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Walking at Bundanon

January 19, 2019

For the first two weeks of January I was an artist in residence at Bundanon, a property on the Shoalhaven River on the NSW south coast, which was the former home of artist Arthur Boyd and his family. It has a long and distinguished artist in residence program and I spent a very happy and productive two weeks writing and thinking and walking during my stay there. This is a story from one of my mornings there.

It was just before dawn and in the eastern sky the morning star was bright above a band of pale golden light on the horizon. I watched the sky through the window for a few minutes, then put on my green coat and pulled on my shoes, and set out. The dew on the grass shone silver in the gathering light as I began my way along the path towards the river.

Kangaroos watch me from the surrounding paddocks, sometimes turning and bounding away, other times standing alert until I pass by. Ahead of me, past the cluster of three striped caravans that are part of the artwork Travelling Colony by Brook Andrew, is the homestead, guarded by the tall, skewed forms of two old bunya pine trees.

The house faces east, towards the dawn and the river. It was built on high ground, far enough away to be protected from the floods which have, since the house was built, more than once drowned the paddocks and lapped at the doorstep. The house and the property it is situated on had been bought by Arthur Boyd in the 1970s, and then, in the 1990s, given as a gift to the Australian people. His intention was to share the landscape that had given him such solace and inspiration, in the hope it would give others some of the same feelings of connection.

Every day I had been going walking, fitting my thoughts to the tempo of my steps and the mood of the place and the moment, as I walked through the forest or by the river. This morning I feel as if I am held in the palm of a gentle hand.

In front of the homestead I unlatch the first gate, which leads to a wide path between two paddocks. Threading the chain back through to secure it behind me, I see that the sky in the west in light now, a pink against a pale blue. Halfway down the path I stop, as kangaroos bounce off across the fields to either side. I balance my phone on top of a fencepost to take a photo, wanting to record this tender morning and the feeling of being in it. I set up the timer, move back a few steps and stand with my green ceramic mug of tea in my left hand, my right by my side, and my body held by the dawn light and the fields.

This is Wodi Wodi country, this stretch of forest and river flats with the Shoalhaven River winding through, moving towards the ocean. The Wodi Wodi clan is one of the Dharawal language group, and in this language, the word for dawn is Bayabula. I try it out, saying it as I walk, its four syllables like the movement of the light as it becomes day.

Once I am through the second gate at the end of the paddocks I am on the path that runs alongside the river. I can see, in glimpses through the trees, its slow brown expanse. A side path cuts down the hill towards the beach, and soon I am standing on the wet sand of a low tide, watching mist curl up off the water. Every so often a fish jumps up from it, flips and plunges back under the surface.

On the other side of the river is a steep, forested hill, and from here comes the sounds of birds, trilling, cawing, piping, a spectrum of sound from sweet to raucous. I sit by the side of the river and listen to them, waiting for the sun, risen now, but still hidden behind the hill. First to catch the sun is the tops of the trees on the Bundanon headland, at the place called Haunted Point. The canopy glows. Then, slowly, a bright seam edges up over the horizon, and light spreads across the entire scene, the wide river, the steeply forested hills, the rocky outcrop of Pulpit Rock, like a furrowed forehead, that I recognised from Arthur Boyd’s paintings.

When I first encountered Boyd’s paintings, as a teenager learning about Australian painting in high school, they affected me strongly. They were both spontaneous and deliberate: a knot or a slash of paint could so readily be a tree or a rock or a figure. The landscapes had such a strong mood to them that it seemed that more than observe them, Boyd had felt them in order to paint them.

Arthur Boyd’s studio

Some of his paintings positioned mythic figures in the landscape of the Shoalhaven – Susannah, Narcissus – channelling the landscape’s drama and energy. He also painted river scenes of bathers and waterskiiers, the cockatoos above the trees, the pink light and the golden light and the bright sun which turns the sky a smooth blue, so the trees and rocks are reflected clearly in the river’s surface. It is like that now, the water a mirror.

The sun has risen, the day will be hot and bright, and I will go back to the house and spend it writing. But for now I sit by the river, listening to the birds, waiting for the next fish to jump. It soon comes, flipping up like a sudden idea or a burst or feeling, flashing silver in the daylight, for a moment, before disappearing back under the surface of the water.

 

Thank you to the Bundanon Trust for selecting me for the 2019 Artists in Residence program. 

The D’harawal dictionary can be found at Frances Bodkin’s D’harawal Dreaming Stories.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2019 2:14 pm

    Wonderful! Congrats on your artist-in-residency.

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