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On Country

My name is Zena, I am an Aboriginal woman with Afghan, Irish and English heritage. My mob are the Barkandji from western New South Wales. I have family connections to Broken Hill and Menindee mostly nowadays, but my great-granny originally came from Wilcannia.

I am deeply, madly, in love with plants and it is always a pleasure to journey within this realm, to share this passion with others who, no doubt, feel the same. I can feel you here with me, and I’m going to yarn to you, like I would a new friend. My yarns go all over the place so you won’t know this story is about my love of plants at times, but once I start I know where to go, even if you don’t. I’m like a river flowing, it’ll seem off course in parts, but stick with me if you can. I know how to get us there, I always follow where I’ve been before.

I came to gardening late, as with many things in my life. Perhaps because too many things came too early for me. I knew what I wanted to do with my life by age eleven. Early. Both my parents died when I was in my twenties. Too early. I threw myself into the business I had long ago decided on. I was going to tell stories. I was going to be on the stage. I became one of the founders of the Tamarama Rock Surfers theatre company that built and operated the Old Fitzroy Theatre in Woolloomooloo, Sydney. We made a powerful place for emerging artists to tell their stories, to hone their craft. We planted a seed for home-grown talent to find the light. This venue remains an important place in the Sydney theatre landscape today, and there are many famous and many not-too-famous Australians in the entertainment business who will tell you they got their first gig or polished up their skills there.

By the age of twenty-eight I was burnt out and damaged from the perpetual churn and the singed edges that come from shining too bright on overhydrated, seemingly endless summer nights. I had been too ‘busy’ to untangle my deep grief that regularly visited unannounced like screaming winds intent on stripping me bare. Too many successive blows overwhelmed and buried me. There was nothing left to draw from and I could no longer feel the light. I moved away. An overproduction of fair-weather friends withered on the vine. It made it easy not to look back. I’ve never again yearned for that life or missed it. It is only an opening I feel in my chest when I hear the close-to-unintelligible ping of a theatre light fire up that hints to me that there is, perhaps, something to remember there.

For seven years I fallowed. I sat in a holding pattern, neither here nor there. Stillness. It sometimes felt like nothingness, but it wasn’t. Without knowing it I was storing energy, resetting all my features, seeing to my unstable foundations. Bending and yielding to the worst of the winds. Rebuilding. However late.

I started my first real relationship at 35. Pretty late. Soon after, I tried my hand at university and began my life again, my life now. My brain opened up and sucked in everything it could find. I learnt how to research, I became insatiably hungry. I finally began the endless journey to properly understand my own history, things I never learnt in school. Things we still won’t learn in school.

The architecture of my perception slid, and shook to the core what was left of my original foundations and, finally, locked me into place. Then opened and directed me to Country.

When I had almost finished my studies, with big plans afoot, I found that I was pregnant. Just as I was uncovering an exciting, new pathway of what seemed never-ending opportunities for growth, I was set to fallow once more. And then, as is so often the case in life, a friend helped me make room in my heart for new things to love, new journeys to begin.

I had been holding a strong message to learn to garden in the preceding months. This message is almost impossible to explain in words and I’ll never do it justice here or anywhere else. It comes from somewhere you can’t place, like from inside you but you can feel it’s coming from somewhere or someone else. It is forceful and cerebral but it sits in your gut more than your mind. It is an absolute knowing more than a suggestion. Make a garden, it said. With no words.

Attuned to the knowing, I’d clumsily bought some plants but I didn’t know where to start. I fumbled and experimented but I knew I wasn’t doing it right. And then Jojo, a dear friend whom I’d known since my late teens came to visit. Jojo had always been a gardener, a woman who facilitated abundance. Many moons ago we had lived together in a chaotic share house in Adelaide where she had made a beautifully productive garden. We were poor then, always scrambling for coins. But, I guess, poor in a middle-class way where we could always scrounge enough to sit on a bus for an hour to visit our family for a feed if we were properly starving. I only did this a few times, a two-hour round trip out to the depressing suburbs I’d rather forget didn’t feel worth it, especially knowing no-one would give me any dosh, only a feed. We were cunning and resourceful back then. We had not much but we were young and free and every little thing we got we treasured and milked. And we shared. Always. Jojo grew food and my not-so-secret talent was knowing how to feed a big mob on almost no money. We pilfered food from the restaurants and shops we worked at where we could. We engaged in elaborate schemes to attain what we needed, mostly within the remit of beer. We collectively had luck which was magical in magnitude. In retrospect, life with nothing was abundant in ways life never will be now. There were so many more simple ways to feel pure, unadulterated joy. Like the sight of Jojo returning home from her Friday shift, her tanned leather backpack bulging with lifted fancy cheeses and cured meats when you’d lived almost entirely off toast for a week.

Zena and Jojo, circa 1995.

Jojo visited and stayed with me and every day she taught me something new about plants and gardening. And she taught me in a way that meant I’ll never forget, the way we Blakfellas learn and hold knowledge forever to pass onto the next forever, learning through doing. She put gardening not on paper or in my head, but in my hands and in my heart. I knew what it felt, smelt and looked like. I was on my way. By the time she left a few weeks later, I had the start of a productive garden. I knew how to sow seed, how to condition my soil, to make my beds, enough to begin composting and even a little about propagation. It was, I would say, one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received from a friend. It is a life skill, a passion which has saved me, enabling me to survive the juggernaut and sometimes violent recalibrations that come with becoming a mum.

Walking and learning on Barkanji Country with Uncle Badger Bates. Photo: Supplied

And more than the beauty and brilliance of what I hold in my little yard, learning to garden began a journey to the place where I finally know what I am to do with my life. Through my gardening I became more and more interested in the ways my people have interacted with plants. I started reading and thinking and yarning and reading some more. And then the way things fall into place played out, and more than once I managed to somehow be in the right place at exactly the right time. I wasn’t so late after all.

I am learning more about our plant knowledge all the time and I finally know I’m in the right place. My passion, which has brought me untold riches, now often pays for me to live and to learn. I don’t take this wonderful privilege for granted and I see there is much work to do. I’m up for it. The work I get to do in telling the stories of our interactions with plants over time is both joyous and deeply disturbing. There are still so many outdated and problematic ideas about the efficacy and relevance of our knowledge systems. Much of this realm is highly extractive and damaging for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and our communities, powerfully evidenced in the alarming lack of benefit we have enjoyed from the boom in the ‘bush food’ industry. Our interactions with Country, both today and over time, need illumination. Our ecological knowledge is undoubtedly a key aspect of the breadth of scientific knowledge required to meet the many challenges we face. It feels like important work and I am proud to play a tiny part in it.

Not so long ago I was in Sydney for an event and decided to wander around the city on my last day. It seemed the best thing to do as I was on my own, so rare when you have two little ones at home. I walked for most of the day, right across the city. I remembered parts of my life there and the people in it. Beautiful memories and sad ones too. I went to the Old Fitz. As I walked in, the light changed and I entered what felt like a David Lynch film. I wandered past the deserted bar and up the stairs to where the box office used to be. Along the staircase were pictures of people who started out at the Fitz. None of our old pictures remained; the first seven years of posters that once adorned the walls now long gone. We were wiped from the memory of this place, this place we started and grew. But I knew that already, before that day. When I got to the top bar someone called out, ‘In here’. I went to the lounge where two young people sat on a sofa with piles of scripts in front of them.

‘We’re just getting started,’ said a young man. ‘Sit down.’

Without thinking, I followed his direction and asked them what they were doing.

‘Reading scripts for auditions for next season,’ the young woman answered. She thought that was why I was there.

Since I was sitting down, I yarned with them for a bit. They were both young actors starting out in Sydney, not much older than I was when I landed. I told them about the Old Fitz, and how it started. How my brother had walked all over Sydney for days looking for a place that would work when he finally found it. Much to my amusement they questioned my story, it wasn’t the one they’d heard where successive mobs had made it seem it was always theirs. I didn’t mind, I’m used to whitewashing by now.

It’s been lovely thinking on all this again, and I hope you can tell how much I’ve enjoyed sharing this with you. I have just one more thing I want to tell you about.

Many years after I had left Sydney I learnt that Woolloomooloo has always been a place where big mobs from all over met to share ceremony. To tell stories, to sing and to dance and to exchange in culture, language and resources. It was no accident it is where we found and built that powerful place of exchange. I have come late, but I know that Country holds her stories, she’s always directing you and putting you in the right place. I am learning how to listen to her and through my love of plants I am loving and looking after her, doing what I can to heal her. I live in an urban circumstance but no matter where I am I am always on Country. Because there is no place in Australia, whether urban or remote, which is not spoken for and which does not have mob who speak for it today. We are all on Country and she is always telling her stories through us. Always.