My mother Margaret is an artist, although she wouldn’t say as much without adding some qualification. Let’s say she is a landscape painter. When she turned 70 I invited her to spend two weeks as artist in residence at a place in Bilpin, west of Sydney. If this seems generous, you should know that I also invited myself; I wanted to write about it. The gifts of writers, of daughters, come with qualifications too.
Bilpin sits in the high hemline of Wollemi National Park where it meets Bells Line of Road, the less popular way across the Blue Mountains. Everything in the Blue Mountains refers in some way to their traversal. The mountains—from Sydney they are generalised, definite-article mountains—once acted as a kind of wall, one that kept the colony’s convicts from roaming too far in search of grazing land. Irish rebels who tried to escape west over them claimed, and perhaps believed, that they were heading for China.
White invaders found the mountains impassable until Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson learned to follow the ridges and led an incursion into the lands of the Wiradjuri people that culminated in war. Living with his family at Richmond, 19-year-old Archibald Bell’s main achievement was to get directions from a Darug woman who had made her way home from the west. In 1823 he was led over Mt Tomah by Darug guides Emery (sometimes called Lawyer) and Cogy (also called Cocky). The road, the pub at Kurrajong and one of the local ciders have all taken Bell’s name now, but the names of his guides are on no street signs, and the name of the woman who inspired the journey in the first place seems not to have been recorded.
Now easily crossed by car in a few hours, the mountains retain a strong association with impassability. Much of the region is still untracked bushland, notorious for swallowing hikers. The Greater Blue Mountains is World Heritage–listed for its biodiversity, protected in part by the difficulty of the terrain. The mountains are not high, but they are deep. Indeed, they are not mountains at all, but a high plateau worn down by time and water into labyrinthine gorges. The Wollemi National Park, about half the Greater Blue Mountains, stretches north from Bells Line of Road to the Upper Hunter Valley. It is still Darug country, Darkinyung, Wiradjuri and Wanaruah country. Like most of what I call Australia, this place means different things to different people.
To many who now live there, the mountains remain a kind of border, something to halt the spread of the city that nestles against their east flank, or to keep back the expanses to the west. But all borders urge crossing. Since I moved long ago to that other side, they feel less like a barrier to me, and more a meeting point between the city I grew up in and the country where I live. I like to think of the Great Dividing Range not as a division but as a joint: a welded edge or gathered seam that marks a place of encounter, of conversation.
BigCi—Bilpin International Ground for Creative Initiatives—is an independent arts residency on the edge of the mountain wilderness. A few acres of wet sclerophyll forest, mostly peppermint gums, turpentines and angophoras, the block slopes down into the bush, fenced only by creeks; there isn’t really an edge, more a progression. The project is run by Rae and Yuri Bolotin, an energetic couple who live in a mudbrick house at the bottom of the driveway and manage the residencies, exhibitions and open days. With the help of cheerful, curly-locked builders they have constructed, and are still constructing, a large ‘shed’ at the top of the block, an arrangement of purpose-built studios with a hangar-like central area that can be shared by visiting artists. It’s an impressive space, big enough to host half a dozen artists at a time, many of whom are international guests; neighbours during our stay are from New York, Montreal and Norway. Rae, a successful sculptor with a strong DIY ethos and an intense interest in other people, settles Margaret and me in the smaller house, the ‘barn’. The barn is made from recycled materials; the doors came from an inner-city pub. They still have stickers on them urging us not to smoke on the premises. One has WOMEN printed on the outside of the glass, like a label on a jar.
It is raining when we arrive, and the trees are dressed in gentle mist. Margaret says it looks like a McCubbin, and I wonder at how many paintings she carries around in her head from years of gallery visits, books, short courses, private contemplation. She sets her bags of art supplies down by the door. I notice how little space she allocates for herself, but I don’t mention it. Rae and Yuri make us warmly welcome, then leave us to our own devices.
People who are not artists have asked if we will have a teacher here, someone to assign us tasks, as if two whole weeks of self-directed time is a frightening prospect. An artist’s relationship with time is different. It is greedier—particularly if, like Margaret, they have always made art in their ‘spare’ time. Time for an artist is something carved from life, a precious reserve and sometimes a theft. Residencies are designed to provide it in surplus. The sudden expanse of time can be daunting, demanding an ambitious response, even a new way of working.
Margaret has never been to a formal artist residency; I’ve been to half a dozen. I have been a full-time writer for more than a decade and I keep regular working hours, but residencies feel necessary to my practice, allowing me to retreat from the daily tasks of life, expand into a longer project or enter deep research, and to meet other writers and artists (particularly important for a regional writer like myself). Residencies give a sense of legitimacy and legacy to the daily labour of writing or making art that is not always acknowledged by society. I’m aware that access to residencies is also an expression of privilege. They’re attached to a level of professional success like a reward, but they are easier to get to for those like myself who have no day job and no carer duties at home.
The rain is steady, sometimes heavy. There are just enough breaks in the weather to get out into the surrounding bush, but not enough to return in dry clothes. Yuri, a spry conservationist and one of a small party to cross the Wollemi National Park from north to south on foot a few years ago, takes us on a stroll around the block to get our bearings, introducing some of the local flora. He is constitutionally opposed to most interventions, even paths; nothing much has been planted, just let sprawl. We spot the flit of honeyeaters, press our fingers to the moss growing from a jut of leaky sandstone, pat the trunks of three angophoras gathered in a sociable group. Being in the bush is a rich sensory encounter. I think about the word encounter, a meeting of adversaries in Middle English that has since laid down its swords. Later, the kettle on, we turn a couple of leeches from our socks.
Most of the angophoras have just shed their summer bark; the skin beneath is something close to animal, peach-pink and hairless, and it gleams through the dense scrub. Margaret notices this before I do. The first thing she notices is almost always colour. ‘Look,’ she tells me. ‘Look at that bark, the reds, the way the light falls on that branch.’ She has been saying things like this to me all my life, directing my attention to nature, to the visual. She was the first person to teach me how to notice, how to think. I try to see what she sees: the individual shades in an array of greens receding, the tiny golden fists of flowering geebung, the cadmiums and ochres. When the rain pauses, she disappears into the bush with a sketchbook and a few pastels. I disappear into my reading.
I am reading about climate change. For the past six years, I’ve been working on a novel, Dyschronia, that is mostly about the future. It sometimes feels like reading about climate change is all I do. It is a huge and complicated problem, at times a depressing one, and it gets in everywhere. It is not even safely tucked away in the future. The Great Barrier Reef has bleached badly for the second year in a row, damage that the experts say is terminal. Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine is in the news, and so is the grim future of the Paris Agreement. Like many writers of my generation, I have become a little obsessed by the Anthropocene, by the meaning of nature and its loss. I’m hoping art can help.
When she comes back with her drawings, Margaret tells me that it takes some time for the bush to become visible.
I ask: ‘Does this happen before or after you start drawing?’
M: ‘After, I think … I look at the place, and get a strange feeling and think yes, I can draw that.’ She makes a gesture with her arms, a release of air and tension from the chest down through the stomach. ‘Then it appears,’ she says, eyes bright.
She speaks as though nature itself is the active party. She moves as though the drawing she wants to make is already living in her body.
I want to see what my mother sees, but also how she sees it. I want to understand that moment of connection, the ‘strange feeling’ she describes. What is it that makes that place, that detail, come forward? Margaret can begin because she knows how to pay attention, but an artist’s attention isn’t as simple as observing colour and light. It has a particular quality: an energy, a curiosity, a patience. I don’t know if it’s an instinct or a skill, so I ask her.
M: ‘Having done so much painting and drawing before, it makes you see differently.’
I: ‘You train the mind?’
M: ‘Yes, I think so.’
As I said, Margaret would not tell you she is an artist. I don’t come from the kind of milieu where describing yourself as an artist is easily done, or one where words like milieu get thrown around. I come from a conservative, middle-class part of Sydney I generally refer to as the suburbs. I chose to make a career out of writing in spite of the odds; it has not been, and will probably never be, easy. My mother was not encouraged to attend art school when young and chose not to pursue a career in the arts. But between working as a registered nurse for more than 30 years and raising three children, she has never stopped painting. The compulsion to create, or our inability to silence it, is something that we have in common.
Wild animals, like wild places, are invaluable to us precisely because they are not us. They are uncompromisingly different. The paths they follow, the impulses that guide them, are of other orders … Seeing them, you are made briefly aware of a world at work around and beside our own, a world operating in patterns and purposes that you do not share. These are creatures, you realise, that live by voices inaudible to you.
—Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places
Nature is full of an infinity of operations which have never been part of experience.
—Leonardo da Vinci
When I don’t know where to start, I compose questions. What is landscape? Why art? In lieu of answering, I look out through WOMEN at the peppermint gums and the young turpentines. The bigger trees were logged by Finnish timber-getters more than 70 years ago, and many of their stumps remain, some supporting offspring. I see a vine I recognise, a Kennedia rubicunda that I have in my garden at home; here it is endemic, and drapes its slender limbs over a melaleuca like an inebriated friend. The longer I look, the more detail emerges. I am struck by the complexity of life, the elaborate system of every little organism interacting with every other. As I watch, an eastern spinebill appears in motion, inserts its curved beak into a flower I don’t know the name of, some bright red cluster. The bird drinks nectar; I pay attention. We each do what is in our nature.
At just over half a million hectares, the Wollemi National Park is the second-largest in New South Wales; 361,114 hectares of it are gazetted wilderness. The NSW Wilderness Act (1987) identifies a wilderness as a place ‘in a state that has not been substantially modified by humans and their works or is capable of being restored to such a state’. This statement encloses the landscape in a particular history, and attempts to offer it a particular future.
At the western edge of the national park sits one of the oldest known coal deposits in the country. The Lithgow seam was formed over more than 200 million years and has been mined commercially for the last 150 years. There are three operational mines left on the Newnes Plateau, of which Clarence is perhaps the best known, if only for its reputation as a polluter; in 2015, the wall of its wastewater dam collapsed, an incident that required a massive clean-up operation and is the subject of a hearing before the Land and Environment Court. Springvale engages in longwall mining, a process that removes the coal from below, allowing the rock above the seam to collapse. Airly mine has recently been given approval to continue operations until 2036. All three are owned by Centennial Coal, and together they produce almost 8 million tonnes of coal a year—less than 2 per cent of Australia’s annual production. Without coal, it’s unlikely there would be a railway line that would take you to Lithgow, or a town there when you arrived.
The coal sits in the high country near the source of the Wollangambe River, next to the swamps of the Capertee Valley. On my map the Wollangambe is a blue scribble that winds through the national park and into the ribbon of the Colo; the Colo and the Capertee join the wide, slow Hawkesbury. As part of an ongoing review of Clarence Colliery’s environment protection licence, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage tested the Wollangambe after the spill in 2015 and found elevated levels of barium, bicarbonate alkalinity, calcium, cobalt, conductivity, hardness, lithium, magnesium, nickel, potassium, strontium, sulphur, sulphate and zinc. The day I arrive at BigCi, I read a news report about independent tests conducted by Dr Ian Wright from the University of Western Sydney. I see photographs of black water, the tiny particles of coal called fines ferrying this long list of pollutant passengers downstream. I read that even after the clean-up, salinity in the Wollangambe is ten times that of other rivers, and that insect life has dropped by 90 per cent as far as 22 kilometres downstream, not far from where I am sitting.
Stopping the pollution of the Wollemi is an important battle, but even if the mines improve their waste disposal practices, the coal is still going to heat the planet and modify this landscape. In the face of climate change, sporadic conservation of wilderness areas is pitiful. There is no reserve, no line we can draw around an enclosure of nature; protecting one place is no longer possible without protecting every place. This is one of the ways in which the Anthropocene can be incapacitating: it is systemic, it contaminates everything. Local actions seem to mean little. The problem is complicated, as relational as nature itself; the problem is, where do you start?
But the problem of wilderness goes back further than this. The idea of wilderness imposes an untouched quality on the landscape that it does not possess. In The Biggest Estate on Earth, Bill Gammage pointed out that before the 1788 invasion this continent was a cultivated landscape. To call a place a wilderness obscures the Indigenous knowledge and history and care that has shaped and continues to shape it. As Bruce Pascoe shows in Dark Emu, every landscape on the continent has been marked and changed by a complex of practices that are best thought of as agriculture. This landscape was always culture. There are caves in this so-called wilderness with paintings in them that have been dated between 4500 and 6000 years old; many of them contain specific information about local species. Formal archaeological study of the area’s cultural heritage is recent; understanding of these sites’ significance will only grow. What I call wilderness is already an art gallery, a library, and a supply store, among other things; it is the result of more than a thousand generations of human intervention.
I cross the gravel access road to the west side of the ridge. The bush on this side is visibly different, drier, less dense, with fewer turpentines and many more scribbly gums, their trunks inscribed by moth larvae: lines Judith Wright saw as ‘the written track / Of a life I could not read’. Beyond a short trail worn by usage to a beautiful lookout at the top of the sandstone ridge, there are no paths here. I clamber out along the rocks, remembering my way by the flayed shapes of burned trees. Everything in the bush is in a state of regrowth after a fire that came through in October 2013. It is not surviving but thriving; I can’t help but marvel at its resilience. Yuri mentioned that the fire was ‘the size of Hong Kong’. I look down into the gorge, fill it with sneaker street and remnant neon, with designer malls and bookshops, butcheries and nunneries and rain; I place the high-rises of Central lengthwise in the valley, then burn everything. It changes the measurement of life.
The shrub with the red flower that the spinebill likes so much is called a mountain devil, Lambertia formosa; once I have learned its name I see it everywhere, bright against the blackened heartwood of the scribbly gums. You can bite off the back of the cluster of mountain devil flowers and suck at the nectar, or if you are a honeyeater, you can hang upside down from a branch and drink directly from one of the seven individual flowers in the cluster. When it is burned, the mountain devil grows back from the roots.
At one degree of warming, a catastrophic bushfire is still what we call a natural disaster. Sometimes, in an anthropomorphic mood, we might say Mother Nature is fighting back, showing us who’s in charge. We marvel at the resilience of the bush until we are stunned anew by its loss. Climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of fires, and do so very quickly, so quickly that adaptation on the part of many plants and animals will not be possible.
The buds of mountain devils resemble little pillars of flame like religious symbols from a medieval illumination, but the devil takes its name from the fruit, the seedpod, which looks a little like a head with horns. Women used to make ‘devil dolls’ out of these seedpods, dressing them in scraps of fabric, giving them pipe-cleaner limbs. Later, looking it up on Trove, I find a Women’s Weekly article that has these dolls for sale at a Newtown High School fete in 1967; even there they are already nostalgic, childhood memories of things these women made in the 1940s and 1950s with their own mothers and grandmothers, a lost craft in an age of plastic.
When I mention the devil dolls to Margaret, she tells me about coming up to Katoomba in the 1950s with her mother, and staying at the impressive Hydro Majestic hotel. Her father worked for Mark Foys department store—he was an accountant—and the store also owned the hotel at that time, so it must have been a fringe benefit. My mother spent many years caring for her mother, who had seven children and somehow survived to old age despite struggling with addiction and severe depression, which my family mostly still calls not coping. Of the trip to the Hydro Majestic, Margaret remembers being embarrassed that her mother was talking so loudly in the hallway. She remembers being sent to a craft group to make these devil dolls, perhaps to keep her out of the way; at eight years old, she says, she didn’t really understand what was happening. She doesn’t know why her mother brought her along. Probably my grandmother needed some respite; probably she already depended on her eldest daughter, as she did until her death in 2013.
Novelists like to say our settings are like characters; it’s a cliché, but I think it might hint at how landscapes are constructed in the mind. A place is a gathering of images, of evidence: what we decide we know about it, what we learned without realising, what others have told us, and only then what we see. Our perceptions of place are, like our perceptions of people, bound up with memories and agendas, projections, narratives, assumptions we’re only half aware of making.
In the first place the word landscape is, obviously enough, a painter’s word: it was introduced from the Dutch in the sixteenth century to describe a pictorial representation of countryside, either as the subject itself of a picture, or as the by-work in a portrait, the background of scenery behind the main subject. Later the word came to include within its meaning both this sense, of countryside represented in a picture, and another, more loose, of a piece of countryside considered as a visual phenomenon … a tract of land … which lay in prospect—that is to say, which could be seen all at one glance, from a fixed point of view. (John Barrell, The Idea of Landscape)
This remains the most familiar mode of landscape painting, its ‘realist’ perspective that of a comfortable individual looking as though through a window at a place that is either tamed or untamed but always tameable. The illusion of depth brought about by perspective, the drawing of the eye to the horizon, the balance of composition were so important to the image that objects in it were often rearranged—the addition of a ruin, say—in service to the laws of the picturesque. And yet the act of painting felt, even at the height of this tradition, like an escape. A much quoted letter of Gainsborough has him confessing, ‘I’m sick of portraits, and wish very much to take my viol-da-gam and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease.’
Perhaps this awkward meeting of individual freedom and the domesticated came about because the rise of landscape painting happened in England in the eighteenth century alongside two other expansions: those of personal liberty and of capitalist empire. To appreciate a landscape was (and still is, via Instagram as much as in the gallery) a display of good taste and civilisation, a recognition of one’s place in colonisation’s ‘natural order’, an order that saw land as property and resource. Landscape appreciation was a leisure activity, a signifier of class—one that, unlike many other such signifiers, was available to women. This is a way of seeing that finds satisfaction in both the box hedge and the slave trade. Writing on Van Gogh for the Guardian, Tyson Yunkaporta identifies ‘something desolate and unfulfilling’ in the European painter’s domesticated view of nature, a ‘longing for connection and meaning through country’ that can never be satisfied.
John Berger wrote that modernism arose in part from ‘confusion about where the artist’s experience stops and nature begins’. Even if modernism had not developed elsewhere, it needed to be invented in Australia. To the eyes of new arrivals, the land was inexplicable, wrong-coloured, experientially strange. New migrants still speak of being overwhelmed by the light. For all Hans Heysen’s investment of majestic tree trunks with spiritual power, familiar forms of the sublime could rarely be found among eucalypts. Unable to see the land for what it was or to understand the existing visual cultures of its sovereign people, the experience of estrangement became prominent. What immigrant Australians paint is not deep knowledge but a traumatic failure to know. Looking at paintings of the Heidelberg school now, their collisions of light and colour, I am struck by how contemporary some of them feel. As much as vision, they express a difficulty in seeing.
It was women who led Australian painting from the pastoral to the modern, women such as Dorrit Black, Bessie Davidson, Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith who made new links between Australian experience and European technique. As Helen Topliss points out, modernism in Australia was defined by women artists who participated in breaking down hierarchies between art, craft and design. White women painters used their work as a way into the discourse of nationhood, or moved to Europe to escape it. Preston explicitly sought ‘the development of an Australian post-colonial art’, trying for a historically informed Australian visuality, and failing with a series of culturally appropriated Aboriginal motifs, a phase of her work that is often forgotten.
If wilderness is a construct and a projection, then any notion of an authentic landscape becomes problematic. But the idea of landscape remains talismanic. For white artists, landscape has been and remains at the core of Australian identity, our one reliable point of difference still cut through with a profoundly problematic set of feelings: awe for a ‘timeless’ land so bound up with the lie of terra nullius, shame at genocide and the unhealed scabs of colonisation, fear of the extremes of this continent’s fires and floods—events that sometimes feel like expressions of the continent’s emotional life. The idea of the hostile landscape is everywhere in our stories, a salve for amnesiac histories. Climate change pushes these narratives on into the future.
My mother has formed an attachment to a tree trunk. A scarred angophora, it features in several sketches. When she returns to the barn and shows me what she has made, she is in high spirits, refreshed by the work. She is using pastels from a box I bought her in Beijing a couple of years ago. The two canvases she has brought lean against the wall, still in their wrappers, but she has expanded onto the worktable downstairs, despite apologising and offering to relinquish it. I am happy she is working, but I also want to be involved, observe her, get in her way; I’m proud of my peripheral role in providing this barn, the box of pastels.
We have settled into a nervous routine of working separately, coming together for simple meals, short walks, long conversations. Sunny days alter our methods. I perch on a tree stump or a sandstone boulder with a stack of books in my lap, distracted by birds. Communities of firetail finches visit the melaleucas. New Holland honeyeaters dart and drop from branches to banksias. At least once a day a small group of yellow-tailed black cockatoos pass overhead, their rare voices letting us know that we are guests here. Perhaps it is the books that are the distraction.
In a letter, Paul Cézanne wrote, ‘To achieve progress, nature alone counts, and the eye is trained through contact with her.’ Impressionism began to privilege an experience of nature, to discuss the sensory as vital to art. Working en plein air, beginning with the body in the landscape, meant that the feel of being in nature gave the work its authenticity. This is personal experience, the rise of the artist as a special individual, but it is also a position of profound humility: nature as teacher. At some point in the nineteenth century, wrote Kenneth Clark, ‘the concept of landscape changes from things to impressions’. The artist did not observe nature but participated in it, resituating the human. In some ways, the development of Impressionism made room for ecological thinking.
Ecology, which Ernst Haeckel first described in 1866 as ‘the total relations of the animal to both its inorganic and organic environment’—a totality that did not then include humans—is a realisation of the fact of living systems, of the interdependence of life and its environment. While similar concepts had been prominent elsewhere for thousands of years, from First Nations cultures to Taoist and Buddhist cosmologies, the mid twentieth century saw a profound shift in Western thinking about nature. The publication of Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring in 1962 and the ‘blue marble’ image of Earth photographed from Apollo 17 in 1972 are usually cited as pivotal moments in this shift, along with the Gaia hypothesis co-developed by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock, who began seeing ‘the biosphere as an active adaptive control system able to maintain homeostasis’ in 1974. But something like this shift had already been happening in European painting. Clark again: ‘Art anticipated intuitively what science was beginning to formulate.’
It is either a terrible irony or a historical necessity that ecological consciousness arrived alongside the Great Acceleration of global industrial power that followed the Second World War. Just as the shift occurs that sees humans as part of nature, as beings in a web of interdependence with other beings and forces, climate change is taking us out again, repositioning the human in a new configuration, one where the total environment is affected by human intervention to the point of defining a new geological era—for many species, and perhaps our own, to the point of becoming hostile to life. Wherever we look in nature, we see damage. As Rachel Carson puts it in Silent Spring, ‘To have risked so much in our efforts to mold nature to our satisfaction and yet to have failed in achieving our goal would indeed be the final irony.’
The conceptual development of the Anthropocene places humans at the top of a hierarchy of influence, some say problematically. J.W. Moore has made the point that the coming catastrophe is not caused by all humans equally, but in part by structural inequality, and proposed the alternative term ‘Capitalocene’ for our era. Jedediah Purdy’s more hopeful After Nature argues that the Anthropocene comes as a shift in consciousness that is also an opportunity for democracy. Climate change is most often discussed as a problem of loss, as a kind of keening for what we are leaving behind us. As if being upset about it will be penance enough.
To my mind, the problem is a temporal one. ‘Given time, life adjusts,’ Carson wrote. ‘Time is the essential ingredient, but in the modern world there is no time.’ And yet in some ways we have more time than ever before. Science is catching up to Indigenous knowledge of time’s depth and of the landscape not as a static place but as a system, one in which we are deeply involved.
The Wollemi National Park is, of course, the place where the Wollemi pine, Wollemia nobilis, was found in 1994. The last fossil record of this araucaria was thought to be about 2 million years old, but a stand of these rare trees was found living somewhere in this bushland (its location remains a closely guarded secret). There are now Wollemi pines growing in the Sydney Botanic Gardens and in those at Mt Tomah, and they’ve been planted in many private gardens. There is a knee-high example beside the driveway in front of the barn at BigCi.
The Wollemi pine is a rare example of charismatic megaflora. There are others like it in the park, a handful of plant species that have, according to the Blue Mountains World Heritage plan, ‘survived millions of years of climatic change by retreating to a handful of moist cliff or canyon refuges’. Paleontologists call rediscovered species that were once thought extinct ‘Lazarus taxons’, which suggests that they are miracles. Extinctions are a natural phenomenon, but their present rate, as Elizabeth Kolbert points out in The Sixth Extinction, is very unusual; it has only happened five times in the last 450 million years. The Wollemi pine is iconic because it has cheated extinction. Its persistence gives us a sense of the evolutionary hope offered by deep time. A Lazarus taxon’s magic trick of self-salvage might let us off the hook, just like those scribbly gums on the ridge that have been split apart by fire but are visibly thriving. Nature, we like to say, is resilient.
Before the Bolotins bought this block some ten years ago, it was a waratah farm run by a single mother; she built the eccentric and beautiful mudbrick house by hand with her two young daughters. Our barn used to be the cool room where the flowers were stored and sorted for market. When the block changed hands, the neighbours came for the waratahs, but I’m told none of their transplants have survived. The originals or their descendants are a steady presence beside the art shed in remnant rows, small towers barely taller than I am with thin stems that will somehow produce baroque opera in September. On impulse, I collect a few red-coloured leaves from the stems; I will give them to Margaret to draw. Waratahs are notoriously difficult to grow deliberately, though our hosts say these ones thrive on neglect. They like their place. Gardeners often use language that gives plants implied personhood: this one is fussy, that one doesn’t like to be moved.
At a dinner with our hosts, we talk about the language of landscapes. While it is often claimed that Wollemi is a Darkinyung word meaning something like ‘watch your step,’ this is difficult to confirm with existing Darkinyung language revitalisation resources—it could easily be a mistranslation. Yuri explains the logic behind the naming of places in the Wollemi and Gardens of Stone: Cathedral Pass, the Black Angel, Minotaur Lair. To me, these terms are uncomfortably loaded with European mythology and Christian imagery, but I can see how they work for conservationists. It is harder to destroy a landscape that you have named, that you may visit in your imagination, that embodies an ideal of wilderness. In longwall mining, Yuri continues, everything above the coal seam is referred to as ‘overburden’. Everything that isn’t the resource, that can be dismissed, displaced, destroyed, is overburden. Rocks and trees, bright beetles and rare frogs, mountain devils and hanging swamps and caves with 6000-year-old paintings in them, overburden.
Environmental art is often framed as a way of communicating facts and feelings: ‘telling a story’ or ‘making an emotional connection’ with the issues. But just as sporadic conservation of wilderness areas has structural and conceptual limitations, so too does this view of art as a mechanism of salvage. It misses something more profound about what artists do when they see landscape. In her essay Ecologicity, Vision, and the Neurological System, Amanda Boetzkes writes:
I would suggest that the Anthropocene cannot simply be represented in art (as in, for example, images of anthropogenic landscapes), but that art is the means by which this ecological perspective is incorporated into vision and becomes a visuality. That is to say, art does not simply make ecological information and scale available to the eye, but, more forcefully, it consolidates a cultural orientation—a way of seeing.
What happens in that moment between the artist and her subject that brings the image to life in her mind? It begins with a state that is hard to describe, at rest but alert; an openness to impulse, somewhere between wonder and observation. In following an impulse that seems irrational, the artist rebels against instrumentalist and othering views of nature. Acute, alert observation is a difficult skill to learn. Working against the predominant culture, it requires that we acknowledge the complexity of landscape—no, I would suggest its intelligence.
I ask Margaret when she began to work from nature, and she says she doesn’t remember. Instead, she tells me a story about heading into the bush to paint in the early 1970s, before she had children. She took these paintings to the framer and he told her they were good; if she wanted, he said, he could sell them for her. She didn’t take him up on the offer.
I: ‘Because you didn’t think they were good enough, or because you wanted to keep them?’
M: ‘I didn’t think they were good enough.’
‘Your own worst critic,’ I nod; it’s the very definition of an artist. I see her in her early twenties, a familiar stranger experiencing a familiar repertoire of self-doubt, impostor syndrome, ambition, solace-seeking, self-protection. A young woman setting the terms of her own practice, forming habits and preferences and skills that will last a lifetime.
When I ask her why she paints from nature, she says she doesn’t know, then reminds me that she’s not a real artist. Lots of people paint like she does, she says; real artists have ideas. I let her finish, then ask again. ‘I love the bush,’ she admits, and laughs.
Mother Nature is a term unfair to mothers and to nature. Both are used to unfairness; they are routinely taken for granted, counted as infinite resources, assumed willing to be endlessly exploited. Nature is and always has been beneath capitalism—like the labour of mothers, it carries everything and goes unpaid. Oh, but mothers are resilient, they cope. Most of them, most of the time, are expected to clean up after their children, to provide for them, to teach and entertain them, to make them into independent people. That my mother has done this for me fills me with awe and a kind of helpless embarrassment. I have learned or inherited from her a strong dislike of all kinds of debt.
Cate Kennedy is quoted in the edited collection Motherhood and Creativity (2015) as saying, ‘Being a writer and being a parent correlate to me—they are both full of invisible work, which is unacknowledged and unappreciated, which is absorbed without recognition.’
If women artists have a particular awareness of their labour as invisible or unacknowledged, then the daughters of artist mothers have it twice. As the daughter of an artist, my approach to creative work is never free of the consciousness of the work of those who have come before me and gone unappreciated. Art history is full of silenced women, amateurs and hobbyists, unremembered names. Literary history is strewn with female suicides. As my mother’s daughter, I have benefited from her encouragement and mentoring. I have also benefited from the years of domestic labour that left her little time to focus on her own art.
In a conversation about the role of nature and nurture in becoming an artist, I find myself declaring that all the artists and writers I know are the product of radical self-determination; that the creative life requires a profound sense of autonomy that is often hard won. It doesn’t so much matter where the impulse to make art comes from; every artist fights for the expression of her voice. I think this is doubly true for women, who haven’t been able to presume the availability of free labour in the same way as men have, and tend to be raised with less entitlement to self-expression. Only after I have spoken do I wonder what I mean by
becoming an artist.
Margaret asks if I remember her painting when I was a child, and I say of course. I think of it every time I smell linseed oil or sharpen a pencil with a Stanley knife. There were tubes of paint spread out on the kitchen table, paintbrushes in jam jars. I remember my own fascination with the names of colours: burnt umber, aquamarine. There were fruits and vegetables that were set aside to be drawn before they could be eaten. She’s surprised that I remember any of this; she says she hardly had time when my brothers and I were young.
And now that I think of it, the work of her paintings was often put away. There was a shelf where she stored her canvases and sketchbooks, brushes and paints when she had no time to use them. It took up less than a cubic metre of space, squeezed in the cupboard between the board games and the wrapping paper. After I moved out, Margaret converted my old bedroom into her studio. I left 22 years ago and she still sometimes calls it ‘your room.’ Having once occupied the pram in her hallway, I am pleased to be connected in this way with the room of her own. But my being there prevented it from existing sooner.
After a week of drawing, Margaret decides to carry one of her blank canvases up to the big shed. It is an intimidating space, but she is determined to use it. She has challenged herself to try painting from the plein-air pastel drawings, working from their slightly abstracted forms. The light is better up there, she says.
The individualist narrative I have about becoming an artist is not her narrative at all. If bringing my mother to BigCi was an attempt to repay a debt, it was misguided. Where I see a contrast between the domestic and the liberated, others see life. Margaret chose to have children and chose the work of caring for others—indeed, it is fundamental to her moral purpose. She may not identify as an artist first, but that same self-determination is what kept her painting through the annihilation and exhaustion of motherhood, and what has kept her painting since. By her persistence and resilience she has given me the model of what an artist does: she goes on becoming.
I see that the refusal to professionalise one’s art practice can be a way to protect it, to escape its commodification. If nature operates beneath capitalism, our impacts upon it dismissed as ‘externalities’, the existence of art also calls into question the limitations of what and how we value. Those limitations aren’t solved by incorporating ‘externalities’ into the economy, but by opening the concept of economy to a wider understanding of meaningful work. Paying attention to the bush is one way of expressing its value.
In this place, in this essay, I’ve been trying to account for what I owe by separating out the issues of nature, climate, labour, art and family. But to take any one of these from its context is to misconstrue it. No artist or writer operates as a single, floating organism; we all form part of an ecology of culture. If being in the bush should teach me anything, it is the complexity of life, the logic of interconnectedness, the intelligence of systems. We are tangled in each other’s labour.
Without paths, my usual walking technique of taking ways that allow me to daydream risks getting me lost. I devise a different strategy, following the valley down and then clambering up the sandstone to the top of the ridge. Without tracks, the bush requires a different kind of attention. Many writers have tried to capture the power of being in wilderness in spiritual terms, but I notice it first as intellectual experience, as my mind attempting to decode and interpret signs that it can’t quite parse. I can’t read this country; I don’t speak its language, and my effortful sense-making feels like (mis)translation. One afternoon, when I finish my clamber and sit at the top of the escarpment looking out over the valley to rest, one of the yellow-tailed black cockatoos lands in a branch about ten metres away and balances there, watching me. I watch it back.
Nearby, an angophora that has grown against an overhang of sandstone shapes itself like lips around the ledge. Is it drawing water from the porous rock? Under the cockatoo’s gaze, I question my interpretations. Healthy-looking trees send their roots deep into unpromising-looking cracks. Trees are slow but opportunistic. Each tree has character and form, is an individual, a meeting of circumstance and will. Peter Wohlleben, in The Hidden Life of Trees, claims they are also communities, families, and they model intergenerational responsibility. When I look around, I see trees that grow from the body of another tree, so that it scaffolds their efforts to reach light. I see young trees still using the roots of their dead parents to draw resources from the earth.
I see where two small gums growing from the trunk of a turpentine have split and fallen from their host as they grew heavy. The big tree is dead; the little ones have been using her roots and bark. They look mortally wounded, but on closer inspection one has sprouted new shoots all along its length. I see a bracket fungus growing three storeys high on a huge peppermint gum; her sapwood must be full of mycelium, but the growth on her upper branches is fine and new. Eucalypts are so resilient to injury that if you want to kill one by ringbarking, you will need to return each year and chop away the shoots that grow from the wound.
I have reached a moment that I sometimes reach at a residency, a point where the rational mind falls into the background and the impulsive and associative mind takes over. Something has rattled loose in me; I have stopped resisting my nature. I collect the spiked heads of mountain devils, burned sticks, twine; I plan to make some devil dolls of my own. I keep remembering something Kim Mahood wrote in her book Position Doubtful about feeling inhabited by the desert: of ‘place lodged in the body, as essential to its proper functioning as the circulation of the blood …’ The Wollemi has gotten under my skin.
Wandering thus, I nearly step on a brown snake. I don’t see her at first, though I am looking right at her and obeying an instinct to stop. I stare at this coiled shape for half a minute, trying to see what it is—an oddly symmetrical oval, manufactured-looking against the dun grass, perhaps a rubber seal of some kind. Then she lifts her head. I see a double-coiled creature, very much alive and able to kill me. I photograph her quickly before backing away to take a different route, muttering an apology. In the photograph her head is nearly hidden, camouflaged among the sticks. Only later when showing the others this photograph do I ask myself why I think of her as female.
The second canvas Margaret makes is also worked with the palette knife, built up from broad blocks of colour. Though recognisable, the image fragments at the edges, the representation falling away like leaf litter into an abstracted foreground, so that the landscape becomes an illusion of itself: I see the experience of a glimpse through scrub, as well as its image. The eye picks up colour and form in the distance, always through a screen; the bush constantly framing itself and constantly refusing to be known. My mother’s landscapes often have this feeling of obscurity, of uneasy translation. To look at them is to be in the landscape with her, experiencing her awareness of it. Shapes fragment, colours gleam and become shadow. I find it difficult to write about her work like this. I’m too connected to it.
We talk about Cézanne instead. She mentions his risks with perspective, the way his still lifes seem to teeter. I have to look them up online, but when I see them, I recognise in their unlikely physics an act of fiction: he tilts the world to show it to us. When Cézanne wrote about the progress of the artist, he didn’t mean progress the way Centennial Coal means progress. He was describing something much less linear, more snaky: a craft that slinks away from what’s there in order to see it clearly.
Climate change is an overwhelming problem, and an urgent one. The time-critical stresses of making global agreements and implementing technological solutions, the exasperating processes of lobbying and advocacy, and the ubiquity of loss and grief sometimes mask the other cultural process we are in, making a long-term and radical shift in our world view. Nothing will fix our relationship with our home planet without a profound change in how we see it. That change is happening now, whether we want to acknowledge it or not.
This is why climate change, for me, cannot be separated from creative work. Nor can it be entirely a source of despair. How exciting it is to be alive at a moment of such extraordinary pivot, a time when something so essential as our relationship with nature is changing. To live on the cusp of what could be a fresh enlightenment. To participate in the necessary work of turning culture.
Perhaps Mother Nature is an apt term after all, because with the realisation of the Anthropocene comes a demand that we grow the fuck up. If we want life to go on, we must take responsibility for our actions and their consequences, hold ourselves and the corporations that profit from destruction accountable for the future as well as the past. This demands a new moral order, one that integrates a multigenerational view. It demands that human beings, so long dependent on the authority of gods and kings and governments, become adults. Theodor Adorno wrote that:
As a human language that is both organizing as well as reconciled, art wants once again to attain what has become opaque to humans in the language of nature. Artworks have this much in common with idealist philosophy: they locate reconciliation in identity with the subject; in this respect idealist philosophy … actually has art as its model, rather than the reverse.
The artist does not aim to conquer the world but to belong in it. She knows that nature acts upon her, and she seeks to show that exchange of experience as true. To honour a place with its image. To admit that the way we see now is not the only way to see. To ask if these mountains might be a joint as well as a border.
The environmental debt we are accruing is not a number on a balance sheet, or a sorrow we can express and then be done with. It is rooted in colonisation and dispossession. It is in all our expressions, in our bodies and relationships, and in the land itself. It is a debt of air and water and story, a theft of resources and habitats from past and future generations. We may never be able to account for it all. And we live in its web.
My mother and I sit on a stone bench to rest at the end of a walk. In our last few days at BigCi, we’re beginning to reflect on what’s happened here, on the effect this landscape has had on us. Margaret is in the middle of telling me that she would never have done something like this on her own when we hear a disturbance above us. Three black cockatoos land in a banksia not far from where we’re sitting and begin to dine out on the men. We watch until one of the birds launches from the branches like nothing so much as an animated raincoat, and lands again much closer to us. The cockatoo investigates us with what I can only describe as ironic good humour. Perhaps I am projecting, but I can’t ignore the intelligence, the curiosity in its gaze. The encounter only lasts a minute or two, but it is revelatory, inarticulable. We are awestruck. We can’t move until it’s over.
On our last day here I go into the bush to read and write but I just sit there. I listen to the sounds. The piping of a visiting rosella. A macropod thump in the valley below. Wagtail chatter. An insect I can’t identify going about its pollination business. A distant aeroplane and the intrusive bass note of a truck on Bells Line of Road. Honeyeaters and someone (perhaps the rosella) clicking their way through some seeds below. The world in motion, not requiring my presence but commanding my whole attention.
I circle back to what Margaret said at the beginning: seeing takes time. You have to pay attention in order to see past your assumptions, your preconceptions, and through to what’s in front of you; you have to be patient for that strange feeling of connection or recognition to appear. It’s like that with people too. When we look at each other, we have to keep looking until we see past what we think we know; even, or perhaps especially, when we look at those we think we know well. Because we aren’t ever really separate from each other, or from the land around us. We are all implicated in each other’s work.
When we leave this place it is raining again. The light is like a curtain closing. We wait for a break in the downpour, say our goodbyes and give thanks to our hosts, and drive back to the city. Within minutes we find ourselves in the eye of a super storm, surrounded on all sides by charcoal clouds. These kinds of storms will become more frequent here as the Sydney basin exhibits more of the kind of weather I used to think of as tropical. As we descend into the cuttings between Kurrajong and Richmond, we are haloed above by a circle of blue. Warm threads of mist creep up the high sandstone walls, vanishing before they fully form; their ghostly veils caress dim ferns and vines and mosses. ‘How would you paint that,’ I marvel, assuming it can’t be done; the mist is composed of changes. But Margaret considers for a moment, and begins to answer. •
Jennifer Mills’ latest novel, Dyschronia, is published by Picador. She lives in South Australia.
Photographs taken by the author.