Mapping our imagination

Peter Canty

A friend pointed me to this beautiful article by Nicolas Rothwell that appeared in the Australian early in January. Rothwell writes well about landscape and I enjoyed his book Wings of the Kite Hawk, which is described here at part memoire, part compelling history and traces the journeys into the Australian landscape.

Maps, landscape, exploration, the ways we know, or think we know, the places we inhabit and dream about. It’s my favourite literary territory! A couple of quick passage to whet your appetite:

Even the most sublime writers of the Australian landscape know this and populate their country with presences and figures of speech and flights of imagination; with stories, with memories, with anecdotes and episodes, until quiet, empty-seeming land is covered, like a morning sand dune, with a reduplicating set of literary tracks. In my own attempts to describe the inland, I have found it always prudent to have diversions or parallel channels running in the narrative: to be engaged in the routines of driving, perhaps, while one tells one’s story, or to be in conversation, or remembering, or dreaming with one’s eyes open. This is just what one finds in life. One is only very rarely present to a place, fully present, without the engagement of the constantly modulating pressure of the self.

These are some of my ideas about the landscape of the centre and the north: country harsh and hard to survive in, and filled with a beauty and a dignity that give depth to life. The country, though, is not just a made-up thing, constructed, alive with our dreams. It is not just the screen from which we draw our words and thoughts, which we have already busily poured into it. There is a landscape behind the landscape that we are always reaching for and seeking with our eyes and hearts. It is the landscape that is always there, and always receding, and that seems especially well evoked by the Aboriginal conceptual frame of the Tjukurrpa, which is the flash of the present moment and the echo, far off, from primary, long-vanished events.

Can today’s Australians inhabit such landscape? Can we feel at home there? When you find yourself in a pale dune field at sunset, with the sky blush pink and deepest indigo, or when you look out from the crest of an inland mesa at the clouds in their indifferent race across the sky, such questions tend to dissolve, and patterns and thought-chains separate from man’s deliberate kingdom take hold. I have always felt, at such moments, on the verge of dissolution — close to death, as much as on the threshold of new revelations in the march of life — and rather than imposing my will on country, or on landscape, and prolonging the dictatorship of control and consciousness, I am overwhelmed. I am a creature of new rhythm, and the desert, and the inland, are writing me.

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