I often remember places better than I remember people. I remember the apartment I lived in for a few months in Boston in the mid 70s. I remember sitting on the roof of the building looking out over the Charles River, watching the autumn colours appearing on the trees. But I have a poor recollection of the person who kindly lent me a room in this apartment. I well remember the mountains and valleys of the Alpine Way between Cobberas and Kiandra. But I can’t recall the faces of my walking companions. When I think about a past conversation I almost always remember the place where it was held better than what was said. Perhaps this is an ethical failing. But it also indicates the profound influence that places have on my psychology and view of the world.
‘Place’ has become a topic for academic investigation. It figures as an influence on psychological development, as a home for the heart, a connection with the spiritual, an inheritance from past generations and as a signifier of past events. A place is more than an environment for living. It is more than geography. To know your place is also to know where you fit in the social fabric of a particular place – a fabric that was shaped over a long period of time by the place’s terrain, soil, climate, as well as its history and politics. Perhaps this recent emphasis on the importance of place is nostalgic – a way of harkening back to a time when places had a character that was little influenced by mainstream culture, when people expected to find love, companionship, meaning and work with and among the people they grew up with, when they knew the distinctive feature of their hills and valleys, were acquainted with the local shopkeepers and gossiped with their neighbours.
These times are gone for most people. A person’s place has become much harder to specify in an age when people not only move around – sometimes, as I did, from one continent to another – but also travel far from home for work, recreation, vacations or meeting friends.
Nevertheless I am drawn to the idea that places can have profound meaning. Some are haunted by events that occurred in them – perhaps a long time in the past. Some evoke memories, pleasant or not. Some give us peace or make us feel that we have come home. Others enchant or invite exploration. I am a place-oriented person. But if I were asked what place I belong to I would have a hard time answering. I grew up in southeastern Minnesota and that place has made its mark on me in more ways than I probably know. But there are also the places I inhabited later and came to know, appreciate, respect, feel at home in and even love.
- In Minnesota there was a time when we put our winter clothes in a trunk and took out our summer clothes and another time when we put away our summer clothes and brought out the sweaters, coats and boots of winter. My father took off the storm windows on our house in the spring and replaced them with screens and replaced screens with storm windows in the fall, at the same time as he had snow tires put on our car. Minnesota has distinct and extreme seasons and, much as I complained about them at the time, much as I was happy to escape some of their rigours, I have never really stopped missing them. A seasonal change in Minnesota is a climatic drama that alters everything: the look of the land, trees, animal populations and the way people live, work and get about. In every other place I have lived seasonal change does not amount to much. It gets colder and then hotter, it rains more or less frequently, grass in the paddocks turns from green to brown and then back to green. Trees sometimes flower. But there is no dramatic environmental transformation.
It is midwinter. I am walking over the viaduct high above the frozen Cannon River, indistinguishable from the rest of the valley by a cover of snow. I am on my way back from my job on a farm near the edge of Faribault. It is dark but probably not all that late. It is also very cold – the snow squeaks under my feet, my breath leaves a frosty trail, my nose and ears are numb with cold. But as I stride along, the working of my muscles, the vigorous response of my body to the extremity of the weather gives me a feeling of pleasure. I am enjoying my walk and part of my enjoyment is the fact that I am alone. No one else would think to walk this way on such a night and there is little traffic on the road. The sky is clear, as is usually the case when the nights and days are very cold. Out on the bridge where town lights do not interfere a skyful of stars is visible – but coming closer are these lights and their promise of comfort and warmth.
During winter holidays we children took our sleds and toboggans out to the nearest hill, came back at lunchtime wet and cold, and went out again as soon as our clothes had finished drying in front of the radiator. We built jumps on the side of the hill so that our toboggans would sail high in the air and come back to earth with a body-shaking thump. We went skating on ice rinks made on school playing fields or tennis courts. When we got too cold – when our feet and hands lost feeling – we went inside and warmed up around a pot-bellied stove.
Later when I was working on farms or in stables, winter became more of an adversary. To water the horses and mules at the stable, the pump had to be primed and I was in a race to make the water flow before losing feeling in my hands. And then there was the continual task of dealing with snow and ice. My job at home was to shovel the driveway so the car could get out in the morning and often, just when I had finished, the city snowplow would come by again and dump another pile of crusty snow over the exit.
There are few sights more beautiful than a clear cold winter day in Minnesota. The white snow sparkles in the sun and the sky is deeply blue. But then there are the days of ferocious blizzards. Out in the brunt of it you can hardly see where you are going. The mist and driving snow block out the features of the landscape and sky and snow covered fields merge together into a white blur. Sometimes people lose their lives when they stray off a path and start walking in circles. On the morning of a blizzard Jane and I would listen eagerly to the radio with the hope that school would be closed for the day. But by March winter had become tiresome. We dreamed of spring.
The snow is melting, the icicles fall off the house. Cold, wet and often dirty sludge is everywhere. You step in it when you cross the street; cars throw it up onto pedestrians. But meanwhile the trees are budding, the migrating birds are returning. Lawns and fields shrug off their blanket of snow. Rivers break through the ice that imprisoned them.
Once spring truly arrived we could look forward to the summer break from school which began in June and ran through August. In June our parents sent me, and later Jane, to Red Cross swimming lessons at one of the nearby lakes. The ice had not disappeared all that long ago and the water was cold. I was a skinny child and often I had to leave the class early, coming out of the water blue and shivering. Somehow I learned to swim and so did Jane.
Summer in Minnesota is predictably warm, sometimes hot and often humid. Mosquitos eager to breed in the short summer season are voracious and no repellent known at the time could discourage them. For flies our weapon of choice was DDT. I would spray DDT in the barn where I worked – spray and spray until the chemical smog was so thick that I couldn’t breath.
In Minnesota you are never very far from a lake and when you fly down over Minneapolis you see a string of lakes in the very heart of the city. Unlike many Faribault families we did not have a lake cottage to retreat to in the summer. But every summer we spent a week at a resort. We rented a cottage with a boat and rowed out into the lake in the evening to fish. Sometimes I would row out by myself, lie on my back in the middle of the lake and dangle a line over the side of the boat. If a fish took the bait I would feel it with my finger and pull it up. We did not fish for the Northern Pike, which require special equipment to catch, but for the smaller species – easier to handle and big enough to be edible
In my early childhood the lakes were clear and clean but later algae began appearing near the shoreline and we had to wade through it to get into clear water. I did some research and discovered that the algae outbreak was caused by commercial fertilizer, now used in great quantities by farmers, running off the fields into the lakes. I wrote an article about it for the Faribault Daily News.
I have a summer job cross-pollinating tomatoes. I sit on a stool next to the tomato plant and carefully expose its ovaries with tweezers. Then I press them with pollen contained on a glass slide. I am making hybrid tomatoes. The job pays less than minimum wage because it is agricultural and I am 15. Nevertheless, I am earning more money than I ever could through babysitting or doing domestic chores. This is important because I am saving money to buy a horse. The people working with me are girls of my age. A few have been fired for talking or for being careless. I am conscientious. I work fast and keep my mind on my job. But today I came to the field in my bathers with the idea of getting a tan and now my skin is burning. My shoulders and my thighs are becoming a deeper and deeper red. I have not brought anything else to put on and I am afraid to go to the supervisor. I don’t want to be fired. So I keep on working and suffering until the end of the shift. My skin, covered with blisters, is so tight and painful that it hurts to walk. Eventually the skin peels off and underneath is the layer of brown that I had hoped to achieve more painlessly. Some years later I have a few ‘pre-cancerous’ spots removed from my shoulders.
At the end of another day the supervisor takes us to the back of a truck and gives us bundles of eggplants. I have never seen an eggplant before. I take them home to my mother who has also never seen one. She boils them and serves them as a vegetable. They taste awful.
When autumn comes the air is crisp and cold in the evenings and the leaves on the trees turn red, orange, purple and gold and finally brown. When you walk through a pile they crunch underfoot. In my childhood most people raked the leaves into heaps and burned them. The pungent odour of burning leaves was the smell of autumn. We would throw ourselves into freshly made piles of leaves risking a scolding for the mess we made.
- I am finishing my last year at the University of Minnesota and now I am in Chicago being interviewed for a Marshall Scholarship. I am wearing a wool suit that was tailored for me by a dressmaker in Faribault. My father paid for it. It is designed to make me look like a proper mid-Western young lady and though I have tried to appreciate his gift, I have not managed to feel at home in it. In the room where I am now sitting it is prickly against my skin and I am beginning to sweat. The interviewers ask me about my interests and my involvement in the peace movement. I expected them to be concerned about leftwing activity and I am ready with answers. Then they ask me whether I have a relationship or plans for marriage. I know that very few women have ever got this scholarship. I also know that if I did have these plans I would have no chance at all. Fortunately I am able to answer truthfully that I am free of such encumbrances.
I am offered the scholarship and told that I will be sent to Keele University in Staffordshire near Newcastle. It happens that I am taking a course given by an English professor from Oxford and he tells me that I should hold out for Oxford University. I make the request and it is granted. I am to have a place at Lady Margaret Hall, one of the five women’s colleges in Oxford.
Coming into Oxford by train you can see the towers and turrets of the colleges looming above the shops and houses. At the centre of this complex of ancient buildings is the round dome of the Radcliffe Camera. Across the way is the Bodleian Library next to Sheldonian Theatre. Behind these edifices and off the High Street are the entrances to some of the oldest colleges. Christ Church College where I met with my thesis supervisor had a quadrangle the size of a football field overlooked by the massive Tom Tower. Walking back from these meetings I often took the narrow, lane skirting the walls of New College (so called because it had been new in the 14th Century). Further down near the river was Magdalen College where a few of my friends had their college digs. It had its own deer park.
It was a privilege to be there, of course, and to have my way paid by a scholarship that I had never expected to receive. But I was made uneasy by these looming towers and walls of ancient stone. There was something unsettling about walking through archways and passages so well trodden by centuries of student feet. They reminded me that I was just a fleeting presence, hardly registering in time that was measured in centuries, a fleeting ephemeral being in comparison to the solidity of this stone.
But I did not live in any of these grand relics of medieval times. Oxford was gender segregated in the 1960s and my college was Lady Margaret Hall, the first of the colleges built for women when they were finally allowed to attend (but not at first to get a degree). It was a sprawling red brick compound on the banks of the Cherwell in north Oxford. I was not assigned a room in this building but in a house belonging to the College on nearby Fyfield Road. I bought a motor scooter and travelled quickly from my digs to the library or to St. Catherine’s where Andrew, my first Oxford boyfriend, lived. If I returned late and the front door was locked I climbed up a water pipe and got in through the second storey bathroom window, which was fortunately always unlocked.
Caroline was a history student who also got a Marshall Scholarship and through her I met Lydia and Simone who had preceded us in Oxford. Lydia and Simone were a lesbian couple though they didn’t tell me this right away because they were afraid that coming from the Midwest I would have negative attitudes about homosexuality. Once this was cleared up we became good friends. The four of us would sit on the roof of the building where Lydia and Simone lived, drinking wine and taking turns reading novels out loud. Sometimes I was able to get a punt from the Lady Margaret Hall boathouse and we would travel up river, one of us standing in the back with the pole to propel the boat along – a job that had its hazards since the bottom of the river was muddy and the pole had a tendency to get stuck. Often we would stop at a riverside pub for a drink before returning.
Sometimes we were joined by Asha who came from a family at the very top of the Indian caste hierarchy. There were very few men she could marry and she didn’t care for any of them. Being a student in Oxford gave her a respite from the decision that her family was pressing her to make.
Lydia and Simone broke up shortly after leaving Oxford. Both are now dead. Caroline recently retired to Maine after working at the University of Illinois in Urbana for most of her career. I get messages occasionally about her house, her garden and her travels. Asha defied her family by marrying an American and moving to the United States. She was killed in a car accident in Washington D.C. many years ago.
It is midsummer eve and one of Andrew’s friends ushers us into a punt that he has somehow acquired on this night of drunken revelry. We have been to a party and are dressed up. As the last person enters the boat it sinks to the bottom of the river – there are too many of us. I am waist deep in water feeling the bottom of the river for a lost sandal. Andrew pulls me out before I can find it.
Caroline and I moved out of our colleges and eventually found somewhere to live in Boars Hill, about four miles outside of Oxford. It is a small settlement surrounded by paddocks. During the winter holidays when I am writing my thesis I walk over these fields to the pub where I buy a bottle or two of guinness. This amuses the regulars at the pub and they make a few jokes at my expense. I can’t reply because I don’t understand what they are saying in their broad Oxfordshire accents. I give them a stupid smile.
I had very little to do with English students at Oxford with the exception of Andrew. Mostly I found myself with Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Americans – people who were doing the same post-graduate degree. It was their parties that I went to; with them I walked, argued, drank and spent my evenings. I was told that the English referred to all of us as ‘colonials’.
Like all Oxford students I had been assigned a ‘moral tutor’. Mine was Martha Kneale who also tutored me on one of my subjects, the Rationalists. She did not object to my morals but she did object to some of my uses of English and recommended that I read Fowler. I had no intention of doing so (and in fact never have). I told her that I used English in the way that all the people I grew up with used it and that it was a perfectly proper way for English to be used. We never saw eye to eye on that subject.
Near the time of my exams Martha Kneale decided that I looked tired and needed a break. She took me to her country house in Yorkshire and brought me a cup of tea in the morning when I was still in bed. We want for long walks in the country.
The serious business of Oxford was getting through my course, writing my thesis, and managing to pass exams that everyone assumed would be difficult. We had heard that almost half of the students doing the Philosophy B.Phil had failed in a previous year. This was the sword that hung over our heads.
The exams were in a hall off High Street and as we filed in, wearing the academic costume of students, tourists took our pictures. On the last day as I was completing my last exam paper I heard the popping of champagne corks in the courtyard where friends of those taking final exams gathered to celebrate the end of the ordeal.
My oral examination is in a small room in one of the colleges. My turn comes just before lunch and when I enter the three examiners are lounging in their chairs. I am too keyed up to draw the obvious conclusion from this body language and when one asks a question I give an elaborate, painstaking reply. They soon have enough of me. I am out of the room in less than 15 minutes.
The graduation ceremony is conducted in Latin. We have a rehearsal so that those of us who lack a classical education know what to do. To celebrate I buy a B.Phil gown for the occasion – an unnecessary expense because I could have rented one, but it has served me as a costume for the graduation ceremonies at my university.
- Academic jobs were not that hard to get in those days of expanding tertiary institutions and I soon found a job in the Philosophy Department at the University of Manchester on the lowest rung of the academic hierarchy.
Another woman, Petra, was appointed at the same time and two women arriving at once in the philosophy department were sufficiently newsworthy to bring out a reporter from the local newspaper. He soon decided to concentrate on Petra who was sexier and more cooperative. He photographed her sitting on a desk with her skirt hitched up to mid-thigh.
Manchester was a city that had had its great days. The old cotton factories that had made the city’s fortune were no longer in existence and a stroll through Old Trafford was an excursion through the relics of the industrial revolution. The factories were largely silent; the canals were empty of traffic.
I rented a small flat in middle class Didsbury. It had cooking facilities but no refrigerator and I did not have enough money to buy one. Bottles of milk in various stages of decay accumulated on the window ledge.
Most of my salary was spent on buying and keeping a horse – a luxury that I really couldn’t afford but never regretted. Her name was Storm and I kept her at a stable at the edge of town. I rode her through the lanes and fields of Cheshire – sometimes with others but mostly alone – exploring the villages, bridleways, hedgerows and pastures of this green, well-kept countryside.
The owner of stable where I keep Storm has taken me to another hunt. It is not a fox hunt – a scent trail has been laid for the dogs to follow. I am waiting with the others for the dogs to be released and the hunt to begin. I am not really welcome in this company. The master of the hunt points out once again that I am not properly dressed for the occasion. But I have no intention of buying the required hunting jacket and jodhpurs. I am apprehensive because when Storm runs with the other horses she becomes hard to control. She is not as fast as the others and in a mad attempt to keep up she throws herself at the jumps. I am worried about her falling. Coming too fast down a hill near the end of the hunt she stumbles and almost goes over. I pull her up just in time and we manage to arrive at the finish unscathed. The dogs are gorging themselves on the meat that has been thrown to them as a reward.
North and east of Manchester are the moors – a very different country from the green pastures of Cheshire but one that I come to love. I become a walker. I set out from train stations to climb the nearby peaks. I trudge through the bogs, find my way through swirling mists, dip down into green valleys, clamber up rocky ridges. The moors are desolate, windswept and lonely but it is never very far to a village and its pub.
I have a friend in Sheffield who left Oxford at the same time. I decide to ride my scooter over the moors to visit him. It is winter but I have no fear of weather that cannot compare with the freezing temperatures of Minnesota. Soon I become aware that I am not well prepared for a cold trip over the pass that divides the two cities and I stop in Glossop to buy some gloves. Up on the moors once again I brace myself against a cold wind and when I finally arrive in Sheffield I am shaking with cold. My friend wraps me in blankets, puts me by the fire and gives me cups of tea. By evening I am well enough to attend a rock concert.
By travelling west from Manchester I could reach the north of Wales and the rocky slopes of Mt Snowden, Caldor Idris and other mountains. North were the Yorkshire moors and the Lake District where I also roamed, though less often than in the Pennines. I never walked in Scotland but I belonged to a group that occasionally went up to the Cairngorms to ski. We got on a bus on Friday evening – not a coach but a rattly city bus – and rode all night, passing through Edinburgh for a bite of haggis and on to the mountains. After a breakfast of porridge we hit the slopes. But I never actually saw the mountains that I skied on. They were always shrouded in mist or hidden by flurries of driving snow or sleet.
South of Manchester were the green rolling hills of Cheshire were I often rode my horse. This was the land of country estates, paddocks bounded by stone walls or blackberry hedges and fields with grazing sheep and cattle.
Many years have passed since my early years in Manchester. I am once again walking the trails of Cheshire with an Ordnance Survey map in hand. I feel oddly at home. It is a lovely sunny day. Boats full of cheerful families and young people pass me as I walk along the path of an old canal. I branch off and follow the footpath signs through several fields to an old Elizabethan farmhouse. I have lunch in a garden and feed my scraps to a family of ducks.
Like most academics of my time, I found myself in front of a class without having any teacher training. I was not very good at lecturing. I became a good teacher after many years of experience and a lot of trial and error, but I was not one by nature. What probably helped during these early years at Manchester was the fact that I was not much older than my students. I got to know them. I went to their parties. They had no trouble telling me when they had difficulties and usually I was able to help.
On Friday nights I often went out with Florence Bull, one of my students. She wrote poetry. I still have one of the collections she published. We went drinking and dancing in the pubs of Manchester and when we were finished – after quite a few pots of beer – we went home on my scooter. Going through my notebooks – mostly notes on my reading but occasionally containing a paragraph or two about my activities – I find the following entry:
‘Went reluctantly to the pub with Flo, reluctantly because I feel uncomfortable with her group. Tried to get the upper hand with Tony Langham by being barbaric about his poems, but he was too withdrawn this week to play the game or even imitate my accent (except once half-heartedly). Four of us left at 10 for the jazz club. But this time I had had 2 pints and was unhappy at paying 2/9 for a third. They have a jazz band playing at 1000 decibels there.
I met Baz Kershaw, and for some reason I began talking about drug taking (rather, shouted in his ear). He was concerned that I had never turned on and invited us to his digs to smoke hash.
And so we did. After awhile Baz left the room and flopped down on a couch in the kitchen. Florence curled up in a blanket. Jim, Baz’s friend, listened intently to the Beatles. I waited for something to happen to my way of perceiving the world. But mostly I began to worry about the paper I have to present on Wednesday. So when Flo wanted to leave, I was thankful. Left a note for Baz and slipped out.
I am writing this at 2:30 a.m.’
Here is another entry.
‘Friday I went drinking with Florence and the poet circle. We were celebrating someone’s birthday and got drunker than usual. I remember that we were kicking cardboard boxes down a side road and jumping on parked cars. A young copper on the corner told us: “If you keep this up, you won’t get home tonight.”’
A few years ago Florence contacted me by email. She told me that she was living with someone in Wales, that she wrote for a local magazine and that she now wonders why she ever did philosophy.
The person I came to know best in the philosophy department at Manchester University was Desmond Paul Henry, a specialist in medieval philosopher. He and his French-Belgian wife, Marie Louise, took me in and often on Sunday afternoons I made my way to their home in Whalley Range. Desmond was an artist of a kind. He had built a machine that, set to work, drew geometric patterns, mixing shapes and colours. The result was often pleasing. I used to have some of these drawings but they have disappeared along with the brass rubbings that I once did in churches around Oxford and Manchester.
In a letter about being a referee for a job at Oxford that I did not get, Martha Kneale wrote: ‘Certainly the political situation is full of interest, if not exactly cheerful. Manchester seems a fairly quiet sector on the student front at the moment. I hope it will remain so.’ But student rebellion did come to Manchester and though we young philosophers were not direct participants we sympathized with the students and took sides against those with more conservative views. In the philosophy department we were at odds with our professor, Czeslaw Lejewski, a decent man but with the sense of privilege and authority common among professors. For a time university politics was our obsession – an outsider would have been bemused and bored by our conversation. Now this flurry of political activity seems like an interesting but largely non-consequential episode in a history of academic life. But Kee Kok who remained in the department when the rest of us left claims that she was persecuted for the rest of her career for the position she took during this period.
At the end of four years, I longed to leave Manchester and England. Why I wanted to go is not completely clear. I didn’t like the English climate (so I moved to a place in Australia that is notorious for its changeable weather). I thought England was too crowded (so I moved to another big city). I didn’t like being treated as a foreigner (so I became a foreigner in another place). I was restless. Sometimes I saw my future life spread out before me: the same dull routine year after year until I became old, tired and finally dead. ‘I am losing my youth,’ I told Desmond. He laughed at me. But I needed a change. I investigated the possibility of returning to the United States, but I soon learned that I needed an American PhD in order to get an academic job. I did not want to become a student again. In any case, I was not keen on returning to a country that was the major instigator of an unjust war. I had met Australians at Oxford, so it occurred to me to try to get a job there. I applied for a number of positions and got one at Monash University in Melbourne.
- I arrived in Melbourne in the middle of the Australian winter. I was impressed by the gorgeous sunsets and by the difficulties of getting around in this sprawling city. I lived at first in a flat in South Yarra belonging to a philosopher I had met in Oxford. At one end of the street were the Botanical Gardens where I acquired a bit of knowledge of Australian vegetation. To get out to Monash University required a long journey to the southeastern suburbs by train and bus. I bought a small car from a friend of a friend that soon broke down irreparably and I replaced it with a motorcycle. I moved to Oakleigh to be closer to the University, found the surrounding suburbs ugly and dull, and moved back to the inner city. I finally found my proper place in Fitzroy and Collingwood. One of my reasons for transferring to La Trobe University was to have a place of work that was not so hard to reach from the area of Melbourne where I wanted to live.
I have lived for over 20 years in a weatherboard house in Clifton Hill (a part of Collingwood). It was built at the turn of the 20th century and is designed like thousands of other houses that were built about the same time. It has a porch decorated with ironwork lacing, a long corridor giving access to two bedrooms and ending in a larger living room and a kitchen. This was all there was to the original house. A dunny would have been located next to the back fence. Night soil men used to travel down the back lanes to collect toilet refuse. Sometime during the 20th century the area acquired a sewage system and a bathroom with a toilet was added to the house along with a ‘sun room’. At the back and side of my house are garden beds. Vegetable gardening is one of the hobbies that I picked up in Australia. You can grow almost anything here – though the hotter summers that we are now experiencing take their toll.
Not far down the hill from my house the Merri Creek joins the Yarra River just above a falls that used to power a mill. Collingwood was an industrial centre of old Melbourne and when I first arrived small factories were interspersed with houses and big trucks negotiated the narrow streets. Almost all of this industry has departed and the factory buildings have been turned into blocks of flats.
It is the early evening of a long summer day and I am walking along the Yarra. The air has cooled, the light is soft and the setting sun highlights the current, the curls of white water swirling around rocks and the brown, grey and green strips of colour on the white trunks of the eucalypts. I am heading away from the falls along a series of small rapids that now divides the freshwater part of the river from the part that is tidal and brackish. Above me are the apartment buildings that replaced the factories that used to line the river. Across the river is an outlying section of a small national park. Almost all of the trees are river red gums, except for the oaks planted here and there along the river. I pass under a bridge and up the hill to the building and grounds of an old convent that now houses an arts centre and a children’s farm. Sheep, cows, horses and donkeys peacefully graze in their paddocks. Signs ask walkers not to feed them.
After my first semester of teaching ended and the summer began I set out to explore the country where I was now living. My intention was to hitchhike around Australia to Darwin or at least as far as I could get in a few months. I choose this way of travelling because it would enable me to meet more people. Of course, I knew that hitchhiking was dangerous, especially for a woman. Some of the people who gave me lifts told me so. But the thrill of adventure outweighed any trepidation that I might have felt. And whether because of luck, a friendly but firm manner or the good will of country people toward a foreign traveller, I never had any real problems.
I carried a rucksack with a sleeping bag, a change of clothes, a billy and a small A-frame tent. I also brought a logbook.
Probably the greatest danger I encountered was on the first day of my travels.
‘Got ride to Deer Park. Was picked up by two hunters, Alan and Peter: Alan dark, tattooed, Peter red-haired, bearded and older. They were going to Bacchus Marsh. Alan’s father had a hut near the Lerdederg Gorge and the back seat of the Volkswagen was loaded with sleeping bags, blankets and parts of guns. There was barely room for me and my pack. They kept telling me how splendid I was for making the trip. ‘You actually bother to see some of Victoria. Not many Americans do that. They go to the cities. Not that we know many Americans,’ Alan added.
‘Do you want to come out to the hut with us? We’re harmless characters. I’m married; Alan, he’s got a fiancee.’ They had both had a lot of beers and it would have been wise to say no, but I nodded. We left the paved road and entered a dirt lane. Rolling country, very dry, dust on everything. We wound up one last hill. Peter kept stalling the motor. Just off the side of the track was a shack made of corrugated iron.
Alan suggested that we walk over the hill where we might be able to shoot some rabbits. But the impulse to hunt soon died and instead we set up some cans on rocks and used them as a target. Peter gave me the shotgun and advised me how to hold it. ‘Shotguns don’t have a kick if you hold them right.’ I sighted and fired. The can clanked and fell. After the horrific blast I was not so surprised that I hit the can as to see that the rock was still intact. But Peter was right. There was no kick.
Peter decided that he had to be back in Melbourne by 3. Going out through a quarry, coming down the hill fast I cried out in alarm. This only encouraged Peter to speed up and the inevitable happened. We swung wide; there was a thud as the car plowed into a pile of rocks and pushed over a sapling. We hung over a creek, saved from the plunge by the sapling.
‘Fucking hell,’ said Peter. ‘Now let’s gets out, sit by this stream and have a beer.’ Peter got out of the car, stumbled down the bank and fell into the water. ‘Pull up a rock,’ said Alan. He took the opportunity to tell me more about Australian life. ‘So when a car ends up in the ditch the Australian sits down, has a beer and only then goes to work. The trouble with Americans is that they hurry too much. An Australian all he cares about is that he has a jar in his hand and is lying somewhere pleasant. She’ll be right.’ But it was not a very pleasant spot. It was unshaded and hot; the stream we were sitting in was a series of smelly, stagnant puddles.
When the beer was finished we shambled up the hill where the car was gripping the road with only one wheel. Somehow we got it back on the road, with me driving and the guys pushing. ‘Good on you, good on you’, said Peter, hugging me a little too enthusiastically.
Alan drove to Bacchus Marsh. The guys were now as eager to get rid of me as I was to see the last of them. They left me at a milkbar. Two men in a lorry gave me a lift to Ballarat where I camped in a caravan park near Sovereign Hill.’
I made my way to Hall’s Gap in the Grampians on a day of darkening skies. It rained so hard in the night that I was forced to flee to the picnic shelter. The next morning I heard a noise that sounded like a pig with nasal congestion. I looked up and folded into the crevice of a tree was a large koala.
Out onto the Western plains of Victoria I travelled with a series of truck drivers and tourists and camped near the Murray River in Swan Hill. Walking along the river at night I searched in vain for the Southern Cross. I later learned that it is very low in the sky in the early evening at that time of year.
On the way to Mildura I got a lift with a salesman. ‘A long thin face. Talkative only in bursts, very serious.’
‘Gave a lift once to an Aboriginal lad – about 17. Didn’t think anything of it. But just at Robinsvale my fan belt busted. I pulled into a garage, got out and asked if they could supply a replacement. The garage man said he would and went out to the car. Then he saw the lad and said “You’ll have to get your fan belt some other place.” I had to go several miles. Robinsvale is made up of returned servicemen. Soldier-farmers, you know.’
Across the Murray we left irrigated country and entered mallee and salt bush territory – mile after mile of it. Crossing the Murray again we were back in orchard country. Mildura itself seemed like a garden with its central boulevard of palms and flowers.
Now I was on the way to Adelaide. A truck driver told me what it was like working in the Northern Territory. ‘You couldn’t touch metal. You had to watch where you were putting your hand when you shifted gears. When a tire blew you had no energy to change it. Even the ground was hot.’
Finally reaching Adelaide I put up at a pub called the Thistle and slept in a real bed for the first time in a week. I contacted someone I had met in Manchester.
‘He did not think much of the Thistle, asked me if I was expected to do a strip tease for my board and room.’
I passed through Port Pirie, Port Augusta and was left at the turn to Iron Knob. Behind me a mountain was being scooped away. I was thinking of stopping for the night when a pickup zoomed past, stopped and zig-zagged back. The driver, Martin, was off across the Nullarbor to his farm near Esperance. In the back sprawled a teenager called Nikki. Nikki slept most of the time. Martin thought I would be better company.
He was a real estate agent in Melbourne, a former prospector, a would-be farmer. He had come from Poland, worked for the Americans in Germany and came to Australia to seek adventure. ‘I will leave you in Eucla,’ he said, but eventually changed his mind. I went with him all the way to Esperance.
After Iron Knob we were in wheat growing country. ‘Huge flocks of gallahs rose as we passed, turning their pink bellies toward us.’ ‘We might be in Ceduna by dark, Martin thought. Then Nikki and I could see it, a fine place.’
We stopped there to get a bite at a roadhouse. Young men covered with red dust were sitting at the bar. Martin explained that the bitumen ended at the South Australian border and the road would be gravel until we arrived in Western Australia. ‘South Australia ran out of money.’
We drove on endlessly through the night, arguing about politics, talking about books. At Eucla we hit bitumen again. ‘Welcome to Western Australia’ said a sign. Martin drove off the road, stopped the car in front of a low rectangular house and insisted that I sleep in the front seat. He and Nikki bedded down in the back.
When I woke at dawn, Martin was up and someone else was with him. We were on top of a hill looking down at the waters of the Bight. The tall man, introduced as Brian, invited us in for breakfast. We were on his sheep station 300 miles from Ceduna to the east and 300 miles from Norseman to the west.
Brian showed us the huge jaw of a shark. “We got it out of the Bight”, he said. The acreage of the station was vast. How do you round up your sheep, I asked. “We turn off the water. They round themselves up.”
The Nullabor is by no means a desert. It even has a few trees, though mostly it is covered by salt bush and purple spear grass. We saw no animals except those that had met their fate as road kill. Shreds of truck tyres littered the road, sometimes even the wreck of a car. When we finally reached Norseman, Martin, who had been silent for hours perked up. He had prospected in this area.
‘Do you want to stay at the camping park or on my farm? There are poisonous snakes, tiger snakes on my land. But of course you might as well live dangerously. Why not?’ I thought that the snakes were meant as a discouragement and said I would stay at the camping park. But now it seemed that I was calling his hospitality into question and he wouldn’t allow that. I found that I couldn’t politely refuse.
So I stayed for several days camped near his cabin a few miles from Esperance. The town was small, a few houses facing the sea, a street of shops, grain silos, a jetty and a small factory. ‘A growing place’, Martin said. ‘It will be big, real big.’
In the morning Martin, Nikki and I shared a breakfast of sausage, cod livers and rye bread. In the evening we had the same. During the day I walked miles along beaches or through paperbark swamps, sometimes by myself, sometimes with Nikki. Always I was walking through what I described as ‘a corridor of flies’. On the last night Martin lit a fire with mallee roots, spread steaks on the grill and opened cans of beer. The sun was setting. The cicadas made a raucus noise in the grass. The next morning he took me back out to Highway 1.
Months later in Melbourne I saw Martin again. He invited me to a party given by one of his friend in an expensively furnished house in Albert Park. The guests talked of nothing but mining shares and the rise and fall of mining companies. Martin fit in as well with this group as he had with the townspeople of Esperance.
Out on Highway 1 I waited a long time between lifts on a road mostly used by locals. Near Jeramungup I got a lift from a farmer who was willing to take me to Albany but had to catch a few sheep first. Some of his lambs weren’t doing well and he wanted to have one tested at the Agricultural Station in Albany. We bumped through several paddocks, his dogs riding in the back of the ute.
“Spot over there. No, you stay there Fleck. Not this side. That side.” The dogs seemed to know what they were supposed to do; the sheep were soon bunched up and the farmer had no trouble grabbing one, hog-tieing it and throwing it in the back.
Albany had a whaling station still operating, but soon to close. In later years it became a whaling museum. From Albany I got a ride with a motorcyclist – a young man from Switzerland – who offered to take me to Denmark.
‘It was cold on the back of the bike; my thin shirt flapped about my arms. Hitting gravel the bike skidded in an alarming way on patches of loose sand. When we finally reached Denmark we were both chilled to the bone. Over coffee Johan told me that he liked Australia. His friend had gone back, but he intended to stay.’
I was passing through timber country now: the karris rising high on both sides of the road. Past Bunbury jarrah eucalypts dominated the forest landscape. A teacher and his wife took me to Perth and found me a safe place to stay – a temperance hotel. I couldn’t resist sneaking in a can of beer. Perth was a confusion of Christmas shoppers elbowing their way along the main shopping street. Their frenetic activity made me anxious to leave. I had been wondering what I would do during Christmas. A trip to the waterfront decided me. I would go to Rottnest Island.
The Islander chuffed off from the pier at Fremantle with a full load of passengers and in an hour’s time we were at the only settlement on the island. I pitched my tent in the campground, went for a timid swim, disconcerted by the jellyfish. When I returned I had a huge crusader’s tent as a neighbour and out popped a group of New Zealanders. They were taking a holiday from a geological survey in Kalgoorlie. Kevin, red hair with sideburns invited me to the hotel with his mates. On the way back he kissed me and said that he wanted more than anything to go bicycle riding with me the next day. We were both fairly drunk. But the next day I went riding by myself because Kevin never got further than the pub.
That evening I also got introduced to a native marsupial: the quokkas that come out at dusk in their hundreds on the roads and in the campsite. All night I was besieged. They came in through the flaps of my tent, ran over me to get to try to get the food out of my pack. I was kicking quokkas out of my tent all night.
Christmas Eve everyone was at the pub. The New Zealanders had been drinking all day and were boring company. I was taken up by Jim, an island resident who told me that he would introduce me to some nice people. And so I became part of a procession that went from house to house in the village, having a drink at each place and being introduced to more and more people. I returned to my tent after an exhausting social evening to fight off the quokkas.
On Christmas Day there were more parties, more food, guitar music and finally a dinner at night in the old convict prison, now a hostel. I met Adrian who also came from Melbourne. We exchanged addresses and he promised to contact me. That night there were no quokkas – they had also eaten their fill of Christmas dinner.
Later I learned that Rottnest Island had not only been a colony for convicts but also a prison camp for Aborigines. The places where we partied had been scenes of torment, despair and death.
A huge influx of tourists invaded the island on Boxing Day. Tents sprang up in every available spot in the campground. It was time to leave. Adrian saw me off on the boat. Out of Perth and back on Highway 1, I got a lift to Geraldton and then to Carnarvon with someone who worked at Marble Bar. Standing on the road near the turnoff I seemed to be on the edge of the civilized world. I had also reached the end of the bitumen. The road ahead was rough and rutted and the driver who picked me up soon got a flat. Everything had to be taken out of the back of the car. When we reached Port Headland it was late at night. I flopped down in a vacant patch of grass near a roadhouse.
The next day I was given a ride into town by an Israeli who invited me out for a drink. Meanwhile I had a look at a town that was doing its best to become habitable. From the main street I could see the huge cargo ships that were the reason for its existence.
It rained during the night and this was enough to make the dirt roads impassable. The way to Broome was closed and so was the way back to Perth. I had the choice of flying either to Darwin or to Perth. I chose to fly to Perth. I was now heading home and it would be many years before I saw Darwin.
Once I started the homeward journey I was eager to return. My taste for travel had been sated for the time being. I got a ticket on the trans-Australia train and re-crossed the Nullarbor like an astronaut in a space capsule.
‘This was the real Nullarbor – the treeless, flat plain where there is no landmark from one horizon to another, where you can see the curvature of the earth. All day we travelled across this plain. At sundown we were at the South Australian border and in the morning we were back in mallee country and ahead were the hills that mark the beginning of the Flinders Ranges.’
I spent the rest of the summer on another journey, making my way through Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind.
When the University term began I joined the bushwalking club and went on weekend trips in the range of mountains that stretch through northeast Victoria into New South Wales. I proved to be a strong walker, able to endure long days carrying a pack and perhaps for this reason I was invited to go on a trip in the wilderness of southwest Tasmania. On the first summer of my life in Australia I got a taste of the country by covering a lot of ground. In the second summer I had a much closer and intense encounter with a much smaller part of Australia.
We began with a climb up Frenchman’s Cap, a day’s journey through a swampy button grass plain to Lake Vera where the climb begins. Then we made our way through the King William Range, down to the Gordon River, into the Denison Range where (in the middle of January) it snowed. We hitched to Strathgordon, were escorted over the newly built Serpentine dam, scrambled up Coronation Peak and down to Lake Pedder, which was doomed to be inundated by the waters creeping toward it from the dam. Planes were still landing on the beach to give people a last glimpse of this beautiful inland lake. We got a plane ride to Cox’s Bight, walked over the Ironbounds, up Precipitous Bluff and then out to Lune River. By the time we reached Hobart we had been travelling for over a month.
I kept a record of the trip. The notes are brief, mostly written last thing at night under torchlight. Here are some samples.
‘We hit thick scrub about midday – tea tree and pandanis. Spent hours making small distance. We were relieved to come to the occasional beech forest though this meant crawling over mossy logs. All disconsolate because we don’t know exactly where we are but know it’s a long way from our airdrop.
All of us are suffering injuries. I am probably better off than the others with only a few blisters to bother me. However, my boot fell apart half way down the King William Range and is now strung together with wire and twine. We have agreed to avoid conversations about aches and pains.
We clambered off the Denison ridge over mossy rocks, made a campsite and searched for our airdrops, finding all five barrels without difficulty thanks to the map from the Tasmanian Aviation Service. The others sorted out the contents while I made a fire. We used one of the airdrop containers for an oven to roast the tinned chicken.’
We had arranged three airdrops before our trip began. To enable us to find them the pilot gave us map coordinates. Just the same we sometimes we had to search the scrub for several hours to locate them. This was one of the last years when bushwalkers were allowed to pack their airdrops in barrels. For awhile disposable cardboard packages were permitted – we used these on another trip in the Western Arthurs – and then airdrops were banned altogether. The environmental impact had become too great.
‘The ‘knife edge ridge’ that we were warned about turned out to be a pleasant day’s walk, though at one point we had to relay packs down a cliff. We reached the saddle by Coronation Peak in about two hours having stopped for an instant pudding en route. We have yet to pick up our last airdrop.
We are having a tent bound day, partly because of the weather and partly because Ian’s back is bothering him. Peter is singing in falsetto “Chunder in the Old Pacific Sea”; Sandra is doing crosswords and Ian says he is working on his thesis.
We awoke to a clear day with mist below us in the valley. The Citadel with a dome like St Paul’s rose out of the high cloud. We were in high spirits by the time we reached Cleft Peak. Before us was Franklin Peak and beyond that a clear way down to Lake Pedder. But the clear way proved to be illusionary. We encountered the toughest, tallest button grass that we had ever seen and ended up exhausted and camping as best we could between the humps.
Two things are unique to Lake Pedder: the green bugs, the size and shape of ladybugs, which are everywhere crawling on the sand, and the Pedder pennies – flat stones with a ring of iron surrounding a quartz pebble. All of us collected a sample and Peter scooped up a billy full of Pedder sand as a souvenir.
A tiring day of scrub bashing. We battled for hours in muggy heat. We are camping tonight on Wyllie Plateau. Water is scarce. We are draining puddles.
Water showered down on us as the wind cracked the roof of the tent like a whip. The tent flap hit me on the head like a wet towel. I had just gone to sleep when the tent blew down. The poles had sunk a foot into the boggy soil. I anchored one pole using our packs and Sandra put the other in her boot to keep it from sinking. The next morning as I crawled out of my wet sleeping bag it started to hail.’
On the last night I burned my jeans, which were ripped beyond repair. ‘Ian’s jeans were torn at the back and the knees. Sandra’s blouse was in tatters. Ate up remaining puddings and had only 20 minutes of walking on an abandoned railway line to a quarry where we got a lift to Lune River and civilization.’
Some of my notes are about people on the trip and how we got along.
Sandra is the Stoic of the group and carries the heaviest pack without a murmur. Looks a bit like an old fashioned school mistress with her glasses tied together with twine (she broke them in the King William Range). She makes excellent damper and pancakes. Ian regards himself as the one in charge and wants to take responsibility for everything. He worries a lot about what’s ahead. Sandra says that he craves certainty. Peter can be wildly cheerful, cracking jokes and doing imitations, and then for no obvious reason he becomes depressed and lethargic. He’ll push himself at the end of the day, and having reached the goal before everyone else, he can’t eat or he vomits due to nervous exhaustion.
When there is friction in our group it is generally between Ian and me. I am anxious to be recognised as making an important contribution to the party and Ian seems to be bent on denying me this satisfaction. When I make a suggestion he knocks it back as ‘ridiculous’ or ‘unfeasible’.’
I have not heard from Peter in many years. Sandra married a Scot and vanished into the Scottish Highlands where perhaps she is walking to this day. Ian finished his thesis and had a career as a physicist at the CSIRO. We are on good terms and see each other now and then.
I brought along a notebook with pictures of Tasmanian vegetation and made lists of the plants and trees that I identified along the way. My notebook contains few descriptions of the scenery – perhaps because I also took pictures. Some scenes stand out in my memory: the white quartzite on the top of Frenchman’s Cap – so dazzling in the sun that it overwhelmed my eyes even through sunglasses; the cathedral peaks in the Franklin Range; lakes hanging in the crevices of the mountains, blue in the sun and almost black under glowering skies; gloomy myrtle beech forests with unexpected mossy ‘fairy glens’ where no trees grow; wide button grass plains flanked by distant blue ridges; the white quartz sand of Pedder Beach reaching into blue water; the view of the Louisa River from the Ironbounds spreading out into Cox’s Bight.
One of the disadvantages of bushwalking with a group, at least at that time, was the gender division of labour. The men did the navigating and leading and the women generally just followed along. I wanted to learn how to navigate and decided that the only way I could do this was to go into the bush by myself. I began in the forests near Melbourne and finally roamed for days in the wilder areas of the Australian Alps. I lost and found myself on numerous walks and in the end became competent with map and compass, as well as acquiring the most important skill: a commonsense about country. I found that I preferred being in the bush on my own. I could set my own pace, go where I wanted and there was nothing more pleasant than sitting by myself on a log in the late afternoon with a cup of coffee, a book, and the sights and sounds of bush around me.
If you walk in the bush by yourself you are taking a risk. You can have a crippling accident, be bitten by a snake, go the wrong way in bad weather and get hopelessly lost. You can get seriously ill or suffer from hypothermia. In taking these risks I had some close calls. Once I hurt my knee and had to limp out to a road; I had close and scary encounters with snakes; a wild sow once threatened to charge me; I had a few bad falls; several times I almost failed to reach my destination in bad weather before night overtook me. Sometimes I wandered down the wrong spur or failed to find a path I was looking for. But I survived these mishaps and none of them discouraged me. According to Nietzsche’s most famous saying, ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you strong.’ There are a lot of exceptions to this maxim; it is not a good guide for living. But it applied well enough to my bushwalking career.
- I have travelled. This is no mark of distinction these days when so many people in Australia make frequent trips overseas. To be a traveller meant something in the days when my Aunt Inez was famous in the family for her willingness to set off on long flights to the further reaches of the world or when my mother did her long bicycle trip through Quebec Province.
I have ridden camels in Rajastan, trekked in Nepal, ridden a bicycle down mountain roads in Bhutan, skied in Austria and Norway, climbed mountains in New Zealand, rafted down rivers in Canada, travelled through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe back in the Communist days, toured gardens in China, did a cruise to Alaska – and so on. I have gone to conferences all over the world. I am glad I did these things but I am uncertain of the value of my experiences as a tourist. I quickly tire of seeing monuments, buildings and museums and I often don’t remember much about them afterwards.
Being a tourist has become more tiresome and less rewarding now that so many people are also tourists. When I visited Prague back in the 60s I thought it was the most beautiful city I had ever seen. I wandered dreamily through its medieval streets, over the Charles Bridge to the castle on the hill, through the old Jewish quarter with its ancient cemetery – savouring the mood of the city as well as its sights. Returning to Prague in 2012 I found a much brighter and prosperous city. Buildings had been repaired and painted. Cafes and souvenir shops did good business. Large parties of tourists roamed the city following flag waving guides; full boats cruised the Vlatava and people snapped pictures from the windows of the buses that churned through the narrow medieval streets. To walk over the Charles Bridge I had to push my way through a dense crowd clustered around sellers of scarves, t-shirts, postcards and picture books. It would be mean to regret that tourism is no longer the privilege of a few or that the people of Prague have opportunities that they earlier lacked. Just the same I am sorry that I went back and I never want to go there again.
I have travelled and I am glad of it. But now in my old age I have come to the conclusion that I get almost as much pleasure out of exploring the sights of an Australian country town as I can get out of visiting a popular tourist destination.
My preference as a traveller is to live in a place for at least a few months so that I can come to know it more like a local knows it. A lot of people have that preference, but I was lucky to be employed by a university that enabled academic staff to take a paid leave for visits to institutions in other countries. I spent two long periods living in Berlin, once when West Berlin was still a political island bounded by a concrete wall, and once shortly after the wall had come down. I lived for a time in Berkeley and Boston, in Kingston Ontario and later as a visiting lecturer in Waterloo, Ontario. These experiences were much more memorable and rich than any of the fleeting trips that I have made to more exotic destinations. If you live in a place you can take your time to see it. You can work in the morning, go to a museum in the afternoon and leave the rest for other days. You can take bus or train trips to outlying areas, go for leisurely walks in parks, discover congenial places to eat and drink and interesting out of the way places to visit. You can meet people and find out where they like to go and what they like to do.
I am visiting Loni in East Berlin. I have agreed to smuggle her in a copy of Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution, which is banned in Communist East Germany. I reason that if the border guards find it in my pack all they will do is confiscate it and refuse to let me in. But as usual I get through the checkpoint at Alexanderplatz Station without a hitch. As usual I am required to change some of my West German marks into East German marks. They are supposed to be spent before I return through the checkpoint in the evening. I am with Loni most of the day. She wants to show me the church where a group of brave people held protests against the regime. In desperation to spend money I buy some Russian books at a bookstore and send them to a colleague who is learning Russian.
Loni was the friend of one of my comrades in the Communist Party. She had been born in Berlin but her family left for Australia when Jews became victims of Nazi persecution and she grew up there. She joined the Communist Party and when the eastern part of German became the German Democratic Republic she went back to Berlin to help build socialism. After a time she became disillusioned. When I first met her she regarded herself as a socialist critic of the East German regime.
The wall has come down. I am living in what was used to be Communist East Berlin. Loni, who has reconnected with her Jewish heritage and now calls herself Salomea, has lent me her flat near Hackescher Markt (formerly Marx-Engels Platz) while she is visiting her sister in Australia. In the adjoining building was a state run pharmaceutical factory that closed shortly after the wall came down. It is empty now and the entrance to my block of flats is dark and spooky when I come home late at night. But I am only a few blocks away from the heart of imperial Berlin, within short walking distance from its famous museums, art galleries, opera house and university. Walking down Unter den Linden Strasse I pass the former parliament of the DDR. It is empty now, said to be riddled with asbestos. Some Berliners want to reconstruct the palace that once existed on this site. On Saturdays I shop at a market on Postdamer Platz, buying myself a doughy salted pretzel as a treat.
I invited some friends from West Berlin to my flat for dinner. I it amused me to be able to introduce them to a part of Berlin that they did not know. Only a few years later the old pharmaceutical building was turned into an art gallery and Hackescher Markt was transformed into an expensive art and tourist precinct.
I would like to see the temples of Angkor Wat. I would like to climb Mt. Fuji. I would like to see the streets and markets of Istanbul, glaciers falling into the Antarctic seas, the Great Barrier Reef when the coral is spawning and the Northern Lights in Arctic skies. I would like to see a white rhinoceros in its native habitat. But I have not made what people call a ‘bucket list’. I will not be full of regret on my deathbed if I have not ever seen these things. And I do not care for the notion that you should make such a list. The world is inexhaustible in its wonders – some known to me and some not – and to make a list of places to tick off as you visit them is to close yourself off from other possibilities.
- No account of place is complete without a remembrance of places lost. Some of them are lost because they have simply disappeared – victims of urban development, logging, bushfire, dams or road building. It is an odd and unsettling experience to visit the street where you once lived or an isolated forest where you once walked and find a block of flats in the place where your house once stood and a freeway running alongside the path. Some places change so rapidly as to be unrecognizable to a returning traveller. The Berlin I lived in during two periods of my life no longer exists. When I last visited Manchester I got lost because I could no longer orient myself in the city centre that had replaced the one I used to know.
Some places are lost because you have forgotten how to get to them. I once camped in a clearing somewhere in the Grampians. It was in a valley and the trees were mostly ancient messmates. Some wildflowers grew in clumps among the boulders strewn through this park-like meadow. I can picture it in my mind. But in all my trips through the Grampians I have never been able to find it again.
Some places are lost because you know that you will never be able to visit them again. And some are lost because they are ephemeral by nature – their existence is inextricably bound up with the events that happen in them and the experience of being in them. They are like an enchanted castle that disappears when the spell is broken or the lost domain in Alain-Fournier’s novel Le Grand Meaulnes.
There was once a railway track that ran past my uncle Leon’s place – the farm where my father grew up. It made its way through a woods, across fields, eventually (I assume) joining a main line near Muscatine. The trains had long ago stopped running and the tracks were taken up but the remnants of their path through the woods still existed. On one of my childhood visits to my aunt and uncle I went out to explore the path of this ancient railway. With the farm dog at my heels I entered the woods, fought my way through bracken, searched among the trees and there it was – an elevated mound of earth leading off through the forest. We followed its path, climbing over fallen branches and pushing through undergrowth, losing it sometimes and then finding it again until it finally disappeared into the plowed field of a farm. It was an expedition similar in my mind to finding lost Inca ruins in a South American jungle.
All remnants of the railway have now disappeared. The woods has been reduced to a few trees and there is now a small housing development where it once stood. But even if it were still standing it would merely be a woods and no longer a special place of adventure and discovery.
- A place can derive its existence from those who experience it. But place is also thought of as something that transcends experience and persists through change. Generations come and generations go, says the Bible, but earth abides forever. Mahler’s Song of the Earth ends with the comforting belief of a man travelling toward death that nature endures. But we now have to live with the knowledge that this is not likely to be true of the nature we love or of many of the plants and animals that share our world.