There was a spot in the middle of our lawn where I used to spend long summer days, communing with my surroundings. The lawn was on the top of a hill and from my spot I could stare across the Manawatū Plains, past the corrugated roofs of my hometown, past the farms with their tightly fenced paddocks.
The Ruahine Ranges sat on the horizon, marking the boundary between land and sky. Every day, I traced Ruahine’s ridgeline south, across Wharite Peak and the television transmitter stuck on its summit, down into the gorge where I knew the Manawatū River pushed past steep, bush-clad walls that eroded in heavy rain.
I would lie back on the lawn and close my eyes. Heat rose from the earth beneath my thighs. My heartbeat slowed. The odd breeze rolled across the lawn. I drifted off, blades of grass between my fingers, the land pulsing through my skin.
I keep writing about Aotearoa. Outside my window, a djiti djiti flies around the courtyard, snatching bugs from the air, while the leaves of a weeping peppermint tree cast shadows across my desk. My mind is 5,000 kilometres away, picking through forget-me-nots under Nana and Poppa’s walnut tree; leaning into the southerlies that ride waves along the Herbertville coast; climbing Aro Valley before dawn, struggling to find words that’ll properly explain how the streetlights bounce off puddles on Raroa Road.
It’s not real, this Aotearoa I keep writing about. It is, as author Kirsty Gunn writes, ‘a remembered and imagined New Zealand’. It’s a place that no longer exists, a place dredged from my memory. Arguably, it never existed—the years I’ve lived outside the country have softened its edges, given me a perspective I never would’ve had if I’d stayed. The Aotearoa I knew vanished seven years ago, the minute I made my rather spontaneous decision to leave for Perth. Western Australia became my new reality, so clear it seemed bleached in the midday sun.
‘Why do you still live in Australia?’ I call my sister Annelise one evening. She’s lying on her couch in Melbourne after putting her 4-month-old daughter down to sleep.
The question has been bugging me for months. Every time I read over what I’ve written—the beaches, the weather, the birdsong: all of it drawn from Aotearoa—it nags at me. If I love my country so goddamn much, why do I still live here?
I start a new page in my journal, write Why do I live in Australia? in the middle. Draw a box around it, like that’ll keep the question contained. Then I write every reason—every excuse, a tiny voice inside me says—I can think of:
Not cold – no chilblains on my toes, no eczema on my hands
Family live here – only thing that’s stronger than the land, the only one of my identities that trumps my Kiwi-ness
Put down new roots – partner, job, house
In summer, never have to take a jersey when leaving home
Better money – don’t have to scrimp and save to do basic things
I mentally grasp the corners of each word and lift them from the page. Hold my reasons up against the landscape of Aotearoa and compare them side by side. They seem pitiful, translucent before the imposing mass of Ruahine. They disintegrate in the waters of the Manawatū River.
So I ring Annelise. She’s been here longer than me, first arriving with my parents when she was 14 years old.
Dad had always wanted to live in Australia. He’d visited Sydney in his early twenties and met a couple of guys from WA. ‘They seemed friendly,’ he says when I ask what drew him here. ‘And they’d just spent days driving across the Nullarbor to get to New South Wales.’
The vastness of WA spoke to my father—the open skies and seemingly endless space. Dad was a dreamer, the kind of guy who filled our home with broken-down cars and boats and stories about the mighty journeys he’d one day take them on. He always had an eye to the horizon.
Mum wasn’t as keen on Australia as Dad, but she eventually followed his lead. I came later, after I finished university. Too late, maybe. My roots had had time to burrow their way into Aotearoa’s bedrock.
Annelise thinks about it for a bit then starts reciting her reasons for staying: husband, family, weather, money, cost of living. Her voice peters out. I wait, knowing she’s wracking her brain, making her way to the heart of the issue.
Finally, she sighs and says, ‘I don’t know. I guess it’s just easier here.’
In France the year before her death, the thoughts of writer Katherine Mansfield kept returning to Aotearoa. She left in 1908; ‘never to return’, as she once wrote. She saw it as ‘a small petty world’ and longed for somewhere she could pursue her ‘larger interests’, a place filled with ‘her’ kind of people. 
Fourteen years later, she was isolated in a hotel room in Paris and undergoing X-ray treatments for tuberculosis. In a letter written during this time, Mansfield said she kept thinking about New Zealand, ‘rediscovering it, finding beauty in it, re-living it’. She wanted to write about her aunt who lived up the road—
and the man who sold goldfinches, and about a wet night on the wharf, and Tarana Street in the Spring. Really, I am sure it does a writer no good to be transplanted—it does harm. One reaps the glittering top of the field but there are no sheaves to bind.
It is easy in Australia, so easy I doubt I’ll ever leave. But everything it offers will always be insubstantial when compared to Aotearoa. It is Aotearoa that fed me, nourished my identity, gave me a framework to navigate the world. I never really had a chance. My genes had been grafted to the land long before I was conceived. Without that connection, Australia’s sun, money—ease—feels like chaff, scattering in the wind.
My father’s side of the family have lived in Aotearoa for as long as it’s been populated. They came on Tākitimu, disembarking at Māhia, that arrow-tip of a peninsula that pierces the Pacific Ocean. Over generations, they spread inland. They created settlements along an awa they called Nūhaka, fortifications on a maunga now known as Moumoukai.
I barely know these places. By the time I was born, my grandparents were firmly established in Dannevirke (Tāmaki nui-a-Rua), a rural service town wedged between the Ruahine Ranges and a band of rugged country running all the way to the coast. I associated my family with mountains that looked like they’d been cut from the sky with a hatchet, hillsides that eroded in heavy rain, and small creeks lined with wild watercress that Dad always stopped to collect on the way to my grandparents’.
And yet, when I introduce myself in te reo, I start with the geographic features of my kāinga tipu. Ko Moumoukai te maunga / Ko Nūhaka te awa.
I use these contours on the earth to identify myself. This is me, I am saying. This is where I belong.
My mother’s side of the family arrived as part of the British colonising mission in the nineteenth century. They were agricultural labourers, gardeners, grocers and blacksmiths but, once in Aotearoa, they all became farmers.
They settled in Canterbury, whose tussock plains proved well-suited to sheep farming. In retrospect, the land they farmed probably shouldn’t have been settled. Ngāi Tahu only sold Canterbury after considerable pressure from the Crown and even then, the land and food-gathering places they were promised never eventuated.
I don’t know if my family ever considered whether they had a right to this country. I suspect not. They were too busy clearing tussock, building fences, planting macrocarpa windbreaks, driving teams of horses across the land—first digging up the soil, then sowing it with seed. The land stained their hands and clogged their pores. It worked its way into my family’s soul.
When, at 83 years old, my grandfather sat down and wrote his memoirs, he began with a description of the Nor’west Arch, a weather pattern unique to the Canterbury Plains where he grew up. A north-westerly wind from the Tasman Sea pushes warm, moist air over the Southern Alps, dumping most of the moisture as rain on the West Coast. The remaining hot, dry wind sweeps over the Alps and across the Canterbury Plains.
The Arch, as Poppa wrote, is a sign that it’s about to blow:
Very often after waking to a beautiful still morning, you looked up to the mountains to the West and would see an Arch of white clouds starting to come over the top of the mountains. This signified that the wind would get up within a few hours.
Poppa left the Canterbury Plains when he was 21 years old. He went to the Second World War and, on his return, was granted a ballot farm in another part of the country. He met my grandmother, began a family, had a full life. But in old age he was still remembering clouds that once marked the edge of his world. He was still imagining a wind that dried out the Plains in a few days.
Is my writing part of a long family tradition of environmental nostalgia? Do I write about Aotearoa because that’s what my family does: look longingly over our shoulders at landscapes we’ve already left? Or is it my penance, my apology to ngā tīpuna for severing the connection they spent lifetimes cultivating?
If I can just find the right words to capture how the morning light caught the white toetoe plumes and turned them to gold or how the long summer grass in the paddock behind our house surrounded me like cupped hands when I sat, maybe I can stave off the unbelonging that risks engulfing me. Describe the landscape accurately enough and I can make it as tangible as the kangaroo paw lining my front verge. Paint vibrant enough pictures and they will burn me just as surely as the summer sand along Cottesloe Beach. I keep weaving words, trying to make the unreal, real.
At night, I lie in bed and dream.
I dream of a woman dressed in clothing from another time. Skirt past her ankles. Blouse with long sleeves. She walks along hilltops, looking across land that’s been cleared for farming. The grass beneath her feet is dry and crackles softly as she walks. She wails, her voice rising and falling in waves.
She is mourning for the land, I know that. It’s been lost somehow—through confiscation? Sale? I don’t know. It’s still physically there. She can feel it under her feet, feel her calf muscles straining as she climbs up the steep terrain. But when the woman crouches down and places her hand on the ground, there’s no familiar pulse vibrating through her palm. She can’t feel the heartbeat of the land anymore.
I wake up, devastated.
 Kirsty Gunn, ‘‘At Home’ in Thorndon’, Booknotes, no. 166, 2009, p8.
 Katherine Mansfield to Sarah Gertrude Millin, March 1922 in Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott, The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield: Volume 5: 1922, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008, p80.
 John Bird, Leaving the Nor’west Arch: John Bird’s Story, self-published, Feilding, , p1.