Affective Habitus: Coming ‘Home’

Affective Habitus: New Environmental Histories of Botany, Zoology and Emotions’ is ASLEC-ANZ’s biennal conference being held at the Australian National University, Canberra (June 19-21). In this post, Evelyn elaborates a rich response to the conference’s topic that takes us on a journey across various habitats, exploring their affective impact on connection, identity and belonging. 

The view only ten minutes walk from my house, back in the area I grew up and made famous by the Heidelberg School of painters who loved the natural landscape.

The view only ten minutes walk from my house, back in the area I grew up and made famous by the Heidelberg School of painters who loved the natural landscape.

I am an architect’s daughter most at home in the built landscape, not nature. I’m flâneur most comfortable strolling the streets and winding lanes of cities strange and familiar, not bushwalking.

I am, I thought, perhaps oblivious to my surroundings, inhabiting as I do the life of the mind.

And then I moved. And I realized I was wrong. And I understood home was not a building, but the land around me. Where I felt ‘at home’ was the space I shared not just with other people but also with the plants and rivers and animals. I have discovered that just as the body remembers riding a bike, there is also a memory of place – of home – that resides in our bodies.

It was a seismic shift and a relatively small one. When my marriage ended, I moved back to familiar territory, a suburb close to where I grew up and to my family, coming back to the safety of home if you like with the young in tow. We are, like the animals we are, creatures of habit, drawn back to familiarity and the safety of home.

And while I didn’t shift continents or even cities, seeing the once familiar landscape around me again suddenly brought back with it floods of memories for who I once was. I was not prepared for this, or the ways in which the landscape would have such an impact.

The place we inhabit – the emotional topography of our surroundings – is more than incidental. It leaves a lasting impact on how we see the world. Some things about our planet seem to sink into our soul, in subtle ways we are not aware of.

The upcoming conference ‘Affective Habitus: New Environmental Histories of Botany, Zoology and Emotions’ at the Australian National University, Canberra (June 19-21) draws together scholars from the arts and sciences along with politicians and members of the public to discuss critical and creative responses to an urgent planetary situation. It is part of a new conversation taking place in Australian universities in response to the environment, challenging us to rethink the ways we conceive of our planet: a home that we share with other species, and one that we have impacted upon severely.

On a micro level, I would like to share my experiences of finding ‘home’, and feeling ‘at home’ in the landscape. As I tease out the memories, I realize that the environment around me has had more of an impact than I have given it credit.

Dressed for the English winter: the author takes her first steps away from Australian soil.

Dressed for the English winter: the author takes her first steps away from Australian soil.

I went to England as a baby with my parents and returned at seven on a ship. That line in the horizon between water and sky is one I have searched out ever since so familiar it became. And I would count the years I had been in Australia against the ones of my ‘home’, now gone, until the England of my memories receded like that speck of land as the ship pulled out of port, until any trace of my accent had broadened and flattened, until I could no longer imagine even the touch of snow on my skin, the tangle of mittens, the frost etched deep on the car window. England was the past. I was Australian.

Though I have enduring nightmares of immense railway stations and railway tracks, which as an adult returning ‘home’ I now know were Paddington and Victoria Stations, it is the landscape that I sunk beneath my skin, the environment, the earth, the weather. The very British flowers – the bright harsh pansies, the green, green grass, along with the winter snow and the frost and the iced up lake near our house, all were elusive on the other side of the world.

England, my Lionheart: The Green of my childhood remembered at Blenheim Palace, close to Oxford University where I gave a paper last year. The landscape is cultivated, man made, a trick of the eye.

England, my Lionheart: The Green of my childhood remembered at Blenheim Palace, close to Oxford University where I gave a paper last year. The landscape is cultivated, man made, a trick of the eye.

I make sense of a place by drawing it. I travel everywhere with sketch books and pens and ink and watercolors and my travelling companions have learnt to wander off or take a book and let me draw. When I returned to England as an adult, it was the smell of the grass as I sat and sketched that was the green of my childhood remembered. I was six again, as if sucked into a time vortex. As if down a rabbit hole, on the other side of the world, I was ‘home’.

I have returned many times to England as an adult, and each time it is profoundly familiar and not at all ‘home’ in any way. The older I get, the less my longing for this home, until I simply see the urban decay, the over crowding, the smallness of it all. There I will be, in England, longing to be at the other end of the world, longing for ‘home’, for Australia. For the sunshine and the blue skies and the endless spaces. Even for the parched brown grass of summer rather than the endless green. For the wild coastline and sprawling beaches, and even for the heart of the continent, where I have visited so rarely for the lasting impact it has made on me. I can only imagine how changed the early white settlers became after experiencing the interior.

Dolos - compellingly 'home' - my father's village in remote northern Greece.

Dolos – compellingly ‘home’ – my father’s village in remote northern Greece.

That I feel ‘at home’ in England is perhaps not strange given my childhood there. But why did I feel like I ‘came home’ the first time I went to Greece, only four years ago? For many reasons my family never returned when I was growing up in Australia, and my father only started going back regularly less than 10 years ago himself. Yet the first time he returned, with a mass of photos of the family village in remote northern Greece, my heart lurched and my hand stretched out at one – a crumbled stone fence, a thick wooded copse, dappled light. “Where is that? That seems – so familiar” I blurted out.

My father told me it was a stone wall built by his grandfather. My great grandfather. Out of all those photos, it was the one that had some link between the land and my blood that spoke to me, as it did when I visited for myself. For the first time, as a child of migrants, I was finally in a place that I could call ‘home’ – a place where my father ran around as a child, the trees he climbed, the mountains he scoured, the branches of the chestnut trees he swung on and the chestnut pits my yaiyai dug. Here was the house my great-grandparents built, and at night, as the wolves howled from the mountains that loomed large in front of us, I could feel the pull of something stronger than I had experienced in Australia; home, a connection to the land.

I realize I am very lucky in being able to return somewhere and have this claim to a place when so many other European migrants cannot. My mother for instance is a displaced person, and the country she was born in, the one she grew up in and the one her family called home are all different, courtesy of the second world war. So many people cannot go home because of the maps that have been drawn – the borders to these places disputed and erased, names now only in history books. There is nowhere for my mother to return that is ‘home’. Unlike my father, who knows every twist and turn of the old monastery near the village, where he and the other children would play and scour the mulberry tree for fruit and drink rancid oil from the lamps in starving desperation during the harshest years of the war.

The Monastery where my father sought refuge as a child in war torn Greece, and the tree he and the other boys raided for fruit.

The Monastery where my father sought refuge as a child in war torn Greece, and the tree he and the other boys raided for fruit.

My mother’s mother tells me how she collected amber on the beaches around Riga when she was a girl, and I have a necklace made from her findings. I wear a lot of amber as it is a symbolic link to a home I will never know, a past lost whose memories are preserved for me only in stories and photos, and a deep longing I grew up listening to second hand, for birdsong and trees never to be seen or heard again.

We long for the earth under us to have some claim on our past. Not for nothing do we say ‘putting down roots’. We are part of the planet’s ecosystem, and like the trees around us, we are native to a place no matter how far the seeds blow us in the winds of migration. Social, political, financial, career – these are the currents in which we drift around the globe, of our making and desire or not.

Maybe home is where the heart is. Home is the place around us, the land beneath us. Can we ever feel completely at home if we are not in our familiar space? We can marry into homes, be cuckoos in the forest and lakes we have settled into, but no matter how much we adapt, there will always be that pull and longing – or at least that overwhelming nostalgia and familiarity – when we return (if we can) one last time to ‘home’.

Affective Habitus is the fifth biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature, Environment & Culture, Australia and New Zealand (ASLEC-ANZ); an Environmental Humanities collaboratively with The ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions; and a Minding Animals International partner event.

Conference details and early-bird registration rates can be found at: http://www.historyofemotions.org.au/events/affective-habitus.aspx

Evelyn Tsitas is the postgraduate representative for ASLEC-ANZ.

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