Nation of Grief

During the year I lived alone in an old farmhouse on the edge of temperate rainforest, I had the strangest dreams. These dreams often came to me at dawn after long sleepless nights filled with the cries of invisible creatures. During the day, the forest was as silent as the grave. At night, it erupted with noise.

There were tiny discordant conversations high in the trees. A cluster of voices carried a lament for hours. Things chattered and scrabbled. Even labeling these noises—as flying foxes, owls or wallabies—seemed like a tenuous thing, as though it were more a comfort than a certain knowledge, as though taking unfamiliar sounds and transforming them into familiar objects would enable me to hold down the boundaries of the familiar world, as though it needed holding down, as though reality were a kind of screen that both accepts our projections and keeps something hidden from our sight.

It was as if I were listening to a multitude of unhuman languages emanating from an alien landscape of red moons—languages that were engaging in a commentary on our own world. I began to imagine they were describing a knowledge of me I could never hope to acquire but which would transform my life in unthinkable ways, as strange as waking up to find I had grown wings.

I dreamed vast frayed dreams of the architecture of leaves flooded with a clear summer light. Gradually, the light seemed to become colored by a gray unease, which grew and bloomed as the dreams became increasingly threadbare and I woke to feelings of dread and the silence of the forest canopy.

The exterminations of Australian fauna after European settlement were so massive and devastating that those populations not completely eradicated may never recover. In 1927, for example, 600,000 koalas were killed in the month of August alone. One can see this as a visible shadow of the destruction visited on the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, who, at first, believed that when the Europeans arrived, the sky had collapsed on its borders and the ghosts and spirits of the dead were now flooding into the world.

It was during the time I lived alone, when it seemed to me that the dreams I had been having were beginning to take on the qualities of old clothes in which I had been ill for a long time, that I read about a “bora ring,” some 50 kilometers from my house, that had been in use by the local Widjyabal people until the 1930s.

Bora rings are found only in a relatively small area of the Australian east coast. They are circles of beaten earth 30 feet or so in diameter, each linked by paths to other rings, often many miles away. Bora rings were constructed to sit on the threshold between worlds, both their visible and hidden lives taking place in the liminal space where one world touched another. They were used for the purposes of ritual initiation and the communication of secret knowledge, which could not be spoken outside of the space and time the bora ring embodied. There are very few bora rings left, most having been obliterated during the long shockwave of violence that accompanied the arrival of the spirits of the dead and the collapse of the sky.

I found my way to the bora ring by following old and faded road signs, the paint on them blistered as if by fire. Turning my car down a dirt track, I found myself unexpectedly in the middle of a small cemetery.

The graves, in tidy rows with their obelisks, rusted fences and eroded statuary, seemed like the remnants of an ancient suburb excavated after some great catastrophe. Beyond the graves, at the end of the track, was an old shed like a kind of bus shelter, though who would be waiting for a bus in a graveyard, and for what journey, was difficult to imagine. On a bench inside the shelter were a few dead plants in pots. Behind the shack rose a long green slope, and at its crest was a dense grove of eucalypts filled with shadows and the cries of unseen birds. Among the trees, a fence of low green logs surrounded the unmown grass of the bora ring.

What had finally drawn me out of the house that day, a house whose walls were beginning to enfold the boundaries of the world, was a parcel I had received from someone I had once loved many years ago and whose love I had lost through a series of disastrous decisions. The parcel contained some old birthday cards, a few drawings and a photograph of the house we had shared with friends in the city of Adelaide, a city where I had the strangest experiences, experiences I am unable to forget. The interior of the farmhouse became unendurable, as if the past were becoming a palpable thing that could rise up from the present and appear like a door that one could not avoid walking through.

In Adelaide, I often walked the streets at night, and I took up the habit again when I moved into the farmhouse. Walking at night always brought a new quality to my introspection, a peculiar focus I did not otherwise have, as though deranged and jagged and fantastic poetry were about to break the surface of my mind. In my night walks around Adelaide, I would frequently stop and scribble something in the notebook I habitually carried with me, a notebook that became a kind of compendium of strange sights and bizarre landscapes. I wrote hesitantly in broken phrases for the most part, always watching myself for signs of self-humiliation. Of course, in the years since, I have often wished I had written down everything regardless, had written continually, had written until my fingers stiffened, had gone without sleep rather than miss a chance to write of my experience.

Walking the dark suburban streets of Adelaide, I could see the flickering TV light in each house. I felt as if I were about to gain the ability to make visible the dreams taking place within each house, make them appear like clouds above the rooftops or float like will-o’-the-wisps in the gardens, all the products of memory and desire illuminating the night with that dim interior glow that dreams can have, like a lantern carried down a dark path.

It was the time of the killings that became known as the Family Murders: a period of years when boys and young men were abducted, tortured, raped, surgically mutilated and their bodies thrown into bushland. The names of the victims, broadcast throughout the city in print and on TV, became as familiar to me as the names of my housemates, as though they had all once inhabited the house I lived in then, and had even left something there, items I might find accidentally kicked under the sofa: a mix tape of songs, a pair of shoes, a message scratched on the wall behind a door at some late hour of drink and self-disclosure. To walk the Adelaide streets at night was like following the paths of the dead. It was these streets from which they had been abducted, and when I think of the silent empty streets of Adelaide at night, they seem like tunnels or corridors in a decrepit hospital, dimly lit by pulsing yellow bulbs.

Before the bora ring was a small stone plinth discolored by the weather. Fixed to it was an engraved metal plaque, the eroded text now difficult to read. At the end of what appeared to be a brief description of the function of a bora ring were the words “a pit [or open grave] is found on the centre.” Beyond the bora ring, the landscape opened toward the southwest, the direction from which the ring would have been ceremonially entered. The landscape of pasture and forest I could see beyond the trees looked faded and worn, and seemed to be floating at a vast distance, drifting slowly away from me.

The Widjyabal people say a bora ring cannot be destroyed. The earthworks can be obliterated or desecrated, but the ring itself cannot be harmed. About 50 miles to the west of this bora ring, there had been another, perhaps connected to this one by a path that passed through the boundaries of several clans. A slaughterhouse is built on top of that other ring now, where livestock are ritually funneled toward industrious knives.

 A small bird appeared quite suddenly on the branch of one of the eucalpyts crowded around the perimeter of the ring. It eyed me beadily, as if assessing my presence, then vanished back into the shadow of the tree’s foliage. Beneath the tree was a low object fenced with wrought iron. It appeared to butt up against the very edge of the bora ring, as though it were a functional addition, like a doorway concealing a passage into the ring’s subterranean interior. The cemetery was maintained by the local shire council, and I thought it possible that the fenced object was some instance of council infrastructure clumsily located in a time when a bora ring was considered to be of no more import than a child’s sandcastle.

It was, in fact, a grave, the grave of a child who had died in August 1900, at the age of 15 months. The inscription on the headstone said it had been erected by her older brother. The grave was covered with a thick litter of leaves.

The dead child lay on the perimeter of the ring, as if carried to the very threshold of the worlds that the bora ring locates, the place that cannot be destroyed, a ring that, as far as we know, was still in use when she was buried. It is as if the ring watches over her or has taken her into itself in some way, as though she has traveled farther than others, to a place where even the dead rarely go.

The bora ring’s location in a cemetery has probably protected it from destruction. And if a cemetery is our representation of memory, a bora ring may have been the place where the generations of dead were shown to speak with the same voice as the living. With the addition of the child’s grave to the ring, it is as if something has now been revealed or opened up. The deliberate laying of a dead child on the edge of a bora ring now seems to conjure a space where we can see the children massacred after the European invasion and can begin to remember the grief of the Stolen Generations, those thousands of Aboriginal children who, throughout the 20th century, were forcibly removed from their families and their land by government agents and placed in servitude or in institutional homes.

Grief and loss are ordinary things, unthinkable experiences we all have to face sooner or later, as everything we love disappears. But there are griefs, wired into the armature of Australian history, that inhabit our systems of thought and action. The grief of the Stolen Generations—the grief of children brutalized beyond our imagining by dedicated systems of structural violence—is a grief we have preferred to bury. Children and those who care for them have always, historically, borne the brunt of our institutional cruelty, and it seems we still cannot think about that, still cannot acknowledge that the grief of children is concreted into the foundations of the Australian nation state.

When grief comes upon us in our ordinary lives, we are in the middle of an experience that has been common to so many in this nation’s ravaged landscape. From the moment they arrived, what did the colonists do but inflict grief? Welcome, we might say to the grieving. Welcome to the Nation of Grief, which has a history that is inseparable from what we have made on this weird island continent and who we have become.

The desperate denial of grief is one of the intolerable burdens the grieving have to carry. It is the manic denial of their experiences by others which reminds the grieving that they are somewhere that everyone else prefers to ignore, as though these terrible events are not happening in the real world, when in fact they happen all the time, everywhere, and the mask of consumer happiness that covers the world we are presented with, the world we seek, the world we all strive for with so much energy and persistence, is the lens that seeks to contain, by its tensioned brutality, the ocean of suffering that fills the history of Australia.

The grieving may be fortunate enough to have some exchange with a genuinely kind person, who in his or her heart is some kind of mundane poet of impermanence. But such people are rare and do not advertise themselves. After all, it can be dangerous to show kindness to the grieving, to the brutalized and the abandoned, to stolen children. A genuine kindness of the heart has a ruined and expansive depth that the brittle structure of our consumer paradise cannot recognize or represent. Perhaps, every public space in every city and every town needs pictures and stories of the stolen children.

Perhaps, when the brother of the baby girl placed her coffin in the ground on the edge of the bora ring—whose worn paths must have testified to its live presence, like a closed door through which many had passed—his grief came forth in sympathy with the grief of those who had watched their sacred sites destroyed and their children kidnapped.

I sat beside the bora ring in the presence of the baby dead a hundred years and considered my own losses, so fragile and so minor, and yet still so sharp and full of the weight of shame and sorrow. It seemed to me that, perhaps, it is the life of the mind which harbors the true histories of things; the remnants of the external event disappear, leaving only graves, while the suffering that was inflicted lives on in ways that cannot be plotted or mapped and can barely be spoken of. It could be that stories of violence and dispossession are constructed from a kind of slipshod grammar of dreams, improvised out of whatever is lying around, cobbled out of bits of wreckage and spare parts, of insides and outs, and of those places that are both inside and out and neither, the doors and windows of the world. The speaker conjures up an archipelago of interiors and landscapes, perhaps not quite a map, perhaps closer to the archipelagos we might imagine if we gazed at evening clouds, our minds distracted from the evils of the day and wandering in the sky.

It is too easy to destroy the external markers of disaster and suffering, and, of course, even the bodies of the suffering must eventually disappear. But the distress multiplies and discovers new hosts in ensuing generations as though something can travel invisibly from mind to mind—like a dream (or nightmare) that continues to exist after the sleeper awakes and seeks a new dreamer to inhabit.

And now, here in my house, as the night draws in and the languages of the night begin to appear, I feel that if I talked until the end of time, I could not exhaust the description of human suffering. When I think of all the ways in which I have named my experience, of how much remains outside that naming, of the very processes of language, of how I speak without my own consent, the farther I seem to get away from experience even as I build experience with my language. We are all so full of unsaid words, our own and those of so many others, words that have their own shapes and weights, and which pile up like leaves on a grave. And yet, even as I become the repository of unspoken words, it is the stammering nature of my experience of others that I am unable to communicate.

 It is as if that which is unsaid, whatever has been uprooted or silenced, still struggles to be named, to achieve some kind of redescription. Silence is never empty. Silence is the location where we might hear the voices of the disappeared, speaking out of our own mouths.

Perhaps our lives are like this: dependent on an infinite number of instances of causality that we can never fully determine, just as each action of ours has effects we cannot calculate and which continue after our deaths, resonating across time, so that even now, as I write this, the consequences of my actions, of the scrape of my pen across the paper can never wholly disappear. Perhaps even the rain, which I can see falling from my window in this strange and lonely place, on land on which I am able to live because unknown numbers of Widjyabal people were driven from it, even the rain and the feelings it evokes in me have a kind of echo, a faint but undeniable imprint that will be felt across the years by people I can never know, each seeking a kind of happiness that cannot be found anywhere on this earth.

About the Author

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright lives in northern New South Wales on land once exclusively occupied by the Widjyabal people. His house overlooks the Widjyabal sacred site of Nimbin Rocks. He works parttime in the area of violence prevention and trauma; his writing can be found at the Overland website.

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