Deb Malor


Walking around 'Marathon', watching, listening, feeling the air; searching maps colonial and contemporary; reading histories and newspapers; peering at photographs; talking, listening again; watching my feet, the vegetation, the ground, the fence lines, the movement of animals; considering climate, science, farming, husbandry; the variables of oral histories and the conflicting affectivities of presence. Gradually, three motifs for understanding the changing ecology and inhabitation of this area emerge. Tree cover and then water (these both can be permanent, seasonal, vestigial, lost, introduced) are the less obvious areas of human intervention and management yet are barometers of the health of the environment. Against these elements, shards of common 19th century transfer-ware found in a newly-revealed home farm site are hard evidence of its history, affirm the European aesthetic framing and managing the land, the overwriting of Aboriginal country, most usually presented in the paintings of John Glover, many undertaken along the property borders at the River Nile.

Although a writer rather than an artist, I am attempting a visual understanding through these elements of 'Marathon', firstly in a rather self-conscious series of simple etchings on postcards that present an archaeology of the site: tree/ water/ shard. At a more immediate level, I am using sumi ink on old system cards from a 1990s bibliography of the cultural, historical and media landscape of Sydney's urban backyards and related research on vernacular landscapes to make informal annotations of trees on the property. Although a long way from 'Marathon' this bibliographical record opens up the possibilities of apt, ironic and arcane comment on human action, landscape aesthetics and ideas of empire.


At the northern Midlands National Trust property, Clarendon, a painting by John Glover (he whose property, Patterdale, shares a River Nile boundary with Marathon) hangs between two windows that look out onto the park grounds, the meet-lawn, of the estate. The image is of the Swilker Oak, a venerable English tree that is the subject of the work, that is, almost at the centre of the composition, in a manner unlike English art, generally, of that time (1840). David Hansen comments (in his Glover catalogue) that, ' is, in fact, a eucalypt masquerading as an oak,' and I become immediately aware of the centrality of trees in Glover's other works, those centred on Patterdale and Mills Plains. I had visited Glover's house and garden, and gazed, without knowing the relationship or significance, across the flat, the plain, towards Marathon, beyond the tree line that marks the Nile.

Now, at Marathon, Glover's innovation in the composition of Swilker Oak has influenced my visual isolation of individual trees on Marathon (initially blackwoods but now looking at other species and groups of trees) to observe their character before returning them, in my mind, into their landscape.

I'm listening to Diana and Andrew discuss the sounds of the river as it signals snow melt, catchment rains, the changes in atmosphere - wind, frost, heat and cold; its flushes, washes, warbles and trills, the soundtrack of flow. The tributary creeks also change their tune with the autumn break; and out on the plain, water gurgles between the islands of Black Cracking Clay.

Swilker:   Of water carried in a vessel: to splash about; to dash over; to spill (over). A dialect word from the North of England. The "swilker of wairter" through a narrow channel may re-oxygenate that water before it spreads into a wider stream. The sounds of water, the evidence for a presence that impacts every aspect of a wider ecology, is the aural link to Glover's Swilker Oak.

For some months in 2016 I detoured from the flow of water into a swirl of SHARDS but, as yet, have nothing to say about them: they are far too mysterious and yet they demand something mundane, like a materials search. So I look out at the land again, construct a landscape that also becomes more mysterious the more I gaze at its atmospheres, its air, the drift of cloud and the crackle of grass. Increasingly I fret about the histories I cannot see but know must be there and must be recognised. With something like relief I find the following shredded and woven text by Claire-Louise Bennett (Pond, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 2016, 97-98):

If you are not from a particular place the history of that particular place will dwell inside you differently to how it dwells within those people who are from that particular place. Your connection to certain events that define the history of a particular place is not straightforward because none of your ancestors were in any way involved in or affected by these events. You have no stories to relate and compare, you have no narrative to inherit and run with, and all the names are strange ones that mean nothing to you at all. And it's as if the history of a particular place knows all about this blankness you contain. Consequently if you are not from a particular place you will always be vulnerable for the reason that it doesn't matter how many years you have lived there you will never have a side of the story; nothing with which you can hold the full force of the history of a particular place at bay.

And so it comes at you directly, right through the softly padding soles of your feet, battering up throughout your body, before unpacking its clamouring store of images in the clear open spaces of your mind.

Opening out at last; out, out, out

And shimmered across the pale expanse of a flat defenceless sky.

All the names mean nothing to you, and your name means nothing to them.

Something of a salve, perhaps, knowing histories may not know me; that I will always be on the outer somewhere. But also a deeper awareness of history as sensory invasion with no polite introductions necessary. Soon, back to the shards, freed (potentially) from both earth and history, knowing that no material analysis is necessary.