The View From My Back Garden
Updated: Nov 19, 2020
In the age of my innocence
“If you see with innocent eyes, everything is divine.”— Federico Fellini
Overy Tree · Glasshouse Mountains · by Karl Angell · Angell Surf Photography · Sunshine Coast
Seen always across a bay called Deception … No one casts the stone, or could over that sunlit stone’s throw of water, to shatter them. On clear days they stand far off, move close under cover of rain. …
— excerpt from David Malouf’s 1970 poem ‘Glasshouse Mountains’
We were all so in love. Deeply smitten. With the land. Oh my God such lushness, so incredibly green. Sometimes the richness of the memories of an incredibly beautiful place interlaced with old and almost forgotten feelings of real happiness and of being very at home, are so deeply embedded within our heart that looking back is somewhat painful.
The Glasshouse Mountains: incredibly mystical, their genesis was as volcanic plugs from the remnants of volcanic activity occurring approximately 25–27 million years ago. Molten rock filled small vents or intruded as bodies beneath the surface and solidified into hard rocks — trachyte and rhyolite.
Their mostly indigenous magical names are Mount Beerburrum, Beerwah, Coochin, Coonowin, Elimbah, Ngungun, Tibberoowuccum, Tibrogargan, Tunbubudlah, White Horse Mountain and Mount Miketeebumulgrai.
Before leaving, any visiting friends always gathered at the edge of our garden overlooking the Sunshine Coast, breathtaken at the stunning view of the Glasshouse Mountains — their marching frozen still and in silence below on the distant horizon. Standing there in all their stern glory as ancient elders overlooking it all — past, present and what’s yet to be.
A moments silence if you please. For the regal majesty of the mountain beings.
The Garden of Erewhon
To reach our old wooden farmhouse, you had to travel up the winding Blackall Range in the hinterland of Southeast Queensland, passing a sparse number of isolated cattle farming properties usually set far back from the road nestled in amongst massive old fig, avocado and mango trees, past Montville Pottery and the gorgeous old Mapleton Pub, past the little township of Woodford — famous now for its fabulous folk festivals — and past the tangled old gnarly rainforest vines of Mary Cairncross Park.
Turning down our dirt driveway we’d learnt to rev fast over the serrated metal grid designed to stop cattle and wildlife from escaping — and there — set at least 100 meters back from the road, sat our house. Set in the centre of a wire-fenced garden, the large rambling wooden homestead was surrounded by a veritable Garden of Eden — a well-established purple grapevine tied to palings to hold up their weight ran the length of one side of the house outside my brother’s bedroom.
An elegant and ancient circular bamboo grove shaded my bedroom windows at the front of the house, and on my mother’s side, there were cherry trees laughing with pink blossoms, and deliciously fruiting apricot trees. At the back of the house, which would prove to be a treasure trove in itself, was the grove of avocado and mango trees, massive in size, ancient and wise.
My beautiful Blue Heeler cross Kelpie dog Banjo often chased the cat up a mango tree for sport — she had a natural bent for chasing anything that moved — mostly cats, cows and cars.
The Great Australian Icon
The only downside was the outdoor dunny. Although the outdoor dunny is an Australian icon in its own right, it was not my favourite thing. But in her inimitable fashion, my mother made this space sweet, with a little oil lamp for evening peeing nailed to the wall, incense, candles, and reading material.
My main fear though was that of one of the veritable colony of snakes that seemed to surround our house, somehow biting my backside some misty evening. Never happened, snakes avoided the place.
My mother’s knack for strategically throwing rugs or batik sarongs, and living or dried flower arrangements, and other sundry items in a rich yet minimalist fashion, done in such ways as to make a paupers home palatial, became fairly legendary. In these modern times she’d use this natural skill for interior decoration work but she had extremely low self-esteem and had no idea what beauty she’d created.
My mother worked mainly in proofreading for the local newspaper — the Nambour Chronicle for a number of years and for the Sydney Morning Herald in her later years.
It’s almost impossible now for a child to experience a childhood in such a way as I did — the freedom, the running almost naked through acres and acres of grassy paddocks, stampeding the black and white Friesian cattle with my doggy and laughing as high as a kite.
Seeing the bedraggled hippies with their long bears and even longer hair, clothed in flowing transparent Indian print shirts, blue-jeaned and barefoot, sneaking onto our property at dusk to steal the gold-top mushrooms that only grew in the middle of a pad of rich warm cow manure, hoping for the trip of a lifetime.
The homegrown and gorgeous classical and rock music, the soft rain on the grass so green, the gentle cattle and the aggressive Brahman bulls that could suddenly appear over a ridge unexpectedly from a neighbour’s herd, the cow skulls and bones littered at the foot of waterfalls where they’d slipped and fallen some dank day. The little green frogs that plastered themselves on my bedroom window peering in at me with their fingers glued to the glass, or the very tiny and cute frog that unexpectedly fell once from the bath tap.
My brother had a name for his favourite cow: “Beauty! Beauty!” he’d call and she’d come ambling over to him as he stood their laughing with exhilaration, munching the grass from his outstretched hands across the rusty old barbed wire fence.
Then there were the giant outdoor rainwater tanks Luc and I bravely swam in, fearing some mythical giant python possibly curled at the bottom of the tank, each swim fraught with nerves and delight at escaping cool, chilled and happy yet again.
Certainly there were snakes. Oh my God there were. Everywhere. This was where my dog came into her own. Every week without fail she’d deliver another deadly dead snake to our back door. Her tried and true technique was to grab the snake in her strong jaws and swinging her own head from side to side she’d break its neck. It worked every time.
She was a marvel and highly intelligent— a true heroine — that utterly fearless little dog of mine.
I’ll never forget the day my mother was on the phone to a friend and a very large brown and yellow diamond-backed python slithered from the roof above, hanging down to stare her in the eye through the window — she quickly slammed it shut, and continued the conversation, laughing in a kind of electrified fear.
My mother the snake woman — they clearly loved her and sought her out. And yet I — I seemed a protected species — running ‘round for hours in acres of waist-length high grass, bare-foot and bare-legged in little shorts and not much else — never was I bit.
The Sister Confessor
“Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun Shine on you crazy diamond Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky Shine on you crazy diamond You were caught on the crossfire of childhood and stardom Blown on the steel breeze Come on you target for faraway laughter Come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine”
—excerpt from ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, Pink Floyd
I feel such a great sadness knowing this would be impossible now for a child to experience in this country. The innocence of the land is lost and also of all children. There’s danger everywhere. Called people.
But even then there were dangers I didn’t know of. My brother asked me to be his ‘Sister Confessor’ in the last months of his life, begged me even, in a desperate desire to get everything off his chest so as to leave here freed of his memories and their terrible burdens. He wanted to confess all to my unconditional heart.
And I always listened with a warm and open heart and mind. He was dying of HIV AIDS complications, with no way out of the horror of it all, ‘though he admitted to having wanted to go into the rainforest with a gun a number of times in the past to end it. To feel in control of it all. I talked him through surrendering to his impending death experience, and to letting it finally take him, rather than him taking it.
And in the end, this was how it went. He simply let go, and left us.
In those last days, he was insistent he wanted to reveal all his sins and transgressions — and also the evil things done unto him — by adults whilst he was a little boy.
Yusuf / Cat Stevens · He Was Alone
The Macrobiotic Paedophile Farmer
The first record my Mother ever bought for us was Cat Stevens — ‘Teaser and the FireCat’, or perhaps it was ‘Tea for the Tillerman’, I can’t be sure. We rocked around the living room like two deranged rock stars to his music, and later to Joe Cocker, Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi, Janis, and other greats.
We loved it! Oh my God we did!
Then Mum sent us to stay briefly with the evil farmer Peter Ferguson. She wasn’t to know. I didn’t know until many years later what actually happened.
I have no recall of why we were staying with him, but she needed a break from us for a week or so for some reason. Probably just needed a break. Peter had somehow met us, and was another one of the seemingly innocuous hippy type folks who loved to strip off and run wild and free on the secluded sand-hills of Mudjimba Beach with the rest of the crew. He was a bit more special. He taught us how to make sand sculptures a long time before they were de-rigeur.
Actually very artistic, he showed us the right amounts of sand and water to mix together to make sand sculptures of a naked man or woman lying either face down or face up.
Pretty much the sculptures were always naked, yes.
An evil paedophile farmer — that’s what he really was. Marketing himself as a divorcee, he sought out and befriended single mothers like mine. God only knows what else he got up to in his time.
Luc finally told me the truth of those days.
In the days we stayed there, I was left on my own an awful lot. I felt a bit rejected throughout. But Luc — he showered and slept with Peter. I wasn't invited but instead left to my own devices. I knew nothing of anything. I didn't really know actually about sex ‘til I was 11, although I was well aware of how to self-pleasure and so on, I hadn’t figured a few crucial things out, nor joined all the dots as yet.
And vital information was kept from me. Yes I was sadly naive.
But anyway, who knew what a paedophile looked like in those days? It wouldn't have crossed anyone’s mind when it came to Peter. He presented as a nice alternative type guy looking for a new wife.
Meanwhile he was trying to have sex with my very young brother aged about 9, I think. Luc told me he woke in the early hours with Peter trying to anally penetrate him and failing, and Luc telling him to stop. This happened a number of times I gather, and I don’t know much more about it than this.
All I know is just that Peter is an utter creepy criminal bastard who should be dealt with. By the law. There were more after that, so Luc told me. He was just the first. To have a go.
This was Luc’s painful secret, one of many, that he shared with me as he was dying.
The Hippy Priest At The Beach
And then there was Austin and his beautiful wife Lorraine, and their two sweet children. He was known as the Hippy Priest, and he’d muster the hippies and surfies from the beach, holding religious evening services once or twice a week in the basement of his old Queenslander home.
The basement was really the ground floor, enclosed with the glass Venetian blinds of the day, a battered lino floor, and rattly old fans trying hard to keep us all cool and failing miserably.
I adored Austin and somehow got myself taken to a number of his services. This happened after I chanced on a communion he was holding on a sandy evening beach — in the gathering dusk — he allowed me to drink from the cup of sweet red wine and break a chapatti with him — his choice of the bread of Christ. He said that although I wasn’t baptised into his religion, that if I believed, he was totally fine with me participating and breaking bread. I was ecstatic. I was in.
And after the service, there was live folk music and hippy food — potato salad, more chapattis, lentil pies, and so on. And endless spiritual talk talk talk. I loved it.
My mother became very close and friendly with his family and there was occasion for him to actually rescue us one night from a frighteningly nasty domestic violence episode with her erstwhile violent Maltese lover, the very horrible Frank.
He’d grabbed my hair in a drunken rage, and offered to throw me down the very high staircase at the side of his house if I didn't tell my mother she was a whore and a bitch and so on. Of course being me I refused, and somehow phoned the priest Austin and got him to come and get us.
I was shaking, hiding in the garden, and very afraid. The very dangerous Frank had thrown his kitchen table over towards me, attacking me because I wouldn't abuse my mother at his command.
I was only ten.
It was all high drama. Drunken violence. I was just a target because I was there and her daughter. More unforgettable.
My Mother’s Companion
Accompanying Mum to the Montville Pub and sipping pink lemonade, she made me wear my big black wide-brimmed felt hat to hide just how under-age I really was, to accompany her as she had a few drinks. This was when her alcoholism kicked in very hard, I really saw it. I had no choice but to be her underage (non)drinking ‘friend’.
This was part of the ongoing trend I recognised pretty early in my life, of turning me into her companion, rather than letting me just be her little girl. My soul rebelled against this pretty young as we really weren’t on the same page about so many things.
But I could see it even then — I was becoming my Mother’s Mother.
This surreal experience was further bolstered by her accidentally calling me ‘Mum’ — so many times — weird but true. An eleven year old girl being called Mum by her own adult mother, it really irked me every time. I tried hard to shrug myself out of her unwanted and awful projections on me, but they stuck for decades.
My mother playing the piano all night when drunk — Luc and I had a love/hate relationship with this phenomena as she was keeping us awake til 4 or 5 am in the morning, and our next day was completely ruined, but her playing was sublime so who could complain?
Not only that, the acoustics of the very tiny room she had the piano in acutely enhanced the sound like an echo chamber…
The tragedy of my mother is she didn’t recognise her own brilliance — she was a breathtaking pianist and had memorised many classical pieces which she played-by-ear with fluid and powerful emotion… but she really had no idea of how exceptional she was… no idea at all…
Julie L. Bernstein.
I began conducting invisible orchestras in my living-room. Leonard Bernstein the second. Cranking up the huge old record-player loud as I could, and locking the living-room doors from prying eyes, it was on!
Blessed Beethoven did it for me, Chopin, Tchaikovsky!
I’d been reading the great Russian novels — Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn — so why not also be a conductor to a massive invisible orchestra? Made sense. I got pretty good at it, to my way of thinking, although I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
Leaping around the living room like a thing possessed, I first uplifted the wind instrument section, then brought the bass percussion in, and finally a mournfully poignant and moving piano or violin solo would flow through it all like a mystic river.
Ahh — I loved it!
Meanwhile my contemporaries in Nambour were attending Mrs Dickson’s ballet classes which my mother would not allow me to do, for some reason. This was a bone of contention between us both forever. However I got over it. In my way.
Then there was that family with the eleven kids. My mother regularly sent us to stay with them, I’m again not sure why, and it was the best of times — and the worst of times. She’d met the vociferous Pam at her theatre group and they'd become fast friends. Each of her children it was said had a different father but the current man of the moment seemed a stayer and we all loved him.
An absolute sweetheart, a farmer and very hard worker with a heart of gold for all the kids.
They lived like most of the rest of us on the range, on large farm acreage whose main crop was incredibly delicious pineapples. I remember spending the time riding tractors, up the pecan nut trees munching away on the nuts delicious flesh, playing with the gorgeous little baby boy Andrew on his tyre swing, or helping prepare the almost factory production line meals.
Breakfast was a massive bottomless pot of porridge and dinner was on plastic plates with one pork chop each, a smattering of peas, and a dollop of mashed potato. Loved it. So did my brother. We were in our element. We felt special although part of something much bigger than us all — a real family. Our chronic loneliness assuaged, we were happy as pigs in mud.
Bath-time only happened when someone chopped some firewood, cranked up the copper, lit a fire, and heated up some water. And I’m sad to say we one after another shared the same bath water, the last one getting a cold bath and very dirty water. Ah well.
The down-side was the fleas. I was very allergic to them. But they were absolutely infested with them, and I was eaten alive as I slept between two of the sisters Sherylyn and Wendy in their large lumpy uncomfortable bed, whom I also adored like sisters.
I’d come home from their place every time with large infected welts on my legs from the flea bites.
Whilst there we had to attend the local Montville Primary School and it was something else. A one room school room, I felt that I was back in medieval days. We wrote on slates with scratchy chalk, kids were placed in age groups around the room, and the one teacher somehow managed them all with an iron fist and her cane.
I was privy to seeing her rather sadistically cane my friend Sherylyn on the backs of her legs, and I too was threatened for my outspokenness, but not touched in the end, due to my privileged visitor status.
Caning was done everywhere in those days and my brother had ‘six of the best’ inflicted on him many times, bravely bearing his painful wounds with valour, the palms of his hands often wrapped in bloody bandages.
It was legal then.
But I well remember the day it was suddenly not. That was a Very. Good. Day.
Little Drummer Boy
My younger brother lived in his own little world just as I did. He was forever at me as I sat in the highest branches of a tree, swinging my legs and intently reading my book of the day. He was insistent I should be punished for this outright rejecting behaviour and playing with him be strictly enforced.
He clearly adored me, only I didn't recognise this — I simply found him extremely irritating and annoying. To say I regret this now is true, but that’s who I was then, very immersed in my own rich inner world and not to be interrupted.
To compare us — the chalk and cheese analogy is very apt.
I always ensured I had a large old wooden table to be used as a desk in my bedroom — no matter where I lived — laden with paper, coloured and black drawing pencils and pens, writing materials, books, musical instruments — all for my own personal entertainment. I was a one girl party — an accomplished geisha for myself. I never sought fame. I was an introvert in some ways, although a rather avante garde play I wrote was performed at the local theatre company by a group of actors to great reviews in the local papers.
But my brother — it was as though he was all externalised where I was all internalised. He had no interest whatsoever in his bedroom, or in ever being there except to sleep. He spent a lot of time seeking out alternate families with fathers, and was given a drum kit by a local elderly farming couple, the Kennedy’s, who lived up the road and adored him.
He was a mad drummer — truly excellent and gifted. He was known for this ‘til the day he died.
He became a bit of a thief also and just before Mum finally gave up and sent him to his father for the ill-fated attempt at reconciliation between father and son, he was on the edge of truly bad thievery. Also a compulsive liar. I’m one who cannot bear lies and feel them as sandpaper on my soul. He was one who cultivated the skill to a fine art. He had large appetites even then — for stolen money, cigarettes and whatever else turned him on back then. We had no money and were dirt poor. So he stole.
He was a lovable rascal and ultimately he was his own undoing.