No stone unturned

In amongst some bits and pieces that have kept me company over the years, I have mementoes from my childhood that still physically connect me with my wonderful grandmother. These tangible links take many shapes and remind me of my country heritage and those early years growing up on a farm, where the realities of the tough life she had led, left an indelible impression on me. There are delicate items that she crocheted with hands that were rapidly twisting with arthritis, there are recipes written down for me when I married and established my own farm kitchen, so many miles from “home”, there are dated cups and saucers that gather dust in the cabinet, there is a an old, iron stirrup that must have held her boot when she rode side-saddle, there is a dog-eared original copy of Miles Franklin’s “My Brilliant Career”, there are the wooden butter pats made out of Tasmanian Blackwood by a wizened, travelling hawker, and there are the stones.

Nan liked stones and as a child I would find little pieces of rock, pebbles, and what you could describe as “odd geological specimens”, in flowerpots, on shelves in sheds or filling a purpose as a paperweight inside the house. I still have a few of the stranger pieces – bits of rock that must have come from the nearby paddocks, others that probably came from her own childhood home and still more from further afield in the Snowy Mountains, where her husband lived as a boy. But also in the collection are some stone tools that I have always cherished and which I know are of aboriginal origin. They have pride of place near my back door, and rest comfortably with an old butter churn and a twisted, rusty horseshoe. My grandmother was a gardener and cook and these stones are the tools of a fellow cook, that were gifted to her by a local woman, prompting me to wonder if they exchanged culinary ideas or shared seasonal growing tips. The Ngunnawal people were the first occupiers of the land on the Limestone Plains and their territory extended well into the rugged snow-capped mountains to the southwest. There was scant mention of them as a significant population or as being of social importance in my post-war childhood, and what few stories I heard from my grandmother, never filled the many gaps in school texts, maps and everyday discussion. But like many, I was curious, and the coloured, elaborate illustrations in books and magazines did little to enlighten me about the true background to a 50’s Australia that was still tied to that faraway English heritage. The racism I observed was directed at Italian, Greek and other European migrants – the “wogs” were an assimilation challenge far more relevant than questioning how local aboriginal families had been ostracised and “managed”. Attending a Catholic school didn’t help either, as the focus on indigenous “problems” was couched in terms of missionary and charitable manipulation of their wellbeing. Black assimilation.

But a fascination with all things “bush”, steered me down a strange path as I pondered how humankind had not only survived but thrived, in an environment that challenged modern man, let alone members of a “primitive civilization”. It is only now in my mature years that I can look back on those times and see that I was actually looking for the truth, but I was only a kid, too scared to identify my interest or ask the questions. But I was a “tomboy” at heart and spent every opportunity outdoors, learning, experimenting and letting my imagination run wild as I grew to love and respect the land around me. I wondered what it would be like to live in the real bush, to only have yourself or a small family group to rely on for food, hunting and shelter. When I was restrained by home duties and that cruel label of being emale, (even at nine years of age), my rebellious spirit found identity and purpose in the pages of books telling the stories of the American native peoples – called strangely, Red Indians. There were no adventure stories heroically telling tales of our own aboriginal people, so playing “cowboys and Indians” was the game always top of the list when friends or cousins visited, and I proved to be quite a capable “brave” sneaking through the trees and scrub, to frighten my “white” enemies.

Surrounded by this imaginary, protective “tribe”, I was despatched to Boarding School in Sydney before I turned ten, and in those first, lonely, confusing days and weeks I remember begging the refectory, Sister-in-Charge for permission to collect the plastic “Wild West” toys from the bottom of the Corn Flakes boxes. I didn’t want the handsome, exciting, cowboys toting their guns in defiance, I wanted the Navaho and Apache figurines that could guard my dreams and shut out the city noises of nearby Kings Cross. My “tribe” stayed hidden in my locker drawer and I collected small bits of sandstone from the school grounds, to add realism and texture to their yellow, moulded world. They went home with me and I kept them for ages. They disappeared when I returned to Sydney many years later to attend Teacher’s College.

As an adult, my sense of belonging to the environment that surrounds me, has, if anything, intensified, and while I have left behind the troubled journals of the First Peoples of North America, I have reluctantly faced the Truth Telling, deliberately omitted from our own Australian story. It has been hard to shake off the learned behaviour of generations, and take a closer look at the history that was so blatantly distorted and taught to us. As willing students, we have been naïve believers in the goodness of the colonial narrative. “Black fellas” rarely entered my white world as an adult, unless their images flashed across the screens of televised news bulletins, were pictured in printed media or were photographed congregating in nearby country towns. The slow unravelling of this tapestry of lies, sometimes took on a political aspect, but mostly it was an undercurrent of poorly voiced appeals for recognition, justice and reconciliation. Pleas that fell on deliberately, unhearing ears. My love of country, ran parallel to this reality and I felt comfortable in my sympathy and misguided tolerance. But there are the stones.

Stones found in the paddocks and down by the river, nothing exciting, just bits of local rock that catch the early morning light on the windowsill in my kitchen. It feels right to have these totems of life and nature reminding me of my own fragility and impermanence, as I fill the kettle or wash the dishes. They have their own spirituality, the texture of ages past, and a weathered shape able to cradle the future. Nature has fashioned these specimens, climate and erosion have given them their character and appeal, but there is one that is different. When I found it in a ploughed paddock, I knew it was not the tines on the scarifier that had given it those chipped edges. It lay comfortably in my palm, and I knew it had seen other uses, known other hands.

Surely now, is the time to turn the stones once more..

Bloggers note: Recent events in the US, where the death of an African American man, George Floyd, was filmed as he was arrested by Minneapolis police, have prompted massive protest marches worldwide. The “Black Lives Matter” movement has used the groundswell in public concern to highlight the plight of people facing racism and victimisation because of the colour of their skin. In Canada, First Nations peoples have drawn attention to the continuing difficulties they face as history hides the true story of that wonderful country’s colonisation and development. Here in Australia, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are also using the focus on racial discrimination to continue their long struggle for recognition and acknowledgement of their rightful place in our nation’s history. While I am not one to shy away from commenting on issues that scream at us with every news bulletin, every facebook post, I am struggling with a response that genuinely expresses my feelings. This has been the first of 2 blogs on this difficult subject, and I have let my fingers commit my thoughts and memories to a story that I hope has reflected where I have come from and where I see myself in my seventies, at the crossroads of change.

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