Belonging to Australia

Ella Kurz is a third generation Australian whose German/Austrian heritage feels like a special part of what makes her Australian.  Her partner and father of her children is a first generation Australian.  Ella feels that both of these parts of her life continue her – and, more broadly, Australia’s – story of migration.

Her piece today was inspired by the stories of two people.  The first is Aunty Rhonda, a proud Noongar-Yamatji woman whom Ella first encountered through the radio, where Aunty Rhonda was sharing her memories as a mission child of the Stolen Generations in remote Western Australia.  The second is Ella’s grandfather, Lorenz, who grew up in a village in the mountains of Austria before migrating to Australia.  You can hear the audio clips that inspired Ella here (for Aunty Rhonda) and here (for Opa Lorenz).

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I was in the car on the way to Mum’s when I first heard Aunty Rhonda.  The warmth coming off her honeyed tones made it through the static of the radio, her words filling the car with wildflowers, birdsong and the smell of the earth after rain.  It felt like I was sharing a special moment with Aunty Rhonda, separated though we were by the anonymity and kilometres of the radio.  She was gifting me with her special place, the place where she found solace in the hard existence of growing up stolen on a mission.  The story went that at the end of her hard day of work, Aunty Rhonda would go outside to climb a gum tree.  Perched up there she was transported by the beauty of the creek below, the swimming freshwater turtles, the sounds of the zebra finches and cicadas, and the scent of crushed gum leaves beneath her fingers.

I imagined my own version of her special place, in bird’s-eye, the way she described.  And in being there in her memory, I was reminded of a similar visit I had made to somebody else’s special place.

My grandfather grew up in a village in a valley nestled in the Austrian mountains.  Entering the world out of wedlock, my grandfather’s mother would make my grandfather pray for forgiveness and beat him, with the notion it may absolve him of some of the sin of being born a ‘bastard’.  Once, my grandfather told me that as a youngster even the thought of coming into physical contact with his mother made him feel cold.  The mountains were everything to my grandfather, and, working as a goatherd as a child, he knew them well.  As a boy he started having a special recurring dream.  He would fly like a bird through the mountains, the beauty of the plants and animals of the mountains laid out in exquisite detail for his pleasure.  The story of that dream has been a little different each time I’ve heard it, depending on which details my grandfather remembers at the time of the retelling.  Each retelling, I let myself be caught up in his special place.  In bird’s-eye, I see the vibrant green of the valley, each leaf surrounding the Edelweiβ (Edelweiss) flower, and how the foxgloves tremble under visiting bees.  I soar through the valleys on the wind, eagles and hawks as my companions.  

After I heard Aunty Rhonda speak on the radio, I kept thinking about how much these two special childhood places reminded me of each other.  It seemed that as small, vulnerable children, Aunty Rhonda and my grandfather had been able to find a solace in nature, which perhaps helped them make it through their love-poor childhoods.  The other similarity is that the hardships they endured were carried out in the name of organised religion.  For Aunty Rhonda, every inhumane deprivation of mission life was intended to ‘save her soul’.  And for my grandfather, it was the interpretation by his mother of his very existence being a sin.  My grandfather has been a strident atheist in his adult life, and Aunty Rhonda wrote ‘the Dreaming’ in the box marked Other under religion in the last census.  It seems nature has offered the pair of them not only solace, but something verging on the spiritual: a path to nurturance, wonder and connection.

The well-being that comes with finding belonging in nature is something my grandfather brought with him to Australia, and has been stoked in his family and the people who know him.  My mum says it is the greatest gift he has given her, and it is something that runs so deeply within her; she has passed it on to me seemingly by osmosis.  Most of my childhood memories play out on the same background  sweeping hills under a big, wide sky.  Be it the memories of walking to the place where the wombats lived, or along the swollen creek to watch the hovering dragonflies a few days after a rain.  Or of daydreaming amongst the delicate jonquils, daffodils and snowbells of our cottage garden.  Or the hours spent playing under the thick canopy of the great old oak planted long before we arrived, I imagine by homesick Europeans eager to grow some familiarity into what must have seemed such a new and foreign landscape.

Growing up in Australia I have had the opportunity of connection to two very different natural worlds, learnt on the one hand through our European cultural heritage and on the other through our Australian context.  But living beneath the stifling drape of European cultural heritage as we do in Australia means it has taken some time for me to understand how the extreme systemic privileging of white history and culture has left gaping holes in my knowledge and connection to the Australian landscape.  For example, the words I have to describe this land come from a language born in a different land.  In Aunty Rhonda’s account of her special place, she uses the word ‘commons,’ a word taught by the mission nuns.  This word puts me in mind of a manicured, green-grassed, trimmed, paved, planted, pretty-but-foreign setting.  But when Aunty Rhonda goes on further with her description, I realise she is talking about the ‘bush’, this place here; this land.

Hearing Aunty Rhonda makes me realise I am starving for cultural knowledge of this land.  I am starving for the knowledge that can describe the place we live in here, which in turn enables us to describe our experience and existence.  I’m not sure where I can turn to learn these things about Australia.  I’m afraid that in my corner of this vast land, colonisation has wreaked so much havoc, any remaining knowledge is already very broken.  I look for clues on tourist signs, in guesses made by linguists in academic transcripts published by the Australian National University, and on Wikipedia pages.  I collate for myself what I can about language and places.  Canberra, meeting place.  Tuggeranong, cold place.  Giralang, star.  Woden, possum.  Mulloon, eagle.  Gungahlin, little rocky hill.  Queanbeyan, clear waters.  Bungendore, place of gum blossom.  Tidbinbilla, a place where boys become men.  Murrumbidgee, big water.  Jindabyne, valley.  Ngunawal, we, the people, us.  Urambi, sleep.  Kambah, named for the Ngambiri people who first lived in the area.  Illoura, peaceful place.  Moruya, home of the black swan.  Araluen, place where the water lilies grow.

I get goosebumps when I learn about Budjabulya, the creation spirit of Lake Ngungara (Lake George).  I don’t know why.  Maybe because it is a place that means something to me, a landmark I have known since I was a child.  Maybe because it feels right to know a place of nature as impressive as Lake Ngungara is bestowed with a creation spirit.  Or maybe because my connection with nature is part of my spirituality and so knowing the creation stories and culture of the land I belong to brings a deep sense of meaning.  If I learn enough, maybe one day I too could write ‘the Dreaming’ on the census.

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You can learn more about Aunty Rhonda and the amazing woman she is in her recently published life story, Alice’s Daughter: Lost mission child, co-written with memoirist, Jacki Ferro, and published through Aboriginal Studies Press.  A proud Noongar-Yamatji woman, Aunty Rhonda shares her memories as a mission child of the Stolen Generations in remote Western Australia, and her search for family and culture as she faced violence, racism, foster families, and her father’s death in custody.  Her beautiful, nature-filled poetry and artwork shine through, and her story is framed by changing Australian policies from the 1920s to today.  I was so sad to hear she doesn’t feel able to identify as an Australian; you’ll totally get why if you read her book.  You can find it at AIATSIS online here.  It is also available through Dymocks, ABC shops, and most major Australian and New Zealander book retailers.  Amazon Kindle and other e-book formats are also available internationally.

A great and new resource for learning more about the rich culture of the Ngunawal people (some of the first people who lived in our region) is the Ngunawal Past Present and Future website, who are also working to offer language classes in ACT schools soon!

© Ella Kurz, 2017