the forest of faces

Just south of the Lions Park out of Manilla, NSW, someone has painted a bearded face on a tree.


It’s the first of eight such faces (that we know of), all taking advantage of the contours of the burls. The second one, named Toby by my nephew though it looks more like Gromit, is my favorite.


Before this trip to Barraba I tried to describe to myself the difference between my father’s town of a thousand souls and my own beloved city of San Francisco, population 800k but arguably way fewer souls. There are the giveaway jokes: Barraba used to have an asbestos mine, and just missed out on a new abattoir. In New York, everyone’s writing a novel; in LA, they’re working on a screenplay; in SF, they’re building an app.

That second joke gave me a clue. I love the density of narrative in cities, the plaques on London’s Georgian houses, the ghost of the railroad through the Mission, the undergrounded waterways. I thought for a while that Barraba is relatively empty of stories, until I remembered with a stab of sorrow that it used to be full of them, but that my ancestors tried to kill all the people that knew them.

Barraba is in Gamilaraay country. One story I do know is that of the Myall Creek Massacre.


I’ve spent enough time in Barraba to have made good friends and learned a little of their stories. Pam has a great one about her husband Ted riding across a flooded creek to be with her when she had a baby; she remembers the sight of him galloping up to the house, surrounded by a halo of flies. Jane’s family owns a property called Wiry, which I had assumed was an Aboriginal name. Turns out it was part of the land grants to returned soliders, and because it’s a relatively hilly and inaccessible property, the recipient grumbled “Wouldn’t it root ya.” More giveaway jokes.


Jane asked me flat out what all seven of you remaining blog readers have probably been wondering: “Are you neglecting the blog because the stuff you’re thinking about is too intense and sad?” Yup. But something really terrific has happened. A researcher has become interested in Dad’s blog, which was critical to his diagnosis of semantic dementia. We have 17 years’ worth of his written records as his condition developed – more than five times the length of the next longest case study. Joanna believes we can extract psycholinguistic markers of the changes to his vocabulary that may help scientists to develop more sensitive diagnostic tests.

As part of collating the material for Joanna, I read a few of Dad’s earliest blog entries. He had a decent line in giveaway jokes of his own:

Tue 10 Feb 1998

Got away late from Sydney. Lasted on the road until 6 o’clock at which time we found ourselves in Gunning, between Goulburn and Gundagai.

Gunning is a town of a thousand souls and very few outstanding features.


Death is the eater of meaning. It swallows up whole universes, erases stories from the landscape.


The work of grief is to make sense of loss. We have to make new narratives to mark the place of those that are gone.


We have to find the faces in the forest.

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