An Appetite for Awe

Thick fog lay upon the river this morning. Both banks were hidden. The trunks of sentinel gums were reduced to ghostly outlines, yet they stood strong, guarding the edge where land slipped under water, as they have always done. Some have been here for hundreds of years, well before European eyes glimpsed them. With my sight shrouded, my imagination sparked. I wondered what it must have felt like to view the Brisbane river for the first time.

Early Europeans colonisers experienced Australia as alien. Its landscape was unreadable; its origins shrouded in mist. Its stories were written in a foreign tongue. They struggled to see this place as an ancient land with its own myths, but tried to bend it to their ancestral notions of rolling pastures.

John Oxley is a prime example. From his prior knowledge of river flows, he envisaged an inland sea, an expectation he held onto doggedly, despite its being continually crushed throughout his explorations. In his log charting the Brisbane River, Oxley noted his inability to make sense of what his eyes told him, how “the fallacy of trusting to appearances” tripped him up again and again. His deep disappointment about his failed theories was in proportion to the “perhaps too ardent hopes” he had indulged to make this land fit what he knew from England, where “rules governing nature” seemed more certain.

I’ve been travelling along the Brisbane river recently while reading extracts from John Oxley’s journals. I’ve no specific interest in explorers – I’m more into books than treks – but I’ve stumbled across him in a search for my maternal ancestors, four generations of whom lived on the banks of Oxley Creek, a tributary of the Brisbane River.

When people trace families, the male line takes precedence. Travelling the straight-forward surname highway is easier than tracing the thin red matrilineal pathway. Here the route takes the back roads and byways, zigzagging through names that alter with each generation. It can lead to surprising places. When I map this line, an unbroken story of women’s lives over two hundred years, I can travel back as far back as my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother, Isabella Molesworth. Isabella’s married name was Oxley; she was the mother of explorer, John Oxley.

David Malouf described Oxley as “one of the most eloquent of our early writers … a man of real literary sensibility”. Despite his geological confusion, Oxley wrote exuberant and lyrical descriptions of the country he explored. As I read Oxley’s comments about the Brisbane River, he seems overcome with awe at times, almost lost for words, repeating ones such as “magnificent, bold, noble and majestic” as each new vista opens around the next bend.

Historian, Simon Schama, maintains our experience of landscape is formed as much by culture and memory as it is by earth and stone. Our early experiences of place affect our understanding of the world perhaps as much as our genetic and ethnic inheritances; the natural environment shapes inner lives as well as external circumstances.

Reading Schama reminds me of my experience of visiting Scandinavia. Having devoured Tolkien’s world of Middle-Earth as a teenager, I knew he’d drawn on Norse mythology. As I travelled through that land, it became apparent how deeply Norse mythology was steeped in, and grew out of, the landscape. Elves flitted through the golden pine forests of Lothlórien in the Finnish lake district. Trolls lurked deep within the rocks as we travelled by boat through the narrow Trollfjord in Norway.

Myths grow out of landscapes. Our stories are shaped by our surroundings. And I wonder what this means for those whose ancestral memories lie in another part of the world as well as Australia. People like myself, who one moment feel at home in English woods, then are equally drawn to Brisbane bush; find repose in Scottish lochs as well as views of tropical waterfalls.

Imagine this. A child takes an artist’s long brush and holds it close to the flat strip of hairs at the base. She thrusts the brush into a slurry of water and earth and sky, plunging so deep that the thick colour coats her hand as well. Squatting close to the earth, she draws a wide lazy scribble that mesmerises her as it goes on and on. The brush wobbles, so the slurry is all over the place. Dollops of colour fall from her hand as she works, the splashes merging into her scrawled line. Standing back, looking at how far she’s come, she’s satisfied with the shape. But she stumbles on the container of colour and it empties into a wide swathe of blues and greens and browns so that the river (let’s call it that) ends in a wide mouthed bay.

The view when flying in to Brisbane looks like such a scrawl. The river runs through a shallow scoop of earth from the spine of the western mountains towards the eastern bay. Brisbane spreads out either side of the river, but there is no neat division into north and south, left or right banks. Like a childish squiggle, the river meanders at will, playfully looping back on itself, sometimes almost touching where it was before, shaping a narrow isthmus of land between the banks.

High sandstone cliffs have been cut in places by the water’s force, and on the opposite bank, low reaches remain water logged where they haven’t been filled by ambitious (or foolhardy) residential development. Evidence of what Oxley called a “chain of ponds,” but we call waterholes or swamps still exist: the lagoons at the Queensland university, the wetlands near Oxley Creek.

When you travel on land, you come across the river everywhere you turn. It’s as if it creeps up behind from where you last met it, then wriggles past to be in front again. It’s impossible to take one’s bearings from the river here. Orientation comes from the sky. Cool sea breezes blow from the east, slate laden storms from the west; the sun dries the humidity from the northern side of trees, fosters lichen and fungal growth on the southern.

The only way of knowing the river is to travel by boat along its reaches. But where vegetation hugs the river’s edge, the journey becomes a maze, a puzzle. One minute you’re facing north-east and feel the breeze on your faces, the next you’re looking due west, squinting into the glare of the setting sun.

I can imagine Oxley’s disorientation – as well as his sense of awe. John grew up on the banks of different wide, navigable and flood-prone river, the Derwent, in North Yorkshire. In exploring Isabella’s life, I’ve travelled to Kirkham, the tiny hamlet where John, his brothers, and only sister (my ancestor) grew up. Wrapped by the Derwent on two sides, Kirkham is built around the gothic ruins of a twelfth century Augustine priory. Is this where he developed his appetite for awe?

After the bus drops me on the highway, I follow the sign to Kirkham along a winding lane. It cuts steeply downwards through a wood, squeezing between hedgerows that climb an almost vertical bank on either side, to create a holloway. Barely wide enough for a single car, there is no space for a footpath. The wood is dark, mysterious, and would be magical if I wasn’t so worried about approaching cars.

Eventually, the lane widens and I see an old stone wheel set into the ground as a waymarker, the name Kirkham spread across it. Pushing aside the bracken, I touch its cold face, stroking the years of moss growing on its northern side. Walking faster as the lane opens out, I come upon the view I’ve seen in libraries and online – anywhere that mentions the birthplace of John Oxley, Australian explorer.

Kirkham sits in the base of a gorge, forged by the fast-flowing River Derwent. The cutting is not steep like escarpments in the Blue Mountains, nor is the valley floor narrow, like most Australian gorges. The steepness here demands a sturdy walk rather than a rock climb. The Kirkham valley is open and undulating; the river deep and wide here. In the foreground, spread across the riverbank, stand the ruins of the ancient abbey.

The road veers sharply towards a stone bridge across the river. The scene has changed little in two hundred years. Even now, only a few houses dot the countryside. This is where Isabella and her children walked. I peer into the ruins; some amazing detail is still intact. On the archway over the entrance are stone depictions of Saint George and the Dragon, and of David and Goliath. What fertile yeast for young imaginations, for playing out battles and fighting against odds.

As I climb the hill to the Oxley’s house, I see the view they gazed on for that sweet decade of childhood; a commanding sweep of the abbey, river and dark Oak Cliff woods on the far rim of the valley. John’s memory lingered on those woods. He planted an avenue of English Oak on his Australian property that he named Kirkham after his English home. Now I’m here, I can see the similarities he must have noticed between this Derwent valley and the way the Nepean River swept below his Australian homestead on the edges of Camden.

Writers talk about the influence of a child’s early experiences, especially those first seven years, on shaping a person. David Malouf describes the impact of a “first place” and for him, it was Brisbane. Brisbane also feels like home to me. The river sets the city’s pace, usually languid and unhurried in its slow slide towards the bay. But it can be a wild and unpredictable place. Brisbane is shocked into action when the river floods from time to time, upending trees and walls, boats and houses in a wild rush that sweeps aside all in its path.

John Oxley recorded evidence of floods in his surveying journey up the river in 1824. He would have known the flooded Derwent as a lad, but Oxley was shocked by what he saw in the new landscape. He wrote, “flood would be too weak an expression to use” for the evidence of inundation, describing flood debris left high in trees.

In extreme weather, the mass of water flowing into the river from a large catchment area can’t escape quickly to the bay. The river’s sinuous shape slows its passage, so water claims low lying land. In Brisbane’s worst floods, the river rose more than twenty metres in its upper reaches and nearly ten in the city’s centre.

Brisbane sits on a flood plain, a fact we forget generation after generation. This river needs space. With its strident light, sticky heat and extremes of drought and flood, Brisbane must have seemed hostile to early Europeans. It is a city where nature cannot be denied.

As well as the landscape we inhabit through our formative years, the stories we hear and books we read influence the way we see the world. I read myself into being as a child. But the books did not match the bush outside my window. Anne’s world of Green Gables, Heidi’s alpine slopes and Catherine’s Yorkshire moors felt as real – more real – than the creek at the end of our dirt track in Brisbane in the 1950s. My childhood place was Indooroopilly, an indigenous name meaning “gully of the leeches”.

When I was about seven, I was sent packing one day with my younger siblings, a stick over my shoulder tied with a cloth full of biscuits, and an old lemonade bottle of water. “Go and explore,” said my mother, pushing us out the door. Within ten minutes we were lost. Amongst the gullies and thickets, we couldn’t see the house, could hear no voices or cars, just scrambling sounds from unknown creatures. We twisted and turned in our tracks, got tangled in cobwebs and lawyer vine. I felt flustered and hot, but pushed the fear down into my belly.

Two hours later, we emerged, scratched and bleeding, with ticks and mozzie bites. Now I know there were only a few acres of bush around the house, but at the time it seemed as if we’d walked through an opening into another land – like Narnia – and might never return.

With his European bent, my father kept pushing back the bush, taming it into lawn. But my brothers loved exploring its wildness. Behind us was Finney Hill, an old silver mine; gold had been found close by, down near the river. Providing we left the house, our mother was oblivious to where we went. The older boys made a bee line for the mine, scaling rocky walls and peering into shafts. I would find a cosy place to read.

To me, the bush felt mysterious, alien but interesting – as a backdrop. I wasn’t physically adventurous – certainly no explorer. Over time, I grew in awe of its dense otherness and learnt to stand still to read its messages. The iridescent flash I once thought signalled fairies carting silver away, turned out to be blue tipped fairy wrens darting through the wattle. The bush became compelling. Walking there is now one of my greatest pleasures.

John Oxley was also a lover of books. The childhood stories and cultural myths he imbibed fed his romantic sensibility. I’ve wondered how this lad, who grew up in an isolated valley in the wild north of England, with an education limited by joining the navy at sixteen “much against his inclination,” developed into a man who, in his own words, preferred “the life of the mind” to exploration.

He was a son of the Enlightenment. As well as being Surveyor-General, he maintained one of the largest personal libraries in the colony, and was co-founder of the first philosophical society and lending library. Despite his merits as an explorer and cultural advocate, John was a poor financial manager. He died in considerable debt. His widow was forced to auction the contents of his Sydney town house, including his personal library.

A full list of John’s books can be found in the Mitchell library. No doubt, some would have been kept by his wife and sister and don’t appear in this list. But the library reflects John’s reputation as an autodidact as well as a polymath. There are 331 parcels, many containing multiple volumes, over 400 books in all. He may not have read all of them, but a letter to brother Henry indicates his love of intellectual exploration.

Everything from myths and poetry to Shakespeare and Chaucer are included. There are works on voyages, criminal trials, studies on nature and science, political economies and histories, including eight volumes on the French Revolution. He owned six volumes of Jonathon Swift’s satirical critiques of society.

Classical allegorical journeys, such as Homer’s Odyssey, lie alongside contemporary explorations. Biographies on Napoleon, Washington and Boswell’s Johnson, sit next to travels in China, India and Egypt. A Scottish interest is apparent in Walter Scott’s stories and the philosophy of Hume and Locke. He owned ‘Improvements of the Mind,’ a classic mid-eighteenth century self-help manual for any curious man eager to learn more.

The ‘Pleasures of Hope’ by Scottish poet Thomas Campbell is listed. Published in 1799, just as John set out for an unknown life at sea, it became the definitive poem on the topic for generations to come. It’s tempting to imagine that John bought his copy to keep him company on the trip. After finding the Lachlan swamp, west of Sydney, to be impassable, John wrote a poem about hope, “sweet soother of our pains”. His words reflect Campbell’s thoughts, themselves a paean to wonder.

My memories of childhood evoke a state of “wonderlust”. It was a time when the world was ripe for discovery, when possibilities lurked inside every book or behind each tree, when clouds held messages that pressed you flat against the grass with awe. Such transcendent awareness can still be glimpsed in adult life, if we lift the veil of habit and have eyes to see. It’s there as the moon rises in a cloudless sky, we glimpse an exchange of love, or we are transported by an image in a book. But this appetite for awe seems increasingly lost in today’s fast-paced world of education and work.

Anders Schinkel, an educational researcher, claims that “deep wonder” has educational worth, beyond any spiritual or psychological value. An ability to experience wonder implies an openness, a curiosity, possibly a desire to learn. He describes two types of wonder: an active wonder to explore and understand, and a contemplative wonder, an appreciation of experience for its inherent attributes. He claims that not only curiosity but contemplation have deep educational value. It is in attending to the world for its own sake, open to its inherent mysteries, that we become aware of the limits of our understanding.

Through my journey into the historical past these last few years, I’ve come to re-evaluate the cultural myths and family stories that formed me. I’ve developed a new appreciation of the place I call home, this wide fertile valley, sheltered by mountains and washed by the waters of its iconic river.

Despite occasional chaos, Brisbane sits securely, protected by its mountains, washed by its broad river, held in suspension between land and sky by nature’s grip. It can never pretend to be a European city. Brisbane’s original custodians, the Turrbal and Jagera, understood its fertile abundance and respected its dark moods. For too long, most Europeans turned their backs to the river, dredging and polluting it with scant regard for its beauty and power.

Late afternoon is my favourite time. If I stand with my back to the high voltage wires, and lean against the old blue gum so the bulk of its trunk blocks the scars on the opposite bank, and squint until the poles of the pontoons in the distance blend into the mangroves in the foreground, I fancy I can imagine what the river might have looked like two hundred years ago, before everything altered. I love this stretch of the river in particular, because the last offering of light from the sun directs the eye straight up towards Mount Coot-tha and the outstretched arms of the range of mountains wrapping Brisbane’s western rim.

This country demands respect and reverence. We need to awaken our appetite for awe and deep wonder – to be willing to look beyond what we think we know – to listen to and learn from people who understand this place, the country’s traditional custodians.

First Prize Winner, National Essay Competition, Society of Women Writers NSW. Published 2018 in their Journal: ‘Women’s Ink’.