Sunday, January 13, 2008

Flower Power

I think it was Ben, writing at Sarsaparilla recently, who made a comment about being able to recognise a landscape you were familiar with, even when it was presented to you as being another place. He used the example of films and television programmes made in Australia that were set in European countries, so, for example, a corner of Adelaide University could be represented as a building in London circa 1900. If you'd never seen the Adelaide site, you'd be none the wiser, but if you'd encountered that building everyday of your undergraduate career, then you could identify the film maker's sleight.

Reading Ben's post, I recognised my own ability to identify the places and landscapes that have been prominent in my life. This sense of recognition, combined with a slight pang in the gut, is how I could pinpoint the location on display in a slide show at a friend's place recently. On the occasion of her son's first birthday, her husband had set up a computer in the background, showing the first year of E's life. In a sequence from a visit to his maternal grandparents, I could see E before the familiar hills of a distant Great Dividing Range with low dark clouds, hovering over the haze of the blue grey hills, suffocating with their insistent humidity. The surrounding vegetation was densely green, but in the foreground evidence of farm life, partially rusted, corrugated iron sheds and stalks of sugar cane, confirmed that I was looking at somewhere in Far North Queensland, not too far from Cairns. It turned out to be Babinda, a small town about 70kms south of Cairns.

Click on photo for credit

In October last year, I saw something else that reminded me of the vegetation of my childhood. I was visiting another friend. She was house-sitting at a property at Maleny, in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, just north of Brisbane. It wasn't the surrounding landscape that evoked the visceral reaction that catapulted me back about 25 years, but the plants throughout the house of the somewhat luxurious cottage.

They were orchids, those exquisitely crafted flowers found principally in rain forests, which is where I encountered them, on our annual holidays to Cape Tribulation and the Daintree.

I remember the first time I saw one in its natural environment. It was growing from the side of a large tree. I identified it as a Cooktown orchid, which is Queensland's floral emblem.

I was excited to recognise it from my school books and all at once, I felt ridiculously proud that the state floral emblem came from the part of Queensland in which I lived, yet strangely puzzled by the lack of gravitas surrounding the encounter. Stumbling over such an important flower by chance seemed to be missing in the appropriate ceremony.

When I visited C I had to learn the story of the orchids. It turned out they belonged to the gardener and he cultivated them in a greenhouse at the back of the house and when they bloomed, he placed them throughout the house so they could be enjoyed by its owners.

I was awestruck by a weird combination of admiration at such skill (the rest of the garden was pretty spectacular too) and nostalgia for wonderful holidays in such a unique environment.

I remembered walking through rain forests and being lassoed by wait-a-whiles, dropping their spurred ropes to trap unsuspecting passers-by; trying to catch yabbies in rain forest creeks, but never being quite quick enough; daring to eat an unfamiliar berry because it looked so much like a tiny strawberry (luckily, it turned out to be a wild variety); being serenaded, as we made sand castles on the beach, by a tall man known locally as 'cane knife'; walking what seemed like miles to a shop we weren't sure was open, guided only by the marker of a very tall palm tree; and wading through mangroves up to our knees in their muddy stench, ever fearful of encountering a saltwater crocodile.


Mark Lawrence said...

Gee! I wish I'd had childhood holidays like yours! It is a dream of mine to see the Daintree and Cape Tribulation one day.

The furthest north of Queensland I've been is the Sunshine Coast, and that was pretty enough. I am eager to see the true tropical north.

Do you get to go back up there much?

Mark Lawrence said...

Oh, and the orchids are lovely too. Especially the one at the bottom.

I have very fond memories of orchids from my Southeast asian childhood.

Though not the same as encountering wild orchids, the florists always had some spectacular ones, and my aunt and uncle bred and cultivated orchids – some of the most delicate flowers you'd ever have seen.

I remember one that looked like it had the head of an elephant, complete with a trunk, in the centre.

Kirsty said...

No, I don't get back there at all. My family have all since moved away. I do think another Cape Trib. holiday is in order though.