Returning to country

I was born in red gum country, not far south of the Murray River. Flat, irrigation country with long straight roads. We moved away when I was two but I remember ibis, herons and artificially carved channels lined by bullrushes. Not to mention the curdled smell of the milk factory and the ever-present whiff of manure.

The nature of my father’s work meant changing towns semi-regularly and I lived in the north, south and central parts of rural Victoria. I call myself a Bendigo boy, mainly because the formative years from age 10 to 16 were spent in the goldfields district. But despite an ancestral connection to the region, it’s not where I hail from. Bendigo is ironbark country, not red gum.

Last week I had the honour of touring regional Victoria for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival with three other fantastic authors and an uber-efficient tour co-ordinator. One of the towns we spoke at was Echuca, only a couple of stone throws from where I entered the world. I found a spare hour or two to wander along the Murray banks listening to the corellas squabble and watching the sun set. It felt familiar. Like home.

It made me think of Australia’s indigenous people and their all important connection to country. I couldn’t recall whether Echuca was Yorta Yorta or Bangerang country and did some quick googling. Apparently there’s still some contention as to where the traditional tribal boundaries lie.

At our public (non-schools) session at the spectacular new Echuca library, I found myself speaking with a local resident who had participated in cultural training with Bangerang elders in Shepparton. One of the activities included creating ‘family’ groups of trainees and then breaking these up, separating ‘children’ from ‘parents’ and people from country. My informant said the sense of dislocation was palpable.

What a powerful way of getting people to understand the Stolen Generations and issues spawned by these policies. It sounds to me like training every Australian should experience. While we’re at it, we should all be made to watch the SBS series, Go Back To Where You Came From. Watch this show and you’ll understand that leaving country is not something most people choose to do lightly. Or voluntarily.

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