I might be a new resident of this land, but the alien contours of the National Park are exactly the Australia that we migrants treasure, and remember.
Halfway down the track is a tree root that looks like a duck. For decades, children and adults have been greeting it when they come around the corner. Steep drop with straggly red gum and blackbutt on the left, sheer sandstone cliff on the right. When it rains, and especially when you’ve got the makings of a kitchen or maybe two sheets of roofing on your back, you can easily lose your footing here. Then the duck is a warning sign; use your stick to keep you upright, not just to alert snakes. On your way up, the bird acts as a comfort. Almost there, not more than 20 minutes to climb. Lately, after an ill-advised social media campaign, there have been walkers in thongs here, even high heels. Whole families, going down the hill just before sundown. Without a torch, or water. A few weeks ago, a nervous father warned me not to tell his children about the duck. It was, he said, a figment of my imagination, and therefore not for child consumption. That made me laugh. I saw them on their way out. His oldest had been washed onto the rocks and was bleeding. The other two were wet but excited. The man asked for directions and complained about the lack of shops down there, and fences, and rules. He had been waiting at a bus stop in the middle of the rainforest for two hours, until he realised that without a road it would be unlikely that a bus would arrive. I swear this time I could even hear the duck laugh.
192 years ago a man drove his cattle down this track. Maybe their hooves made the duck, or released it from the earth. There was a drought on and he had walked his herd in from Appin, 50 kilometers through the Escarpment, without roads. It was called Little Bulleye then, but he called it Garrah, its Aboriginal name, and Gaelic for “Top of the hill”. When Andrew Byrne arrived, the colony was only 12 years old. His was the first ship of the shiny new 19th century. He had been rotting in the hold of a barge in Cork Harbour for more than a year before the young doctor of the Minerva took responsibility. With the Enlightenment as his example, John Washington Price bought his charges fresh fruit in Rio, brewed restorative beer, delivered their babies, even listened to their stories. Heads were still rolling into the basket under the guillotine in France and Andrew, like half of Minerva’s cargo, had a capital R on his paperwork. Engravers, jewellers, doctors, military men, teachers, attorneys, clergy, publicans, stonemasons, coppersmiths, bakers, farmers. Most of them literate, all of them politically awake. Byrne’s father had been hanged for his role in the Rebellion, his mother and four younger brothers sent to America. But now he was here, free to do what he wanted, in possession of 300 head of cattle, convicts and Aboriginal stockmen working for him, this grazing run almost a gift. In Ireland he would have been dead by now, and never an owner of anything.
My husband tends to quote the crucifixion scene in The Life of Brian when he talks about migration. “Crucifixion?” “No, freedom for me. They said I hadn’t done anything, so I could go free and live on an island somewhere.” “O well, jolly good, off you go then.” In 1992, writer Alex Miller made it more specific and more complicated. “Look for something you can’t name…and call it Australia. A thing will come into being. A land imagined and dreamed, not an actual place,” he wrote in The Ancestor Game. When I was little, I had a scrapbook full of houses. On the water, near the water, in the water. I live in one of them now, and wrote about others. Dirt floor, great view. When I started to look at my new country’s history I read the repeated fictions of chained convicts, victims of the system, brutally tortured, brooding on freedom and escape. Nothing much on opportunities, ownership, water views. Nothing either on making choices to come, or stay, or both. Dislocation, yes, absence and difference, nostalgia and belonging, but too little about the seduction of the lustrous red of the flametree against the broccoli shapes of the Escarpment. The sharpness of the colours: the purple jacaranda next to a bright orange azalea lightly sheltered by a yellow wattle. Subtle it was not. And beauty can make you lazy. If there is so much to see outside, why would you be introspective? So far my world had looked like Rembrandt’s and his hundreds of attempts to confront himself, dimly lit, surrounded by Calvinist warnings of his mortality. I wondered: if he had been raised in the Australian light, would he have gone surfing instead?
She had the baby on the kitchen table. The old woman said she didn’t remember cold or wet, only the warmth of her parents’ bodies next to her… Her mother singing.
While my father who was not yet my father spent his waking hours at a machine in the Krupp weapons factory, his uncle Cor was picked up for organising other artists against the occupiers. During the year until his execution he drew self-portraits almost every day, except when his hands were swollen too much from the beatings to hold the charcoal. At night, under his blanket under the machine, my father cut little figurines out of found pieces of timber. To swap for food, but also to keep his craft going. Behind Cor there was always a window, with the prisoner looking out. My father’s first sculpture, when the Germans let him out, was of Pegasus, the flying horse. It looked like a bomber, and, I now know, a little like an enormous kookaburra. They can’t really fly, but they are trying. In Australia, everything is about birds. The lyrebird blocking the road in the Royal National Park at night, pretending to be a lawn mower and refusing to make way. A gutter full of lorikeets, washing, fighting, talking. Flecks of moving colour, not even registering people’s existence. Once we leave, nature will resume its rightful place. We are temporary. That is nowhere as abundantly clear as here.
One of the challenges of being from somewhere else is that you have to get your head around a whole new geography. A place consists of a collection of memories. On this corner you had your first kiss, in front of this house you watched those men fight, here a child was hit by a car. Your mind layers what it sees. Never one thing only. I know nothing about nature. That is why I have trouble focusing here. We only had plants in – often walled and poorly lit – terraces. I remember my father lovingly tending his scrappy vines, shadowed by yet another cat that had adopted him. Anything green had to deal with encroaching buildings, finally being rebuilt after the old city had been bombed by friends and just left there for 30 years. He used his weeding time to try not to think about whatever it was he was making. A big believer in stepping away to regain focus. Half-smoked rollie in a corner of his mouth, one hand in his woollen jacket. I haven’t worn a coat in 12 years. It is a lightness that makes it easy to leave, but difficult to arrive. And I can’t seem to step away well enough to understand.
Andrew Byrne has been dead for 154 years now. But lately, he has become my mentor and guide, the person who showed me where I am. In the four months and 18 days it took to get here, Minerva became a community. Convicts, crew, the soldiers of William Cox’s 102 Regiment of the NSW Corps, the women on the other side of the deck: it is amazing how well you get to know somebody when your temporary home is under attack from pirates, when you need a friend to keep your hair away from your vomit during a violent storm, or when you are desperate to share the delights of playing dolphins and coasting sea eagles. On arrival they were thought to have “principles which are totally subversive of all order and of the best interests of civilised society”, as a rather sniffy DD Mann wrote in 1811. He was almost right. At the Battle of Vinegar Hill, more than 20 people from Minerva were involved. Some as revolutionaries, some as informers, some as clergy. And then there was Patrick Doogan, who was the government flogger, and hospital nurse Mary Smith, who dealt with the wounded afterwards. Byrne lived in a half-house at the top of Pitt Street, Sydney, with his wife and toddler son. Like all migrants, he felt the urgency. So much time had been lost. One life per customer, to quote Monty Python again. In the new land, Minerva became a community of non-belongers. They married each other, bought property together. Ambition, influence, networks, connections. In a colony that didn’t necessarily want to know them, they became a new class, weaving themselves into some kind of new fabric. Debris, as Miller called it, with “the kinship of displacement”.
There are horizontal belongings, but, for outsiders, looking for leads, the vertical ones are much more stable. Once you locate history, their past lives can become your new memories.
A while ago, I talked to some of the people who now live on what used to be, and probably always will be, Byrne’s land. And before him somebody else, and after them somebody else again. There was the woman, very old now, who was born here. During the Depression, her father, who was a carpenter in the mine up top, was made redundant. He took his pregnant wife to a hollow in the rainforest, where he built her a shack from palm fronds, sticks and mud. A creek ran in front of it: drinking water, washing machine, shower and refrigeration in one. He caught fish for her and once a month walked up to exchange his dole for a bag of flour, some sugar, maybe a beer or two. He swapped fish at the Workers Club for tobacco and vegetable seedlings. She had the baby on the kitchen table in the one-room cottage of the railway man in the nearest village. Then she walked back down, and had another. Baby, that is. The old woman said she didn’t remember cold or wet, only the warmth of her parents’ bodies next to her, asleep on a bed of sweet smelling grass. Her mother singing. Then, a long time after that, her son-in-law lived here too. Built his own shack, kept it up, spent most of his time here. He was not a happy man, most of the time, but one day one of his children heard him hum in the toilet amongst the trees. When they wanted to take the shacks away, the government, and lawyers were necessary. He told his family to cut the food-budget in half. So he could contribute. Later he got dementia, but could remember every second in the valley.
Twelve babies were born on board the Minerva. Two were boys, who died. All ten girls lived. I wondered about that. The boys were the sons of the most powerful men on board, the girls the daughters of convict women. I wondered about that, too. Turns out pregnant women under stress self-abort male foetuses who are less strong and put the mother in danger of losing her life. Baby girls don’t do that, so mothers prefer to keep them instead of their sons. Earthquakes, toxins, 9/11, political and social upheaval, contracting economies even: it is our instinct to survive, under any circumstance, whatever the cost. According to the Norfolk Island Victualing Book that is part of the 1802 Muster, 71% of children ten years and older were female. In the group between 2 and 10, that percentage was 57, while the under-2s were fairly evenly matched. Those were children born in the Colony, with less stress for their mothers. Robert Holden’s book about the children on the first fleet counts fourteen little ones who died soon after arrival or who were stillborn. Twelve of them were male. A year later, more boys than girls were born, bringing back the balance. Most women had partners by then, a village. They belonged somewhere, had a view of the water.
One of the women on the Minerva was Ann Bull. She carried a toddler on board and had another one just before arrival. Girls, obviously. Her soldier husband left the army as soon as he could. There was land here, as much as you could eat. They went to Liverpool, and one day Ann and her oldest daughter were attacked by bushrangers. They “stopt the horse, beat me very severly, and robbed the cart of its contents: a keg of rum, thirty four pounds of sugar, a pound and a half of tea, a piece of blue striped Gurrah, a check apron, three handkerchiefs, an English gown ready made, two wine glasses, small bag of four, an umbrella and a great coat made of brown cloth. They beat us with sticks which they left behind them in the cart and which are now in my possession,” Ann said to the police. Jane was pregnant when this happened, but the baby, a boy, was fine. A few years later, Ann’s husband James was killed “by a ruffian with a pistol in each hand”. One of their sons was shot in the eye. Ann, a mother of ten, took over the pub and married a man 20 years her junior. She lived to a ripe old age. So did Jane.
Where I stand now, halfway down the track, overlooking the ocean, nothing has changed since Byrne made the trip with his cows. The same chop on the water, with the same question of whales. What we see, over the distance of more than a century, is the same too. There are layers and layers of lives here, and a similar goal. Not to belong, per se, but to be. A person. Sometimes we ask for it, as Byrne did when he was set upon by cattle duffers and tried to persuade them to leave him alone, because as “a patriot”, “I really think I merit other than such harsh treatment.” Sometimes we receive recognition, as he got in 1831 when he saved the life of a seriously burned woman. The Herald wrote that “this Mr. Byrne renders such essential services on the same terms as Jesus Christ did, without money and without price”. There are horizontal belongings, but, for outsiders, looking for leads, the vertical ones are much more stable. Once you locate history, their past lives can become your new memories. The lazy contentment this country invokes can be a black hole, swallowing who you were without giving you something new in return. Seeing what they saw provides some grip, a starting point to peel the onion.