"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language,
even the phrase 'each other', doesn't make any sense." -Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi
Melissa Zappelli - My Story
As a child growing up in the West Australian desert I developed a fascination for the natural world. I would spend my spare time out in the bush, wandering the creeks, granite outcrops and breakaways that surrounded our homestead with Jacko, my dog. We would walk for hours checking familiar places and exploring new areas looking for waterholes, aboriginal carvings, birds, animal tracks and new plants. Sometimes we would pack a water bottle and biscuits and take the motorbike to a distant rock or breakaway that held the promise of wondrous finds. Jacko would sit on the fuel tank with his paws on the crossbar looking for kangaroos while I took note of landmarks so I could find my way home. These longer trips had the tension of anticipation and excitement coupled with a degree of anxiety at venturing so far alone.
Over time my wanderings added up to many mental maps. I memorised locations of different rocks, breakaways, caves, creeks and waterholes and more importantly how to get to them. Patterns in vegetation became apparent. Quangdong, mulga and corkwood trees in creek lines, cogla vines and wanderrie grass in sandy country, gnarled stunted miniritchie trees in breakaways, tobacco herb in caves, sandalwood trees and lemon grass on granite rocks and huge contorted gidgee trees holding giant eagle nests in North Paddock.
There was a similar map in my mind for animals. I checked on bird nests, followed snake tracks, found kangaroo diggings and searched for remains of extinct sticknest rat nests in breakaway caves. I watched wasps catch spiders, visited lizard holes, stalked bungarras, dug up frogs, ate tadpoles, tracked hopping mice, followed dung beetles, teased trapdoor spiders, memorised locations of ant hills and termite mounds and knew where to find geckos, scorpions and centipedes in the rocks.
Colours, textures and smells were everywhere and formed their own maps. Shimmery red miniritchie bark, knobbly quangdong nuts, bright orange rain tree seeds, iridescent beetles, blue belly buttons, desiccated bunches of kurara pods, the smell of rain, the smell of caves, kangaroos, foxes, dust and honeyed hakea bushes in full bloom.
Then there were maps through time and a fascination with cyclical change. I marked sudden abundances of life, growth and death in my mind and collected broken eggs, snakes skins, nuts, feathers and bones as physical reminders. I saw the colour of granite rocks change with the time of day and watched leaves curl in the sun and flatten in the evening. I noticed when cogla vines didn't flower and trees died and I saw how the ibis birds came and left with the rain. I watched pools fill, then slowly dry, forming cracked clay graveyards of tiny water creatures which ultimately blew away.
Signs of aboriginal life were embedded everywhere within the ancient landscape. Red ochre hand silhouettes, rock carvings, pointers, grindstones, knives and spearheads all formed connections that cut through time, to lives already lived. When I found these marks of the past I felt privileged to walk the same country and knew I was connecting with something old and very precious. Without words, these remnants silently sang the richness, tenacity and wisdom of a people that had an innate understanding of the land and viewed the world in a way we never will. A deep curiosity and respect grew within me.
On a much larger scale, I noticed how the stars moved across the night sky and changed in position and brightness with the seasons. I memorised different clusters and gave them my own secret names but I knew Venus, Orion and the Pleiades and kept track of when and where they rose and how they moved through the night. The crescent moon fascinated me and I would watch each night waiting for it to reach its thinnest most magical point.
All of this fitted within the big proper map of our property which hung in the hallway, had a scale, was aligned North and showed the paddocks, fences, roads, airstrip and windmills overlaying the natural features. Yet the scale of the proper map seemed so limited and inadequate. In my mind the real scale ran infinitely in all directions, worked through time and found expression in a magical array of interactions between light, colour, movement, shape, texture and smell.
Drawn to detail, my eye would catch the intricacy of moments, and memories would form of creatures and places. As the only witness to these tiny junctures in space and time I would wonder at their reality because all that remained were intangible memories in my mind, and really, what were they? The bush became a place of endless fascination, full of unpredictable surprises and imbued with an ethereal rhythm that played whether I was there or not. A place that was ancient, beautiful and ruthlessly practical at the same time, where things made sense and judgement was not required. Over time awareness of something deep, intelligent and boundless emerged. It seemed to exist everywhere but I sensed it most acutely when I was alone in the bush. This enigmatic knowing was powerful and commanded respect yet remained truly ungraspable, defying words, thoughts and definition. Inexplicably, it is the only thing I have ever found that remains reliably there.
I grew older and went to boarding school. Life took its course, university, jobs, houses, gardens, marriage, a beautiful baby girl, friends, divorce, dramas, travel, marriage, sickness and health. As I have moved through these experiences, my gratitude for the time spent alone in the bush as a child has grown and grown. Perceptions from those times have woven themselves through my life and form paths to the edge of that knowing I sensed as a young girl. It is an awareness of ruthless beauty, the infinite nature of subtlety and scale in all directions, tiny moments and the defiant, ungraspable nature of it all that gives me purpose and a place of refuge in difficult times.
I have always taken photographs. There is a manic desire to capture what I have spoken about on film, to define it so I can show others and marvel at the beauty. Yet, I know this is a senseless pursuit because photos can never do it justice and it seems arrogant to even try. However, there is another motive. When I am behind the lens of the camera, my mind calms and becomes silently curious. It brings me to the present, and opens the window to magical worlds where the landscape is too unpredictably beautiful to be constrained by thoughts, words and definition. I see this as a gift from the veiled worlds that are always there but only ever partly seen and rarely understood.
"God endures forever,
The life of man is short,
The Pleiades are overhead,
The moons among the stars."