Geography of the Self

By Catherine Mauk

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Winner | Terrain.org 7th Annual Nonfiction Contest
Selected by Lauret Savoy

I knew nothing about the Canning Stock Route, though I had spent 20 years in Australia. And, while I was curious about its history based on what I had read of the exhibition, the focus on place and identity is what attracted me to the National Museum of Australia on a fine spring morning to see Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route.

The museum is an unconventional assembly of disconnected buildings, asymmetrical structures, audacious colors, sloped and curved surfaces, built on the former ceremonial ground of the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of this land. Structural steel separates, supports, loops, and planks to represent the multi-faceted and entwined stories of all Australians. It seemed an appropriate place for the collection.

Entering the exhibition, I stepped into a partitioned area that glowed with high-tech screens and images; words, numbers, maps, and photographs documented the traditional history of the Canning Stock Route. The route is legend. An epic of the fortitude of pioneering white men taming the outback in the early years of the 20th century: mapping water and grazing lands in an arid vastness; sinking wells with rudimentary equipment; enduring intense heat; and struggling with “hostile” Aborigines to develop the world’s longest stock route, coursing 1,850 kilometers through the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia.

Beyond the partitions I entered into the rest of the story. Vivid canvases told how the creation of the stock route transformed the landscape geographically, culturally, socially, and psychologically for the Aboriginal people who lived along the track. It scattered family groups, fractured relationships, ignored the spiritual significance of permanent and ephemeral water to desert life, disregarded cultural boundaries, and intruded on the ancient song lines.

Eighty Aboriginal artists from nine art centers in remote communities from Halls Creek to Wiluna in Western Australia had walked the Canning Stock Route for six weeks and recreated their stories of place: painting, weaving, carving, photographing, filming, and dancing place. While there is much I could say about the remarkable artworks and the use of art as historical redress, here, it is the inseparability of identity and landscape—a refrain repeated across the paintings—that has captured my thinking. It is the continuity of generations in one place, a personal sense of certainty about belonging to a place, self as an extension of all that has happened in a place, and the idea of human embodiment of landscape that is not separated from the totality of existence. Ideas increasingly vital to me. Perhaps to all of us, for how we care for the earth seems to turn on how intimate we become with the places that house us.

“We come out through the Country, we come out through the dreams . . . and then we live. And when we die, we become part of the Country,” said Curtis Taylor, a filmmaker on the project team.  

Country is Storied.

Country is how one knows oneself, knows how to be in a place—how to be a place, almost.

“I been listenin’ to all them Countries when I was a kid with my old man,” said Clifford Brooks, a Kartujarra and Manyjillyjarra artist.      

Country is story.

Country is cultural continuity.

30,000 to 60,000 years of cultural continuity.

"Lake Disappointment" by Clifford Brooks.
“Lake Disappointment” by Aboriginal artist Clifford Brooks, 2007.
Image courtesy National Museum of Australia. Learn more.

I am a person of two soils, a migrant, a dual citizen. I have sworn loyalty to the Queen of Australia, while still pledging allegiance to the United States.

I was born and raised in country storied originally by Shoshone (Snake Nation) and Bannock (Northern Paiute) Indians who lived a nomadic life of hunting and fishing and gathering in the American West. They moved with the seasons across what is now southeastern Oregon, southern Idaho, northern Utah, Nevada, western Wyoming, and Montana. They wintered along the Snake River in southern Idaho. Long before the Canning Stock Route was built in Australia, fur trappers, miners, prospectors, explorers, railroaders, and settlers encroached on these Native American lands. Indian wars raged. The U.S. government, with its usual disregard for the relationship between place and identity among indigenous populations, set aside 1.8 million acres of arid land in southern Idaho in 1867 to settle the bands and force them into subsistence farming. These bands spoke different dialects; they had different traditions and beliefs. They were not farmers. For many, this was not their Country.

My town was named for the Northern Shoshone chief, Pocatello. Originally surrounded by the Shoshone-Bannock Indian Reservation, the town now borders the reservation where 86 Bannock and roughly 2,000 Shoshone farm potatoes, alfalfa, and sugar beets on sagebrush-covered basin and rangelands. Many return to their ancestral lands regularly to hunt and fish, participate in traditional and ceremonial practices, sing and dance. Like the Aborigines of the Great Sandy Desert, through immersion in Country they regain some sense of self.

I am the second generation of my family to be born in Idaho; my mother was the first. My father was born and raised in Texas, as were his parents. My paternal grandfather’s people came from Germany, but how many generations ago is buried in some genealogical archive. My paternal grandmother, not wanting her children to be marked by their German heritage during WWI, claimed Irish ancestry after her husband (my grandfather) died in the Spanish flu epidemic, fraying our already tenuous threads to Deutschland. We have a family story about my father, who was somewhat unworldly, riffling through phone books from Dublin to Killarney on his first trip to Europe, trying without success to find his long lost Irish ancestors. In every German phonebook, however, he found “Mauk”, “Mauch”, and “Mauck”.

Threads are equally untidy with my maternal grandfather. Born in Texas, he moved to Oklahoma in his teens. In his late 20s he migrated to Idaho with his Southern drawl and his Missouri bride. He claimed to have been Scots-Irish, but my mother has no idea when his people arrived in Texas or from where they came.

My maternal grandmother, with Welsh heritage, has the most traceable lineage; her father and mother were from a line of great-great-greats all born in Wales. In 1857, her father (my great grandfather) left his home in Caernarfon, Wales to claim his fortune in Australia during the Victorian gold rush. Ten years later, with little more than enough money for a fare home, he returned to Wales. But Caernarfon proved to be far too sedate after the mining camps of Australia and New Zealand. This time he sailed to the United States and made his way to New Cambria (New Wales), Missouri. There, he settled and farmed until he died. Somewhere along the way he met my great grandmother who was from southern Wales, but hers is a completely severed strand.

When I think of my cultural and geographic pedigree I remember a book I had as a child: on each cardboard page an animal was divided into horizontal sections that could be turned separately; I could mix and match heads, bodies, and feet to create unique creatures. Now I conjure up a being with stag antlers, rattlesnake eyes, armadillo snout, beaver teeth, otter body, eagle wing-arms, the angled jumping feet of a kangaroo. My tongue shapes the long vowels of Idaho with a trace of regional Mormon dialect, Texas twang, and some Australian phraseology.

Snake River
The Snake River in southern Idaho.
Photo by skeeze, courtesy Pixabay.

Tatty threads of continuity and curiosity pulled me towards my only known ancestral home when I was in England recently; I made a side trip to Wales. Knowing little more than that Caernarfon was in the far northwest, I drove across the bridge just outside Oswestry from England into my motherland. To my surprise, my jaunt took on a whole new significance at this point: these were my people, as much as I had any people. Cousins two, three, ten times removed, perhaps living in Betws-y-Coed or Capel Cuyrig, or fishing along the harbor at Bangor. Ancestral footsteps in the Snowdonia forests.

Low stone walls bordered the winding road through Snowdonia National Park. The gold of deciduous leaves created an illusion of warmth in the mist. But my enchantment waned as the road continued out of the park and then cut through suburban Caernarfon on a damp late afternoon: schools, hardware store, department store, car dealership, all wrapped in drabness. Sombre apartment blocks lined the busy wet streets. I held in mind a half-remembered picture of my great-great grandparents’ old-world house. I imagined a Cotswold-like cottage tucked in a forest, morning sunlight needling through shuttered windows, smoke scaling a charred chimney, or perhaps the bucolic charm of Dylan Thomas’ Fernhill Farm and its “lilting house.” I hadn’t expected a fully developed municipality of 10,000 people.

I sped past the turnoff to the town center and continued south toward the town of Porthmadog. But, five minutes down the road I made the full circle of a roundabout and headed back to Caernarfon. I had come this far.

Signs led me down a hill to the town center. I turned right, drove through a large stone arch and was astonished to find myself in a medieval walled city. Ancient houses crowded narrow laneways. Streets and corridors dog-legged to massive walls along the harbor and to a spectacular and well-preserved stone castle—the home of King Edward I, built during the 13th century after England conquered Wales and named Caernarfon the Welsh seat of English government.

I booked a room in the Black Boy Inn, which was built inside the walls in 1522 and is renowned to have many resident ghosts—some of them my ancestors, no doubt. Nearly 500 years of prowling ghosts and shifting earth had knocked the original building clean off plumb; floors undulated, thick-timbered supports leaned, plaster cracked, ceilings hung low over dark rooms with small windows.

As this quick side trip had been unplanned, I didn’t have the photograph of the family home. I didn’t even know the first names of my great-great grandparents. I didn’t know my great-grandfather’s date of birth. I had three clues to go on: his first and last name, that the family was Protestant, and the dates of the Victorian gold rush in Australia. In the sodden morning, I put on my rain jacket, opened my umbrella, and tramped through empty streets to the small Records Office. The slapping of high tide against boats and jetties echoed through the stony streets.

In this part of the country, with the largest percentage of Welsh-speaking people in Wales (70 percent), I hoped to find an archivist who spoke English and would not throw her hands in the air when I explained I was trying to track down a man with the surname Lloyd, first name Hugh. At least the family name wasn’t Jones. It was my lucky day; a most obliging woman, as grey and plain as the day, pulled from the stacks the Parish registers from the Presbyterian Church covering 1835 to 1845, in which all baptisms had been registered in English.

I ran my finger along faded swirls of cursive script down yellowed pages. It felt like touching time. Images of a great-great grandmother in a floral apron, her hair tucked into a knot at the nape of her neck, took shape in my mind as I placed my finger on each mother’s name: Mary, Ann, Mary, Mary, Ann. It seemed every mother Lloyd was named Mary or Ann and most had sons named Hugh, a few who would have been around the right age. The accommodating archivist checked online for lists of passengers leaving the country through the port of neighbouring Bangor. No result. I discovered one family with names found in my family — Elizabeth, William, Mary, and a Hugh who was around the right age. I adopted this extraction, noted the street name, and set off to explore my origins.

Hole-in-the-Wall Street (Stryd Twill Yn Wal) was the first street inside the arch separating the walled town from the newer town center. Two-story, 500-year-old stone buildings directly fronted the passageway that had accommodated pedestrians and the clip-clop of horses, and ran the length of a city block. Now plastered and painted cream, blue, lilac, pale green, and white, they had become quaint restaurants, pubs with flower boxes hanging from shuttered windows, and houses. Lace curtains covered squares of bubbled glass behind which potted plants yearned for a break in the weather. It wasn’t hard to imagine my great grandfather as a boy, like the young Dylan Thomas, “running his heedless ways,” “happy as the heart is long.” Cobblestones echoed with the footsteps of the bolting boy. He scrambled up the steps of the castle turrets; watched the boats sailing out to sea on the Menai Strait, smelling the pull of the unknown world on the salt air.

Up and down, I walked every street of the walled town. Around the old churches. Along the external walls that faced onto the harbor. Past the enormous onion warehouse with cylindrical holes in the stone walls to evacuate the fetid air. Through the majestic grounds and buildings of the sprawling home of King Edward I. That night I dined at the Black Boy Inn on smoked haddock, drank a pint of warm ale, and toasted the spirits of my ancients. In the amber light of the bar, where only Welsh was spoken, I saw my great grandfather, his brother, and their mates swilling a pint or two and crowing of the fortunes they would make in the antipodes.

Caernarfon Castle
Caernarfon Castle in Wales.
Photo by Gwyndalfh, courtesy Pixabay.

I dug out the photo of my great-great grandparents’ house upon my return home; it was a charmless stone farmhouse on the outskirts of Caernarfon, not a house with bubbled glass windows on Hole-in-the-Wall Street. I had the wrong Lloyd family. This does not revoke my claims to Caernarfon but, beyond a few generations, it would be hard to make a case for cultural continuity.

Nevertheless, I grew fond of Wales during my three days there and proud to have a small claim to its history and traditions. I liked that Caernarfon neighbors the town with the longest name on record: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillantysiliogogogoch. I was delighted that the national day in Wales, St. David’s Day, is celebrated with performances in music, poetry, and art, and the eating of taffies—gingerbread figures baked in the shape of a Welshman riding a goat. And I would be happy to join in the traditional celebration of Mari Lwyd (the Grey Mare) in January, when revelers carry a horse skull draped with a sheet from house to house, perform for the occupants, and are rewarded with cake and ale. I am drawn to the pantheism of the ancient Celts who believed the entire natural world was sacred: every rock, tree, and river had a spirit whose omnipresence influenced their behavior. And, I fell in love with the town with the largest number of bookstores in the world, Hay-on-Wye, which once considered seceding to become the Kingdom of Books.

But this is all jolly novelty. Other than amusing my curiosity, my short sojourn into Wales did not provide me any real feeling of cultural connection, let alone continuity. No archive of memories, stories, song, dance, or native tongue I could claim. This romanticized experience did nothing to expand the mystery of who I am. I had no instinct of belonging in Wales, or Europe for that matter. My Welsh great grandparents broke with tradition, abandoned their culture, and forsook their relationships, their land, and their language to become Americans. My grandmother spoke no Welsh. The only Welsh heirloom that remains is the Lloyd family bible, given to my grandmother by her parents: bound in tooled leather, incomprehensible words in tiny print on onion skin paper locked inside with a gold clasp. Generations of words, too, locked in a geography I do not know, and in a language I cannot decipher.

My great grandparents never returned to Wales. Never saw their parents again. They tilled and planted and harvested and tuned their lives to the geography and seasons of northern Missouri. Along with other Welsh settlers, they raised their children, cultivated their language, and grew stories in a new landscape. They created a new identity.


The Aboriginal paintings from the Canning Stock Route depict stories in landscape: travels of ancestral beings, sacred places, a place of growing up, a place where an old man died under a tree, a place where water bubbled and blue-tongued lizards lived, waterholes, the home of a parent, a ceremony, the site of a “whitefella” shooting, someone burned by a ball of fire, rock holes, a meeting place, a journey for water or food, a resting place. Stories embedded in place; self as inseparable from all that has happened in the landscape.

The stories of my immediate family are layered in the geography of the West: the Idaho wilderness, the Salmon River, the Grand Teton Mountains, Yellowstone National Park, the Snake River. This is where we learned how to be in the world. Yet, in one generation, the continuity my birth family had with this landscape has largely been severed.

Years ago I facilitated a series of workshops related to my work in Australia. I asked each participant to draw a picture of his or her life’s journey. I did the exercise as well. I drew an outline of the United States and, within the West, the home of “Famous Potatoes,” Idaho. I sketched Australia. I was a looming figure with a foot in each country, holding a heart. Stick figure friends and family scattered across the United States. The Snake River slithered across the southern part of the state. Snow-covered purple mountains were dotted with evergreens, elk, moose, bison, a Rocky Mountain bluebird. A tepee painted with a rising moon marked Pocatello. Sagebrush sprouted across the Arco Desert. I marked my Australian home with a stick figure husband and drew myself in a sea kayak off the southeast coast of Australia.

Each time I repeated the exercise, I found a quarter of the people in the group were not born in Australia, having come from England, Ireland, Scotland, Canada, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and South Africa. These days, in my neighborhood supermarket, I meet refugees from Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iran, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar. People fleeing war, genocide, oppression, coups, and poverty.

Our communities brim with diversity: an assortment of languages, patois, and slang; incense raised to Buddha, Christ, Mohammed, and Vishnu; an olfactory and gustatory extravaganza of cumin, coriander, jalapeno, fish sauce, ginger, cardamom, basil, truffle, chili, and chipotle; a colourful medley of traditions, celebrations, dance, song, and dress.

What unites us is that we occupy the same geographic space.

But how do we learn to belong to a place when the stories that perpetuate our understanding of who we are and how to be have arisen in other soils, when the stories layering this landscape belong to people with whom we have limited cultural or genealogical continuity?

The renowned geographer Yi-Fu Tuan emphasizes that place is the organizing factor for our lives. Existence is inextricably linked with place. We can’t be ambivalent about where we are; it is the place we are physically making our lives. We live in the present: where we are is who we are right now. We bring our separate cultures, traditions, languages, relationships, religions, memories, and re-place ourselves both in terms of geography and identity.

I believe the Yiwarra Kuju paintings and stories offer a lesson in belonging: to learn to belong we must develop a relationship with a place that is something other than economic. Get to know where we are. Not as backdrop to our human lives. Not just as the built-up environment where we work, go to school, dine out, and gather for rugby games. We must walk it, let it invade our senses, learn it, write it, paint it, sing it, dance it—allow the character of the place to graft itself into our subconscious. We must listen to the countries; create our own sense of continuity with a place that incorporates all that has happened there.

Black Mountain, Canberra
The landscape of Canberra and Black Mountain.
Photo by tpsdave, courtesy Pixabay.

I wrestled with belonging in Australia. The language of this landscape was as strange to my ear as the Welsh language: its rhythms of fire and flood, the timbre of eucalypts, the inflections of the wind, the incantations of cockatoos and cicadas. Also, I live in a planned city where the year is defined more by the sittings of Parliament than the seasons. In large part, it is not a geography that evolved naturally. Here, the limestone plains were cleared of trees in order to graze imported sheep and cattle; rivers were dammed to create three man-made lakes. The noises of a busy thoroughfare desecrate the tranquillity of sacred Black Mountain. It is celebrated as a progressive city; its history as Nunngawal Country is nearly a silent history. Its saving grace is a city plan that includes retention of significant amounts of native bushland. This bushland is where I am learning to belong; season after season, I walk the same trails.

Recently, on a winter Sunday, a heavy fog hung on the morning. To me, dense fog, like new fallen snow, is a down comforter thrown over the world, a feathery lightness that lifts the spirit. It was a perfect day to hike through the nearby forest of yellow box gums and down to the Molonglo River.

My husband and I walked briskly to pump up the circulation to our hands and feet. Frost pinked our cheeks. As morning awakened twittering, warbling, and chirruping came from every direction. Five ducks drifted silently across the water of a manmade billabong. I crept through stunted winter grasses to get close enough to identify them, but I made a noisy scout, and they rose as if pulled by a string, one by one, up into the mist. A mob of grey kangaroos to the right of our trail raised their heads, rotated their ears to catch our sound, watched us briefly, and then fled over a ridge. A lone male on our left regarded us cautiously, then bounded down the other side.

We climbed to the top of a bare hill and followed a fenceline down through a thick forest of casuarinas to a gritty beach and the river. Lacking sunlight, the scene looked eerie and somewhat forbidding: a stream of liquid pewter; mounds of debris from past heavy rains scattered along the far shore; an enormous wedge tail eagle hunting from its perch on the skeleton of a gum tree; a pair of magpies, one mutant with black head and tail feathers but white body and wing feathers.

We tramped upstream through trees and grasses lush from dew, watched from the hillside by a black swamp wallaby. The smell of wild animal rose up from the ground. Fresh wombat scat, cubed and connected, daubed the trail; it became difficult not to step in it. A network of wombat trails led to dozens of burrows: great excavations around boulders, unearthed cavities below fallen logs, deep tunnels into grassy mounds. Fresh diggings. Fresh prints.

We found a fallen tree to sit on for a morning snack. Ribbons of sun flickered through the fog to warm us. Cliffs of granite, lined with the stratigraphy of story, rose above the river that carried time away.


The U.S. West is the birthplace of my soul. Like the Aborigines who live along the Canning Stock Route and the Shoshone-Bannock of southern Idaho, I return to my spiritual home to reconnect with who I am in that place. But my soul is a nomad; it has enlarged the geography within which it moves and increased its number of camps. The more time I spend in each of these camps, the more familiar I become with the landscapes in which I exist, and the more my stories accumulate in a place, the greater my sense of belonging.

I believe this is how we learn to belong: we become alive to the natural order that surrounds and includes us; we become alive in landscape. We become country.


Contest judge Lauret Savoy says…

The essay “Geography of the Self” is a striking meditation on migration, place, heritage, and belonging. The author, a “person of two soils”—the American West and Australia—asks a crucial question: “[H]ow do we learn to belong to a place when the stories that perpetuate our understanding of who we are and how to be have arisen in other soils, when the stories layering this landscape belong to people with whom we have limited cultural or genealogical continuity?” We would be wise to pay attention to the lessons offered.


Catherine Mauk left the U.S. 26 years ago for the love of an Australian man with whom she continues to journey. As a writer of nonfiction she tends towards memoir, travel, and environmental/nature essays. Her work has been published in both the U.S. and Australia as well as short-listed and long-listed in a number of competitions. She has completed a memoir about migration entitled Falling into Place and is currently working on a book entitled Writing My Mother’s Obituary, as well as a collection of essays that deal with ethical, cultural, and emotional aspects of human relationship with place.

Header photo–Helen Hill, along the middle stretches of the Canning Stock Route, Great Sandy Desert–by Tim Acker.

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