Reflections on Poetry and Spirit: Judith Wright: Environmental, Indigenous and Spiritual Concerns.

Michael Griffith, New South Wales Regional Meeting

In early March this year I was fortunate to be able to lead a Silver Wattle week-long workshop/ retreat on this topic.

Judith Wright, Australia’s greatest woman poet, founder of the Australian Environmental movement and visionary supporter of the Aboriginal quest for a Treaty, was nominated during the Whitlam years as Governor General of Australia; but her severe deafness led to that possibility never being realised. However, her life and her concerns, in poetry, in social action and in her sensitivity to the needs of the Aboriginals and to the needs of the Australian spirit, were a wonderful focus in this workshop for celebrating much that is central to the vision of Silver Wattle and to Quakerism more broadly.

The most immediate aspect of her relevance to Silver Wattle is that so much of her writing (poetry and prose) emanates from the landscape and environment of which Silver Wattle and Lake George is a part.  Judith lived for two decades at the cottages, called The Edge, she built deep in the bush on Half-Moon Road, not far from Braidwood, overlooked by Mount Budawang. In her last years, when she was less able to manage in the bush, she spent time living in the town of Braidwood.

Judith Wright

duringOur week-long retreat incorporated an excursion to The Edge and to Braidwood as a way of physically engaging the group in the physical and natural landscape that meant so much to her. In Braidwood we lunched at the Café Altenburg in the grounds of which she lived in a converted stable. The owner remembers her – totally deaf – spending much of her time in the café reading and writing.

The period of her life in and around Braidwood is explored especially in the poetry of her last years, the form of which is inspired by the short two lined stanzas of the Sufi Ghazal, a poetic form that is often devotional, dedicated to Ali or the Beloved, and often reflecting the pain of separation. It was with these poems – and our excursion to the location of their origin – that our week-long engagement with Judith began.

In the poem “Summer”, for example, she reflects on her immediate landscape around The Edge and its tragic history:

This place’s quality is not its former nature
But a struggle to heal itself after many wounds.

Upheaved ironstone, mudstone, quartz and clay
Drank dark blood once, heard cries and the running of feet.

Now that the miners’ huts are a tumble of chimney-stones
Shafts near the river shelter a city of wombats.

 Scabs of growth form slowly over the rocks.
Lichens, algae, wind-bent saplings grow…

 In a burned-out summer, I try to see without words
As they do. But I live through a web of language.

 Judith’s wish to transcend the boundaries of language, to touch the ineffable beyond words, is a constant theme throughout her work. Indeed it is this impulse, to break through the restrictions of words, to see, through silence, that links her to the Quaker way of engaging with the truth.

In this context it is worth observing that explicit Quaker connections in Judith’s life provide a rich context for her orientation to nature, history, politics and the sacred: in 1934 on enrolling in Arts at Sydney University she became politically active and increasingly left-wing as she observed the impact of the Great Depression and saw the rise of Nazism in Europe. It was at this time that she was inspired by the strong social conscience of the Principal of Women’s College, Camilla Wedgewood, whose Quaker inheritance led her – with the Jewish scientist Rudi Lemberg and his wife Hanna – to assist Jewish victims of Nazi Germany to come to Australia. It was Rudi and Hanna, now Quakers, who built and dwelt in “The Sanctuary” at Wahroonga. It was here that they held Quaker meetings until they built the Meeting House next to the Sanctuary which, with its parcel of land, they gifted to the Quakers for their help in supporting Jewish refugees. *

Rudi and Hanna’s close friend, Camilla Wedgewood was also instrumental in turning Judith’s interests towards P.K.Elkin’s and W.B. Stanner’s course on Anthropology, focussing on Aboriginal culture and society. This was the only such course in the Southern Hemisphere.  Judith’s Quaker sympathies continued in later years when she became a friend of Jo Vallentine, the West Australian Quaker who was to become Australia’s first Green senator.

With this rich cultural background, and building on the direct observations of the damage done to the landscape and its native inhabitants by her own settler, pastoral family in the Hunter Valley and in New England, Judith became a passionate advocate for restoring the damage done to the Australian natural world (for example the Great Barrier Reef) and  especially for seeking justice for the original inhabitants of this land, who had lost nearly everything that underpinned their sacred experience of the world.

The New England tableland became for her a haunted land, emptied of all its sacred places, showing signs of occupation stretching back thousands of years. It was this background that underpinned much of her poetry with its quest for a sacred anchor drawing from many traditions (Universalist, Buddhist, Sufi, Christian…). In her poem “Unknown Water”, with its allusion to the wellsprings of the indigenous world and the Christian story of Jesus offering “living water” to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:11-12), Wright speaks to an old pastoralist, remembered from her childhood:

 Old man, go easy with me.
The truth I am trying to tell is a kind of waterhole
never dried in any drought…
…Your own sons and daughters
have forgotten what it is to live by a water
that never dries up. But I know of another creek.
You will not understand my words when I tell of it…
I am helping to clear a track to unknown water.
(The Gateway, 1953, CP 109-110)

 This poem is a powerful revelation of her deepest intentions, carried on throughout her poetic life, her life of action for the environmental and for indigenous communities. This was profoundly deepened through her close relationship with indigenous poet Kath Walker/ Oodgeroo Nunnucal. In her poem “Two Dreamtimes”, Judith celebrates all she has learned through her contact with Kath, and seeks remission for her part in the erosion of the deepest sources of Australia’s spirit, the Dreamtime.  In the same breath, Judith acknowledges how the focus of her own culture, “progress and economics… doomed by traders and stock exchanges” has eroded so much of what sustains a deeply grounded, meaningful life for all Australians: a sensitivity to nature, to poetry, songs and stories, to the spirit that underpins our humanity:

My shadow-sister, I sing to you
from my place with my righteous kin,
to where you stand with the Koori dead,
“Trust none – not even poets.”

The knife’s between us. I turn it round,
the handle to your side,
the weapon made from your country’s bones.
I have no right to take it.

But both of us die as our dreamtime dies,
I don’t know what to give you
for your gay stories, your sad eyes,
but that, and a poem, sister.

After exploring the writings of her maturity, the workshop explored the following core themes in Wright’s work: The purposes of art and poetry and their role in celebrating and mourning the natural environment; The world of the Spirit: Haiku, Word and Ghazal; Wright’s relationship with Aboriginal people; finally Wright’s response to the current global situation.

Each theme was underpinned by a rare archival film on and about Judith Wright’s life and work.  These included: National Archive Interview with Judith Wright 1963; Shadow Sister 1977 Directed by Frank Heimans; At Edge 1981; Australia Council: The Archival Film Series, 1985)

The days were structured around morning group discussions of her poetry and prose, followed by afternoon time for reflection and creative written responses to the landscape of Silver Wattle and/or to Judith Wright’s poetry. All such responses were show-cased on-line in a dedicated Web space and provided further opportunities for sharing our responses to Wright’s work mediated through our own creative understandings.

There will be an on-line Friendly School on the Life and Poetry of Judith Wright from 11.30-am to 4.30pm during Yearly Meeting on July 2nd. This will be an engagement with some of Judith Wright’s most important insights as expressed in her poetry. The content will draw substantially on the material presented during the Silver Wattle March workshop/retreat.

It is hoped that there will an opportunity to run this workshop/retreat again sometime in the next two years.

Mount Budawang National Park

*For further details about the Lembergs and their long and creative association with the Sanctuary and the Wahroonga Meeting see here

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