A journey to 35.25223° South, 149.124475° East.
Before I left the house it occured to me, as an act of recognition of Place (and how people conceptualise it), to find out the global latitude/longitude coordinates of my destination. I promptly forgot to do so, and strode on up the drive, but it was the sort of thing that might go with a mission to know a place. Not that I’m only — or even primarilly — interested in the ‘Facts’, but it also doesn’t matter very much where one starts with learning about a place: anywhere will do, and from there the place will lead us. So I start at the driveway.
I walked up the pitted bitumen, over worn grass and compacted damp clay, and within a dozen paces of the house, leant against an oak to write. MacKennal Street is lined with oak trees, planted all those years ago when (it would seem) Canberra’s planners were still aiming at some European ideal of a nations Capital: nice, neat, wide avenues, lovely for cars. I knealt down by the tree to lean my notebook on my knee, my face close to the green and white lichen covering the old bark. Also thrust to my attention was the long grass at my feet, it’s thick green fringe showing through the sparse covering of fallen leaves. Cars drove past every minute or so, their noise covering the echoing whistles and wobbly warbles of the birds. Their’s was a grey noise, growing slowly as they approached, the actual crunch of tires and roar of engines only being discernible in the instant they passed me. What they thought of me squatting there writing I do not know. I got up and walked on.
The footpath was old and cracked, most chunks being a hand’s span in size, and lots of blue-metal showed in the cement. Canberra footpaths, the older ones at any rate, have the odd feature of a date stamped in one corner of each poured section; this one had none. I stopped to take some notes of what I saw, but my hands were too numb to write more than three lines of messy scribble. I had travelled maybe one hundred meters in all, and was beginning to wonder whether the cold would put a stop to this little experiment in hyperlocal noticing; I blew hot air into my fingers and stomped onward.
I was approaching what some have said to be a thing recognisably Canberran: a round concrete bus stop. I’ve always quite liked these odd, orange, bunkers. There are no advertisements on them, for one thing (for now: damned fools want to change that however), and they feel nice and protective in bad weather. I would’ve sat inside, where I could have written a bit more comfortably, but then no doubt a bus would have stopped for me, so I hid behind the shelter amongst the long grass and acorns. A cat appeared, seeking company and a knee to headbutt, and swished my pen with its tail as I tried to write. Walking on, the cat followed me for ten meters, but I strode on towards the corner.
By the time I came to the worn dirt shortcut across the corner the cat had gone, and my thoughts were turning to the time I was taking for this walk; I was meeting someone at the shops, at some random non-organised time, and I didn’t have a clock. But one shouldn’t let these things get in the way of meaningless investigation!
Turning the corner everything changed: the light was different, the trees less leafy, the whole vibe calmer, neater, smaller. Sill an oak avenue, but the front gardens were less casual (although I hesitate to say ‘more formal’) and with more brick demarkation pillars. The grass covered the clay a bit better, and I felt closer to the shops just in the way people kept their houses.
The leaves had fallen in greater volume in this street, covering everything and blurring the boundary between garden and footpath. Even so, there was here some greater suburbanism (I was, for example, able to sit and write on a low brick wall; luxury indeed!). There was even something of an urbanism, radiating from the shops perhaps, and manifesting itself as stencil art on a concrete pylon â€” but it didn’t quite have any real grittiness to it.
The brick expanse of the Mormon church was opposite, carefully clipped lawns, satellite dish and vast car-park (for the ‘welcome visitors’ no doubt) all sending me elsewhere for inspiration or interest…
After which, I was all of a sudden There. Crossing the final road on my journey to the shops, waiting for the diesel tanker to pass, it still all seemed like a jolly good way to think about a place. The smallest, slowest journey, carefully made, can yield so much to the inquirer. What a way to build this place-connection! A connection that may, in fact, be something we have to work on. It may not be enough, after all, just to spend time in a place; even long, uninterrupted time mightn’t do it. We must get out, walk a place, read it, actively think about it and explore everything. So much can emerge if we listen: every place must talk to us, if we but listen, and the stories it tells are vital to our own stories.