As I near the end of this sad, sad year, there is light at the end of the tunnel. After writing little more than a few blog posts and short tributes to my mother and father, I managed to write a short story, ‘Eucalyptus Regnans’, for ‘Dark Forest’, a installation initiated by my dear friend and fellow writer Sulari Gentill, as part of the Snowy Mountains Arbour Festival. The Arbour Festival is a response to the devastating bushfires of January 2020, which very nearly razed Sulari’s hometown of Batlow in New South Wales and destroyed the nearby iconic Sugar Pines Plantation. The Pilot Hill Arboretum survived, however, and the festival, running from 28 Dec 2020 – 15 Feb 2021, commemorates this history and celebrates hope.
Here’s the description of ‘Dark Forest’ from the Arbour Festival website:
‘Trees have always stood in the background of our lives, silent witnesses to our joys and tragedies. In the mountains we have taken their abundance for granted, but now, there are spaces where their shade once fell. This work gives voice to the trees of Pilot’s Hill, assigns them stories of their own beyond that of survival.
‘Dark Forest is not so much a collaboration, but a collective of authors each contributing their creativity and talent to make the trees speak, and to help the people of this region memorialise and celebrate. They are participating simply because Sulari asked them for help. This in itself is an echo of the generosity we of the Snowy experienced from across Australia and the world during the fires—and so Dark Forest nods to that overwhelming spirit of solidarity in its creation, as much as it commemorates the green giants we lost to the flames, and celebrates what survived.’
Sulari allocated trees to a group of her writer friends and asked us to write a short story from the perspective of the tree. I was given the Mountain Ash, eucalpytus regnans, the world’s tallest flowering tree. My story was dark and nihilistic, though with the suggestion of a redemptive ending—consistent with the tone of many of the stories, according to Sulari, which is not surprising, given the year we’ve all had. Local actors have recorded readings of the stories, which can be accessed by festival-goers using QR codes. The participating trees/authors are: The Elm, Robert Gott; The Montain Ash, Angela Savage; The Sitka Spruce, Karen Viggers; The False White Pine, John M. Green; The Red Spruce, Victoria McGrath; The Big Tree, Dan O’Malley; The Ponderosa Pine, Melinda Louise Smith; The European White Birch, Josh Langley; The Japanese Larch, Kaaron Warren; The Scots Pine, L.J. M. Owen; and The Incense Cedar, Sulari Gentill.
I also participated in Artists in Residence, a virtual exhibition and book published by my uber-talented photographer friend Suzanne Phoenix. During Melbourne’s Lockdown 2.0, Suzanne took the photos of 52 participating Victorian artists via zoom, then had us create our own artworks from the image, with text to accompany the final piece. My portrait was in large part a tribute to my mother, who had died not long before Suzanne approached me to be part of the project.
In terms of creative process, I pinned the photo Suzanne took of me to a corkboard and surrounded it with knitted and crocheted items (clockwise from bottom left): a kraken inspired by Meg Mundell’s COVID-prescient novel, The Trespassers; a kingfisher, adapted from Barbara Lennon’s kookaburra pattern, a critter I made for my mother years ago; one of two ‘COVID Hearts’, pattern by Rosina Plane, designed to be given to people separated from their loved ones due to the pandemic; a red poppy inspired by Pip Williams’s beautiful novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words; and a red-tailed black cockatoo, adapted from Barbara Lennon’s galah pattern (I often saw red-tailed black cockatoos where my mother lived on south coast NSW). The blanket that frames my portrait was knitted by my mother Olgamary Savage and sewn together by my cousin Mary Latham. Mum was still knitting squares for this blanket while in palliative care. It was intended for Wrap with Love, but I can’t bring myself to part with it.
Speaking of knitting and craft more generally, I was interviewed briefly on final episode of ABC Radio National’s Book Show for 2020 by Sarah L’Estrange about my literary critters (which I wrote about here), and specifically the work that a 31-strong team of crafters did to help promote Animals Make Us Human. Sarah paid me the great compliment of saying that my literary critters gave her ‘such joy during the deepest, darkest moments of lockdown’—which is precisely what I intended. You can listen here (I’m on at the 40:42 min mark).
And still on the craft theme, I was delighted that my novel Mother of Pearl inspired a work in this year’s Biblio Art Prize hosted by Blarney Books in Port Fairy. Established in 2009, this year’s competition focused on books published in the last 12 – 18 months, with local artists randomly allocated a title to use as inspiration for their artwork. Isabel Szabo of Williamstown North in Victoria created a piece called ‘Pearlescent Mirage’, comprised of two embroidered hoops, the images reflecting on themes in the novel to do with ‘longing and dreaming for more, despite already leading a seemingly flawless life’ (see catalogue entry below).
Incidentally, this blog post takes its title from Sean O’Beirne’s engaging, often funny short story collection, published in February, one of 45 books I read in 2020. But that’s for another installment.