|Oct/Nov 2010 Book Reviews|
My Blood's Country: in the Footsteps of Judith Wright.
Allen Unwin. 2010. 388 pp.
Fiona Capp was just twelve years old when she first discovered Judith Wright's poetry; and just a few years older when she first met her. Judith Wright was forty-five years older than Capp - an old woman in her eyes - but a correspondence began between them which lasted until Wright's death in 2000. "I could not claim to have known her as a close friend," writes Capp, but over the years Judith's letter endings progressed from "Sincerely Yours" to "Best Wishes" and, finally, to "Love," as a relationship of affection and trust was established between them.
My Blood's Country is Capp's journey to those landscapes in which Judith lived and from which her poetry and her activism grew. For Capp, it was not "a pilgrimage," but a way of learning what Judith might have experienced in those places she loved, and, especially, a way of making connections with Judith's poetry.
Capp's long familiarity with Judith's poems, and with Judith's other writings, makes her journey, and this book, rich and absorbing. It takes her from the Australian, New England Tablelands, where Judith's family had been early settlers and where Judith had grown up; to the Queensland home which she and her partner, Jack McKinney, shared at Mount Tambourine; to Canberra, where her growing relationship with the prominent Aboriginal activist, Herbert Cole "Nugget" Coombs, was a closely kept secret; and, finally, to the house at Edge, in the Half-Moon Wildlife District, which she designed for herself. Along the way, Capp explores the way in which these very different landscapes are reflected in Judith's poetry, her deep connection with the land and her increasing awareness of the "interconnectedness of all things". It was this awareness which lay at the root of her growing ecological activism and her concern for the rights of Aboriginal people.
My Blood's Country is not a biography but inevitably it deals with the people, events and experiences which shaped Judith's life and underlay her beliefs and work. At the same time, the book reveals Capp's own responses to Judith's homes. "I might never be able to see and know this place as Judith had," she writes after immersing herself in a bushland waterhole beside which Judith, her daughter, Meredith, and Nugget Coombs often used to camp, "but at least I could taste something of its pleasures and, in doing so, ease my way deeper into the poems themselves."
She paints us pictures of Judith's lands, digs a little into their history, tries to discover their secrets and the meaning they had for Judith and, constantly, she comes back to the poetry. It is this which makes the book satisfying and, for me, meant that I returned to Judith's poetry with a new admiration for her spare, pared back, beautifully crafted art.
Capp's journey also reveals Judith's character, showing her as a strong, determined, sensitive and very active woman for whom the raw experiences of life were the foundation of all she did and all she achieved.
Judith was forty-seven, and already an established poet, when she helped to found the Wildlife Protection Society of Queensland. Their activism and the growing public awareness of the unique and threatened nature of much of the Australian environment eventually led to the establishment of the National Parks of Cooloola, the Great Barrier Reef and Frazer Island. In 1979, with Nugget Coombs and a small group of scholars, Judith helped form the Aboriginal Treaty Committee, which fought for Aboriginal land rights and self-determination. And because of her involvement with a number of different groups, in particular the Fellowship of Australian Writers, which was suspected of having communist leanings, she came to the notice of the Australian security services. This did not deter her. "Change," as she wrote in one of her poems, "is my true condition, / to take and give and promise, / to fight and fail and alter."*
Her ability to evoke the uniqueness, the fragility and the strange beauty of the land which she called her "blood's country," lives on in her poetry. And it is this for which she will best be remembered.
* These lines come from "Some Words." A sample of Judith's poems can be found here.