The Soul Down Under
A note on pain and holiness and grace in Australia, as the University's program in Fremantle booms.
By Terry Monagle
There was dew on the latte-coloured fur, there was blood around the nose, and its tiny black hands were closed across its chest. It hadn't been there yesterday.
Fifteen curious cows hovered, interrogating the body.
So this was the meaning of the single shotgun blast I had heard that morning.
Wanting to be sure, I turned over the body with my boot. There were wounds on the neck and leg. I looked around the paddock. It was a very good year for clover; it was half way up your shins. Enough grass for everybody. Why shoot the kangaroo? My rising anger told me that I had been hoping more than I knew to see one here, along with the platypus and koalas.
It came at a bad time; that very morning I had been thinking about the relationship between human beings and a landscape that reverberates with spiritual meaning.
For the landscape is alive and sacred. It is full of memory, story, and places of pilgrimage. Each field, rock, and cabin has a story to tell, a story that integrates human beings into the place. The visible and the invisible interpenetrate each other just as do spirit and body. The sheltering sun and the deep wells give a sense of divinity in place. As the writer John O'Donoghue says, place creeps inside the souls of people, and the prehistoric is local.
Not brutal, not sundering between man and nature like that on the end of my boot.
My relatives in Donegal still attempt ritual healing in a local lake high up in the hills. Outside the door of their parish church there is a flat tombstone with deep carved lettering where the rainfall sits. There seems to be a belief that healing energy dwells in still water and people touch it to their foreheads when they leave the church.
No doubt there is much that is superstitious there, but Christianity in Australia sometimes seems a thin and shallow export to our Southern land, a faith unable to draw on the energies of place.
There have been a number of attempts in recent years to elucidate an Australian spirituality that grows organically out of our landscape. One example of this is David Tacey's seminal book Edge of the Sacred, in which he argues that 'the archaic dreaming soul, which is buried beneath the busyness of contemporary white rationality, is the missing ingredient necessary for Australia's psychological health and cultural stability. Landscape is sufficiently powerful to be able to deliver the necessary blow to our consciousness, and thus create the opening through which the soul down under can be born.'
Obviously the gentle nurturing landscape of Ireland and Scotland is not ours. A soft romanticism and a quirky animism withers in our conditions. A feeble sun and oodles of water are not native to us.
The vestiges of our paradisal garden, the original ecology of our land, are still around us, and still being destroyed by culpable foolishness. Landscape here has the scars of struggle, votes, money, pressure groups, and water wars. We gaze on an inland plain and see the creamy froth of salination corroding it. We see rabbit numbers starting to recover from the calicivirus we loosed. In our ports, like Bunbury, we see the mounds of woodchips, which once were our forests, awaiting their Japanese ships. How can you develop a spirituality of place from this kind of experience? And yet we love the continent and our love starts to integrate us with it. We increasingly find here the mysterious and the divine. We find fossils laid down millions of years ago. We run from the violence of firestorms that move down the east coast in summer. We experience the violence of the sun that beats on our scalps like hammers and stabs into our eyes. We find the delicate tracery of lizard's feet in the Centre's red sand. We see the blue-green ridges of the Great Dividing Range rolling away to infinity like the waves rolling towards us, towards the southern coast, from the Antarctic.
My anger over the kangaroo, and our struggles to save our environment, suggest that the indigenous is sacred. Is this sentimentalism? Or do we love it because it gestures to a deeper order, an alluring otherness?
The imagination of European Australians, for those who take the trouble, has to stretch an awful long way to develop an understanding of Aboriginal religion because the latter is so integrated with trail and place. We cannot reinvent ourselves as indigenous; however, our landscape, the longer we are here, creeps into our souls and we start to develop a spirituality that grows out of our experience of place. It's not the religion of the native people, nor can it be imported Celtic animism.
My land used to be rainforest: huge tree ferns, black wattles, myrtles, and mountain ash. It had been cleared for marginal beef and dairy farming. But often I churn the damp black sand with my mattock. I am arousing it to embrace the clutch of the seedlings, inviting it to commit itself to the effort of growth, offering it a chance of joy and fulfillment. I make a pact between it, the seedling, the weather and me.
Now, years later, standing in my new forest, I feel protected. There is a canopy around and above me. Here I am unobserved, the grass becomes a carpet, the winds stilled, the sun balked. The seedlings have relished the soil and moisture, now they shield me, wave around my head, put out their lemon flowers. This is a presentiment of a spiritual rather than exploitative agriculture.
Certain places grow in our national imagination: Lake Mungo, Uluru, Antarctica, Gallipoli. Are these Australia's sacred places? We make pilgrimages to them. We stand, look, and listen like kangaroos or cows that lift their heads from grazing, alert with contemplation. We start to find these strange places in our paintings, our music, our writings. The imagination makes bridges between the continent and us. Do we find a god here? Maybe. Perhaps an awesome god: aged, leathery, and fragile, vast and delicate, silent and chattering. An anarchic wilderness god Australians miss when overseas. A god with crocodile teeth -- but a god who can also, like a 'roo alone in a paddock, call for its missing.
Terry Monagle is a farmer and teacher in Melbourne, Australia, and one of his nation's renowned Catholic writers. This essay is drawn from his new book, Fragments (Garratt Publishing) -- 'a book about a spirituality of immanence and intimacy,' as Terry says.