Tag Archives: Michael Burge

Cultivating storytellers in the rural heartland

Story by Michael Burge

LOCAL FANS OF good writing have every reason to celebrate, with a season of literary initiatives and acclaimed broadcaster Mary Moody — coming to the New England region between October 25th and December 1st for the High Country Writers Festival. As an author and journalist who learned to use the written word at Delungra Public School, I’m thrilled to be bringing wordsmiths together in a region that has always fostered storytellers.

RURAL HEARTLAND: Waterloo Station, Glen Innes.

Writers will have a unique opportunity to prime their skills and draw inspiration at iconic Waterloo Station between Glen Innes and Inverell when the festival kicks off at the High Country Writers Retreat from October 25th to 27th. Inverell resident Virginia Eddy (the force behind Boorama, her business strategy outfit, pictured above) is partnering with The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, to assist writers in adopting a micro-business approach.

Returning to the region after four decades has been huge for Virginia. “When I left my Melbourne world, a friend told me: ‘Don’t ever forget that there is a reason you are returning. Look and listen for it’,” she says. “Even though I’ve been here for six years, every time I drive out the Yetman Road north of Inverell, I’m imbued with the deep sense that I’m going home. Our family left the region when I was ten.”

Virginia believes that being a writer and being in business can be a comfortable coexistence. “Regardless of whether writers are published independently or by traditional means, business knowledge and acumen underpins their capacity for independence,” she says. “Micro-businesses should be built on the same primary foundations and frameworks as major corporations, except scaled accordingly”.

“I urge writers to imagine they are weaving potent little miracles of business around their output. These don’t happen with templates, or overnight. They’re a lifelong practice.”

TOUCH OF LUXURY: Waterloo Station Shearers Lodgings.

Despite one of the worst droughts we’ve seen in the New England, Virginia encourages writers to share Waterloo Station as a home-away-from-home during the retreat. “Whether they’re from the bush, the city, or both, it’s a chance to pause, absorb the landscape, the built environment, the past and evolving social history,” she says. “I believe the Station’s restorations (under the stewardship of Deborah and Don Anderson) will speak for themselves; but as a writer working on one of my own manuscripts, I look forward to hearing others’ perspectives.”

Being a regional-returner myself, I know what it’s like to seek a sense of place in a rural community. Growing up on a property out of Delungra prepared me for the profound tranquility of rural life, but living and working across the world has allowed me to bring home a host of skills.

I began mentoring writers after my independently-published memoir Questionable Deeds was selected for the Brisbane Writers Festival. I was so swamped by queries about how I managed it that I wrote the process into a short, accessible guidebook. Participants at the High Country Writers Retreat will be mentored on adapting these principles to their writing and publishing practices.

But there’ll also be plenty of writing time, one-to-one sessions and inspirational experiences at Waterloo Station. Virginia is well underway with transitioning into a literary writer, and I am always up for fresh insights into business and marketing, so we’ll be attending each other’s sessions at the retreat. Come and join us!

From the heart

The High Country Writers Festival continues on Saturday November 30th and Sunday December 1st at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, when Mary Moody, one of Australia’s most beloved and bestselling authors, launches her first book in a decade: The Accidental Tour Guide. She spoke with me about what inspired her to return to autobiography.

Mary Moody

“Memoir forces people to reflect on the events of their lives and to gain an understanding of how they reacted to those moments,” she says. “I have found that writing down difficult events somehow crystallizes them. The Accidental Tour Guide contrasts the highs of exploration and adventure against the lows of death and loss.”

Since the publication of a string of bestselling memoirs, bridging her life in rural France and regional Australia, Mary has relocated from the farm she shared with her late husband, filmmaker David Hannay.

“I now live with my youngest son and his family in the Blue Mountains. This supportive environment makes it possible for me to continue my adventure travels, knowing I have a safe haven to return to, every time,” she says.

Mary will also hold her popular ‘Writing from the Heart’ workshop at The Makers Shed during the festival. “I never cease to be amazed and delighted at the stories people tell me of their amazing lives. It’s just knowing where to start and how to keep those stories flowing. Often people want to write the stories of their parents or grandparents and these are equally as inspiring. I believe we will never tire of reading about other people’s lives. It helps us to make sense of our own.”

The tussle between nesting and migrating is a constant theme in Mary’s work, giving insights into the fortunes of regional communities in many countries. “It’s always the people that create a community, and it makes me sad to see regions where failing economics makes it impossible for people to live where they were born,” she says. “We need to encourage more young families to live in rural areas – the benefits of this lifestyle are many and varied.”

Described as Eat, Pray, Love meets The Year of Magical Thinking, Mary’s new memoir is an inner and outer journey through uncharted territory. “I’m really looking forward to touring with this new book. I particularly love small independent bookshops and places where there are active and enthusiastic book clubs. Australians are great readers – they devour good books and it’s wonderful to know that here we have such a vibrant and viable publishing industry. At the end of the day I just love meeting people and talking.”

The High Country Writers Festival is an initiative of The Makers Shed. This article was first published in New England Living magazine.

Jenolan’s secret signatures come to light

IF YOU’VE ever been caving, even one of those walk-in-walk-out tours where you don’t have to get your feet too dirty, you’ll know the experience does something to the soul.

“I was about to turn back as my light passed over a patch of stone higher up when I thought I spotted a cursive ‘F’.”

Perhaps it’s primal, a DNA memory from millennia ago when our ancestors found shelter underground? Perhaps it’s all those fairy tales reminding us that once upon a time there might have been something more in the dark than our elders were letting on?

It’s a frisson that people across the globe subject ourselves to daily, as tourism cave operators everywhere will tell you.

I had the chance to work at a cave system, one of the world’s largest, when I was a cave guide at NSW’s Jenolan Caves. Taking people into the dark recesses of the mountain was always a thrill, and I was lucky enough to be guided on a very special tour recently that was a real highlight.

Jenolan’s Arch Cave has been closed to the public since the 1930s, but late in 2017 I was granted access during a scientific inspection in order to find one name written on the cave wall in the 19th century.

Finding J. Falls

As a guide, the most intriguing stories I came across in my time at Jenolan are those that tell the tales of the people who went into the dark long ago.

SIGNATURE SPOTTING Dr Anne Musser, paleontologist and Jenolan guide, reading names on the crystal.

The first people of the area, the Gundungurra and Dharug, had long traversed the passageways and underground rivers, and their Dreamtime mythology included several of the cave systems in the NSW Central West.

By the middle of the 1800s, local settlers were regularly visiting the caves under the guidance of the local Whalan family, whose property at Oberon was one of the closest ‘gateways’ to the valley. They started the tradition of leaving names to record visitation, and, on occasion, the discovery of caves.

Most of what Jenolan guides related at the time I worked there came from the surviving oral traditions handed down by generations of guides before them, and one of the strongest stories concerned the discovery of a major section of the cave system by a local woman, Katie Webb.

I explored as much of her story as I could find, but there was another name that interested me, that of Jane Falls, whose legend at Jenolan include the possibility that she was one of the explorers to discover the system’s largest publicly open cave, the world-famous Lucas Cave, in around 1860.

The name Jane Falls polarises Jenolan guides. I’m not going to beat around the bush, it’s been bit of a male-dominated place in its time. Women have only been officially guiding tours since the 1980s, and between Katie Webb’s exploration in the 1880s and the next discovery of a cave by a woman there is a gap of more than a century.

The very idea that a woman might have discovered the Lucas Cave is confronting for some, which is one reason I suspect the issue of where Jane Falls’s signatures are remains a bit of a muddle.

‘J. Falls’ is credited as being one of the first European visitors to enter the Lucas Cave in newspaper reports from January 1860, but if that was Jane, she presents a conundrum for researchers. As was common practice, many of the signatures on Jenolan’s walls are initials only, so any appearance of ‘J. Falls’ could be one of three people: Jane Falls, her mother (also Jane), or Jane’s brother James, all Irish emigrants in the 1850s.

Nevertheless, a former colleague came across one trace of the Falls family in the Arch Cave, and so we went to see it for ourselves.

Graffiti

What became quickly apparent in the Arch Cave is that it’s a signature-rich chamber. Situated high in the Jenolan limestone, it was one of the earliest caves entered by European settlers, since it was easily accessed from the surface.

Like all caves, the major formations were named. By the time we were standing at the Assyrian Lion, identified as such for its similarity to those in the British Museum, we were looking at signatures scrawled in every direction, on walls, on crystal, and on the ceiling.

People left their mark using graphite pencil, or charcoal, or even the smoke from their candle, and in some places the names have quickly deteriorated.

I was struck by the possibility that we’d never find Jane’s name in this mass of graffiti!

A couple of side chambers required us to squeeze through into a narrower space where 19th century explorers had gone before, and I immediately saw the name ‘Edwin Whalan’ written boldly on a promontory of rock.

It made me chuckle. The Whalans earned their place in Jenolan lore, no doubt, but compared to some tiny signatures, the size and passion of this lustily scrawled Whalan moniker smacked of ownership.

A sweep of the torch above revealed other familiar names, but once again there were just so many. The Arch is a small cave but even so it would take hours and hours to search them all.

Some visitors had inscribed more than just names, also. Short poems, or expressions of how they felt, were touching reminders of the mysteries of the underworld, begging that question again, about why we come to gather in the dark and remember those who were here before us?

Curlicues

I was about to turn back as my light passed over a patch of stone higher up when I thought I spotted a cursive ‘F’. I stepped up for a closer look, and a shadowy word came into sharper focus. Most definitely ‘Falls’… my heart thumped. Most definitely a ‘J’ and an ‘A’. This was it! But standing there in wonder I had to admit immediately, this could be ‘Jane’ or ‘James’ Falls.

JANE’S NAME? The elusive signature of Jane or James Falls in Jenolan’s Arch Cave.

I grumbled at myself, and at poor handwriting, and the passage of time, then got a bit hopeful at the possibility of another name starting with ‘J’ and ‘A’ slightly above. Could this be Jane and James Falls, siblings on an expedition?

We took plenty of pictures and mused over the curlicues of the Falls signature. Nobody wanted to dash my hopes, but as our tour concluded and we journeyed out, I had to admit that it was not a conclusive sighting of Jane, not yet.

My search for her goes on, and will feature in plenty of writing to come, but to have stood in the dark where the Falls name was written, I feel closer than ever.

© Australian Country Life, all rights reserved.

Capturing the colours of Ngarabal Country

“It was the myriad of colours of semi-rural landscapes that captured my imagination.”

THIS writer and artist has been neglecting his blog. I’ve got a decent excuse, however: I’ve moved.

After five years living on Coochiemudlo Island in South East Queensland, my husband and I have returned to live in the NSW Northern Tablelands.

This place is border country, a series of high-altitude tablelands just south of the notional line on the map that separates Queensland from NSW.

COUNTRY COLOURS The views between Deepwater and Tenterfield in the NSW Northern Tablelands.

While living on an island in Queensland’s Moreton Bay, we met many of the Quandamooka people, particularly artists. Here, in Ngarabal country, we’re aware of living close to one of the largest Koori language groups in this state: the Kamilaroi, and it’s been great meeting Kamilaroi people and their neighbours in nearby Ngarabal traditional lands.

Two years ago we attended the Myall Creek Massacre memorial, which commemorates one of the worst atrocities against Indigenous Australians.

That trip back to the place I was born inspired, in part, our recent move. The taste of the high country inspired several other trips, which became property and house-hunting expeditions from the Granite Belt to the New England region.

We saw some incredible landscapes, often bursting with wildlife. We encountered places where some big dreams had been broken over the years, and where people have found opportunities to make homes in all kinds of situations, many of them quite unconventional.

Often, I was reminded of Germaine Greer’s reforestation of a former dairy farm, also in the border country.

British novelist E. M. Forster’s sense of place often crossed my mind, also, particularly his unexpected acquisition of a woodland adjacent to his home at Abinger Hammer, not far from London.

We considered buying a five-acre block of forest so close to the border you could throw a stone interstate. We got very serious about an 80-acre lot of land in the western slopes, where emu walked on the horizon and people had come looking for gold, but found nothing.

VIEWS FOREVER Country west of Stanthorpe in Queensland.

The day we extended our search into the upland valley of Deepwater in NSW was crisp. It was July and there was frost on the car when we left the motel at Tenterfield to head into the old tin mining country of Stannum. A property we were shown there had character, but with all its living spaces on the shady south side, it was not a wise choice for life at a thousand metres above sea level.

Before lunch we found our way into the open land south of the Deepwater River, where an old railway property had been on the market for a couple of years. A former gatekeeper’s cottage, this 1885 double-brick dwelling had been lovingly restored and extended in the decades since the railway service north of Armidale had ceased.

GOING DEEP The Deepwater River in Ngarabal Country.

The nearby New England Highway had long since been rerouted, leaving this place and all its secrets in a world of its own, nestled between state habitat reserve and grazing property.

We loved it before we even stepped through the door, where the passive solar nature of brick houses meant the place was warm without even having the fire on.

Within weeks of arrival I was inspired to paint. The broad vistas of Moreton Bay were left far behind, and it was the myriad of colours of semi-rural landscapes that captured my imagination.

I’d spent a significant proportion of my childhood absorbing these lands, and after spending time driving between Tablelands’ towns, the work flowed as quickly as paint blended with water on canvas.

It’s sometimes confronting being back. My family left this place on the back of several broken dreams of our own, but the landscape of this place is an incredible consolation.

Check out my online gallery.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.