First published in the Journal of Wild Culture.
As you were named, you will know your world by names. People (Mum, for love), places (Woolworths, for food), ideas (spite, for Jacinta), dangers (‘Look Right Before Crossing’), pain (greenstick fracture, aged seven), hope (Mildred Wong, aged thirteen), nature (watching ants consume a chick that’s fallen from its nest). I never named a thing, but names just happened. Common, then scientific, as they thought it’d be smart to call (for example) the ponytail palm (which looks like an elephant’s foot) Beaucarne recurvata. But it is what it is, with or without a name. All things are. Unfortunately, the world you’ve been born into is all crash repairers and milkshakes, cars (and their many names) and fast food.
Go into the world, the sun on your arms and face; squeeze into the gap between honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis) and fence; pull onion weed bulbs from the ground. Hide inside a golden diosma (Coleonema sp.), chaste bush, or hibiscus (one day you’ll pull one apart in a Science IIC to learn about anthers and filaments, stamens and petals). This will be your shelter, your hiding place, your observation post. Here, you’ll be able to watch the battle of man versus nature, the standardisation of unreliable ecologies, the making of things to be the same as other things. You’ll see your father mowing his soft-leaf buffalo, going up and down, then across, until the lawn is smooth (watch how he admires it), pleasant to the neighbours’ eyes. Then (perhaps another day) you’ll notice him on his knees forking dandelions (Taraxacum sp.), but he’ll miss one, and a week later you’ll find the seed head, pick it, blow the thousand seeds across his lawn. Just don’t let him see you doing it. He’ll mix poison and spray ryegrass, paspalam, marshmallow and lambs tongue, from the patchy couch on the nature strip. This grass (you’ll see) is different. Santa Ana. Drought tolerant (although he’ll water it every night with a sprinkler Jacinta will throw at you when you’re nine, splitting a lip, chipping a tooth). Santa Ana, with its religious connotations, because to your father, this is an ecstatic experience. One day, when a dog pisses on this lawn, your father will go out and say to the old woman: ‘That leaves patches, you know,’ and she’ll reply, ‘Well, don’t plant it.’ Then there’ll be muttered insults.
Another time, you’ll visit some distant cousin in a suburb that’s far older, more established, than yours. You’ll marvel at their lawn. You might, one day, come to know it as fescue. Tricky, thirsty, hard to maintain. And their garden will be different to yours. A sundial, perhaps, to link their world to the Greeks, or Romans (you’ll spend years studying these people, watching documentaries about their cypress-edged pools and villas). Rows of roses (Rosa – all different colours, no mould or yellowing or dead branches or spent flowers, because they have someone to take care of all this). Probably a date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) to invoke the tropics – a Canary Island if they’re especially well off. And that’s what you’ll learn. Some people have more money, a better car, more interesting holidays than you. You just sit all summer watching your father obsess over kikuyu.
Are you learning? Truth is, you’ll only remember the name of a thing if you need to, if it means something to you. Aboriginal people named what was good, but also, what could kill them. Staying alive. That’s another reason. For example, there beside the smoke tree, an oleander (Nerium oleander). Every kid you know will have one in his front yard. Because they’re unkillable, covered in year-round, pale pink flowers, blocking the view of your feral neighbour. You will be warned by your mother – don’t eat it, don’t lick it, don’t even touch it. Oleander, you’ll see, is the tree equivalent of the man on Tamsin Street who killed his wife. But eventually you’ll become curious, and pick a leaf, smell it, break it, see the white, milky sap, smear it on your fingers, run after Jacinta saying, ‘This stuff can kill you!’ Then she’ll tell your mum, and she’ll come out and shout at you and say, ‘What did I tell you?’ And hold your hand under the tap and rinse it off. All of this will happen, because you’re curious.
Curiosity is important. You won’t get far without it. This will happen, too. Jacinta will climb the jacaranda (J. mimosofolia) at the top of your drive. By that point, it’ll be so high the power lines run through it. She’ll stand on the top branch, inches from a thousand volts, and say, ‘It can’t kill you.’ You’ll realise what she’s about to do and say, ‘You’re nuts!’ You’ll see it all happening – you’ll see her zapped, thrown from the tree, neighbours coming over to try save her life. You’ll think, I’ll remember this, in sixty years – the day my stupid sister died. But then, she’ll reach out, touch the line, and laugh, and say, ‘It can’t hurt you unless you’re on the ground.’ And you’ll say, ‘But the jaca’s touching the ground.’ And she’ll say, ‘That’s different, stupid!’ And this curiosity will continue. Walking home, grabbing a handful of soursobs (Oxalis pes-caprae), tasting them, grimacing, spitting out the acid, as your sister laughs and says, ‘Dogs have pissed on them.’ And you: ‘Have not!’ Her: ‘You ate piss!’ Running home, down the drive, calling, ‘Mum, he ate piss!’ (And when you walk in, your mother saying, ‘Sometimes I wonder if you were born with a brain in your head’ – and you’ll think of telling her about the power line, but you won’t, because you would’ve learnt how many forms of torture a sister knows).
Some days will be like heaven (not that you’ll know at the time). You’ll wake to the smell of freshly-mown lawn, mock orange (Philadelphus sp. – growing all over the pittosporum that shades your room) coming in your window, the smell of stewing tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) drifting in from the kitchen. And you will know happiness. The feeling that, for the rest of your life, anchors you to the earth, gives you a reference point for how things should feel. You’ll get up, you’ll run outside (by now, this world will be important to you), watch your dad weeding (chickweed, nutgrass) around the few carrots (over-fertilised, and fading) and say, ‘What can I do?’ And he’ll say (and you’ll remember this, every word, when he’s gone), ‘Well, you could put these weeds in the incinerator.’ Your job. Done with care, because he’s trusted you (despite your mother, standing at the back door shouting for you to come inside for breakfast).
You will become confident in this world. Despite what I said at the beginning, you will have already learnt to make the most of every stem, every leaf, every fruit. Laid in bed listening to the bone-dry leaves of the ghost gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) moving against each other in a hot, summer northerly, and you would have seen the shadow of its branches (the street light behind it) across your bed at night. This intruder in your room, reaching out (but never holding) you. And you would’ve associated this with fear. That you were only partially safe (and your parents could only protect you so much). You would have heard of people falling from trees, dying of cancer, hit by cars. So maybe your mind would’ve turned to defence. Having a bulwark against the world that gaveth (you would’ve been sent to Sunday school by now) and taken away. Tedious words on a hot Sunday morning in a cold Baptist hall. So maybe you would’ve worked out that you could protect yourself by gathering a fistful of bottlebrush (Callistemon sp.) or callitris cones, and throwing them at your enemies.
You might learn that not everyone has been as fortunate as you. I’m talking about Mrs W., next door, her husband dead a few years after the birth of the boys. Single mum, struggling, no time to keep a well-clipped yard (despite your father offering to help). Mrs W., with her fifteen, twenty, unfixed cats rooting in her pissy-smelling rosemary when they’re in season. You’ll learn about life. You’ll discover litters behind the viburnum near the back fence. Or in the lattice of unpruned fig (when you went through the fence, explored her yard). Six, seven kittens, abandoned by their frisky mother. All rib, bone. You’ll tell your father, and he’ll blow his top, but he won’t say anything to Mrs W. because she’s had so much to cope with. But one time, you’ll find six dead kittens, and one nearly dead (gasping its last), and you’ll know what it is to be well-fed and loved. And (without telling anyone) you’ll dig a hole and bury them, even the one that’s still alive, and you’ll press down on the dirt to force the last bit of air from its lungs, because you’ll think that’s the kindest thing to do.
Mrs W.’s yard will be full of mint (Mentha sp.) that got away. It will signify (as you grow older) disease. Goosefoot, purslane, bindii (your father still on his knees) will be interruptions, endings. You’ll learn that weeds earn names like goat-head, devil’s face (three-corned jacks, always getting in tyres) because they’re untameable. But you’ll also learn that the world will provide for you. That for every dead almond tree (the skeletons in Mrs W.’s yard), your father has planted a dozen apricot trees, orange and lemon (the bells, words making songs), plum, peach and apple. You’ll learn that plants tell stories, and stand guard (every school with a pepper tree – no one knows who planted them, or why).
But here’s the problem. One day (aged thirteen or fourteen) you’ll come in from the garden, sit in your room, switch on the television, and forget. You’ll know the names of things, but you won’t understand them (or care). You’ll have become bored with the journey you started (what seems to be) so long ago. You will (I suspect) be happy to sit and listen to brighter, louder, flasher words for the world. So I hope (cos I can only tell you so much) you will remember what you’ve learnt. Not from me, but by yourself. Somewhere in there (I guess) is the world your ancestors inhabited. They’re trying to tell you something, but after so long, they can only speak in whispers.
Welcome to Datsunland! This is a second hand car yard of the speeches I've given, the columns I've written, the essays, microgrammes, micro-fiction and micro-thoughts that have passed through my small, shy brain. Also, stuff so strange no newspapers, websites or publishers want them.