…for to know a place in any real and lasting way is sooner or later to dream it. That's how we come to belong to it in the deepest sense.
– William Least Heat-Moon
I WAS BORN to two mothers, one of flesh and one of earth. To a woman, young and fierce, and to a patch of ground, old, its skin layered with the lives of others who walked or worked or dreamed here, on this knuckle of land on the north side of the Brisbane River.
This ground – or more particularly, a treed yard behind a ramshackle house – is where I belong. Though it is forty years since I left it, and though I've lived in twenty places since and travelled far, and though the house is now gone and the yard much changed, its length and breadth are still, for me, the precise measure of home.
I suppose I've never questioned or understood it: how a place that exists only in my memory can hold and ground me more than the structures where I've lived with husbands and lovers and children, where I've sung to grandchildren, written my books, grown my gardens. Where I've cooked and laughed with friends, expanded by wine and warmth and conversation. Places of retreat, of solitude, where I've hung my paintings and filled my bookshelves and lit my fires.
I hadn't acknowledged this until five years ago when I set out to write about my mother and my brother in what became a memoir, Boy, Lost (University of Queensland Press, 2013).The book was an interrogation not just of the circumstances in which my mother's first child was stolen, but of the culture that condoned it, along with thousands of other child thefts perpetrated in Australia in the past two centuries. But Boy, Lost became more than that for me. It turned out that it was my story too. That the weight of lost things carried by both my mother and my father was like a watermark left on me and on my siblings, and passed by us to our children. We had all inherited an invisible history, one that, despite its force-field of secrecy, had played out through our whole lives.
It doesn't seem strange now that, in the throes of writing and understanding this, I found myself trying to explain the visceral ties I have to the geography of my childhood. I wrote about the trees, the grass, the open space, the joy and possession, the sense that we were indivisible, this patch of earth and me. But when the book was finished I still felt uncertain.
The word inheritance kept nagging me. I began to wonder if the invisible legacy of my parents' stories was bound up in this place, was not only within us but vested in the very soil we grew on. Loss and longing, grief and love, honour and stoicism: my mother and my father brought their whole histories here, then shed them like old skins, insisting on renewal, on the possibility of joy. Sensing some old sadness, we children fell into line; it was up to us, we knew, to bring this happiness into being, to embody it here in this place of new beginnings.
So did we make this piece of land our own, my brothers and sister and I, by enacting our lives there day after day, by imagining ourselves happy? Even now, decades later, the words New Farm evoke a vast and intricate mythology among us, a colourful narrative loosely called our happy childhood. And that is what matters, isn't it? What we thought it was. Not what happened there, but what we want to believe happened there. This is how, as adults, we create our childhoods, our own fictional histories; we make meaning and construct ourselves through our longing and desires, through our need for love and safety and belonging. That's just what I did on that quarter acre block in mid-century New Farm. I created, as Salman Rushdie puts it, my 'imaginary homeland'.
A city needs deep memory, without which it becomes merely a stage set.
– Robert Hughes
MY HOME LIES on ancient ground. But its past is there in its present, starkly visible in the rock New Farm is built on. There it is in the foundations of its houses, in the grounds of my primary school, in flashes of mauve and green and cream in the paths I took to get there. Brisbane Tuff –properly pronounced toof – was laid down with a violent volcanic explosion 226 million years ago, spewed as dust and ash in a fiery cloud that rolled towards the place where Brisbane would one day rise. It cooled and set as bedrock in the precise corner my sea-roaming father would choose to settle, and where I would spend a childhood grazing my knees in a grassless schoolyard atop a hill of Tuff.
I ran and played on stable, solid rock. A bare-foot child, I must have known this in my body. Like those around me, I walked and lived unworried by the possibility of seizure, of the earth erupting beneath me, cracking open its dinosaur jaws. It was deep in my child's subconscious, but it seems obvious to me now that my son and his children live on the capricious ground that rolls beneath Christchurch. Here we have all built our shelters, grown our gardens and dreamed our dreams emboldened by solidity, made complacent by it.
Will my grandchildren walk too carefully, I wonder, will their dreams be precarious, will they forever look for cracks and uncertainties in the world? What do we owe to the geology of our homelands, to the geography and landforms of the places where we build our structures and our selves? I have begun to think that if I trace the land I grew on back through all its layers, dig through to the glaciers and volcanoes, back through its human history to how the land itself was ground into being, I might come closer to understanding myself and my own beginnings.
If I dig down through the strata of earth and water and rock, I might more clearly see through my own layers of life, the bedrock of belief and perception, the striated slabs of emotion, the small tiles of knowledge, triumph and understanding. Find my own deep memory in the city.
Geography blended with time equals destiny.
– Joseph Brodsky
I AM WALKING towards a piece of land on a street within a suburb: 210 Kent Street, New Farm. For those partial to maps, as I am, its physical co-ordinates are latitude -27.459539 and longitude 153.042437. As we're being so precise, I should say that, when I was a child, the piece of land actually straddled 208–210, but as the streetscape has altered, old structures revived and enlarged or replaced by flats, the street's numbers have changed. To a newcomer it might be difficult to walk along the footpath and pinpoint the perimeters of this piece of land at all. The succession of numbers would mislead you. So from the very outset, the lines around this story are blurred, the subject hard to pin down. Where it starts and where it ends, its depth and width, the borders of the block and our idea of it, are not reliable. Memory, imagination, the stroke of the town-planner's pen: we are at the mercy of them all.
Like its neighbouring streets to the north, Kent Street is long and undulating. It covers four blocks: from Bowen Terrace, which runs along a cliff of Tuff above the river, down across Brunswick and then James, on up the hill to Chester and down once more to Florence Street. By the time it meets this junction Kent has outrun New Farm and is officially in Newstead. Practical place names that needed no explanation in a fledgling colony at the beginning of the nineteenth century – locations for the settlement's second farm and governor's homestead – but now mean something very different to those who live there.
Number 210 Kent Street is at the New Farm end, between Brunswick and James, where some people would argue it is virtually in Fortitude Valley. But you only have to look at its geography to see that isn't true: Kent Street rides a ridge, above the Valley on one side and the fall of land towards the river on the other. This working class end of the street, with its modest cottages and plain flats, doesn't quite belong to either.
You can find it on any local map – aerial, satellite, driver's, walker's, tourist's. These will give you a bird's eye view, a way of finding a place, of situating yourself. Geological maps, ordinance maps, directional, demographic, historical, topographical: I have consulted all kinds of maps recently, and each has told its own story. So I have read each map in my own way, as if I am reading a book, interpreting subjectively, creatively, seeing with my own eyes and through my own history.
Each has shown me the length and breadth of space, its depth and complexity, the steepness of hill, richness of vegetation, the contour of country. They have guided my way, at times perplexed and confused me. But finally they have worked only in tandem with my own maps of memory and emotion, maps of the mind drawn by story and intuition, by some internal compass I have begun to trust and to follow.
It requires a certain kind of reading: a widening out rather than a narrowing, because those two words – New Farm – hold much more for me than points on a compass, more than a paper map could reveal of this broad loop of streets and houses strong-armed by the Brisbane River. For me, the whole place is storied, embodied by narratives my family has made and told, by those I have made and told myself. These stories create a map of meaning and emotion rather than street and direction; for my family, telling these stories is how we navigate our way home.
No matter that this home exists now only in memory and dream and story: still it is more real to us than the brick and tile units that straddle the grass where we played rounders, the carpark where our house once stood.
EMMA FELTON IS walking along with me. Felton is a cultural geographer, and a long-time resident of New Farm. We walk up James Street past the school, past the old school shop that transformed for a while into a Persian carpet salesroom and now awaits a new role, and up to the intersection with Kent where a butcher shop has been operating for over a century. Diagonally opposite, people drink coffee outside what used to be the corner shop where my mother bought her groceries: milk and bread, tea and sugar and, because this is New Farm, place of immigrants and exiles, and because this shop is run by a Dutchman, slabs of genuine Gouda cheese and rollmops.
Felton is telling me about research that claims 'we learn about ourselves by discovering competence at both manipulating environments and assigning meaning to places'. Part of her doctoral study, 'Becoming Urban', examines how emotion and embodiment are central to understanding our relationship with place, and the role of imagination and experience.
When I tell her about my mother's sadness and our determination to be what she wanted us to be – happy – she reminds me of the great Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk's recollections of parts of Istanbul in his book of the same name. She quotes him: 'If we've lived in a city long enough to have given our truest and deepest feelings to its prospects, there comes a time when – just as a song recalls lost love – particular streets, images and vistas will do the same.'
The first part of our connection to landscape, Felton says, is emotional: 'We absorb sight and sound and smell before we can think.' The feelings around us, too. If psychoanalysis is right, we are driven to fill the void we are born with. Did we, our mother's children, learn to fill hers as well as our own?
The Dreaming is also the inner or spiritual dimension of the present. Things contain their own histories. There is no contrast of the natural and the spiritual, and there is no geography without history and meaning.
– Peter Sutton, anthropologist
MY IMAGINARY HOMELAND: the 'my' is, of course, contestable. The emotion attached to it as unreliable as memory, and the very act of claiming it, by talking or writing, is false, arrogant. It is only a simple act of European naming that allows me to conceive of it as 'Kent Street' or 'New Farm' at all, to pull together certain characteristics and coordinates of place and attach words and meaning to them. These have no weight for the Aboriginal people who lived here so long before us, whose claim to meaning here is both ancient and embodied.
Before 1788, the Turrbal people occupied and roamed far around the north side of the river. They made seasonal journeys from a camp around York's Hollow, near the present site of the Royal Brisbane Hospital, to the place they called Binkenba – place of the land turtle – around the present site of New Farm Park. In this plentiful place by the river, they fished and hunted and gathered together. For them this place was and is deeply storied, profoundly resonant of their links to country and to ancestors.
They made storied pathways over country. Every geographical feature was part of a complex narrative, a marker on a deep map that was not merely physical but spiritual, not separate from their corporeal beings. But where are their traces? Where is the Aboriginal in New Farm, in Brisbane, in the place I claim as home? In just over two centuries we have erased the evidence of forty thousand years; we have lost the opportunity to know another way of seeing.
For Brisbane architect Kevin O'Brien, a descendent of the Meriam and Kaurereg people of the Torres Strait, this absence is preoccupying; he has spent years wrestling with the notion of our erasure of Aboriginal presence in the city. In a recent project and exhibition for the thirteenth Venice Architectural Biennale entitled 'Finding Country', he invited fifty participants to empty one page of a UBD map of Brisbane. To conduct their own erasure, in order to 'reveal something hidden'. Much of the project covered New Farm, Teneriffe and Newstead, my own childhood roaming places.
'Every part of Australia, of this Country, has a memory,' he says. 'But Australian cities were laid out as if on a blank canvas. This is the way architects design, as if the design paper is blank. But it isn't blank. It's full of Aboriginal places. We continue the eighteenth century European tradition of drawing on empty paper. The Aboriginal position is that this paper is not empty, but is full of what can't be seen.'
Still, Australian cities continue to expand blindly both out and up, he says: 'No one looks down, into the ground, into Country.' His exhibit in Venice was a personal challenge to non-Aboriginal architects to do just that.
…the photograph (of a childhood home) reminds me that it's my present that is foreign, and that the past is home, albeit a lost home in a lost city in the mists of lost time.'
– Salman Rushdie
THIS MIGHT BE precisely what I am trying to do. To look down, to see through the layers. Perhaps, as for Kevin O'Brien, this is my way of returning what is lost to myself, through a kind of sloughing off. As children, we jostled around our dozing father, wanting the sensory pleasure of stripping off the longest piece of loose skin from his sunburned back. Pincer fingers poised, the gentle lifting and probing, the slow, deliberate parting of skin and flesh. The soft, prone form on the couch might be a piece of exotic fruit; but it's our father – we might be skinning him to see what he's like underneath, to see the man beneath the father, to uncover him.
If I peel away the earth of my childhood, the skin of the ground I grew on, I may get back to the child I was, before the world intervened. This, I suspect, is where my real self was born and still is. The ideal self, who she was and who I might, perhaps, want to be once more. The good self, with a belief in possibility. I want her future, to fashion it and live it all over again.