You will come here all your life for renewal.
– ‘The Curtain’, Judith Wright
The pale oval of R’s face turns to me in darkness.
‘Look, she’s dreaming.’
The baby’s cheek settles into my chest and her lashes flutter against my skin. Her breathing slows to match mine. Soon, it has the soft insistence of faraway surf. I whisper so as not to wake her.
‘Did you dream?’
‘We were in Mexico,’ says R. ‘All my aunts and uncles came to meet Vera. But it was our Brisbane house.’
My mouth is parched, my water bottle empty at the bedside. February heat broods behind the closed curtains, morning surges and builds. Wind-stirred branches, trilling birds, shore-break lapping the lake’s edge. My father’s voice (which is my voice) carries from across the water. He’s taken my in-laws out in the canoe. We hear laughter, splashing oars, a confused medley of Spanish and English. The two sides of our lives commingle in the sultry air.
‘I don’t remember if I dreamed.’
‘You never remember.’
The three of us doze until lunchtime, until sweat pools between Vera’s beating heart and mine. I wake to find R has parted the curtains a crack, returned to bed. Her hands, folded over the still-raw caesarean scar, rise and fall with her breathing. By reflected light that ripples the ceiling, I drift back to sleep reading a collection of Judith Wright’s letters and poems to her husband Jack McKinney: ‘So, perilously joined/ lighted in one small room,/we have made all things true.’ (‘In Praise of Marriages’)
This little town was a place of peaceful repose for Judith, Jack, and their daughter Meredith, as it’s been for my parents since I was a boy. In my dreams, I show Vera through its streets.
Judith Wright holidayed regularly at Boreen Point in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland from 1953 until Jack McKinney’s death in 1966. Her poems of that period infuse her early experience of parenthood with the emotional climate of the Cold War:
Bombs ripen on the leafless tree
under which the children play.
And there my darling all alone
dances in the spying day. (Two Songs for the World’s End)
We were feeling a bit like that over the summer of 2017, with the Trump inauguration shortly after our daughter’s birth, a new round of nuclear brinksmanship on the Korean peninsula, and R’s ecologist colleagues publishing a paper most weeks on how quickly the planet is cooking. South-East Queensland sweltered in the mid-to-high thirties from November through March. We were lucky to be able to retreat to my parents’ breezy lakeside weekender a couple of hours north of Brisbane.
Re-reading Wright’s Cooloola poems from The Gateway (1953) to The Other Half (1966) over that long, hot Queensland summer, it was hard not to hear echoes of our own anxious times. Wright’s lyrics from the shore of Lake Cootharaba are powerfully infused with what Glenn Albrecht calls solastalgia, the distress caused by negative changes in the home environment. These poems find local correlates – sand-mining, and deforestation at Cooloola during Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s reign – for a planetary-scale ecological crisis that was then only beginning to be understood.
Nowadays, Boreen Point has a population of about three hundred, which swells during the spring sailing regatta and the summer holidays. There is money here, half an hour’s drive from the upscale beach resort at Noosa Heads. But it expresses itself in a sleepy, unshowy way. Up the hillside, eccentric timber houses of two and three storeys jostle for the best lake view. Built up high to guard against flooding, they look vaguely like stranded boats. And indeed, catamarans and canoes are drawn up on many lawns in front of lush gardens of bromeliads and ferns. The streets have quaint, bucolic names: Vista Street, Orchard Avenue. Everybody is white and looks like they’d vote for Robert Menzies if they could.
My parents’ lakeside house is a 1940s Queenslander built with local cedar from the sawmill days before the national park. It’s painted to match the blues and greys of the lake by changing light, and it’s furnished with my maternal grandfather’s things. Like the house, the Parker dining set is a post-war classic: a dark hardwood table and sturdy black-vinyl-covered chairs. The CD collection is all Naxos Classics and Yankee jazz bands from the thirties and forties.
When my grandfather died, Mum and Dad put the modest inheritance toward a deposit on the house. I inherited his bad posture and social awkwardness. I’m drafting this slouched at the mahogany writing desk where he used to keep journals and letters from his old air-force buddies.
‘Melaleuca,’ the little yellow cottage Judith and Jack once owned is a couple of blocks up the hill from Mum and Dad’s place. Though still occupied, it looks rather forlorn: the tin letterbox rusted; the once-pink terrace faded grey, cracking at the edges; the concrete plaster façade half hidden behind the banksia bush where green rosella hop from twig to twig.
In the spring of 1953, when Meredith was four, the couple left their home on Mount Tamborine and drove north for the Noosa Lakes, hunting wildflowers. In the hinterland, they stumbled on: ‘a little village of nine or ten houses and a general store,’ Judith wrote in her autobiography, ‘all delectably perched on a lake shore above a pink and white sandstone cliff.’ Most of the residents were fishermen or timber workers in those days, but one local man of fortune was building cheap holiday cottages. His method was to construct a house frame of sawmill timber and dig a trench around it, using the dug-out sand to build the cement walls. The couple put down a deposit on one of the prototypes, then ‘scratched and scraped and sold and blackmailed the Bank for an overdraught.’
That ‘light-filled concrete house,’ became their refuge for many years. With no electricity and no sealed roads, it was a perfect retreat for two writers: ‘Solid, warm, and comforting… the blue of the lake shone through its windows.’ It was there on the shores of Lake Cootharaba little Meredith learned to swim and that many of the best poems of Judith Wright’s middle career were written.
Who’d have thought a house made of sand could outlive its occupants.
Old Al, to whom we owe the lakeside house, was only a few years younger than Judith Wright. I thought of him often as I re-read her poetry that summer, not so much because of the surface correspondences – both were born between wars, both went deaf as young adults – but because he was the person of her generation to whom I’ve been closest. On reflection, the two seemed to embody contrary impulses in post-war Australia: the desire to change everything, the need to reassert order.
Meredith McKinney wrote in a memoir of her parents that her memories of the couple were ‘overwhelmingly of them reading together.’ Like Judith and Jack, Old Al wasn’t physically demonstrative. His poor hearing, a result of the roaring engines of Lancaster bombers, could make him seem withdrawn. But he was affectionate in his stiff, masculine way. I remember a patient ping-pong coach and a clever leg-spin bowler; a cautious, thrifty, round-shouldered old man, who labelled his margarine with a marker in case the expiry date wore off. I was too young to grasp that his need for routine and his odd habits might have something to do with his war service. Some second world war pilots peed on their plane’s tailwheel for good luck before every sortie or wore the same shoes every flight. When they returned to civilian life, they often developed other compulsive behaviours. Even as a boy, I wanted to understand why it was so important for Al’s lunch to be on the table before midday and for the lawn of his villa to be perfectly even.
I have especially vivid memories of the two of us spending a lot of time together the year before I left for South America, while my parents were overseas. I was his most frequent visitor, aside from the veteran’s affairs nurse who came daily to change his bandages around eleven. On most occasions, he’d take me for a soggy buffet lunch at the RSL and tell the same three or four terse, elliptical stories about the war. There was always a good deal of technical detail about how to read the instruments in the cockpit, and nothing at all about how it feels to be shot at.
One day, he felt dizzy before lunch and the nurse put him to bed. Rifling through his things, I uncovered dozens of old journals. I hoped I’d find intense emotions like Meredith McKinney discovered in her mother’s love letters. Finally, I’d know the full story of the New York blonde who gave him his first taste of Coca Cola in Times Square in 1940; how he felt about the fire-bombing of Dresden; why he read atheist tract after atheist tract, as if to shore up his disbelief.
I was disappointed. There was nothing in the journals but hundreds of ‘To Do’ lists: ‘buy milk,’ ‘pay car insurance,’ ‘birthday card for Kath.’
Serves me right for snooping, I thought, slumping in his armchair and listening to him snore.
‘How come you never march on Anzac Day?’ I asked when he woke up.
‘Why make a fuss?’ he replied.
Judith and Jack always made a fuss. They met in Brisbane, in 1944, through the circle around Clem Christensen’s new literary quarterly, Meanjin. The magazine published writers of ‘strong socio-political consciousness’, who saw the end of the war as an opportunity for progressive social change. Beyond contributing to the magazine, they were living that change: she was twenty-nine; he was fifty-three – and married.
‘You and I are queer and sinful fish,’ she wrote to him at Easter 1945 from her family’s pastoral property near Armidale. Like her contemporaries Patrick White and Geoffrey Dutton, Judith Wright hailed from the old squattocracy, a complicated heritage that fed both her intense feeling for the Australian landscape and her distaste for the materialism of Australian society.
‘I can feel that nineteenth-century atmosphere,’ Jack replied ‘and how strange our life would seem by contrast. We of course are right, but it’s difficult being the only people who are right.’
Judith’s father wept when she told him of the relationship. Because Jack’s wife refused divorce, they were unable to marry until years later, in 1962, when no-fault divorce had become legal. And, since his meagre pension was dedicated to the upkeep of his four children, Judith had to take on the role of economic provider.
‘I am really an awkward proposition for you to handle,’ he acknowledged in an early letter.
But by then, Judith was in love.
Not long after we met, R told me she was about to go Mexico for three months.
‘I’ll be doing fieldwork in the cloud forest and I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay in touch.’
We were introduced by a mutual friend in 2009 when we were both postgraduates at the University of Queensland. That first balmy Brisbane night, we talked until dawn on a West End balcony, and woke on our friend’s couch next morning to talk some more.
While she was away, I wrote her long emails describing my efforts to keep possums out of my shabby studio apartment at St Lucia. Every few days, I’d receive a reply from remote villages in Oaxaca, where she and her volunteers were wading about in gumboots catching frogs, nipping off their toes above the first knuckle for DNA sequencing in the laboratory. Her life sounded like an adventure I wanted to join. She told me about eating tadpole soup with hospitable Zapotec campesinos, and about hearing a jaguar roar in the bushes beside camp.
On her first night back in Brisbane, I cooked her dinner and gifted her a yellow ukulele. We were inseparable after that.
Jack was recovering from a breakdown when he met Judith. He was a first world war pensioner who’d fought in France and still suffered from shellshock. Judith remarked to her biographer Veronica Brady that she could always tell when he was having an attack because ‘he turned pale and sweaty and his eyes would go away’. Eking a living from the land during the depression had wrecked his health, and the outbreak of the second war sent him into a mental spiral that accelerated the breakdown of his first marriage. When he met Judith, he was a self-described ‘pensioner-gardener, hangeron-handyman,’ who lived alone in a shack at Surfer’s Paradise. On weekends, he visited the Christensens in Brisbane to borrow books from their well-stocked library. Jack was in the process of refashioning himself as a ‘wild philosopher without a degree’. He read madly to catch up on all he’d missed and began work on an ambitious treatise that tried to explain the crisis in Western thought that had led to the wars and the development of nuclear weapons.
Judith was attracted to his arguments. She too felt that there had been ‘a sort of hypertrophy of the intellectual side of Western man at the expense of the feeling side’. But she was worldly enough to recognise that his knowledge had been cobbled together. Through her administrative job at the University of Queensland, she provided him with books and articles on the latest developments in physics and contemporary philosophy, which Jack devoured gratefully as he embarked on his epic.
‘My Darling we’re going to be very happy and defy the world,’ he wrote to her.
‘I have doubts about this Jack,’ I said to R, laying the collection of their letters on the bed beside me.
‘I understand everyone felt they owed a debt to old soldiers. And I know that women were expected to keep house in those days. But it really seems to me he got the better end of the deal.’
‘She was in love with him.’
‘I find even his love letters unreadable. Let alone the philosophy. Listen to this…’
I read her a tangled parsing of Hegel he’d sent Judith during one of his manic bursts of reading.
‘Well, I don’t claim to understand what he’s talking about, but I’m not a philosopher.’
‘Nor am I. But my point is he got to sit there for fifteen years writing his unreadable book, while she typed it for him, paid the bills, became the leading Australian poet of her generation, and did all the housework.’
I expected her to agree. In fact, I was probably overstating my case to impress her. But she was adamant in her defence of Jack.
‘She was in love with him,’ she said again, as if that explained everything.
R and I soon moved in together at Ryan Street near the river. The UQ Ecology Lab was flush with money in those days and attracted brilliant young people from all over the world. I grew accustomed to Friday night dinners at the Asian places along Hardgrave Road with a dozen or more nationalities at our table. Often, I was the only Australian and found myself cast in the enjoyable role of local expert.
Soon, she took me to meet her parents in Mexico City. They were friendly, but cautious. Why did this Australian speak Spanish with a thick Argentine accent? How serious was he about their daughter?
During the same trip, R took me hiking in the Oaxacan sierra near her field sites. For three days, we tramped the high ridge lines of forested hills, watching vultures circle over fields of yellowish maize. Eventually, in a dusty mountain outpost, we came upon a woman no taller than a child, standing in waist-high grass. A wooden pail half-filled with herbs dangled from the crook of her arm. In her free hand, she brandished a scythe. She invited us to her hut, and offered to perform a limpia, a cleansing ceremony – for a small fee. She had me strip to my boxer shorts, so she could rub my bare chest with coarse, freshly cut herbs dipped in alcohol. She murmured Spanish and Zapotec incantations. She blew on the dampness over my heart until it dried. Her two long plaits were the colour of ashes, but her skin was as smooth as polished stone. When her huge yellow eyes gazed into mine, I felt she intuited things about R and me that we were hiding from ourselves and each other: that our wedding bands were only for the sake of appearances; that we weren’t ready to commit because we were still too unsure of ourselves as individuals to love one another well; that only a painful rupture would teach us how to be together – to risk open dialogue, to listen across languages, to live with difference. But perhaps the chain of impressions I attributed to the woman was no more than a projection of my own fears. Perhaps, in her culture the little frown she made as she stared into my face opened onto some other unimaginable hinterland of feeling behind her eyes. Or perhaps, like most fortune tellers, she was simply trying to guess what her customers most wanted to hear. In the end, instead of revealing the underbelly of our relationship, she merely restoked the woodfire stove with a poker. Turning back to us, she muttered: ‘You and your wife will have a daughter.’
We carry Vera down to the strand to admire the iridescent green plumage of the ducks. Nice to think of little Meredith McKinney ‘running ecstatically’ into the same calm, brown waters.
A little distance off her Australian and Mexican grandparents are paddling the big red canoe with my sister-in-law alongside in the kayak, translating. It’s lovely to see them enjoying each other’s company. Vera’s abuelos flew thousands of kilometres to be in Australia for her birth, only to sweat through the hottest Queensland summer in memory. They spent much of it in the kitchen of our cramped rental house in East Brisbane with the oven and stove cranked. When not stocking the deep freezer with hand-made corn tortillas and spicy chipotle creations for us to eat after they’d left, they took long walks around Brisbane’s mostly treeless inner south. Often, they returned from Wooloongabba, Coorparoo, or Stones Corner laden with heavy shopping bags when the relentless sun was high in the sky.
One especially hot day, we had to take Vera’s abuelo to the emergency ward with chest pains.
‘His heart’s fine,’ said the doctor. ‘But we’re going to have to get some electrolytes into him. He’s severely dehydrated.’
Back in the stuffy little kitchen, we decided they’d worked enough. It was time to get out of the city.
‘Why don’t we all go up the lake?’ suggested my parents. ‘There’s enough space for everyone.’
Squatting in the sugar-fine sand, I dangle Vera’s feet in the cool shallows.
From the end of the wooden pier we gaze across the lake’s choppy, brown water. This whole sweep of beaches, dunes, mangroves, swamps, woodlands, and waterways – from Tin Can Bay down to Noosa – is named after the coastal sand cypress. Sometimes the sea breeze in the branches sings the name of the country: Coo-loo-la.
There were probably less than a thousand Aboriginal people here before 1788. The early British weren’t impressed. ‘Nothing… can well be imagined more barren than this peninsula,’ wrote Matthew Flinders, in 1802. Infertile, sandy soils have kept the human population down, but Cooloola teems with other forms of life: king parrots, black cockatoos, and the red-backed fairy wren that once brought the sun’s fire to earth; echidnas, bandicoots, and flying fox; dugong, ghost crabs, and bream; eucalypts, goatsfoot vine, and the phaius orchid of Judith Wright’s lyric:
For whose eyes – for whose eyes
does this blind being weave
sand’s poverty, water’s sour,
the white and black of the hour
into the image I hold
and cannot understand? (‘Phaius Orchid’)
Over the eastern shoreline looms the largest vegetated dune system in the world, which has served as a navigational aid for generations of watercraft: bark canoes, colonial sloops, pleasure sailors’ catamarans and fishermen’s tin runabouts. From its source in the mountains, the tea-coloured black waters of the Noosa River meander slowly south through a chain of six, salt-water lakes: Cooloola, Como, Cootharaba, Cooroibah, Doonela, and Weyba.
Cootharaba, our lake, is the largest – about ten kilometres long and five kilometres wide. In Kabi, the name means place of trees whose wood makes sturdy clubs. Down by the pier is a stone monument to Eliza Fraser, the shipwrecked white woman who survived with local Aboriginals for several months in 1836, before being ‘rescued’ from the lake’s northern shores by the convict Graham. This local legend inspired sensational nineteenth-century newspaper reports, and later Patrick White’s novel, A Fringe of Leaves. Fraser’s belief that the Aboriginals – who fed and treated her with traditional medicine – had kidnapped rather than rescued her, fitted her European contemporaries’ prejudices and preconceptions. The incident increased hostility and mistrust on both sides of the Queensland frontier, and paved the way for the violent dispossession of Cooloola Aboriginals that followed.
There is no monument to those who kept Eliza Fraser alive.
When Judith Wright’s poetry was first foisted upon me as a school boy in the 1990s, she was still being taught as a jingoistic nationalist. The focus was upon early poems like ‘Bullocky,’ and ‘South of My Days,’ that could be taken to celebrate the heroic pioneers of Australia’s rural mythology. In the classroom, even furiously angry political poems like ‘Australia, 1970,’ were systematically drained of their force by the counting of iambic feet and the labelling of line endings. Wright, ever the prophet, accurately predicted that generations of school teachers would turn her poems into ‘implements of torture’. That was certainly the case at my suburban state school, where even the handful of us who were keen readers and were drawn to poetry, decided on the basis of Judith Wright and a narrow sampling of others, that Australian literature was ‘too dusty’ for modern city kids. We devoted ourselves to reading Americans and Brits. They seemed to inhabit a larger, more sophisticated universe than our own. It was only in my twenties, when the tough subject matter, formal daring, and intellectual energy of Latin American writers set my senses alight, that I began to be curious about writing from my own hemisphere.
Further around the shoreline, past the general store and the camping ground, stands the trunk of a lone paperbark. Knotted-white, and dead as many years as I can remember, its branches claw the sky like a witch’s gnarled hand. Even when campers’ kids play in the shallows around it or kick a ball across sand knobbly with its dead roots, the tree casts an eerie spell over this stretch of beach.
This scorching summer morning we have the place to ourselves. I hold Vera up to see the skeletal paperbark, but recoil when she reaches out for its trunk.
‘Don’t touch. Not that tree.’
The haunted paperbark has always reminded me of the ‘driftwood spear’ that startles the narrator of Wright’s poem, ‘At Cooloolah,’ from The Two Fires (1955). It is among her best-known lyrics and became an unofficial rallying cry for conservationists pushing to protect the region from sand-mining in the 1960s and 1970s. Returning to it after many years, I realised I’d only skimmed the surface.
The poem is a nature inscription. It commemorates the feelings a place of natural beauty trigger in the poet, beginning with an image of a white-faced heron. Wright refers to it by its common name, the blue crane, capturing the impression that the bird, a greyish-white wader common across Australasia, ‘wears’ the colour of the evening sky mirrored in the water:
The blue crane fishing in Cooloola’s twilight
Has fished there longer than our centuries.
He is the certain heir of lake and evening,
And he will wear their colour till he dies (‘At Cooloolah’)
For Wright, the sight of the crane fails to bring ‘tranquil restoration,’ as might be expected in the European romantic tradition. ‘Our centuries,’ stresses the brevity of settler-Australian presence at Cooloola when compared to the crane’s timeless belonging. It’s not the individual bird whose life has endured centuries, but the species. By repeatedly referring to plural phenomena with singular nouns – ‘plumed reed and paperbark,’ ‘crane and swan’ – the poem slides from the individual to the archetypical. Birds often symbolise the relationship between the conscious and unconscious mind in Jung’s writing – a strong influence on Wright. The poet’s unconscious fear, anxiety, and sense of unbelonging in the Australian landscape are implicitly registered from the outset and become ever more pronounced. The stanza ending ‘till he dies’ has an ominous ring in the wake of Wright’s epigram from Heraclitus, which describes the world as a fire, ‘with measures of it kindling, and measures going out’. This is 1955, ten years on from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the US and Soviet Union locked in an arm’s race. Are the bird, the lake, the poet, and her song, all about to be extinguished?
The third stanza shifts suddenly from the threatened loveliness of the lakeside scene to violence of another kind:
But I’m a stranger, come of a conquering people.
I cannot share his calm, who watch his lake,
being unloved by all my eyes delight in,
and made uneasy, for an old murder’s sake.
What is this old murder? As with the crane, Wright is working from the particular to the general. In talking about one killing, she is referring, in the first instance, to the local fate of ‘those dark-skinned people who once named Cooloolah.’ It’s well known that massacres of Indigenous people took place at nearby Lake Weyba and Teewah Beach during the nineteenth century. But the ‘old murder’ also stands more broadly for the violent dispossession of Aborigines that was written out of Australian history over much of the twentieth century. ‘At Cooloolah’ attends to the physic toll repressing this past takes on the settler Australian conscience. As the daughter of an old pioneering family, Wright feels personally implicated:
Riding at noon and ninety years ago,
My grandfather was beckoned by a ghost –
a black accoutred warrior armed for fighting,
who sank into bare plain, as now into time past.
The cause of the grandfather’s bad conscience becomes clear when we refer to a more-detailed version of the same incident in Wright’s novelised family history, The Generations of Men (1959). Albert Wright, Judith’s paternal grandfather, was an important settler in the Dawson Valley district of central Queensland in the 1870s. According to his diaries, he was once called to the scene of a murder of four Aboriginal men. As co-manager of the station and local justice of the peace, it was his duty to inform police. Instead, knowing he would be shunned as a traitor to his fellow white men if he reported the incident, he rode conspicuously back into town, giving the perpetrators time to dispose of the bodies. ‘Neither whites nor blacks would ever speak of them again,’ wrote Judith. ‘But on Albert’s mind they stayed a heavy load.’ This is the background, in Generations of Men, to the ghostly appearance of ‘a warrior standing alone by the one dead tree on the plain’.
In ‘At Cooloolah,’ the grandfather’s role as collaborator in a cover-up, rather than a perpetrator is not spelt out. The reader must disentangle the relationship between old murder, grandfather, and ghost for him or herself. The historian Georgina Arnott argues in The Unknown Judith Wright (2017) that, while the poet was among the first to acknowledge the devastation the pastoral invasion of Australia caused to Aboriginal people, her writing tends to downplay her own ancestors’ role in it. For Arnott, Wright’s interpretation of the historical documents suggests, ‘the enduring strength of a family loyalty that she was not always fully aware or in control of’.
Wright might have been a flawed historian. But her poetry gains much of its charge from the tension between family loyalty, love of the land, and the ethical imperative to acknowledge past wrongs. In ‘At Cooloolah,’ the neat four-line stanzas, and regular five-stress lines express a need for containment and control that is undone by the thematic focus on the return of the repressed. Finally, an ancestral curse wells up from the lake-water to trouble the conscience of the pioneer-pastoralist’s poet granddaughter:
And walking on clean sand among the prints
of bird and animal, I am challenged by a driftwood spear
thrust from the water; and, like my grandfather
must quiet a heart accused by its own fear.
The spear is the guilt of the historical beneficiary of colonialism; and it is also the fear of the fire that might soon be reflected in the lake’s ‘clear heavenly levels’ in the event of nuclear war. The crane’s centuries of fishing may soon be disrupted, it is implied, even this peaceful shoreline will not be spared.
The little we know of Cooloola’s earliest inhabitants has been built up by triangulating archaeological evidence, written accounts by nineteenth-century Europeans, and testimony from a handful of Aboriginal elders.
Camp entrances faced downwind; grass was scattered on the floors of bark huts; possum-skin rugs were sewn together with kangaroo-tail sinew; they set out inland on daily foraging missions; oysters, fresh fish, scrub turkey, bunya nuts, bandicoots, and honey were consumed; children were forbidden to eat eels; the chests and upper arms of initiated men were cut with sharp shells and healed with grease and charcoal; bark canoes were used to navigate waterways; tracks were marked by bending a branch to ninety degrees at hip height; much time was spent gathering firewood; they feared thunder and lightning and would not pronounce the names of the dead; whites were believed to be the ghosts of blacks; the land was believed to have been created by a turtle brooding on the water; the cry of a curlew signalled impending death.
Cooloola, with its infertile soil and dense forests, protected the coastal Dulingbara – the people of the nautilus shell – from Europeans some twenty-five years longer than their inland neighbours, the Batjala and Gubi Gubi, whose traditional lifestyles were disrupted by pastoral settlements along the Mary River and the brutality of the Native Police Force throughout the 1850s. Shell middens and stone artefacts discovered at Cooloola suggest Aboriginal presence for five millennia, with a continuous pattern of occupancy from about nine hundred years ago until around the time of the 1867 Gympie Gold Rush. At that time, the demand for building supplies on the booming inland goldfields attracted timbermen to Cooloola’s pristine stands of cedar and pine.
The Dulingbara were shipped off to missions or forced from the forest to seek their fortunes in Gympie, where they often died of imported diseases and drink. They were poisoned at Kilcoy and shot near Lake Weyba at a place nowadays called Massacre Creek. In 1950, an elder named Gaiarbau or Willie Mackenzie sat down with an anthropologist and recorded his memories of touring the region as a young man in the 1880s – the basis of much of our present knowledge. A few years later, he spoke with Judith Wright’s close friend, the Aboriginal poet, Oodgeroo Noonuncal, who commemorated their encounter in the poem ‘Last of His Tribe’:
I asked and you let me hear
The soft vowelly tongue to be heard now
No more for ever. For me
You enact old scenes, old ways, you who have used
Boomerang and spear…
All gone, all gone. And I feel
The sudden sting of tears, Willie Mackenzie
In the Salvation Army Home.
Displaced person in your own country,
Lonely in teeming city crowds,
Last of your tribe.
The three of us hike the forest trail out to Mill Point. For the first kilometre or so, Vera gazes into the treetops from the hiking pack on my back, trying to find the whip bird whose song rings out in the canopy. Sunlight slants between the dazzling white trunks of red and scribbly gums, blackbutts, and melaleucas. There are plenty of thirty and forty-year-old trees, but nothing older. The forest is still regenerating. By the time we reach the turn off, Vera’s fast asleep. She ignores the mosquitos, and doesn’t even wake when a huge grey kangaroo, taller than R, bounds across our path and vanishes into the long grass.
The ruined brick chimney of an old dairy under mango and guava trees announces we’ve arrived. Along with a few railway sleepers and a rusted-out boiler, this is all that remains of McGhie, Luya, and Company’s timber settlement. At its height in the 1880s, sixty families lived on the shore of Lake Cootharaba. The township flourished for twenty years, sending Kauri pine and cedar to Brisbane by steamer. But by the 1890s, the best timber supplies were exhausted. Shortly after the mill closed its doors, it was wrecked by the catastrophic floods of 1893. Lake water rose two metres over the shoreline.
Judith Wright’s ‘The Graves at Millpoint’ describes the lonely tomb of a timber cutter named Alf Watt, whose passing she imagines as the end of the whole forlorn, windblown little outpost: ‘When he died the town died.’ The poem unfolds as a dialogue between the poet and the bloodwood tree growing from the dead man’s bones: ‘Tell me of the world’s end,/ You heavy bloodwood tree.’
Wright’s lyric has sometimes been interpreted as an elegiac tribute to the pioneers who opened up Cooloola. But I’m inclined to read it ironically as a grim parody of bush balladry. The bloodwoods, with their tear-shaped leaves, only appear to weep for the woodcutters in their graves, and to flower ‘for their sake’, if we accept the anthropocentric conceit that humans operate outside and above nature. If we believe, as Wright did, that humans are part of nature’s web of interdependencies and subject to its laws, then what we have is an image of humanity cut down to size. The wind in the leaves is less a lament for the timber cutter, than a sign of nature’s indifference. The trees that outlive the timber town have no cause to mourn its human occupants – they simply go on flowering as they’ve always done.
Like ‘At Cooloola,’ the poem uses local history to prophesise apocalyptic consequences for civilisation more broadly, if human beings continue to assert God-like power over nature. The ultimate symbol of this arrogance, for Judith and Jack, was the nuclear bomb. ‘The long wave that rides the lake/with rain upon its crest,’ is an image of a tidal wave sweeping the placid waters of Cootharaba, perhaps even of nuclear rain. The ruined mill is ‘where the world ends,’ in multiple ways. It’s situated at the ‘end’ of civilisation and is where the ‘world’ of the town ended. But in a final and more drastic sense, the Mill Point timber settlement symbolises the end to which the world will come if humans fail to reconfigure their relationship with nature. As in Wright’s more overt poems of atomic anxiety, her fears for the future are embodied in the figure of her daughter, the ‘wandering child’, who stoops to read Alf Watt’s grave stone.
Through roaring wind and lengthening shadows, we hurry back from Mill Point to the sanctuary of the lakeside house.
Judith, Jack, and Meredith holidayed at Boreen Point until Jack’s death. In 1966, after fifteen years ‘in the very core of concentration’, he finally finished The Structure of Modern Thought, his philosophical opus about ‘the modern crisis of feeling and of thought’. Though he had written himself out of the personal crisis that gripped him when he first met Judith, the effort of transforming himself from a soldier-farmer into a published philosopher wrecked his health. He was suffering from rheumatism and severe stomach cramps and had already survived multiple heart attacks. In October, sensing their time together would be limited, the couple took a driving holiday to the ‘obscure hamlet’ of St George in southwest Queensland, where Jack had worked as a drover in his ‘last year of innocence’ before the first world war. Half a century on, they found the brigalow country unrecognisable – cleared, ploughed, and environmentally devastated. Travelling into this dead landscape, the normally gregarious Jack lapsed into silence.
He was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer upon their return and died, two months later of a heart attack, at Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital in Brisbane.
Judith couldn’t bring herself to visit the lakeside house for many years. ‘I have not dared to go to Boreen,’ she wrote to Barbara Blackman a year after Jack’s death. In 1973, she finally returned to sell Melaleuca. Her final Cooloola poem, ‘Lake in Spring,’ attests to the loneliness of this last trip, for the shallow reaches of Lake Cootharaba no longer carry Jack’s reflection:
Now when I bend to it again
another spring, another year
have changed and greyed the images,
and the face that lay beside
my own, no longer answers there. (‘Lake in Spring’)
By the time I returned from my first trip to South America with an unkempt beard, shaggy shoulder-length hair, and a backpack stained with red Bolivian dust, Old Al was in a high level aged-care facility near my parents’ house. I turned up with a tape deck, intending to record the story of his war service. Though he remembered who I was, he wasn’t in any state to coherently recount his life. He kept counting the red vehicles in the carpark and the horses in the paddock behind the back fence.
His dementia was advanced by the time R came into my life. She never met him, but she held my hand through the funeral and that was enough. It was a small service at a Redcliffe funeral parlour with about thirty mourners in attendance. Beyond the immediate family, most were elderly female friends from the retirement village – he had outlived his male friends.
‘Your grandfather could have remarried, you know,’ said his blind neighbour, leaning on my arm. ‘Plenty of ladies were interested.’
She shook her head.
‘But he was a one-woman man.’
We sat across the aisle from my parents through the speeches. My Mum, who’d been at the bedside when he died, calmly outlined his childhood, war service, marriage, and long widowhood. My peacenik uncle, up from the commune, wept at the lectern as he tried to convey something of the generational divide that had separated him from his father.
In the absence of any religious rites, the funeral director had asked us to supply a reading. Reluctantly, we settled on ‘Clancy of the Overflow,’ because an old Banjo Patterson anthology was the only poetry we found in his house. From the state of it, I suspected it had belonged to my grandmother and had sat mouldering in the garage for twenty years. Though there was always a stack of popular science at his bedside, I’d never seen Al read a work of imaginative literature. As I read the poem aloud for the assembled crowed, its nostalgic depiction of rural Australia seemed no closer to the reality of his life than mine. I wish we’d found Judith Wright in his garage instead.
When the ceremony was done, the funeral director asked if I’d like to say goodbye before the body was taken to the crematorium.
‘Just be aware,’ she said, parting the curtains and leading me toward the coffin, ‘that he’s been in the fridge. The cold gives some people a fright, but it’s perfectly normal.’
He wore a baggy brown suit. His eyes were closed and his mouth was slightly ajar. I lay my warm hand on his cool one and wondeed about the things that hadn’t made it into his journals. ‘Why make a fuss?’ was a far cry from Judith and Jack’s overt anti-war activism. But I thought I sensed in his refusal to celebrate Anzac Day an unspoken scepticism, and in his compulsive reading of atheist polemics a quiet unease about the things he’d been made to do as a young man. There were a million German casualties of the allied bombing campaign in the second world war, at a cost of a hundred thousand allied airmen. Men who refused to fly were classified as ‘lacking moral fibre’. Those who did were asked to flatten whole towns. Some of their missions, like the bombing of Dresden, weren’t directed at major centres of wartime industry, and instead targeted civilians to break German morale. Having survived the terror of more than forty night-time bombing missions, and lost many friends, Al had sixty years to reflect on what it all meant.
The director discretely coughed, eager to clear the room for the next funeral.
That night, I woke up past midnight with the distinct sensation of my grandfather’s cold hand gripping mine. One last bone-crunching handshake.
‘What is it?’ asked R, stirring.
‘It’s nothing. Just hold my hand.’
Judith’s habit of inflating Jack’s importance and diminishing her own could already be observed in the early days of their courtship:
Darling I’ve just finished typing the article and it came over me all of a sudden on the crest of a great wave of humility that I belong to a very great man … and when my modest name goes down to posterity it will be because I had the honour of typing the first copies.
The year after his death, she persuaded Chatto and Windus in London to posthumously publish, The Structure of Modern Thought. It was brought out in 1971. Aside from a snobbish dismissal in The Spectator, the notices were sympathetic. But none of it added up to the ‘intellectual atom bomb’ he’d predicted in an early letter. Judith, unlike my grandfather, had a second great love: a twenty-five-year relationship with the high-profile public servant Nugget Coombs. Still, she remained a fierce advocate for the importance of Jack’s philosophy all her days, and often said her greatest regret was not bringing it to a wider audience. They are buried together in the Mt Tamborine cemetery under a grave stone that reads ‘United in Truth.’ She insisted all her life that Jack McKinney would have made a seminal contribution to twentieth-century thought, if anyone had cared to listen.
On the evidence of The Structure of Modern Thought, it’s hard not to conclude that Jack’s greatest contribution to twentieth-century intellectual life was the imprint he left in Judith Wright’s poetry. However brave, brilliant and charismatic, he was not the neglected giant she believed him to be. He was her muse, I think, in an era when it wasn’t acceptable for the woman to be the genius and the man to play the supporting role, even among free thinkers and artists. And, he was foremost among the many difficult causes Judith championed over the years.
From the 1970s until to her death in the year 2000, Wright’s focus shifted from poetry to environmental activism and advocacy for Indigenous rights.
One of her great early successes as President of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland was the push to protect the Cooloola sand mass from rutile and zircon mining. In 1967, the Bjelke-Petersen state government granted Conzinc Riotinto a permit to mine sections of the 1.8 million-year-old Cooloola dunes, with operations set to expand within a few years. As the 1972 state elections approached, the WPSQ petitioned the Queensland parliament and targeted marginal seats. Their grassroots campaign ‘Spend Five Cents to Save Cooloola’ resulted in fifteen-thousand postcards being delivered to the Premier’s office:
Your government’s failure to declare the whole of Cooloola a National Park, in the face of mounting public pressure, is deplorable. The only acceptable use for this unique wilderness is its immediate dedication as a National Park.
Their efforts prompted a backbench revolt against cabinet. Bjelke-Petersen eventually sided with the nervous back-benchers, using his casting vote to save the dunes and his own job.
Sand mining ceased in 1976 and the whole of Cooloola is now part of Great Sandy National Park.
Forty years on from that victory, and a couple of years after the centenary of Judith Wright’s birth, the ongoing urgency and importance of her work – both as a poet and a conservationist – lies in the way she speaks to global environmental crisis out of the haunted, damaged spaces of the colonised Australian landscape. Gradually – with the translation of her work into Japanese, Russian, Spanish and other languages, and new scholarship like that of Stuart Cooke placing her work in dialogue with Latin American nature poetry – we are coming to recognise Wright as a world poet rather than one who merely explains Australia to itself. She is a poet of our hemisphere, for whom rapturous attention to the natural world – ‘this southern weather’ – represents a step toward decolonising the Southern mind.
So, we lie sleeping in the lakeside house on land that belongs to us but will never be ours. The wind whispers ‘Coo-loo-la’ in the melaleucas. Vera sleeps on my chest in a room filled with golden light.
Al never set eyes on the lakeside house, but I know he would have loved it: the boatshed and macadamia tree out the back, the breezy eastern outlook from the veranda. Water was always a solace to him. Mum took him to the ocean at every opportunity during the twenty years he lived alone. They had sailed mirror dinghies together on Port Phillip Bay in Melbourne when she was a girl. The lakeside house, furnished with his things, is decorated with sea shells and driftwood and Mum’s photos of the world’s watery places: the Scottish Lochs, the Yangtze River, the Aegean Sea. And there, out the window, our shining lake. Beyond its far shore, beyond the thin finger of land separating us from the Pacific, the roar of the ocean breakers is louder, the tide is rising.
It’s good to be still having moved so much these last years. This is Dulingbara and Gubi Gubi country, but I’m finally beginning to feel we belong here, too. Outside all is water, light, and air. Melbourne, Pátzcuaro, Torreón, Brisbane, and Mexico City converge in the voices of the older generation. Sleep’s tide takes us. The lakeside house is decorated with my mother’s photos of her travels in the North. But our dreams are of Southern places: the healer in the Oaxacan hills whose prophesy came true; the thunderous crack of a Patagonian glacier; the cave paintings at Carnarvon of red clay hands reaching out of the past. At the edge of consciousness, I register hands lifting Vera off me, carrying her into the next room.
I wake alone. R’s voice floats in from the balcony, speaking to our daughter in soft, childish tones. As I emerge blinking in the sunlight, I see she has Vera sitting on the broad wooden railing facing the lake. It’s a clear morning and the water’s surface is ‘blue as a doll’s eye’. I put my arms around R and give Vera a good morning peck on the cheek, but she barely acknowledges it, because her eyes are fixed on the undulating sky upon the water where a pelican is about to land. For a moment, it hangs over a perfect mirror image of itself.
Then the two birds merge.
This is an extract from the book Requiem with Yellow Butterflies which will be published by University of Western Australia Publishing in 2019.
Glenn Albrecht et al. “Solastalgia: The Distress Caused by Environmental Change.” Australasian Psychiatry, vol. 15, no. 1, 2007.
Georgina Arnott. “Extract: The Unknown Judith Wright.” Teaching History, vol. 50, no. 4, 2016.
Veronica Brady. South of My Days: A Biography of Judith Wright. Angus & Robertson, 2006.
Elaine Brown. Cooloola Coast. University of Queensland Press, 2000.
Fiona Capp. My Blood’s Country. Allen & Unwin, 2010.Patricia Clarke and Meredith McKinney, editors. With Love and Fury: Selected Letters of Judith Wright. National Library of Australia, 2006.
Stuart Cooke. “Orpheus in the New World: Poetry and Landscape in Australia and Chile.” Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature, vol. 24, no. 2, 2010.
Matthew Flinders. A Voyage to Terra Australis. W. Bulmer and Co., 1814.
J.P. McKinney. The Structure of Modern Thought. Chatto and Windus, 1971.
Meredith McKinney. “Memoir of Judith and Jack.” The Equal Heart and Mind: Letters between Judith Wright and Jack Mckinney. Edited by Patricia Clarke and Meredith Mckinney. U of Queensland P, 2004.
Oodgeroo Noonuccal. My People, Jacaranda, 1990.
Shirley Walker. Flame and Shadow: A Study of Judith Wright. U of Queensland P, 1996.
Judith Wright, Collected Poems 1942-1985. Angus & Robertson, 1994.
– “Conservation as a Concept.” Quadrant, vol. 12, no. 1, 1968
– The Generations of Men. ETT Imprint.
– Half a Lifetime. Text, 1999. p.280.