Haunted Countries

When I was fifteen, my father’s friend took me skiing. We drove on winding roads from Linz all the way down to the border, dipping in and out of Italy, and then back up into Tirol. Our fourth hour in the car, we swung around a corner and suddenly rows of iced triangles stretched out across our blue horizon.

 

We don’t have mountains like that here. Everything in Australia is so aged and weathered that instead we just have these great craggy masses, giant dinosaurs of rock. My American friend, while exploring the forest surrounding my Tasmanian home, told me our patch of the Pacific feels ancient —almost prehistoric.

‘I get this sense that the land here has seen something, and that she’s trying to tell me about it’, he said.

‘I think Australia is haunted.’

 

 

I was lost when I moved to Melbourne. I remember standing on silken tarmac, this place with its stench like a litter-box, soggy cigarettes, everyone’s depressed. It wasn’t the first time I’d lived alone and it wasn’t the first time I’d lived in a city, but something felt wrong. I longed for the countryside where I’d grown up, felt suffocated by all the concrete. But living in Singapore was fine. Vienna was fine. Why did Melbourne feel so cold?

 

 

Last summer I drove to the Grampians with my ex. We packed tents and food for four days, and walked five hours along the sandy path that turned first to rubble and then to rock. A pair of emu ran from the treeline and across our path before disappearing again. Bush chickens scuttled in and out of sight. Our silence was punctured by the hollow echo of mountain goats bashing their horns together.

While I walked I wept. There were tiny orange and purple wildflowers dancing at the edges of the track and I didn’t know why I couldn’t stop crying.

 

It was here, sitting naked on top of the rock, with my ancestors crawling around me and sleeping at my feet, that I realised hadn’t been able to feel them in the city; that they weren’t allowed to float so freely there. In Tasmania, they were lost shadows seeking something to cling to, long grass waving as you drove by. I realised that in Melbourne, I had missed them.

 

I found them in the city too, it just took a little more listening. From Bourke Street to Brunswick Road, on the corner of Punt and Raleigh. Messages left between the cracks in the concrete, ancestors growing up through crevices as piss-yellow grass, or sitting atop the telegraph pole, black crow crying why can’t you see me why can’t you see me why can’t you why can’t you see me.

 

 

There are all different kinds of hauntings, like the ghosts of colonisers settled into the bones of my Wurundjeri grandmother, stolen from her family and brainwashed by the whitefellas. My Wurundjeri grandmother who says ‘Morgan, we would have nothing if the white people didn’t come here’, ‘Morgan, we were running around like savages killing each other before’, and ‘would you rather be eating bugs and dirt for dinner, huh?’ She was lucky, she says, grateful for the vitiligo that bleached colour from her skin, grateful for only the two small patches of pigment blooming from the ankles like birthmarks. Her sisters and brothers who didn’t escape, well it makes sense how the white ones tricked her. Her siblings raised with her blak family, real family, well their lives are tinged with chemicals snorted and smoked, nights spent in housing commissions or prison cells. Mothers running brothels and sisters being raped and stabbed while my grandmother was bathed and uniformed and sent to private schools with bellies full of oats and packed lunches in her bag. Taken too young to see anything but the white-bread way, her family’s misfortune is in her eyes a fault of their own.


The ghosts are angry voicemails left by my mother, father; why am I wasting my time? Why am I so angry, why won’t I come with them to watch the fireworks on ‘Australia’ Day? I say ‘This is my land’, and my white father laughs and says ‘not if I paid for it it’s not.’ The ghosts are the way my family vote each election; we’re white, I swear, so the blak ones don’t matter. We’re white, I swear, so we vote the way an upper-middle class white family should.

 

Hauntings are the Splitting white guilt (grief) sunken into the skin of my brother who thinks Aboriginal is just a box we tick on a form at school, thinks Aboriginal is just dollar signs sent to our bank accounts by the government, thinks it’s a funny joke to leave comments on my Instagram pictures; dirty fucken abo. Blue eyes and blonde hair, but blak underneath, and he inflicts his racist remarks before going to Centrelink to organise his Abstudy payments.

 

These hauntings, inescapable. These, you can’t close your ears and ignore.

 

Land where all the abos dies, hung on eucalypts like Christmas lights, gone but alive in our hearts, or gone and forgotten, all existing somewhere on a spectrum of loss.

 

 

I sleep outside and my ancestors send me dreams. I fly over sheets of wattle trees, thick yellow, filled with birds, bugs, and below that, people dance or sleep or run barefoot. It’s Invasion Day and our white allies hurt for us, hurt beside us, sit down and look up and listen to us and be silent and recognise our power and our rightful place and all of it feels like hope.

But there is a risk in this. Life as an Aboriginal person in neo-colonial Australia is both a disadvantage and a responsibility. Feelings of powerlessness, injustice and other people’s irresponsibility.

Scaffolding rises quickly around me, daydreams like this come more frequently, slip closer towards me and I think  ‘stop it, snap out of it’ but I can’t help creating this small universe of hope. Entire landscapes rise up and melt around me in seconds that feel like small hours, the kind that people have to wake you from, startling you. The kind that white people wake me from, with their persistent ignorance and their stereotypes, their whispering in my ear of what is and isn’t ‘Aboriginal’. 

As if some patchwork of stereotype can contain a complex cultural framework. As if an ingrained image is enough to detect the nuance of community and family.

 

Aboriginal culture has all the secrets to our natural world, not this hologram we live in.

 

 

What does it all mean for the ones like me? Someone untethered, someone raised by: grandmother —stolen generation, mother—adamant we’re white. No connection to culture, wandering around looking for my family, lost. I want desperately to identify with my history, but I don’t know how. Want desperately to shake the ghosts out from my skin, but I don’t feel like I’m allowed. I didn’t grow up on my country, never hunted, never gathered. Tasmania was a vast spread of sacred lands but it wasn’t my sacred land. And when I floated across the Strait to what had once been mine, well Wurundjeri land is turned toxic and buried in concrete, My Place now a mass-grave for my brothers and sisters and aunties, my uncles and my cousins. And so much of this reconnecting to culture is a solitary act. So much of the not-knowing is tied to shame, makes me afraid to call on those who belong to me. I don’t know all the ways yet, so much to learn yet, and I think, know, I would be happier if only I could force myself free from this colony-inflicted embarrassment. Only the ones like me know what it means for the ones like me.

There is an eternity of work to be done in decolonising my mind, body, spirit. Ghost pain keeps following me across Kulin Country. My Place, but not mine anymore. I fear I cannot return to my land because it’s all too stained. Joint set back in Place but cannot forget the dislocation. This city has allowed me to understand what I identified and named as the missing piece, this part of ourselves that we are all craving and looking for. I can feel it growing in my gut, this impression that I am constantly lacking something I am not able to name.

 

How can I heal whole bloodlines with all the death rising out of the earth like this?  

 

 

I start to figure it out.

Then I walk with naked feet across sacred land, undress beside the fire. Wurundjeri people, we have a deep connection to the land, we know each tree and rock has its own spirit, each river, forest, clearing has a spirit. Each Wurundjeri child was given a personal Spiritual Protector Totem at birth, usually a local native animal. If a child was given a wimbirr, they were thought to be related to the ancestral spirit of the wimbirr, and cultural law meant that child would always protect, and never hunt or eat that animal. We had links between our spiritual beliefs and our responsibility to the land. I lie tender in the sand or on the grass and learn the native words. I promise to give my children Wurundjeri names.

 

Eating native plants feels like cleansing, feels like redemption, like I am baptised by the fruit.

 

I start heading bushward each weekend, where there is oxygen and life. Belgrave where hills and trees make homes for birds and bugs. Korong Vale where the earth stretches into the sky, where light looks like acacia or stringybark or honey through the shifting hours of the day. Travelling along coastlines, staring towards the moon, my moon, cheddared in her indigo expanse.

I talk to the wildlife, they know me, they can sense the secret histories embedded in my bones. Find an old tortoise trap filled with beer cans and pipes and a terrified echidna, splaying his spikes into the dirt. I tell him we’re here to help and we wrap him in orange silk and lift him free.

I follow a roo through the gum trees, slipping quietly over dusty rocks and leaves; we come to rest together, six respectful feet apart.

Rivah brings me a carcass, leathered skin and petrified bones. We piece it back together, then scatter the bones again.

Finn calls me outside to watch the moonrise, huge pink obscured in part by some invisible haze, so to us she’s just some pastel mushroom cap climbing higher turning gold, still huge, her whole self showing now, bright coin in her velvety pool.

I sing songs of worship alone by embers which pulsate like a golden heart, sing native words, just the ones I know, off-kilter anthems in two tongues. Notes like prayers from my lips: The moon, we called her meene-an, and we ate witchetty grubs in her light. Under the blue bajerrang. Under the blue rug of the sky planted with dutbairam. Yearrnjenong. Ngarrg’eé. Hunting mirrm, maloren. Nga-angó, warmer than muyidyir under morok. Wumen. Birnum. Nagu.

 

This land, my land, My Place I’m learning, I’m learning.

 

The more I reconnect, the more I have these dreams that predict the future, the more I begin to sense there's some sort of magic inside of me and then realise… of course I’m magic, of course. Do you know what it feels like to walk around the world and know you are intrinsically attuned to some higher power? Reconnecting with my culture has changed me; who I am, how I love myself.

 

 

This intuition, this knowing, this Aboriginal consciousness. I never knew how much of me was missing until I found it. There’s a permanence; ties unbroken, can’t be broken, deep roots, core roots.

 

 

I say this to me and the dirt on my floor:

I am a lone wallaby, mud arching from long, bounding toes.

I burst from the fern, across the clearing, and away,

Away.