The estuary of the River Nith, Scotland, at low tide; opening into Solway Firth. Photo: Doc Searls. Distributed under Creative Commons license.

The light on Solway Firth is silver, slung low across the water. Although it’s mid-morning, within a few hours the sun will slip beneath the horizon. Accustomed to the wide blue mouth of sky in Australia, I feel as though the earth has tilted. My friends and I scramble over rocks weathered by the wash of tides. I’m wearing thermals, two jumpers, a red beanie and a coat, but the wind flies from the sea through my layers. My teeth clatter. We clamber around a corner, where we can just see Scotland on the other side of the firth. I wonder if Georgiana Molloy, who became Western Australia’s first female scientist, ever stood where I am now before she left England in 1829. Would she have smelled brine sweeping from the sea, her gaze drifting east over the salt marshes green with flat sedge, channels of water running between them? If she lifted her eyes, would she have seen a flock of starlings spiralling?

I met Georgiana in 1999 in the pages of a biography, William Lines’ An All Consuming Passion, which I pulled randomly from a library shelf. At first I was drawn to her descriptions of plants. ‘I beheld a Tree of great beauty,’ she wrote, ‘the flowers are of the finest white, and fall in long tresses from the stem, some of its pendulous blossoms, are from three, to five, fingers in length, and these wave in the breeze like Snow wreaths.’ Later, I became entranced by the courage of a woman who left family and friends to travel fifteen thousand kilometres to the other side of the world. Despite immense heartbreak and hardship, she taught herself to identify and collect tiny seeds and specimens of south-west western Australian flora, such as the starry white Clematis, the red drops of Kennedia, and the delicate Drosera, dappled with mucilage that looks like dew.

My friends and I climb back into the car and drive along a narrow lane hemmed by drystone walls. I made these friends when I lived in London; they were part of a book club which we named the Book Rangers. They now live in Newcastle, and when I mentioned my research to them, they offered to show me around the area in which Georgiana grew up.

We circle the nearby city of Carlisle, where Georgiana was born in 1805. Her father, an ambitious Scotsman named David Kennedy, had married Elizabeth Dalton, daughter of the Mayor of Carlisle. Keen to establish himself, Kennedy built a house on his wife’s land (which was now his) at Crosby-on Eden, a few kilometres east of Carlisle. Georgiana, as a girl training to become a lady of leisure, learned her first lessons about plants in its gardens. Like other decorative arts such as writing, painting and flower arranging, botany was perceived to be a worthwhile pursuit for women. As Ann Shteir writes in Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science, the study of botany encouraged women to go outdoors, learn botanical Latin and read handbooks about Linnaean systematics.

Georgiana’s father fell from his horse and died in 1819, leaving behind debts, five children and a widow with no means of supporting them. Georgiana was fifteen. As she grew older, her family situation became even more unstable, harbouring conflict with her mother and sister, an alcoholic. When Georgiana married Captain John Molloy and emigrated with him in 1829 to Augusta, her career options – for marriage was a job and a means of accessing an income – were narrowing.

We drive past the River Eden, which flows out to the firth. It has broken its banks with heavy rain and water shines on the saturated fields, reflecting bare alder trees. The next day will be my thirty-seventh birthday.

‘Do you know,’ I tell my friends, ‘tomorrow I’ll be the same age as Georgiana when she died. She had six kids and a miscarriage and I’m still trying to decide whether to have a baby.’

I think about Georgiana’s body, how she grew each child in her womb from a seed-like embryo and how, for all of the time she was in Australia, she was either pregnant or nursing. Her children absorbed her nutrients, breast milk, her intellectual and emotional energy, and her time. She would have known how each of her children smelled, the pitch of their voices, the feel of their delicate skin beneath her work-roughened hands.

It slaps me like a wave, this craving to hold a child in my arms. I steady myself, waiting for it to roll by.

The Molloys’ voyage to Australia was marked by death. A child of a fellow passenger died four days after his birth, his ‘interior organs not being perfect from exhaustion’ she wrote to her friend Frances Birkett in 1831. One of John Molloy’s horses aborted her foal; he lost all his pigs between England and the Cape; shearing sheep and lambs on board ‘died daily’; Georgiana’s raspberry, gooseberry and currant slips at first flowered in the heat, then died from it.

A baby is a seed that takes nine months to germinate. It, too, needs sunlight, water and nourishment. On the ship, ‘the poor animals had scarcely enough to live on’ and Georgiana ‘really was nearly starved and every day from the Cape to Swan River, had only Salt Pork and Rice, the mutton was diseased that Mr Semphill the Charterer bought at Cape Town’. Georgiana was ‘weak with constant sickness, I was obliged to be supported when I walked … I was constantly falling and bruising myself’.

The Molloys arrived at Fremantle on 11 March 1830. Georgiana showed an immediate interest in her surroundings, writing to her mother on 4 April 1830 that she had examined the shrubs and trees, but found them without flowers. After a boat trip with her husband up Swan River to Perth, she described the country as ‘beautifully wooded to the water’s edge with both copse wood and magnificent old trees, large firs and bushes about six or eight feet high’. The Molloys intended to settle around Swan River, but found all the land grants had been allocated. Instead they sailed south to Augusta with a group of other settlers, arriving on 2 May 1830. Georgiana described the vista to her mother as ‘thickly wooded’ and ‘monotonous’.

She was by this stage heavily pregnant. On 24 May 1830, the day after her twenty-fifth birthday, she ‘was confined when thinking nothing of the kind.’ She wrote to Frances, ‘I suffered 12 hours and had no medical man near me there being none within some hundred miles, when at a loss what to tell my female servant I referred to the Encyclopedia’. The baby that arrived was tall and delicate with ‘beautiful fingers & nails’.

The day after the birth, Georgiana found her daughter’s dress soaked in blood because the umbilical cord hadn’t been properly tied. A few days later, the baby had convulsions and her feet were icy. Tiny white spots like blisters dotted her tongue, her temperature veered between hot and cold, and she screamed relentlessly. Georgiana lay on a sofa, the only furniture they had, but would not let her daughter from her arms because she was concerned the baby would get cold. In an undated and unaddressed account that lies in her archives, Georgiana chronicled that she was only permitted to enjoy her daughter for twelve days before the baby was ‘carried off by violent convulsions on the twelfth day. I sat up with her from two that morning until all was over.’ Outside the tent, it rained and thundered and, Georgiana wrote to her mother, she had to hold her ‘dead infant’s limbs to keep them straight’.

Later, she wrote to Frances, ‘I thought my brain was going, in a desolate land.’ To her mother, she was more explicit: ‘I felt inclined to rush out into the open air and charge the winds with what weighed so heavy at my bursting head.’ Georgiana’s response was elemental, a fierce engagement with the natural world prompted by the most unbearable of circumstances.

Georgiana placed her daughter in a coffin at the foot of the sofa, there being no other place for the baby to rest. She placed ‘some little blue flowers on her body it being winter there were very few flowers in bloom’. Then, to ‘dispel the sad blank her death occasioned’, she went out and planted bulbs.

Sometime after her daughter’s burial, Georgiana wrote in her undated account, ‘Dear Molloy went unknown to me and sowed Rye Grass and Clover over [the grave] and has recently put some twigs across it to form a sort of trellice work with the surrounding creepers which in this country are very numerous.’ Later, Georgiana planted clover, mignonette and pumpkins which would ‘rapidly creep on the twigs over it & form a sort of Dome’. Her touching rendition of the Australian creepers mingling with English plants – and being given support to do so – suggests that Georgiana had tentatively embraced her environment.

When her daughter was buried in the Australian soil, Georgiana also buried a part of her body she had nurtured for nine months. As Barry Commoner, one of the founders of the modern environmental movement, explains in The Closing Circle: Nature, Man and Technology, ‘everything must go somewhere’. This was the first of his four rules regarding ecology. He maintained there is no ‘waste’ in nature and there is no ‘away’ to which things can be thrown. Perhaps because her child had been absorbed by the soil, and that soil sprouted delicate, long-limbed spider orchids and blushing outbreaks of pink everlastings, Georgiana could not help but love it.

In my early twenties, my body set up a persistent clamour for the feel of a soft head of hair beneath my chin, a sticky finger circling my forefinger, but I thought that my chances of meeting someone with whom to conceive were slim. When I was four I contracted meningitis and lost most of my hearing. Although I could interact relatively well with one person at a time, I was awkward in company, fearing to speak in case I misheard, or spoke out of turn, and embarrassed myself.

I found it more rewarding to pursue writing and ideas than people who made me feel uncomfortable. Those ideas took me to London in my late twenties where, absorbed by my research and writing, I was able to ignore my longing for a child. When I returned to Australia, I was tired of being on my own and, gritting my teeth against my discomfort, I pulled out all stops to find a partner. When I met a dark-haired, brown-eyed ecologist studying for a degree in philosophy, I was four years shy of forty.

The start of a relationship is like building an ecosystem, setting up a symbiosis of bacteria, conversations, oxytocin after sex. After a few months with this man, whose pale skin was dotted with moles and who shared my love of science, philosophy and writing, I was enmeshed, reliant on another organism.

Sitting on the couch one evening, drinking red wine, I asked, ‘Do you want to have kids?’

His answer was emphatic. ‘No.’

I held myself still, trying not to react. ‘Why?’

‘It’s selfish and unethical.’

‘What? Parents love their children. They’re endlessly generous. How can that be selfish?’

‘The child doesn’t get to have a say in being born.’

I blinked. This had never occurred to me. I chewed on the thought, then tried again. ‘So you don’t want to have them?’


My tears came in a hot, unexpected rush.

As the colony at Augusta established itself, Georgiana bore another three daughters and a son. In 1836, she received a letter from Captain James Mangles, a London horticulturalist whose cousin, Ellen Stirling, was the wife of the then-governor of Perth. A box of English seeds accompanied the letter. Mangles, caught up in the craze for exotic – at least to British eyes – Australian flora, wrote to request the exchange of English seeds for ‘the Native Seeds of Augusta’. Georgiana had expected to be able to collect specimens for herself, as in a letter to Mangles she referred to a hortus siccus, a book into which dried specimens were fastened, which she had brought with her to her new home ‘imagining [she] should have a superfluity of time to use it.’ However, her superfluity was taken up by what she described to him as ‘domestic drudgery’ and she largely put off the collecting.

Towards the end of that year her son, nineteen months old, wandered off after breakfast, fell into a well and drowned. Overwhelmed with grief once more, Georgiana wrote an impassioned letter about the child’s death to Mangles, a man she had never met. She described how ‘that lovely healthy child who had never known pain or sickness and who had been all mirth and joyousness five previous hours the last time we beheld him together was now a stiff corpse, but beautiful and lovely, even in death’. As with her first child’s death, when she placed blue flowers on her child’s grave, Georgiana distracted herself by turning to the natural world. She embraced Mangles’ request to collect seeds, writing in the same letter, ‘Since my dear Boy’s death I have daily employed myself in your service.’

Mangles, a member of the Royal Society and co-founder of the Royal Geographical Society, sent Georgiana’s specimens to his contacts, which included the Loddiges nurserymen of Hackney; Joseph Paxton, gardener at Chatsworth and designer of the Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition; and John Lindley, the first Professor of Botany at University College London. By distributing her seeds in this way, Mangles cemented his social and professional ties with these men. They classified and re-named the plants using the Linnaean system, grew them in their gardens and, once they had propagated, sold them to the public.

Georgiana could not name the plants she found, not officially, as it was impossible for women of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to participate in the institutions which formalised botanical science. They could not attend meetings, read papers or (with a few exceptions) have their research published. Sensitive to her lack of authority, Georgiana wrote to Mangles on 8 July, 1840, ‘I send two flowers of the … I dare not say what, Dr Lindley must determine’. John Lindley was the chair of botany at University College London from 1829 to 1860, and Mangles sent a number of Georgiana’s seeds to him.

Undeterred by her lack of scientific knowledge, Georgiana developed her own system, whereby she gave each flower and its seed a number. She then asked Mangles, in a letter of 25 January 1838, to ‘oblige me by sending me the names of the different flowers according to their numbers; I have kept the numbers of each, and the duplicates of most of the Specimens that I might have the satisfaction of hearing some name attached to them’. Although she might not have been aware of it, Georgiana was practicing science: she created and organised her knowledge of the plants, then tested her knowledge against that of other scientists. As she worked, she developed a sense of purpose and vocation, and in 1840 she wrote to Mangles, ‘when I sally forth either on foot or Horseback, I feel quite elastic in mind and Step; I feel I am quite at my own work, the real cause that enticed me out to Swan River.’

The death of Georgiana’s children would never leave her. I knew this, and felt for her deeply as she sat in that tent, holding her dead daughter while a storm bashed through the karri trees beyond, because my parents lost their first son when he was eight months old. Although they came to grips with their grief and moved on with their lives I, a sensitive child who was alert to all that was unspoken, sensed the lacuna he left in our family. Despite this, I still wanted to have children.

Twice more, when I’d had too much red wine with the dark-haired man, I brought up the subject. Each time, the answer was no. Each time I burst into tears, surprised by their velocity.

I began to weigh things up. I was thirty-eight. I had enough time to leave and find someone else before I became infertile, but it had taken five years of terrible dates to connect with someone who delighted me so much. Even if I left, there was no surety that I could conceive.

Besides, he had become part of my ecosystem, sustaining me with his knowledge and wit. In his presence I unfurled like petals stretching open to the sun. If I uprooted myself I’d wither, becoming desiccated.

The stands of karri rise so far above my head I could be underwater. Among the tallest trees in the world, they are fifty to sixty metres in height. I stand at the base of a fine, straight trunk in the Boranup forest. Most of this forest was logged in the late nineteenth century, but the trees have grown again. The light falling through the canopy is speckled, the way it is when you swim in the sea and look up, watching it fall like flecks of gold. The karri trees are native to this wet corner of the south-west, and they tower over a thick, bright green understory of ferns and tassel flowers. The air is cool on my bare arms.

Arriving in Fremantle in 1830, Georgiana found ‘the Country itself an unlimited extent of dark green wood.’ Like many others, she made the assumption that soil with plenty of trees meant it was fertile for English crops. She wrote ‘on the coast as usual there is much sand, but here it is fruitful and you can see the immense timber growing from it.’ Georgiana’s words indicate how poorly the Europeans understood their new environment, for the landscapes in Western Australia are among the oldest and most weathered in the world and the soil is generally poor.

Despite this, colonisation crept across the south-west like a parasitic vine, drawing upon the labour of Wardandi Noongars and their country. Wardandi Noongars took livestock as rent payments for the illegal occupation of their land and food sources. Hostility between Wardandi Noongars and colonists began to increase. When Gayware, whose property was at Wonnerup, speared colonist George Layman in an argument over flour and, more generally, his occupation of Gayware’s country, he and his fellow Wardandi Noongars were killed in a massacre led by John Molloy, the Resident Magistrate. Georgiana, too, was implicated in this process of colonisation by sending plants to Mangles. The plants, renamed by John Lindley, were part of a linguistic displacement that echoed the violent dispossession of Wardandi Noongars.

Wardandi and Bibbulman Noongars have been part of the south-west’s ecosystem for at least forty thousand years, developing an intimate and intricate knowledge of the area’s weather, soil, water, vegetation, and breeding and blossoming times, in addition to practicing sophisticated mosaic-burning regimes that created grasslands to attract game for hunting. As Bruce Pascoe has demonstrated in Dark Emu, Indigenous people across Australia also practiced animal husbandry, food storage and harvesting. Theirs was a deep and abiding relationship that recognised responsibility for the ecosystems that ensured their survival.

When colonisers put an end to mosaic burning in the south-west, the vegetation thickened, smothering ground-layer plants which had relied upon light and air to flourish. Tree clearing also created islands of habitat that lost their connectivity to that ecosystem, and the diversity of plant and animal life contained by the islands was diminished. Andy Chapman, a zoologist who carried out fieldwork in the 1970s, found that clearing affected small perching birds. They didn’t have enough energy to fly long distances and were accustomed to existing within very specific, but connected areas. As Bill Bunbury writes in Invisible Country, his compilation of stories and oral histories about the changes in the environment in the south-west, a country broken up by clearing makes it challenging for these birds to grow their populations.

Another of Commoner’s rules is ‘Nature knows best.’ Humans, Commoner argues, have fashioned technology in the belief that it will improve upon nature. He rejects this, maintaining that major man-made change in a natural system is likely to be detrimental to it. This is evident from the large-scale tree clearing in the south-west, which means less transpiration – where plants or leaves give off water vapour – which in turn results in a drier atmosphere. Changes wrought by technology and colonisation are manifesting in the climate. Tony Birch writes in Unstable Relations (2016), ‘Any discussion and analysis of climate change today must include an investigation of colonial history and its devastating impact on Indigenous nations.’

Standing beneath the luminous stands of karri trees, the hairs on my forearms bristle.

Georgiana laboured through six pregnancies and a miscarriage, her body becoming weaker after each birth. She died at thirty-seven from puerperal fever after the arrival of her sixth child. The biological and cultural compulsion to breed killed her. It may well be a metaphor for how we are destroying ourselves.

The weathered soils of Australia, the driest inhabited continent on earth, were never meant to sustain large numbers of humans. Indigenous Australians knew how to conserve, making sure they didn’t eat particular animals in their breeding seasons, for example. They knew that, if they wanted to survive, they needed to ensure the survival of the ecosystems which supported them.

If our population continues to grow without curbing its current rates of resource consumption, it will place increasing strain upon ecosystems. As Richard Monastersky writes in Nature (2014), predictive models based on the current rate of extinction show that a mass extinction, defined as the loss of three quarters of all species, could occur over the next few centuries. With extinction comes the loss of the natural support systems that keep us alive. Or, as Commoner puts it, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

When the third conversation about having a child ended in tears, I realised I had to either leave my relationship or change my thinking. I talked to friends as I worked out what to do.

‘Having a baby is like throwing a bomb into your relationship,’ said one.

‘If your bloke doesn’t support you, it will be bloody hard to write,’ said another.

I watched my friends with their children. In the couples, which were predominantly heterosexual, women seemed to do the bulk of the child caring and had little time to themselves. As a writer, I knew this would drive me spare. While I understood that, unlike Georgiana, I lived in a culture that allowed me to make a choice about reproduction, I was still compromised by its inability to value the work of motherhood, or to let women reach their intellectual and artistic potential without enormous sacrifices.

I also realised, seeing how tired and stressed my female friends became as they changed into mothers, how much more energy I would need to take care of a child, to listen out for them jamming a fork into the toaster. As a deaf woman, most of my energy is directed to trying to function in a hearing world. If a child was factored into that, there would be little left over for the man I loved. As he didn’t want children, this was grossly unfair. I knew, too, that I’d never lose the fear of our child dying. My sister, who has three children and all her hearing, rose frequently at night when they were small to check they still breathed in their sleep.

Then I read a 2017 study by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas in Environmental Research Letters, which concludes that bringing another human into the world is one of the most destructive things a person could do to the environment. The authors calculate that an American family that chose to have one fewer child would provide the same level of emissions reductions as 684 teenagers who chose to adopt comprehensive recycling for the rest of their lives. Meanwhile, the United Nations projects that 66 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, raising urgent questions about how these people are to be fed and clothed while pollinators such as bees are dying in massive numbers. If I had a child, they would be thirty by the time these issues erupted in earnest, while also contending with plastics travelling into our food chain and increasingly extreme environmental events such as droughts and rising seas. They’re already happening for our neighbours in the Pacific.

I think of the trees that promised such abundance for the Europeans in the south-west, how the soil in which they were rooted yielded so little once they were cut down. Survival in the twenty-first century lies not in fertility, but in, as Indigenous people learned over tens of thousands of years, careful attention to one’s environment and what it can sustain.

The scales began to tilt.

The man I love stands on the rocks of Cape Freycinet, where the pale azure sky slopes into the sea. The sea is before him, bolts of water unfurling and slamming into the granite. Further back, where I’m standing, a curve of boulders gathers the water to itself, soothing it into stillness. Here, the surface is aquamarine, so bright it’s as though a consciousness glows beneath.

This cape, some forty kilometres north of where the Molloys lived, was named for French man Louis de Freycinet, commander of the Casuarina on explorer Nicolas Baudin’s 1801 expedition to map the coast of Australia. The English, jealous of the French interest, stuck a flag in the sand at Albany and claimed Western Australia for their own, setting in train a spate of destruction.

Waves thrash against the rocks, curling into foam. My dark-haired man turns away from the water and heads towards me, his sneakers gripping the gritty granite surface. Barry Commoner, once more: everything is connected to everything else. People overlook this, that their existence is predicated upon the dominance of an environment, upon nations that were enmeshed with their country in ecosystems that nourished them, and which nourish them still.

My longing for a baby will seep through my life, but if having a disability has taught me anything, it is that there are limits to my ability to support my art and a child, just as there are limits to the resources of our world. Although this saddens me, there are, undeniably, so many boons: time to write in rain-thickened air; golden light spilling across red river gums as the sun rises; the sharp smell of Christmas bugs burrowing in soil on December evenings; and this man walking towards me, sharply outlined against that vertiginous background of blue.

Works Cited

Barry, Bernice. The Mind That Shines. Picador, 2016
Commoner, Barry. The Closing Circle : Nature, Man, and Technology. Knopf, 1971.
Lines, William J. An All Consuming Passion: Origins, Modernity, and the Australian Life of Georgiana Molloy. University of California Press, 1994.
Molloy, Georgiana. Kennedy Family Papers, DKEN/3/28/3 Cumbria Record Office.
-Letters to James Mangles, MN879, Battye Library, State Library of Western Australia
Monastersky, Richard. “Biodiversity: Life–a Status Report.” Nature, vol. 516, no. 7530, 2014, pp. 158–61.
Pascoe, Bruce. Dark Emu : Black Seeds : Agriculture or Accident? Broome, Western Australia, Magabala Books, 2014.
Shteir, Ann B. Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England, 1760-1860. John Hopkins University Press, 1996.
White, Jessica. ‘“Paper talk”, Testimony and Forgetting in South-West Western Australia.’ Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. Vol 2017, No. 1.
Wynes, Seth, and Kimberly A Nicholas. “The Climate Mitigation Gap: Education and Government Recommendations Miss the Most Effective Individual Actions.” Environmental Research Letters, vol. 12, no. 7, 2017, p. 9.

Published October 10, 2018
Part of New Nature: What does it mean to write about nature in 21st century Australia? A new wave of Australian nature writers write about Country, landscape, ecology, and biosphere.   All New Nature essays →
Jessica White

Jessica White is an author and academic living on Kaurna country. She has published...

Essays by Jessica White →