The thing about place …

Why is it that places can draw you back with their significance or memory or inherent history? It’s a question that has probably always interested me.

When we were kids we holidayed in Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula every summer and sometimes other holidays besides. When we weren’t on the beach, we’d roam the sandy coastal scrubland behind the house for hours, marking our secret tracks, finding hidden artesian wells and boarded up places. One set of giant cacti, carved with names in their soft flesh, we called the ‘Prehistoric Prickles’ And, out in the sand-lands beyond the wire fence we knew there were deadly rabbit-traps spring-loaded and lightly covered with ti-tree leaves and a sprinkling of sand.

These places still reside in my imagination, as powerful and evocative as the smell of Pears Soap, that reminds me of my grandmother’s bathroom in her old house in Essendon.

So, it was something of a pilgrimage to place that took me to Lake Hindmarsh in the Wimmera over the holidays. My grandfather grew up in Diapur, near Nhill in the Wimmera, and a couple of times in my childhood we went there, fishing for Redfin in the Wimmera River, or walking the shoreline of Lake Hindmarsh itself. We’d visit Diapur, ancestral home town, but nothing is there now and nothing was there then.

I’m not sure if that’s why I love that flat expansive landscape that is typical of the Wimmera. wheat fields, straight roads, usually with a railway line alongside it and, up ahead always, a wheat silo the tallest thing in the landscape signalling the next tiny ‘town’ on the map.

Lake Hindmarsh itself probably isn’t all that big, but to drive down the sandy track and suddenly see it before you, it seems huge. Full of water and light. It stretches to the horizon. I remember as a kid being surprised it had waves that splashed gently against what looked and felt like some strange inland beach. It may as well have been the secret sea in Jules Vernes’s ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’, so improbable to find an inland sea in this giant flat space.

This weekend I took some photos, tried to re-create the photo of my grandfather on the ‘beach’ and forgot that he had his hands behind his back in the photo. As they did in those days. Or he did. Did I feel some powerful kinship of place by being in that spot again, where he stood, by the lake? Not really. I’d like to think so. I went there because he’d showed me this place a long time ago, and I enjoyed seeing it again, but it didn’t change anything. He’s still gone, and the place we both went to is full of water now, whereas for the last twelve drought years it’s been empty and seemed different again.

The next day I stopped at the old Avoca Cemetery to try to find the grave of my great-grandmother. Not that that was any big discovery. I have a picture of the grave: it’s old wafer-mint thin-ness and its iron fence, ‘In Sacred Memory of …’

Except, we roamed the graveyard and couldn’t find the grave at all. It was supposed to be here but it wasn’t. I even scoured the ruined places outside the mowed line, the grown-over Jewish graves or children’s graves or pauper graves or whatever it was that placed them outside the inner-circle of Germanic Protestant fundamentalism that earned them their place in the mown zone. But no luck. Maybe the grave had fallen down and been smashed into pieces by the frozen nights or the disgruntled youths from Avoca? Or maybe the grave had never been there at all, and the photo my father had showed me really came from Navarre or Landsborough or some other Pyrennean town , where the people who were me before me, lived and died.

I wanted to find that place. To stop for a moment by the grave. To add that significance to the weight of the world. To stand on the soil where the mourners stood when that grave was lowered into the red earth at that impossible ceremony. To add that place to the places. But, we couldn’t find it. So we drove on into Avoca, where we almost died when a young man in a Commodore swung too wide around the corner and, blinded by the sun, headed straight towards us on the wrong side of the road and where, I pulled the car over into the dirt and let him pass. So that might have been a place someone would have added to the family places. He followed us to Maryborough and pulled into the petrol station, apologized for missing the corner, and thanked me for being alert so that no-one had been hurt.

And we left the places behind, and sat up above the old Castlemaine diggings, and their stories, and watched the sun go down and the trains lit up with people inside, going past with their stories and their places. And went inside when it started to get cold.

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