Lie of the Land

André Dao reflects on flawed first impressions of new places, and the time it takes to fill in the gaps.

Animated satellite shots of Cambridgeshire countryside

Image: Jon Tjhia / Google Earth

I arrived in England just as summer turned to autumn, so that on the train from Kings Cross to Cambridge the landscape passing by our window – once we had finally cleared London and its interminable satellites – was a riot of oranges and yellows and reds. That was the first thing I noticed about the English countryside. The second thing I noticed was the flatness of the landscape. After the urban skyline of London, and some rolling hills somewhere near Hatfield, the land became flatter and flatter as we approached Cambridge, until the horizon was like a disc all around us.

That impression of flatness stayed with me over the next couple of months, until I signed up for a Saturday morning expedition – a short hike from Longstanton to Oakington – with the Cambridge Rambling Society. The walk seemed only to confirm what I had thought, that Cambridgeshire was an unspectacular swampland, notable only for the one landmark I had already known about before arriving, the university that had been the reason I’d come in the first place. It had been built on land reclaimed, bit by bit, from the swamp, by a succession of monasteries and colleges. Without the university, I thought, there was nothing here worth noting – and indeed, that was what I saw on the walk. Nothing but flat, empty pastures, some cows here and there, straight muddy rights of way and wide, unromantic bridleways.

I learnt to think of the features I now saw … as the accretion of history upon history.

Thinking of that ramble now, and of how little I saw, I am reminded of the opening section of V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. The unnamed narrator, a Trinidadian writer with marked biographical similarities to Naipaul himself, moves to a cottage in the grounds of a manor near Stonehenge, in Wiltshire – a cottage set in a valley that becomes the principal character in this first chapter. Like me, Naipaul’s narrator was a colonial subject returning to the metropole. Like me, he saw only what he expected – and preferred – to see. He saw an unchanging world, a natural landscape that was both ancient and unblemished by human intervention.

But where the emptiness of the English countryside bored me, it seemed to represent a kind of purity for Naipaul’s narrator. That, I realise now, is only a different way of looking, a way of looking that has everything to do with time, and with the knowledge that comes with time. For Naipaul’s narrator does not see what he sees immediately, upon arrival. What one reads when one reads this chapter is a way of seeing that the narrator develops over more than a decade of living in the valley, long enough that the valley has become absorbed into his life, so absorbed that it occupies a more prominent place than even the tropical island where he grew up. It’s only then that he is able, as he says, to think of the flat wet fields as ‘water meadows’ and the low smooth hills as ‘downs’. The arrival we are reading about is not really an arrival after all, but a reconstructed thing – it is the memory of an arrival filtered through years of knowledge, years for him to discover the burial mounds that lay all around in the seemingly empty downs, years for him to learn to call these mounds ‘tumuli’, for him to learn to find the deer that still lived on this land, for him to learn to see the perfection that he wished to see.

Only, he stays long enough to realise that his image of the valley as an unchanging world was wrong. Things that he had taken as natural – like the marking of the seasons with particular flowers and vegetables in the garden of a nearby farmworker, Jack – turned out not to be natural at all. They were also about a particular way of looking. Jack saw meaning in a trimmed hedge, in the seasonal blooming of flowers, that others did not. When he died, the farmworker who took over Jack’s cottage did not see the garden in the same way, and didn’t tend it with the same care. When new management took over the farm, they did not see the valley either as Naipaul’s narrator saw it, as a virgin landscape, nor as Jack saw it, as a bounty to be tended and cultivated. They saw it only as an investment. With that way of seeing came new farm machinery and new workers, who began to change the landscape again. Naipaul’s narrator now saw that the landscape had always been marked by human hands.

Shifting blur over an image of Cambridgeshire

Image: Jon Tjhia (from an original photo by Dudley Miles (CC-BY-SA-4.0))

And so it is for me, thinking back on the few English walks I completed in my much shorter time there. I think, for instance, of how I learnt to call the swamp a fen, and how I learnt to think of the great empty flatness as making room for the big East Anglian sky. I learnt to see the dykes along which I walked as the work of ancient Romans, of Dark-Age Saxons and medieval monks, who had drained the fens to create these paddocks. I learnt to think of the features I now saw – low stone-walled churches visible from miles away, crooked graveyards overlooking country lanes, still-working mills perched over waterways – as the accretion of history upon history.

Cambridgeshire was an unspectacular swampland … Nothing but flat empty pastures, some cows here and there, straight muddy rights of way and wide, unromantic bridleways.

I think as well of the moment in The Enigma of Arrival, when Naipaul’s narrator finds that the farm’s new management have asphalted over a favourite, potholed laneway. The smooth new road prompts him to think of the industriousness of humanity – a thought which, on account of what he calls his own ‘raw nerves’, the nerves of a servant in the land of the master, prompts him to think of the ‘small caravels’ that crossed the Atlantic at the beginning of empire and intruded upon the history of the people of his tropical birthplace. ‘How few the men,’ he thinks, ‘how limited their means.’ But they went back, again and again, and ‘they changed the world in that part forever’.

Finally, I think of my own raw nerves; nerves that made me see, when I arrived in Cambridge, that I would be studying next door to a building named for Sir John Seeley, Regius Professor of Modern History. He was the man, who wrote in 1883 that the elimination of native peoples from new English nations – like ‘the Australian race’, who were ‘so low in the ethnological scale that they could never give the least trouble’ – was a matter for self-congratulation. This meant, he theorised, that ‘the English Empire is on the whole free from that weakness which has brought down most empires, the weakness of being a mere mechanical forced union of alien nationalities’.

The same raw nerves made me think of the doctrine of terra nullius, when I should have been reading the great English common law jurists. And they make me think now of another walk, on another continent, before I left for England, when I was working for a court that frequently heard native title cases. We were walking through the featureless bush just north of Broome that was, at least to my stranger’s eyes, all red dirt and low scrub, an empty and inhospitable land. We were led through the bush by a couple of Indigenous rangers who were native title applicants in a case before the court. From them, I was learning to call that scrubby bush by another name, the pindan, and along with that new language, I was learning to see the pindan differently, to see where I had previously seen nothing, waterholes and sacred trees, ancient artefacts and the signs of more recent custodianship.

Portrait of André Dao

André Dao is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He is the co-founder of Behind the Wire, an oral history project documenting people’s experience of immigration detention, and the deputy editor of the New Philosopher. He is also a producer of the Walkley-award winning podcast, The Messenger.

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