Saturday 4 August 2012

The Wright Approach

I’m not sure what I expected to find, driving from Canberra’s tableland down the undulating road to the coast. But when we stopped for a break at Braidwood, an odd mix of memories and connections surfaced.

I had vaguely associated Braidwood with family stories of mild motoring adventures in days beyond memory. There was a bit of Toad of Toad Hall – poop poop and all – about my father, and his father. In cars that are now vintage they forded swollen rivers and braved dirt tracks in this district before Canberra even existed.

I also associated the place with the poet Judith Wright. Hers was a poetry that had been with me all my life, from the pages of primary school’s The School Magazine onwards. And I knew that she had lived near Braidwood for the last few decades of her life.

Australian Poet Judith Wright (image: The Age)
We had lunch in the town on the way to the coast, coffee on the way back. We explored a few other shops, and drove on. It was hardly an in-depth tour of Braidwood – and certainly not the way to gain any sense of the place that the great poet knew and wrote about. As I said, I’m not sure what I expected.

But the experience did raise some larger questions. What, for instance, would it take for anyone to truly experience a place that has been made famous – “real” even – by someone of note. Is it possible to find William Wordsworth’s Lake District? Or in the Green Mountains of Vermont, might I discover Robert Frost’s road not taken? Or would the Pilliga ever reveal again what it revealed to Eric Rolls?

What does it take for anyone, be they poet, writer, painter or photographer, to capture the sense of a place? Is it even possible? Or is the experience of place such an individual matter, and place itself so mutable, that we can only ever hope to triangulate it?

Judith Wright wrote wisely on this matter. Herself a transplant from Queensland to the Southern Tablelands, she told her friend Kathleen McArthur that:

Before one's country can become accepted background against which (one’s) imagination can move unhindered, it must first be observed, understood, described, and as it were absorbed.

Another Braidwood writer, Jackie French, observed first hand Judith Wright’s ability to sit for hours on her bushland property, just watching. A poem like 'Lichen, Moss, Fungus' illustrates the fruit of such watching.

Lichens, mosses and fungi—

these flourish on this rock ridge,

a delicate crushable tundra:

bracket, star, cup, parasol,

gilled, pored, spored, membraned,

white, chestnut, violet, red.

Winter Sun in the Tasmanian Mountains 
Back in Hobart, the winter has been relatively benign. Nonetheless, while returning to health after a dose of the ‘flu, this week’s snow showers and frost had me recalling another Judith Wright poem, ‘Moving South’.

Wind off the mountain snow,

small white-etched trees

leaning in leeward gestures.

I shall step carefully into the acid vapour

of morning frost.

After four days in a warm bed, I too should have been stepping carefully. But on the fifth day I was ready to welcome the cold embrace of the bush air, the banishment of cabin fever. It was time to again absorb this place.

John Gould's painting of spotted pardalotes, ca. 1860 

Soon the sun was shining its warm promise. And when I heard the season’s first spotted pardalotes calling pee-paw from the tree tops, it put a literal spring in my step. 

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