By Karen Bateman
THE first time I saw Patrice Mahoney was at the leaving do of a colleague. It was early evening at the hub. I was hiding behind a table of hors d’oeuvres to avoid being dragged into a kooky conga line, encouraged by a riotous brass band. I was in the sort of mental quandary that all introverts will recognise (contradictory desires, to both cut loose like those brazen extroverts and quietly sneak home and read).
Patrice was stood near the community house door, chatting to people whose name I don’t know and whose faces I can’t remember. I do remember she was wearing an orange shawl and seemed so still among the chattering bustle. The music stopped, the speeches started, and Patrice took centre stage. I don’t recall much about the speech. What sticks is Patrice telling the crowd that there were no crows in this area, only ravens, and how contained Patrice seemed, how entirely solid and sure of herself in this hub, in this town.
Karen Bateman was highly commended in the Bass Coast Prize for Non-Fiction for her essay No Place Like Home. Can we ever know a place that we didn’t grow up in? The author is caught between gratitude for the beauty of her adopted home in Bass Coast and longing for another place where she has deeper roots.
Sure, I knew the streets. Mostly. I had my favourite walks, my preferred beaches, the trees I always looked out for, but it was all cosmetic. I had no story here. I had no meaningful memories attached to the landscape. We connect to the past with our stories and their associated traditions and whilst this may seem quaint in a diverse, fast moving society, stories give us a foundation, link us to a larger narrative of time and place. They give us a sense of who we are in relation to the world around us. I was essentially adrift, the larger narrative of my identity set somewhere else.
I have lived in this town for twenty-four years. I’ve planted fruit trees and gum trees, fought against environmental degradation, had children, and volunteered on committees and stalls. I’ve buried dogs, cats, chickens, and stick insects, hiked, ran, slept, worried, cursed and loved. I have family here. I have friends here. My attitude has changed. My accent has changed. My flat-packed vowels have rounded off with an odd Australian twang. Only the double vowel words (moors, books, poor) would give away that I was not born here. I’ve lived here now, for more years than I lived in England. So why doesn’t this place feel like home?
The concept of home can be an emotional one. Our sense of identity, our personal narratives, are products of our childhood environment. The present tethered to the past by memory. We can expand on the idea of home to include a broader cultural narrative, a sense of shared identity according to country, and yet I think the founding stories we cling to as western nations can leave us underwhelmed when articulated. It’s much harder to define how we connect to a nation, than to define, in a multisensory recollection, how an individual place we were raised in smells, tastes and feels.
Patrice is in Queensland, on holiday. She has graciously agreed to chat with me, but the connection is sketchy. She had driven to Yeppoon; it had been a big day and kids are doing homework nearby. I have a list of questions, but it feels intrusive to ask them now. After all, she is on holiday. We agree I will email them. Hopefully, the internet will be kind to us.
I miss home, and by this, I mean I miss the town in which I grew up in. I miss having family in a square mile radius, I miss the stodgy food and the rotten weather. I miss the local accent. Once, I stood in the Inverloch bottle shop and, like a total sad sack, asked the young lad a bunch of needless questions about shiraz just to hear his Northern accent.
I live here, and I know how lucky I am. When my family visit, I am like a proud tourist guide, showing off the coast road, the hidden caves, the swimming holes, and the reserves. I watch them for signs of amazement, you wouldn’t get this back in old blighty! Yet, when I think of home, my mind cheerfully ignores all the years I have lived here and settles itself back in England. If our stories connect us to place, then what of those of us whose stories are based elsewhere? In this context, do the stories and traditions become more relevant, or is it time to adapt the narrative?
We speak on a Tuesday morning, trying to fit in questions between home-schooling. Trilby hasn’t spoken with another adult, apart from her husband, for a week or so. It’s a good time for her to reminisce about her childhood as she is feeling hemmed in.
Trilby puts it simply. ‘I am beyond bonded to this place.’
Growing up in Inverloch in the seventies, when the town was experiencing the push and pull of development, when being green was a dirty word and farmland ended at Toorak road, Trilby’s childhood memories are intrinsically linked to the physical world. They are lodged in the bricks and mortar of the school where she was once spat on for being a filthy greenie. They linger in the rockpools where she would help her mother, an artist, fossick for creatures to illustrate. They wait on the shore and in the bush where she would trap waders, trap bandicoots, with her father. Trilby’s childhood home backed onto Ayr creek; there were cows on the doorstep, the creek track to the beach. Trilby’s connection to this place is solid, immovable. She would play in the creek, in her secret cubbies, gather giant brambles, collect bush tucker, all muddy knees and scratched arms. She would get home to carboard boxes shoved on the doorstep, injured penguins, baby possums to shove up her jumper and nurse. Her childhood home was a place of curiosity, wombat skulls on the living room table, feathers, sea sponges, shells, bird skeletons, a home decorated with objects from the natural environment. In this place, for Trilby, every beach track holds a memory, every corner a lived experience.
As an adult, Trilby lived in Italy for a time but found it difficult. The sense that something was missing, a physical yearning for small things, an open window that let in the smell of the creek, the sea air, knowing where things were. Knowing the best spots to find brittle stars, frogs, and seahorses. Now she is home. She has an albatross skeleton at her front door, mounds of shells in her house. A primary school teacher and artist, she taught in school, once, with a baby possum shoved up her jumper. The life she has created, an ongoing legacy of her childhood, the sure influence of those early years.
Trilby’s children are the third generation of her family living in Inverloch, and they are being versed in family traditions that are seasonal, inter-generational, and deeply connected to the land. Autumn brings the Easter king tides and the chance, in the big lows, to get out on the rock platforms. Summer is skin diving for abalone (when allowed), and winter’s dark hours are for chasing auroras. Each tradition anchors the season, notes the passing of time, and builds upon that sense of place, their role in it, and connection to it. For Trilby, there is no doubt that this is her home, she belongs here. Her identity, her sense of who she is, is constructed from a slow accumulation of shared experience, of territorial familiarity.
I envy her certainty.
I would suggest that it is usually the female that plays a more active role in family traditions, and it’s traditions ( seasonal, cultural, familial, religious) that connect generations, that build upon a person’s sense of identity and strengthen their connection to a place. Tradition is a bridge to our past and a roadmap to our future, constants in an everchanging world.
There is a strong link between memory and sense of place, the foundational experiences that form you as an adult are inherently knotted to your place of birth, your childhood haunts. Yet if culture and tradition are reference points, the fabric from which we weave our narrative then what happens when we can’t transpose these traditions?
How can I pass on, or create, traditions when I have no point of reference? I worry that my lack of understanding of this landscape, my fractured self, will somehow minimise my children’s experience. Will they inherit this sense of displacement?
Interestingly, Trilby points out that aurora chasing is not something she grew up with, it’s a recent tradition, added to the family in the last six years.
‘Which means,’ as Trilby so sweetly puts it, ‘that there is hope for you, and new things can become tradition.’
Furthermore, as a child, Trilby remembers that Inverloch would celebrate Guy Fawkes night with bonfires and fireworks. It was a time when the community all gathered and burnt their rubbish. The kids would play well into the night, then it was banned. As for the recent embrace of Halloween, although initially resistance, she now sees it as an opportunity for the neighbourhood to gather and the kids to explore, it’s a valid excuse for people to engage with each other.
For Trilby, the strength in traditions, with the environment and place, is that ‘they are solid and dependable, being an atheist that’s a big thing.’
I’m starting to feel like a magpie. I’m collecting other people’s childhood experiences to feather my own nest, trying to create a more substantial home for myself.
I feel remarkably lucky to live here. I walked along the beach recently, the inlet had shape shifted again and this half-moon sandbar that cut across the head of the lagoon had been washed away. The surface of the lagoon, once a glutinous, silty swamp, had been cleaned right out. It was so quiet, just the screeching of shore birds and a mild swell hitting the surf side of the beach. Scattered along the sand were massive piles of bleached driftwood. It looked like some pre-historic herd had lay down and died, seaweed tendrils fluttering off their hollowed-out ribcages. Thunderclouds on the horizon. It was a magnificently post-apocalyptic landscape.
I have a great appreciation for this part of the world, and yet I can’t seem to form a deeper attachment to it. When I write about this place it feels superficial, purely elemental. The landscape eludes me. I feel no affiliation to its past, either cultural or social. I have read about the history of Bass Coast. The thousands of years of custodianship by the Bunurong People, the ceremonial grounds at Andersons inlet, harvesting seasonal resources, shellfish, seals, bush fruits and vegetables. Then the Europeans, cattle, and wheat, the first post office, school, cemetery, carnivals and regattas, whoosh! How things moved along then!
I live in a place, with the oldest continuous civilisation on earth, with an incredible connection to country, and yet I have had little experience with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people. As far as I’m aware, none of the shopkeepers, teachers, gardeners, or builders in Inverloch are indigenous. I do not have any indigenous friends. This is not deliberate, it’s a consequence of the town in which I live.
It occurs to me that there is a lot more to assimilation than waxing lyrical about the landscape and, due to the similarities between my country of birth and this town, I hadn’t really thought about the founding culture and language differences. Linguistically, my language is a world apart from the language of the First Nations people and if language is the basis of interaction with most aspects of society and culture, perhaps understanding one, will help me understand the other. Maybe my sense of connection to this town eludes me because I approach my time here as a transitory experience. I’m like a resident tourist, just waiting for a chance to go back home and bemoaning the fact that nothing ‘feels right’ here. If I had moved to Spain, I would have learnt Spanish, and yet I have never considered the language of Indigenous Australians, the language of this place, the language of country.
Before I go on, I should state, resolutely and upfront, that this is not a white saviour moment. I am not telling the stories of the First Nations People. I am not trying to help white people understand how First Nation’s People connect to Bass Coast. I’m not about to culturally appropriate anything, from anyone. I’m not trivialising historical oppression; I have zero intentions of perpetuating stereotypes.
I am aware of my position as a white woman, and well aware of the irony of feeling misplaced in a place whose people have experienced massive loss and oppression (and still do) due to my ancestors. What I am is respectfully curious, and entirely humble in my ignorance.
I call Aunty Fay Muir-Stewart on a weekday. It’s during covid restrictions, the family is home, and I have worded up the kids to be quiet, that this is an important call. Aunty Fay is a senior Boon Wurrung woman and a Wamba Wamba Elder. She is also a leader in the First Nations community, a Koori Court Elder, a senior linguist at the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for languages and the author of two children’s books. Language is her thing. Co-ordinator of the Boon Wurrung language program, Aunty Fay has spent six years researching, collecting, and highlighting the lost languages of the Kulin nation, like a modern day, indigenous Indiana Jones. I admit, I am a little bit fan struck.
As Aunty Fay patiently listens, I hiss at my children to be quiet and explain that I am from Northern England, that I don’t fit here, and I’m trying to work out why. I explain that I am exploring the concept of home as physical, cultural, but also genetic, maybe. Can there be some sort of genetic predisposition that roots us in our childhood home? Will I ever understand this landscape?
It’s a clumsy opener, and not my most eloquent moment.
Aunty Fay is warm and encouraging on the phone and explains how language dictates the way we think about the world, that there are certain words in a language that can only be understood within the context of the language, that language describes the culture and country of where you live. How can you really understand something if you don’t know the language?
It makes perfect sense. Language has meaning and reference beyond the linguistic structure of the actual word. Words are embedded with knowledge, tradition, culture, place, and beliefs. Within the context of language is the broader framework of culturally specific gestures, intonations and actions that put meat on the bones of words. You can’t separate language from culture, it’s the chicken or the egg scenario.
I strain to understand the stories of this parched landscape, its ceremonies are unfamiliar. My connection just skims the surface of something much more significant, more ancient. Perhaps I lack the capacity to properly understand this place.
‘Sit down on the earth and just listen,’ says Aunty Fay. ‘What are the ancestors telling you? Slow down, they tell you, step out and listen to us.’
I tell Aunty Fay that even though I listen, I don’t understand.
I’m fairly sure the ancestors are ignoring me. Maybe it’s because I’m English?
I really do listen. I stand in the garden and listen to the wind ruffling the low grass, I feel the breeze touch and go, a swoop of starlings, faint hum of bees, something pops underfoot and then a dust whirly, up the driveway and swift right. I plant my feet on the ground, and I stand, oh so still and I listen, very carefully. I try to hear the landscape, to feel the land, to feel the pull of the land, and I fail. I always fail. I cannot hear this place.
It occurs to me that, typically, I am trying to understand the landscape on my own terms, in my mother tongue.
The Boon Wurrung people were multilingual. They had to be. They had to learn their neighbour’s language for trade and to ask permission to go to other people’s country. When they married, they had to learn their partner’s language, their partners parents’ language, the grandparent’s language. I find this incredible! Sometimes I can barely form a decent sentence in English.
Aunty Fay’s parents missed out on their language. It was taken away from them. If you take away language, you take away culture. You take away the opportunity to pass on traditions, knowledge, and history. This is a big incentive for Aunty Fay to reclaim these lost languages, so she can pass them on to her grandchildren and they, in turn, can clearly articulate their sense of place through their mother tongue.
I am often dazzled by the beauty of this place and yet I have nothing substantial to cling to. I have no infrastructure, nothing to get a solid footing on. One big gust of wind and off I go. My experience is simplified, like one of those old reading books, Dick Meets Jane. I see a koala. The sea is pretty. Look Jane look, that tree is big.
When Aunty Fay sees a gum tree, it is like a kaleidoscope of colour, potential and meaning. Depending on the tree and where it is placed it could be a guardian looking after the waterways, it could be a marker for where you were born, it could be a guide to lead you back home, a provider of water basket, food, weapons. It is a base for the birds, insects, and mammals, and what about what they are telling you!
As Aunty Fay puts it, ‘A tree is many things, it affects many things, and it is all connected to country.’
When I see a gum tree, I might admire the bark, tut tut at the people who have carved their names into the trunk, sniff the oily leaves, but it’s very one dimensional. In contrast, when I see a chestnut tree, I see Autumn. I smell the nip of winter in the north wind, my fingers remember threading chestnuts on string to play conkers, carving faces into turnips. I see red squirrels nut gathering, evenings drawn in, effigies burning on backyard bonfires. Oak trees lead me to foxes in the Spring, heather on the moors, cinder tracks, bluebells in the wood, playing in the beck. These trees connect me back home, like a tapestry, with one thread intricately connected to everything around it.
Bass Coast is Aunty Fay’s mother’s, her grandmother’s, and her great grandmother’s place, and she knows that when she walks here, they are telling her ‘welcome back my daughter’.’ Her family connections spread for miles. Her great, great grandmother, Louisa Briggs, was stolen by sealers, taken to Tasmania and somehow made her way back home. It’s an incredible history.
‘So, what does home feel like for you?’ I ask.
I am genuinely curious. Is home an image? Is home a smell, sound, touch? And ok, maybe at this point I am trying to get an idea of how this place should feel. Something I can focus on.
‘It is a feeling of welcome,’ answers Aunty Fay. ‘It’s like the pull of gravity. It’s invisible, holding you, grounding you.’
The word for home, in Boon Wurrung, is Weelam. It can be explained as the place you come back to, it means where you were from and it can call to you, like a homing pigeon. This place speaks to her. The seasons carried on the wind, the birds, the creeks, rivers, rocks, a patch of earth, her strong ancestral connection to the past, informing the present and the future. When Aunty Fay is away from her home, she feels the pull, across the bay, of her ancestral connection and when she arrives home, every time, she feels that the ancestors are welcoming her back. Aunty Fay describes it as the strong pull of mother earth, for her, a sense of home can always be found by finding a patch of earth and listening.
‘I wonder if I will ever feel like this is my home?’ I say in a sort of plaintive statement-question. Even to my own ears, I sound whiny.
‘There will always be a strong pull to where you were born,’ answers Aunty Fay.
I finish by asking Aunty Fay a question that has nothing to do with place, but nevertheless I am curious, and this seems like a good opportunity. I explain how I have this hesitation, this reluctance to attend events like the shearwater festival, the black lives matter rally. I worry that it seems tokenistic, like an easy opportunity to feel like I care and then go back home and carry on as normal. It’s like a band aid, easing guilt.
‘Does it bother you, people turning up, and then it goes no further?’
Even as I’m asking, it sounds faintly ridiculous and, in the background, I can hear the kids snicker at my awkwardness. Afterwards, I have to explain to them that I worry, about being unintentionally insulting, about being ignorant, about asking questions that shouldn’t be asked, and this is why I slip and trip on my words in these situations.
Aunty Fay pauses for a moment, and answers ‘Well are you learning something? If you don’t go, you won’t learn. Go. Get up, go deeper. Don’t be embarrassed to ask questions. Have a conversation. Learn. It’s like any culture. You might eat something that you haven’t eaten before, then you chat, you learn. You find out more about the history of the people. Find an aboriginal friend! As long as you are learning. That’s the main thing.’
I imagine putting an ad on a ‘seeking someone’ page.
‘Lady, over thinker, slightly awkward, seeking aboriginal friend for quality education and intense chats. Must like walks on the beach and loud children. Vegetarian (sorry).’
I never did get to chat again with Patrice. The internet wasn’t kind to us and work, home schooling, covid restrictions and holidays all combined in a shitstorm of obstructions. I didn’t get to add her childhood memories, her advice, to my nest. It will have to wait. There will always be questions and there will always be more to learn.
Things change, over history, across time, over centuries, across days. In Inverloch, the pastoralists have made way for the sea changers. The inlet changes daily, the sand shifting from one end to the other affecting the rips, the beach breaks. Buildings crumble, trees fall, people come and go, like it or not, everything is impermanent. Traditions and culture may be the building blocks for qualitative familial experiences, but even traditions can change.
In Bass Coast, about 14.4 % of the population were born overseas. That’s about 5000 people that grew up under a different sky, with a different history, different food, a different landscape. Somehow all these people will make new memories, will forge traditions that suit their new place. In Bass Coast about 9 % of the population identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait islander. That’s about 300 people who can help us learn more about the language and culture of the place in which we have chosen to live. Like Trilby said, there is strength in tradition, the small rituals of family, the quiet marking of time and season. My kids will not have the same experiences that I had, but between the two countries that I love are many traditions that I can build on, and many traditions that I create anew. For a start, I can learn the language of this place.
I miss home. Three simple words, but they are weighted. Each word, pinched, grabby, nipping at my composure. Its’s not too precious to say there is a sense of mourning, and I suspect this is something I will just have to carry with me.
I think about what we do as a family, spotting mud crabs in the intertidal flats at Screw Creek, pretending to be koalas in the gum tree at Townsend bluff, dumplings at the farmers market, snorkelling at shack bay in the summer, carols in the glades, painting eggs at Easter. It’s not a bad start.
The sun is blazing through the window and the kids are restless. We grab our bikes and head along the beach path to Screw Creek. A raincloud dumps its load on us near the angling club, daisies scatter across the grass in the van park. We dump our bikes at the car park and take the track to Townsend bluff. The sun skirts the tussocks along the boardwalk, the tide is pushing against the creek and on the banks, a white-faced heron gracefully ignores us. We head to the fishing platform and play poo sticks. I tell the kids about how the Indigenous people would visit the ceremonial ground at Anderson’s Inlet, how they were probably the first Indigenous people to contact the European mariners and how they would catch kangaroo and possum for skins and rugs for winter. We talk about the word Weelam. We talk about when we will go back to the Uk for a trip. They pelt spiky seeds at each other, then run ahead and play koalas in the climbing tree.
I am ridiculously lucky to live here. I know this.