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Two years ago, my youngest brother Tony celebrated his thirtieth birthday. For the first time in a long time, my three brothers and I came together to celebrate in the same city at the same time, a rare occurrence these days.
I was five when Tony arrived in this world, and I remember vividly the beautiful chaos of that week. It was a week of suspense and then excitement: my aunties, uncles, and cousins came to stay (to help my parents and to welcome the new Trimboli to the fold), I did not have to go to bed at the usual time, and when I woke up each morning there was this amazing, weird-little-human-thing to stare at, talk to, and try to convince Mum to let me hold.
More than that, Tony’s arrival was the first time I can clearly remember understanding that I was a sister. I was a sister already – to two brothers, in fact – but I suppose at five years old I was beginning to intellectually register things in a more cognisant way. Prior to this, I had my big brother Matthew, seven years older (read: seven years cooler) than me, always doing everything I wanted to do – even if I did not understand the things he was doing, I knew absolutely that I wanted to be doing them, too. And I had Domenic, eighteen months or so younger than me and less ‘my brother’ than ‘my Domenic’, simply because it felt like he was already always right there beside me, more or less, a part of my everything, every adventure and mischief, every lie, laugh, smack, and scolding, my best friend and enemy simultaneously, and thus less my brother and more my constant conspirator – you know, my Domenic. So although it is true that I already was a sister before Tony arrived, up until his appearance it felt truer that I merely existed among brothers; the matter of being a sister, of what that felt like, of what that meant, did not really start to gain gravity until that moment.
While sitting beside my brothers at Tony’s thirtieth birthday, laughing hysterically at some ridiculous in-joke no-one else would find funny, it occurred to me that of all the labels I had been given or that I had come to adopt at different times throughout my life, sister is the one I loved always and the most. All other labels and names I have taken on seem to retain some element of discord; I can never fully shake a sense of apprehension about how the label is managing me in some way. But in ‘sister’ there is always comfort. “This is my sister, Daniella,” my brothers will say to introduce me to their friends and acquaintances at social events. The feeling I experience is comfort.
The comfort is the result of many things, no doubt. The importance that Calabrese culture places on family, together with our unconventional and stressful upbringing, meant that we banded together – a lot – even when we did not necessarily want to … because god damn siblings do not want to be friends sometimes. Indeed, do not get me wrong: sometimes, being a sibling is immense discomfort for me – it is annoyance, anger, frustration, even pain. Sometimes, it is arguing about something for so long you forget what started the argument. Sometimes, it is churlishly hurtling text messages at each other which you know will hit each other’s most sensitive of feelings; still others, it is flying into a rage blackout to protect them when you look across a pub floor and see a DJ holding one of them by the scruff of the neck and coming-to in the middle of a broil of men to the sound of your screeching voice: “DON’T FUCK WITH MY BROTHER!” (Sometimes, it is getting kicked out of a pub with your brother after getting into a melee that – turns out – “was kind of my [your brother’s] fault.”) I guess that is the point though – the discomfort has never been great enough to override the default position, which is, ultimately, comfort, and a dogged commitment to protect the source of that comfort above all else. (This is surely what Anna in Frozen II is getting at when she says to her sister Elsa: “If you don’t want me to run into fire, then don’t run into fire!” If you don’t want me to run into a brawl, then don’t get into a brawl!)
Being a sister creates a place for me, a world-within-the-World, a place I can locate quicker than any other place, a place within which my brothers will always hold space for me. I know this in the same way I know how my usual morning coffee tastes, or how it feels to slide into my oldest, comfiest slippers, where all the unique bends and distortions of my feet meet their homely indents, or any other routine element of my life that I know intimately but subconsciously.
When Tony arrived, being a sister suddenly meant something, it meant having a space, as well as giving a space, and I have carried this meaning around with me in one of my back pockets ever since. At various times over the years, I have taken this meaning out and held it in my hand, the way I hold a smooth rock at the beach sometimes and feel quietly strong. Being a sister is mostly pretty quiet, pretty mundane.
Three years ago, the year before Tony turned thirty, something less mundane happened, something the opposite, something big and shocking, something that caused the ground to give way beneath my feet, but of more concern to me, beneath my three brothers’ feet. The earth rumbled and split. Trauma I had long buried sprang up. I sat across a kitchen table from Domenic, both of us drunkenly finishing off tuna sandwiches (of all things to be eating at 4am?), and I watched the ground crack open between us. For a moment, I did not know if I would ever be a sister again, not in the same way.
But it is no coincidence that we carry something around in our back pocket. We do it because we know that sooner or later we are going to need to pull that thing out, not only to hold in our hands for momentary comfort, but occasionally to throw, far out into the ocean as we let out a yelp, and we are going to do this with a deep faith that it will be thrown back.
Domenic threw it back. Holding space for one another was not quiet on this night, it was loud, the loudest thing I have ever experienced. It rang at me from across the table, firmly talking to my falling, grief-stricken face: “this is going to be okay. Look at me. This is going to be okay.”
And over time, it was. Earth that has split open re-joins, unbearable loss becomes bearable, siblings return to the mundane rhythm of being siblings.
Three years ago, my three brothers showed up to loudly support me in a way I could never have foreseen and would never have requested. More than that, they faithfully, committedly, stood still for me. First, they made space for me to speak, then they held the ground around me, patiently and silently standing behind me as I attempted to move forward and figure some difficult things out. I needed to be in the lead for this particular navigation, but I never was a leader, not really, because you cannot lead anything if no-one is behind helping you, waiting to catch you, to remind you and to shout at you: “this is going to be okay. Look at me. This is going to be okay.”
Mum sneakily took the featured photo of the four of us at Tony’s thirtieth birthday, the last time we were physically together. It makes me smile looking at it, not least because I know I was seconds away from reporting back to the circle: “shit, Mum’s taking a photo of us, disband.”
How I adore being a sister to these people, my three brothers, Matthew, Domenic, and Tony. They give me joy, laughter, fortitude, pride. Above all else: they make me a sister. Without them, I do not make sense. Without them, I have one very empty pocket.
Many of you will be familiar with this olive tree and might even remember the day it was gifted to me by my former neighbour, nonno Domenico of “Brunswicka Westa” in Naarm, Melbourne. You will know how meaningful this gift was to me, not least because my fellow housemates and I had developed a special relationship with Domenico over the years. Undoubtedly, this relationship strengthened the night we had all been woken up by flashing red lights of an ambulance that sent Domenico’s wife Giuseppina away forever.
After that night, nonno Domenico lived across the road with his scruffy, almost-blind dog Bobby, he continued to grow all sorts of fruit and vegetables in his small suburban yard, and we exchanged our respective produce with one another. One year, he showed my brother Tony how to prepare the olives we had recently picked into the salty, pressed style of olives our father used to make, a prized instruction since we loved that style of olives, but we could not ask our father for instructions. At that time, Dad was still in our lives, but barely.
We made sure to wave at nonno Domenico every time we entered our gate, and to glance across the street to check his light was on every night. We advised him whenever we intended to be away, knowing he’d watch over our home in our absence. He would call us in for caffé, Averna, or Crown lagers any chance he could, no matter the time of day or night. Sometimes, we would sit with him on his plastic deck chairs in his backyard, sometimes around his kitchen table, but always sharing stories, snacks, and smiles. His English was better than our Italian, but we fumbled our way through in a mixture of both. Sometimes, he’d take us into the formal dining room, inevitably shedding tears in front of the framed picture of his beloved late wife, a small shrine dedicated to Giuseppina’s memory established at the end of the large wooden table.
Nonno Domenico was a special man and the olive tree was a special gift.
Many of you will know that the olive tree became a way for me to feel re-connected to my own nonno, also called Domenico, who passed away in 2001.
You will know that every day, right up until this current one, I think of my nonno whenever I look at this tree and tending to it feels like tending to something else, something bigger, something culturally and spiritually important to me and my migrant family. When I see new growth, I wish I could tell nonno about the progress, but it doesn’t matter too much that I can’t – what matters is the sense of knowing, of believing, that he would be proud if I could tell him.
You might recall my anxiety when I had to replant the tree into a larger pot soon after moving to Boonwurrung Country, Williamstown in 2017. I was frightened I would perform this weighty task wrongly, and ruin the tree’s roots, inevitably losing not only the connection with my own nonno, but with the nonno Domenico who gave me the tree. I guess I was afraid I would ruin different kinds of roots.
After all, since moving to Williamstown, neither of the two nonno Domenicos were present in my life. Once, I stopped in on Domenico of Brunswicka Westa, but mostly I only have this tree as a reminder of our relationship, mostly I can only hope his light is on every night.
Fewer of you will know that the tree is increasingly becoming a way for me to communicate with my estranged father, the man who taught me the beauty of olives – both the fruit and the trees they grow on.
I used to walk through the small olive grove at my father’s property and feel serene, marvelling at how the trees had grown since the last time I’d visited, and finding something infinitely poetic about the coloured contrast between the yellowing wheat field in the distance and the blue-grey green of the olive tree leaves. Each time I visited, I would also spend some time with “Nonno’s Olive Tree”, the one we had planted at the bottom of the yard, after nonno’s death. We never really talked about how this tree had not grown as well as the others, mind you.
Those closest to me know how upset I have been in the last two years on the occasions when I have had to prune my olive tree, or when it developed a virus, or became infested with little bugs. I was upset not simply because of concern I would not provide the right care, but because I could not phone my father and ask him what the right care was in these instances. You might have even come to my aid at one of these times and offered your own horticultural advice and words of reassurance, reminding me that I did not need my father or his olive-tree wisdom. And you were right.
I use this tree to communicate with my father not in a literal sense, obviously, nor even as some kind of pseudo-telepathy. I communicate with my father through this tree because despite being severed from him, I am irrevocably tied to him, too – the terms of my living, the things that I do, will always be made and done in relation to him in some shape or form, in relation to the man who helped bring me into this world, who gave me my Calabrese name. Indeed, I can only oppose his decisions and choose an alternative life because I exist in relation to those decisions and that life in the first place.
As such, the tree helps me communicate my growing sense of ownership of the person I am becoming in the absence of my father: a Trimboli woman who is more than capable of growing her own olive tree, a whole grove if she wishes and as she intends to do one day. Somehow, the tree allows me to send that message without it being necessary for my father to ever receive it; the tree hears it and knows it and that is what is really important, that is how this mode of communication with my father works.
You might have had conversations with me about how I could ensure this little tree would remain in my life, about how I could ensure I would see it grow into a big tree. The future of the tree was a legitimate concern, for example, when I started considering a long-term plan to move back to South Australia, which has stringent anti-fruit-fly measures. When I voiced this worry to some of my Kaurna-/Adelaide-based family members, my zia Rosa assured me the tree could be put into quarantine at the border, and after a certain amount of time it would be released to me. Maybe she knew the next question I had but that I did not want to ask (“but what if it doesn’t pass quarantine?”), because she immediately said, without me speaking another word: “don’t worry, we will get that tree here.” I believed her and once again started considering a long-term plan to move back to South Australia.
I realise, of course, that some of you will not be aware of any of this information, will not have known about the tree I was gifted, let alone my complicated attachment to it. I nonetheless suspect that you will feel some level of empathy towards we both – my tree and me – all the same, when you read this.
What I do not know is how you will feel about another tree, a sacred birthing tree whose temporality is forever, whose roots, trunk, and branches have an age that cannot be separated from the age of the earth itself. A tree that has welcomed over fifty generations of babies into the world under the guidance and care of Djab Wurrung women Elders. A grand and powerful tree that is just one of many, and that without which fundamentally diminishes the meaning of my little olive tree, a tree that if demolished would immediately and without doubt scar the infantile trunk of my tree, which of course is not “my tree” at all, but rather a tree of another place, growing in soil that belongs to other peoples, on country that I occupy without permission.
My heart would surely feel broken for a time if this olive tree was to die, or if it was to be stolen (a real fear I entertained when realising the front yard was the best location for my tree in Williamstown!). I would spend significant time grieving the loss of this tree, and miss it always, even as I tended to and admired my other olive trees.
But what if my-tree-that-isn’t-really-my-tree, my tree that frankly might as well be an ordinary twig on a footpath in comparison to a Djab Wurrung tree was knowingly destroyed by another person and for no good reason? If my tree was destroyed by someone who knew the importance of the tree to me, by someone whom I had implored over and over not to destroy the tree, by someone who willingly destroyed it anyway?
In that case, it is not just that my heart would feel broken, or that my grief would rise and fade across time, but that something in my being – in the very way I move, love, think, share, and relate to other things in this world – would experience a type of break. How could it not, if the person I feel I am in the world has become tied up somehow with this little olive tree, and if another person flippantly yet ruthlessly destroyed it right before me? My sadness would be for the tree, but it would be for something beyond the tree and beyond me, to be sure.
If the Victorian Government demolishes the sacred Djab Wurrung trees despite all of the resistance and requests from Djab Wurrung people otherwise, and if we non-Indigenous Australians – illegitimate caretakers of other trees growing in soils that belong to other peoples, on country that we occupy without permission, and that yet we stake a claim on regardless – if we allow it to do so, something will break, something beyond hearts and beyond trees, and certainly something beyond our supposed humanity.
Postscript , 22 August 2019
I wrote this piece today because I had insomnia last night, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the Djab Wurrung people who would be sitting by their sacred trees, waiting for the police to come in the morning and attempt to evict them off their own Country (see this Conversation article for more information on the status of the issue at this moment). Before going to bed, I had seen a video taken earlier in the day at the Djab Wurrung Embassy site by Yorta Yorta man Neil Morris aka DRMNGNOW, featuring the trees under threat. I was reminded how magnificent the trees are, stupefied even, by their magnificence, and felt so heavy in the heart trying to imagine what Djab Wurrung people must be feeling right now. My mind went to my own beloved tree. I eventually slept and when I awoke later in the morning I wrote the above, though feel reluctant, even ashamed to post it now, because the structure of the writing feels so colonial: i.e. “because I can understand how I would feel if a tree I care about was deliberately destroyed I can therefore understand how Djab Wurrung people would feel.”
First, I could never understand how Djab Wurrung people would feel because I am not Djab Wurrung, nor a First Nations person: I am a migrant settler and I am implicated in the dispossession of these trees.
Second, my tree is nothing in comparison, nor should it even be compared: the tree that has a role in my life is special to me, but a Djab Wurrung tree is not just special to a person, it is intrinsic to an entire culture and ecosystem.
Third, I feel so frustrated when this kind of reasoning gets delivered as an attempt to ignite political empathy, e.g. when someone says, “imagine if it was your child who drowned at sea”, in an attempt to build a case for asylum seeker rights, or, “imagine if it was your daughter”, in an attempt to build a case against male violence against girls and women – as if one need have a relationship to something directly comparable in order to recognise when something is unjust and inhumane.
Nonetheless, I am posting this anecdote about my olive tree. I am posting it because it is difficult to make it to the Embassy site, and because I have emailed and phoned all the MPs several times over the past few months and know this is not enough. I also know anything I try to do or write will always have some shade of colonial logic to it, because I am an uninvited migrant living on Indigenous land, full stop. I am posting it because I think it is important to try and tell stories that open dialogue and prompt connections, even if those attempts fall short, or fail. Most of all, though, I am posting this anecdote because I truly hope with all of my heart that those magnificent, sacred trees will not be destroyed.
Some preliminary thoughts about the sea as a place of epistemological potential, prompted by my weekend, which featured The Honeymoon Suite’s exhibition Waves, Kristina Davidson’s beautiful sculptural work Disconnect, and the first episode of the new BBC documentary series Blue Planet II
Martin Buxbaum’s oft-cited reflection on the sea goes a long way towards describing many people’s affinity with this great body of water: ‘I have seen the sea when it is stormy and wild; when it is quiet and serene; when it is dark and moody. And in all its moods, I see myself.’
Many of us quote this because when we see the ocean we do see our moods, our behaviours, and our attitudes. Sometimes this “we” is singular: today, I am irritated and here is the sea, choppy and murky, just like me. Sometimes this “we” is extrapolated to mean humanness, but a very particular humanness, such as the flippancy afforded to some humans: yesterday, we stepped out hurriedly to grab toilet paper and milk, we forgot our calico bags, and we returned with an assortment of things including bananas, deodorant, and crumpets. We bought the toilet paper but forgot the milk. We shoved the plastic shopping bags inside other plastic shopping bags we keep beneath the kitchen sink. This morning, we grabbed takeaway coffees because we had no milk to make them at home. Later in the day, we went swimming in the bay and we saw at least two plastic coffee lids floating past, and for a moment we hated ourselves.
Momentary guilt is another type of “we.”
Most often, I think about the ocean as a place I long to be, a place I want to dive into so as to experience a different kind of momentary mood: solace. Lately, I’ve been trying to keep at the forefront of my mind the reality of the ocean as a place that others—Others with a capital O—long to be beyond, a place they want to cross, if they must, and then forever leave behind. When the ocean is this place it displaces both moods and moments. Forever is less of a moment and more of a life sentence when you can neither get beyond the sea in front of you nor put it fully behind you. I am sure this is what it must feel like for my father, still afraid of the sea after being forced by his orphanage nuns at age five to venture into a great mass of water foreign to him. He ran away and is still running, as far as I can tell.
The sea is both dependable and menacing: carrier, continuum, and connector/ barrier, blockage, and bully. The sea might engulf us or deliver us; welcome us home on a Pacific liner, or refuse us entry on a small orange boat owned by the Australian Government. We can be flippant, but when we look at the sea we also sense that at any moment it might decide it has had enough of our nonchalance and become flippant, as well. After all, the world is mostly water and our bodies are at least sixty per cent water, too. This water might become so wild on the last stretch of a P&O honeymoon cruise that we vomit all the way to shore, or so calm during a rescue by the Italian Navy that we can hear First Seaman Saverio Rizzi clearly counting the members of our family as he pulls us to safety after a long and treacherous journey from Syria: ‘One, two, three, four, five, six. Welcome!’  The sea is, therefore, nothing but potential, at all moments, and this potential can disrupt our sense of time and the way our bodies feel moving through it.
Last night, my partner and I watched the first episode of Blue Planet II. During the episode, an encounter between false killer whales and bottlenose dolphins was carefully manipulated for us, the viewers. An anticipated bloodshed became, at the last moment, solidarity and togetherness. Two marine species formed an unexpected alliance. Two humans watching felt their mood transition from dread to relief, despair to hope. Buxbaum was right: we see ourselves when we see the sea—but at the last moment we might also see others. Maybe sometimes we even glimpse unexpected ways of being, an alterity that helps us reframe the world. Maybe if we do not see these slippages when we see the sea, we are not looking hard enough.
 Kristina Davidson, “Disconnect”, 2017, wire, paper, glue, plastic. Featured as part of Waves exhibition curated by Charlotte Cornish, The Honeymoon Suite, Brunswick VIC.