I’ve discovered a new psychological condition: garden envy. When you’re locked down in an apartment, the sight of your neighbour escaping into his backyard makes you seethe with jealous rage. Even people with balconies look like billionaires to me now. I hope this time teaches me never to take the natural world for granted again.
It’s funny, because I was never your fit, athletic type of lesbian – but dammit, I’ve had some good times outside. I’ve scrambled up mountains in Halls Gap, and wandered through the scrub and neon-red soil at Uluru. I’ve seen kangaroos, emus and echidnas in the wild, and a platypus splashing around in a creek behind a rural pub. I’ve been stung by thorns and razor-sharp spinifex, because in Australia even the shrubs try to kill you. I’ve been chased, shrieking, by a feral goat, and nearly trod on a deadly tiger snake. Once, I was even brave enough to dangle my feet in a beautiful, tranquil waterhole in Kakadu, wondering if a crocodile was about to rear up out of the still water like something from Jaws. Very unlikely, of course. You never see the one that gets you.
I miss taking those sorts of risks outside. Nowadays, an ‘outdoor risk’ would mean walking within two metres of another person, or touching a supermarket trolley with my bare hands. This makes me very sad.
When I wrote my first novel, A Curious Woman, I set it in a fictional town, Port Bannir, inspired by the south-western coast of Victoria, where the beaches are white and sparkling in the summer and freezing and battered by Antarctic winds for the rest of the year. The rocky, treacherous coastline and ferocious storms once made this a shipwreck capital. The stark beauty of the place, and its history of maritime tragedies, provided the backdrop I wanted for my troubled protagonist, Margaret Gale.
Meanwhile, as a reader, the natural world is central to many of my favourite books.
One book I adored as a child was The Secret Garden, by Mary Hodgson Burnett, where the angry, unwanted orphan, Mary Lennox, is banished to the mysterious Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire moors. This landscape eventually brings Mary friendship and new life, but her first glimpse is daunting:
The carriage lamps shed a yellow light on a rough-looking road which seemed to be cut through bushes and low-growing things which ended in the great expanse of dark apparently spread out before and around them. A wind was rising and making a singular, wild, low, rushing sound.
“It’s – it’s not the sea, is it?” said Mary, looking around at her companion.
“No, not it,” answered Mrs Medlock. “Nor it isn’t fields nor mountains, it’s just miles and miles and miles of wild land that nothing grows on but heather and gorse and broom, and nothing lives on but wild ponies and sheep.”
Another book I devoured as a kid was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals: the adventures of his eccentric British family in the Greek islands, with their lush gardens and olive groves. Here’s his family enjoying a night picnic on the beach:
We rowed to the mouth of the bay, and then in the pause while Leslie fiddled with the engine, we looked back at Antiniotissa. The lilies were like a snow-field under the moon, and the dark backcloth of olives was sprinkled with the lights of fireflies. The fire we had built, stamped, and ground underfoot before we left, glowed like a patch of garnets at the edge of the flowers.
Finally, my favourite Australian author is Nadia Wheatley. In her short story, Land/scape, her teenage hero explores the Princess Margaret Rose Caves in western Victoria – the same wild country that prompted me to write my own first novel.
And then the stairs opened out into a vast cavern, and all Ant was aware of was a sense of the earth that overcame him.
Though there was chapel every morning at school, Ant had never felt religious; now he did. But the awe he felt was not at God making the earth, but at the earth making the earth: it was a sense of bigness and smallness coming together, as Ant became aware of how each and every drop of calcium carbonate was part of this creation process: and it was a sense of a combination of oldness and newness, for if this creation had been happening since the very beginning, it was happening still, all around Ant, at this very second. Stalactites were building unseen…
It’s still out there, that world. We have to remember it and look forward to stepping out into it again, in better days.
- Jess Lea’s A Curious Woman is on sale now through Ylva Publishing.
Jess Lea is the author of A Curious Woman (2019) and The Taste of Her (2018), both released by Ylva Publishing. Jess has worked in universities and the community sector; she enjoys crime fiction and the writings of funny women, and she dreams of one day discovering a cure for writer’s block. She lives in Melbourne, Australia.