Walking with Ghosts.

It was wet on the way to work. Yesterdays rain still in the gutters, on the pavements, on the leaves of the plants pushing out over the path. Leaves, gum nuts and lost twigs were heaped in the gutter and packed under the tyres of parked cars. Water bottles, scraps of paper, random litter, buried in the flood line high point of the water's flow. But the sky had a blue tinge, the cloud was thinning, the rain gone. It had moved north. All that was left was its ghost.

As I stepped over the puddles and around the flood-washed wreckage I was walking through the past. Ghost water from yesterday sitting in today.

We are surrounded by ghosts, but mostly we don’t see them. Old trees. Old houses. Long abandoned signs on the sides of shops. Even the names of the suburbs I walk through are ghosts of a different time, when all things pointed to the north west where the point and source of it was. These ghosts tell a tale of a different time.

Our landscapes are full of ghosts as well. Ghosts of the missing and the ghosts of unintended actions. Only in Africa can you see a living mega fauna, elsewhere they have gone. Wiped away by humans, climate change or both. But the ecosystems still echo to the sound of their presence. Such huge animals would have shaped the land and without them we see a very different place.

According to some, even the way that fires now burn in Australia is a ghost, produced by the death of the mega fauna. These animals were huge lawn mowers, the evolutionary version of the suburban Sunday archetype. Just like their modern equivalents, they cut down the vegetation and recycled it. Early morning browsing, late afternoon sleep. But when they were lost the plants grew tall, for there were less mouths to eat them and over the years they built up. Tinder dry and waiting. The fires that they produced were huge and different. They had to be responded to. Fire was used to fight fire and country was cleaned up by small, cool patchwork fires. But when the next wave of change drove the people from their land the fires returned. And now summer brings fear as never before, and even in the urban heart of our cities, in the heat of the summer, you may not be free of a summer fire. Canberra proved that. We should all be aware.

In other wooded land the ghost is not fire but the ring of the woodman’s axe, the sweep of the saw. Many woodlands are as they are because they were cut down, many, many times over. And because they were then left alone they came back. Different but still there. A ghost of some wild wood. Some trees gone, some trees more common. Harvested and shaped into a form that we call wild, but relies on the hand of man, and often the mouths of cattle and sheep.

Red Gum Forests are haunted in another way. Not fire or axe, but by flood. The high tide of floods lays down a line of river mud, leaves and seeds and from this line new trees will spring. Or at least they used to. Now dams, drought and extraction mean floods are rare. So new Red Gums are rare as well. Lines of trees of even age, not in solider-like ranks, but running along the contour's edge, show where past floods finally lost the battle against dry land and laid down their nutrient rich cargo. A flood made seed bed, a watery nursery for a new forest. A ghost of rainfall past.

Even the language of our landscapes is full of ghosts. Are the open moor lands of Northern England called “fells” because of what people did to create them? Woods produce wood and timber is something else. Wood is burned and timber is not. We have timber framed building and wood burning stoves. A small wood may be a copse, but when was the last time it was coppiced? Sustainability is not a recent invention. Surviving landscapes may echo to a way of life that did not change, and had no need to change, for generation after generation. Our failure to understand this will haunt us for years to come.

If our rural landscapes are shaped by ghosts, then our urban landscapes are truly haunted. Street names and memorials to the famous and the fallen fill our towns, our villages. My home village has a war memorial. One of many. One of too many. Half way up and half way down the hill, it sits at the point where three roads meet. And along those roads flow pride, remembrance and loss. Here at the centre of things they meet at a lettered cross, where name after name was written by a haunted nation that promised it would never forget. But needed to be reminded in case it did. For a few brief weeks at the dying end of the year, wreaths of blood red poppies will sit at the foot of this cross. And for those few brief weeks we will remember not to forget.


On every other day, when the flowers had faded and gone, there were other reminders of where these ghosts were from. Small, dark cottages pressed around the junction of road and hill and church. And in these small dark houses old women, single old women, lived out their days. And each day as they walked out they saw the names of the men they may have married. Did they always see them and the children that are missing? But fire and steel and gas and mud stood between them and the men of the village, and as the men died, lives changed and many were haunted for the rest of their lives. Those women are gone now too. And we are at war again. And new names are added to the crosses, to the walls, to the sacred places where we gather our dead.

If the silent could speak, what would they say? What mute messages would they scream from the crowded halls that hold them? Would they ask us to remember the ghosts? Would they remind us that we promised not to forget?

In some places people reach up to touch the names, to bring that person back for just a moment, to say hello to those who are not there and, in the silence that this brings, to listen to what they say.


But not all ghosts weigh us down in this way. Some of the spirits are light and playful and show that windows into the past need not be full of loss or regret.

It is February and Christmas is long gone, but its ghosts are still here. On nature strips lie Christmas trees. Browning in the summer sun. Wedged behind street trees, lying in front of estate agents' boards, slowly sinking into the droughted ground. In one place I found the ghost of a ghost. A triangle of rain washed tinsel glittered on the ground, marking where the tree had been. Just visible through the tangle of grass was a single glass ball. Golden, like an egg. Waiting for its due season.
In one garden there is a snow man sitting in a bird bath. Do the birds feel cooler when they drink there? I doubt it! By February having a snowman in your garden seems a little odd. Holding on to a ghost beyond reasonable hope of life. Investing too heavily in what you hope it may mean. Hanging on, like the memory of your first kiss. Heavy with symbolism, but often stripped of meaning.

All of these ghosts are a merging of the past and the present, and are the only grasp we can have at continuity.

Ghosts are messages from the past, brought into the now so we can read them. Some simply speak of times past and are valuable just for that, but some are more important. Some need to be read so we can use them today, to rebuild that which has been lost. To restore what we have damaged.

Some need to be read so we can see what happened in the past and make sure it never happens again.

Our lands are full of ghosts and we should pay attention to them, for they are the lessons of the past. We need to remember them “for it is the doom of men that they forget”.

3 comments:

Ian Le Page said...

A poetic and elegaic piece of work-excellent!
Note to self-make sure to check out Stewart's blog site frequently!

Josiah said...

This is so poignant. I thoroughly enjoy the style you adopt for your writing.

RBenz said...

It is always fun to read your work, to "walk with your thoughts." As one that can go out and make his own snowman in February the ghost to me is the liquid water that flows from the fountain. As I read your ramble through histories near and far I started to think about other ghosts--ghosts of our ancestral past that reside in our own DNA. The journey through time is surely evident in the remnants of DNA we called "Junk DNA" in a previous age. Now we see it not as junk, but as a record of what was. We hear about the ghosts of DNA that are left behind at the scene of a crime, but more interesting to me are the DNA records of past forms and forgotten enzymes. These are the ghosts that I contemplate. (Or maybe these bits and pieces of former forms have simply been placed throughout the genome to amuse and befuddle.)