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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.

Life's a Stretch and Then You Fly

Back in the 80s when I was still a city slicker, when work was my raison d'etre, and stilettos, silk stockings and shoulder pads my daily dress code, I had more money in the bank, but I also had hunched shoulders, tight hamstrings and very shallow breathing.

Physically, I barely inhabited my body, and my body, directly reflecting my stressed yet sedentary lifestyle (driving in peak traffic, telephoning and keyboarding 12 hours a day), was tightly compacted, crunched up and brittle as cellophane. In particular, RSI (repetitive strain injury) was my regular companion during those years of compulsive over-achieving.

On a holiday escape to Byron way back then, I yearned, as do many visitors to this region, for some new adventure or experience, some fresh perception of life, some altered modus operandi to open up to me.

Just as intensely I longed for some skilful adept to tie me to a therapeutic rack and stretch my taut and aching torso. In lieu of this unlikely remedy (even among the oddball and esoteric health notices in The Echo I did not spot anyone offering this service), I took myself off to a series of yoga classes. My aims and expectations then did not range beyond the simple wish for physical wellbeing.

In those initial classes, I discovered my body to be flawed and full of old injuries, hidden hurts, unexpected twangs and general resistance, yet it also turned out to be surprisingly responsive to and grateful for the variety of the asanas, the consciousness of the breathing, the attentiveness I applied to the postures. Yoga, I discovered, was cheaper than therapy and it sure gave your mind a rest from its usual obsessions. After three or four classes, I was hooked and have been practising regularly ever since.

Since moving to Byron in the early 90s, I've done yoga on the beach, in the garden; in masonic, CWA and scout halls; in empty office space, a wooden church, in private homes and garages, on verandahs and even in a brick shed

And through all those years and places of practice, it has come to mean more to me than physical rigour, realignment and relaxation. Yes, yoga has toned me and increased my flexibility. It has helped me to breathe more deeply, stand taller and feel more strength and solidity, from the inside out.

But just as significantly it has lifted my self-esteem, cultivated in me more patience and compassion for myself and others. Its graceful movements, its challenging and sometimes reverential postures have taught me where my edge is, and how to honour but not exceed that level of effort, how to work with my fears and pains instead of denying them, how to acknowledge and accept my limitations on any given day and how to surrender when that is an appropriate response.

Like meditation, yoga has induced a higher quotient of mental calm. It has facilitated new mindsets, encouraged me to be less goal-oriented, to desist from competing with and castigating myself for my achievements. Yoga has led me to realise that life, like asana practice, is not necessarily about attainments, but rather about how consciously one can work with one's own limits and recognise one's habits... Etcetera. I could go on.

But the point is, as Joel Kramer wrote in the Yoga Journal: "In physical yoga, the process of confronting and nudging the body's limits, blocks and conditionings opens and transforms you. So, too, as you get to know your mind, how it works and where your psychological limits are, the process opens the mind and literally expands consciousness."

Yoga need not be confined by secularism. As one American teacher put it, yoga can, with the appropriate approach, also stretch and strengthen your "spiritual muscles." Some of the great Indian teachers have proclaimed the interrelationship between particular poses and states of mind. As the Indian yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar put it: "My body is my altar, and my postures are the prayers."

And all this can be experienced in increments, over time for as little as $10 a session. It's much cheaper than psychotherapy and, as I say, it gives the mind a much needed rest.

More than a decade ago, when I began practising yoga, it was still regarded as somewhat "fringe". Classes were small -- six to eight people, mostly aged late thirties and older. Nowadays, yoga has become so mainstream and trendy that classes feature students aged from their early twenties to early seventies. In the quiet months of the year in this tourist town, the more popular class sizes feature 20-25 locals, while during Christmas-New Year, you¹d better arrive at least 15 minutes early if you hope to find a good mat space on the floor, for a big room can pack in about 40 people.

Long-time Byron Shire resident and yoga teacher Jen Norman began practising yoga 30 years ago. She has studied with yoga masters in India, passionately explored different yoga styles over the decades and, in recent years, has developed her own intuitive approach to teaching.

She sees much of the West¹s current fascination with yoga as a manifestation of our ongoing obsession with fitness and bodily perfection.

"Yoga is often misconstrued as a method to gain control of one's life," Jen observes. "Rather than seeking integration and wisdom, people are often attracted to obsessive, self-punishing (and sporadic) asana practice. A lot like the binge and vomit syndrome... "

I concur. At a dinner recently, I heard a woman admiringly describe her female yoga teacher of the day as having "the perfect yoga body." I knew the teacher in question, an attractive, twenty-something, ultra-slim, flat-stomached, long-limbed woman. In short, someone shaped like a Cosmopolitan cover model. To my way of thinking, there is no such thing as "the perfect yoga body," and indeed, some of the Eastern yoga gurus have stocky bodies, bodies with protruding bellies and uneven proportions, bodies most unlike the shapes idealised by Western culture.

According to Jen, yoga serves us when, instead of imposing our mental expectations and projections on the body, we learn to listen and adapt to the body's and heart's needs. She says: "When the energies are flowing freely, the physical body, the mind and the senses become vibrant. A quality of relaxation and balance extends into every aspect and activity in our lives, enabling us to embrace experience directly."

Through her classes, Jen aims to assist students to develop the practice of inner listening (meditative awareness) and the trust and courage to live their heart's truth.

These days, Byron Shire offers a virtual physical pharmacopoeia of yoga classes -- for beginners, for pre-natal, post-natal, pregnant or menopausal women; partnered yoga, remedial yoga for those suffering specific body injuries, ailments or maladjustments; yoga inversions, relaxing yoga, restorative yoga, hot and sweaty yoga, yoga with pilates, aqua yoga, yoga for older people, yoga for surfers, L.A. power yoga, advanced yoga, three-week intensives and yoga getaway weekends.

Among the yoga styles on offer are Iyengar, Astanga, Vinyasa flow, Bikram, Oki Do. Class times range from 6am through to 6pm, seven days a week.

Local aficionados will give you the drum on who offers what. They know which are the "yin" classes that still work the body very profoundly and which are the "yang" classes. The latter can be highly competitive and tough as boot camp, with teachers issuing instructions such as "push!" "come on!" and "hold it, hold it, hold it!". It's worth checking with locals, too, on which teachers have the most insightful, informative and inspiring class talk and which practice venue is the most aesthetically pleasing.

So next time you¹re in Byron, do a little local sleuthing, then carefully choose your own yogic medicine.

In the meantime, as we say at the end of our yoga classes, Namaste (an Indian greeting which means: the divinity in me salutes the divinity in you).

A Taste of Byron 2007 – Byron Bay Food Festival

NORCO PRESENTS A TASTE OF BYRON CARNIVALE DENNING PARK,MAIN BEACH (East Of The Surf Club) SEPTEMBER 22 & 23

The Lions Club of Byron Bay is pleased to announce the return of A Taste Of Byron Carnivale this time over TWO huge days in September. Last year’s event was hailed by organisers stall holders and those who attended as the best yet. Estimates of 10,000 people delighted to the tastes and sounds of beautiful Byron Bay. Over 40 of the Byron area’s finest restaurants, coffee shops and purveyors of fine foods were stretched to the limit as hungry crowds enjoyed a perfect Byron Bay blue sky day. There were cooking demonstrations from leading chefs, great live music, salsa & pole dancing, races for the kids and wine and beer tasting. The laughter in the air mixed with the tantalising aromas of herbs and spices that were lovingly combined to create the signature dishes of the restaurants on display. Because of the outstanding success of last year organisers have decided to extend this year’s event over two days.

Saturday September 22 will be themed as an international Chilli Festival led by our own world famous award winning Byron Bay Chilli Company. Creators of Chilli products from around the world will converge on Byron Bay to compete in the creation of the best chilli dish, sauce or product. The best Margarita will also be judged and sold on the day and there will be Latin Dancing, live music from local area groups and musicians all culminating in the night time with a spectacular fire dance display. There will also be a coffee barista competition where all the local area baristas will be invited to create their best coffee using Byron Bay Coffee. Winners of all categories will be announced on the night. Fresh produce and producers of local food products will also be invited to set up stalls to allow the crowds to sample their wares.

Sunday September 23 will be a huge day of feasting, fun, song & dance all washed down with boutique beers and vintage wine!! This year more than 50 of our great restaurants and cafes are expected to participate creating their own signature dishes and competing for the award of “Best in Show”. Also there will be awards for Best Dressed stand & Best Produce stall. There will once again be an exciting line up of leading chefs demonstrating their art, street performers, games for the kids & more – all in the carnival atmosphere of a beautiful Byron Bay spring day.

Make a note in your diary and book your accommodation now for A Taste of Byron Carnivale Saturday September 22 & Sunday September 23 2007.

2007 Fatherhood Festival

The fourth annual Fatherhood Festival, to be held in and around Bangalow and Byron Bay over the weekend of August 31st – Sunday September 2nd (Father’s Day), got a jumpstart last Tuesday when Channel 7′s Sunrise program recorded live to air from Bangalow. Ken Bright ran a tool box workshop for Dads and Kids, Lisa Parkes had dads in wild relay races with their kids, and the Nappywrap founds had babies and dolls safety-pin free while attending to a parents most important task. The full weekend program of concerts, workshops and activities for the whole family will be announced shortly. Keep informed at www.fatherhoodfestival.com

New Years Eve 2006 – Safe Community Event

The Byron Bay Safety Committee has been formulating the program for a safe community event for this year’s new years eve in Byron Bay.

“With the success of last year’s low key, community based, alcohol free, new year event,  the same formula is planned for this year to ensure a safe night” said Chair of the committee, Mayor Jan Barham. “Council has sought an approval from the Minister for Local Government for the alcohol prohibition again as this was a key factor in providing safety for everyone.  This year it has been decided to not close off Lawson Street and focus the event on the beachfront reserves and minimise the impact on local businesses”.

“The event will commence at 3pm with childrens’ activities and market stalls at the beach front. The popular parade will feature again and there is a request to the community to join in by starting to prepare costumes and group presentations. The committee is also calling for stallholders to make an expression of interest to have food and craft stalls on the night and an opportunity for community groups to have free stalls to showcase their work and activities.” A grant application has been made to seek support for providing workshops to offer training in music and the performing arts to allow them to engage in the night’s event.

The committee thanks those local performers who have offered their talents for the night and buskers are invited to apply to perform on the night.

The Safety Committee also appreciates the generous donations from businesses for prizes for the parade and is hoping that there may be other support offered to assist in the provision of necessary infrastructure for the night.

Byron Bay Farmers Market

I did a quick walk through Byron Bay’s weekly Farmers Market last Thursday (19 Oct ’06) These markets are on every Thursday Morning in Byron Bay.

Brief History Of Byron Town, Council & Bypass

I arrived in Sydney in 1972 to work for Avery Scales for 2 years. One of my first trips was to see the Queensland manager in Brisbane. He wanted to show off his area he brought me to Byron Bay! (There are a number of people in this town who would like to see Byron come under the Queensland State Government permanently!) What I found blew me away. The view from the lighthouse, 40km of unspoilt beaches, hardly a house in sight and a great wave off the Pass. Houses in Lighthouse Road seemed to be closed up and only used for holidays. The town itself was extremely well laid out in a grid pattern. All the houses were neat and tidy, obviously blue collar, the result of 90 years of really hard work. We went to the Abbatoir and discovered why the town had not been yuppified! The northerly wind blew an amazing smell across the town.

The first settler arrived in 1881. Prior to this, the region had been a timber gathering, shack and tent area. 1885/6 town lots were sold and two hotels constructed. (One, the Great Northern, managed to be burnt down in 1897 and again in 1936. The Pier Hotel didn’t suffer a fire until 1949!). The Cape and Bay had been called Byron by Captain Cook in 1770 (After one of his Captains). The town itself was called Cavvanba, some say aboriginal for “meeting place”. If its not, it is still appropriate for the town today. The building of a jetty for 8000pounds in 1888 saw the population grow. Shipping, farming, fishing the main occupations, even gold mining along the beaches. The jetty stretched 400m out to sea, was 8m wide and had 66 piers. At high tide there was 7m of water at the end, enough to take very large steamers. Several shipwrecks in the area led to the building of the Lighthouse in 1901. As the town grew, a Town Council was elected in 1906 (Perhaps as a portent of the disasters to follow, they named the roads after poets; Dryden, Burns, Ruskin, Tennyson etc. silly mistake!) The town had a rugby team, brass band, maypole dancers, all very english. In 1907 they started a surf lifesaving club. By 1917 the town had grown to a population of 1500. There was always work, butter factory, fishing, farming etc. In 1928 a new jetty was built at a cost of 57,000pounds, a considerable sum in those days. There were 2 railway tracks and a diesel electric train called the green frog that pulled jetty carriages (These are now in the Sydney transport museum). Byron prospered with lots of industry, sand mining, abbatoir, piggery, the Norco butter factory, even whaling from 1954-62. Obviously this industry didn’t please the gods, a huge cyclone in 1954 flooded the town centre, took 180m off the end of the jetty and wrecked 22 fishing boats. The boats now operated out of Brunswick Heads and Byron was no longer considered a port. About the time of my visit, Byron Bay and the hinterland was being “discovered” by hippies and surfers. Some backpackers found this paradise, went home and told the world about it. 

Tourism was still in its infancy. The population of Byron was around 2500. Goods were brought by train. People came on holiday by train and camped. The train was well used and long enough to block the only road in and out of Byron, while passengers and goods were unloaded!. Talk of a bypass was started. In 1980, Mullumbimby Council was forced to merge with Byron Bay. A total disaster for both towns. Traffic was increasing, a firm was commissioned to do a study in 1987. They recommended a ring road,crossing the railway line at Browning Street,(behind the present Mitre 10). In 1989 the Council purchased land here ready for the ring road entrance/exit. After a couple of local lads made Crocodile Dundee movies, some scenes filmed in the old meatworks, Australia was launched onto the world map. When John Cornell and Paul Hogan opened the revamped Beach Hotel in 1991, Byron became swamped with visitors. Dundees hat in the bar and the chance to glimpse the great man changed Byron Bay forever. We now get 1.7 million tourists a year. The sudden desire to holiday here caught everyone by surprise. World class hotels were few and far between. Locals started to let their homes, buy second homes to let, put in cabins, studios, Bed and Breakfast places grew like mushrooms. Soon Byron was a giant building site. Club Med bought a 79h site to the north. The town said “stop”, its all too much. Prices of real estate were now matching Sydneys. Fortunately for Council, our sewerage plant had reached capacity. A moratorium on development gave us some breathing space until developers found a way around it. What had been a sleepy working mans town, suddenly became the best debating place on earth. You had to have two opinions on everything, just in case some bastard agreed with you.

There have been 16 major traffic studies, development applications, environmental impact studies, species impact studies, aerial photographs, government grant for a transit station on the new bypass… still no bypass. Meanwhile, traffic at peak season piles up, it can take a hour to enter Byron Bay. Not much of a problem for the tourist but a nightmare for people trying to go about their work. Byron Council Offices were relocated to Mullumbimby in 1995. In 1996 Council was investigated by ICAC and Local Government Inspectors. The General Manager was sacked. The new Council Chambers virtually bankrupted the Council. The rancour created by the forced merger of the two Councils can best be illustrated by this memo sent by a Mullumbimby Councillor when told everything was ready to go on the ring road; “I do not support a bypass, I do not support paid parking funding a bypass. I do support Council selling the land that is held for this proposal. ”With the closure of the railway line, the debate has widened. 

Parking out of town could be provided with a light rail service backwards and forwards, cars could be made to “Park and ride” out of town the railway line could be used as a bypass, the present entry into town could be closed to traffic, all cars coming in or leaving beside Mitre 10. This takes them away from pedestrians and allows a pedestrian friendly CBD. Traffic can also be funnelled off to many different routes.(Guess which option I favour!). Traffic aside, this is still the best town to live in, it has everything anyone could possibly want. 100 restaurants, 3 great pubs, 3 nightclubs, 2 cinemas, a magnificent golf course, the best eclectic mix of people on earth, airs and graces are not allowed, there are active community groups, any religion or belief tolerated, fantastic beaches, surf and walking trails. Our community radio Bay FM matches the people who live in the region, colourful, interesting, fun. The markets and music festivals are world class. What more could a person want?

The Way We Were

Recently, after we had eaten too much fish and chips for dinner in a Bay Lane restaurant, a friend and I decided to stroll around town until our stomachs settled.

This perambulation suited me fine for a secondary reason -- I wanted to reminisce with him about the way The Bay used to look and be more than a decade ago. My friend, being that rare bipedal species, a true local, born and bred in the town, and a generous sharer of recollections and insights, was happy to join me in excavating the collective digsites and landscapes of our memories. His excavations naturally cut through deeper layers than mine, layers dating back to the 1950s and 60s. Which is virtually the equivalent of carbon-dating when you look at how, and how rapidly, "progress" has altered the jizz of Byron Bay.

I'm using "jizz" metaphorically. "Jizz," so my bird identification book tells me, is the overall impression or character a bird gives; a combination of colour, size, shape and movement.

After walking to the water's edge at Main Beach to relish the light of a full winter's moon on an adamantine sea, my friend and I buttoned up our jackets and made our way back down Jonson Street. Our walk took more than an hour as we warmed to our subject. It was a nostalgic experience, bitter sweet as nostalgia typically can be.

Before we got down to the nitty-gritty of noting what used to be where, my friend recounted how only that day he had hosted a group of visiting American environmental students.

"Where did you take them?" I asked.

"First of all," he replied pointedly, "I took them up to the water tower (in Paterson Street) to give them an overview of the town and a clear view of the Greed Line."

The awful aptness of "Greed Line" made me sniff. In the Byron Bubble, the more the developers race towards the Holy Grail of Coastal Capital Gains, the more the rest of us are inclined to retreat, if that is the right word, into a nostalgia for rural landmarks and small-town lifestyles now lost to us forever.

While we're on the subject of nostalgia and before I share some of our recollections of The Way We Were in Byron, I want to remark on how the economic and intellectual elites of our times have given nostalgia a bad rap.

Nostalgia, the dictionary declares, is "homesickness as a disease; [a] regretful or wistful memory of an earlier time; sentimental yearning for (some period of the past)."

Yet according to Fraser Harrison "there is another dimension to nostalgia and it should not be dismissed as simply a self-indulgent, escapist and pernicious failing. Where its account of history is patently untrue, and more ideological than it would pretend, it does none the less express a truth of its own, which reflects an authentic and deeply felt emotion ... our addiction to it is surely a symptom of our failure to make a satisfactory mode of life in the present, but perhaps it can also be seen as evidence of our desire to repair and revitalise our broken relations. The pastoral fantasy nostalgia invented is after all an image of a world in which men and women feel at home with themselves, with each other and with nature, a world in which harmony reigns."

If you are among the one million visitors who pass through Byron Bay each year and visit the lighthouse, chances are you'll also stroll through town, check out the shops and cafes and stay longer than you intended.

You may not hang around long enough to eavesdrop on local conversations, but if you do, you'll notice a peculiar referencing going on. Our speech is often punctuated by allusions to what used to be.

For example, if you agree to meet another local outside the surf shop, you need to specify which one. The small, garishly painted one where the Country Women's Association used to be or the big flash one (with non-stop surfing videos playing in its windows) where cosy, old Ringo's (Cafe) used to be? As a local, you would know it would not be the one which once adjoined the dive shop in that funky old fibro block of shops in Fletcher Street, because that has been demolished for ages and the site now features a massive hole in the ground full of poisoned water awaiting decontamination before the serious work of constructing yet another Noosa-style shopping mall can begin.

Or, should someone ask you to collect a video from town, would you go to Video Connection in the building which used to house the Department of Social Security (pre-Centrelink) or to Late Nite Video in the old timber house where the musical instrument shop used to be?

During our Memory Lane trip around town, we walked past the sizeable and luxurious Waves Motel, in Lawson Street. That stirred up the past for me. Back in 1990, the site on which this two-storey accommodation is now situated was a generous suburban block with a simple 1960s timber house on it. The house was painted that ubiquitous pale ripple green of so many rural Australian dwellings, and in it lived an elderly couple. The man was often seen working in his large vegetable garden in the back yard. One day while participating in a community permaculture group, I helped pull down some dying sweet pea vines from his chicken wire trellis. The wife had explained to us that some weeks prior her husband had suffered a stroke and since then had been unable to tend the garden. While we were at it, we turned his compost heap and weeded a few overgrown vegie beds. For our trouble, the couple thanked us heartily and gave us all cool drinks…

Passing the Byron Pier shopping arcade (selling posh jewellery, Japanese food, hip clothes for anorexic teenagers and, with its mini-theme park frontage, sticking out like architectural dogs' balls in the streetscape), my friend and I both recalled another ripple green timber house which used to rest on this site and which, for many decades, was home for another elderly person. One day, shortly before the house was demolished, I was sitting on its front brick fence munching a Hunza pie and making smalltalk with passing acquaintances when I noticed beside me a straggly Japanese poinsettia plant (Euphorbia heterophylla), regarded by some as a weed, but in my opinion a very attractive plant. I pulled the plant out, divided it up by its root system and, in due course, passed the repotted sections on to various green-thumbed friends who gave them new lives in their gardens.

Right beside the Byron Pier is a building which deserved to be saved and lovingly restored -- and which was, thanks to the late Phil Oliver, whose upstairs office in 1993 held many intense gatherings of those of us intent on preventing the proposed Club Med development from going ahead at Belongil Beach.

When Phil opened the restored building, he called it The Guest House, and ran it as one for a while. That was before the building was extended and developed as -- you guessed it -- more shops. Back then, it, too, had a big back yard, dotted with tuckeroo trees and enclosed by a dilapidated paling fence covered in passionfruit vine. On steamy summer days, amongst the vine's lush leaves and tendrils, a green python thicker than my arm could often be seen sunning itself. Now, of course, that backyard has been replaced by retailers of shoes, cosmetics, expensive knickknacks for the house, et al. Where did the python go, I wonder?

Further east along Lawson Street, we came to the former Byron Shire Council Chambers, which used to house the library before it was reinstalled on the opposite side of the street, in premises which disgracefully are cramped and damp. Nowadays, the old council chambers has become a backpackers hostel.

  • At the beach end of Jonson Street, Krakatoa, which was a tiny, timber beach shack, once sold cheap Indian clothing, incense and Eastern miscellany. Now it's been redeveloped as Fresh, an upmarket bistro whose heated floors, undistinguished decor and trendy clientele are decidedly more inner-city than North Coast in style.
     
  • Almost opposite, there used to be Suppertime Blues, which for many years made the best vegie burgers and banana smoothies on the east coast. The cafe's walls were always plastered with the most hilarious and oddball "share accommodation" ads and workshop flyers. My personal favourite from the 80s was for a workshop called Power Flirting. Remember the 80s? "Power," in addition to "greed" was a buzz word of that decade. Now renovated within an inch of its former existence and called Crave, Crepes and Coffee, the cafe is all rendered brick, glass tiles, stainless steel, iron furniture, hard shiny surfaces, the restaurant look I call "radiology chic."
     
  • The Cavanbah Arcade, a few doors up, before its redevelopment, was an unassuming one-level arcade, housing, at one time, the Byron Environment Centre (when it could still afford to rent space in the main street), a shop selling locally-made angel wings for kids, and the Angel Coffee Shop (in which, way back in the last century, I tasted my first LSD (latte soy dandelion). The cafe's proprietor, Steve Reynolds would serve you graciously and, if business were quiet enough, would sit and yarn to you about the relative merits of writers, from Turgenev to Tom Wolfe.
     
  • Further down Jonson Street, we paused in front of an opal and souvenir shop whose display window featured plastic boomerangs with clock numerals glued onto them, and framed photos of an opal crushing works. We ran a cold eye over pictures of massive machinery gouging the earth and loading up gigantic trucks, and then we eyed one another without remark. What could we say?

    Finally, I said: "Something more worthwhile used to be here, but I'm embarrassed to say I can't remember what it was."

    "Lifestream," my friend replied. Lifestream, of course. How could I have forgotten Lifestream, an unpretentious vegetarian food outlet, with a black-and-white checked lino floor and capacious old wooden booths?
     

  • The demolition of the old Foodstore, corner of Lawson and Jonson Streets, was an even greater loss. With its wooden floorboards, old-fashioned shelving and cash registers so old they didn't work on barcoding, this grocery store (not supermarket) used to (there's that term again) have a quaint 1950s atmosphere. My friend reminded me that suspended from the store's ceiling, if you looked closely, had been wires which once worked on the flying fox principle. A downstairs staffer would write down a customer's order, attach it and the customer's cash to the wire, and whizz it upstairs where someone else would check the tally and whizz back the change. Why couldn't this store have been redeveloped in a way which modernised its operation but retained its faded 50s charm?

Meanwhile, over the railway line, Shirley Street, once lined with ordinary fibro and timber beach cottages, is rapidly turning into an avenue of ultra-expensive Gold Coast-style apartments -- rendered, landscaped, underground parking, swimming pools everywhere.

On the upside -- at last -- the old post office some years back was renovated and extended to incorporate the Fundamental Food store. Well, that's one redevelopment that really looks appropriate and works well.

And the other is John Cornell's pub, The Beach Hotel, still referred to by long-time locals as The Top Pub, to which my friend and I now repaired for a digestive brandy.

Well, I warned you this would be a nostalgic piece, so I hope you're not allergic to it as a sentiment or a way of framing the world.

According to writer Jay Walljasper, nostalgia has been transformed from a its original meaning of a longing for home to a hopeless pining for neverneverland, and I'm aware that my yearnings for The Way We Were in Byron fit this category of unrequited desire.

However, Walljasper, writing in the British magazine "Resurgence", points out that being nostalgic doesn't necessarily mean a retreat from the future, [and] it might actually aid us in efforts to create a better society for tomorrow."

Nostalgia, claims Walljasper "can also offer an important insight often overlooked in our hurly-burly quest for technological and economic innovation: "the recognition that something of value might have been lost on the way to the present."

Fraser Harrison is even more bluntly positive about nostalgia: "While it is easy to scoff at the whimsicality and commercialisation of rural nostalgia, it is also vital to acknowledge that this reaching out to the countryside is an expression, however, distorted, of a healthy desire to find some sense of meaning and relief in a world that seems increasingly bent on mindless annihilation."

If I allow myself to sink into a nostalgia even more radical, I could rent my garments over the fact that underneath each original Byron building was once a complex living ecology -- thriving, pristine and unencumbered by any future visions of tar, cement and tourism.

As we sipped our brandies and watched the Norfolk pines' branches tilting in the wind, we reflected sadly on the irrevocably changed jizz of the Bay. We were still trying to digest not only our dinner, but also the discombobulating changes we had catalogued on our town patrol. Neither of us could "pity the plumage" nor "forget the dying bird."

Belongil Beach Dreaming

The bush was dew-drenched, tinselled with spiders’ webs and ringing with euphonic birdsong. My cheerful anticipation was well-founded, for the morning produced some rich encounters. During the mere hour I spent tramping through the wetlands, I came by willy wagtails, whimbrels, galahs, a grey-tail tatler, pied oyster catchers and pied stilts, heaps of seagulls, wattle birds and the ubiquitous miners, a little egret, a striated pardalote, a scarlet honeyeater, two fig birds, a flock of barred godwit (recently arrived from Siberia), black spoonbills (looking like can-can dancers with their feathers ruffled), elegant white-faced heron, pelicans, eastern curlews, little black cormorants, a mangrove gerygone, Lewin’s honeyeaters, bar-shouldered doves, a grey fantail, a variegated wren, white-cheeked honeyeaters, brown honeyeaters, a pied butcherbird (with its flute-like notes, one of my favourite songsters), a southern fig bird, and a consternation of crows.

And then there were the ultra-shy birds I heard, but did not see. The distinctive whipcrack voices of eastern whip birds shot through the trees. In fact, this is antiphonal singing. Typically the male calls the first “whip” notes and the female responds with the final emphatic “choo-choo”. This duet is so perfectly timed that it sounds like the performance of a solo singer. Occasionally when I listened patiently I would hear a delay in the reply, and this holdup, I learned later, was possibly because the female was swallowing an insect when her mate had called. Sometimes, when the female’s reply is insufficiently prompt, the male will render the final notes himself.

I was also fortunate enough to see a pair of ospreys -- the female roosting in their huge nest of sticks on a man-made platform atop a disused telegraph pole, and her mate flying in with some slippery prey seized in his talons. Each river estuary can accommodate only one pair of osprey, which, these days, are endangered. Their numbers have been drastically reduced through the use of DDT which ends up in the sea and ultimately in the fish on which the birds feed.

Even a couple of yellow-faced honeyeaters, a formerly common species, which is now disappearing, put in an appearance. In the 1960s, they flew over this region (which for much of its geographical history was a refugium for flora and fauna) in flocks of ten thousand. Now they, like so many creatures, are slowly disappearing, beleaguered by habitat loss. All is not entirely well in the estuary itself, either. From the 1980s onwards, fish kills became common and the local council in conjunction with the community are now reviewing how to “manage” the estuary.

Passing through melaleucas, banksias, wattles and hare’s foot ferns defined and gilded by columns of morning sunshine, I lingered beside a cluster of paperbark trees in which dozens of rainbow lorikeets were feeding on the blonde blossoms. (Seeing lorikeets I often smile as they remind me of the locals’ term of endearment for Rod Gibson --the Poet Lorikeet of the Bay). The birds were inverted, their violet heads and their deep coral red beaks tucking in to their provender, their lime backs rounded; they hung superbly camouflaged like so many ripe avocados, except for their relentless shrill chatter.

But even their screeching was soon eclipsed by a large colony of Laughing Kookaburras whose full-throttle cackling was so raucous and prolonged, it rolled over me like a wave. A spontaneous laugh gurgled up from the low country of my own throat, and in that early morning mirth, in the thick of all that rowdy singing and wanton profligacy, those wild birds hit the bullseye of my joy, making a mockery of the “modern prejudice that clarity cannot arise from profusion,” making me realise that a sky without birds would be a barren sky.

Although “very few birds share exactly the same markings,” they do share something physical in common with humans: except in the hand region, the essential structures of the avian wing and human arm bones correspond exactly.

Plant life also shares a striking biological similarity to us. Or should we cite our similarity to them since, according to science’s view of how and when we all lobbed here, they preceeded us? Annie Dillard tells us that a molecule of chlorophyll comprises 136 atoms of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen “arranged in an exact and complex relationship around a central ring.” At the ring’s centre is one atom of magnesium. Extraordinarily, haemoglobin is identical to chlorophyll, except that its central atom is iron. Which means that we red-blooded beings are “kissing cousins” to the green growths all around us.

It would have been dicy to try smooching up to one of those big-billed kookas, but I did not hesitate to wrap my arms around one of those tall, flaky cousins, a melaleuca. The bark fragments, fair tokens of the tree’s benignancy, clung to my jumper, caught in my hair, and I gave thanks -- for the life within me, for the healing I’d experienced (psychological therapy has “no monopoly on the power to heal,” as anyone who has lived close to nature will attest), and for the fact that the monolithic, international holiday resort formerly proposed for this site had not gone ahead, and the rich, natural lifeforms around me had thereby won a stay of execution.

I picked up a dead branch and headed for the beach. Although there was no sign of whales, they could well have been “out there” in force for, as Rod has written: “They sing to each other with eerie noises beneath the membrane of the sea.”

Walking the shoreline, 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. I have savoured the tonifying effects, the ephemeral highs of such “trips” (one overcast afternoon on my local 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 day on deserted Tyagarah beach I was rivetted by a wallaby in the surf) and occasionally pine for more. In this grabbing mindset, how much of nature’s subtle refinements and graduations can I appreciate, or even notice? Or more pertinently, how much do I miss? To how much am I oblivious?

During my perambulation, trailing the branch in the soft sand behind me, I caught myself humming, an aimless spill of jaunty notes that filled me up and at the same time made me feel lighter. My thoughts turned to the Aboriginal songlines, those invisible pathways meandering across Australia: ancient tracks made of songs which tell of the creation of the land. It is an integral part of the spiritual fabric of tribal Aboriginals’ lives to ritually travel the land, singing the ancestors’ impassioned songs; singing the world into being afresh. In this way the land in all its guises, moods and incarnations floats through the plasma of their culture.

The Aborigines who still sing their land, sing not only to animals and plants, but also to the celestial bodies “such as the sun, the moon, the Pleiades and some of the stars, and also to such natural phenomena as sun-heat, frosts, wind and rain.” Perpetuating the universe in this manner, the singers embosom not only those things which give life and gladness to humankind but also those things which create adversity and distress. “Centipedes and scorpions, mosquitoes, flies and fleas, bull-ants and processional caterpillars, and the whole tribe of venomous snakes” are cited, too. As are dust-storms, whirlwinds and droughts.

Sharing in this unceasing work of renewing the universe, the whole tribe (and not just an elite group of holy ones) gains a sense of having a larger intention, a fixed design to bring to their own lives and to eternity. They believe that all the efforts of humanity are essential to maintain nature’s harmonious functioning.

These days, many Westerners are hungry for such Dream Time songs, stories and myths, but tragically, in the genocide that took place after the white settlement of Australia, so many of the Aborigines’ stories were lost (1). Still, white Australians are overdue to discover our own ways of relating to the land, to find our own forms of spiritual transcendence. Wholesale “lifting” of Aboriginal myths and totems from their original “cultural soil vitiates their power” and is merely another form of plundering; it violates the indigenous peoples as it diminishes the “thieves,” but not their estrangement from nature and its living spirit.

This set me wondering again about a riddle I’d been mulling over for some time: 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 was that the former is true, a belief which I discovered (towards the end of writing this book) 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 or mythic 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.

On the other hand, modern man’s imprints and physical projections onto the planet are only too scarifyingly real -- in the scouring of the land for metals, of the seas for food and oil, in the decimation of the forests, the poisoning of the waters with toxic waste, the staining of the sky with pollution and acid rain.

The poet and conservationist Judith Wright said way back: “As Aborigines know, we live as part of a great interwoven net of dependencies, which cannot be broken without serious results to the whole, and in which we have acted as the destructive rogue factor. The Law which Aborigines recognise is one of kinship with the natural, and the environmental disasters which we have invited are disasters to that whole community of beings...

“However unpopular the word has become, I suggest that we need a recognition that we are part and parcel of a sacred organic order of kinship in which, whether we know it or not, we were born and live.”

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: [email protected]

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