A Stranger in a Strange Land.

There’s a Blackbird on the lawn, a Common Mynah on the roof line. There’s a Magpie on the back fence, but it’s not a crow, it’s a type of butcher bird. Parrots flash overhead, seeking winter gum flowers. House Sparrows flick from under the eaves to feed on silver birch seeds. A late to bed possum hurries, fleet footed, along a wire. My birthday moves from spring to autumn during the course of a single plane flight. It snows in June. For year after year it barely rains, then in capricious novelty it floods. At Christmas I worry that it will be too hot to sit in the garden. The forest trees keep their leaves all year, and on a hot summer’s day the woods smell of childhood colds, night-time vapours, last night’s pyjamas.

A few sky bright shards of childhood memory linger. Skippy. Rolf Harris. People with skin so black that the light seemed to sink into them. Australia seemed so far away that it may as well have been the moon. Manchester was a long way away, Melbourne impossibly so. I only knew one family that had been overseas. The world was small, green, damp and English.

Fast forward to today and my own garden is a mixture of the then and the now. A strange combination of the visitor and the migrant, the welcome and the regretted, the native and home grown. The sparrows search in trees that shade our poorly placed western windows and, until it succumbed to disease, a gum tree grew by the back fence. I doubt that it was planted, it was a wild seed that found a place in its native soil and was allowed to stay. It found a kind of homecoming. It made me jealous.

Migration is not really a point of difference in Australia, it’s the common theme for most families. There have been people here for over 50,000 years, but in this part of Australia you would be hard pressed to know this. That history lies hidden, buried under other, more recent layers. When it comes to the surface it comes as a surprise. On the beach below the house in Tasmania the sand dunes were littered with oyster shells. Fragile things. Broken things. Ancient things. The shells are part of a huge midden, the discards from the fast food bay that has been harvested for years and years. I don’t know the age of these shells but it’s more than possible that they were thrown away before Rome or Athens ever were. They were left on the beach by a culture that is old beyond the reckoning of words. And when the story that this layer of land tells comes to the surface you find out that you know something different. There is a shift in what you know and a rattle as other pieces of the known world shuffle into their newly found place. A kind of history that mocks the lack of stone circles and hill top forts, but survives in stories and art and song.

In Campbell Town there are house bricks on the sides of the pavements with crimes and sentences stamped into them. The crimes and punishments of convicts shipped half way across the world to solve a problem not of their making. Stealing a pig: Seven Years. Selling Stolen Butter: Six Years. Attempted murder: Life. Stealing Gloves: Six Years – Two Weeks addition for breaking a glass. This is a record of the beginning of the Australia I see every day. The convict colony that became the modern nation. The words on the pavement, when read aloud, sound like some form of brutal machine poetry, propelled forward with an insane rhythm and logic all of its own. A kind of Beat poetry where the beatings were for real.
The shells and the stones both tell a story. The birds under the eaves and the trees in the gardens tell another. Layer upon layer. An onion skin reality, where each new layer does not bring you to the middle, but exposes another surface in need of exploration. Some layers come as a shock because they are new, while others surprise, because rather than difference, they reveal conformity. This, in a small way, is what I have written about up till now. The shock of discovery and the journey towards some small way of knowing.

When I arrived I could hardly take a photograph. I could not see the distance for the trees. It came as a strange and startling revelation to find out that the thing you had taken for granted was missed – the mid ground. It seemed impossible that in the middle of a place so large I struggled to show distance. Then I went to central Australia and the problem was reversed – a place so big and wide that I could never find the detail. What it all really meant was that I had to learn to see again, to see what was actually there rather than to look for what I hoped would be there.

When I did manage to look what I saw was unfamiliar, and what I recognised was unwelcome. Banks of flowers in the Grampians that I could not name, and sparrows and blackbirds dismissed as pests. When I saw rabbits I knew the harm they did, but still liked watching them – the same with foxes. I once watched a family of foxes through the fat lens of a telescope, seeing into the darkness when the human eye failed. It was a splendid, comical sight, with the cubs ambushing their parents and the parents rough and tumbling with each other and the cubs. Once they disappeared from sight they probably moved off to drive a small native mammal to the edge of extinction. How is it possible to enjoy such a sight, when I knew what the consequences were? Then I found out that some branch of my wife’s family released rabbits into Australia. Ecological curses don’t come much harsher than that. The fact that they now eat my mother-in-law’s garden seems to be a nice act of ecological circularity.

In the evenings I would see animals with pouches running along the street wires, I liked then a lot but my wife called them “roof rabbits” and cursed their nocturnal thrashings. Eventually I saw a mammal that lays eggs – a platypus, or five to be exact. Now that was something I knew I could get excited about. I saw them at Lake Elizabeth in the Otways, west of Melbourne. The lake was formed by a landslip in 1956 and was named for a distant queen, and now it’s home to that most Australian of Australians. Each of these things peeled away layers of uncertainty, but at the same time added a feeling of distance. A combined feeling of knowing and separation that pushed understanding in one direction and acceptance in another. I began to wonder if it was possible to become Australian at all.

However, some things have. Dingos are no more “Australian” than cats, but they are accepted as being part of the ecology. They probably don’t have a history here beyond 50,000 years – now I admit that’s a long time, but it’s nothing compared to the marsupials that have been here essentially forever. Australia has lost most of its big marsupial predators and given the size of some of them it made the place safer as a result. But how much of this change was driven by the presence of a canine predator that was brought here by man? In Queensland they still organise hunts to remove cane toads – a noxious predator that was brought here by man as well. But the dingo is considered part of the scene and the Cane Toad is not. How long will it take for this to change – if it ever changes? What about the sparrows – two species -, the Mynah and the host of other species that are now common, when will they be Australian? What about the ivy that creeps with powerful fingers through the lats of my fence, pushing apart the handiwork of last summer? And if we could remove them at the click of a switch or the sweep of a wand, what would replace them? I doubt very much that the displaced species would come back to their old haunts, they’re too changed, too damaged, too fractured. So an understanding of what is Australian and what is imported, alien and undesirable is, to say the least, blurred at the edges.
Trying to understand a new place seems to butt up against that classic quantum problem of not being able to measure two things at the same time. You can measure speed but not direction, or the other way around. So in a place that’s new if you concentrate on one thing, you lose sight of another. And when you regain sight of the thing you have lost, it’s changed.

When I first travelled out to the west of the state I saw flocks of white parrots – Short Billed Corellas. The maps said I should find them there and find them I did. Sometimes on the ground, gathering at field edges, mining for roots and sometimes in the air in noisy, loose flocks. They were where conventional wisdom said they would be – and this was easy to understand.

But this winter they have moved into the suburbs. By concentrating on location I’d lost track of movement. The Corellas were feasting on Liquid Amber seed pods and flying over my house, calling me to peer out of the window regardless of time or purpose. I found a flock on the road, on the way to work, and I stopped to photograph them. They owned the place. As cars inched their way through the flock I had to shoo the birds out from under the wheels. It was as noisy as before and now some birds mined the nature strip rather than field edges. Was this an expansion or a return? And how would I recognise the difference anyway?

In the last week I’ve found two species of lizard around my house – and bear in mind that we are solidly into winter here, so it’s not prime lizard season. If I find one more species that’s the same number as the whole of the UK. A Southern Marbled Gecko, with splayed sticky feet, rushed out from beneath a bag and hid under the coat stand. When it sat on your hand you could see its ribs pumping in and out. It was a little over an inch long. Last night, as I split the wood for the fire, a skink of some sort shot out from under the bark of a log. It had lost the tip of its tail in the past and it scuttled away, probably less than pleased to have been disturbed. Reptiles are still a novelty. When I left the UK I had seen two thirds of all the species of snake to be found there, which seems impressive. But what it means is that I had seen both of the common English snakes, and had never seen a Smooth Snake – a rare southern heath dweller – and that sounds much less impressive than before. I could probably exceed that count within a kilometre of my house right now.On most days I can find invertebrates in my garden that you would only find in nature reserves in the UK. A Praying Mantis that would stretch across the palm of my hand calmly lays its eggs just outside my front door. It leaves a shiny, silver package; something to check each day as I go to work. As a kid I watched Raft Spiders fishing in wheelbarrow sized ponds near the village of Street. These are the UK’s largest spider; but really they are not that big. As far as I am concerned Huntsmen are big - and ugly - and distinctly unwelcome as they walk along the bedroom wall, up on to the ceiling and (in the worst part of this journey) across the ceiling above the bed, down the curtains and out through the window. Once that journey is over I can unclench my toes and almost relax. If an invertebrate can have a sense of theatre, then a Huntsman has it in spades. I found one a while back, sitting on a brick wall. Just lurking there on the edge of a pedestrian’s peripheral vision. Any further away and it would have been hidden, any further out and it would have been visible before you drew level with it. I actually think it was hoping to scare its prey to death. It almost worked. In the past all this weighed heavily on me – I felt I did not know any of the names, any of the stories, of the things that I saw or the places I visited. But that wasn’t true. What was true was that I was not ready yet for them to become part of my own story. I was not really here, and I was sure as hell not there either. I was trapped in between, looking for one and finding the other. Heavy clouds stacked around me. It seemed that even in drought the sun did not shine. The tug of deep, lifelong interest dragged against the sheet anchor of despair. Each day the line between them grew tighter and tighter until it pulled me out of shape and remade me in a way that I hated.

When the force grew too great, the line snapped, and without an anchor I fell. I grabbed the only thing I knew I knew. I pulled my family in tight around me, and hoped that the storm would pass. Eventually it did. But what I saw when the clouds cleared surprised me. It was not the damp woodlands of Somerset, the cold shores of Northumbria, the open hills of the Lakes, but it was a place I recognised. My insistence that this was a place I could not understand was a recipe for disaster, a philosophy of despair, I had to open my eyes and pay attention.

I had planned to write this as my 50th post – as some kind of way-point on the way to who knows where. But I forgot. I was too busy looking. I was too busy becoming less of a stranger in a land that becomes less strange with each passing day.


Anonymous said…
A lovely post....
Anonymous said…
I'm so glad I chose to read this, rather than my plan of doing prep work for tomorrow. Fantastic, Stewart, thank you.

Anna x
joco said…
I am savouring this and read it in bits.
This is so sensitively written with such thought and awareness and unfolding insight, and put in such refreshingly different language from what we are usually given.
I find it uncommonly moving; meaning that I am not often moved by the written word these days.
Stewart, this should really be presented to a publisher or a magazine, in a collection of essays.
And for easier entry into the world of published work, maybe you ought to consider writing a novel?

As I said, I take it in stages, so I shall be back for a second and third helping.
Thank you for making me feel better on a rather difficult day.
Lucy C said…
Stuart, reading your blog reminded me of my lost, homesick winters in Minnesota - endless and dark for both the landscape and the soul of an Aussie girl. We're glad we have you in this city so far from Manchester.
Anonymous said…
Such a thought-provoking piece. Love your thoughts on distance and detail and having to look with new eyes.
Unknown said…
I am glad the sun is shining for you again.
As a traveler myself I can imagine the feelings, not as closely, because our moves usually are temporary, but I do remember my first year in Korea. Now I regret that (a bit like you) I had a hard time looking and seeing ;)
For me, the lens always helps. I usually try to snap all possible and impossible things. Showing them to my online friends also helps to make the world a smaller place and it makes me feel less isolated.

I love the way you describe your journey, even though it's in a sad way.
I hope you will set roots in that strange place soon and that you'll truly enjoy your time there.

I love all the wildlife you show and getting to learn what's what is possibly a good way to get closer to this strange land too.

Best of Luck!
Pat said…
Stewart, I cannot find the right words to say how touching this essay is. Beautifully written and very insightful!
TexWisGirl said…
your feelings are really wonderfully put into words. thank you for sharing this with us.
mick said…
Very interesting thanks Stewart. You express the 'strangeness' of seeing through eyes used to very different places and things. I wonder how many blogs start because the author is trying to make sense of a new place and new ecological system.

Popular posts from this blog


Garden Variety Birds.