The Plains

memoir, 2011
Written by Chester Eagle
Cover art by Rodney Manning, 2011
DTP work by Karen Wilson
Circa 5200 words
Print edition of 200 copies, 2011 by Chris Giacomi of Design To Print, Somerville Victoria 3912
Electronic publication 2012

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To read some extracts from this memoir click here:

A Canvas Chair
Changing My Mind
A Spiritual Land

To read about the writing of this memoir click here.

A Canvas Chair

Australia is in an endless state of becoming, and this aligns with the fact that it’s such an eroded land. It’s worn out – except that it’s not. One of its paradoxes is that its rockiest, most barren places produce more than their share of wildflowers. Its greatest variety of eucalypts, including the ones that flower most richly, grow on the poorest soils. Huge slabs of Western Australia are no more than uplifted sea-bed, and look what they produce in spring! Even our madness is attached to the lure of gold in impossible places. The deserts pull people in and they revel in despair at the same time as they glory in the directionless spaces. Directionless? Sandhills lie parallel to each other, mile after mile, rippling at the will of winds that have blown forever. Nobody knows how far back the aboriginal civilisation goes, so nobody can imagine the beginnings of our country. It was once part of Gondwanaland, but that, and its eventual break-up, was before the arrival of human memory. The beginnings of everything are out of sight, of human recall, and this problem is neatly stitched up as insoluble by the way the aboriginal people have compressed what Europeans call history: they conflate the origins, the beginnings, with the present, in a concept which we latecomers summarise as ‘the dreaming’. I’m in no position to say what this means but it seems to refer to the present – yes, the present – as being no more than a part of what Christian-influenced whitefellas would call the creation. That is to say, the origins are also the now. Creation and re-creation are always going on, and surround us still, as they have always done.

I find it peculiarly liberating to think this way, when I can, and if I try. Space and time seem to be the co-ordinates of European thought, in modern times at least, and the Australian landscape, if seen in the aboriginal way, seems to be beyond that systematic control. This accords with the way in which our floods, fires and droughts, our ‘teeming rains’, as Dorothea McKellar called them, happen at times that confound our expectations. This was observed early on by white settlers and everything since 1788 has confirmed the excessive habits of our land. To the European mind, this represents the loss by mankind of our normal dominance, and the enforcement of a certain humility. This, I think, is good. Proud man benefits from a little enforced humility, and this, if contrasted with the pride of Europe, seems both rebellious and providing of a remarkable opportunity. Mankind knows what it will get if it’s allowed to be dominant; one has only to look around the world as we’ve known it. But if mankind is forced onto terms other than those it would have chosen for itself? The result is already becoming apparent. Circumspice! Look around you!

What is there to see?

In an earlier piece of writing, One Small Step, I referred to Goyder’s Line, a definition of where we should and shouldn’t try to settle. The South Australian surveyor proposed that European farming couldn’t be practised beyond a certain point. This is an early attempt to define a boundary that many commentators on this country have discussed, that is, the nature of coastal, European-style settlement as opposed to the requirements of the inland. Requirements? Perhaps I should have said ‘enforcements’. European methods can be made to work for a certain distance, as defined, mostly, by rainfall, and then something different takes over. The aboriginal way of living, the subservience to nature, as whitefellas would put it, has a suitability which even whites can see, or accept in some notional way, at least. The aboriginal way is adapted to the land in a mixture of cunning and humility. They built shelters when the area was dependable enough, they managed the land by fire (fresh grass to attract the kangaroos), and they used stones to make fish traps in circumstances where this was possible, but they were never in any doubt that they had to fit in with the ecology surrounding them. Europeans would say that their development had stopped at this point; they, I must presume, would say that the Europeans were too successful some of the time to ask themselves why they couldn’t keep on going in the way they did. Whitefellas thought you could dam rivers, or divert them, to suit themselves; blackfellas, expert in finding water wherever it might be, could move easily through ‘deserts’ that appalled the whites. Explorers took blackfellas with them to assist in their conquest, but rarely reversed the roles: they were there to discover, rather than to learn. That is to say, they were no less European when they failed than when they succeeded. I think this remains true even when we, the white settlers, manage to drive roads to, and create aerodromes in, territory that has been handed back to the blacks.

Like Uluru.

This last – the centre of Australia - is an example of the adaptation which Australia, the land mass, has enforced on its arrivals. Once called the dead heart, it is now as focussed by songlines as ever it was, but the lines now lead from all over the country, indeed the world, to a spiritual place; what is called tourism is really an endless pilgrimage to something held in awe, if insufficiently understood. Australia is a spiritual land, and this is an outcome of the millennia-long erosion that has worn our landscape down. The land is not much more and certainly no less than its flowers, its trees and birds, its aura of what things can rightfully be conducted on its surface and those that can’t. Its presence is a form of that morality which the white settlers couldn’t see in the aboriginal way of living and therefore thought wasn’t there. Used as they were to the spiritual and the virtuous, the moral, being embodied in a set of rules and customs, practices and conventions which were articulated and embodied in the churches which they’d built everywhere, the Australia they discovered seemed too unrestricted, out of control, to be thought of as possessing a ‘civilisation’ of its own.

Yet how strongly it speaks to us of restraint, teaches us to conserve, and all the rest. Worn as it may be, it’s articulate enough. Its speaking points are clear if you listen as you move. The centre. The tropical north. The waves besieging the bight, and Tasmania, our southern tip. Those vast transitions from one sort of landscape to another. The Blue Mountains, such a barrier until settlers discovered, in getting through them, that what had been a barrier had become a possibility. Wasn’t this the way to think?

Australians are learning to embrace their land, slowly as it may be happening.

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Changing My Mind

My notes return at this point to things I’ve already said about gothic architecture, then take a turn, unexpected by me, as I sat in Rennes, writing:

Which brings me to express, only very briefly, the effect these places have on me. Exposure to them is steadily burning the European out of me. I can still hear certain passages of Berlioz, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven (and you name it) and know that I will die without giving up what I found as a young man, but I also know that as I grow older I’ll find less and less inspiration in Europe, and will find in the great spaces of my own country, haunted by the vestiges of a culture I hardly understand, more and more of the sustenance I need in the remainder of my life. Going to L’Ile Saint Michel was a great experience but it reminds me of a late afternoon and early evening, many years ago, when Roger Moore and I drank some whiskey on the beach a little way east of Lakes Entrance, and reminds me also of the great discoveries that embedded the Wainwright story in me, and made me write a certain book over thirty years later. It’s as if, here in Europe, wonderfully rich Europe, but so brutally and blatantly concerned with itself, I’m taking all the riches and they’re having an antidotal effect. I don’t want any more. Europe is the dominant part of the human race which, though I weep tears for my beloved Hector Berlioz ... I was going to say ‘want to put behind me’ - but actually I want to sweep it out of the way. It’s no use to me. It provides me with no way forward.

It doesn’t even bring me to where I am tonight.

I put my notes down wondering why I’d said these things. I still had places to visit. I took an overnight train to Marseille, and visited the sights of Provence, annoyed at times by the frustrations of travel, but loving everything else. The Frenchman in me wasn’t giving up. I talked to my hotel-keeper who spent his Sundays looking for pictures and furniture for the rooms he offered his guests. I drank hot chocolate in cane chairs set in the sun, near an ancient Roman arena. I watched, and despised, the killing of six bulls. (Hemingway, you fool!) I cherished the snow as a train took me to Clermont Ferrand in the central alps. I lunched in working men’s pubs talking to anyone who would talk with me. I finished Vol. 1 of Proust and was sad that I didn’t have Vol. 2 so I could go straight on. Strange as Marcel was, he embodied so much of the French mind; they really were a culture apart, even though they bordered Germany, Italy, Spain, the lowlands and England across the water. How had these cultures grown so different when they were so close? My own country couldn’t differentiate its parts as Europe could. Yet the Europeans had been to war so often; they’d been, often enough, the devils they affected to despise. Had they, in defining half of humanity as devilish, given themselves the devil’s energy when they wanted it? I thought they had; the Christian condemnation was a way of allowing themselves to be what they told themselves they shouldn’t be. Every war, every business victory, was a claim, an achievement, made by the non-Christian sides of themselves. No wonder they located their spirituality, their faith, in places built specially. They’d built spires everywhere in order to locate themselves but they still allowed themselves to do whatever they liked and take benefits therefrom.

Odd people, the Europeans!

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A Spiritual Land

I made five trips to Europe, each an event in my life. The last was the longest; I went on my own, my children grown up, my working life behind me. My parents were dead and I’d seen them buried among other family graves. I’d made up my mind that I would not myself be buried there, when my time came. The idea of life as journey was too strong to let me attach myself to Father’s birthplace, though I was connected to it; my own travels had linked me to too many other places. It was possible, even if not for me, to love France, Canada or China as well, as strongly, as Father had loved the place where he grew up. This was so even though Father’s locale had entered me so deeply that I took the transition from red gum to black box trees, as one moved away from the Murray River, as a signal from the earth that in making do with less water, it had had to adjust its tree cover. Water birds, too, were less frequent, and yielded to the parrots, magpies and crows of the plains. I knew those plains well from drives with my parents when I was young, and trips with friends when I was older. They looked – though they weren’t – featureless, but they spoke with infinity on equal terms. As you drove across them you saw homesteads on the horizon, a mile or three from their ornamental, or crazily-bashed-together gates; the homes drew trees about them, and comforted themselves with sheds for shearing, storage, or simply that quirky need for company that buildings have when there’s nothing else around but wind, cloud, and sky ...
Infinity, I think I said.

It meant a great deal to me. I took a trip to Hay, on the Murrumbidgee in south-west New South Wales, not long after I bought a new car, and I had with me a folding chair, because I knew what the plains would make me do. I drove, and when I got there, I pulled off the road, took out the chair and put myself in it. It was late on a spring afternoon and my canvas seat was as good as a throne. I sat, alone, happy, my car ready to take me into town. Another car came along, the driver wound down his window and called, ‘You all right?’ I waved, and nodded my head. I felt he understood. He drove off quietly, leaving me alone, except that I had my country all around. No Eagles had settled nearby, as far as I knew, but it was familiar. It had a history of wagons carting wool bales to the nearest railhead, of huge properties looking after their workers, of homesteads anywhere between rough and drunken to places of refinement and family values expressed in ways that led to the cities of my own country and beyond. The squattocracy were neither coarse nor refined, per se, but adaptable. The land had made them what they were, and they knew it. Why was I sitting there as the sky darkened? I thought of myself, foolishly enough, as being like a figure of Henry Moore, hands holding the arms of my chair, feet softly on the earth, feeling the distances softening my heart as I thought of those earlier times when I had crossed the plains, these or the southerly ones between the home my parents had made and the earlier one, when Father had been a boy and Australia had been that much more refined because its circumstances were rougher; as it eased, as it settled, Australia had loosened, let go much of its Britishness and become ...

... whatever it was still becoming. I asked myself if I would like to live in Hay, a dignified town, hot as hell in summer, centred by its early settlement on the river, linked by trucks, these days, rather than rail, to the outside world. Would I live there, perhaps, yes or no? Was that what I had come to decide? Or was I simply soaking up the idea and turning it into freedom to become anything I liked, in the years to come?

The reader will perhaps sense that the latter was my answer, one I didn’t reach until several years later, but which planted itself in my mind that afternoon, on the plains a little west of Hay ...

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The writing of this memoir:

For the second time I’ve written two mini-mags which are best thought of as a pair. My awareness that this was going to be so came early: exactly when, I no longer remember. The split, the contrast, between them is obvious. They are about my reactions to Europe – awe, and a feeling of being overwhelmed, out-powered, mainly - and my eventual realisation that not only did I belong in my own country but that it was as good, though different. How different, and in what way?

That was what I had to write about.

If we look for peaks in European history, there is a choice, I suppose. The romantic era of Wagner and Gustav Mahler? The time of empires, with European flags flying over much of the world? The disgrace of their twentieth century wars? The peak of their Christian period, before the rise of the nation state, and if so, when did Christianity peak? Or something or somewhere else in their long history? I chose the age of the cathedrals, something I had read about in the histories of Frenchman Georges Duby, but only because the cathedrals themselves had staggered me. I am not alone in being amazed by the cathedrals, of course, because tourists are still feeling their sublimity, and this will go on as far as one can imagine, but they gave me a base for my thinking about the Europe that I had seen. (This was little enough, really, because my visits had only been short and I had never been forced to confront the power of the place except in my own reactions to what I saw as I travelled, mostly with my family and at a low cost level, as we preferred.

What did we see, and how did it make us feel? I’ve tried to answer these questions in Chartres, and then, moving to the second mini-mag, The Plains, I’ve voiced the reaction, the sequence, to my feelings about Europe. For some time I’ve noticed in myself a way of thinking about my own country that made me wonder if I was turning it into an object of religious awe as I grew older. The answer is, I was, and I am. Some displacement of earlier feelings has taken place, and at the same time as I slowly unify the many and varied impressions I have of my homeland, such a huge and varied place.

This process is still to large degree a puzzle for me. I feel at one and the same time the unity of Australia and its variety; its central, over-all definition, and its regionalism. People have been describing the place for donkey’s years with a range of clichés, most of them useful enough, but none of them very satisfying for me. In the end the best I could do was to say a little about the sort of spirituality that one feels in its horizontal spaces. This spirituality I have contrasted with the vertically expressed spirituality of Europe’s cathedrals. I think this is no more than an attempt, a work in progress, but it is still pleasing to me as a way to get something started. If the people of Europe can think of themselves as spiritual, so can we. This implies, I feel, that spirituality can take many forms, and at the present time, as the age of globalisation gets underway, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to rank one form of spirituality above another. Best, at this stage, to find out what they are. Other steps can be taken later.

So the two little memoirs, Chartres and The Plains, are offered as a pair and I hope readers will think of them that way. Readers may see more quickly than I can where next to take the thinking of this little pair, and I hope my readers do. Thinking is as communal as it is personal. That’s why, really, I write these mini-mags and put them before the public on this site.

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