Thursday, 19 September 2013

Land of Pain and Redemption

There are some places where the veil that separates the past from the present seems to be thinner, where the people that once lived and breathed and dreamed in this space are still there, just out of reach, their invisible presence stamped indelibly on the landscape. Lake Cargelligo in central-western NSW is one such place for me.

The wide expanse of water known as Lake Cargelligo is located in the town of the same name, 600 kilometres from Sydney. You can get there via the Hume Highway, turning off just after Yass and heading deeper inland through Temora where the legendary racehorse Pale Face Adios stands guard over the main street. Another route is over the Blue Mountains through Orange and Parkes where trees and green fields give way gradually to flat vistas of swaying, straw-coloured grass stretching as far as they eye can see.

The first time I visited Lake Cargelligo in January, 2003 the crippling drought that was to last over a decade had just started to spread its tentacles across the land. The drive from Sydney without air-conditioning seemed endless, and the scorching sun threatened to cook the engine of our struggling Mitsubishi Magna. A blown head gasket would have been a disaster on this trip to visit my partner David’s estranged father whom he hadn’t seen in several years.

The only relief from the unchanging landscape were the occasional rusty wheat silos or faded farmhouses that loomed out of nowhere and then receded into the distance again. It felt like we were striking out into unknown territory, and I wondered how anyone could live in such a bleak place. I was also quite apprehensive about what kind of reception we would receive at the end of our journey. I’d heard some unsettling stories about David’s father who had been an angry, sometimes violent man when David was growing up. Both his sons had left home before they turned 15, preferring to spend time on the streets rather than live with him.

When we finally arrived in town after a seven hour drive the lake and surrounding parkland with its green lawns and swaying palm trees materialised at the end of the dusty main street like a shimmering mirage. Stepping out of the car into the fresh, cool breeze from the lake was as refreshing as a glass of icy cold water. What was even more surprising than my first sighting of the lake was my meeting with Ian who was very different from what I’d been expecting.

David’s father had been just 21 when he was born, and most of the photos I’d seen of him dated from this period in his life. In these pictures he was a tall, handsome young man with a bright future. Forty years later time and heartbreak had literally shrunk his body and he barely reached David’s shoulder. He’d been on the disability pension for decades and had been taking medication for depression and mental illness over this whole period. He was also almost completely blind due to untreated macular degeneration.

It was shocking to see him in this state, but as I got to know him on that visit I discovered a very different side to Ian that made me warm to him almost immediately. He enjoyed talking about books and writing, and he was especially fond of puns and word plays. He also clearly loved his sons and was filled with regret about the way things had turned out. I couldn’t help wondering what in his past had caused him to turn his back on his family and move to this town where he knew no one. Why had he descended into a deep depression when David was a child that kept him in its grip until the end of his life? David’s way of coping with the trauma of his childhood has always been to block it out. His family history on both sides is so full of secrets and rumours that he couldn’t provide any real answers to my questions.

Due to a twist of fate we now live close to Lake Cargelligo in a tiny town just like the ones I looked at with such disdain on my first trip out this way. I wish that I could tell you that the wounds of the past have been healed and Ian is now an important part of our lives, but sadly he passed away almost a year to the day after our first visit. His habit of smoking two packets of cigarettes a day finally caught up with him on a stifling January afternoon in 2004 when he was found by David’s younger brother, Derryn, in his airless bedroom.

 What made his passing more poignant was the fact that it was the first time Derryn had seen his father in a long time. He too had been estranged from his family for many years, and father and son got to spend just a few short weeks together before Ian died of a heart attack. The experience was especially difficult for Derryn, who suffers from schizophrenia and has also been on a disability pension all of his adult life. Derryn has now been absent from our lives for well over a year and we have no idea what’s become of him. There’s nothing we can do but wait for this lost son to reappear again and pray that he is okay.

I think about Ian a lot when I visit Lake Cargelligo because his presence feels so strong in this town where he lived out his final days. I always plan to take a brisk walk on the path winding around the lake’s edge, but often find myself waylaid on a bench, gazing at the ever-changing view for hours. On sunny, calm days the lake is a perfect blue mirror, its surface broken by the occasional fish splashing to the surface, or pelicans that glide so gently to rest on the water that they barely make a ripple. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing pelicans and seagulls so far from the coast. On rainy days it becomes slate grey and choppy, blending with the overcast sky, and the birds take shelter in the trees that line the far shore. A couple of roofs are visible amidst the trees across the lake, and I can’t help resenting the people who built their houses there and spoilt the untouched view.

John Oxley was the first European to stumble upon the lake and he noted his first impressions in a letter: “The noble lake before me gave a character to the scenery, highly picturesque and pleasing.” 1  The history books record that Oxley “discovered” the lake in 1817, as if it did not exist until Europeans set eyes on it. The lake has been an important place for Aboriginal people for thousands of years, and many Indigenous artefacts have been found on its shores, including shell middens and wooden tools.2

I imagine the first occupants of this land on summer afternoons as I gaze out across the smooth expanse of water and watch the sky change from blue to pink and gold. At this time of day it seems like heaven has opened a door and let some of its light escape to bathe the earth. In my mind’s eye I can see men from long ago fishing with spears while naked children splash about near the shore. I can feel the deep sense of stillness and silence that must have permeated this land long before cars and boats and power tools were invented. Even now, in this noisy age, it is always quiet at the lake, and the buzzing of speedboats seems muffled by some invisible force. There is a deep, ancient serenity that seeps into my bones and seems to stretch back to the dreamtime.

Was it Ian’s Indigenous heritage that attracted him to this town as he searched for the sense of wholeness and connection that had been missing from his life? I know this connection to the land exists because I’ve felt it both at Lake Cargelligo and on another occasion at a remote spot on the Barwon River near Bourke where the land is flat, scrubby and snake-ridden. The earth out here is unsuitable for crops or animals, and there are miles and miles of red dirt and gnarled, twisted trees. I lived here for three years while working as a teacher at an Indigenous school, and for a long time I could see no beauty in the land at all. Sitting on the shore of the river one afternoon I was overcome by a profound realization that I was experiencing the same stillness and silence as the first Australians would have known in a place that had changed very little in thousands of years. There is an intense beauty and peacefulness to this land that you can only appreciate by sitting quietly and observing.

It was just after I’d had this insight on the river bank that afternoon that a man’s voice broke the silence. He yelled only one word that we didn’t understand, and nothing more. It was probably someone fishing further down the river, but it was eerie and I couldn’t shake the impression that we’d been permitted to linger for a while in a sacred spot by the spirits who watched over the land but that they were letting us know it was time to move on.

This spot is also not far from the site of the Hospital Creek massacre that my students told me about when I first began teaching at the remote school. According to local history up to 400 Aboriginal men, women and children were rounded up and shot by settlers after a white stockman was killed. Some Aboriginal elders dispute this version and claim that the massacre was instigated by two Aborigines killing a steer on private property.3 It is a sad truth that both versions are equally plausible. The Hospital Creek massacre represents yet another disgraceful chapter in Australia’s blood-soaked history, and the reverberations of these terrible events are still being felt today.

My Indigenous students taught me that the past is still very much alive in the present, most obviously in the deep-seated rage many carried with them. This anger manifests in the addiction, violence, crime and premature death rates that blight so many Aboriginal communities. I knew far too many kids who were sent to juvenile detention or who dropped out of school in Yr 9 and spent their days hanging around the streets and getting high.  It was a place you couldn’t walk around safely at night, and we once returned from a weekend away to find that thieves had kicked a hole in the wall of our house to gain entry. Given Ian’s own Indigenous background I can’t help but wonder if it’s just a coincidence that his life was blighted by many of the same problems that afflict Indigenous communities?

David’s grandfather, Harold, was of Aboriginal descent and one of the stolen generation, raised by the Salvation Army at Cherbourg, in Queensland. In keeping with the attitudes of the day, his Aboriginality was a source of shame to him, and as his skin was not very dark he was able to hide his background to an extent. When he asked David’s grandmother, Phoebe, to marry him, it caused him great distress to tell her about his heritage. He expected her to reject him but she took his hand and told him it didn’t matter, that she would marry him anyway. They tried to keep his background secret from her family but some relatives found out and refused to have anything to do with them.

David’s Aunty Alison told me that her father, Harold, had simply said that his childhood was filled with sunshine and happiness, and then one day everything went dark. The fact that David didn’t find out about his grandfather’s background until he was 26 gives insight into the lingering sense of shame felt in the family. David’s own life had been very troubled since he ran away from home at the age of fourteen and nine months. He was living at Mount Gambier when Alison came to visit one day, telling him she had something very important to impart. Her news about his Aboriginal history meant little to him at that point in his life. His path had already brought him into contact with many angry young Indigenous men and he bore direct witness to the hopelessness and despair felt by them.

Harold went on to open his own plant nursery in the Southern Highlands and he raised his family to be hardworking, respectable citizens like him. He was active in Salvation Army until his death, and he played in a Gumleaf band which was a form of music that originated in tribal society, but overall his Aboriginal heritage seemed to be something he wanted to forget about. His son’s later descent into depression and his grandson’s troubled lives seem to suggest that it’s not so easy to overcome the wounds of the past.

Teaching in an outback school showed me that there are also other, more subtle ways that the past lives on in the present. Storytelling is very much a shared experience, and asking students to read quietly on their own can be an exercise in futility. It took me a while to understand that the reason my students loved reading aloud wasn’t because they were lazy but because they got much more out of a story when it was shared. Stories that resonated with them were embraced with an enthusiasm I’ve never encountered anywhere else. It was so very heartening to run into a student outside of school who had been disengaged and disruptive and have them ask: “Are we going to read that book again this week, Miss?” Films were also deeply meaningful to my students, and it was wonderful to have some many great Aboriginal movies to show them.  It doesn’t surprise me that filmmaking has become an area where Indigenous people are making their mark. I hope that through telling their own stories and exploring their experiences some of the hurts of the past can be healed.

My brief stint at the high school at Lake Cargelligo showed me that all the same problems exist in this town with a significant Indigenous population. The lake was once an important meeting place for Wiradjuri tribes before colonisation, but many Indigenous people were moved to a mission outside town early last century. The people who live in the town are drawn from many different places, just as Ian was.  He now lies in the town’s graveyard with words of Robert Browning inscribed on his headstone:

Oh, never star was lost here but it rose afar.

It’s my hope that Ian has finally found the wholeness that eluded him life, and that his spirit is somehow a part of the great peacefulness I experience when I visit the lake.

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