A Walk in Mosman Park, Western Australia 2009

Returning to Western Australia after my pilgrimage through Europe and North America, I felt drawn to come to understand and experience the local environment through similar means. As I have no ancestral links to the area and very limited history, I determined to ask local friends to lead me on pilgrimages through the places that held their strongest and richest memories. I began with my friend Kate, a native West Australian whose attachment to the local community where she was born and raised had always seemed to me to be especially rich, affectionate and grounded.


I asked her if she would take me on a pilgrimage through the neighbourhood of her childhood, but other than indicating that it should begin at the site of her childhood home (and where her parents continue to reside), I gave no instruction about where she should take me or what I hoped to see, feel and experience. 


Kate led me first to the Swan River where, she said, her own first explorations had begun. We spent the morning exploring the river without direction or agenda, following the trail of whatever piqued her interest and engaging with whatever came to hand. At one point, she picked up a large brownish jellyfish and held it towards me on the palm of her hand. 


There were no such jellyfish in the North Atlantic waters I played in as a child but I have long thought of them as a creature whose sting should – at all costs - be avoided. I asked if it stung. To which she answered, “only a little.” And I realised in that moment that the kind of intimate engagement with nature that we gather through our childhood explorations allows a sense of familiarity and ease that is sometimes difficult to replicate once our approach to newness is tempered by the tentative caution that sits at the heart of adult rationality. 


This rationality underpins my relationship with Australia and its wild places. Arriving in Australia as an adult, I have certainly been enamoured of its natural beauty, yet everything I know of its wildernesses is filtered through my rational mind and most of what my mind has conjured has been tinged by a sense of alarm: the desert is unforgiving; the waterways are populated by murderous crocodiles; the beaches are haunted by great white sharks: and dugites and tiger snakes wait to strike from under every shrub. 


My migrant’s experience of the Australian wilderness is that it exists as an entirely alien entity which differs significantly from my experience of the familiar wilds of New England. I have explored and known the New England woods since I was a child. Where, knowing the difference between wintergreen and baneberry, I might be willing to taste a red berry; or, knowing the difference between blueberries and pokeweed, be willing to taste one that is blue.


I know where snakes are likely to hide, but as well that most of them are entirely harmless; I know that the scent of sweet fern means that blueberries might be close by. I know the scent of approaching snow.