In her novel, The Alphabet of Light and Dark, Danielle Wood explores the Australian sense of rootlessness. Essie, the protagonist, is a Tasmanian living in Western Australia. On a visit to Scotland, she encounters Walter Scott’s verse engaved on an Edinburgh paving stone: “This is my own, my native land”. She feels as if a hole has opened up in the paving, “a core cut through centuries of Picts, Celts, Angles, Norsemen, all the way to infinity”. She says to her husband, “Imagine that kind of belonging”.
It’s not racial, cultural or genetic belonging that Essie’s talking about – from descriptions in the book, it seems likely she could trace her own ancestry back to Celts and Norsemen. It’s a sense of belonging to place – being part of a people with an ongoing connection to a geographical location, and feeling the connection to that place at a personal, practical, defining level. As she searches for records of her grandfather’s grandfather in Great Yarmouth, she is guided by the sense that “This is a place that has something to do with me”. As a fifth generation Australian she is dis-located, but she has found a place on the other side of the world that has something to do with her. She finds this profoundly significant.
I’m currently researching a field I’m calling, for want of an established terminology, “psychology of place”. Two terms that come up again and again are place attachment and place identity. I’m currently trying to tease out some definitions and distinctions between these two notions. Place attachment is described as a “mutual caretaking bond”, and said to parallel the concept of attachment in early childhood development. Perhaps paradoxically, place identity tends to be used to describe an even stronger relationship between self and place: the idea that the place is part of you, and you are part of it. Your sense of self is based at least partly on the places in which you spend your life.
I have a lot more work to do, to understand the different ways theorists use these terms, and their relationship to other terms like belonging and familiarity. What interests me here, though, is the question of whether a writer needs – whether a person needs – a sense of one particular place that’s more important than any other. And whether this is the place they call “home”.
There are many potential candidates for my “home”. I was born in Nambour, Queensland – but only incidentally, as that was the nearest hospital to the forestry camp where my parents were living when the time came for me to be born. We left the hospital within days, and the forestry camp within months. I have isolated memories of the 11 or so places we lived before I was two, and more solid memories of Maryborough where we lived till I was 11. There’s a lot of family history in and around Maryborough, on both sides. Then we moved to Murgon – lot of family history there too. A fairly traumatic transition to Brisbane, to go to uni, when I was 17. I’ve lived in Brisbane ever since, and if home is defined by where you own a house, and live, and work; where your partner and children are, and most of your friends; well, Brisbane must be home. My parents now live on a property near Wondai, where I never lived, but I still talk of going “home” to see Mum and Dad (mind you, it’s only 15 minutes’ drive from Murgon). That landscape means something to me: the colour of the soil, the climate, the trees that grow there. My best friend says playfully “you can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl”. I’m not sure what that means, in my case.
The first time I visited England, I was bowled over by the crazy phrases that leapt into my mind: “coming home”, “the old country”. My family left England generations ago. I think it was a cultural connection: I’d grown up reading Abbey and Chalet School books, Enid Blyton, Georgette Heyer, Agatha Christie. We watched British television, and my first thought on seeing London was “that’s exactly how I thought it looked”! Not terribly surprising. The surprise was the sense of relaxing into the place – that, foreign country notwithstanding, there was a powerful sense in which it felt like “home”. I haven’t felt that elsewhere in Europe (though I have German ancestors too), in the USA, Asia, or on any Pacific Island except this one. Australia and England. Candidates for home.
But nations – even island nations – are too big and disparate to qualify as places. When I try to narrow it down, I’m stuck – I have no place identity. Brisbane is only home because of the people, not the place. Yes, the climate has “something to do with me” – I love the sun, the tropical storms, the mild winters. But that’s a south-east Queensland climate, not a specifically Brisbane one.
I have two strong place attachments – places to which I feel a strong emotional bond, though I respect the fact that I can’t speak of belonging there, and I can’t claim a voice in decisions that affect and alter these places. I’m not a resident, a member of those communities, a local, an insider. These places are Hervey Bay, and Stradbroke Island. Hervey Bay, where we spent every school holiday and many a Saturday when we lived in Maryborough. A place my dad remembers before there was a shop. And Stradbroke Island, the place I run off to every chance I get to be alone, swim, dive, walk, wonder, think, write. Have been doing so since that first traumatic year in Brisbane, aged 17. These are the only two places of which I ever say, “I love this place”. But they’re not home.