Raised in the arms of Mother Nature on 700 acres of fields, mountains and creek in rural south east Queensland, Australia, my whole being knew every part of that land as intimately as a long-term lover.
When I think of camping, my mind doesn’t conjure up tents or gas rings, but rather, the camping memories of my childhood. At thirteen, with my best friend, who was a neighbour a few miles away, we’d ride our horses up the mountains, and then bake potatoes over a small open fire. We didn’t take tents, but brought our sleeping bags, and lay under the open sky. Not a mobile phone or laptop in sight! Indeed, they hadn’t been invented. Did our mothers worry because we couldn’t call, text or email? I’ve no idea.
Camping: vulnerable to snakes, scorpions and spiders, yet succoured by starlight, the scent of eucalyptus and the still, pure night air. My soul was fed by Nature, over and over again. I know with every cell of my being that boredom and Nature can’t co-exist.
One of my most abiding and treasured childhood memories is of sharing sleep under the great Australian starlit sky with my mother (on the trampoline). There’s nothing like a starry sky to fill a child with awe at their place in this Universe. I was nourished with this throughout childhood.
On the rare occasions it rained, the fields would sprout mushrooms overnight. Off we’d run with our buckets, and return with them full to the brim. No mushroom soup has ever smelt or tasted like that which my mother cooked on those rainy days.
The creek, which wound its way around the base of the eucalyptus and wattle-covered mountains, flowed over granite, and led to a waterfall which pooled into an ink-coloured, deep dam. At the head of the waterfall, to each side, existed secret bowers amidst the exotic maiden hair ferns and soft, sponge-like moss, all of which thrived in the watery mist ~ an oasis amid the dry barrenness of the landscape around us. A whole world existed in these mystical alcoves, and they were my private play spaces.
Diving or belly-flopping into the apparently bottomless dam was always a ritual for initiating our clueless town friends into country living ~ friends who had no inkling about the thick, blood-sucking leeches below.
The water in the creek was crystal clear. There was never any question about whether or not it was safe to drink. We would simply squat down and drink from the gently flowing water, quenching the thirsty work of childhood. On the slate-grey granite rocks, we’d make a small fire to cook our lunch. No Macdonalds or Burger King for us vegetarian children. In fact, the closest we ever came to ‘fast food’ was when the frying pan slipped from the fire into the creek and rapidly headed towards the waterfall, my sister catching it just as it shot over the edge. My heart was pounding at the certainty that she’d go over with it, and crack her skull on the rocks.
They were daring, dangerous days, rich with possibility, adventure, freedom, fun and inspiration. Would I have traded any of those days for the sterile and risk-free lives of so many of today’s children?; children whose every move is monitored by some health and safety notice! Children whose lives are measured by computer games and junk food! Not a chance, not a scar, not a bruise. Each and every risk forged a sense of self into my cells. It made me stand taller, prouder, stronger. I gambled with my life, and scooped the rewards of a free range childhood.
It wasn’t unusual for us to come across the paths of foxes, dingoes, goannas (very large lizards) and snakes. Everything about the Australian bush is dramatic, including the fauna. When bush fires swept through our mountains, I learnt the power of rejuvenation that lives deep in the heart of the Australian bush ~ and in my psyche. I’ve watched months and years of drought engineer tiny cracks in the Earth’s surface: Mother Earth’s stretch marked belly labouring until gullies were scorched and gouged in her skin. Nothing in Nature stays the same. Nothing stays still.
My siblings and I created pastimes by combining natural and man-made resources. A favourite was using cardboard to act as a toboggan beneath our butts as we soared down the hills on tinder-dry grass. Our speed, skill and expertise had us seeking greater thrills, and we soon graduated from cardboard to sheets of corrugated iron. Mostly, we managed to avoid the tall eucalyptus trees on our way down the mountainside ~ but not always.
A disused, rusty, corrugated iron rain tank, tipped on its side, made the perfect roadworthy vehicle as a bunch of us children tread milled like mice inside it ~ knowing we were rather unlikely to come across a car on the quiet, rural dirt roads. Without being able to see where we were going, we moved faster and faster, with great delight.
An old tractor tyre, liberated of its inner tube, hung by thick rope from the pepperina tree in the garden. It made for a great swing, but truly came into its own when we filled the inner base with warm soapy water, and sat inside while someone else pushed it against the tree.
Annual rainfall at Freestone, near Warwick, was a mere 27 inches ~ and yet, on the rare occasions when it flooded, we were not housebound. Childhood continued in full force beneath rainy skies. Our parkas (thick, padded coats), when worn beneath a raincoat, gave us boyancy as we sailed, bodily, down the swollen creek for miles. If only the walk back home on the achingly long Charley’s Gully Road had gone as quickly! My mother’s heart would have skipped more than a beat if she’d witnessed even half the antics of my childhood. During one flood, when my siblings and I tried to cross a narrow part of the creek which we knew well, we held each others’ hands tightly. My youngest brother stood between my sister and I. Half way across the swollen, fast flowing waters, my sister and I looked over at each other, startled to realise that our younger brother was completely under water (well, he was a lot shorter than us!). Though shocking, when he did resurface from the thick, muddy waters, looking rather like a cartoon character, we all fell about on the bank laughing hysterically. It could, of course, have all gone horribly wrong, but then so could many of our childhood adventures! The man-made dams on our property were always brown and muddy, but that never stopped us from swimming in them. Painting our naked bodies with mud was an artistic expression we relished. If we weren’t swimming, we were building go-karts from whatever bits of wood we could find, skipping rope, climbing trees or playing hopscotch. There were many trees which were easy to climb, but near impossible to get back down. I spent half my childhood in a see-saw of triumph and tears trying to extract myself from the arms of a mischieviously inviting gum tree.
I can’t recreate my childhood for my girls ~ they have to carve their own magic from the Nature around them, and they have. The gentle English countryside is vastly different to the bold, brutal and brilliant Australian bush.
My childhood garden was a paradisical Eden of papaya, carob, fig, avocado, banana and olive trees. I played beside exquisitely scented flowers of frangipani and freesias, and the colourful pink heads of hibiscus. Kangaroos and kookaburras came to visit. My mother and I did rain dances to appeal to the goddesses for merciful relief from the relentless droughts. My daughters can’t imagine it not raining. Red squirrels and hedgehogs visit their garden, a quiet place where fennel, honeysuckle, starflowers and nasturtiums beckon bees and butterflies. The girls rake books outside for literary banquets beneath the plums and pines. They shade themselves beneath sycamore, Scots pine, willow and silver birch. My trees of shade were eucalyptus and pepperina. I spent countless hours devouring passion fruit, and up trees delighting in hypnotic delights mulberries and wild apricots. My girls have grown up foraging the lanes and wooded areas for gooseberries, blackcurrants, blackberries, wild cherries and raspberries.
As a family we celebrate the distinct English seasons in various ways, including a seasons’ table. Our Autumn altar always features the gifts found on our walks through the Cumbrian countryside or our garden: elderberries, golden sycamore leaves, crab apples, rosehips, conkers, blackberries, sunflowers and pumpkins. Our hearts bear witness to what the table does not: the damp, musky smell traced from the woodland floor; wild geese stencilled against the tangerine horizon; the nip at eventide taunting us to light the first crackling fire of the season; a full Moon’s synastry with the mysterious valley mists; the wind whispering that soon, very soon, it will be time to go inwards again, to reflect, revision and review. Time to let go of Summer. “Go on, girl. Let go!”
Childhood is but a distant memory, a fading dream, and yet Mother Nature is still my best friend, my first port of call in self-nurturing ~ my comfort, joy, tonic, salve, solace and inspiration.
Keeping children quarantined from Nature is the social disease of our time. All children, regardless of their sex or parental upbringing, biologically expect daily interaction with Nature and the elements. If you do nothing else today, please, please, wherever you live and regardless of the weather, take your child outside. Go barefoot, if you can, into the woods, the beach, city park, marshlands, rainforest, meadow, sand dunes or fallowed fields. Run, skip, hop, walk, dance, sit or lie down. Breathe, feel and melt into the arms of Mother Nature. She’s waiting for you.