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Monday, July 21, 2014

80) Red-necked Wallaby

Macropus rufigriseus

In the year 2000 I went to see the film the Dish.  It was a well-reviewed film with a good pedigree: the second effort from the people who’d made the universally beloved Australian film the Castle, in addition to numerous acclaimed TV series.  I went with some anticipation.  I came out angry.

The film tells the story of how the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales was responsible for receiving footage of the moon landing and transmitting that footage to the world.  When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed, with Michael Collins in orbit around them, the earth’s spin had turned the USA away from the moon; only NASA’s tracking stations in Australia were in a position to receive the pictures beamed from Apollo 11.  The world only saw that first moon landing, and only heard Neil Armstrong’s famous words, because of Australia.  Before the Dish was made and released it was a story most people didn’t know.  It was a story well worth telling.

Yet the Dish angered me.  Not because of the weaknesses of the film’s structure or screenplay – though in truth the film is a half-hour sitcom episode stretched to feature length – but because of its dishonesty.  The film claims to be a true story.  It is not.

I’m writing this post on the 21st of July 2014.  Some dates stick in our mind easily, because of their immediacy – either a temporal immediacy (today’s date), or an emotional immediacy (“Where were you when...?”).  That emotion can be cultural as well as personal.  I wasn’t anywhere on the 21st of July 1969, forty-five years ago today, when Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon – I wouldn’t be alive for another ten years.  But because I grew up in the world after the moon landing, the moon landing is part of my life.

It’s not possible for me to remember the moon landing, but I can remember walking to Honeysuckle Creek campsite, in the Australian Capital Territory not far outside Canberra.  I can’t remember what year it was but I can remember on the approach to the campsite seeing a Red-necked Wallaby – the first I’d ever seen – and then I can remember seeing scores more at the campsite itself, feeding on the soft grass in the open spaces there.  I can remember lying next to my father in our tent that night, being kept awake by the sound of wallaby teeth tearing at grass just a few feet and a couple of thin layers of tent material from my head.  I can remember, too, looking at the heaped and terraced earth at that campsite where buildings used to be, and I can remember reading the plaque affixed at the edge of the old buildings’ foundations.

I can’t remember exactly what that plaque said, but I remember one phrase precisely: the Honeysuckle Creek deep space tracking station had been closed down in 1981 as part of NASA’s “worldwide consolidation program”.  In the manner of all razor-gang language it’s a phrase that tries so hard to be opaque that it becomes transparent: budget cuts.  Keeping Honeysuckle Creek open was uneconomical.

The Honeysuckle Cree tracking station opened in 1967; it was operational for only fourteen years.  It’s a short life for such a major installation.  But the highlight of its career came just two years after it began operation: forty-five years ago today, on the 21st of July 1969.

As depicted in the Dish, the Parkes radio telescope did indeed play a vital role in bringing the moon landing to the world. The majority of the mission’s images and sound were received and relayed by Parkes, which had the clearest signal.  But the iconic moment, Neil Armstrong’s descent down the ladder, his “one small step” – when the world heard and saw that extraordinary moment of history, it was because of Honeysuckle Creek.  It was to Honeysuckle Creek that the words and pictures were beamed, and it was from Honeysuckle Creek that they were disseminated into the humanity’s collective consciousness.

It’s a story that hasn’t been adequately told.  It’s a story that was pointedly denied when the one major depiction of Australia’s role in the moon landings was told.  I came out of that screening of the Dish fourteen years ago angry because I knew the story and I was outraged that the makers of the film had so thoroughly obliterated it.  They couldn’t have made their film at Honeysuckle Creek – unlike the Parkes installation, Honeysuckle Creek’s dish has long since been demolished – but they could at least have acknowledged its role.  Even its existence.  They could at least have made an effort to tell the true story just as they claimed to be doing.

I saw the Dish in Canberra, where I grew up.  I saw it in the Greater Union cinema in the Civic bus interchange.  If you search for that cinema in Google Maps now you get the subtitle “permanently closed”.  Consolidated, I guess.  Center Cinema, just around the corner from Greater Union, has closed too; so has Electric Shadows at the other end of Civic.  In a couple of generations few people will remember them but they might remember somehow that these places once existed: for communities, large and small, pass on such information, and it’s by the slow accumulation of such parochial stories that communities gain their identity.

Such stories are important for all communities; but they may be more important for some than for others.  Ask any Australian what they think about Canberra and nine times out of ten you’ll hear the same list of scornful complaints: it’s boring; it’s freezing; it’s a parasite on the rest of the country.  I’ve had people say to my face that Canberrans aren’t “real” Australians – as if the life of any person can somehow possibly be more or less real than the life of any other.  When I tell people here in Melbourne that I grew up in Canberra their response is almost always the same: they smile and congratulate me on “escaping”.  And sometimes, to my shame, I play along with it – after ten years of living in Melbourne I’ve heard the line so many times that I can’t always be bothered to resist it; I don’t always have it in me to explain that actually I adore Canberra; that I moved to Melbourne largely because all my friends had; that one of the persistent small tragedies of human life is that we can only live in one place at a time.  So sometimes I just sit and listen and bite my tongue while the people around me tell the same old rote jokes about politicians and roundabouts and a supposed lack of nightlife.

These are the stories that Australia tells itself about Canberra, over and over.  But Canberrans know that the stories of their city are greater and more varied than that.  Stories are important.  They give us roots and they bind us to the places that we love.  They bind those places – a city, a valley, a farm, a river – to us, too.  They give us confidence in our homes and they give our homes a place in the wider world.  They assure us that our homes, our beloved places, have worth.  Sometimes they provide a counterpoint – a truer view – to the stories that the world tells us about our homes.

But no matter how well as we know those stories we want other people to know them, too.  We want other people to appreciate the places that we love instead of just unthinkingly dismissing them.  The story of Australia’s role in the moon landing has been told once, and told untruthfully.  The reach of this blog is tiny, and compared to the reach of a feature film it’s as our moon is to the Milky Way; but all the same, I’d like to tell you a story.  It’s a story about a place just outside Canberra, where there’s a big mound of grass and a brass plaque and so few people or human activity any more that the wallabies are bold and plentiful.  It’s a story about how a place helps make history and history helps make a place.

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  1. Fabulous and sad.Harry this needs a wider audience.Why not send it to the Canberra Times at least!

  2. As a former Canberran (now also in Melbourne) and ridiculous sentimental animal lover, thanks for this. Jane.