Incredible, isn’t it, the way a house can absorb significant numbers of people? On this particular weekend, the near century-old Kia Ora homestead, located 130 km down a long, red road, due west from Bourke, was host to a dozen women, most of whom had traded busy station lives for a weekend of landscape writing and photography—three days of kinship, skills development and creative exploration. Sounds indulgent, doesn’t it?
This activity was part of the Her Place Community Storytelling Project; an initiative of The Write Road, which offers a range of creative workshops and training to people living in remote areas. I founded this project based on my belief that to be well, we must create; to be strong, we must know our story.
I believe just about everyone has a story spinning around in the back of their mind. The Write Road is dedicated to letting the story out. More than 300 people have attended The Write Road workshops around western NSW over the past year and I have observed
various common themes in people’s lives.
It’s heartbreaking how many people believe that to take time out to write is ‘wasting time’. Much as they long to do it, they don’t want to appear to be idle. Everyone should be entitled to sit on their verandah while the sun sets, with an open notebook on their lap and a pen between their fingers, clarifying thoughts, exploring ideas, telling stories.
A common theme that emerged from the workshops was the issue of succession—and it was this that inspired the Her Place event.
For the past two centuries, outback Australia has been the mythic domain of rugged men and bush poets. Women in rural Australia have tended to be defined by their relationships to men on the land—wife, mother, daughter, sister.
Most people living in the outback know women who are dealing with succession issues—in particular, a woman’s right to own the land she works, independently or in partnership. The fact that women’s connection to land is not ‘the norm’ matters.
One station owner recently told me she was constantly amazed by what women put up with to be on the land—isolation, violence and poverty. It’s more than loss of financial assets or absence of resources. In many cases a woman is unwilling to tear her spirit away from the land she loves. These narratives informed women’s connection to land, particularly their ‘right’ to be there.
Her Place gives visibility and voice, in an everyday way, to this connection.
The reality is women have independent, fully realised, rich and identifiable connections to the Outback and this is what Her Place celebrates.
Her Place, Kia Ora attracted nine busy women from a 250 km radius. Over three days they immersed themselves in their own creativity—stretching unused creative muscles; naming and claiming their story.
It was a weekend of comradery, rest and renewal.
Meal times were informal. We grazed. We set our own meal times and our own rest times. We converged. We chatted. We worked. We wandered off alone. We lay in a hammock. We sat under trees. We sat by a waterhole. We engaged. We unwound.
The following extract was written by Chris Ferguson at Her Place, Kia Ora, March 2015.
My Lived-Land by Chris Ferguson
I come from the mountains. Born of them, into a succession of generations of the unthinkable: farming carried through the female gene. The women before me were the farmers behind the farmers. They were the real stockmen.
I am the first woman of my line to claim the title for herself. I have wrestled it from my father and grandfather. From my brothers. From my husband.
My homeland was my father’s and grandfather’s birthplace. My great-greatgrandfather was the first of my line to settle there. He made a claim among the goldfields. His son followed him but I know nothing of his daughters.
The steep hills were covered with yellow and red box trees, stringy bark and wattle. They fell under my great-grandfather’s axe, fashioned into yards to hold livestock and a home for a family.
That my home was my birthright never occurred to the child in me as a conscious thought, it was simply ‘home’. As I grew to maturity, I struggled to conform to the place that my gender dictated I fill; to accept that I was born lacking. I was told to marry well but didn’t. I was dismissed.
I have wandered across my Earth like a river when I longed to be a tree. Originating in the high country, winding my way through my lived-lands, I have shifted the resources of knowledge and heart to the dry plains. The reflections of others have shimmered upon me. Both willingly and unwittingly at times, I have been a life force. I am often muddy and at times forceful. I can shrink upon myself nd wait for relief; I travel with purpose.
My country has always been my refuge. I am a refugee. When I was hunted by a madman I sought shelter in my adopted country, hid in my lived-land and called on it for sanctuary.
My mother calls me determined, but in truth my actions have all been to fulfil my longing for place, my need to give my children somewhere to belong, to grow roots strengthened by my endeavours. Despite my efforts, I have only been able to provide them with somewhere to float, someone to float upon.
My comfort has always been my horse—a succession of horses. I associate riding with leaning back as my horse slides down steep hills in the shale, the back of the saddle pressing into my lower back. My grandfather would say our place was so steep he had to empty the horse shit out of the crown of his hat when he got to the bottom of the hill.
I don’t know how to ride through these endless Mulga plains, through the scrub and heat, through the space. These days I am content to call my horse my friend, to feel his warmth on my skin, to breathe his gentle strength into me. He is a constant. I come and go and he hangs on my heart.
If I were to return to my homeland, I would recognise every stone; I would breathe gulps of mountain air into my lungs and know its every scent. I would swim in a river that recognises me, that would move aside and let me back in, that would welcome me home.
I have lived my life-like a river flowing through this country. Collecting fragments of my lived-land and redistributing them downstream. Longing to be a tree, fertilised by the richness of my forebears, my roots deep in the compost of their bones, their labour, their intent.
Willingly, I continue to wind my way through my lived-land until I empty into the sea of universal home.
A Condensed Space by Caitlin Myors
A condensed space of majestic imagination radiating natural beauty from the very bottom of the roots to the enchanting tips of the leaves, creating a state of meditation which evokes the kind of relaxing feeling one could only get from the rustic Australian landscape in its most pure form.
The rough grainy texture of the bark protecting the trees from mother nature’s wrath is like the many aspects of their personality is conveyed for our sensory pleasure.
The enchantment of the dappled shade on the sparse brown earth transforms the barren landscape to a haven for those within it.
The calm of this environment can make every being’s soul tingle with the longing to experience this rich connection more frequently within the mundane taste of our everyday life.
The soft whisper of the fragile leaves cavorting in the treetops as birds frolic among them are rich and natural.
The earthy tones in the grove complement the understated greenery that surrounds us, grounding our soul yet inviting our spirit to fly.
Circle of Souls by Sue Akers
Trees are such a big part of my story, the things that stand out in my childhood memories.
In my mind’s eye I am walking under the canopy of a beech wood, fresh with the new greenness of spring leaves. A carpet of bluebells beneath my feet. Rolling hill country. A soft, gentle place. My place – a long time ago.
My place now – flat, harsh, dry. On first encountering, a cruel and threatening country. So different from the memories lingering in my head. I don’t want to go back there, but the memories are so bitter-sweet, the contrast between now and then so stark. More than anything they emphasise the passing of time and how fleeting my life really is.
I didn’t know I’d managed to capture a tree in my photo during the Her Place event, until I looked more closely. A common thread between the memory of a past place and the reality of the new. Not a towering beech tree, but a small brave patient tree, waiting for the rain to come. A beautiful tree, standing there under a surprisingly soft sky, not as harsh as it had seemed at first glance. The colours subtle, the clouds whispering faint promises that the sky hasn’t completely forgotten how to rain.
Not far from where this photo was taken, I sit with a circle of souls, quietly writing, on a green lawn gently trellised by shadows. A special place, companionship. There’s much like this in my new place if I choose to find it.
Sue Akers was a participant in Her Place Kia Ora, a three-day writing and photography event that celebrates women’s connection to remote landscapes. Her story and outback image were produced during this event. The bluebell image was taken during a return trip to the land where she roamed beneath a canopy of beech.
Cuttaburra by Susan Hanson
The peaceful ambience of the parched dark soil plains of the Cuttuburra descended heavily and urgently on an eclectic and talented gathering of bush women. These formidable women had been gathered into a group session not knowing what to expect, and they will be enticed down tracks possibly never even thought of about before this memorable day. A soft caressing wind blows their thoughts about, a luxury that cannot even be contemplated in the day-to-day humdrum of bush living. Some of these women will struggle to allow themselves the luxury of the unfettered release of poignant thoughts that have been buried so deeply for years.
My daily life is a battle from the moment I move out of my shady paperbarks on the edge of the ephemeral Gidgea waterhole. I have a calf to feed and my food source is drying up day by day as the relentless heat beats down and the prospect of rain becomes more and more distant. I will wait, desperately using all my senses to smell the faintest whiff of rain coming in on the winds, and then I will follow the scent, along with everybody else, to the possibility of growth and life in the newly sprouting grasses.