My Siganto Fellowship project, Blair Athol Re-Cut, is a pictorial and oral history project to be realised in the form of an artist book. It will focus on “… the displacement of a community after an entire township is relocated to make way for an open cut coal mine.”
I am currently in the initial research phase of my Blair Athol Re-Cut project and on Sundays you can find me in the quiet of the John Oxley reading room at SLQ. Today, just such a quiet Sunday, sifting through my research material (which seems to have miraculously appeared whilst I was away from my desk having a coffee!), I ponder the concept of Solastalgia, a term coined by Australian Professor Glenn Albrecht, whose first article on the subject was published in 2005. Solastalgia is just one of a number of concepts that research into this project has brought to light.
Solastalgia describes a form of physic or existential distress caused by environmental change such as mining. As opposed to nostalgia it describes the melancholia or distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment. It is also exacerbated by a lack of control over the unfolding change process. Thinking about this project, thinking about displacement, has brought about this feeling in me. It directly relates to a newspaper article discovered in the library archives a couple of weeks ago. The article was written to the local newspaper in 1971 by my late father Gordon Barratt…
He wrote (presumably to the mines): take your cotton picking fingers off our town and leave us alone with our school with its two wonderful teachers, our hospital, our tennis courts, our lifestyle… the emotion in his words is tangible.
When I began my research into this project I was primarily interested in uncovering old maps, which still pinpoint Blair Athol as a town before it was relocated, but I have discovered a whole lot more: an insightful book by academic and writer Diane Menghetti titled Blair Athol – The Life and Death of a Town, many old photographs, newspaper clippings and numerous other texts.
Blair Athol was the first town in Australia to be moved in its entirety to make way for what was, at that time, the largest coal seam mine in the southern hemisphere. The process began in the early 70’s and all but the historic cemetery was either relocated to the nearby township of Clermont, or destroyed by the late 70’s. I was 4 years old when my family moved to Blair Athol Station just outside the township of Blair Athol and it was where I lived until at 13 I left to go to boarding school.
To further my research and complement information and old maps housed in the John Oxley collection I travelled back to Blair Athol with my sister last month for the first time since I had left the area as a 13 yr old. During this visit I met with long lost neighbors and friends who gifted me letters, books, newspaper clippings and a wealth of other information for the project with the understanding that these materials would go to SLQ on completion of the project. As we drove through unfamiliar country disfigured by gaping black holes and man-made mountains I felt lost in the very country that had nurtured and nourished me as a child.
On returning from that visit I have been spending weekends in the John Oxley rooms sifting through newspaper clippings, photographs, maps and my own collected materials to patch together what has essentially become a much more personal project—a family oral history project. My family’s story.
I have discovered so much incredible documentation already thanks to the wonderful staff at SLQ who have offered such unwavering assistance. What a privilege to undertake this project in such a supportive environment. Fabulous snippets of stories and anecdotes have been found such as this one taken from a newspaper clipping from the 1970’s:
in the unofficial post office warmed with a coal fuelled stove, is a small bundle of envelopes addressed and left there by the few people still with attachments to the town. Mrs Harrison, who represents Aust Post when she’s at the counter and telecom Australia at a manual telephone switchboard a few feet away, will date stamp and post them in the last ever mail bag
I’m sure my father had a letter in that bag.
With the research well underway the next 2 months will see the progression of the creative phase of the project. Lots of time spent in the print studio where I will begin the process of photo etching and screen-printing maps and memorabilia. I will also start to think about the construction of the artist book assisted by research into the Artist Book collection at SLQ.
On the 2 hour drive back to Ballina at the end of the day I often contemplate the recent Bentley blockade and the anti-CSG rallies happening frequently in the area that I live and wonder how much has changed in the decades since my childhood town was relocated and here comes that feeling again… solastalgia.
Julie Barratt – Siganto Foundation Fellow, State Library of Queensland.