The lost garden

Sometimes in life you get lucky. Someone of rare vision and remarkable gifts crosses your path and, in ways that may be apparent only to yourself, they touch your life and change its course. I was seventeen when I first met Judith Wright. Everything that followed from this encounter led me, thirty years later, to the places she loved and dwelt in, the landscapes that made her a singular poet and environmental visionary. It was a journey I had been waiting to take since I first discovered her poetry as a teenager; a journey not only to actual places but also into a psychological and imaginative terrain as real as anything recorded on a map.

Rain had been forecast but, for now, the sun was shining through scattered clouds. Fifty kilometres east of Armidale, we reached a point in the road that offered a clear view over Wallamumbi, the sheep and cattle station where Judith Wright had grown up. Turning off into the property, we drove slowly through the outer paddocks and past a regiment of poplars until the road began gently descending into the ‘mysterious valley’ Judith had written of: the land of her childhood. It was a shallow, broad valley of rolling pastures with clear views all the way to a deep blue mountain range in the distance, known locally as the Snowies. If her ‘blood’s country’ had a heartland, this was surely it.

And yet something wasn’t quite right. There was no wind and an eerie stillness hung over the place. The rambling weatherboard homestead that Judith grew up in was long gone, replaced by a large 1970s-style brown brick house that lay unoccupied. It was owned by a family who visited only occasionally, leaving a manager to look after day-to-day affairs. Although there was still some furniture in the house, it had a sad and deserted air. Clearly Wallamumbi was no longer a thriving hub or the centre of any child’s universe.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Judith’s half-brother David borrowed over thirty million dollars to fund an ambitious scheme to make the Wright family, already part of New England’s pastoral aristocracy, Australia’s leading supplier of beef. Then a drought and global recession hit, and the bank called in its loan. In 2000, not long before Judith’s death, Wallamumbi had to be sold.

Strangely enough, Wallamumbi’s elegiac mood might well have been scripted by Judith herself. One of her major, late poems had anticipated, and even predicted, the family’s fate and their loss of the land. ‘For a Pastoralist Family’, written in the late 1970s, is addressed to her brothers. Finally speaking her mind after years of pent-up frustration, she reminds them that they owe their good fortune to the hard work of their grandparents and the dispossession of the original inhabitants. Her inheritance, she dryly notes, is not the land but a love of it, which serves ‘as a base for poetry’. She warns her brothers of the hazards of getting caught up in ‘the heave of the great corporations/ whose bellies are never full’. It was inevitable, she felt, that ‘all men grow evil with trade’. While Judith did not know that David would overreach himself, and that the once ‘cautious politeness of bankers’ would be withdrawn, she sensed – perhaps more acutely than they – that the family’s grip on the land was tenuous.

This, after all, was what her inheritance had taught her: that she had no claim on the land except her love of it. The irony, I couldn’t help thinking as I wandered the garden at Wallamumbi, was that her exclusion from ownership of the property and the inevitable sense of exile this bred was what had made her a poet. As is often the case with those whose great achievement is to transform their personal suffering or pain into a work of art, her loss was our gain. And it was here, in this now-uninhabited garden, that her experience of love and loss began.

Once upon a time such a loss was unimaginable. ‘In our childish years,’ she wrote towards the end of her life, ‘it would have seemed impossible to believe that even the eldest sons of the family would find a source of dissension and sorrow in the land we loved.’ In the final part of the ‘For a Pastoralist Family’ series, she makes a plea for a forgiveness and lovingly recalls this period of childhood, before questions of inheritance and attitudes to the land came between them:

Blue early mist in the valley. Apricots

bowing the orchard trees, flushed red with summer,

loading bronze-plaqued branches;

our teeth in those sweet buttock-curves.


the horses swinging into the yards, the smell

of cattle, sweat and saddle-leather?

Blue ranges underlined the sky.

While there were few signs of the orchard that had once stood at the foot of the slope below the house, the yards remained, as did the ‘blue ranges’ in the distance. But almost all the original garden was gone, having been dug over and landscaped when the new house was built in the 1970s. I shouldn’t have been surprised, although it was hard not to be disappointed. I had clung to the idea of the original garden as a kind of enchanted rabbit hole that would take me into the land of her childhood. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I realised that the original garden’s erasure was sadly fitting. The lost garden of Wallamumbi was emblematic of all that Judith would lose as she grew up.

While her recollections of her grandmother’s garden at nearby Wongwibinda are vivid and detailed, the garden at Wallamumbi endures in her writing in a more impressionistic way, almost as if it were too close for her to see it clearly or with detachment. There is a sense that it is too intimately connected with her earliest experiences, before the acquisition of language, to ever be reconstructed through words. ‘Here where I walk was the green world of a child,’ she writes in ‘The Moving Image’. It is not the physical details of this terrain, this lost world, that interest her as much as the emotions that went with it. She might not be able to make ‘felled trees upright where they lay’ but she can make us experience Wallamumbi as she first knew it.

These poems chart a psychological and mythological landscape as much as an actual one. The garden, as seen through the eyes of a very young child, is a magical place where everything is an extension of her own dreams and desires. In poems like ‘The World and the Child’, the garden is both vast and intimate, a kind of Wonderland viewed by the shrunken Alice. For the child, wild harebell flowers are so abundant they form a blue cave, and an ant climbing a grass blade looks like a monster. The mountain range ‘lies like a pillow’ for her head at night and the moon swings from the ceiling.

Here, the child is the centre of the universe. As with a naive painting, there is no perspective. The distant mountains – the Snowies on the horizon – feel so close to the child that she rests her head on them when she sleeps. The moon is not some faraway celestial body but hangs right above her, like a toy for her delight. This way of seeing the world corresponds with what psychologists call ‘the magical years’ – roughly the first five years of life – when, according to child psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg, the child’s conception of the world is a magical one because ‘he believes that his actions and his thoughts can bring about events. Later he extends his magic system and finds human attributes in natural phenomena and sees human or supra-human causes for natural events or for ordinary occurrences in his life.’ Only gradually does the child acquire knowledge of an objective world until he is ‘able to free his observations and his conclusions from the distortions of primitive thought’.

But this rational knowledge inevitably comes at a price, just as it does for Adam and Eve. Part of the adolescent’s rebellion is fuelled, as Judith knew too well, by outrage at being expelled from the garden of childhood: ‘Only through this pain, this black desire, this anger,/ shall you at last return to your lost garden.’ It is as if the adult Judith is speaking here to her younger self on whom it has just dawned that hers is to be a double exile: both from the garden of childhood and from Wallamumbi itself.

Just occasionally, as we explored the garden and outhouses that day, the ghostly, flickering presence of the lost Wallamumbi would flare into life. A particularly potent remnant was the original blacksmith’s shop where the horses had been shod. It stood, just as Judith had described it in her memoir, under the big pine trees not far from the house. We poked our heads through broken slats in the grey paling walls to find, much to our surprise, the old bellows still in a dark corner, coated in dust. As a girl, Judith often visited here and was deeply impressed by the ‘suck and sigh of the bellows, the glowing and fading of the charcoal’ and the black soot that coated everything.

My immediate thought, as I peered through the semi-darkness, was of her much-loved and much-anthologised poem ‘Legend’, in which a blacksmith’s boy heads off towards the mountains to hunt for a rainbow. He overcomes many obstacles and warnings until night begins to fall. His rifle breaks and his hat blows away and his dog disappears. But then he sees the rainbow in front of him ‘just as his heart foretold’. He catches the colours and the cold of it ‘like a bar of ice, like the column of a fountain’ and heads home with it swinging on his shoulder, instead of his gun. I had always thought of this poem, which I’d read to my son when he was a toddler, as a fable set in a fairytale landscape, in a faraway time. It had never occurred to me that the story had roots in Judith’s own garden and in her daily life as a girl; that beneath the fanciful surface might lie the bones of the landscape she loved.

‘I can remember myself a time’, the adult Judith wrote to a friend, ‘when the world was completely animistic to me – every object had a kind of emotional connotation; trees had personalities and water was alive and even furniture lived a life of its own.’ This was, of course, the time of magical thinking, the time before the garden was lost. A time which is revisited in this poem where animals speak to the boy and inanimate objects like mountains jump in his way. As he makes his way home with the rainbow, lizards run out to see and snakes make way for him. All the world tells him he is brave. Here is Wallamumbi as the very young Judith would have seen and experienced it – a landscape of adventure and fantasy in which a child could be a hero. Now, as I looked across at the ever-darkening Snowies, I could imagine her as a girl, contemplating the rainbows that would have hung over this range and dreaming of going in pursuit of them.

There was one particular feature of Judith’s childhood garden that I knew I would never find no matter how hard I looked. It was the tiny garden within the Wallamumbi garden which Judith herself had created. A garden that persisted in her imagination long after it had disappeared, and that became inseparable, in her mind, from her mother’s illness and eventual death.

For earlier generations, the swathe of green around the homestead had played an important psychological as well as physical role as a buffer between the homestead and what was perceived as an alien and potentially hostile landscape. Judith once remarked that, for New Englanders, planting a garden meant needing to ‘root out everything there already and replace it with roses, delphiniums and petunias and fence it with barbed wire and hedges of conifers’. Yet for all her mature ambivalence about European gardens, she remained not only deeply attached to the gardens of her childhood but also to gardening as a way of nurturing the land.

She created her first garden when she was almost four years old. It was a small patch of wildflowers just beyond the garden fence at a drain outlet. In her memoir, she recalls planting the little garden just before she, her younger brother Bruce and her mother fell ill during the devastating outbreak of influenza in 1919. Although complications from this illness would eventually kill Ethel Wright, Bruce and Judith recovered unscathed. As Judith felt better, she began fretting about her wildflower garden. When she was finally able to get up, she ran out to check on it and found that it had been demolished by the cows. In another piece of autobiographical writing for children, she remembers the incident slightly differently. Upon running down to see if the garden had survived, she found a violet there. Her story, ‘The Colour of Death’, she says, draws on ‘that time of my mother’s illness’.

The story comes from the only collection of short stories Judith published, The Nature of Love, which was first released in 1966. It is about a young girl called Isa who makes a ‘secret garden’ during a severe drought. She finds a small leak in the house pipeline through the calf paddock, a spot protected from the cows by a growth of sassafras. Concerned that the wild violets she loves won’t survive the drought, she digs some up and replants them in her own little garden by the leaking pipe. She is convinced that without the violets, the spring won’t come. Like the young Judith, Isa believes in the magical power of words, and chants a phrase borrowed from their gardener to help the violets grow: ‘There ye are now, snug as a bug in a rug.’

Isa’s relationship with her invalid mother is a strained one. When her mother is admitted to hospital, Isa goes to stay with her gran. Five weeks later, her mother dies. As soon as she returns home with her father, Isa rushes down to her secret garden. There are two large flowers, ‘large as garden violets’, and two seed heads swelling on the other stems. In a fit of rage at the world, Isa pulls the buds off and picks the two wild violets. She studies the small golden eyes and the dark-streaked petals. Then she clears the sassafras away so that the cows will be able to see the plant and eat it.

While the story is not simply autobiographical, Isa’s mother is clearly based on Ethel Wright, and Isa on Judith. Looking back on this little garden as an adult writing the story, Judith recognised that her urge to nurture the land was inseparable from her mother’s illness and eventual death. Isa nurtures her garden in the hope that with the spring, her sickly mother will recover. Like Isa’s mother, Ethel died at the beginning of spring. And like Isa, Judith became increasingly preoccupied with mother nature as something vulnerable that needed protecting. As she wrote in one of her more feverish, juvenile poems:

Oh Earth, my mother, my mother whose voice cries to the night

Have comfort, I am the night of healing,

I kiss your mouth that is fair.

I hold your hands that are white.

There is never one moment when we are expelled from the garden of childhood. It is a gradual exile. At the end of the story, Isa destroys the garden because her magical thinking fails her. It allowed her to believe that her mother would live if the violets survived until spring. Yet spring came and her mother died. The cycle of life goes on unrelentingly, despite our deepest wishes. After ripping the buds off her wild violets, Isa observes: ‘Large as they were, they did not look like garden flowers, real flowers; they had in them a secrecy, a wildness – a knowledge of things that did not happen in gardens, things as fenceless and unknown as death.’

Late in her life, Judith lamented the ‘beauties’ that had been excluded from the garden of her youth because of the prevailing ‘contempt’ for native plants. She singled out the native violets as an example of the plants that ‘grew outside the garden fences’ and were not seen fit for cultivation. This tension between the European flora of the cultivated garden – the idealised garden of childhood – and the wider, wilder native landscape of adulthood is one that all non-Indigenous Australians live with. Isa’s attempt to cultivate a garden with native violets represents what Judith spent her life trying to do through language and later, more literally, through environmental activism and in her own garden at Mt Tamborine and ‘Edge’. And it was in her little garden within the garden at Wallamumbi that this impulse first took root.

Real gardens and landscapes are subject to change, they can die or flourish or be utterly transformed, but our lost gardens remain untouched and we can revisit them when­ever we have the need. This was surely Judith’s consolation. She might be denied any claim on Wallamumbi itself, but she would always carry her lost garden with her and would continue to stake her claim to it through her poetry. And not simply to the properties she knew and loved but to the whole of New England. As AD Hope observed, ‘New England is an idea in the heart and mind. Judith Wright may be said to have created it in poetry as her forefathers helped to create it in fact and as her own father Philip A Wright did so much to create it politically.’ She made this claim most forcefully in her poem ‘For New England’ by audaciously erasing any distinction between herself and the land:

All the hills’ gathered waters feed my seas

who am the swimmer and the mountain river;

and the long slopes’ concurrence is my flesh

who am the gazer and the land I stare on.

On her return to New England from Sydney during the war, as the train ‘panted up the foothills’, she found herself ‘suddenly and sharply aware of it as “my country”. These hills and valleys were – not mine, but me …’

In the face of a society that holds private property to be sacred, Judith swept aside questions of ownership with a claim more fundamental than any legal right. ‘These hills and valleys were – not mine, but me …’ The poetry that flowed from this insight did more than express her identification with, and feelings for, the land. It staked out a landscape that could never be taken from her, could never be lost. And, by making this landscape part of the collective consciousness and culture of the nation, her poetry created a place that belongs to all of us.

‘The Lost Garden’ is an extract from Fiona’s journey through Judith Wright’s heartland, My Blood’s Country, which will be published by Allen & Unwin in 2010.

Fiona Capp

Fiona Capp is the author of three novels and three works of non-fiction, including That Oceanic Feeling, which won the Kibble Award for life writing.

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