Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Understory


Country is never quite what you expect it to be and buying a piece of it can be more than a financial transaction. The West Australian towns of Ravensthorpe and Hopetoun exist in a strange sistership. Ravensthorpe exudes a worn but robust beauty; a highway road train town, born of gold and sheep and nickel. Its mineral booms and busts are reflected in the stolid architecture of the main street’s public bars. The back blocks’ fibro houses were never intended for posterity. Fifty kilometres off the highway, Hopetoun is the charismatic, windswept sister. Run by the same council and serviced by the same dog catcher, Hopetoun’s scrubby Banksia country sits back to let the white sand beaches, turquoise waters and flaming Christmas trees take precedence. Beach shacks are hedged in limestone and shells, their verandas festooned with glass buoys. The Big Miners’ mansions squeeze between them. People work the Ravensthorpe mines and then drive fifty kilometres to Hopetoun to their homes behind the dunes. The sea breeze cools down the evening country. Property prices in Hopetoun can be five times that of Ravensthorpe.

Exactly half way between the two towns, on the edge of Barren Ranges, is Kundip. An odd little place, Kundip is a forgotten town site that flourished three times and finally died with the railway line. When I first visited this abandoned goldmining town, I fell in love with the stillness, the ruins of cellars, the quiet quartzite earth and the ghostly, kerosene tin remnants of past battlers. I lit a fire that night and slept in my swag beside the car, listening to South Australian radio and the sainting of Mary McKillop. It happened that I slept on one of the cheapest blocks for sale in West Australia. I bought it. I built a shack from scavenged cedar and corrugated iron, with the help of a borrowed generator and inspired friends.

On my last journey to Kundip, I grew more and more excited as I neared the place; craning through the bug-splattered windscreen to watch the country change from dried out farming dust lands to deep ranges and salmon gum forests. I arrived after a long drive of lonely roadhouses and the appropriate music: Johnny Cash, The Dubliners and Martha Wainright. I turned off the music. I lit a fire. Sitting alone, towards evening, I began thinking, “What am I doing here? I’m mad. This idea is just stupid.”

But then the sun sank. The white quartz ground turned pink beneath the olive green moorts. The chanting of the crickets slowed to a sleepy dirge. Stars, satellites and meteorites began their sky wheeling. The new mine glowed on the horizon. I’d be mad to be anywhere else, I thought, and stoked the fire.

A lightning storm hung over the Barren Ranges, snagged on its jagged edges. I saw the eerie orange reflection against the clouds; like driving a night time desert highway and seeing the lights of the roadhouse for an age before you get there. That night constant flashes, 'sky sparks' coming from way out to sea off Hopetoun, lit up the sky. The next day was rainful, then blue skies, then the strange clouds announcing more rain, followed by rainbows - doubled and even trebled on the horizon and then more blue skies.

"The light is different out here," Dad said to me, when he made the drive out. The light is indeed different to the southern coast where we come from. It seems more diffused, gentler than the stark blue and white hues of the coast. Kundip trees part to reveal the sky behind them. It is not the solid, waist height scrub or soaring forests of the south. The photographs I have taken of this country always look drab and grey but it is not like that at all. The earth is rich, ochre red or white with quartz and there is water all around and zany emerald native shrubs endemic to this area. The colours are almost too vivid for the naked eye. My pictures don't reflect that and it confused me, until my father said the thing about the light.

After I finished roofing the veranda and attaching guttering with bits of wire and cable ties, I packed up my tools. I wanted to stop in at the tip (always a good lurk in a mining town) and have a bit of a drive around the bush. My plan was to circle through the Ravensthorpe Ranges and back to my shack. I found a paddock full of camels on the way and inadvertently chased some emus down the road. On my way towards Jerramungup I found the Cocanarup road.

I drove down the orange gravel track, heading downhill into the salmon gum forests and the Phillips River Valley. I passed what was obviously an old farm, the stone ground scoured by a century of work, punctuated by wires strung through jam wood posts, the buildings on the hill weathered by wind and not a tree or garden around them; just stones and dirt and wire. Grim country.

Just across from the farm, the land turns a salmon gum green. It is a different eco-system in the valley, the air is cooler, the light is greener. Once again, there is the stillness. The forest reminds me of our southern karris but for the absence of leatherwoods – that soft understory of perfect Australian emerald. Here there is no understory, only blood red resin dripping onto fallen bark. Any waist height foliage is bound to be prickly.

I was about three kilometres, as the crow flies, from my shack when I stumbled upon John Dunn’s grave.

The grave is bound with freshly painted white pickets and stands among the wispy casuarinas and red rocks above a dry river course. Below, and once upon a flood, the relentless water had pushed branches against the gums to almost three metres above its grainy bed. Emus, snakes, bungarra and kangaroo tracked this riverbed. At the grave, my mental translation of the epitaph was ‘You never know when they are gonna get yer’ (Matthew 24:42).

‘I heard there was some nasty business out there,’ Dad had said to me, when I bought the land.  I’m still unsure whether he meant the 1880 spearing of John Dunn, or the aftermath. It is a difficult story, the story of a settlers’ right to country in 19th century Australia. Aboriginal people from the Ravensthorpe area are part of the Noongar nation. Their acts of resistance to being chained up, their grounds over-run by sheep and their women stolen or lured away, were often swift and violent. Generally, these acts were seen by colonial administrators as a criminal issue. For the Dunn brothers, living on the farm I had just passed, the police were a week’s ride away.

The men who lured John Dunn into the bush killed him with single spear to his neck. His brother Walter could scarcely ‘put his finger into’ into the wound and yet blood drenched the dead man’s body. Three years later John’s other brother James was also attacked but he survived. James Gunn’s injuries bore all the hallmarks of retribution, rather than the execution-style killing of his brother. There was talk of ‘maltreatment’ of Noongar women.

An anthropologist at the local Indigenous affairs department surmises that the reprisal killings probably took place in several stages. Originally documented in diaries of white colonists and police records, contemporary Aboriginal historians and writers have revisited John Dunn’s spearing and its aftermath. They continue the history from the day of John Dunn’s death. It is a horrific story and no wonder anecdotes exist of Noongar winding up their car windows on their way through Ravensthorpe and never, ever driving through there at night.

Oral histories of Noongar people, and occasionally Europeans, testify that the Dunn’s pay back murders amounted to a massacre.  All parties agree that Noongar people were driven to Esperance or Bremer Bay by the Dunn brothers and their mates on horseback. One day’s ride away, at Fanny Cove, was another farm. The owner Muir had been killed by Aborigines three years before John Dunn and so his farm probably proved a friendly place for the Dunn’s party to refresh horses and glean news of the fleeing Noongar people. It is generally agreed that the Dunns and their accomplices poisoned the water holes on their return from Bremer Bay and Esperance, so that Noongar could not return to their own country.

An anthropologist recently charged with investigating the site of the massacre, in a report for a mining company who wants to move into the West Kundip area, wrote that if men on horseback were chasing and shooting people, bodily remains could be scattered all over the country, rather than buried in a single mass grave. This practical statement is almost mythical in its ramifications and always reminds me of Isis searching for the dismembered parts of her Osiris.

That the Cocanarup massacre even happened is still quietly argued among the European descendants in Ravensthorpe. In many local history publications of the region, the story ends with John Dunn’s spearing death. However, most histories do acknowledge that Noongar people died in conflict during the settlement of the area. Australian massacres during frontier conflict are still filtering into mainstream consciousness, partially because of an historical denial of Aboriginal resistance in our national narrative and because our darker histories were never really on the page unlike other colonial administrations of the same era. This observation is not to discredit the Ravensthorpe residents’ sentiments but to acknowledge that accounts of massacres of Aboriginal men, women and children were not generally reported to police as a crime and are therefore are often unrecorded.

According to some white and Noongar oral histories, many bodies are buried within metres of John Dunn’s grave, marked with a circle of stakes. I stood there on the riverbank, on the day I found the grave. It was summer and I only had thongs on my feet. I worried about snakes. I had a vague knowledge of John Dunn’s death and what happened afterwards. I wasn’t sure how I felt. I just knew that it was not somewhere I wanted to hang around.

I drove further into the bush, keeping the Barren Ranges on my right, fording rocky river crossings on a track once trod by horsemen and Noongar clans. Finally. I came out at a mine service road and, just as if I’d whistled him up, a miner roared past me in a spin of dust and red flags, his face set purposefully at the steering wheel. I thought I would back-track him and so I turned onto the big road, changed up to fourth gear and drove for a while, checking out for wheat silos and any sign of a town. I could see both the Barrens and the Ravensthorpe Ranges, but after being in the Phillips River valley and the dark world of the Dunns for so long, I was disorientated and couldn’t find my bearings.

My friend bought the block next to me and asked his Noongar mates about the place.
‘Just don’t move anything around, out there,’ they said.
After discovering the Cocanarup story and its proximity to my new home, I was even more dismayed by this advice and its origins. I’d just spent weeks driving around, looking for rocks. The stone around Kundip is red and white quartz, slid off the ranges over millennia, and it always has good, flat faces. I had gathered a nice pile of stone on my block.

I wanted to build something beautiful on what I thought was my very own patch of earth. The country around Cocanarup and Kundip is a place that, when I arrive, I can breathe deep and say out loud ‘I am here.’ There are plants that grow by my shack that haven’t been named by Europeans yet. The place has sleeping magic. Some nights I sleep for eleven hours. It is off the grid, out of range and clocks don’t seem to work here. Perfect.

Sometimes ignorance can be an unknown friend, who disappears when it comes time to learn the understory. Kundip country enchanted me from the first night I slept upon her skin. Later, discovering the stories of the people who died here; the fear, the running, the blood, the sweating horses and the spears and guns; it changed me. The irony is that after all my whining about being a perennial renter, I bought a patch of earth that I now know I am only borrowing. Understanding this makes me feel lucky, in a strange kind of way.









Monday, May 21, 2018

Monstering the normal


Maybe it is my predilection for reading the weekend broadsheet that’s brought this on. Maybe it’s history. Maybe I buy this paper purely with the intention of ratchetting up my lefty anger against the sad old men who run the rag. Anyway, I return to it every week like a bruised lover: battered, angry; and with a whole new resolve to quit this reiteration of the status quo.

When I worked at the service station, the old blokes stopped in every morning to buy the only state-wide newspaper. Occasionally a 30-something would buy said newspaper and put his coin on the counter. I would say, ‘What the hell are you doing? You’re supposed to be scrolling through your phone, young man!’
He would reply, ‘I like reading the newspaper.’

But I too still love the newspaper. I love the local rag in our town of five hundred residents, for its regular rants against litter, the heartfelt funeral notices, pictures of my mum at a morning tea and the butcher’s ads. Gold.

In the national broadsheet, I’ve been reading about the world’s troubles. The #MeToo hashtag seems to have moved from outrage to solid ground now. Well, how long did that take? Fifty, sixty, a thousand years? So of course, it has to have a backlash because any movement that took so long must have an instant backlash.

What we are seeing is nothing new or interesting by the mainstream media: powerful men are still paying subordinate women to write about why subordinate women shouldn’t speak out against powerful men abusing subordinate women. Some of the opinion pieces run along lines as godawful as ‘I’m not a feminist because boys still run the shop and I really want them to like me.’ The men who write against #MeToo tend to position themselves first as conscientious house husbands who set up the straw man that they are ‘pacifists in the war of the sexes’, before firing volleys against women who name their abusers.

Women are going to suffer a backlash for the #MeToo movement. That’s the word. Men (in positions of male power) will hesitate before hiring a woman now. Men are apparently so scared of the consequences of asking an attractive subordinate woman out for headjobs or dinner, that they won’t hire a woman.   

It’s easy. Here are some things that may help those menfolk hiring and firing.
If you are a man hiring a woman whom you may find attractive:
1.Treat her as your employee/peer.
2. Don’t show her your penis/ expect sex/ expect flattery/ expect that your marriage proposal will be perceived as flattery, especially if you are thirty years older and already married.
3. Treat her as your employee/peer.

See? Easy. It’s that easy.

I’ve always enjoyed working and hanging around with men because they do interesting stuff that I like to do too. Mucking about in boats, going bush with vague plans and a random sense of direction etc. But hanging around with men has always held a certain level of frisson too, because since I was about ten or eleven, I was perceived as the species female.

Most men are not predators but most women have encountered the men who are. Good men don’t always understand the circumstances that have hardwired women like me. They don’t get why we behave like those horses who shy at plastic bags. They don’t always understand the source of our anger. That we are constantly alert for the predator is how we are shaped. If we have not experienced it first hand, then we are cautioned from toddlerhood by our mothers, who have. Fellow men, please ask your mothers if you don’t believe me.

One of my small and most constant tantrums is this: I shouldn’t have to deal with this if I were a man! Recently I worked on a job (and I’m not going to detail my job here because I’m maintaining the status fucking quo in honour of his wife). The owners lived in the city and they’d come down, lavish me with praise. They were great employers and I was their pet ‘doctorate lady’ worker. They often bought me lunch and were generous and warm with their company. They loaned me interesting books. One day he returned from the city on his own, gave me more than I’d invoiced him for and then, as he handed over the money, told me he was in love with me. Oh, I thought as I pocketed the cash, here is another man willing to deny me personhood in order to keep me as his dirty little secret. I was fresh out of a ‘relationship’ with a man who’d kept me secret for years, so I know well how this feels. It’s like a lime bath to the soul.

I know that this is the low end of the boss-harasses-female-subordinate scenario but get this. When I tell that story to my female cohort, they groan and say, ‘Oh for crying out loud! Well that job’s finished.’ Like it’s completely normal that you have to leave your job when the boss hits on you.

Because it is normal. My choice was either giving house to his fantasy of making me his dirty little secret or shutting down the entire show. I cannot go back to this job because he stands too close and I feel ogled. It’s a silly little job anyway. It’s not my career. I teach at university and I’ve written a couple of books. I’m stronger and smarter than him and thankfully my career does not depend on my accommodating him any further.

But what if my career was dependant on this person? In the Australian Angela Shanahan wrote a column titled ‘#MeToo for the virtue signallers, not those most in need’ (Weekend Australian, 6-7/1/18, p. 16), writing that ‘Only in the age of social media and the moral vacuum of Twitter and Facebook could a campaign of intimidation and vengeful finger-pointing reach such bizarre heights of hysteria.’ She does this line a lot.

And yep, she actually used the word hysteria, when referring to women accusing powerful men of sexual abuse. This is what happens to women who kick against the pricks. They are called hysterical. Have a goggle at the history of hysteria and the women who lost their children, livelihoods, income and physical freedom to the word hysteria. (When the root word for hysteria is connected to the womb, it is problematic to bring in the MRA right now. Just saying.) Next, she claims that the women in the campaign to clean up sexual harassment in the film industry are behaving like ‘vituperative Vestal Virgins’ and of course that other V word occurs again, Victims.

Leaving that 'silly little job' made me realise how women can be impacted upon financially by this kind of behaviour, I’ve had a few nasty encounters in the woodshed over the years and despite being a broad of shoulder woman nearly six-foot-tall who hails from a black powder family, I’ve rarely thought of myself as a vituperative, virginal and/or hysterical victim. 

But I still listened seething, when my former male bosses at the service station talked about how they rate women customers coming into the store according to what time he is knocking off. 
‘What time you finishing up tonight Bill?’ ‘Oh, about eight, I reckon, Steve.’ 
Or, ‘I’m heading off at three to feed the chooks.’
When I snorted and muttered something kinda vaguely feministy, like 'it's nice to know how you rate us women,' all three of them rated me favourably to placate me.
‘Eleven o’clock.’
Me *giggles*
Really. This was last year. I’m just too old for this shit.

Yes, #MeToo is messy, sprawling and sometimes damaging all round. What did we expect? Some how I don’t think it is as harmful as the years of silent, furtive abuses of power dealt out to women trying to get somewhere in their lives. #MeToo is like watching the critical mass of peasants finally rise against land owners in the feudal era. I’m thinking, bring it on. The pithy newspaper op eds from the antiquity are losing to this operatic beast playing out, live, to monster the norms. It's great viewing.