Farm Reflections: Truth

Truth, honesty, I could throw justice in here as well ... words that stir memories of the opening credits to The Adventures of Superman.

Truth and honesty form the basis of creative nonfiction writing, and writing about the community that once existed on the Sewerage Farm at Werribee (the Farm) for more than 70 years. It’s a community that mostly disbanded from the Farm by 1974, with one remaining family leaving in 1980. And yet it’s a community that is still very much alive.

Truth can create speculation, however. What is true to one person may not be truth to another and could in fact be something entirely different. Take a football match of the early 1950s that women from the Farm played in that was recently discussed.

‘That’s Charlie in the middle,’ says MC.

‘No, it’s not,’ says MH. ‘That’s definitely not him.’

‘Yes, it is. Look at this other photo. It’s the same person.’

‘No, I don’t think you’re right. That’s not him.’

And on went the conversation. Yet the two discussing Charlie at this event of more than 60 years ago, were both there, both in the photo with Charlie.

Writing about life on the Farm involves various forms of investigation. Examining archival material to gather factual data is important, but at the core of this research is the capturing of the oral history. This is done by conducting interviews that can often extend over several hours and involve further questioning and talking.

People recollect memories that are discussed and captured as true stories. Truth can come unstuck here though because memories and recollections can be considered as subjective, with some believing they cannot be regarded as ‘truth’. They question, what is truth?

I’ll throw in some theory here where the creative nonfiction form of writing can be defined as a vehicle for telling true stories. Creative nonfiction is “true stories well told” (Gutkind, 2012).

Creative nonfiction allows for capturing the oral history of the Farm community through the exploration of complexities in events and people in full humanity. (Ricketson, 2014) Writing in this way provides an opportunity to explore and be curious, to discover what’s going on in the world. It can be a motivator to seek the ‘truth’.

Another story told recently is of the grocer from many years ago who made deliveries to households on the Farm. The grocer would take orders one day and return a few days later to make deliveries one household at a time. He’d never stay and move quickly from one place to the next, except for one home where he would stop for two or three hours.

He’d leave his horse and jinker loaded in goods outside and in that time, his horse would slowly make its way along the street while eating the grass. After a while, the local kids noticed this and the goodies in the unattended jinker and helped themselves to fruits, lollies and soft drinks.

Upon realising the missing, unpaid for goods, the driver soon stopped making his long house visits to Miss H.

L said to me before he told me the story, ‘Now this might be telling tales, but it’s the truth.’ It’s not only a truth in L’s eyes as he was there and saw it and was one of the kids doing the taking, it’s a truth as part of a life that is full of nuances, a true reflection of life in its full spectrum. It’s a truth expressed. 

Sometimes, truths take time to germinate in that vessel of trust, like the story of a head bobbing in the sewage as it flowed in the channel onto the Farm. Upon close inspection, it was realised the head belonged to a foetus, an aborted or miscarried baby. That story took some time to be told but once it was, unravelled further. It was found that many foetuses had flowed into the Farm in the sewage channel. These were aborted babies in a time where abortion was illegal and thrown into the sewer, along with miscarriages. Watermen would find these foetuses, haul them out and bury them on the Farm. These whispers took months to be spoken of and can now be confirmed as true stories.

Seeking the truth is fraught with considerations and dilemmas. There are truths that aren’t expressed, for fear of reprisal, being outed and embarrassed, and of repercussions or being held accountable or liable, or because of an inability to face the truth for whatever reasons … can they be considered an untruth? Perhaps a lie?

Recollections expressed as a ‘pure truth’ as distinctly remembered or even a twist on the truth that has slowly grown into a legendary tale over time, they’re easy to work with. A fabrication however, where a memory can't be recalled even though it has been well documented and in the public arena, that kind of 'non' recollection requires patience and persistence to carefully think through, investigate and discern, especially when it can impact other people.

Many recollections can be the only remaining truth in existence, to become the only truth. They can't be verified and sometimes capturing them can become a race against time, where people become unwell, too unwell to recall memories, and cease to live. I have arrived too late to speak to many who would have had a garden full of wonderful recollections to share if their memories and heart allowed.

Sometimes when the memories become so scattered and confused, only the heart knows the truth and miraculous things can happen. A stirring of the heart can shine a place of pure, unfiltered truth. It can emerge as a most glorious sunrise when us humans allow it.

Sharing truths, recollections and memories, can stir the heart and get people talking and asking questions. That’s got to be the silver lining in a project that has set out to document a social history.

 

NOTES

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1974; the last family moved off site in 1980.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

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Changing Seasons

The corn fields are brown and soy beans are yellow. Our son-in-law Brian is already harvesting, and that means Mary Ellen too is busier than ever trying to help out as she keeps working hard at her own job. I will worry knowing their sleep will be shorter than ever.

Everything seems to be changing during this season. At the first of the month, we learned that our granddaughter Tara and family are moving back to Illinois as she became pitching coach at Illinois State up at Normal. This will place their family closer to her husband Bryan's parents too, so I'm sure they are happy as we are. (And Bryan will be closer to his firm's headquarters.)

For Gerry and Vickie, Tara's move wll take away the close geographic association with those three Archibald grandsons. That will be a tough adjustment, but it probably helps that they are overly busy themselves adjusting to changes of their own.

Our month started with Gerry and Vickie's quick visit over Labor Day weekend coming up for the surprise 80th birthday party for Vickie's mother. Gerry also needed to pick up some dogs he had bought in northern Illinois. Aidan and Payton both had baseball games, but since Maddux's fall soccer had not yet started, he was able to come with them. They drove all night to get here for a few hours sleep before the party. There was time, however, for Maddux and me to have a long grown-up conversation at the late breakfast table about their family's upcoming move. And besides getting to play with his Johnson family cousins, there was time for him to drive the Kubota and to play in the lime pile Gerald provides for the great grandsons' diggings. Since Nelly, the Boykin spaniel, was also with them, we enjoyed a couple of demonstrations of Nelly's enthusiastic expertise diving into the lake to swim and restrieve the ball she loved having Maddux throw out for her. Gerald went with Gerry to get the dogs upstate, and Vickie had the opportunity to visit again with her mother before another all-night drive back to College Station, where Gerry had to be on the softball field at A&M on Labor Day.

That Wednesday night Tara arrived after the long drive from Texas, and we had a brief visit before we all fell into bed. In her honor, I set my alarm to be sure I was up in time to make the morning smell good with cooked bacon for our breakfast before she left for the drive up to Illinois State's ball field and to start her search for housing for their family. The university was furnishing her a room until Bryan and the boys can join her this weekend.

We were still adjusting to that big family change when we got the word this week that Gerry had accepted a new job as hitting coach and recruiter down at Auburn University in Alabama. So he is in the process of moving dog stuff, trailers, and such to various destinations on the way down to Auburn after a quick visit with Vickie, Erin, and Caroline in Belton. Vickie will keep her plans to care for Caroline while Erin teaches, so I am sure this year will be filled with lots of trips between Belton and Auburn.

Our adult children are not the only ones who have been busy. Gerald continues bringing in garden produce, and he had his second cataract surgery last week. Mary Ellen wanted to be with us and drive us home, so we had a good visit and after-surgery breakfast with her at the neatest restaurant up at Thompsonville. It was good to hear how excited Brianna is with an observation class for young children learning to speak English. She will be student teaching next semester. Fortunately, Gerald's eye is healing faster than the first one, which gave us some concerns. (The optomist kept assuring him the eye was alright and that his meds may have caused the slowness.) He is down to two eyedrops a day again on this second recuperation.

However, during all this busyness with eye drops and garden produce, Gerald also had a big exciting project going. In order to get better Internet reception, he bought and assessbled a 70-foot tower out by his shop. Roy Walker's crew came with a boom truck to set the tower up on the concrete pad. We sat and cheered as the machine took it skyward. Our neighbor Scott even came over to admire that event. For Gerald perhaps the best part of this project was visits with his friend Roy where they talked and talked about their youthful days in Wolf Lake down in Union County. Both their fathers were in Woodman of the World Insurance Fratenity, and they shared many memories and old photographs of long ago acquaintances.

Katherine was pleased this week to see the letter from Sam's summer intern supervisor that came to her house–a very long letter critiquing in detail his successful first teaching experience this summer in Austin. It will be forwarded to Sam, but I made her a copy. As a former teacher of inner-city kids, Katherine understood just how valuable his work had been. Sam's girl friend had also phoned her about starting her student teaching this semester, so Katherine gets to stay involved as these two young adults change from the teens that used to hang out at her house into professionals prepared to make the lives of young people better. As a third generation teacher myself, I am pleased to see yet another generation preparing for this important work.

So the season is changing, and our lives are also changing in many ways . And that is way it is supposed to be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Knot Garden

 

Photo: Bill Cooper for Birmingham Royal Ballet 

 

 

You tied my strings and bade me dance,

You weren't the first, you know,

My cradle rocked to others’ tunes

and primed the scene just so

 

Between the Then and Now they filed

who learned my soul to crave

Knot legacies taxed Mary’s tears

but loosed me from the Grave

 

 

Mary, Untier of Knots - Johann George Schmidtner

 

from Mysteries of Light (forthcoming collection)

 

 

 

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A Transcendental Journey

Twenty years ago today, I started a journey across country that I'm sure changed my life and helped me become, if not a serious writer, at least serious about writing. The journey continues, and I am grateful for both the mountains and the valleys.

Here is a little bit from A Transcendental Journey:

We know we're awake because our eyes are open.

By late afternoon, I was ready to stretch my legs. Following a particularly long swell of highway, I reached the top of a bluff. Spotting a rest stop across the highway, I pulled across and into the parking lot.

Set back a few hundred yards from the edge of the bluff, the building was long and low, mostly one big room, with a massive rectangular information desk in the center manned by several busy aides. Beneath the windows, low slung metal racks brimmed with brochures describing every attraction you could imagine, and many you couldn’t.

I strolled outside the building towards the bluff. The grass was tall, not Really Tall, but enough to hide a snake or two. So I kept my head down heading toward the brink. At the edge of the bluff, I looked up.

The slope fell sharply away hundreds of yards to where the Missouri River engraved a broad S through the grasslands. Beyond the wide impassive river, the brown flat earth stretched to the curve of the world, melding into a white horizon unguessably distant. But it wasn't the distance that held me to the spot.

There are qualities that belong to a place, that inhabit its essence and mark it in the memory. The quality of this bluff was Blue.

Blue has many names: azure, sapphire, navy, even cornflower. I have never seen a cornflower, or any blue flower for that matter. But cornflower blue I can picture in my mind: draw a luster from the earth, blend in sunlight, sift in moonlight.

What I saw from the bluff was not any blue I could imagine: not azure nor sapphire nor navy nor cornflower. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can't picture it. But I can remember how it felt, dodging my eyes and seeping unfiltered through the pores of my skin: Blueness, essence of Blue, narcotic Blue. Manifest Blue. True Blue. Transcendental Blue.

But there were two blues, not one.

We see the sky as blue because the blue electromagnetic waves of sunlight are shorter and are scattered more easily by the dust in the atmosphere. But nothing about this blue seemed scattered nor did sunlight seem required. Standing there, I realized that I had never truly seen a blue sky before. A stain had been washed from the stratosphere. Blue shone through.

Bodies of water are blue when they reflect the sky. But the Missouri had a different recipe that day, independent of the firmament above. Take a sea, fold it over and over and over like a translucent sheet, then glaze it in a tawny bed of grass. That is Missouri Blue.

Go to the Missouri River crossing.

Stand on the bluff on a cloudless day.

Blue lives there.

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Thanks, Di.
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Pure poetry - very evocative - you are a painter with words..Di
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