Place – The (Un)Nature(l) of Man.
© Brett Dorron 2000
This has been a difficult essay. It started me on a journey, a journey of self-discovery. I’ve been missing a ‘sense of place’, that’s why it intrigued me so. At this point in time, I can not tell my story in fourteen hundred words. This is like my book report, before I’ve read my mind.
The sense of place that most interests me, comes from the places that define us. The places we identify with, that shape our identity. The human relationship to place can be a lifelong bonding to the ‘culture’ of a place. The ‘meanings’ of a place.
Relationship to place is not a solely human concept, for some animals have some sense of place. Some animals develop complex relationships with, and alter, their environments. And some territorial animals (domestic included) mark, monitor and defend the boundaries of ‘their place’. One human difference is our communications. We augment this sense of place with maps. Maps, as language, are carriers of meaning and aid our other languages to represent, or to divide, define, describe, communicate, and expand, our sense of place. Maps demarcate our world, our allotments, neighbourhoods, shires, regions, states and countries. And, in-fact, the mapping of our solar system has allowed us to perceive a sense of place within the series of planets that orbit our sun.
And although all these places do actually exist in nature, the meanings we ascribe to them do not. Let’s take the concept of Australia, the island continent: The land of sweeping plains, from Uluru to Darwin, Kakadu and Lake Eyre, the man from Snowy River, eight miles from Gundagai. The places of Australia make up the meanings of ‘the place’. Let’s try that again. . . . Australia, the oldest land on Earth: With Perth and Canberra, Sydney and Adelaide, Broome, Hobart and Cairns, sang the sheik from Scrubby Creek. But Australia is more than that, the meanings have all changed.
The bush to me has always felt right. Felt good, and true, and natural. And as I cast my mind back, I realised that some of my earliest and most positive memories are of my interactive childhood experiences with the bush, and wetlands, of the central southeast Queensland coast. My parents owned a house in the southern suburbs of Bundaberg, where we lived for six to seven months each year. During the 1960’s my father cut sugar cane by hand in the Moorelands district. Our family would relocate, from July till December, to my “grandad’s hut”, a one room shack with a large corrugated iron lean-to on one side. There was no power, the stove was wood and later gas, although we often cooked on a wood fired BBQ outside. The fridge and lanterns were kerosene powered. Water for baths, during cold weather, was heated in a wood fired copper out the back, near the communal veggie patch. There was a scattering of citrus trees and a mango tree, but these were not seen as nature, they were an extension of the shack.
The beauty was location (place). The shack still stands, although in a greatly altered state it is now extended, modernised, and comfortised. It now has electricity, and down pipes. But it no longer has the meanings, or the pleasure, that I so valued as a child. In fact, the entire river system, or eco system has changed.
The shack is on the once pristine, and fertile banks of the Kolan River, about one hour north of Bundaberg. It is approximately 1.5km form the river mouth, and in an area of extensive wetlands, both salt and fresh water. At a certain time each year the lilies, reed, and hyacinth would crowd the surface of some fresh water swamps so tightly as to support human weight above the water. During the week, Mum and I, and my baby brother, were there on our own. Dad worked from daylight till dark. But on many weekends fishermen, or other families, would visit some of the five neighbouring shacks. And we would play football, soccer or cricket atop the hyacinth with up to one metre of water under our feet.
I would play in the fresh water lagoons and swamps exploring, catching guppies and lobbies (marron in WA). We had a dog, and a cockatoo as pets, and often kept Bearded Dragons for which we would collect insects and feed by hand. Mum and I fished daily, and I speared the occasional Flathead (my favourite fish) in the shallows of the sandy riverbank, right in front of our shack. My grandad and dad’s two elder brothers were commercial net fishermen, who built their own boats, sewed their own nets from scratch (no monofilliment). They rowed their boats everywhere. I was fourteen when my grandad bought his first outboard, after an accident which resulted in the loss of most of his right bicep muscle.
I remember many things from about the age of two and a half, to three years, but I do not remember learning to swim, or fish. I do not remember hauling my first net. It seems as though I always played some role. Although I do remember being chased over the back of the boat, into very deep water, by my father, to swim the prawn net. I was about four years of age. Mum was perched on another net in the front of the boat, breast feeding my brother. My link with nature was complete. It was our environment, our playground, our food source, ‘and’. . . our home was in it.
The city, for the other half of the year, although presumably more comfortable, with shops for food source, mowed and fenced yards, and streets, for playgrounds, was a different environment. Everywhere, there was restriction, containment, confinement, streets, fences, schools, police, private property. This was not my environment. It was ‘other’ people’s creations and inventions. Always artificial. There was a ‘different’ culture. One I didn’t like as much.
We learn the culture. We learn the sets of rules. We learn how to survive ‘within’ the culture, our environment. We learn what is important to others, not what’s important to us.
Societies, humans, and their cultures have an impact on their environments. This brings me to the important dichotomy. The culture shapes the landscape, but in turn, the landscape shapes the culture.
We learn a certain culture, to live within the landscape. And in the act of changing culture, we change the landscape. But as we change the landscape, we have to learn to live within it.
There is much discourse about place, ecology, environment, and the economics of our planet. Sometimes age-old ideologies and discourses are painted new.
In her rejection of ‘Globalisation’, Norberg-Hodge (1999) writes of ‘the global eco-village’ and promotes a concept of local eco-villages, as co-operative local economies. She brands them as “northern based efforts”. But the concept has probably always existed, and possibly, in every corner of the globe. In the 1960’s, similar smaller scale concepts were labelled ‘hippy communes’, and before that something else. There is always meaning in ‘the name’. Eco-village is postmodern, environmentally friendly, and politically correct. It encourages people back to the country (culture).
Then there’s Stanton and McGill’s (2000) article, “Country dream jolts city slickers awake”, discussing many city people’s inability to live in the country. They paint country living, and those who would make the move, quite negatively throughout, with comments like:
Instead of carefree lifestyles and close-knit communities, many SeaChangers who make the break from stressful city living find unfriendly locals . . . .
So-called lifestyle migrants often end up back in the city within five to 10 years, according to experts.
“For many people it seems like a good idea at the time but then they find that all those rustic, rural images they imagined don’t eventuate,” Curtin University rural geography lecturer Garry Moore said. “After five years or so, they’re usually back where they started.” (p, 5)
Country people, or people that live or have grown up in the country, have learned the ‘country culture’. And the more country, the more distant, or remote, or the closer to nature, this place or it’s people might be, the more different, the more primitive, ‘Aboriginal’, uncivilised, or uncultured they may be branded by their city peers. They are often labelled, and pigeon holed, put in to categories like, farmer, bushy, locals, country hick, hippy, feral, city dropouts, arty crafties, squatters, greenies, recluse, unsociable, backward, etc, etc. Gone native! The list goes on and on. A multitude of connotations. ‘The other’. When they have simply made adjustments to their cultural lifestyle and thinking which allow them to live, or fit better, within ‘their’ cultural landscape. The native aboriginals had learned a culture, and given meaning to their landscapes. City dwellers learn a culture, and give meanings to their landscape. One landscape is more natural, but neither’s meanings are.
We have explored some contradictions. Now, let’s explore some oppositions. The first list, (A), are the oppositions for me. The second, (B), are some oppositions I see for others.
I have read so much, and said so little, there is so much more to say. I have barely touched the media, and the meanings they portray. Like the early Australian television wildlife documentaries, with their antipodea. And the tear-and-bust adventure series by The Leyland Brothers, presenting the vastness and the harshness of the land. Rolf Harris’s Walkabout, and the ecologically aware In the Wild, with Harry Butler. The survival series of Les Hiddens’ Bush Tucker Man, and of course there’s Crocodile Dundee.
What I hope that I have portrayed, is the diversity, and depth of meaning we associate with place. We give meanings to our places, and they give meanings back to us. Our meanings come through language, but also, history, myth and culture. Our media gives meanings to the places we’ve not seen. It was never clearer than, after all the representations of Uluru that I’d consumed, . . . when I stepped out of my vehicle . . . it took my breath away!
 The river was dammed in the 1970’s to supply irrigation for agriculture. Originally named Monduran Dam, later renamed Fred Haig Dam and Lake Monduran. The river is now badly silted. The once sandy banks, are now two feet deep with mud. Flathead are rare. The sandbars and yabby banks are black with mud.
 The boats were double-ended bondwood punts, sealed with tar. With outriggers, and twelve-foot oars, you stood to row. Each end was identical, no front and back. The front was whichever direction you faced to row. There was room for up to four nets, two each end, and any net could be run at any time. If the net to run was in the front, then you simply turned within the boat and the front became the back.
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