The Island Seen and Felt

Australia is a place with more land than people, more geography than architecture. But it is not and never has been empty. Few landscapes have been so deeply known

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The Island Seen and Felt
Ubirr, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia / © Russell Charters

I grew up on the world’s largest island. The bald fact slips from consciousness so easily I’m obliged to remind myself now and again. But in an age when a culture examines itself primarily through politics and ideology, perhaps my forgetting something so basic should come as no surprise. Our minds are often elsewhere. The material facts of life, the organic and concrete forces that fashion us, are overlooked as if they’re irrelevant or even mildly embarrassing. Our creaturely existence is registered, measured, discussed, and represented in increasingly abstract terms. Maybe this helps explain how someone like me, who should know better, can forget he’s an islander.

Australia the place is constantly overshadowed by Australia the national idea, Australia the economic enterprise. There’s no denying the power of these conceits. I’ve been shaped by them. But they are hardly the only forces at work. I’m increasingly mindful of the degree to which geography, distance and weather have molded my sensory palate, my imagination and expectations. The island continent has not been mere background. Landscape has exerted a kind of force upon me that is every bit as geological as family. Like many Australians, I feel this tectonic grind — call it a familial ache — most keenly when abroad.

Living in Europe in the 1980s I made the mistake of assuming that what separated me from citizens of the Old World was only language and history, as if I really was the mongrel European transplant of my formal education. But I hadn’t given my own geography sufficient credit. Neither, of course, had those who taught me. It wasn’t simply about what I’d read or not read — my physical response to new places unsettled me. It was as if my body were in rebellion. Outside the great cities and the charming villages of the Old World, I felt that all my wiring was scrambled. Where I had expected to appreciate the monuments and love the natural environment, the reality was entirely the reverse. The immense beauty of many buildings and streetscapes had an immediate and visceral impact, and yet in the natural world, where I am generally most comfortable, I was hesitant. While I was duly impressed by what I saw, I could never connect bodily and emotionally. Being from a flat, dry continent I looked forward to the prospect of soaring alps and thundering rivers, lush valleys and fertile plains, and yet when I actually beheld them I was puzzled by how muted my responses were. […]