On the Ground

Perched in the front of a dinghy, or an old blue Hilux, my father travelled me through country.

Through the wetlands and rivers of the Top End, country merged his childhood with mine. From him I learnt to read stories clutched in the soft fold of the paperbark, or in the movements of fish turning on the tide. These are my favourite memories, set in liminal hours of electric rose bud dawns and sunsets washed in pink and red.

As I grew so did a desire for elsewhere. Unable to locate myself in popular culture I migrated south to find a place that fit. I spent chunks of my early twenties couch surfing the east coast and churned for years in Melbourne’s cold belly. Finishing uni I returned home to find Darwin on the precipice of a mining boom. When a chance work trip took me south to the desert, I finally found somewhere to belong.

Alice Springs was as far from my expectations as it is the ocean. On my second trip down, I rang my employer in Darwin and told them I wouldn’t be coming home. It was the beginning of a ten-year love affair with community and country. I spent much of it trying on tropes like old cowboy boots, wearing them in till they became my own. Now so much of myself is entangled here, it’s hard to stay, and even harder to leave.

Like many of my peers, I have a revolving door relationship to country that sits in stark contrast to that of the Arrernte people who have lived with this land forever. A friend, who owns a house and a business, starts looking at maps when the days and money get too dry. Others, farmers, went where the rain was regular and the land was still cheap. Despite it being cheaper to own than rent here, I sat on a deposit for years, watching housing prices fluctuate and the rental market get squeezed. I’m not sure what I fear more, being indebted to a bank or to a place.

We live in a reciprocal relationship with stories – weaving in and out of each other. Stories find their way out through people, as much as people find their way in through story. ‘The collective unconscious was put together at a series of truck stop meetings on a long highway across the plains of time’, writes Craig San Roque. We settlers embody stories of our ancestors in the form of cultural complexes. Here they rub up against the existing narratives, sometimes forming new ones in the process. Perhaps I carry the story of homelessness from the displacement of my ancestors into my own life.

In my darker moments I’m scared I only know how to be a coloniser, that I don’t have the story for anything else. The mythology of my Gaelic ancestors is marked by waves of occupation. This occupation has an unbroken lineage to the one I find myself within here. Well after the arrival of Christianity, poet philosophers continued to steward our myths across generations, carrying histories the safest way—in tongue and blood and bone. But without land to anchor our stories we are a people without marrow. What can be remembered – what thread will lead us home?

‘I watch the ancestors dance but they are not my ancestors’ writes Kim Mahood, observing ‘white Australians are becoming disenfranchised from any right to a deep sense of connection to country, the impulse towards the sacred which has always driven human beings to establish a sense of meaning and belonging.’ The impacts of this disconnection are catastrophic. Despite being one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, we continue to ride dark waves of coal and gas exports that break in the atmosphere and in our aquifers, and in violent clashes between anti-mining protesters and police.

We assert our claim to country by our right to exploit it, and the right to turn others away. On our northern shores another wave is breaking, boats of refugees smash up against border control. Climate and conflict are entwined. So many are without a home. Asylum seekers are greeted by a vicious form of nationalism. Perhaps as Alison Broinowski suggests, fear of invasion stems from our knowledge that we are living on stolen land. This fear is expensive – $9.6 billion spent on detention centers and border control in four years alone. The moral cost is incalculable, the impact of this on all of us remains unknown.

On the streets of Alice Springs, displacement is ever present. Our homeless levels soar above the national average as affordable housing grows scarce. Shelters and jails reach capacity, children wander the streets at night. Sleeping out is an offence and police are deployed to move people on. In the face of so much insecurity, my search for a home seems trivial. I eye my moving boxes with caution, grateful I am safe for now.

British mythologist Martin Shaw, suggests we learn ‘to labour under the related indebtedness to that stretch of Earth that you have not claimed, but has claimed you.’ Being of a place puts us in service to location, and gives us a context to navigate the ups and downs of remaining in one place. ‘To be of means to be in’ he writes ‘to have traded endless possibility for something specific.

But being claimed by a place as a coloniser is problematic – how does one belong to occupied land? San Roque suggests that the culture of the British is to canabilise. We consume other cultures, trying to absorb them into ourselves. In writing on climate change and Indigenous knowledge, Tony Birch warns white Australian’s against ‘going native’ as a way of healing our relationship to place. I’m scared of stealing someone else’s story, as much as I am of stealing land.

So what is the story I am telling, and where does it belong? Is there a way to weave these disparate threads together into a connection to place. Dislocation may well be one of the most prevailing narratives of our time. With so many more of us on the move than ever, is there a story that can teach us how to anchor our transience in place?

The heart is a way in. Wedged between outrage culture and vitriolic patriotism, I feel into a tender and problematic grief. The chasm of colonialism takes me into the heart of settler diaspora, where the holes in our psyche manifest in the landscape as fracking wells and open cut mines.

We need to remember a story that speaks to our disconnection with country and it’s custodians. The threads of this story are tenuous, worn thin by generations of dislocation. Across the world, love is emerging as a force for social change. It is love for country, fragile and fraught, that has drawn me back to Central Australia. It is love for country, that envelops me in the solidarity of the anti fracking campaign. This love gives me the courage to ask difficult questions of myself, my past and my people. It propels me through time and space searching for stories that can help us navigate out of the purgatory of amnesia, guilt and denial. Love demands we remember where and how we belong. I believe it’s true, what they said in Dakota ‘it is love that will save this place.’

It takes a long time of listening to country before you hear it call your name. After seven years I left Central Australia because I couldn’t find a future in this place. Despite my love and commitment to country, I still struggle to anchor myself.When the urge for elsewhere overcomes me, I go down to the river and ask the trees to teach me to put down roots. In this way I practice the art of arrival in the hope that one day, I’ll be able to stay.

Published in Imprint 2019, the NT Writers Center’s Annual Journal