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A Yank Australianed

“That neighborhood exploded into flame.”  Beside me on the lawn-covered top of Parliament House, the guard pointed toward charred skeletons of houses and trees.

        Below that charcoal fringe, Canberra’s soft green neighborhoods rolled outward from Capitol Hill.  In late March, autumn’s first reds already tinged the maples.  January’s mid-summer catastrophe had terrorized the city and nation, a blitzkrieg of bushland flares straight into the capital itself.  I’d watched a Canberra native return to find her home intact, then tremble in horror to see her neighbors’ surrounding ruins.

        Now, under flawless blue skies after a spell of rains, Australia’s capital exuded calm and peace, though Prime Minister John Howard had just placed thousands of Australian troops in Iraq.  Spoking out from Parliament Hill, Canberra’s forested neighborhoods might have just endured the worst urban bushfires in history, but as an American visitor I sensed no other national capital in the “Coalition” would feel this soothing, a refuge on an emerald plateau.

        Even as it joined London and Washington to challenge Baghdad, it makes sense that Canberra faced combustive danger only from nature.  Deliberately installed in highland boonies between the Blue Mountains and the Snowy Ranges, a full day’s drive from Melbourne and hours from Sydney, Canberra was designed like Brasilia to grow, orderly and isolated, far from warships or the commercial piracy of a young nation’s coastal metropolises.  Despite a population of 300,000, Canberra has remained a pastoral haven devoted to democratic debate and federal administration.  Though Canberra has its grand monuments, the success of American designer Walter Burley Griffin’s prize-winning 1920’s masterplan isn’t expressed in grandeur or monumentalism.  Leafy, truncated boulevards end in the parkway that encircles the city’s heart around Lake Burley Griffin.  Any parade or march would have to be short, any conquering army halted at the sail-dashed lake.

        But pastoral serenity conceals Canberra’s rowdier political and social lives.  Canberra’s combative disputation during the countdown to war resonated throughout the nation.  Though Aussies lamented their politicians’ tameness, I felt jolted by their tough talk when I observed Canberra’s Parliament,  nothing like the timid, stilted American debate in Congress.  Here John Howard’s steadfast pro-war determination provoked groaning rage, rousing shouts and bold orations.  The Labour opposition called Howard names and assigned him wicked motives no member of Congress would dare ascribe to George W. Bush.

        After peace activists chained themselves to the gates of The Lodge, the Prime Minister’s residence down the street from Parliament, Howard also took sharp criticism from his own party for slipping around the protesters to take his morning stroll with “too little regard for personal security.” 

Thirty years before, during the Vietnam War, an Australian commander took a legendary walk in the same streets, to weep and howl away the night’s tranquility after learning he’d lost a division of his men to a horrific battle.

        Howling nights of a different sort rocked the capital’s first weekend of the new-century war.  Freshly arrived from a country spur through the surrounding Wine District late Saturday evening, I’d expected Canberra’s centre to be quiet and small-city mellow.  Instead, when the raucous clubs and pubs finally closed, Graema Square’s party spread south to the casino and west to occupy the transit center, where local youth and students from nearby Australian National University milled and argued in the streets till almost sunrise, loud and fiery as their reps on Capital Hill.  At the street party, fashion meant painting pants’ bottoms with crude blood-red slogans:  NO WAR, of course, along with STOP BUSH’S ATTACK, and HOWARD’S A WANKER, while the puzzling IMPEACH REAGAN streaked across two young cheeks that were not yet made flesh when the Hollywood actor became President.

        In the sundrenched quiet of Sunday morning, my hosts urged me to visit the War Memorial.  So did a gentleman on the street who coldcocked me with this advice when he heard my accent:  “It’s the one thing you’ve got to see, Yank, above all else.”  I did, but despite the encouragement, didn’t have the heart to give the sprawling, busy complex its due.  The monument encompasses a memorial garden, with the war victims’ names scored into slabs devoted to each of Australia’s interventions abroad.  But amid the first confusing dispatches of captures, injuries, and killings in Iraq, I felt too dispirited to wander, hung-over, fortunate, and foreign, among hundreds of red poppies and tearful faces.

        The paved footpath behind the War Memorial led me up Mount Ainslie through a patch of eucalyptus forest so wild that kangaroos sometimes hop the track.  In a jolting, jungly shift from the Memorial’s tourist-bus hum, here kookaburra birds kook-kooked and chuckled in the bush.

        Ainslie’s conical summit, its brushlands hedging Canberra’s city centre, caps a system of Canberra Nature Parks.  Three forested peaks and one wetland-lowland impose their wild spaces into Inner Canberra.  From the lookout atop Mount Ainslie, Burley Griffin’s plan seemed realized:  not a city imposed on a forest, but a city within a forest, not dominating nature but under nature’s influence, intoxicated by wild influences.  Each of the four inner-city Nature Parks ring Parliament House at a distance of less than a mile.  To the south, Canberra’s farthest traces disappear into deeper wildlands and blue ridges stretching into the Capital Territory’s Namadgi National Park.

        Seen from my Ainslie lookout, the embassy district sloped off Capitol Hill toward the lake, exuberant as a woodland village designed by a UNICEF council of smart children.  Earlier, I’d seen  embassies up close–Thailand’s fantasia of fluted welcome gates, pagodas, and temples; New Guinea’s steep-roofed, open-air jungle meeting hall; the Finnish modernist house of glass, sleek and open to the street.  The U.S. compound, though, lurked nearby in a less enchanted architecture of the mind.  Shrunk from public access, it suggested no welcome or hope of conversation.  With vague antebellum-plantation-house flourishes, the American embassy hunkered behind high fences and iron bars.<!–page–>

        Leaving the mountain, gazing back to the city’s core, I could observe how the War Memorial’s siting, under its massive dome, forced a mutual sightline to and from the Parliament House across the lake.  Blunt asphalt lines, the brief boulevard of Anzac Parade, suggested a straight-shot symbiosis between war and democratic governance.

        Across Lake Burley Griffin, a gathering was underway to oppose any such notion.  Organizers and musicians set up for a peace demonstration on the front green as I crossed the forecourt into Parliament House.  The 1988 complex seems designed, like Canberra itself, to defer to nature, even withdraw into it.  Upon entry, rather than scale the usual big-government escarpment of marble steps, the visitor’s invited into a sloping plaza dashed by pools–but might just as easily wander onto the Parliament House’s grassy, pyramidal “roof.”  (This must be only national capitol on which citizens can picnic while their politicians toil like Murlocks beneath.)

        Under this rounded berm of lawn, the center of the complex cuts into a hillside.  Implying a bushland meeting place rather than a Greco-Roman temple, Parliament’s tall, four-legged pole hoists a fat Aussie flag to signal the gathering.  Inside, directly underneath the flagpole, Members Hall forms the building’s heart, flanked by chambers for Senate and House of Representatives.  Even under the grassy berm, there’s no sense of being underground or in a bunker; sunny exterior courtyards and gardens glint in the plate-glass bridgeways between chambers.  Even deep inside, nature echoes everywhere, in The Foyer’s eucalyptus woodland of gray-to-white marble columns or in a mosaic’s possum and wallaby, who slumber the native nation’s Dreaming.  Even in the national coat of arms, kangaroo and emu support the six states’ inner shields.  In the Senate, the carved wooden kangaroo strikes an oddly sociable pose, leaning forward as if–so the joke goes–hoisting a schooner of beer.  This is a whole ‘nother hemisphere away, in national symbolism, from avenging birds of prey.

        This contrast between Canberra’s hospitable, herbivore marsupial and Washington’s predatory raptor kept striking me.  I sensed not a small nation’s self-effacement but the charm and modesty of prosperous, self-assured hosts.  Instead of exalting conquest and manifest destiny, Canberra quietly archives its continent’s native and natural treasures. 

Expressing the exercise of power as self-restraint, Canberra reflects a modern, successful nation without imperial aims.

        Maybe as a consequence, the absence of fear is palpable here, which is probably why the Prime Minister wanted to stroll freely no matter who despised his policies.  Despite the demonstration across from Parliament, which grew to historic size as the day progressed, the forecourt stood completely unguarded.  No guns, no pat-downs, nothing but welcome and wander-where-you-please.

        As I stood chatting with an attendant in the Senate chamber, TV’s triumphal martial music broke the Parliament’s Sunday hush.  On cable news in the hall, Texas accents spoke from the Iraqi desert, where U.S forces set an installation ablaze near the Kuwait border.  Questioned by reporters about possible violation of the 1980 Geneva accords, which ban flame-based weapons such as napalm, the American officer explained, “We can’t violate that treaty.  We never signed it.”

        The attendant flinched as the camera moved in for a close-up of the flames.  “I still can’t see fire without worrying about my home,” she explained.  “We almost lost it, you know, to the bushfires.”

         Yet she must have seen something besides sympathy in my eyes.  She nudged me gently away from the TV images of the conflagration in Iraq.  Gesturing toward the amiable leaning kangaroo on the coat of arms, the attendant returned to her earlier comments about the building’s construction:  “You have a lot to proud of here.  Yet again, we have you Americans to thank for the design.”  Just as with Canberra’s urban plan, the international competition for design of the Australian Parliament House was won by an American team.  The pastoral, natural themes of both city and capitol had, after all, grown from of a New York firm’s vision.  “Honest,” she repeated, “you have a lot to feel proud of in Canberra.”

        Later I learned that Parliament’s chief architect, Romaldo Giurgola, had left New York in 2000 to become an Australian citizen.

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