Notions of Home

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.

What about you? What are the special places in your life? Does a particular place qualify as “home”, and if so why? And do you write about it?

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About andreabaldwin

I'm a freelance writer, publishing travel articles and features. I also write short fiction and novels for adults, young adults and children. I've been a registered psychologist for 20 years, and my past careers have included clinical psychology, organisational psychology, and management. I'm interested in the interactions between people and places, particularly how the natural environment supports the health of individuals and communities, and the importance of caring for our environment. I'm also interested in the ways people use writing to better understand their own thoughts and feelings, and to connect with others.
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4 Responses to Notions of Home

  1. Hans Dauncey says:

    I also don’t feel a great sense of attachment to Brisbane, where I have spent most of my adult life. A notion that I have always harboured is that connection to place is as much to do with a person’s emotional and spiritual state as the intrinsic characteristics of the place.
    A long time ago, I had an adopted uncle (Uncle Karl), who was a plumber by trade but a linguist in his spare time. He was interned in Australia during WW2 and stayed on when it was over. He also played the harmonica as it happens. Anyway, he seldom had a good thing to say about ‘this God-forsaken place’ and longed for the Germany where he grew up. And then, when he did return back for a holiday after he retired, he was disappointed. The place was not the same. Of course, it had been 40 years and there had been significant change, but I suspected that the biggest change was in him. He left as a young man and returned as an old one, and it was not possible to relate to the place in the same way.
    One of the books I read for grade 12 English was “the Great Gatsby”, which dealt with a very similar idea. Gatsy spent a huge amount on energy and money to try and recreate a connection between himself and Daisy. The house and the parties were just a way to get close to her. 3 years previously he was penniless and there could be no future between them. Yet when he returned with a considerable fortune, she had married Tom and wasn’t available. In the story, Gatsby’s relationship with another person rather than a place could not be recaptured.
    From my early teens onwards, my family did a lot of sailing and we spent a lot of time on Moreton Bay on our trailer-sailer. Later, my parents sold up and went cruising for 8 years. Now, having a boat of my own, I find I am happiest and most centered when out on the water. The boat remains constant of course, but the places and conditions change. What I enjoy is the simplicity of the decisions to be made. Where will I go today? What’s for lunch? Will I go ashore? These are exactly the same questions I used to ask myself as a teenager when life was just starting to unfold. And sometimes I find myself smiling for no good reason…

    • Thanks very much for this comment, Hans. I remember finding The Great Gatsby very poignant, too. And I can relate to your adopted uncle’s story: my husband’s parents emigrated to Australia three times. Mum kept getting homesick for England, so they would pack up, sell up and go “home” again – only to rediscover all the reasons they left in the first place. They finally settled in Paramatta, where they seem reasonably content.
      Your comment has also inspired me to do something I wasn’t sure I was going to do – put up a post about boats! Watch this space… Thanks again Hans 🙂

  2. Thanks, Andrea. Yes, Armidale is my ‘home’. I came here to study in 1991. Four years later I moved to Brisbane, but basically spend the next nine years yearning to move back to Armidale. So happy to be here now (even though it has its problems)! And yes, I do write about things that are going on here, and have an idea for a future project which is very much about this community.

  3. Elisabeth says:

    Thanks for a beautiful post, Andrea. I’m taken with your ideas, so beautifully expressed here and with Hans’s comment above.

    The idea of attachment to a place is for me bound up in the people associated with that place. When I was young and first travelled to Holland, my parents homeland, I remember thinking I could live there happily except for the people back home in Melbourne. I would miss them too much. Again while I was young and before children, my husband and I took off for a six month stint in Canberra. My husband was seconded there with the government. He loved it, because of his job and the people he met. I did not , despite my job, which was okay, and the people I met, who were also okay, nothing more. I longed for home.

    Perhaps this has to do with my earlier experience and my rootedness to the soil here. I grew up throughout my childhood thinking that my mother wanted to be elsewhere, that she wanted to be back in her home in Holland and her sadness about living here in Melbourne, as much as it shifted over the years, has stayed with me.

    Your thesis topic sounds wonderful. Best of luck with it. I look forward to hearing more about your ideas as they develop.

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