I hear this said a lot lately. Especially in circles objecting to the Western Sydney Airport, a cause that has absorbed a huge chunk of the last 12 months of my life. The shout is that we must ‘protect our unique lifestyle’. Playing devils advocate I want to say ‘and what is that exactly?’
Lifestyle: The way in which a person lives.
How do we live up here?
I have my own thing going on as I’m sure you do too, a ‘thing’ that isn’t always mirrored by my local friends and neighbours – people who have gravitated up here for what seems to me to be a myriad of reasons. I personally came up here because I loved it from the time I first visited as a backpacker in the 1990’s. By the time we emigrated the mountains offered us somewhere that was still close enough to family but far enough from the city to give us the ready access to mountain bike trails, big gardens and walks we desired. We really did come here for fun! My relationship with the mountain has deepened and matured somewhat over the last 13 years.
I observe that some of my friends have come from what I call the ‘flatlands’ of Riverstone, St Mary’s, Penrith and Emu Plains. I know that for some of these it was the bigger lot size of houses and gardens paired with affordable price-tags, the family friendly atmosphere, good schools and safe community feel that attracted them. For others who have come from the city it was the lure of fresh air, bush walks and a slower pace of life – somewhere to bring up the kids! Others have been sort-of pushed up here (and most are OK with that) after suburb after suburb became either more and more expensive or less and less desirable. The Blue Mountains have often seemed like a drive-too-far for most suburban Sydneysider’s, too close to flammable bushland, snake-infested and lacking in Westfield shopping centres to boot until now. Now we have the Greater Sydney Commission ramming down our throats a mantra of ‘high density housing, shopping centres and gardens replaced by green open community spaces for all’. Everything we are not, thank you. As a consequence, we are now starting to attract more people looking for that sort of thing, the airport proposal even seems to be encouraging it. Also, we are no longer seeming so far, far away, the city and more than that, that city mentality, is coming to us.
That makes me feel uneasy on many fronts.
I’ll ask again, what is this lifestyle we talk about?
What is MY lifestyle?
Why did I feel physically sick when I saw the way a block of new low-rise apartments was being advertised in my local paper, apartments in an area of Springwood town centre that I’m actually OK with being developed in this way. It wasn’t the development I convulsed against, it was the language used to pitch them. The values being projected, values that just don’t resonate with me.
It was while I was out bushwalking this morning that it came to me. I bush walk as often as I can, it’s my oxygen, my sanity. I need the smells as much as the sights, the sound as much as the crispness of the air I taste. I am it and it is me.
The connection I felt with the mountains today epitomised what my lifestyle is – a great respect and a maternal love for this place, a place at the centre of all I do and am. I don’t want to use the word ‘environment’ to describe the mountains here even though that clearly and technically is what it is because I feel that word has become tainted with politics and what I feel is beyond political stripes, beyond the ‘it’ and ‘me’.
The Blue Mountains pulls people like me (I think) because of this powerful longing for connection, for family, for one-ness. Again, conscious of becoming too ‘hippy trippy’ (although I feel there is nothing inherently wrong with that) it’s as if we have come home and just like when we are in our worldly homes we have our responsibilities and duty of care. We must remain vigilant and care for this place, we can’t just switch off or brazenly try to capitalise off it in a one-way transactional relationship. It would feel like selling our mother!
So to answer my own question I have come to the belief (at least for now) that the Blue Mountains lifestyle that I talk about (and I understand that not everyone will share the same view) is centred on the philosophy of connection to land in a way that is deep and emotional. I see this as a monoculture of sorts, one that, wherever we travelled from, whatever other worldly beliefs we hold pulls us together in our love and respect for the mountains and its role in our life.
And this isn’t just some romantic fling that we indulge ourselves in on high days and holidays. This is serious, this is us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week:
We are reminded of our environment every spring when the magpies come out and defend themselves from our bike culture.
Are alert to the bush-fire danger that each hot windy, dry day brings and yes, our houses do burn down and many of us have smelt the fear while hosing down our gutters.
Struggle to hear the radio over the clicking of cicada or the ribbit of frogs after a downfall.
Manage our wild, sloped and wooded blocks from wild winds, rain and termites.
Take care to shake out our shoes for Blue Mountains funnel-web.
Shoo lizards out of our lounge rooms
Watch water-butts for snakes
And stand in awe at each and every perfect sunrise and sunset over hectares and hectares of trees and bush and wilderness, longing for the next free weekend that we can get out there and camp.
But when I hear mention of ‘our unique lifestyle’ I want to say no, our lifestyle is not unique, Australia’s first people have been trying to model this way to us for as long as ‘we’ set foot in this country well, at least as far as I can gather not being an expert in these things.
However, unique or not we are distinct. We are not like Penrith or St Mary’s or Blacktown or Castle Hill or Newtown or Marrickville or Glebe or Windsor. These places have their own cultural identity, their own brand if you like! Why try to mould us, make us something we are not?
People don’t just come here to live IN the Blue Mountains, they live here and BECOME the Blue Mountains and to let the Blue Mountains run through their veins. That feeling is contagious and is part of what draws in tourists from all over the world. Tourists that take a bit of that connection and identity home with them in the art, music, photography and hand-made products they invest their dollars in.
To put it in neoliberal terms our lifestyle is valuable, has value and should be invested in, protected, developed, marketed. And it is but in a world obsessed by sound-bites and instant-gratification we simply cannot sell this enough.
So that’s the conclusion I’ve come to.
Yes we do have a lifestyle.
Yes that lifestyle is unique in terms of the Sydney and surrounds suburbs.
But that lifestyle is rooted in a deep human calling of the wild.
What we feel up here is timeless.
And sadly that feeling is becoming quite rare.
And time is running out.