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A Family Place

November 20, 2012

By Alice Robinson


At Casuarina with friends. I am at far left.
Photo by Steph Tout:

Since 2008 I have been intensively thinking and writing about land, home and family. I set out to write a novel and exegesis about the disastrous impacts of climate change on Australia. I ended up writing, in part, about my own relationships to Australian lands as they have been shaped by contact with Casuarina, my father’s property.

Casuarina is in Wallan, north of Melbourne. My father first moved there with his family as a boy in 1956. The farm was subdivided in the 1970s and my father developed ten acres for himself. I grew up on that land with him, as well as in inner city Melbourne with my American mother. Although my father is quick to point out that two or three generations of contact is very little in the context of Indigenous connection to country, and even far less than many rural settler families can claim in other parts of Australia, it is a connection of a longevity more enduring than any other about which I personally know. While I thought I could shrug off that connection and move on to more exciting shores, in practice, I could not. Far from “getting away”, my attempt to move to England precipitated four years of Australian-centric writing, and research.

What I take from this experience is that you can sit down to write about any topic you desire, but the story you eventually tell will the one inside you, acknowledged or not as it may be. (Likewise, perhaps you can set out to live any life you like, but the one you will make for yourself is the one you inherit?) As I was crafting the PhD – and particularly as I laboured over the novel, finding myself time and again lost in characters and plot, unsure of what I was doing – I brought myself back to task with a simple directive: this is a story about how the past comes into the present and shapes the future. For me, the pastis (ever)present. In the novel, I wanted to explore the ways in which we are free (or not) to disregard our pasts and move in unprecedented ways through the world. I wanted to explore the connections to place that make us who we are, asking who we become when such ties are severed – and when they are upheld. If home is where the heart is, if home grounds us and ascribes us some kind of identity, what happens when that home is destroyed, or irrevocably altered? At what cost do we maintain connections to home places, sometimes despite the odds? How much of ourselves and our lives should we subjugate to the task of maintaining historical, familial places? Do we even have a choice in the matter?

The future of Casuarina has been an undercurrent in my life since I was old enough to understand its history, and appreciate the deep meaning it holds in, and for, my father’s life and my own. As a teenager and young adult, though I always loved that piece of land and felt connected to it, I found the weight of my potential responsibility suffocating, in that my future then appeared ready-charted, not by my own agency and decisions, but by circumstances determined by someone else, someplace else. When I imagined my life as it might unfold if I took up the work my father had begun, I was forced to acknowledge that I would most likely never grow old in Paris, or New York, or even Melbourne, but would have a particular kind of life, one that was not surprising and exotic, but largely familiar. In accepting the responsibility of custodianship, I would retain and preserve my history, but forfeit any number of potential futures…

It should perhaps come as no surprise, considering the headspace I have been inhabiting for the last years (you could say a lifetime, more accurately) that Leila Philip’s 2001 work A Family Place: A Hudson Valley Farm, Three Centuries, Five Wars, One Family sparked my interest. Yet in reading this remarkable narrative, I was indeed surprised, overcome even, to find that a writer on the other side of the globe had been considering, in their own way, the very issues I had for so long been grappling with. Of course, I know full well (after reading around the topic for so long) that Philips and myself are not the only writers to have dwelled on issues of home and land and inheritance and history. But somehow when you are working on something so intensely and for so long, the concerns of the work become very personal. At least, that was my experience. The issues and ideas start to feel unique to an isolating degree. It is, therefore, deeply touching and even invigorating to discover a narrative that, in some way, mirrors ones own work and experience. Philip’s book is wholly different to my work in form and content, but the questions she poses about property and history resonated strongly, delightfully. That being said, I have no doubt that regardless of a reader’s particular interests, A Family Place would intrigue and satisfy. Philip’s story – which is really the story of her family’s estate Talavera – is extraordinary.
Belonging to her family for at least three-hundred years, Philip’s connection to Talavera makes my connection to Casuarina appear ridiculously fleeting, brief. That Philip’s family have been shaping their family place for half a century longer than Europeans have been in Australia brings another kind of disconcerting perspective to the longevity of their ownership. It is difficult to conceive the scope of such inter-generational inhabitation on one piece of land. Considering the at least 40,000 year relationship Indigenous peoples have held with Australian lands is even more mind boggling. I don’t know a great deal about American Indigenous peoples’ relationships with their country prior to European settlement, but I imagine that it is comparably long. Talking about land “ownership” and connections to land (or country, as Australian Indigenous peoples call it) is complex and fraught in settler nations like Australia and, I wager, in America. I was therefore gratified to find that Philip makes mention of the previous custodians of the land that becomes Talavera in the opening pages of her book:

My family has owned this land since 1732, but that is only European time. For generations before the arrival of Henry Hudson and then my own family, Mohican Indians lived here, hunting and fishing along Claverack Creek and farming in a small way. That is, until 1649, when the Mohican chief Keesieway began to exchange his lands…for the pathetic payment of ten fathoms of cloth, ten kettles, ten axes, ten adzes, ten swords, ten necklaces of strung beads, ten knives and one firelock gun.

That the land known for so long as Talavera once belonged to the Mohicans – and was taken from them unjustly – is just one of the troubling historical undercurrents that Philip grapples with as she goes about uncovering and setting down her family’s story. Slavery too, unfortunately and necessarily, features in Philip’s family narrative because it features in the history of the place she writes so beautifully about. While Philip makes a heroic effort not to judge with contemporary understandings the actions and lives of her ancestors at Talavera, slavery existed, and the writer cannot help but cringe at the ways in which her family members perceived, in particular, their relationship to Tom, a freed slave who followed John Van Ness – Philip’s great-great uncle – into the civil war. Yet as Philip discovers and articulates so gorgeously, the past is unwieldy and complex. The story that one must tell about it, if it is to be truthful, is the story that exists, not the one we might so fervently wish for.

What did such things tell me about my family other than that the closet reflected the confusion I felt?…I had the impulse not to record these details, but to revise history as I went. Who would ever know? This is the nonfiction writer’s greatest temptation, tinkering with the facts: “If it’s not there, put it in…If it doesn’t seem to fit, take it out.” But I reminded myself that I was not here to make a story. I was here to find the story that waited.

I couldn’t help but think time and again just how lucky Philip was as a writer and researcher, how much easier her task was made by sheer ease of access to so much historical material: farm records, diaries and journals, letters, all lying about and stored in the house at Talavera. Because so many generations of the family had lived in the same house for so long – the house Philip herself grew up in – and because the family threw very little away but lived with the weight of history all around them, all Philip needed to do in order to begin her journey back in time was open a few cupboards. From these initial searches, Philip ends up with ‘twenty-five boxes of papers…a huge cache of letters, diaries, journals and other farm and family papers.’ It is hard to imagine such personal and historical bounty being so readily available. Once again, I am reminded how remarkable it must be to live a life so steeped, and grounded, in lives that have come before. Importantly, as Philip goes about reconstructing the events and lives that have proceeded her at Talavera, she notices that some histories are more whole and readily available than others. Specifically, the men of the family have been memorialised far more pervasively than the the women, many of whom appear to have lead fascinating, rebellious, independent lives in their own right – the lack of detail regarding the specificities of their experiences is therefore a terrible, though perhaps not surprising, loss.

The blank spaces These erasures of personal history that time and my family had wrought on these women’s lives was in such stark contrast with the detailed way the lives of the family’s men had been recorded that I wanted to recover these women, my aunts, my past.

Intertwined with Philip’s historical research is her own story, that of the contemporary farm at Talavera where Philip’s mother still lives, and Philip often goes to stay and work. In this way, the past and the present are braided together across A Family Place, as they are across the lives of all those who have lived there. I found the passages in which Philip describes the landscape of the property to be some of the most compelling and sensitively written sections of the book. It is clear from the way that Philip describes the orchards, the buildings, the light, the lie of the land, that Talavera is not only dear to her, but in her: ‘this place that had always whispered, “This is who you are.”‘ Though Philip discovers that the past is messy, contradictory, sometimes surprising, what is implicit in her journey and the narrative she constructs from it, is that the connections that bind people to home places are strong. So strong in fact, that they endure across many generations. So important, that time and again Philip’s family members will struggle to maintain them, even in the most dire of circumstances.

Leila Philip will be speaking at NonfictioNow at 10:30am on Thursday the 22nd of November, alongside Ross Gibson andDavid Carlin. Their panel is titled Picturing the Essay. Fellow NonfictioNow blogger Pepi Ronalds from The Future of Longform has conducted a wonderful interview with Philip, in which the writer discusses her most recent work and the upcoming panel. Read it here.


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