Fascinating and disturbing mysteries

Peter Read’s Haunted Earth begins with the scholar in Gore Hill cemetery, settling down with a thermos of coffee for a nocturnal vigil. Read, an oral historian, chooses this Sydney graveyard, in all its physicality of weed-entwined marble and distant traffic noise, as the point of departure for his investigation of the ‘enspiriting’ of land. His book is based on interviews with a diversity of Australians: traditionally religious, New Agers and secularised, rural, urban, Indigenous, descendants of European settlers, recent immigrants. He sees no spirits at Gore Hill, but his meditation introduces a sensitive study of contemporary religious experience in relation to land in Australia.

This graveyard caper is sensational, but passionate scholars do go to extremes. The biologist in my household rises at 4.30am to record the dawn chorus of tiny birds, and I know another who lowered himself into unexplored limestone caves looking for blind crayfish. Yet these projects are deemed more acceptable, more rigorous, than an exploration of spiritual experience.

As scientist David Hay wrote in Exploring Inner Space, a major British study of religious experience in the 1970s, ‘We … confine ourselves to those parts of reality which are clear, distinct, measurable and therefore examinable by the methods of empirical science.’ Hay notes a ‘pressure to conform that is now not simply a matter of fitting one’s deeper experience into a predetermined religious mould, but to deny utterly its validity or its existence’. Spiritual experience in contemporary Australia verges on a suppressed or even a shamed discourse.

Haunted Earth is the third in Peter Read’s trilogy of studies on Australians’ attachment to place. The first, Returning to Nothing, examined the experiences of people who had lost their ‘place’—home, farm or suburban street. Belonging investigated relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in the context of Indigenous dispossession. Haunted Earth probes still more deeply into the spiritual dimensions of attachment to place.

Read’s harvest of stories is rich and many-layered. A farmer recalls visions of 19th-century cottage-dwellers on her property; an Anglican priest describes the exorcism of a country church defiled by Satanists; a Wiccan draws energy from the land for healing animals; Cape Barren Island people express lives immersed in ‘storied country’; non-Indigenous Australians speak of localised hauntings by Aboriginal spirit presences; Benedictines discuss belonging at the New Norcia monastery; Indian Australians combine Hindu and Australian rituals of death to secure the spiritual future of a deceased relative; Asian Australians make choices  about the observance of traditional Taoist ceremonies to acknowledge spirits and mark births.

The informants in Haunted Earth are fortunate in having an interlocutor as skilled and respectful as Read, whose major contribution must include giving them the confidence to speak and to allow publication of their narratives. The 1970s British study found that of the many people who had religious experience to report, few had dared to tell anyone. Hay notes ‘the regular admission by our informants that they will be thought mad’.

What I miss from Haunted Earth is a sense of Read’s major 20th-century predecessors in the scholarly discussion of religious experience. When William James (brother of the novelist) lectured in Edinburgh on The Varieties of Religious Experience in 1901–02, it would have surprised him to know that a century later Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor would choose James as subject for the same distinguished lecture series, offering an insightful analysis of contemporary spirituality. Rudolph Otto’s famous phrase describing religious experience as an encounter with the ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’, roughly translated as ‘the disturbing yet fascinating mystery’, has relevance for Read’s oral narratives. Several Australian studies are also pertinent, including Geoffrey Lilburne’s A Sense of Place, Ferguson and Chryssavgis’s The Desert is Alive and work by Veronica Brady and David Tacey.

Christine Watson’s Piercing the Ground, published after Haunted Earth, importantly conveys the impact of Indigenous spirituality on a non-Indigenous scholar’s consciousness. Watson has worked closely with one of Read’s informants, the gifted young scholar Minoru Hokari, whose recent death gives poignancy to his views so carefully considered in Haunted Earth.
In Belonging, Read frequently illustrated his themes with examples from poetry. Reflection on the relationship between land and spiritual experience in Haunted Earth leads him to reconsider the nature of poetry itself: ‘I thought once that the poetic and the supernatural were two different conceptions of reality. Now I suspect that they share the same dimension.’ With his interdisciplinary approach, Read has moved into an experiential domain opened up by the European Romantics. Minoru Hokari struggled with Aboriginal teaching that the land knew him in advance.  Baudelaire wrote: ‘Nature is a temple where living pillars sometimes release indistinct words; man passes there through forests of symbols that observe him with intimate glances.’  

Rosamund Dalziell is a visiting fellow in the Faculty of Arts at the Australian National University.



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