Imaginative Possession: Learning to live in the Antipodes
by Belinda Probert
Published August 2021
For a slim and mostly mild-mannered book, Belinda Probert’s Imaginative Possession provokes a multitude of thoughts and feelings. As I read it, I had an urge to talk back to Probert – to offer counter-views if not, exactly, to argue with her. But I also wanted to let the narrative wash over me, to enjoy its simple pleasures. In the end, I did some of each.
Imaginative Possession is a memoir of migration. Probert came to Australia from England in the mid-1970s, living first in Perth, to work in higher education. But this is not the story of her professional achievements, nor an examination of the sorry state of the university sector. Neither is it a family story, although Probert outlines the familial origins of her devotion to gardening; and discloses that one of her adult children embraces Australia while another prefers the US.
Instead, this memoir is about a self-aware immigrant’s slow adjustment to an unfamiliar place – a place she does not, when she arrives, own in any sense. At first, Probert is ill at ease in Australian landscapes and cityscapes: the ‘new soils, new climate, new light’, the wildlife and wildfires, the sheer size of it. Her story is one of dislocation – of no longer living in England, of confronting a non-European land of raucous, aggressive birds. Whether crossing the Nullabor, comparing the soil in Melbourne and Perth, or confronting the dizzying complexity of trying to identify species of eucalypts, Probert makes everything she sees and does part of her mission to adapt – to know where she is.
It is a mild malaise, and Probert does not suggest otherwise: ‘my vague sense of unease’ is what she calls it. There is nothing in this migrant story to compare with, say, the calamitous tale of exploitation and hardship Rosa R. Cappiello tells in Oh Lucky Country (1981), a novel about a young woman arriving in Sydney from Italy in the 1970s. My point is not to criticise Probert for not having grittier or grimier details to disclose, but to note that every migrant story, whether told in public or not, is different.
Most especially, Imaginative Possession is the story of Probert’s act of ‘making a garden’ – not merely ‘doing some gardening’ – as a way of attempting to belong. For Probert, gardening is a personal act that expresses her individual aesthetic, and it is also about her understanding local soils and climate, and about understanding where she is (and where she no longer is). At times, it seems Probert wants to distill all parts her life – what she knows and does not know – into the idea of making a garden: ‘the idea that the garden can provide us with an education – not just about how to grow plants – is particularly appealing to me’. She sets out to know ‘one small bit of the country … to help with my feelings of unease about the Australian landscape’. To do this, she buys a 28-acre property south-east of Deans Marsh in rural Victoria: ‘a house of indeterminate age but with good bones, and a large garden sloping down behind the house towards a paddock’. Here, she plans to make her garden over the previous owner’s effort.
Probert’s conversational prose is at its most lively and supple when she describes the house, garden and property as it was when she bought it – exotic plants that were ‘exotically distributed’ – and that her work subsequently made. She captures the grunt, care and thought that went into planning and making her country garden, and the force of purpose required. Her mini-portraits of various plants and animals are functional: Probert has information she wants to share about cows that are decorative and make good eating, about the joy of successfully farming yabbies, about snakes caught in nets and up trees. And so she shares it with us.
Probert has written a memoir not only of making a garden but of reading and thinking. She takes the phrase ‘imaginative possessions’ from George Seddon – who was, according to David Oldroyd’s 2007 obituary, ‘a student of English literature, philosopher, geoscientist, historian, linguist, and above all a man of aesthetic sensibility’– plus interests in ‘gardening, botany and photography’. Probert quotes Seddon, who argued in Landprints: Reflections on Place and Language (1997) that:
The enduring form of possession is imaginative possession, which is fed by knowledge, understanding, associations, stories and images, affections and, finally incorporation of the environment into the self, until it becomes part of our sense of personal identity.
As Probert puts it, Seddon’s writing provided her, as a new arrival, with ‘a rich, multi-disciplinary framework for thinking about how and why Australia’s immigrants have been unable to fully grasp the peculiarities of the continent’.
Seddon is just the start. Probert, she says, needed help from other writers and writing, both fiction and non-fiction, that might help her understand her immigrant sensitivies. Mostly these writers are Australian – Jill Ker Conway, Eric Rolls, Don Watson, Bruce Pascoe, Bill Gammage and other luminaries. But Probert also draws on US writer Michael Pollan’s musings on gardening and learning, on the garden as a place, and on what Pollan calls ‘the troubled borders between nature and culture’.
At one point, Probert confesses her puzzlement ‘that so much of the landscape writing that has helped me is written by men’. While she does not dig deep to try to understand why this might be so, neither does she adopt other writers’ ideas uncritically even as she uses them to self-educate. For example, she engages with Tim Winton in complicated, even tense, fashion. In his essay ‘The Island Seen and Felt’, abridged from his non-fiction book Island Home (2017), Winton says that ‘[i]n a disembodied era of digital technology and franchise culture there are periods when even an Australian at home can feel he or she might be anyplace, or perhaps no place at all. But wildness soon intervenes to disabuse us’. Winton’s observation resonates with Probert ‘because I think our geography wears and pushes more than most’. She is ‘inclined’ – not a ringing endorsement – to accept Winton’s proposition about the relentlessness of the Australian landscape. But later, she finds his language ‘discomforting’ as he makes a plea for reverence towards ecoystems. She understands Winton’s intent, but asks, ‘is there a masculinist eco-warrior lurking here?’
Probert’s attempt to reckon with Indigenous dispossession and ongoing structural disadvantage is not Imaginative Possession’s central project, but it is its essential foundation: ‘I want to understand the landscapes through which I drive, with all their history of dispossession, clearing and felling and grazing and plating, as well as remnant “nature”’.
Probert quotes Saskia Beudel, who recognises the difficulty of ‘writing from within a settler culture such as Australia’s, where the question of dispossession is still pressing and unsettling’. Beudel’s comment is more profound and personal when restored to its original context. In her fine memoir, A Country in Mind (2013) – including the brilliant opening chapter, in which Beudel is lost, cold and wet in a gorge in the MacDonnell Ranges – she writes with intensity about her father’s boyhood experiences in wartime and decolonising Indonesia: ‘His displacement was the rightful return of the Indonesians’ homeland’. Beudel does not, she says, wish to write about her father in a redemptive or recuperative way, especially when she is writing ‘from within a settler culture’.
Probert leans particularly on Peter Read to come to grips with belonging and dispossession. Read’s book Belonging: Australians, Place and Aboriginal Ownership (2000) canvasses multiple non-Indigenous views on this question. Probert appeciates Read’s work for the wide range of perspectives it collects and considers. According to Probert, ‘You are almost bound to find someone in these pages with whom to agree, or who crystallises a feeling for you, or someone with whom to disagree.’ For Probert, there is no simple ‘Australian’ – no simple ‘us’. I agree with this sentiment and this reality. And yet a simple Australia – an unequal Australia – persists.
Probert states that ‘many more recent immigrants see no connection between their pasts and the historic acts of dispossession, looking to belong in what they see as an intrinsically multi-cultural society’. For her part, she endorses the Uluru Statement of the Heart. And she favours Ghassan Hage’s description of a belonging that neither, as Hage puts it, ‘pits the belonging of the colonised against that of the coloniser while conserving colonialism’s either/or logic’ nor ‘prematurely sees colonial culture as something superceded’. In turn, Probert draws on Canadian historian and former politician Michael Ignatieff, who writes about the need for nations to provide ‘security and civility’ to citizens.
None of this overcomes the complications of ongoing occupation. But as a non-Indigenous person, I have no interest in judging other non-Indigenous people – Probert, Beudel, Ghassan, Read – who make considered and genuine attempts to reckon with how they fit in the unceded place now called Australia. The question of belonging is not an equation with a solution. Probert is right to recognise the multiplicity of views and to emphasise the personal. But meanwhile, First Nations people continue to face structural disadvantage and continue to be judged and punished as if they are the makers of that disadvantage. Meanwhile, racism is in fashion. And meanwhile, we are living in an era of extraordinarily rich and diverse work by First Nations writers, from Alexis Wright – give that woman a Nobel Prize – to Ali Cobby Eckermann, from Melissa Lucashenko to Kim Scott, from Tony Birch to Natalie Harkin, and many more. Even if claiming to ‘listen’ is fast becoming a line trotted out for self-comfort, listening is essential to any attempt to belong.
Throughout Imaginative Possession, Probert’s focus is on herself, on the ways she has lived in and learned to work with patches of land. How does she belong or not belong? How has the answer shifted over time, and what concrete steps has she made to provoke this change? In turn, I feel the weight of the questions she implicitly but forcefully asks me to ask myself: how do I belong or not belong? How do I see Australia or not see Australia?
Probert gives impossibly big and broad questions a usable, necessarily narrow focus by asking these questions through the perspective of one person as migrant gardener. But which part of the personal should I adopt? My background? Unlike Probert, I was born in Australia, in Adelaide, on Kaurna land. I arrived with my new and present family wrapped in a blue-for-boy blanket when I was aged six weeks – the adoption paperwork followed later. I grew up in a different culture to that of my birth parents, one of whom was not Australian. Can I fashion a sense of belonging from these formative facts? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Or should the personal for me be about where I live now? Five decades after I was born in the suburb of Hove, I have fled the flat dry hot Adelaide plain by taking a three-minute drive up Old Belair Road. My suburb has street names like Sherwood Drive, Nottingham Way and Little John Street (I am yet to come across Maid Marion Boulevard). My mortgaged house sits half-way down, or up, a hill. I am reasonably sure that the magnificent gum tree beside my bedroom window will one day crush the house. We welcome koalas, chatty magpies, kookaburras, an occasional lost kangaroo; we endure foxes, the neighbour’s cat and an army of possums. Some days I walk to, and through, a nearby national park. Other days I follow Minno Creek past the eucalypt-lined footy oval to an abandoned experimental orchard (over 4000 varieties of fruit trees, according to a 1927 census). Or I tack up to the main road, called Main Road, home to four supermarkets. Do I ‘belong’ because I feel at home and at peace here?
Or should the personal for me be the Hay Plain, about which I know nothing except that it entranced me when I drove across it in 2019? The beauty of its moonscape, the way the car hugged the bitumen but somehow hovered in space, the sheer dominance and variety of the roadkill. Or should the personal for me be reading J.M. Coetzee and deciding – on scant evidence, on intuition, on wishful thinking – that the three novels that comprise his Jesus trilogy are Adelaide novels?
Probert says that ‘I don’t think it is realistic to try to imaginatively possess the whole continent.’ I do not want to possess Australia, imaginatively or otherwards. Keeping up with my mortgage is hard enough. But I do want to belong, whatever that means in my discomforted way. And if I am going to rely on my imagination, why not imagine it all? Why must the imagination be realistic? I think of the charged uncertainty captured in Ali Cobby Eckermann’s poem ‘Australantis’, which begins:
there’s a whole ocean filled with sand
between what was and what will be
Probert quotes Tim Winton, who says that ‘Australia is still a place where there is more landscape than culture’. To the extent that I understand what Winton means, I disagree. In my view, the author of Cloudstreet has a bigger inner world than the landscape around him when he surveys all that he can see. Kim Mahood, who Probert uses approvingly, uses the mapping term PD – position doubtful – ‘as a metaphor for the way in which white Australians move through and occupy the country, especially the less accessible parts of it’. I like this metaphor not just for the bush, but for cities and towns, for dairy farms and uranium mines, for Probert’s garden.
At one point, Probert says ‘I have thought about a reading list that could be handed to every new Australian, along with their certificate of citizenship’. She is only half-serious, I think, I hope, even though she comes back to it several times.
Such a list would be a bad idea, not least because books and ideas should not be prescribed like medicine (I’m still recovering from enduring F. Scott Fitzgerald at high school). And yet, while I have been writing this essay, I have been unable to resist the temptation to start compiling my own list:
- all of Alexis Wright’s books
- Mem Fox and Judy Horacek’s Green Sheep: so much better than Possum Magic
- Graham Yallop’s Lambs to the Slaughter: a spectacularly grumpy book by the captain of the men’s Ashes team for the 1978–79 Ashes series, which England won 5–1
- David Malouf’s An Imaginary Life, a novel about a Roman poet in exile that is really about Australia.
I could go on adding to this list. But I won’t. It’s personal.
Saskia Beudel, A Country in Mind: Memoir with landscape, UWA Publishing, 2013.
Ali Cobby Eckermann, ‘Australantis’, Inside my Mother, Giramondo, 2015.
Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful, Scribe, 2016.
Michael Pollan, Second Nature: A gardener’s education, Bloomsbury, (1996) 2002.