Writing, Nature and Presence

Recently I attended the inaugural Eleanor Dark lecture which formally closed the Blue Mountains program of the 2017 Sydney Writers’ Festival. The lecture, held at the grand old Carrington Hotel, was given by Delia Falconer.

Falconer is known for her novels including The Service of Clouds which I’ve referred to previously as one of the books that is intricately linked to the fictional world of the Blue Mountains. Falconer’s book on Sydney as part of the series of books on the Australian capital cities was also wonderfully evocative of place, history and atmosphere. And so it was with interest that I attended this lecture which had as its focus the themes of writing, nature and presence.

It was fitting that Falconer was chosen to deliver the inaugural lecture as she had written part of The Service of Clouds whilst in residence at Varuna, the National Writers House bequeathed by the Dark family. Falconer spoke of her time there with fondness, of coming across Eleanor Dark’s gardening journal which illustrated her exacting practical mind, and the joy that Dark took in the local eccentricity of Katoomba life along with the magnificent landscape.

Falconer noted that part of the motivation behind Dark’s landmark trilogy The Timeless Land was distaste at the mindless celebrations around the sesquicentenary of European settlement. Dark’s response was to carefully research and write a fictional account of the early years of the colony from the viewpoint of the colonisers and the Aboriginals; this may be seen as clunky from our current perspective but it was revolutionary at the time. The natural world featured strongly in these books, and Falconer quoted someone as saying that Dark’s work gave the reader a sense of sunlight and the scent of boronia. It can be seen as a precursor to Australian nature writing.

From this foundation, the lecture moved to the challenges of writing in a world marked by the loss of abundance in nature. A simple example was given of driving at night through the countryside – or anywhere outside the suburban sprawl – when the windscreen would soon be choked up with moths and the like. Or the movement en masse of Sydney fruit bats over the city skyline at night. Both examples, which were commonplace, are now relatively rare. Some writers in this field maintain that we are going through the sixth great extinction, a time of rapid loss of species that is unprecedented.

I was interested by the idea that we are indirectly impacted by the kind of animals and plants that surround us, yet it is hard to know what you haven’t seen. This in turn could lead to environmental generational amnesia, where elements of the natural world are entirely lost or become so rare as to no longer be on the human peripheral. There is now a term for the psychological distress caused by such significant environmental shifts – solastalgia.

But what can writers do in such a period of change and uncertainty? Falconer urged writers to tell the story. Use autobiography to look back and understand what has changed. Make it uncomfortable. And think ahead to the future.

[Photo: view from Govett’s Leap lookout, Blackheath]

 

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Blue Mountains Book Settings

There are many upsides to sorting out your book collection. A definite highlight is being reunited with books that captured my attention and took me on a journey that remains vivid, years after reading them.

Amongst the stacks of books, there were some that I’ve put aside into a cluster of stories featuring the Blue Mountains. Here are a few fictional books that come to mind.

The Service of Clouds, Delia Falconer. Set in the early 1900s, this is the story of cloud photographer Harry Kitchings and Eureka Jones, a pharmacist’s assistant. I read it a couple of years before I moved here and think of it often when I catch myself looking upwards to watch clouds moving across the sky. The mural in Katoomba Street near St Hilda’s in honour of photographer Harry Phillips reminds me of it too; it is based on one of his photographs of the Bridal Veil Falls.

Dear You, Kate Llewellyn. This novel of love letters is set in Leura where the author lived for a few years. I read this when I first moved to the mountains, and remember scanning the entries for mentions of snow falling as that was one of my big concerns, being snowed in. It is a story of lust and longing and the everyday and gardens and being aware of the world in which you live.

Miles Off Course, Sulari Gentill. This is the third book in an excellent mystery series set in Australia in the 1930s featuring Rowland Sinclair. Rowly is an unconventional man from a privileged background who has bohemian friends including fellow artists and musicians. They get involved in all sorts of interesting situations which are historically accurate but with contemporary echoes. The series includes various famous and infamous people of the time in cameo roles. This book starts off in the Hydro Majestic where famous entrepreneur and hotelier Mark Foy is seeking Rowly’s input on the plans for his grand tomb which was to be carved into the grounds. This was true: it was incorporated into Foy’s will but it was ruled as not financially feasible by the court and his executors were released from any obligation to complete it.

Ash Island, Barry Maitland. This is the third installment of a trilogy featuring Harry Belltree, a Sydney detective with a troubled past and a complex network of enemies. In this final book, there is a murder early on in Blackheath, with Harry’s estranged wife Jenny the main suspect. But are things really as they seem?

Beware of the Dog, Peter Corris. My liking for Australian detective stories is apparent, and Corris is fondly regarded as The Godfather of Australian crime writing. His main character, Cliff Hardy, entered the literary scene in the 1970s and has been all over the country, and in various parts of the world, in his role as an old-school private investigator. In this installment, Hardy follows a lead up to a remote property past Mt Victoria, and the essence of this mountain village is well depicted. Hardy makes his final fictional appearance this year.

The Palace of Tears, Julian Leatherdale. This multi-generational fictional drama is based on the life of Mark Foy and his family. The author lives locally and has an extensive background in the arts and hotel management. This novel was a popular choice when it was released in time for summer reading a couple of years back and there is an interesting twist at the end. Julian has an article on the excellent Dictionary of Sydney website about the Hydro Majestic here.

Evergreen Falls, Kimberley Freeman. I came across this book by chance after listening to an interview with author on So You Want To Be A Writer. This story is set in modern times with historical flashbacks to a singular event in the 1920s which changed the course of the lives of several people. I liked the attention to detail, and the references to an old motel undergoing extensive renovations rang true as the Hydro was brought back from disrepair to its much more fashionable state.

Have you come across any books set in your town?

[Photo: detail from the mural in honour of Harry Phillips, Katoomba]

 

My I Spy: Something beginning with ‘C’

I have a sneaking suspicion that I am being lulled into a false sense of security with the early letters in the alphabet. There has been some headscratching over E, and I haven’t thought much about F either, hoping instead that something will come across my path over the next few weeks. But for now, some things beginning with C.

China

China

China

My appreciation of fine bone china is influenced by my Mum, who has a beautiful assortment of exquisite cups, saucers, milk jugs and other tea related items. I cannot resist upturning a teacup if the china feels right, and will gravitate towards light, beautifully crafted but worn pieces over a sturdy white modern plate. The samples above are some of my favourites, including the Cup of Knowledge which sits on a saucer outlining the horoscope. A fine cup is worthy of a good brew, and might explain why I enjoyed a recent trip to Bygone Beauties.

Cloud in the Hartley Valley

Cloud in the Hartley Valley

Cloud Formations

One of the many aspects of mountain life that delights me is cloud formation. Seriously. I am not clever enough to be able to identity individual clouds as such, but I do know what I like. Coming down into the valley through light cloud cover is a delight, and I had to pull over and take a photo of the low cloud, slipping across the top of the trees. I know I’m relaxed when I find myself looking upwards, daydreaming upon cloud formations.

It also makes me think of The Service of Clouds by Delia Falconer, a wonderful novel set in the Blue Mountains. There is a review of the book in the New York Times here. Falconer’s book on Sydney as part of a series on Australian cities is also excellent. There is a review by another great writer, Drusilla Modjeska, in The Monthly here.

Katoomba Court House

Court House, Katoomba

Court House, Katoomba

The growth of Katoomba and the surrounding areas in the 1880s resulted in a deputation of Alderman heading to Sydney to request a courthouse in the town. Located on the northern side of the railway tracks, the court house was constructed in the late 1890s in the Federation Romanesque style and opened in 1897. It remains an imposing presence over a century later.

I am looking forward to seeing what delights my fellow alphabeteer Autumn comes up with for ‘C’, and am off to hunt down something beginning with ‘D’.