If you’ve ever kept a garden, you’ll know to expect some peculiar changes. A plant you didn’t notice will flourish; a plant you tended with such care just refuses to bloom. The garden may change its character for no good reason, but it will always change its keeper. The garden has changed me, and the way I view dates on the calendar.
The first Tuesday in November is no longer a day for Australian racing, but an urgent message to plant out those tomato seedlings. December 25 is not only a Christian holiday, but a day to strike a daphne. April 25 is for poppies. The lovely, hardy and prolific Flanders poppy.
I enjoy this convergence of flowers and dates, but never more so than today. If I sprinkle seeds in even poor soil today, by November 11, I know I’ll wake to dozens of drowsy red heads. The poppy goes into the ground on ANZAC Day and bursts out of it for the commemoration of Armistice, of which it is a well-known symbol.
I do not wish to moralise about those many people who now approach ANZAC Day as though it is a sort of Schoolies event with added military nationalism, but I can’t help but think that all the drinking and the unthinking glory makes a dead garden of our past.
I like this garden emblem. It compels me to remember not just the war dead of Australia, but the living territory and peoples that came before the map of Australia was drawn. Poppies do not flower in November on the top half of the planet; it’s just us in the Southern Hemisphere who can enjoy them on their day of remembrance. This is my reminder that our colonial history is different; and even when I forget this different history, the poppies, which have the annual habit of sowing their own seeds, write it again.
This is a landmass so far from the battlefields we remember today. This is a time in Australia so very distant from the idea of history itself. I do not wish to moralise about those many people who now approach ANZAC Day as though it is a sort of Schoolies event with added military nationalism, but I can’t help but think that all the drinking and the unthinking glory makes a dead garden of our past.
When I was a small child, my mother, a true horticulturist, would always plant poppies on this day. We would all recite The Ode at school, and nearly all of us, born to parents from across Europe and Australia and Asia, would cry. This was the 1970s and we still had grandparents around to recall the Great War. The terrible and senseless tragedy of Gallipoli, or Gelibolu as it is known to those locals who have come to expect the annual Australian beach party, was something they knew firsthand. Very soon after the horror, two plebiscites were held in Australia on the question of conscription. We had voted against it. Very few Australians wanted to send their black, brown and white boys off to their deaths.
This was the prevailing mood of ANZAC Day when I was little: regret, grief, a serous reminder to resist the whim of hegemonic powers. We small poppies were open to the possibility of sadness and to learning the lessons of history. It is, I think, an “Australian value” to want to see the grave flower of history open again.
It wasn’t perfect then, of course. The RSL opposed the commemoration of women fallen and injured by war and took its time to acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who sacrificed so much to a nation-state that had already taken and taken. If I were to remember the remembrance of my childhood as ideal, I’d be as neglectful of history today as the Spring Break style revellers currently doing beer bongs “for the fallen”.
This was the prevailing mood of ANZAC Day when I was little: regret, grief, a serous reminder to resist the whim of hegemonic powers. We small poppies were open to the possibility of sadness and to learning the lessons of history.
But, there was sadness and there was a true sense of loss and the potential to build a better future identity by staring straight at the mistakes of the past. I want my nation to be better. I want to take real pride. I want to feel a sense of belonging with others, but I don’t feel that this can be meaningfully achieved by turning the reality of a bloody loss into the fiction of Aussie victory.
We can commemorate better. We can look at all the massacres of the past and honour the instruction they give us. We don’t have to cry, of course. But we do have a responsibility not just to the fallen but to the future to build from our mistakes. For me, ANZAC Day is a fluoro-armband view of our history. The armband doesn’t have to be black, of course. But its false light deludes us into taking a path of dangerous nationalism.
I’m going out to the garden.