Read The Idea of Home Online

Authors: Geraldine Brooks

The Idea of Home

BOOK: The Idea of Home

Each year the ABC invites a prominent Australian to present the result of his or her work and thinking on major social, scientific or cultural issues in a series of radio talks known as the Boyer Lectures. The series was inaugurated in 1959 under the title of ABC Lectures, but in 1961 was renamed as a memorial to the late Sir Richard Boyer who, as chairman of the ABC, had been one of those responsible for its introduction.


For further information and for a complete list
of Boyer Lecture speakers visit:

The Boyer Lectures are broadcast each year on ABC Radio National and are available at

ABC Radio National is available throughout Australia on 260 transmitters including:

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For your local frequency go to the ABC Radio National website at or call 1300 13 9994 during working hours. Listen online at

For ABC Radio National broadcast times and program details go to or call Radio National listener enquiries on 02 8333 2821 during working hours.


Dedicated to Greg Shackleton, Gad Gross
and Daniel Pearl



Our Only Home


A Home on Bland Street


At Home in the World


A Home in Fiction


began to write these words on the island of Martha's Vineyard, where I now live. It was a warm day in early July. Sunlight dappled the page, filtered through the leaves of an apple tree that was old before I was born.

Not far away, but unaware of me, a muskrat browsed in the grasses by the brook. Red-winged blackbirds swooped across the water and a goldfinch, like a drop of distilled sunshine, darted through the glossy branches of an ilex.

The muskrat, the birds and the holly tree are natives here. I am not. Only my dog, a liver-and-tan
Kelpie, is a fellow exotic. Ten years ago, I plucked him from a paddock in New South Wales and set him down in another hemisphere. He is insouciant about this, as befits his kind. He is the quintessential Aussie canine whose legendary toughness begat the expression, ‘That'd kill a brown dog'.

So while his warm flanks twitch in a doggie doze, it falls to me to reflect on what it means to live so far from our homeplace, so far, indeed, that the cold winds of July have been replaced by this soft and buttery summer air. I cannot explain to my Kelpie that the Indo-European root of the word ‘home' is ‘haunt'. Nor can I explain to him how and why it is that I am haunted by absence and distance, by dissonance and difference, even if the alien corn that we will eat for dinner tonight is a sweeter variety than the starchy cobs of my Aussie childhood.

Nothing is as sweet in the end as country and parents, ever,

Even if, far away, you live in a fertile place.

Odysseus said that. Or rather, Homer did. I know next to nothing about Homer — who he was, how he lived — yet I feel he knows my heart. Separated by 3000 years, by gender and culture and geographic space, this ancient shadow is able to put words to the feelings that I have on a sunny day on a little island, as I think of the larger island that is my native home; that sits, like Ithaca, ‘low and away, the farthest out to sea', where the ribs of warm sandstone push up through thin, eucalyptus-scented soils.

Home. Haunt. I sit in my garden and look across to the house I have now; a house the first beams of which were cut and shaped a century before the white history of Australia even began. When I run my hand over that rough-textured oak, I imagine the hand that planed it — the hand of a grist miller, himself an exotic transplant, the second or third in a line of English settlers who had come to this place drawn by the power of rushing water.

If any home is haunted, this one should be. In 1665, the very first miller, Benjamin Church, bought the land from the native people of the place, the
Wampanoag. He dammed the wild brook they called the Tiasquam, and set his grindstones turning. In so doing, he destroyed the herring run that had fed the Wampanoag each spring, when the fish known as ‘the silver of the ocean' poured upstream to spawn.

Benjamin Church dammed the brook.

It is just one sentence in a long story. The story of human alteration to the natural world. It happened on the Tiasquam brook in Martha's Vineyard, as it happened in uncountable places. As it happens now, in the Amazon, in Africa, in Western Australia, Tasmania, the Alaskan Arctic and innumerable corners of the world. A choice, a change, and the planet that is our only home reels and buckles under the accumulated strain.

Often, this story has also compassed stories of dispossession, in which the needs of the newcomers and their industry disrupted the imperatives of the native people. As Benjamin Church built his mill in 1665, an English neighbour fenced pasture for his imported livestock, and the Wampanoag were no longer free to hunt the deer and waterfowl that sustained them. Another settler set his hard-hoofed
beasts loose to trample the clam beds, and a band of Wampanoag went hungry that night.

War followed, as war so often has followed such acts of dispossession. In 1675, the Wampanoag on the mainland rose up against the English colonists. Benjamin Church, grist miller no longer, became a captain in the English army.

His principal foe was the Wampanoag leader, Metacom. For six months, Metacom had the English on the run, destroying a dozen settlements. The colonial enterprise in New England teetered. It was Church, the former miller, who devised a way to turn the tide of battle. He enlisted Indians at odds with Metacom to teach the English their guerrilla tactics. On a humid summer day in 1676, Church led the force that trapped Metacom and shot him dead. He regarded Metacom's dead body and declared him ‘a doleful, great, naked, dirty beast'. He ordered the corpse drawn and quartered and had the quarters hung from four trees. Church kept the head, which he sold in Plymouth, at a day of Thanksgiving, for thirty shillings. It was placed on a tall pole to overlook the feast.

Everyone knows the story of the first Plymouth Thanksgiving, in 1621. Metacom's father, Massasoit, attended that one, offering help and friendship to the hapless, half-starved English Puritans. Few know the story of the Plymouth Thanksgiving of 1676, presided over by Massasoit's son's decapitated, rotting head. We like that earlier story much better. Let's not do black armband history. Pass the turkey. Let's we forget.

But I can't forget. Though Benjamin Church's mill was torn down, this land bears his imprint. The Tiasquam brook remains dammed, the herring absent. And the grindstone is still here, set as a doorstep at the entrance to my house. Two metres in diameter, almost half a metre thick. When my foot lands on its notched ridges, words from Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem echo in my head:

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

and wears man's smudge and shares man's smell …

Benjamin Church's mill was built a hundred years before the Industrial Revolution that dismayed Hopkins. But it industrialised this landscape. And now I live where he lived, in an American home on Indian land, haunted by ghosts who lived and died unaware that my land, my homeplace, even existed.

I did not mean to become part of this story, to know, so intimately, all this history so very far removed, and yet so sadly similar, to our own. Metacom has much in common, after all, with Pemulwuy in Sydney or Yagan in Perth, guerrilla resisters whose heads also ended up on display — Pemulwuy's pickled in spirits and Yagan's shrunken and smoked. But that's black armband history, too, and, as a schoolgirl in 1960s Sydney, I did not learn it. In those days, I could not have told you that the home I lived in stood upon Eora land, nor any details of the dispossession that occurred there. I only knew that I was happy, growing up there.

I am not part of that earlier Australian generation who set off on a deliberate search for fame and fortune in distant lands. My generation was the first
that didn't need to. By the 1980s, when I left home, our culture had grown deep enough and wide enough to encompass all but the most rarefied of ambitions. I meant to leave Australia for just a year — a standard student adventure. But way leads on to way. Like Odysseus, I went to war — although as a writer, not a warrior — and then found my homeward journey diverted by quests and siren songs. What was to have been my brief foreign fling has become, by unplanned stages, my life.

In dictionaries, definitions of ‘home' are various. It is both ‘a place of origin, a starting position' and ‘a goal or destination'. It may also be ‘an environment offering security and happiness' or ‘the place where something is discovered, founded, developed or promoted. A source.' In these lectures, I will examine each of these definitions. I will revisit my ‘place of origin' — an ordinary Australian suburban childhood of the sixties. I will ponder the way it led to ‘a goal or destination': a career as a foreign correspondent and then as a novelist. In this chapter, I want to discuss how my home in Australia was a place of discovery
and a source of conviction about our responsibility to our only home, this fragile and beleaguered planet.

I have said that I live now on the banks of a little river that was dammed in 1665. When I first left Australia in 1982, a greater river, a larger dam, was very much on my mind. That river was the Franklin, in south-west Tasmania. A river wild from source to mouth, already a precious rarity in the smeared, bleared post-industrial world. Yet a river whose wildness was in clear and present danger. Works were already proceeding for a dam that would flood a pristine wilderness to yield just 180 megawatts of power. The last thing I did before I left the country was to hole up in Bob Brown's cottage in Liffey in the north of Tasmania. Typewriter on knee, I helped him edit mounds of handwritten notes and shape them into the text for his book
Wild Rivers
. We had little time: Bob was needed everywhere then, as the spearhead for a movement that encompassed political lobbying, legal manoeuvring, advertising campaigns and the largest non-violent direct action Australia had ever seen. So we worked late, by candlelight and
firelight, in that little off-the-grid cottage. Bob had decided that he couldn't stay hooked up to electricity provided by the drowning of that already-lost gem, Lake Pedder.

I had started covering the Franklin controversy as a journalist in 1980. Somewhere along the line, not too far along the line, I must confess, I did the thing that journalists are not supposed to do. I became an activist. The river itself turned me into one. In February of 1981, I rafted part of its length, on assignment for the
Sydney Morning Herald
, following Don Chipp, leader of the Australian Democrats. That river journey was, at the time, the hardest and scariest thing I had ever done. I was not what you would call an outdoorsy type. To paraphrase Woody Allen: I was two with nature.

Until I started covering environmental issues for the
, I'd never gone bushwalking or slept one night in a tent, much less steered my own small rubber raft over heaving white water. That first night by the river, having carried gear all day up and down a sheer, slippery, rain-lashed mountainside, I
lay wet, aching and apprehensive, wondering what mad ambition had led me to sign up for this. The rains came down as only rains borne by the Roaring Forties seem to know how to fall. Sometime in the middle of that long night, a plaintive male voice emanated from the nearby tent which Senator Chipp shared with his wife, Idun. ‘Jesus
, darling. Don't wake me up to tell me
uncomfortable!' My misery, it seemed, had some distinguished company.

But that Franklin trip changed me, profoundly. As I believe wilderness experience changes everyone. Because it puts us in our place. The human place, which our species inhabited for most of its evolutionary life. The place that shaped our psyches and made us who we are. The place where nature is big, and we are small. We have reversed this ratio only in the last couple of hundred years. An evolutionary nanosecond. The pace of our headlong rush from a wilderness existence through an agrarian life to urbanisation is staggering and exponential. In the United States, in just 200 years, the percentage of
people living in cities has jumped from less than four per cent to eighty per cent. By 2006, half the world's population lived in cities. Every week, a million more individuals move to join them. The bodies and the minds we inhabit were designed for a very different world from the one we now occupy. As far as we know, no organism has ever been part of such an experiment in evolutionary biology as we as a species are now undertaking — adapted for one life yet living another. We are, in a way, already space travellers. We have left our home behind and ventured into an alien world. And we don't yet know what effects this sudden hurtle into strangeness will ultimately have on the human body, the human mind.

As the American writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben has observed, we have ended nature. There is no longer any true wilderness left on Earth. The carbon we have pumped into the atmosphere has ensured that the hand of humanity now reaches into even the most pristine alpine crevice or remnant virgin forest. In his 1989 book,
The End of Nature
, McKibben argued that Earth's altered climate
gave the experience of being beside a river a different, lesser meaning. He wrote:

Instead of a world where rain had an independent and mysterious existence, the rain had become a subset of human activity. The rain bore a brand; it was a steer, not a deer.

Today, twenty-two years later, one of the easiest-to-grasp facts of climate change concerns its effect on rain. Warmer air simply holds more water vapour than cold. In dry places, like much of Australia, this means increasing evaporation and drought. In moist places, like New England on America's east coast, it means increasing downpours, more flooding. It means the tropics are expanding, pushing the dry subtropics further south, further north. As this happens, our rain-bearing westerlies are going to drop their water over open ocean rather than on our thirsty cities and farms. The Australian Water Services Association now tries to avoid the term ‘drought', which signifies a temporary condition. What used to be drought,
it seems, is our new normal. Meanwhile, in New England, flooding on a new scale, with an increasing frequency, gouges away roads, gashes up trees. Small, unprosperous communities ponder how they will find money to renew bridges and armour embankments against the next wild storm. And between us, between the suddenly wetter, suddenly drier lands, the great oceans creep higher, ever more corrosive because of the burden of acidifying carbon. Our great reefs dissolve, shellfish weaken, the links of a food chain strain to breaking point.

And who among us is making ready in any meaningful way, for the disasters that are coming? The defence departments of Britain and the United States, which are already studying scenarios for the resource wars they expect to break out over scarce materials. It will be Metacom and Benjamin Church once again, on a global scale. The dispossessors this time will be defined by wealth, not ethnicity. If you doubt the extent of scarcity, consider this: councils have begun removing public sculptures cast in metal from municipal parks and replacing them with plastic
replicas to counter increasing theft to feed the appetite for commodities in China and India.

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