Excess Baggage.

By Karen Johnson, from Out of the Kaje #3, Jan 1999

You can blame Elizabeth Billinger for this article, or if you want to go deeper into it, Steve Jeffery, as he’s the person who tossed the challenge in Elizabeth’s direction. A few months ago I received a copy of Banana Wings #11 (a great read!) and it contained an article Elizabeth had written entitled ‘Oh Pioneers’. The idea was fascinatingly simple - how do you sum up your life in ten simple items? Why only ten items, I hear you ask? Well, you’ve been selected as part of the first colony expedition to Mars, but room on the spacecraft is strictly limited (only to be expected). Each colonist has been allocated enough baggage space to take the ten items that matter to them the most. What you choose will depend largely on your personality – the down to earth practical type might want to take items that will be of some real use in the colony; the romantic, courtship letters and wedding photographs; the mercenary, the small hard-to-get items which will take on great value several million miles from earth (spices, precious stones etc.); or the dreamer, special items which spark personal memories. Some colonists might want to hold on to the memories of distant Earth, while others might want to put it all behind them and look firmly toward the future. Either way, you’re a long way from home, and there’s no going back.
 

1

What would I take? As soon as I asked myself this question, one item sprang immediately to my mind – my flute. There are two reasons for this – first, it is small, portable (much easier to carry onto a spaceship than a piano, which I can’t play anyway!) and can make music. Second, it has been a part of my life for so long that I simply can’t imagine being without it. Many people have one item that is so special to them (wedding album, bronzed baby shoes etc.) that they would stop to grab it before they left their house even if it was burning down around their ears. My flute is like that. It’s not new, it’s not perfect, (it’s got so many dents and scratches that it would cost more to rejuvenate it than it would to buy a new one), but it’s mine. I know where every dent came from, and each one holds a memory.
I wanted to learn to play the flute from the time I was seven years old, partly because my aunt Kathy (who is only 5 years older than me, and whom I worshipped with open adoration) played it, but also because I loved the sounds it could make. In Year 7 my patience was rewarded, as I could get free lessons at school. All I needed was a flute, and luckily for me my parents decided to buy me my own instead of renting one from the school. When I look at the black case I decorated with metallic stickers (theoretically to help me distinguish it from the other 65 flutes sitting on the Music Room shelf every lesson day, but actually because they were cute) I’m transported back to the day when I first picked it up and blew hesitantly into it. Ugh, what a horrible noise! I thought I’d never learn to play it properly, (and nor did the flute teacher, who moved me immediately into the beginner beginner’s group) but 10 years later I was still going, as I didn’t give up lessons altogether until I finished University.
The comforting coldness of the silver in my hands and the feel of the mouthpiece against my lips trigger memories of the thousands of times I’ve played in the last 15 years. Holding it, I remember lessons in the small soundproofed music room with Rachel and Rachel (no, she didn’t have a split personality, there were two of them and they were both my friends); and band sessions in the Music centre, so new that it still smelled of paint. Faces from that part of my life spring to mind – Mr Corr’s ready smile and brown curls, Mrs Lee conducting the orchestra or standing in front of our music class trying to teach us the difference between Bach and Beethoven. None of the pieces we learned seemed easy, but when we finally got them right it was marvellous. Then there were the special performances, like the time the Senior Band played for a special benefit at Moorabbin Airport. Afterwards, everyone brave enough was taken on a free light plane flight over Melbourne. The plane was so small and fragile it seemed there was nothing holding us up, but the view was fantastic – I was terrified and exhilarated at the same time.
Finally, there were the concerts at school: for Maroondah High School’s Anniversary, the day we played Axel F outside in the carpark with the wind blowing in our faces, and a thousand others. The Anniversary reminds me in turn of the School Magazine which I helped to put together for the occasion (my first, and for a very long time last, publishing attempt). We called it OMHS with a picture of a magnifying glass on the cover, and thought we were being terribly clever. Every current student at the school had a photo somewhere in the book, except me. I loathed photos, and managed to avoid them all, but as soon as I saw it, I wished I hadn’t been quite so assiduous. One memory leads to another, and the chain goes on, delving deeper into my subconscious with each step. Music lessons – performances – places – faces – occasions I dimly recollect – occasions I wish I didn’t recollect at all, but don’t really want to erase – feelings …
 

2

The second item that I would choose to take is a much smaller one, but it carries an equal cargo of memories. It’s a small glass dog, strictly speaking a mutt, and it’s the first quality ornament (as opposed to cheap and gaudy trash) that I ever bought with my very own money. I was only 12 when I watched the glassmaker at Salamanca Place make it especially for me. We were in the middle of a wonderful family holiday to Tasmania, and I was looking for souvenirs to help me remember it. The glassblower was making assorted small ornaments to help pay his rent, so this mutt was just one of many. But it was the only one that that seemed to look at me and say ‘buy me!’, so it was the one I carried back to Melbourne in the ship, wrapped in layers of tissue paper to keep it intact. When I hold it in my hand and feel its glassy smoothness, the little dog unlocks the key to my memory. I remember how proud and happy and excited I felt to be doing such a grown up thing, and also how much I enjoyed that holiday. We had lived in Tasmania for four years earlier in my life, and been extremely happy. Under the soft brightness of the Tasmanian Summer, indefinably different from the harsher warmth further north (even in Melbourne), we revisited old haunts, discovering to our joy that they were largely unchanged, while our friends welcomed us with open arms.
On a more concrete level, the dog is a demonstration of the power to create something beautiful out of something as ordinary as a pile of sand.
It’s hard to tell whether the memories are all from that holiday, from the time when we lived there ourselves, or from the return visit I made to the Apple Isle a few years ago. I can recall walking through the convict ruins at Port Arthur. I was struck by the beauty of the sunlight shining on the rich golden sandstone, but at the same time horrified by the tales of the deprivation suffered by the convicts. A visit to Port Arthur was always accompanied by a visit to the natural features of the peninsula – I was always afraid to go near the edge of the blowhole in case a rogue wave sucked me into its waiting maw, but I longed to go down onto the surface of the nearby tessellated pavement. It was hard to believe that those amazingly neat stone tiles were the product of a thousand years erosion, and not carved by some rogue sculptor. Then there was the time that we went on a guided tour of the newly opened Strathgordon Hydro plant. The sheer scale of the project was immense, and oh the noise, the noise! The deep rumbling whine seemed to penetrate my bones even through the hard hat and protective ear pieces we wore. Everything about it was totally outside my experience, and I was awestruck by the amount of power on display.
There are more, more, always more. Memories of ancient wonders – sailing down the Gordon River and seeing 1000 year old Huon pine trees; tracing my fingers over ancient aboriginal rock carvings at the Tiagarra Reserve in Devenport, and finding the remains of aboriginal middens in the sand dunes. And of Natural Beauty – walking through the green coolness of the Mount Field National Park, watching the wallabies hop among the trees, and posing for a photograph inside the stump of a giant tree that was ancient when it was cut down 150 years ago. Memories that say to me ‘This land is older than you can possibly imagine, but it’s where you came from.’
 

3

The third item I’d choose is a small blackwood box. It appears to be carved from a single piece of timber, but if you look very closely you can see that it’s actually two separate pieces, matched and glued very carefully. The drawer slides out, and inside are a few pieces of jewellery – a gold box chain, and two pendants - which are very special to me as they were the first ‘real’ jewellery items I was ever given.
The first pendant is a gold-plated leaf, quite large. My aunt Sandi bought it in Hawaii, and gave it to me when she came back from a round-the-world jaunt. The leaf feels lovely to stroke though it mustn’t be handled too much or the plating will come off. If you look at the pendant closely you can see the veins of the leaf under the gold – a reminder of the living things of the earth, made into a form which will last for ever with a bit of care.
Even though the pendant was sized and meant for an adult, it was typical of Sandi to give it to me when I was only seven or eight years old. Especially when she was younger (oh, gasp, mourn, Sandi was younger when she went overseas than I am now. Despair! Despair!) she didn’t always stop to ponder the appropriateness of her actions in any depth. I’m sure she saw the pendant (sounds like a tongue twister), thought ‘Oh, Karen would like that!’ and bought it without stopping to ask herself whether it was a suitable gift for a child. As it was, she bought it, I loved it, Heather took custody of it for the next five years until I was old enough to wear it, and I’ve still got it. The golden leaf stands as a reminder of Sandi’s sometimes-impulsive generosity and kindness, her most endearing characteristic.
The second pendant is a green jade tiki my parents brought back from New Zealand. It’s not especially large or ornate, but it and the chain are symbols of trust. First, Heather and Lionel trusted me enough to go away and leave my brother and me alone in the house for a whole month while they went to New Zealand. Second, when Heather gave them to me she was saying ‘Here, you’re not a little girl any more. I trust you enough to give you these things to keep in your room without losing or breaking them. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but I was (and unfortunately still am) terribly prone to accidentally losing/breaking/otherwise wrecking the things I value, so it meant a lot to me.
There are a few other things I keep in the little jewellery box, but I won’t be greedy – these three items are the ones which carry the strongest emotional resonances and which will help me to remember my family.
 

4

Next on my list is a smoothly rounded water-worn pebble, a tangible piece of the earth I’m leaving behind. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but it has to be just the right size to hold in the palm of my hand, with a dent (from rubbing against another rock) in the right place for my thumb to stroke. I found just the right stone once, on a beach in Tasmania known to us for obvious reasons as the ‘Pebbly Beach’. Pebbly Beach doesn’t have any sand at all, rather a few hundred metres of rocks. At some stage, long ago, the rocks were deposited there, perhaps by a retreating glacier. They sat there for the longest time, rubbing against each other and being tossed by the waves, until they gradually began to lose their rough edges. In another few millennia, the rocks will be ground down all the way into sand, but for now they are still rocks… Some of them are too large and heavy to lift, and some have been turned into tiny pebbles, but they have one thing in common – every one of them is smooth and rounded.
I might not get a rock from Pebbly Beach. It might come from anywhere where there has been water on stone – Healesville’s Badger Creek, where the water has burbled merrily among the rocks for long enough to wear them to a unanimous grey smoothness; or maybe Binalong Bay, where the massive granite boulders wear a brightly coloured coat of orange and red lichen; or even one of the rocky stretches of the Yarra River. It doesn’t matter where it comes from; it’s just a symbol. When things get fraught in the Colony, I’ll be able to sit for a moment holding my pebble, stroking the dent and saying to myself ‘Slow, slow. Remember the aeons it took to make me. I was once a rock, sharp contoured and jagged, but the water took me, rolled me, tumbled me, and gradually shaped me into what I am today.’ Then, refreshed and reminded of the small scale of my problems, I’ll be able to return to the work of making a new life.
 

5

 I am a person who loves colour, and who goes slightly nuts without it for instance towards the end of a long drawn-out grey Melbourne Winter, when it’s rained for the last 25 days in a row and the sun hasn’t come out once. Somehow, I feel that the colony would be rather short on bright colours (unless you like orange – orange ground, orange rocks, orange sand, orange sky…) and I can’t think of a better way to supply the lack than a bundle of hand-dyed silk scarves. There’s nothing quite so lovely as the jewel-toned dyes used to paint the silks. Some people paint pictures or designs on their scarves (I used to have a rather lovely ocean scene with dolphins and killer whales, which I got as a souvenir of my whale-watching trip in Queensland) but that’s not essential. What I want is simply a rainbow of colour to lift my spirits – sky blue, sea blue, rose pink, crimson emerald green, turquoise, aquamarine … the more shades the better. That, combined with the glorious silky-smooth texture of the silk, should satisfy the desire of any hedonist, and keep away the Martian blues.
 

6

 I had a difficult time deciding what my sixth item to take should be. At length I decided upon a watercolour painting. Not just any watercolour though – I’ve already got this one, or rather two. These are very special to me because they were painted for me by my very old (in both sense of the world) friend, Mac. The first watercolour is a framed painting hanging on the wall above my bed. It depicts a lake somewhere in Scotland, but the rushes in the front of the scene remind me very much of Lake Katani up at Mount Buffalo. The first day I saw the lake, they’d been burning off extensively down in the valley, and the smoke had drifted right up to the plateau. There was so much smoke around that it was like looking through a brownish mist, and it tinted everything golden. The tawny orange rushes stood out in a brilliant contrast, and the scene imprinted itself into my memory. Next time I saw the lake it looked totally different – no one was burning off and everything was the green of early spring, but the view I’ll always remember is the first one.
Much as I like that first watercolour, I don’t think I’d take it to Mars with me, as it’s quite large and unnecessarily heavy. The second watercolour is much smaller, as it’s a hand-painted Christmas card of an angel. I have to thank my mother’s ‘collecting’ habits for the fact that I still have the card. Mac sent it to me the year after we moved to Tasmania, when I was only 6. Heather put it away in her box of cards, and eventually gave it to me, saying ‘Go through this stuff and see if there’s anything you specially want.’ After an interesting afternoon spent prowling through the pile, I acquired my baby cards, birthday cards sent to me while I was too tiny to keep them myself, and a few other random bits and pieces, including the card. I hadn’t seen or heard from Mac for many years, but as soon as I saw the card I remembered him, and it. It was one of the first pieces of mail that had ever been sent to me personally, and I was very excited to get it. I was even more excited when I opened the envelope and saw what was inside. ‘Mr Mac’ as I used to call him, had painted a very simple angel in a yellow dress. She had no face, but I knew she was meant to be me because she had a black bobbed haircut, the same as I did. Mr Mac thought I was an angel!!!
My shame now is that the angel card was the last contact I had with Mac for a very long time. Some time soon afterwards, his wife had a stroke, and then another one, and eventually died, and I was too young to know how to handle it. I thought that if I pretended nothing bad had happened, then everything would be ok, so I refused to go and see Mac the next Christmas. Mum and Dad went without me, and I kept on pretending for the next 10 years. When I found the card, my mind was carried back to those days. I felt that I’d acted very badly, and childhood was no excuse. I wrote a letter to Mac, thinking that he would have forgotten all about me.To my surprise he wrote back, and we picked up where we had left off.
So why am I taking the card? Aside from the fact that it raises so much mixed emotion in me, it represents a lesson. The people who really care about you will go on caring about you even when you’re not there, or, in other words ‘Friendship is Forever.’ It makes no difference whether you’re moving across the street, across the country, or across the solar system. You never forget the people who are important to you, be they friends, family or teachers, and they’re not going to forget you either.
 

7

 Although I wouldn’t waste my time taking luxury foodstuffs with me, there is one spice that I don’t think I could live without – cinnamon. Given enough time, I’m sure that the colonists would be able to grow themselves a taste of home, but it takes a very long time to grow a tree to the point where you can harvest the bark without killing it, and there’s no guarantee that a cinnamon tree could be persuaded to grow under conditions so far removed from its ancestral home. To stave off the day of cinnamon deprivation I’d choose to take 10kg of cinnamon, vacuum-sealed into about 20 bags that I could keep shut until I needed them. I know that sounds like an awful lot, but cinnamon lasts a long time, and keeps forever. We bought a 1kg bag of cinnamon about 5 years ago, and we’ve still got some of it sealed in an airtight jar, so 10kg should be enough to make a lifetime’s worth of cakes, apple pies, rice puddings, and soet koekies. Soet Koekies are a kind of cinnamon biscuit, and the real reason for wanting to take cinnamon with me. Grandma and Grandpa brought the recipe with them when they migrated from South Africa, and though it actually requires a whole assortment of spices, the biscuits should work out almost as well using just cinnamon. Of course, where I’ll get the eggs from is another matter…
 

8

Which brings me to 8) Flower seeds, as many different types as I can get away with bringing. I’m assuming here that the conditions on Mars are suitable for the growth of at least some terrestrial plants, otherwise what would the colonists live on? If they had to bring everything in from earth there is no way that a colony could be economically feasible, but if foodstuffs could be grown, even in small quantities, the equation would balance a lot better. The officials organising the colony would definitely be bringing all the basic food-type plants, but they might very well forget about the short-lived, purely decorative ones. Water would be sure to be carefully rationed, but with luck I could spread my allowance out to cover the water requirements of a small window box of colour. If the seeds I take are carefully chosen (fast-growing and self-seeding annuals/perennials that can tolerate quite dry conditions so as not to use too much water) they should grow, flower and then set enough seed to allow for future replanting. On the practical side, if purely decorative plants can be called practical, any excess seeds could be gathered and bartered with other colonists for any of the small luxuries of life which they brought along and I didn’t.
Reading this, my ever-practical mother asked ‘What about the bees?’ but the answer is simple – hand pollination. It’s been good enough for the flower breeders for a few thousand years, so it ought to be good enough for Mars.
 

9

 It’s hard to work out what my ninth item is. I don’t drink spirits, so there’s no point in taking along a carton of 25-year-old scotch for very special occasions. Should I take along one very special book, like my personal writing journal or a family Bible? I fill a journal in a single year, so I’d run out of space sooner rather than later, while (much as I like the idea) we don’t have a Family Bible. It’s fairly safe to assume that I’ll be able to use a computer terminal to record my thoughts and feelings, and to use the same screen to gain access to all the computerised reading material that I could wish for. Bytes of data in a computer weigh nothing, so the colony will have access to an unlimited supply of books, literature and music (limited perhaps by what they had time to feed into the computers before they left Earth.) Perhaps my ninth requirement then, is a store of information of my own choosing. Even though I can only take along 10 personal items, I’m assuming that I will be able to take along as much information as I can carry. This information falls into several categories:

10

The final thing I’d want to take to Mars would be another human being to share it all with – my Life Partner. Like pioneers throughout history, there would be no point in going all that way if I didn’t have someone by my side. Adam to my Eve, only this time we’ll leave the snake at home. While, unlike the historical pioneers, we would presumably have things set up for us before our arrival on Mars, there would still be much to do. Together we would build a home and make a place for ourselves in our new world, then together we would raise a new generation – the first Martian generation.

So there are my choices – 10 things I couldn’t bear to live without. Thanks again to Elizabeth and Steve for the idea. For the Sticklers among you here’s the exact wording of the challenge, copied from Elizabeth’s article:
“Your name comes up in the national lottery draw as a colonist for Mars (of course you will go; it’s the trip of a lifetime. The catch is, it’s for a lifetime). Space is limited. (“No, space is big. It is immensely, staggeringly, mind-bogglingly big.” “Oh shut up.”) Space is limited. You can only take ten very personal items. They may be books, records, pictures, items of jewellery, a cuddly toy, Gromit bathplug… (This last has some arcane significance to members of Croydon fandom KJ)
What are they? And why? This is the catch. You have to explain, briefly, why those items, what they mean to you, or what memories they hold.”