Writing and Wombating: a Chat with Jackie French

Jackie French AM is one of the most accomplished people I have ever had the privilege to interview, and introduce. One of Australia’s most treasured writers, Jackie’s career spans across many genres, including children’s books (most notably Diary of a Wombat, but we don’t touch on this during our chat, because, as she writes on her website, “…write just one picture book about a wombat, and no one lets you forget it. Ever. Ever. Ever. Please do not mention Diary of a Wombat or the word ‘prolific’”) historical fiction, and books and regular columns on sustainability and native gardening. She is also an ecologist, historian, and tireless campaigner for literacy. And if all this wasn’t quite impressive enough, she is the 2014-15 Australian Children’s Laureate and the 2015 Senior Australian of the Year.

Along with writing over 140 books (!), Jackie has spent much of her life devoted to transforming her property into a self sufficient garden and conservation refuge for native Australian fauna. By all accounts, it’s a majestic and abundant place. Jackie and her husband Bryan grow 270 different sorts of fruit, which is probably Australia’s largest collection, and have cultivated a garden which genuinely feeds its human and animal inhabitants. It is an inspiring and practical two-hectare example of how to garden for Australian conditions.

We chat about Jackie’s life as a writer and gardener, and the interrelation between the two endeavours.

Image by Kelly Sturgiss

You moved to Araluen, near Braidwood, in your early twenties, where you still are, and turned the property into a conservation refuge for rare and endangered species. Can you tell me a little about how this began, and what drives you and your husband in this work? When I first moved here I thought that to live in the bush you needed to be a farmer. But most of being a farmer is picking, packing and selling, and I hate selling the things I grow, and it’s the same with my books. I have great difficulty assigning monetary value to things that are worth a lot. When Bryan and I first came here, we were able to buy it because it was so degraded. It was eighty percent blackberry and twenty percent erosion with some old orchard areas that were bare scabs of shale eroding with every rainstorm. For us, it was a matter of every year nominating a small part of the blackberry to control. Now, forty eight years later, most of it is gone. The trees started to re-establish and now looking at them you would think they are first growth. It now looks like virgin forest.

In terms of the animals, we have been making friends with them. The former owners boasted that they never went anywhere without shotguns. Over time, we have been seeing the animals and birds come back again. For large parts of my life here we have generated our own power, and even gone without. It was only a few years ago we got grid electricity because we were getting older and realised that at some time we were going to have people care for us who may not know how to use it. It’s easy here to see that we have an impact on the environment but it’s much harder if you live in the city or suburbs.

We’ve also got conservation protection on our property. The only works we are allowed to do on it are to improve the lives and viability of the species here. We can put in pipes for water stations, but can’t have cattle or raise a horse. We certainly couldn’t plant introduced species. We can plant natives that might be needed to control the weeds. We had very much wondered what would happen after our deaths here, having spent many decades making a refuge for animals, but now that the covenant is on the title, the place has to be run in a way that will not disturb the conservation value.

What’s your daily routine at home, if you have one? Is it a balance of writing and wombating? It’s complicated now by the fact that I had surgery on my leg that went wrong last year. I’m on crutches so my ability to garden has been rendered from severely curtailed to non existent. I’m never going to get back to do what I used to do, but the gardens are really set up; once you plant things in the right place, they keep growing. I’ve done no gardening since June of last year, but I can see the parsley growing, apples blooming, avocados growing, you name it. The whole idea of the wilderness garden was creating a system that was self maintaining and my lack of action has been the ultimate test. The crops should see me out, and the next generation too.

It was a very difficult year, but I’ve now lived long enough to know that gardens and the bush survive droughts far better than gardeners.”

Do your gardens play a role in your writing life? What I mostly write in my fiction is historical and I can only write that because I’ve lived pretty much in the way historical characters did – under stringybark roofs; living on what we can grow and forage and make from the bush, listening to the stories of indigenous aunties and following their advice; making do without money; building houses from materials from the land. It really is actually the heart of my fiction that I’ve lived the way the characters lived.

The garden, the bush, the community around here, is the absolute backbone of my books.”

So it’s fair to say the natural world plays a strong role thematically in your work? I have a strong feeling that most of what I write comes from the valley around me. Yes it’s my hands and mind that is shaping it; the intellectual and physical effort is great and it is mine, but there is also something that comes from the land itself. There is a real sense that I am not the only creator in this. I’m not sure I could put it into any other words, there’s no specifics for it.

I do know that when the work isn’t flowing here, I need to take time and listen to the noises around me, the feel of the wind on my skin etcetera, and just simply be part of it and that is where a new way of perceiving will happen. I sometimes force myself when writing to stop and listen. It’s not passive even though it’s not active in any specific form either. I don’t know all of the natural world around me. It’s a deeply interrelated complexity. There’s so many ways you can experience it. Certainly the more knowledge I get, the ability to know if it’s going to rain, be hot, be prolific wombat breedings or eucalyptus flowerings, my knowledge of the world around me more generally has increased. Sometimes I might simply sit for a day watching how the golden skinks have turned an area of boulders into a condominium.

I found what you wrote about living with wildlife very moving, as a city dweller. You say:

The animals here are fellow inhabitants. Most have got used to us just as we have got used to them. (There are exceptions. The echidna is still nervous of us. And I get a little edgy too when I meet a brown snake). The world would be boring if it was inhabited only by humans and their pets and useful species. Not just boring – I think we would lose our souls. I’m not sure what a soul is. But it is an essential part of being human. And being human we evolved with other species and with trees and flowers and myriad living things. I know that when I am in cities, surrounded by only humans and their products, I find life very simple. There are only the complexities of one species, not 100,000. Possibly there is a moral reason to share my garden. But mostly I do it for myself because without the others in my garden, I would be less…

Can you talk a little more about this, about how being surrounded, immersed and in interaction with other species, both flora and fauna, is part of what you believe makes a person whole, or at least, is a part of the human experience that many of us are missing out on? We’ve got the statistics, we know that in areas of natural bush, there’s less crime. We know that even a day’s walk in the bush will improve the action of the immune centre and our IQ by five or ten percent. Nature is beneficial. In Scandinavia and Japan people are actually prescribed time in the natural world as medicine. This is who we are. We evolved with other species.

At a very deep level I think we are only comfortable in smaller groups and communities where there are stronger networks. We are not good at being in communities of more than five hundred. There’s an enormous amount of data on it. And for me, it’s just a personal feeling that in a city there is so much you have to shut out with your senses. In the bush, you can see everything, feel everything, there’s no need to censor what you are as a human animal.

To live in a world that is only created by humans, for humans, is an incredibly impoverished existence. You can’t compare a life with one or three or four species with the forty thousand that you will find in a rich garden or the bush.”

What’s a piece of gardening wisdom you can offer our readers? One day you will not be able to garden, so plant for tomorrow, the next decade and the next century. Plant things that are going to keep feeding you first. Get in the fruit trees, perennial vegetables, rhubarb, spring onions. All of the things that are going to feed you for generations.

And what about for writers? Any tools of the trade you have to share? Remember that if you are a writer, you are writing for other people. If you’re only writing for yourself, it is called a diary. It doesn’t matter how big your audience is. Every year after Christmas I write my grandkids a book. That’s a book for only two and that is more important than a book read by millions of people. You need to think, ‘what does the reader need from this?’ You think about your audience as you write, not for yourself… Ultimately, the test of a good book for me, whether I read it or write it, is that when you read it you successfully escape reality, but when you return you are better able to cope with it.


Header image of Jackie by Kelly Sturgiss