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Regional Chic and the Power of Place

When I first moved to Byron Bay, some city contemporaries thought I was copping out, dropping out or having a very premature midlife crisis.

In those days, it had not yet become hip to downscale, de-escalate and go back-to-nature, and Byron Bay had not yet reached its current apogee of fashionability for urban escapees.

At that time, happiness for masses of metropolites was, as Wallace Stevens wrote, "an acquisition."

Whereas by the fin de sicle, many of the middle-class (and mostly middle-aged) trendoids, feeling burnt out by working, working working in various Bladerunnerlands, were, as David Brooks wrote, "frantically shopping for the acoutrements of calm." They were fantasising about buying or "building a home where [they] can finally sit still and relax," a place where they could retreat without their ambition tagging along. Although we were all on word processors by the early 90s, business still was conducted primarily by phone and fax. Again, somewhat prematurely, I connected to email in 1985. It was lonely online then as there was virtually no one to talk to, and even the most cool urban entrepreneurial dudes, estranged as they were from the natural world, thought a website was the location of a spider home. Also, there was absolutely no biz cred or personal chic associated with living regionally or rurally.

None of these societal prejudices deterred me from relocation. For even at that time Byron was steadily acquiring its reputation -- as a unique, quality-of-life place to live. Visitors referred to its lush environs as "special", "powerful", "healing" "regenerative" (choose you own magical epithet), a place where people would go for a period of rest, recuperation and reassessment. In my social circles, there was plenty of talk about geomancy, earth magnetism and leylines. Harkening back to a dinner I once shared with two local friends, David and Peter, in a Lawson Street restaurant one balmy evening, I recall David saying he'd heard that a leyline ran through Mullumbimby, one of our neighbouring towns. Peter quipped laconically that a surefire business bet would be to open a new backbackers' hostel in Burringbar Street, Mullum, and publicise it as being built on a leyline.

I've written quite a bit about the power of place (in my book Love Letters from Mother Nature and on my website, www.shelleyneller.com). This subject always raises some incontestable truths (certain places on the planet do appear to affect people benefically) and some intriguing questions (how does this happen?)

For instance, one might reasonably ask: is the power of place inherently in the land, in the very rocks and crystals, dirt, dust and plant matter of a particular patch of the planet? Is there, as they say colloquially, something in the Byron water? And is this, apart from the blindingly obvious -- the gobsmacking subtropical beauty of the Shire, what subliminally attracts people to holiday or live here?

Or do people, gradually, collectively, over time, bring a certain energy and consciousness to the place they call home? And does this consciousness and energy, by some ethereal osmosis, flow out and bestow, imbue, permeate and positively influence the local landscape and atmosphere?

Or are both speculations true? And in which order? It's a chicken and egg conundrum.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Indian guru who taught the Beatles Transcendental Meditation, claims that if only 0.5 per cent of the world's population meditated, the influence of this would be so positively powerful it would create world peace. Hypothetically this theory makes me feel good, but when I consider that the local Byron population must boast one of the highest incidences of regular meditators in Australia, and when I observe the local political and social scenes with their entrenched and internicine warfare and machiavellian manoeuvres, I can only deduce that we residents are not chanting enough mantras to create local, let alone global peace and goodwill towards people, flora and fauna…

A while back, on one of my beloved beach walks, I ruminated some more over these notions. Trailing a dead branch in the soft Belongil sand behind me, I walked the shoreline pondering:have certain stories, songs, wisdoms, always existed a priori in the earth's landscape or are they the projections, the inventions, of peoples throughout the ages? My instinctive response is that the former is true, a belief which I discovered had been confirmed by James Cowan, an Australian poet and writer who has spent many years in the outback with tribal Aborigines. Cowan maintains that the landscape is imprinted with its own metaphysical data, waiting to be invoked. Even if we are wrong on this score, there are Eastern masters and Western theologians who maintain that projections during one's spiritual journey are essential, that without them the spiritual life (like love affairs) would not generate the heat to get started.

Unfortunately, we've now reached a stage where Byron Bay has become a victim of its own rapidly evolving mythology, its own juggernaut of good, albeit eyebrow-raising press. The rich biodiversity of local life which attracted human transplants here in the 70s, 80s and early 90s -- the residents' full-spectrum individuality (as in hippies, ferals, surfies, star-gazers, tarot readers, goths, vegetarians, musos, healers and organic gardeners, to name a few tribes), funky architecture (yuppies should read this as "unrenovated"), quirky local shops selling locally made wares -- all of these strands of original community life daily grow closer to marginalisation from the town centre or even to annihilation by rampant overdevelopment, escalating rents, trendy citification and homogenising, and an increasing I-want the city-in the country mindset exemplified by the following anecdote.

At the Byron Writers' Festival this year, a black-clad inner-city type declared publicly that one of his crucial criteria for upping stakes and moving to the Far North Coast was that the place should provide him with his requisite weekly hit of films at local cinemas. He appeared to be trying to cultivate local favour by praising the development of a brand new twin cinema in town. Lacking the sensitive antennae of a long-term local, he failed to notice a distinct ripple of audience disquiet around this remark. For a substantial portion of locals who've lived here for many years do not crave - and some actively resist -- this kind of development. So many of us did not come here for an addictive hit of air-conditioned cinemas, shopping malls and the like. We came for the surfing, the pristine environment, the old-fashionedness of the place; in short, we came for the Shire's blessed absence of city trappings.

To use an extended ecological metaphor, many of Byron Bay's unusual and variegated human species are rapidly becoming extinct or rare, due to habitat loss and displacement (See Byron Times Column 4, The Way We Were) by that rampant introduced species, the bobos* (bourgeois bohemians, as David Brooks calls them in his book Bobos in Paradise).

Once established, this alien species often dominates disturbed areas in and around the Bay (hinterland is never as appealing to despoil; the capital gain just can't match that of beachside real estate), and can destroy original habitat systems. Two particularly aggressive invaders - Sydney superannuatii and Yuppie materialis - pose the greatest threat to native species and in particular to long-established but fragile social systems. Regrettably, there is no local government management plan for this onslaught on native species.

Admittedly, defining "native" in human terms can be a real sticking point. Where does one draw the line? Equally contentious is the highly charged question of if and when to pull up the drawbridge? One can't, of course. It's a free country and, within the constraints of current local planning laws, you can move and build where you wish. Still, you might muse on the following paragraph from Salman Rushdie's novel The Moor's Last Sigh for its pertinence to the Bay.

"Have you noticed that Benengeli is defined by what it lacks - that unlike much of the region, certainly unlike the whole Costa, it is devoid of such excrescences as Coca-Loco nightclubs, coach parties on guided tours, burro-taxis, currency cambios ['fraid one of these recently sprouted in Byron Street], and vendors of straw sombreros? Our excellent Sargento, Salvador Medina, drives all such horrors away by administering nocturnal beatings, in the village's many dark alleys, to any entrepreneur who seeks to introduce them. Salvador Medina dislikes me intensely, by the way, as he dislikes all the town's newcomers, but like all well-settled immigrants - like the great majority of the Parasites - I applaud his policy of repulsing the new wave of invaders. Now that we're in, it's only right that somebody should slam the door shut behind us."

In a recent discussion paper produced by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), Taking the devil out of development, Byron Shire Council ranked second, after Sydney's Warringah Council, as the most-complained-about council in Australia. It's no coincidence that Byron and Warringah are two coastal councils subject to immense pressure for development and redevelopment.

The ICAC paper stated :"One only has to read the local paper or attend a council planning committee in an area which is subject to development pressure, in order to understand what issues arise in the development assessment process, what emotions are inflamed and what can be at stake.

"For an applicant, a development consent may represent the key to an improved quality of life, a new business, an improved income or a significant profit.

"For residents within the locality of a proposed development, a consent may represent a loss of views or sunlight, overlooking of what was once private open space, more traffic and on-street parking, an increased potential for anti-social behaviour, more noise or an adverse impact on their streetscape…"

On another beachwalk, I caught myself humming, an aimless spill of jaunty notes that filled me up and at the same time made me feel lighter. I scanned the horizon for whales, for as my friend Rod Gibson, the Poet Lorikeet of the Bay, has written: "They sing to each other with eerie noises beneath the membrane of the sea." At one point I became aware that I was expectant, on the alert for something - movement, action, a flicker, a flash, a glimpse, a curiosity or distraction, a heart-expanding display, a defining moment. During my life's long interlude here I have savored the pep-ups, the ephemeral highs of such "trips" (one overcast afternoon on Tallow Beach I was thrilled to see a silver fish leap forward five times in high arcs; one evening, lying on the same sands, I saw a stunning succession of falling stars; one dawn a swarm of cobalt-colored bees blanketed the orange trumpet vine out back, and one sizzling spring high noon on deserted Tyagarah beach I was rivetted by a wallaby in the surf) and occasionally pine for more.

Yes, I told myself after this grateful inventory, forget the cinemas and the retail therapy! In addition to the satisfying pleasures of small-town living, it was the natural world with its marked contradistinction to a sprawling metropolis, which attracted thousands of "immigrants" like me to this place. If you'll indulge me in yet another nature analogy (this time an avian one, for I am a bird lover) -- leylines or no leylines, and twin cinemas notwithstanding, I see clearly in my crystal ball that Byron is in danger of becoming such a trussed-up goose that very soon it may not be able to lay any more golden eggs.

Oh well, I guess golden eggs are not to everyone's taste. And even if they are, there's always the air-conditioned comfort of the twin cinemas in which to guzzle a Coke, watch an American blockbuster and temporarily forget about your significant loss of small-town community amenity, identity and diversity; to turn a blind eye to what must incrementally but surely become the diminution of the power of this place.

The Byron Underwater Festival 2008 – sun, fun & record crowds

The 2nd Byron Underwater Festival was a massive success. Sell out events and activities, glorious weather and calm seas made this an event to remember for everyone.

Almost 60 people from all over Australia came to participate in the annual underwater photo and video shootout competition, making it the biggest event of this kind in the whole Australasia region. Over 20,000 dollars worth of prizes including cameras, underwater housings, dive gear and a dive trip for two to Papua New Guinea were handed over to winning participants in 7 categories. Biggest winner was Ballina resident Mark Gray who scored both first prize in the SLR camera category as well as the Underwater Portfolio. Two local school groups went out with sponsor cameras to take underwater photos for the first time and the winning students walked away with an underwater photography course, diving vouchers and books. The Marine Visions open medium art competition held as part of the Underwater Festival in conjunction with Retrospect Galleries saw over 100 entries including sculptures, photographs and some amazing fine art.

Over 300 people attended the launch event on Friday and it was pushing room only to get close to the works. Winner of the fine art prize was Paul Colby with his work titled “Marine Playground”. Some works can still be seen at Retrospect Galleries this week and will remain on display on the Underwater Festival website – underwaterfestival.com.au Part of this year’s Byron Underwater Festival was also the Australian premiere screening of the anti-JAWS documentary “Sharkwater” by Canadian filmmaker Rob Stewart.

The screening was held as a fund raiser for “Australian Seabird Rescue” in Ballina and organised in collaboration with the BayFM “Generator” program at Byron Cinemas biggest screen on Saturday night. The night was a sell-out and the personal introduction to the film by world renowned underwater cinematographer David Hannan made the screening a huge success. Certainly a film everybody should go and watch when it get released Australia wide on May 15. Other highlights of the festival were the underwater photography clinics by Mathieu Meur, who flew in for this festival all the way from Singapore. His clinics were sold out quickly and participants were putting their new learned skills to test immediately. Mathieu who authored 3 books on digital underwater photography promised to be back next year for more workshops.

Last years guest of honour, Australia’s own underwater pioneer Neville Coleman was back this year to launch his new book the “Nudibranchs Encyclopedia of Asia and Indo-Pacific”. Neville is the author of over 60 books and well known for his passion for the underwater world and the small and unusual critters it contains. Listening to him talk about his many decades of exploration is an inspiration and for those who managed to meet him during the festival or hear his radio interview on BayFM on Friday will realise what an amazing person he is.

The Byron Underwater Festival is an annual event and not just for divers. Aimed at everyone wanting to experience our marine environment for themselves it encourages all to participate – whether you want to learn more about it, dive it, snorkel it, kayak it … or even paint it. Only one year to go to the next one …

Birds, bugs and butterflies at third Brunswick Valley Nature Festival

The 2008 Brunswick Valley Nature Festival will be all about conserving biodiversity in our unique natural environment. The theme “Birds, bugs and butterflies” will highlight the threat of climate change to the region’s biodiversity as increasing numbers of species face extinction, and just what that means for our future.

The Festival will be at the Shearwater Steiner School at Mullumbimby on Sunday 1st June, 2008. You can read more about the Festival at www.brunswickvalleylandcare.org.au The day will include workshops and presentations, bird walks, and lots of hands-on and fun activities for everyone.

Put the date in your calendar now. Volunteers are needed to assist with the organisation and to help out on the day – please offer your services if there is anything you would like to do to make the Festival a success. Volunteers are invited to call Adrian on 6685 1287 or email to brunsvalley@optusnet.com.au Posted by Adrian Begg, Brunswick Valley Landcare.

Living In The Byron Bubble

It is possible to fall as passionately in love with a place as with a person.

Both types of love affairs follow the same psychological lines of unfoldment. You set eyes on the intended. Sparks fly. Before you can say "Jack (or Jill) Robinson" or "Belongil Beach", you're smitten by the love object, who appears, initially to fulfill all your wildest dreams.

You flirt, you put your toe, so to speak, in the water, you grow superficially acquainted; then, more often than not, you plunge rapidly into what our culture mistakenly identifies as intimacy. That is to say, you are in bed together - literally or metaphorically, or, if you're lucky, both. You don't want to be anywhere else. He/she/this place is your heartland. It all becomes very intense. It begins to feel like - let me surface for a deep breath here - This is It! You hang out together, superglued at the hip by the seductive power of pure potential. You make plans, you fantasise about how perfect the future is going to be. A classic case of pure projection, as the shrinks would say.

They also say that with person-to-person love affairs it takes about two months for the initial limerance, that delectable word and state, to wear off. With locations, special place with which you have fallen truly, madly, deeply in love, it can take years for the romance to wear thin, for the honeymoon to be over. And then it's time to make a decision. Do you want to bail out, seek a new love interest and start the courtship phase all over again - and that may well be an appropriate course of action - or do you want to recommit yourself to your loved one and move on to a deeper, restructured phase of relating?

For several months after I moved from Bondi Beach to Byron Bay, Australia's most easterly, surf's up ecotopia, I had to keep pinching myself to make sure this radical relocation was for real. In the lee of the Cape one diamond day, I sat down and wrote a long euphoric, gratitude list, the core components of which, on reviewing, still hold true:

  • Byron is a viridescent, sub-tropical jewel in the continent's bellybutton.
  • Byron is not just a ravishing physical environment, it is a state of mind. It occupies an affectionate place in the national psyche, in the Australian Dream, and rightly so, for it is a place which affords you the time and (microsocietal) permission to find out who you are, apart from what you do.
  • Byron is one of the last bastions of the invididual, or as one local wit once put it: "the truth is out there - and so are we."

Exquisite jewels, when held in a certain light, however, may exhibit the odd dark facet. What the visiting apostles of trendiness can't perceive when they rock in, in the four-wheel drives, with their rose-colored glasses, their fingers drumming impatient tattoos on café tables all over town ("the service is so slow," they gripe) is that living here is an outward-bound course for the spirit, a post-graduate degree in personal boundary setting. As they say in New Age-speak, whatever or whoever your issues, you'll get plenty of chances to confront them in a small place like this. Ain't no metropolitan anonymity 'round here, folks. Your "stuff," as they used to call it in 80s self-awareness seminars, will be in your face often - at the post office and the weekends markets, in the library and the yoga classes, on the beaches…

You can pick the new residents because they rave about how wonderful it is to walk down Jonson Street and say hello to so many people they know; because they're more interested in finding out how you make your money than who you sleep with and because they've just rented a post office box for two months and announced smugly: "Yeah, I'm a local."

The longer they live here, the more they are likely to develop a different worldview. For example, I have stumbled on a new definition of forgiveness. If you spot someone you know, but now wish you didn't, in the soap powder aisle at Woolworths, that inevitable epicentre of desirable and undesirable social collisions, and you feel the urgent need to turn your trolley around, slip on your dark glasses and zoom off in the opposite direction, you clearly haven't forgiven them. If there is a theme song for the Days of Our Byron Lives, two strong flipside contenders would have to be How Sweet It Is and Nowhere To Run (Nowhere to Hide).

Despite this goldfishbowl existence, for almost seven years I barely stepped foot outside the Shire. For certain goods and services unobtainable in the Bay, I would occasionally cruise over to Ballina or to Lismore, where the streets are filled with folk who look like extras from a Fellini film. Going to the Gold Coast gave me a headache, literally. On the intermittent occasions I went to Sydney, I got sick. As for Queensland, I'd done my time there while growing up and now only crossed the border into the Deep North to attend funerals.

My Sydney friends envied my idyllic incarceration, turning up once or twice a year for R & R from their life-leaching corporate schedules.

You can grow quite cocooned and self-satisfied living in the Byron Bubble. Which I discovered one year when I drove to Hervey Bay to join some friends on a week-long whale-watching expedition. Travelling up with a Byron acquaintance and her small son, we stopped for a tea break at a roadhouse outside Bundaberg. After the tea, we walked back to my old Corona, parked in the vast bitumed car park. As we drew alongside my car, we saw a big, bearded man who looked as if he customarily ate four cows for breakfast, standing with his hands on his substantial hips, inspecting the stickers on the rear window. One of these said: "The goddess is alive. Magic is afoot."

"Which wunna-yous'd be the goddess?" he challenged in a surly voice, a real ton-of-fun kind of guy. Before we had a chance to reply, he turned his back, folded his massive frame into his Queensland-registered, mud-spattered ute and roared off.

Aside from anything else, I've grown accustomed to and fond of the local semiotics. In Sydney, for example, the shops feature large signs warning in capital letters, that shoplifters will be prosecuted. In Byron, smaller signs in calligraphy chide the customers that "Stealing is Bad Karma." In Byron "Magic Happens" is the ubiquitous bumper sticker which signifies a belief in the benevolence of the local atmosphere. In Sydney, it's the name of a singles club for thirtysomethings.

The nature of personal reality shifts as constantly and subtly as the sands on Tallow Beach. Examining the shape of my current dunes of desire, I'm still glad I swapped a sizeable salary and the crowded isolation of Cement City, for a reordered set of life priorities, for soul-salving scenery and treasured friendships, for a strong sense of community, albeit one with a measure of small-mindedness.

According to one local real estate agent, writers are now featuring strongly among his property buyers. Byron has become what David Brooks calls a "latte town" and now I wonder if we're turning into an Antipodean version of L.A. as an industry town, but instead of every second waiter or taxi driver or tarot card reader being an aspiring actor, ours are writers. Well, there could be worse demographics, I reckon.

Cappuccinos, internet cafes, international change bureaus and writers notwithstanding, Byron is still a very small town.

Nevertheless, I've discovered it is possible to deepen in one's affections for the beloved - warts (Christmas tourist plagues, overdevelopment, galloping gossip) and all.

Life in Byron has given me the time, that luxury commodity which trades at a premium in the city, and the mindset to deconstruct and reinvent myself, to feather my own seaside nest. And it was only a few years ago, the seventh year of the proverbial itch, when I realised that, having made my own cosy green bed, I wasn't obliged to lie in it all the time.

I found myself ogling travel brochures and considering short-term contract jobs abroad. I found myself spending a few seasons on Sydney's northern beaches. One vitreous autumn afternoon, while walking on Palm Beach, I ran into a film producer I'd worked with during the 80s. This man, a veteran surfer, had lived at Cooper's Shoot in the 70s and he knew the Shire well.

After we exchanged pleasantries, he challenged me with: "I thought you went to live in Byron Bay?"

"I did," I replied, "but that was 1991 and I'm a big girl now. I'm allowed to come out sometimes and play in your back yard."

Moments later he told me about a recent trip he'd made to London. He spoke of how much he had enjoyed the change of scene, the experience of mixing with, as he called it, "a different strata of society."

"Exactly!" I concurred, hoping to reiterate my point about pluralism.

But his eyes grew glassy. My point had not punctuated his bubble of belief in Byron as the ultimate, one-way destination, as a kind of Hotel California of the Far North Coast - you know: you can check out, but you can never leave.

After the film producer and I said farewell, I walked north towards the Palm Beach lighthouse. Like Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings I found myself thinking warm-fuzzy, hobbit-like thought of home. As Frodo said before he set out on his 1000-page adventure: "There have been times when I thought the [Shire] inhabitants too stupid or dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them. But I don't feel like that now. I feel that as long as the Shire lies behind, safe and comfortable, I shall find wandering more bearable. I shall know that somewhere there is a firm foothold, even if my feet cannot stand there again."

On Tallow Beach

Going down to my local beach always reminds me of being born. I’ve been cocooned, writing for ages on the “inside”, when suddenly I hear the roar of the breaking waters, the contractions begin and the big push to get out into the wider world is on. The birth canal is the path cut through the big entrance dune, which I enter through a shady tunnel of tuckeroo trees. I emerge on the “outside”, wide-eyed, wet, salty or licked alive by the wind, reborn into any one of myriad scenarios, for this beach, like all beaches, has its moods, its changing casts and hues.

These alter, subtly or dramatically, from hour to hour, from moment to moment. If I come down morning, noon and dusk on the same day, I can be gobsmacked by the awesome manifoldness of creation. I may find myself invigorated by an early splash in a choppy, overcast Pacific, burnished by midday’s merciless rays, then swaddled in sunset’s rubescence. When I can retain the raw receptivity of infancy, the innocent eye of childhood, these are votive scenes. They’re precious gifts and just the jolt to get me breathing deeply.

Cresting the dune one autumn morning, I crane my neck for a quick preview. A long clean streak of space, it’s unpeopled, for the Easter break is over and the tourists have departed, but it is far from a subdued natal setting. It is all airy animation and effulgence down here. The sky is a glistening jellyfish blue (some jellyfish actually manufacture their own light); the light is crystalline, flowing down onto the beach in a white confluence. The salty, sybaritic smell of freedom, like a heat-seeking emission, flies straight up my nostrils.

A lenient sou’easter has the clouds doing some stunning shapeshifting. Overhead, the cumulus have pearly white crowns and distended underbellies of pale taupe. Down at Broken Head, they’re draping whole ravines in dark nebula. Up towards the Cape they are pure ivory, backlit, trailing diffuse streamers of light. Banked in holy masses, they look like religious postcards drifting towards Queensland. This sky, like every sky, like a finger print, is unique. The clouds the clouds the clouds I say, a reflexive daily mantra. The cumulonimbus out to sea are storeys high, their slate foundations fat with rain and hung low enough to graze the horizon.

I look and look at that blurry hyacinth line which the dictionary calls “the range or limit of scope, interest, knowledge”. For a short while, I project my thoughts beyond it, directly -- give or take a few islands -- to Chile. The Chileans, I assume, revere their land and seascapes, too. There must be literature, art, to attest. Some other time I might ask at the library; right now I’m up to my limit on the borrowing quota.

In a library book I once happened upon an extract from Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-3) which said : “We know that one earthquake may raise the coast of Chile for a hundred miles to an average height of about five feet. A repetition of two thousand shocks of equal violence might produce a mountain chain one hundred miles long and ten thousand feet high. Now should ... one of these conclusions happen in a century, it would be consistent with the order of events experienced by the Chileans from the earliest times.” That made the survival tactics of Mother Nature and the Chileans sound pretty impressive. But Chile is a momentary idyll. The true, magnetic compass of my interest is here, latitude 28:41, longtitude 153:37, and now, 11am-ish (I don’t wear a watch anymore).

Most natural landscapes, even those which superficially appear barren or bland, are, I believe, rich, multilayered and idiosyncratic. Initially, their surface lines form a pattern of immediately obvious attractions and deficiencies. But since most of them have survived colorful histories that are longer than we can comfortably comprehend, they may also harbour less apparent qualities -- such as antediluvian wisdom, ingrained contradictions, unalloyed compassion, buried vulnerabilities. They may hum with hidden powers and stream with serpentine stories, dark mysteries, magic, myths, poetry and parables. They may cradle deep energies from which may flow either or both of the twin tributaries of delight and tribulation.

These interred treasures cannot instantly be detected or grabbed at by the greedy or the casually curious. Rather, it seems, they may unfold themselves, their portents, promises and higher purposes when we are in the right frame of mind. My own (adult) receptivity to these disclosures developed very subtly, very gradually right here in my own locale. My experience is that place is an active force, capable of a cogent interaction with us, capable of carving a deeply meaningful intaglio in our hearts.

* * *

Straight ahead a couple is fishing. She has just caught something. A white flash flails desperately on the sand until she smothers it with a weighted covering. I am a fish-eater. I avert my eyes, and thank that creature for its life. The fishers have picked a good spot. Half a dozen gannets circle overhead and suddenly one dives so ferociously, so ... vertiginously, it must surely smash itself on the aquamarine tube below. But no. Although a diving gannet hits the water at 96 kilometres per hour, this plunge was, as usual, aerodynamically perfect. It is hard to tell if the bird has caught something because gannets seize fish in their serrated bills and often swallow them before surfacing. In any event, it rises effortlessly from the wash. This dazzling routine is one I’ve seen often, yet each time it affects me the same way. My feet take root like a mangrove in the wet shore and I bear a marvelling kind of witness to the sheer risk and dare of that life-supporting manoeuvre. Of course, the gannets, who need neither affectation nor applause to get them through their days, are not being grandiloquent. It’s all just breakfast, lunch and dinner to them. Or is it? Blind instinct, you might say. Or, watching all those perspicacious encores, you might perceive that the airborne artistry is so effortlessly and immaculately blended into their lives that the two are inseparable. Wo am I, grappling to express and assimilate my own creativity into my life, to deny them that brilliant merger?

A swift scan of the sky reveals no sign of a brahminy kite, but a wedge-tailed shearwater is dynamically soaring on the prevailing winds. Suddenly it parachutes with its wings spread to the max. Devilishly it dips, catches another updraft and soars statically (its tail feathers fanned out and flapping furiously), before gliding, then dropping, then beating the force of gravity at its own game one more time, and lifting higher and higher. Is it scouting for food or is it trying to get somewhere? Is it testing the wind direction or is it – here’s that curly one again – just having fun? On a scintillating, red-letter day like today, wouldn’t you?

The tide is way out, the sand still moist from the previous night’s rain and the ocean has sculpted afresh the long bleached shoreline to the south. I start towards Broken Head, paddling in the shallows. A young kelpie up ahead runs withershins around the clear, kidney-shaped lagoon that wasn’t there yesterday, chasing a white-faced heron, scattering the silver gulls who’ve gathered on its seaward bar. I wonder how old they are, for I’ve heard that gulls, aside from being masters of thermodynamics, can live for as long as thirty years. They lift off, soar in a streamlined circle for a few minutes, then descend like a deluge of white teardrops, their harsh, plaintive cries tempering a sanguine sky which, this morning is giving the turquoise waters a run for their money in the universal beauty stakes. Or seen in another light, the ethers and the ocean are not competitors at all, but a smooth double act, moving and gliding in a curvy dance of their own devising. However you view things, it’s quite a scene down here. My bare feet trip lightly along the shore. I step out in a chest-filling faith that a grand choreographer is at work.

* * *

I think about this place, my home, and how it has seduced me, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, into marrying the Muse; how it has enticed me to put down roots in Joseph Campbell country – following my bliss, trusting the garden path of organic creativity to lead me through some fresh green fields along the way. During this, my own organically home-grown “Course in Miracles” and “Creation Time,” I have gained some priceless experience and understanding.

If -- and there is “much virtue in If” -- for just a microsecond, I allow myself to be enlightened, I can feel in my bones that, finally, it does not matter where “time” takes me, or any of us. One day – who knows? – I may check out of this coastal coven. Somewhere, sometime, I’m bound to say my fond farewells to the flexings and fumings of whole restless planet. But on another plane, I remain convinced that a part of me has been abducted and bound (but not gagged) by the spirit of this place.

This text is an extract from Love Letters from Mother Nature: A Meditative Journey, available from Byron Books, Fletcher Street, Byron Bay or online from Bruce Sims Books. Email: brucesims@ozemail.com.au

 

To The Lake Once More

Near where I live is a ti-tree lake, known in local Aboriginal lore as the women's lake. It's believed that before white settlement the lake was frequented by the Indigenous women, the Arakwal clan of the Bundjalung nation. In particular, it's said that the pregnant women bathed in it because of the therapeutic properties of the ti-tree oil.

An unspoiled place, surrounded by bush, steeped in tranquility, and one white-winged morning in mid-winter I set off, via the beach, to spend some time there. En route I hoped to spot whales, for the Humpbacks were on their annual migratory path from the Antarctic to the tropical waters off the Queensland coast to breed. I was in luck. A mother and calf coasted just beyond the breakers, blowing spume and tail fluking. Seeing this play gladdened me, although it was neither my first nor my closest sighting of those lurching leviathans. My friends Trish and Wally Franklin, who have spent as much time in close contact with Humpbacks as any researchers on the planet, say that such glimpses satisfy "important human needs" which cannot be quantified in economic or political terms. The inner growth resulting from such encounters does not show up in the gross national product, or in the sterile bottom line of the economic rationalists.

In the 1950s Byron Bay was one of Australia's major whaling stations. By 1959 the Byron Bay Whaling Company was granted a quota of one hundred and fifty whales (who in those times averaged ten tons). But by 1960, the whalers had almost wiped out the humpbacks and the barbaric practice was finished. Attitudes, thankfully, have changed and these days the only whales being shot around here are those sighted through the telescopic camera lenses of the whale-watching tourists who cluster around the Cape during the migration season.

When the whales had swum out of sight, I dawdled a while near a colony of crested terns in case a couple of them decided to turn on one of their spectacular paired mating flights. But they were all occupied with what appeared to be their morning ablutions and grooming. A southerly buster ruffled their shaggy black caps so they resembled a bunch of preening teenagers with mohawk haircuts.

I turned inland, following a shallow amber thread of water back to its source. The lake's broad waters were placid and turbid as dark treacle, the perfect inscrutable consort for the faded sky which was dimpled by a white half-moon in the west. The tracks lacing the sandy shore cut through dense scrubby vegetation, a chaotic genius of canopy, understory and ground cover - wallum banksias, broadleafed paperbarks, ti-trees, swamp- and black she oaks proliferated, sheltering grass trees (fetching small fortunes in city nurseries these days), eggs and bacon bushes, lilies, irises, twining snake vines and the tiny ground-hugging and carnivorous sun dews plant which eats ants for breakfast.

Like so much of the Australian bush with its muted, grey-green and brown tones, this was not a place that socked you in the eye with a gaudy or grand beauty. But, alive with the croaky calls of wattle birds, the startling flashes of yellow on honey-eaters mid-flight, the thin notes of red-backed fairy wrens in the undergrowth, the murmurs of a zephyr through the tall, dry reeds, the bush radiated its own vibrant appeal.

That morning it was not a panorama I wanted (although the human eye naturally sees in panorama, in sweeps of roughly one hundred and forty degrees), but the intimacy of a sunny nook, so I retraced my steps to the seaward neck of the lake and, loose-limbed, all eyes, all ears, nestled against a grassy bank. A Welcome swallow flitted back and forth across the water, deftly skimming within inches of its surface. To my ears, its song was a long quiet, rambling twitter, but another bird would have heard the swallow's song as a much more complicated rendition. Such birdsongs often feature a detailed pattern of melody and rhythm, but they are broadcast so fast that humans can only identify them as a twittering, like a tape of our speech on fast forward. Although we hear sounds over a similar range to birds, they can hear ten times faster than us. Who then lives in the richer world, stereophonically speaking?

From the upper branches of a casuarina tree, a brahminy kite lifted off, performing a series of slow, fluid arabesques over the channel before cruising north on its solitary hunting rounds. On the opposite bank, the shallow water's slight ripples were mirrored as silver ribbons of wavy light on the pale, flaky trunks of paperbark trees. With a softened gaze, I watched those light waves. Time passed. I closed my eyes to help the entrenched, eagle-eyed observer in me, the one who always has to apprehend, to gradually let go. I allowed my shoulders to drop and my mind to be carried along as if by the water’s current. An image of my backyard heliconias came to me, bringing to light a dream from the previous evening. In that dream, the heliconias had "spoken" to me.

"See how we're always sending up new shoots? We let them all come up to the surface, to grow tall and stand together in a supportive clump. That's why we're beautiful." As psychological metaphors go, this certainly made sense to me.

I sat very still, breathing and listening, until the flickering light behind my eyelids faded out, until the place's serenity began to permeate me, until she and I grew seamless.

* * *

That evening, in my garden I sat on a rock and arranged around me a semi-circle of citronella candles. Under a fine spread of stars, I inhaled the candles' lemon scent and exhaled my thanks for all the beauty I'd encountered and absorbed in my time on this plane. Beauty, I realised, had informed and directed large tracts of my life, much as the stars have always done for mariners and for certain migratory breeds of birds.

Since childhood, my perception of beauty had been principally and inextricably linked to nature. Like a doppleganger sparking the embers of cherished memory, it lingered, even decades after the original physical formation had been obliterated by a dam, a freeway or a new housing development. In quest of beauty, I had variously moved house, borrowed money (to renovate), fallen in love, created a garden, travelled afield.

Yet as I pondered, a "modern", dissenting voice inside my head spoke up, playing devil's advocate, denigrating beauty and giving it a bad rap. "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," it said, trotting out a tired and cynical cliché. I countered with Matthew Fox's claim that this facile and glib dismissal of beauty occurs because "harmony and cosmos are so little dealt with. Beauty alerts us to our cosmic connections." A dyed-in-the rainforest Romantic, I threw in some classic Keats, too: " ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ -- that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ " And a succinct swipe of Blake: "everything that lives in Holy."

The dissenting voice grew a little shrill in its demands for me to recant: You Romantics live in a dream world, eschewing science and the hard, dark facts of life, it said. So I parried with a few insights from Peter Marshall's Nature's Web: "Romanticism not only offers a modern way of experiencing reality, but forms the basis of a truly ecological sensibility." For Romantics see the universe as a living organism, an organic whole. Through their exuberant pursuit of individual expression, they, like most ecologists, esteem unity in diversity. They have a love of unspoiled natural environments, of wilderness and pristine places. They intuit the divine presence in all things and in their desire to interpret nature, are avid explorers of all levels of consciousness.

What a tragedy of our times that beauty needs to be sanctioned, I thought. Fox claims that Westerners lost beauty when we lost the creation-centred spiritual traditions -- in effect, when we lost the cosmos.

And so the dialectics went, until, weary of them, I dropped into meditation... Afterwards, the candles were burning low. It was late and I wanted to sleep, for at first light I was going to the Belongil estuary to bird-watch.

This text is an extract from Love Letters from Mother Nature: A Meditative Journey, available from Byron Books, Fletcher Street, Byron Bay or online from Bruce Sims Books. Email: brucesims@ozemail.com.au

Green Ink

EXACTLY when I became an addict, I can't say, for the compulsion to green your own ground, like the spur of necessity to write, can creep up on you. But somewhere, somehow, several seasons back I became a compulsive planter.

This planting proclivity, this imperative dalliance with the dirt, which the dictionary describes variously as: to set (seeds, crops, et cetera) into (ground) to grow; to place firmly in position; to establish, found, to implant in the mind, can lead you into some shady and secluded avenues of cross-fertilisation, as I discovered recently when I found myself writing a book about nature, a process which taught me, among many things, to surrender to life's fluctuating rhythms of engagement.

One day I'm out walking in the wilds or working in the garden, exposed to the sun, the wind, the scent of salt air, the clouds of mosquitoes and fiery nests of jumping ants; next day I'm a lounge lizard, reading all manner of books, poetry, magazines, the local rag, idly doodling daisies, adjectives, ideas and disembodied phrases in my notebook. These wisps entertain the mind and set it off on new and sometimes wildly tangential courses. Some courses I bypass; others I follow, contemplatively tossing them around in the compost heap of my mind where they age, gradually break down and, in a fresh, unrecognisable form, serve as fertiliser for a whole new creation.

When you're trying to cultivate your own creative course in life, your best bet is to follow the chief force of attraction. For me, right now, that is down amongst the densely planted trees in my backyard. Pottering amongst them, I find myself steeped in a still satisfaction. I may ponder a prevailing problem or momentarily immerse myself in the borrowed scenery of some fuzzy future, but mostly my mind is, as Marvell put it: "Annihilating all that's made/To a green thought in a green shade."

This past summer, the remorseless sub-tropical humidity hit hard. In my neck of the woods, or what's left of them, the trees are an antidote to enervation. One morning I ambled under the canopy and sat on a rock the size of a small television set. This rock I had uncovered several days before while digging a hole to plant a tree fern. Using an old fence paling and the garden hoe, I had, with the help of a neighbour, levered and heaved it out of the ground.

Sometimes when I settle on that black rock awhile, certain ambiguous concepts, muffled desires, imaginative or emotional filaments as fine as dandelion flowers or finch feathers begin to float up. If I can resist clutching at them, they will sail towards me and settle softly on the shoulders of my writing. Then, like a mother hen with an itchy wing, I will scratch and stroke and smooth them. I will cluck over them and hold them up against the harsh light. Days, weeks, years may go by. Eventually, they will coalesce on the printed page.

Meanwhile, on the lounge lizard days, I assume the horizontal and investigate all manner of things about trees, turning the pages and chewing on the irony that so many of these sentient beings lay down their lives for the paper on which the information I seek has been printed. In a hard-bound exercise book, for which even more trees died, I make notes.

Importuning the powers that be, I mutter: Hopefully this is all in a good cause. I write down:

  • A mere acre of trees can remove approximately thirteen tons of dust and gases from the atmosphere every year.
     
  • The ancient Greeks attributed great oracular powers to oak trees because their roots penetrated so deeply into the earth, the repository of wisdom and insight into the future.
     
  • The Druids so revered the oak that it signified their order.
     
  • Merlin, it's claimed, conducted his enchantments in the shade of an oak tree.
     
  • The Kadamba was one of Krishna's favourite trees, while the myrtle was said to be sacred to Aphrodite.
     
  • In pagan times people believed that spirits lived in trees and they would not pass particular sacred trees without stroking their bark to assuage the trees' spirits, to tap into their wisdom, or perhaps to make a wish. Hence the expression "touch wood."
     
  • While no one in Australia, to my knowledge, has attempted to put a monetary value on the many vital services that trees provide, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has had a go. They calculated that a single tree that lives for fifty years will contribute services worth almost 200,000 American dollars to the community during its lifetime.

Discovering all this stuff, however, does not alleviate the planting addiction on which I find myself hooked. If anything, it only intensifies it to the point where I can hardly keep my hands out of the soil or my wallet. On the fringe of the forest, I scan, plot and plan -- a Flindersia brayleyana here, a Syzygium luehmannii there. I wish someone would start a Planters Anonymous program for us addicts. I've lived in the Rainbow Region for several years now, so I've heard the 12-step meeting spiel.

Sitting on my television rock, I give it a birl: "Hi. My name's Shelley and I'm an addict. Some days I just cannot stop, even when I'm aching and sweaty and exhausted. The mere sounds of the names seduce me -- Waterhousia floribunda, Randia benthamiana, Cryptocarya obovata, Toona australis. Every time I drive past a nursery, I struggle to keep the wheels steering straight ahead instead of veering left for a quick green score. I've clocked up nearly two weeks' clean time, but if I'm truthful, that's only because I spent the money earmarked for the electricity bill on twelve mature Bangalow palms and now I'm broke for a while."

Leaning my back against the trunk of a Swamp Mahogany, I consult my higher power about this compulsive-addictive syndrome.

What do you advise? I humbly petition.

An authoritative voice replies: Keep planting. Keep writing. You are indeed deep in the forest right now, but on the right track.

I scratch my head. Was that my higher power or my earthbound ego speaking? Is there not a part of me, of all of us planting addicts, that wishes to make our own miniscule green mark on the planet before we pass on to the happy planting grounds further afield?

In the writing life, what else can you do but fossick through the fragments of your own fancies, fetishes and frets? Every so often a gossamer outline of the impending work hangs suspended in a clearing up ahead, glimmering like a tinselled cobweb in the dawn dew. But you must approach it tenderly. If you charge at it or through it, you will mangle it, destroy its fragile and particular form. And then you'll have to stay up half the night like a deranged Daddy Longlegs, frantically fine-spinning the words all over again. And after all that effort, you still may not manage to weave the exact same gorgeous web on which you first set eyes. This business of approaching and unveiling one's work and, ipso facto one's life, can be a delicate operation, a sensitive balancing act, a steep, respectful learning curve.

The secular world promotes the full speed ahead, gung-ho approach to achievement; it advocates techniques like goal-setting, check lists, time management; it sanctions the imposing and overlaying of a preconceived pattern. But when you're writing or preparing to write, you are, as often as not, in a dappled zone of revision and recantation through which a wintry mistral of ambivalence constantly blows. It echoes in your ears, irritates your eyes, keeps you generally edgy, wavering, or shaken. You dare not complain about it, for it insulates you equally and alternately against your vicious inner critic and your impulses to lapse into creative complacency.

For days or weeks the work may not go well. Then one morning, for no apparent reason, the cotton wool clouds of your thoughts part and a pale crescent moon of clarity reveals itself. You grab the pen. Gratefully, you outline a lunette of words. With wild abandon or detailed deliberateness, depending on the depth of your desperation, you trace its arc amongst the work. By sunset, you're thinking "at last the lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places, yea, I have a goodly heritage and will shout myself an Indian takeaway tonight and maybe even a massage tomorrow."

The thing about the work is: you have to persist. You have to sit still somewhere and start. You scribble. And wait. Scrawl a little more. Tap, tap, tap the keyboard. Delete. Cut and paste. Tinker. Drink endless glasses of lemon water, cups of tea. Gaze out the window, hoping for a lightning bolt of inspiration to strike you. Ruminate. Twiddle. Type some more. A rolling stone gathers no moss -- and it is precisely the moss, the soft verdant skin of the work, which you need to allow to grow on you, to cover you in its moist, dense mats of meaning

To return to the tree-planting trope, the writing process goes something like this: You plant the seed, you water, you fertilize, you mulch. You wait. You are in the early stages of frondescence. Some leaves will thrive, some will wither and fall off the twig. The trunk gradually grows branches, sometimes too many. You prune. You cannot afford to be fainthearted about this, yet you must also be considerate and wily about the pruning -- the amount, the timing of it. If you don't prune enough, the work will grow straggly or unwieldy; if you prune too soon, it will not blossom; if you prune too brutally, you will destroy its inherent shape.

One afternoon in the forest I was down on my knees mulching a Davidson's Plum (Davidsonia pruriens) when something went plop. A Lewin's honeyeater had landed on one of the thick juicy stems of a Giant Elephant's Ear, Cunjevoi (Alocasia macrorrhiza). He peck, peck, pecked open the fragrant, fat pod to get to the tiny red fruits inside, then made a hearty meal of most of them before flitting off. I made a mental note to plant more Cunjevoi -- and then I caught myself drifting like a tuna ensnared in the net of these green ideas

How, I asked myself, had I managed to float this far away from the fast-forward world with which I once so feverishly engaged? Whatever happened to that old eighties part of my persona, the woman who wore stilettoes, silk stockings and navy power suits, who straightened her hair, who rode her animus with spurs on, negotiating city boardrooms and the Himalayan egos of vertically challenged film producers with equal dexterity, who heard the cash register ringing as she churned out slick client copy week after well-paid week? Had I ventured into a twilight glade too far off the bright, beaten track? Was my work too allusive, too meditative, too Romantic?

In quest of reassurance, I prowled my local bookshops and was heartened to hear that the nature sections are among the most popular and fastest growing. One day I dragged myself out of this most easterly ecotopia I call home and schlepped to the city. The mainstream bookshops there had fat, glossy sections for gardening -- Don Burke Does Tuscany and What Rhododenron is That? -- but there was none for any broader view of nature and our relationship to Her (unless you count the panoramic coffee table books). I cast a critical eye over the mass-market, non-fiction best-sellers and wondered, for a nanosecond, if I could redirect my writing inclinations towards, say, Thai cooking or a-thousand-and-one Aussie jokes? Nah. I'm afraid that someone else will have to reap the royalties from those. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, I've not only gone bush, I've also gone and married the Muse. I've put down roots in Joseph Campbell country -- following my bliss, trusting the garden path of organic creativity to lead me through some fresh green fields along the way.

Just the other day, after an especially productive and tiring day of planting, I had a dream. I was walking in an open field emblazoned only by a massive spreading tree like an ancient oak. In a split second, some tremendous invisible force lifted the oak out of the earth, suspended it about ten metres in the clear blue air and began to spin it tremendously fast. Around and around like a whirling dervish surrounded by a huge halo of light it rotated, until its branches contracted and curled in, gnarled and distorted by the pressure. After several minutes the spinning gradually slowed to a halt. The branches began to uncoil and the leaves to unfurl and resume their normal outstretched shape. The surrounding featureless landscape and the whole event were charged with a vital, positive power. Unhurriedly, the mighty force then lowered the tree back into the earth in a new spot only metres from its original position.

I awoke with the understanding that this whole happening was a sign of how certain contretemps, cycles of creativity and changes will erupt from the deep seams of the unconscious and heave us, in spasms and starts, through life, whether we think we're ready or not.

Copies of my book, "Love Letters from Mother Nature, "which explores what it is like to fall in love with a universe that is alive and which prizes nature-as-teacher, are out in the bookshops and on the internet, vying with countless others for readers' attentions, and, like all authors, I wish for healthy readership. But the mind, to resist neurotic longing, must entertain itself, move on. And so the fresh idea seeds for another work are already germinating in the dark humus of my imagination. In my usual plodding pursuit of an elusive ideal, I will continue to plant and prune, to ponder, make notes, write and rewrite until the new work reaches full bloom.

But in the grand scheme, I put my hopes for my writing in the power, the unlimited agent of alteration that illuminated, uprooted, gyrated and transplanted the oak tree.

In the interim, to fill the restless gaps between writing bouts, I continue to make myself useful to the ecosystem. Every so often I step back to admire my handiwork and the gratifying growth of the plants.

So, this is co-creation, I muse.

I talk to the tree spirits, hoping they will take pity on me and let me infiltrate their ancient arcana. Some days I say to them: there must be a story in here somewhere.

The story, I know from experience, will reveal itself piece by tiny piece, clue by subtle clue. To help myself hear it, I attempt to silence the loud clamourings of my personality, to relax my titanic will for long enough to become a clear channel, to allow the magic malleability and creative flux that is part and parcel of all nature to move through me. I sit on my rock and feel the firmness of bark against my back. I listen to the rustling whispers of the leaves, I sift the soil for secrets, I keep my eyes open for omens all around. I drift.

Tennyson said: "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of."

I bless the trees, the soil and the whole complex web of ecological wonders into which they, and we, are inextricably woven. Before I leave the forest, as an act of creative confidence, I invoke the powers of the universe. Standing as still and sturdy as a Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus marcophylla), I reach out my earth-encrusted hands and touch wood.

Mount Warning – Wollumbin

My brother & I climbed Mt Warning (1,157m), it is a fairly strenuous ‘walk’. It took us 4 hours round trip (up and down). The last 50-100m is a steep rock climb with a chain for support. Here’s a clip.

We enjoyed it. Mt Warning is a World Heritage listed National Park located about a one hour drive from Byron Bay (12km from Murwillumbah). For further information visit www.tropicalnsw.com.au/nationalparks/warning.html

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