I am reading two books at the moment, Gerald Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape and Alice Munro’s The View from Castle Rock. Both are examples of what Gerald Murnane describes as Autobiographical fiction, both use the events of their own lives to tell a story or a series of stories. Both describe a poetical impulse in childhood that involves a passionate love of nature. There was a time when I was about the age of my daughter Ella who is currently wrangling over her negotiations with her first, practically first ever boyfriend, well before I had boyfriends, or even considered the possibility, when I fell for nature. Head over heels. I longed for green hills and wide expanses. I longed for the silence of the bush, the beauty of trees and flowers and wide open skies. Nature was my muse. She-nature must be a she-would inspire the finest thoughts and words that could flow through my poetry, if only I could find a way of losing myself in her.
By the time I was fourteen the Sunday afternoon trips we made to special places, the Maroondah Dam, Emerald Lake, the Dandenong’s, were long over. Most weekends we stayed at home hovering in corners as my father became progressively drunk, until it all climaxed on Saturday night with his worst most drunken outburst, by which time he ran out of alcohol. He could not get anymore after 6pm on Saturday and once he’d drunk the last drop it would take the last hours of Saturday night into Sunday morning before he would start to sober up. Sundays he spent in a welter of guilt and self-reproach for his appalling behaviour over the last two nights and the possibility of going out for a Sunday drive was out of the question. Even so family trips to tourist destinations were no longer what I had in mind to represent the county. I wanted to be free to roam at will among the trees and hills, hidden from others. I wanted to lose myself in nature.
The Farm Road estate which spread for miles behind the AV Jennings estate where we lived in our brick veneer, two fronted block had only been half developed. In the far corner of the estate a kilometer or two along Farm Road where the old chicken sheds were slowly falling down, were the remnants of market gardens. You can still see some remaining gardens in places like Dingley, when you travel east along Centre Dandenong Road. The gardens in Cheltenham had already been sold but it took years before the developers started to clear them to make way for roads and new house allotments. I walked along Farm Road from its beginning where it formed a T with Warrigal Road alongside the golf course with its cyclone fence that held in manicured trees and gardens. I walked along the road itself that had recently been covered with asphalt in readiness for the assault of housing that would soon take place. Where the asphalt ended and the road became once more a wide dirt track I imagined the country began. There was one lone house, a small white weatherboard, dilapidated but still occupied judging by the washing on the line and the smoke rising from the chimney. It stood on the far side of the chicken shed and I imagined that it was still occupied by the owners of the chicken business who must have given up their chickens to make way for the relentless progress of housing developments. There was never anyone around as I walked on weekends up the middle of the lonely farm road to where the countryside began and civilisation ended. There were no signs warming that trespassers would be prosecuted but I often had the sense that I was walking on land the belonged to someone else and try as I might to create the idea that this was the countryside and therefore free for all, I still worried that someone would come out of that house, shotgun in hand and threaten to evict me, if I did not go voluntarily. My sojourns through nature therefore had a dangerous quality, as if at any moment I might be sprung.
I have long felt embarrassed by my childhood love affair with nature, until now when I read that Gerald Murnane and Alice Munro share it.