A CELEBRATION OF WOMEN IN THE AUSTRALIAN BUSH
UPDATED OCTOBER 2017
The spectre of climate change and periods of prolonged drought have created an upsurge of interest in the growing of Australian native plants. However, we have been slow to embrace them. I suspect this would surprise and disappoint women pioneers such as Elizabeth Macarthur, who began cataloguing and cultivating the colony’s unique flora soon after her arrival in Sydney in 1790.
While it is true that Mrs Macarthur grew the familiar plants of ‘home’ at Elizabeth Farm, she also experimented with indigenous plants and was highly appreciative of her natural surroundings. Describing her flourishing garden at Parramatta to friends in England she observed , ‘The native shrubs are also in flower & the whole country gives a grateful perfume.’
Thirty years later, in 1822, the Hawkins family (Elizabeth, her husband Thomas, her mother and her eight children) became the first free European family to cross the Blue Mountains. Early in the journey the Hawkins’ spent an intolerable night at Springwood, tormented by bed bugs and disturbed by drunken soldiers. Next morning Elizabeth gathered her mother and her daughters and the three generations of women restored their spirits by walking ahead of the bullock wagons to pick wildflowers. Elizabeth later wrote; ‘It was such a relief to get away from that place that I never enjoyed a walk more. We gathered most delicate nosegays from the flowering shrubs that grew amongst the trees.’ .
In the winter of 1841 Sophia Stanger also made the arduous trip from Sydney to Bathurst, accompanied by her husband and five children. In a long account sent to her mother she noted; ‘Our road hitherto ( before Lapstone Hill) had borne the appearance of a shrubbery or pleasure ground, lying through beautiful evergreens, thickly interspersed with flowers of different hues, and many of them quite equal to those dear Aunt brings from Wandsworth. The pretty heath, called acacia, and sold in London in pots, grows here in abundance, and, I think, must be the same; but as we were strangers in this really lovely land, we could only guess at the names.’ These words not only reveal Stanger’s sensitivity and powers of observation, but her open mind. Many newcomers dismissed the Australian landscape as alien and inhospitable.
THE MADONNA OF THE BUSH
Living on the other side of the continent at this time was Georgiana Molloy, a woman from a privileged English background who settled in Western Australia in 1830. Her appreciation of the landscape extended to gathering an extensive range of native seeds and plants, which she forwarded to collectors in London with detailed botanical descriptions.
Molloy was dubbed ‘The Tragic Madonna of the Bush’; tragic because the first of her seven children was born in a leaking tent and died in her arms shortly afterwards. Her third child, a little boy, drowned at nineteen months after falling into a well. Despite such heartbreak Molloy would later compare her Australian surroundings to the garden of Eden before Eve was expelled from paradise. Her surviving children accompanied her on plant gathering trips, proving valuable assistants, ‘Their eyes being so much closer to the ground they have been able to detect many minute specimens.’ When Molloy’s already delicate health deteriorated following the birth of her last daughter it was the children who continued their mother’s botanical work, assisted by local aboriginal women. After her death in 1843 historian Manning Clarke wrote; ‘She sang to the end a hymn of praise to all the beauty she had discovered in that part of God’s world.’
The beautiful wreath flower pictured below is a fitting tribute to Georgiana. I must thank my sister for this photo. She has recently been enjoying the wildflowers in WA. Both Robbie and I have inherited a love of native flora from our mother.
Like Georgiana Molloy, most women began life in the outback at the height of their childbearing years, at a time when families were large and the infant mortality rate high. Perhaps it was these very issues that forged their strong connection with nature. Unlike the gentle seasonal changes of the English countryside, renewal in the Australian bush often results from the scarifying experience of fire, which has its parallel in the pain and danger of childbirth.
Molloy was referred to as ‘Madonna’ in a tribute to her nurturing of the native flora. It is fitting that she found consolation and peace in the quiet beauty of the bush, and joy in exploring it with her children.
THE SPIRIT AND COURAGE OF A MOTHER IN THE OUTBACK
Henry Lawson, in perhaps his best known short story, The Drover’s Wife, describes the bush around the family’s outback shanty as unremittingly monotonous. He makes the comment that its surroundings were not favorable to the development of the “womanly” or sentimental side of nature’. Yet Lawson also writes that the drover’s wife would dress herself and her children in their best clothes each Sunday for an outing along a lonely bush track. It is difficult to believe the walk was monotonous. Mothers, especially those in isolated areas, experience life through their offspring and the bush is never boring to a child. In young Tommy’s hands a branch from one of Lawson’s ‘rotten native apples’ could become a fine edged sword with the potential to slay a giant. It is also unlikely that the woman herself returned home empty handed. A handful of native grasses in a jam jar was beautiful long before we were told so by the editors of designer magazines.
During her husband’s absences the drover’s wife fought fire and flood, shot a mad bullock, and killed a five foot snake, but that Sunday walk was the greatest expression of her spirit. I suspect it was also her salvation.
Of course the most enduring image of the drover’s wife is her lonely vigil by a dying fire, watching for the snake to reappear as her young family sleeps. The reverence of the scene reminds me of lines from Women of the West by Queensland poet George Essex Evans (1863-1909). Evans was no stranger to the trials of rural life, having farmed (and failed) on the Darling Downs. Describing the quiet courage of pioneer women he wrote;
For them no trumpet sounds the call, no poet plies his art –
They only hear the beating of their gallant, loving hearts.
But they have sung with silent lives the song all songs above –
The holiness of sacrifice, the dignity of love.
The restorative power of nature in the outback was addressed by Jessie Ackerman, an early American feminist who visited Australia on four occasions between 1889 and the early 1890’s. In 1913 she published a book called ‘Australia From a Woman’s Point of View’. Ackerman was well aware of the challenges facing rural women, but had also witnessed the glory of wildflowers carpeting a desert. I doubt if anyone has described the connection between nature and women so eloquently;
‘Soul meets soul in the battle – a battle in which women would go to the wall did not the hand of Nature restore a balance at her very feet in those kindly voices which compel a forgetfulness of woe-swept senses. Morning always comes after a night of storm. The pale dawn seems to stretch out arms of light, offering a compensating embrace of gladness that banishes all gloom. Ten thousand sand-flowers, dripping with the jeweled glory of dewdrops, lift their heads in morning salutation. Miles of yellow and pink and purple loveliness, born not to bloom on dinner tables in remote cities, shed their beauty where faint hearts may be renewed by this near touch of the Divine.’
In 1981 American writer Eleanor Perényi also canvassed the female connection with nature in her book ‘Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden ‘. She pointed out that it was women who first ventured into the forest to collect wild plants, and who later domesticated them while their men were out hunting. Perényi noted; ‘Women were the first gardeners; but when men retired from the hunting field and decided in favour of agriculture instead, women steadily lost control.’
This was especially true during the 19th century. The increasingly industrialized lower classes had neither space, funds nor leisure to create ornamental gardens. Women of the middle and upper classes were in the firm control of gentleman property owners and their male head gardeners. Landscape artists were almost exclusively male. As Perényi pointed out, it was not until the 20th century that women played a significant role in garden design.
Women such as Sophia Stanger, Georgiana Molloy and Elizabeth Hawkins recognized the light of freedom and equality in the Australian bush; their gathering of wildflowers arousing a primitive instinct. As Jessie Ackerman concluded; ‘To settle on the land in Australia means something – in every respect. But for all that it is a place where woman ‘ has come into her kingdom’, Eve’s paradise re-discovered.’
It must be remembered that the husbands of pioneering women were necessarily preoccupied with imposing their authority on the landscape in order to feed their families. Sheep and cattle cannot survive on wildflowers, and virgin bush had to be cleared and cultivated for pasture. The situation was little different when I was growing up on a farm in Tasmania in the nineteen fifties. My sister and I would present our mother with bunches of heath and erica from the bush, and ‘basket fern’ bouquets. She had made the bouquets during her own country childhood, and passed on the tradition.
Meanwhile, the posies my father brought home were of sweet smelling clover, sown as fodder for our dairy herd.
As Australian society became more urbanized, women’s connection to the bush decreased and gardens became almost exclusively exotic. Virtually every backyard featured the ubiquitous petunia, set out row by row in narrow beds beside concrete paths. However, in 1938 Thistle Harris did much to promote indigenous flora by publishing her significant ‘Wild Flowers of Australia’. Around the same time garden designer Edna Walling began to advocate the use of native trees and shrubs in horticulture. Walling slowly phased out her trademark plantings of silver birches in favour of paperbarks and on December 14th 1945 she told readers of her Letter to Garden Lovers;
‘How very necessary it is to train ourselves to observe the natural beauty around us so that in the exuberance of our beautification schemes we shall not do things that disturb and eventually destroys the landscape. Starting out in life as one of those ardent tree lovers I was responsible for some of the most ill-advised planting; now I’m terrified to do a thing, knowing that seldom, if ever, do we achieve the quiet perfection of Nature’s planting.’
So widespread was the ‘ill-advised planting’ mentioned by Walling that volunteer bush care groups will be busy for years to come removing garden escapees such as willow, agapanthus, lantana, holly and cotoneaster.
I now write and garden in Blackheath, one of the highest villages in the Blue Mountains. I adore the showy blooms of azaleas, roses and camellias, but when in need of solace it is invariably the native garden I retreat to.
The plants here are dryer and tougher, often stooped like careworn old ladies (increasingly like me!). As the gnarled branches of banksias and eucalypts embrace and comfort me I am also aware of their blooms sustaining bees and other insects, plus a host of nectar feeding birds.
Several years ago I attended an exhibition of works by the late Margaret Preston at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Preston’s paintings and woodblock prints of native flowers are a powerful reminder of our early women pioneers and their appreciation of the Australian flora. Her crucifix composition of Western Australian gum blossom (1928) resembles a floral wreath; the perfect tribute to the west’s ‘Tragic Madonna’. Equally, the exuberant arrangements of waratah, bottle brush and grevillea painted towards the end of Preston’s career conjure an image of Elizabeth Hawkins and her young daughters, striding ahead of the bullock wagons to gather wildflowers under the Australian sun.
HERE IS ANOTHER STORY ABOUT BRAVE AUSTRALIAN WOMEN.
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