Treasures of the Tang Dynasty

That day was a cool and sunny winter’s day and after lunch I caught the train into town to see the much hyped Frida Kahlo/Rivera Diego exhibition that had just opened at the NSW Art Gallery. But when I got there the queue was horrendous: such a long, snaking line of mainly middle-aged culture-vultures (like myself I suppose) that the opening times to the exhibition had been staggered. I couldn’t face an afternoon trapped behind a wall of heaving, heavily breathing bodies all clothed in slate and black winter over-garments and thick scarves and shawls. It would have been heavy enough just looking at the gut-wrenching paintings.


The last weeks of the Tang: Treasures of the Silk Road Capital exhibition beckoned. I hated to think that such an interesting show was second best, but I had seen it before and after some thought, considered it was worth another look.


The Tang Dynasty in China was a great age for poets and artists. 1300 years ago its capital Chang’an was the final destination of the fabled Silk Road, where merchants took their wares on camels and caravans on a journey stretching from the outposts of the West all the way to China. Such a city therefore was a melting pot of diverse cultures, beliefs and ethnicities, fanning a burst of creative and artistic activity. It was an age when an Empress (Wu Zetian) dared to rule for 20 years, where wanderers could travel in the mountainous wilderness and encounter demons, men and monks bearing fabulously canopied receptacles, Buddha himself kindly removing a large rock some men were struggling with, delegations reaching far-flung cities and holy ceremonies of international significance.


I saw a small, gilded silver plate in the shape of a six-petal flower like a camellia with its wide, gentle, symmetrical curve. And within the shallow bowl curls a vine of large leaves and two unknown flower-heads. And in the centre a five-petal flower, triumphantly in full bloom.


A sculpture of a kowtowing figure of a Tang civil official greeting an invisible superior, nearly prostrate to the floor on knees and elbows, hands raised as if to hold a tablet that was no longer there. There were lots of civil officials in those days, the highly civilised dynasty having a predilection for a lettered bureaucracy. He is apparently performing one of about eight different obeisances. The statue is of an attractive, pale, biscuit-brown earthenware washed with a creamy-white pigment that seemed common material for Tang statues. The official’s robes are gently stylised in fanned-out shapes along the floor behind him and like wings on his arms marked with flowing, parallel lines.


I have unfortunately forgotten to take notes of the excellent and very beautiful calligraphy of the times, written by masters with such outré names as something like ‘Drunk Wu’ and ‘Crazy Wen’. It was a highly sophisticated and literate society, at least in the upper echelons and many wonderful poets abounded.


The Tang Dynasty period appeared to be a good age for women, especially during the reign of Empress Wu Zetian. These Tang women liked to dress glamorously, putting their hair up into high chignons embellished with eye-catching ornaments. I saw a mural of three Tang women (circa 710), two in long, flowing robes with long sleeves, their narrow waists obscured by shawls that draped becomingly at the front. They had reddened their lips with rouge. The other woman was at the back, her slim form clothed in a masculine outfit of striped pants and a long-sleeved, long length waisted robe. She had styled her hair more naturally, leaving it falling freely to the back of her shoulders.


Then there were a line of five Tang women, sculptures of the biscuit-brown earthenware washed with creamy-white pigment. Each hairstyle was different, although all with some kind of chignon up-do topped with one or two buns with ornaments, one even looking like an 18th century English admiral’s hat. All of these women had puffy moon-faces, with small eyes, mouths and noses, plump chins disappearing into their necks and plump waists, giving them a pigeon-like shape. I wondered, was it the artists’ ideal of feminine beauty? Or was it a realistic portrayal of women at the time?


These five women all dressed in long robes, made elegant by delicately etched, flowing lines. They stood in an enigmatic attitude of clasped hands, arms held flat across the waist and stomach, with wide sleeves. I saw a collection of long, silver hairpins, bursting at the tips with stylized flowers and arabesques. There were also little, round mirrors embossed at the back with sinuous dragons, mythic beasts and grapevines and geese and other birds. I saw another exquisite little palm-size mirror, inlaid with a pattern of moony mother-of-pearl and turquoise.


‘Under the slanting light, the bosoms bright as snow –

Half drunken I gaze at this beautiful girl’ – Li Qunyu (c813-60)


The downstairs part of the exhibition was devoted to religious art. Chang’an had a rich diversity of many religions, including Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and even Nestorianism (a kind of eastern Christianity). But from all, Buddha seems to reign calmly supreme, probably the religion that most complemented the philosophically based native Chinese beliefs of Daoism and Confucianism.


I saw a large Buddha head, carved in stone from the Xingqing Palace emanating geometrically serene features and orderly lips couched in a small and graceful smile. There is a fondness for the depiction of multiple Buddhas, all sitting in simultaneous meditation and wearing flowing robes. This was carved on an octagonal pillar with four recesses on each side, each containing seated Buddhas. This pillar was apparently part of a ‘jingchuang’ monument and usually fronted a temple.


There were a lot of wares of beautiful gilded silver, my favourite being a large, four-lobed ceremonial basin decorated with Mandarin ducks and pomegranate fruit. On the base of the bowl, two ducks were gracefully entwined amid joyful clouds of leaves, flowers and fruits. Around the inner sides of each lobe, were dancing duck couples facing each other wreathed in arabesque clouds and lavish leaves. At each side of the basin, ornate handles hung. As these kind of motifs traditionally signify blessings for happy marriage and fertility, maybe the bowl formed part of the rites involved in marriage ceremonies.


Moving on, I saw a row of 12 Zodiac animal sculptures – animal headed in human form, their hands invisible under long, flowing sleeves, clasped formally over their stomachs. Again these sculptures were of the typical Tang biscuit coloured earthenware washed with cream-white pigment. They were: monkey, rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, rooster, dog and pig.

The origin of the enduring and popular Zodiac superstition in China seems to have arisen in the 3rd Century BCE where ‘the 12 animals were first used to describe the appearance of thieves, as it was believed that their features would resemble one of these animals according to the time they committed their crime’. During the Tang Dynasty, the Zodiac system of celestial mapping established was often found depicted in niches in tombs.


There was a Stupa Jar of painted earthenware in red, cream-white and terracotta often found in burial sites dating from the Tang Dynasty. Of Buddhist tradition, they apparently contained goods for the departed soul’s sustenance in accord with ancient Chinese belief.


Nearing the end of the exhibition was a large earthenware/cream-white pigment sculpture of a horse, with its strong, agile legs, magnificent curve of back and massive, muscular nape of neck. Its facial features were delicately modeled, with a strong, noble jaw-bone, fine nostrils, little pointed, alert ears and mild, intelligent eyes. The horse was highly revered in those times, as it was an essential part of transport and communication and is a fitting symbol of the Tang Dynasty, with its art of strong, simple, honest lines so richly conveying both grace and grounded-ness.


I came out of the exhibition feeling happy, that there had been a time of such simple and beautiful art in the world and that it was a time of peace and prosperity, an eternal inspiration to this perhaps more complex, uncertain and more fragmented clime.



Looking at 60 Years…

Today is the afternoon of a whole day rostered off from work.  Tomorrow and the next day will be the same, already maturing into golden globules of exciting possibilities of things to do.  Today was warm and moist, with the sun shining through big fluffy clouds most of the time and a brief afternoon thunder-shower, which passed as lightly and as pleasantly as it began.

I have decided to leave the career that has caused so much dissatisfaction and frustration, that has wrung so much exhausting patience from me.  Sometimes my forbearance has fortuitously uncovered strengths I did not know of.  At other times, I have cracked under the strain, only to get back up and stagger on again.

In its entirety, for more than 20 years, this career has been like a man I have never loved (not to be confused with my actual partner, whom I do love).  I am sick to the death of counting the hours down to the minutes and watching them slowly erode by, every time I get to work.  ‘That’s my life!’  I have screamed inwardly so many times, and then silently endured this wasting of the hours that could have been spent on doing something more creative.

In two more months, I will be free to focus on going in a different direction.  I have some plans in place.  But still, the enormity of uprooting 20-something years of being in a secure, well-paid job is slapping me with its fear of the unknown, like a wet branch as if I head through a rain-lashed bush-track in the dark to the brink of a steep cliff.  What of failure, of making mistakes, of happiness, of doing the responsible thing?

Then I read Tim Lott’s article in The Guardian, about his reflections on reaching the age of 60.  Tim is measured and sober and mellow.  He sits in a large, discreetly modish, blue plush chair in his lounge room in which brown wood panelling predominates, set off by a glimpse of red persian carpet.  There is a fireplace, a bookcase and a glass show cabinet, some colourful ceramics on the mantelpiece, a nice art-work on the wall and the kind of modern but comfortable-looking upholstered chairs my lean, spare, intellectually- minded grandfather would have felt quite at home in.

Tim is a nondescript and harmless looking man, the chief feature of his visage being a pair of glasses, which he wears like a mole in the sunlight, looking perkily upwards towards the viewer.  Tim wears a brown jacket over a dark mauve shirt and a pair of loose, daggy indigo blue jeans that have shifted with his sitting cross-legged to somewhat above his ankle, revealing stripy though muted socks and one nice, shiny brown brogue.

There were conflicting views from the commenters on those brown brogues:


29 Jan 2016 21:41

Never wear Brown brogues with jeans and take your shoes off inside the house, it’s time you grew up.

mazeltov Ultracrepidarian

29 Jan 2016 21:46
One of few annoying things about being old is the totally insane sartorial advice people feel free to offer you. Brown brogues with jeans are a perfect blend of unfussed informality and traditional style. I wear this combination all the time. As for taking your shoes off inside the house … what do you think shoes are for?


‘Unfussed informality and traditional style’.  Some people like it, some people don’t.  But that seems to describe Tim Lott, or at least his piece of writing.  He has defined himself as a serene and comfortable man on the cusp of old age.  He feels the sum of his life becomes him and he is at peace with that.  He is not afraid of being defined, having long recognised his face in the dressing-room mirror.  He wrote the books he wanted to write, he is happy with his partner, his children, his family and his relatively well-to-do way of life.

‘Sixty, in my mind’  says Lott ‘represents the beginning of the third act of the human drama, what I, as a teacher of fiction, have learned to call “falling action” – after the climax has been reached, the princess has been won or lost, and the quest has succeeded or failed.’

In his mind.  Not far off sixty myself, I look back on a terrifyingly long time-line of chaos, of stuff-ups, despair and of things I still want to do.  Some months after beginning this article, I have embarked on my leave from the job I never really loved.  Next week I will hand in notice of my intention to retire with a month’s notice.  So indeed I am conscious of that move being the beginning of the next act of my life.

But where is the ‘falling action’?  Googling the benefits of early retirement, there are hardly any articles that do not talk about money.  Not even health seems as important.  Everybody warns of the dire need to save enough money for retirement.  But notwithstanding the practical considerations of keeping the bills paid, what is enough to quench the soul-deadening desire for absolute certainty?

So I jump.  And in doing so feel a strange sense of exultation and an enormous hunger for books to read, worlds to explore, things to teach myself and give to others.  I know on a physical dimension that this is the beginning of the end, but my mind seems ascendant like an eagle still rising.  I could die in mid-flight, or fall and die a slow, suffering, broken end.  But that doesn’t matter any more.  It reminds me of a poem I wrote some years back…

Twilight II

Twilight softly deepening

slight drizzle

light swish of cars passing

Summer has been cool

Flat is silent

I am alone, wrestling with the inevitable assignment

John & Veronique with Mum & Dad

Mum unable to shake her cold.

Almost for first time realise how frail she is

And how old I am

And how good times do not last

And I am not immortal

Though my eagle of immortal consciousness still swoops

High in the sky

What Sun does shine on me?

If I could gather all knowledge

together to make a realisation

That there is nothing that I have to do

except where I will go

And all my obsessions fall like dusty ruins,

Fall like the false veil of want

Before my eyes

– Megan Payne

Afternoon with Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographs

The other week, I had a respite from the tyranny of work. Some rostered days off that allowed me the opportunity of reflection and wandering around the city enjoying its scenic delights. The weather was fortuitously very sunny and warm as well, so I set off for the NSW Art Gallery without a care in the world.

My main purpose in visiting the NSW Art Gallery was to view the exhibition of the photography of the 19th century Victorian, Julia Margaret Cameron. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK had generously lent a selection of its precious gems to our Gallery. Having read about this exhibition in The Guardian (can’t find the review now unfortunately, but here’s one from the Sydney Morning Herald) and having a passion for going back in time, it was a must for me to go and see.

I am discovering the art of photography myself, finding in its ability to capture a beautiful moment an instant gratification.

Pink daisy flowers

Flowers at Royal Botanic Garden

So much better than fiddling for ages with paint brushes,

Vietnamese dragon-like mythical beast

Mythical beast from Cham Museum, Da Nang, Vietnam.

pencils, charcoal and colours and the eternal frustration of never getting it quite right. And the amazing thing about photography is how much the artist can manipulate the media and choose the focus to get the kind of picture, effect or interpretation they see with their mind’s eye.

Photography is a true picture of a reality outside the self, but that reality is different for everyone.

So I entered the Art Gallery, paid for my ticket and went upstairs to view the exhibition. Apparently Cameron’s career as a photographer started in her late-forties when she was given a camera as a gift.  This was new-fangled media then, but already conventions were in play.  Subjects were stiffly posed and subject to highly focused scrutiny, with every button shining and every detail sharply delineated.

But Cameron departed somewhat radically from these norms, with her portraits of people wreathed in a kind of ethereal mist and her romantic idea that she was portraying people in terms of their personal ‘essence’ rather than the realistic rendition of the subject in the bald light of day.  She went for the Great Moment, rather than the Perfect Picture.  She said that when confronted with a sight of great beauty, she would take the picture immediately rather than start fiddling with the focus like a lot of other photographers did.

Alfred Lord Tennyson in bust profile

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Thus a portrait of the Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, portrays a dishevelled bearded and long-haired man almost in mid-movement, intent far more on his art than his appearance.  He liked this picture immensely and called it ‘the dirty monk’.

Another photo portrays a young woman of classic, finely-modelled features approaching the camera, her beauty all the more enhanced for its being slightly off-focus.

This spontaneity that graces her portraits must have been an extremely difficult thing to achieve with such an intractable media like the Victorian camera.  The exposures were so long that everybody had to stay absolutely still in their allotted positions and scarcely breathe for quite a while, lest an extraordinary amount of trouble and expense was ruined.

This probably accounts for the distinct lack of gaiety in all the portraits.  None of the people were smiling.  But Cameron seems to have made a virtue of this with people appearing rather serious, pensive and reflective which plays more to the idea of portraying the inner and less temporal person.

Alice Liddell as a young woman

Alice Liddell

A portrait of Alice Liddell (said to be the muse of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’) reveals a girl nearing the edge of adulthood with fine eyes of an inimitably imperious expression, but shot through with a kind of sadness. Why she should be so sad, I did not know. It is one of those mysteries that Cameron is wont to throw up and leave lying in the air.

Another picture was titled ‘Summer days’, with a frieze of young

Group of two women and two children in summer clothes

Summer Days

women and girls arrayed becomingly in their large, floppy summer hats and festive, holiday clothes, but resting against each other with expressions of the most pervasive pensiveness.  These days, the caption would invite depictions of riotous jollity.  But somehow I really liked the serious tone of it, as if it was an evocation that nothing, no matter how good, lasts forever.  That time moves on and these eternally good times, one and all become nothing more than memories.

She was very fond of putting together theatrical scenes from Shakespeare, Tennyson, Antiquity or the Bible, creating many moments of fine dark drama or gentle, aerial mystery and melancholy.

Young woman in profile


My favourite of these is of her house-mistress, a dark-haired young woman with the beautiful features and profile of a 15th century Madonna. She is posing as the Ancient Greek poet Sappho, with an embroidered peasant blouse I’d like to steal and a dramatic necklace of hanging teardrops.  The deliberate position of her hand on the lyre forms a gentle and respectful tribute.

Cameron, according to the script, was a very religious person and consequently there were a number of pictures devoted to the subject of piety.  Piety is something I do not understand, being an atheist from another time and place.

Woman in prayer

Pensive Nun

But there was something very moving about one portrait of a woman devoutly pressing her hands to her chest in a heartfelt, prayer-like position that could only be a gesture of some very deep love and reverence.  The caption was from a poem ,’Il Penseroso’, by the 17th century English poet John Milton ‘Come pensive nun devout and pure, sober steadfast and demure’.

Her portrait of the scientist astronomer and her muse, Sir John Herschel,

Portrait of a scientist

Sir John Herschel

is a triumph of the documentation of a another time.  Rough-headed and unkempt, he is gazing indomitably into the future with the questing, wildly surmising look of a person accustomed to acutely observing phenomena and exploring its implications with his massive intellect.  And yet he belongs solidly in the 19th Century, as one of its pioneers and progenitors, one of those who shaped the future.  She captures the darkness science was emerging from at that age.  No scientist today could ever be quite in the same place of so much unknowing.

Young woman in profile


But Cameron was also capable of taking photos that seemed as if they were taken yesterday.  A young woman in a becoming short-sleeve white peasant’s blouse rests up against a wall, one hand holding her necklace and the silvery bangles on her arm lending a sharp and precise light. Also interesting about this picture is how Cameron seems to make the pattern on the wall-paper part of the shadow of the woman herself and somehow expressive of her personality.

Two children holding flowers

The Sad White Roses

Much is made of Cameron’s treatment of children in her photos.  Coming from the background of being housewife and mother, she seems to absolutely love putting them into various becoming theatrical positions with adults such as the aforesaid house-mistress in scenes like Madonna and child, or together in various poses that seem to evoke a kind of elegant floating world that the Victorian well-to-do lived in.  While they look like adorable little animals and it must have been a major feat getting them to stay still for so long, I think Cameron does best when there is an accidental quality to the shot.

One of her first pictures was of a child caught as if just

Young girl face and neck

‘Annie, my first success’

coming in to a room from outside.  She is buttoned up in warm clothing and her shy expression and birdlike personality shines unerringly through.  Cameron was understandably delighted with this picture, calling it her first successful photo.

There was much more, but having gazed and stayed for long in this gallery room of mystical melancholy and shades of black and white, it seemed a relief to leave and get out into the afternoon sunlight and colour of the green Sydney Domain with its massive fig trees and long airy stretch of green lawn.

Spreading fig tree in city park

Fig tree in the Sydney Domain

I wonder whether people from the Victorian age really did live their life with a kind of seriousness that today’s society with its relentless hedonism does not seem to value.  Or that the people might look back at all that unremitting sobriety and think ‘that was then. Thank goodness for that’.

Maybe a balance between the two would be progress!

To The Sydney Botanic Gardens

The early autumn weather was warm, but overcast. There was no sign of rain, so I decided to go ahead with my day trip to the city’s Botanic Gardens to see what muses presented themselves to my attention.

On the way over I stopped by the nearby Art Gallery. There are three young Wollemi Pines gracing the glassed outlook of the Art Gallery Members’ Room. The Wollemi Pines (they are not actually pines, but descendants of an older conifer family called Araucariaceae) are of an extremely ancient lineage stretching back as far as the age of the dinosaurs. They are primitive, graceful trees festooned with long, snaking branches each bearing a fringe of spiny, rich dark green leaves.

Three conifer trees

Wollemi Pines

They are modest trees, seeming very dusty and ordinary to the casual glance, until one notes there are few trees like these. But they have survived and seem to view the modern world of smog and concrete jungle and cars with placid indifference, perhaps knowing that this age (like all others they have seen) will one day pass.

The entrance to the Botanical Gardens is graced with a

Fountains and cacti at Botanical Gardens Entrance.

Gardens Entrance

refreshing puzzle of ponds with little fountains and against the nearby wall, distinctive Barrel Cacti plants preside in a row.

Large Hoop Pine Tree

Hoop Pine

Once in the gardens, a large Hoop Pine (native of New Guinea, QLD and NSW) has swaying clumps of fingered pine needles hanging from its branches.

A large Port Jackson Fig Tree with garden seat in foreground.

Port Jackson Fig Tree

Trunk of Port Jackson Fig Tree.

Port Jackson Fig

A majestic writhing Port Jackson Fig provides shade for myriads of fleshy Bromeliads living under its shadow and a comfortable seat for visitors.

Mexican Bald Cypress tree trunk with branches and leaves.

Bald Cypress

A Mexican Bald Cypress has a trunk like grooved shale and from its branches hang weeping light green fingers of tiny, feathery leaves.

An old QLD Bottle Tree.

Bottle Tree

A QLD Bottle Tree looks like a paunchy old man about to go off for a walk.


Banksia tree blooms

Banksia Tree

Meanwhile, a group of banksia blooms sit on their seats of radiating leaves as if waiting for a conference to begin.

Trunk of large Flooded Gum Tree

Flooded Gum

This mighty tree, the Flooded Gum (or Rose Gum) occurs in North NSW to QLD and is a dominant tree in the tall wet forests and rainforests there.

Brazilian rainforest tree with large green leaves Chrysophyllum Imperiale

Chrysophyllum Imperiale

Chrysophyllum Imperiale. This tall tree with its distinctive large, pleated, almond-shaped leaves of a shiny dark green is a lone refugee of the disappearing rainforests of Brazil.


Further along the path I come across a nest-like Spiny-leaf Podcarp, a Australian conifer cousin of a nearby Wollemi Pine growing in complete harmony with it.

Nest fern-like conifer plant the Spiny-leaf Podcarp

Spiny-leaf Podcarp

Johnstone River Almond - small tree native to Australia.

Johnstone River Almond

This handsome young tree is a Johnstone River Almond.  Bearing edible fruit once eaten by Aboriginal peoples, it is a native of the North East QLD rainforests.


A park with lawn in foreground and pond and island with palms.

Botanical Garden grounds

Here I paused to genuflect on the calm, verdant, placid scene of

the Botanical Gardens and how it has and is providing rest, information and relaxation for generations of people as well as offering sanctuary for many precious, endangered plants.

Large circular yellow sandstone monument in Neo-Classical tradition.

Replica Ancient Greek Monument.

This totally dysfunctional looking thing nearby is a yellow sandstone replica of an Ancient Greek monument, erected at Athens in 330 BC, before which a certain Lysicrates received the Victor’s Tripod at the Festival of Bacchus. So now I know. Around the top of the monument there is a strange frieze of figures of men metamorphosing into beasts although much weathered away.

Here below is garden life on the banks of a pond completely

Banks of a pond of Lotus plants with pink flowering bushes and nearby tree branches.

Banks of the Lotus Pond

taken over by rampant Lotus plants.  The tree in the background with its lovely sheening grey and ash branches is a Water Gum (family Myrtaceae) from the forests of the East Coast of Australia – from Maryborough in QLD to East Gippsland in Victoria.

White marble neo-classical statue of a draped woman by the side of mossy canal.


Then I came across this charming Neo-classical statue of Spring by a mossy canal – ah, but it is now Autumn!

This is a Floss Silk Tree – indigenous from Brazil to Argentina,

Floss Silk Tree

Floss Silk Tree

a very large spreading tree bearing beautiful soft pink flowers, mostly fallen with the late summer season.

Grove of Senegal Date Palms with epiphyte Bromeliads living on trunks.

Senegal Date Palms

Here are clusters of the fleshy, epiphyte Bromeliads clinging to the trunks of these slim, graceful Senegal Date Palms (from subtropical Africa and Madagascar).

So ends my jaunt for the day. I reluctantly took my leave and went home, but bearing lots of memories and a strange sense of renewal and serenity. People should do this more often.

To Murramarang National Park

Having a week to ourselves, John and I decided to go on a few days holiday down the South Coast of NSW.  We were curious about Murramarang National Park, which lies north of Batemans Bay, a small fishing town sitting on the banks of the Clyde River.  So John booked a cabin at the adjacent Murramarang Nature Resort, we packed our bags and left at a leisurely late time of the morning for the long car trip down south.

Tree with red blossoms in street

Illawarra Flame Tree

Past Wollongong, the landscape was, as it usually is, green and lush looking with the native Illawarra Flame tree at its peak flowering putting out a burst of magnificent red here and there.

It was an unusually hot day and when we got to the quaint old, over-loved town of Berry (which is always crowded with bloody tourists) for lunch, the heat hit us like a furnace when we got out of the air-conditioned car.

Nevertheless, Berry radiates peace and serenity as this country

Country town lane with trees

Berry back street

lane shows.  However with these lovely old towns there always seems to be a ghost of the marauding white settler in hob-nailed boots whose grave lies somewhere in the gently whispering cemetery – someone not quite ever aligned with this much harsher and wider country than from whence he or she came.

The gloriously purple Jacarandas are still flowering along with

Two flowering trees by roadside

Flame and Jacaranda tree

the magnificent red Flame Trees, but it was hard to get the two of them together.  When I did see one such duo growing wild by the side of the road, I clambered up the slope and found myself plunged knee-deep in grass and was too terrified of snakes to wander further and find a better camera view.  So this was the best I could get.

When we got to the Resort, fairly late in the afternoon, we exclaimed in pleasure at the pretty and very spacious villa that we had, overlooking a charming garden courtyard with native palms and a barbeque.  Later on, the

garden with palms and kangaroo

View from the Forest Villa

 resident kangaroos that grazed lazily around the resort moved to our courtyard and were busily chomping the grass.  Apparently the staff never need to mow the lawns, due to these insatiable herbivores and even have a problem with the outsides of the lawns being eaten out of existence.

Actually the occasional wallaby, darker more chocolate brown, smaller and of more curvaceous build was much more timid, bounding off into the bush almost as soon as they were noticed.

I spent the first full day lazing on the beach, where I saw a majestic White-bellied Sea Eagle bursting out of the nearby forest and flying far over the bay pursued by two aggressive Ravens, who soon lost pace.

Large tree trunk in eucalypt forest.

Trunk of Large Tree

The afternoon John and I went on a walk in the forest, following a trail that led to reputedly the second-largest tree in NSW.

Branches of large eucalyptus tree.

Top of large tree

 And here it is with its massive trunk and tall, twisted arms.  The forest trees were a kind of spotted gum, the blackbutt and the occasional stringybark.

Eucalypt forest with vines

Eucalypt forest with vines

It was a dry, dusty kind of forest with open glades, some mossy logs and vines that from time to time festooned themselves on trees.  Resident birds ranged from

Eucalypt forest

Eucalypt forest

finches and wagtails to wattle-birds, whip-birds, pigeons and kookaburras.

Forest glade in eucalypt forest

Antipodean forest glade

When one speaks of open forest glades, it kind of conjures up the sort of pretty clearings with green sward that happen in English and European forests, so beloved of medieval knights and ladies of yore.

Ferns and mossy log in eucalypt forest

Ferns and mossy log

But glades in Australian forests can be enchanting too, especially in the manner of its botanical diversity and its lone, wild beauty, untouched by civilised history.  Apparently when the Europeans first arrived, the forests were kept in a park-like state with myriads of diverse native rodents.  But

Ground cover in eucalypt forest with small yellow and white flowers

Ground cover with small flowers

unfortunately they have mostly disappeared due to the depredations of

Large Eucalypt tree with boles on trunk

Boles on Eucalypt tree

introduced species like dogs, cats, foxes and prolific rabbits and these days the eucalypt forests are much more prone to destructive bush fires.

The next sunny day in Murramarang (Paradise), after another dip in the ocean and appreciating the fresh air and crystal clear waters, I went for a short walk along bush trail down to the rocky southern headland and into the National Park.

Honey-comb weathering at Wasp Head

Honey-comb weathering at Wasp Head

I arrived at a place called Wasp Head, which probably got its name from the intricate honey-comb weathering covering all its sandstone rocks.  Further out at sea was Wasp Island, which apparently is haven to much bird-life including, Terns, Mutton-birds (Shearwaters) and even a colony of Little Penguins.

A view of Wasp Island from Wasp Head

Wasp Island

 On the lonely head (which I had all to myself), I saw a Pied Cormorant preening its drenched feathers in the sun and two Sooty Oyster-catchers with their long, thin, vermilion beaks and red legs.

Emily Miller Beach

Emily Miller Beach

Further southwards stretched a lovely little bay known as Emily Miller Beach, which I again had the luxury of having all to myself.

Cave at Emily Miller Beach

Emily Miller Beach cave

The colour of the water was a beautiful turquoise green and there was even a cave among the rocks.

The next day was Monday, some clouds had blown over and the weather was cool and breezy.  Some gentle rain set in

Coastal headland

Headland at South Durras

as we walked Northwards up the beach where the small village of South Durras nestled.  There was supposed to be an Aboriginal midden near the cliffs of this headland but we could not see anything of it amongst the graffiti-scrawled rocks and caves at the foot of the beach.

Sandstone rock weathering at South Durras headland

Sandstone rock weathering

We saw some Cormorants and a black little Egret fishing along the sandstone rocks, which bore some very interesting weathering, a series of rounded smooth holes through which you could see the waves threshing under.

That night we went to nearby Bateman’s Bay for fish and chips, eating our takeaway at the quay and trying to avoid the greedy seagulls.  The place is a little fishing town presiding over a pretty bay and the mouth of the Clyde River.

The late afternoon deepens into evening and a rich blue-black inky cloak of night falls gracefully over the scene.  The yellow and white lights of the bridge, jetties and houses enliven the black waters with glistening, moving, coalescing towers.  It is quiet except for the sometime cars and the occasional road train chugging over the bridge.  A number of small fishing boats and yachts are moored in the quay, silent and barely moving with the lapping tide.

Later on at night when we got back to our cabin, some

Mother and baby possum

Mother and baby possum

uninvited guests in the shape of possums dropped in hoping for some of our food.  However we do not feed wild animals, particularly as doing so makes them more aggressive.  The possums and kangaroos at the resort seem quite used to humans and they can be quite bold and difficult to shoo away, especially where there is a prospect of getting some food scraps.

The following Tuesday morning, we reluctantly packed and said our goodbyes to this utterly salubrious place.  We headed for Mt Pigeonhouse, near Ulladulla, on the way back home to Sydney.

Fortunately, the weather was a mild and sunny one tempered

Mountain track with surrounding trees

The track to the top

with a cool breeze.  At a turn-off from the Highway, we drove for about 30 kilometres along a mostly rough, dusty, unsealed road to the foot of the mountain we intended to climb.

First there was a stiff climb up dry Eucalypt woodland like spotted gum and Stringybark.  Then an easy stroll through a kind of heath where we saw quite a few honey-eaters feasting on the red flowers of the prickly Mountain Devil bushes.

Then we neared the last part, the great crop of sandstone rocks that formed the citadel of the summit.  Extremely tired from the continuous uphill climb, I felt so slight and frail against the onslaught of mighty rock that it seemed that getting to the top was impossible.  But I did it with small, patient steps, stopping every now and then to rest and catch my breath and climbing carefully up the perpendicular steel ladders.

Then we got to the summit of Mount Pigeonhouse, where our

View of mountain plateaus

Summit, North view

panoramic reward awaited us.  To the North stretches a stunning view of plateau mountains, clothed in dusty, khaki coloured trees.  They raise their solemn, rocky slopes clear from their forest skirts among the deep u-shaped valleys.

To the West, there are an interlacing network of ululating hills lying like a crumpled, grey-blue blanket under the heavy cloud covering of that part of the sky.  I see trees from that distance like bronze-green cauliflowers clothing the gentle swell of the hillsides.

South and East, sweeps the undulating hills and plains to the coast and beyond.  And the summit holds sway over this inviolate, fecund last great domain of wild forest woodlands, rainforest and heath that hugs its gullies and slopes.

View of mountain plateaus

Further View of plateaus

No-one knows what goes on in that expanse of uninhabited country, lying peacefully under the shadows of clouds, warmed by the late spring sunshine and enlivened by a fresh, cool North East breeze.

Grasses on mountain summit

Summit life

After observing some birds like a green Wompoo pigeon and a small, tan-breasted Origma (similar to a Wagtail) on the rarified environment on the summit, we made our way down and got into the car for the long trip back to Sydney.  And that was the end of our lovely trip.

Miracles, Alternative Therapies and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy

When you think of the word ‘miracle’, it seems like something to be overjoyed about – something to laugh and dance and sing from the rooftops about.  But when you think of something that modern western medicine has achieved, like eradicating smallpox, there doesn’t seem anything miraculous in the long, iterative, methodical strides it took to that end.  The smallpox vaccination saved lives as a matter of fact and the calm and efficient way medical practitioners went about inoculating people from the once dreaded disease seems positively prosaic.  And yet it was an amazing advance for humankind, allowing untold millions of people to go on living ordinary, everyday lives.

Part of what constitutes scientific thinking is curiosity about phenomena in reality, continually observing and asking questions about events, space, time, objects and living things; exploring and searching for explanations.  There has to be something quite dispassionate about the process and one must be very clear at all times about the difference between what is before the eyes and what is inside the mind.

Of course when you get to the study of the human mind, psychology, looking at this dark enigmatic sun behind the eyes in a dispassionate way becomes a whole lot more problematic.  Mental illness is a shape-shifter: it flies from place to place, it is unseen, the boundaries between reality and imagination porous or tightly intertwined.  We may not know why we feel sad, or where our furious rages come from. We may not even know to what depths of despair that we have fallen, until it is too late.

Today, advances in medication and counselling have vastly improved the lives of many people.  They can work and live relatively normal lives that the spectres of their mental illnesses would otherwise have utterly blighted.

On the other hand, treatments for mental illness have had a long and tortured history and it is not surprising that there is a fear and suspicion of medical personnel in white coats, of incarceration in hospitals and little pills with possible ugly side effects like tardive dyskinesia.

It is these suspicions that at least since the 1970s have spawned a whole lot of alternative therapies purporting to treat conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and the like.  In Australia, almost anyone can set themselves up as a mountebank therapist with a ‘qualification’ from any old New Age college.  The therapists often use esoteric language heavily borrowed from Eastern religions and philosophies and curiously back their claims with snippets of the kind of scientific concepts they supposedly reject.

Who are the kind of people who think like this, who embrace the green fields and flowers of this alternative ideal?  While idly surfing the Internet one night, I came across two women I knew at school many years ago now.

Ursula was a friend of mine, a cheerful and bouncing bohemian with English rose skin, an untamed mane of brown curly hair and merry, blue-green eyes.  She was always enthusiastically gushing about some place in Europe she’d been to, or something she was into and had wanted to be an archaeologist. But these days, still cheerful and bouncing, she lives in Europe and is a senior practitioner of an alternative therapy called AcuEnergetics.

AcuEnergetics, according to its website, is a healing modality that treats a wide range of physical and mental ailments including frozen shoulder, back and neck pain, fertility problems, migraine, depression, chronic fatigue, thyroid problems, trauma and grief.

How does this all work?

‘…practitioners work with energy centres, pranic fields, meridians and other energetic channels. Using their hands they feel blockages and imbalances in the energetic system and can clear them using various energetic techniques. Most of the techniques are done off the body without even touching the client. Some are done with hands gently touching the client.’

But this sounds a lot like Reiki therapy, which according to Quackwatch is nonsense.

Simone was in the year above me.  She was beautiful, slim with dark shoulder length hair and dark, doe eyes.  She was good at school, popular and a champion swimmer as well.  She had everything and did everything seemingly effortlessly.  Today, she makes a living as a naturopath and also offers alternative psychological therapy.

As a naturopath, Simone espouses the holistic mind/body approach and offers a kind of alternative psychological therapy devised and promoted by an American woman who stares out from her web-page with suicide blonde hair, piercing blue eyes and a ferocious smile.  This is called ‘The Journey’ and the charismatic woman behind it is Brandon Bays.

Brandon Bays, also a naturopath, apparently had cancer but says she healed herself.  She went on to develop a kind of transformational therapy not only for people with depression, fear, anxiety and chronic physical problems but also those of you who are:

‘Passionate about discovering your life’s purpose, your true potential.  Generally happy with your life, but knowing that with a little more energy/technique/application you would be able to live life to the fullest.’

Compare and contrast the language these two therapies employ.  They both liberally use the word ‘healing’, which alternative therapists everywhere use, possibly to indemnify themselves against any suggestion that their treatment is a ‘cure’.  And both claim to treat people with both mental and physical health problems as well as the worried well.

AcuEnergetics goes for a sober and muted tone.  Armed with esoteric quotes from luminaries such as Buddha and Plato to give it an exotic frisson, it calls itself:

‘a modern healing  modality, that integrates Chinese, Judaic, Indian and western healing traditions into an accurate energy medicine’.

Note the use of the words ‘modern’, ‘accurate’ and ‘effective’.  It also uses scientific terms to give an impression of credibility.  It even claims to be ‘the most clinically effective energetic  healing modality available today‘, although it offers no evidence whatsoever for this claim apart from an array of testimonials.

On the other hand Brandon Bays does not hold back.  According to her, a normal, mentally healthy state of mind is ‘passionate’, ‘amazing’, ‘true realization’, ‘potent’, ‘setting you free’ and ‘leaving you soaring’.  One intensive eight day ‘No Ego’ workshop actually advertises that:

‘you’ll laugh like you’ve never laughed and cry like you’ve never cried.  you’ll undergo life changing process work which will expose the lies, penetrate the traps and burn through the deeply-ingrained core fixation patterns that you’ve mistaken as your real self’.

The healthy state of mind according to Brandon Bays is really quite exhausting.

Yes I’ve heard it all before.  While battling a serious mental illness when I was young, I read about a lot of psychological therapies that promised to make you feel better, to give your life that extra dimension. Nowadays I just manage it by taking medication and seeing a psychiatrist.  If I didn’t, I’d start crying all the time, my inner life would turn into increasingly vivid realities and I would start spiralling downwards and be afraid of people again.  Every hour of the day I would be in rough seas.  Nothing else works.

In contrast to the silliness of the two therapies described, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a kind of psychotherapy that really is proven in medical trials to be effective for a range of mental disorders and for managing some physical conditions like lower back pain.  But there are no miracles, esoteric utterances or soaring life purposes here.  Only plain, practical, modest goals and exercises that one must endeavour to apply over a period of time.  According to Sane Australia, CBT:

‘helps people discover how their feelings, thoughts and behaviour can get stuck in unhelpful patterns.  They are encouraged to try new, more positive ways of thinking and acting.  Therapy usually includes tasks to try between sessions. CBT is a well-established treatment for depression and most anxiety disorders.  It can also be an effective part of treatment for other conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia’.

And actually, CBT does have some ancient wisdom at its root.  A good book on CBT – ‘Beating the Blues’ by Susan Tanner and Jillian Ball (there’s a copy in a library near you) – quotes the one time Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius:

‘If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs thee but thine own judgement about it…and it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now’.

The importance of seeking effective treatment for mental illness can be absolutely crucial, as this case of someone suffering from PTSD shows.  The wrong therapy can make the illness worse and easily send a sufferer into a disastrous direction.

And I dispute that any psychotherapy should concern itself with a client’s ‘sense of purpose’.  That puts it into the realm of religious or cult hocus pocus.  People should be free to decide what sense of purpose they want in life for themselves.  For instance I myself know very well the things I would like to do and achieve and that is strictly my own business.  It’s the often negative way I feel and think about myself and what I do that is the problem and CBT could offer much in that regard.

And surely one should feel free to enjoy life and explore personal interests about the external world without having to constantly talk about this thing called ‘living life to the fullest’?  The universe is changing all the time as does your state of mind.  Feeling sad and out of it is just as valid an emotion as feeling happiness.  For better or worse, nothing changes the fact of being alive.

So how did two intelligent, capable and well-meaning women like Ursula and Simone get themselves co-opted into practising and promoting such nonsense?  Both of them could seriously make a much better and more honest living as life coaches.  It might not sound quite so glamorous as Senior Practitioner of AcuEnergetics or Journey Practitioner, but at least they wouldn’t be faced with shunting the odd, disaffected customer out the door and having to pretend to themselves one more time that miracles actually exist.


Reflections on Racist Ranter

A 55 year-old woman cracks and lets fly her dark side one afternoon on a crowded train from Sydney to Newcastle.  After two children refused her rude and agressive demands for a seat, she began to lash out at people around her.  Having sworn horribly at the terrified children, she picked on an Anglo man and an Asian woman who both happened to be sitting nearby and launched a gob-smacking racist tirade at them both.

At the time, the offender had given out her name as Sue Wilkins, but when the police later arrested her for offensive behaviour, she identified as a Karen Bailey.  She had worked as a legal secretary for top legal firms in Sydney and was qualified and experienced enough to land a job as a senior legal secretary.  But the market for legal secretaries is oversupplied, leaving Karen chasing only temporary assignments.

Karen issued a rambling apology to the media, full of excuses for her behaviour.

The excuses were that she had been unsuccessfully looking for a permanent job for a long time, an Internet love interest on a lonely hearts website had scammed her of ‘everything’, she was separated from her husband and had been visiting him in a nursing home and was living with her father.  She had sore, arthritic knees…  She’d had a particularly rotten day, was exhausted and full of pent-up frustration and the fact that there was no seat on the train for the long journey home for her was the trigger that brought her to breaking point.

She described her outburst, which was widely broadcast and condemned over online media, as a ‘brain snap’.  Inexplicably, she said she had unleashed all this dammed up torrent of anger against anyone who happened to be nearby.

But it was a melt-down that likely has heavy consequences for her.  The police have charged her with offensive behaviour and she is due to appear in court later on in the month.  On top of it, videos of her rant have hit the Internet and gone viral, with commentary appearing as far away as The Huffington Post and broadsheets in China.  Her reputation is in tatters and it is quite possible that she is going to find it even harder to get a job than before.

For some reason, I followed this story with intense interest.  I am of a similar age and also understand very well the stresses and frustrations of being at a certain age.  My husband is out of work and I am at present the breadwinner with two part-time jobs and we have a daughter who is doing her HSC.  My mother has Parkinson’s Disease and so has my dear friend, who is now in a nursing home.

There are days when I walk through work and think everybody who is younger is smarter and knows and does things so much better than I do.  My plans for a new career have hit the doldrums.  I spent all this time getting university degrees and working hard only to miss out on interview after interview.  Sometimes I feel a bit like Karen obviously does – old and out of it and destined for the scrap heap.

Another reason for my fascination with the affair seems to be that Karen comes from the same area I grew up in – an Anglo-Australian rural backwater between two cities, bounded by the sea, great lakes, farm paddocks and dense, eucalypt and lush, sub-tropical rainforest.  And I do not remember it with much affection, because of all the bullying I got right through most of my years at school because I was different.

I am Anglo-Australian, but unlike the others from their working class homes and coal-miner fathers, I liked literature and history and classical music.  My knowledge of pop music and culture was sketchy.  My father was an English/History teacher and he and Mum took myself and my two younger sisters off on camping trips to national parks around Australia during the school holidays.  We had a house by the highway and a garden full of riotous native plants.  I was a dreamy, solitary, otherworldly individual and if I wasn’t different enough, being acutely sensitive made things a whole lot worse.

You see I cried every time fellow students picked on me and soon I was easy game for every up and coming bully in the school.  They mimicked my walk, they mocked my appearance, my clothes and my speech.  Groups of bitchy girls would surround me, filling the air with their taunts.  I couldn’t walk past any group of boys without getting insulting comments.

To this day, I still feel the same sense of dread when I approach a group of school-students.  At work I don’t like to leave a group of people in case they start talking about me and when I do, walk away as fast as I can to avoid hearing the negative discussion about me that I feel will inevitably follow.  At times when faced with a demanding customer, I open my mouth and word salad comes out.  It’s mortifying.

Throughout my adult life, a chronic sense of inadequacy and sense of failure has gnawed at me and have walked through life as if in a grey fog.  Before I started counselling and taking anti-depressants, I would burst into tears at work for no reason other than thinking that I was utterly alone and nobody liked me.  On bad days, I walk through a Hell of darkness visible where people at work are all talking about me and saying what a terrible job I am doing.

But I walk and keep on walking and talking myself through it and after a while, as gentle as the day’s long duration, imperceptibly, the fog lifts.

These days I live in a very multi-cultural, metropolitan environment and love being surrounded by all the sights and sounds of cultural diversity.  My daughter has grown up with bi-lingual friends from homes of different cultures – Greek, Chinese, Lebanese.  For some reason, I adore going shopping in nearby suburbs and feeling like I am in another country like China.

I work with Chinese – as immigrants and travellers, every day and often over a steep language barrier.  I largely find them a very polite, hard-working, honest, sunny kind of people and am fascinated by their language, their shops, their stories and their love of bargains, urban luxury, bright colours and cute, kitschy things.

I visit suburbs dominated by an Anglo-Australian demographic and shudder at the sameness and insularity of it all.  I love my own culture – visiting England was a high point in my life – but the idea of living in the same culture I grew up in feels stifling and stagnant.  Too many bad memories.

Often, I find myself thinking the same old things those bullies would make me think – that I am destined for failure, that I’m not any good at social interaction or working in a team.

But really, it’s time to discard all this kind of thinking that keeps me living in a loop and going nowhere.  I have learned of new cognitive behaviour therapy techniques where I recognise such negative, self-critical thinking as just the ghosts of the bullies talking.  So I reason with myself in a more calm and realistic way, to say that that was then and it’s over.  That no-one worthwhile behaves like that.  That there are a lot of good, kind people in the world.

Anyway, to live means to change and change involves not too much thinking either way about uncertainties.  To observe, to plan and to work a way out of any problems is the important thing.

I don’t care about becoming unemployed.  I have another dimension to my life and a home life lush with things to do that don’t involve having a lot of money.

I don’t know anything about Karen Bailey.  She might have gone to the same school as me, she might even have been one of the bullies.  I don’t remember and don’t really want to either.  She is a stranger.

But just for a moment then, this stranger’s head cracked open and all that same intolerance for differences, that malicious, mocking glee, that bloody-minded insistence on uniformity and that same sense of territorial tyranny gushed out to all of the early days of July, 2014.  And for that moment there, she was the outsider.