Following the path of Mulga Fred, wanderer
A long time ago, some dreamy afternoon in the 1930s, my mother - a girl then - received a visitor at her family's old homestead in far south-western Victoria. His name, the one most associated with him anyway, was Mulga Fred. My mother's parents were away shopping in town, but even now, at the age of 92, she remembers Mulga Fred and his story.
He was a famed performer on the buck jumping circuit, walked with a limp from one of the rare times when he was thrown, and had a full white beard.
He was on his way back down the road to the place that had become his sporadic base, the Lake Condah Mission for indigenous people, a settlement on a craggy lava flow whose importance to its inhabitants spilt back thousands of years beyond 1868 when it was deemed a mission.
Mulga Fred, wearied from a long walk and keen for a rest and a bite to eat, knocked on the door and sat with my mother and mourned that his people's land had been taken by her people.
It was the first time, she recalls, that she was made to grasp the real story of the land in which she lived.
White children on farms thereabouts had been raised to fear and avoid blackfellas, but Mulga Fred revealed himself to be a gentle man with a story. This place, he declared, sweeping his arms to all points, was his home and the home of his people, but they had been denied it. Fences had gone up and they had been shoved into a mission designated by people who apparently knew better.
"We don't have our proper home any more," he said. "But this is it, anyway, all around."
My mother still remembers the melancholy in his eyes.
It was not long before a neighbour, alerted that Mulga Fred had wandered into the homestead, stomped in, leaned against the doorjamb and informed him: "You best be on your way now, fella."
Mulga Fred, known in unsound newspaper reports of his time as "the last of the Victorian fullbloods", really didn't have what we might call a permanent home. He was probably born in Western Australia, drifted east in the early part of the century and travelled around, mostly in Victoria, on the buck jumping circuit. Even his real name remains unknown, though the names Fred Clark or Fred Wilson were attached to him, according to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. He died in 1948 when he fell from the railway platform at Horsham and was hit by a train.
But he left, for my mother, a lasting understanding that home was not defined by fences and gates. It was the place that filled your heart: where you felt you belonged, even if others decided it was not so and you had to become accustomed to the twists that life tossed you.
It was long ago, but perhaps not so much has altered.
As increasing tides of Australians in the past couple of generations have shifted from one place to another in search of education and work and in the thrall of corporations that call no base permanent, the concept of home as a fixed place has become an awkward concept.
It is a new story built on an old one, for this had long been a nation of the shifted and the shiftless, the first Europeans sent as convicts against their will, with those who followed scudding in from across the sea in quest of gold and land and jobs, the indigenous residents displaced. It was only the first half of last century when most Australians sat securely on plots of land in suburbs, towns and farms surrounded by growing families who didn't move far.
But in the past few decades, as those of us born here move restlessly about in swarms unimagined by many of our grandparents, we have been joined by ever-growing numbers of long-distant wanderers.
The census of 2011 revealed that 5.3 million Australians (27 per cent of the population) were born overseas. Another 4.1 million (20 per cent of us) had at least one parent born overseas.
So many hearts, then, adrift between distant places and continents, forced by circumstance and will to fit themselves into new places. Home is thus the present infected by memory, and the making do with whatever hearth is on offer.
Technology, at least in part, has sought to fill the breach. It is not such a reach to perceive that home, for many, now resides in the ether, captured within smartphones and Wi-Fi tablets.
The communities that once gathered in town halls are now in our pockets, carried everywhere. Memories are directly available in full colour and form. Our friends and family live in Facebook, wherever they might be.
Photographs of the places and faces that mean everything are in the cloud, accessible right now. Moving pictures? YouTube is there.
We don't write many letters any more, but we email and text-message almost without pause. Our music and our books no longer need to sit on shelves and in drawers but travel with us.
We don't need to visit banks or file our records in cabinets in the home office.
When our longing to see a face or speak to a voice becomes insistent, we call. Or better, connect through Skype and gaze into distant eyes right there on our screens.
There are no fences any more, no gates. Front doors are virtual; just dial straight through. Clean across continents.
It is tempting to wonder what old Mulga Fred, had he known of such marvels, might have thought.
His idea of home, sure enough, was all around but also out of reach, just like the cloud.
But it was real enough. He placed his feet upon it and walked it and dropped in on strangers for a conversation about what was and what ought to be.
Even though he was told, from time to time, to "move on, fella", he made his mark with such modest conviction that his life later seemed worthy enough to be captured within the Australian Dictionary of Biography. It's on the web. Forever. Finally, for his spirit, no fences.