Familiar & unfamiliar places

5 October 2021

Day 5 of Writing Nangak Tamboree

What does it mean to know a place?

Are there places you really know?

And what does that knowing feel like?

At the weekend, I rode my bike around Port Melbourne. That’s where I was born, where I lived – all of us together in my grandparents’ house – for the first part of my life. Everyone we knew lived within a couple of hundred yards and we were related to half of them. All our family stories revolved around Port. I knew it better than I’ve ever known any place. It’s still lovely, but I don’t know it anymore. Our old house is done up and fancy and worth millions. They all are. The factories where my grandparents once worked have been turned into apartments where I couldn’t afford to live. But they knew that place, deep in their souls. Never lived anywhere else. It was part of them. It’s part of me, too, but in memory.

So maybe knowing places is about memory as well as about now.

I’ve lived in lots of places, different cities, different landscapes, even different countries. I’ve felt at home in places and homesick, unsettled and excited. There are different types of knowing.

One of the great nature writers, Nan Shepherd, lived most of her life in the Cairngorm mountains in Scotland, walked out on the mountain in all weathers, and watched them season on season, from the highest peak to the smallest insect. She felt, walked, listened her way into the mountains. And she wrote them, and in the writing was her knowing – or a way into knowing. And in the writing, she made one of the best books about a place: The Living Mountain.

On the other hand, I’ve read plenty of travel books by people who feel they know a place well enough after a few days or weeks to write a whole book about it (spoiler: they don’t).

Here, I walk on colonised land and the idea of knowing places is complex and conflicted. Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have different traditions of knowing and being with country and in the past the way that has been privileged has been the European tradition – seeing country as landscape, or more often as resource. That’s changing. It has to.

I’ll write more about that another time. For now, what I’m trying to do is slow down and really look – for moments, for telling details – and feel my way into this place that I don’t know at all: Nangak Tamboree.

Rain drops on casuarina leaves

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