Being here

Learning the language of place

BACK IN 2015, when we were getting the local language work going here at the Aireys Inlet Primary School in Mangowak, every Monday morning I’d try to fire up the whole-school assembly about Wadawurrung language. Each week the students learnt, and still do, new Wadawurrung words, and inevitably with those words came new ways of looking at the cultural history of their home landscape. On the first Monday of every month, and on other special occasions, they also sing the Mangowak Song, a boisterous yet melancholy and yearning piece written with some of the words they have learnt, the lyrics a mixture of English and Wadawurrung. This is the song’s first verse:

I’m from Mangowak where the murnong grows
Where the garra blooms along the wintry roads
I’ve got a smart tonton like the old ngoorang
Where the boonea swim that’s where I am

The murnong is the yam daisy; the garra, the wattle; the tonton, the brain; the ngoorang, the bull ant; and the boonea is the eel.

It is not lost on me, the fact that I, as a non-Indigenous, fifth-generation Australian, am sharing Wadawurrung language with non-Aboriginal students of what is these days an affluent coastal town. How could it be, after listening to Aboriginal friends and after all the years I have spent writing songs, novels, poems and essays that try to come to terms with the personally intimate and wider cultural background I inherited when I was, as Erik Satie once said, ‘born very young in a very old world’? The broken song and awful absence along this western Victorian coast that always sits near the core of my work still exists – I feel it every time I stand up in front of the children – but it is by now an absence I have spent many years interrogating. Nowadays I see it as not only a necessity but an honour to speak of the ongoing presence in that absence, and to sing of all that in the guiding presence of local Elders, to the future adults of my area.

In December 2016 Tandop (Uncle) David Tournier told me the story of how he once caught a white eel in Corio Bay. As he told me the story he was eating a local black eel we’d caught in the Pangkallac the night before. David hadn’t eaten eel for a while and when he’d finished telling what was quite literally a hair-raising tale about the white eel getting tangled up in his hair, we both sat quietly watching a white cockatoo sauntering across the school deck where the assemblies are held. As we sat there I told Tandop David the story of the cockatoo called Sunshine I met a few years ago. Individual cockatoos often live for many decades and Sunshine had been born back in the 1930s, at which point she was taught a few English words. She still spoke with a Depression-era accent and lexicon. Mother! she would shriek when she wanted to be fed. David reminded me of the Wadawurrung word for the white cockie: djernip. Sunshine was a djernip. As opposed to a gherang, which is one of the Wadawurrung words for the local black cockatoo. Gherang is also the word used to name the gravel used on the roads in these parts, fox-coloured gravel the hue of which is actually founded in the local nyooroo, or ochre. We live in a world of delicately tuned balances, I thought. Night and day, djernip and gherang. Or imbalances: Blackfella and coloniser, hooded plover and hungry fox, black eel and white eel. I wondered to myself: What on Earth would be the word for a white eel? David and I talked about language then, the everyday poly-temporal magic it contains, and he told me how he was working on translating the Mangowak Song completely into Wadawurrung. I’m hopeful that one day one of the students from the school might grow up to help out with this task that Tandop David ran out of earthly time for. In my view these are the necessary jobs that, with the blessing and guidance of Traditional Elders, we need to undertake to help in the long process of restoring balance to this land.


BEFORE MOST OF my role at the school was passed along to Amanda George, a tireless local parent, activist and community lawyer of Scots/Irish heritage, I’d include some kind of object in the Monday assemblies – it could be an ironbark frond (ngangahook) from the grove next to the school, which was ceremonially opened as the Mangowak Sanctuary by Tandop David on the day we cooked the eel. It could be a piece of nyooroo from the nearby ocean cliffs, a mobile phone (yarna larka), the picture of Narrandjerri Elder David Unaipon on the Australian $50 note, or a boonea caught in the Pangkallac as it slithers through the middened terraces of the town on its way to meeting the sea under the Split Point Lighthouse. One Monday, in the middle of autumn here in Mangowak, I took in a crab brittlegill mushroom. The crab brittlegill is one of some 750 varieties of mushroom gathered under the genus name russula. One local variety – Russula xerampelina – grows on the banks of the Pangkallac just fifty or so metres from my front door. As I held up the mushroom in front of the school I explained to the kids how the crab brittlegills love pine trees, particularly non-indigenous pines such as Pinus radiata and Pinus macrocarpa. They grow in the earth we live upon, in the soil we call home, but only in the right symbiotic mix of nutrients and sunlight created in grassy clearings near these introduced trees. I occasionally see russula fungi growing in the bush around here but being what the mycologists call ‘ectomycorrhizal symbionts’, the great likelihood is that Russula xerampelina would not be so prevalent in the town without the existence of the introduced pines. The interesting point though is that the crab brittlegills themselves, unlike the pines, were never intentionally introduced into Australia by colonisation. It is not a case of a spore being introduced by a colonial mycologist, or a seed being planted by a land-grabbing grazier. Rather, the crab brittlegills have spontaneously and symbiotically proliferated within the mycelial profile of what some might call the new ‘Anglo-Indigenous’ soil conditions.

It is in those very soil conditions that I tell the kids how when I walk around the place and see a crab brittlegill growing, I get optimistic. This is for two reasons. The first reason is that the crab brittlegills are really yum, and I know that myself and my family will be eating well that night. The second reason is that the crab brittlegill has developed into a little symbol for me of the way that we could all learn from the monocultural horrors of our white-obsessed history to grow here instead in a properly symbiotic way, in this soil, without having to seem too out of place, or too dominant, and without spreading like invasive weeds or an invading power destroying its very host.

If I were talking to an audience of academic adults rather than a group of primary school-aged children, I might at this point cite Donna Haraway’s symchthonic ideas of ‘conjugal kin’, ‘ongoingness’ and her theory that our survival depends increasingly on our ability to work together as ‘companion species’. (‘Symchthonic’ is Haraway’s coinage, sprung into being from the Greek derived prefix ‘sym’, meaning ‘together’, and the equally Greek ‘chthonic’, meaning ‘to dwell in the earth’.) Or I might cite Thomas Berry’s coining of the term ‘Ecozoic era’, to name a future in which humans will overcome their current fate as a ridiculously self-isolated species and willingly re-enter the teeming symbiosis of earthly life forms. With the children, however, I simply point out how, despite the fact that I have been noticing the crab brittlegills all my life, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to actually eat them, never having been told by my parents, and them not having been told by theirs, nor theirs by theirs, nor by anyone else, that they were edible and delicious. As with so much in my home landscape, my ignorance of the delights of the crab brittlegill is therefore multi-generational; and yet it was my own thirteen-year-old son who, through his own interest and research, informed me that it could be eaten and enjoyed.

The beaded glasswort (Salicornia quinqueflora) is a similar but even more telling case, I tell the kids. This salty native succulent grows in great abundance all over the Pangkallac river flat here in Mangowak. In Korea it has long been viewed as a highly restorative and nutritious ‘superfood’, akin to ginseng, but here in ‘Aireys Inlet’, despite my family and friends’ longstanding appetite for hunting and foraging, no one ever told me what a beautiful food it was. This was because, due directly to the dispossession of the Wadawurrung in our area, no one knew. ‘The greatest song of the land is the food it produces,’ I tell the kids, quoting that most Anglo-Indigenous of Australian writers, Eric Rolls. You are what you eat, I say to them, so don’t miss out on the connection. Try to understand your place, listen to what it’s telling you so you can be here properly and look after things well.

This listening out for balance and connection can often deliver unforeseen stories, like the one Tandop David told me about the white eel. So I also tell them about the international nature of the beaded glasswort and how it has, more likely than not, been spread through the marshes and wetlands of the East Asian-Australasian Flyway by migratory waterbirds such as the eastern curlew. Harry Saddler, in his book on the eastern curlew, describes the transplantation of glasswort seeds along the migratory path of the curlew as it flies each year from far eastern Russia to Australia, including southern Victoria and Tasmania. Loving the glasswort as they do, the eastern curlews digest them and excrete the seeds at different points of their landfall as they make their way along the flyway. So this, I say, is where yet another layer of wonder comes into the story. What the curlew loves to eat the most it also drops off as an intergenerational seed package as it goes, ensuring that the glasswort is distributed at the appropriate stopovers – Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, China, Japan, Korea – on its long, indeed epic, route along the flyway. The question I put to the kids then is: what exactly does it mean to be local to our place if the glasswort in the river flat might have been dropped off by a bird that first developed a taste for it somewhere closer to modern-day Russia? Is the glasswort stranger or kin? Can we live together as good companions? And aren’t we all interconnected in ways that aren’t obvious at the first, or even the thousandth glance?

You bet.


THE ESSAYS THAT make up my forthcoming book Words Are Eagles: Selected Writings on the Language and Nature of Place amount to a series of attempts to understand how best to express, or match, with written language my feeling for the place where I live. Writing the essays over the period of time since we wrote the Mangowak Song at the school, a period of time in which all the school classrooms and house names have been changed to Wadawurrung, has involved what Ruth Blair, in her essay on the phenomena of the bioregional novel, calls ‘a constant process of relationship and negotiation amongst phenomena’. In our local case it’s often aspirational phenomena, as the real-estate prices along the Great Ocean Road hike up and the demographic changes. In her 2016 essay, ‘What Happens When You Tell Somebody Else’s Story’, Alexis Wright states that ‘we are all collectively the inheritors and generators of the country’s psyche’ and it’s inevitable that my process as a non-Aboriginal writer in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century must reflect that. In fact, the process of how I have come to be here as a writer is probably the real narrative of the essays in Words Are Eagles, which in turn is a key part of the ongoing challenge of how to be here as a human being. A challenge that never ends. As Ruth Behar wisely says in her work on the interplay between the written and spoken word: ‘The experience is always larger than anything you can write about.’

That sense of something larger is represented for me best in a spatial sense by the sound of the ocean at night. I have tried to write about it on countless occasions, tried to notate the mystery and immensity of that sound, but in doing so I have become aware of the irony of the aim: to write about the presence of something so ongoingly big is only possible by writing about the absence it sings of. To nail it down would be like trying to nail down where the eastern curlew first developed a taste for what is now our local salty bean. I have no doubt that the urgency of the challenges of being here is compounded by the alarming meteorological, and therefore psycho-geographical, conditions of our industrial and post-industrial epoch where, as Bruno Latour puts it, ‘a huge operation has been going on…to deanimate materiality rather forcefully to obtain, in the end, something like a “material world”.’ Latour’s philosophical humour is always refreshing, and this is a good example of the subversive way he changes our view of ‘taken-for-granted’ terms. His criticism of the way our materialism wages a war on life, and his intelligent positivity about the importance of naming this war, is hopefully connected in an entirely inevitable way to the manner in which I have dramatised the cultural and demographic turbulence of the Mangowak biota and mise en scène in my fiction. That I make an attempt to write of an emotional geography – a phrase that in the time of Latour’s philosophical forbears in France would have been viewed as a contradiction in terms – by asking questions of the land and seascape as well as its oldest inhabitants importantly includes the process of being asked questions by them. Two-way questions, such as those I might ask the schoolkids about the ancient food drop-offs of the eastern curlew, or curious quixotic questions, such as those I am often asking myself in solitude. Like asking a cave how it came to be and then listening to the timbre of the question’s echo. Or asking the eels where they go when they migrate, and then fully imagining the answer before I even begin to confer with Dr Google.

I think of this process as a ballad of sorts, a ballad of rigour and dreaming. Trying to strike a balance between these energies always seems the right way to go about it. In my novels the quixotic questions lead, like symbiotic hyphae in a mycelium, to generation and creation. In the essays the process is more genealogical, interrogative, even confessional. But in all instances the answers are triggered in a conjoined way so as to find empathetic correspondence between our intimate selves and the world that nourishes us.

In my experience, when we fill the space with narratives that include the untold, the unseen, or, if you like, the material of the immaterial, the place begins to animate like a friend. Latour’s ‘material world’ is restored to life. I begin to consider myself in the context of the white eel. Actually, it’s a bit like the difference between playing a digital piano and a real one. The harmonics of the biota begin to connect us to a place of ancient-ongoing voices, personages, memories, echoes, sadness, possibilities, dreams and mythologies, and thus we hear it better and treat it better (not that there needs to be a moral outcome from responding to the ancient call to sing and tell).

Indeed, I agree with David Abram’s contention that intelligence is not ours alone but rather:

a property of the earth; we are in it, of it, immersed in its depths. And indeed each terrain, each ecology, seems to have its own particular intelligence, its unique vernacular of soil and leaf and sky.

In the context of attempting, as an Australian of Irish-Sicilian blood, to write about my connection to Wadawurrung tabayl, it also feels important to point out how this idea of Abram’s connects with what Maria Takolander has described as ‘the creation of a parochial culture as a strategy of decolonisation…a distancing from the centre…and a means of self assertion’. Time and again my agent in London reports back that publishers over there find my work excellent but ‘too Australian’. I am not the first Australian author to experience this attitude but Takolander’s comment points to why I take such a ‘rejection’ as almost a badge of honour. Though I would never have the gall to compare myself with the following great writers, imagine, for instance, if Arundhati Roy was told her work was ‘too Indian’. Or Janet Frame that her work was too Kiwi. Or if Chaucer was dismissed for being ‘too English’ and Homer for being ‘too Mediterranean’. In fact, in the context of the currently teeming work going on to reconstruct, embrace and celebrate the Aboriginal languages right across this continent, all of these wonderful authors could equally be described as not being quite local enough. I believe the inherited emotional ingredients of the way the sound of a place enters our speech can circumvent any obvious need for local colour as a mark of authenticity. If you let it in, it will just be there anyway.

There is a universal human story of possession and dispossession, of migration and adhesion, grief and loss, in the very air. Our interpretations, or notations, of that air take on a local sensuousness that, within the context of our hope for a truly postcolonial Australia, is at the heart of what we’re trying to figure out and feel. A recursive and perpetual motion is set up, akin to the wheel of the stars. We write and sing both high and low, from the universal to the local and back again, along the flyways of ancient hearts, from the personal arteries of inherited memory to the acoustic community of living voices, whether they be regional, international, real or imagined. Or perpetually implied by the sound of the waves and the song of the ground beneath our feet.

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