A lovely review of ‘Peeping’ by Michelle Lopert, in the Autumn issue of our great local ideas magazine, ‘Inklings – the thoughtful alternative’. Email to subscribe to digital issues.
This delightful collection of short stories from local author, Sharyn Munro, engages the reader from the very first page with its lyrical language, recognisable situations, and insights. The author sweeps us from childhood to old age, capturing a snippet of life at each stage in the human journey. For those of us born in the ‘40s and ‘50s, these scenarios are all too familiar.
The childhood stories in Part One remind us of the innocent years of childhood, the confusion of dealing with new experiences, and the uncertainty of our place in the world. In one story, a young girl witnesses the argument that ends in her parents’ divorce. In another, a girl’s dreams of being an artist or ballerina are dashed. Children try to make sense of the unknown, using their own limited logic, sprinkled with a vast imagination. Munro captures the mystery and complexity of the adult world, seen through a child’s eyes.
In the second part of the book, the pain and excitement of adolescence and early adulthood are captured in stories about lust, sex, marriage, divorce and heartbreak. Her university story encapsulates the blossoming of new-found independence, at a time when we pretend to be grown up, confident and cool. We want so desperately to fit in whilst embracing new experiences. But some of us can be hurled out of our comfort zone with dire consequences.
I laughed aloud at the humorous portrayal of a camping trip that went horribly wrong from day one. And haven’t we’ve all been there! The story is written with word-juggling playfulness, showing her mastery of language.
The author acquaints us with the rationale of one- night stands, the trepidation of reuniting with old lovers, and the awe of people who break the rules or choose an unconventional path. But she hints that life isn’t all envy and befuddlement. We are merely gobbling up the world in our thirst for knowledge, wisdom and understanding. In the process, there is no shying away from brutal realities such as the death of a child or the shock of a suicide. These poignant stories are jarring, but honest.
The final part of the book shines a gentle spotlight on the inevitable decline and indignity of old age. It echoes with sadness and loss — loss of physical vitality, loss of youthful appearance, and ultimately loss of love, passion and a future. The portrayal of older women becoming invisible and devalued is a stark reminder of our shallow society, one that worships youth rather than experience and wisdom. This is especially highlighted in the story of a group of widows whose empty lives consists of regularly meeting at the club and playing the poker machines.
The stories carry us to a variety of locations, from convent schools, university pubs, the mundane suburbia of Newcastle, the glory of the Blue Mountains, and beyond to lonely mountains in regional Australia. Nature plays a huge role in her stories and I will never forget those magical frog symphonies that pushed out a grumpy lover.
Just like life, there are no happy-ever-after endings, but the final story could be construed as a sort of epiphany. In this mystical story, an elderly woman sheds her earthly attachments to become one with nature, much to her daughter’s incomprehension.
It’s not hard to see why these stories have won prizes and commendations. Munro is not afraid to face all aspects of life, and reveal the true thoughts, fears and motives of ordinary people, be they ever so lofty or mundane.
As the sun sets here, I am more attracted to the patterns and colours it adds to the river and the edging mangrove mudflats than to the sky itself. I have noticed that my eye keeps being drawn more to earth than sky, be it sunrise or sunset, beach or bush.
As usual, I find there’s a solitary bird poking about, to add interest to my photo.
I wasn’t sure what this one was until it turned sideways and showed off its S-bend neck ability: a White-faced Heron.
Of course there is always a stately solo Pelican, here cruising the wind-ruffled water amongst the oyster beds.
Taking my eyes off the gilded river, in the shallows by the mangroves I spy what looks like an Egret, snow-white and solitary, as expected. The now nearby Heron keeps its distance.
But I admit I am as taken by the sunset’s transforming impact on birdless mudflats, with the black nursery spikes of the mangroves punctuating the dimpled grey mud and accentuating the gold wash beyond, where oyster bed posts give both horizontal and vertical definition.
I’ve seen far more spectacular sunsets here, but every change in the light offers new interest to me, always worth closer inspection.
Aussie Autumn display
Banksias are inherently surreal plants and trees, and right now, in our Autumn, the coppery coloured new leaves, toothed and outstretched, and the huge variety of flower cones at different stages, like this baby one, are truly painterly.
Some of the new flower cones are as pure and slender as church candles.
Others have decided to limit development to hemispherical powderpuffs, albeit spiky ones, rather than the typical elongated cones.
Only one branch of this Angophora floribunda was flowering, but in such profusion that its heady scent — more butterscotch than honey, I thought — wafted farther than its close proximity. That branch was a long arm, arching far from the tree trunk, contorting in the manner of its family.
The Blueberry Ash trees (Elaeocarpus reticulatus) were festooned, not with flowers, but with hundreds of tiny blue berries like scraps of sky.
Some Lillipillis were showing off by displaying both flowers and fruit.
It being Autumn — Keats’ ‘season of mellow fruitfulness’ — the Pittosporums were laden.
And who needs flowers or fruit when you have such gorgeous spiralling growth itself? The low growing Caustis flexuosa or Curly Wig is common in this reserve, and always remarkable.
As my readers know, I am a sucker for a solitary seagull. Now I am unsure if it is the same seagull who accompanies me on my morning seaside walks, but I like to think it is. This one certainly admires the sunrise as much as I do, basking in the wonders that a few clouds can create at this serendipitous moment.
The sight is stupendous, even sans seagull, changing every second. The constantly renewed ruff of foam edging the mirror of the wet sand is such a neat visual touch that it is hard to consider it ‘normal’. As the sun rises higher, side-on, up close, the foam bubbles sparkle with iridescence, but I can’t capture their tiny rainbows with my camera.
The clouds shift and suddenly a sky monster on the move glares at me from its baleful eyes.
Not solitary, these terns are watching the unfolding sunrise too, with the reflected craggy vertical face of the headland laid out flat, neatly ruled, in front of them.
As always, the fascinating details of how the tide has receded are written in the sand. These sturdily defined chevrons on the edge of the sand rise are new to me.
So are these scallops; not appearing as ripples, but a series of separate pulses of patterns.
Not keen on scalloped designs? How about herringbone?
Is there any pattern not originating in nature?
Well, yes. I rarely see anyone else down here at this early hour, but a solitary walker with a stick leaves a distinct trail as he passes me. It would have puzzled me had I not seen it being made, and would no doubt have inspired an unlikely flight of fancy…
Intentional food and beauty
The lucky inhabitants and visitors to this garden find plenty to eat, if they are partial to nectar or berries. The owners have planted native shrubs and small trees with the specific aim of attracting and providing for them.
It’s highly successful, as the frequent forays of honeyeaters in this blooming time mean the branches are rarely still, a bouncing and swaying leafy larder.
Grevilleas, Kangaroo Paws, Banksias, Bottlebrushes and Lilly-Pillies abound.
This dense shrub is a favourite with small birds, and its prolific flowers are an unusual and very pretty shade of pink.
But my favourite in the pink stakes is the Lilly-Pilly with beautifully drooping hands of pale pink new leaves, which fade as they age.
Its bunched berries are pink too: what’s not to like?
Or if pink does not appeal, there are many of these Lilly-Pillies with cream powder puff blossoms.
Their fruit is a darker pink, larger and in smaller bunches, and perhaps more appetising?
It would be a very choosy bird that did not find this garden both a haven and a rich food source.
As a human I find it both a haven and a rich source of visual beauty, with the sightings and sounds of the birds an extra treat.
I could probably eat the Lilly-Pillies, but I’m too busy eating raspberries off the vine…
Kattang Nature Reserve is full of wonders, some more curious than others.
While looking like an exotic tropical fruit, this plant is a native, with the rather demeaning name of Common Milk Vine, Marsdenia rostrata. It is so called for the milky sap it exudes. Unlike Marsdenia viridiflora, Bush Banana, this large fruit is not edible.
However, this native vine’s fruit certainly is edible; in fact, it’s delicious. With the offputting but apt common name of Cockspur Thorn, Maclura cochinchinensis, it is the scourge of bushwalkers or regenerators but its sweet fruit is beloved by birds… and people!
To me its taste is reminiscent of Jaffa lollies, its texture soft like a raspberry.
(The yellow spots on the leaves are apparently not typical.)
Most curious of all, this yellow item that has been puzzling me for weeks turns out to be a root of this same Maclura, I am told, albeit in a different place. Fungi, decaying plastic?
Low tide treasures
The hooded keeper of this treasure trove glowers warningly from his island, arms folded, tail curled beneath him.
I assure him I won’t touch anything, just look.
The tide is turning, so soon his garden will be safe once more from plunderers… and blunderers like me.
The scalloped sand ripples around smaller rock islands seem to show a tide that receded in circles, leaving a rococo mirror for the small patch of blue sky peeping though the clouds.
Other parts of the rock shelf mirrored the land world more dramatically, with plateau lakes, rushing waterfalls, steep cliffs and deep fjords.
The forests of cunjevoi nearest the sea edge were glowing bright green, not having been exposed to the sun for too long, and about to be submerged again.
I began to think of the clever adaptability of all the inhabitants, animal and vegetable, of this tidal shelf.
The shells can close up to prevent evaporation, but so do these Chelsea-bun-shaped creatures.
Every now and then one of them shoots a stream of water into the air before closing again. I managed to photograph these with their little red mouths still open right after such an ejection. The bubbles they created are still visible.
I could see those red mouths because there is little vivid colour in these pools, so this red starfish was a beacon.
In other pools there were many starfish, but far more secretively camouflaged, mainly blue or with duller reddish tips. They were well hidden amongst the showy seagarden plants or part buried in sand.
But this garden has as much sculpture as plants – rocks of gold and amber, decorated with filigree created by the Galeolaria seaworms, studded with the pearls of more mobile shells.
It even has more modern industrial-style sculpture sections, where vertical rules divided the rocks before freeform artistic elements were added.
I am yet again in awe of the design intrinsic in Nature, which we can only emulate. Perhaps, as we veer from fire to flood seasons, we might also emulate the adaptability of the inhabitants of rock shelves.
Sometimes my morning walks are lucky enough to strike a magical combination of sea, sunrise, and sky … and in this instance, a lone seagull.
The seagull flew away, but the rest of the cast soon moved into a different and more brooding scene.
Even where the clouds neared the land and broke into fluffy cotton wool balls, they gave a brief but spectacular show of reflections each time just after a wave receded, leaving a wet mirror surface on the sand. A single fisherman the only other witness…
But he walked to his fishing spot.
Unfortunately, my pleasure in Nature’s spectacle is always ruined by the man-made eyesore of 4WD tracks, not made by fishermen seeking a spot further up this long beach, but just joyriding, using/abusing the beach as a driving range for their big boys’ toys because they are allowed to. The Port Macquarie Hastings Shire seems especially weak in this respect.
I can only wish much rust their way…!
Weird and wonderful
Having always driven past the Hunter Botanic Gardens at Raymond Terrace, always with the fleeting thought of ‘I must go there’… I finally did.
It holds many green wonders of forests and palms but I found the noise of the adjacent highway traffic too distracting to enjoy the bush.
I did marvel at the amazing sight of the purples and oranges and burgundies of the shedding bark of the Angophora costata trunks. This one was surrounded by the spent flower spears of Bottlebrush Grass plants, Xanthorrhoea macronema, as if on guard.
A friend had advised that the Cacti Garden was her favourite; ‘Oh, I don’t like cacti’, I’d said dismissively.
But the large Cacti Garden here was actually amazing! I was so ignorant of the diversity.
Look at these fat green roses, as cupped as any David Austin bloom…
These strange cannon balls were ribbed with prickles and sneakily expanding, yet some incongruously bore a soft yellow flower on top.
These helmeted and shielded warriors were ready for battle, on the alert and checking in all directions.
Yet this sort of vertical cacti looked gently harmless, furry towers, unlike their accompanying army of fierce little green friends.
And I found this the weirdest of all, a tall sculpture of beseeching groups of clasped hands.
I will never dismiss cacti again… and I am now unsure if they really are plants. Their world is weird indeed, but it is also wonderful.
Easy access greens
At nearby Washpool National Park you wind down to Bellbird rainforest campground, surrounded by tall trees and deep shade.
There is an easy walk to Coombadjha Creek, designed for wheelchair access, so perfect for me in my fragile rib-clutching state.
And beside that path there are many rainforest wonders to be seen, like this gorgeous tangle of roots and greenery.
Another uses the exposed roots as protective frames for pockets of moss.
Other mosses need no protection as they cover this fallen tree like a thick green furry pelt. So strokable!
The creek itself is beautiful, and restful, with still pools between small rushes and falls. So restful that I sit there for ages… and listen… and think.
The rocks always draw me in, and this one seemed so generous, with native violets thriving along its one crack.
Many cracks in this work of modern art, moss-topped and lichen-splashed. Couldn’t find the artist’s name…
By gentle waters
On leaving Gibraltar National Park, it is worth stopping just before rejoining the highway, and imbibing the gentle atmosphere of Dandahra Creek.
The path winds through banks of ferns taller than myself, and in many places the creek is as still as a mirror. Still incapacitated to some extent by my fall, I didn’t walk far, but enough to enjoy it.
While the heaths up here apparently blaze with a lot of Christmas Bells at the right time, I only saw an occasional one, always a bright and surprising splash of colour in this green world.
Rocks in shady places are festooned with mosses and lichen and small plants, speaking of stability, of longevity, of multi-purpose and interdependent life.
Even an old fencepost must do its duty in this web of life, hosting so much lichen I had trouble recognising what its original role had been.
High country survival
Gibraltar National Park is an easy drive inland from Glen Innes, on the Gwydir Highway. It is a high country of rocks of all shapes and sizes, so these tall granite columns, called The Needles, were the aim of the first walk I chose to do from where I was to camp for three nights at Mulligans Campground.
The view from the lookout was spectacular, but as always, my eye was drawn to detail, and there were several of these striking plants in flower. Commonly called Native fuschia, Epacris longiflora, I am informed.
The walk out to there goes through mostly rainforest, where the damp fosters fungi and I kept checking for hitchhiking leeches.
Back up on the heights, the regrowth of shrubs and trees was heartening amongst all the blackened trunks.
Not all the Xanthorrhoeas had survived, and many looked like amputees.
The walk was meant to be a two-and-a-half-hour one of medium difficulty; there were quite enough inclines for me, and some rocky scrambles where I feared to turn an ankle.
But up top, for long stretches, Dampiera purpurea formed an avenue beside the path, showing their pretty mauve flowers, the plants often as tall as myself.
I had missed the main flowering of the Gibraltar Range Waratah (Telopea aspera), but enough bright remnants remained on the tall stems to signal their past glory.
But this Park for me was less about flowers than lichened rocks and survivor trees, about blacks and greys and browns.
The lower storey of next generation greens was hopeful, but the tough oldies showed they were not to be taken lightly.
Unfortunately this oldie tripped and fell flat out when almost back at the campground, landing on my camera, which had been slung around my neck and shoulder. Neither soft flesh nor fragile ribs are a match for such a hard object. So part of me was purple and black as an aubergine (only not as firm) and I could do no more long walks for the week. But I know I was lucky not to break a wrist or wrench a knee… so let’s say The Needles were worth it.
I did survive to wince and do tiny walks, and will return another time to do all those other walks.