There is a small park near Redfern station that I almost always stop by on my way to university. It lies between two townhouses and bears the same shape as them; there are three or four wooden steps leading up to the grass and a large, overgrown tree before the fence.
“It’s a church garden,” a friend announced when I first took him there. “It has exactly the same dimensions as a church – the trees behind us an archway, the ferns and fence the stained-glass windows, and the tree – why, the tree is an altar.”
At the time the sky was overflowing with grey and the altar-leaves were straining against the wind. We stood in the centre of the garden and held hands. I had never felt closer to god, nor farther away from religion.
I fell for Australia when I was sixteen. My family and I were driving out of the city to Penrith – the land still scarred from the bushfires that had razed my aunt’s house to the ground and melted her belongings (I still own a Dali-esque wine bottle) – and as we moved through the bleak landscape I saw a dead tree to the left of the car. Its branches, devoid of leaves or life, were splayed like veins across the deep blue of the sky and for the first time in my life I didn’t want to move to Europe.
I came to it late – I had already loved France and Greece and the British Isles most all my life with what I thought was passion and verve; now that feels young and immature. I don’t believe it to be false, but in comparison to what I feel for this country they were high school crushes.
We caught a train to Circular Quay, still under a sky greyer and more passionate than England. It never rained but it should have. I caught the clouded sun behind an unlit street lamp and watched the illusion until my eyes forced me to turn away. The landmarks looked like ancient cracked porcelain beneath the lack of brightness.
I have always held love for old things. My favourite body parts – ribs aside – are elderly fingers and the wrinkled skin around old men’s eyes. And this land holds it too. For while in terms of Western society Australia is young, it feels incredibly old. Already almost dead; the imagery is all of death. The eucalyptus trees are white bones sticking the body of the soil, the desert is oblivion and the sunsets are the bushfires that so often blight the landscape.
I find it difficult to agree with my friend about the garden. I am not religious; I have never worshipped a god and have been to church only twice in my lifetime – this construct could hardly have entered my subconscious so entirely. That is not why I feel at peace here. As an adolescent I believed that worship could not exist without love, and to a point I believe that still; I feel something akin to both for this country.
After the step through the tree-arch I feel behind closed doors; as if I could sleep, or scream, or perform the most intimate and secret acts without interruption. And yet open. And yet closed. I draw my eyes closed and breath in, and with breath enters strength. It fills me and grounds me – an internal stability; unmanic, earthy. I fear one day it will pass through me – that I will turn to air, or the cracks will grow so big they cannot hold, or the garden will turn to something fire and immaterial. But until then I set these worries to rest, and I sit and read aloud.