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One of my favourite writers, Edmund Bunkse, wrote that we are where we fell to earth.(1) He went on to say that the landscape stays with us in ways that may or may not be clear. What we do about this sense may be important to our long-term inner peace. (2)
Where I fell to earth was in the NSW Blue Mountains bush. My family was poor- most people in the mountains in those days were poor, we were city dropouts, so between the lower slopes near Penrith and all the way Up the hills to Medlow Bath, apart from grand holiday homes for the rich, and Katoomba, a tourist spot, there were a string of tiny townships with only a few shops, a church or two and a pub or two. When the summer bush fires raged - and in those times there were some scorchers - our rain tanks were always low. It was the 1950s and funds for fire engines in insignificant towns were scant, especially for people on the fringes of those towns. My earliest memory is of my father beating back flames with a pitchfork and hessian bags, and shouting “Run” at me, while I stood transfixed with my dolls and not budging - but the wind changed direction just in time, and saved us. Every dusty road on the way to school had people camping in ex-military Nissen huts, which to my childish eyes looked like great fun, and in every street there were blackened houses, with little more than a stone fireplace to mark the lives that had been lived there. My father was an artist and a handyman, a street urchin from London who’d only survived because he was resourceful, and he’d feed the family by buying for next-to-nothing a stone fireplace and around it putting up a house, throwing up a house, he called it, in those days of looser council rules. We lived in some of those houses, and when it sold, we’d move to another shell. My family life was difficult – I had four older brothers - and two tragically died, one in an institution, locked away for autism. My mother in all this grief became floridly schizophrenic, a diagnosis which in those days, could mean almost anything, My father said she had “nerves”. It was the days before Medicare and my parents couldn’t afford treatment or medication – we went to the chemist instead, who had no potions for my mother’s nerves.
I lived two lives- one difficult life at home, and for the other, every afternoon after school until dinner and all the long school holidays, I wandered alone in the bush, which always invaded our backyards, or I read endless novels in warm armchairs of rocks. Parents would be considered lax if they let a girl be so unsupervised nowadays, but my family was distracted, and all their lives I was thought of as an indoor child. The bush became my family, my home, my continuous entertainment, and it was always benign. Perhaps I was just lucky, but in all those wanderings, I never came upon a human predator, let alone ticks, snakes or spiders - though I remember that my Dad was bitten by a red-back hiding in the woodpile, but he refused treatment because the local doctor was a woman, and what use is a doctor who’s a woman? It was those times.
Bush land is a delight, as any child knows. I’m not talking about seeing spectacular landscape, but living close to the earth, as only a country child can. If you pass over bush land rapidly, or treat it as spectacular, as a tourist does, you may not know why to a child with their senses out on sticks it’s a haven, full of sensory delights that stay with them always, along with a sense that there’s a vast, ancient mystery all around. A child like this becomes aware, in some inarticulate way, of being in space, a huge space. A child naturally just hangs around, and as such, you become aware of tactile delights; you could do a blindfold test, if someone wanted you to, of smells; damp earth, dry ferns, different types of eucalypt leaves revolving to face the sun. You learn the seasons by what’s in flower. You do a lot of waiting for sounds to be repeated, and you become aware that there are other living beings outside your ken who are also taking in the bush, with far more attuned senses than you have. If you were hungry and using that bushland as your pantry, you’d be even more alert. Gaston Bachelard’s idea of the ideal home is protected intimacy within immensity. (3) I felt enclosed in what must‘ve been at least a kilometre of bushland, but set in a vast immensity I’d unexpectedly come upon through a sudden clearing in the undergrowth, where blue distances would roll away into what seemed forever. My stomach would lurch with awe. But I’d soon duck back into my bushland home.
We moved to the city when I was 12, and on the cement footpaths and noisy streets I was without my identity, lost amongst strangers rushing by, suffused with a sense of danger and hopelessness. With no second home, I became mired in the sadness of my family. More, I mourned all my teen years for something that had felt solidly real. Bachelard muses about home becoming inscribed in the memory of one’s muscles, joints, and mind. I became spatially scattered in the city, with only vague memories of the bush But the silver lining is that all those years had prepared me for my life’s vocation.
Researchers have been studying creativity since the 1950’s, and the brain activities of creative thinking quickly became a key issue of cognitive science and then neuroscience. Debates, as in all the sciences, have raged; but certain things are generally agreed on, and one of them, defocussing the attention, has been found to be a common practice used intuitively by most creative people at some stage in the creative process. I think it’s very close to what I was unwittingly doing in my childhood as I mooned around fingering leaves.
The usual mode of thinking in western thought is task oriented, goal oriented, reality oriented, purposeful, abstract and logical. Anticipation is a keystone in our thinking- I’m quoting from the psychologist Christopher Stevens now:
“We are anticipatory beings, predicting outcomes and danger, ready to flee or fight. Our capacity to predict events is tied to our ability to survive. It’s difficult for us to court situations of uncertainty or impasse.” (4)
People pride themselves on task oriented thinking so much that they often neglect the sort of thinking I’m talking about, they may not even know that there is another sort of thinking, Defocussing the attention is a common neural process that’s done by us all in our off-guard moments. when we allow the mind to float, without anticipation or prediction, in other words, when we think purposelessly.: to deliberately cease the endless chatter of the mind and to still it, to put aside any self-criticism, and to allow previously unbidden, previously discarded thoughts and fragments of memory to enter the mind of their own accord. In this state, one loses one’s sense of purpose, one’s sense of judgment and self-criticism, one’s sense of self, one’s sense of place and time. Defocussing the attention achieves, according to multitudinous reports, inner peace, contentment, and some say, bliss. Many artists, writers and composers describe this state in odd ways: they say that they feel they’re channeling something, or they’re in touch with something inexplicable, or sometimes they report a sense of religious awe.
How does this connect with landscape ? Most of our normal environments, home, meeting places, and certainly work places, become imbued with a sense of self, a sense of achievement or worse, of tasks still looming and ominously not yet done. To me, the undone tasks hang like accusing ghosts on the wall. So, defocussing the attention there may be difficult. On the other hand, immersion in nature can allow us to defocus, if we’re wandering in it purposelessly - unless we’re there for a specific purpose, such as fighting it for a garden, or for chopping it down.
But digging in the soil as a gardener or spending long periods of time with a fishing line dangling in the water, or doing nothing at all, just hanging there, can defocus us so much that we become immersed, losing consciousness of the self, of self importance and public stature and more importantly, our inner chatter ceases, and we can find an absorption that can bring contentment- so that, in Bunkse’s words, the outer peace becomes our inner peace.
Rodger Ulrich speculates that during our evolution, specific landscapes such as bodies of water, higher areas, tall trees with canopies, trees with lower trunks may have been so central to our survival that natural selection favoured those who acquired positive responses to them. In other words, we are wired to love landscape. But, I thought, most of us know intuitively that being in open, natural spaces does us good. But I’m arguing more- I’m saying that being immersed in landscape can bring us a very special sort of peace.
After being a city girl for decades, I now live most of the time on a muddy creek off the Hawkesbury. I cannot rule that landscape. I can withdraw into my little house, of course, but even there it’s solar-powered, warmed exclusively by a log fire, our water is exclusively from our rain tanks, and the tides control our comings and goings to the point where we’ve become experts in the differences in the height of tide, down to two decimal points. Now I commonly talk about whether we can float the boat on, say, a .38 tide. But before I lived there I didn’t even know how many tides there are in a day ! - we’re surrounded by National Parks and wild animals and plants. The landscape, which is achingly beautiful, has to be respected, it’s not just a pretty picture out the window under my control. Respected, for I have to work with it, I cannot dominate it. In fact, it dominates me. If I put on the toaster and the washing machine simultaneously, the solar power crashes. If I daydream in the shower, we have no drinking water till it rains again.
But in Sydney we live in a city barely aware of our land. When I admitted to a Sydney audience my previous ignorance of the tides, I was sharing the stage with an indigenous writer, Melissa Lukashanko, who was astounded, as she said she often is, by how little whites know about their own country. We asked the audience of that harbourside city how many tides a day there are- and half of them didn’t know! Here in Canberra you’re much more justified if you don’t know!
I lived in the NT desert for a year and a half amongst a group of traditional aboriginal people, and as a westerner, became very aware of just how different they were than any group of people I had ever encountered. I explore this in my book, The Oldest Song in the World, in which my fictional heroine follows my journey, but she goes with an assumption that the black skinned people she encounters have inside them little white suburban, materialistic people longing to get out. She finds them not so. Were they different entirely because of their culture, or did their landscape also have an effect on them? Only a westerner could ask this question, of course- because for the traditional people, culture is integral to the landscape, so that, in my understanding, even their language and their kin rules which govern their society are believed to have been given to their particular stretch of land by the Ancestors at the time of the dreaming, thus, some believe that their language should only be learned on their land, not on other land – we don’t have that concept with our utterly transportable language, believing language belongs to its speakers, not to the land.
Despite living in the desert, my new novel was going to be about living on my muddy creek. I’d imagined Kate as a young girl growing up there. The landscape had entered her inner life, as it now has mine. I’ll read a little to you, so you know what I mean; she’s talking to her lover, who grew up with her:
“Remember how we never steer the boats on our river by north and south? When we take them out at night, only in summer is there enough light in the evenings to steer by. In autumn, winter and spring, we steer not by north and south, and not by the stars, for ambient city lights drowns them out, but by the shapes of mountains against the sky. Diana shows us that, remember, when I am six or seven, and you are thirteen or so. Diana shows us that this mountain is like a camel’s back, that one like breasts and, I secretly think, like her breasts, not the drooping, woebegone breasts of my mother. When I feel my way through the water in my boat, I don’t need eyes, it’s like feeling my own body under the sheet, as I sometimes do in the night when waking from a dream, yes, here’s my heart, yes, here’s my thigh. Because of Diana, the river is my body.” (5)
In the Northern Territory I was startled by the power of the landscape; there you are surrounded by a landscape that demands your attention. Red dust invades your house, your clothes, your skin, your dreams. You cannot walk outside the house, outside the community where you live for very long without endangering your life unless you’ve brought a bottle of water, a compass, and your wits, and taken account of exactly where you are.
In those first months, moved by the landscape and, I have to admit, by our Western need to chat-chat, I would sometimes comment to the indigenous people about the land. “Your land is beautiful,” I’d say. Silence would always follow. I began to realize that I was objectifying it, seeing landscape in my city way as a spectacular view outside a window, the way my tourist’s view of a cathedral might be greatly at odds with the view of its priests.
I was determined not to allow my novel to meander to that place, for I didn’t want to co-opt stories that weren’t mine to tell. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help myself from writing down impressions of the landscape, because for a writer, language seems woven into seeing.
When I came back to the city, I heard such tosh talked about remote communities that I had to break my resolve. In the eventual novel, I gave Kate, a tormented young woman, the impressions I’d written down.
At first, she hates the settlement, which she sees, as I first did, through city eyes- the rubbish, the material poverty, the grubbiness.
But slowly she sees for herself that the people and their immortal souls are literally grounded in their landscape. They love their land like we do, of course, except they believe that the land, full of their ancestors, loves them back. They greet their ancestors as they walk. Every couple of days, I went on bush trips with the locals. The local mythology began to make sense. Something unexpected was happening to me.- the landscape had me in its thrall. After a year, I was invited by the women to go with them to watch a men’s ceremony, and to camp out. I gave my experience of that night to Kate:
“I’d sat upright in my blanket, the better to see the silent mist. Ice had crackled in the folds. I’d picked up a sliver of ice. And then, I became aware that the ordinary world had a membrane across it, hovering above it like mist. On this particular dawn, the membrane broke apart. From under its tearing white tendrils a sound emerged, a sound like nothing I’d ever heard, like nothing I will ever hear again. The sound was singing. But who was singing?
The women were sleeping under their frosty blankets. And the men were sleeping off to my right, away off near the almost-hills. The singing came from somewhere else, over to my left, from where the sun would leap up any minute to stripe the sand with gold. I thought: it’s an echo from last night! A delayed echo! Then I reasoned it couldn’t be an echo, because there were no boulders or even trees to bounce an echo back to me – besides, it was too close, too immediate, too intimate. It wasn’t male singing, nor female singing. It was a chorus, a whole chorus of voices, yet not voices, the sound was somewhere between a hum and the whining of wind. But the morning was perfectly still; there was not a breath of wind, not the slightest breeze. There was just the rise and fall of a chorus of not-quite-human voices arising out of the dirt.
I tried to reason it through: this was an ancient people, ancient beyond the ken of my culture, a people who’d been performing this ceremony every year for tens and tens of thousands of years, the same songs, the same movements, the same words, all exactly the same. Everyone knew every detail of the ceremony, everyone knew how to instruct me: “You look this way, you look up, Kate, then you look this way” – even the watching audience was part of the dance, century after century.
I could only explain it this way: beneath my body was the red sand rippled with the prints of feet, the prints of bodies. The sand teemed with life and with death. It was crisscrossed with the footsteps, the bones, the spirits of this ancient people, their knowledge of each other, of their ancestors, of the animals they knew, and still commemorate. The very grit held their songs. Wrapped in my grey blanket, I’d been sleeping on the past, their bones, their stories, their ancient history with this ancient red earth, their songs. The very dust was rich with who they were.
All around me the old earth was singing, a rising and falling hymn to whom I did not know – a song that wasn’t quite music but was more than sound, a rising and falling like the sea, like a cloud, like the slow march of humanity, like the inevitable, majestic movement of a river.
These people and their ancestors had taught the old earth to sing, I reasoned. Or perhaps, this most ancient earth had taught them. (6)”
I’ll tell you the ending of the book– I don’t think it’ll spoil the story if you haven’t read it- in the last paragraph, the tormented Kate, who right through the story has been arguing in her head with her previous lover, says:
“That day, it was the colour of the earth that elated me: I walked between apricot-gold-russet-crimson-pink-mauve… As I walked, it was as if I’d never seen beauty, this or any other. The desert and its people had reached into new chambers of my heart and pushed them wide open….I sat for a minute, and then I lay down on the red earth and embraced it. When I got up, my sweaty skin… was dusted with red. I didn’t brush it off.
All this I started to tell you, all of this story. But then I stopped talking to you, because I needed to drop into silence. The desert was singing to me.” (7)
(1) Edmund Bunkse was quoting Peter Conrad, Where I Fell to Earth, Poseidon Press, USA, 1990, in Edmund Bunkse, Geography and the Art of Life, John Hopkins University Press, USA, 2004, p.16.
(2) Edmund Bunkse, ibid. I have drawn liberally from his insights on pages 13,29,45, 59, 60
(3) Gaston Bachelard, Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, 1969, quoted in Edmund Bunkse, Geography and the Art of Life (ibid)p. 84-110.
(4) Christopher Stevens, Straight and Crooked Paths to Insight, unpublished PhD thesis, quoted in Woolfe, Sue, The Mystery of the Cleaning Lady: a Writer Looks at Creativity and Neuroscience, UWA Press, Australia, 2007, p.92.
(5) Woolfe, Sue, The Oldest Song in the World, Harper Collins, Australia, 2013, p.73
(6) Ibid, p.313
(7) Ibid, p.388-389