In Search of the Inner Eden

(March 2007)
Published as Paradise Found in Vogue Australia

I am sitting on a verandah by the Fitzroy River in the Kimberley; leaf shadow dapples my hand. Beside me, the indigenous artist Daisy Smith is painting a circular picture of her return to country after being raised on a station in Fitzroy Crossing. How did you know your country, I ask: how did you recognise it? Daisy taps her hand against her chest: “It was in here.” I am breathless with an unnameable grief. How would I know my own country, if I found it?

Here’s a familiar story: young marrieds, Adam and Eve, grow up and settle down in their home town, Eden. Each leaf and path of the lusciously designed town is known to them. So much so that after a while, they get bored and start indulging in acts of vandalism. The landowner—let’s call him God—kicks them out of town, and they spend the next decade searching for the perfect place; a place to call Home. Devastated, they know that it’s the place they’ve left behind.

It’s a resonant myth, speaking as it does of the human desire for groundedness, for home. After all, Adam’s name comes from Adamah, the Hebrew word for ‘Earth’. Beyond all else, it’s the loss of their special place which causes such grief for this young couple. I think of this as a tale humans told each other to remind themselves—ourselves—of our need for home, of the effect that the magic and specificity of place can have upon us. We belong to place as much as it belongs to us. When we lose home, we need to find another one, and any piece of ground will not do. We have requirements, and where we live impinges deeply on our happiness.

Grief for a place left behind is a common response to new landscape. Some of this, of course, is to do with the loss of the known landscape, the ache for the recognisable. When everything is new, it is unsettling. Early European migrants to Australia attempted to form a version of Europe in the Australian bush. We scoff nowadays at those flimsy attempts to create stone buildings; to sip afternoon tea on freshly mown croquet lawns; to tame wild rock into something resembling rose gardens. Although agriculturally ill-considered, those early European-Australians behaved instinctively, in an act of psychological survival. Home is what we know, after all, at least in part. History shows us, though, that those Europeans made things more difficult than they needed to, because of their inability to see their new land in all its aching strangeness. In attempting to perceive the wildly strange as familiar, they missed the bleeding obvious; the food growing wild, the animals for meat, the outstanding, outrageous variety of flora and fauna.

But is it just the familiarity of place that affects our happiness?

Happiness is the new sex. Enter the word ‘Happiness’ into any search engine, and almost as many entries spring up as there are for the word ‘Sex’. It’s worth billions of dollars, the happiness business, rivaling even the diet industry for profits. Happiness has always been desired by humans—Aristotle was on about it, before the modern chariot was a twinkle in Ben Hur’s eye. Alongside this raging obsession, the search for happiness, we appear to be unhappier than ever before: at least if we are to judge by the prescription levels of anti-depressants. We are also—and this may be a coincidence—more mobile than ever before. In ‘minority world’, or Western countries, we are frequently mobile through aspiration: wealth provides choice, and some of that selection is about where we choose to live. In the rest of the world it is often poverty which forces mobility. As poorer nations become more dependent on industry or the tourist dollar, village life becomes less viable and young people move to the city to work for cash rather than subsistence. There are other reasons besides economic migration: political asylum seekers, refugees from war and environmental destruction. The desire to seek out fresh pastures is hardly new: the original Australian inhabitants may well have walked here from New Guinea; early Maoris made incredible ocean voyages and fetched up in Aotearoa. It is the scale and speed which are new, and the lack of familial or tribal context. Nuclear families, young couples and singles move internationally now, tribeless, and often find themselves alone in a strange, strange land.

Anthropologist Hugh Brody has spent many years with the Inuit of Northern Canada. In The Other Side of Eden, he contrasts their traditional nomadic life as hunter-gatherers with that of supposedly more advanced pastoralists and agriculturalists (us, that is). Ironically, for Brody, it’s the nomads who know their place, care for it, live within its limits, and return to it year after year. The agriculturalists, on the other hand, knowing no limits, are always moving into new frontiers, trashing the land then moving on forever. Before the first world war the poet Rupert Brooke traveled to Tahiti in search of an inspirational life; Robert Louis Stevenson found creative succor in Samoa; James Joyce, Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemmingway, Edith Sitwell: the list of ‘creative exiles’ rolls on. The possibility of finding creative epiphany in a new place, a place resonating with the inner sense of home—the inner Eden—leads to lifelong questing for many artists. As with the possibility that there is a perfect lover— the soul mate—the mythical place of perfection haunts writers and artists. And not just artists—surely the desire in seeking a new Eden is for a fresh life. Peter Mayle in his hugely successful Provence books was writing about place as healer; Susan Duncan’s Salvation Creek enters the same territory. It is an attractive idea, this notion of the perfect place waiting for us. The new home will deliver all that our flawed previous home did not: healing, inspiration, energy, love. For surely this search for the perfect place—and I speak here as someone who has used more than my share of airmiles seeking home—is nothing less than the search for happiness. I wonder, though, whether it is the exile from the familiar which focuses creativity. As much as the inspiration of the new Eden, the longing for the original creates a drive to make a new home, built from the imagination.

The relatively recent use of designer architects to create an ideal space is partly, surely, an attempt to carve out a ‘sacred’ space, a place to inhabit happiness. Sydney designer Marian Macken celebrates the increasing concern for good building design, but adds a cautionary note: “Happiness is at least partly about how you inhabit space with other people. My concern is that the direction of domestic housing design—the increase in making separate space, parents retreats, extra bathrooms—has certain side effects, to do with not engaging with other members of the household. If you’re a guest in a house and you’re in a retreat space, with a separate bathroom, you never have to take part in the life of the house. Architectural photography is about an idealized version of a living space which is empty of life. When people reproduce those spaces… they feel that they are creating a space which reflects their identity but in fact it’s a constructed individuality.” Macken considers the house as a public space as well as a private one. “A house should be a celebration of its place publicly: how the occupants relate to each other; how the house relates to the space next door; to the street; to the environment.” Award-winning English architect Meredith Bowles designs houses with a focus on beauty and on ecological sustainability. He speaks, too, of this interconnectedness in design. A sustainable house— one which considers the wider environment—he argues, is inherently more pleasing. “A building that responds well to the environment is more comfortable to be in. A good building should lift one’s spirits.”

Architect Chris Alexander, author of A Pattern Language, puts forward the notion that there are geographical and architectural qualities of place which are inherently pleasing or displeasing; unlike, say, Pierre Bordieu, the French sociologist who focuses on the correlation between social position and aesthetic judgment. According to Bordieu, taste is learned. I might believe that I desire that Prada jacket because it is beautiful, because it flatters my waist so—but according to this guy, I’m mimicing what I’ve been told to believe is beautiful. Alexander, though, insists that taste is not learned, not a symptom of class. Alexander spent years showing people photos of various spaces, asking them which they liked. A simple enough question; and the answers were surprisingly simple, too. People appear to like design which puts them first, we respond positively to towns and to buildings which have nooks and crannies, which have pleasing things at eye level, which have places to sit and observe nature; places which have, as Alexander says, life. Place affects our happiness so deeply we cannot dare admit it, lest it hold us back from our wanderings. According to Alexander, interconnectedness is part of what pleases us. “Each pattern can exist in the world, only to the extent that is supported by other patterns: the larger patterns in which it is embedded, the patterns of the same size that surround it, and the smaller patterns which are embedded in it. This is a fundamental view of the world. It says that when you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent.” He speaks of this quality, of interconnectedness, and of the effect of spatial design on pleasure, as being a ‘quality with no name’, and explains: ‘The first place I think of, when I try to tell someone about this quality, is a corner of an English country garden, where a peach tree grows against a wall. The wall runs from east to west. The sun shines on the tree and as it warms the bricks behind the tree, the warm bricks themselves warm the peaches on the tree. It has a slightly dozy quality.’

In my late teens and early twenties I traveled through the Northern Territory and Arnhem Land, through spectacularly alien landscape. Everything was unknown, yet my response to it was one of sudden, total absorption. Akin to the sensation of falling in love across a crowded room, the landscape set fire to my imagination: my journals at that time are fiery, full of rhapsodic responses to my cultural and geographic surroundings. The place, to borrow a phrase from C.S Lewis, baptized my imagination. For a decade afterwards, the intensity of that landscape provided an impetus to my writing; the place, in fact, became an imaginary location, the site of my inspiration. When I began writing novels, I lived in Scotland and wrote partly out of a sense of exile. On my noticeboard above my desk I pinned pictures of eucalypts; Cottlesloe Beach in Western Australia; a red sunset across the Nullabor. Iconic, borrowed images, certainly, but it was their absence which spurred me on, which created the gap for words to fill. My fourth novel, Captain Starlight’s Apprentice, is partly about a woman bushranger, a wild woman who is utterly one with the wildness of the Australian bush. In contrast, though, is Rose: a British migrant suffocated by that same landscape, full of longing for the pale green hills she has left behind.

Anita Shreve’s novel The Weight of Water is about a journalistic photographer revisiting the site of a murder which occurred on Smuttynose Island, off the coast of New Hampshire. Shreve suggests that the place itself may hold a kind of memory. Implicit in this idea is the sense that place can create mood and possibly even behaviour. In Morelos State in Mexico, on the edge of the Sierra Tepozteco, there’s an ancient Mayan city, Xochicalco. It’s in a beautiful part of Mexico, and is spread with shade giving trees. During my first visit there, I climbed a hill in the centre of the ruins, and looked down onto a flat field, marked with stone hoops on either end. Eagles circled overhead, and the hill was silent. In spite of the sunshine, the pleasing trees—the qualities of life within the environment—I was shafted by a terrible, sudden distress, which didn’t leave me until I left the site. At the entrance, I stopped and read some notes on the history: the ‘basketball court’ I had been looking down on was, in fact, the site of an ancient game. Played in teams, as with basketball, it had one crucial difference: the winners were sacrificed to the gods at the end of the game. Perhaps my sudden sadness was due to something else entirely: hormones or hunger. I’ve never been a believer in ghosts of any kind, yet I cannot help but wonder whether the history of that place marked it in someway, that the memory was held in the landscape in the way that the memory of physical pain is held in my body.

In The Snow Geese, writer William Fiennes describes a journey he undertakes across Canada, following these migratory birds as they shift from one home to another. Propelled initially by restlessness after a long illness, he pursues the geese and is drawn by the image of of freedom implicit in their flight. Early in his journey, he recalls precise objects in his unchanged childhood home, and reflects “the fact that they were there, and just as I remembered them to be—the fact that now was agreeing with then—was itself reassuring: a conduit to less equivacol days, a mark of steadiness in the chaos of illness and its treatments.’ Paradoxically, it is the snowgoose’s instinct to know home which marks a turn in Fiennes’ sense of his world, and which sends him soaring back to his family home in England. Longing for home, discovering or understanding the geographical space we belong in is, to Fiennes, a central piece in the puzzle of contemporary life.

Fiennes knows where his home is, and he has a history attached to it. Increasingly, for huge numbers of us in contemporary life, this is not the case. Towards the end of Captain Starlight’s Apprentice, Rose elects to make home wherever she is; as her creator, I know what that decision will cost. Perhaps, there are two extremes: those who have never left and those who have never arrived. The rest of us are somewhere in between, traveling hopefully because to stop would be an admission of failure.We don’t know where Eden is, and our history is not located in one place. For us—perhaps for all of us—the task is to create the inner Eden, the site of our own happiness which we carry with us, always.