric door chimes’. So this, clearly, was the front door.
The house next door stands only two metres away, and a hedge of those genetically modified firs they favour down here disguises a paling fence between the houses. Sometime in the 1990s the owner of my place clearly subdivided and made of the back door, which faces the pines on Kangaloon, the front.
And I feel like the house, turned around in mid-life, asked to face what I’d had my back to all these years.
I live inside a life, inside a culture, which has not placed value on, nor attributed intrinsic merit to, the more than merely human world in which one lives one’s life. I have not often, though I’ve tried, really felt at home among the trees, the birds, the rocks, the landforms, the watercourses, the weather, among which we human animals live and make our livings and make our way.
For Indigenous people, it is different, and it is well past time we asked them if they might help. They whose land we took. They whose languages, linguistic marvels, we called primitive, whose very occupation we denied, whose wisdom we disparaged. For Indigenous Australians, land is not acreage or real estate or visual catchment or vista or background. Land is life and law. Place is self. And where one lives and what one belongs to, and a fair bit of what one means, is ‘country’, and country is, as Deborah Bird-Rose put it, reprising Levinas, ‘nourishing terrain.’ ‘Country,’ she writes, is a place that gives and receives life. Not just imagined or represented, it is lived in and lived with… Country is a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life. Because of this richness, country is home, and peace; heart’s ease.’
In the middle of my years, dislocated from so much that held me, I long for that heart’s ease, for the nourishment of spirit, the certainty of self, such belonging entails—earned, in Indigenous ways of knowing, and in Celtic cosmologies and most other ways of being on earth since humans walked the earth, by fierce and tender attention to a place one inhabits as if it were one’s life. And I wonder if I’ve left it too late, or if it’s even possible for a white man of my age to pull it off.
I think I may have been lonely, as Tim Lilburn puts it, for where I am, for 56 years. And I wonder if I may not be alone, as it were, in my existential solitude.
I may have been born lonely. Or I may have learned it in the way my family, doing their best, brought me up; it may have been the way the culture that was mine knew nothing of the heart’s ease of places, and the ease it offered me did not work. Loneliness has dogged my days, and perhaps it’s my psychologist who needs to help me sort that out.
I wonder now, if it was not this aspect of my nature that led me to hope for a wider, wilder belonging in the land; is it some profound solitude in my nature that’s led me, though three works of prose and nearly all my poetry, to try to practise belonging in geography. Who can say? But a feeling is on me now in my middle years that my fellow Australians and I—those of us, I mean, who have grown up, as I have, inside the dominant culture here—have lived in radical disconnection from the mind and music of the way things run in the places of this continent. We have thought we knew ease here, but in truth, if we look at our lives honestly, ease is the one thing we have not known. I’m wondering, in other words, if the alienation I feel in my life, may not be mine alone, nor due merely to the troubles I’ve seen; I’m wondering if this is how it feels at a certain age, to dwell out of kinship with one’s country—to have sought belonging, family, connection in lots of places, in ideas and substances and relationships and books and callings and diversions—none of them the air that one breathes, the land as it lies this way and that, as Annie Dillard puts it in An American Childhood. None of them here.
The exile I feel may not be merely personal, but cultural.
The land does not love us yet, Judith Wright wrote somewhere. She meant us colonisers. And how could it, for love is earned, and consider how lovelessly, how savagely, with what a sense of entitlement, with what an exploitive cast of mind, we took the land from itself and from those whom it had tutored in a profound understanding of how, in its places, it prospers.
We have lived very largely in a worldview, not a world, which we imported and spray-painted across a continent and called it a civilization and imagined we belonged well enough inside it.
All my life, like most us, perhaps—we colonisers, we thieves, of others’ familiar terrains, we dwellers in social and economic and global cultural realms, we settlers and suburbanites—I have lived my life in places I have barely understood, country I have not known how to know. For seven years I lived in Katoomba and I researched in books and on horseback, in conversation and in solitude and on foot and in contemplation, and I wrote a book to sing that place, the Blue Plateau, and I would have told you till recently, I came to know that place quite well, and perhaps it came to know me; I would have said I was at my ease there and at home. But now, though I tried, I’m not so sure I was.
‘There is a practice of belonging,’ I wrote in The Blue Plateau, ‘and it begins with forgetfulness of self.’ I acknowledged even then that my own practice of that discipline of belonging was doomed—by comparison to the lives of the first people in whose mouths the language of the place ran and who tended it for a thousand generations, by comparison with some settlers like some I wrote of there, who, though they treated it rough, came to know its ways and to love it after their rough fashion—to be incomplete, conceptual, abstracted. I knew it in mind and hoped it had a word or two to say of me.
It is reasonably easy to forget the self a while, it turns out, and witness a place, when one’s self is moored safely in a home and cared for and wanted by those one shared that living with; one is barely forgetting one’s self at all. But when the self is harrowed, as mine has been these many past years, the self, though it seems uninhabitable, is almost impossible to shake at all. In fact, it becomes the entire world. One you’d give almost anything to abandon, to find again some sense of fellowship with the rest of creation, but cannot.
A friend, two years ago or so, trying to help, said to me: you are a man of places, and as long as I’ve known you, you’ve been living divorced from anywhere you love or know or are known. You are displaced, she said. How can anyone, in particular you, be happy without a home? If who you are is where you are and where you are is lost on you, how can you be anyone at all?
An east coast low blows the third week of June inland. After the hottest summer anyone can recall and the driest autumn, the days remember how to rain and the nights are the kind of cold winter is supposed be. Daffodils push up through the garden beds, spring released at last to anticipate its own coming, its way clearing, the moment winter rakes autumn away.
Tonight as rain fell on the tiled roof and the gas heater threw out its heat, I sat on the couch and reread a poem of Linda Gregg’s I’ve loved for years, long before I knew what it articulated, knowing I’d know in time. And now’s the time. ‘Adult,’ she calls it, as if she knew what Seamus Heaney meant when he wrote in Crediting Poetry: ‘Poetry can make an order… where we can at last grow up to that which we stored up as we grew.’ Gregg’s poem puts well what I have done, coming back to the Wingecarribee, and how that feels, the bewilderment of return, of advancing years, the losses, the burning back of youthful desire, the exile on home ground, as well as the accomplishments, many of them, so hard won, incidental now to one’s sense of what one’s life has meant:
I’ve come back to the country where I was happy
I could be the ghost of my own life returning
to places I lived best. Walking here and there,
nodding when I see something I cared for deeply.
Now I’m in my house listening to the owls calling
and wondering if slowly I will take on flesh again.
In the midst of loss that won’t stop leaving, grief that won’t stop grieving, but refuses to be said, is it possible the flesh you put on again is the body of the things around you, which you have to teach yourself all over again to regard, and which you apprehend, forcing yourself somewhat, as if for the first time?
Certainly this is where I was happy; certainly these are places I lived best. Certainly, I return to them changed—the places and the scents, the black cockatoos and king parrots, the ribbon gums and the Wingecarribee and its flood plain that I used to wander with my young, and the wood ducks and the spinebills all familiar, but one’s self a stranger to one’s self, to the life one used to live here with ease, a stranger yet to everything else that’s been here all along.
I am changed by the loss of the life I used to live here. Wonder, which was easy once, is hard work now.
I know, though, that the way outside myself is the way back to myself. To be lost to oneself is a chance to find oneself, changed, perhaps improved, in all that isn’t merely oneself.
A friend, grieving her own loss, sends me some words which she reads on the train. I know the book they come from almost word for word, and I know Rilke’s poetry well, too, and I forget daily the consolation I once found there. Sometimes it takes someone else who finds comfort in words one knows—sometimes in words one has written—and who suffers too and cares for one’s own sadness, to recall for you what you thought once you understood.
The words were written to Mr Kappus, a young poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke on 12 August 1904. ‘Consider whether these great sadnesses have not rather gone right through the centre of yourself? Whether much in you is not altered, whether you have not somewhere, at some point of your being, undergone a change while you were sad? Were it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys.’
A knowing further than our knowledge reaches—is that perhaps what country is?
Preparing a poetry workshop, I turn again to Anna Akhmatova. In her almost despair, she too reaches out into the world beyond the social, which, like the world within the heart, reprises the miracle of existence day by day no matter what.
Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold.
Death’s great black wing scrapes the air.
Misery gnaws to the bone.
Why then do we not despair?
By day, from the surrounding woods,
cherries carry summer into town;
at night the deep transparent skies
glitter with new galaxies.
And the miraculous comes so close
to the ruined, dirty houses—
something not known to anyone at all,
but wild in our breast for centuries.
It’s gratitude I need to practise, not happiness I need to seek. Or if happiness, then what happiness in its old sense means: acceptance of what happens, surrender to, even thankfulness for how things are. What I want is being. And what I need is to be more than merely myself. And in such a way of being I know I’ll find what meaning there is to find.
Life is a spell so exquisite everything conspires to break it, wrote Emily Dickinson. Meaning—letting yourself be again in the company of much that isn’t you—is the spell recast. The spell is recast when coherence resumes, when one wakes again, like the language in a poem, to all one is connected to (as Jane Hirshfield puts it), to all the rest of who you are. And much of it, that ecosystem of self, is the other forms of life, fast and slow, human and animal and tree and sky and river, without any of which that small and entire universe of Self would be less exquisite and less whole; and meaning includes one’s place among them, neither their author nor their arbiter, but their steward and their witness and their kin; and meaning, belonging, is the uncanny order and freedom all these forms of life, together, imply: the rightness, the ineluctability, the entirety. It is the Self just beyond our divining. It is not so much the forms, but what joins them. It is the space between. That is the Self. That is the nourishing terrain. And nothing is missing from it—not the past, nor the present, nor the ones you miss, nor the stolen, nor the dead.
And so tonight, changed, I walked out into a small piece of this country where I was happy. I got as far as my front porch, since the rain was coming down. I walked out there with Rilke’s mystical, practical thought in mind, that there is a real world beyond our usual capacities to divine, and that if we could enter into it, our sadness could be almost just another species of the miraculous; I walked out there with gratitude to my friend, a young poet; and I walked out there contemplating the night as the world in its other life, as a nourishing terrain hiding out in plain view; and I walked out there thinking that inside my breast and inside the country around me there is something not known, not even knowable, to me or anyone, a music, a miraculous integrity, the wonder that there should be this intricate something when there might be nothing at all; I walked out there hoping to catch a little of the lyric of the country, the music of the intelligence of things, a phrase or two of the miraculous in the suburban dark.
And what I found was the sooty owl, a woman in ecstasy or terror, and the last recalcitrant corella, refusing like me, despite the hour, to go to bed. And what came was the wind in among these nine pines I cannot yet name but am beginning to come to know, a sound like the stronger winds of morning remembered and transposed for nine trees at night. What came was a frog that swallowed, it seemed, the last lolly in the jar. What came was rain still falling, but almost as an afterthought, a quiet coda. What came was the water from my overgrown gutters dropping small change into the water tank by my study. What came was one car along the wet road and the leaves of the camellia beside the front door, wet yet and dark, throwing back inside the light the house threw out, and white buds clutching like prayers their coming season tight inside their green and biding all our time.
And what came was the fox. A shock of bright mischief, a shot of ingenuity and guile, a wayfinder, a flare in the dark, a small thing, a latecomer like me, both murderous and miraculous, and she quickened the quiet in me and in the night: she ran the slick a streetlamp spilled across the road and made off through the neighbour’s place toward the golf course out the back.
What came then was laughter, and with it, gratitude—notwithstanding all that’s unwell in the world and one or two things that are way too far from being right in me—for the chance to be for a moment all this and all that this implies.
Finding it hard to write inside today—circling this essay like a collie walking around and around its body to find the best shape, and the best place, to lie down in—I take myself and my laptop outside.
Half the lawn is moss, which thrives, and daffodils or freesias push up through it, and red-domed toadstools, poisonous and flagrant, break out along the drainage line. Two magpies on the grass make the glassy grace notes of the winter solstice. Their voices are what the midyear sunshine says. I hear the raffish riff of a butcherbird swell and fly off after second breakfast in the yard next door to mine. The sleeping liquidambar reaches its pale grey limbs over me, priesting me and ghosting me at once, where I sit at the stone table on the faded red linen chair. Above me in the middle storeys, a kookaburra plumps, slumped into its feathers for warmth, disappearing itself inside the morning light, the better to wait and prey, and the spiked plumage on his handsome head would make a Brazilian striker proud; on his wing a window opens on the blue. I’m guessing the boobook I heard last night laying down the two slow syllables of her name, take after take, has taken herself, well-fed, and happy with her two-note obbligato, to bed. The fox, too, high-couture terrorist, has probably wrought the kind of carnage overnight on local wildlife your average narcissist wreaks on commonsense and innocence in a phrase, and is out there near the seventh green sleeping the night off in her hide.
After five days, this east coast low, one of the cool moves June busts most years along this fetch of the Pacific, has spun itself like a dervish, or his laundry, dry, and the morning is temperate prayer. For five days, the second week of June lavished rain on us, rain that healer, as a friend puts it, rain in showers and squalls and cloudbursts that the country I’ve returned to—the parched ground, the desultory streams, the geebungs, the gardeners and the graziers and the spinebills and their kin—longed for all the dry summer and autumn long. And all that is not merely me seems relieved, the aquifers recharged, the reservoirs refreshed, the feathers of the birds, the orange of the fox’s coat, the leaves on the hakea, the rhododendron and the Bentham’s gums next door, washed and polished and replete.
For myself, I think it’s fire that I need. My mind, which is country too, could use a little smoking out, a little burning back. The country of my mind has lately lost the harmonies that held it safe and well and sure; trauma of the heart can do that to the mind. For the mind is organic, too—an animal, a complex terrain of chemistry and flesh. Trauma changes the way things run there; the country of the mind is unsettled; the mind narrows, Kyo Maclear writes, when it is given too much to bear. The mind remembers trauma. It carries on its work, but its chemistry is altered, the mechanics of its operations are compromised by too much strain. Damage has been done, as it is done to places, and for a time it is not itself. It heals, but sometimes slowly—again, like landscapes. It heals, but only with time and tending. And some of the tending is rain and some of it is fire, and much of it is hard work, and all of it is love.
I’m running on chemicals, where I used to run on love: paracetamol, diazepam, caffeine, nicotine. Each morning I swallow handfuls of vitamins in fear that if I stop taking them, I’ll feel even worse than I do. I’d do better if I ran more, if I walked, if I pulled more weights. One way to heal the mind is to get out of it more often.
I stopped writing, and I took the rake that’s lazed since I moved in, against the steps, and I raked all the leaves the liquidambar had dropped, a summer’s biomass, and made them a reluctant compost beneath the pines. It took me two hours, and when I finished it was dark. The raking ordered an unkemptness; it cleared away a spent season; it gave the grasses back to the light; it made a tidier kind of decay that might be useful to the garden plants. The work made me sweat, and it tired me, and it made me hungry, and later, when I’d eaten, the work, a domestication of the wild inside me and without, made me feel more fully human, too. It was, I guess, a small participation in the rest of who I am; it was a putting my mind back in my body and my body back in the lively world.
I’m not going to call this a crisis of midlife. I’m not going to mention the dark woods.
But I do find myself most days unconvinced by most of what I thought held me, and these days in my mid-fifties are, if I’m lucky, still only the middle of my life’s way. So I guess that’s a crisis, and I guess this is midlife. Many of us get to fall into a deep dysphoria over time. And I guess that’s what’s happened to me. We inhabit a contradiction, we conscious organisms: we wear bodies with use-by dates, but something else in us, we know and believe (as Spinoza put it), is eternal like the earth. Reconciling that contradiction is a hard act to keep up. It entails finding meaning, and some of us find it in music and some in poetry and some in love and some in religion and some in power and some in place. Indigenous folks find it in Country. Trauma can shake any of us from whatever certitudes held us. No theories will help you when that happens; the mind plunges, or you plunge out of the mind. And like Dante, you find yourself walking into a solitude so profound you feel all meaning, all connection, all sense of purpose, fall away. You might feel then a loneliness as old as the universe, older than any gods. And it may take a while to pass.
All literature in all languages has poems and tales that speak of this moment in a life: Buddha and Dante deal with it, Hildegard von Bingen and St John of the Cross, all the Persian mystics (Mirabai, Hafez, Rumi) and the Chinese Songs of Lament. Joseph Campbell maps it in his studies of the myths. One will be called to a place one feels one cannot survive, a place where living feels more like dying. One will be undone. And in time, with luck and courage and the help of the elders and one’s friends and the conspiracy of the other creatures of the earth, one may be remade. There is a kind of dying, Rumi writes, from which one returns plural. I’m hoping that’s what this is.
Here’s Greg Orr adopting the mood I’m trying to hold; writes a poetry that makes beauty out of grief, and he knows this dysphoric place as well as anyone:
Grief will come to you.
Grip and cling all you want.
It makes no difference.
Catastrophe? It’s just waiting to happen.
Loss? You can be certain of it.
Flow and swirl of the world.
Carried along as if by a dark current.
All you can do is keep swimming.
All you can do is keep singing.
I’m standing in the frost watching my daughter play soccer. It’s the day after the solstice, and it feels like it. It’s an early game, and the night was clear, and the sun is only barely out of bed. The watching is, I confess, sporadic: I’m standing here talking to Don. We’re talking about poetry and about the several species of silence, the slowness and contemplation poetry practises and teaches. We’re having the kind of conversation, while looking out for our children but not fussing over them, that makes the world, and one’s part in it, big again.
I’m nobody’s idea of a Catholic, though my children go to Catholic schools. I have been no friend of the Catholic Church. And I have my reasons.
My people are dissenters. I am proud of their dissent, and I carry it on: Methodists and Quakers and Congregationalists took a stand against pomp and cant, piety and privilege, and hierarchies and secret societies of all kinds (except, I guess, their own).
But there are some good Catholics, whose spirituality has survived their religion, and Don is one such man.
Done talking Mirabai and Hafez and Rumi and Jane Hirshfield and Robert Gray and Linda Gregg and our children’s colds and our loved ones’ troubles, we look up, and the kids have gone out to a 3-nil lead, which they hold till the end. Don asks me how my writing’s going, and I tell him about this essay and my struggle to find its shape. I talk about ‘nourishing terrains’. I tell him how I want to acknowledge, chiefly, the wisdom of Indigenous people we have till recently profaned, the idea of country, to which I’m trying to come home; I want to add, I tell him, that for most of human history a human life has taken as much meaning from its surroundings as from its thoughts and gods, that most cultures everywhere have, while they nonetheless raped the earth and raided each other’s villages and abused their children and stole each other’s lives, regarded the landscape with awe and have treated it with care and have invested it with divinity and have stewarded it in song and ritual and husbanded it with love.
And Don says ‘well, that’s been true in the Catholic Church as well, though the Church has spent a long time neglecting it. Don’t forget St Francis and The Canticle of the Creatures’.
Back in the day, when the children were little, I used to read that to the kids. We had an illustrated version, given to us by friends. Reading it reconciled me to a Catholicism I had a lot of trouble respecting.
‘The current Pope,’ says Don, ‘took his Papal name from Saint Francis. And in his Encyclical Laudato Si, which translates as Our Common Home, he says he did so because he saw St Francis as his guide and inspiration. This is a different kind of father of the church. And he does a pretty good job of reminding everyone—he addresses his letter to all beings—about a tradition of care for country, of spiritual ecology, that has run through the Church, though more often in the breach than the practice. And he calls on us, invoking St Francis, to take care for our common home, as he puts it. You should have a read of it.’
And so I find myself reading the first Papal Encyclical of my life. It’s long enough, and it’s beautiful, though spoken in a doctrinal idiom here and there, and it’s very clear. We are of the earth, it says; we are the earth; if anything is holy on the earth it is the earth itself. In our neglect and arrogance, Francis writes, we have damaged the only home we have to live in, this godly realm.
So it turns out the Pope isn’t just a Catholic; he’s a Christian, too. And more than that, he’s a spiritual heir to St Francis—a mystic and an ecological evangelist. But that’s only because, again like the saint (whose sacralising of the earth made him pretty unpopular in Rome), the pope has not lost his humanity, has not forgotten his kinship, all our kinship, with the earth.
He refers, in the Encyclical, to St Francis as ‘the example par excellence of care for the earth’. To live, as St Francis did, and as Pope Francis would have us live, in easygoing fellowship with the rest of creation is to live in joy, to belong and be glad of it. Belonging enjoins us to service—care for kin. As in a family. But such small domestic work, which is also the great work of our time, is also a fulfilment of self. To live at home with where we live, caring for the earth, is to be fully human. It is to live a canticle. It is to know each gesture of living as an enactment of creation. And to forget one’s belonging and to neglect one’s care for all beings, is to live a less than human life and to cause damage to creation and to one’s self.
‘This sister,’ writes the pope, meaning the earth, ‘now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her… We have come to see ourselves as … entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts … is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life. This is why the earth herself…is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor… We have forgotten that we ourselves are dust of the earth, our very bodies are made up of her elements, we breathe her air and we receive life and refreshment form her waters.’
The harm we enact on our children is the harm we enact on the earth; the care we take with our sister birds, our brother roos, our children streams, is the love we enact in our homes. We are broken, all of us, one way or another, the way the places are broken, and how we return to country—intimately, respectfully, joyfully, kindly—is how we return to ourselves. Coming home to our earth and ourselves entails also cleaning up the mess we’ve made, and redeem all humanity of a little of the harm we have done to first peoples and to other clans and to our children.
I carry my heart to the reservoir and walk the track between the ribbon gums and sheoaks, winter falling like a benediction, no guide but the place itself, and no need for one. This is a place I know. If you ever wondered what the ecstatic poets meant by the Beloved, by the energy that lifts mountains, by the friend, this is where you’ll find her, find him, this patch of ground that has transfigured all it’s suffered into perfect peace embodied, replete though it is with grief and dignified rage, into a prayer for how things are.
The reservoir, when they made it in the thirties, flooded ancestral lands, inundated sacred ground. It swamped a homeland with blithe and murderous disregard for the place itself, for the tenderness inherent here for those who had belonged to this place and tended it, since songs began. Of those people, who gathered here, perhaps in their hundreds—more, anyway, than the thousands who flock the Bong Bong Racetrack upstream today for the annual pie festival—there were 67 souls left in 1826, ten years after settlement came with its bullocks and its smallpox and its poisons and its guns; there were 46 Gundungurra left ten years later, the last time anyone bothered to take a count. But now there is a sign at the reservoir that reads Yangu ngani yaramarraranhur. Gulambanyan Gundungurra marrin uu manyan yadhungji—’The local Gundungurra people invite you to follow this track and learn more about their culture.’ The people who are this country survive the murder and the loss of it and stand and welcome all who would come—including descendants of the disinheritors like me—to country that survives. And the reservoir this morning feels like a nourishing terrain.
The reservoir made a river bend over into a recreational facility for the privileged, who never liked it much anyway, and so it lapsed, as if the place had a mind of its own, into a perfect habitat for birds pushed out by land clearance. There are people today, led by the Gundungurra, who care for this place, which has come back to itself, changed. I know what I have written above because of the signage the council has put up, signage that wasn’t there when I used to wander here in that good old life of mine. Before. It’s good to know there are people here who want the true story, the story of long, long care for country, the dispossession, the repossession, told. They want the remnant trees conserved. They pull the weeds the settlers brought. They look out for the birds—many of which share the winter stillness with me today: black swans, grebes and coots; purple swamphens and dusky moorhens; snapes, which dredge the shallows, and a pelican or two, a mob of black duck, a pair of currawongs, and two grey birds, Jacky Winters, I think, that overflew me fast as laughter.
Far more kin than I see, see me. I feel accompanied, welcomed, if warily; I feel briefly acknowledged, politely disregarded. The reservoir, too, it strikes me again—this shallow brown expanse, reeds rising from it like lazy battalions of forward slashes, fusillades of arrows that found their mark, bits of paddock poking through dense with blackberry and eucalypt and heath—the reservoir is an almost perfect picture of one’s soul. It is chaos made wise and coherent by the humble way it participates in eternity, by how well it welcomes contradiction and carries on, by how readily it yields when it must and forgives nearly everything, but refuses oblivion and never forgets a note or a footstep or even a single well or ill-chosen remark. In its resilience, it is what its first peoples were and remain; it is their country, their healing terrain; and because it teaches them compassion and transcendence, it might be one’s own country, too, a beloved quite out of one’s league but not out of one’s soul’s reach, a country itself that waits for you to be ready for it to nourish.