When Tracy and Tim arrive, I’ll go up and close the double gates behind them. At this time of evening it would be usual to see roos, but none show. Their numbers are down. People have been shooting illegally in the reserve, and earlier in the day I noticed a strand of fence-wire cut where a hunter has stepped over, chasing roos onto our place. Our property. I reject the notion of property. Custodianship sounds too appropriative, and for a non-Indigenous resident, all too convenient. Really, that’s the issue that burns below the surface of all I write about this place. Proudhon is only halfway there with ‘property is theft’. Some theft is more theft than others. He fails to investigate the nature of such theft: that’s more the key to understanding the implications of surveying, gifting, selling, claiming.
Right across the block – its six acres, and an adjoining reserve twenty times that size – there are the tunnels of wolf spiders. They wait in their lairs and pounce. There’s one that lives under a rock near the 90,000-litre rainwater tank. I have been watching it for weeks. It sits under the ledge with its multiple eyes scanning its domain, then strikes out at insects that cross its path. If it gets alarmed, it disappears into a tunnel at the back of the rock – its cave under the ledge.
The sky has a pink-purple tinge in the west. The sun is deep set behind the hills, the Toodyay Valley. Our place is on the hillside of a ‘sub-valley’ that leads down to Toodyay Brook. A network of intersecting valleys. A road loops around the summit of the valley and various smaller properties branch off. Then over the northern hill the large farms in their thousands of acres start and spread out onto the Victoria Plains district.
After we moved here, I discovered on a zoning map that just over the hill there’d been plans to build an abattoir, but the venture failed for environmental reasons. Disturbingly, the zoning still exists. If they were to try and establish one, I would spend every moment of my life resisting and stopping it. I have been a vegan for twenty-five years. I cannot stop the world using animals as it does, but within the codes of ‘occupation’ – and I am part of an occupying power – I have the ‘right’ to resist what fellow occupiers would do. The irony is disturbing, but it’s one of the few cases where notions of belonging amount to something practical that might benefit the land and all those who live on it. Not that the profiteers would see it that way. To resist the killing through pacifist insistence is an affront to their codes in so many ways.
I noticed that three or four jam-tree saplings I thought had died after being eaten to the ground by roos have actually resprouted. I have also noticed that roos tend to ignore resprouted saplings in general. The ‘native’ species, the ones endemic to an area, have survived in the context of being part of animals’ diets. They persist. If we ‘unfarm’ the block, the local flora will re-establish. Don’t read into this a subtext of exclusion, but rather a concurrent presence that associates and co-exists without colonising.
So this morning’s walk was a revelation I wasn’t expecting. I have spent so much of the past two years examining the block and its surroundings that I’d almost forgotten new experiences await us every day. The ‘familiar’ only means that one layer has become familiar: the skin of the place is constantly shedding and renewing, though sadly some skin goes and seems never to heal. Looking across the valley from the bus pick-up point, this was especially obvious. From that angle I could see whole tranches cleared of trees by neighbours, whole areas that are just dust in the heat. One of the eagle pair was there this morning, high over the hills. Walking back after Tim boarded the bus, I saw a glass bottle in dead long grass and picked it up: a major fire-risk. I also considered that our fence-line at the front of the block is inside our actual ‘property’. The only purpose for extending it would be to stop damage from outside. Actually, when we got the place, I removed all the internal fences and also one of the fences adjoining the reserve, to allow wildlife a clear passage. The roos come through spaces in the top fence around the gate, and also just hop over it, and echidnas and reptiles move under the fence, but I wanted to devolve fencing as an idea. I thought, as I always do, of Wallace Stevens and his essay on fences, though from a somewhat different perspective! But humans used that gap as an excuse to pursue their prey on to ‘our’ place, so I placed a gate through to the reserve instead.
It is windy, overcast, and humid today. The fire risk is very high.
When the sun comes out, burning, the block sparkles. When it reaches 46 degrees centigrade some days, the mirror glint of pyrites burns your soul and you fear conflagration. Granite and Toodyay stone, quartz and even sedimentary rock deep down in Bird Gully, as Tim calls the south-east corner of the block because of the numerous birds that gather in the York gums lining the gully run-off’s sides. It is a rocky hillside, with the granite exfoliate and flaking, heavily encrusted with lichen. Sods of moss clump in the shadows of the largest granites, even when the sun has swung around and is almost vertical in the sky during summer. When rain does come, it rolls off the ochre-brown dirt and brings out the red of the iron that exists low-grade across the area. That rolling-off is mainly in sheets, though, picking up topsoil like velcro, taking it down to the valley floor. Pyrites are washed into clefts and blockages formed by rocks and fallen branches to make brilliant concentrations, like piles of dust poured from a prospector’s stash. But fool’s gold. ‘Worthless.’
When we got the place, it was covered in sheep bones and the front fence had steer skulls hanging from the wire. The previous owner had called the place Sleepy Hollow, probably after the film version of Washington Irving’s tale. We removed these ‘signs’, though apparently they remained on Google Street View until recently. Is this an irony, given that my process here has been to avoid the web increasingly and to look to live off-grid as much as possible? My aim has always been complete abstinence. It is possible at Jam Tree Gully, the name we substituted for Sleepy Hollow. I won’t say overlaid, because all names here are overlays of Nyungar names. This place had very specific names and specific meanings. And I won’t say deletions, because nothing has been erased. What you don’t listen for, you don’t hear. One must learn to listen outside notions of boundaries and ‘property’. Which is not to deny connection and custodianship that reach back tens of thousands of years. It’s a matter of reinstating into a broader discourse.
When I was very ill early in 2010, I reread Nathaniel Hawthorne, another early American writer. The House of the Seven Gables restated modes of narrative I’d forgotten or ignored. The truth behind houses, and the forces we impose on place, to bend its magnetism our way, or away. When we arrived here there was a small plank cottage, which a friend of ours expanded over a year to accommodate our family. We used a steel frame because of earthquake risks, though we are on the edge of the earthquake zone and not in its heart (as we were near York), and we heavily insulated the wall spaces to minimise need for heating and cooling. In winter, we burn only storm-felled wood. We are conscious of the smoke we put into the air, and how much. The paint on the outside of the house is a zero-VOC ecological all-weather paint, and inside is clay paint. When we have sufficient funds, we will convert the entire place to solar. In the long run, I’d like to see the need for electricity entirely gone. I lived without electricity in my youthful communal days for long periods. It can be done.
One of my first projects was collecting the bones strewn around the block by foxes which had pulled apart abandoned sheep carcasses, and putting them in one place. There are still bones here and there that I have left because they have merged into the soil and become rock. There’s a sheep skull up near the old fox dens that stays there, staring blankly down into the valley. I won’t touch it. We see foxes every now and again. They have long been part of the place. Humans destroy far more than they do and yet delight in killing them.
Houses have haunted me. In many ways, I’d rather live away from a house, in the bush. My brother has lived in forests for years at a time. I wrote a book, never published, with David Lynn, called Houses. The great house where I lived in Geraldton, the old Nurses’ Quarters, was a site of weirdness and mystery. One of the state’s great historic buildings, it was knocked down to make the new Coles supermarket car park. I think of it most days when I look at our smaller, humbler abode and what it means as sanctuary. But all sanctuaries are vulnerable: to decay, entropy, the wrecking ball, flood, fire …
Impelled or compelled to record, ‘witness’? What is a journal, really? I keep a journal of the place where I live. A record of the year. It is haphazard, and I am not sure how it would stand up in a government court. But I would always ‘defend it’ as a document of natural justice. A record of a place where climate change has rendered seasons defunct. The four seasons of the colonisers clearly don’t fit this place as template, and the six seasons of the Nyungars, while clearly closer to the divisions of a year’s cycle here, are also going askew as representation. There are two seasons now: the dry and the wet. And the wet in itself is a few months and broken up by much dryness. The year is lopsided and there are no longer ‘cycles of nature’. ‘Nature writing’ that gives centrality to the human observer is a hypocrisy that fills the rain gauge here with dust, and only dust.
John Kinsella is an Australian poet, novelist, critic, essayist and editor residing in Western Australia.
Overland 204-spring 2011, pp. 35–38
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