The living come with grassy tread
To read the gravestones on the hill;
The graveyard draws the living still,
But never anymore the dead. In a Disused Graveyard, Robert Frost
There was no gold here, on top or beneath this gnarl of earth. Yet below on the creek flats, it was everywhere, to be plucked, scraped, mined from the land. But this rocky outcrop had no use to the miners, but one. It became a burial ground. A Gold Rush cemetery.
Here, outside Castlemaine, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters buried their dead. But not so deep that the departed could sleep in the bowels of the earth. Here, the earth is stony and unyielding to shovel and pick. The bones of babies and children are just below the surface, perhaps 50 or 60 centimetres. In five years, 200 were laid so.
Big god said to little god, why don’t we make a deal? I’ll take everything, crush you under my heel. Big God, Little God, Shane Howard
The Pennyweight Flat Cemetery occupies about an acre in the old coinage. It was used as a burial ground from 1852 to 1857. Now, on a winter’s day, more than 150 years later, gums offer shade and a kind of natural random headstone to the dead. There are very few ones of stone. Broken rock sits at one end of many graves, which are marked only as an oval of rocks. Few names can be read, only brief scratchings of a far-too-short mortality. A baby of seven days rests here, 12 months there another child, but mostly, there is nothing. No mark that once there was a life. You walk around these shallow graves, but you cannot know if you are not walking over bones. All the strewn ground is sacred.
During the Gold Rush, a pennyweight of gold was worth nothing, so establishing a graveyard in 1852 on this hill would not mean losing any potential wealth. The Gold Rush attracted thousands. In the middle of the 19thcentury the fields of Victoria were the centre of the world. In 1856, 95,000 kilograms of gold was found. At first, the gold could be picked up from the earth, just lying around among other rocks, a rock that did not know its worth. Until people arrived.
But it was no paradise, life was hard, made only tolerable by the prospect of wealth. And in such conditions, this type of intro from 1853 to a news report from the gold fields was not uncommon: “The principal items of news this week consist of bloodshed and robberies.” Court lists consisted of felony, armed assault, stealing money, stealing gold, stealing property, but mostly stealing gold. And sometimes, harbouring a bushranger.
Death breathed closer to the face, hung round tents, showed itself openly and delivered its young victims to this cemetery. Stand among the gums and rocks and you find yourself trying to imagine any day of a family’s final, tragic digging. The grief, the moment of that grieving.
In the distance, across the tarred road, cars are passing, life goes on inside modern homes. You wish you could find words for your passing through this sad place that could travel back, make a connection.
Later you remember this:
It can’t take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge.
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.
In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.
It can’t even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.
Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
As though each of us were its first kill. On Death, without Exaggeration, Wislawa Szymborska