Choughs.  I was first introduced to this particular bird on our trip to Cootamundra, with Johns mother and sister, on a farming property that a relative owned and on which John’s mother had spent a large part of her childhood.  The summer weather was very hot and dry and the fields were parched to dusty shades of brown and dessicated yellows.

We were standing under the shade of a large, old, spreading tree whose leaves were as sparse as an old man’s hair.  Underneath, on the ground, were gouged out tree boughs of ancient grey, splintering wood.  These had been hewn generations ago to provide drink for the horses that worked on the property.  But now their hollows were dry and above us, was a jostling flock of black birds.


‘Choughs! Do you see them? That’s what they are’ said John, to me.  He has a keen interest in birds.  These birds were rapacious and lively, somewhat smaller than ravens and their coats were all coal black with burning red eyes and sharp little scimitars of beaks, so that they indeed looked like evil birds from Hell.  But then as they fluttered, I could see a flash of white on their wings and the spell was broken.


I never see them in Sydney.  They seem to be an inland bird.  They frequent Canberra near my sister’s home, rummaging in small flocks as is their wont, among drifts of leaves on the ground near the road.  ‘Oh those Choughs!’ she says dismissively ‘They’re always around’.

We saw them again at Capertee Valley, just outside of Lithgow.  They were always in the same place, all day and the next day, eagerly pecking and scratching at a rubbishy piece of ground near the dusty track and some distance across the grassy flat where the kangaroos and wombats grazed from the winding, casuarina-tree lined river.  Choughs.






Lismore, NSW Australia of the 1960s

The late summer afternoon was hot, blazing and lazy. It started off as a day off work in a desultory way with a haircut, then a medical appointment, then back home for lunch and then hours lazing on the black leather couch in the lounge room surfing the Internet for news, bits of research, labyrinthine information about starting a small business…  The whole of me is sunk in a kind of sleep, wanting to do something and yet not wanting to make the effort to do it. I seem to want to let the moments tick by, as easily as the cars in the street glide past and the mynah birds chirp in the trees.

Nevertheless I have a simple plan to go back in time – way back to when I was a child growing up in a peaceful little town called Mullumbimby on the lush North coast of NSW, Australia – so long ago it seems like another country that I am reluctant to make the long trip into.  I am so immersed in the dense, buzzing city-scape of the present.

The trip from Mullumbimby to Lismore was a short drive of about an hour along the coastal plains, until it took a dizzyingly steep turn up the ancient ragged, volcanic escarpment to the hinterlands.  It went past the turn-off to the village of Clunes and then a curious old quarry called Bex Hill, caught in the bowels of a steep rocky hill with its deep green waters of mysterious depth and where my parents spent a lot of time finding fossils of ancient plant life embedded in its loose rocks of charcoal coloured shale.  The road rolled on to over the bridge at the Wilson’s River at Richmond Hill, where I would then watch the accompanying river winding lazily along across chocolate loam and verdant buttercup-starred pastures and fields of brown Jersey cows calmly grazing on the grass.

And presently the river would come right up close to the road and there between two green hills and descrying a high church steeple and clusters of houses, we would enter the domain of the city of Lismore, population at that time: 30,000.

Lismore was (and still is) a quiet, rural city on the banks of the muddy Wilson’s River, which winds through its centre flanked by hordes of beautiful, but feral weedy weeping Willows whose proliferating branches and roots make it impossible to walk along its banks.  From time to time it is prone to flooding, though the subtropical climate is otherwise kindly – warm and humid all the year around.

Grandma and Grandfather lived in a large, wooden, white-painted Queenslander house (a kind of house perched on high stilts that allowed ventilation and precaution against flooding) in a street lined with graceful, ferny-leafed Jacarandah trees near the top of a steep hill on the near outskirts of Lismore.

We would arrive through the concreted drive-way shaded by trees with red, star-shaped flowers with petals like leaves and would park near the house atop the long sloping sweep of back-yard.  We would step out and eagerly meet my father’s parents as they clambered down the long, narrow and precipitous wooden stairs – Grandma dreamily effusive and warmly affectionate, Grandfather lean and spare, his long face sand-paper cheeked and grave – and we would go up the stairs through the covered, linoleum-floored porch (with its lavatory) and into the kitchen/dining room with its ‘Early Kooka’ gas oven and stove where we would sit at the large steel and laminate dining table just under a print of a painting of blue boats by Van Gogh and talk.

The dining table was to the left of the door.  The kitchen area, flanked by a large bench where a big black telephone lived and where Grandma did her cooking preparations, was on the right.  This kitchen bench depicted a watery blue scene of tropical fishes, painted by my mother the night before I was born.  Ahead against the wall was a small bookcase with books from Grandfather’s favourite authors – Shakespeare and James Joyce and higher up was a lacquered wooden shelf of little china animal ornaments, an hour-glass and a tiny ornamental watering can.

There were all kinds of cooking utensils in the cupboards under that kitchen bench and that was where our favourite jar of Grandma’s home-made biscuits were – some with cherries, some with chocolate chip and others with cornflakes. The kitchen sink was under the window and beside was the gas oven, stove and the constantly humming refrigerator.

The view from the kitchen and the windows of the covered verandah/porch that stretched outside it were of soft, green, rolling hills that had reminded my great-grandfather of the rolling hills of Wales.  Except (as I learned later), this beautiful, romantic, peaceful scene was not of a natural making.  My ancestors, the White People, had invaded the country rather like locusts, hewing and mowing down countless trees and undergrowth of the dense, sub-tropical rainforests so unique to the coastal plains of North-East Australia – The Big Scrub.

Through the window, we could also see the whole networked town-scape of Lismore spread out far below, with its streets of houses, clusters of office buildings and shopping centres, its several-storied hospital and the twin chimney stacks of what I think was the power station.  At night, hundreds of white and yellow lights gleamed all connected to the backbone of quietly humming electric grid that bound us all to the linoleum-clean civilised life of the mid-20th century.

Of course, the White People had so razed the land to replicate the way of life they had had in the British Isles and in Europe: to feed their livestock, grow their crops and build a civilised state.  At Lismore, the denuding of the land had been so thorough by the 1960s, that when Grandma took us three young sisters for a drive to the local Lions Club park, the rich tangle of liana vines, blackbean trees and great, spreading roots of giant fig-trees seemed like an utterly alien world.

But in my childhood and early adolescent ignorance, the hills and verdant, grassy landscape just seemed a symbol of all that was beautiful and serene and calm in the world.  The hill at the top of the street was farm-land and the grass grew lush, with plenty of weeds like burdock, dandelions and scotch thistles which shed their silky-haired seeds delicately into the warm, gentle breezes.  The beautiful music of Mozart was often playing on the record-player, perfectly reflecting the sense of carefree peace and happiness.

Grandma and Grandfather’s house on the hill had a long backyard, with a good two-thirds of it a vegetable and fruit garden of Grandfather’s steady and industrious cultivation.  In the rich, black soil he grew lettuces, carrots, tomatoes, beans, peas and grape vines and there were fig and pawpaw trees thick with luscious fruit in season.  A substantial lawn of green grass that Grandfather periodically mowed surrounded the cultivation patch and the borders were fringed with piles of forgotten black basalt rocks, a large Jacaranda tree and dense Jasmine bushes that burst into profusions of little starry flowers in spring, gracing the air with their sweet, nectar like scent and attracting hosts of butterflies and bees.

Meanwhile, in the damp earth around the bottom of the stairs, Mint grew in great clusters along with Nasturtiums, Forget-Me-Nots, Violets and Wandering Jew. In the cool earth-scented darkness under the house was Grandfather’s work area, with his saws, drills and fishing equipment neatly stacked.  Alongside, there was the laundry, with its big cement twin-tubs, rubber wringer, corrugated scrubbing board, pieces of old yellow soap and the little deep cobalt blue-bags which astonishingly made white clothes whiter.

Whenever we visited, my sister Cathie and I both got the spare bedroom, painted pure white, with intriguing patterns in the plaster ceiling and the two windows framed with gauzy white curtains embroidered with purple flower-sprigs.  There was a double and a single bed, both covered with pretty mauve and white bedspreads and two dressing tables.  I used to wake up in the morning to the sounds of a rooster crowing and hens cackling in the distance as the pale shafts of sunlight stole their way around the room and feel perfectly at home and peaceful.

Outside the spare bedroom was a small hallway carpeted with stiff, gold-brown plush and hung with smiling black and white photos of my father and my aunty Norma.  That was where while sitting on the floor I broke my leg at the age of three, when my toddler sister Cathie walked over me.

The hall led to the kitchen on the left.  Straight ahead was the linen closet all neat and tidy with clean, lavender scented white sheets, scratchy towels and face-cloths. Beside it was the tiled bathroom in cool darkness redolent of soap, with a huge bath that Grandma ran nice and hot for us children, shower recess and old-fashioned sink.

Further to the right of the hallway were two doorways. For now I will go through the lounge room.  It had the same gold-brown plush carpet, it had two lounge chairs and a lounge and a record-player and television at the far end of the room. Above the lounge was a fascinating print of Vermeer’s painting of a girl reading a letter and I used to endlessly speculate on the content of the letter, which despite the calm serenity of the domestic scene, could have been anything.  There was a book-case containing such entertaining books as ‘The African Queen’ and ‘The Girl With the Swansdown Seat’ and ‘What the Aussie Papers Didn’t Mean to Say’. There was a pale-brown lacquered cabinet containing the good china and a beveled mirror.

At the other side, towards the front door, the lounge-room had two frosted glass-paneled doors draped with rich red drawn curtains, one on each end of the wall. These doors led out to a bright sun-room and the front door, whereby one could go down a few steps onto the path through a lawn and a garden lush with ferns and hydrangeas.  Hardly anyone ever went to this sun-room, which was a pity. Because with its white wired chairs and table upon which a rampant maiden-hair fern showered its tresses, it was a calm, still kind of place with a view of the wide, grass-edged and usually deserted street through its ample windows.

Back at the hallway there is an entrance between the bathroom and the lounge-room.  This was Grandma and Grandfather’s bed-room.  The windows were usually draped over with curtains, so it was quite dark and made more so with the dark, ponderous furniture – a large wardrobe, a dressing-table with fascinating Grandma things on it like powders, her favourite Tweed Lentheric scent – a delicate spring floral fragrance that pervaded all of Grandma’s presence – and boxes of costume jewelry.  There was also a big double bed, which us three girls all piled onto with Grandma and Grandfather of a morning to read the Sunday Papers.

A door beside the bed finally led into a kind of long side room.  To the right was a curtained alcove in which sat an old Singer treadle sewing machine (which Grandma taught me how to use) and all Grandma’s sewing things – lots of cotton reels of all different colours, needles of all sizes, pins, buttons, tape measures, thimbles and scissors.  At the centre was a long dark brown plush couch which my youngest sister Berenice slept on.  It was alongside windows draped with cotton curtains of a pattern of dancing red flowers.  Opposite the couch was the window to the bathroom and beneath this a long, old dark brown cabinet with creamy bone handles which held many secret things like old board games and toys, books, yellowing manuscripts, fountain pens and stored Christmas decorations like a frosted tree, some tinsel and tiny, brightly coloured balls.

At the end of the room and in front of a window that looked out onto the backyard and beyond was a large jet black desk with a typewriter, pencils, erasers, pens and lots of typing paper.  Grandfather liked to write and this was his work-place and we would often hear the tapping of the typewriter as he worked away in the afternoons after lunch.

And beside the desk was a door leading out in the kitchen, back where we started.  For dinner, Grandma would make a roast lamb with crunchy roast potatoes, pumpkin and peas from the garden.  She would make the gravy with flour and dripping and put in a fluted green china gravy-boat. She would make the mint sauce with sugar and vinegar and mint growing from under the steps of the house.  It always seemed she would never be done fussing over the dinner and would still be in her apron hovering around after people had started.  But eventually she would give in to persuasion that she really had thought of everything.  And the meal would be absolutely delicious.






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.

The Orchid Show – Circa 1970

Umina was a small town slung to the side of a long sandy beach where we would go to visit our two great-aunts, who lived in two different houses.

I remember that late morning it was summer and hot and sticky. The sky was pale blue with a white haze and the streets burned in the blazing sun. My empire-line, short sleeve dress of floral nylon did not help matters much either, causing me to sweat uncomfortably. But Aunty Mary and Aunty Olive took us three young girls off in our best dresses to see the Annual Orchid Show, which was being held in the Umina Town Hall.

The large interior of the Town Hall, with its mellow, polished wooden floors was not much cooler. Each exhibit of orchids were displayed in separate tents so that they could be viewed to best advantage without having to vie for attention with other orchid displays. The owner’s names and sometimes a prize were displayed proudly on each bench the orchids rested on. Despite the slowly whirring ceiling fans it was almost intolerably stuffy, the only thing to drink were cups of hot tea served with biscuits and warm, brackish water from the creaky tap in the kitchen/server at the side.

So I had to take my mind off the suffocating, enervating heat by focusing on what was beautiful. Each orchid display beckoned me into its world and impressed itself deeply into my mind with their almost fleshy contours, their flute like columns with their gaping, often blood-tinged lips springing from a bed of petals and heady but subtle and delicate scents that stole around me and wove a hypnotic spell.

Most of the orchids were what Mum referred to as Cymbidiums with sprays of large, insolent flowers with wide petals and dragon lips to smaller more delicate ones, their long, dark green, spear-like leaves offsetting their beauty. There was a fantastic array of colours. The most striking thing about the orchids was their individuality. No exhibit was the same as another.

There was a spray of pure alabaster white orchids in fresh, glowing health that had won first prize. There were deep pink orchids with striations of deep, magenta red and a magnificent array of ochre yellow orchids.

Some of the orchids were green with their columns and lip speckled with a smattering of red freckles. Another was a handsome chocolate brown and green stripes with lips of red tinged cream.

Then there on a rock crouched an exhilarating cluster of white rock lilies with their slim, scimitar curled petals, emanating their distinctive honey sweet, heavy scent.

There were a flock of tiny native duck orchids with eggplant coloured petals that looked exactly like ducks flying. So odd, that there ever could be flowers like that.

I don’t know how much time had passed, but I had lingered and gazed at each exhibit utterly enthralled.  No other flowering plant has such individuality, magnetic allure and air of mystery as the orchid.  Though some are more extroverted and insolent than others, there are the shy members of the orchid family as well.

In the temperate rainforests of NSW, the small Greenhood orchids flower.  They are hard to sight, being camouflaged by the profusion of ferns and mosses they cohabit with and can usually be found by the side of a muddy track.  Then suddenly you notice whole patches of them in the dappled sunlight under the trees – sentient, translucent little helmets tinged brownish-green each nodding on the top of a slender, six inch stem.

My mother, a keen naturalist, has a special affinity with the Greenhood orchids and has written a poem about them:


Spurred on the moment
Riding into the silence of the spell

-Carlotta Payne

My Father’s Affair

I remember the long, inky black evenings at the house, a modern split-level building of chocolate-chip brick perched on the edge of a cliff by the sea.  At the end of a long, winding dirt drive up-hill, it stood by itself in a defiantly untamed bush of dry schlerophyll forest, long tufts of grass and prickly acacia.

Inside were large, airy rooms, the walls painted white and rich, soft earth brown carpet.  In the two bedrooms, there were vast built-in wardrobes with wide, sliding doors of honey wood and there was a mysterious Paul Klee like painting of a woman with a pointed face hanging in the hallway.

The open-plan living room was long, with an alcove for a desk, chair and filing cabinet in one corner, then a generous fireplace fronting the lounge suite of black leather cushioned furniture all the way to the great French windows leading out to the balcony that overlooked the magnificent sweep of Avoca Beach Bay down the long, steep slope of the cliff far below.

During those long, inky black evenings, my parents would carouse with their friendly hosts with red wine and cheese on crackers and cigarettes and long and impassioned conversation about politics, philosophy and nature – after a meal of barbequed meats with tomato sauce, potatoes and coleslaw.  Us five children would be left to play and wander at will and I would look out through those great French windows and see the calm seas lying glistening under the floating moon and hear the gentle sighing of the imperceptible waves as they heaved themselves gently and languidly upon the shore.

Somewhere in the 1970s the McDowells were my parents good friends.  Frank McDowell was my history teacher at High School, a man of short stature but lean and wiry with deep-set grey-blue eyes in a long, bony face, bald head and red, bushy beard.  His wife Margaret was by contrast, a handsome looking woman with a hazel eyes and a straight bobbed light brown hair, who was taller than he was and of the solid and sensual kind – someone who had secrets.  In their large bedroom, Margaret had a dressing table and on it was an ornament.  A large sad-eyed china dog chained to two small puppies.  For some reason, it would remind me intensely of her.

The McDowells were more intrepid bushwalkers than my parents and when we camped in national parks and bushwalked in places like the Snowy Mountains for sometimes 10 miles in a day, their well-worn but good quality equipment outshone ours.

They had proper equipment from Paddy Pallin, tall back-packs of dun brown canvas and faded japara sleeping bags of goosedown that packed down into tiny bags.  They had the old black billy can and the perfect gripper for it, long-handled and firm, that I have never seen before or since.  The arrival of their two children barely stopped them in their tracks.  They promptly bought a papoose for the baby Mia, powdered milk and disposable nappies and the toddler Elaine soon learned that complaining about the long walks was not an option.

Together we all went to Kinchega National Park and camped by the Murray River where we swam in the muddy waters and I cooked a very well received damper in the iron camp oven, which we all had, tremblingly, fragrantly hot and slathered with runny butter and honey.  We watched thousands of yellow-crested and pink Mitchell cockatoos and galahs converge screeching at the edge of a wide lake at sunset while we lounged against huge, grey-white, bone-dry logs half-submerged in the soft, red-dirt sands.

We picked up pieces of chert stone lying in the dunes, chipped like stone-age flint and long abandoned by vanished aboriginal people.  We walked along the shores of the lake and saw a stunning diversity of water birds, fleeing grey kangaroos and trees covered with the matted clods of innumerable, tiny little mud and feathered nests inhabited by huge flocks of chattering birds.

I am alone in the inky night at home again, some forty years later, with a hasty meal of fried-eggs and tomato on bread, the last skerrick of ice-cream eaten from the tub and the large, crystal wine glass of some Barossa Valley shiraz.  Long cold winter nights have begun and my husband John and nearly adult daughter Veronique are out.  And thinking of the promising magic and beauty of those nights, I remember back then with a kind of impenetrable sadness.  What did, or didn’t happen that laid all those long years since with such a sense of unspoken waste?

My husband and I have laid the floors of our apartment in a quiet suburb in the city with bamboo, stained to warm, syrupy, variegated hues but nevertheless reverberating with a sense of echoing coldness.  The oil heater has to work hard to heat the large L-shaped living room with its bright, freshly renovated and painted open kitchen.  Our marriage of twenty years, unmarked by any infidelity, simple and straightforward.  We talk about politics, some history, issues.  But our full book-cases go largely unread and with the casualness that marks our relationship, the outings occasional and plans more often than not undone.

Back in the 1970s, the McDowells eventually moved to a neat, white weatherboard cottage with a barren, paling fenced backyard and Hills Hoist in town by the river.  We still visited and played with their two daughters but a mysterious sense of barely perceptible tension had pervaded the relationships between the four adults.  They shouted more suddenly and vociferously in their discussions with each other, there were terser leavings and goodbyes.  Margaret was talking of their family moving away to Canberra sometime, but she did not say when.

Then, one explosive night, it happened.  Our family had gone home and I was trying to sleep in the room I shared with my two sisters, but was unable to because Mum and Dad were arguing with each other:  Mum with at first low and impassioned tones, but with rising pitch and intensity, Dad like straws all at sea, helplessly remonstrative.

Then my sister Cathie came in to our room, bursting with the information she had gleaned with her assiduous eavesdropping.  ‘Dad’s been having an affair with Margaret McDowell!’ she announced at once to me and Berenice.  ‘Mum caught them kissing at the back fence in the dark at their house.  Dad’s admitted that it’s been going on for some time’.

In the dark, our whole lives whizzed into a garish, ugly focus of suburban frustration, disappointment and dull ordinary things happening like sordidly secret affairs between married people who should have known better than to hurt and turn upside down the lives of those dependent on them.  It was wrong, morally wrong, wasn’t it?  But none of this was happening to me.  Curiously I felt neither dismay, surprise nor the slightest bit of anger towards my father.  I felt calm, dead calm, almost numb.  I just listened and over the days and weeks that followed, thought only that my father was mortal and for that, I forgave him.

In their bedroom, Mum was hissing ‘I could see that you wanted to dance with her!  I saw you looking at her, with her swirling skirt and red lipstick and her come at me eyes…  ‘What are you talking about?’  Interjected my father faintly  ‘I never did any such thing!’  ‘Oh yes you did!’, screamed my mother almost manic with volcanic rage ‘You were looking at her, her, HER!’…

The next few days were lived in a kind of grey, uncertain daze.  I had breakfast, went to school, came back.  And then one afternoon Mum gathered us three sisters together in the lounge room and spoke to us with unusual candour about the whole thing.  This time she was so calm, that it was almost impossible to believe that she was the same person she had been that night.

‘Frank and Margaret are going away and your father and I are staying together’  She said ‘Your father realised it was only a temporary affair and he liked her because she was a good bushwalker’.  ‘But we all got together and talked about it last night.  Frank surprised me because he said he had known about it from the beginning.  He was watching them to see what happened and hoping to have a relationship with me.  I was taken aback and of course never would have done anything like that.  I find him quite repulsive, physically.’   ‘Then Margaret got in touch with me privately and confessed to me that she no longer loves Frank.  She was in love with someone else and married him on the rebound.  I don’t know what they’re going to do’…

After that episode, we saw no more of the McDowells.  Unseen by us, they had winged their way to Canberra or some such city to an unknown life somewhere else.  Mum and Dad never even mentioned their names again.  Except once.  They told me that Frank had opined that I was not bright enough to finish university.

A year or so later, we had gone on a camping trip to Carnarvon Gorge National Park.  A rocky, red place of ancient beauty somewhere in mid-west Queensland, where us sisters played in the quartz-strewn stony creek beds and ran laughing through the largely deserted bushy, dust-bowl of the camping grounds.  It was then that I noticed a familiar tent and Khombi van.  From a distance, Frank and Margaret had seen us.  A short while later I saw that they were suddenly packing their tent, camping gear and belongings hastily into the car.  Without a word, they drove off into the ether of the early afternoon…

What the New Age Movement Stole

I came across an SMH article the other day about a young lass called Jessica Ainscough who says she is healing herself from cancer, courtesy of the ‘alternative’ Gerson Therapy Dedicating her life to following and disseminating its principles, this talented writer has settled on the Sunshine Coast making a living as a freelance writer, speaker and blogger.  Criticised as quackery by ‘conventional’ medical practitioners (such as Orac on ScienceBlogs), the whole story about Gerson Therapy has got me deeply concerned about the claims people make about treating deadly diseases such as cancer with ‘alternative treatments’.

What made me really sad was the death of Jessica’s mother Sharyn Ainscough of breast cancer while practising the Gerson Therapy and believing it was working right to the end.  Orac points out in his post that describing worsening symptoms as Jessica does: ‘flare-ups’ is typical of the language of denial that quacks use.  But as horrible as it was to read how Sharyn was actually developing satellite lesions in addition to her main breast tumour all couched in the language of false hope, rationalisation and denial, it was even worse to read some of the comments.  Several of them are hauntingly mirroring Sharyn’s terrible ordeal, like this one:

Well Jess as you know I’ve had a rough week – and it’s still going! I guess that is the bit that scares me the most, the time that this flareup is lasting. I have had a constant stream of flareups but this is by far the worst – I am week 23. I can visually see my breast tumour, which was roughly 8 cm, breaking down in front of my eyes. This last week the dent is getting bigger and bigger, so I’m guessing my body is having a hard time keeping up with the whole process. I’m currently going from the lounge to the juicer and struggling to eat (rare for me I’m always hungry) Every joint aches in my body intensely, my shoulders I couldn’t move much for a few days, I feel like I’ve been poisoned, I am having welcoming fevers on and off, night sweats (so much washing), very depressed at times, and now today my rib cage on the opposite side of my tumour is so tender. If I didn’t have that big dent I would be very worried though. I am so glad I have fellow Gerson friends like you and Sharyn to vent with. So for any of you Gerson patients out there going through a similiar thing I hope that my openness helps you a little too. Keep the faith!! Jess thanks for always sharing. And I must say Charlotte, thanks for always caring! xx

And this one:

Dear Jess,

U and your mum are such an inspiration! I have a 3 year old son with leukemia(ALL) .He was diagnosed in late 2009 and currently in the maintenance phase of treatment. I did purchase and read on The Gerson Theraphy book. I have not been able to follow 100% of the requirements, as my son is still a little boy.
My prayers are with u and your mum

And this:

I have been going through the same stuff as your mom for about two weeks. I feel as well that there is a strand of pearls going through my boob that has the breast cancer. Not only that I have an awful rash that I use to have when I was pregnant with my third child and it covers from my waist down. I’ve been on the Gerson diet for a little over a year. I really enjoy it but I do get a bit scared and discouraged sometimes due to these healing reactions that I wasn’t sure that they were healing reactions. I’m happy that I found your blog. I found it very comforting Thank you

It’s worse to think of the influence that Jessica Ainscough’s espousal of this fraudulent Gerson Therapy is having on others and the heavy responsibility she must bear in leading people to quietly hideous deaths, often as Orac points out, without the comfort of modern palliative care.

Ainscough’s  blog is all sweetness and light, full of the kind of beautiful, idyllic seaside scenes I knew on the North NSW coast as a child.  Fabulous pictures of organic food feasts abound and it is followed and liked by hordes of beautiful people, smiling and wearing garlands of flowers and all sending each other rays of love sunshine.

It’s Orac’s opinion that sadly, Jessica Ainscough will probably die of the cancer.  That statistically for her kind of cancer and without surgery she very likely has at most a few more years.  She could have chosen Western medicine at the outset, had her arm amputated and gone on to do something worthwhile.  Now she lives a pretense of a life urging others to make believe as well, a practice which has deadly consequences.

While it’s clearly unethical to be promoting quack treatment to people suffering from cancer, she seems to really believe that the Gerson therapy can effectively treat cancer.  On the other hand, how much in the face of all the facts should she have accepted rather than preferred to believe otherwise?

As a teenager, I embraced the cause of the hippie movement that originated in the 1960s.  I loved their casual, carefree approach to life and their love of all things natural.  Many of them became farmers and these days the organic/biodynamic food industry is big business.  The north-east coast of Australia, where I grew up, has since become a mecca for this post-hippie or alternative lifestyle movement.  The weather there is mild all the year around, the landscape is beautiful and green and lush and a pristine beach is always nearby.

But there is a dark side to the alternative lifestyle movement, an embrace of a tribal/quasi-religious mentality, an abandonment of a rational way of thinking and a deep distrust of science and particularly Western ‘conventional’ medicine.  It’s no coincidence that the highest numbers of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children live in these richly salubrious surrounds where the living is so easy it is hard to imagine that there can be any terror, pain or death in it like whooping cough or my grandmother’s especial fear, diptheria.

But I believe that our human relationship with the earth is much more complex.  Western science and medicine has given us a standard of health and living that people have come to expect as a given.  It’s a given that most infants don’t die in childbirth and that most are likely to survive to old age.  It’s a given that people in this country won’t sicken and die of smallpox or leprosy.

It’s so ironic that a generation steeped in the unprecedented knowledge, medical and technological advances of our time can still produce so many people who willfully refuse to accept that they were given any advantages.  And it’s so easy to believe that eating organic fruit and vegetables actually heals illnesses like cancer when courtesy of modern medicine, you were born whole.

An old school friend of mine has immersed herself deep into New Age woo.  She originally wanted to be an archeologist, but at our reunion 30 years later she told me that her and her boyfriend were working at some kind of naturopathic institution that included fertility therapy.  These days, she makes enough of a living as a reiki astrologer to be regularly trotting off to places like the south of France, while I struggle to find the positives in a relentless slog of a job in a government department.

But I couldn’t bring myself to live life so lightly like my friend.  There is something about the stern, dark, serious side of life I do not want to let go of.  I am concerned for instance about the environment, because the majority of scientists concur that global warming was caused by man and has dire and impending consequences and want to do something that really does help others.

The New Age movement has taken over the green, undulating lands of my early childhood, where our family climbed Mount Warning and spent so many days exploring the lush forests of coachwood, figs, palms, liana vines and black bean trees, where the whip-bird calls in the cool green shadows and the explorer’s feet treads soft over moist dark mulch.  Now I want to take that beauty and mystery back, with science and good old rational thinking.

In my urban exile, I don’t want to only think only of the good things in life, because I seek a balance between the serious and the light.  Thus the city becomes my quarry just like we used to search the old quarry with its deep, green pool and tumble of dark rocks for ancient forms of life to think and reflect on.