Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Becoming native to this large place


Becoming native to this large placeAll around the countryside, growers of various nationalities have been working hard. Turkish, Italian, Somalian, Maltese, Vietnamese, Irish, and others, have weeded, fertilised, mulched, and staked. They have met each other queuing at nurseries. They have said to each other: "What are you putting in this year? I think I'll try Romas ..."

While politicians and commentators have been aroused by the contradictions and simplicities of the fire-cracker Aussie values debate, these people have working at a much deeper study of how to be native.

Most discussion about Australian-ness is about fair go, mateship, humour, social values. But nationalism is only deeply healthy if is it grounded in being native in this place. A profound mateship grows from a joint love for this place we have been given. It makes sense that national values must be built upon our connectedness to this ground, to understanding the fertility, and limits of, this mandala of a continent.

LaTrobe University academic Freya Mathews defines being native as having one's identity "shaped by the place to which one belongs". She says one is a creature of its topography, its colours and textures, saps and juices, its moods, its ghosts and stories. As a native, "one has one's taproot deep in a particular soil".

Becoming native is a deep, slow organic process. In the linguistic inflections of the second and third generation Australians, you can hear little clicks and burrs which are remnants of the original rich languages, Italian, Greek, Dutch.

The Vietnamese gardeners I work beside at the foot of the highrise plant an emblem of Vietnam. They tidily plant lots of tiny plants, close together. They do not mulch, and they sometimes build second levels out of sticks so their creepers have space. Their gardening style seems to assume monsoonal quantities of rain.

Gardening is expressive of an inherited culture, it is imitative—a folk art. I wonder if the Vietnamese way of gardening is viable as our water supplies contract.

My garden is so untidy by comparison. I have put on heaps of good soil, then a layer of scavenged, impervious plane tree leaves, and then another layer of mulch. I will poke little holes in these layers for the tomatoes I will put about 70cm apart. It is gardening for arid times, with layers to prevent respiration. It is a garden adapted for water shortages. My family has been here for 140 years, and in building my garden I feel these years of belonging to and loving this place.

Similarly white Australians are slow to invent a language which matches this continent. The word "drought" still carries shock-horror that something so unusual and unfair should happen to us.

According to Eric Rolls, we call 11 places in Australia deserts, but none of them meet any dictionary definition of that word, and on average they receive five times the rainfall of the centre of the Sahara. He quotes Ernest Giles who "discovered" the Simpson desert, as saying it had "the appearance of dry grassy downs; and as it is dotted here and there with casuarinas and blood wood trees, and small patches of desert shrubs, its general appearance is by no means displeasing to the eye".

Becoming native to this large placeAs an evolving people, I would argue that we should become like a native farmer described by the American poet and farmer Wendell Berry. We need to be gardeners of Australia, men and women whose hands reach into the ground and sprout. For whom this place, the soil, this country is a divine drug. With the seasons, we enter into death annually, and come back rejoicing with our harvest. We've seen the light lie down in the compost and rise again in the garden and paddock, the regenerated grasslands and forest. We will swallow the seeds of this place so that unending sentences of loving language flow out of our mouths like vines clinging in the sunlight, and like water descending in the dark over the Barfold Gorge.

Our obligation, as our season of growth passes, is to leave this place better than we found it. This is our responsibility, and one that should knit us together as a people. A healthy nativism means a healthy nationalism. Let us ignore the politicians and rejoice for this spring, this gathering of peoples, that will never end.



submit a comment

Existing comments

Very insightful, esp for one who has gradually been making 'home' in a small regional town, with an acre of ground to tend, after decades in inner Melbourne.

I'm somewhat afeared of 'natural theology' - too close to fertility religion and so easily used to support the status quo. But Terry makes me think that perhaps a 'nativist theology' would assist us in being true to both this and the new creation.

C harles Sherlock | 28 November 2006  

Noting that our Christian theology is based upon the myth of atonement by blood sacrifice, and that the original sin is invasion and usurpation of country, gardening is not so much natural theology as securing one's place by putting down the roots that promise future sustenance.

We may well be obliged to those who came before us, but we are mush more so to our successors.

David Arthur | 25 April 2007  

Similar Articles

Thorpie proves mortality is no vice

  • Binoy Kampmark
  • 11 December 2006

In the end, Thorpe was swimming against himself. There were rivals, but there was nothing left, other than the treadmill of performances. The admission came in his last conference: "I needed a closing point." There is reason for him to be proud.


First Test thumping won't reverse ageing of Australian cricketers

  • James Massola
  • 11 December 2006

Dennis Lillee's recent comments about the Australians paying the price for having such an elderly team were shouted down from just about all quarters. Lillee could have held his tongue, given his own privileged circumstances—but then perhaps he did have a point.