It would be self-evident to say that names are important. Everything depends on names and naming from company logos to places on a map. We only know people we meet by their name and the name we are given at birth can often shape our attitudes and sometimes even our life. I was named James Oliver for two people dear to both of my parents. James was my Father’s Brother and also the name of his Grandfather. Oliver was my Mother’s Father and so I carry the names of these men, and more. What I carry is their legacy and their memory.
James my Great-Grandfather was the youngest son of a convict from Norwich in England who was transported for 14 years in 1826. James was born in Queanbeyan in 1847 but grew up in Beechworth where he learnt the coachbuilding trade. He ran a very successful business in Albury and his eldest son named his first born for him.
James my Uncle was born in Albury in 1908 but drowned in the Murray River at the age of 10 in 1918. He was attempting to rescue his younger brother, who was saved, but sadly lost his own life. My Father was born twelve months later and was named Joseph James. I was born in 1951 and when I was eight years old, my Grandmother gave me this portrait of the son she had lost after whom I was named. This photo has stayed with me ever since.
Oliver my Grandfather was born in Crookwell in 1896 and became a successful farmer in that district. I would stay with my Grandparents many times as a child and remember him with warm affection. He was a tall, strong man and I always felt safe in his presence. He loved the land and passed that love on to his daughter, my Mother. In this photo he is sitting on our back step at Gundawanna with his wife, our Grandmother watching over my sister and I.
Perhaps James and Oliver still watch over us, I would like to think so. I feel a strong connection to both and wish to honour them in my writing.
Guanna Hill was just above the house I grew up in on Gundawanna. It was like the entry post to home, the point at which you knew you were safe at last. It was the highest point on the property so you could not see my home until you had crested it. The road up was rutted and rocky and always seemed to challenge the driver to find the best way they could each time they drove it. It was one mile from the front gate to the top of the Hill and one mile from the homestead where the owner of Gundawanna lived. Near his homestead were three bores that pumped water to two large tanks on the top of Guanna Hill which provided water for the sheep and the house I lived in. Being bore water it was heavy with metals from the ground and we only used it in the house for washing ourselves and our clothes and flushing our toilet. There were tanks attached to the house and surrounding sheds to collect the rain water we used for drinking and cooking. The tap in the kitchen was connected to the house tanks but the pipe ran alongside the one to the bath where the bore water from the top of Guanna Hill was heated by an electric Zip water heater on the wall.
When winter storms roll over open country lightning will always find the easiest path to ground. Trees are one way, and there were many trees on Gundawanna that were split apart by lightning strikes. But by far the quickest way for lightning to come to ground is to hit the highest point and Guanna Hill always seemed to offer that quick path. The top of the hill was more wooded than the lower slopes because the ground was poorer and more exposed. Over time the topsoil had washed down to the valleys below exposing the rocks that gave the nearby town of Molong its name. Between those rocks threaded the beaten paths taken by the lines of sheep as they regularly came to drink at the troughs. The pipes that carried the water to those troughs were buried underground, but not so far that they provided protection from the more severe winter frosts. Many times my Father and I dug up the ground to repair the pipe that had snapped from the pressure of the ice expanding in it on those freezing winter nights.
On this night I was in the lounge room with my Father playing with my Meccano set. We were building cranes and buildings with my Father having more success than I was manipulating the little metal nuts and bolts that secured the metal strips of meccano. My Mother was in the kitchen just finishing off the dishes after our dinner and filling the kettle at the tap for a cup of tea. It had been cold and wet all day and we didn’t really notice the rain drumming on the tin roof. It was a sound of comfort and warmth that I always found pleasurable because hearing it you knew you were dry and warm inside.
I can still remember seeing the light pass between my Father and I as we sat on the floor no more than three feet away from each other. The almighty clap of thunder was almost instant and we both ducked and looked at each other just as we heard the grunt from the kitchen. Dad raced out where Mum was just leaning on the back of the high chair that still stood next to the stove. It was two metres away from the sink where Mum had just released her hold on the tap when the strike hit. It threw her across the room and stunned her but fortunately did nothing else. The chair had also saved her from hitting the wood stove which was heated after the meal and prepared for the kettle.
It was not until the next day when we were running the bath that we found out where the lightning had come out. There was a neat black hole on the side of the water heater about two inches round where it had found its way to the outside. The lightning had struck the hill above our house, travelled down the underground water pipe and burst out of the side of the heater in the bathroom, a journey of at least 400 yards. I always avoid water taps in storms now!
Growing up on the land gives you a connection that you may only recognise later. I was born 66 years ago and grew up near Molong in Central West New South Wales on a property where my Father worked as a Stockman. It was called “Gundawanna”, and I often wondered if the word was from “Gondwana”, the name of the supercontinent Australia was part of 500 million years ago, or from one of Australia’s First Nation languages. The local Historical Society at Molong write that it supposedly means “red road”, but in the language of the Wiradjuri people, who are the custodians and carers of that land, red road is “girri gawala”. It is to the Wiradjuri we owe much for the land that was so productive in that area. They loved the land and cared for it sustainably ensuring a ready supply of fodder and water for the wildlife and the people that the country sustained. The first settlers in the area found rich soil, abundant grass and steady water supplies for their herds of cattle and sheep. Despite the numerous reports in explorers’ diaries about the parkland nature of the country, none seemed to realise that was the result of centuries of land-care by the original inhabitants. They were simply ‘dispersed’, as many of the official letters and documents from the time state, a euphemism for wanton destruction.
This image of the road leading into my childhood home gives some indication of the beauty and richness of the land. When I was young I was more interested in what was beyond the beauty and saw it as isolated and a place I wanted to get away from and live my life. Now fifty years after I left that place I think back and see the beauty, the richness and the spirit of the land that has helped me become the man I am today. My childhood on this country gave me the opportunity to spend time alone with my thoughts and my dreams in my imaginary world. That time has enabled me to come more easily to a reflective way of living that has helped me understand myself and my place in the world in a deeper way.
Native Americans have a concept known as ‘Walking the Red Road’. David A Patterson Silver Wolf, the first American Indian professor in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote on his blog in 2011 that:
‘Walking the Red Road is a determined act of living within the Creator’s instructions. Basically, it is living a life of truth, humbleness, respect, friendship, and spiritually. Those on this road are by no means walking a perfect path, but are in search of self-discovery and instructions.’
My search of self-discovery started at ‘Gundawanna’ and if it does indicate ‘red road’, I honour that start to my journey in life and give thanks to the Wiradjuri who cared for that land and continue to care for their land today. In this blog I want to share some of the things I have learned on that road and I hope you enjoy the ride.