Friday, March 5, 2010

HOMESICK


I keep thinking about penknife marks in a tree. My initials, and those of my boyhood friends, up there in the thick grey sinews where the wind breathes and green leaves shiver.

I see those trees in my mind. At night when I’m in bed. Branches rustling out of the murk of my subconscious, shaking up the pond of sleep.

I see two trees in particular, the limbs low enough for us to climb with ease. And I keep thinking, I must go back there. Go back and see if my name is still in the branches, if the names of the others are still there too. But I never do. It’s a case of one day I will, next time, I must remember, don’t feel stupid about it, just do it …

The weird thing is I drive by those trees every time I visit home (which isn’t nearly as often as I should). Jammed as they are into a little park butted up against the side of a highway intersection. One of those motorway-excised playgrounds that gets bigger and bigger in the imagination all the while it shrinks into a cosmetic municipal reality.

It’d make quite a sight for passing motorists, a 41-year-old man monkeying around ‘up there’. How would I explain it to concerned locals, the police, a psychiatric nurse sped to the scene? It’d be embarrassing, that’s for sure.

Just the same way I’m embarrassed by the questions this tree-climbing urge raises in me now. Which is why I am tempted to edit such questions out of this story as immature or undeveloped thoughts. Things to be hidden away.

But I do think, or feel these questions, half-formed as they might be. Like why do we stop climbing up trees to sit and talk for a while? At what point do we break such playful habits? How do we decide this is no longer a valid or useful or interesting way to behave? How does it become a part of growing up? Does a native closeness between us die when these ‘habits’ die? Something in us?

I guess there is a strange but compelling atavism at the heart of these thoughts. Even a respect.

Maybe that’s why I empathised with Barry Lopez’s essay ‘Apologia’, from his book About This Life (Vintage/Random House). In it he describes stopping for roadkill, carrying various dead animals and birds off the road to lay beneath trees or rest in long grasses. ‘I nod before I go, a ridiculous gesture, out of simple grief,’ he writes. Then Lopez hops back into his car, trying to avoid the bemused gaze of other drivers on the road.

What Lopez touches on deals with our secret yearnings—and shame—in relation to nature. Our desire to respect life-forces, to commune with more transcendent possibilities in a casually desensitised world. And our clumsy, secular lack of ritual, the way we don’t know how to react or listen to something instinctual within us when it calls. Lopez grieves for our broken partnership with the natural world and the spiritual ways it can feed us.

It’s easy to be frightened of the sentimentality in these thoughts. And bury that sentimentality accordingly. Not to react at all. Quite often these instinctual responses are things we would do as children rather than adults.

With regard to my tree-climbing urges, I’m also aware of the nostalgia involved—the way nostalgia can act as a cancer that devalues and simplifies the past, commodifying it for easy rationalisations, sales-speak, anthems, TV shows. How memory becomes a retreat, not a guide.

But this childish trace in me is more than a nostalgic hook, a retreat. The image of trees shivering in the wind, the sense of watching where I once was as a boy, the detachment, feels colder than that. The way an onlooker feels cold at an accident.


This divorce, this coldness, is why these trees and penknife carvings have pulled me out of bed tonight. From sleep into writing. They’ve set me thinking again about the homesickness that somehow still plagues me even though I have arrived home after a year spent travelling the world.

Iran, India, Nepal and Turkey. Paris, London, Edinburgh and New York. It’s been a huge 12 months. From coming upon a body of a boy at the foothills of the Annapurna Himalayas to underground bazaars in Iran and Calvin Klein’s runway show in New York. After a year away, with so many extreme moments, the experiences begin to extinguish each other, and you start to feel like the grotesque consumer of a life you are not really a part of any more.

At some point during such a long journey you are also likely to find that a restlessness has been cut into you. Most deeply at the journey’s end.

There is of course a reaction to this. I have only been home a month to the day exactly, and already I want to set my roots down so totally and completely there is something violent about it.

It’s an impatient desire. I don’t want to go through any processes, least of all the grind of pulling possessions out of storage, the endless unpacking of cardboard boxes, the dust, the hayfever, the need to prune away all those things that I couldn’t throw away before I left. I just want it to be done. To be over with.

The flipside of this is a desire to burn it all down.

Like that scene in Betty Blue where Beatrice Dalle starts throwing everything—everything—out of the house—‘very Zen,’ a deadpan neighbour observes—before the couple decides to be truly free and set fire to the place altogether. What a scene: home is burning, and the lovers are walking off happily down the highway into the night.

It’s a romantic view. Fun to do for a while. But you do get tired. Desperately tired. Even Jack Kerouac had to observe within the hungry poetry of On the Road that ‘I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer people but my own confusion.’

The great modern travel writer Bruce Chatwin suggests that we are somehow, intrinsically, nomadic at heart. That this is our primal calling. And we are always grappling with that. He almost turns this into a moral position—aesthetically, spiritually, genetically—throughout much of his writing. But we’re cave dwellers too. People who love a good fire, warmth, a safe place from the endless night, the abyss of limitlessness. Even Chatwin admits there is a contradiction.

He implies that our journeys have lost the migratory structure and territorial meaning of our nomadic past. A sense of quest in travel or some reconciliation with the experiences might compensate for that. But these mission statements and reflections cannot entirely settle the contradiction. We need more than just movement, you see, we need an awareness of place.

This is the irony of ‘the global village’, where jet travel increasingly transforms our lifestyle and instant worldwide communication affects our headspace. We are careering through borders more than ever, faster than ever. It’s no surprise people get a little lost, a touch disoriented. It’s why we get so fascinated by indigenous people and their ‘groundedness’.

In his book The Songlines, Chatwin looks at the spiritual beliefs of Aboriginal people, an intensely complex task. His semi-fictional work involves a set of journeys through Central Australia, and is pivoted around a central section that collates scraps of wisdom and anecdotes from his travel diaries (all pushing his theory of nomadic essentialism). Mostly though it’s a dialogue between the narrator and a character called Arkady:

“It was during his time as a school-teacher that Arkady learned of a labyrinth of invisible pathways which meander all over Australia and are known to Europeans as ‘Dreaming-tracks’ or ‘Songlines’; to the Aboriginals as the ‘Footprints of the Ancestors’ or the ‘Way of the Law’…”

He went on to explain how each totemic ancestor, while travelling through the country, was thought to have scattered a trail of words and musical notes along the lines of his footprints, and how these Dreaming-tracks lay over the land as ‘ways’ of communication between the most far-flung tribes.

‘A song’, he said, ‘was both a map and a direction-finder. Providing you knew the song, you could always find your way across the country.’”

It was and remains the duty of Aboriginal people to keep singing these songs. In this way they ‘care’ for the land and keep it ‘well’. Chatwin was naturally fascinated by this, as any writer and traveller would be. In a world of global movement and digital communications, this kind of belief and understanding virtually deifies the writer.

The Songlines was a masterful effort, but it did not win him friends in Central Australia’s Alice Springs. Chatwin used many real people as characters, often cruelly or carelessly. He bent the truth. He suffered too from a tone of voice that suggested an Englishman who had breezed in to see things that all the locals who had been there for years couldn’t. Go to Alice Springs and you’ll find this book on everyone’s shelf, where sooner or later people will tell you they don’t like it very much. And yet it is the book that has done more than any other to introduce Australian Aborigines and their beliefs to the world.

In his new book, Chatwin (Harville Press/Jonathan Cape), biographer Nicholas Shakespeare quotes Nin Dutton, who traveled with Chatwin while he was researching The Songlines. She says that ‘he [Chatwin] knew the mystery was there and he didn’t get it. In The Songlines he was desperately trying to go to the centre. It was the most important thing for him and he realised halfway through he wasn’t going to be able to do it. He was excluded. You have to earn mystery. It’s only lovers who get there.’

It was the central tragedy of his life.


In an article called ‘A Literature of Place’ for the Australian quarterly HEAT (#2), Barry Lopez tried to get at the root of a contemporary renaissance in what he calls ‘nature writing’ or ‘landscape writing’.

Certainly something is happening out there in the publishing world that suggests a hunger for more than just the usual travel guides, adventure stories and journalistic analyses. People aren’t just looking for maps and background detail and easy wit, they are wanting experiential guides to living, deep journeys.

Lopez draws a line from Melville’s Moby Dick and Thoreau through to John Steinbeck and William Faulkner, to the more recent expressions of people like Gary Snyder, Peter Matthiessen and himself when discussing this ‘landscape writing’.

One might well add works as varied as Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Border Trilogy’ (All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain) and Michael Ondaatje’s Running In The Family—let alone the renewed interest that the Chatwin biography inspired in that writer’s work. You might even include musical figures like Tom Waits, with his textural fascination for farmhouse recordings and what he calls ‘surrulism’ (rural surrealism) in the lyrics to his CD, Mule Variations, or the enduring iconic survival of a rustic rock ’n’ roll figure like Neil Young. A director like The Thin Red Line’s Terrence Malick similarly taps into a natural mysticism.

People are looking for some kind of ground.

In ‘A Literature of Place’, Lopez specifically notes three qualities that indigenous peoples have passed on to him in his travels as a writer:

“Over time I have come to think of these three qualities—paying intimate attention [to a place]; a storied relation to a place rather than a solely sensory awareness of it; and living in some sort of ethical unity with a place … as a fundamental human defense against loneliness. If you’re intimate with a place, a place with whose history you’re familiar, and you establish an ethical conversation with it, the implication that follows is this: the place knows you’re there. It feels you. You will not be forgotten, cut off, abandoned.”

This is what travel should teach us, how to find home, how to respect it. All the while it can also displace you from it—sometimes forever. For a writer this tension is deepened by the need to explicate such perceptions and emotions.

You begin to question where your voice is coming from. In my year’s journey I felt all the dilemmas of a Western mind sliding across the surface of other cultures and places, not quite penetrating them, yet somehow influenced: ‘travel’ as a way of getting lost in the world to rediscover oneself again.

I was aware of the colonial taint beneath this adventure. And strangely affected by the greater culture shock I experienced in the Western cities where things were familiar, yet subtly different from what I knew as an Australian. I was not English, I was not American. And yet a part of me was mediated and shaped by both these countries.


Not too long before arriving home in Australia, I had a wild night out on the town in New York. A Chelsea Hotel kinda night.

I won’t say how I managed it, but I ended up dancing around tables in one of the rooms with Abel Ferrara, the director of Bad Lieutenant, and Peta Wilson, the Australian star of TV’s Le Femme Nikita. Ferrara played very bad air guitar to Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile, while Wilson and about a dozen other people went berserk. Gotta tell you, I was enjoying myself.

Later on, at dawn, I crawled up out of the downtown subway. I felt hungover, vulnerable, easily permeated, but I was lucky. I caught the faintest smell of wet stone warmed by the underground trainline. It made me think of summer in Australia, this rained-on pavement and the evaporating moisture, the gritty, sweet warmth of it in a light breeze in midwinter New York.

I realised then and there that I needed to go home for a while. The same way I later walked through Central Park and the smell of cut grass reminded me of being eight year’s old and mowing my grandmother’s lawns. Time to go home, the cut grass and the wet pavement seemed to be telling me, time to go home.

So I leave New York for a while to try and reorient myself back in Australia. To experience where I’ve come from and resettle somehow within myself. That’s the real issue: to settle within.

As human beings, we are made up of curious roots. Elemental things. A collection of qualities it is easy to overlook when one lives in a city as big as New York. Citizens of ‘the Big Apple’ might get it, though, from the smell of coffee or the sound of ice under their feet, the wet feeling of snow and how it tastes on their lips, a bad pizza on 8th Avenue, the warm air of a subway descent: New York, winter, home. September 11 has not unwritten this day-to-day reality. Indeed the rhythms and sensuality of it will eventually move in like a tide to submerge the singular event, soften it into the history of living and passing on.

I can’t really speak at that depth. New York is not my home. But now that I am away from it in Australia, winter New York has written itself into my skin, my sense of smell, my tongue. It makes me want to go back.

Travel has done this to me. Made me question what home is.

I want to get back to the penknife cuts in the tree. I want to go back to New York and taste snow as it falls. I want to accept who I am and find a place in the world, from an initial in wood to a footprint in ice and some words on a page. I’m homesick for who I am. Writing my way into the new me out of all the pieces I’ve become and all the places I’ve been.

So I think about those trees that shake my imagination from childhood. And something an old Aboriginal man once told me when we were up in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. He explained to me the way the limbs of the trees grew towards the sun, and how if you really looked at them, you could work out what direction to walk in, where you were headed if you ever got lost.

He then tested me, and I said every direction under the compass as he pointed at the limbs. I was hopelessly wrong each time, and he laughed and laughed. Remembering that incident now, I realize he was less concerned with my abilities at applied ‘bush knowledge’. And more interested to give me a story which explained how all things grow into a pattern.

- Mark Mordue



* Story first published in Madison magazine, New York USA, 1999

= Pen drawing of a tree by Vincent Van Gogh.
= Aboriginal artwork used as cover for first edition copy of Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines.
= Colour image of New York subway vents by Brett Foley sourced over net at http://www.bugbitten.com/photos/North_America/Axel/New_York/33673-6878-1128156.html
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