When I first met Annette Hughes many years ago she was an art dealer. She has remade herself several times since then – literary agent, author, musician, farmer. But what I hadn’t realised until recently is that she had become an avid permaculturist.
In 2004 I made the difficult decision to leave the city and move with my partner to his family’s farm where I hoped to find the time to make my own art after a lifetime of being the handmaiden to others. Writing, like any art, takes time. It is a laborious, solitary practice. The first book to emerge was a memoir entitled Art Life Chooks published by Harper Collins 4th Estate.
In the book I use painting as a metaphor for my practice – ‘the work’ of art. I think the real work of the artist is perception. The expression of that perception in whatever form the artist chooses to make is the prism through which the perception is transmitted to an other. I thought I wanted to be a painter when I was young which led me to art school. I have since found that all the arts have equal potential. I am currently working in music and planting my 10th Summer crop. Both require the same devotion to practice.
What follows is a series of excerpts from chapter one of Art Life Chooks.
Opposite our bed hangs one special painting. In a pink moonlit dusk, two figures illuminated by the glow of a hurricane lamp are in the midst of a hilly landscape. A bulbous-bellied creek snakes through a tree-lined gully and empties into a dam. The figures are out looking for something, and a possum in a tree has caught the attention of the woman. Below its branch, a cow wades knee-deep in the dam, and another, only its reflection visible in the painting, stands on the shore just out of frame.
It is a modest picture, small and intimate. It is by the painter William Robinson, famed for his strange fish-eye lens view of the landscape. But he is right: when you are in it, out in the valley, trees really do corkscrew up out of hillsides, and from below, their trunks do stretch up and away from you and foreshorten into the sky. The sky really is contained by the enclosure of rising hills, and the dams really do reflect it all; a world within a world, a mirage, a trick of light.
When I saw it in the exhibition, I kept being drawn back to it. There were larger, more impressive and important works in the show, but this one, with its limited palette of muted pinks and mauves, burnt sienna and cobalt shades, holds in its stillness an image of mystery and wonder. The attitude of Bill and his wife, Shirley, out in their landscape in the fading light, intrigued me and resonated with emotional feeling and a spiritual devotion to place.
There is something sacred and metaphysical about it, like a prayer or a chant embodied in the myriad tiny brushstrokes of colour, all laid down with equal intensity to form a dense matrix for reflection. I sometimes lie in bed and watch it change its blush as the sun rises, imperceptibly at first, and then pours into the room. The picture comes to life, shadows form, contrasts heighten and it appears to move. It is a rare privilege to have such a thing in one’s life, a work of art that is never static, which reconfigures to serve my own imagination, and accretes meaning the longer I look into it.
When I first saw it, I had no idea I would end up living it. Now the female figure is me pointing, looking out into the landscape, and Geoffrey holds the lantern as we become illuminati of our place. Once the plantation was just a forest, the valley just a feature of the terrain and the cattle dotting the fields merely decorated the pastoral scene. But now I know it like a lover. I’ve counted the trees and noted which need to be culled. I know the lemon scent of citriodora as I pass beneath the stand. I know the sharp shoulder of the track on the southwestern ridge that leads precariously down to the western paddocks, where lantana grows big as a house. I know where the storms come from and the way they circle the valley, and the shock of freezing rain on hot skin. And it feels like home.
The first project I resolved to undertake was to plant a garden. Not one of those decorative jobs with beautiful useless flowers, but a garden of food plants. I’d never had the time or the space for such a thing before. My Sydney terrace garden was paved, save for a row of narrow raised beds that formed a decorative edge to the pocket-handkerchief backyard. It was fertile enough because the sewage backed up with monotonous regularity, filling the yard with sludge. A few persistent plants managed to cling to life without much help from me. It even once housed a couple of chickens I’d bought at Paddy’s Market for my son’s amusement when he lived with me there. They pottered about in it and were fond of watching television through the glass doors at the back, but he lost interest when they stopped being cute. Though ostensibly a city girl, I had prior experience of culling chickens, and had no qualms about turning these into a Thai curry, which he resolutely refused to eat.
Linda Woodrow’s The Permaculture Home Garden is my bible now. I’m a bit of a school project queen, and being a great believer in the book, with all the instructions set out in black and white, I figured all I had to do was follow her directions like a recipe and voilà — instant gratification. Yeah, right.
It has taken two whole years just to get the hang of it, to condition the sticky clay soil, carve out its form, establish fruit trees. To figure out how to manage the rotations so nothing is planted in the same patch of ground as last year, and build my physical strength up to a point where I can actually go out and do the hours of sweat-drenching slog it takes to maintain it. It makes the potatoes and onions down at the supermarket look pretty competitively priced, but the point is to eat real food. I’ve pumped so much poison through my body in the past thirty years, it’s time I started thinking about repairing the damage that has started to show. If I want to continue with the red wine diet, I’d better start attending to the food side of the equation.
Philosophically, permaculture is about sustainable organic gardening — no pesticides or fertilisers, and building up humus-rich soil by the constant addition of organic matter. Even weeds become valuable in this system. There’s lots more to it, but the idea of not actually spending any money on the project is what does it for me.
I didn’t find the ‘bible’ till halfway through the first growing season. My initial attempt was your conventional everything-in-neat-traditional-rows idea of a vegetable patch, all order and regimentation. Geoffrey rented a cultivator and spent a day turning over the densely packed earth of the backyard, and I mounded it into rows with a shovel and half an idea. I couldn’t believe it when, right on cue three months later, I was pulling carrots, snapping off broccoli and picking fistsful of snow peas, sugar snaps and silverbeet.
There was an existing chook yard beside the site selected for the garden, which I populated with the ‘Coven’ just as soon as Geoffrey finished building their accommodation. It’s a beautiful safety-orange house with laying boxes we can access from the back by lifting a flap, with an impressive verandah awning at the front. But they don’t live there anymore, and I feel dreadful about having moved them into the ‘chicken tractor’ required by the new system. Geoffrey went to so much trouble building their orange house.
The Coven is named for the drinking club of girlfriends I left behind in Sydney: hens Jane, Linda, Burridge, Ali, Rachael and Barnsey. These chooks were always part of the uber-plan I’d formulated before leaving.
When I was an art student, one of my lecturers had a standard trick he no doubt used every year to suck his students in. He was a medieval and renaissance nut, and one day, as we were all filing in to our desks, he proceeded without a word to crack an egg into a bowl, separate the white and roll the yolk from one open palm to the other. By this time he had everyone spellbound. Still silent, he then pinched the yolk’s membrane between thumb and forefinger, suspended it above another bowl, and with a scalpel split the skin and let the creamy yellow yolk dribble onto the clean white porcelain. Only then did he begin his lecture on tempera painting.
I’ve been fascinated by that technique ever since. I love the strange, greasy, enamel-like surface that egg tempera produces on a chalky gesso ground. But you can only rely on very fresh eggs for the strongest binding elements. I’d decided that when I got here, I was going to devote some time and energy to mastering that forgotten technique. I would take a year off from working in the outside world and apply myself to seeing if I could do it. I had loaded myself up with jars of pure pigments, beautiful as jewels — and now the Coven’s job was to provide the eggs.
During that first year, all my plans of resuming my long-lost ambition to be a painter amounted to precisely nothing. I’d funded myself for a year out of the world, and that doesn’t come cheap. It’s a big investment to make to achieve no result. Soon a great big monkey of guilt started following me around, accusing me of copping out and being filled with sloth; a failure, a procrastinator. It drives me crazy that Geoffrey can spend hours down in his studio obsessively hooked into his music making, while I’m upstairs making lists of things to do in an effort to avoid having to confront what I’d convinced myself I came here for. I did force myself into my studio for a while, working on the theory that if nothing is going on, do anything, just don’t leave.
I finished one painting in oils I’d started in Sydney, prepped and gessoed many boards, fiddled, doodled and took great delight in the process, but managed not to imagine one single image I thought worth the effort. Besides, it cut too much into this new growing obsession — my garden. I’d find myself constantly staring out at it from my studio window, imagining it into existence, planning, thinking, scribbling designs for it onto my sketchpad. I suppose I could have painted that, but I was too preoccupied with the reality of making the garden happen, and it still fills up my whole windscreen, as well as rearview and side mirrors.
We farm trees, sylviculture; such a poetic word, with its romantic association of nymph-inhabited groves. It’s one of the reasons behind Geoffrey’s decision to return to the family farm. The plantation is among the first Landcare farm forestry projects in the area. The initial crop went in about ten years ago, a second hillside of trees is three years old. During our last visit before moving, Geoffrey had realised that, following a heart bypass, Joe was finding the physical labour of farming a challenge. Back in Sydney the struggle to continue to survive on too little money was fruitless anyway, and Geoffrey felt it was time to help out. It was the house becoming available that sealed the deal.
From the kitchen I watch him sitting high on the old tractor, loaded up with coils of fencing wire, chainsaw, scythe and hoe, heading up into his cathedral of trees to prune their lower branches so they’ll grow with minimal knots in the wood. I was secretly afraid we might get bored with this country life, every day the same chores, the same faces, the lack of diversion, but he seems to thrive on it. I see him disappear beneath the canopy and hear the engine stop. He’ll dismount, work across a couple of rows, and then fire it up again and move further up the hill. The gradient is so steep it’s dangerous to drive across the rows, especially in wet weather, but he’s got a handle on the safety issues now, so I’m not anxious about it anymore.
I have never seen Geoffrey more delighted than when he returns from a morning tending the trees. His conversation often includes an amusing story about the antics of the young heifers that are pastured in the tree paddock to keep the grass under the trees grazed down. For most of his working life he has been a builder, chopping up wood to make sets that are junked the moment they are captured on film. To now find himself growing timber is slowly repairing the damage that so much enforced waste had done to his soul.
He was a teenager when the farm was purchased, and he had helped clear it of groundsel and lantana, living alone out in a shed for a couple of years doing the hippie thing, till his parents moved up permanently. He left to find his fortune, as young men do, while for the next twenty-five years his parents slashed, planted, raised cattle and transformed the wreck of a degraded landscape into the beautiful Eden it is now. It has been lovingly tended, every inch of it walked over and regarded. Their frugal husbandry is evident in the handmade ingenuity of fences and sheds. Stacks of timber are neatly piled beneath sheets of salvaged corrugated iron, and every conceivably useful piece of hardware is saved. Old tools are re-birthed and machinery meticulously maintained in perfect working order. Nothing is ever thrown away until it is completely clapped out. And there’s a diabolical stash of aged mango pickles under the house that could be legal tender, it’s so good.
One Christmas before moving here, we camped up on the top paddock instead of staying with his parents. We had a mad scheme to rebuild an old shed that had fallen down, and use it as a place to stay for holidays instead of clogging up the family home that invariably filled with Geoffrey’s two younger sisters and then-baby nephew. The shed had been built by a previous owner, a bean farmer who lived there for a time. It was small, but had a tank and an orange tree had grown up behind it. The site is just far enough back from the edge of the ridge so that the wind, which blasts up over the steep range from the plain, doesn’t touch down again till it hits the hill above. Three big hoop pines crown the crest of the eastern ridge and, below, the vista undulates down to the sea, framed by two mountains, the eroded plugs of a spine of old volcanoes that continue north from the Glasshouse Mountains.
In the sultry late afternoon we’d walk to the top of the western ridge and sit and watch the cattle grazing in the horseshoe valley below. My eye followed gullies down through dappled shade along cow paths as we listened to birds practising their calls. It drives them nuts if you mimic them, throwing your own variation into the mix. They stop, pause, then start the cycle over again, each trilling voice coming from a different part of the bowl of space in their established pattern. I have no idea what they look like, or what their common name is. We call them the Orchestra birds. Likewise the elusive Reversing bird, which sounds like the insistently present beep of a garbage truck. There are invisible Audience frogs in the dam which mimic the sound of one hand clapping, but when it rains and they all go for it at once, they sound like the report of applause sharpened by its passage across the surface of the water. All this is underpinned by the omnipresent shrill, silvery singing of cicadas and crickets, and the low honey-hum of a million bees in the flowering trees that grow near the cattle yards.
From the top of this ridge we’d wait for the evening sky to refract every colour of the spectrum of light fading to violet, anticipating the moon’s rise above the earth’s own inky shadow on its atmosphere. Back then, I never dreamed I’d be living in the midst of this daily parade of breathtaking spectacle, or that I would come to want to feel its pulse and know its voice.
It was a magical setting for a summer of love that grew deeper as we slept under an ancient green canvas tent, or the stars.
Back in Sydney, a song emerged from the studio:
Long before the sun
the children are asleep, we are the reckless ones.
Out in the field with birds,
under pine trees, what are we hoping for?
The map we’ve got is wrong,
people just aren’t like that anymore.
There’s a lot of loose ends
but you can bet that all this has been before.
Let me take you home,
the shoes you’re in, the earth you’re standing on.
What does it mean to them? Not much,
but between you and me it’s everything.
I listened to it over and over, aware that it belonged to both of us — the first time I felt I shared in the perception of an other, without realising just how prophetic it was. Now that I am here, home, back in the same skin I wore as a child who knows the feeling of this place, this northern clime, between you and me, it is everything.
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