An Unsurveyed Land
by Jessie Cole
The land I inhabit, my family home, is a forest of sorts. This part of northern New South Wales was once cleared pasture, but my parents started planting before they even built the house, and nearly forty years on it’s a green jungle. Their gardening strategy was haphazard, guided by a wide-ranging love of trees. When I was young my parents battled constantly over light – my dad craved sunshine, my mum embraced shade. Occasionally Dad would start up the chainsaw and Mum would pace the house, stricken. Mostly she could see his point, but the loss of a tree was hard on her heart. She had planted it, no doubt, and nurtured it through those precarious early years. My dad died when I was eighteen, and with him the battle to control the gardens. These days, the place is self-propagating, and apart from keeping some flat spaces mown, my mother enjoys watching nature run its course.
When I was a child my family had a summertime ritual of walking up the creek that bordered our land. We always went after it had flooded and the creeks were full, the rocks rubbed clean of moss and slime. Everything sparkled. We walked upstream until we hit the bridge, the first sign of civilisation, then we turned around and walked back. It seemed to take a whole day. Mum would pack sandwiches and snacks. We waded through the shallow water, clambered over boulders, and if it got too deep we’d tramp along the bank, watching out for thorny vines that hung from the treetops with their giant, lethal-looking spikes. We had to pick our way through, pathless, choosing step by step how best to move forward. The section of creek upstream from ours was uninhabited, lined by disused pasture and forest on one side, and a steep bank up to the road on the other. As far as we knew, no-one else ever walked here.
I don’t know when we stopped walking the creek as a family, but at some stage in my early teens it became a kids-only activity. After the first summer flood, I’d pack a knapsack with fruit and Vita-Weats and head off upstream with a bunch of friends. There was something about crossing this threshold from our land into the unfamiliar, something risky and enlivening. In line with my teenage obsessions, what I remember most from those kids-only creek walks was not the landscape but my shoes. I had inherited a pair of sandshoes my dad had painted for my oldest sister years earlier. They’d been white, but at her request he painted them in bright primary colours – an abstract artwork. Someone had even sewn garish buttons over the toes. They were ludicrous clown shoes, but in my mind they were perfectly suited to the wilds of the creek walk, and they set the tone for everything else about the day. For the trek upstream my friends and I always dressed in things we would never wear in the world. Skirts that were far too short, bikinis we knew were unflattering. We painted our faces with ochre and did zany things to our hair. It was as though we were preparing to step into a space ungoverned by rules. A gazeless place, unsurveyed and unjudged. Walking upstream into this uncultivated world, we became loose and freewheeling. The narrow edges of our teenage lives transforming in that liminal space.
Somewhere along the line, we stopped doing the walk upstream. I had babies very young, and, burdened by their weight, it became an arduous task. Balancing on unsteady rocks is precarious with a toddler on each hip. What had been a kind of freedom – walking into an unknown land – became work. Physically exhausting, with twisted ankles and banged up knees, mosquito bites and thorn-scratches. I vowed we’d do it when they were bigger, when they wouldn’t need so much propping up, and then, like so many things, it drifted from my mind. Even though I stayed living in my childhood home, the summer ritual that had marked my early life disappeared.
My kids are teenagers now, and watching them negotiate the wider world has me thinking about the power of that walk through an unsurveyed land. This first week of summer, I decide to revisit my family’s old ritual, alone.
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Photographs by Lilli Waters.