Monthly Archives: June 2014

On eucalypts and identity

Eucalypts, tall trees and understorey. Bunya. 2010.

Eucalypts, tall trees and understorey. Bunya. 2010.

The Australian landscape is so unlike what I grew up with. The land is so vast with properties as large as all of Jutland and red dessert running the depth and breath of the continent with sparse populations of people, sheep and cattle. The population density is 2.9 people per km2. Comparatively, 131.3 people live on each Danish square kilometer and every bit seems cultivated and tamed.

The Australian fauna is like something out of a magical picture book: kangaroos and wallabies get around by bouncing, koalas look like cuddly teddy bears from a toy shop, mammals lay eggs and colourful parrots and lorikeets screech rather than sing, drunk on the concentrated nectar of native flora.

Koala clutching gum tree. Bunya. Mick 2010.

Koala clutching gum tree. Bunya. Mick 2010.

The flora is also uniquely evolved, none better than the eucalypt, tall timber with sparse crowns, providing at best speckled shade to those seeking its protection, risking the dropping of massive branches at no particular notice. They have learnt to suck every bit of moisture out of the ground that surrounds its roots and provide just enough nutrition in the leaves for sleepy koalas living in the fork of their trunks. Red gum, blue gum, scribble gum, rose gum, ghost gum – there are more species of gum tree than can be counted. The smell of eucalypt in my nose, clearing the sinusses in dry winter, is so different from earthy dank smell of the beech, oak and pine forests of my wet childhood winters.

When we lived in Bunya, on the Samford Range, dry schlerophyl forrest surrounded us. Tall gums towered over us and young saplings crowding the understorey, observing our transformation of the landscape as we built our home and gardens, knowingly nodding to the kookaburras’ laugh ringing from their brances. Our hopes to live gently and sustainably on our land were challenged by the years of drought, the hard baked soil of clay and shale and water-stealing gum trees. We later learnt that the land was cleared in the late 1800s to build Brisbane’s wharves and public buildings and then abandoned when farmers found it too poor for a sheep run. So it regenerated to its natural state until subdivided into 2 hectare blocks in the late 1900s. We bought our land in 2000 and lived in our self-designed house from 2002 to 2010. We loved our time in Bunya: it was a time of Australian dreams, plans and optimism; but eventually we were beaten back to comfortable suburban Brisbane.

In his award winning novel, Eucalyptus, Murray Bail touches on the myth of Australian identity. It is a timeless story about a widower landowner, who loves two things: his carefully cultivated eucalypt collection on his vast rural property and his beautiful daughter, Ellen. Like in a fairy tale, he announces he will give his daugther away to the first man who can complete the challenge: naming all the eucalypts on his property. Strangely resigned to her fate, his daughter gradually fades away. Two suitors are on the scene – Mr Cave who walks the land with her father to identify each tree, and a stranger, who turns out not so strange, meeting Ellen in the forrest and on her sick bed to tell her stories that sustain her. The closer Mr Cave gets to name all the trees on the property, the sicker Ellen gets, and the more compelling become the stranger’s stories.

Each chapter is named after a spieces of eucalypt. As I read the story in my suburban home, I am reminded of the selfishness of eucalypts and the harshness of the Australian landscape that we felt when we lived in Bunya, just 22 km from the capital city centre. How much harsher would that landscape be away from the sea board in the red centre?

Bail seems to poke fun of that most enduring Australian self-identity: that of the bushman living in the outback, the brave pioneer of new frontiers. Even when the myth was developed in the 1800s by ‘bush’ poets like Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson, people predominantly lived close to the sea, as did those writers themselves. But the idea of Australians as conquerours of the landscape still prevails today – perhaps most accurately depicted by open cut mines scarring the landscape – when really the majority of people live in safe, unchallenging and comfortable suburbia on the seaboard, rather than in the bush.

Screeching rainbow lorrikeets telling white cockatoo off. Bunya. Mick 2010.

Screeching rainbow lorrikeets telling white cockatoo off. Bunya. Mick 2010.

Australia is still a harsh landscape. It invites you in with its raw beauty and its potential, but offers little in return for hard work and spits you out when you have been defeated. We feel it perhaps not often, in our urbane homes with manicured palm tree gardens, where we have been able to cultivate and control the land to suit ourselves. Nonetheless, in 2011, Mother Nature demonstrated our limited security so devastatingly, when Brisbane River broke its banks and flooded the once swampy plains of its delta, where Brisbane now stands. Flood water sweept our status symbols and security out into the bay, leaving a trail of stinking mud and devastation.

Just like Ellen’s relationship with gum trees was one of ambivalence, so is my relationship with my adopted country: I love this country for its breath-taking beauty and I despise for its harshness and unreasonableness which reminds me constantly of my own insignificance and indeed that of our entire species.

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Any sense of style?

Dressed for Galla night at the Sydney Opera House, October 2013

Dressed for Galla night at the Sydney Opera House, October 2013

This week my yoga teacher commented on my long lace coat that I bought second hand at Mag Pie Lane in Herning last year when I needed a diversion from all the awfulness of dad’s illness.

‘You always look so elegant’, she said in her beautiful accent.

I know I don’t look elegant when I pose in Warrior One or Downward Dog. And I find it very difficult to think of myself as elegant, but perhaps my self perception is just far from how she – and perhaps others – see me?

As a child I had no interest in attire. For a long time I had one idol – my big brother – and I wanted to be more of a boy than the girl I was born as. Boys were cool and could do more cool things than pretty girls dressed in flowery dresses and shiny patent leather shoes. Not that my parents ever dressed me like that – but even taking into account that uncouth 1970s look, I think I was an extraordinarily messily dressed child; my hair typically sporting a home cut and a well-slept-on look.

A tomboy beginning. Røde Kort Børnehaven 1971. Photo: Unknown

A tomboy beginning. Røde Kors Børnehaven 1971. Photo: Unknown

My kindy photograph shows me in a striped rib-knitted short sleved jumper with combed, yet very messy hair that probably needed washing. My brother’s first school photo sports a very crooked smile. I had decided this was a good look and hence my whole face is strangely lopsided and my lower lip wierdly askewed, making me look quite hysterical and not at all cool – or elegant.

Looking, but not feeling, the part. 1974. Photo: Unknown

Looking, but not feeling, the part. 1974. Photo: Unknown

In 1974 my very cool aunt got married. I was 7 years old and with my similarly aged cousins I was dressed in a pretty white dress to be bridesmaid. I was selected to collect the bride’s bouquet in the church, while the couple knelt in front of the priest. Keen to demonstrate I was not too fond on being this much of a girl, I rudely screwed up my face  and whispered loudly: yuk! when I returned to the front pew, holding the pretty flowers.

In 1976 we went on summer holiday in London. I was 9 years old. At Portobello Road markets, traders were peddling their wares – junk, second-hand clothes, stuff that might have fallen off a truck or otherwise shadily acquired. When mum made my little sister and I try on some beautiful Spanish dresses in a makeshift change room, I was super shamed that she made me and refused to let her buy the dress for me, even though everyone around me told me how lovely I looked. I did not want ‘lovely’; that was too girly. Lovely does not let you run around and climb trees and get grazed knees and dirt in your face and mud between your toes. Lovely is something your brother does not respect and therefore you don’t either. Of course, my beautiful little sister got herself a fabulous blue and red dress with tiny little flowers that she wore till she outgrew it.

Even out of my tweens, as a young person, I was never comfortable with dresses, make-up and girlie talk. I mostly wore jeans, unshapely jumpers and sneakers. In 1990, when I first came to Australia, I was entirely shocked to learn that Queensland’s Parliamentary orders were amended to allow women to wear slacks in Parliament. For the first time in 1990! What was this focus on women looking like dolls – hadn’t they heard about women’s liberation in this country?

When I migrated and started work the following year, I was so busy fitting in and meet expectations that I bought a few dresses and skirts – and uncomfortable shoes to match – but still preferred to wear pants and suits to work. My favourite shoes were a pair of black Doc Martens. In my spare time, I continued to dress for comfort, rather than style, without any sense of the feminine – in the warm Brisbane climate people’s casual dress style (singlet, shorts and thongs) was in such contrast to the suit and tie style of office work.

In fact, I had turned 40 when I realised that I could wear a dress quite well and that my legs were not as ugly as I had imagined for years, especially in a pair of well-fitting heels. The discovery came about when I took three weeks leave to overcome stress, battle a mild depression and reorient myself in the life in which I suddenly found myself. My boss and very good friend took me on a day of shopping therapy to DFO, a brand outlet near the airport. Here I bought a very beautiful red dress, shoes and makeup. This red dress changed my view of accentuating my feminity. I felt beautiful and attractive – and girly! Even though I was fast to drop the makeup, I have since become an ardent dress and shoe shopper. My best pieces are sourced in my home country, where design is embedded in life and fashion in ways hipster Australians could only dream of.

As I child and young person, I never aspired to being seen as elegant. It would have been almost rude in my eyes if someone had said I was elegant. Yet, I felt so very good about the fact that my yoga teacher noticed and commented. It is true that the self I was as a child is not the self I am as a 47-year-old adult. And isn’t that a good thing?

 

Under my skin

The church in Gjellerup, Herning Kommune, Denmark. Photo Ch1ptune at da.wikipedia, 2007.

The church in Gjellerup, Herning Kommune, Denmark. Photo Ch1ptune at da.wikipedia, 2007.

‘One can never leave home’ wrote Maya Angelou in Letter to my Daugther in 2008, because ‘one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.’

I have been thinking a lot about home lately. As a child I had a stable home. We moved around a little at first, never straying far from that centre of my father’s universe that was Lundfod where he grew up. Once I started school we stayed in the same place until after I left home. My childhood was spent in the little village community of Gjellerup, smack in the centre of Jutland peninsula, as far away from the water as it is possible to get in the little island country of Denmark, where people are of the land and have both feet firmly planted on the ground. Once settled here, my parents got on with their business and we kids got on with being kids and growing up.

It was safe and it was summer, and I played with friends on the street until we were called in to go to bed, even if it still seemed like broad day light. Or it was winter with snow piled high outside and candle light on the well-decorated, freshly felled pine tree, cosy inside, and we played board games and card games with our parents. It was safe and we were never in doubt we were loved. It was a good place from which to go and conquer the world. And so I did, but that is another story.

My childhood home from 1972 to 1982

My childhood home from 1972 to 1982

This was home and I belonged to the place. My community was a very ancient village, the one with the oldest church in Denmark, from 1140. This community was tight knit and deeply religious, but growing fast in the secularised, liberated 1970s. Though we were newcomers, we were all able to find our community, our belonging, here in this rapidly expanding village as it merged to become a suburb of the larger town, Herning. I started at the new school as soon as it opened in january 1973, sang in the choir, joined the scouts, roamed the streets playing cowboys and indians, princesses and dragonslayers and racing our bikes down the gently sloping hills. Friends, whom I still hold dear and count among my very best friends, are friends from my childhood home (you know who you are).

No matter how much I go back and walk the streets I used to play in, look at the homes I used to live in or visit the school I went to, in that little village, I know that there is no going home. It is never the same as the memory of home I carry under my skin. Because I am not the person I was and I will never be that person again, never belong in that place as I did. Similarly, the people I associate with my belonging to that place are no longer there and are no longer the people they were. Experimental philosopher Joshua Knobe questions the notion of an essential self – the person you are can never be the person you were or the person you will be: Even physically, 98% of atoms in your body changes every year.

Nevertheless, when I go to Denmark and look at the landscape, the architecture and the people, hear the language and the songs and feel the place, I know that I belong. I am recognised, I fit in. I belong to this country, this people, this language, this history.

And I don’t. Having lived for 23 years in Australia, away from Denmark, my mother tongue is 23 years old and the society I knew then has moved on, through several crises and cultural shifts. Some of these shifts are significant and others more subtle. For any migrant, this is a significant experience and sometimes cause of sorrow. It reminds us perpetually of the flux of all things: ever-newer water flows and one cannot step in the same river twice (Heraculitus).

It may be true you never leave home, as Angelou asserts, but I have found the home under my skin has morphed and changed, as I run through its manifestations inside my head and adjust the shadows, dreams, fears and dragons to fit into the narrative of my life. One may never leave home, but home is never what it was.

And this is exactly why I need to go home to Denmark: so I can adjust the home under my skin, at the corner of my eye and in the gristle of my earlobe. Thanks Angelou, and rest in peace.

Go global Danmark!

Dual citizenship will let me celebrate my whole identity, both Danish and Australian. Photo by Mick 2014.

Dual citizenship will let me celebrate my whole identity, both Danish and Australian. Photo by Mick 2014.

Together with thousands of expats across the globe, I am celebrating that Denmark has moved one step further toward dual citizenship this week.

I was born about 1000 years after my ancestor, Harald Bluetooth, raised Denmark’s birth certificate in Jelling. Jelling was my mother’s childhood home, and my parents had bought their first house in the town, when I joined the family. I was raised in Denmark through the 1970s and 1980s. I love the country of my birth and upbringing. It gave me my sense of identity, my Danishness, my culture, my language, and in the sandy soils of the Jutland heath, my roots are still healthily burried and tugging at my heart strings.

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