Origins

Sometimes, when the weather is mild, I move my writing life outside, to an old cane chair under the boughs of an apple tree that was old before I was born. Not far away, but unaware of me, a muskrat browses in the grasses by the brook. Red-winged blackbirds swoop across the water and a goldfinch, like a drop of distilled sunshine, darts through the glossy branches of an ilex.

 The muskrat, the birds and the holly tree are natives here. I am not. Only my dog, a liver-and-tan Kelpie, is a fellow exotic. Ten years ago, I plucked him from a sheep paddock in rural Australia and set him down in another hemisphere. He is insouciant about this, as befits his hardy kind.

So while his warm flanks twitch in a doggie doze, it falls to me to reflect on what it means to live so far from our place of origin, so far, indeed, that the cold winds of a Sydney July have been replaced by the soft and buttery summer air of Martha’s Vineyard. I cannot explain to my Kelpie that the Indo-European root of the word “home” is “haunt.” Nor can I explain to him how and why it is that I am haunted by absence and distance, by dissonance and difference, even if the alien corn that we will eat for dinner tonight is a sweeter variety than the starchy cobs of my Aussie childhood.

Nothing is as sweet in the end as country and parents, ever.
Even if, far away, you live in a fertile place.

 Odysseus said that. Or rather, Homer did. I know next to nothing about Homer—who he was, how he lived—yet I feel he knows my heart. Separated by three thousand years, by gender and culture and geographic space, this ancient shadow is able to put words to the feelings that I have on a sunny day on a little island, as I think of the larger island that is my native home—that sits, like Ithaca, “low and away, the farthest out to sea,” where the ribs of warm sandstone push up through thin, eucalyptus-scented soils.

 Home. Haunt. I sit in my garden and look across to the house I have now: a house the first beams of which were cut and shaped a century before the white history of Australia even began. When I run my hand over that rough-textured oak, I imagine the hand that planed it—the hand of a grist miller, himself an exotic transplant, the second or third in a line of English settlers who had come to this place drawn by the power of rushing water.

 If any home is haunted, this one should be. In 1665, the very first miller, Benjamin Church, bought the land from the native people of the place, the Wampanoag. He dammed the wild brook they called the Tiasquam, and set his grindstones turning. In so doing, he destroyed the herring run that had fed the Wampanoag each spring, when the fish known as “the silver of the ocean” poured upstream to spawn.

Benjamin Church dammed the brook.

 It is just one sentence in a long story. The story of human alteration to the natural world. It happened on the Tiasquam brook in Martha’s Vineyard, as it happened in uncountable places. As it happens now, in the Amazon, in Africa, in Western Australia, Tasmania, the Alaskan Arctic and innumerable corners of the world. A choice, a change, and the planet that is our only home reels and buckles under the accumulated strain.

 Often, this story has also compassed stories of dispossession, in which the needs of the newcomers and their industry disrupted the imperatives of the native people. As Benjamin Church built his mill in 1665, an English neighbor fenced pasture for his imported livestock, and the Wampanoag were no longer free to hunt the deer and waterfowl that sustained them. Another settler set his hard-hoofed beasts loose to trample the clam beds, and a band of Wampanoag went hungry that night.

 War followed, as war always has followed such acts of dispossession. In 1675, the Wampanoag on the mainland rose up against the English colonists. Benjamin Church, grist miller no longer, became a captain in the English army.

 His principal foe was the Wampanoag leader, Metacom. For six months, Metacom had the English on the run, destroying a dozen settlements. The colonial enterprise in New England teetered. It was Church, the former miller, who devised a way to turn the tide of battle. He enlisted Indians at odds with Metacom to teach the English their guerrilla tactics. On a humid summer day in 1676, Church led the force that trapped Metacom and shot him dead. He regarded Metacom’s dead body and declared him “a doleful, great, naked, dirty beast.” He ordered the corpse drawn and quartered and had the quarters hung from four trees. Church kept the head, which he sold in Plymouth, at a day of Thanksgiving, for thirty shillings. It was placed on a tall pole to overlook the feast.

 Everyone knows the story of the first Plymouth Thanksgiving in 1621. Metacom’s father, Massasoit, attended that one, offering help and friendship to the hapless, half-starved English Puritans. Few know the story of the Plymouth Thanksgiving of 1676, presided over by Massasoit’s son’s decapitated, rotting head. We like that earlier story much better. Let’s not do black armband history. Pass the turkey. Let’s we forget.

 But I can’t forget. Though Benjamin Church’s mill was torn down, this land bears his imprint. The Tiasquam brook remains dammed, the herring absent. And the grindstone is still here, set as a doorstep at the entrance to my house. Five feet in diameter, a foot and a half thick. When my foot lands on its notched ridges, words from Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem echo in my head:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell ... 

 Benjamin Church’s mill was built a hundred years before the Industrial Revolution that dismayed Hopkins. But it industrialized this landscape. And now I live where he lived, in an American home on Indian land, haunted by ghosts who lived and died unaware that my land, my homeplace, even existed.

 I did not mean to become part of this story, to know, so intimately, all this history so very far removed, and yet so sadly similar to my own. Metacom has much in common, after all, with Pemulwuy in Sydney or Yagan in Perth, guerrilla resisters whose heads also ended up on display—Pemulwuy’s pickled in spirits and Yagan’s shrunken and smoked. But that’s black armband history, too, and, as a schoolgirl in 1960s Sydney, I did not learn it. In those days, I could not have told you that the home I lived in stood upon Eora land. I learned these things not in school, but later, as a newspaper reporter, covering Aboriginal land rights battles and the efflorescence of indigenous art. I was, in a way, a foreign correspondent, venturing into an alien culture without even leaving my own shore. That reporting led on to a job as an actual foreign correspondent, and so I became an accidental exile. I meant to leave Australia for just a year. But way leads on to way. Like Odysseus, I went to war—although as a writer, not a warrior—and then found my homeward journey diverted by quests and siren songs. What was to have been my brief foreign fling has become, by unplanned stages, my life.

 In dictionaries, definitions of home are various. It is both “a place of origin, a starting position” and “a goal or destination.” It may also be “an environment offering security and happiness” or “the place where something is discovered, founded, developed or promoted. A source.” My “place of origin” was an ordinary Australian suburban childhood of the sixties, and though it led to a “destination” elsewhere, it was the place of discovery and a source of conviction about our responsibility to our only home, this fragile and beleaguered planet.

 I have said that I live now on the banks of a little river that was dammed in 1665. When I first left Australia in 1982, a greater river, a larger dam, was very much on my mind. That river was the Franklin, in southwest Tasmania. A river wild from source to mouth, already a precious rarity in the smeared, bleared post-industrial world. Yet a river whose wildness was in clear and present danger. Works were already proceeding for a dam that would flood a pristine wilderness to yield just 180 megawatts of power.

 I had started covering the Franklin controversy as a journalist in 1980. In February of 1981 I rafted part of its length, on assignment for my newspaper. It was, at the time, the hardest and scariest thing I had ever done. I was not what you would call an outdoorsy type. To paraphrase Woody Allen: I was at two with nature. Until I started covering environmental issues, I’d never gone bushwalking or slept one night in a tent, much less steered my own small rubber raft over heaving white water. That first night on the river, having carried gear all day up and down a sheer, slippery, rain-lashed mountainside, I lay wet, aching and apprehensive, wondering what mad ambition had led me to sign up for this. But that Franklin trip changed me, profoundly. As I believe wilderness experience changes everyone. Because it puts us in our place. The human place, which our species inhabited for most of its evolutionary life. The place that shaped our psyches and made us who we are. The place where nature is big, and we are small. We have reversed this ratio only in the last couple of hundred years. An evolutionary nanosecond. The pace of our headlong rush from a wilderness existence through an agrarian life to urbanization is staggering and exponential. In the USA, in just two hundred years, the percentage of people living in cities has jumped from less than four per cent to eighty per cent. By 2008, half the world’s population was living in cities. Every week, a million more individuals move to join them. The bodies and the minds we inhabit were designed for a very different world from the one we now occupy. As far as we know, no organism has ever been part of such an experiment in evolutionary biology as we as a species are now undertaking— adapted for one life yet living another. We are, in a way, already space travelers. We have left our place of origin behind and ventured into an alien world. And we don’t yet know what effects this sudden hurtle into strangeness will ultimately have on the human body, the human psyche.

 (This piece was adapted from Geraldine Brooks’s 2011 Boyer Lectures, presented by the Australian Broadcasting Commission.)