Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Learning the vernacular

Australia has a long history of imposing imported ideas upon itself. As a land of migrants, many lonely and homesick, people tried to recreate the landscapes of their past in their new land. Everywhere that has a history of migration is similar. In some ways we celebrate our mix of cultures but in other ways it can be difficult to see the original landscape through the overlays of other culltures.

Last year I saw a fascinating series about gardens on television. "Around the World in Eighty Gardens" explored the whole notion of place and sense of place by looking at gardens that were an imposition on the landscape (a twee English garden in India springs to mind) and gardens that draw upon a strong sense of where they are (a garden perched on rocks by the ocean in Chile like a windswept outgrowth). In Australia the host, Monty Don, looked at a garden in the Southern Highlands that could be any grand English garden and is often held up as a fine example of gardening and two very different Australian vernacular gardens -- Dame Elisabeth Murdoch's amazing country landscape garden in Victoria and a red rock and sand garden in, I think, Sydney. The English garden only succeeded by blocking out the surrounding landscape and turning inwards. The other two gardens looked outwards to the land and reflected the immensity and beauty of Australia. I found them infinitely more beautiful and moving than the more static and inward looking garden.

This series spoke to me because part of what I write about and try to understand is how people understand place and interpret it. When you research and write about migration, you need to dig deeply into people's understandings of where they live and how they try to live when they move to a new place.

On the weekend we visited a historic railway station, perched on the hills near Toowoomba. Spring Bluff is famous for its gardens and for being a lovely picnic spot. It lives up to its promise. What struck me though was a very strong sense of how it is grafted onto the landscape rather than being part of it. There is this little patch of cultivation with a strongly English flavour enclosed by bare scrubby hills on one side and stands of tall bush on the other. As you look at the prim rows of plants, and the strictly regulated garden beds, the wind constantly shushes in the tops of the gum trees. You can close your eyes and imagine yourself at sea. Then you open them and there is a dense ocean of grey-green vegetation pressing in on this chocolate box Englishness. The pleasure from the gardens is tinged with a sense of alienation.

Perhaps that is the story of Spring Bluff -- the possession of a land by strangers, triumph over the steep hills and nature, and a longing for familiarity.

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