Gardening The Silence

‘In our garden we will find exactly the plants we need. All we have to do is step outside, be present and start to look around, and see what stands out.’

– Davyd Farrell, plant medicine healer 

THIS STORY IS RIDDLED with paradox. A tree rooted in the earth took me by the hand and walked me through the underworld of my mother’s violent family history. And brought me out again, too, to a place where I could start making some kind of sense.

This tree was – is – an olive tree planted in the gardens of a military college in Canberra. That symbol of peace dwelling in a place of war. This tree of friendship, classified as ‘European’ (Olea europaea), residing in Ngunnawal Country at an institution dedicated to ‘ethical’ killing.

I was in Canberra for dead trees, to search its paper archives for stories about the 1942 Japanese invasion of Rabaul, my mother’s hometown and the capital of the former Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea. I wanted to trace the aftermath of war, its fallout on the bodies of women and children. But really I was looking backwards, for a missing leaf on my family tree: my grandfather, who’d been massacred during that war.

As 2018 ACT writer-in-residence I had an office at the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, which has one of the best war libraries in the world. I also had the National Library of Australia and the Australian War Memorial in my research sights.

But a living tree was more eloquent than all the archives in Canberra.

Like any relationship, this one began unexpectedly, a chance meeting in a garden I’d visited for spring blossoms, trees and ducks on a pond. Who knew where it would go?

I heard about the garden while chatting to the three women in the school office. One had just returned from a walk there, it was down the road at Duntroon. She praised its spring wonders – and almost commanded me to take a walk and see them for myself.

This seemed unlikely. Duntroon is a military college and sounded forbidding to me. But I did walk there, passing the cherry tree blossoming in three shades of pink just as she’d said. Beyond a tennis court I found the garden, its blue gums, pine trees, English oaks – and the most magnificent olive tree I have ever seen.

Like my mother and her mother before me, I love plants and gardens. It’s as if I have a cellular attraction to them. This had always seemed an innocuous and rather wonderful love to share with my foremothers. But soon after the Duntroon garden and its olive tree had become part of my daily round, deep in a book on life in colonial Rabaul before the Second World War, I read that gardening was popular among the white women of the town because they had nothing much else to do while their husbands were at work.

After the First World War, Prime Minister Billy Hughes’s tenacious advocacy at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 had secured for Australia a mandate to govern the former German colony of New Guinea. My mother grew up in its administrative centre in the 1930s. These were golden years for the colonisers, thanks to cheap labour and the natural wealth of tropical New Guinea.

A handbook distributed to Australian families new to the town made it clear that servants were the norm in this ‘paradise’ famed for its lush gardens: ‘The average bungalow home requires from three to five native servants, the essentials at any rate are the cook, laundry boy … and the house boy.’ These servants were local people trained to comply with the wishes of their colonial masters and mistresses. But ‘servants’ was a slippery term: the sale book of one copra plantation records among its assets ‘73 native labourers, two horses and 35 goats’.

These Tolai people were listed among the white man’s property like slaves. Yet they were famed for their knowledge of plants and gardening. Their gardens burst with tropical fruits and vegetables, which they laid out on banana leaves to sell at the markets along Mango Avenue.

Slowly a picture of Australia’s white supremacist practices in this racially stratified colony began to emerge from the archive. And so the history became more complex, my embodied love of gardens more problematic. The story I was trying to uncover seemed a dark and haunted garden of many ghosts.

Is this why the olive tree spoke to me?

I met her on Wednesday, 5 September 2018 – and by the month’s end she was so much part of my Canberra life that I mentioned her to my friend Sophie over morning coffee. Who shocked me by asking to meet her. Was I ready to introduce her to a friend? No. But Sophie is persuasive. She wrote about us in her book on trees published the following year: ‘A friend recently confessed to me, quite seriously, that she had fallen in love with a tree and needed to spend some time with it every day, preferably lying under its full boughs. I did not find this strange, and the affair became all the more explicable when I learned the tree in question was an olive.’

I had fallen in love, that much is true. It was love at first sight, that same instant recognition. But we weren’t having an ‘affair’. It wasn’t romantic love. It was something else entirely. An order of love I have no name for. She, that tree, was and is my friend mentor healer guide mother. She is joy.

And I needed some of that. Alone in Canberra, with my son and daughter off at university, a well of grief had opened in me. It was amorphous, apparently without cause, but I recognised that part of it related to my mother’s death three years earlier. Just months before she’d died, my mother had learnt – by chance, from a film – about the existence of post-traumatic stress disorder. And so had begun to glean something of the nature of the haunting she’d suffered since her father had vanished when she was thirteen years old. We’d just begun a fractured conversation about PTSD before she died.

Janina Fisher, clinical psychologist and trauma specialist, describes trauma well, as a neuropsychological condition that leads to internal fragmentation, entrenched self-alienation and self-hatred. When I returned to Canberra as a visiting fellow at UNSW in April 2019, I would discover that all this and more was written in my body just as surely as it had been in my mother’s.

But that September I was too busy unearthing the shocking history of Australia’s colonial venture in New Guinea and the Japanese invasion of Rabaul to be concerned with my own internal world.

The statistics said it all. Japan invaded Rabaul in the early hours of 23 January 1942 with 5300 troops and most of its South Seas Transport Fleet which had just successfully struck at Pearl Harbor, backed by an even mightier fleet. Australia had 1396 men, two outdated naval guns, ten planes and four light bombers.

The battle was over by dawn. Japan’s Commander Mitsuo Fuchida felt like ‘a hunter sent to stalk a mouse with an elephant gun’.

But do the statistics say it all?

Despite these statistics, the Battle of Rabaul – judged by historian Bruce Gamble as ‘arguably the worst defeat ever suffered by Australia in any war’ – went missing from Australia’s national narrative for seventy years. It was only formally acknowledged by the Australian government with the unveiling of a memorial sculpture in Canberra in 2012. Most of the bodies of the 1200 Australians who died during this invasion and its aftermath are also missing, including my grandfather’s. They have never been recovered.

An emerald rain tree stands watch by the entrance to the Bita Paka War Cemetery near Rabaul, an airy garden memorial where the names of the dead are remembered in bronze plaques on sandstone plinths. When I finally visit on a hot September day in 2019, I photograph this lofty tree whose boughs sweep the sky and shade the grass below.

Back in Sydney I stick the tree above a black and white photograph of scattered bones on a jungle floor taken in 1945. Family tree, I call it. The bones are all that’s left of some 160 Australians massacred by Japanese soldiers at the Tol Plantation south-east of Rabaul on 4 February 1942. My grandfather’s bones among them.

In the gaping distance between history and image I sit attempting to write into the silence. Then one day I tear it all down, the history, the photos, the family tree. It’s all so wrong.

I see a little sense in what I’m doing – throwing away the statistics, the official history I extracted from the archives which I believed constituted my mother’s story – in these words by American poet Roger Reeves in his essay The Uses  of Memory: ‘As [Aliyyah] Abdur-Rahman notes, channeling Judith Butler, the future – “the old-fashioned future,” as Terrance Hayes has called it – is not a break from the past. Often, this future traffics in the “losses of the past,” carrying them forward without subversion of their traumatic ends.’

Yes. I’m looking for a ‘new future’, a new pattern beyond the losses of the past, beyond the trauma. Reeves suggests that poet Christopher Gilbert opens another way, a way of doubt and confusion not only as a way of knowing, but as a way of being: ‘The move toward claiming a confused consciousness rather than the event is a shift of burden and an offering of grace.’

A confused consciousness, rather than the events, is a way of knowing and being I can connect with. Because despite setting out to write about war and women, I have an overwhelming sense that there’s a different story hiding here – and it’s about plants and gardening.

In the back of my mind, I’d vaguely sensed the olive was some kind of envoy of the goddess she’s long been associated with: owl-eyed Athena, the Greek goddess of war, wisdom and craft who leapt tall, strong and radiant, fully armed and armoured, from the head of her father, Zeus. I have her owl tattooed on my arm.

But it took me many afternoons lying along her branch that fitted my body exactly, to begin to consider her as an embodied being in her own right, with her own story. I became curious about her – and the other trees she lived with, their names engraved in English and Latin on metal plaques stuck in the ground. What were they all doing here at this military college?

I discovered that Duntroon had only become the Royal Military College in 1911, established to train the permanent officers of the armed forces of the newly federated Commonwealth of Australia. The original homestead had been built in 1833 by Scottish merchant Robert Campbell. It was the first house on the Limestone Plains, now Canberra and, following Robert’s death in his garden, was named after the family castle in Argyllshire. His son George developed the garden with his wife Marianne, planting a tree from every country he visited. But in Greece olives grow twisted and squat. Here in Canberra, this solitary olive had grown tall as the sky.

Beneath this tale of empire building, I found another haunting. Another gardener. In 1884, George and Marianne’s daughter Sophia mysteriously fell – or was pushed – from her bedroom window at Duntroon House. She suffered massive injuries and took a day to die. Her ghost now haunts the room from which she fell – and she still walks the rose garden below, sad and forlorn, in a long pale blue dress. Rumour says that when she died, aged twenty-seven, Sophia was pregnant – to the gardener, who’d rejected her. 

‘Sophia’ is Greek for wisdom, the primary attribute of Athena. Fragments I hadn’t gone looking for suddenly began to emerge and connect. And I began to feel that I was being guided by some unseen presence, into a story that was always just out of sight. It never occurred to me this presence might have been the tree.

When I returned to Canberra in the autumn of 2019, that liminal season of dissolution and transmutation, I, too, began to dissolve. The meticulous diaries I kept of this time narrate a metamorphosis from inside the chrysalis. I was throwing off an old skin, cracking open an ancient armour. It was heralded by a terrifying encounter on my yoga mat, when a raging, trapped, petrified infant erupted from my body.

This is trauma. This is the fallout of war and its aftermath, right there in my body. And I’d had no idea.

Three days before this encounter and the onset of my dissolution, my relationship with the olive had suddenly deepened, as I record in my diary. Already feeling unmoored, I’d been listening to mythologist Martin Shaw talking about Russia’s magical firebird.

MAY DAY 2019: After my trip down Martin Shaw’s alley of firebirds and burning hearts, I had the urge to walk to the garden of trees. Having passed the requisite leaf blower and crossed over Calculus Lane, remembering the thoughts it provoked last spring of accounting and mathematics and feeling them fall away now, I reached the gateway tree and looked at it well for the first time. A southern nettle. That felt apt. Some blood at the doorway, just a prick. Then I … vaulted, I’d like to say, but it was simpler than that.

I returned unerringly to my home tree, my friend the olive I fell in love with last September. She was filled with birdsong, speaking through the birds and calling me. I rounded her and lay along her branch. She looked particularly beautiful today, shining in the soft late afternoon sun, at her very best pale leafed and fresh, not gnarled and ancient as she is. I leant my hands back and found a branch specially at their height to wrap my hands around and footholds at my feet perfectly formed for me.

I watched as the birds resettled onto the distant rooftop and some took off. But I lay still and paid my attention to the olive, and they soon gathered closer. One even swept right over me as if I were part of the tree, although in my red jumper I was so evidently not.

As I lay back still and quiet, I felt such grief. Tears came to my eyes. I asked the tree are you grieving? And then, or am I? I couldn’t tell. I thought she might grieve being so far from home. And then I realised that this was the tree of Athena and her gift to Athens – and I wondered then if I’d come here to write the story of that tree? And if my story was about love and not war.

And did I realise this last year when I met her, that this was Athena present before me? My ‘return to Greece’, not that I had any such thing in mind. And I vowed to look up my first meeting with this olive in my diary to see if I’d realised then how incredibly uncanny this Athena tree in Duntroon was, with its ghostly girl about. One tear rolled down my right cheek and I lay still and quiet. But two tennis players arrived, and I told the tree I’d return first thing in the morning to converse with her when the world was fresh and silent.

On my way back up the hill I realised that I wouldn’t have understood the significance of this Athena tree last September because last September I had no idea what this book was about apart from 1942: Rabaul Year Zero. Only this year did I allow the ludicrous possibility, the absurd idea, that my story of Athena and Metis and Zeus might be in any way related to, one and the same as, this story of war.

THEY WERE RELATED, in myriad ways that only slowly dawned on me. And they related centrally to my capacity both to heal and to write my mother’s story, which turned out to be the same thing.

I’d been fixated on Athena for years. That is, the Athena bequeathed to us by Greek mythology: the mother-denying warrior goddess born straight from her father’s head. But this goddess is the Mycenaean Greek reimagining of an older Cretan fertility goddess, repurposed as an honorary male and protector of a father-venerating war culture.

It was this Athena who, after the Trojan War, cast the deciding vote in the trial of Orestes for the murder of his mother. In Aeschylus’s Eumenides, Athena declares:

There is no mother anywhere who gave me birth,
and, but for marriage, I am always for the male 
with all my heart, and strongly on my father’s side.
So, in a case where the wife has killed her husband, lord
of the house, her death shall not mean most to me. And if
the other votes are even, then Orestes wins.

With these words, Athena exonerates Orestes of his mother’s murder – and marks a critical turning point in the rise of a war-mongering patriarchal culture.

But Athena’s famed wisdom came not from her ‘sole parent’, Zeus. It came from her vanished mother, Metis, who was Zeus’s colleague, advisor and lover. When Metis became pregnant with their child, Zeus learnt that she would give birth first to a daughter – and then to a son who would overthrow him. To prevent this, Zeus enticed the pregnant Metis to bed – and swallowed her.

It took me months to realise that this swallowed mother was central to my story. ‘Metis’ means wisdom, thinking through, the capacity to reflect. Metis was exactly the person, or quality, I needed. This capacity to think through and reflect is essential to processing trauma. The ability to stand back and begin to separate from – not identify with – the excruciating emotional overwhelm of a traumatised body, is how you start to reprogram your mind, to calm your nervous system. After my encounter on the yoga mat, guided by my psychologist, I slowly began to learn this standing back. And so started to change my mind, literally.

This is how I began to teach myself that my body was a safe place – and not a place of terror. To make new patterns, new stories.

What I’d instinctively been doing down there in the underworld that autumn was disgorging mothers from the bodies of patriarchs: my own mother, whose story had been swallowed within my family and in my nation’s public history, and Metis, whose story had been swallowed by Zeus with the patriarchal appropriation of an ancient matriarchal myth.

In that Duntroon garden, by chance or design, I’d met exactly the tree I needed. She helped me to make a new pattern, a new story. And it was about plants and gardens. It was about women and war. And it was about love.

When my first essay on this swallowed history was published in May 2022, I recalled another paradox, from Peter A Levine: ‘The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy, and the power to transform and resurrect.’


IN JUNE 2022 I had my first chance to visit the olive since the pandemic. I wanted to thank her, with my freshly opened heart. I was high as a young lover as I crossed the grass to where she stood waving in the wind, tall, deep rooted, grace incarnate.

How she’d transformed! She was bursting with new life. Iridescent green shoots sprang from the cradle at her heart and sprouted along her limbs. But my perch was free. I wouldn’t disturb her new growth if I lay there. And so I lay in her arms, tears streaming down my face, just being with her.  

Top image: Olive branch, by Luis Fernández García. Wikipedia Commons