An Unsurveyed Land

Editorial by Chart Collective
It’s summertime, friends, and the Longer Light Series has begun! The first instalment of this warm-weather series exploring ritual in landscape is by the wonderful Jessie Cole.
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The land I inhabit, my family home, is a forest of sorts. This part of northern New South Wales was once cleared pasture, but my parents started planting before they even built the house, and nearly forty years on it’s a green jungle. Their gardening strategy was haphazard, guided by a wide-ranging love of trees. When I was young my parents battled constantly over light – my dad craved sunshine, my mum embraced shade. Occasionally Dad would start up the chainsaw and Mum would pace the house, stricken. Mostly she could see his point, but the loss of a tree was hard on her heart. She had planted it, no doubt, and nurtured it through those precarious early years. My dad died when I was eighteen, and with him the battle to control the gardens. These days, the place is self-propagating, and apart from keeping some flat spaces mown, my mother enjoys watching nature run its course.

When I was a child my family had a summertime ritual of walking up the creek that bordered our land. We always went after it had flooded and the creeks were full, the rocks rubbed clean of moss and slime. Everything sparkled. We walked upstream until we hit the bridge, the first sign of civilisation, then we turned around and walked back. It seemed to take a whole day. Mum would pack sandwiches and snacks. We waded through the shallow water, clambered over boulders, and if it got too deep we’d tramp along the bank, watching out for thorny vines that hung from the treetops with their giant, lethal-looking spikes. We had to pick our way through, pathless, choosing step by step how best to move forward. The section of creek upstream from ours was uninhabited, lined by disused pasture and forest on one side, and a steep bank up to the road on the other. As far as we knew, no-one else ever walked here.

I don’t know when we stopped walking the creek as a family, but at some stage in my early teens it became a kids-only activity. After the first summer flood, I’d pack a knapsack with fruit and Vita-Weats and head off upstream with a bunch of friends. There was something about crossing this threshold from our land into the unfamiliar, something risky and enlivening. In line with my teenage obsessions, what I remember most from those kids-only creek walks was not the landscape but my shoes. I had inherited a pair of sandshoes my dad had painted for my oldest sister years earlier. They’d been white, but at her request he painted them in bright primary colours – an abstract artwork. Someone had even sewn garish buttons over the toes. They were ludicrous clown shoes, but in my mind they were perfectly suited to the wilds of the creek walk, and they set the tone for everything else about the day.

For the trek upstream my friends and I always dressed in things we would never wear in the world. Skirts that were far too short, bikinis we knew were unflattering. We painted our faces with ochre and did zany things to our hair. It was as though we were preparing to step into a space ungoverned by rules. A gazeless place, unsurveyed and unjudged. Walking upstream into this uncultivated world, we became loose and freewheeling. The narrow edges of our teenage lives transforming in that liminal space.

Somewhere along the line, we stopped doing the walk upstream. I had babies very young, and, burdened by their weight, it became an arduous task. Balancing on unsteady rocks is precarious with a toddler on each hip. What had been a kind of freedom – walking into an unknown land – became work. Physically exhausting, with twisted ankles and banged up knees, mosquito bites and thorn-scratches. I vowed we’d do it when they were bigger, when they wouldn’t need so much propping up, and then, like so many things, it drifted from my mind. Even though I stayed living in my childhood home, the summer ritual that had marked my early life disappeared.

Photo: Lilli Waters

Photo: Lilli Waters

My kids are teenagers now, and watching them negotiate the wider world has me thinking about the power of that walk through an unsurveyed land. This first week of summer, I decide to revisit my family’s old ritual, alone.

To cross the upstream threshold from my land is to step into a different sort of wild. Disused paddocks gone bushy, overrun with crofton weed and lantana. On one side of the creek is my mother’s green forest, and on the other a sweltering grassland belonging to an absent neighbour. The abandoned paddocks seem scrappy, miserable even, but I quickly recognise all the weeds I once loved. Stepping across to the other side, I am flooded with memories. There are the low stringy bracken ferns we used to crush to soothe ant bites when we were small. Occasional wild citrus trees with untenably sour fruit. Strange weeds with puffy, inflated green-balloon seedpods we prized as kids because their leaves would feed the caterpillars. And the camphors, always the camphors, the only shade for miles. It strikes me, and not for the first time, that a child’s first instinct is to love. When we’d wandered through this discarded landscape as kids we’d looked about us and loved the weeds.

I slow down along the creek bank, walking through this remembered world, until I see the creek has become shallow enough for me to step in. To get to the water I have to make my way down through a tangle of roots, strewn with delicate leaf skeletons. The creek is sheltered, low and shaded, cool. I stand a minute, adjusting to my new vantage point, the scent of stirred silt wafting around me.

Apart from that first stretch of open weedy paddock, the upstream creek banks are lined with forest. A friend down the road, in his sixties, who has lived here his whole life, told me that when he was a child all the country around was cleared. I try to imagine the land here before the cedar cutters, how much it must have changed. But it’s hard to wrap my head around. Nowadays it’s regrowth, a mixture of camphor laurels and rainforest natives. The summer floods are yet to come and I’ve never seen it so dry.

High above is the road and it’s a strange sensation to hear the distant rumble of a car, to know how close this uninhabited space sits to the modern world – almost parallel. As I walk I ponder how many places like this there must be. Not national park, not designated wild, just forgotten and unused. Spaces not easily accessible, even though they aren’t tucked that far from sight.

Scattered along the shallow creek bed are wide circles of polished stones – catfish nests – bright and clean in among the decomposing leaf litter. I meander further and further upstream, jumping from rock to rock, startling a big lizard. It drops beneath the water and doesn’t resurface. A disappearing trick. I wonder how far the lizard roams, if it’s possible I’m the first human it’s seen. Eels flash under rocks in surprise. Startled pigeons flap up into the treetops as if dumbfounded by my very existence. What a blundering monster I must seem.

The upstream creek is narrower than I remember, and I can’t tell if it’s that I’ve grown, or if the place itself has changed. As children we used to swim in some of the waterholes along the way, but there’s no possibility of immersion now. The whole place seems shrunken, almost shrivelled. In my mind it has remained a space of wonder, but retracing my steps is spooky and sad. I realise halfway along that it is smaller; the creek has filled in. There are whole sections almost dry, with loads of pebbles dumped in places by the floods. It’s a phenomenon we’ve noticed in our waterhole further down – the creek never seems to get deeper, every flood it fills and fills. I’m told it’s a side effect of land clearing, that the topsoil all flows downstream. It only takes me an hour to walk the creek, and it used to take a day. I know that’s partly because as kids we frolicked and lingered, lazed about and played, but it’s still disconcerting to consider how much has changed. How markedly this uncultivated place is affected by the human deeds upstream.

My mother’s garden forest glows bright on my return – vigorous, teeming with growth – and I understand then I’ve been blinded by this pocket of green. Inside the boundaries of my home is a blooming empire, a cultivated wild, but outside the land is struggling. And I know that I shouldn’t be attached to the way things were, that nature is in a constant state of evolution, but it’s hard not to see this change as damage. A shrinking creek-scape, weighed-down and beleaguered. Standing on that threshold, I long for the creek of my childhood. For its sparkle and shimmer, for its depth and space.


MORE FROM THE LONGER LIGHT SERIES:

The Longer Light Series explores the idea that our personal rituals – from the mundane to the grand – tether us to special places and particular times. It investigates how our rituals are contingent on the places where we perform them, on the rhythm of the seasons, on the weather of any given day, on what we see and smell around us.
The 12 distinct works of the series detail, document or respond to some sort of ritual (as each contributor interprets that word) enacted during a week of summer days and nights. The works will be published in weekly instalments so that, in concert, they plot the arc of an Australian summer.
The Longer Light Series is supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.