Selected for The Best Australian Essays 2015
EVERY FEW MONTHS my mother flies north from Perth to Karratha with a prosthetic penis in her carry-on luggage. At check-in, she says, she watches the x-ray operator closely, anticipating their double-take. She suspects that one day her case will be pulled from the queue and publicly unpacked, so she keeps a letter of explanation from her employer folded in her handbag. To date, the airport staff have always been too busy screening the mineworkers boarding at that early hour – swabbing their bags and jackets for explosives, making provision for the transportation of industrial detonators – to react to one rubberised phallus, flashing across their monitors with the slapstick punctuality of a prank. My mother’s case coasts through unopened, flanked by pairs of steel-capped boots that pile in a clunking tangle on the end of the conveyor belt. In thick socks, their owners shuffle through the metal detector.
Once I got a kick out of the idea of the plastic penis sailing through the luggage scanners, a little feminist rush from that incursion into the coercively masculine space of the mines. But one way to explain what my mother is doing with the plastic parts of a man she is conveying up north is that she is participating in a symbolic order whereby the worker is unembodied. The other contraption she sometimes carries with her is a single latex arm with peristaltic veins that pulse, packed in a violin case. Who is this person, I used to wonder? Is she is putting him together on the plane?
It is blood that is my mother’s trade – she works for a pathology company.
In the 2011–12 financial year, around 33,100 men and women flew to the Pilbara region of Western Australia, following the financial inducements of the minerals and energy boom. A continent ensconced within a continent, the Pilbara’s rocks are some of the earth’s oldest. Iron ore, hematite – the valuable plate-rock of the Pilbara – is named after the Greek αἷµα (haima) – ‘blood’ – for its rufous colour. The poet Mark O’Connor notes in his book Pilbara (John Leonard Press, 2009) that the red lava flows near Roebourne date 3.2 billion years, birthdaying with minerals on the moon. The WA Local Government Association estimates that in the last twenty years the number of non-resident employees in the region has increased 400 per cent. Most work at mining these ancient repositories.
My mother helps to train the phlebotomists and collectors who handle drug and alcohol testing on site. The transnational corporations that dominate the region are invested in a few key components of their workers’ physical bodies. Every major mining operation conducts routine, randomised blood and urine testing for stimulants, depressants, hallucinogens and alcohol – a requirement enshrined in legislation. My mother’s mother was also a blood collector and she worked the Wheatbelt, taking and transporting warm or cold vials, haemoglobin-red (often testing them for iron). My grandmother is still known by those in the business for her steady hands and her local knowledge – even after she retired she was sometimes called out to bleed patients with small or ailing veins. ‘Getting blood from a stone’ might make a good family motto.
Urine samples, by mandate of the companies in the Pilbara, are to be taken under observation. The plastic penis is a dummy (available online), which is attached to a bag of ‘clean’ urine hidden somewhere underneath the clothes. The decoy my mother shows to her trainees is an example of how far men have been known to go to dodge a positive result. The arm in the violin case meanwhile is a practice apparatus, so that trainee collectors don’t begin by bruising real people. So my family is involved with another kind of extractive industry: drawing a tributary of blood – millilitre by millilitre – from under so many skins and ferrying it back to laboratories in Perth.
YOU HEAR ABOUT the lock-ins when the cyclones come through the north-west, suspending on-site operations for days at a time. Bent Xbox marathons and hard drinking sessions in stuffy rooms. But the most infamous benders happen during the weeks away from site – entire pay packets put down on red or black. Studies show boredom, fatigue, stress, low levels of social attachment and high disposable income foster conditions conducive to drug use and hard drinking among the mineworkers. Frequent seizures of legal highs such as Kronic, K2 and Karma (all synthetic cannabis), and the on-site banning of body building supplements such as Jack3d, have curtailed the use of recreational stimulants but there are many tactics for avoiding a positive result on a drug test. Such ingenuities thrive in the Pilbara. One story I was told described how tests are randomly assigned by drawing a white marble out of a pouch of coloured marbles. Before passing around the pouch, the site-manager puts the white marble in a pot of boiling water so that, by touch, workers who are confident of giving a positive result can identify and avoid it.
Being ‘on the swing’, it used to be called. They come from Busselton, Broome, Perth, Sydney, Auckland, Bali and further yet. Now known as FIFO – fly-in fly-out (pronounced as in fee-fie-fo-fum, fie-fo) – it’s arguably Australia’s most extensive, expensive and recurrent internal migration. Arguably, because no national authority collects reliable, impartial data on the region’s transient workforce. Mineworkers don’t register a second address, change their electoral enrolment or claim Medicare benefits apropos their on-site residence. Rates are paid on property owned in feeder communities and driver’s licences are listed to primary residential addresses, so it’s difficult to track the flow of employment into, out of and around the north-west. The paucity of hard data on how many people work FIFO stints and for what duration led a February 2013 Parliamentary report, Cancer of our Bush or the Salvation of our Cities?, to deem such workforces ‘shadow populations’. Yet for many established regional towns the shadow is anything but a nebulous, shifting presence. FIFO labour forces are literally high visibility: a permanent presence in the streets, the shops and on the roads that attend the subterranean boluses of ore found there.
THE REGISTERED NAMES of mining operations give something away that the recruitment brochures do not. A quick scan of the minedex database of deposits and prospects, maintained by the WA Department of Mines and Petroleum, reveals past and present proposals lodged under jokey phrases like ‘Chunderloo’, ‘Snottygobble’, ‘Three Boys–Golden Pig Underground’, ‘Electric Dingo’, ‘The Big Bell Gold Crown Great Waste Dump’, ‘Hope for the Best Tailings Disposal’ and ‘The Silver Swan Crushing Circuit’. (The last two are, perhaps, inadvertently humorous, being extensions of established mine-names. ‘Hope for the Best’ makes more sense pegging out an unexplored tenement.) Other names are quips of a different sort: ‘The Golden Shower (at Kitty’s Gap)’, ‘Blink Models Ltd., Wet Dream at North Star’, ‘Mount Pleasant Black Lady Pit (Tailings Disposal)’, ‘Barbara’s Surprise Underground’, ‘Big Dick Prospecting: Scrape and Detect’.
Today’s boom – which is waning – is the third to glean from WA, and the largest in a series of Australian economic explosions led by mineral extraction and exportation. The first entailed the great gold and copper rushes of the late 1800s, a time of renegade prospectors. I was born during the dog days of the second boom – nickel, gold, petroleum, bauxite, alumina and iron ore in the late ’70s, early ’80s. My father, a young electrician, emigrated from the United Kingdom and found work on the excavation of Newman’s Mount Whaleback. The workplace safety regimes that prevail in the sector now were then no more than perfunctory, and he left that job after one too many close calls with electrocution. As he tells it, he leapt from a turbine with seconds to spare when a workmate inadvertently began powering up the grid. While he was shaken enough to quit and retrain in another industry, many of Dad’s mates still worked in mining (or associated trades) throughout my childhood. Blundstones lined up by the front door in Perth, reflective vests slung over the chair backs. Argyle, Hamersley, Robe River and the Super Pit, distantly disgorging rocks, metal, water. Men’s shorts from that time showed their legs, matted with nubs of plaster or grease and as strong as if they’d waded back through the ground itself.
My stories about the Pilbara began then, but not as stories about remoteness or heavy industry; they were personal stories about bodies, about family and about connection.
I WAS NINE when my uncle Terry, then a geologist for Western Mining, gifted me a lapidary kit of stones from the region. The ’87 crash was behind us and the market was ramping up again by dint of international energy prices. ‘Lapidary’, an old, alchemic word, does not belong in the lexicon of mining. The term derives from a mystic age when stonecutting, chemistry and philosophy were one trade and certain minerals were believed to have metaphysical properties. In the modern sense, lapidary designates the polishing, carving and display of decorative gemstones – a pastime of hobbyists and new-agers, who sometimes refer to themselves as ‘rockhounds’. My uncle wasn’t a rockhound, but I was a collector. More specifically, I was drawn to collecting objects for which elaborate backstories could be created, things like old coins and driftwood. Uncle Terry thought the stones might fit that description.
In the lapidary kit, each rock was set into a divot on a foam mounting. The case contained twelve different minerals. One was rippled red and white like ossified lasagne. Another was so delicately fretted it looked as if it had been left out in the cold to crust with frost. I would have worn the fool’s gold on a chain around my neck, had I owned a chain thick enough. It was an exceptional thing for a nine-year-old to own, matched to the schoolyard craze for ‘mood stones’ (rings set with plastic opals that were meant to change colour according to the wearer’s emotions). At show-and-tell I proudly laid out my rocks one by one for the class, naming chert, dolerite, quartz, sandstone, agate, hematite, pyrite, marble, gelignite. I hovered over that last rock; black, faceted in small battens that caught the light.
‘I don’t think that is gelignite,’ said my teacher warily, standing up behind her desk. Thereafter, my lapidary set was confiscated for examination by the principal and the class was turned out for a brisk run on the oval.
I have thought about the lapidary kit often since, and have dreamt about it on and off again for the past twenty years. Nothing that so captivates is lost to the unconscious mind, even if spelunking to deep memory is required to retrieve it. I am turning the shining rocks, explaining each for an unseen listener. What I called gelignite was likely to have been rough black tourmaline or volcanic obsidian (although the rocks drew a mesmerising charge from Pilbara, it is possible not all of them were actually from there). Semiprecious, the gems’ greatest worth was as eye-catchers. Cold to touch and gratifying to gauge in a palm or a pocket, they were variously heavier or lighter than they appeared. How had these objects surfaced in such rough country? Tiny feats discharged by immense systems, from primordial time. They seemed to have undergone otherworldly transformations – acts of accretion and compression beyond scientific knowledge. The hearts of mountains seized. Part of their appeal was an imaginative disjunction with the scale, ferocity and fierce monotony of the environment in which they had been forged.
In my dreams, I’ve forgotten the names. Or I remember the names, but the case is only full of dun river stones or no stones at all. What were those rocks ever meant for, but to evoke an unobtainable terrain? A terra incognita brought to life in the mind of myself at nine, a place I still reach for.
EACH OF US has within us a formative landscape, and I think of those people I know now who grew up on the hematite ground and have never been able to wash the red off their feet – even after so many decades of living in cities where they rarely, if ever, go barefoot. Few of us so palpably evince the places we have been shaped by, though our lines of thought may also betray us, propagated over topography as surely as plants grow up an espalier. In an essay titled ‘Raw Material’, written for Westerly in 1961, the author Randolph Stow described his conviction that solid terrain is assimilated into our mental country, rumpling our ideas and creative impulses in ways we’re not always alert to:
When one thinks of it closer at hand, ‘environment’ as the artist meets it, is almost too complex a thing to be written about at all. The boundary between an individual and his environment is not his skin… The external factors, geographical and sociological, are so mingled with his ways of seeing and states of mind that he may find it impossible to say what he means by his environment, except in the most personal and introspective terms… The environment of a writer is as much inside him, as in what he observes.
Stow, more so than any other Australian writer I can think of, mined his internal stratigraphy for the substance of his novels and poems. His work domesticates the kinetic energy of Western Australia’s vastness to human relationships, with devastating effect. But what happens when the defining quality of the geology that orientates your creative navigations is its instability? When the ground figuratively ‘beneath your feet’ is not there – is not even where you fling your imagination out to – for it flows onto computer-driven trains and off the edge of Australia, is carried by bulk cargo ships across the ocean, is changed through hot alchemy in foreign steel mills, to come to brace great municipal buildings, make monuments, make money.
The Pilbara landscape that undergirded my imagination was both fugitive and, like its workforce, constantly mobile. An imaginative shadowlands. Homogenous and strange. The rocks in the lapidary set didn’t just speak of a place far away, they were that place; their presence testified to its continued plundering and erasure. If I ever got to visit the Pilbara myself (which didn’t happen until I was in my twenties) I suspected that the minerals I knew from their samples might already have disappeared, shipped wholesale to China, Japan or South Korea. At the very least, they’d be harder to find. The Pilbara of my youth, which the kit betokened, was to remain unreal and unreachable – littered with luminous, lunar stones. It was an environment I might have as readily arrived at as Lilliput or Middle Earth. Everything taken from there could not be put back.
Yet, it could be transformed. As if by some strange force of transubstantiation, what was hauled out of the earth in the Pilbara turned up in Perth as slithery heaps of blue metal and yellow builder’s sand. Everyone’s family was renovating, pressing out, turning their wages into structures. We flung boondies at each other (hard pellets of sand: a Noongar word and the snowballs of the west) in the vacant lots of new developments, running through roofless houses and dry swimming pools. The outer suburbs wore an apron of land, ironed smooth in anticipation of future growth.
People, too, were changed by working in and travelling through the Pilbara – they returned wealthy, injured, muscular or drunk. They came back with new and unnameable ambitions. Tall shadows stayed behind them when they were on site and some remained shadows when they returned, possessed by an idea, a conviction or new habits. At the very beginning of that boom, the journalist Osmar White called it a ‘journey through the land of I-believe’ in Under the Iron Rainbow (Heinemann, 1969). Faith that the ground would keep on relinquishing, and faith in the companies that turned it over.
There was a generative restlessness to the era of the second boom that I probably internalised – the idea that motion itself could be a moral conviction. All that exploratory pegging of the earth, the tunnelling down for fresh finds – that felt like expansion, like progress. Virtues like rigour, tenacity, even a feral kind of patriotism, underpinned that ceaseless exertion – men’s labour plying loose the land. But those values were already beginning to fossilise. Advances in technology and mechatronics, coupled with increased capital costs, had long since collapsed the pioneering, individualist persona of the Australian miner and replaced it with foreign investment and the corporate superintendence of the region. Shrewdly, the ‘Big Miners’ colonised the myth and repackaged it. They still do.
NOSTALGIA HOLDS THAT the Pilbara used to be place of big personalities and unorthodox ideas. Where the self-made man was not just an economic category, but a civic one. Back then, it was always men. In the landscape they saw their inscrutability reflected. All that untrammelled, geologic tyranny, the scale of their success. Capitalism has relied on a roving class of workers pulled to manual labour, in agriculture and mining in particular. Historically, their living conditions were arduous. The Australian Bureau of Statistics might find it challenging to track FIFO workers through their residencies now, but consider that in the gold rush era of the mid to late 1800s most workers lived in temporary dugouts, shanties and burrows – actual burrows – which were hollowed into the banks of rivers and flooded regularly, fostering waterborne disease. They ate a scurvy diet. Backed into their dens and wrapped in oilskins, the dreams that drifted up to those men from the silted riverbeds were of twenty-three carat nuggets. It was a frontier and, as on all frontiers, hope was the main resource they mined.
The iron ore export embargo, put in place to reserve resources or national industry, was lifted in 1960. As Jennie Hardie recounts it in her 1981 report Nor’Westers of the Pilbara Breed, the initial celebrations in Port Hedland were lavish. At Poons’ Mess on Spinifex Hill, locals were sumptuously wooed:
[T]here were stewards at every elbow, handing out drinks and fancy hors d’oeuvres, chefs in tall hats…behind great long tables, serving guests from trays loaded with prawns, fresh lobster, oysters sitting in ice, smoked ham, roast suckling pig, sides of beef and a mass of mouth-watering salads.
There the British directors of Goldsworthy Mining Associates disarmed residents with the promise of lush times ahead. Fee-fi, here come the giants. The construction crew that poured the first tennis court in the town consisted of Hungarian, Italian, German, Spanish, Latvian and Thursday Island labourers – the forefathers of the modern FIFO workforce. These were the men to become the lumpers, the graders, the drivers, the winders, the skippers and the miners. Later, a residual purple dust kicked up by the mine settled over everything in the town. White birds turned red and the mood changed.
Better the red air though, than the blue air of Wittenoom and Port Sampson, where fibrous asbestos was extracted and shipped. Workers, including George Aitchison, would later describe airborne asbestos ‘like a field of snow’ on the jetty heads and ‘hanging like stalactites’ from the rafters of storage sheds (I’ve Had a Good Life, Hesperian Press, 2010). Sad irony that this fibrillate mineral, touted for its life-preserving properties in proofing buildings against bushfire, should become the source of Australia’s most savage, capricious and enduring industrial disaster. In Wittenoom, the boom slowed to a clotted rattling in the chest. Records show that, to date, the lung cancer mesothelioma, triggered by inhaling asbestos filaments, has taken the lives of more than ten thousand people Australia-wide.
By the 1970s, Lang Hancock wanted the country opened out along its north-west edge with nuclear bombs. The region was already haunted by mushroom clouds: in the 1950s the peace of the labyrinthine Montebello Islands, 130 kilometres off the Pilbara coast, was shattered by British nuclear tests. ‘I’d cheerfully eat lunch in an atomic crater,’ Hancock said. Later came financial scandals. The Lalor brothers, Peter and Chris, descendants of Eureka Stockade bloodstock, whose first mine was engineered by the thirty-first President of the United States, Herbert Hoover, are still remembered with bitterness in the region. Under their stewardship, Sons of Gwalia was described by Alan Kohler in the Sydney Morning Herald (August, 2005) as running ‘a sort of movie set township, with painted facades of profitability propped up by rickety hedging deals that were destined to fail’.
THAT THE DECOY penis, which suggested to me transgression, turns out to be an apparatus of control is emblematic of a lot of what’s going on in the Pilbara now. Those japing mine names and the blood test dodging might be the last flickers of subversive spirit from a former age. What the FIFO workforces inhabit now is, to borrow from American author Rebecca Solnit’s Storming the Gates (University of California Press, 2007), a ‘postcommunal, postrural, posturban, postplace’. Economic personhood has supplanted frontierism and civic notoriety (let alone civic engagement). The idea of ‘the public’ has been whittled back to its barest passible elements. People and machines are treated as interchangeable. Neither have a deep connection to the places they unearth or to the communities that are built there; that is, the communities that will remain there after the mines are depleted. The wages are colossal and the knock-on effects, in terms of local property prices, are extreme. Salaries in the north-west are, on average, two-thirds higher than the national median. Though there have been marginal decreases in line with the boom’s decline, in 2011 an entry-level truck driver without mining experience was being paid $120,000 per annum, while a supervisor or foreman was earning anything between $135,000 to $230,000. It’s still cheaper to fly cut sandwiches up from Perth than it is for a baker to live in Karratha. McDonald’s decided not to open a store in Newman because of the lack of affordable housing for their employees. Meanwhile, in Perth garages, jet-skis and quad-bikes grown dusty from abandonment indicate the high-water mark of the boom.
Though the conditions in the camps have improved (air-conditioning, pay TV and ‘lifestyle consultants’ all feature in the pitch), the hours are harder and the work is more isolating. Overseas staff from client companies can be on-site for the duration of long projects, working twenty-four days straight followed by three days ‘R&R’ in Perth; they go back to their home country once every four months, for a week. There are more women working the mines today than in the 1970s and ’80s – on site and in the engineering offices (though gender parity still doesn’t extend to the boardrooms). I’m told by my female friends that the FIFO sites remain gruff in mood and vernacular, that it’s hard to strike up sociable banter. When we get together they show me the explicit and uninvited texts received after dark – advice that if they hope to be ‘sorted out’ they should leave $50 in the fridge for a cleaner. They recount sex-splashed stories from the wet mess, where the weak beer does little to water down the violence of fantasies retold. And each wonders aloud how much longer they will endure it.
The unions have won recent court battles, but the modus operandi of the big multinationals – which they aggressively pursue – is to negotiate individualised contracts with their workforce. Five-day weeks broken into eight-hour shifts have given way to back-to-back twelve-hour rosters, in a constant twenty-four hour, seven-days-a-week output cycle. After such shifts, it would reasonable to expect that getting a drink with your workmates – even sharing a conversation – might be a struggle. In early 2011, a fifty-four-year-old man died in his donga in Karratha’s Gap Ridge Village. No one noticed his disappearance for four days. This is the upshot of destroying connections between people and places: the connections of people to people are likewise loosened. Eventually they break.
On the streets in Perth now you see less of those T-shirts people used to wear that said something like ‘No Stop Work Injury Time: 112 Days!’. Workplace safety is the new dogma. Hearing booths, hydration assessments, three points of contact on a structure at all times. Carry clear, safety and sunglasses. But in a suburban Woolworths last Christmas I queued behind a man carrying five turkey rolls and wearing a shirt that read ‘FIFO – Fit In or Fuck Off’. The ubiquitous fluorescent gear that distinguishes mineworkers is banned in some Pilbara pubs as tantamount to gang colours, while the media links community perceptions of public safety in the region to the presence of FIFO workers (as do many community members). So the distance between the mine-site and the world beyond it grows longer. Who looks at the ore tumbling from the conveyor belt into the hold of the ship and wonders, whose country is that anyway?
MINING’S CORPORATE HISTORY is long, but the world’s oldest con-t-inuing mine, in the north of WA, was not dug for ore, gold or diamonds. Indeed, the mine sought no financial profit at all. At Wilgie Mia the commodity obtained was ochre. Wilgie Mia, in the Weld Ranges near Cue, is an eerie place where stopovers are ill-advised without the observance of strict cultural protocols. Long subterranean galleries follow dark red, yellow and green coloured seams. It is a ‘stop and pillar’ mine, where the ceiling is supported by struts and scaffolding made from the rock. Some fourteen thousand cubic metres of stone and earth have been removed through careful engineering. The kangaroo, Marlu, was speared nearby in the Dreamtime. The ochre at Wilgie Mia is tri-coloured for Marlu’s blood, his liver and his gall, which all leached out when he fell onto the ground there. These minerals are called ‘sparkling’ ochres because of their density and colour, and the fact that they do not aggravate the skin on application as a pulverised paste. The Wajarri Yamatji people, whose custody extends to the mine, have law practices involving the pigments that stretch back at least thirty thousand years. The ochre was dispersed in pieces out to groups in the Kimberley, to the south as far as Ravensthorpe, and east into Queensland.
Yet, although Aboriginal people were this country’s first working miners, the boom has consistently toppled, broken and unfastened their land from its original stories and storytellers. All that motion, all that transformation. Flying in, flying out. Even as digging tells a fresh story, it disrupts storied ground in ways that mean the telling can’t be the same. What feels like progress in Perth can look a lot more like destruction on country. While the commercial and cultural inflections of the mineral industries are a part of the city’s texture, our working images of mined spaces are few and limited. Those images are themselves carefully refined.
The most visible landscapes of the Pilbara now appear in art sponsored by the mining companies – photographic shows and publications like Edward Burtynsky’s Minescapes (2008); the many design projects of form; and movies like Red Dog (2011) and Japanese Story (2003). These are the pictures that have rushed in to fill the hole called ‘Pilbara’ that exists in the public’s imagination. From far out, the sheer scale of development is sublime (as Burtynsky’s photos, in particular, illustrate). Mount Whaleback, named in the 1950s for its rolling shape, today designates not merely the absence of a mountain but a mountain inverted: its five kilometre ziggurat walls descend to a slot of olive-grey ground. As human activity digs deeper into that country, human imagination settles so lightly upon it – for these are places that are meant to be flown over, into and out of. To allow your mind to dwell on the meaning and history of the many alternative stories that emanate from the Pilbara is, in a way, politically radical. Such gestures refuse the corporatisation of our imagination.
‘The ore being ground, they divide it in several heaps and then begin to essay,’ wrote an ‘unnamed scientist’ in 1368 – the oldest usage of the word ‘essay’, identified by John D’Agata in his edited anthology The Next American Essay (Graywolf Press, 2003). Etymologically, to essay once specified the weighing of metals. Weighing is contemplating, both palms up. Before that, ‘unearthing’. Turning things over to examine their underside (and the inching discoveries beneath). To essay then, is to dig the valuable material out of the mullock and set it on the scales. There is so much digging going on in this state; some of it gives, but what it gives isn’t always fortuitous. Most of it takes. Here I am too, tiny pickaxe in hand, raking through the past.
MY UNCLE TOLD us other types of stories. Stories about alluvial gulches of red rubble that ran over dead watercourses, and how the stones clinked like spoons when you walked on them as they were made of so much iron. The sparse trees, he said, were glossy on one side of their trunks from the rubbing of cattle being driven past. I read of Dampier’s great solar salt flats, which are periodically mowed. The mowing machines shave a thin crust of salt crystals off for sale to chemical factories. Those wet salt flats are inhabited by milkfish, introduced to control algae, and birds sometimes come to prey upon them – though they must not taste as mild as their name suggests, for all their lives the fish occupy the bitterns and brines and they are full of Y-shaped bones. Hardly any other animals can tolerate it. There are salt ‘gardens’ too: smaller-scale operations, tended by salt gardeners who must feel a certain enviable pride when the light hits their immaculate paddocks in the morning, like so much unmarked paper.
Folklore has it that fossickers and small-claims prospectors once believed the Pilbara’s buried metals could be read upside down in the sky. They’d scan incoming storms for ‘lightning nests’ – electrical clusters towed around the low-hanging cloud cover by the polarity of minerals below ground. Where lightning lingered, or struck the ground repetitively, a lode was thought to lie folded between sedimentary layers. Earthing – a word from my electrician father’s argot. Compasses flicked, uncertainly magnetised. This was a compelling idea, and for me it rhymed with the American ‘thunder eggs’ that Perth Museum displayed under spotlights on the second floor. Thunder eggs are geodes, the granite exterior of which divulges nothing of the glittering yolk within – starry crystals, formed in a cavity called a ‘vug’, which are only revealed when the stone is halved. They are remarkable objects. You could buy smaller thunder eggs at the Subiaco Markets on Rokeby Road and of course, I did. Last year, as if to verify the faith of those early prospectors who scanned the clouds, the moon was found buried under Eel Creek. Researchers from The University of Western Australia and Curtin University were surprised to identify ‘tranquillityite’, a lunar basalt with fox-red crystals, in their rock wafer scans.
From those formative days of imagining a landscape in abeyance, the Pilbara taught me how places are compiled from reticulated systems as much as by discrete objects. The pull between geology and sky, the pull between the south and the north, the pull of the past on the present. Flying in, flying out. To understand a landscape as a series of stories, energetically tugged between voices, means no place can be entirely isolated, nowhere is amnesiac. The ground is opened here, here, again here, always as it is there.