At home with strays, strayers and stayers

Learning to value the provisional

‘STRAYLYA’. THAT’S HOW I can remember first hearing it – stray-lya – as if it was a place filled with strays. I wasn’t aware at that very young age of paying too much attention to the origins of the country’s name. But later I recall a growing sense of satisfaction that it suited the place my small family had decided to make their home. My parents had been dedicated strayers well before they got here. They’d ridden motorbikes all across Scotland and the north of England in the postwar years. Proud owners of a BSA Golden Flash, they were members of a club that set off each weekend to rumble through the Royal Mile and head out beyond the Edinburgh boundary lines, into the moorlands and hills and glens. When I came along there was a sidecar added, and I became the club’s baby. Lots of pictures of me being passed around – all rugged up with fat, wind-chafed cheeks – to members posing proudly by bikes lined up against backgrounds of fairly grim grey landscapes. Looking back at those old photos now, I realise the club was training me in the art of straying.

Even before the motorbikes, my mum had been an avid cyclist, travelling on a tandem with a mate from John O’Groats to Land’s End. But when she met Dad things got a little faster. The exact reason they set off for Straylya is difficult to pinpoint: partly a run-away from Toryism, but probably also partly the pull of the urge to stray. To stray far. Very far. They didn’t know anyone; they were just prepared to take a punt. It was love at first sight. When the boat first berthed in Perth, they thought all that sky and space were grand. But they got excited and curious and decided to see what the next place was like. Apparently Melbourne looked great too. So did Sydney – they loved it all. But once the Fairsky turned the corner to head north again, Brisbane was the last stop. They had to disembark.


BY THE TIME I got to primary school, my accent marked me as a little different. But there were lots of ‘differents’. There were strays of all kinds. It didn’t really seem to matter all that much at the time, although much is made of it now. The schoolyard made it apparent that strays had wandered in from all corners of the globe. It seemed like a good name for the country.

Brisbane had a straying quality to it as well: although the population was small, the suburbs just sprawled on and on, one big backyard next to the other. And the subtropical climate meant that the flora was neither one thing nor another: in the folds of hills, evidence of the lush, dense growth of the tropics was all too apparent; but on the sides of the shale slopes the vegetation was more spindly and sparse. The greenness of the tropical zone strayed into the dry temperate zone in an untidy, zone-defying way. And into this mélange wandered interlopers from elsewhere: the jacarandas and poinsettias and cassias that staked their own claim among the indigenous species. Amid all this riotous, disorderly growth, the urban landscape seemed to have been built by strays who weren’t all too sure if they might stray on further, whether by choice or as a result of the unpredictable nature of the weather, the politics or the economy. There was – and still is – a provisional nature to the architecture: lots of rusting tin and white-anted wood; lots of careening, gap-toothed fence posts.

When the weekends came, people mostly evacuated their chosen suburb to stray down the coastline to the ‘Goldie’ or north to the ‘Sunnycoast’. Sometimes they might have gone for a bit of a wander in the hinterlands, but wherever they went there was a sense of just taking a punt on what spot might be best according to the conditions of the weekend. There’s a kind of laconic art to straying, a take-it-as-it-comes nonchalance that might look like a lack of purpose to the uninitiated. But I don’t think that’s so: straying is more akin to a wandering that is sharply attuned to the fact that life can drop surprises of all kinds, and that the best way to weather things in the long run is to take things as they come. Straying trains you to take that kind of attitude.


LATER – MUCH, MUCH later – I had the privilege of tracing one of the travel paths of the Seven Sisters songline, a link-up of journeys that traverse a great deal of the country, beginning in Western Australia and meandering into the Northern Territory and South Australia, covering over five-hundred square kilometres. What struck me is how the Dreaming tracks of the sisters look so random – stopping, making time to play, to tease, to leap into the sky, to backtrack. In fact, it looks a whole lot like they’re kind of just straying across country, changing direction and reconvening according to the exigencies of the particular places they encounter. It’s about as far from an A-to-B highway as you can get. Or as far from an Excel spreadsheet as you can get. And yet along the way those sisters did anything but dither – they used their stray-capacity to create landforms and celestial forms as they moved from place to place. And just like a succession of strayers who have arrived on the shorelines since the sisters were busy actually forming it, they too were on the run at the time: their particular nemesis took the form of an evil no-gooder called Wati Nyiru or Yurla. But their exodus was no straight-line flee – far from it. It was as if they’d decided to make the most of this experience of wickedness, and off they went, straying and creating, changing and readjusting, taking their own sweet time as they dug and delved all the way across three of the country’s most massive deserts.

And when you think about it, this is how Australia’s rivers flow too. All across this big flat land, rivers and creeks and waterways travel like they’re chatting away so much they forget where they’re going. They meander and turn back, and even give up for a bit every so often to just sit and stay put long enough to form billabongs. Until the rains come, when they decide to do what they’re supposed to do and flow to the sea again. They stray across the land like they’re exploring its forgotten nooks and crannies with curious fingers. They don’t get all stroppy and focused like so many of the great river systems of the world – they know the value of taking time, of making it up as you go along. They know the value of changing your mind and direction close to your pulse. It’s possible to watch the process unfold in real time after big rains, when the dry river beds begin to flow once more and, often enough, the old banks will burst, and the runnels and creeks and streams and rivers will mysteriously decide to take a new course, straying across the country in a new pathway, seeking out other places, creating new relationships with the land.


YOU COULD BE forgiven for thinking that all this experience with straying – all the geographical and cultural and historical evidence that it’s part of this country’s make-up – might have prompted a more acute national awareness of the value of the provisional. It could lead you to believe that Australians might be quick to recognise that contingencies very quickly change the relationships between things. An understanding of the value of straying – a journey made through a series of tiny, conscious adjustments and a preparedness to ‘go with the flow’ – goes with the recognition that the best journeys are not directed solely by the demands of getting to the destination. Instead, straying puts the value of process at the front end. And it means strayers understand that their very identity is caught up in the process of becoming.

More lately, though, Straylya seems to have taken strong exception to the arrival of strays and strayers. That probably shouldn’t be surprising. As soon as the fences are up, the boundaries drawn, the borderlines policed, the codes contained, any encroachment from strays throws light on the fact that all delineations and limitations are, at some point, permeable and makeshift. The capacity of strays to wander beyond their particular ‘elsewhere’ and find their way into someone else’s ordered, plotted and pieced ‘here-ness’ seems to call for readjustments to that someone’s sense of control. It’s pretty similar to how it operates on a more personal level. When strays try to find their way into your home, the initial surprise is often followed by attempts to thwart or to keep at bay. But if the attempts to repulse fail, there is – more often than not – a growing sense that your world has been broadened.

I admit the idea of the stray isn’t appealing to everyone. There are plenty who subscribe to the superiority of the specially selected, the blood-born, the authentic, the ‘rightful’ inheritor, the pedigree. Throughout my life I’ve encountered pedigrees and I’ve also encountered strays. Of all kinds. But strays bring along with them an inbuilt sense of fate, a sense that chance can still play as strong a role as choices, and an accompanying sense of gratitude and wonder at the bigness of things. When the stray strays into your life, there’s the ‘how come you ended up with me?’ feeling, the sense that life can still offer up surprises. And, more often than not, when the stray stays, their presence makes each party that little bit more appreciative than if you’d just gone out and ‘selected’ the relationship. The incoming awareness that each of you were able to survive beforehand generates a sense of mutual respect. And while that stray stays, there’s also the awareness that at any sweet minute things could change in any direction again – lives move on, times change, forces shift.


STRAYLYA, IT SEEMED to me, used to ‘get’ all that stuff. Used to value that laconic acceptance to live-and-let-live, and to make do with changing situations without resorting to prescriptive platitudes. There used to be a blunt curiosity about what strays might have brought along with them. It’s been there from the beginning; evidence of the bits and pieces that Macassan sailors traded with the Yolgnu over forty thousand years ago on the shorelines of north-east Arnhem Land have strayed all the way down to South Australia and further – passed on, no doubt, from strayer to curious strayer.

I’ve heard it said that non-Indigenous Australians don’t think they have a ‘real’ culture. It surfaced again recently in a forum I attended at Melbourne University. And if the underwhelming lack of effort the Australian government has put in to establishing a cultural presence overseas is any evidence, it’s easily believed to be true.

But, just as importantly, there’s a sense that Australians are much more culturally certain about what they’re not. They know that Australian cultural forms – its literature, dance, imagery, films – are distinctively different from those from the US or the UK. They recognise the space, the structures, the cadence, the big slow silences as clearly as they recognise the unmistakable song of a magpie. Yet there is a corresponding discomfort when encouraged to pin that kind of ‘cultural identity’ thing down. No wonder. Definitions about ‘who we are’ can be at best embarrassingly cliché and at worst restrictive. True strayers are wary of any definitions of who they are. They’re more interested in who they’re becoming. Of what they might become. Of keeping options open and understanding that flux and warp and change and a capacity to become are what’s made them who they are today. If only we could go back to recognising the value of the strayers – of knowing that that those are the kind for which the very heart of this country beats.

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