A Garden Begins with Violence

A garden begins with violence:
fire or the hoe, a cleaning out, a smothering,
a clean break from the past.
But after the violence, intimacy.

Hands that spread seed, tiny packages of hope,
or that cradle a rootball as gently as
a parent washes the head of a newborn,
tucking the roots into the soil and crooning.

Most days, lately, I work over the brassicas
(cabbage and broccoli) wiping off the eggs
of the Cabbage White Butterfly or squishing
the caterpillars with my loving hands.

Violence and love. Yesterday I found
the empty chrysalis of a parasitic wasp. They flit
through the garden right now, drinking nectar
and laying eggs into the bodies of caterpillars.

They will feed from those bodies until they cut their way out
and settle to spin their own chrysalises.
Meanwhile the caterpillar is so changed by tending them
that it spins extra protection and guards them until it dies.

Today I watched the mating dance
of two Cabbage Whites. She settled on a leaf
and spread her wings flat, her black dots like a beacon,
while he flittered and fussed.

She will lay eggs of a dubious fate.
The butterflies are plentiful, the caterpillars are plentiful,
the wasps are plentiful, the host plants are plentiful.
Everywhere violence, everywhere love.

Foot over Foot

Oh Pilgrim, the way of life is long:
sometimes joyful, sometimes hard.
Still we walk, foot over foot, foot over foot,
sometimes into chasms or over rough terrain,
through storms and buffeting winds.

Sometimes through meadows
abundant with comfort and flowers,
butterflies and soft sunshine.
Enjoy it, smell the flowers,
lie down there awhile and rest.

Above you: the sun, that fire of fires
round which our small lives turn.
It dries our tears and grows our food
the friend of winter hearths
the friend of hearts
the spark of life
companion for the way
sunshine, starshine.

But one can’t laze in a meadow forever.
We rise and walk
foot over foot, foot over foot
carrying our spark of life.
We fall down, we get up, oh Pilgrim.

Oh Pilgrim, the way of life is long
breath deep of air that is laced with stardust
that is stardust, as you are stardust,
as you walk on stardust
foot over foot
on this path of stars.

You are not alone in your dark nights.
Beside you, companions walk:
foxes, owls, roos and people
We walk together trusting the earth
to meet our feet.

You have stepped through fire,
and you have survived.
Sure, the going is hard
and terrain will be rough for some way yet.
But you have survived and
you step forward, foot over foot.

Oh Pilgrim, surely
you can trust yourself by now?
Surely, despite your wounds,
some of which reopen and weep,
surely you can trust the healing?
Surely you can trust yourself in this world by now?
Surely you can trust
this world?
It has got you this far.

Step forward, step forward,
step forward in
this moment of walking,
this moment and no other,
oh Pilgrim.

This moment is free from the past
with its grief and wishes.
It is free from the future
with its worries and desires.

It is just this moment and no other
through which you step
on stars
foot over foot.

contemplating innocence / this year of / after

. . . . . . .

This poem was written for and performed at an exhibition called Regenerate at Fabrik Arts and Heritage, at the end of 2020, nearly a year after the area was ravaged by fire. I wrote it specifically for fire victims who still to this day have a long way to travel before they are healed, though I think it speaks to anyone who has experienced trauma, Covid, for eg. or loss.

Performance poems often don’t translate to the page, but I think this one does ok. It’s interesting that most performance poems are very much about the presence of the performer, but this one dictated that it did not want me to meet the audience member’s eyes, so that they could take the poem to themselves in a private way. Beforehand I explained that to them, and also told them that the meadow is a metaphor for their life before, or rather, their memory of their life before. Because when one is trying to get one’s life back, it is very easy forget anything that was not perfect, but it will never be the same anyway, and maybe that’s not a bad thing. In any case better to aim for the best it can be, rather than for some lost thing.

And it seems that the mental health of people in trauma is nurtured mainly by one thing, and that is to be in the moment in which one finds oneself. There is so much to think about when trying to get one’s life back together, and the past is full of sorrows. Mentally, one is busy the whole time. There is no rest and the only way to get rest, and to find joy, is in the moment. Simple things, like sounds and scents, what one’s own hand feels like. These are the things that nurture us, in times of stress.

And simple things, like the face of a flower:

reclamation / (1 2 3 4 5) / of the space between / earth and sky

. . . . .

So, this was an exciting thing. I was employed as a narrative artist for the Regional Arts Conference that was here in Lobethal at Fabrik Arts and Heritage over the first weekend in September. These are the results.

I have never done such a thing before and, frankly, I was terrified. The last big wall that I did was in charcoal, but I love ink so decided to work in it. The pic below was shot in our house where I found a corner to pin up some paper to see what it was like to work in ink vertically. I usually work ink on a table. I was listening to a podcast of Robert Mcfarlane at the time.

Anyway, one throws oneself in at the deep end. It was great to do. I got to listen to and witness most of the first day except the workshops.

I only heard a little of Ali Cobby Eckerman’s workshop, sadly. I really like her poetry and she was so moving. Actually, I wrote a mistake here. She didn’t say she had got to thirty years old never having expressed an emotion. She said she got to thirty never having had an emotion. Worse, really. She was thirty when she first met her aboriginal family.

And I didn’t get to make a basket with Aunty Ellen Trevorrow. She is such a wonderful woman, quietly teaching people to make connections, ‘stitch by stitch’. I did a workshop with her once before, but she used raffia that time. I was terribly disappointed that I didn’t get to work with the reeds she brought in. Never mind.

Most of the drawing is about the first day. Melinda and René from Fabrik wanted the conference to be artist led with a large proportion of indigenous content. And it was. Such inspiring stuff! Trish Hansen, Laura Wills and Will Cheeseman (couldn’t find a link for Will) did wonderful workshops.

Trish began with a talk about ‘deep time’. On one of the walls she had represented time since the formation of the earth, with all the major beginnings of life. The space of that wall equated all of earth time (since it was just gas and matter, until now) with a year. Here’s a photo of the part representing the last two months of this metaphorical year.

And, in this photo, the last 5 days. So humans have arisen in the last 30 minutes and the industrial revolution in the last minute. Since the industrial Revolution (and these are my thoughts) we have managed to create a situation wherein we could annihilate the better part of life on earth. We are lemmings headed for a cliff and about as intelligent, seemingly.

Later Trish, Laura and Will used biomimicry as an idea base to have us consider our connections and interconnections with each other and nature, using the metaphor of mycelium. They had us draw our ideas connecting them, a bit like a mind-map. So the following photo is my wall drawing and is a copy of my response.

I mind-mapped about the drawing I did last year. It is still under the paint of the same wall where everyone was now working. How it was connected to the fires, because everything for me is connected to the fires lately. (For new readers, during the fires on 20 December 2019, my husband and I lost everything except the few things we packed into the cars.)

They had us consider a natural thing in that scenario. I thought about charcoal, back to fire, to the trees, from which I got the charcoal for the wall, then to the earth that the trees were growing in, and, naturally, the squillion fire fungi that came up after the fire. And that was a nice segue into what their original metaphor was: mycelium. There was more to mine, but I don’t remember now. I only put the basics in the wall drawing.

But the result by the three facilitators and the participants was an amazing huge drawing, where everyone connected to the person next to them, talked about how they could be connected in or what they have in common, and connected their drawings.

Even on the floor!

These images are very early on, it just kept getting better!

Towards the end of the day they had us think about the future we desire. It’s possible that I can’t remember all the details of what they had to say, but they had us think, imagine, dream, about what we would like the world to be like in fifty years time. They had us write and or draw what we wanted on strips of recycled paper that they supplied. Here are my wishes.

Then with the use of some wonderful ingenuity, they had us turn the bits of paper into small planting tubes, fill them with soil and plant Xanthorrhoea seeds. Grass trees. They talked about ‘seed time’. Time, for a seed, is waiting until the conditions and right, and then growing. And we were instructed to take our tubes home, plant them in the earth, and wait for seed time to sprout our wishes for the future and the grass trees to grow.

How beautiful is that?

(Don’t you wish you were there? Watch Fabrik’s programs, they do the best things, with the most amazing delightful, inclusive stuff. Hats off to the director and program manager, Melinda Rankin and René Strohmayer.)

The second day was more problematic for me as ‘narrative artist’, because they were panels mostly, with more than one happening at a time. It was quite difficult to be in two places at any one time, I found. So because I couldn’t possibly do all of those faces, or even listen to what they had to say, and get the thing finished by five o’clock, I thought up a good way to represent the panelists. I got them all to come to the wall and drew around their hands. I think I got everyone, except where the panelists were streaming from interstate. As I said, I didn’t get to listen to them properly, but you can find some details on the program.

There is even an audience member’s hand there, which is great, though quite accidental.

But I can’t wrap this up without mentioning the two other portraits on the wall. Given what they had to say ‘wrapping up’ could take a while.

The first is the wonderful Elaine Crombie, who was our MC. She is yet another super strong First Nations’ woman. She is a bundle of vibrant energy.

This portrait is the one that I like the least, because it didn’t go anywhere near capturing her vitality. She gave a great wrap up also. Speaking about how she was not going to take her mask off to speak to us, because people do not deserve to see her face until we right the wrongs (my words), and recognise that the ownership of this land was never ceded, it was stollen. It is time we recognised that, and afforded some respect. Actually (still my words) given the crisis that we are facing, we should recognise that we need the wisdoms of First Peoples to learn how to live in harmony with nature.

Which brings us to Uncle Mickey Kumatpi O’Brien. He is a Senior Kaurna Man and gave welcome to country, and a talk/conversation with Trish Hansen.

I would like to pay my respect to him and the other elders (from all time) of the Kaurna and Peramangk peoples on whose land we reside here in Lobethal, Adelaide Hills, South Australia.

Welcome to Country, he said, is to join us here and now, and to chase away sadness. Don’t you think it is a great act of generosity? Given what they have been through? And did you see that bit in Ali Cobby Eckermann’s portrait above, where she says, ‘I have to do such a lot of bloody forgiving. Blaming is futile, it does no good, but forgiveness changes things.’ That is also an enormous act of generosity.

There were so many take home messages from Uncle Mickey, too many to list. He spoke of the dreaming and the recent history of the Adelaide area. The political history is tragic, not only because of the tragedies that they suffered, but because we were very close to having a mutually respectful situation that was thwarted by timing, slow ships and ignorance. Early on, (and I don’t have details), this:

: was the proposed flag of South Australia. Here you have depiction of respect. Sadly it was not to be. (Sorry about the quality of this photo. And all of them really.)

There is much more to his talk and I wish I could do them justice, but the thing that touched me most was his listing of the importance of things. It is how I look at things and is in direct contradiction of how most westerners look at things. Everything in this list relies on the things above, therefor we humans are the least important in the scheme of things.

Somehow, (my words) insecure writers of the bible decided, in the very first chapter, to put humans on top, as if we live in a vacuum, or as if God will come and save us when we have pillaged the earth and its inhabitants, and are doomed. Are we children? Certainly, we’re idiots. How can it not be obvious that we have to take care of the systems that sustain us.

. . .

So! how about that? What a great thing to be part of! And I’m quite proud of my self with this wall. I also gave a speech at the end summing up the conference. I can’t remember much of that, but I probably got on my usual high horse, and told people to look after themselves and each other, and to get off their backsides and save the earth. Quickly, preferably. You lot too, please.

Here’s my wish (among others) for 2051:

frogs like canaries
sing sing
in the clean place
of the world

Uncle Mickey said, ‘We don’t say “goodbye, we say “see you later.”‘ So, even though this is an abbreviated version of the conference and I have left things out:

See you later.

To Aim (a poem)

A child draws the string of a bow
—concentration in practice
nothing but an arrow’s flight.
Someone please tell her
to look along the shaft.
Someone please tell her to be
nothing but aim.
She can live her whole life like this.
No one needs to tell her
to get out of the way
to give up the self to the process
but someone please tell her
that aiming is all there is
and once the arrow’s released
it’s done. Everything else
is in the hands of the wind.

. . . . .

The drawing is of two of my gorgeous grandchildren. I don’t know if I’ve come close to the intensity in their eyes.

Brain Tree

In my brain is a tree. 
Its trunk is the brain stem,
its leaves are thoughts, a myriad of them, 
many that look the same. 
Its roots spread out along the byways 
to the very edges of me where they take in 
air and sunshine and sustenance.
The trunk divides in two, one leader 
in each half of my brain, and in each, 
amid the complications of branches is a crow. 

They sing. 

Now, you may not recognise the voice of a crow 
as song because they’ve had a bad wrap, 
but they sing of sunshine and wings, grubs, 
the dank delicious flesh of the freshly dead, 
and they sing of love and babies, just like we all do. 

And what they sing with, is air, like the air 
on the intricate surface of our skin 
or in each alveoli of our lungs, 
the air that courses through 
all of those byways of brain and body, 
and trunk and leaves. 

No wonder they sing. Wouldn’t you?

Lessons from Plants

(after The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry)

Sometimes, when I despair at this view,
this wide and beautiful view that once
was the intimate domesticity of trees,
I go and lie down under
the blackened corpses of giants,
amongst the groundcovers and mosses,
the lilies and the weeds, and I feel
their thrum of life, their steady growth, their
complete lack of judgement or grief, and I think
that I too could be as simple as that, and I too
could just get on with growing.

. . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . .

It’s a long process, fire recovery. Before Christmas I was involved in an exhibition at Fabrik called ‘Regenerate‘. It was gorgeous, as their exhibitions usually are. I had some art works in it, some brown paper bags on which I had drawn little things that I had noticed during the year since the fire. And I wrote and performed a poem about keeping on going through this long and involved process of recovering your life. It was not just for those who had lost tangible things to the fire, actually, but for everyone, because the whole society is suffering a level of trauma after that year, 2020. I made people cry. Great. Job done.

But anyway, the process of thinking towards that poem had me thinking about the word ‘regenerate’. It is a word we often think about when we think of the bush after fire, but I felt the word was not quite on the mark somehow. I thought, ‘This growth isn’t RE-generation. It is completely new.’

I think that is worth thinking about. We seek to get things ‘back to normal’ because we are uncomfortable. But what if we can create something new that is better than what was normal in the past?

Here’s to that.

Eucalyptus seedling and moss

The Cruel Girls

            After Mothers and Daughters by David Campbell

The cruel girls I hated 
are over sixty
Their brash beauty 

by time and daughters and demons. 
Grief has tainted their coffee 
and love 
has softened their eyes.

Barbie in the process of becoming a fertility goddess. There are always sacrifices.
Here she is scrying in my own dead mother’s face mirror.

For David Campbell’s poem

Turn off your sound before you go there because Poem Hunter has automatic recordings of the poems read by a computer, and that is a fine way to RUIN a poem. Horrible. But the poem is one of my very favourites.


The performance poem I wrote for the exhibition, Solastalgia, at Fabrik, in Lobethal. More details about this series of exhibitions, here.

The drawing is mine, drawn with charcoal from my burnt home. It ended up being about 13 metres long on the beautiful wall of this gallery. It is as ephemeral as my home apparently was, and will be washed off that wall eventually. But all kudos to Melinda Rankin (director of Fabrik) for facilitating it.

Also kudos to all of the people involved in the exhibition, especially Jo Wilmot (creator of Solastalgia, The Exhibition) and Evette Sunset who said I mentored her when it was the other way around. We all learn from each other anyway, so who needs labels.

Thanks to my good friend David Salomon of Simply Splendid Productions for recording and creating this movie.

Charcoal Drawing With No Name (detail)