Renee Pettitt-Schipp reflects on her poetic commission as part of New Shoots WA in 2019.
On a perfect summer morning, the eucalypts and I are breathing, each inhaling the out-breath of the other. This common act of being alive is imbued with an inherent reciprocity. Reciprocity implies relationship, but relationship does not guarantee acceptance. It is precisely the difficult journey of my need to be embraced by a place ‘injured beyond trust’, that I feel is expressed in this suite of poems. If the last twelve months of living in the Great Southern has taught me anything, it is that our relationship with country, like any relationship, must be earned.
I arrived in Denmark in Western Australia’s Deep South in late January, 2018. I had left a community, both ecological and social, that had been traumatised by the Barnett Government’s attempt to force a highway through our local wetland. At the end of a bitter, thirty-year long struggle, the proposed highway was defeated, but in the process the wetlands and surrounding ecosystem that had sustained me in suburban Perth, were radically altered. Fifteen months ago, I sat on my balcony with my morning coffee looking out to where a thriving forest of banksia had once lived, to a clearing that revealed what was previously screened by green. My house now looked out to a road of trucks, endless cars and brutal sun. After sixteen years of building a home and lush garden with my family, I suddenly knew this house was no longer a place where I could stay.
I arrived in Denmark with a mixture of excitement, longing and grief. Searching for new solace in the natural world, still grieving what I had left behind, I needed to find a way into this shimmering new wild-scape, a shifting and watery world between forest and sea. So I walked. I listened. I waited.
The Great Southern is one of the most biodiverse regions on the globe. The incredible scale and scope of animals and plants thrilled me, balmed me, yet I had a consistent sense that I was being held at bay by the very place I now called ‘home’. It was in researching the world around me, spending time getting to know the intimate working of trees I presumed I already knew, as well as turning to the oral stories of my family who have lived in Western Australia for seven generations, that I began to see a way to write in response to where I was. However, it was learning about the Nyoongar heritage linked to my family’s farm and my new home, as well as the language born from Ballardong, Minang and Pibbulmen country, that I felt, incrementally, let in. In process of being let in, I was opened not only to the wonder of the incredible planet we live on, but the pain at deeply understanding the violation of life and culture that had happened in my new town and on the very site where I now lived.
When I stayed with the weight of both, when I internalised the incredible loss this land had witnessed, only then did the poems begin to let themselves be known to me. The series of works written as part of the New Shoots initiative have felt like a rite of passage for me as I come into kinship with my new community. They have woken in me not only wonder, but a deep tenderness for each life wishing to express its fullness around me. I say thank you, breathe in, sink my roots deep.