Winner of The Nature Conservancy Australia's 2021 Nature Writing Prize
DRIVING SLOWLY ON the flat, newly green plains near Inverleigh we saw a tangled knot of silver-grey weather railing in the mid-sky from the south-west. We both commented on this clear view the plains afforded us, as if the low earth itself had become a high observatory. As we drove further we watched the knot develop tendrils and ragged fabric edges and then eventually a broken swatch of rainbow could be sighted in it. I looked through the windscreen of the car, nodded by way of acknowledgement in its direction, but said nothing. It reminded me of Hugh MacDiarmid’s watergaw.
It was a glimmer the poet wrote about, but distinct to him, and as with all things so personal it felt unique and required a new language. A new language tempered in an old forge. That’s of course what I was doing out at Inverleigh in the first place: getting reacquainted with the foundry of atmosphere and clod that shaped my early ancestors James and Mary and Antonio, and no doubt all of us after them. The swatch of rainbow afforded by the flat plains was from that ancestral forge. And yes, it reminded me of the watergaw.
Hugh MacDiarmid, Scottish poet, friend and mentor to many other poets, Seamus Heaney among them, was obviously a blazing original. He refused all artistic standards but his own and gave and copped a lot of flak for it. He fished deeply in old Scots, particularly in a little monograph entitled Lowland Scotch as Spoken in the Lower Strathearn District of Perthshire. It was not long after reading that monograph that he applied its numinous sonics to his own name, changing himself to Hugh MacDiarmid from Christopher Grieve. And with that his writing changed too. He became the poet the world is sometimes glad to know him as.
One of the first poems MacDiarmid wrote, with his new name and his new sense of what was required of his existence, was ‘The Watergaw’. No doubt it came as a bolt out of the blue and required much fastening to the jinker, but it reads like a bit of the earth’s speech. It’s a burn steadily chanting over the brae, as they’d say in his part of the world.
But now it’s entered my world, and so far away; or rather I’ve retraced a passage back: the big gamble taken by the farm servants James and Mary when in 1841 they got the hell out of Offaly and Westmeath in Ireland, made their way to Plymouth and crossed the risky seas. They landed at Point Henry near Geelong, spent a few years ploughing, shodding and sowing near Moriac and in the Barrabool Hills before envisioning the farm on a low ridge with rivered pasture, and a long view south towards the Otways, across sanctified country, back when it was still moist and beautifully clothed in groundcovers from being entrained, cultivated and worshipped thus by the Barrabool. I’ve entered their world, slipped between the layers of James and Mary and the Barrabool, let blood’s story lure me away a little from the gravity feed of my home coast and into this nearby back country of reversed creation, of rifled waterways, penetrating absences, ostentatious farm gates and GPS-programmed harvesters. And there, in the gnaw of it all, alights the watergaw.
THERE’S A NONSENSE between fathers and sons, no matter how close. In a sense they are always at cross-purposes. For the elder the son is a fish successful enough to be born out of his life’s stream, with flesh tinted and flavoured by the master habitat, whilst for the younger the old man will always be somehow fixed as a source, a headwater issuing in the high country of the past, a cleft mixture of role play, DNA, expansive love and restrictive law. In ‘The Watergaw’MacDiarmid put paid to all speculation on such a theme, saw off Abraham and Isaac, the Holy Trinity, Job and the prodigal sons. Instead of a legend, a narrative or a moral imperative with phoney nodes across time’s landscape, he captured an ordinary patrilineal moment. One ordinary moment. Not to mention its bewilderment. He let that moment, and the bewilderment, capture him. The way all the rest of time fell into it. In the close thudding form of verse with an air of predestination he allowed the ancient mismatch of blood love, of father and son love – where one plus one doesn’t quite equal two but rather something closer to the original one – to come right on down like that waterchant over the brae.
It couldn’t be done, let alone sung, in anyone else’s language. Every deathbed is the same, some more successful than others. He had to decode the dross, sort it, the words and the tropes of thoughts, the inauthentic cadence of emotions that had been foisted onto him, or merely absorbed by him, from the seeming inevitability of imperialistic society and culture. He had to divine the previously unutterable, the misinterpreted, untangle the message, the look in death’s eye, the eye of the father farewelling the son, signalling to him, or merely looking, at the broken rainbow, brinbeal here in Wadawurrung country, the hatching, transformed, but saddened light across the sky. Farewelling that light. He had to quest but never find, to let sound find him, and find him it did, like a glimpse behind the veil.
And the country as we drive, and as we’ve driven about all day, is gleaming with that farewell of broken light. It’s as if James and Mary, my great-great-grandparents, and Antonio Denerio, my Sicilian great-great-grandfather, who washed up mysteriously in Geelong at roughly the same time, are now tumbled up like a Mologa roly-poly into my one and the same dad. I’m driving back away from the sea cliffs he bred us to, back inland only forty kilometres onto the plains towards a time before him, from which he was bred, to come around the back of time and see him from behind, as creation itself sees him, in the hope that what has gone from my earth – his personality and foible, his walking self, perhaps even his voice – will come back a little closer. For death affects distance, not only in space but in time, death’s vacuous finality creates a similar vastness in the sky, a deeper horizontality on the land, so that the minimalist aftermath of the volcanic plains seems suddenly more appropriate than the ongoing drama of the ocean: appropriate, appropriately quiet, yes an appropriate place at least to be your little self. Your little self with a licence to see the watergaw.
WHEN HUGH MACDIARMID turned from writing purely in English to writing a Scots creole or pidgin, he sometimes called it Doric, sometimes ‘my Scots’, but assuredly it tapped closer in to the heartbeat of his land, to its structural braes and burns, its geologic fogs and onomatopoeic sleet. In such shrouded weather the currencies of light that shine through become discoveries, and not by the reader’s and writer’s eye alone. But in the decipherment of the poet’s words there is a pact, a filling in of the outline, the embodying of the glow, a musical process wherein chaos is revealed as harmony, a vision both shared but private, personal but universal, quotidian but mythical, flesh and spirit, real and imagined, as in the lines of ‘The Watergaw’, which tell us of the night his father died:
Ae weet forenicht i’ the yow-trummle
I saw yon antrin thing,
A watergaw wi’ its chitterin’ licht
Ayont the on-ding;
An’ I thocht o’ the last wild look ye gied
Afore ye deed!
There was nae reek i’ the laverock’s hoose
That nicht – an’ nane i’ mine;
But I hae thocht o’ that foolish licht
Ever sin’ syne;
An’ I think that mebbe at last I ken
What your look meant then.
He admits that his pidgin Scots of ‘The Watergaw’ will be ‘quite unintelligible to all of you, unless I explain’, but this is not of course to apologise. Quite the contrary. He goes on to say: ‘A watergaw is a broken rainbow, a broken shaft of a rainbow that you can see sometimes between clouds.’
The broken shaft of a rainbow. This too describes the place we dis-cover, as we are pulled by some gravitational force of the lyric towards the honourable charge of decipherment the poet has thrust upon us.
And there, look, there it is above these drained yet still greening plains so close to my ancestors’ town with its Scottish name: Inverleigh, just west a little of Bannockburn, at the bottom arc of the globe, and now delivering unto me from its sky of so much more, a broken shaft indeed, a glimpse yes, a severed light, gleaned amidst fraying knot and glancing squall, a site terrifyingly specific but as MacDiarmid’s poem shows, a site that like all places is also and always an everywhere.
As we take the slow curve of the grass- and mushroom-freckled bend, I’m hopeful the knitting up of my brow is the forerunner to satisfaction. I peer through the windscreen looking inexorably for the rest, the lost section of the arc, the James and Mary of the thing, the continuation of the colours, the reason Papa Antonio arrived, the rest of the rainbow, just as I was compelled to listen deeper into the sense in broken Scots of MacDiarmid’s poem, and uncannily now of course into the last looks, indeed into all the looks my father gave and were given to him.
MacDiarmid kindly translates the opening two lines of his own poem as such:
One wet, early evening in the sheep-shearing season
I saw that occasional, rare thing –
He knows as he goes that this translation is sadly inadequate, nothing more than a linguistic Bailey bridge, a trussed-up paraphrase of what the Scots expresses and what is unattainable in English. Like any retrieval from the past there is a built-in insufficiency to the task, an inevitable failure, which is of course due to the singular beauty and power of the organic poem, the living thing, and that gives the past its myth and romance.
And thus, we keep driving about.
Likewise it goes on these plains that were once painted with the full flower spectrum of the various Wadawurrung tuber and root vegetables and medicines: the gold of the murnong or yam daisy, the purple of the vanilla lily, the yellow of the parm or bulbine lily, the purple-blue of the grass lily, the striped white and purple of early Nancy, the mauve of the fringe lily, the pale brown of cinnamon bells, the greenhood orchids, the cream of clematis or tarook, the blush of bindweed and the pink of cranesbill. Now, above the once-multicoloured land from which it rises, the watergaw can seem the broken shaft of a cultural and metaphysical message, a dray or chariot ascending but stalled mid-sky, and thereby implying not only the fall but a definitively tragic landing on hard, hoof-compacted, colour-leached, colonial ground. For a moment the whole world feels a jumble of such fucked-up things, all smashed up, cast out and flung into a corner. My corner of the world. Broken blood, broken words, broken land, broken bodies, broken colours of the sky and earth, broken time. The layered stratas of geology here are not just underground mutton after all! It’s in the poet’s words, the veils of time that we journey through in quest for the tang of our blood, the truth of our situation, the spirit’s GPS that is the real pith of place.
So hollowed-out English would not suffice for MacDiarmid and so often also it won’t suffice for me. Not when there is a language that comes from here, is of here, that sounds of here, in timbre and noun, beat and retroflex, and that we were never taught. The next two lines of MacDiarmid’s fatherless fatherful poem he translated thus:
A broken shaft of a rainbow with its trembling light
Beyond the downpour of the rain
And I thought of that last, wild look you gave
Before you died
Here then is both the motif and its explanation. I’ve driven out of the forested littoral, over and away from the nyooroo, or ochre, of ocean cliffs, back up onto an optically level world that might level with me about the tragedy of belonging and love. The broken stalk of colours, the fabric fray of wispy edges, so epic yet ethereal over these tractored plains, so sweet yet sawn-off, so ambient and quiet yet so charged with history’s noise, is the love we feel. The fact we have to physically be here to receive the motif is not lost on me. Beware all substitutes. Beware any archive but the land, any page more static than the ever-fluent sky. I’ve driven out of the ngangahooks, or ironbarks, through the tweedy heaths and lakelands to travel into a timelessness that forms the heart of any such motif. The watergaw. Busted brinbeal. The blunt and the vivid. What makes it so. Spontaneity is always born from the long unconsidered prelude. In each line of mine, James and Mary’s risk and Papa Antonio’s mystery provides an epigenetic score. In the run of life I strain their genes through watered-down paint but here, looking out through the windscreen, I sense a return to the complex palette of their fate. Is this my vanity’s ransom? I consider this seriously until there, there!, through the streaky glass, is the watergaw.
So high that rainbow stalk, yet there is nothing so dun-ordinary as ancestral ground, nothing so ordinary as Dad. Families are daggy, all families, but deep family history is where this dagginess merges back to the magic fables of land. For land is not place without sky, without the dark underneath, without the lit air of story and fable. Place, of which soil chemistry is but one smear of taste on the tongue, one component. All families narrate. All families are an opera, so all place too. In our case these are some plotlines: how they bashed the country on arrival, how they inserted their farm, how they sowed their crops between ghoulish censuses of the Wadawurrung in Geelong that saw numbers dwindling between 1835 and 1877 from 3,240 to ten, dwindling like the groundwater. How they ate instead the papery colours of nasturtium sandwiches and married that early enigmatic Siciliano. This is us. The us of which we are never transcendent. As if a rainbow could never be broken.
By the western district rail line, the lonely silent rails, the sleepy sleepers and the blue volcanic shards in between, we stop at the cemetery and my child, just a three-year-old, wails under the Italian cypresses like he’s haunted. His name is also James and already he rolls his r’s like an Italian. We see how the weather works at his namesakes chiselled on the headstones. I can almost hear the sphagnum creeping beneath our feet as we observe how other mosses and lichens seek our ancestors, find their groove. I see the words then, the letters and numbers – JAMES MARY 1841 1874 1898 – as the curves and bends of guzzles and rivers and creeks, moist habitats for fungal life and tendril, debossed shelter-shapes from wind and direct sunlight. Language provides a melancholy lintel for vegetation’s thrive, a brindled language more powerful than words.
In the end what’s written there is only statistical. Integers not rainbows. As James’ wailing reminds me. He has the ragged, sawn-off sound in his voice. His lungs are strong. Opera-strong. Nor do three-year-olds suffer fools. So it’s back in the car and drive on.
Rainbows break in atmospherics, and like memory the sun gives off light rays of many wavelengths. The shorter, quicker waves rise to blue light; the longer, slower waves to red light. Yellow and green lie between these, and the total effect is that the light appears white. The whiteness that breaks the rainbow. The watergaw appears at the boundary of air and water; then it breaks as the boundaries blur again, boundaries of life and death.
The car tyres ripple over the train line, across a brief rise then a fall of ridge until we turn right into Days Road. It’s like the best seat in the house, this view over the fields. I consult the program:
The skylark’s nest was dark and desolate,
My heart was too
But I have thought of that foolish light
Ever since then
And now, in the way of great poems, the words become our own. As if, going by the mossy dates, I have myself been thinking of that foolish light ever since 1841. What we did or didn’t do. What we have and have not done. What events are, and are not, in our blood libretto. Dad told us all about the meat on a plover’s breast, how to flush the quail out of the Poa grass, he showed us the knack with two-inch nails and crayfish, told us what the go was with snapper and gummy sharks, but never about the succulence of glasswort or boobialla currant, bearded heath or she-oak frond. Was it women’s business to harvest plants rather than meat? I’ve seen the sketch of the Wadawurrung women with their karni, or yam-digging sticks, harvesting the murnong from these once golden plains. It’s only women working in the precious image that survives, the colours all leached out by the Westernness of the depiction, a drawing by the colonial surveyor and politician John Helder Wedge. So is that why Dad only talked about the animal meat, not the plant flesh? Not because he was just a beery carnivore, not because he was Wadawurrung by blood (he wasn’t, we’re not), but because we are all intervolved. In the roles and rituals of nature. We’ve more in common than otherwise, as is proved by our globally shared stories of the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters as they’re called in English, or Kuurrokeheaar as they say in Keeray Woorrong just down the road, or Subaru as they are known in Japan. And that’s before we even begin to mention our fingers and toes. Whatever the case, James and Mary fostered no murnong or boobialla for their tucker. As far as I know it was all chops and bacon, apricots and carrots on those formerly spongey slopes down to the River Barwon. That’s Barwon by the way, a diminutive of Barroworn, which was a glitchy mishearing of Parrwang, the Wadawurrung word for the maestro of song in these parts, the bird Gymnorhina tyrannica, commonly known to us now (most underwhelmingly) as the Australian magpie. So Magpie River. The same river that is still the water I shower in, still the main tributary running all the way through the foolish light I am thinking of.
The heart must accept its dark inheritance, its skylark nest of place. This is partly what the dying father’s wild look is always about. The wild damage that MacDiarmid’s poem expresses, and the death. Interestingly it’s groundlarks rather than skylarks that are flushed up when you stop the car, get out and go walking on these plains. They buzz and fizz. They seem to like the moisture in the level riverfields, the tiny tucker available there. We hear them as soon as we’ve waited long enough, been still for long enough beside the cooling car, and then we go, we walk out towards them. The larks are ancient technologies and so it amuses me how they sound so much like old dial-up modems transmitting deep from the mystery of the grasses. James is happier now that we’re on the wander. Those curving cemetery paths and Italian cypresses, the boulder plaques and headstones, were creepy. But now that we’re walking it’s the sky that dominates. The prisms of light. It’s an aria moment, with not one, not two, but three watergaws climbing and terminating in the sky. They’re like the transient trunks of trees, soaring old-growth severed in mid-air, yet not. Are they the narrative arc unfinished, the motifs of a place still dreaming? For so long I’ve been thinking of that foolish light, for a time that actually feels way longer than my lifetime, my heart dark and desolate, but in the heart of the boy the new adventure’s now on, and the arc must continue.
Not long before my own dad died, our ordinary daggy dad who lived not immortalised in MacDiarmid’s poem but in our own unperformable opera, my brother spotted a hare scampering over the rise outside the hospital window. I had had the call that Dad might not have long and had rushed over only to find him sitting up in his bed eating cashews and reading the paper. The wild look had not yet come. He might as well have been at the pub. But though my brother had not yet told me what he had seen, the hare had already scampered over the rise. Feeling relieved that Dad seemed okay, I settled into the chair beside his bed. I asked him then if he thought he may come right. I wouldn’t have thought so, was his reply.
No-one can avoid the realism of what has happened here. In this place. Where the truth is both ferocious and plain. Truth of the basalt plain. Volcanic eruptions and then, in their long ongoing aftermath, colonial violations, depravities and worse. There are still stories told in the Wadawurrung community about those deep-time eruptions of the old volcanoes: the Yawangis (the You Yangs), Buninyong (a suburb of Ballarat), Moriac (fast becoming a suburb of Geelong) and Loolarrungoolak (these days a windfarm on a hill just north of Birregurra but renamed long ago for the Hobart lawyer and land speculator Joseph Tice Gellibrand), not to mention the comparably modern colonial eruptions brought by Messrs Batman, Fawkner, Fyans, Smythe, Roadknight, etc. There is a saying I like, though, that diffuses any false or anxious claims about who qualifies, and who doesn’t, as a local around here. Typically such definitions are all about the length of time spent in a region, the chronos rather than the kairos that makes my Indigenous friends true royalty, but the saying is it’s not how long that counts, it’s how. Well, let’s face it, there are people who have lived their entire life in these parts and don’t know a gang-gang from a galah. There are others, whose ancestors are buried far away rather than up close, who can delineate the industrial utility or otherwise of the different grades of quarried local bluestone with the precision of the best wool classers. This is what our little James begins to teach us as he strides out fearlessly into the paddocks. The cyclic quality of time-in-a-place. That Greek word kairos is all about quality of time rather than quantity or duration. Unlike chronos, kairos is actually more about timing than time. Timing, as in the hare scampering over the hospital rise. My brother being there to notice. Timing, like little James Day scampering over what he doesn’t even know is his complex ancestral ground.
This is the timing-truth of music, of a poem, the timing beyond word counts or harvest tallies, the timing of rain. Rainbows are of course absolutely suffused with kairos, and the blunt edge of the watergaw only emphasises this further. It is like watching a thing achieving itself, a thing failing and succeeding at the same time, a bright exciting thing but a dying thing, a thing half made, in process. Yes, it is like watching a place. Being in a place. Being a place. My great-great-people’s bones lie composting in the ground, just as my boy goes out from us, becoming himself. When MacDiarmid’s father gave him that wild look he also gave him a new language. Shedding English like a husk, the poet took on the challenge of inhabiting the sound of the ground he’d been given. A grounding in truth.
I have been writing in English all my life, but in my desire to shed my own local foolish licht I have also, for over thirty years now, been slowly learning and absorbing Wadawurrung. Which is the same as slowly learning and absorbing place. My clumsy attempts these days sound like here, the sound of our wider area and its peoples, its continuation, abrupt combinations, uncanny augmentations and tragic brokenness. This ‘impure’ onomatopoeia of here is itself an arena in which to gather, and the watergaw feels like the sight of it. It is neither merely sweet to see or hear this language, nor redemptive. It’s more like a step towards ‘transposing the parochial into the planetary’, which is how Seamus Heaney described MacDiarmid’s art. Whatever the case, it feels like part of an inevitable process of the heartland, the process of our being here, of our time in the place.
And I think perhaps at last I know
What your look meant then
When Dad died his own sounds became animal, a new dawn in the offing. Like MacDiarmid I remember the wild look he gave, but luckily in my case it was also accompanied by the last two words I remember him uttering in my presence. They came in response to the nurse’s brandishing of a syringe filled with morphine, which I had agreed she should give to him. Natural pain, Dad said, looking at me as if I were some kind of criminal. Despite how confronting this was at the time I was proud that he said that, and have been ever since. After that, if I ever asked him anything in the few days he had left, all I remember hearing in response were the magpies outside his window. The parrwang opera. That’s parrwang, by the way, with a decidedly Sicilian rolling of the rrrr’s.
The census statistics are from Clark, ID 1990, Aboriginal Languages and Clans: An Historical Atlas of Western and Central Victoria, 1800–1900, Department of Geography and Environmental Science, Monash University, Melbourne. It should be noted that there would be obvious reasons why many members of the Wadawurrung clans would not have consented at this time to have their population counted in this way. The reliability therefore of the numbers must be questionable. They nevertheless provide perhaps at least some indication of the decline not only in the Wadawurrung population, but in their trust of the invaders.
The list of tuber and root foods is compiled from a blend of personal experience and from the valuable ethnobotanical research found in Gott, B & Conran, J 1991, Victorian Koorie Plants, Yangennanock Women’s Group, Aboriginal Keeping Place, Hamilton, Vic.
The reference to language being ‘an arena in which to gather’ references Bruno Latour: ‘Be not the one who debunks but the one who assembles, not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers but the one who offers arenas in which to gather.’