After learning about commonplace books, I keep finding instances in which I have kept my own commonplace books in a variety of forms. A document has been sitting on my desktop for months with passages from some books I read while in Australia: passages that describe the Australian landscape. Murray Bail writes of the interior landscape of Australia as “fitted out with blue sky and the obligatory tremendous gum tree… the kind of landscape seen during homesickness…” For me, these descriptions evoke homesickness for a place that I fell in love with but which lies in an ocean too far away to visit as much as I would like.
Eucalyptus by Murray Bail is my favorite kind of book: the kind that is equal parts nature writing and love story. A father has created a challenge for any suitor wishing to marry his daughter: the suitor must correctly identify and name every eucalyptus tree on the property. A mysterious man comes often to tell the daughter stories, but neither the young woman nor her father realize that by creating labels for each tree as per her father’s request, this man is the first to complete the father’s challenge. Meanwhile, the man has won the daughter over with his storytelling.
Here is one passage from the novel:
But desertorum (to begin with) is only one of several hundred eucalypts; there is no precise number. And anyway the very word, desert-or-um, harks back to a stale version of the national landscape and from there in a more or less straight line onto the national character, all those linings of the soul and larynx, which have their origins in the bush, so it is said, the poetic virtues (can you believe it?) of being belted about by droughts, bushfires, smelly sheep and so on; and let’s not forget the isolation, the exhausted shapeless women, the crude language, the always wide horizon, and the flies.
Perhaps this is yet another description of the vast interior landscape, but Bail also writes of “views of stony outcrops and gorges, all sharply shadowed, tracks petering out to nowhere, creekbeds with dark birds, a cliff spit asunder by the white trunk of a eucalypt,” giving a bit more variety to the endless desert and blue sky that some think of when they think of Australia.
For me, my landscape was filled with rainforest and farmland, white cockatoos sailing across blue sky, brown cows happily grazing on hilly ground, green canopy and shade, and a particular misty morning atmosphere that I haven’t experienced elsewhere.
To conclude, I will offer another description of landscape. In Brimming Billabongs, a tale of the people and land near Darwin in the Top End, Bill Harney shares this poem:
A sand beach gleams with sun behind the trees,
Reflecting jewels in each dew drop there,
The swamp smells rising in the morning breeze,
With fragrant honeysuckle in the air.
A curlew cries, then from the marshy ground
A wallaby sits up, grey quivering face,
With eyes and ears alert, it peers around,
Then moves away with ever quickening pace.
A thin smoke spirals in the misty air,
A Blackman stokes his fire beside a creek.
Its water gurgles on, while over there
A mountain lifts on high its sun-tipped peak.
The bay of Muleoocoo lies ahead,
With sandy beach and rocks of every hue.
Its painted eaves with niches for the dead,
A home for night bats sleeping all day through…
The wind blows strong, and with a mighty roar,
The waves come in to crash upon the sand,
While I, the dreamer, rest upon the shore
Trying to read the future of the land.