Hidden away at the ends of streets, behind suburban parks and community assets, there remain remnants of the coastal wallum heathlands that once stretched from Caloundra to Noosa, in Queensland, Australia. From late July to September, these areas explode with colour, a springtime wonderland of white wedding bush, delicate ground orchids, the pastels and brilliance of pink boronias, purple irises, and the diverse profusion of yellow bush peas. These gifts of nature are still relatively unknown and unappreciated, with most locals, and Australians at large, having little knowledge of the remarkable nature of the wallum, the nutrient-poor sandy soil that can be almost as acidic as battery acid, but which sustains a finely tuned ecosystem that, once cleared, cannot be regrown. These heathlands and woodlands, previously commonplace beyond the beach dunes of the coastal region, are now only found in a number of national parks and reserves, and suburban remnants.
Image 1: The author wildflowering and making art (Photo: Judy Barrass)
I too was one of those who had no idea of the joys of the wallum and heathland wildflowers, but it was the creative works of Kathleen McArthur and Judith Wright that helped initiate my education, my own wanderings, wildflowering, and love. Learning country has been a multi-faceted experience, extended and tested as walking becomes an embodied encounter, bodies and landscapes entwined (Lund), an imaginative reimagining, creative act and source of inspiration, a form of pilgrimage (Morrison), forging an intimate relationship (Somerville).
Image 2: Women wildflowering next to Rainbow Beach (Photo: Susan Davis)
Wandering—the experience shares some similar characteristics to walking, but may have less of a sense of direction and destination. It may become an experience that is relational, contemplative, connected to place. Wandering may be transitory but with impact that resonates across years. Such is the case of wandering for McArthur and Wright; the experience became deeply relational but also led to a destabilisation of values, where the walking body became “entangled in monumental historical and social structures” (Heddon and Turner). They called their walking and wandering “wildflowering”. Somerville said of the term: “Wildflowering was a word they created to describe their passion for Australian wildflower and their love of the places where they found them” (Somerville 2). However, wildflowering was also very much about the experience of wandering within nature, of the “art of seeing”, of learning and communing, but also of “doing”.
Image 3: Kathleen McArthur and Judith Wright “wildflowering” north of Lake Currimundi. (Photo: Alex Jelinek, courtesy Alexandra Moreno)
different things to different people. There are those who, with magnifying glass before their eyes, looking every inch the scientist, count stamens, measure hairs, pigeon-hole all the definitive features neatly in order and scoff at common names. Others bring with them an artistic inclination, noting the colours and shapes and shadows in the intimate and in the general landscape. Then there are those precious few who find poetry in a Helmut Orchid “leaning its ear to the ground”; see “the trigger-flower striking the bee”; find secrets in Sun Orchids; see Irises as “lilac butterflies” and a fox in a Yellow Doubletail…
There are as many different ways to approach the “art of seeing” as there are people who think and feel and one way is as worthy as any other to make of it an enjoyably sensuous experience… (McArthur, Australian Wildflowers 52-53)
Wildflowering thus extends far beyond the scientific collector and cataloguer of nature; it is about walking and wandering within nature and interacting with it; it is a richly layered experience, an “art”, “a sensuous experience”, “an artistic inclination” where perception may be framed by the poetic.
Their wildflowering drove McArthur and Wright to embark on monumental struggles. They became the voice for the voiceless lifeforms within the environment—they typed letters, organised meetings, lobbied politicians, and led community groups. In fact, they often had to leave behind the environments and places that brought them joy to use the tools of culture to protest and protect—to ensure we might be able to appreciate them today. Importantly, both their creativity and the activism were fuelled by the same wellspring: walking, wandering, and wildflowering.
Women Wandering and Wildflowering
When McArthur and Wright met in the early 1950s, they shared some similarities in terms of relatively privileged social backgrounds, their year of birth (1915), and a love of nature. They both had houses named after native plants (“Calanthe” for Wright’s house at Tambourine, “Midyim” for McArthur’s house at Caloundra), and were focussed on their creative endeavours—Wright with her poetry, McArthur with her wildflower painting and writing.
Wright was by then well established as a highly regarded literary figure on the Australian scene. Her book of poetry The Moving Image (1946) had been well received, and later publications further consolidated her substance and presence on the national literary landscape. McArthur had been raised as the middle daughter of a prominent Queensland family; her father was Daniel Evans, of Evans Deakin Industries, and her mother “Kit” was a daughter of one of the pastoral Durack clan. Kathleen had married and given birth to three children, but by the 1950s was exploring new futures and identities, having divorced her husband and made a home for her family at Caloundra on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. She had time and space in her life to devote to her own pursuits and some financial means provided through her inheritance to finance such endeavours.
Wright and McArthur met in 1951 after McArthur sent Wright a children’s book for Judith and Jack McKinney’s daughter Meredith. The book was by McArthur’s cousins, Mary Durack (of Kings in Grass Castles fame) and Elizabeth Durack. Wright subsequently invited McArthur to visit her at Tambourine and from that visit their friendship quickly blossomed. While both women were to become known as high-profile nature lovers and conservationists, Wright acknowledges that it was McArthur who helped “train her eye” and cultivated her appreciation of the wildflowers of south-east Queensland:
There are times in one’s past which remain warm and vivid, and can be taken out and looked at, so to speak, with renewed pleasure. Such, for me, were my first meetings in the early 1950s with Kathleen McArthur, and our continuing friendship. They brought me joys of discovery, new knowledge, and shared appreciation. Those “wild-flowering days” at Tamborine Mountain, Caloundra, Noosa or Lake Cootharaba, when I was able to wander with her, helped train my own eye a little to her ways of seeing and her devotion to the flowers of the coast, the mountains, and the wallum plains and swamps. (Wright quoted in McArthur, Australian Wildflowers 7)
It was through this wandering and wildflowering that their friendship was forged, their knowledge of the plants and landscape grew and their passion was ignited. These acts of wandering were ones where feelings and the senses were engaged and celebrated. McArthur was to document her experiences of these environments through her wildflower paintings, cards, prints, weekly articles in the local newspapers, and books featuring Queensland and Australian Wildflowers (McArthur, Queensland Wildflowers; Living; Bush; Australian Wildflowers). Wright wrote a range of poems featuring landscapes and flora from the coastal experiences and doubtless influenced by their wildflowering experiences. These included, for example, Judith Wright’s poems “Wildflower Plain”, “Wonga Vine”, “Nameless Flower”, and “Sandy Swamp” (Collected Works).
Through these acts of wildflowering, walking, and wandering, McArthur and Wright were drawn into activism and became what I call “wild/flower” women: women who cared for country, who formed a deep connection and intimate relationship with nature, with the more-than-human world; women who saw themselves not separate from nature but part of the great cycles of life, growth, death, and renewal; women whose relationship to the country, to the wildflowers and other living things was expressed through drawing, painting, poetry, stories, and performances—but that love driving them also to actions—actions to nurture and protect those wildflowers, places, and living things. This intimate relationship with nature was such that it inspired them to become “wild”, at times branded difficult, prompted to speak out, and step up to assume high profile roles on the public stage—and all because of their love of the small, humble, and often unseen.
Wandering into Activism
A direct link between “wildflowering” and activism can be identified in key experiences from 1953. That was the year McArthur devoted to “wildflowering”, visiting locations across the Sunshine Coast and South-East Queensland, documenting all that was flowering at different times of the year (McArthur, Living 15). She kept a monthly journal and also engaged in extensive drawing and painting. She was joined by Wright and her family for some of these trips, including one that would become a “monumental” expedition. They explored the area around Noosa and happened to climb to the top of Mt Tinbeerwah. Unlike many of the other volcanic plugs of the Sunshine Coast that would not be an easy climb for a family with young children, Tinbeerwah is a small volcanic peak, close to the road that runs between Cooroy and Tewantin, and one that is a relatively easy walk. From the car park, the trail takes you over volcanic lava flows, a pathway appearing, disappearing, winding through native grasses, modest height trees and to the edge of a dramatic cliff (one now popular with abseilers and adventurers). The final stretch brings you out above the trees to stunning 360-degree views, other volcanic peaks, a string of lakes and waterways, the patchwork greens of farmlands, distant blue oceans, and an expanse of bushland curving north for miles. Both women wrote about the experience and its subsequent significance:
When Meredith was four years old, Kathleen McArthur, who was a great wildflower enthusiast and had become a good friend, invited us to join her on a wildflower expedition to the sand-plains north of Noosa. There the Noosa River spread itself out into sand-bottomed lakes between which the river meandered so slowly that everywhere the sky was serenely mirrored in it, trees hung low over it, birds haunted them.
Kathleen took her little car, we took our converted van, and drove up the narrow unsealed road beyond Noosa. Once through the dunes—where the low bush-cover was white with wedding-bush and yellow with guinea-flower vines—the plains began, with many and mingled colours and scents. It was spring, and it welcomed us joyfully. (Wright, Half 279-280)
McArthur also wrote about this event and its importance, as they both realised that this was territory that was worth protecting for posterity: ‘it was obvious that this was great wildflower country in addition to having a fascinating system of sand mass with related river and lakes. It would make a unique national park’ (McArthur, Living 53). After this experience, Kathleen and Judith began initial inquiries to find out about how to progress ideas for forming a national park (McArthur, Living). Brady affirms that it was Kathleen who first “broached the idea of agitating to have the area around Cooloola declared a National Park” (Brady 182), and it was Judith who then made inquiries in Brisbane on their way back to Mount Tambourine:
Judith took the idea to Romeo Lahey of the National Parks Association who told her it was not threatened in any way whereas there were important areas of rainforest that were, and his association gave priority to those. If he had but known, it was threatened. The minerals sands prospectors were about to arrive, if not already in there. (McArthur, Living 53)
These initial investigations were put on hold as the pair pursued their “private lives” and raised their children (McArthur, Living), but reignited throughout the 1960s. In 1962, McArthur and Wright were to become founding members of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (along with David Fleay and Brian Clouston), and Cooloola was to become one of one of their major campaigns (McArthur, Living 32). This came to the fore when they discovered there were multiple sand mining leases pending across the Cooloola region. It was at McArthur’s suggestion that a national postcard campaign was launched in 1969, with their organisation sending over 100,000 postcards across Australia to then be sent back to Joh Bjelke Peterson, the notoriously pro-development, conservative Queensland Premier. This is acknowledged as Australia’s first postcard campaign and was reported in national newspapers; The Australian called the Caloundra branch of WPSQ one of the “most militant cells” in Australia (25 May 1970). This was likely because of the extent of the WPSQ communications across media channels and persistence in taking on high profile critics, including the mining companies.
It was to be another five years of campaigning before the national park was declared in 1975 (then named Cooloola National Park, now part of the Great Sandy). Wright was to then leave Queensland to live on a property near Braidwood (on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales) and in a different political climate. However, McArthur stayed in Caloundra, maintaining her deep commitment to place and country, keeping on walking and wandering, painting, and writing. She campaigned to protect beach dunes, lobbied to have Pumicestone Passage added to the national heritage register (McArthur, Pumicestone), and fought to prevent the creation of canal estates on the Pumicestone passage. Following the pattern of previous campaigns, she engaged in detailed research, drawing on expertise nationally and internationally, and writing many submissions, newspaper columns, and letters.
McArthur also advocated for the plants, the places, and forms of knowing that she loved, calling for “clear thinking and deep feeling” that would enable people to see, value, and care as she did, notably saying:
Because our flowers have never settled into our consciousness they are not seen. People can drive through square miles of colourful, massed display of bloom and simply not see it. It is only when the mind opens that the flowers bloom. (McArthur, Bush 2)
Her belief was that once you walked the country and could “see”, become familiar with, and fall in love with the wildflowers and their environment, you could not then stand by and see what you love destroyed. Her conservation activities and activism arose and was fed through her wildflowering and the deep knowledge and connections that were formed.
Wildflowering and Wanderings of My Own
So, what we can learn from McArthur and Wright, from our wild/flower women, their wanderings, and wildflowering?
Over the past few years, I have walked the wallum country that they loved, recited their poetry, shared their work with others, walked with women in the present accompanied by resonances of the past. I have shared these experiences with friends, artists, and nature lovers. While wandering with one group of women one day, we discovered that a patch of wallum behind Sunshine Beach was due to be cleared for an aged care development. It is full of casuarina food trees visited by the endangered Glossy Black Cockatoos, but it is also full of old wallum banksias, a tree I have come to love, influenced in part by writing and art by McArthur, and my experiences of “wildflowering”.
Banksia aemula—the wallum banksia—stands tall, often one of the tallest trees of our coastal heathlands and after which the wallum was named. A range of sources, including McArthur herself, identify the source of the tree’s name as an Aboriginal word:
It is an Aboriginal word some say applied to all species of Banksia, and others say to Banksia aemula. The wallum, being up to the present practically useless for commercial purposes provides our best wildflower shows… (McArthur, Queensland Wildflowers 2)
Gnarled, textured bark—soft grey and warm red browns, in parts almost fur—the flower heads, when young, feed the small birds and honeyeaters; the bees collect nectar to make honey. And the older heads—remnants on the ground left by glorious black cockatoos, whose beaks, the perfect pliers, crack pods open to recover the hidden seeds. In summer, as the new flowers burst open, every stage of the flower stem cycle is on show. The trees often stand together like familiar friends gossiping, providing shelter; they are protective, nurturing.
Banksia aemula is a tree that, according to Thomas Petrie’s reminiscence of “early” Queensland, was significant to Aboriginal women, and might be “owned” by certain women:
but certain men and women owned different fruit or flower-trees and shrubs. For instance, a man could own a bon-yi (Auaurcaria Bidwilli) tree, and a woman a minti (Banksia aemula)… (Petrie, Reminiscences 148)
Banksia, wallum, women… the connection has existed for millennia. Women walking country, talking, observing, collecting, communing—and this tree was special to them as it has become for me. Who knows how old those trees are in that patch of forest and who may have been their custodians.
Do I care about this? Yes, I do. How did I come to care? Through walking, through “wildflowering”, through stories, art, and experience. My connections have been forged by nature and culture, seeing McArthur’s art and reading Wright’s words, through walking the country with women, learning to know, and sharing a wildflowering culture. But knowing isn’t enough: wandering and wondering, has led to something more because now I care; now we must act. Along with some of the women I walked with, we have investigated council records; written to, and called, politicians and the developer; formed a Facebook group; met with various experts; and proposed alternatives. However, our efforts have not met with success as the history of the development application and approval was old and complex.
Through wandering and “wildflowering”, we have had the opportunity to both lose ourselves and find ourselves, to escape, to learn, to discover. However, such acts are not necessarily aimless or lacking direction. As connections are forged, care and concern grows, and acts can shift from the humble and mundane, into the intentional and deliberate. The art of seeing and poetic perceptions may even transform into ecological action, with ramifications that can be both significant monumental. Such may be the power of “wildflowering”.
Brady, Veronica. South of My Days: A Biography of Judith Wright. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1998.
Heddon, Deirdre and Cathy Turner. “Walking Women: Shifting the Tales and Scales of Mobility.” Contemporary Theatre Review 22.2 (2012): 224–236.
Lund, Katrín. “Landscapes and Narratives: Compositions and the Walking Body.” Landscape Research 37.2 (2012): 225–237.
McArthur, Kathleen. Queensland Wildflowers: A Selection. Brisbane: Jacaranda Press, 1959.
———. The Bush in Bloom: A Wildflower Artist’s Year in Paintings and Words. Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 1982.
———. Pumicestone Passage: A Living Waterway. Caloundra: Kathleen McArthur, 1978.
———. Looking at Australian Wildflowers. Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 1986.
———. Living on the Coast. Sydney: Kangaroo Press, 1989.
Morrison, Susan Signe. “Walking as Memorial Ritual: Pilgrimage to the Past.” M/C Journal 21.4 (2018). 12 Aug. 2019 <http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/1437>.
Petrie, Constance Campbell, and Tom Petrie. Tom Petrie’s Reminiscences of Early Queensland. 4th ed. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1992.
Somerville, Margaret. Wildflowering: The Life and Places of Kathleen McArthur. Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 2004.
Wright, Judith. Collected Poems: 1942 to 1985. Sydney: Harper Collins, 2016.
———. Half a Lifetime. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 1999.