According to Jennifer E, Cross (PDF) ‘Sense of place has become a buzzword to justify everything from a warm fuzzy appreciation of the natural landscape to the selling of homesites in urban sprawl.’
Cross, frustrated with the concept of sense of place, examines the term as it is used in Anthropology, Environmental Psychology, Geography, Landscape Architecture, and Sociology — the main fields that study why certain places have an iconic identity and exhibit character that is felt by inhabitants and visitors alike. Cross’s dilemma emerged as two different aspects: one describing the relationship people have with places; and the other describing community attachments that evolve from the characteristics of a place.
Finding the term’s relationship to literature, however, is far more challenging and it causes me to ask why Elaine Fry used the phrase as a headline for an article referring to Kumakana: What about the novel evokes a reaction of this kind?
There is no question that place as a concept is important to the novelist.
Philip Hensher writes that ‘literature has to engage with the physical world, and with the culturally specific meanings of one place or another.’ He says that it is often the setting that comes to mind when he thinks of a novel he loves, not plot or character. ‘When the novelist’s eye falls on a particular stretch of earth,’ he says, ‘it can transform it forever.’
Transformation is, of course, the novelist’s ultimate cause, although it is usually associated with the transformation of character through the narrative, or of thought as a consequence of the narrative. That a novelist can transform a place perhaps raises the notional role of the novelist as artist, as a spatial realist. Kumakana tries to focus on its quality of place as central to its experience — after all its title emerges from this quality. I make the point, as Fry suggests, that having been raised on the land, there is a certain sense about the land that becomes part of you and I try to infuse the settings of my writing with that idea.
Fry says the novel ‘resonates strongly with a sense of place yet is not limited by location’. I’m interested in how Kumakana might achieve this.
The place of the great beginning
The story is located in a fictional place, but a setting generated by a real location. This is one of those curious aspects of Plot that Robert L Belknap talks about, where ‘The Fabula arranges events in the world the characters inhabit; the Siuzhet arranges events in the world the reader encounters in the text’. The fictional place and its making is the Kumakana forest – what I nominate as ‘the place of the great beginning’; but the reader can draw the connection to the real world place of the unique Australian southwest’s tingle forest — culturally, The Valley of the Giants.
We learn of this from Lavender Jensen’s mother:
Her mother had told her how the trees shaped the forest—the karri, among the world’s tallest, and the tingle, with its massive girth, one of the largest. She told her that their bark hid spiders with sixty-five million years of history. Some of these trees grew nowhere else on earth. But her mother didn’t stop at that.
‘There are secrets and legends far older than any recorded history,’ she said. ‘In an old language, this was called the Kumakana—it means the place of the great beginning. As far as forests go, this one is about as old as they get.’ (p. 5/6)
While the mystery of the forest grows in Lavender’s mind because of prior events like her mother’s scientific discovery in its ‘secret heart’, we become aware of its physical presence on earlier pages, when its trees are first identified as being ‘at the edge of the great forest’, and rising like columns in the ‘rampart of a great fort’, with leafy crowns that crackle as they toss ‘whispered incantations to the winds, passing on myths and legends of dark days and forgotten languages.’ The location of the Kumakana forest is specified as surrounding ‘a farm that was twenty-six kilometres by winding dirt road from Denmark.’ In Lavender Jensen’s eyes, this place might as well be as remote from her usual home as the country of Denmark, the size of which is about equivalent to that of the forest.
These images generate specific relationships people have with places like great forests and mappable geography, and they serve to establish expectations that the mystery the forest contains will be revealed at some point.
As the story unravels, we begin to see the forest from different perspectives, and therefore its potential as a location of community attachments which become evident in, as Hensher suggests, ‘part of the humanity at the centre of the endeavour’. The endeavour, of course, is to set the world right again, to return the Natural Order to its rightful settings, and this means unpacking, to some extent, conflicts that arise between communities because their purposes for the use of a place may be at odds.
These complex conflicts no doubt contribute to how Kumakana achieves its ‘strong sense of place’, but perhaps there exists another dimension to sense of place that is worth considering, and yet another that was a deliberate insertion into the story which may be recognised unconsciously, or not recognised at all.
Spirit of place
Environmental psychologist, Fritz Steele talks about Spirit of Place as ‘the combination of characteristics that gives some locations a special “feel” or personality (such as spirit of mystery or of identity with a person or group)’. Spirit, though, concocts the notion that something exists within the place outside of the characters who populate it, while at the same time it is carried within them. Which means, of course, that a spirit of place cannot exist without the characters that make it accessible.
The Gronups are the characters in Kumakana who represent the spirits, act as agents for the spirits, demonstrate that spirit is both part of who we are and some force that exists outside of us. The Gronups give Kumakana an added dimension to its sense of place by infusing their existence with characteristics that can only be drawn from place itself, such as the following example of how they get around.
The wind is Atnunga’s transport system—though not in any conventional way, as a bird or a kite or a balloon might use it. Atnunga surfs the sound waves the wind creates, riding the pulses to any destination that sounds penetrate. (p. 26)
But there’s another sense of place conjured by the word Gronup. What may not be evident to most readers is the use of ‘-up’ as a suffix.
In the local southwest Indigenous language, this term implies ‘place’. Consequently many of our southwest towns are named with the ‘-up’ suffix: Gnowangerup (place of mallee fowl – ‘gnow’), Cowaramup (place of purple crowned lorikeet – ‘cowara’), Pingrup (place where digging — possibly for bull-frog). There are many others of course.
Gronup was coined with a deliberate use of this suffix, intending to identify those who function in a place of grooming.
Gronups are everywhere, their principal role is to groom the animals, to provide their markings so that they are identifiable to their rightful predators, and it is in this way that they maintain the Natural Order and provide a Spirit of Place specific to their location.
Because ‘Kumakana’ is the place of the great beginning, it is only natural that Gronups originate there. In other words, Kumakana, as a location, cannot function without them. This becomes evident when we learn of how Babbildan Babbirra came to be appointed most revered leader of the Gronups — Yoolin-jah:
The spirits had nature worked out right down to the last detail. And there was no mincing their words when they told him that the appointment of Yoolin-jah is part of that detail.
‘It’s not something that can be changed. The magic is in you—not in the position of Yoolin-jah. It is your nature that holds the fabric of the Natural Order together. If we changed that, we’d have to change the Natural Order. And that’s not possible.’ (p. 63)