Seeing the Light

One of the things I most missed during lockdown was immersion in the arts. Like reading – galleries, sculpture parks, theatre and music all provide fertile ground for inspiration. Art helps us to see the world through different lenses, challenge our perspective on the world and transports us to different places. I have been to four exhibitions in recent weeks and feel creatively refreshed by the experiences.

Looking Glass at Tarrawarra Museum of Modern Art bought together two contemporary Australian Aboriginal artists – Waanyi artist, Judy Watson and Kokatha and Nukunu artist, Yvonne Scarce. The exhibition was a tribute to, and a lament for country. It reflected Aboriginal history from colonial massacres to Stolen Gernations, climate change and the impact of the Maralinga bomb tests.

Flesh after Fifty explored stereotypes of ageing and celebrated the older female form through photos, painting and sculpture. We are so accustomed to the memorialisation of youth and cajoled into drinking from its fountain at any cost through the media. Older women often talk about being ‘invisible’ and ‘overlooked’, and they do, with a few exceptions, for all intents and purposes ‘disappear’ from public view once their bodies start to wrinkle and sag.

To me, in many ways older people have always been beautiful. I see the lines etched on their faces and bodies as stories. Their creases and scars mark the life that has been lived – a rich source of story and inspiration if you take the time to explore them. It was a refreshing balm to go to a show that celebrated the diversity of the older woman’s form, challenging negative stereotypes of ageing.

One day I got lost in the National Gallery of Victoria Triennial exhibition. A celebration of the porosity and cross disciplinary influences of the creative arts. It was an awe inspiring, challenging visual feast, and at times a little nerve wracking when I found myself caught in the buildings maze unable to find my way out without help from the concierge.

My final drink from the creative fountain was Lisa Sewards Short Stories, an exhibition of printmaking and painting inspired from contemporary Australian short stories Lisa read during lockdown. The exhibition was held at Fortyfive Downstairs, a great art space off Flinders Lane, Melbourne.

I climbed down the steep wooden staircase into the bowls of the building to the gallery and found myself alone. Having time to peruse the stunning etchings and paintings brimming with emotion somehow made the experience much more intense.

The stories that inspired the works included A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop; The Flight of Birds: A Novel in Twelve Short Stories by Joshua Lobb; Nova (a raw manuscript) by Laurie Steed. My personal favourite, because it drew so strongly on emotion (and includes a dog), was The Edge of Tears inspired by Bec Yule’s unpublished Dog walking in the time of Corona, with apologies to Gabriell Garcia Marquez.

It was such a privilege to be able to go back out into the world and fill my creative cup from the inspiration of others. I encourage you to get out and support the artistic community who were hit so hard by lockdown and yet kept on creating. We need artists and their works to help us think critically, connect with the world around us in new ways, and nourish our cultural lives.

Main image: Melbourne Laneway

The trials and tribulations of an adventurous hound

We were finally released from our collective misery last week, and I’m not talking about lockdown. The hound and I have experienced another kind of restriction as a result of an injury I wrote about back in January, after what should have been a two week resolution turned into six.

After a couple of weeks of rigorous supervision and battles with the cone of shame, which I can attest made both the hound and myself miserable, we returned to the vet to have the sutures removed. I was relieved the saga was over and had the best nights sleep since Harper’s surgery. So imagine my horror to wake up in the morning and notice a small hole had opened up where the stitches had been. By the time we got to the vet it had turned back into a gaping wound.

The vet took one look and said, ‘We’ll have to staple her up.’

He disappeared into the surgery and reappeared with some goo on his finger — a local anesthetic which he wiped around the hole. Next, he produced a staple gun and whilst the vet nurse and I placated the 46kg beast he proceeded to staple her together. The anesthetic didn’t worked on one spot and Harper screamed blue murder. My heart leapt into my throat at her distress but fortunately she is such a gentle beast that she tolerated the procedure despite the discomfort.

The next three weeks were a slog of close supervision and anxiety about whether the wound would heal. After one week the vet indicated if it wasn’t significantly improved by week two they might have to do surgery again, which would have meant a return to ground zero.

The wound was located on the most bendy part of the dog, making it slow to knit. It was clearly itchy so I couldn’t leave Harper out of my sight without the cone of shame on, and could not leave the cone on for anything other than short periods due to the stinking hot weather because the device prevented her from drinking water.

It’s hard work trying to contain a 46kg playful young dog, even if she is a lazy sod 90% of the time. As the days dragged by, she became more and more frustrated with the restrictions I had to impose. All she wanted was to play zoomies with her friends and I could not let her.

Six weeks later, after being substantially locked in the same room together, save for one day that Harper spent on a kind friend’s sofa, the staples were removed. I held my breathe willing everything to stay together. After a few days without any sign of complications, Harper had her first off lead play and I got a chance to go out without her for a meal with a friend. Tails are wagging all-round.

Locked in

Melbourne’s been back in lockdown, so a post on locked-room mysteries seems appropriate.

Locked-room mysteries are a sub-genera of crime fiction in which a seemingly ‘impossible crime’ is committed. The circumstances surrounding the crime make it implausible that the perpetrator committed the offence at all, or if they did, it seems unlikely they could evade detection. The crime scene is sealed from the inside with no way out (unless they were Houdini).

These stories usually involve a closed circle of people with a limited number of suspects and a whimsical detective to keep us guessing as they investigate. The solution is always right there, if only we could lay our eyes on the sleight of hand that plays on our curiosity. They are great mysteries for lovers of puzzles and a world away from gritty police procedurals or thrillers about psychopaths and the more brutal side of humanity. They are more cosy-supernatural-gothic.

Think a group of acquaintances getting locked up together on a remote property. They are caught out when the weather turns bad, making leaving impossible and bringing communications down. Keith, who had been driving everyone mad, is found dead in the garden shed. The garden shed has no windows and is locked securely from the inside. When the group break the door down they find Kieth lying on the floor with a bullet wound to his head. Strangely there’s no gun in the shed…Lucky one of the group is also a brilliant detective.

Locked-room mysteries were hot in the Golden Age of detective fiction between the two world wars. Agatha Christie perfected the genera, but Edgar Allan Poe is credited with invention of its long form in 1841 with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, although some say John Dickson Carr pre-dated him with The Hollow Man in 1935.

Casting even further back, the style was evident in short stories. In Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op story Mike or Alec or Rufus that appeared in the January 1925 issue of Black Mask, the action takes place in an apartment building and the private investigator tries to solve the crime through interviewing suspects; Wilkie Collons’ The Moonstone (1854) is also credited as contributing to development of the sub-genre. Elements can even be found in the Old Testament story of Bel and the Dragon in which an idol who eats food offerings from a sealed room is worshiped. The stories hero Daniel, exposes the secret entrance used by the priests who are taking the food for themselves.

In a Guardian article from 2014, Adrian McKinty nominated his top ten impossible murder novels, ranging from The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868) to La Septième Hypothèse by Paul Halter (1991). Interestingly there are a lot of locked room mysteries with a French origin.

Contemporary novels in this sub-genre are dominated by women writers and include Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood (2016), The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, They All Fall Down by Rachel Howzell Hall, The Last by Hanna Jameson, Nine Perfect Strangers by Laine Moriarty, The Last Resort by Susi Holliday, and One by One by Ruth Ware who must like four walls, a ceiling and a floor.

Locked room mysteries are concerned with psychology and relationships between people in high pressure environments. They study what can happen when we are forced to spend more time with other’s than we would choose to. When we see one another more clearly that we ever have before and it becomes claustrophobic and uncomfortable because we are cut off from the outside world. Under these conditions our masks and defenses fall away and our true selves are revealed, warts and all. The evaporation of the veneer of civility creates a perfect environment for a mysterious crime. And of course there must be a brilliant detective to keep everyone contained until they solve the case.

I hope your lockdown was less dramatic, but if you can’t get your fill of a locked-rooms in lockdown try one of these:

  • The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-room Mysteries by Otto Penzier – collection of 68 of the all time best
  • Miraculous Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards – anthology
  • Locked Room Murders by Robert Adey – a bibliography of the problem and solution to 1,280 locked room crime novels and short stories

Know where you live

I was listening to Melissa Lucashenko interviewed on The Garret podcast about her novel Too Much Lip whilst I laboured in the garden. The novel won Melissa the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award amongst other accolades.

Too Much Lip is the story of Kerry Salter, a First Nations Woman, who returns to the place she has been avoiding all her adult life – her hometown. She heads south on a stolen Harley for one last visit to see her dying Pop. The novel is a dark, political, funny and fast paced story about the Salter family, love and redemption, set in fictional Bundjalung country.

Into the river that was about to be stolen away again, as it always had been since Captain James Nunne Esq. first rode up with his troopers, one two three, crying I’ll have that, and that, oh, and that too, while I’m at it.

Too Much Lip

During the interview Melissa spoke about relationships to land, connection to country, and the cultural differences in that connection and knowing. It occurred to me, with a little embarrassment, that despite having lived in the same place and admired the same fabulous view every day for twenty-five years, I did not actually know the names of all the distant landmarks. So I did a bit of research to educate myself. Sadly my efforts returned very little about the Indigenous culture of the specific mountains I can see from my balcony, though all fall within the Wurundjeri and Taungurung lands of the Kulin Nations.

One Tree Hill (372m), Christmas Hills.

One Tree Hill

Europeans named Christmas Hills after David Christmas, an emancipated convict shepherd who got lost in the area in 1842. Gold was discovered at One Tree Hill in 1859 causing a brief gold rush until 1964. Remnants of the mining activity are still visible if you meander along Happy Valley Walking Track through the bush and along the creek of that name. The reserve is home to the large bent-wing bat, eastern horseshoe bat, the carnivorous marsupial phascogale, and powerful, and barking owls.

Yarra Ridge (241m), Christmas Hills

Yarra Ridge is not just a wine label, though being part of Victoria’s first wine growing district most of the information online is about wine. The regions viticultural history goes back to 1838 when the Ryrie Brothers planted a vineyard at Yering Station and produced their first drop in 1845. Vines were first planted at the original Yarra Ridge vineyard by lawyer Louis Bialkower in 1983, though Yarra Ridge wines are now just a brand, having been taken over by Foster’s Group.

Yarra Ridge the place is part of the Great Dividing Range. The Watsons Creek catchment runs along the southern spur downstream form Kinglake National Park and is home to the Growling Grass Frog, Brush-tailed Phascogale, Common Dunnart and the Barking Owl.

From my balcony on 7 February 2009, I could see the glow of the fire that swept along Yarra Ridge which carried it down to devastate the Steels Creek valley. Alice Bishop, author of A Constant Hum, a book which grapples with the aftermath of the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, grew up at Christmas Hills.

Mount Graham (271m), Christmas Hills

Mount Graham overlooks Sugarloaf Reservoir, built in the 1970s to supplement Melbourne’s domestic water supply. The dam is fed by the Yarra River and the Maroondah Aqueduct that runs past the base of Mount Graham via the Sugarloaf pipeline.

There is a 14km walking track around the reservoir that skirts the base of Mount Graham. The more adventurous can take the steep climb along a rough track over native grasslands and through fern thickets to the top of the mountain.

Mount Tanglefoot (1024m) and Mount St Leonard (1100m)

Mount St Leonard

Mount Tanglefoot is just north of Mount St Leonard in the Toolangi State Forest. The two peaks are connected by a 10km saddle.

Toolangi is an aboriginal word meaning tall trees, a nod to the Mountain Ash and Myrtle Beech trees in the area that attracted the paling splitters and timber cutters who moved there in the 1890s. At least one of the giant beauties was spared – Toolangi Forest is home to the 400 year old, 65m high Kalatha Giant, a mountain ash that is the seventh largest tree in Victoria. The forest also houses a sculpture trail that takes in sculptures formed from materials taken sustainably from the forest.

Toolangi even has a bit of literary history. One of Australia’s most famous poets, CJ (Clarence James) Dennis the author of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke published in the early 20th century, lived in a hut at Toolangi in the early 1900s. He published his first volume of poems, Backblock Ballads and Other Verses, whilst living there.

Out with the old, in with the new

Happy New Year amigos! And thank you for journeying with me through 2020.

The scariest moment is always just before you start.

– Stephen King
are we there yet?

Fruit bats sailed across the dusky sky and the shrill buzz of cicadas echoed through the cooling air. Two dogs rested on the sofa after a gambol around the park befriending picnickers and searching for scraps. The table was laid with a delicious spicy meal of fish, tahini potatoes, and an eggplant, braodbean and soba noodle salad. Roast rhubarb and the first peaches plucked from my tree in the afternoon lay in wait on the kitchen bench for desert.

2020 was prickly. It was a strange year, with the main beneficiaries being household pets who got to have their humans around more. Humanity had developed a COVID weariness, a yearning for a return to ‘normality’, and a tentative hopefulness as the year drew to a close.

Reflecting on 2020, I am most grateful for friends and family, a little disappointed that I did not get more writing done, and genuinely curious about what 2021 will bring.

I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.

– Anne Frank
waiting for action

I sent my completed first manuscript out into the world of querying early in 2020. One publisher contacted me and provided valuable feedback that resulted in some rework. I shelved the idea of sending it further afield as COVID-19 took hold, and the industry entered a state of uncertainty, though I did submit to a few unpublished manuscript awards. No success so far, but I will re-enter the world of querying in 2021.

There is something delicious about writing the first words of a story. You never quite know where they’ll take you.

– Beatrix Potter

The first draft of my second manuscript is half way through. This year I hope to reinvigorate my work on it after a few months of distraction. Most of my recent writing, other than this blog has been short stories and journaling about day to day life. I have written less than I hoped through the year, but I did read more. Curiously my to-be-read pile didn’t diminish however. A selection of reading highlights, in no particular order, included an eclectic mix:

happy place

New years eve was a companionable night with friends, but I didn’t quite make it to midnight. I drove into the new year. Fireworks erupted from a paddock as I cruised past, lighting up the night sky in psychedelics that startled me and caused the laconic hound to sit up and search for the source of the explosions.

Never one for new years resolutions, I did not make any, but I have promised myself to be open to possibilities, embrace opportunities, and of course to write more.

May 2021 live up to the promises you have made it, and write you a beautiful story.

Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.

– Louis L’Amour

main image: Mainstreet and full moon

Navigation

My writing mojo is a little flat this week, so I’m going abstract, partly inspired by one of my favourite poets, James Walton

She became certain that the world was not flat when she flew off its edge. The instigating event was packaged in a few short sentences that spelled ‘the end’. A surprise finish to a story she thought only half way through. Some writers like to conclude with a twist.

Afraid of falling as she spun through space. Perpetually at the apex of a roller coaster – dizzy; stomach lurching toward mouth; sense of time and space confused. Astronauts know it only too well. But she held her own and panic subsided. A euphoric calm settled in. Awe at the infinite possibilities of all-that-space. She is a speck of dust, both insignificant and gloriously extraordinary. Weightless.

Wonder at the celestial balls burning bright, lighting up the night sky with constellations of starlore. Her grandmother told her that her anger set fire to the barn. The flames reached into the night sky and their embers created the stars. The old crone could throw back whisky like a Kentucky pioneer and she knew a thing or two about navigation.

Entering the new world

The New World was first sighted by a sailor called Rodrigo de Triana on 12 October 1492. It was during Christopher Columbus’s first transatlantic voyage. Rodrigo was standing aboard the caravel ship La Pinta very early one morning when he caught sight of Guanahani, an island in the Bahamas, and shouted, ‘Land! Land!’

It seemed fitting that my first sojourn out into my own new world post lock down (and post my relationship that became a casualty of Melbourne’s hard lock down) was to a restaurant called La Pinta.

La Pinta menu

It was a friends birthday and a group of us, I refer to fondly as ‘the old girls network,’ came together face to face for the first time since before COVID (except for one who moved to Adelaide earlier in the year). La Pinta set us up at a table out the back behind the kitchen.

I first met these women over twenty years ago when we were all idealistic young aid workers. They have become a group of my most valued friends – they are at my heart centre. We spent the nine months of Melbourne’s multiple lock downs chatting on Whatsapp about the state of the world, food, politics, plumbing, sharing memes, hopes, dreams and disasters.

For Melbourne peeps, La Pinta is a fabulous little Spanish inspired restaurant in High Street, Reservoir. The eatery was established by a group of Italian, Spanish and French heritage, in what used to be an old billiard room. The walls are still adorned with original murals of Italian landscapes that I suspect may have been the inspiration for the restaurants name. La Pinta translates into The Painted One.

La Pinta serves an ever changing menu of delicious tapas made from the produce of a network of local farmers of small-scale regenerative agriculture. I say delicious with some authority as we managed to get through about 90% of the menu over lunch.

The Patch

My other passion aside from writing is my garden, so I was instantly taken with La Pinta. My patch of paradise holds about twenty fruit and nut trees, and a very large vegetable patch.

I have been pondering over recent weeks what I would do with the excess produce I grow including citrus, figs, quinces, and seasonal veggies. Visiting friends generally leave with bags of goodies, but large quantities remain. I had contemplated setting up a street stall, but I live in a very quiet street so worry too much would still go to waste. I don’t want to stop growing food, but I hate the thought of it not being used.

As it turns out going to this particular restaurant was not only fitting, but fortuitous. I am going to try to become one of their suppliers so I can keep up as much growing as I like and see it go to good use. I’m excited about dropping off my first delivery of garlic and dried limes on Wednesday. I wonder what they will make with them, and who might eat the food I have grown.

Opening up, getting out

One of the things I have enjoyed most about being home this spring has been to observe the changes in the forest on my daily walks. The bushland spring blooms are tiny, prolific and colourful, if short lived, displays. Some of my favourites include the chocolate lily (arthropodium strictures), blue pincushion (Brunonia autralis), button everlasting (helichrysum scorpiodis), milkmaids (burchadia umbellata) and the tufted grey-green perennial kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) with its red-geeen spikelet flowers

The emergence of spring blooms seems in some way more symbolic this year as Melbourne opens up after its own long slumber, the 111 day pandemic hard lockdown. The flowering seems to auger new beginnings as we all start to find our way back out into the world.

The background hum of traffic has grown louder as the roads become busier. What now appears as mayhem makes it seem as if many have forgotten how to drive.

My local village fills with day trippers seeking out fresh air and greenery. The sight of them sends me scurrying back home from my walk to my little patch of peaceful solitude.

I find the sudden acceleration of pace confronting. When a friend suggests we go out to a restaurant for a birthday lunch I am simultaneously excited about seeing friends in the flesh and terrified of being out amongst a crowd of people. One friend calls it ‘fogo’ (fear of going out).

Having adjusted to lockdown life, I feel reluctant to return to the whirly of life as it was ‘before’ and hope to retain some of this more sedate existence.

Fourth Hill. Part 6

and still the river flows ever onward
washing away the forests tears
and it’s struggle to make us love it
so it can love us in return

From its source in the Yarra Ranges, the Yarra River flows for 242 kilometres, snaking its way to Melbourne where it empties into Hobsons Bay at Port Phillip. At Warrandyte, thirty-five kilometres from the city, the river is fed by local creeks such as Andersons Creek and meanders through steeply undulating hills and under the Warrandyte bridge as it makes its way through the Warrandyte Gorge.

Early settlers experienced a number of massive floods in 1844, 1849, and one in 1863 that wiped out the bridge. Water would inundate the township’s main street and halt sluicing activity, forcing the miners to wait for waters to recede to resume their work.

The new bridge, contracted in 1875, was submerged by floods again in 1934. The Argus newspaper reported that a house, a haystack, a dead horse attached to a buggy, and a shed swept over the bridge in the turbulent flow. The flood prevented anyone without a boat from crossing the river until the waters subsided. It was not until the Upper Yarra Dam was built between 1947 and 1957 to create a water supply and reduce the rivers flow that massive floods like this ceased.

Warrandyte sits within Melbourne’s green wedge where the confluence of nature and society exist at the urban fringe.

Warrandyte State Park was established in 1975. The park is the result of conservation and recreational groups banding together in opposition to a proposal to develop Black Flat crown land into a country club with golf course, bowling green and swimming pool on the banks of the river.

The 680 hectares that make up the state park form an important habitat corridor that protects about 485 flora species, 202 fauna species and historical cultural values, the signs of which can be seen in scars that remain on the landscape. Over the years additional tracts of land have been added to the parks to safeguard them from development, including Scotchman’s Hill, the parcel of land over my back fence that was converted to state park in 1997.

Outer urban bushland is a contested space that radiates both beauty and fear as only an Australian bush landscape can. Issues of sustainability, and the tensions that exist between environmental, economic and social demands have competed for power, influence and control for almost two hundred years.

Some residents create safe places for wildlife and proudly display Land for Wildlife signs on their gates, whilst others strip their properties of trees out of fear of bushfires or because they wish to build large dwellings. Local councils and State Parks try to balance the desire to preserve environmental values of the area with the demands of residents to protect them in the hottest months.

Only about 30% of Victoria’s indigenous vegetation remains. Warrandyte holds an important part of the state’s remnant vegetation and is part of the green wedge that makes up the city’s lungs. Still, the State Government intermittently turns it’s eyes toward us to consider opportunities for development and roads. For now Warrandyte’s bushland is protected by the limitations on development and the ever-present vigilance of strong local action groups with a mandate to preserve the natural values and heritage of the area.

At only a stone’s throw from the city, the strength and health of the land reflects the strength and health of Melbourne itself. Despite being protected from human structural development, the signs of decline are evident in the forests. The introduction of weeds by careless gardeners, the loss of fragile fauna and flora species from introduced pests such as deer and domestic cats are evident, and the effects of a changing climate on biodiversity creep into the landscape. The changes occurs at such a slow pace that you might not notice if you weren’t paying close attention.

Unless we embrace a greater respect for the environment as a source for our livelihood, health and sustenance, and understand that we belong to it more than it belongs to us, we will rob future generations of places that can nourish and sustain them. That would be a great tragedy.

The spirit of Bunjil lives in the trees, the rocks, the streams, and the wildlife that hold reminders of our histories and the power of nature to recover from our failings. I am confident that nature will prevail in the long run. We need to decide whether it will be with or without us.

Fourth Hill. Part 5

Clara, Boyd and Tucker
painted wattles gold

When mining started to decline in Warrandyte, farming and fruit orchards took over much of the land that was viable and the bushland on unfarmed surrounds started to recover. Transport to the town improved and artists began moving into the area attracted by the picturesque village on the river. It is in part their legacy, along with the absence of a railway, that has thrown a protective veil over Warrandyte and saved it from over development.

In 1905 the landscape painter Clara Southern (1860-1949) married Warrandyte miner John Flinn and settled in her cottage named Blythe Bank on a hill above the river. Clara captured Warrandyte’s natural beauty and spirit in her impressionist landscape works such as The Road to Warrandyte (c 1905-10) Bush Camp (1914), Evensong (c. 1900-1914) and A Cool Corner (1928).

Warrandyte was swept by two converging fire fronts in 1939. More than two hundred residents fled to the safety of the river with nothing but the clothes on their backs as clouds of flame tinged smoke billowed overhead.

Clara’s house was spared, but much of her artwork that had been purchased by local residents was lost in the hundreds of houses that perished in the fires. Blyth Bank eventually succumbed to a later bushfire after her death.

Clara encouraged other painters to visit the area and it is believed her enticements were responsible for initiating the local artistic community. Over time Clara was joined in Warrandtye by Jo Sweatman (1872-1956), Frank Crozier (1883-1948) and Penleigh Boyd (1890-1923). Many others including Albert Tucker (1914-1999), a member of the Heidi circle, and Arthur Boyd (1920-1999) visited and painted Warrandyte.

Architects and potters were also drawn by the scenic tranquillity and drew inspiration from the town on the river. Alexa Goyder (1892-1976) developed novel design practices using local stone and recycled materials that stimulated the work of later architects such as Alastair Knox in the 1970’s.

Painter Penleigh Boyd was inspired by the wattles that bloom after the coldest months of winter. He became known for his paintings of the Warrandyte wattle with works such as Bridge and Wattle at Warrandyte (1914), Wattle Gatherers (1918), The Breath of Spring (1919) and Golden Fires of Spring (1919).

The same wattles had a calling to the Wurundjerri who believed the beautiful acacia was bad luck in the home and should never be bought inside.