Geographically, I am as far away from Ensay now as ever; as far away as I was through all the years growing up here in the west and thinking about a tiny town in the east.
Among the emotion for a person very dear to me and to many others, place and geography are always present. Perhaps this is because it is easier to write about leaving a place at the end of an era (I can and do go back to Ensay) than it is to write about death, the most permanent of losses.
I am further away now and going back is physically, geographically and financially harder. My much loved kelpie M, from Ensay, lives in Fremantle with us now. It is unlikely that she will ever return to her hometown, and while she may not mind that her life has so comprehensively changed, I often think about her distance from home and it makes me sad.
In the love and responsibility I feel for her, I want her to be happy, even while knowing I cannot really know what she feels. When she runs along the edge of the ocean, with joy in every bound, I think I can safely say that her canine instincts and energy are exercised here despite the absence of sheep.
There are figs on the tree in our sandy backyard in Fremantle. Figs are one of those fruits that must inevitably end up in jam, because there are just too many to use them all in other ways, although the lorikeets and wattlebirds would disagree. They gorge on the soft fruit, and from the pulpy mess left behind or from fruit that has split in the heat, pink juice runs down the leaves and drips on the sand below.
So my mind goes from figs to jam, and from jam to J: I still use jars that have her writing on the lid; jars that once contained satsuma plum jam, or apricot or melon and ginger.
I can see that my thoughts are circular today: from Ensay to Fremantle and back again; back and forth across the great distances of this country, from one home to another.
In Melbourne over the five years I lived there, Ensay was close; I felt that we shared the same air. Perhaps it is because I know the route to Ensay from Melbourne so well – the drive is measurable by familiar landmarks.
Here in Fremantle, Ensay is a flight away, and flying is necessarily disconnecting. I feel that I am in another world. M brings me back: she is fully from that other world and yet she is here with us, real and present and connecting us across the distance.
There are times when that distance evaporates: all the space between here and Ensay, between here and J, is gone in an instant. It is particularly so at those times when grief returns, as it does unexpectedly on occasion and always with an all-consuming intensity.
The last time this happened was at The Waifs concert at the Fremantle Arts Centre in December. The Waifs speak to a Fremantle audience because they are so wholeheartedly Western Australian, but they speak to me – and no doubt to others – because they understand what it means to be irrevocably connected to a place.
For me when I hear this song, love of place translates to love of the person who represented that most-loved place – and so a song about a hometown reduces me to tears over her loss.
When I die won’t you bury me,
in the town where I was born.
Most of my life I’ve been wandering free,
but when I die I wanna go back home.
I have transcribed those lines from memory – I don’t dare listen to the song in case that grief returns. It might be an appropriate day for such grief, but life goes on and I have two job applications to write and friends to meet for dinner tonight. Others from Ensay have gone on from this world since J, and I am aware of a feeling in me that grief for one person must somehow diminish as time goes on and as others grieve those they have lost since.
Oh, how distant and unreal this life feels. This life? Is it Ensay that feels so far away, so unreal? – or is it this life here in Fremantle that really feels unreal, today of all days? It is ironic that this town, here, is where I was born – yet that Waifs song makes me think only of J and of Ensay, the place where she no longer lives.
A year ago today I wrote this post, and these words:
… today is not just any day; it is the birthday of someone very special who is no longer here. The first birthday will always be the worst – at least, I hope so.
I was right in that today is not as bad as 8 February last year. Our lives are changing and the beautiful dog that we inherited when that someone died is now the happiest and most constant thing in our lives. She is eight and a half years old now; her owner would have been 84 today.
The dogs are scattered about the state: M in the city with us; G in Sunbury; another, the little brown and tan kelpie, out in the eastern hills; the old black-and-white sheepdog passed away in Ensay. The cat that went to Perth for a new life is gone now, too; although he settled in well, a year was enough for him.
The dogs and some of the cats were the lucky ones. There are other animals who seem to be alive in the back of my mind, still living as always up there on the farm. But when I stop and think, I remember they are gone: the lone goose, the old brown brumby, the grey horse who had died a few years earlier and who had been there my whole life, the two poddy sheep and the rest of the cats.
It is as though they exist just out of focus until I try to look at them too closely and then they are gone.
But I did not start this meaning to write about animals. I meant to write about loss and beginnings. This date has come up again, and all of a sudden I realise this is the beginning of a departure.
In a few months I will leave Melbourne. In many ways this city has no relation to the person that we lost, but it is much closer to her home than the place I will move to next. It is also the city where we brought M and it is the city where she has become our own.
By June this year things will have changed yet again, and it will be nearly two years since the loss that shook us all. I feel a little more lost, this year, further away from Ensay and from the person that we lost. A year ago my grief was raw. In fading it becomes more complex.
I go outside to sit on the step with M against my knees. These days this beautiful dog stalks magpies on the paths and parks of Melbourne suburbs in lieu of sheep in the paddocks of Ensay. She doesn’t seem to mind.
I think about the complexity of grief. Amongst it, a realisation that a year ago I felt as though I was minding M for someone else. Now, I think of her as part of the family. My responsibility is to her and her happiness, not to her previous owner.
I never thought I would write in such a public space about something as private as grief. But this loss feels that it should be shared, perhaps because of that web of people across the state and across the country who grieve as well. I don’t know if they will all remember the date today, but I know that the loss I feel is present for them too.
Incongruously, the words from a song in Evita come to mind:
Where do we go from here?
This isn’t where we intended to be.
We had it all, I believed in you.
You believed in me.
Where do we go from here?
From the woolshed, looking out to a familiar scene
Clouds on the hill, weathered boards underfoot
The same old fencelines divide the land
Just as you remember
The Rye paddock and the Lane
The Airstrip out of sight beyond the ridge
Then other people’s land
Land you don’t know
Before the distant peaks slide into the hills
Just as you remember.
Walking to the bus this morning, it is a perfect summer’s morning.
The air is cool, the sun is bright but low, the heat of the day hidden for now in the bluest sky.
It is beautiful, even with traffic, even knowing the heat will come, even with a day in an office ahead.
But today is not just any day; it is the birthday of someone very special who is no longer here. The first birthday will always be the worst – at least, I hope so.
I remember that this is one facet of grieving – feeling this disconnect between inside and out; memories and feelings that don’t match the outside world.
Nothing has changed, yet everything has.
This sunny busy optimistic suburb is a long way from home, a long way from what we have lost. (It is not just me – I imagine us as a web of people, all across this city, up in the high country, across the continent, who will look at the date today and remember, and in so doing will strengthen the shared memories and past that lie between us all.)
Here, on a birthday, I am too far away, unable to go to the place that would offer both comfort and pain.
And I am also too close, for those hills and that skyline and the sound of that river are just there, as they will be forever.
The morning light distils the cold air into something sweet and fresh. The layers of the hills are a patchwork of muted colours and texture at this time, as the sun, far to the north, illuminates them in turn, and the patterns on their faces emerge gradually into the light.
There is, as always in this land, a mix of nature close alongside that which is made and managed by humans. The textures of pasture and corrugated tin, of fence post and gumtree, of river water and bridge, complement and highlight one another on this land. It is land I know well, though not so well as the kelpie knows it, with her finely tuned senses and her quick feet.
On a winter’s morning in June, with the three young kelpies and the old border collie cross following me everywhere I went, I did not know that it was the dog in this photo that would end up with me. I thought – hoped – that she might, but we were all in limbo then, nothing certain.
Now we are far away, the dog and I, but I think often of that morning. A roll of slide film, brisk mountain air, trying to capture a ghost of the landscape while I still could. At the homestead, away to the left, smoke rose from the chimney.
But it was the last days, and the dogs knew it. On a day like today, the sun and cloud will be playing patterns with the wind on the water of the trough, undisturbed by us.
* * *
Perhaps a good photograph should stand alone, capable of telling a story without the need for words to explain it. But I am a writer first and foremost, from long before the days when I started to think in terms of images in a camera.
So for me part of the attraction of photography is the opportunity it presents for an interplay with words.
In previous years at Unsensored I have sought to explain or enhance my images to some extent with words. Not to explain in terms of where, why, how, but to suggest my own thoughts in relation to the image; to give a hint of what it meant to me.
This year, however, the image I exhibited bore no neat, four line explanation. I tried, covering pages with notes and images as I tried to pull out the words that would say enough, but not too much.
But I couldn’t do it – I could not condense what this photograph meant to me into just a few lines. I still can’t, but now, in the aftermath of the exhibition, with the photo on my wall and the dog outside my window in the sun, a blog gives more space than an image card could, so that I might try and say just a little of what it means.
Image: Olympus OM-1N, Fuji Sensia 200, expired. Click to view large.
In the high country in June, it was very cold but the sun shone. Up high on the hillside, gazing out across the valley, the colours sang. But so too do the textures; the textures of hillsides and shadows, of dead trees and living. Sometimes these are textures best caught in black and white, as No Fixed Address has in these images.