Judith Wright’s desert garden, Mongarlowe, New South Wales1
by Katie Holmes
© all rights reserved
Judith Wright is one of Australia ‘s best loved poets. In the words of her biographer, she ‘transformed the Australian poetic tradition, conveying a new and monumental sense of the land and giving expression to the deepest, often unacknowledged concerns not only of our society but of the planet as a whole.’1As well as a poet, Judith was an active conservationist who devoted much of her energy to fighting for environmental causes. The Barrier Reef, Fraser Island, the Daintree, are just a few of the sites to which Judith dedicated her time, energy and money. She was also a passionate advocate of Aboriginal rights and felt deeply the centuries of injustice suffered by Indigenous peoples in Australia. Her understanding of the Indigenous history of this country was a central part in her response to the Australian nation and the landscape. Her own ancestors had played their part in the pastoral invasion which decimated the Aboriginal population and appropriated their lands. The consequences of this history for Judith infused her life and much of her poetry: as she saw it, ‘we live in a haunted country, torn between our love of the land and the guilt of invasion’.2
As well as poet and conservationist, Judith was also a passionate gardener. Her love of nature found a particular expression in her garden; the cultivation of her peas and lettuce gave her as much joy as her bottlebrush, native jasmine and mint bush. Judith wrote about her gardens to her good friend and wildflower illustrator, Kathleen McArthur, also a gardener. In correspondence spanning 44 years, the garden is frequently a topic of conversation, and Judith shared with Kathleen the many delights and frustrations of gardening in an erratic climate which seemed to deal up drought and flood in equal measure. Kathleen’s McArthur’s biographer, Margaret Somerville, notes also, the gendered nature of this correspondence, where the love of wildflowers, and in particular orchids, infuses their language, and their friendship.3
Judith created two gardens in her adult life: one at Tamborine in the hinterland behind Queensland’s Gold Coast, and the second at Mongarlowe, near Braidwood, about 80 kms from Canberra on land she called ‘Edge’. It sat literally on the edge of the Half Moon Wild Life Reserve, and she came to it at the later end, or edge of her life. The gardens couldn’t have been more different. Tamborine was a sub-tropical climate, the soil fertile and the garden lush, except in drought. The garden at Edge was surrounded by eucalypt bush. The top soil was non existent, just bare, shaley rock, a state compounded by the rubbish left by the builders of Judith’s house. The house is built on a ridge, exposed to the westerlies, which in summer brought constant threat of fire, and in winter an icy chill. This ‘stony ridge’ was not an hospitable site for a garden. But garden Judith did, and in doing so, challenged her own ideas of what a garden was, and her responsibilities as a gardener. And as she came to know and comprehend this land, she found new literary forms to describe it.
Let me first give you a taste of the Calanthe garden. One of its features, for Judith, was the vegetable garden which reached new heights of productivity after Judith discovered compost. In June 1953 she wrote to Kathleen McArthur:
My garden is producing splendidly now with the beaut new compost just making itself felt. We’re eating beetroot, cabbage, caulis, radishes, lettuce, leeks, peas, silver beet, spinach, kohl rabi not to mention parsley and chives! next, when we get Fancy [cow or ewe] out of the way, I extend the garden and make a potato patch.…I do love vegetable gardens.4
Her vegetable garden features regularly in the letters, and tells the tales of whatever trial the weather offered up. After one particular downpour Judith wrote:
We had three inches in half-an-hour on Monday afternoon, and torrents poured through the veg, garden; it stood up very well to the trial, considering, but no garden should be asked to be a river.5
While the rain could be the ruin of the garden, flattening it three times in one year, it was also its life source. In November 1959 she reported,
the mountain looks really lovely after all this rain and the trees are going to flower well, and the garden is rather a dream. I have just put in 3 evening primrose plants that Daisy Culpin gave me and my kunzea is growing high and handsome, let alone the imported creatures which are busting themselves with flower. I purr my way round the garden with only an occasional sigh over the weeds.6
The Calanthe garden was a mixture of native and introduced plants, which Judith had inherited when she moved there. She named it after the native orchid which grew on Mt Tamborine.7 As their letters convey, Judith and Kathleen exchanged plants and seeds regularly, and Judith frequently collected specimens from her travels around the countryside. Often nothing would come of these, or so it seemed:
All the seeds I have vaguely pushed into the garden over the years and forgotten all about have sprung to life and are bewildering me completely. What are they, how big do they grow, and what on earth can I do with them? The parsley tub now – I can remember somebody giving me some seeds of something and I said Oh thank you, I’ve wanted those for years, and put them in carelessly and nothing happened – now all round the tub and displacing my precious parsley these great robust creatures are springing up. I have put one out in the garden – will it stop before reaching 70 feet? I pray it will.8
Was this garden event the inspiration for her poem ‘That Seed’?:
That seed I took from a low branch
of a rain-forest tree
wore a red fruit like an apple
that might have poisoned me;
but I set and watered it, waited day by day.
Nothing seemed to come of it.
I threw the soil away.
Now in the garden where it fell,
quite against my plan,
springs up a thing as stray, as fierce,
as tall as a grown man.…9
The fecundity of this garden was poor preparation for Edge. But by the time Judith moved there in the late 1970s, her ideas on gardens had changed, and her interest in and concern for the environment had become a consuming passion.
Judith’s interest in native plants developed while she was at Calanthe. She was inspired by the example of her friend Kathleen McArthur, whose garden at Caloundra was the ‘one of the earliest all-native gardens’ Judith ever saw, and Judith’s letters are full of her excitement at the discovery of an orchid, or an unknown wildflower she had found. She read Thistle Harris’s books Australian plants for the garden and Wildflowers of Australia.10 Her interest in native plants grew alongside her interest in and commitment to the Australian environment, and she sought a different place from which to express this love. It is as if the land itself called her south, from lush Eden to a place that enduring rock and icy winters rendered doubly a desert:
I’m tired now, summers,
of cutting you back to size.
Where I’m going you will be more succinct;
just time for a hurried embroidery
of bud, leaf, flower, seed
before the snow winds snip you
to a root’s endurance.
I may be more at home
observing your quick passages,
stacking up wood
against the length of winter.11
Judith described Edge to Kathleen:
The land is so lovely I can’t believe I’ve got it… All ironstone quartz conglomerate rocks with all manner of wild flowers. Plenty of roos and Wallaroos graze near the house and birds. I swam in the Clear Clean Wild River last time I was there … So who cares about the chill winds of the Abyss?12
In a paper to the Australian Museum Society in 1972 titled ‘The individual in a new environmental age’, Judith argued that the future of the planet depended on individuals ‘developing a quite new relationship with ‘nature’ and thereby becoming another kind of ‘man’.’13The new relationship would require internal checks and balances on individuals and organizations, and a ‘reassertion of the values of feeling against the economic and technological Gradgrinds of our time.’14 With the move to Edge she gave herself the opportunity to implement some of her ideas and beliefs. Soon, in addition to the ‘ironstone quartz conglomerate rocks,’ she conjured images of the desert made by real winters:
Wind off the mountain snow,
small white-etched trees
leaning in leeward gestures.
I shall step carefully into the acid vapour
of morning frost.15
Judith’s sensitivity to the colonialist context of the land, and the complicity of the garden in the colonial project, surely contributed to her sense that it was time to move south.
half know itself a cheat, conjuring
all this green foliage
to hide rocks, the earth
to take it back?
Beauté de diable
Its enchanting flesh
Already beginning to droop like an old breast
On ribs of bone.16
Here the beauty of the garden is, literally translated, beauty of the devil, or the ‘devil’s beauty,’enchanting as it may be. Perhaps Judith Wright is suggesting here that the garden in Australia results from a devil’s embrace, or reminding us that giving ourselves up to the seductive allure of the garden comes with a terrible curse on it. In making visible the imperial gaze, she alerts us to the dangerous seduction of this place of beauty. Like the breasts in the poem, that which is usually associated with nurture — the garden— is also inextricably bound to a more menacing story — that of dispossession and death. The withered breasts suggest both her own ageing body, as well as that of dispossessed Aboriginal women. For Judith, this seeming-soft beauty had lost its seductive qualities, lost its life.
Judith moved to Edge with considerable anticipation. As excited as she was about the land, she didn’t quite anticipate how hard it would be to create a garden in this country. While living in Canberra before moving she told Kathleen she had ‘a constant yearning to garden’.17 But the challenge before her was considerable. She deplored the wasteland made by greedy settler overstocking:
We’ve had some rain – enough to raise the river level by a foot or so and start some greenery; I was gazing round the horizon every hour or two for bushfires, now feel rather safer. We (M. [Wright’s daughter, Meredith] and I) took a jaunt out to Cootamundra last week to pick up a quantity of exotic herbs, about all I feel like planting in the courtyard till I’m sure we aren’t on the verge of disastrous drought again. It was rather grim, all hills bare and deeply gulled, stock eating the last of the vegetation. What a mess we’ve made!18
Seen with a gardener’s eye, this land was bare and barren, the task of creating a garden almost hopeless. But Judith planted her herbs, some of still survive, and a variety of native plants including mint bush ( Prosthanthera ), billy button ( Craspedia uniflora ), native grasses and some exotics: Red Valerian ( Centranthus ruber ), Pelargonium. She began a vegetable garden, using lots of mulch, but abandoned it pretty quickly. The bad drought of the 1980s was a sobering reminder of the challenges of the climate, and the lack of human understanding of it:
Here the warmth and wet are already doing odd things to the plant life; my dwarf alpine plants are dying unless they are in the shade and the whole place is green and leafy at a time when we are always frost-burnt to brown, and May has been the warmest ever and June is going the same way. I hope this will convince the National Party that something is really happening, but they are an extraordinarily dumbheaded lot and they believe God will look after their interests.19
If a gardener’s eye rendered this land a basket case, seen with other eyes, the beauty was all around. Judith decided she would garden with what she had. ‘I’ve no wish to chisel things into new shapes’, she wrote,20 and so her gaze focused on a vision within what was already there. She saw a Christian mother goddess defying the desert made by bleak winter:
what a blues of blues you’ve chosen
to remind this sullen season
that still the sky is there.…
Wrapped in your Mary-blue
veined with a flush like roses,
you stand in contemplation
of a spring as cold as winter,
but, blessed from your creation,
the calm of your robe encloses
a gold like revelation.21
Kathleen McArthur quotes Judith Wright as saying: ‘Before one’s country can become accepted background against which the poets’ and the novelists’ imagination can move unhindered, it must first be observed, understood, described, and as it were absorbed.’ In the words of McArthur, ‘It is only when the mind opens that the flowers bloom.’22 Another friend of Judith’s, the writer Jackie French, commented recently on Judith’s ability to sit for hours at Edge, just watching.23As Judith came to understand her landscape, so she searched for the words to encode it. We find her response to the land at Edge in her garden and in her poetry. The land and the language she used to describe it, became integrally linked; and interwoven would come forth celebrations of the austere semi-desert into which old age was leading her life. As her daughter Meredith McKinney put it to me, ‘Spareness, what will suffice, what’s there and no more.’24 The poem ‘Brevity’ reflects this:
Old Rhythm, old metre
these days I don’t draw
very deep breaths. There isn’t
much left to say.
Rhyme, my old cymbal,
I don’t clash you as often,
or trust your old promises
of music and unison.
I used to love Keats, Blake.
Now I try Haiku
for its honed brevities,
its inclusive silences.
Issa. Shiki. Buson. Bashõ.
Few words and with no rhetoric.
Enclosed by silence
as is the thrush’s call.25
We might even read the naming of the poets in the last stanza as akin to a botanical naming, especially in the Australian tradition of having so few common names for native plants ‘few words and with no rhetoric’. It’s like a shorthand for the environment, only here used to draw together the land and a poetic environment. The Australian bush also is suddenly there explicitly in the beloved ‘thrush’s call’.
Writing in 1990 for the Australian Conservation Foundation, Judith wrote of the need for Australians to see the country differently: ‘Instead of ‘seeing the country’, we despised it and dubbed it a ‘mere wilderness’.… we are floundering now in the results of our lack of ability truly to ‘see the country’ and its past and future.’26 With multiple meanings Judith referred here to the geological history of the land, to its Indigenous history, and to the violence of the settler assault. Knowing its past and ensuring its future, was, in contrast, central to Aboriginal people’s sense of responsibility to the land. In order for white Australians to see differently, they needed to ‘learn to look’. Edge became an important place in Australian landscape consciousness; it provided Judith with the time and place to shift her gaze. It is as if the very lushness of the Calanthe garden had restricted her vision. The garden there formed part of an imperial landscape, where she inherited and shared the colonial gaze.27At Edge, I would suggest, her vision sharpened by her deafness —enclosed by silence—, Judith learned to look in a different way. With no ‘green foliage’ to ‘hide the rocks, the earth’, she could see the land, feel its history. Her fracturing of the colonial gaze was a ‘gold like revelation’. In a paper titled ‘Learning to look’, Judith suggested that if we could see the past encapsulated in a lichened rock, we might think more carefully before destroying it. The geological history of the continent was awe-inspiring: ‘Look back once more on the very beginning of life, through those millennia, and know that it is not ours to destroy.’28 In her poem ‘Lichen, Moss, Fungus’ she writes:
Lichens, mosses and fungi—
these flourish on this rock ridge,
a delicate crushable tundra:
bracket, star, cup, parasol,
gilled, pored, spored, membraned,
white, chestnut, violet, red.29
There is little left of the garden Judith did create at Edge: some lavender, thyme, sage and rosemary, a pelargonium, some of the native grasses, Red Valerian, a fern; the native jasmine, which came as a cutting from her great grandmother’s and which also now grows in her daughter Meredith’s garden, still thrives. Judith called her house garden a ‘mere gardener’s gesture’, believing that the land in which it sat was garden enough. It was a perspective reflecting both Judith’s stage in life, and her commitment to practising the relationship with land she so passionately advocated. How do we live in this land? Judith’s garden at Edge was a response to the challenges of that place. It reflected her uncompromising honesty, her desire to be true to what she had around her, and to honour, not detract from it.
Judith’s late poems reflect her capacity to keep challenging the limits of what language can convey; her writings and her activism challenge us to look and see anew, to ‘Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees’;30 and, in marrying her gardener’s eye with her love of country, her garden at Edge called forth a new dream of what an Australian a garden might be.
The small material remains of Edge and its garden are transcended by the memorials left in Judith Wright’s later letters and poetry. Here is the testimony of a soul that grappled with living and loving and ageing in a harsh landscape with a grim recent history; here is a transfigured sense of what a garden – supremely a desert garden – might mean in such a landscape.
Katie Holmes is a Senior Lecturer in Historical and European Studies at La Trobe University, Melbourne.
1. My thanks to Meredith McKinney for permission to quote Judith Wright’s poetry throughout this paper and for sharing her thoughts about Judith’s garden so willingly with me, and for taking me around what remains of it. Thanks also to Kylie Mirmohamadi and Susan Martin for their thoughts on earlier versions of this paper, and to Rhys Isaac for his most helpful editorial suggestions.