View through a forest past tall tree trunks
Recording date:

Trisha Dixon is joined in conversation by Fleur Flanery, Philip Cox and Max Bourke to discuss the enigma of 'spirit of place' and its place in the world of landscape design. The panel discussion was facilitated by Alex Sloan.

21 04 19 Spirit of the Garden by Trisha Dixon


*Speakers: Alex Sloan (A), Trisha Dixon (T), Philip Cox (P), Max Burke (M), Fleur Flanery (F)

*Audience: (Au)


*Date: 19/4/2021



A:        Welcome, everyone. Thanks for leaving your homes and putting down the phones, getting away from a screen and coming for a deeper conversation on a Monday evening. I’m Alex Sloan. Good on the National Library for hosting events like this.

Aren’t we lucky and privileged to live in Canberra and speaking of privilege that’s what it’s like for me to live in a country which boasts members of the oldest continuous culture in the world. My daughter, Zoe, is currently a university student based in Melbourne and as part of her studies she was asked to write an acknowledgement of country and I thought I’d just read you a bit of it and to quote my daughter.

I will begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples on whose lands I’m currently on in Canberra where my parents live, where I was born, where I grew up and where I feel like a local. Canberra means meeting place in the local Ngunnawal language. Ngunnawal and Ngambri people continue to live and travel through the Canberra region maintaining culture by connecting to land and through artistic expression. For thousands of years other tribes used Canberra as a meeting place to learn their law, take it back to their own country and manage their cultures and landscape, the Yuin people, the Gundungurra people, the Ngarigo people, the Wiradjuri people.

I also acknowledge the Walbanga people of the Yuin nation on whose lands my family own a bush property and built a house where I often stay and feel a deep connection to place. I profoundly respect first nations people’s sovereignty, spirituality and deep connection to country and acknowledge my limited understanding of this as a nonindigenous person. I thank them for caring for the land for over 65,000 years for all time since created by creator spirits.

So that’s just a small part of her acknowledgement of country but I thought it is beautiful in its own right but also goes perfectly with Trisha Dixon’s spirit of the garden which has been published by the National Library. Here’s a couple of quotes from Trisha’s beautiful book.

I’ve never seen an unhappy-looking gardener. We come most alive in the presence of beauty. It is a quality not simply relevant but essential to our being. The beauty of the natural world leads us to a higher state.

Reading this book, taking in Trisha’s beautiful photographs which I'm so glad to see showcased here, reading extracts from poets and other gardening writers, philosophers, landscape architects fires up our imagination, perhaps imagination that awakens the wildness of the heart. There’s a lot in this book and there’s so much to talk about so joining Trisha is Fleur Flanery who last month presented the conference Adaptability of Landscapes, discussing all the connections between landscapes, garden and ecology, renowned Australian architect Philip Cox who 40 years ago bought a beautiful bush property at [Mara] 3:07 on the Bermagui coast where natural bush is the defining element, and Max Burke. For over 40 years Max has helped rehabilitate and care for 30ha of coastal New South Wales by establishing a private arboretum of Australian plants and Max is the immediate past President of the Friends of the Australian National Botanic Gardens. Trisha Dixon is just one of our great garden writers, garden enthusiasts and please welcome them all tonight.


A:        Trisha, congratulations on this beautiful book. You’ve written many books on gardening but this one is different. Tell me about the catalyst for Spirit of the Garden. What is it?

T:         Well perhaps it was fortunate that one of the first books I did, I wanted it to be called The Essence of the Garden because unlike all you good gardeners out there that actually put things in at the right time of year, you prune things correctly and you weed things and you rake and you do all of that, I like to live life and I love beauty and I really love to also just be in tune with where I am. So I have an old, old, old, old house in a beautiful older, ancient, ancient, ancient landscape so whatever I do I want to be subliminal to that because that’s so overpoweringly amazingly beautiful, the landscape and so I don’t want to be just almost competing with it. So for me always when I leave a garden it is about the feel that it leaves me with and it’s probably different to Max who’s a scientist and he’ll be looking at what botanic species are there and know all the Latin names and everything and it might be that, Philip, you’ll be looking at the architecture, being a landscape architect you’re really cutting edge design and everything so we all garden differently.

But for me it’s just like meeting a person. If they have a beautiful character, a warm heart and a beautiful smile they’ll leave you with such a fabulous feeling. A garden that’s just right and it really fits with its architecture, its surrounds, its landscape, it honours where it is, to me that really makes me feel good and it doesn’t have to be immaculate, it doesn’t have to have amazing botanic species, it just really needs to be a fit for where it is. So as much as I love a place at the beach, I love to have all native species – I’ve got an old place that was an old European garden and so honouring that.

A:        I gave the acknowledgement to country. Now you do quite a deep acknowledgment of country and of indigenous custodianship. What have you learnt through reading the country through the eyes and experience of local indigenous people?

T:         Well I just feel such incredible humility like incredibly small, just tiny. For my little time that I’ve been at this property but as you say 65,000 years there’ve been people there so really whatever I do is just a blink in time. So, it’s really just to enter anything with humility and just with gratefulness and with grace for being there and just honouring what’s there. Even honouring the Europeans that have been there for nearly 190 years as well because they’re part of the history as well so really what I do, as long as I don’t muck it up too much, I just try and just keep it -

A:        Just to bring in our other panellists, Philip, it’s taken quite some time for many nonindigenous Australians to get their eye in about our own landscape. For a long time, the trend was to English country gardens.

P:         I think that that’s arisen with our Anglo-Saxon foundation, the nostalgia of the English garden and people wanted to remember England, they wanted to remember the countryside. They felt dislocated from the greenness of the English countryside and the early writings clearly show that the greyness and the olive-green colours and the ochres of the Australian landscape were very, very alien. Elizabeth Macarthur was one of the first ones who saw the Australian landscape in terms of the English landscape. She just said the Australian landscape reminds me of an English park but the colours are different, the forms are different, the textures are different but she looked at it in the same way that Capability Brown or Recton or William Kent looked at it, they saw it as a pastoral parkland.

Somehow that image dissipated after a while and it was rape and pillage of the landscape as land-clearing took place and it was never done with a sensitivity of creating that great English tradition of landscape that’s a great parklands of England. So we’ve got a very, very haphazard landscape resulting from the attitude but then that nostalgia’s never disappeared and I see parts of New South Wales and particularly Victoria which are very, very English and everything reminds me of a European landscape and I find that it’s very interesting and I get worked up about it too, I love it but I hate it at the same time. I think how disappointing it is that we don’t really acknowledge that the wonderful material that we’ve got to work with and landscape and why don’t we see it in the broader sense of how landscape manifests itself on a macro scale that is very much a part of our psyche?

A:        Max, what do you think? Has it taken a while to get our eye in to love what is here in this ancient -

M:        In the early ‘60s I read a book by Bernard Smith who wrote European Vision in the South Pacific and that really changed my view. I mean Bernard doesn’t say this or didn’t say this in the book but it’s very hard to set apart the invasion of Australia but if you imagine that the people who came, of course they’d bring what Philip, how did you not bring your own intellectual baggage with you to look at the landscape through English stroke European eyes? I mean you’ve got to do that if you’re an invader. So I think the worst thing was that it took us probably 150, maybe 200 years to begin to look and think like Australians about – I mean I’m not sure that 100% of people do so now but I think a lot do and the point Philip’s making, people pick up and do actually look with Australian eyes more than they did.

A:        Fleur, what do you think?

F:         Many things but no, on this topic I think something Margo Neale said at the Australian Landscape Conference really has hung firm in my head is there is no nature without culture and so if you think about how you all imagine nature it comes from your backgrounds, from what you’ve taught, from pictures that you had at school. I just think one thing about Canberra, having managed the parks and gardens here, there’s that lovely limestone avenue and there’s a memorial dedicated not far from you, Alex, that was dedicated by the Australian Natives Association. I’ve often driven past that thinking about the – it was planted under a works program so people out of the depression wanting to have something symbolic in Canberra where they put themselves into it and they picked a whole range of different native trees and some have done better than others but it did stand at the time in sharp contrast to Northbourne Avenue which had European plantings. So our nature is a social construct and our nurseries, it’s difficult to go and just suddenly go wow, I’m going to have this sense of Australia if your nature isn’t that. So it really comes back to what you’ve learnt, how you perceive what you find is beautiful.

A:        Did you want to come in here, Trisha?

T:         Well I think it’s really interesting too because there has been for so long, is there an Australian garden? I know, Philip, your place was actually farmland and you’ve made it into that but next to the house you’ve got all your English plants and everything and it’s just like in your library there you would have many, many books from overseas as well and we eat our overseas food and wine and things. I can’t see that we should be made to be purist if we actually do have wider tastes and perhaps if the architecture doesn’t dictate that or perhaps what’s there so I do think we have to be a little bit flexible too with what we do.

P:         Well I agree you’ve got to be flexible, I mean our ripe old horticulture is an exotic one, really, our legumes, our citrus, our trees, the things that we eat and all the rest of it are exotic so essentially a part of the landscape is going to be exotic to the cereals that we grow, our farming is exotic. So, it’s the way you deal with it and the way you perceive the landscape and how you design the landscape with exotics. My criticism, the barrel gums and all the rest of it, that they are entirely imitations of English gardens and you rarely see a eucalypt in them, definitely deciduous European trees that have been used and displays unlimited nostalgia in the gardens without any reference I believe to what is essentially an Australian landscape.

A:        You talk about John Glover’s Patterdale and that painting which has – it’s bursting with flowers, European flowers but you say it kind of marked a bit of a moment in terms of the history.

T:         Yes so John Glover who we all know as the colonial artist and came out at 70 years of age to actually move from England here in the early 1830s or whatever and then bought this place way, way, way out, Patterdale, which is a long way from anywhere then. So, it’s really interesting, people thought that he made the trees look like oaks but in fact in that part of the country that’s how eucalypts look. But there’s one really famous painting that he painted and it’s My Garden and Home and he’s got every single flower that could possibly flower out at that one time which they couldn’t possibly be ‘cause he wanted to send that back to England to all his friends back there to say look, I live in paradise, I haven’t just gone to the other side of the earth and disappeared, I live in paradise so that was kind of a paradox as well but he was -

A:        Yeah, I have friends who live right near there, so I know that valley really well and they live on the Nile River and in fact they didn’t bother with a garden at all -

T:         No, landscape.

A:        - the eucalypts that flow down to the river and in fact they said we’re going to lose them all in terms of climate change, they’re going to die but I just thought it was an incredible contrast ‘cause they live right next door and they went no, we don’t garden, we just -

T:         You see that’s coming of age because when I grew up it was literally everyone did, everyone totally blocked out the landscape and now thank heavens everyone embraces and if everyone asked to be involved in a landscape I just said just why would you wreck it by putting a garden in there?

A:        Fleur, what do you think? I mean it’s given to us, nature’s given us a lot of things.

F:         It has and I just want to correct Trish once, she said she’s never seen an unhappy gardener and I can be an unhappy gardener because actually in my garden in Yass I’ve tried to grow plants that work in the extremes and yet I actually gave them too much love and half of them died so I was a very unhappy gardener.

A:        Tough love, Fleur.

F:         Yeah, tough love there but one of the things I was reading and, Trish, I don’t know if it’s the quote out of your book, Spirit of the Garden, or something I was reading in the lovely bookshop upstairs from George Seddon is he was talking about gardens are not just important because they’re beautiful or that they make us happy or sad, is that where you look at the areas of population in Australia and across the world, gardens play a massive part in biodiversity. So one is perceptions of nature but the other is pretty fundamental, that if we don’t start to use these gardens to be just more broad than something pretty that we look at we really are losing biodiversity in leaps and bounds and it’s incumbent I think on all of us to try to do something in our own way, something that’s not too hard to do but just think about what we’re doing, how we’re maintaining our gardens, how we’re using our resources.

As Philip was saying, the things that he doesn’t like about certain gardens, and I think it’s just the antithesis of your work, Philip, is yours is very original and very bounded in sight whereas when you see direct copies of things you go oh. So, it’s when you're copying in a landscape that doesn’t fit in. Really, Trish, when reading through your book that’s what I felt, I thought I could just imagine you pulling books off your shelves and taking in what other people have said and just thinking about all the beautiful gardens that you go to and just going okay, this really gives me a sense and gives you a sense of how important they are.

P:         But I think that there’s a common – what I loved about Trisha’s book, there’s a commenting of spirit of place, genius loci. What makes a garden have that quality where the spirit is uplifted or transported by nature itself or the composition. What is this thing? It all gets done, it’s the 20th century philosopher’s phenomenology, genius loci which goes back to early Greek of the oracle where the Greeks found a wonderful place, the spirts were there, it was a natural place where God was there. That tradition has been followed through, that you go into places where the spirit is there and it’s very, very hard to define your reactions to what is that spirit that wells up in you, that transports you because of that situation?

What I liked about Trisha’s book is that she uses a lot of vignettes of those experiences of why things worked in particular gardens that she’s visited. I think, Trish, you explain that reasonably – I say reasonably well because it’s an impossible situation to describe the subconscious in people. What is that subconscious feeling that expresses itself that brings ecstasy or bewilderment or joy or whatever in what you’re looking at? It’s a very, very hard thing to explain but I think that the vignettes that you have in the book go a long way to revealing the nature of that experience with particular gardens and that is what genius loci is all about.

It really applies to the revelation of a situation by putting things in the situation that suddenly reveal what is there and it wasn’t revealed before. It might be a piece of sculpture, it might be a water element, it might be a building or whatever. I mean the Greeks were very, very famous at putting temples in the right place and they’re beautifully romantic elements within the landscape and that revealed spirit of place. So I think that this is a very, very big subject and a very, very important subject that we analyse why things happen, what is in our subconscious that is able to be revealed by nature and by landscape and how you develop it?

A:        I think that’s what we’re responding to. I mean, Max, did you want to consult the genius of the place in all? Is that something that has been a guiding –

M:        Well I really loved the book and I commend all of you to buy it, it’s a terrific book because I felt I was being continuously admonished for my behaviour and a bit of self-flagellation’s good at times. The reason – Philip’s touched on it in a sense there because unfortunately starting off life as being trained in science, I still find myself not looking for spiritual place. I’ll go into even the gardens that Philip doesn’t like in [Bowral] 21:15 full of camelias or something and look at an extraordinary camelia and what I’m really interested in is the genetics, epigenetics or in fact a viral thing that's causing that camelia to have an expression to have five different colours of pink at the one time.

A:        That’s wonderful.

M:        Instead of just saying wow, that’s beautiful I get totally carried away by the other stuff of why is that happening or why are those lerps eating that eucalyptus tree but not eating that one that’s next door to it? All of those sorts of things bundle through my mind –

A:        I think you have to apologise for that kind of knowledge, so we need that –

M:        No but Trisha gives you a good reason to not do that, I mean I think and that is to lie back and enjoy it in a way.

T:         I can totally understand where you’re coming from. I can’t see it through your eyes but I have a brother who’s a professor, a scientist and he was – we’re all at Spring Ponds, my daughter’s here and she lives in the family property and a lot of these photos are from there and it just resonates in this lovely feeling there. Anyhow one time we were there, and my brother was there and he's really scientific and really – he’s just a beautiful, beautiful person but he sees things very objectively and quantifies things. So then there were some people staying there, some friends. Anyhow there was one who had come in and seen a beautiful big landscape plan that I’d had drawn up by someone for my mother before she left the property and it was this beautiful plan and I found out that he was actually Richard Stutchbury and he was staying in the shearers’ quarters and I knew he was a landscape architect, that he worked with Aboriginal people and I could just tell that he would get that type of thing.

So, the conversation got around to - which I hate - so Trisha, what are you doing? Everyone’s standing there and my brother’s there and everyone’s looking at me, so what are you doing? What book are you writing? I was squirming ‘because I hate talking about myself, I hate talking about what I'm doing because especially to write a book about atmosphere is about the hardest thing you can do, it’s like writing about air. So, I just turned straight away to Richard and I said so it’s about spirit of place, what’s your take on that, Richard? Which he just said straight away, of course it’s what I consult when I go to a place and I just thought that’s exactly and it’s what you’ve done there, Philip, so amazingly and you have always talked about it

George Seddon which was in that book because he’d always talked about it too and Dan Pierce and Thomas Doxiadis but you every time I’ve been down to your beautiful place at the Mara, it’s what you talk about and it’s so tangible there and it really resonates and I'm sure every person that goes there, they go away seeing gardens in a different way because I think for so long – certainly any of us, my age that grew up the whole time with the white garden and the box hedges and everything so – I don’t know, it was almost formulaic that gardens had to be like that. It’s just so good that now that we’re really –

M:        I think George sort of liberate – particularly that book of his called The Old Country. I had the great pleasure of knowing George moderately well and I think he liberated us in a way, that you can actually separate the ideas of beauty from gardens.

F:         Liberate you.

M:        Well it can separate that idea of beauty from gardens. I mean one of my most favourite, interesting gardens is the garden that Derek Jarman created in England and it is anything but beautiful, I mean it is hugely interesting. It’s got almost no plants in it for a start, it’s rocks and metal and stuff but I mean you can create a place that’s astonishing without -

T:         Don’t you think that’s that tapestry of person and place and their story and everything overlaying the landscape that brings up the -

A:        Well the quote that you have of Philip in your book, and I’ll come to Fleur in a minute, it says nature has provided a canvas on a broad scale to interpret, to intervene, to explore space and experience to reveal the genius of the place. It’s like a puzzle to be solved. I love that.

P:         Well it’s very much so. Nature is there anyway. The canvas is already there for you and so how do you treat that canvas? What do you add to that canvas in order to reveal a situation that evokes spirit of place and this feeling that you want the light in whatever material that you’re using? So, I think that’s very, very important and so much is I think destroyed when it should be preserved, particularly now and native landscapes, we tend to not treat them with the same reverence that they should be. Thank goodness the ecological movement and climate warming and all this has - at last people are beginning to revere and to acknowledge and to appreciate the things that Trisha’s talking about in the book. I mean I think 20 years ago except for George Seddon and people like that, people didn’t appreciate it. Gardening was gardening, growing petunias. It wasn’t gardening in a more macro sense of looking in a more largesse situation which Trisha’s talking about in the book which I think is fantastic.

A:        Fleur, what are gardeners if not land artists? What do you think about that?

F:         I am not artistic at all; I don’t think so –

T:         I beg to differ.

F:         I will answer your question indirectly. I grew up in a rural town in Harden or outside Harden and I didn’t move that far away, I moved to Yass but I just had such a connection with my home and my farm that the connection to the land has always stayed with me wherever I’ve gone. Alex, you started about acknowledging connection to country and I think once you feel soil or look at farmlands, it was a shock to me in my mid-20s to discover that I lived in a modified landscape, I thought that farming was a natural landscape but then I was rudely awakened to it being a modified landscape. So that really opened my eyes up to what are the possibilities, what does that landscape mean? What was here?

My dad as a young boy was an egg-collector, they must have done school projects and so there was that naturalism and I think with myself and my children, our  natural landscapes are diminishing and we have to generally drive to them or something, our perception of nature is different and our perception of art is different. So I don’t think gardens are only art but I do in terms of just a beautiful place, they’re places so something - and art’s something just to look at and go wow, that’s so beautiful. There’s so much more to them, they just unfold and unfold because you look at the person that created them, you look at the landscape they’re in, you look at how that person may have got plants. I look at some of the very early gardens in Australia and think how did they bring those plants into the country? Who was brave to bring them in? How did they trial them? So that’s why I love gardening and I'm sure everyone here loves gardening ‘cause there’s so many different elements that you can bring into it.

People say I don’t have a green thumb. You don’t need to have a green thumb to garden, you just need to be interested a little bit in what happened and the natural world around you and that brings your science in, that brings your creativity in. It’s just this endless thing of challenge or just sometimes reward and sometimes failure which I think is really great.

A:        Trisha, you have a chapter in the book entitled Landscape and Memory and what we grew up with as a child has such a lasting impact, doesn’t it?

T:         Such a lasting impact so I just remember as a child my father was an adventurer and we’d be off canoeing, camping, bushwalking so the endless dirt roads and I’d be sitting in the back of the car. All I can remember is just these white trunks of beautiful trees and I never ever, ever saw anything that wasn’t beautiful. Every tree that I see and even every drive I do now, I love to go on dirt roads but every single tree is just so beautiful and so it takes me 10 hundred hours to get anywhere ‘cause I'm always stopping and just looking, photographing but it does, it just really – and I grew up clambering down the Shoalhaven Gorge so beautiful limestone country and it’s so strong within me. So the property that I’m lucky enough to call home is in this valley, it’s in the basalt plains which are naturally treeless but I’ve got all this granite country which is all full of eucalypts and just to go walking up in there and just to look onto it and mossy boulders, it’s just so strong within my psyche.

A:        Yeah. I mean I was thinking that you and I both were lucky enough to grow up in rural Australia and we both rode our horses to school but I was just thinking this is the most urbanised country in the world, most Australians grow up in suburbs so where does that leave us in terms of -

T:         I think it still does - that if you just even have a bowl of water that the birds can come in and they can feel that they can get into a little grevillea or a rose bush or whatever but just you can bring the beauty of mother nature into your garden but there's almost not one single garden I’ve ever been to where I haven’t walked to the edge and thought that the natural is more beautiful but I think no-one does as beautiful a garden as mother nature. So, we just need to perhaps walk more in the natural bush to really get a feeling of what is right for us.

A:        Or growing up in an apartment, Philip.

P:         What I liked in your book, Trish, was the – I think you quoted Kidman by saying that Australia is an arid country and we only have moments where it’s not. Your description of your own garden in terms of drought, of looking at the lawn that has turned brown and you’re looking at the landscapes beyond which are silver and gold and grey and there’s a relentless white sky. I think there’s so much poetry in that and so much to learn that here we are, the bushfire period of 2019/20 was a great demonstration of trying to fight the drought which had been on the south coast here for almost seven years and the trees were dying and everything. We have to learn to live with these conditions and not –

T:         Fight it.

P:         - force an artificial situation that we've got to learn to appreciate. I saw that chapter in your book where you talk about the appreciation of learning to live with drought and learning don’t irrigate, don’t be stupid and irrigate, you should learn how to live with nature, I think is a lesson that we’ve all got to learn, that we shouldn’t try the impossible when we’ve got the opportunity of exploring the plant material and the landscape qualities that you described so eloquently in the book.

T:         It’s so strange because we all love to go to central Australia, we love to think of Africa, everyone loves to think of Provence and the Mediterranean and I mean both of you have been to the Mediterranean with me and we’ve seen Thomas Doxiadis and we’ve seen amazing totally dry climate gardens where they don’t use a scrap of water, it only rains for three months of the year. They’re some of the best gardens we’ve seen, aren’t they? So why do we have this fixation with green, green, green and having to have green lawns? It is absolutely –

P:         It’s nostalgia.

T:         Yeah, it is nostalgia.

A:        What do you think, Max?

P:         It’s nostalgia 200 years ago.

M:        I put it down – this is a bit nerdy, I suppose but I still notice that every time you see an advertisement, a trophy-type property in the coast or inland or wherever, they’ll always talk about average rainfall. We still haven’t got Australians to think that averages are of no interest whatsoever, variability is what Australia’s rainfall is about and sure, it might say on average it’s 650mm per year. Yeah but it’s plus or minus 200mm and it’s learning to – variability. I know mathematics doesn’t come easily to a lot of people but variability’s much more important than averages and that was a thing that people who came to Australia as Philip said as early settlers, they brought their baggage of Sussex or Kent or Saxony or wherever and somehow or other you got to put all that aside because the difference between Europe and Australia is massive. In Australia where we sit on the planet means we have massive variability and that’s what we’ve got to live with.

A:        The Australian bush is messy too so I used to be brought up, oh that’s a bad farmer because there were logs lying on the ground or whatever and then my friend, David Lindemeyer, said that is actually crucial for biodiversity of a whole lot of – and I know my friend, [Divity] 35:46, here, I won’t embarrass her but as you drive into her beautiful property it is full of beautiful silver-grey old dead trees and branches that become sculptures in themselves and she’s showcased her house to look onto this landscape. It’s just a different way of looking but also really important in terms of biodiversity.

M:        Which has spirit of place.

A:        Okay, take us there. I suppose where did you grow up, Philip, just by the way?

P:         I grew up in the leafy north shore of Sydney.

A:        So, you didn’t ride your horse to school.

P:         No, we had a garden with poppies and stock and roses and all the rest of it so I that’s where I became jaundiced, I suppose, looking at this stuff.

A:        So how long did it take – when you bought this –

P:         Oh, we had the bushland. See the north shore is very, very close to the bushlands of Caringie Chase and all the rest of it so my childhood was really roaming the bushlands and the creeks and all the rest of it and so it was very much away from the manicured domestic gardens that my parents had. Because I mean they liked the bush, but they wouldn’t have it on their doorstep, get rid of it, let’s plant English trees and all the rest of it.

A:        I remember walking once out in our bush property with a friend and she said it’s always frightened me. She said I’m actually quite frightened.

T:         Do you think it’s May Gibbs with wild banksia men?

A:        Yeah, I mean it is forest country and it’s wombats, it’s quite forested and it’s quite enclosed –

M:        Having like Philip grown up in the lower north shore of Sydney and escaping to little fingers of Lane Cove National Park that intrude into the suburbs and battling with lantana and jompson weed and all of those things that fill up those spaces where humans have slightly trashed the old residual forests, there are scary places in amongst those too. I don’t think you’d be completely at home amongst them.

P:         I can remember going – a young kid going into the bush and feeling absolute awe. You’d go in by yourself and you’d stand still and suddenly the presence of the bush and the awe that the bushland had upon you, again spirit of place. I just felt transformed by it.

T:         Well that’s the same feeling that I feel at Arthur Boyd’s Bundanon that he gave to the nation and if you walk up to his amphitheatre which I’m sure you’ve done and there’s just this palpable feeling, it just really is such resonance of just incredible feeling, yes, exactly as you say.

A:        Fleur, what do you think in terms of you’ve grown up in the bush as well?

F:         One of the views that I think were lifechanging to me as a child, I came to an excursion to Canberra probably as an eight or nine-year-old and we stood at the war memorial and looked onto old Parliament House and that vista I thought was the most lifechanging thing like I can still remember that feeling going wow, someone actually designed this. My former professor, Ken Taylor, I remember him taking me there as a young student and saying the reason that you stand at one end and then you look onto Old Parliament House then new Parliament House and the hills and the sky is because you’re looking up, up, up and you look onto the horizon and anything is possible. That’s just such an amazing element to put into Australia.

I mean yes, its incarnations are from France and other places where they’ve made those wonderful vistas but it was really quite brave I think for a young country to do that and really to say it is the environment, it is nature that is paramount to all of us and if we take that thinking through to where we are now and to Trisha’s book, it’s just one of those things that I think we often don’t take for granted or we often – sorry, do take for granted the things that are often non-renewable, earth, sky, water, they're all our resources. How do you explain atmosphere? Well atmosphere’s sometimes the feeling you get but also what we can do with that and that could be a view or that could just be something in our own way or looking around Canberra. I mean Canberra, the bush capital is kind of a cute term but really some of those suburbs when you drive around them, the predominance of landscape is what makes the city the most beautiful city that you could possibly want to live in.

A:        Well speaking of spirit of place I mean the Griffins were deeply philosophical –

P:         Very much so.

A:        - I mean their whole - this city – I mean many argue that we don’t have the Griffins’ proper city but there are elements of it in terms of linking the health, the landscape -

M:        I’ve just finished Glenda Korporaal’s terrific book on Marion Griffin and she was obviously totally captivated, totally captivated when she came. I mean she was interested in it but neither she or Wal had ever seen Australia and -

A:        The fact that she did that design from Chicago, it was amazing.

M:        Then she comes and she becomes totally and utterly captivated like you’re saying by the Aussie bush and indeed in her darkest moments when she was treated so badly by the FCC that she escapes to painting and drawing and goes to Tasmania and spends time as an artist and then actually gradually weans herself off landscape architecture and architecture and just wants to work and does work for about 10 years basically as an artist. That’s because she fell in love with the Australian – particularly old growth forests in Tasmania that she fell in love with.

P:         But you know we’ve got a wonderful example in Canberra of spirit of place in architecture and that’s Jergler’s Parliament House and I discuss with Jergler the book of Norberg Schulz’s Spirit of Place which he had read, the German philosopher and that is the embodiment of what Parliament House is all about. I think we are so lucky to have that building in the way it is. We could have had any other excrescence on the hill but the way in which that unites, fits in, organic and yet not organic piece of architecture. It’s almost like a Greek temple. It’s served so many purposes but it’s the landscape quality that embodies Parliament House which is part of genius loci.

T:         Also I think the amazing thing, was so clever with Canberra is that they made the upper canopy all eucalypts and so if you fly over it, it just absolutely blends into the landscape so they could have your English gardens, have your avenues of oaks if you must but the whole upper canopy all being eucalypts just really is so clever, such a brilliant concept.

P:         Absolutely.

F:         It’s interesting just when you were talking about safety. There are many things that amused me when I looked after the parks and gardens in Canberra and one was discussions about paths and hedges but it’s just interesting how people feel afraid of different things. I often think the safer you make an environment the less people notice things around them so often if you have something that’s a little bit uneven to walk on, people look down or they look up, side to side but if everything’s all manicured you just walk, you often don’t think. So that’s why in looking at gardens and particularly some of the interest or the images that you look, they don’t just suddenly reveal, they’re not just this big whoo-hoo, you’re here, this is what it looks like, here’s my lovely beautiful lawn, you immerse yourself in them like there’s different scales, there’s views that the designer might want you to see because that’s what they love. But there’s other little interesting things that if you slow down a bit and have a little bit of complexity in there it can make it a little bit challenging, but it shows interest.

Just my final point on that is I don’t think gardens should always be safe places. I have one part in my garden that has absolutely no shade, it’s boiling hot, it’s really hot because I grew up on a farm and sometimes being in those paddocks mustering sheep was really, really hot. We would always hanker for the shade and so I only ever use that part of my garden in the mornings and in the evenings and the light is so beautiful but it’s not designed to be where you’d sit in the middle of the hot sun and I want it to be like that so people can experience that change in feeling.

T:         See what we saw with Thomas Doxiadis in the Island of Antiparos when there’s no trees so literally none of his landscapes had trees and so they weren’t trees for shade like there was one tree, I think a little cedar or whatever but there’s just no trees so they have other things like they might have a pergola for shade or whatever and so literally they were just going it looks as though it’s just the natural landscape crept right up to the house. I think it’s good to challenge sometimes and you have done that in your garden so cleverly because you’ve used really drought-hardy plants, you don’t really water.

F:         No, I mean we water for establishment. The other thing about my garden is there’s lots of snakes in it and not pet snakes, they actually do almost bite you but again there’s lizards, there’s so many birds. I had someone out doing a bird study the other day and they were like wow, why have you got so many birds here? You shouldn’t have these types of birds and it’s all shrubs, it’s mixed plantings and things and you can’t obviously replicate that in an urban area but I do think there’s ways that we can challenge our governments to be a little bit more sensitive. Stop these kind of endless [eat] 46:48 streets that are just places to attract people and try to get some more resources and more thought into our parklands where Canberra’s got so many beautiful parks but really get some more biodiversity in there and get some more interest.

A:        Having hosted [Chippers] 47:05 to talkback for all those years I was just in South Fremantle, actually, and walked along the street where one of the trees had grown right over the footpath and you went through a tunnel, it was just absolutely beautiful. But I thought [Chief Minister, Talkback] 47:19 in Canberra, they’d have that chopped back to the fence line immediately.

T:         We just hear of the Victorian Government having an amazing project linking up all their national institutions through vegetation, not through these signs, go that way and just thinking about ways that we can look at our city a little bit differently.

A:        Adam, are we able to do questions tonight? We’ll get a microphone. Would you like to ask questions? We can keep going here but put up your hand if you would love to ask a question of anyone on the panel.

T:         ‘Because I wanted it always as a forum for just good discussion so I’d love any remarks, comments, questions, anything because we’re not here just to talk at you, it just would be lovely.

A:        Just put your hand up and I’ll make the space for you if you would like to do that. Trish, I’d also like to mention too this book is – there’s so many things about this book but as someone who hasn’t read a lot of garden writers I thought oh here it is, you’ve referenced so many – I thought if I wrote them all down, I wrote down the philosophers, I thought I’m probably set. Well it’s a good start for me in terms of a library. You did that on purpose as well?

T:         Well it’s just that I actually love literature, I just love books so much and so I think how can you actually write a whole book on atmosphere so literally I want to draw on the brains trust of all the fabulous people around the world that really could say it much better than I could.

A:        I’ve got a lot of reading in front of me. I think we have a question here so yes, thank you so much.

Au:      It’s been a great conversation so thanks very much for that. The idea of spirit I find very, very interesting and what I also find interesting is that I don’t know how many – it must be almost a hundred years ago that Edna Walling discovered that spirit in Australian plants and the Australian bush and it’s just taken us so, so long to come around to her way of thinking. I mean she was a real trailblazer and really just went out on her own to try to create that spirit which is fascinating.

A:        So, the question, why has it taken Edna Walling –

Au:      Well why has it taken – yeah.

T:         So I’ve just kind of spent my whole life researching her and really I can see that she changed the face of Australian gardening because in the 1920s when she burst on the scene literally gardens were there, look at me gardens and they had maps of Australia in petunias and gerberas on your front lawn and everyone had to walk past and say how beautiful. But she wanted gardens to be places that you actually lived in and enjoyed, and she said the nicest person she ever met was the person who said she just wanted grow landscape so it was always about borrowed landscape. Even in the tiniest little town gardens there’d be areas to explore and even in a big garden you’d never have the pergola right there so you saw it straight away, you’d actually have to walk down this way and down there and then you might find a hazelnut walk right at the end of the garden. But she just did really change the way we looked at gardens as just showplaces, places to just relax and be in.

P:         The other person who’s forgotten is Rex Hazlewood in New South Wales who advocated the growing of eucalypts with various councils and things like that. I think he most probably had just as much influence as Edna but forgotten today. I don’t think -

T:         I think why Edna had the influence is that she wrote for 30 years in Australian Home Beautiful so every month, all those books and literally her photography was really as good as Max Dupain and Cas Nardack, it was that really atmospheric beautiful – she absolutely eschewed colour photography, it was all black and white, it was just really beautiful. So those books haven’t aged, the philosophy of not watering, it was so far advanced and not pulling down all the gum trees and really honouring our natural beauty.

P:         But I love going to Cruden and saying to Elisabeth Murdoch, oh Edna Walling did a magnificent driveway of citriodora, she said it’s nothing to do with Edna Walling, I planted all this.

A:        What does it mean to you to have your garden now on the south coast? If we’re talking about spirit and all this airy-fairy –

P:         Just a place for me to enjoy and other people to enjoy. It’s there for everyone.

A:        So, on a daily basis you –

P:         Not really because I don’t go there on a daily basis. No, I mean my work has been big buildings and all the rest of it and to break the scale of doing stadias and all the rest of it and work in China and all over the place. To go down to the south coast is peace, it’s communing again with nature which is so important in anyone’s psyche. I think the therapy is in nature, I really do and I think therapy’s in gardening. It’s well known that people who have neurological problems and all the rest of it get relief from being in the garden, with hospitals and things like that, having gardens so people can communicate with them is highly important so –

T:         But I think a big thing you’ve done there too is okay, you’re a well renowned architect and you’ve done huge big buildings everywhere but you’ve absolutely sublimated that whole thing to very, very less is more architecture there which so sits in that landscape so you’re not trying to impose your whole will on that. You’ve done that with very –

P:         Trisha’s being very kind.

T:         No, it’s just extraordinary. There isn’t another place, really, it’s extraordinary how you’ve done that.

P:         Thank you.

F:         But one other thing, Philip, I thought was very interesting and you might know this, when you go on a garden tour you see the garden as is and what you don’t see is often the 10 or however many years in the development. I think you and some friends bought that land and it was a degraded farm and so what people might see when they’re there is oh wow, you’re so lucky, you’ve got this great forest and you’ve got all these things but it wasn’t like that at all. That whole transformation –

P:         We had to replant a great deal of it because it’d been turned – from the 1840s it was felled, it was used for agriculture and it took 100 years of failed agriculture to finally – people gave up and we were lucky enough to buy it and then it was the extreme task of rehabilitating it and replanting the coastlines and things like that to get it back into shape again.

T:         But didn’t someone say when you bought it, oh you’ve got to plant there or –

P:         When we bought it at the auction at Bega it was owned by the Catholic Church and the Darcy family and they put it up for auction and the National Trust, I was warned, that this property was coming up for sale. Anyway it’d been for a ridiculously low price and I was a bidder and a couple of the farmers came up and said you really bought a pup there, mate, it’ll grow nothing and I said well I’m not intending to grow anything, really –

T:         Landscape.

P:         - so it shows you that a lot of our landscape has been failed agriculture and it should be restored back to forest and other uses that we appreciate.

F:         Sorry, just on Black Mountain, that was a whole reafforestation project but when you look at around Canberra there was what I call industrial scale of planting done in the early 1900s or 1920s where they had these massive replanting programs to revegetate the hills which was just – it’s been an amazing insight from these barren hills to have those beautiful blue and black hills.

P:         I’m going to put in a word for Dick Clough of NCDC when he was working with Sir John Overall here, he was the landscape architect with the NCDC for Canberra but he is one who did most to create the natural landscapes of Canberra and I think that again we should be acknowledging him for the great work. I mean he suffered people like Dame Silvia [Crodene] 56:17, little pieces of garden in there and all the rest of it but he saw it on the macro scale which Griffin saw as well which was very important and that’s your legacy here.

A:        Max, did you have a take-home message for us tonight?

M:        Oh, only a quick addition to the unhappy gardeners’ scheme. Four days ago, you’d have seen – Trisha, put some more bones on that quote – I was the unhappiest gardener in Canberra. I had walked out in the morning and forgot – actually I woke up at 4:00 in the morning and thought no, it’s too cold to go out but I’d forgotten to put the cover on the vegie pod and in my vegie pod I had 20 of the most beautiful young seedlings of a very rare eucalypt that I was growing. The possums had got in and roused them all off. Some of them might recover but – and smashed all the pots and I thought why do I do this? So, there are unhappy gardeners.

A:        There is always the great possum swap that goes on in Canberra as we know. I won’t go any further on that one, but we all know what I’m talking about.

F:         There’s quite a funny card actually in the bookshop that has something about gardening’s, and the punch line is someone’ll be happy if you plant this, do this and then ask a man to dig a hole for you.

A:        Look, on that note thank you. Look, a beautiful audience on a Monday night, thank you so much. This is an extraordinary book, Trisha Dixon’s beautiful book. Thank you to Trisha, to Fleur Flannery, to Philip Cox, Max Burke for this lovely conversation. I always say this, buy multiple copies of Trisha’s book. Take a copy instead of a bottle of wine to your next gathering, your friends will thank you and it will absolutely nurture their spirits in such a lovely way but thank you very much for coming tonight.

T:         Thank you to Alex too.


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