I’m travelling in England, a place I’ve never before been – I’ve kept mostly, in the past, to places that are cheap and warm, and more obviously, more decidedly different from my home – and people keep telling me it’s surprising that this is my first time here. I’m not travelling alone, and this too is something I have never done before. It’s a short trip, and before I left, people kept telling me, that’s a long way to go for a short time; and I kept thinking: no, it’s not, if you’re disabled. I’m in London, and the streets smell of chestnut blossom and broom, and the evenings are long and full of people drinking in rows outside the pubs; in the day there are queues outside ice-cream shops and art galleries. The place names make me feel like I’m walking on a Monopoly board: Islington, Mayfair, Park Lane, Pall Mall.
A few days ago, I went north, to the lakes, to the region, my mother told me before I left, not far from where her ancestors once lived. It’s beautiful there, the fields full of foxgloves, a flower I’d never seen before but read about repeatedly as a child devouring Enid Blyton and C.S Lewis, the grass soft and studded with small daisies rather than bindiis. I saw bracken, and a red-breasted robin, buttercups, smaller than I thought they’d be; I drove past tarns and crags and meres, things I knew the names for, in some foggy child-old sense, but was only now attaching images to.
I felt, that is, like I knew this landscape already, that it was somehow familiar, even as it was entirely alien, entirely new. As though I carried it with me already, not in a physical, immediate sense, but as a ghosting in my imagination. And I hadn’t expected this at all.
I kept thinking of the Australian literature I’d studied as an undergrad, how many of the books and poems were unsettled by our landscape, trying and failing to come to terms with heat and drought and distance, with dry-climate plants, with the high, hard light; how many spoke of barrenness and ugliness, this memory of verdancy occluding, somehow, what their authors could actually see. I kept thinking of the lecturer who’d called this haunting ‘the legend of the green country,’ after the Hewett poem of the same name. I remember thinking at the time that surely this had changed, now, for my generation, more cosmopolitan in our upbringing, more diverse in our backgrounds, with longer, if no less illegitimate histories on this land. I hadn’t expected the green country to still feel mythical to me, can’t quite reconcile how colonial this feels.
The woman I am travelling with, who grew up here, whose home is here, considers this feeling a kind of inheritance, a genetic remembering, a bodily recognition of heritage and homeland, but I am not so sure. To me, it feels far more imaginative, like I’d internalised this landscape, somehow, even now, and hadn’t noticed – until now, that I’m uncomfortable, unsettled.
I see a squirrel, a stand of hollyhocks, a black-faced sheep. An oak tree. Petunias. Mallard ducks. Ivy and thistles and nettles. A sign warning to watch for badgers (but no badgers). Forget-me-nots, growing wild.
About the Author
Fiona Wright is a writer, editor and critic. Her book of essays Small Acts of Disappearance won the 2016 Kibble Award and the Queensland Literary Award for non-fiction. Her poetry collections are Knuckled, which won the 2012 Dame Mary Gilmore Award, and Domestic Interior, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Prime Minister’s Literary Award. Her new essay collection is The World Was Whole.