It's rare that ground refers only to the soil, rock, water, decay, new growth and regrowth beneath us.
The ground has to be understood to harbour memories of people who were there and are not there, and things that may have happened in another place. The histories and the futures of everything that lay tread on it are all held in the ground, and if it's arrogant to think only a few can create that, it's naive to think we don't each shape it.
But shaping is not always so obvious, does not always show as footprints on the ground. When a community visioning session set the tone for SHORE in Narrm, I was skeptical. The artist stands and speaks with a certain strength of purpose that translated, then, into a room full of creatives trying to be visionaries - but not too much. The invocation to move and understand the space more personally, ferrying sticky notes intended to speak to the hopes and needs of inner Melbourne, is not taken up by anyone over the age of 22. They seem afraid to be physically wrong. I skip across the room with a single word: fire.
The notes do not stay up. I could find the mundane explanation between the glue and the rough, dusty walls, but I prefer to believe that they pressed themselves against the floor, through it, back to the ground that bore them and us, that each aspiration wanted to be known deeply and completely.
That the next contact came with physical action is a clear mirror to that consultation. Paper again releases itself to the ground as a collective focus dictates the hours. But there is no sense of competition, no shame. Passersby are handled with an indelicate but cheerful, "What are we doing? Fixing bikes!" There isn't a higher aspiration here, and the best summary is the repeated sentiment of desire to do work in the world. I'm not sure who said it first, the tally next to it in my notes turned into a forest.
As I arrived, a handful of volunteers were already stripping condemned bicycles and assessing others. The efficiency of a self-driven team is aspirational. It was halted for a clumsy acknowledgement of country. I avoid saying the words "pay my respect". It wouldn't be true, as I believe in honouring communities through bearing and actions — I instead stutter out a declaration of state and a promise to the respect that each community on the ground is owed. Then, the drivers speak. The artist speaks of complexity, "and then thought brought us here, which is kind of cool," and a WeCycle founder of movement, purpose, "building a community, with bicycles..." Both talk about community, disenfranchisement, and the importance of doing. Words aren't just words and it's refreshing. And then words of doing. In contrast to the careful language of the introductions, another founder starts with a plan of attack and breakdowns. It's no less blunt, but the perspective is more brutal. It's taking and giving, against rehoming and growing. Which is the euphemism and why?
I ask the obvious questions and get obvious answers. Why bikes, because they're cheap and effective transport that can be a source of recreation. Why refugees, why families, because they need it, so it's important. Why you? Because I can. This continues through the artists present. They are all artists, and like most artists in this place they have multiple practices. Some work desk jobs in a related field, some have no relationship between creative, social, and fiscal practices, and some have no such distinctions. Some know or know of Emily Johnson, some only of SHORE, and some just came 'cause it's fixing bikes for a good cause.
The bikes themselves don't know better, though I wonder. I wonder if the community of bicycles knows it's a community. I call their first station diagnostics, and I am reminded of medical students standing around a patient. In this case, there is little reciprocation. The bike cannot size up its examiners. Even the process is similar, but the language is blunt and has a more natural flow. On the next station, I say "if they are the wannabe doctors, you must be the nurses." Morgan laughs, nail polish and old paint. As they process and clean and process, I ask more obvious questions before I lose interest and ask, what brought you here. Specifically you, I say. Most people don't know what to say, and I comment on that too. Scuffed boots and bright earrings, nods in agreement without looking away. "I actually keep a diary next to my bed; I go, okay, so who am I today?"
The gardening session at St. Joseph's has similar themes of transition and grounding. Literally. A large part of our day is hauling soil from one place to another. Even the introductions have similar sentiments. Much later I'll tell the artist that she managed to bring out something close to pure empathy from what is often an insular and always fiercely competitive community. She'll laugh and say she hoped so. It won't sound arrogant. I don't know what I hear.
I do hear "not many people realise that this school has a large refugee population," but even the aesthetic speaks to both diversity and patterns of living that just aren't seen in longer-settled parts of the state. We put in four olive trees and around them awith bright flowers that is known colloquially as pigface. Hardy, long lasting plants that mean somethings to someones. After all, this is Australia, I say to no-one. No-one laughs. The front gets an assortment of dwarf citrus and grasses, and around the back are a variety of natives and smaller flowers.
Around the back, a variety of natives stand around holding brooms and buckets. To the side of me I see a crowd forming around the words "you're an asylum seeker?" and, not being a fan of well-meaners' probing emotional questions and sad eyes and taste for trauma, I decide to not be in that area. I take the opportunity to walk back around the front, where minds on hands on spades have discovered a large and tough root of unknown origin. This is making the planting arrangement difficult to place, because this holdover from a more toxic past is exactly where the new fruit trees intend to go. Mattocks only just break the root, and an orange tree moves forward an inch or so. Compromise. I ask if you are an artist, do you consider this part of your artistic practice. Nobody has an answer for that one, and I have to catch myself on the last individual. I'm supposed to take the answers I have and ask new questions. I note down the silence instead.
Over the course of this day, we learn more about the school itself. Overachievement is a habit rather than an expectation. More students will turn into more high school completions, adults with more control over parts of their lives, more choices, more grains in the road to healthy communities, even the ones that don't exist yet. More ground to cover. No-one nods in agreement, but then, no-one shares quite the same sense of time. Timing is everything to humour.
How do you measure time? A walk away, a long wait, a panic attack. A curation of moments. The theme of Story is home, but the expressed need to belong is more visceral. It settles somewhere unreachable and works its way through every teller, making itself known to four audiences in four ways at once. I hear ownership. My places, my family, my six by two of air. It sounds like a plea, it sounds like power, it sounds like a breath, it sounds like the spaces in between words and how they hold the words and the speaker and the listener all to account. It sounds like lines, and lines, and lines. And control. It is names and the space between them, worthiness. Worth.
And suddenly the ground is there, where it's always been, ready — no, hungry — to grow, remember and forget small, unselfconscious actions and their broader consequences. The universal someone, into which no-one steps easier than breathing. After all, who'd think to just step forward?
Hannah Morphy Walsh