Lyrebird and a leap of faith

Mary Ann Green had lyrebird for breakfast, that first morning in the valley. Cooked in a billy by her new husband George.

She had been in England her whole life. George Green promised he would write once he had made a home for her in Australia. In 1886 she arrived in Sydney, where they married the very next day and immediately following set off for the Tidbinbilla valley, walking the final twenty seven kilometres in.

Mary Ann was twenty one years old. She was 15,000 kilometres from home. I hope he was worthwhile.

***

Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve occupies the valley floor between the Tidbinbilla and Gibraltar ranges in the ACT, home to many thousands of years of Aboriginal history and one hundred or so European. The word ‘Tidbinbilla’ is thought to have Aboriginal origins, derived from the word Jedbinbilla – a place where boys become men. [i]

Throughout the reserve there is plentiful evidence of both histories. In the flatter, cleared basin of the valley the restored ruin of Rock Valley homestead remains one of a small handful of structures that pinpoint the arrival of European squatters to the region. True to the times and the dubious vision of the colony, if you would hazard to survive on the land, to work and ‘tame’ it, it was yours.

Today in the reserve, Rock Valley homestead is nestled just off the main access road, but easily missed by those on a mission for BBQs and kangaroo sightings. I too have bypassed on my previous visits, but this particular Sunday I am compelled that we should turn off down the quiet dirt track.

On first impression the familiar remnants of the neat little house maintain a suggestion of domestic order not so long relinquished. With its chimneys, laundry sink and rockeries still present the house clings to an ideal of home echoed in suburbs all over, persistent through time. But walking through the ruin, and to the opposite side, the home opens itself to eternity, as the valley drops away to meet the ridges and the range, its dense blue-green blanket against a massive sky. It is suddenly alone, exposed and surrounded, and I feel it keenly, even today, two minutes from a visitors’ centre and sealed roads to everywhere.

A screaming cockatoo against this landscape is prehistoric, mocks that time has progressed at all. A circling hawk, as if on cue or part of an elaborate stage, tips and sweeps above us, nonchalant yet warning against everything. This place is loaded, I can feel it.

***

Mary Ann’s first night in the valley there was no house, only George’s camp and that feeling of strange places in absolute dark. The pressure in your ears, as they strain for sounds, for context, for something to hold on to. To validate existence in inconceivable immensity.

But that would have been tempered by the fire George made, to heat the billy to cook their wedding night feast. I can’t imagine her lying down to sleep by a fire. It’s hard to imagine they touched – dressed as she was for the 19th century. I can’t imagine anything. Knowing nothing of her situation in England it is impossible to comprehend this leap of faith. But I suspect she was more imaginative than I.

With the assistance of his friend George Hatcliff, George Green built the rammed earth house in 1895. Small at first, just one room for Mary Ann while the men slept in a lean-to outdoors. She planted gardens, fruits and vegetables. A fig tree out the back door. George worked all over the region, often gone for weeks at a time leaving Mary Ann to manage not only her usual duties but their entire property. That meant livestock, daily milking, the orchard and vegetable gardens; watching the road for visitors; keeping fires fed at night.

Seven children grew up here, born here in the house, or the mud floor hut before it. Who helped her? Especially through those first long nights. These few rooms would have been so full.

In the afternoon at Tidbinbilla, my own son trundles happily over the dirt floor, in and out of doorframes, begging to be lifted to look out of empty windows. I lazily wonder if I would have died, giving birth to him – useless, stupid thoughts – but I know the answer. The solemnity I take from this house is self invented, a projection of my fears and shortcomings. The ghost of the Green family is the similarities between us.

***

The same decade Mary Ann arrived at Rock Valley my own great-great grandmother was born on Talyealye Station, Wilcannia NSW. Before I began researching my family’s history I naively assumed my relatives had remained on the east coast, long after their forebears stumbled off boats in Sydney. It never occurred to me they would venture elsewhere. But it was sheep and cattle I suppose, nothing left to lose and again that promise of land for those that would have it.

I looked up Talyealye on Google Earth, as if a few clicks would help demystify these people whose past I build upon. The station is big and red and arid, of course. Looks horrible, at this pixilated height. Dirt roads weave their way around borders, toward a tiny cluster of waterholes and a few grayish blobs of trees. A homestead. In the absence of being able to visit for myself, and with no one place or artifact to call my own, the ruin at Rock Valley fixes fast in my mind, as if it is all homes and all history at once, and Mary Ann all the women I never knew.

It is barely March, and the sun is strong, but the wind whips through here. How cold she must have been, her hands wringing at wash-things, or trying to sleep in a stone walled bedroom farthest from the fire. I’m cold-boned for her, white knuckled. But the summers, I shudder, in those heavy dresses and skirts. The one we’ve just come through was the worst I remember. Everything died, not even a storm to drench the earth while simultaneously tearing its crust.

In 2003 the little house was destroyed by bushfires, collapsed in on itself. A few pieces stood stubbornly, as if it had only made them stronger. The Tidbinbilla Pioneer’s Association fought against clearing the remains, lobbied to rebuild the ruin. It was put back together, with love, in memory. The garden came back on its own accord, reasserting its tiny foreign place in the landscape.

Now Mary Ann Green’s portrait is emblazoned on the plaque at the entrance to the homestead site, which is gated and neat, signposted and accessible. It would be easy to say her photo is like every other from the time. Dark hair pulled back severely, dull eyes and tight lips, dress creeping up her neck, worn by time and the weather. I look hard into that face, sting my eyes with trying. A woman so completely unremarkable and yet, to have been here, to have lived here as history says she did – she is incredible. I am unable to tear myself from the plaque and her face, wanting it to give me something, to tell me: How can I be unafraid? Was she, even?

The first few weeks following my son’s birth were the hardest and most terrifying time of my life, an emotional obstacle course, an existential firing range. Parenting books condescended, self-help literature was like water into oil. The only soothing thoughts were of my grandmothers, great grandmothers, great great grandmothers and women into time immemorial who lived in the middle of nowhere, who lived reliant on the land, and had seven children, ten even, twelve or thirteen. This was normal for the women in my family through these years, for the women of most families. It is beyond me, all of it.

Edified by their existence I could pull myself together, walking with my only child on the warm carpet of my home on a night of no sleep.

***

We sit on the grounds of the homestead, languid in the low sun, taking in the commanding view of the range. It is beautiful, and I wonder – did she ever have the time to look at it? And if she did, what would she think about?

Did she ever stop for a moment, on the verandah of the little house, or in the garden, look into the afternoon light and wonder at the life that had found her, at the unpredictable arc of living. At how terrifying things can be, and how we need them to be that way so we can become more than we are? Probably she just got on with it.

Mary Ann Green died at 46 of rheumatic fever, after being ill for some time. She was the first burial to be made in the newly named Hall cemetery – alone again, in the end.

*

[i] http://theaustralianalps.wordpress.com/the-alps-partnership/the-parks/tidbinbilla-nature-reserve/

Thanks to Mel Barton at Tidbinbilla for her assistance in researching this piece.

Image: Chris Betcher

 

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Yolande Norris is a Canberra based writer and producer.

She has worked with visual arts organisations both large and small, including the National Gallery of Australia, Gorman House Arts Centre and Canberra Contemporary Art Space, was editor of and contributor to BMA Magazine’s Exhibitionist and co-director of Critical Animals, a creative research symposium taking place in Newcastle as a part of This Is Not Art.

Along with David Finnigan, Yolande was founding producer of You Are Here, an annual cross-arts festival in Canberra, going on to co-produce the festival from 2010 to 2013. Currently she works for Big hART, Australia’s leading arts and social change company, and is a member of the Canberra Museum and Gallery advisory committee.

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