Review by Angela Rockel
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What are the conversations that are occurring with/in place, for non-indigenous Australians? What are the ways in which land in Australia is experienced as repository and emanator of psychical and emotional force? Third book in a trilogy concerned with non-indigenous experience of place in Australia, Peter Read’s Haunted Earth visits what he calls ‘inspirited’ country. For Read, ‘spirit sites may take the form of a soul or essence, be within the earth, be created by rites of passage or transformation, or be within archetypal mythologies drawn from East or West’ (34).
Beginning with a midnight walk through Gore Hill Cemetery in Sydney, Read first reflects on the fact that he and many Australians of his generation and culture (‘mid-century Anglican’) do not experience land as inspirited. He attributes this to their formation within a positivist framework that values only ‘the observable, countable and measurable’ (36). Alongside this reflection is set the book’s second section, ‘The darkest hour’, which gives three accounts by non-indigenous Australians of frightening hauntings which they experience as ‘punishment’ for something ‘they, their families or unknown strangers have done … either to the land or on the land or to the first inhabitants’ (58). Read situates these experiences within the work of ‘living acutely’ in the aftermath of colonisation, and in doing so, he sets up one of the book’s tensions. If to be open to being haunted by the past of this country is part of the work of being fully present, how does the dominant culture’s denial of such visitations affect the accounts of ‘inspirited’ experience that follow?
The book is composed of sections that are named for stages of the night and day over twenty-four hours. The first two night-time sections are followed by five ‘morning’ chapters. These all visit sites where human activities might be expected to form a link with place, or to imprint it with some inspirited trace: ‘Piccaninny daylight’ describes parents’ creation of commemorative places for children who have died; ‘Dawn’ visits the Bass Strait islands, imprinted by generations of habitation in story, work and struggle; ‘Early morning’ sees composer Ros Bandt’s creation of ‘an inspirited soundscape [that] laments and celebrates the people and the land, their work and their artefacts’ (109). ‘Mid-morning’ brings the first encounter with self-consciously ‘spiritual’ practices, at a meditation centre and in homes and workplaces.
All morning, then, Read has worked with human actions in the landscape, questioning whether they have their effect on place in Australia. ‘Noon’ in Moruya and Nowra, by contrast, looks at the possibility of working directly with earth energies. Composer Alan Lamb uses wires suspended above the sounding earth as an aeolian instrument. This process is set alongside the work of a healer who uses European Wiccan practices to draw in elemental energies for repair and regeneration of injuries.
So – it’s afternoon. Read now turns to places where an existing sense of inspirited imprint is received. ‘Mid-afternoon’: the sinking of the Armidale by the Japanese in World War II continues to re-enact itself in the imaginations of those who knew and worked on the ship. ‘Late afternoon’ considers the possibility of going into the landscape to ‘mark the human connection through place by observation’ (191). At ‘Dusk’, Read visits a property where Aboriginal and settler spirit-presences have contributed to the present custodian’s ‘sense of absorption into the life and earth of the farm … the continuity of past and present’ (207). With darkness come more problematic experiences. ‘Early evening’: a satanist desecration of a Christian church. Hauntings which disturb the Hindu family occupying a Canberra house.
Imprinting, summoning, observation. ‘Mid-evening’, and composer Ross Edwards’ Star Chant is offered by Read as an instance of engagement with landscape that can incorporate both its vastness and a particular point of observation: the ground bass, the rhythm and the instrumental and choral entities arising from them. Connection does not occur as a ‘snapshot, still point, crosswired intersection’ (182) but as a capacity to be fully present in the moment, ‘where time does not stop flowing’ (183). By the end of the book, Read has come to experience the musical, the poetic, the metaphoric and the supernatural as sharing ‘the same dimension’ (253). ‘[N]either exactly invention nor exactly substance’ (253), inspirited place receives and imparts imprints as part of a process by which ‘spiritual forces … grow from the association between person and place’ (255). This experience has ‘the power … to shape our values, emotions and our very consciousness’. In the light of this insight, it seems clearer that a culture which refuses visitation must be strategically amnesic rather than merely positivist and rational.
Perhaps the next project might be a book that more explicitly visits the triangulations between the violence of Australia’s colonial past, a culture of denial, and the quality of present connections that can be made in place. Ross Gibson does something like this in Seven Versions of an Australian Badland, where he considers the nightmarish imprinting of a particular locality – the ‘Horror Stretch’ between Rockhampton and Mackay. Gibson argues that the creation of a mythical badland such as the Horror Stretch is a way of sequestering off its history and present legacy of violence, in order to ‘forget’ that it applies equally elsewhere. Gibson points out the cost of such forgetting:
The histories of most nations founded on violence suggest that an inability or refusal to acknowledge the past will produce evermore confusing and distressing symptoms in the body politic. In the wishful shelter of ignorance or amnesia, an abiding melancholy tends to creep into the populace … [or] a paranoid urge to expunge all dissenting persons and memories (Gibson 158–159).
Here is another take on how the quality of connection with place can shape values, emotions and consciousness. For Gibson, chronicling things done on and to the land and the first inhabitants is a way of breaking the cycle of continual replay by naming, and perhaps as a consequence in the future avoiding, those events and attitudes that generate the badland’s atmosphere of nameless dread and horror. I reproduce the following list of historical/social factors Gibson cites as affecting the Horror Stretch in full, to emphasise the way this approach brings about a meeting between ‘rational’ observation of events and the experience of their ‘spiritual’ effect. In the process of ‘conducting [a] private archaeology of broken things’ he says,
we learn about the following topics: rootlessness and poverty-struck itinerancy; the imposition of imported law; the geography of vastness, deluge, heat and erosion; the rural culture of firearms; a landscape composed of devolving ecologies; the mind-altering pressures of isolation; nervous, nocturnal predation; prejudice and violence visited upon Aborigines; sex grabbed perfunctorily and illicitly; regionalist resentments; migrations impelled by the shove of hopelessness and bitterness rather than the allure of optimism (Gibson 49).
Ecological mayhem, cultural vandalism, genocide, forced labour – these things make country go bad. Any of the places described in Haunted Earth could yield a list of ‘topics’ like Gibson’s. How have such factors been incorporated into their current imprinting as spirit sites? How has the denial or otherwise of these factors affected present-day capacity to connect? Each of the impressions made and received by country confirms Gibson’s claim:
Forgetting simply does not work. Wishful amnesia is no protection against memories of actual, lived experience. The events of the past rarely pass. They leave marks in documents, in bodies, in communities and places, in buildings, streets and landscape (Gibson 179).
If we are to embark on what Read calls ‘the long journey towards belonging’ (193), we can’t afford to relegate ‘terrifying feelings’ (51) of being visited by the past to some far-removed ‘darkest hour’. The question of how to connect with unfamiliar country is preceded by the question of how to behave, how to observe, how to respond in the aftershock of the many-layered, mind-numbing violences of invasion.
Angela Rockel is a writer and editor who lives in Tasmania. Recent publications include ‘Remember: A working definition of blessing’ in Salt. v 16, and ‘Meeting the angel’ in Southerly v 62 No 3.
Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2002.