Review from The Power of Lanscape at Sydney Writers’ Festival 2013
with Sue Woolfe and Melissa Lucashenko (plus interview with Sue Woolfe)
‘How to belong to this land, this culture, that is not mine. How to tread on a land teeming with tens of thousands of bones, spirits and history.’
Award winning author, Sue Woolfe pondered this for a year in the Northern Territory, where her latest novel The Oldest Song in the World is set. She discussed the power of landscape with Melissa Lucashenko at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Melissa’s fifth novel, Mullumbimby tells a story from her Indigenous perspective, set in rural northern NSW, about how a person is shaped by their culture and place. Landscape, for Melissa, provides a sense of belonging. However, she prefers the term ‘country’ to ‘landscape’, which is the settlers’ word, derived from the Dutch word ‘landschap’ meaning ‘land state, or region’.
Sue Woolfe currently lives on the Hawkesbury River and grew up in the Blue Mountains. The landscape has always captivated her. She feels more spiritually connected ‘out bush’ but as a white Australian has always felt a sense of displacement.
An inopportune visit to the Northern Territory compelled her to write about this ancient place, its people and the landscape. She lived there for a year, immersed in a community that welcomed her unreservedly. She learned the language, camped out with the local women, held their babies and experienced their rituals and ceremonies. She began to understand that the people and their immortal souls are grounded in their landscape and the local mythology of the Northern Territory landscape began to make sense. She felt the most powerful sense of belonging and liberation when she heard the earth sing.
Upon returning home to Sydney, she realised the reality of being a westerner meant she would have to be born again into the Aboriginal culture to fully belong. Though the desert draws her she loves bodies of water and couldn’t quell the longing for Mozart and western art.
Being Aboriginal Melissa is astounded by what settlers don’t know about their natural environment. Aboriginal people take for granted the knowledge of how many tides there are in a day and what the mountains around them are called. In Mullumbimby Melissa references Aboriginal ceremonies and rituals, of which many readers would not grasp the religious significance. For example: the circle of the eagle in the sky and its circular shadow on the earth, and the raising of outstretched arms towards the sky. Melissa wanted to portray what ordinary life is like for modern Aboriginal people, without resorting to clichés and commercialized notions.
Supernatural or extrasensory perceptions are every day experiences to Melissa when she is immersed in country. Sue feels she is being brave to talk about the landscape and its spiritual effects. Exalted moments with nature are hard to acknowledge and difficult to write about because the English language is limited. Melissa believes this stems from the convict culture; they were brought in chains to work, not to think or look around them, just to buckle down and survive. Whereas, Melissa explained, talking about these exalted moments for Aboriginals enriches their lives and is ingrained in their culture.
Mindfulness, the Buddhist concept relates to the peace that comes from being spiritually connected to place and country. There is an Aboriginal term for sitting, which translates as ‘sit down, be still and shut up’ – pretty much what mindfulness and meditation are: concentrated awareness and inner stillness. Sue found the way the Aboriginals communed to be deeply meditative. If we immerse ourselves in the landscape – walk in it, worry about it, dig, plant, grow and touch it, we feel a great sense of peace and spaciousness. She believes that’s why gardening is so popular. Whereas for Melissa gardening is more about being a control freak! This underlines their cultural differences; Melissa is from tens of thousands of years of hunter-gatherers whereas Sue is from the agrarian culture of farmers; of growing and possessions.
People, for Melissa are an intrinsic part of country, along with the trees, rocks and animals. She wonders whether city people consider the buildings part of the landscape. Both believe that most city dwellers are living an impoverished life without nature. Even those living in Sydney’s unique city; surrounded by harbour, waterways, ocean and national parks, mostly aren’t aware of the landscape on a daily basis.
‘Immersion in nature paradoxically brings a sense of timelessness and placelessness, which results in peace. If you don’t have this you are turning your back on something we’re wired to need.’ Sue Woolfe