On Being a Settler Gardener

Many fervent gardeners speak of their life-long passion for planting and propagating, weeding and watering, as the result of the influence of a seminal gardening adult. Not me. I grew up in the Perth suburb of Manning in the 1960’s, wedged strangely between the wealth of Como and the pronounced poverty of what some in our street referred to, by way of class-distancing, as Further Down in Manning. It was here that my only experience of gardening as a child was, when as a disciplinary measure to disperse four warring kids into separate parts of the modest property, I was ordered by my mother to ‘get out the back NOW and rake the leaves’.

How my mother survived the gendered, grinding horrors of kid-raising and domesticity from the late-1950s to the late 1970s I will never fully appreciate, because my life-long priority has been to studiously avoid both. In hindsight, I recognise that tending to her very modest garden of mainly introduced species including frangipanis and a cheap rose or two, though also a couple of magnificent eucalypti, was likely one of her few sources of succour.

Begrudgingly outside for the purpose of a chore rather than fun, I would resentfully shift a few leaves a little way with cursory movements of an old wooden rake which left splinters in my hands. While not-really-raking l itched to return to my staples – a game of tennis on the court over the road; one-on-one cricket in the front yard with the handsome boy from next door, or an illicit bike ride into the spooky and fascinating depths of the nearby pine forest (where Curtin University and a couple of suburbs now sprawl).

Almost every school holiday my father (teacher/watercolourist/sculptor/amateur geologist/somewhat lousy husband/committed and eccentric dad) would take us on camping trips in a wide arc around Perth. Most memorable were many trips to the exhilarating coastal, river and thickly wooded countries of the south west, particularly around Albany, Esperance, Bremer Bay, Augusta, Pemberton and Walpole – some of the most biodiverse ecologies on the planet. We weren’t exactly strenuous campers, and sadly not environmentalists of any shade, but we walked a bit, swam as much as possible, fished a lot (no fishing for me, anymore) and recorded bird noises on a clunky 1960s tape recorder which I doubt we ever listened to after the fact. I can’t recall learning much about soil, biodiversity or the galaxy but I was always exhilarated by my time in the bush.

Back in the city, and only when my mother could not hear him, my father would, as a form of bedtime stories tell some of us kids, if we were up for it, about the massacres of Aboriginal people by white people across the country. He cited his own family in these accounts, describing in considerable settler detail how they/we also murdered Aboriginal people in Victoria’s southern Gippsland to forcibly occupy land for early colonial farming. My father was political (he summarily sacked a teacher for his homophobic persecution of another teacher when principal of Claremont Art School in the late 1970s) and misanthropic for sure, reserving most of that for white people, and most vitriolically, for farming white people. Given he was the son, grandson and great grandson of murderous white farmers, was self-hatred one of his abiding logics? Definitely. He maintained that certain forms (he called them ‘useful forms’) of self-hatred, a concept he said we shouldn’t necessarily be afraid of, are pivotal for examining one’s own histories and the powers they bestow. I agree, although with a host of caveats.

Many years later, and for a few decades, I travelled across Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory for work. I walked, rode, kayaked, sailed and swam on river, desert, gulf, gorge, saltwater and stone countries, learnt much more about biodiversity and the environment, began ‘biophilic’ sculpting and, most importantly, hung out with and learnt from Aboriginal people.

I recently returned to Perth to live with my 91-year-old mother who in bureaucratic terms I ‘care’ for but, conversely, her caring for me is much more significant – unbounded gifts of love, generosity, insight, irony, hilarity, intellect and warmth (although to not overcook this, there are also curt exchanges between us which could slice through a mature wandoo). One example of Mum’s insight and generosity was her realisation that I had developed a hunger to garden after being on the wandering work road for so long; that ‘native’ plants (I use quotes to denote ‘native’ because, while the term is widely used by settler gardeners and ecologists, for me it remains highly contested given the terrible colonial history of its use), insects, animals and landscapes are now central to my sensibility, and that the ‘philosophy of soil’ has somehow become my latest (terrible student) possible doctorate ‘object of study’. So, she offered me up her 36-year-old garden of mostly introduced plants (though it also includes a few 30-year-old ‘natives’ which have remained gloriously intact) including azaleas, camellias and a kumquat tree – all of which are now mulch.

In the past ten months I’ve planted more than 350 ‘native’ trees, shrubs, ground covers and creepers on our tiny urban block in Langford, near the upper reaches of Djarlgaroo Beelier (Canning River). I spend most of my spare time in a reverie of watering, weeding, pruning, propagating (fail), looking, listening, feeling, learning and noting the droves of birds, bees, moths, lizards, skinks and wasps which abound in our garden in numbers like never before, according to my mother. Talk about over-planting. And, I admit, over-watering – a rookie’s mistake, I know.

Gardening is, I think, largely conceived of as a domestic activity which, for the gardener, is mostly deeply pleasurable, often philosophical, occasionally arduous (and even annoying) and sometimes life-changing. For me, though, this way of thinking about myself, a settler gardener, seems limited. For example, it doesn’t enable me to consider more broadly the connections between me and the histories of whose country I garden upon, the circumstances under which it came to be ‘mine’ to do so and the ways in which I might account, and seek to reparate, for the consequences of my historical and contemporary legacies.

I suggest this because, however aesthetically jaw-dropping and ecologically benefiting I think my emerging garden already is, my relationship to it is entirely fraught.

Fraught because before I planted this garden, this precise location and all of Whadjuk Noongar country and everywhere beyond was seized by, and never ceded to, colonial forces under the most horrifying circumstances imaginable. And still that colonial violence rolls on and on by virtue of its largely uninterrupted will-to-power.

There are, I think, pivotal things that can and, I’m sure, already do emerge from considering our roles, contributions and impacts as settler gardeners. It certainly isn’t for me to prescribe what these things could be, but my awkward beginnings have included exploring these preliminary questions:

– What do I know about the histories and experiences of Aboriginal people on the country where I garden, before settlers arrived and since?

– What do I know about the ecologies of the country where I garden, before settlers arrived and since?

– In what meaningful ways do I acknowledge these histories and how do I establish what’s meaningful and for whom?

– Does my garden contribute to sustaining or restoring local biodiversity including food sources for soil, plants, animals and people?

– Do I have, have I sought, reciprocal relationships with Aboriginal people from the country where I garden?

– What’s the nature of those relationships and on what and whose terms do they exist? Can I set down my settler gardening imperatives, concepts and tools to listen and learn in accordance with Aboriginal expertise and sensibilities?

It’s excruciating to think how naively I’ve construed this list of beginner contemplations as a settler gardener, and for sure there are howling omissions and utterly wrong-headed reflections. However so, to challenge and reconfigure who and what we are as settler gardeners befits these times (past, present and future) and these places.

Perhaps it’s too neat to say that my life so far has been bookended by early resentful gardening on one side and, on the other, witnessing the emergence of incredible biodiversity as a product of my recent gardening labours. I think of these bookends, and everything in between, as little and large, simple and complex and beautiful and terrible gifts for which, as a lover of life itself, I’ll be forever indebted.

Annie has spent many years unsuccessfully advocating for better approaches to legislation, policy and programs for families and communities marginalised by ineffective public institutions. Recently she’s been released into a different kind of world to sculpt, write fiction, study the philosophy of soil, hike and kayak in the bush and learn how to garden.