I wandered to the bookshelf in my back room, containing some one hundred and fifty books, and plucked one at random: The Best Australian Stories 2007, edited by Robert Drewe. It's been a while since I folded the corner on one of the stories inside, but now that I'm revisiting it, I can see why I did. Michael Meehan's story, Repossession, is a tale about Tom O'Reilly and the way he chose to leave the land, and be repossessed by it. (It's quite a short story, so I'm hopefully not crossing a copy line by showing these transcribed snippets.)
After Tom's death, various traces of him are discovered on the land by family and the family dog. Missives wrapped in shotgun casings, cigarette packets or matchboxes, scattered within the terrain...
All knew by then that through those last months of his life, Tom O'Reilly, with tumour spreading through his brain and all around him the lands that were mingled with his sweat and labour now shrinking apace, roamed out across those tracts of recent dispossession to plant his mysteries and his presence, to seed his lost lands with fragments of some message, the whole of which was never to be found.
It was rather an imprint of a bureaucratic story, of this way and not that way and nine to five and make sure the gate is closed... the stringy box and buloke and stark stands of pine were now lost to regulation, the early nomad wanderings of Tom O'Reilly and his brothers and sisters below the vast white gums that lined the ancient lakebeds now boxed back to the padlocked gate, the official map, the jackboot grid of Management Vehicles Only.
... seeding the landscape with his messages, but always in secret and hidden places with just enough to be discovered for all to know there must be many others across the landscape.
With his own life and holding now buckled to restriction Tom still raged against that dying and that shrinking, forging at last these new and lasting forms of possession, new ways of living with a landscape that would run far beyond I own towards I know, I love, I understand...
No more than fragments. Not maps but only parts of maps. Fragments not touching other fragments.
It was in incompleteness and broken tracks and hidden vignettes only that there was life and hope of continuing possession.
That the best way to tell the story was not to wrap up the story but to replace it with a lasting conversation. That the best way to possess was not in map or charter but in the adding of one's voice to all the voices that had passed, to be part of the disorder, and not the regulation, part of the fount and not the boundary, part of the mystery but not the explanation.
It just happens to be a lovely allegory to the way I enjoy thinking about stories in general, and meaning in particular. I heard a phrase the other day that went something along the lines of "the more obscure something is, the more meaning it has." I tend to eschew "design for the lowest common denominator" as a philosophy. While we generally like to feel in control of things, the franchise, bright, 1-2-3, lock-step blah blah is never surprising, never delightful. I'm thoroughly obsessed by the belief that everyone finds their own way through life, information, age, cities, networks, whatever. And as Meehan's tale recounts, it's the whispers we leave on the wind that entice others to follow our hints.
After almost fifty years of computerizing everything, we're realising now that the stories have gone, and we need them back—the handicraft, the boutique, the beauty, the dragons, the colour of stories. I'm reminded of the gorgeous mysterious early maps of the Australian coast. The explorer only got so far, and the cartographer could only draw so much. Much more exciting than boring old satellite, top-of-a-pin's-head accuracy! I love the idea of trying to catch some of these dog-eared tales within Open Library.
If you have a moment, it's a lovely story, well worth reading. (The whole book is on Google! Is that kosher? Who knows...)