The Realisation has been growing for years. Small hints, intimations, never enough evidence or narrative to define it, describe it – driving along a coast road; running a hand over a ghost gum’s smooth bark; watching a Coorong pelican lifting from its river-flushed waters. And at some point it becomes clear; I understand (as much as one can).
I’m driving with my family at night, along the N67, a narrow road through the west of Ireland, through County Clare, through small villages, past roadside shrines (‘Holy Mary Pray for Us’), crumbling castles, hedgerows. It’s late – eleven, midnight, I can’t remember – we’ve just left Ballyvaughn, and we’re trying to get to our rental cottage. Low, grey cloud; light rain, the occasional house glowing in the mist. And the feeling that, somehow, we’re not alone. Not that I’m religious, or even remotely spiritual (a writer and science teacher); that I believe in ghosts, life after death, Christ, any of this. But the Realisation begins, and persists.
What do I mean? Here I am, lying awake at three am (the insomnia that started when I was a kid). The window’s open, and the gully breezes from the Torrens River (although it’s a creek, although it’s dry anyway) lift the curtains, cool the room, provide white noise for a few of the minutes, the hours, the lifetime I’ve laid awake. As I realise that none of this is about me. This room, this house, this street: nothing. Whatever claim I have on the balance of the natural world, has long gone.
I imagine a Kaurna man running along the dry creek bed, pushing down the native reeds (Phragmites australis), jumping over smooth pebbles and larger stones washed into rivulets, a foot sinking into mud, cut by broken glass from the newly-arrived orchardists. He stops to check the bleeding, rinse the blood in a brackish pool, before continuing. I hear him breathing, see his red eyes, wonder why he’s running. He slams into a paperbark (Leptospermum spp.), but keeps going. Stops, again, to look into the sky, chart the progress of a low-flying egret, but he isn’t distracted from whatever he’s running away from, or towards.
But I’m jumping the gun. Here I am in Ireland. Maybe it’s one in the morning, but I’m determined to get us to our cottage. The old roads, Galway Bay, Atlantic gulls flocking over the Aran Islands – a landscape I know nothing about. We start up ‘the Corkscrew’: two miles of steep-sided, blind-cornered road that shouldn’t be tried at night (especially after a day’s driving from Dublin). The kids in the back, peering over the edge, as we read tomorrow’s headline in the Burren Junction and realise it’s about us. But eventually we emerge – a long, straight stretch, past sleeping kestrels and gulls, bats and butterflies, the pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria Euphrosyne) and brown hairstreak (Thecla betulae) – names as poetic as the land is ancient.
But always, the Realisation. This is not my world. This is not Coles and carparks, Westfields and Rundle Mall. Nothing to buy here. Just the uplands, covered in pine and yew trees. The smoke from Neolithic camps (c. 4,000 BCE). These slow, short people saying prayers and singing songs to gods we know nothing about. But living in, and as part of, nature. Building stone walls, as the first stirrings of ownership begin; mourning their dead with megaliths that still stand as lonely reminders that I. Was. Here.
And this is what I hear, lying in bed in Adelaide – ghosts. This is what I want to write about. The thousands of generations of people (the thirty who have lived for each of us still living) who came before us, who had a relationship with the natural world that we risk losing. I hear the Kaurna people (and see one, still running), living along the Torrens, fishing (yabbies, mussels, native fish), hunting, weaving myth from landscape, becoming landscape (the last few ponds of February, soaking into the creek beds). Maybe two, three thousand people (before Governor John Hindmarsh arrived in 1836 with his starch-collared Presbyterians) across the Adelaide Plains. Before the Kangaroo Island whalers raided the mainland for women; before the ‘Native Location’ was established to ‘Christianise and civilise’; before Christian Gottlob Teichelmann and Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann, German missionaries saving souls on behalf of a German Jesus.
Now, the Torrens has forgotten them. A path, joggers, a geography teacher busy on her phone, council workers mowing around the playgrounds of the former Pirltawardi (brush-tail possum home). Now, the big-headed gudgeon replaced by carp; waterfowl by wood ducks; water rats, the ever-present house mice (Mus musculus) dished up for the local brown snakes and red-bellied blacks. And more recent ghosts. All the way along my stretch of river, the abandoned machinery from crumbling homesteads (or piles of rock torn from the river’s cliffs); the stumps and blackened remains of peach and plum trees from the orchards of the early settlers. Today, the river’s not what it used to be. Since its damming at Kangaroo Creek, natural flows have stopped (although periodic releases attempt to mimic a million years of hydrology, a million instances of man, water and landscape evolving in a Bach-like polyphony). The river reds flooding and drying, tension and release, stress and an autumnal soaking. No more. And worse, an invaded river. Nasturtium (Tropaeolum) escaping from backyards, growing down into silted billabongs, out-competing orchids, ferns, mosses – bright yellow and orange flowers spreading across banks, through bulrushes (Typha domingensis), seeding, always seeding.
Although who’s a purist? Walking back up the hill, a scaly pepper tree (Schinus molle) growing on a sunny corner. I stop to pick and rub the purply-pink berries between my hands, smell the pepper that, to me, as a kid, meant spices, Dutch traders, the East Indies, and the house with a thousand windows. Unloved, growing in back lots, along railway lines, and in every school yard in Adelaide, Australia, the world, perhaps? Thriving in skeletal soils, on scant rain, as kids climb the witch-finger branches, hang unreliable swings, build cubbies from old palettes and timber left rotting behind sheds.
Back in the Burren, it’s late, the rain heavy, the children bored, and I’m overcome by a sort of dread. How did I screw up? We should be in our cottage by now, tucked in, warm, snoring. But I’ve miscalculated. Irish roads are small animals with sharp teeth, perpetually angry, basking in the pain they cause others. The going is slow; the hedgerows scratching the side of the rental car (I’m sure they’ll notice). The map’s crap, we have no idea where we are, none of the signs match the directions, but my wife says, ‘That must be it!’
A small cottage on a steep hill, and I agree, turn onto a narrow lane. A hundred metres up a boggy track then we slow into a yard circumscribed by an ancient, moss-covered stone wall built (I guess) to keep stock in, or tourists out. I park, make for the door (the kids staying in the warm) and knock, and again – but no response. I call out, ‘Hello?’
Meanwhile my wife is studying directions by cab-light. ‘This isn’t it.’
Sticking the map out the window. ‘See, when we left Ballyvaughn we should’ve turned left, not right.’
Back in the car, and the kids ask, ‘So is this it?’
‘No, it bloody well is not.’
But it gets worse. I realise there’s no R for reverse on the shifter. I try variations options, but they all make us go forward. I get shittier, the kids laugh and I remind myself that this is the second day of a six week trip. My wife says, ‘Every car has reverse.’
‘Well, where is it?’
In a sheep pen, in front of a cottage (the inhabitants probably alseep), in the Burren, in the dark, in a fogged-up car with no reverse.
Deep breath. By now my wife is studying the manual by the cabin light. She smiles, lifts the shifter and says, ‘Who’d have thought?’
Back through the darkness, down Corkscrew Road and, an hour later, the cottage, its lights left on. As I pull up and say (something like), ‘Now we’re really living, kids.’
Lookering is an old verb, describing the process of going into fields to check on livestock. One of a lost vocabulary that includes ‘lot meadows’ (grazing areas decided by lots), ‘selion’ (units of ploughing), ‘shott’ (a block of arable land), and other terms describing the way land was shared in small farming communities. ‘Llamas land’ was thrown open to ‘commonable’ stock when harvest was over; ‘Common of Estover’ was the right to take wood from manor lands; the Right of Common, ‘the right to make use of, or take produce from, the land of another’. The idea of common good. But as this model of agrarian life changed, so did the terms used to describe it. Replaced with fences, enclosures – words that that helped describe the process of me, my farm, my money.
And this is what we see the next morning. My sons and I (my wife recovering in bed) leaving the cottage and heading across the road to the Caherconnell ringfort, an enclosed farmstead where tenth century locals kept their animals (and themselves) out of the weather. The former home of a high-status family, used for seven hundred years, each generation adding new cottages, stables, gardens.
I’m excited to get started. Cross the road, wave to people driving past, tell my kids about Ireland, Joyce, the Liffey, the Cliffs of Moher (tomorrow), as they ask why anyone would live somewhere so cold. I say, ‘Compared to Australia … but this is all they know.’
‘So, why don’t they move?’
Stopping before the locked gate, the sign explaining how the site would re-open for visitors in three months’ time. Although the kids aren’t too concerned. ‘Race you back,’ one says to the other, and they sprint across the road, back to the central heating, the strange Irish television, the food.
I’m left there, alone, again – the air, the mist heavy with ghosts. I have to settle on an artist’s impression of the fort, the cottages’ smoking chimneys, the cattle pens, a bronze harp peg, a door hinge, a bone comb. Small messages from the dead, to the living. As I close my eyes and try to imagine them, smell their animals, hear their children playing.
There’s a map (as others drive past, look at me like I’m stupid). Human burials (the stone boxes still visible); fire-pits; the remains of elderberry bushes (‘fairy forts’) growing in a collapsed wall; a ‘kid cro’ for kid goats and lambs. This is all I read (as I think, should I jump the fence?), and understand. The rest is more of the Realisation, my lookering into a world I’m seeing, hearing (the voices of the ghosts across the limestone pavements) for the first time.
As I lay in bed (maybe, by now, it’s four or five am), listening to wind through sheoak needles, smelling the gold-dust wattle, dreaming sticky hopbush dreams in which a running man trips and falls in a dry creek bed, gets up, continues.
This dreaming along Karrawirra Pari (red gum forest river). Until Colonel Light renames it in honour of Sir Robert Torrens. Born not far from the Burren (Co. Cork), raised under the same grey skies, in the shadows of the same yews and Hail-Mary churches, but strangely, ignoring the history and lessons of Common of Shack, and Turbary, and Piscary, and coming up with his own system of land ownership: the Torrens title. No Common of anything. Just a way to grab land, fence it, extract value.
Meanwhile, the ‘natives’ were put into camps, or moved to regional centres. Either way, gotten rid of, more valuable land fenced off, plums planted, dollars counted. The native languages, the words for eat, drink, be together, be alive, be sentient, be one-among-many, forgotten. The spears, the nets, the dillybags gifted to museums.
That afternoon we explore the Burren – five hundred square kilometres of inhospitable landscapes, more shrines, more towns with small, proud churches. Up and down hills, a second go at Corkscrew Road (this time stopping for photos), exploring the limestone pavements (the glaciated karst covering sixty per cent of the Burren). According to Edmund Ludlow in 1651, ‘[Burren] is country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him … and yet their cattle are very fat; for the grass growing in tufts of earth, of two or three foot square, that lie between the rocks, which are of limestone, is very sweet and nourishing.’ Late May, the sunniest time, the guides say, with the gentians and avens growing out of the grikes.
Later, we visit one of the Burren’s megalithic tombs. Poulnabrone dolmen is the resting place of six thousand year old bones, its standing stones supporting a roof to keep out the weather. And nearby, the court tombs at Teergonean and Ballyganner. All of them reminding us that people have been finding ways to cope with the horizontal rain, the biting winds (the kids running for the car) for millennia.
The same wind I experience four weeks later, deep in the Polish countryside. An early morning bus trip from Krakow, a long line, and we head into a courtyard in front of Auschwitz I. Wait, as the guide gathers our group, leads us along a path, towards the gates we’ve seen a hundred times before. Arbeit Macht Frei. More of the Realisation, but this time, beyond a hunch. We stand beneath the sign, listening to the facts, the stats, although whatever this woman says doesn’t add up to what I’m seeing. A field in Poland where the world ended. A million people murdered beside the Soła River, their ashes and ground-up bones thrown into snowmelt from the distant Carpathians. Here, beside the black (Lombardy) poplar trees, the winter sun battling icy winds.
No portal tombs at Auschwitz. Here, the art of dying was perfected. No room for nature, although it’s around us everywhere. Prior to the camp, this was a woodland – birches, chestnuts, poplar trees. After the SS got started, prisoners were used to plant willows, flowers, vegetation around perimeter fences. A lawn, a garden for the commandant, an oak tree at the entrance. But no suggestion of what lay inside. Although the birds knew, apparently. Didn’t fly over. Still don’t.
Later, at Birkenau, this uneasy relationship of man and nature continues. A wind-swept plain with most of the huts now gone. The crematoria demolished. As I, my wife, and boys follow the same guide, try to listen, but again my thoughts drift. This had been the village of Brzezinka, its residents expelled and buildings demolished to make way for the Nazi killing machine. In a nod to the natural world, fruit trees (pear, apple and cherry) were left standing. Commandant Hoess explaining: ‘Hundreds of men and women in the full bloom of life walked all unsuspecting to their death in the gas chambers under the blossom-laden fruit trees of the orchard.’
What is it that divides people and nature, that moves us away, a little more every day, from the clear water, the pure foods, the web of life that’s sustained us for so long? No more winnowing grain, grubbing wireworms from spuds – none of the pleasure, the ecstasy of picking ripe peaches; stitching string bags; placing seeds into the ground, covering them, waiting for pale, green tips.
On 4 July 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into a small cottage near Walden Pond, outside Concord, Massachusetts. He would live here for two years, two months and two days. As a sort of experiment, an inquiry into the natural world and how a man could, should function within it. Later, in his book Walden; or, Life on the Woods, Thoreau explained: ‘I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life … I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.’ A hundred and forty-seven years later, 24 year old Christopher McCandless (‘Alexander Supertramp’) did something similar in the Alaskan wilderness, living in an old school bus, as he attempted to form a relationship with nature. Unlike Thoreau, McCandless didn’t emerge from the bush wiser and happier, instead, succumbing to starvation caused be eating toxic seeds. In his book Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer tried to understand McCandless’s motivations: ‘When the boy headed off into the Alaskan bush, he entertained no illusions that he was trekking into a land of milk and honey; peril, adversity, and Tolstoyan renunciation were precisely what he was seeking. And this is what he found, in abundance.’
So what sort of society have we made for ourselves? Long drives in metal boxes along highways that have colonised ex-orchards, ex-forests, ex-bush, ex-nature. As the natural world provides reminders of what we were. Arriving in our million dollar boxes, minus yards, minus trees (and the studies show we need them), substituting a few cacti in gravel, a cordyline, for what we’ve known. For the crunch of bark beneath our feet; scented wattle taking us back to a childhood playground; lemon-scented gum summoning freshly-deodorised toilets. How have we arrived here? Sad, teary, walking through the door into our bullshit-jobs, sitting at our desks, peering out of windows at willows (with a suppleness we’ve lost) fighting southerly gales. I think we have chosen safety, security, over the perceived risks of nature. Its randomness, its refusal to provide certainties, a roof over our heads, balanced meals, The Chase.
So now we don’t hear the voices (at six am, still listening for the ancestors). We don’t demand simplicity; we’re told, just keep going. Meanwhile, the gully breezes keep coming in the window, and when I listen, I hear ghosts. If we imagine, we can work out why this young man keeps running along the dry creek. It’s simple. He’s running away from us. From our future. From what we call civilisation.
Lying there, as the sun starts rising, the Realisation becomes clearer. All of us are plumbed, somehow, into the earth. The Kaurna story of Tjilbruke makes sense of the history of the southern Adelaide plains. The Creation Ancestor who lives as a mortal man, carries the body of his nephew (who’s been killed for killing a female emu), Kulutuwi, to the Fleurieu Peninsula, his tears forming six springs along the way. Eventually arriving at Rapid Bay, where he kills a grey currawong, rubs its fat into his skin, turns into a glossy ibis (Tjilbruke), and leaves his body forever.
A story that has echoes in the karst landscape of the Burren. Poulnabrone acting as a portal between worlds. An umbilical dream stretching across the millennia, feeding blood and DNA, instinct and genetic memory, from one generation to the next. So that even when we forget faces and names, books and songs, we’ll never be without the codex that makes us, the spunk forged from the same stuff as the heather and felwort, the limestone pavements.
Back in Ireland, we have lunch at a Ballvaughn pub, then return to the Burren. Back along the N67, past the Emo service station, a Catholic church with Mary praying in the rain. Fields of snotgreen grass for the moo-moo cows, and details I start seeing for the first time. The small, white cottages, the neat lawns and gravel drives. And behind the hedgerows, shocks of colours, of cowslip and dropwort, a chaos of pink and white growing among the brambles. A hint of wild garlic, as my older son says he feels like pizza.
Right, onto the R480, and a after a few minutes the wild culture begins: plains and hills and karst valleys, grikes filled with more colour, more vegetation. ‘Stunning,’ I say, pulling into a driveway, getting out, setting off, my reluctant disciples in tow. Taking the guide from my pocket and reading: ‘The Burren consists of limestone of the Lower Carboniferous period. Formed as sediments in a tropical sea, compressed into horizontal strata that contain ammonites, sea urchins, fossilised oral …’ Stopping, looking at their happy faces. ‘Let’s see if we can find some fossils.’ Eldest checking his phone for coverage, and giving up. ‘We believe you … there are fossils.’ And younger: ‘This is really the arsehole end of nowhere.’
I counter with the usual stuff about one of the world’s most unique landscapes, but it does no good. ‘At least two glacial advances have occurred in the Burren …’
Youngest: ‘It’s fucking freezing.’ Returning to the car.
Finally, with the sun on the horizon, I rise from my waking bed, make breakfast, sit in front of the television watching the cash-cow, ads for pre-paid funerals, and all the happiness that comes from driving your elephantine ute through sand dunes, forests, what’s left of what used to be a floodplain. Like, at last, we’ve conquered the bastard! Got nature where we want her!
I head out into the backyard and stand listening. A myna bird starting up (I’ve tried to move it on); an ibis heading towards the Torrens. There’s an unkillable cape honeysuckle, and a monsetriosa that grows in front of your eyes; suckers from an old plum tree, scrotumnal fruit from an unwatered apricot. And this, I guess, is my Burren, my Simpson Desert, and my Daintree Rainforest. I realise that whatever myth, whatever Dreaming I possess, is here in the soursobs I sucked as a kid, the pepper tree (still shedding its bitter fruit) I climbed to impress my parents (as they shouted for me to get down), the rosemary I was sent to pick when we had a lamb roast. And if that’s the case, I may have to settle on this yard, this suburb, this street and sunstruck creek, as my version of nature. Full of my ancestors, reaching out with invisible hands, speaking with silent voices.
Meaning, I guess, we’ll need to start again. The old voices, the old books, the old cures, and recipes. Because in the end we only have two choices. Nature again, explaining how it works:
1. Leaves alternate (or if in pairs, not decussate) - Then go to 2.
1. Leaves opposite and decussate - Then go to 4.
Later, I go inside, and my sons are up, the unwatched television blaring. And whatever it was I thought I could hear in the night, is gone.
Feature image via 'Art Collection - The Metropolitan Museum of Art'