How much does sadness weigh? How much can we bear? How strong can we be?
When faced with the truth of the past and its force on the future that we must acknowledge and live with, I need to answer these supposedly hypothetical questions. This is the task of the writer, if we choose to engage with the deeper things that move beneath our culture.
How much does sadness weigh? Sadness as heavy as a million cedar logs and all the smaller ones that were trashed alongside. Sadness as heavy as the last remnant of a grand and great forest, every creature shot, burnt, trapped or starved out of existence. Sadness as heavy as a thousand generations of people, poisoned, diseased, shot and corralled, bred out of their way of life and peaceful existence.
And yet I must bear it. And I don’t know how strong I am. I guess I will find that out.
Research into reality is changing my perspective on a place that I felt was paradise, albeit paradise with problems (hundreds of varieties of noxious weeds, feral animals, erosion, rivers in need of repair). What you don’t know doesn’t hurt you, I guess. I saw the lushness, the regrowth, the apparent volume of some creatures, birds in particular.
But consider this:
When the first Europeans arrived in ‘my’ area, just a score shy of two hundred years ago, by their accounts the skies were darkened by flocks of birds, tens of thousands of fruit bats (flying foxes) flew each evening in a dark and steady stream along crystal clear, deep rivers that glinted in and out of a forest canopy that at times formed a tunnel, and so much wildlife abounded in flora and fauna that to traverse the countryside the local people (meaning the Indigenous Bundjalung people) either travelled along the great sandy beaches to go north or south, or travelled along the ridges of the mountains and hills to go east or west. It was that thick.
Now as I gaze out over this peaceful pastoral landscape, already a hundred years has passed since this has all gone. The trees leading up my hill are all regrowth, full of weeds and small flocks of various birds that I love, but no possums, no pademelons, rare goannas, occasional pythons, barely there koalas – in this area in the late 1800s, 500 000 koala pelts a year were exported to Europe. You could swing a branch or an iron bar and get yourself some dinner almost by accident. If you were an utter fool you could still catch a fish if you threw a line in or just put a net across the river. Now you have to sit for hours, and in the right season so that the survivors can still breed, and if you are lucky you might catch a bass, or more likely, you will catch about ten carp and if you choose to throw them back, potentially earn yourself a fine of $50 000, because that’s how much they’ve fucked our river system. Five grand a fish for putting them back.
And of course, if you were actually from here, you ate and lived very well. Life was in fact the best it could be, but I’m not even going to start about the people and their way of life, their involvement in this landscape, but let’s just say that their survival is the tenacious type, much like the fruit doves of the previous forest, who have learnt to survive on the fruit of the introduced camphor laurel, now a major pest but at least it’s keeping some of the soil around and giving some birds some food. Sometimes I am amazed at their generosity in even speaking with us.
Some people in the European tradition back then knew what we were doing; they described the chopping of acres of land as far as the eye could see, the drying period, the apocalyptic fires then lit and the devastating silence that followed, the sadness they felt.
The sadness they felt. I feel a sadness of having never seen, of the knowledge of absence, of extinction in many cases. They felt the sadness of death, of witnessing. They smelt it. They heard it. They tasted it in the air. And of the local people, their sadness is not historically recorded in the European way but it doesn’t need to be. Just walk down the street in my town, it’s all there in their eyes, if you are lucky enough to make eye contact.
We are a people of the dubious inheritance of ruin and for all intents and purposes we are making more.
And I am a story teller. This is the burden I must carry.