Byron Bay

Regional Chic and the Power of Place

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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.

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