Sophie Allan on Storm Boy


13 November 2014

This is an edited version of a speech Sophie Allan gave to introduce the film Storm Boy, at LongPlay in Fitzroy, Melbourne in May of 2014. This screening was the first of four in the series Stories in Landscape; Landscape in Stories.

I want to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and to pay my respects to elders past, present and future. Chart is all about about the ways our lives and stories are woven into the land, and so of course the acknowledgement that we are meeting on Wurundjeri land is terribly important. I was born on Turrbal land in Brisbane, the traditional name of which I now know to be Meanjin, but I live on Wurundjeri land these days, and the narratives of my life are drawn out around here, layered over those of countless others who have lived here before me. And acknowledging that it always was and always will be Aboriginal land, I’m so thankful to be living here, by the Merri Creek, at the base of the rise that goes up towards Ruckers Hill. I love the sky looking over towards the west at the end of the day. Sometimes on a cold afternoon when there is a thick, dark cloud cover and it’s been raining all day, as the sun sets it falls into a window of clear sky, and orange sunshine shoots up under the grey cloud layer.

Tonight is very important to Jocelyn, Phil, Bonnie, Colin and I, because this is the first time Chart has been out in public. It is such a progression from where we began. And to find our beginning, I suppose I could think back to the middle of last year, when the then-nameless Chart was a fleeting thought I had one rainy morning as I lay in bed. At that point it was going to be a journal of walking essays, a genre I’d started reading obsessively in a creative writing subject I took with Tony Birch at the University of Melbourne. Writing by the likes of Deborah Bird-Rose, Rebecca Solnit, Nick Papadimitriou about deep topography and psychogeography caused in me a sensation of intellectual, physical, emotional and geographical alignment, and I became passionate about it.

And so, a week or two after having the idea on that rainy morning, I was at dinner with some women and decided it was my time to try to rope Jocelyn into making a journal with me. I knew that her thoughtful, intellectual, graceful and enthusiastic nature would be just what my project needed. We shook hands and all the women around the table clinked their glasses and cheered. In an email to Jocelyn later that week, I wrote, “Somehow it feels like the most natural thing in the world to do!”

I then managed to talk Bonnie, Colin and Phil into joining up, over dinner tables or in kitchens at parties over the summer that followed. The collective took form.

Those moments talking with my friends about our mutual passions for art, literature and environment were the beginning of Chart, as we know it. But when I began to think about tonight, about Storm Boy, about what this project really is, I began to think back to when the pebble that made these ripples in my life might have landed on the surface of the pond.

Colin, Bonnie, Jocelyn and Phil will all have different experiences that have culminated in them being crazy enough to become involved in independent publishing concerned with environment (I was told emphatically by a well known editor recently that, in the world of publishing trends, “Climate change is dead!”), but for me it was set in motion when I found a book called The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck in a second hand shop in Abbotsford about seven years ago.

It was a book I’d never heard of, a non-fiction work, which I bought on the strength of my love for East of Eden and Steinbeck’s other stories. I devoured it, and kept it on my bedside table for months after, referring to it regularly. It is the logbook that Steinbeck wrote during a six-week boat expedition in the Gulf of California to collect marine specimens. But it is a lot more than that. Interspersed with the minutiae he records about the marine ecosystems, the weather and the seaworthiness of the vessel, is Steinbeck’s brand of philosophy at its best. He writes of  “…the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things – plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again”. So, maybe my destiny was changed with that book, as Robert MacFarlane says his was when he read Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. These, MacFarlane has said, are “the unintentional consequences of words”.

MacFarlane made that comment during a conversation with Rebecca Solnit about the future of nature writing, which was hosted by Orion, a magazine from the United States. And perhaps it was because of Steinbeck’s boat in Cortez never being far from my mind, but listening to this conversation, I began to visualise words, images and sounds as the vessels that carry ideas. The artist or writer lays their ideas into these vessels and sends them out to the editor, who makes sure the vessel is well crafted. And, yes, MacFarlane is right: when everything is in order, words do have the ability to inspire real change, to have very real consequences. My responsibility with Chart, as I see it, is to seek out the people with the ideas, and to deliver these ideas to you, the audience, as clearly and with as much integrity as is possible. We will be searching out ideas that help us to understand that as people, we are not separate from nature.

And although I couldn’t articulate it then – I remember feeling this unity most strongly when I was a small child, about the age of the boy in the film we are here to watch tonight. This is one way to describe how it was for me back then: it’s the feeling that the world does not stop where my skin starts. Instead, the world penetrates my skin, into my muscles and organs, my brain and my thoughts, and to the very centre of my bones. There is no ‘world’ outside and ‘me’ inside. What I do to me, I do to the world and all other life. What I do to the world and all other life, I do to me.

It’s a feeling that now, as an adult, I am not so attuned to all the time. Certain things about the weather or a person or a tree can make me feel it, and, sometimes, I get the feeling from good art, music and writing. I get the feeling when I watch Storm Boy, as he moves through his land, the Coorong in South Australia, with his pelicans and his friend Fingerbone Bill.

And I am not the only one to have a strong reaction to this film. Many of us watched it when we were little, learning about life, death, animals and growing up. When we began to advertise this screening tonight, a friend told me how hard it might be for him to come and watch Storm Boy, that he might have to hide away in the corner, because of the intense emotional reaction it inspired in him. Watching Storm Boy was the first time he experienced melancholy, he told me. My friend watched the boy in the film, walking through the dunes and along the beach alone, and something big and dark opened up inside him. I thought a lot about what he had told me, and it reminded me of the walks I used to take as a little girl, when I was about Storm Boy’s age.

I remembered that I would have this feeling, often it came in the afternoon, and it was something like homesickness, like sadness, but bigger, slower, like the bottom had fallen out from my tummy. I used to stand in the front doorway looking out over the verandah to the west as the sun lowered, not knowing quite what to do with myself. And my only instinct was to walk.

At that time I lived in a big small town in Queensland  real suburbia. You don’t get to choose where you are as a kid and you don’t know about categorisations like suburbia, wilderness, urban, rural, or the nature/human dichotomy. You just are where you are. And so, I would walk around the block.

I’d pad in my bare feet across the verandah, down the steps, over the soft grass and down the driveway, onto the  cement footpath stained by the red dirt. I’d always go left out the gate. Past Mrs Dowling’s fence with the big blackish-green pine that smelled fresh and herby, around the corner where I’d brush my hand through the bushes and smell it if it was a good one like geranium. I’d stop and pick up a skink or watch a slimy snail make silver dashes across the path. I’d watch the ants, let them run in circles over my toes. And as I moved around the block on the cement path, everything around me was filling that space that had opened up deep down in my tummy. As I walked I was connected up, my skin and my muscles and my feelings were in the world again. I was part of the landscape, no different from the road, the trees, the bushes, a mountain or a river. Maybe this was the feeling that the word ‘belonging’ refers to.

And I think that maybe this is what Storm Boy is looking for when he is knocking around the Coorong, and what caused such a strong reaction in my friend; as Storm Boy moves through his world, across the sand and the water, he is moving through his emotions and feelings  his inner world  and trying to link them up to the outer world. When I used to walk by myself, I was coping with a loss: the divorce of my parents. Storm Boy is not only coping with the loss of his mother, and the loneliness of living outside of a community, but also he is faced with violence against the life of the land that he loves.

I recently came across the work of Professor Glenn Albrecht, Director of the Institute of Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University, Western Australia, who is attempting to create a new language for our psychoterratic, or earth-related mental health. Let me read from his website:

...I suggest ‘solastalgia’ to describe the pain or sickness caused by the loss of, or inability to derive, solace connected to the present state of one’s home environment. Solastalgia exists when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under assault (physical desolation)... In brief, solastalgia is a form of homesickness one experiences when one is still at ‘home’.

So when I watch this beautiful film with you tonight, I am going to be thinking not only about the obvious troubles Storm Boy is having – missing his Mum, loving and losing his pelicans, wishing to learn to read – but also I will bear in mind his psychoterratic state, his distress at the disrespect of his home, the Coorong.

But of course solastalgia is only one side of the coin. And the inversion of it is just as much what the film is about. Let me read again briefly from Professor Albrecht’s definition of his word eutierria.

I define eutierria as a good and positive feeling of oneness with the earth and its life forces. This feeling is one where the boundaries between self and the rest of nature are obliterated and a deep sense of peace and connectedness pervades consciousness. When the human-nature relationship is spontaneous and mutually enriching (symbiotic) we experience an emotional state of ‘eutierria’ in contrast, to ecoanxiety, ecoparalysis and global dread.

This is the same feeling that I had as a child, it is the feeling that Steinbeck writes about and it is what we want to explore with Chart.

There are many things I wanted to say about Storm Boy, but there isn’t the time. I wanted so much to discuss the character of Fingerbone Bill, the insight he provides into Indigenous ways of being in land, his illegal residence in a reserve, the way the film, made by a French-born director, arguably exoticises his Aboriginality. I wanted to talk about the reluctance of Hideaway Tom, Storm Boy’s father, to connect with people, seemingly because he despises capitalism. I wanted to talk about the fact that a woman is present on screen only for a matter of minutes during the whole film, about her character, a reasonable person participating in the cogs of society, about what the case would be if it was a woman and her daughter living as hideaways. But I can’t do all that here and now, we’re just going to have to talk about it after, at the bar. And I look forward to that most out of everything tonight.