On Sunday last week the temperature hit two digits and the sun blared down – at least during the middle hours of the day. Spring has sprung in Copenhagen and it is beautiful, if still cold enough for the wind to make my ears ache during the morning walk.
There is only so much you can fit into the luggage limit of airline carriers. When you are packing your bags for a year-long sabbatical in Denmark you have to make harsh choices. Luckily we’ve secured a furnished apartment just outside the lakes in Copenhagen. This does reduce the amount of stuff we need to bring or acquire.
For years we have been trying to get rid of stuff – to declutter our lives. Somehow stuff just seems to accumulate and fill every surface, like dust whirling up in the swoosh of movement or encouraged by south easterly winds – and settling in the corners and on the skirtingboards until it is disturbed again.
I find that I hang on to stuff because it has a meaning for me. It may be a present given to me by someone I love. It may be something someone was made especially for me. Or it may be something useful one of us bought. The best stuff is stuff that is designed well and used often. These are the objects that last and also bring lasting memories.
Each time I sit in one of the Børge Mogensen Spanish Chairs I am thankful that these beautiful chairs ended up in our house in Brisbane. My parents bought these chairs in the 1970s when we moved to Gjellerup. They sat in the tiled lounge room in the middle of the brand new house, together with the clunky, soft and deep modular couch. Like a casual prop in photos of my grandmother comfortably sitting at a family party. When we moved to the next house in Gjellerup on top of the hill, the chairs were incorporated into the combined kitchen and tv room – much more frequently used, but less elegant because they could not sit side by side in the space. Finally in my father’s last house in Herning they sat in the corner of the swimming pool room together with the buffalo leather couches, inviting one to perch a cup of coffee on the wide arm rests and pick up a book from the overflowing coffee table while listening to music blaring from the Bang&Olufsen sound system installed to fill the large room.
Now, in the early hours of the morning, the chairs let me catch the weak rays of morning sun before they gain power and blaze onto the solar panels on the roof. The chairs sit with the cedar coffee table that Mick created from the beams left-over when we built the house on the hill in Bunya in the early 2000s. Inspired by a large, rustic coffee table from my childhood home, it is a robust table that is both functional and beautiful. On the other side of the table is one of the green Natussi leather couches we bought, one at a time, as a present from my parents when our boys were born. Those couches have been tough enough for babies, toddlers and teenagers, finally giving in to the direct sunlight on the deck, causing the leather to crack.
Over the table hangs a PH lamp – the classic lamp that was a wedding present from my parents’ business partners. It was second hand then, surplus to requirements, when they decorated the ground floor flat of the home that also housed the publishing business and my family. On the table sits a small dish that Mick wove out of tie wire during his first year of the fine arts degree. It accumulates stuff: ear phones, coins, a card. On the wall hangs Mick’s Takemine guitar, so often picked up by our younger son to strum a few chords or pick a few Spanish notes. It hangs next to a painting by artist Joanna Underhill, ‘Cellular Intelligence’. Following a bout of cancer, she studied cancer cells during a residence at the Brain Institute. The result is a series of work that explores the structure of cells which provides inspiration for quite intricate imagery and colour.
On the other side hangs a piece my older son did in Year 12 Visual Art, ‘Waiting for skating’. Three skate boards form the canvas and three faces in various states of patience adorn them. Clearly, my son is not particularly patient. One day he screwed the wheels back on to one of the boards: he wanted to skate. When I realised, I promptly bought him a fresh board and the piece was restored to the wall. He promised to touch up the scratched board. However, in the intervening period I have grown quite fond of the authenticity of the green and pink paint that shines through and the edges that are worn down to the timber core of the board. Besides, it is a good story.
None of this stuff will fit in my suitcase. And this is part of the point. These objects are integral to the life world I have created in Brisbane with my family. This life is part of me, but only one part. With the chairs and the lamp – and many other objects – I have integrated my Danishness into my Australianness in physical manifestations. I have invented a self that combines my experiences, language and memories. One reason for going back is to refresh and reconnect with the Danish part. Together we will find new inspiration and create new memories for the next period of our lives, which integrates more of my Danish heritage.
My self is indivisible and when we are away, there will no doubt be things that I miss from this sunny part of the world. Stuff that I have grown used to.
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.
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.
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.