Living history

Each time I visit Fairlawn, the home where Georgiana Molloy spent the last few years of her short life, I’m drawn to the garden, for obvious reasons. One tree in particular, a Black mulberry, always pulls me to gaze up at the sky through its lichen-laced branches or to touch its gnarly trunk. Although the tree fell and split at some stage in its long history, it still stands like an ancient, stooping sentinel between the house and the Vasse River, and a few months ago I enjoyed the taste of its ripe fruits. The video I posted on my Facebook page a couple of days ago was taken when Mike and I visited Fairlawn this week to see the Morus nigra once again –  for a very special reason!

It doesn’t take an expert to see that the tree’s very old. Fairlawn existed as a cottage for a few years before Georgiana moved there in May 1839 but she began work on planting the first garden herself, so I’ve often wondered whether she planted the Mulberry tree then, before she died in 1843. Soft fruits were an important food crop for the settlers at that time, used fresh in season, for puddings and as jams, wines or preserves during winter.

A few weeks ago, I came across some evidence that made my heart skip a beat. I’d read the words many times before but never made the connection. In a letter Georgiana wrote to James Mangles RN, started in June 1840, she thanked him for the ‘Box of Plants’ he had sent her. She’d just opened it and told him all the fruit trees were ‘gratifying to behold’, some with long shoots and all ‘white, of course, from the exclusion of light’ during their long sea voyage. She went on to describe ‘the Black mulberries, literally with green shoots’.

 

Given her excitement, and the difficulty of acquiring healthy fruit trees in the colony at that time, it doesn’t seem like a leap of assumption to believe that she planted in her own garden the Morus nigra that Mangles sent her. Mulberry trees usually take well and tend to grow vigorously without too much care and attention. In the mild climate at the Vasse and so close to the water table in the flood plain of the river, the young tree was unlikely to fail, especially given her horticultural knowledge and its position near the house, handy for any additional watering needed in summer.

Of course, I had to consider the possibility that the tree could’ve been planted after Georgiana’s death in 1843, perhaps by a later inhabitant of Fairlawn. It would be impossible to assess the exact age of the tree without investigating its growth rings but I wondered if a real expert might be able to shed some light. Through the kindness of a botanical-world friend in the UK, I was put in touch with just the ‘tree expert’ I needed and gave him the information he asked for about the tree’s position, climate and soil.  I also sent photographs to show its size and dimensions. I asked if he thought it could have been planted in 1840.

He told me the tree certainly looks ‘all of that age’. There’s one at Kew Gardens planted in 1846 and the Fairlawn tree is larger.  His last comment, ‘I think you can safely say that it is from 1840 or earlier’, was exactly what I was hoping to hear.

Of course, the Black mulberry at Fairlawn can’t be linked without any doubt at all to the trees Georgiana received from Mangles in 1840, but given the age of the tree we can see today, her comment in the letter, and knowing that it could not have been planted before that time, the provenance is very, very strong.

And if it is the same one, then it’s the only living specimen, still alive and growing, that was planted by her.

Have you guessed yet why I was wearing my gardening gloves in the video?

We were taking cuttings, in the hope that the buds already showing will become green leaves in the next few weeks and the roots will take. If the cuttings make it, they too will be genetically identical to the original tree. They will be clones of the tree Georgiana planted not seedlings.  I’ll be watching them carefully, protecting them if necessary. And I’ll keep you posted!

    

 

Through a different lens

This image is a photograph of a letter seen through the magnifying lens of the Reading Room camera at the Battye Library. I chose this one because I wanted to write today about different ways of looking and different ways of thinking.

I’ve been bent over my keyboard for weeks trying to complete some writing by the end of May. It’s been a challenging activity. Some days, my mind has been blocked, twisted into knots with uncertainty. Other days, the words pour out easily and I can’t stop the flow.  When writing feels difficult, I treasure the solace, empathy and support that come from talking with friends who are writers. I know I’m not alone in that. I also find guidance and inspiration in reading. The words on the pages are the building blocks of stories and noticing the way other writers put those words together, sit them next to one another along the lines, that always helps me. But lately, I’ve realised that staying with what I know, the familiar and the comforting, is not the only way to learn and grow in my own work.

I’ve had lots of opportunities in the last couple of months to enjoy the creative outcomes of artists in a range of different media. That’s been a reminder that there are many, many ways of looking and many ways of telling stories. The freedom from words feels a bit like walking a new path that connects two places you know well. You arrive by a different route and the journey is different. You see things you’ve never seen before along the way. Whether the new track you’re taking is music, photography, sculpture or painting, or any other medium, seeing things from a different perspective can shed light in remarkable ways on your own viewpoint when you sit down to write again.

Today I visited the studio of Elisa Markes-Young, a local artist, as part of the wonderful Margaret River Region Open Studios annual event. I’d been in touch with Elisa and her partner, Christopher Young, last year when they held a joint exhibition that included some pieces inspired by the life and work of Georgiana Molloy. MRROS draws in such a wide range of artists in this region that it’s impossible to see everything. It’s an amazing privilege to see creative people working in their own environment so we always try to visit a few studios we haven’t been to before. I heard that Elisa is exhibiting one of the Georgiana works this year so her studio was at the top of my list.

She talked to us about the thinking behind the piece, and last year’s exhibition, and described how she had first come to the idea of representing the journey into botany as Georgiana’s refuge following the death of her eighteen-month old son by drowning. After thirteen years of research, I thought I knew everything there was to know about Georgiana Molloy and perhaps I do know most of the facts but what Elisa showed me was a completely different, new way of looking at the life of a woman I know well.  Something to do with a different viewpoint. Something to do with the life experiences of Elisa herself. Something to do with personal memories and emotions. Something to do with working in a medium that does not rely entirely on words. It was refreshing, inspiring and very moving. And I learned a lot.

One of the images here is from that piece which includes black mourning ribbons, embroidered with words from a letter Georgiana wrote in 1837 about her little boy’s death.

MRROS is on for another week and I’m definitely planning to stretch my mind and heart again over the next few days by exploring artists who work in different media.  If you’re around, or just down this way for a while, don’t miss out!  The list of contributing artists is HERE. Elisa and Chris are number 73 in the list and their delightful studio is close to Margaret River town centre.