Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses

'It's Not All Wine and Roses: a guide to survival.'

Wine and Roses Coverfinl with pic1

 

 

In early 2012, I was diagnosed with five malignant tumours. Even I realised that the odds in favour of survival were not great. In the next few days I will start a blog, to be called 'It's Not All Wine and Roses: a guide to survival.' It is the story of my adventures with the camera, many of them dangerous, all of them exhilarating, but also of my struggle with cancer over the past 7 years, having been given a less than 1% chance of survival. This is the story of how I am here to tell the tale - in early 2019. It's a story of survival.

Still waiting for a publisher!!!

And here is the cover, designed by my son, Tom.

 

 

Tom Stoppard: "Words are sacred. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little."  In early 2012, I was diagnosed with five malignant tumours. Even I realised that the odds in favour of survival were not great. As I thought it might help other cancer sufferers I decided to start a blog, to be called 'It's Not all Wine and Roses: a journey to survival.' It's the story of my adventures throughout the world with my camera, some of them dangerous, all of them exhilarating, but also of my struggle with cancer over the past 18 months. This is the story of how I am here to tell the tale - in early 2014. It's a story of survival.

Many of my readers assume my life is made up of endless treats. One of the reasons for writing this book is to present the case that my life is not all wine and roses!

When, as part of a book launch, at a book fair or a writers' conference, I speak about my life as a garden writer and photographer I often start off with the words, "Today is a great treat for me. It's wonderful to see so many friends and garden lovers here." Now, I know that many people assume the life of a garden writer and photographer – or of a garden historian – is one of drifting around the world's loveliest gardens, chatting with like-minded people, drinking tea and eating cake. While my job certainly provides a most pleasant way to spend one's time, or to earn one's daily bread, it is most certainly a job that requires effort, energy and plenty of self discipline.

I feel the need, therefore, to dispel a few myths. I want to assure my readers that the garden writer's life is not all 'beer and skittles,' as they say - or even wine and roses.

My job involves plenty of challenges. For a start, there are lots of pre-dawn starts and there are many long, long drives. And of course one misses hearth and home, and one's own garden when one is on the road. And, it's amazing how one's children seem more and more perfect the farther one travels from them. In addition there are many tricky moments, lonely moments in the life of a garden writer, and even moments of great danger. One must be a bit like Aunty Mame, and simply rise above it all.

There was no challenge, however, that compared to that on the day, in March 2012, I was told I had lung cancer. It seemed that I had been handed a death sentence. As I travelled through the next few, dark, days, and into the months, keeping a daily diary, I felt as if I was writing a film script - but one in which I was the central protagonist. I felt as if I was observing myself from somewhere in the sky, out of my body, looking down upon my life. A strange feeling, and a frightening experience. More than 18 months later, having recovered, and having climbed several actual mountains since, I can look back on the experience as an adventure; an exploration of the meaning of life.

I had intended to call this memoir 'Bugger the Leading Edge.' For many years I would pull down the blinds that sat behind lemon silk curtains in the sitting room, to protect the leading edge – the return – from the afternoon sun. After sunset I would pull up the blinds. This hardly seemed important now: what did it matter if the curtains became faded? I decided against that title, though, thinking it may be somewhat obtuse, and perhaps a little crude.

I was in the pretty, northern Victoria town of Benalla, not far over the border from New South Wales, launching my book, 'Seasons in My House and Garden', when someone from the audience asked me to write a book about my travels with my camera. I love the long drive, of about 900 kilometres, down the Hume Highway from Sydney, to Benalla, and I am extremely grateful to the Benalla community of garden-loving people who know how to turn on magnificent country hospitality.

Driving through country Australia, most often alone, either to visit gardens and to photograph them, or to speak at garden events, brings great peace. It is restorative; the Australian countryside is so beautiful. One of my favourite places to stop, just to breathe in the view, is near Glenrowan, best known as the bushranger Ned Kelly's 'last stand' in 1880, and just north of Benalla. You look east from your stop by the side of the highway, over to mountains, shimmering blue in the dry air, but often snow capped. In the near distance cattle rest under massive red gums, or stand dreamily by a brimming dam. It is a familiar, and quintessential, Australian scene – one captured by many early Australian painters - but one that never fails to elicit emotion and to make me very glad that I call this country home.

On this particular day I had been addressing a large Benalla audience. Surely there is hardly a person in the world who is not fearful of speaking in public. Giving a speech of any length before any audience, no matter how small, or how friendly, comes high on the list of things we dread most. Despite having long been terrified of public speaking, over the past few years I've come to almost enjoy chatting with garden and book lovers about photographing and writing about Australia's, and the world's, great gardens.

Sometimes these are 'in conversation' style events, where I chat with an interviewer, an easy ride for me: much more demanding for the interviewer, who must keep very alert, ready to follow any direction the interview may take.

My more formal presentations are usually hour-long lectures which are accompanied by pictures to illustrate a point. Screening my photographs (on which I hope the audience is focusing) gives me more confidence, and I always need notes as some sort of prop. I am very admiring of people who are able to give a talk without using notes, but I am not one of those speakers.

But public speaking is easy when compared to the journey to wellness that I took in 2012 and 2013. This blog relates both journeys: that with the camera and tape recorder and also with a wonderful team of doctors, a wonderful, supportive family, kind and generous friends - and the all-important positive outlook.

Finding a good cup of tea is always a priority for me. Tea - its preparation and its drinking - has always been an important part of my life. There've been times, however, when getting a cup of tea has been the least of my worries. In March 2012, tea leaves and tea bags became irrelevant. I was diagnosed with life threatening lung cancer, which had metastasised to tumours in my brain, and, on the way, had made itself at home in my lymph glands, liver and adrenal glands. I was given a grim prognosis.

The ceremony of tea is part of my earliest childhood memories. My parents lived for decades in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where my father, whose family had long lived between that lush, green island and the United Kingdom, was part of the tea industry. My father was always meticulous about the type of leaf tea used, the tea pot in which it was brewed, how that pot was warmed; even how the water should be boiled. So I was brought up on the romance and the ritual of 'real tea', avoiding tea bags, which, my father would often say, comprised, 'sweepings from the factory floor.' Today, one of the many joys of returning home from a trip is making a pot of tea with my favourite blend, which I create from several packs of loose leaf tea, usually two of Ceylon to one of China.

A few years ago my elder daughter and I were staying in a wonderful hotel in France. A very beautiful hotel, it belonged to one of those luxury groups that purport to understand, and to offer, the very best in everything. One of those hotels where the curtains alone, with their swags, braids, and fringing, promise perfection. We were in the Champagne district of France, and the hotel was on a hill overlooking Hautevillers, one of the most highly rated vineyard villages of that cold northern wine region. In the afternoon, around 4 o'clock, I asked the head waiter for a cup of tea. "Do you have leaf tea?" I asked hopefully. "Loose leaf tea?"

He looked at me superciliously. "Oh no Madame," he said. "The EU will not allow it. For health reasons." He shrugged when confronted with my cynical look. I suppose we somehow made do with tea bags. Of course, it would be ludicrous to suggest that there are not worse problems to encounter, but this was disappointing.

The the next morning, in the exquisitely appointed breakfast room, a guest was sitting at a table in the bay window that overlooked those famous vineyards, enjoying her breakfast. And, sitting in her lap, were two little dogs. In an opposite corner, hovering solicitously around another table of guests, was that same head waiter from the previous day's conversation. I beckoned him, my eyebrows raised in anticipation of being noticed and forefinger raised in a polite gesture of summons. "Oh Mum, don't make a fuss," said my daughter, rolling her eyes.

I pointed to the dogs and inquired about the EU and its health regulations. "Ah, Madame," he said, straightening to reach his full height of five feet four, as he shrugged, "This is France."

In March 2012, however, I was presented with a much greater challenge. While I referred to my cancer as just an irritating bump in the road map that I had laid out for the next 20 years, the truth is that 2012 was an awful year. My hair fell out, the intravenous chemotherapy made me ill, each and every day; I couldn't sleep, and, having been an organised and energetic person, I now had no energy. Worst of all, I was staring into a black abyss of not knowing: of not knowing if I would survive. Now forced to acknowledge that there are no certainties in life. That I could not control everything. My choices in life had been taken from me. I felt completely disempowered.

It was all so sudden. I went from assuming I was bullet-proof to acknowledging that I may die. Free-fall in just a few hours.

I'd had a mild headache for a month, but had dismissed it as the beginning of a cold. I'd driven back from the New South Wales' country town of Jugiong on the Tuesday night, 27th March, after photographing and recording a large pastoral garden, and the food at Long Track Pantry, a popular café and favourite stop for travellers on the Hume. On the Wednesday, at home in Sydney, I finished these last chapters of my latest book, 'Country Gardens: Country Hospitality', and emailed them off to my editor at Melbourne University Press (MUP). My diary of that day notes a 'searing headache' and I had been complaining of a headache ten days earlier in Adelaide at the Writers Festival. But on the Wednesday I had visited my GP who said that I was simply drinking too much coffee and tea! (In fairness to him, he can't refer each patient who presents with a headache for a CT or MRI scan.)

The next day, Thursday March 28th, however, my legs gave way beneath me; I was ill, and still suffering an intense headache. I rang my former brother-in-law, the neurosurgeon Professor Leigh Atkinson, (who lives in Brisbane) and who interrupted my husband in a meeting in the city, advising him to get me to hospital. An emergency ambulance rushed me to Prince of Wales hospital (POW), where a CT scan revealed a 12mm tumour on the surface of my brain. This was causing severe brain swelling and the headaches I'd been experiencing.

Late the next day, Friday, the neurosurgeon, Dr Ralph (pronounced 'Raiph') Mobbs, who still looked as fresh as if he had just jumped out of a wet edge pool over the Mediterranean, said he had a theatre and a favourite anaesthetist standing by. So they started the operation to remove the tumour from the dermis of my brain at 5.30 pm, and finished at around 10pm. A nurse stayed with me all night. Not for the last time, I felt so lucky to live in this country.

The next day, Saturday, I was awake at 5am and working on my laptop, sending edits of the new book back to the editor. The neurosurgeon visited at 11am and could not believe how well I felt. Because the tumour was gone now, the pressure on my brain, which was causing the headaches, was relieved. But, he said, "this is not a hip operation: this is a huge operation. You need to rest." The incision was so small and neat; you could not even see it, nor the stitches. Nor did I lose a single blond hair!

On Sunday 1st April I was discharged from hospital and was back home by lunch time, feeling terrific. Dr Mobbs said that a biopsy of brain tumour would indicate whether or not the tumour was malignant, or there were further tumours. As I felt so well after the neurosurgery, I assumed the biopsy would provide good news.

The sixth of April was Good Friday; four days of holiday stretched ahead. I was feeling positive, however: feeling lucky and was sure the brain tumour would have been simply a harmless lesion. Waiting over the Easter break for the results of the biopsy was a nightmare, however: not knowing whether I was looking back, into a dark valley, or forward, into the sunshine. Wondering how many years I had left. In the evenings over that Easter - with all the children around the dinner table in the candle-lit garden - I could not help wondering how many more of those happy times I had left. Bugger. Bugger Bugger.

It was two days after the Easter break that the neurosurgeon rang my husband, Ross, on his mobile phone, which I thought was odd, and somewhat irritating. I still had a brain, after all. I was not a child. They talked for a long time, so I knew the news was bad. Then he asked to speak with me. The biopsy had shown that the brain tumour was a secondary. It was a metastasis; malignant, and they needed to find the primary. Dr Mobbs thought the primary was either in the lung, colon or breast.

Another full body CT scan the following morning showed I had lung cancer: surely impossible in a gluten and dairy-free, non-smoking tee-totaller! The neurosurgeon was ashen as he told me the news. I had thought he must be worrying about another patient but now, as I reflect on the past two years, I realise that he knew what a tough battle I had ahead. Or, perhaps he thought there was little hope for me.

I could not understand how I could contract lung cancer: I am so careful with my health, and so responsible when it comes to lifestyle. I simply could not believe it. How could I possibly have lung cancer? How did I get it? Was it because my Dad was a chain smoker? But that was a long time ago. Did I get it from people smoking in the street? From using the micro-wave; from plastic wrap; from surface cleaning sprays? From the pollution in China? Bugger, again.

We might think that the most terrible thing that could happen to anyone would be to lose a child. So I would have thought the death of my baby son, William, in 1986, from sudden infant death syndrome, would be my one shocking piece of 'bad luck'. But, and I am amazed to be saying this, there are, perhaps, even worse tragedies. A mother not surviving to look after her four living children. Not to experience the joy of holding my childrens' children; not to help them with purchasing their first house; not to be here to babysit. Not here to protect them from so much that might happen in their lives. Not here to advise; to comfort them.

The nurses and technicians administering my tests and treatments were all very kind. I became upset that, after all the care I have always taken with my health, this disaster should befall me. They assured me that the fact that I had taken that care, and that I was so fit, would stand me in good stead as I fought this Thing - as I took to calling the cancer. It doesn't seem to matter what sort of a person you are: how good, how kind, how careful, how privileged, how well-educated; how rich or how poor. This darn Thing does not discriminate.

There have been times in my life, and in my career, when I have been in danger, but, as I have always been in control, I've never been scared. Until then. My 20-year life plan suddenly was in doubt. I think the only other time I was anywhere near being scared was when Mike Gatting bowled to me – presumably underarm – in a charity cricket match. But that was just for a few seconds. I feared this would be a life sentence.

Danger came in 2008, when I was travelling through the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea, with a small group of orchid devotees. The air in the Central Highlands is cool and clear: the mountains that rise steeply on either side of the narrow, snaking road are clothed in a mixed forest of deep green. You look down upon ravines that crash sheer a thousand metres and more to rushing rivers capped white as rapids surge over huge rocks. It is very beautiful.

Orchid lovers are in a league of their own when it comes to obsessive behaviours. They will climb high mountains, cling to treacherous cliff faces dripping with slippery lichens and mosses, and scramble through inhospitable forest to reach – and, these days, only photograph – their prey, in this case rare orchids endemic to the world’s botanical hotspots.

Our leader on this trip was an Australian who had been a forester in Papua New Guinea for more than two decades. I’ll call him Geoff and he knew PNG as well as he knew his own country. He loved the place, but the corruption and incompetence of the government, since independence in 1975, had forced him out. He returned often, however; spoke the language, loved its people and understood its challenges.

We had travelled west of the wild and dangerous town of Mount Hagen, up toward rugged mining country adjacent to the Fly River, and had flown through the stunningly beautiful, but terrifyingly narrow, mist-shrouded Tari Pass – home to the Huli people - to reach the high mountain jungles that played host to dozens of species of orchid.

One Sunday we were in a convoy of four vehicles travelling along the so-called Central Highway, on the high road from Kundiawa, in Simbu province, east toward Mt Wilhelm. In much of New Guinea you travel in groups, in heavy blue four wheel drive vehicles that, intentionally, resemble police vehicles. This particular day our car left the safety of the convoy: one of our passengers had decided she wanted to turn off the highway and venture down a small side track to explore a village. I demurred, as did the driver. She insisted.

“This is the sort of ‘on the spur of the moment’ decision we make when we travel,” said her husband. “We do this all the time. In Spain we’ll spot a romantic looking castle and divert, to stop for the night.”

“But this is not Europe,” I replied. “This is dangerous country.” Our driver, a huge fellow from one of the outlying islands was looking very unhappy. The two guests were insistent however, and, large as he was, our driver was a gentle soul, and not confident enough to resist the demands of a tourist who, after all, was paying his wage. So, despite my protestations, we headed down a god-forsaken, barely-there lane to inspect an equally depressing village, strewn with rubbish, populated with staggering dogs that looked as dangerous as they looked unhealthy, and littered with humpies.

None of us alighted from our vehicle – not even the couple who had insisted on this dangerous diversion - at this ramshackle place, but headed back as quickly as the bumpy road would allow, to join the main highway. Highway is just a euphemism for the track that runs along the ridge of the mountain. On either side the ground dropped away immediately, in terrifying ravines. Lush jungle covered most of the mountain sides. The highway, however, was hardly a road. There were huge holes in the road, some of which was paved, but much of which consisted of dips, holes and large and small rocks. The heavy car hiccupped over the wildly uneven surface, throwing us about from side to side, against the door, and each other. Then we came to a pothole that extended the width of the road.

“They call this a highway?” I exclaimed. “Can you stop? I have to take a picture.” With that, the driver stopped and I opened my camera bag, pulled out my big camera and tripod and was about to jump out of the car. Out of the thick jungle by the side of the road emerged a terrifying group of men. Most were barefoot; some had bones through their noses, or earlobes; all wore ragged, filthy clothes. And all had machetes held high above their heads. They go by the entirely inadequate name of ‘Raskals’, a term which would indicate benign mischievousness and amusing naughtiness. The threat was a great deal more serious than mischief, however.

I quickly closed the car door, and ‘stayed put’, emailing my children from my phone. I thought I should record what was happening in case we were never heard from again. The group wanted money: hardly a surprise. Our driver demurred. Then we heard the words, “Ferengi,” (foreign women) and insisted the driver pay up. After handing over the required ‘toll’ we were on our way, and I was left to reassure my family, who had been in the midst of a Sunday lunch-time barbeque in our back garden, at home in Sydney, that I was safe.

As we continued, climbing higher toward the guest house at the base of Mount Wilhelm that was to be our home for several nights, we found that every bridge we needed to cross, over each ravine, was guarded by a group of men who had either removed several planks, or placed heavy stones on them, either impediment rendering the bridge impassable. A toll was extracted in each case before we were allowed to continue safely on our way.

When we had caught up with the other vehicles in our convoy, and our driver had coped with the fury of Betty, our local leader and the owner of the guest house that was our destination, we learnt that the villagers all own strips of the thickly forested hillsides. But the central government in Port Moresby, Geoff told us, allowed building companies from emerging first world countries to the north to denude those mountainsides of timber, for scaffolding. In some cases the scaffolding is only used once before being discarded. These companies then return to strip another hillside of its timber. Where does the payment for this timber go? Not to the tribes who own the land, but to the central government in the capital. The tribes’ people remain desperately poor, with neither schools nor hospitals, and their roads remain almost impassable. Once I had been told this I felt no resentment toward the owners of the land, and did not begrudge them their small ‘toll.’

A few months later, back home in Sydney and in the heat of the climate change, carbon offset and Copenhagen debate, I heard a reporter on one of our more serious radio programmes telling the interviewer, “Cap and trade is great. A company can be a big dirty polluter in this country and offset their activity by paying to plant forests in Papua New Guinea.” It struck me that this comment was akin to saying that, if you starve yourself all week to conserve calories, you can gorge on chocolate for a day. Hardly a healthy choice. So, I wrote, in great indignation, in a newspaper column a week or two later, we need a holistic approach to the environment, just as we take to our health.

While Papua New Guinea is a breathtakingly beautiful country, it is also desperately poor. The people are mostly subsistence farmers; their basic requirement of a clean, unspoiled environment has often been disregarded by the richer neighbouring nations and their corporations that serve a largely un-knowing, but demanding, body of shareholders. Multinational mining companies have dumped toxic waste into the rivers that were once pristine, clear and green, and are essential for growing the crops that provide a tiny income in this subsistence economy.

Our travels, by truck, on that day – the day we were held up by the ‘Raskals’ – took us some seven hours, on to Mt Wilhelm, and the beauty of the area was worth all the danger. We were staying at Betty’s Lodge, a guest house set at some 3000 metres up in the mountains. Our goal was the climb, through the jungle, along a glacial valley to the top of Mt Wilhelm, to search for orchids and rhododendron, and to picnic by its alpine lakes.

First, though, we were to visit, the next day, the local village, Kegsugl, to pay our respects to the villagers. More importantly, Betty was to give a large donation of foods, from frozen Australian lamb, to biscuits, sugar, Nescafe and tea. We all stood in a large circle, in front of the blue-painted wooden missionary church, watching the local tribe in their war costumes with their extravagant tail feathers, dancing around the food offering. Mothers held babies wrapped in possum pelts, warriors held spears aloft. Not so long ago, we muttered, there might have been a cauldron in its place, and we might have been in it! Not sharing the spoils of good fortune, courtesy of tourists, has since had tragic outcomes for trekking guides and their guests.

While Betty was a miracle worker with food, her lodge was an uncomfortable place. I had paid for a ‘single supplement’: she must have laughed to herself as she took my money. The men were in a dormitory and the three women in our little group were in one small room with bunk beds. There was no-where for our suitcases and so we tucked these into a corner of the room where meals were served, and where we would get dressed and undressed in the morning, and evening, in the security of darkness, for the generator only allowed electric light for a few hours each day. We were grateful for our headlamps, for escape into a few tatty novels found on the shelves, and that we swapped with each other, was essential. Water was only pumped from the tank for an hour or two each day and a quick hot shower became a luxury to be coveted. Standing in line for a shower was not an activity I had ever expected to encounter, now that I was long out of boarding school!

The day we climbed Mount Wilhelm was, like all the days in the highlands, cold in the mornings, although we soon started to strip off our fleece vests. Long walking sticks, which we each hired from the villagers, were an essential aid.

Much of the climb to Mount Wilhelm is along the valley of an ancient glacier and through a forest, at some 4000 metres, of Cyathea atrox, one of the high altitude tree ferns. Always, if you look back, the twin peaks of the Bismarck Range glower above you. A little higher, among the snow, two affiliated species of tree fern have not yet been named by botanists.

Higher still, rhododendron cling to the sides of the glacial lakes. The site is pristine and supremely peaceful. To reach the lakes you climb some five hours through the steamy jungle, long vines cascading from massive white hazelwood trees (Symplocos cochinchinensis). Above you, orchids hang in the canopy, flowering in brilliant colours among the rich detritus that has collected in the forks of the trees and along the branches. The last part of the climb, before you find yourself in open country, where the promise of snow seems to hang in the thin air, is reached by scrambling up a cliff face. Then, the bracken and scrubby rhododendron spread out, broken only by the lakes, which hover in the clouds.

Some of the most intriguing rhododendron occur in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where they range in size and habitat, from trees that can reach 20 metres, with huge leaves and waxy, bell-like flowers, to epiphytes that cling to trees, or to the sides of mist shrouded mountain ravines, to tiny, ground hugging species suited to rockeries or garden understorey.

The vireya Rhododendron commonae flowers beside the clear waters of Lake Piunde, 4500 metres up on Mount Wilhelm. Its small leaves tell us that these plants have to cope with snowfalls, and their scentless, tubular flowers indicate that they are pollinated by birds, including the brilliant, multi-coloured bird of paradise, Papua New Guinea’s national symbol.

Drama was not confined to climbing Mount Wilhelm and the ‘Raskals’ of PNG, however: that day, in September 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the world coined the term ‘GFC’.

PNG1

Rodo commonae1

I'd survived the challenges of PNG, and safely returned to Sydney, but greater dramas were ahead. The early months of 2012 were a bitter sweet time. After my brain surgery my four children visited often, some daily, bringing delicious things for me to enjoy while I still had an appetite, before my radiotherapy started. I was fattening myself up for battle. It was a new experience to sit and chat with the children, with no time pressures. Perhaps it takes a serious illness to make one re-evaluate. This is a cliché, of course, but, like most clichés, so true.

The entire experience was such a journey: and is one that continues. It's the fear of the unknown that is the worst. How many more lovely dinners will I have with the family, laughing around the table, sitting in the candle-lit garden? Will I see my daughter's wedding? Will I hold my first grandchild? It takes time – and this dreadful shock – to come to the conclusion that no-one can tell you what is going to happen in life. The brilliant doctors cannot provide an exact length of life. All we can do is accept the very best treatment, find out as much information as possible, conclude that one also needs luck, and a positive attitude.

The early mornings, before dawn, were the worst. Waking in the dark is a lonely and frightening experience. The only solution is to get up and watch a DVD or a television show taped previously. The two available series of Downton Abbey were a great comfort. Such a good script; such pretty settings; wonderful costumes, and such great actors. Maggi Smith had some of the best lines, including admonishing one of her grand-daughters with, "Don't be defeatist, my dear. It is so middle class." Ah, one must be positive!

Some friends who were at the other end of this journey – if there ever is an 'end', once one has been diagnosed with cancer; apart from death – spoke of the experience being a good thing in many ways. Several have said it made their marriages stronger. One said that she had been worried about her marriage for a long time, with her husband hardly speaking to her over many months. Then, she was suddenly diagnosed with a serious and aggressive cancer. He was terribly upset and stood by her, helped her; was an absolute rock. Now, their marriage has never been stronger.

My husband, Ross, was certainly incredibly kind and caring: he came to all the doctors' meetings, and took copious notes, filling three thick, A4 spiral-bound notebooks. This was a great help: I was still in so much shock that I forgot much of what the medical team said. But it was also stressful worrying about it being too much for Ross, and about him not getting on with his own work.

My main sentiment was fury at this wretched Thing, as I had decided to call it: the unfairness of it. How can a health fanatic – a non-smoker and a teetotaller - get lung cancer? I felt anger toward people I saw smoking on the street, and have even greater anger toward businessmen who sit on the boards of tobacco companies. American statistics show that 1200 people die each day from smoking-related illness: 41 a day in Australia. And in the US 'second hand smoking' kills 38,000 people a year.

I also needed answers: surely there was a cause for every effect? The doctors advised me to forget about finding a reason, or someone to blame, and to just concentrate on taking a positive attitude toward recovery.

While I felt confident that I would beat the Thing, I had written the details of my funeral: the hymns, readings, flowers, the 'after party,' as I called it. Upsetting as this was for my three sisters we also had some good laughs over it. My response to their horror at such maudlin behaviour was, "If a girl doesn't want tea bags at her after party, she has to be clear about it: has to put it in writing." I also stipulated that I don't want the hymn "How Great Thou Art" sung at my funeral. I said, "I'm seriously peeved at God, so I don't think he's so great." Funny to be laughing and crying at a time like that. Strange situation all round. The hymn I do want, I said, was "I Vow to Thee My Country." While that beautiful hymn, written in 1921, is a British patriotic song, I feel the same way about Australia; lucky to be living here.

The second week of April 2012 was one of many emotions: of many lows and not too many highs. On April 10th there was the regular weekly conference of the cardiothoracic team of doctors at Prince of Wales hospital (POW). The doctors, headed, of course, by a very senior and experienced surgeon, declared they would not operate on me; said they believed the lung tumour would return. I was aghast: this was a big city teaching hospital, not a clinic in a small country town. Just take the lung out, I said. But the tumour had metastasised to my brain, through the lymph nodes, so it was not so simple. I felt like I had been given a second death sentence, all the more so as I had thought that I had dodged a bullet by my quick recovery from the surgery on the brain tumour.

Dr Colin Chen, a very brave Radiation Oncologist at POW, advised that my best hope of complete recovery would be to consult Professor Brian McCaughan at Royal Prince Alfred hospital. Professor McCaughan was, he said, the only doctor brave enough to do the radical surgery I needed: remove the lung. An appointment to consult the professor was made for a Friday a fortnight away. I begged Dr Chen to make it sooner; for the Monday; but Brian McCaughan only consults on a Friday. He operates on the other four days. How strange to be praying that a doctor would remove a lung! In preparation for what I imagined would be immediate surgery, and an extended recovery period, I wrote five of my weekly columns and also 'got my affairs in order.'

In the meantime I had a speaking appointment the following week in the lovely western New South Wales town of Mudgee, for the Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Society (ADFAS). The doctors said it was safe to go.

That evening Ross and I strolled through the Domain – part of Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens - to the area known as the Fleet Steps. This wide flight of steps, hewn by early convict labour from the sandstone that also contributes so significantly to the city, leads down from the road that snakes along a finger of land that protrudes into beautiful Sydney Harbour. This part of the harbour is called Farm Cove, where the first farm had been created by Captain Arthur Phillip when he arrived with his First Fleet, on 26th January 1788. This was another of the bays responsible in such a vibrant way for much of the character of the harbour. Named after the wife of one of the early governors of the colony of New South Wales, Mrs Macquarie's Road is shaded by the massive, ancient fig trees that are native to the area.

The Fleet Steps end in a wide platform of grass that rolls down to the harbour, reinforced there by a low stone wall. Also part of the city's Botanic Gardens, which had been established in 1816 by Governor Macquarie, the site is perhaps the most sought after in the city for events, from fundraising balls, to weddings. The world's leaders, from Queen Elizabeth to President Clinton, have given speeches on the site. It is also, incidentally, where I held the first charity event on the site, in November 1986: a ball we called 'A Summer Cotillion in the Gardens', in aid of research into cot death, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

On this evening, in April 2012, Ross and I had tickets to the opera, La Traviata, being performed on a large stage set over the harbour at the Fleet Steps. It was a bitter sweet evening: both magical and very sad. I felt almost as tragic as poor, sick Violetta. It was deeply poignant, rugged up in winter clothes - a ski jacket and wrapped in several shawls - watching Violetta dying against the backdrop of the Sydney Opera House and with illuminated cruise ships and ferries gliding past.

Before we left for Mudgee, however, I needed a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scan, so that the doctors could see more of the 'progress' of my tumours. While our hospitals are wonderful, at Royal Prince Alfred it was depressing to have to run the gauntlet of very sick patients, sitting outside the hospital in their wheel chairs, hooked up to their chemo drugs, smoking! I felt they were throwing their health care, with its enormous cost, back in the face of the government, and the tax payers. While I was waiting for the radioactive material to course through my veins, a young trainee doctor came to interview me, asking for my family history and how my cancer had presented. Apart from asking me obvious questions such as my smoking history – or lack of it - she asked if I could have been exposed to asbestos. I found this amusing, as in our house we almost need an electrician to change the light bulbs; we would have been unlikely to attempt any DIY home renovations.

The worst part of having a PET scan is that a canula needs to be inserted into a vein to allow sugars to run throughout the body. Any cancer cells in the body gobble up the sugars and become fat, revealing themselves. Clever, but I needed a valium to alleviate my stress at the thought of any steel, no matter how thin, being inserted into my vein. The young nurse did not insert the canula properly and it had to be re-inserted by a senior nurse. She advised me to learn to meditate, to journey to a 'happy place' to cope with all the needles I was about to endure. The results of that PET scan were good and bad: no additional tumours had appeared, but two lymph nodes 'were involved.' That was Oncologist-speak for the fact that the cancer had made itself at home in my lymph glands. When we finally met with Professor McCaughan, after our return from Mudgee, he advised that he could not operate unless the cancer had cleared. This was a huge blow as I had assumed that I would go into hospital immediately. And much later, at the end of 2012, after he had successfully operated, the Professor admitted that when I had first consulted him in April he had not expected to see me again: he had thought privately that I would not make it.

I was so pleased that I had honoured my commitment to the Mudgee ADFAS. It was, again, a bitter sweet time. As Ross and I drove the four hours west to Mudgee, over the Blue Mountains and through countryside washed with autumn colours lit by golden light, I wondered, yet again, what challenges the next few months would present. I desperately wanted another chance at this life that I had, until this diagnosis, taken for granted.

We loved Mudgee, with its large pastoral estates and its comfortable town, the buildings wrapped in the wrought iron that had travelled from England as ballast in early ships to the colony.

My lecture that evening was attended by over 100 people, some of whom had not booked, and had come from outlying areas. I had been worried I might faint in the middle of it all, due to the brain operation and the stress of my situation, but it went well, with plenty of questions from the audience afterward.

Our hostess in Mudgee, to whom I had not confessed my health drama, had organised a lovely dinner party after the lecture. It was great fun, almost surreal, and again, I felt I was in a film script; a script that I was writing for someone else. It was hard to believe I was in this strange situation. A sort of 'out of body' experience.

Among the many pieces of advice I received from friends – some rather bizarre - about the best was from a friend who had suffered breast cancer several years ago, and who rang me to say that I must not allow anyone to make a negative comment, that I should only entertain positive remarks. Don’t worry about being rude, she said: just cut them off if they say anything that is not positive. “Think of yourself, not good manners.”

 A friend in America was also an enormous help. In one of his early emails he called my diagnosis, “a negative thunderbolt requiring you to muster your courage and determination.” “Many years ago,” he wrote, “Jack Kennedy said in a speech that the only predictable certainty in life is the unpredictable certainty of the future. He had that right.” Yes, he sure did.

There certainly were plenty of negatives, one of which was that I had to forego a very special tour that I was leading to the United Kingdom, planned for April that year: a modern day, shortened, version of the ‘Grand Tour.’ I had spent many hours organising the tour, writing the notes for guests and preparing the PowerPoints that I would use for lectures as we travelled to different private gardens and through wonderful landscapes. My constant search for a ‘Sense of Place’; for the ‘Genius of Place’ was part of my planning of the itinerary. I’m often reminded of words of the poet Alexander Pope, who wrote to his patron, the Architect Earl, Lord Burlington in 1731, “Consult the genius loci, the spirit of the place in everything.”

Throughout the 1700’s, taste in the UK had been shaped by the depictions of idealised rural life - rendered by a triumvirate of Italian landscape artists: Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and Salvatore Rosa. The landscape garden, at its best, followed the principles of composition as understood and demonstrated by these painters: it became the epitome of taste and education, an idea that resonated also with leading families in the Australian colonies. It was held that a landscape painter, by reason of his knowledge of light and shadow, of composition through the relationship of mass and void, and by his sense of line and proportion, would know best how to design garden and landscape.

In the United Kingdom the process of transmitting these patterns took place through the increasingly popular Grand Tour of Europe. And that is what I had planned for my small group of garden lovers. But I was forced to allow someone else to lead my tour: a bitter pill.

As I started my month of radiotherapy, which was to be followed by months of aggressive intravenous chemotherapy, I was devastated to have to miss that tour, and I grieved for the life I knew and that I had worked so hard to achieve. It was almost impossible to believe that the plans I had made for the next two decades might now be obsolete!

I was relieved to start treatment, however. I had been imagining that each tiny ache indicated more bad news. It’s a common phenomenon some call ‘phantom pains’. Even the nurses can experience them when they are first working with cancer patients. I spent many days in tears. There were to be 19 rounds of radiotherapy administered to my brain, in May 2012.

But before radiation treatment could start, I had to be fitted with a mask to allow the Radiologists to target my tumour site with great precision. The kindness, as well as the professionalism, of the nurses and doctors that we encountered cannot be emphasised enough. For the fitting of the mask, we attended what is called a ‘planning meeting’ at POW with a specialist planning nurse, Sandra, and with two assistants. This involves lying on a CT machine, with a wet mask on the face so that the technicians can mark exactly where the radio will target. The mask then sets exactly to the contours of the patient’s face. At each step of the process Sandra or the technician would touch me on the shoulder to let me know they were near, and would tell me what they were about to do. I had been told the machine on which I would be treated is called ‘Bondi’: I was to be treated on the same machine each day. I guessed I would become rather emotionally attached to ‘Bondi’. Again, Ross and I told each other how lucky we are to live in this country.

That same day Ross drove me to the city for my appointment at Suzanne Wigs in Castlereagh St. Independently, Suzanne chose for me the same wig I had selected: I hadn’t known it was called ‘Lucky’! I couldn’t help feeling that this was a very good omen. And, after all, I had been brought up by a strong mother to the tune of Helen Reddy’s “I can do anything. I am strong: I am invincible.” And as had become a pattern, I had a lovely afternoon with one of my children. So chin up: onward, without fear! Stay positive!

When my radiation treatments started, the two Radiologists were again fantastic, explaining each step. I lay on a bed, similar to that used for a CT scan. The technicians clamped the mask that had been made, just for me, onto my face. My nose and lips were squashed by the mask, but that is essential, to ensure the patient’s head does not move. For someone who suffers from claustrophobia, that took a lot of deep breathing and some form of meditation. The technicians, one on either side of me, marked up the mask to ensure the exact locations to which the radiation would be beamed. They spoke to each other in numbers and letters: it was like a separate language or code. Fractions of location were crucial. I felt very helpless, completely disempowered, but trusting in their care.

Then, eventually, when they went out of the room, the huge machine moved around my head and emitted a mid range sound – not quite a screech. I was determined to think of the entire treatment as an adventure. It was all over in a few minutes, and easy, except for the somewhat disconcerting smell of fire and smoke. The technicians assured me that I was not smelling my brain frying.

That was the first of 18 such daily treatments, with a rest day in the middle, to allow ‘Bondi’ to be serviced, and concluding with a 19th treatment; 20 minutes of radiation eight times as strong as each daily dose. The Radiation Oncologist, Dr Colin Chen, believed this last treatment was essential to ensure that no cancer cells remained, lurking in my brain.

I spent most of that first day of radiation in tears, not because of the treatment but because of a comment made by a friend that assumed I would not be alive in a few months. If I had not been so upset about that comment the entire treatment would have seemed like an adventure. And, while waiting for my radiation treatments on ‘Bondi’ I would see children being wheeled in to radiation: most were so thin and ill that they seemed transparent. Very upsetting. So very sad.

The nausea was almost immediate: after just two radiotherapy treatments. Being ill each morning is draining, both emotionally and physically. And again, I became worried that it was a sign of another brain tumour although Dr Chen assured me that it was not. That being sick at this early stage is normal.

My hair started falling out in great chunks. I’d wake up to find blond hair all over the pillow, some of it in my mouth, my eyes. I decided to take control of how I looked, rather than allowing the cancer to dictate my appearance completely. So I asked Suzanne to take it all off – but after the radiation on my head was complete, as, even thinning hair provided some protection for my skull from radiation burns.

I was not allowed to drive, which was frustrating. One friend compiled a roster of other friends who would drive me to the hospital. Such kindness contributed to that essential positive attitude. I have since wondered about chronic illness sufferers who keep their affliction quiet. I understand that one wants life to go on as it had before: one does not want people calling in for what might be taken to be a ‘last visit.’ But one also needs support.

Treatment mask1Treatment21

I didn't think it was possible to find parts of France that had not been 'discovered' by an Englishman, or an American, who then writes a book about the charming village in which he or she has bought a cottage. Soon, the unique way of life of the village – the espresso at the bar each morning that costs just a euro and a half , the men playing chess or petanque in the village square – becomes anything but simple as prices rise and foreigners complain about the locals. I did find it, however, in 2011, and I am keeping it a secret.

The colours of this part of France – an area in the south that produces a great percentage of the food for the country – are made up of the local ochre-rich stone in which all the houses are built, and shutters in blue, or soft green, or string. The cottage I had rented overlooked fields of lavender, with more villages glowing pink in the distance.

I found a café, a 'bistrot', up in one of those villages that are perched on a rocky cliffside, and that I quickly made my own. Its terrace - with its iron tables and chairs set out under plane trees that had been pollarded, plucked and pruned in that European way so that they burst into life in spring to form a huge shade-giving umbrella – overlooked a quilt of vineyards, bright yellow-green in the early summer light.

Hedges had been planted around 'my' cottage to protect it from that fearsome wind, the mistral – that is said to send some people crazy - not one hedge, but several, and not planted in a long block, but staggered so that the wind is filtered while those wonderful views are not disrupted.

I spent a fortnight in my little cottage, settling into a pattern that almost convinced me that I was a local, speaking my slow French and drinking my coffee where the local market stall-holders sat, rather than with the tourists. I was visiting the many excellent gardens in the area, endeavouring to capture their essence, provided by their restricted plant list of lavenders, herbs and roses. I had rented a tiny manual car.

A small manual was much more sensible than the huge Peugeot I had been given a few years before, against my wishes, but because I had booked a satellite navigator (which, in any case, was only in Italian!) That car was a nightmare and ruined that trip. Its computer system was faulty and the car kept 'dying' – with the same sensation as if I had been running out of petrol. After several calls back to my travel agent in Australia, each with increasing panic, I finally found a number for a 'Sylvie' in the Paris office of the car hire company. Despite my insistence to Sylvie that this car was faulty and dangerous, she refused to send a mechanic to check it, nor to supply a replacement car. Her comment was, "Call me if it breaks down again." As we were about to travel the rather confronting 'Grande Corniche' a winding road high up above the coast of France's Cote d'Azur, I replied that I might be dead. To this she replied, "Oh no Madame, you will not die. Many, many people call me and they are not dead." This would have been funny if the situation had not been so serious – and it got worse!

A tiny, manual, car on my 2011 stay in my village in France, provided an experience much less traumatic. However, on the last morning, as I was tidying the cottage, I found a very large, very black and menacing, scorpion in the bathroom. I think if I had found it on my first morning I would have packed up and left.

*****

Car worries on mountain roads in France were merely a memory of an irritating, if nerve wracking experience, compared to the long journey ahead of me in 2012.My village in France

But there had been great news at the end of the April, even before the schedule of my radiation treatment had begun. During a two-hour meeting with the medical oncologist, Dr Melvin Chin, and Beth Ivimey, the essential lung cancer nurse coordinator, I was told my tumour had a mutation, known as the EGFR mutation: the Epidermal Gravity Factor Receptor, which is a mutation common in lung cancer. This had been revealed in additional testing of my brain tumour tissue, over three days in a Melbourne laboratory1. A new drug, Tarceva, developed by Roche, was indicated for lung tumours with this mutation. The doctors thought Tarceva would block and shrink the tumour because of the mutation. We felt as if we had won the lottery; my spirits soared. The drug was new in 2012, but, we were told, there had already been excellent results, with shrinkage of tumours, for several patients like me, those whose tumours had the mutation 1 to 20. Yet again, we were amazed at, and grateful to, these researchers and doctors who are devoting their lives to such work. However, noted the medical report, because I had a rare form of this mutation: number 21, "there are no data to support sensitivity or resistance" to the drug. Because it was taken in tablet form Tarceva's side effects were much milder than those suffered from the more usual intravenous chemotherapy.

So, with the agreement and approval of Professor McCaughan, the lung surgeon, I was to take a few rounds of Tarceva, then test its efficacy by undergoing another dreaded PET scan. If, after two rounds of the drug, the tumour had not shrunk enough for Professor McCaughan to operate, we would start the rugged intravenous chemotherapy, and continue that for several months. We felt elated, overjoyed. Here was another chance at life2.

PollardingWe were feeling so positive that we started planning for a major trip to New York, Washington and Hawaii, with our entire family, to take place in November 2013, for my 60th birthday. I was even excited about collecting my wig as my brain irradiation was to start the following Thursday and the doctors had told me I would lose my hair. Hardly the greatest of my worries. It's odd the things one can be positive about.

There was a quick trip to Melbourne for me to attend the opening of the exhibition of my friend, Criss Canning's wonderful flower paintings and to enjoy what seemed like a last supper before I began the five weeks of radiotherapy to the brain, on May 7th. I joked that I hoped the technicians would leave me some grey cells. Humour can be black. 'Then,' notes my diary optimistically, 'surgery.' We knew there was a challenge ahead, but it was one we had every intention of winning. "I am quite sure," I wrote in my diary, "that in a few months I will be back, fighting fit, and annoying everyone yet again!"

[1] As I write, funding for these wonderful lung cancer care nurses, whose position should be embedded into a patient's treatment plan - who do so much to salve the pain and suffering of lung cancer patients - is under threat.[2] I was delighted to hear that from December 2013 Tarceva is to be included in the Commonwealth Government pharmaceutical benefits scheme, which means the drug will be available at a highly subsidised price.

The Great King...in all the districts he resides in and visits...takes care that there are ‘paradises’........full of all the good and beautiful things that the soil will produce.”

Greek historian, soldier and writer, Xenophon, (c 431 –c 352BC), on Cyrus, who ruled from 559 to 539BC, and who took the Persian Empire to its greatest extent.

My sense of impending danger, as I prepared to leave Sydney for Iran, in March 2007, was heightened by the kidnapping, that month, of 15 British navy personnel, by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, from the waters of the Persian Gulf. I had long wanted to go to Iran, ancient Persia, as the closest country to Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This was the birthplace of civilisation, in the form of cultivation, some 10,000 years ago – about where the city of Basra, in Iraq, stands today, and once the site of King Nebuchadnezzar’s Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

As I could hardly travel to Iraq, with a war still raging there, and sectarian violence continuing, I was keen to experience Iran. And gardens form an integral part of Iranian culture, depicted in the decorative arts and represented in literature over many thousands of years.

This was the land where that great general, Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid dynasty (550 – 330BC) created his capital at Pasargadae, in the centre of Iran, along with the earliest garden for which records, and relics, remain. Persian gardens are often referred to as ‘Paradise Gardens.’ The word paradise is derived from the Persian word pairidaeza, a royal hunting park or enclosure containing fruit trees. Paradise, with its four rivers, is central to Judeo-Christian and to Islamic traditions – and is revealed in both the Bible and the Quran (also spelled as the Koran). The word conjures up images of an idealised and ordered world, where streams of milk and honey flow constantly: a benign and secure environment, a place of abundance and safety. At the heart of the idea of Paradise is a bountiful, ordered, enclosed space in which water is directed in four ways, emanating from, and returning to, a central source.

From the earliest times, Persian gardens were created as the earthly representations, or reflections, of Paradise, an idea that became central to many cultures and religions throughout later centuries. Water, earth and trees are all considered sacred in pre-Islamic and Islamic culture; beauty, reflecting light, deflects evil.

Persia was a favourite destination for several English gentry-class women in the early 20th century. Among them the writer and garden maker, Vita Sackville West, travelled there to visit her husband Harold Nicolson, a counsellor at the British embassy in Tehran. In her slim book, Passenger to Teheran she eulogised, “Persia had been left as it was before man’s advent……nothing but brown plains and the blue or white mountains, and the sense of space."[1]She later added, “A savage, desolating country, but one that filled me with extraordinary elation.”[2]

I was so nervous before I arrived, however, that I left ‘Iran Awakening,’ Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi’s book, on the plane, for fear of retribution if it was found on me as I went through customs at Ayatollah Khomeini international airport. The Iranians I met, however, were courteous, gracious, and with a dignified sense of their great history.

Iran is a country of extremes, from the flat brown desert of the high central plateau – almost a moonscape – to the soaring, jagged, snow-covered mountains which tower above, on either side. Across the top of the country, from east to west, are the Alborz Mountains; the Zagros Mountains run from north to south on the western side of the country, flanking the desert plateau, and, in pre-history, protected the empire from invasion from Mesopotamia. Fertile, parallel north-south valleys cut through the mountains, but the southern part of the high plateau is a salt desert.

The Iranian love of agriculture and of verdant, green landscapes is evident across the country thanks, in part, to the ancient qanat system of wells, some of which reach down 200 metres. These dome-topped pits are connected by thousands of kilometres of underground galleries that capture the melting snows from the mountains, and then provide the irrigation that allows crops of rape and corn, and orchards of pomegranate, almonds and quince to flourish. The qanats once provided oases for travellers, who gathered around them, in caravanserai.

Vividly described by European travellers over several centuries, Persian gardens also enchanted kings and emperors from surrounding regions. The Central Asian prince, Timur (1335-1405), upon returning to his own Samarkand, in 1387, (in modern day Uzbekistan) ordered the four best gardens of Shiraz to be copied for his city.

Spring is the time to see wildflowers in Iran, from endemic species of foxtail lily (Eremurus spp.) to carpets of red poppies, to tiny species tulips, brightening the rocky terrain. I looked for the species rose native to Iran, Rosa foetida, from which so many of our yellow roses have been bred, but did not see any in the wild, although the yellow banksian rose was scrambling over trees, and shady pergolas, throughout the gardens.

In April, Iran’s national tree, Cercis siliquastrum, (also known as the Judas tree as it is thought that it is the tree from which Judas Iscariot hanged himself), flowers bright pink against a clear blue sky. Fields of golden crops, copses of poplars reaching for the sky, and clouds of fruit and nut blossom, which spill over ancient mud walls, are among the verdant sights of spring.

Our little group of horticulturalists was looking for wildflowers native to the high plateau: fritillaries, tulips and the giant fennel (Ferula assafoetida). My favourite memory from this trip is provided by a photograph of this fennel. We had just descended the Zagros mountains, and were travelling across the arid plains. Suddenly, as the light was fading, and it seemed we would not find the fennel that day, the botany professor from Tehran University, who was travelling with us, shouted: he had spotted a marvellous specimen. We piled out, to lie on our stomachs to capture the best aspect to photograph of this strange-looking plant. My picture (below, right) could be a scene from James Michener’s Caravans that had been so much part of the adventuring psyche of young Australian travellers of the 1970’s.

The loveliest city in Iran is surely Isfahan, built as a new capital by Shah Abbas I (ruled 1587-1629) after he defeated the Central Asian warlords. Adjacent to the site of an ancient Achaemenid city, this garden city is set on the Zaindeh River - along which you will see families picnicking on beautiful Persian carpets. Isfahan reached the height of its splendour during the second half of the 17th century, but the city’s main square remains the glorious Maydan-e-shah, or Imperial, or Imam Square (pictured below), with its arcades of shops, its cavernous bazaar, and its magnificent mosques. From the great platform of the royal palace, on the western side, the Shah and his retinue would watch polo games, which are native to the Middle East, would review the army and would consult with his subjects. It is easy to see why the eight-hectare Square   – five times the size of Venice’s St Mark’s Square - has long been regarded as an unparalleled architectural marvel, and helped earn the city the accolade, ‘Isfahan is half the world.’

The Imam Mosque, or Shah Mosque, on the south end of this great square, was built between 1616 and 1629. The greatest of all the Safavid mosques, it was severely damaged in an earthquake in the 1830’s, but was repaired in 1845 and again in 1921. The majestic gateway to the Mosque faces into the square, while the Mosque itself - with its brilliant, intricately patterned tiles that cover interior walls as well as the interior of the large dome - is turned 45 degrees toward Mecca, birthplace, in 632, of the Prophet Mohammad.

The beauty and grace of so much of Iran lulled us, perhaps, into complacency. One of our group, a lanky orthopaedic surgeon from Melbourne, and a marathon runner, went out early one morning for a run, dressed in his usual running shorts and t-shirt. He was brought back to our hotel in the polite, but firm, company of the modesty police.

And in Isfahan, excited about exploring these beautiful and serene spaces, one day I wandered through a series of cool, tree-lined courtyards, toward another mosque. As I was about to enter, through a portal of exquisite stalactite (moqarna) tiles a tall, thin cleric rushed toward me, his black robes flapping in fury. Above his head, held aloft on a long stick, he was brandishing, furiously, a rainbow coloured nylon duster!

On our last day in Tehran our small group of garden devotees was hosted at lunch by the British Ambassador and his wife. Our leader, a British gardening writer, had been to Cambridge with the Ambassador’s father; hence our rather special invitation. The garden had been designed by Gertrude Jekyll and the house had input from the architect Edwin Lutyens. It was a relief to enter the embassy compound – it is now closed, after it was attacked in 2011 - and throw off our headscarfs, with a sense of elation and freedom, although I had been perfectly content wearing the headscarf each day and, of course, adhering to Iranian dress codes in other ways. At lunch I was seated next to the Ambassador, an amusing and extremely good looking young man with a cut glass accent.

Among several anecdotes with which he entertained us during the meal was that the Iranians had intended to capture Australian navy personnel, but at the last moment had decided that we were not valuable enough!

Ferrula assafoetida on the road to Yaszd1

Iran  Imperial Square or Maidan-e Shah with the Mosque of Sheikh Lotfollah1


Sackville-West, Vita, Passenger to Teheran, p49

Ibid p51

As I wrote previously, it was a relief to start the radiation treatment on my brain, in early May 2012: I was becoming very stressed at the waiting about, imagining that each little ache was the cancer helping itself to a new part of my body. And I’d received a couple of distressing comments from acquaintances who didn’t seem to know what to say, and seemed determined to imagine the worst. I tried to cut them off, but, unfortunately, if someone is determined to pass a silly, or tactless, comment, she will do so. The worst was perhaps that of an aging matron whom I encountered at a lovely party. “Oh,” she said, in the imperious voice she liked to imagine might mark her as gentry, “I see you are still with us.”

But most phone calls and emails from friends were an enormous help. One friend wrote, “Time is an ally which will enable you to overcome your fear and your anger; your family and close friends will also be helpful in ways no doubt already discernable.”

I had to realise that I was confronting both a physical and an emotional challenge.  The emotional I could control to a certain extent: the physical less so. Negativity did descend at regular intervals, particularly in the very early morning. I had to summon strength from somewhere to get through this darned Thing.

On 8th May 2012 Ross and I had our first meeting with Melvin Chin; as I’ve said, my medical oncologist. At the time of that first meeting I did not realise just how important a medical oncologist is. Waiting in the oncology unit for Dr Chin was rather depressing: so many very ill people, all on drips - which I assumed were their chemo drugs - all shuffling around pushing poles to which their bags of chemicals were attached.

Dr Chin explained again, in great detail, what my treatment would be, and what my options for treatment were. He talked about ‘the short view’ or ‘the long view’. All the doctors were so caring, taking plenty of time to answer our endless questions and to explain the treatments. As I was keen to live longer than just a few years, and had always maintained a vigorous health and fitness regime, I had opted for the more aggressive treatment – ‘the long view.’ That seemed to have been overtaken, however, by the option to take the new wonder drug, Tarceva. The good news was that I could take the Tarceva at the same time as I was receiving the radiotherapy to my brain. Tarceva is taken in tablet form, so the side effects are less severe than with the more usual intravenous chemotherapy.

Apart from daily meetings with my bed, ‘Bondi,’ in ‘Radiation Oncology,’ – as I described in Chapter Five - mid May 2012 also introduced me to Tarceva, the drug I thought would save my life. Even the pharmacist at POW, Tan, who dispensed the tablets, was kind, explaining patiently how to take the drug, and its possible side effects. (In fact, the only side effect was a rather unattractive skin rash, which was soothed by the application of paw paw ointment. ‘Moo goo’ was recommended to another cancer sufferer: look it up on line!)

During the entire year of treatment – the month of radiation and then the months of I.V. chemotherapy – I would wake early and start the day. What little energy I had seemed to be present at this hour. Also, the early morning hours were the worst: waking well before dawn, lying in the dark, filled with fear for what lay ahead. The monsters were coming in, through the windows.

So, it was best to get up, watch what I had recorded on the television the previous night and then answer some emails, do any required banking, and work on my columns for The Australian, the national broadsheet for which I had written a Saturday garden column since 1997: that’s over 800, I realised! The discipline of continuing to write the column, and the pleasure of receiving feedback from readers, kept me sane during 2012. Although I certainly did not tell readers of my health drama, daily engagement with so many, through their emailed questions, and my answers, was so helpful; so important.

The effects of the radiation, apart from the immediate nausea, which was helped by ginger tea, include extreme tiredness. (Ginger tea is easily made with a knob of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped, and boiled in a saucepan of water. Strain and add a little honey and lemon, to taste.)

I was also working hard on my new book, my 11th, ‘Country Gardens; Country Hospitality’ with the editor. Unlike some editors, Susan had a light touch: she didn’t think it was she who was writing the book. She was a joy to work with and the only person from the publishing house in whom I confided about my health. Nor did I tell ‘the powers that be’ at The Australian, until well into my treatment. It was not a case of being deceitful, rather that I didn’t want anyone to think I was not strong enough to do the job. I didn’t want the career that I had worked hard to establish over the past two decades to slip away from me. I didn’t want to become irrelevant. Everyone needs to feel wanted; to feel one has a place in the world. When I did tell Chris Mitchell, the Editor in Chief at The Australian, he said, “We can’t have anything happening to our garden writer.” I was thrilled and relieved at such a supportive comment: it gave me further strength.

And in the early mornings there would usually be an email from a friend in the United States waiting for me. He would assure me that I was not a victim; that I had simply been dealt a tough hand. I needed such reassurance, constantly.

My great friend Mark McGinness, who works in the United Arab Emirates, also writes the obits for many newspapers around the world: they are charming, funny and illuminating – about all sorts of characters. I asked him if he might start writing my obituary. He replied that he would, for whenever he prepared an obit in advance his subjects lived and lived. That sounded good.

We were just one week into my treatment when we had another piece of bad luck. One of our daughters fell off her stilettos at work one morning, and broke her foot. Much to her chagrin, she was forced to wear a huge ‘moon-boot’ on it, was hobbling around on crutches, and would be for the next five weeks! As I said to her when she complained, “Oi, it’s all about me. And now it’s about you! Your crazy shoes should be banned.” What a nuisance: one driver down.

A greater nuisance was our house being robbed that evening, and my laptop being stolen. I’d been keeping an emotion-filled diary on it, among other things. It was also frightening, as we were in the house, watching the 7pm news, when the robbers struck through a second floor rear door. They say bad things happen in threes, so I hoped that completed the trifecta for me for quite a while.

 

We had been spending gorgeous days with the children: Sundays had again become special with them all bringing partners around for big lunches or dinners. What could be better than to be with one’s family? Although I did feel jealous of what seemed like all my friends flying off for holidays in Europe.

Week two of treatment started well enough, with friends collecting me, bringing food and keeping me company. There were too many hugs and kisses, however, and soon I had a cold coming on: a sore throat and stinging ears. I was miserable, worried and felt like I was in a black tunnel with not much sun on the horizon. I wrote a note to myself: “Must keep my chin up. It’s a process, an unpleasant one, which will challenge me as it unfolds, but in time will be completed and I will be much better for it.” I needed to just go with the process, put one foot in front of the other, telling myself that each step would bring me closer to a return to full health.

For the fourth time in my life I tried to learn bridge. Friends assured me it would be a great way to keep in touch with everyone: I also rationalised that I needed to rouse myself from the sofa and get out of the house, now that I had no energy for my favourite weekly diversion – golf. I took bridge lessons with two very nice teachers, but before too many months, gave up again; this time, I insisted, for good. My playing partner said to me on one occasion, “No don’t play that card. You should play such and such.” I wondered how she knew what cards I held. “Because I’ve been counting your cards,” she replied. I couldn’t even remember my own cards! The final challenge was the two-club bid. To my mind that bid should mean you can play in clubs, but it means something completely different. I must be a black and white girl; that is definitely shades in between.

Country Gardens Country Hospitality

 

The palace hotels of India’s northern region of Rajasthan spoil you for any other style of travel. It’s not just that these are glittering palaces of white marble, often designed around one or more courtyards, a lily shaped marble fountain at their centres, are exquisite. It is also the graciousness of the staff, and the cool luxury of those deep, colonnaded verandahs where you might be served, each afternoon, a tray of tea. It’s easy to feel very spoiled.

Ram Bagh Palace FNL-877711

In 2010, I was writing a book about the ebb and flow of the seasons in my garden, and how to use its produce in the kitchen. I wanted to include a chapter on curries, a staple of my upbringing, and also a favourite in our house during winter months. So I went, with my friend Gillian, to India early that year to learn more of the secrets of preparing the perfect curry. I have included the recipes in my book, Seasons in my House and Garden.

While I have been brought up on a diet of curry, as my parents lived in Sri Lanka - then Ceylon - for many decades, I had wanted to visit some of the great kitchens of India to discover the secret of creating a hot curry that is, at the same time, layered with flavour.

Among the many exhilarating aspects of travel anywhere must be, surely, visits to produce markets. On several occasions, just after dawn, we would visit the local markets with the hotel executive chef. Along with the noise and colour of local commerce and the appreciation of unrecognised scents in the air, a social geography is revealed by stalls groaning with fruit and vegetables, goods proudly displayed by the farmer.

Baskets of richly fragrant spices laid out to tempt chef, housewife and traveller alike, added to the excitement. Even the word ‘spice’ seems to heighten awareness of exotic places: could there be any more evocative destination in the travel lexicon than ‘The Spice Islands’ - the Moluccas, a clutch of tiny atolls in the Indian Ocean?

Days took on a pleasant pattern. Breakfasts were of the local dhosas, a thin, crisp pancake, filled with spicy vegetables. Mornings were taken up with sightseeing and afternoons with drinking cups of delicious tea on those shaded verandahs. We would then continue on to the next town, not quite in the style of the Mughal emperors, those most elegant of travellers, who would journey in caravans of beautifully decorated tents. In fact, as we rattled along endless mountain roads we discovered that Indian drivers are not invincible. Around more than one sharp corner we would come upon a truck that had crashed into the mountain side, and then simply abandoned. The vividly painted trucks each carried the cheery instruction, “Horn please.”sign in India

And the tourist in India is certainly not invincible. After two weeks in India we had travelled to the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan for ten days before re-entering India to explore the tea estates of Darjeeling. Even though we had obtained the required multiple entry visas, our journey back into India, via Phuentsholing - among the most unappealing border towns in the world - nearly ended in disaster.

But first we had travelled through the western half of the tiny kingdom of Bhutan. Just getting to this mysterious Himalayan country is an adventure. It’s a nation shrouded in mystery, but the thousands of species native to this mountain kingdom – just the size of Switzerland, with a population of about 700,000, and wedged between China and India - will be well known to horticulturalists and gardeners.

Plant hunters of the 19th and early 20th centuries recognised the Himalayan region, from where some 30% of the world’s plants hail, as a horticultural treasure chest. Joseph Hooker, Frank Kingdon-Ward, George Forrest, and Ernest ‘Chinese’ Wilson were among the explorers who searched for new plants through southern China, Tibet, Nepal the mountainous regions of Northern India, and, when they could, Bhutan. They journeyed through beautiful, but remote lands, often risking terrible deaths in their pursuit of rare bounty to return to an increasingly demanding gardening market in the United Kingdom and Europe. This was the time when a vigorous horticultural dialogue, and exchange, was taking place between leading families, and among the major botanic gardens of the world. Plant hunters were sponsored by keen gardeners in the United Kingdom and in Europe, who received, in return, ‘dividends’ in the form of seeds and plants. The result is many great northern hemisphere gardens that house vast collections of Himalayan treasures that have become places of pilgrimage for plant lovers.Rhododendron Loderi final1

As I have said, we don’t souvenir plants these days, preferring to capture botanical treasures on camera to carry back images to appreciative colleagues. And there can be few experiences more exhilarating for a gardener than seeing greatly loved and familiar plants growing in their natural environment.

Leaving for Bhutan from Bangkok, excitement mounts as you fly past the glory peaks of the Himalaya, glittering white with snow against a clear blue, late winter sky. There is Everest, with her familiar wisp of mist, like a permanent spire of smoke. Lhotse is next, and then Kanchenjunga, at 8586 metres the third highest peak in the world. To land at Bhutan’s Paro airport the pilot must thread between the mountains, executing a last-minute hairpin turn. The cheers and clapping from appreciative and relieved passengers are just the beginning of the adventure.

The greatest altitude to which you can drive in Bhutan is the Chelela Pass, at 4000 metres affording perfect views across the tops of the spruce forest to sacred Chomolhari, the highest peak in the kingdom. Just after the Bhutanese New Year, in February, Primula denticulata emerges lilac through the melting snow. And it is there that the national flower of Bhutan, the Himalayan blue poppy (Meconopsis betonicifolia) guaranteed to break the hearts of gardeners around the world, flowers cerulean each June, covering the meadows that drop away on either side of the pass.Bhutan Chelele PassFNL-1611

Taktshang Goemba, better known to travellers as Tiger’s Nest monastery, was built in 1692, around a cave into which the guru Rinpoche flew, in the 3rd century, and on the back of a female tiger. Don’t ask questions: just accept it. The guru drove out evil spirits and claimed the site for Buddhism. It’s now one of the most revered sites in Bhutan, visited by followers and the few tourists allowed into the country each year. The climb to the monastery is through forests of conifer, which cling to the cliffsides. There is the graceful Kashmir cypress (Cupressus cashmeriana) with its gentle, grey green tendrils weeping to the ground. There is the Bhutan cypress (C. torulosa), the chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) and blue pine (P. wallichiana) all supporting dripping curtains of moss, wafting like green veils in a welcome breeze.

You are assisted on your climb up by guides: mine, on my first visit in 2010, was our driver, Pema, a young man from the east of the country, an undeveloped area where there are no roads. To visit his family Pema must walk for several days. On our climb to Tiger’s Nest Pema seemed more enamoured with holding my enormous, heavy camera, which he nursed like a baby, than with shielding me from the treacherous drop into the ravine on one side of the track.Bhutan tigers nest FNL11

Before you set out on this gruelling hike the Australian chef at the Hotel Uma Paro serves a breakfast of a buckwheat pancakes: it is sustaining but not too heavy, topped with a cinnamon-spiced, candied pumpkin puree and a pumpkin cream. You can find the recipe in Seasons in My House and Garden.

Such hikes can lead to a little discomfort. Up in the clouds at Chelela Pass, an isolated but beautiful place of pine trees, rocks and views to the snow-capped Himalaya, a large rock provided some modesty when ‘nature called.’ The only problem was that the ground on which one had to squat seemed almost vertical. And a yak with a pair of enormous horns searing to the sky was eyeing me menacingly!

I read an amusing article by a travel writer who was dismissive of the adventurer who, in pristine places like Bhutan, treks to almost inaccessible sites by day, but returns to ‘spa resorts’ by night. I am happy to confess; that is me. A hot stone bath, a delicious dinner, an open fire and crisp white sheets can only add to the joy of seeing plants growing where God and nature put them.

Before you climb Tiger’s Nest from Paro, where the airport is located, however, you will usually travel to Thimpu, the capital, which is situated at a lower altitude, to allow you to slowly become acclimatised to the thinner air. It’s the site of government and where the young King and Queen live.

On our second day in Bhutan we undertook a short, easier climb, led by our guide, Tshewang, of just a few kilometres to Cheri Goemba, a monastery founded in the early 17th century, and set some 3000metres above sea level. As we rested on a rock on the edge of the path almost at the top, a long line of young monks appeared, weaving slowly up the steep path, a swish of deep red saris the only sound, other than that of the breeze in the pine trees. They had just completed the first part of their training and were now entering the sacred site for three years of silence. Not for me!Cherry Gomba

If you were in Bhutan in early February, and if the snows allowed it, you would travel over somewhat nerve-racking mountain passes to reach the Phobjika Valley, where the villagers have turned their backs on electricity in order to protect the endangered black necked crane that flies in from Russia each winter. Recently the Austrian government installed underground power, but our guest house, when we trekked to the valley in 2013, was still run on wood fires.

Dochula Pass fnlL-3-31It’s a drive of several hours, on winding roads to reach the Valley. On the way, a rest house above 3000 metres, at the summit of the Dochula Pass (just an hour from Thimpu) offers uninterrupted views to the Great Himalaya Range and a chance to gather around a log fire with other trekkers for coffee and botanical boasting. Then, as you start to descend, winding through the mists into the valley below, if you are there in February, a white canopy of Magnolia denudata is revealed. An understory of the heavily scented M. dolsopa (now moved into the Magnolia genus) is in full bloom.

At 2500 metres you’ll find rhododendron flowering: among the 70-odd species native to Bhutan, the cream R. maddeni and the blood-red R. arboreum are the first to unfurl after winter. An under story of Edgeworthia chrysantha blooms yellow: its flowers appear on bare stems. Related to daphne, it thrives on the warmer, south facing sites, while Daphne bholua is found lower, on the north facing slopes, its bark harvested for handmade paper. If you are in Bhutan in April and May you will find mountainsides covered in flowering rhododendron, different species flowering at different altitudes. And higher up in the Himalaya great swathes of cinnamon bark maple shed their russet bark in curling sheets.

In Bhutan all life is interconnected; Gross National Happiness is honoured over Gross National Product, primary school children are taught to meditate, men and women wear national dress in public (and look fabulous). Thirty percent of the land is protected as National Parks: and, smoking in public is banned. Bliss.

But, I remember that I promised to tell you about our unnerving experience upon re-entering India, after that first trip to beautiful Bhutan. We had wanted to travel to the Indian hill station of Darjeeling, which is close to Bhutan, up in the north of India, among the Himalayan peaks. People go to watch the dawn rise over Mount Kanchenjunga, although on many mornings it is shrouded in mist.

My advice to all travellers would be that it is unwise and dangerous to try to re-enter India, no matter how gilt edged you believe your multiple-entry visa to be. You’ll recall that I told you that Phuentsholing is the most depressing place you are ever likely to encounter. In fact, it is to be avoided. You’ll understand, then, that we were desperate to leave the decaying, grimy town, and to begin the road journey to Darjeeling.

First, however, we had to clear the border and the Indian customs officials.

Gillian and I entered the small customs station on the Indian side of the border nervously, with Tshewang and Pema waiting on the Bhutan side to ensure that we exited safely. Our new Indian guide was with us. Two enormous customs officers, rifles slung over their shoulders – I tell people they were Kalashnikovs, but actually I have no idea what they were - took our passports and told us to sit. They disappeared into back offices, returning a few minutes later. "Whose passport is this,” one asked. Gillian answered that it was hers. And there was a problem. Her passport had suddenly acquired a stamp declaring that she could not re-enter India without a stay outside its borders of three months. She knew that the stamp had not been in her passport when we left Australia: we both had multiple entry visas. And we knew we could not go back into Bhutan as our visas for that country had expired that morning.

I suddenly went into mother lion-mode and insisted that the stamp had not been in Gill’s passport when we departed Australia. As if speaking to a recalcitrant teenager who has woken the household as he staggered through the front door in the early hours of the morning, I scolded these menacing-looking officials, telling them that we had been excellent guests in their country just ten days before, that our visas were in perfect order, and that we did not expect to be treated that way. I tried to draw myself up to more than my 160cms. I had an alarming flash that my stern words would either land us in gaol, or would get us through the border. “Hand me the phone, Gilly, I am ringing the High Commissioner in New Dehli,” I huffed. With that, the guards stamped our passports and hustled us through. But the incident spoiled the rest of the trip for my friend.

Recounting the tale to a psychologist friend a few months later she mused that it was fortunate that the incident had happened to Gill. Somehow, one goes into protective mode when a friend is in danger, she said. I may not have been so brave – or foolhardy - if it had been my passport.

And up in Darjeeling – which is no longer a charming colonial hill station - we didn’t get to view the sun rise over Kanchenjunga. The night before we were to watch the sunrise, we received intelligence that the Ghurkhas were intending to demonstrate for a separate state, and intended to blockade the road to Siliguri, from where we were to fly from Bagdogera airport to Calcutta to return home. We left Darjeeling at 2 o’clock in the morning and made a hair-raising dash to the airport. We were among thousands of locals, business people and tourists, all trying to flee the area. Chaos.

I have not returned to India since, but returned to Bhutan, leading a group of ten travellers, in April 2013, just a few months after my lung operation in November the year before.

I was determined to climb Tiger’s Nest again – and I did!DSCF11561


Wednesday16th May 2012 was taken up completely with meetings and with treatments at the hospital. My appointment with ‘Bondi’ was for 10.40am. Then we were due for a treatment review with Colin Chen, the radiation oncologist, followed by a meeting with the neurosurgeon, Ralph Mobbs, at noon.

So, it was a tiring, worrying and emotional day, although all went well. Ross watched the radiation technicians fitting my mask, although he had to leave the room, of course, when the machine was weaving its magic and irradiating my brain.

Dr Chen was happy with my progress, noting the result of my blood test was pleasing. The tumour marker (CEA) was only up to 20, which meant the primary tumour was not too active. Most importantly, the doctors could then compare the marker with future blood tests to assess progress, and success of the treatments, and, most importantly, if the Tarceva (the chemotherapy tablet) was working. CEA stands for carcinoembryonic antigen and is a protein found in the blood or urine: it is elevated in the presence of some cancers, including lung cancer.

I still had no taste for food, and my mouth felt burnt. Food was tasteless, so I didn’t really feel like eating solids. I knew that I must be keep up my food intake as the radiation consumes so many calories. I tried various foods, even a small piece of a homemade muffin, but it caused me to choke. I tried a piece of a homemade beef and burgundy pie, but needed lashings of tomato sauce to give it taste! Hardly a healthy option.

The day came, at the end of May, for my final radiation treatment and the further boost of radiation: this was to be 8 times my normal daily dose. The team assured me this was essential to ensure the brain tumour does not return. The programme had not been as hideous as I expected. I had mouth ulcers: again, not too serious, but not comfortable. I was rinsing my mouth daily with bi-carbonate of soda, which helped a little. And the skin on my face was very red and angry, a reaction to the Tarceva.

I remember saying to the radiation therapist that I now had all sorts of twinges and tweaks, and I worried that each twinge represented the cancer spreading. She said that the therapists each have the same reaction when they start working: they imagine all sorts of tumours growing with every minor pain; pains that they would normally have ignored!

As the tens of thousands of cancer sufferers go through treatment, some more onerous than others, and as nearly 8,000 people in Australia die each year from lung cancer, many of the so-called pillars of our society are sitting as directors on the boards of tobacco companies. And some law firms are representing tobacco companies in their quest to continue their disgraceful advertising. They should all be ashamed of themselves.

And, as I coped with my treatment and with coming to terms with my situation, I watched far more terrible news for the people of Syria. How is it possible that any government can murder its own people: men, women and children on a massive scale? The United Nations, yet again, is just a very expensive toothless tiger in relation to peacekeeping. And young adults in this country are being killed daily, on our roads, or through alcohol or drugs. My situation seemed tame by comparison. My brain tumour was now gone: one tumour down and only four to go!


You’ve heard me say that I’m always searching for a ‘Sense of Place’; for the ‘Genius of Place.’ Those words of Alexander Pope, written in 1731,‘..let Nature never be forgot. Consult the genius of the Place in all,’ seem the perfect motto for traveller, architect, landscaper, writer and photographer. And this search has taken me to some interesting, and, at times, terrifying, locations.

As I’ve explained, in 18th century England an appreciation of the work of the three great (French-born) Italian landscape artists - Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and Salvatore Rosa - became the epitome of taste and education. The perfect romantic landscapes of this trio had become the focus for the pilgrimages of young aristocrats, who returned home to create their own classical Elysium, that state of perfect happiness. And for more than a century after Claude Lorrain’s death, in 1682, his ideal of the sublime beauty of nature influenced English landscape design.

It was thought that a landscape painter, with his understanding of light and shadow, of composition through the relationship of mass and void, and by his sense of line and proportion, would know best how to design garden and landscape. Such lessons are followed also by landscape and garden photographers. As a self-taught photographer I fell in love with this concept.

The 18th century aestheticists like Horace Walpole, Edmund Burke and William Gilpin referenced the importance of these earlier artists, writing of “Precipices, mountains, torrents, wolves, rumblings, Salvator Rosa.” (Walpole, 1739)three gorges 11

Edmund Burke in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) extolled the stupendous, rugged and bleak “Crags, precipices and torrents, windswept ridges, unploughed uplands,” that became the epitome of taste, precisely because they could not be ruled and refined by the human hand. The aesthetic dictated by these landscape artists did not escape the plant hunters who travelled East in search of horticultural treasure. Of the mountains of northern Tibet, Joseph Hooker wrote, in 1849, “as grand as any pictured by Salvatore Rosa; a river roaring in sheets of foam, sombre woods, crags and tier upon tier of lofty mountains flanked with crests of black firs, terminating in snow sprinkled rocky peaks.”

While such observations must have seemed a long way from the considerations of daily life in the colonies, some colonists, particularly those from the more successful tenant farms in England, would have been well aware of the dramatic landscape changes occurring there. Such observations provide an important context for the settlement of Australia by an elite group of immigrants. And such a picturesque view of the landscape - what Wordsworth called ‘a strong infection of the age’ - was further encouraged by colonial artists.[1]

Water-colourists, including Louis Haghe, Conrad Martins, Joseph Lycett and, later, Eugene von Guerard, rode the Australian countryside, sketchbook in saddlebag, creating views and landscapes they would then offer for sale. The Arcadia they depicted for their increasingly wealthy settler-clients reflected a rise in colonial taste while echoing the cultivated tastes of those whose estates they had observed at ‘home’. And I was searching for this Arcadia - for the sublime, the picturesque, and the terrifying. Influenced by Ansell Adams and the extraordinary Peter Dombrovskis, I wanted to explore, and to photograph – to capture - wild, majestic, untamed mountains.

No state in Australia preserves the paradigm of transferred vision better than Tasmania. Early English and Scottish settlers to the colony commented that Tasmania ‘felt like home’ and that being in Tasmania was like ‘being on the right side of the world again.’ In Tasmania, the building of a grand Georgian-style house and the creation of an important garden was attendant to the success exemplified by land and stock acquisition. And in 21st century Tasmania, the ‘Genius of Place’ is alive and well.

One January, only a few years ago, I was staying with the artist Robyn Mayo and her husband, John Hawkins, at their property, Bentley, in the beautiful Meander Valley, in the north of Tasmania. Their house and landscape, with its extensive lakes – the leitmotif of the English landscape garden – lie in the shadow of the Great Western Tiers, a shimmering blue rib of ancient mountains that run north-south through the state, like a spine.Bentley

The property looks onto another mountain range that runs east-west, with its mountain known as ‘Claude.’ I was photographing Bentley for my book, ‘Gardens of Eden’, a showcase of many of the world’s most beautiful gardens. I said to John, “I’d like to drive to the top of the Tiers to capture ‘on film’ the spirit of this place.” (I meant ‘on disc’, of course, as we were now in the digital age.)

“Well, we won’t drive. We’ll climb,” John replied, and told me the story of Mother Cummings Peak, a high point in the Tiers to which a school teacher had led a group of children more than a century ago. That was fine with me. We set off mid-morning, with an ex-SAS officer as our guide. He knew the secret entrance that would allow us to enter the ancient eucalypt forest to access the narrow track that led us, after two hours, to an alpine meadow of unique mosses, Chinohebe ciliota. This is a botanical hotspot, and just a kilometre away as the crow flies, at Cradle Mountain, a different species of the genus grows. (And another species at Mount Kosciuszko, in the Snowy Mountains.)Alpine meadow1

The climb seemed easy so far; but that was just the beginning. The next part of the climb - to the peak - took two hours of scrambling, on hands and knees, over volcanic scree. I didn’t dare look down. John, who had been an officer at England’s Sandhurst officer-training academy, was standing a little way up the mountainside, gallantly carrying my heavy camera gear, and instructing, “Stand up tall: that will make it easier,” adding, “at Sandhurst; this sort of excursion was how we sorted out who had leadership potential.” “Well, now we know that I have no leadership potential,” I wailed. “Get me a helicopter.”                                                        

When we reached the peak there was only a tiny piece of rock on which to stand. And then we had to get down. I told you the garden photographer's life can be dangerous!   On Mother Cummings Peak

 


[1] Wordsworth, of the picturesque movement, in The Prelude, 1805.

 May 2012 moved into June and my days seemed to be spent sleeping. The sofa in the television room became my favourite place - but I was fearful that the world was passing me by. I was in a holding pattern, worried that I was wasting a year of my life. And I am sure it was depressing for Ross and our 21 year old son to see me in my pyjamas at five o’clock in the afternoon!

I finished my radiation programme with the 19th treatment in early June. This last ‘hit’ took 40 minutes, with a newly made and more extensive mask prepared for me. Again, it was an interesting exercise. The huge machine travelled around my head, and the bed I was lying on kept changing angles so that the technicians could target the exact spot from where the brain tumour had been removed. As usual, everyone at the Prince of Wales hospital was so kind, and kept me completely informed as to what was happening. It is the tradition at POW for patients who finish their radiation treatment to ring a huge bell in triumph. I declined to do so: I knew my road ahead would be long and probably arduous. I didn’t feel that it was the right time to ring any bell. Didn’t want to tempt fate.

I had been on an anti-nausea drug, Metoclopramide , which seemed to be doing its job: the nausea was only mild, at this early stage - although the drug had given me a mild dose of gastric. The intention was that I would continue on the Tarceva tablets, with which Roche had kindly supplied me again, at no charge; then I would have scans on June 12th to check on the status of the lung tumour. I felt confident, was saying plenty of prayers and crossing my fingers. The rash from the Tarceva was not as bad as I had expected, and the pawpaw ointment that I was applying was calming it down.

Then, on June 12th, there was devastating news, and I knew by the grim look on Dr Chin’s and Beth Ivamy’s faces that we were going to be disappointed. After six weeks on the drug the CT scan had revealed that my lung tumour had stood up to the Tarceva. In fact, it had grown slightly and the scan showed a small lesion in the liver and also on the adrenal gland. Bugger, Bugger, Bugger. There were no cancers in the brain, thank goodness, but I had really been confident that the Tarceva would be my miracle cure. We were devastated. Another disappointment and another crash backwards, into the dark abyss. Into the valley of death. Back onto death row.

“Is it all over then?” I asked Dr Chin, amidst tears, thinking of my four children, and the grandchildren I was yet to hold. “No way,” was his vigorous response, and outlined his next course of attack. He decided to switch treatment immediately to the more usual, aggressive intravenous chemotherapy. Two drugs would be employed in a cocktail: Cisplastin, a drug that contains platinum which binds to, and kills, the cancer cells. It also poisons other, good cells and is so toxic that the nurses administering it wear purple plastic gowns and gloves to alert everyone to its danger. The second drug in my cocktail was to be Alimta, recommended, with Cisplatin, for my type of lung cancer: advanced, stage four, nonsquamous non-small cell carcinoma.

I was very upset, but we knew, with this team of dedicated, clever medical people, that we could fight on. I knew also that Professor McCaughan would not remove the diseased section of my lung without these treatments, as the cancer had shown that it had made itself at home in other parts of my seemingly pristine, fit body. I was to be in hospital for each of the chemotherapy treatments, as Cisplatin is toxic to the kidneys, which would therefore need to be strengthened and reinforced by flushing them with a saline solution for several hours. Dr Chin wanted four rounds of the chemo; a two-day treatment to be administered every three weeks. (In fact, the drugs were so effective, and he was so pleased with the response, that he eventually ordered a total of six rounds; just to be sure.) I was determined not to surrender to this disease, this Thing. If the doctors were not calling it quits, why should I? But I had decided not to worry my sisters, children or friends with this set back, although I did email Leigh Atkinson, in Brisbane.

On the first day of the intravenous chemotherapy treatment I was given a range of injections and drugs to prepare my body for the onslaught of the chemo cocktail. There was a shot of vitamin B12, which was intended to help fight against the expected nausea, along with Stematil. The nurses stressed the importance of my taking Folate daily. And then I was instructed to remember to take 8 mg of Dexamethasone, a synthetic steroid that is an anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressant.

Due to the difficulty of remembering how and when to take this list of helpful drugs, the hospital had prepared for me a spreadsheet. I wondered how less capable people, the elderly, or those who did not speak perfect English, coped with such complexity. I stayed in hospital for two nights on each occasion of my treatment. There was a certain comfort and security in the constant presence of the nursing staff. Treatment21Treatment mask1

 

When you’re one of four sisters, and the one with the fat ankles, you have to work hard, take every chance; grasp every opportunity. As Patrick White said, in an ABC radio interview in 1994, “We are all products of our childhood.”

When you have older sisters who are beautiful and brilliant and a younger sister who is beautiful, brilliant, and in delicate health, you cannot help but feel plain. When you attend a school where you are constantly compared, publicly, to your sisters, you learn, eventually, and after quite a few false starts, to work your tail off because you crave some accolades for yourself. There is not a moment to be wasted. While this may lead to successful outcomes, perhaps it is not always the healthiest of behaviours.

In 1939, at the age of 19, my mother, Ruth, had married my much older father, Charles Terrence, known as Terry, who was 36. The first 20 years of my parents married life, living in a company house in Cinnamon Gardens, Colombo, were charmed, although they had suffered the death of their first-born son, when my mother was just 20. My father was the company secretary for a British tea firm and they lived the glamorous life enjoyed by other middle ranking colonial families. The women would retreat to the cool hill station of Nuwara Elija during the hottest months, while the men, remaining behind in Colombo to work, would move into the Galle Face Hotel. One elderly retainer at this grand hotel told me, when I stayed there in the 1980’s that my father, who was known as C. T. Kerr, particularly loved taking part in the rickshaw races that took place during these ‘bachelor months’ - up and down the colonnaded veranda of the hotel!

But all that changed after Ceylon became independent and my parents moved to Australia - with my father out of a job and three children to support - in 1956. They had little choice. My father had been told by the new Bandaranaike government that he could stay on for several years, to train a Sri Lankan to do his job. He declined, and with no savings, no capital, little prospect of a new career at the age of almost 60, and with a young family, set up house in Southport, on Queensland’s Gold Coast.

My childhood was poor. My mother liked to promote the assumption that we were ‘genteel poor,’ but there was no denying that we hardly had two pennies to rub together. And that sense of oppressive poverty created, almost without my realising it, a sense of disempowerment. I was always on the outside. For a short time we lived in the downstairs half of our two-story house, while the top half was rented out. During regular Queensland summer storms the water would invade, and we would wade across flooded linoleum floors to get into bed.

There were other events that marked out my disempowerment. At my tenth birthday party several girls were ill, courtesy of a marshmallow rabbit that a neighbour had made. I vowed I would never again hold a party – a constraint I overcame pretty quickly! And around that time a woman at a bus stop asked me if I was a ballerina, as I had such strong ankles. Perhaps she meant it as a compliment, but it was another nail in the coffin of my self-confidence. Ah, it’s all about the legs!

And it seems that school lunches cause angst to many cultures: not just to the Italian child who is mocked because of his salami sandwiches. My mother thought it was a treat to give me hundreds and thousands in my sandwiches. I remember a school excursion to Brisbane’s botanic gardens, when I looked with horror at my sandwiches, colourful with their hundreds and thousands. Instead of sharing them on the picnic rug, as was the instruction, I crept past a nearby lake and fed them to the eels. When I had nothing to share with the class I incurred the wrath of the teacher. Funny the things children remember.

Why my parents settled on the Gold Coast, instead of in Sydney, where my mother had grown up, was a question about which I had often wondered. She used to say it was because the hinterland, and particularly Mount Tamborine, reminded them of the lush, cool mountains of Ceylon, but I later wondered if it was because she did not want former friends in Sydney to see her reduced circumstances. She sought to regain some empowerment in her life, some agency, by creating a lush tropical garden around our house. The spreading Poinciana (Delonix regia), with its lacy, filigree leaves held on wide, outstretched branches, that bloomed red in our back garden, was a favourite, much loved as it reminded her of her time in the tropics. At school we studied the Arthur Miller play, ‘Death of a Salesman.’ Reading it, I remember feeling pain and grief for my father, who was forced to sell insurance, door to door, after we came to Australia. And he did it with such dignity, with a strength that I didn’t appreciate fully until after his death.

My feeling that I did not belong, or, at least, anywhere that mattered, translated into an oppressive sense of isolation, of being out of, and away from, any action that was important. I was never at all clear about what that action was: I was just sure that something more exciting was happening somewhere else. I suppose it is a feeling familiar to many children in small country towns. That sense didn’t translate into a desire to succeed at anyone else’s expense, just to do as well as I could with whatever skills or capacity I could find in my very ordinary being. Maybe a cancer diagnosis has a similar effect on other sufferers: you stop reaching for great heights and come to a gentle understanding of what is important. And to the realisation that no-one lives forever. I had lived with such high level of stress for so many years that it felt good to come to terms with being less demanding of myself.

Some women are too beautiful for their own safety. Some attract the attention of powerful men, men who seek trophies; decorative appendages. It would take an extraordinary woman, more than simply extraordinarily beautiful, to protect herself against such men, to resist the attraction to, and the demands of, powerful men. Some women believe their beauty entitles them to a life of ease, and of riches. And some believe their beauty will never fade.

As a young girl my mother, Ruth, was far too beautiful for her own good. She had dark hair, rather fierce, black eyes - which I remember flashing when she became angry – milk-white skin decorated with little more than a slash of deep red lipstick, and a waist, as she later constantly reminded her four daughters, that was just 16 inches around. And her oft-repeated comment to her daughters was, “None of you girls will ever hold a candle to your mother.”

Ruth thought her beauty would last forever, and that it would protect her, and entitle her to a life of carefree indulgence. When it didn’t, and when, by the time she was 38 years old, with their forced departure from Ceylon, her life had changed in ways she couldn’t have imagined, she became angry and bitter. She felt duped. So her daughters learnt early that a girl must be independent. That Prince Charming may not come along, or, if he did, he may one day lose his good looks, fiscally speaking.

My mother told me that she was sent to Ceylon on what she called the fishing fleet. She called it that; the holiday ship that took her, with other girls in her circle of friends, to the Far East. She travelled on a cruise ship with her Aunt Madge, and met my father at a dance at the Galle Face. She told me, many years later, of course, that her mother had sent her there in the hope that she would find a suitable husband. And suitable meant British. Like my father.

Ruth was only 17 when she left Rose Bay, a privileged suburb in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, for Colombo. Her life, to the age of 14, had been typical for a young girl growing up in the affluent suburbs of this harbour city. Born in 1919, she found Sydney in 1933 carefree. The Harbour Bridge had just been opened to great drama and The Australian Women’s Weekly was launched, addressing, among other issues, the status of women in Australian society.

George V, a grandson of Queen Victoria, had been on the throne since 1910; replaced, briefly, upon his death in 1936, by Edward VIII, soon to give up his position for Mrs Simpson – and his younger brother.

Far from the royal scandal of divorce, in Sydney winter Saturdays were spent at rugby matches, most often on the ovals of the private schools of the eastern suburbs and the lower north shore, small enclaves of privilege and exclusivity. Ruth was often photographed for the Sydney papers, a smart sight in a pencil skirt to beneath the knees, a bow at the neck and a cropped, fitted jacket, often in tartan. With a neat hat on her fashionably waved hair, she and her friends were the epitome of youthful, carefree elegance.

In summer, there was sailing on the harbour. On Sunday afternoons Ruth played tennis on friends’ courts, in houses near her home. She attended Ascham, a local private girls’ school and, according to friends, was lovely, but often in trouble with teachers for pulling her uniform belt too tightly around her small waist.

When Ruth was 14 years old, however, and Australia was suffering the effects of The Depression, her father’s business was in financial trouble. Ruth’s brother Norman attended Scot’s college, in Bellevue Hill, but there was not enough money to fund two sets of private school fees. It was decided that Ruth, as a girl who would find a husband to support her, was less in need of a good education than her brother. She was forced to leave her school, a tragedy that would affect her decisions throughout her life. Later, she was determined that each of her four daughters would receive the best education possible.

My mother was always very grand. I thought of her as brave; others, particularly later in her life, called her behaviour eccentric. Uncle Norman, many years later when mother became ill and her behaviour became increasingly eccentric – the doctors called it ‘inappropriate’ - would respond, with dry humour, “Ruth has always been inappropriate.” His evidence for this was his recollection of a drinks party, where a grand dowager asked him to bring his sister over to meet her. “Let her come to me,” was 17-year-old Ruth’s response. And I remember telling her one day, when I was pregnant with my first child, that I was feeling unwell. “That’s alright, darling,” she responded. “As long as you don’t have more than three pink gins before dinner.”

She also had a feisty temper, however, and was self-centred; selfish, even, in ways that I did not fully appreciate until I was a mother myself. And I also realised then, that, through tragedy, she had, to a certain extent, lost her mind, or at the least had some sort of nervous breakdown. She lost her second son, Charles, born after I, in Australia, when he choked in a dreadful accident in his cot. He had been given a heavy wooden toy, which he liked to throw out of his cot. In a terrible misstep, my mother tied it, by a string, to a slat of his cot. Rolling around in his cot, the string became wrapped around the toddler’s neck. When he threw the toy out of the cot, he was strangled. She blamed herself, of course, and suffered awful guilt. It took my own tragedy to realise the grief she must have felt. My father felt it too, of course. I was sent away to stay with family friends while my parents argued over for whom the tragedy was greater: my father who now had no sons to carry on his name, or my mother. And in those days, there was no help: no counselling.

But back to mother’s childhood. It must have been dreadful for her after she left Ascham, her sheltered girls’ school. At school she was beautiful, the centre of attention of her group of adoring friends. Suddenly she was working long hours as a beautician, no doubt earning little, but attracting the attention of a prominent business man and the actor, Peter Finch. In what seems a somewhat distorted morality, or at least a confused sense of ‘class’, however, my grandmother was shocked at the idea of her daughter being dated by an actor. Mother was to be shipped up to Ceylon as soon as a holiday with an aunt could be arranged, hopefully to meet acceptable suitors.

My parents were married in Sydney in rather grand style in April 1939and embarked upon a six month honeymoon, from New Zealand to Fiji to Hawaii and the United States mainland. The pictures my father took of their travels –the snow covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains in the background as my mother stood on the terrace at the Banff Springs hotel, or sitting in deck chairs on the lawn at the Halekulani hotel in Hawaii – inspired in me a love of exploring, of discovering new places, and different cultures. And perhaps of capturing great landscapes on camera. (I am told my grandfather’s landscape photography is still displayed at Colombo’s city hall.)

 

During World War II, my mother, pregnant with my eldest sister, was evacuated from Ceylon to Sydney, in 1941, on the last ship to cross the Indian Ocean before the fall of Singapore.[1] The ship on which she travelled was dubbed ‘The Blackout Ship’ and the Captain, to keep passengers’ spirits up and perhaps to keep them calm, devised various amusements like a ‘blackout menu’ which included, among other ‘treats’ black pudding. Our father remained in Ceylon, serving in The Ceylon Defence Force, a citizens’ volunteer army: Dad told one of my sisters that his duties focussed on burying bottles of whiskey in the grounds of The Colombo Club to ensure the Japanese did not purloin them, should they invade the island. (Japanese bombers did attack strategically important Ceylon in April 1942.)

My eldest sister was born in Sydney in July 1942, our mother having blamed the British doctor in Colombo for the death of her first born. She returned to Ceylon in 1944, where my next sister was born, in 1945, delivered by Dr Theagarajah, the first Tamil obstetrician to be trained in Scotland. The family travelled to Sligo, with our father, in 1946, on the first ship carrying civilians after the war. Mother told me that the baby, in her pram, was tied to the railings of the ship during the day. And she spoke often of how much she disliked that city.

Decades later, when I became lost in Sligo, in the Republic of Ireland, I understood how she must have felt. Even then, at the beginning of the 21st century, it seemed a rather grim place. I could imagine how my beautiful, spoiled, petulant mother must have felt: how she must have irritated her hosts and how she must have felt so homesick for the protected, nurtured, gentle, colourful, fragrant life that she had become so used to in Ceylon.  

My mother proved herself to be a rather good business woman, in fact. In 1966 she opened a maternity shop in Southport, one of the first in Australia – called The Anticipation Shop – and did very well, until she closed it, in 1979, the year my father died. My father, however, had been mortified; deeply embarrassed. He was of the generation that dictated that a man should provide for his family. My mother had felt duped when her life in Ceylon ended; now my father felt humiliated.

                                                                   

Ruth2Ruth, second from left                                                        C. T. KerrMy father, C. T. Kerr


[1] Singapore fell in 2nd week February 1942, when, on 15th February, the British Commander gave the order to surrender. Japanese bombers attacked Darwin on 19th February 1942, as part of a strategy to then take Papua New Guinea.

My life has long been one of routine. It has had to be. At one stage, when my four children were young teenagers, I was running a public relations business, writing my weekly newspaper column, completing a Doctorate in history at the University of New South Wales, managing a large house in the city and creating a 5-acre cold-climate garden at a second house in the Southern Highlands: all at the same time. I was brought up during the feminist wave that promoted the idea that women could have it all; all at the same time. For the six years of my PhD candidature I rose at 3am each day, made a pot of tea, then got to work. I’d stop for breakfast with the family; Ross would take the children to school and I’d start work for my PR clients. I’d work until late afternoon, when I would stop to watch a soap opera, and the news, on the television in the kitchen, while preparing dinner. Then I would start work again after dinner.

When I look back on it I wonder how I did it all. My children like to tell anyone who might listen that it was because they ‘had to’ make their own school lunches. Not true, except perhaps for a few months when I had the ambitious hope that they may learn early to be independent. And they all took turns in setting the table, making the salad and pouring the glasses of milk. (In fact, they are all, as young adults, very capable, and all excellent cooks.) These days at family events they like to regale each other with some of my mothering foibles. Like my invention of ‘Jobs Lotto.’ This was a terrific invention; a fortnightly event, at Sunday night dinner, during the two decades that all the children lived at home. I would write all the jobs to be done in the house on slips of paper: empty the dishwasher, sort the clean washing, walk the dog etc. The slips would all be put in a plastic container which was passed around the dinner table, so that each child could choose two jobs which would be their responsibility for the next two weeks. What could be more fair?

The truth is that I could cram a lot into a day because I worked from home. In the early years of my business, when my twins were babies, I had a smart office in a smart suburb, not far from the centre of the business district. I came home early one day, however, to find the two au pairs (they called themselves nannies, but that was rather too grand a term) with my babies in carry baskets, bottles propped up on pillows and the two girls, their backs to the children, painting their nails and chatting happily. That was the moment I realised I would lose another child if I did not move my business home; if I was not there to watch over them. So the car was tipped out of the garage and an office was installed. (I have often wondered – and written many letters to newspapers for many years – when politicians from either side state they are determined to attract more women to parliament, how they imagine that would be possible when childcare for working women is not even tax-deductible.)

By June 2012, however, chemotherapy had forced my days into another pattern. Nausea would wake me at 3.30am or 4am, and I’d quickly take a drug to combat the nausea. Stemitel seemed to be the best drug for the nausea, which was preventing me from eating. I’d get up, to make up a cup of hot chocolate with Sustagen, which, for several months, was all I could tolerate. I’d turn on the television, to watch my pre-recorded programs from the previous night. Then I’d watch some early morning news from America, until the ABC breakfast show came on. Sometimes during the day I would manage a couple of mandarins, but my taste (or lack of it) seemed to change each day: there were very few solid foods I could tolerate. For weeks I lived on Weis bars, sorbet and jelly; some days it was just dry ginger beer.

Only our youngest child was still living at home in 2012, and Ross was cooking his own meals, and eating them in another room, as far from me as possible, so that I would not smell the food. I could not even bear to watch advertisements for food on television. The medical team told me I should not be experiencing any nausea: that with the modern drugs the chemo experience should be nausea free. On the contrary, I don’t know anyone who has gone through chemotherapy without nausea. Answering the emails of support kept me sane. But then, by the afternoon I would have fallen into a deep sleep.

By late June I was getting very tired of feeling so dreadful. The nausea was like morning sickness, except that it lasted all day. Sleep was a blessed relief. And on a few of the early mornings I fainted, waking to find myself on the kitchen floor, often before dawn. I supposed it was the chemotherapy – that cocktail of highly toxic drugs – that was playing havoc with my blood pressure and my entire system. It was all so ugly. There were surely brighter days ahead: but it was hard to stay strong, and to push ahead.

On June 27th I had a final check up with Ralph Mobbs, the neurosurgeon. He studied my latest scans and pronounced my brain perfect: said I had the brain health of a 25-year old! That the scan was completely clear, and that anyone looking at it would not know I’d had surgery. My sisters and I are all conscious of dementia: I told him our mother started suffering from dementia, which was eventually diagnosed as ‘Steele- Richardson Syndrome’, at just 60 years of age. Thank goodness there was no sign of that, but a plump, healthy brain. I joked with Dr Mobbs that my bone density scans all revealed the bones of a healthy 20 year old. It was just a pity about the bits in between!

But by July 24th, and after just two rounds of the full-throttle I. V. chemotherapy, we had Great News: the CT scan that day showed a major – about 70% - shrinkage in the lung tumour. We were ‘over the moon.’ Melvin Chin, the oncologist, also said there was shrinkage in the adrenal gland tumour. He had been expecting that there would be no change at that early stage, so he was thrilled. And I had been dreading the worst, so I was elated. This was a new lease on life: another chance. We were beyond excited.

And Dr Chin was now talking of six rounds of the aggressive chemo cocktail of Cisplatin and Alimta, as he was so pleased with its success so far.

I went off to hospital for the third round of treatment on July 26th 2012. Ross and I arrived at 10am, and the nurses set up the first saline drip using the canula that had been inserted the day before, when I had had blood taken. Then the gimlet-eyed Kim came in, viewed the canula and said they could not use that for the chemo as it was not inserted well enough. There were groans from me, but she inserted another canula without any drama. That’s the difference between an experienced nurse and a young trainee. I noticed none of the nurses wanted to be my tormentor. I could hear them outside my hospital room arguing over who would insert my canula: my veins were rebelling, and in any case I had always hated needles. On the advice of the nurses I decided to have a PowerPort installed before the next round of chemo. This required day surgery.

As I have said, I stayed in hospital with each round of chemo for two nights. I felt safer in hospital and I managed to eat something in there, much to the amusement of the medical team, as hospital food is hardly gourmet. The only problem was that, even though privately insured, I was not always assured of a single room, and some of my room-mates groaned in pain, or snored, all night. Others were loud and had loud visitors who swore in the most depressing way. However, I was safe and was receiving great treatment and great nursing. And the London Olympics had started so the television kept me company during the long hours awake through the night.

The hospital nutritionist came to see me, admonishing me to eat so that I would be strong enough for the two extra rounds of chemo that Dr Chin wanted. My weight had dropped to 44 kilos, down from my best weight of 54 kilos. While I finally had the coveted ‘triangles’ of light between my thighs, I looked pretty fragile and rather pathetic. I had long been of the opinion that a woman can never be too thin – perhaps there is a little of the anorexic in every woman - but even I had to admit I had the look that screamed ‘cancer’.

By August 2012, a week after my fourth round, I was feeling much better. The nausea seemed to last for about eight days and then I would feel like a different person. Happy, almost. I had taken up bridge again, my third attempt to learn this game that so many loved. While most of the conventions didn’t make sense to me – why, for instance, should I bid ‘two clubs’ if I didn’t want to play in that suit - I agreed that the companionship of the other players would be comforting, and something to which I could look forward. But some days I skipped the lesson, too tired to leave the sofa and get out of my pyjamas. I hated feeling so lazy: it was like being trapped in a black tunnel of lethargy and tiredness, with no energy to drag myself free.

On August 17th I had a PowerPort inserted into my chest, above my right breast. The PowerPort is a small device that is inserted under the skin, usually in the chest, that allows blood to be taken. It also allows contrasts to be injected for various scans, instead of via a canula. (The device can be left in for months, even years, and simply requires regular flushing to ensure that it remains clean. Kerry, who is an ‘Outreach Nurse’, visits me at home every three weeks to carry this out, and to take regular blood tests, again through the PowerPort.)

On the day of the procedure we had arrived at the CT scan area in the public section of the hospital at 8.30am, as instructed. Martin, the head teaching nurse, took my blood pressure, and said that, as it was so low, the surgeon, Dr Lim, may not be able to do the procedure. I started crying as, for each of the procedures and treatments, one prepares oneself emotionally, spending many hours awake, anxious; unable to sleep.

The surgeon perhaps took pity on me, for he started the procedure in one of the operating theatres. Whoever said it wouldn’t hurt has not been through the experience. I had begged for Midazolam, a popular sedative in the benzodiazepine range (the valium family) to calm me down. The 3ml dose was not high enough to knock me out, however – a higher dose would have required the presence of an anaesthetist - nor to prevent the local anaesthetic from being extremely painful. Martin had also given me 40 mls of Fentalun which just made me a little light-headed. There must have been some effect, however, as, throughout the procedure, Martin and I talked about his wife’s 48 hour labour; not a topic for regular discussion with someone you have just met.

My fourth round of chemo started that afternoon: what a joy not to suffer the insertion of another canula into a recalcitrant vein.

I went home on the Saturday morning accompanied by a new anti-nausea drug – Olanzapane – which I took at night, and which seemed to be allowing me to sleep for longer periods of time. It reduced the nausea, but I was still unable to eat.

The medical team had planned my chemo treatments to fit in with an idea my three sisters and I had: to have a reunion, each year, for a week. So, in early September 2012 we had a marvellous week up in the Queensland beachside town of Noosa, staying in a beautiful unit with sweeping views of the coast, and the aquamarine sea, all framed by palm trees, leaning laconically. There were walks on the beach and through the adjoining rainforest, many great chats over cups of coffee (with ginger beer for me) in sidewalk cafes. We also ‘unpacked’ some issues, but in a gentle, peaceful way. Nothing seemed important any more. I had found that peace earlier in my illness also, catching up with friends I had not seen for a decade or more. What was important was being alive and spending time with family and friends. Life had become too precious, too precarious, and possibly too short, to bear grudges - big or small.

And there were a lot of other things that no longer mattered: such as how someone held their knife and fork; whether they cut their bread roll, or broke it. That they put a ‘k’ on the end of ‘something’.

The next CT scan at Prince of Wales hospital on September 4th was almost enjoyable, thanks to my new PowerPort. But the great news was that the scan showed the lung tumour had disappeared. The liver tumour had been reduced to a spot and the tumour on the adrenal gland was reduced by fifty percent. The chemo may be poison, but those cancer cells were more averse to it than I. Believe it or not I developed a love-hate relationship with chemotherapy. On the one hand it was disgusting: on the other, it worked. It saved my life. And I had a private, single room for my fifth round of chemo, from September 6th. What a treat. I was feeling terrific.

As the weather warmed into spring, the Olanzapane anti-nausea drug was doing its job, although my appetite for solid foods had not returned. I had received an advance copy of my new book, my 11th: Country Gardens: Country Hospitality. I needed to get on with writing the lecture I would give on my book tour, and with preparing my presentations. I even thought of doing some gentle gardening. And soon the day for my sixth, and last, round of major chemo arrived. It was September 26th. I had come into the hospital the evening before to have blood taken, so that my tumour markers could be checked: again, the PowerPort was accessed. And we had the meeting with the medical oncologist, Melvin Chin, and the medical team which included Gabriel, a charming, courteous and attentive young registrar.

I felt that I had not suffered too much through the treatments, although people regularly told me how brave I was: Ross and I both felt we had been very lucky to have had such fantastic medical attention. The worst of it had been the shock of the diagnosis. One learns very quickly to grab every moment: enjoy and make the most of every day. To live in the moment, as the cliché goes.

On Friday September 28th, after my 6th and final round of the intensive chemo, we had another meeting with the lung surgeon, Professor Brian McCaughan. If the tumours had not disappeared completely he could not operate on my lung: he would not put me through a major operation if cancer was still present in my body. If it was, the next step would be to go onto a regime of light chemo, of just the drug Alimta. The Professor ordered a PET scan, to be conducted just along the road, at Royal Prince Alfred hospital. We walked the hundred yards to have the scan immediately: no point in not taking the first appointment possible, and hearing the news, good or bad. No point in putting my head in the sand.

A few hours later Professor McCaughan rang to say that all the tumours had disappeared. “We could not have asked for a better result,” were his words. Elation is too tame a word for how we felt. I rang Dr Chin, first, and then Leigh Atkinson, in Brisbane, to tell them both the good news, although, as part of my team, the Professor’s office would send them both a report.

The Professor wanted me to have time to put on some weight – said he could not operate on me in my present weakened state - so he was happy for me to go off on my book tour, which was to be almost a month, travelling through New South Wales and Victoria, with Ross doing the driving. I was giving illustrated lectures to garden clubs, libraries and in bookshops: tiring, but very enjoyable. The publicity tours and the speaking engagements are the treat, after the long, lonely hours of writing, of the hours of self-doubt and, at times, even boredom. We travelled south, again along the Hume Highway, to Wagga Wagga, in the Riverina, for the first presentation at the beautiful city library. Then it was on to Benalla, to take part in a weekend of garden openings, and events. We drove on, to west of Mount Macedon to Daylesford, where I photographed Stonefields, the virtuoso garden of the landscaper, Paul Bangay, as well as Musk Farm, the beautiful house and garden of the late Stuart Rattle.

Stopping at several more country towns for radio interviews and book signings we drove on to the lovely seaside town of Port Fairy, before making the long journey along the Great Ocean Road, past the stone apostles, to Queenscliff. The next morning we left early and drove the 12 hours back to Sydney: a tiring but fulfilling trip.

On our return to Sydney we had another meeting with Professor McCaughan: he scheduled surgery for November 27th to remove part – or perhaps all - of my left lung. In the meantime I had my first encounter with the light chemo, the Alimta, and even managed to eat some crackers with cheese and tomato.

But I came to an acceptance that this Thing – cancer – might beat me in the end. That I may not see a century. With the realisation came a new calmness. The question is when. Strange and bizarre how one comes to terms with such a situation, how one accepts what might be inevitable with a new resolve.

*****

 


Noosa

In the very early days of my treatment, when I was finding the canula insertion very distressing, and painful, Martin, the head teaching nurse, had advised me to find a ‘happy place,’ and to teach myself to go there, in my mind, during these unpleasant experiences. I had many more to endure, he had said.

He was suggesting a form of meditation, a practice that many cancer sufferers follow, and that I had tried to learn just after my diagnosis. I’d had a couple of sessions with a ‘wellness expert”, which, I must confess, I had found rather boring. I’d also bought from him a meditation CD, to guide me in the process. I found it impossible to concentrate, however: I rose early each morning to play the disc, but found my mind wandering to the early morning news. Eventually I gave in, and didn’t meditate again. But I did recall several beautiful, happy places to which I could return in my mind during painful treatments.

Just about my favourite happy place was – and still is – in Ros and John Wallinger’s garden, The Manor House at Upton Grey, in the English county of Hampshire. Designed by the renowned designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), the garden is now the most important, and authentic, Jekyll garden in the world. Ros had access to Miss Jekyll’s original plans for the garden, which now reside at UCLA, Berkeley, in California, and has honoured them perfectly. There is a simple seat in the meadow at the edge of the garden, by a winding path that leads to the 13th century village church. During the early treatments I would imagine Ros and I sitting, deep in garden chat, on the seat near the church, in the midst of the old varieties of daffodils that were planted in the early 20th century.

It is endlessly fascinating to reflect upon, and research, the experiences and places that inspired scholars, writers and artists of ancient times. I’d sailed up the Yangtze River, and down the different gorges, wanting to see the landscapes, with their soaring, mist covered peaks, that had inspired earlier scholars and artists. I’d wanted to see it before the Three Gorges Dam had washed it all away, with it hundreds of years of cultural history.

This search for inspiration, and for beauty, has taken me also to the lakes of northern Italy in search of the landscapes that informed 18th and 19th artists and writers. If you’ve long dreamed about these jewel-like bodies of water that string out in the shadow of the Italian and Swiss alps, you’re part of a long tradition of romantic travellers. Poets, diarists, novelists and composers were among the many artists who derived both inspiration and restoration from these glittering waters.

The lakes were most eloquently described by writers like Charles Dickens, George Sitwell, Henry James and Edith Wharton, who were among the throng of American and British literati that descended upon the Lakes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to savour what Wharton called their ‘air of perennial loveliness.’

Lake Como, perhaps the best known, was, wrote Henry James, ‘fairly wallowing in libretto’. Vincenzo Bellini composed Norma and La Sonnambula on its shores in 1831, when he was staying with his lover, the soprano Guiditta Pasta, who first performed his Norma in Milan in 1831. Rossini created Tancredi there, and Verdi wrote Act II of La Traviata at Villa Melzi.

The fantasy gardens that hug the eastern and the western shores of Lake Como are complete works of art, encompassing all the disciplines: the study of history, architecture, sculpture, theatre, performance and imagination, along with, of course, horticulture. In Italy, just as in the United Kingdom, plant hunters were sponsored by leading families who received, in return, dividends in the form of seeds of the botanical bounty. And the owners of these grand gardens competed with each other – for the most up-to-date design and for the rarest botanical treasures.

Among several great gardens is the Villa del Balbianello, perched a-top a terraced promontory on the western shore of Lake Como. It’s where James Bond, in the guise of the actor Daniel Craig, convalesced after being assaulted by the evil ‘Le Chiffre’ in the 2006 version of Casino Royale. Before the movie makers arrived, however, Lake Como was patronised by princes and cardinals; villas were built on its shores by industrial and banking families who chose the unique setting for their holiday retreats; then by writers and artists from the UK and US.

Balbianello was created for the ambitious Cardinal Angelo Durini in the late 18th century on the site of a 13th century Franciscan monastery. It was bought and renovated in the 1970’s by the Italian Himalayan explorer Guido Monzino, and the villa now houses not only his collection of treasures from his myriad interests, but a fascinating, and somewhat chilling, museum of artefacts from his climbs in the Himalaya.

As well as the landscape suggesting the layout of the garden at Balbianello, the shallow soil of the rocky site has dictated the choice of plant species. Those three essentials of Italian gardens – water, stone and evergreen plants – are again employed here. On the main lawn in spring, the bare, twisted branches of the sculpted plane trees form a tracery against the clear blue sky; their crowns provide lush canopies to shade high summer.

In front of the villa holm oaks are carefully pruned to ensure the view is not compromised, while a backdrop of obelisk-like cypress introduces the woodland that clothes the steep mountains in the background.

The expansive terrace in front of the villa is protected by a stone balustrade separating the garden from the lake beyond: it is decorated with urns of cascading geraniums, their brilliant red blooms in perfect counterpoint to the burnt umber wash on the villa walls behind, and to the intense blue of the water below.

It is easy to understand why these great gardens, each set like a jewel in the landscape, remain loved by so many. As Edith Wharton wrote, in ‘Italian Villas and Their Gardens,’ published in 1904, “The Italian garden must be studied in relation to the house, and both in relation to the landscape. They are part of the same beautiful composition.” At Villa del Balbianello the relationship between towering mountains, the garden and the lake it overlooks is all important, existing as if created together.

I can never look at my pictures of the Villa del Balbienello without a chuckle. Just after I first visited a few years ago - it was just prior to the financial meltdown which has become known as the GFC - I had lunch with a friend at Bellagio, the small town on the finger of land that protrudes into Lake Como. My friend, an English girl who was married to an Italian chef and who had lived there for more than two decades, was, figuratively, tearing her hair out. She was arranging a wedding for two New York bankers who were to be married at Balbienello the following week. It seemed that daily they emailed with more demands. Just that morning they had phoned asking that a helicopter might drop rose petals onto the ceremony and over the bridal couple. Now, as we all know, Italy is a sophisticated country: it does fabric and cut like no other culture - but such obsessive attention to extravagant detail was almost vulgar to the Italians.

After all, when you have a wedding venue like the Villa del Balbienello, what more could you want? Needless to say, they did not get their helicopter, and one wonders how they are faring post-GFC.

three gorges Villa Melzi Lake Como

Upton Grey small

I needed to take my mind to beautiful places as I prepared for the lung surgery that was to be performed at Strathfield Private Hospital on 27th November, 2012, the day after my 59th birthday. Operating through my back, Professor McCaughan removed the top left lobe and some lymph nodes. I was in intensive care for a day, with tubes, it seemed, in every part of my body, including a tube with a clicker that dispensed a shot of morphine. I gave that clicker a mighty workout, but of course it was regulated so that a patient could not over-dose. The biopsy the day after the operation revealed that there was is no cancer left at all in my lung, nor the lymph nodes. Professor McCaughan said these results were miraculous, that only 4% of lung cancer patients have such results. I was feeling terrific, although there was discomfort for about a week. But I luxuriated in a room filled with flowers. And, more than a year later, I have a beautiful scar on my back. I’m rather proud of it: a battle scar.

In late January 2013 we met with our oncologist, Melvin Chin. He was thrilled with the results of the year of treatment. Again, as with each of our consultations with each doctor, we could have been forgiven for thinking we were his only patient, such was his patience and attention to detail. We expressed our great gratitude for his decisions and approach, and for his support of us consulting Professor McCaughan, who was brave enough to remove half of my lung, along with the lymph nodes. You receive all sorts of ‘medical’ advice from lay people when you contract cancer. Cancer seems to attract a legion devoted to Dr Google.

In the January of 2013 I finally succumbed to the acupuncture that a dear English friend - a cancer survivor – had been asking me to have. She insists that acupuncture releases the toxins left in the body from the chemotherapy, and boosts the immune system. She is probably correct, and I did try it for a few sessions. I’m not sure I noticed any improvement in how I felt; but it did me no harm. Another friend advised me to load up on Vitamin C: not good advice as many doctors believe that vitamin C is contra-indicated in cancer treatment. I was trying to return to a normal life and that included returning to being blond. My hair was growing back slowly: an unattractive tone of grey. But I no longer moved - nor even took vitamins -without checking with my medical team. During my January 2013 meeting with Dr Chin, he said he had no problem with hair dyes. So I could go back to being blond when my hair grew a little more. Also that I could do as much exercise as I wanted. He was very pleased when a CT scan revealed that my left lung had expanded to fill the void left by the surgery just six weeks prior. He said this showed I was doing my exercises. In fact, I hate exercise and really have to force myself to take part in most. I was doing aqua-robics at a local gym: to me it was almost as boring as meditation. I also intended to re-start the body pump and body balance classes that were the most effective, and least tedious, for me. All that up-beat music helped. And I was looking forward to getting back on the golf course, the combination of two of my favourite activities: walking and talking. But that was before I suffered rotator cuff injuries in both shoulders. Ahh: I just want back the body that I thought was bullet proof.

In early 2013 I was receiving ‘light chemo’ treatments of only Alimta, which seemed to have few side effects. There were side effects that I thought were from the surgery, however, one of which was an intense tingling in my arms, hands and feet. At first I worried that the tingling may be an early warning of a stroke, but eventually I discovered that it is quite a common side effect of chemotherapy, known as poly-neuropathy. More than a year later, the sensation of pins and needles is still present in a very mild form. I had also had a very unpleasant withdrawal symptom when I stopped taking the pain- killer, the drug Oxycontin, as soon as I was no longer in pain. The result was that each night I had the strangest sensation of ants crawling inside in my stomach. I could not sleep, and had to pace the floor to find some relief. The doctors told me it is a common withdrawal problem encountered with opiates, and is called ‘formication’. I suppose that is one of the dreadful symptoms that drug addicts experience when they attempt to go 'cold turkey.' I weaned myself off the drug by taking one every second night; then just once a week, and quickly, avoiding them completely.

In early February, 2013, I had the last of the three rounds of Alimta, the light chemo, intended to ‘mop up’ any lingering cancer cells. The MRI and CT scan I had that day showed my body was completely clear of cancer. In our meeting with Dr Chin and the medical team I started crying. It was, I think, a combination of emotions: happiness, gratitude and on-going fear. Mostly, I was so grateful to them for all their care. And I think the year of the shocking diagnosis and the treatment had been more stressful than I admitted. I had tried to stay as strong and as dignified as possible, and suddenly, when it looked like we were through the worst, it all became overwhelming: all just too much. That afternoon we sent 'The Team' a huge vase of flowers.

I’ve said that I am always searching for the perfect place, seeking to capture its beauty in a photograph. And readers often ask me how to take great pictures. In an attempt at self-deprecation I usually reply, “Get a good camera.” There are several factors, however, which can make your photographs better, whatever camera you use.

When presenting lectures on photography I discuss what I call ‘the three muses’ of good photography: Light, Composition and Colour, the three keys to success. I tell my audience that to take great pictures it needs to understand these elements. Great pictures evoke an emotional response from the viewer; we might call this the ‘gasp factor.’

Today, thanks to easy-to-use digital cameras – and even smart phones - taking images of our own garden, or of other people’s, is possible for each of us. Even with fully automatic cameras, however, respecting these three muses, or elements, will maximise the success of our photographs.

As I’ve said, my quest for the perfect picture can take me to some dangerous locations and can lead me into some interesting situations. The desire for capturing place and atmosphere can have me lying on my stomach for hours, waiting for perfect light.

There are many reasons for photographing a garden or a landscape, apart from the obvious: the memory of an inspirational scene. We might want to record ideas from a garden we are visiting, or to take a close up shot of a plant to purchase later. In our own garden we can record the changing seasons. Pictures can be used, also, as a design tool: while the naked eye inadvertently takes in many extraneous elements, the lens will capture layout and focus our attention on any faults.

For examples of my three muses we might visit an art gallery: we need look no further than the impressionist painters for lessons in light, composition and the use of colour. Monet’s Haystack series illustrates perfectly how light changes throughout the day and how mood and atmosphere are influenced by that light. And think of his series of canvasses depicting his beloved water lilies. Beautiful light can make the most ordinary landscape special: capture it, and a plain picture will become a work of art.

To garden photographers, particularly in Australia, where midday light is so harsh, early morning and late afternoon offer the magic hours. When light is your muse you can never rest. Even on rainy days you’re alert for that unique light that can stream through clouds after a thunder storm. The garden then appears illuminated, every flower glowing, every raindrop shimmering.

When I am lecturing on garden photography I often use a favourite image of Bentley, John and Robin Hawkins’ Meander Valley, Tasmania, property, to illustrate the points I want to make. I show the massive hay bales in the paddock, which were lit by the setting sun; the sun also illuminating the house, which is described, in architects’ language, as a ‘19th century Melbourne Town Villa.’ On the evening I took a favourite shot of Bentley the sun was also lighting up Mother Cummings Peak, which we had all scaled the day before.

Again, there is no better teacher than the impressionist painter to demonstrate good composition. You might notice how a river, or a lane, won’t cut through the centre of a painting, but, rather, will meander across it in a diagonal fashion. Notice how tall poplars might frame a view of distant mountains. Keep compositions tight to eliminate distracting details: we are seeking simplicity and balance. Edit is the key word here: we don’t want to capture on paper all that we might see with the naked eye.

And I am always thinking about the position of my camera. I’ll move around with the camera: left, then right. I’ll get down low, a stance which can have me thinking I am encouraging early arthritis! Gardens with a strong structure are easier to photograph well than more natural, free-flowing spaces: think of well clipped box hedges in a formal garden. If a garden is more free form I’ll always look for a focal point - employ a fountain, a tree or a building - to attract the eye and to anchor the scene.

I always suggest that my audience thinks about colour. Colour can be the subject of the photograph, and can transform the ordinary into the memorable. Bright, vibrant primary colours can provide the drama of a shot. We need to keep our eyes open for great colour combinations: cerise bougainvillea romping through a jacaranda, for example, or a jacaranda flowering behind the vivid red bracts of a poinciana tree. In late winter the combination of purple native sarsaparilla (Hardenbergia violacea) with the South American Pyrostegia venusta, the orange trumpet vine, might remind you that nature doesn’t make mistakes.If the subject is of paler tones texture may become the subject: dew drops, perhaps.

Then, I will ask my audience to consider the story their picture seeks to tell. What is the hero of their shot? With a manual focus one might bring the hero into sharp relief, while ‘blowing out’ – or fading out - the background, I suggest. You’ll use this technique when taking close-up pictures – macros - of flowers, focusing on the stamens, perhaps. Again, move around to discover an interesting angle. And the macro shot, with a short depth of field, is a saviour when the background is less than desirable.

And a last piece of advice I give is: Go slowly. Look around. Don’t be hasty; for the law of contrary light dictates that, the moment you pack your cameras away, deciding that the skies are leaden, the dark clouds will part and a glorious green light will shine through, providing you with that winning picture.

So, this campaign for the great shot can have me lying on my stomach at dusk to capture the best angle in the best light, while everyone else might be in the house enjoying pre-dinner drinks. It can have me up before dawn, capturing that pale, milky light that makes watery Venice a photographer’s dream city – and a subject loved by the watercolourist Joseph Mallord Turner (1775-1851). Not for nothing was he dubbed ‘the Painter of Light.’

A few Octobers ago the quest for the great shot had me wading into Lake Bled, a glacial lake in Slovenia’s Julian Alps, to capture the autumn colours reflected there – much to the consternation of my intense, knowledgeable and fascinating guide, Dragan, who was worried I might fall in. But the greatest danger of the lake was the coffee topped with a mountain of whipped cream that was served in the castle café on its shore, and to which I became somewhat addicted.

There are dangers greater than calorie-laden Viennese coffee, however. It was the search for the perfect picture that took me to the wild cliffs of Western Australia’s Margaret River. In February 2012 I was photographing a biodynamic vineyard, Cullen Wines, for the final chapter of my book, Country Gardens: Country Hospitality.

Western Australia is known for its majestic eucalypt forests of karri and marri, its pristine beaches and jewel-like turquoise oceans. While the climate can be harsh, and the soil most often sandy, the state has plenty to offer the horticulturalist as well as the adventurer. There are over 8 000 species of wildflowers which burst into flower between August and November, particularly if there have been good winter rains.

Driving north, or south, from Perth, you’ll find pale swathes of smokebush, (Conospermum spp.), thought to have possible curative properties for cancer. There is also Dryandra sessilis, a favourite with the beekeepers as it flowers in winter to produce a unique honey.

The fabulous Eucalyptus macrocarpa, with its large silver leaves and spectacular red flowers and fruit, is indigenous to the northern sand plains, along withblue boy (Stirlingia latifolia), named after Sir James Stirling, first Governor of Western Australia.

If you are driving north, along the Brand Highway, you’ll pass a mass of the brilliant blue Lechenaultia biloba, growing with the buttercup-yellow Hibbertia hypericoides. A little further north are wide expanses of Banksia hookerana, a favourite for cut flower market. In all directions you’ll find low-growing cat’s paw (Anigozanthos humilis) and the slow-growing native grass trees, (Xanthorroea preissii).

The everlasting daisies, in particular, form a finely detailed tapestry of pinks, whites, yellows and blues in spring. In early summer in the Margaret River the delicate donkey orchids flower.

The oceans that lap the region provide a gentle, maritime climate, cooler than Perth just three hours to the north, but still frost-free. The region runs from the wild Cape Leeuwin, where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet, to Naturaliste Bay in the north.

My host in The Margaret suggested we go to the Willyabrup cliffs, near her straw bale house, at sunset so that I could photograph the cliffs as they took on glorious colours – pinks, ochres and reds – as the sun dropped to the ocean. While it is a popular spot for climbers and abseillers, I found clambering down the treacherous cliffs to a ledge to photograph from the best angle was frightening, and difficult with my heavy camera – but I captured some great shots.

Trekking home, across the windswept fields to my friend’s house, she suddenly pulled me backwards. On the ground was a small, green-grey snake. “Well, that’s just a tiddler,” I said. “Can’t have much of a bite.” “It’s a Dugite,” was her reply. “One of the deadliest snakes in the world.”

I must admit I have a phobia about snakes. As well as the near miss with the dugite, I’ve had two ‘run-ins’ with tiger snakes – and am still talking about the experiences. The first was in the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales, near the town of Walcha. I was looking for a property I was to photograph, and had been given very specific directions by the owner. However, the directions – or the distances at which he told me to turn off the main road – were wrong. I drove up and down the road, following his instructions, which had been so specific, exactly. I could not find the turn, however, and eventually stopped at a lovely old stone house to ask directions. As I wandered around the garden, hoping to find someone at home, and pushing past dry stone walls, a Jack Russell terrier was leaping at me, running in front of me, and yapping fiercely. Suddenly I trod on what I assumed was a piece of poly pipe. As I looked back, however, I saw it was a large snake, it’s thick body protruding from the dry stone wall. I was so lucky its head was already in the wall. That clever dog had been trying to warn me!

I rushed onto the road, almost hysterical, and flagged down a car. The driver knew the property I was trying to find and guided me there. When I arrived (much later than the appointed time) at the garden and described the snake, with its diamond pattern on a gun-metal grey body, the owner said, “Oh that was a tiger snake.” And his wife said he had given me inaccurate directions! Years later I was still telling the story, and rubbing my leg, prompting one friend to ask if I was sure I hadn’t been bitten. Not that I would have been there to tell the tale!

My second encounter with the lethal, and usually very aggressive, tiger was on a trek to Mount Kosciuszko, one Christmas. It’s a walk of about four hours to the peak: at 2,228 metres above sea level it is Australia’s highest mountain. On the way to the summit you pass several beautiful alpine lakes and, in summer, meadows of wild flowers: billy buttons, paper daisies and alpine celery. On this day I stepped off the iron, above-ground pathway to crouch down low to photograph Cootapatamba Lake, beyond it Dead Horse Gap, and foregrounded by a meadow of wild flowers. And I stepped straight onto a tiger snake. Luckily for me, he was dozing in the sun, and I had leapt back onto the path before he had summoned the energy to strike.

Snakes are not my only encounter with wildlife. I have discovered that roosters can make great guard dogs. A few years ago I turned up, at the appointed time, to photograph a marvellous rose garden in central Victoria. As I was wandering around the garden, calling out for the owner, a huge rooster suddenly flew at me, hitting me in the face. Ah: a photographer’s life is full of danger.

Bentley1

They say that grief is a very individual emotion. Most people, I have observed, when they suffer a devastating, sudden tragedy, want to make some good come from it. Want to ensure that a life lost, if that is the tragedy, will not be wasted. And so it was with me.

My baby son, William, died in February 1986, at the age of five weeks, from cot death, or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Nearly three decades later, I still cry when I think of him. It is strange, and a little confronting, to think my twins and my youngest child would not have been born if William had not died. It feels as if he gave up his life for them. But in 1986 all I felt was hideous, shuddering grief. Each Wednesday, the day he died, I would cry for hours. Sunday, the day he was born, brought more tears: this went on for months.

After a tragedy many people feel they can never again have a normal conversation with you. Guarded and careful becomes the new normal. In the end it is more comfortable for them to avoid you, to cross the road when they see you coming. And I behaved strangely at times. I found myself telling complete strangers in a supermarket that I had lost my baby son. I felt that I must look very odd, that I must be wearing my grief like a heavy winter overcoat. I felt the need to explain.

Some friends, however, asked how they could help. I decided I wanted to hold a ball to raise funds for research into this terrible mystery. So, with a small committee, I organised the ball that we called ‘A Summer Cotillion in the Gardens,’ held that November at the base of Sydney’s Fleet Steps, off Mrs Macquarie’s Road. It was the first event ever to be held at that fabulous site.

The city lights had not yet sprung to life when guests arrived, that night, on a red carpet that was scattered with rose petals. As the guests in their evening wear walked down the steps – or alighted from boats that moored at the sea wall - they were met by 20 waiters who lined the red carpet, each holding a tray of six half-filled flutes of Champagne. Each tray held a different brand of Champagne. As I was running The Champagne Information Centre on behalf of the Comite Interprofessionnel du Champagne (CIVC) - an account I held for 25 years, as part of my public relations business - the importers had generously donated the Champagne.

The band played as a vocalist crooned ‘My City of Sydney’ and as the sun set to the west of the city. Like a glistening, many-sailed ship, the Opera House opposite rose from the harbour, at the end of Bennelong Point.

Inside the marquee, which was swathed in softly draped silks in a rainbow of pastel tones – for the theme of the evening was ‘Over The Rainbow’ - the head waiter checked table settings. Tall glass cylinders (fashionable at the time) held cascades of blush pink and pale yellow roses, and trailing jasmine. Guests danced under the stars after a dinner prepared by three of Sydney’s leading chefs. It was a memorable night and I felt that I had done something positive to celebrate William’s little life.

I’ve been trying to find a place to relate a little tale that goes to the difference between French and Australian men. A chapter on Grief is hardly the correct spot, but, as I am speaking of Champagne, I am going to put it here. I read recently, “In France, seduction is a form of politeness and means no more than any other courtesy.” That explains a lot. It also brings to mind an experience I had many years ago.

I was at my annual meeting of the Champagne Public Relations executives, in Epernay, at the headquarters of the CIVC. At the morning coffee break the head of a major house – and in those days, when many of the houses were still owned by the original families, they all spoke beautiful English, and were all unfailingly polite, charming and oh, so elegant – asked me if I would like to have dinner with him in Paris. “Oh, yes, I’d love to meet your wife,” I replied brightly. He never repeated the invitation.

It was some years before I realised that I had misunderstood him: that he was not inviting me for a dinner en famille. And I wondered if he thought Aussie women were very adept at the elegant rebuff, or if he thought we were just charmingly naïve. If I could remember who it was, I might ask him. But how I wish some Australian wine men were so elegant: instead, they would turn into very unpleasant bullies when tactfully rebuffed. And their mates in the Australian wine industry would regard one as a bore and a nuisance for complaining loudly about appalling behaviour.

But back to my fund-raising ball for William. One guest wrote me a lovely letter after the event: “As I drove home I did reflect on the fact that William, in his short life, had accomplished, through you, rather more than most of us will in three score years and ten.” I carried that treasured note around with me for many years, tucked safely into my wallet. One evening I left my wallet on a train in London. Weeks later, the note was returned to me, at home in Sydney. I now keep it in a very safe place.

The year William died 500 babies and toddlers died from cot death. In 2011 that figure was 63. A great part of this reduction – while that was still too many, of course – can be put down to the Reduce the Risks campaign, funded by Red Nose Day, an annual campaign for which I conducted the public relations over almost a decade. With a small group of volunteers and professionals the campaign raised almost 50 million dollars throughout Australia.

The Reduce the Risks campaign recommended several things: no smoking, of course, and certainly not near the baby, and sleeping the baby on the back, rather than on the stomach, as had long been recommended. Also, not swaddling the baby and not surrounding the cot with thick ‘bumping’ that could restrict free air flow. Among the many theories as to the cause of cot death, this last was, I still believe, the cause of my William’s death. In the same sort of theory known as ‘the canary in the coalmine’ I believe some babies are vulnerable if they re-breath their own air.

I worry greatly when, today, I see young parents several generations on from mine pushing prams that are completely covered by a blanket or even by a light gauze sheet. I have also been horrified to see some prams with a zippered, closed plastic cover encasing the pram. I know these parents believe they are protecting their child from dust, pollution, wind or sun, but I shudder when I see it. What has happened to our successful Reduce the Risks campaign?

Grief has many stages and is helped by seeking to make a difference, I believe. People can hinder though: they often don’t know what to say and can sometimes make devastating comments. I remember that I was at the hairdresser three months after William’s death: I was crying. A woman I knew asked me what was wrong. When I told her, she said, in surprise, “But that was three months ago.” You never get over such a tragedy as losing a child: the best you can hope for is to learn to live with it.

Grief is a little like a lift ascending toward the light and then - often at the 16–week mark - collapsing to the dungeon. There were days when, in my glass-walled office, grief would overwhelm me and I would sit at my desk, sobbing. My staff, all young women who perhaps had no experience with loss, were wide eyed and alarmed, not knowing how to comfort me.

When I asked a doctor how long I would feel so desperately sad he replied it would be at least six months before I would feel any better. I thought I could not possibly survive with this grief for six months. I would die from a broken heart. I had to keep myself together for my elder child, who was just a toddler, however.

Then I became pregnant again. With twins. What a gift. After several years, when asked how I was, I was able, once again, to reply, “Wonderful.”

I started 2013 with a climb up Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom that is wedged between China and India, at the end of a two-week tour with ten guests. True, I rode a horse up the first half of the climb as I told myself that I would not be much use to our group if I, the leader, suffered a heart attack – and my lung surgery had been performed only late in the prior November. And the climb is arduous: during the first part of the climb you must clamber over large boulders and stumble over very uneven ground. The horse ride up also takes quite a bit of effort as the horses, sure footed as they are, don’t provide an armchair ride. I climbed the last 900 steps, which was exhausting for everyone. It’s dangerous, too, with the cliff sides having no barriers, guards or railings: Health and Safety regulations were not too obvious in Bhutan.

Lunch had been arranged by our local guide, Tsehwang Rinchin, below right, and a team of helpers in a colourful tent at the end of the climb, once we had descended the mountain and trekked through the wonderfully scented pine forest. ‘Out of Africa’ in the Himalaya! I still had little appetite, however, and was not Holly at Tigers Nestenjoying Bhutanese food.

Then, in June, Ross came to Europe with me when I lectured on a very smart riverboat, as it toured the Rhine and the Danube Rivers. After that we led a delightful group of Australians on a week-long tour of the chateaux gardens of the Loire Valley. I felt terrific: strong, energetic and very positive. My appetite returned. And we were so very lucky with the weather; just two weeks after our return from Europe terrible floods put a temporary end to the river boats.

It was strange then, that after we returned home to Sydney in late June I became disorientated and dizzy. I had a constant sensation of jetlag: if I turned my head quickly I felt as if I had left my brain outside my skull. Crossing the road was treacherous, as I was very unsteady on my feet. Anyone walking behind me may have thought I was a little tipsy! I was very worried that I had developed a neurological disorder – or that I had suffered a small stroke. However the CT and MRI scans revealed that everything was fine. I was so relieved – as was ‘my’ medical team.

The next step was to find the cause of my dizziness: I had thought I was completely cured, and did not welcome this new challenge. A meeting with a neurologist, Professor James Colebatch, again at Prince of Wales Hospital, put my mind at rest. The day before my appointment I had to undergo a vestibular assessment, also known as a caloric reflex test. As the first stage of the test – with warm and cool water in the ears - was inconclusive the technician advanced it to a higher level. That was incredibly painful as it involved the injection of freezing water into my ears. That really was torture. At least it only went on for a minute or two, and I knew it was essential for a diagnosis.  

The test showed some damage to my inner ear, which explained the symptoms I had been having: my dizziness and the lack of balance. It is called Benign Positional Vertigo. It did not seem benign to me, however, but it was now just a matter of waiting for the unpleasant sensations to subside, while also doing simple exercises I had been given.

I happened to run into a young mother – the daughter of a close friend – whose baby had recovered from being terribly ill with cancer for almost two years. When I told her of my dizziness she immediately asked if my chemo drug cocktail had included cisplatin, as she said that drug destroyed the tiny hairs in the ears, detrimentally effecting balance. It seems that it will be a long road to complete recovery. A few more hills to climb. I just hope they are not too high.

Tsewhang


 

Celebrity is an interesting phenomenon. Some people court it; others hide from it. I’ve heard a celebrity - one who appears often on television opining that she has a right to privacy - talking loudly on her phone, in a Sydney bakery, in front of several other customers. She was relating all the ‘great events’ she went to when she was in Los Angeles, how long she was home in Australia on her current trip, and other matters that no one in the shop was interested in. She would point to what she wanted among the treats behind the glass presentation counter, without pausing in her phone conversation. Clearly good manners don’t always accompany fame.

Some celebrities seem to attract a mob of photographers wherever they go. A friend of mine who is, I must confess, a rather infamous paparazzo, says one high profile actor who often accuses him of stalking her, actually rings him regularly to tell him where she will be. Then she complains when he turns up. Others, he says, now post their whereabouts on social media. Then complain when they are photographed. As he says, if your worst problem is being photographed, then you are pretty fortunate. And I would add, “You can’t ‘run with the hare and hunt with hounds.’”

Others though, seem to live their lives without fuss. They don’t get mobbed, and the so-called paparazzi don’t harass them. I have often seen the actors I consider about the very best in the business – Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe – in my neighbourhood, going about their business without fuss, without drawing attention to themselves. Nobody hassles them. Why is that?

A few years ago I was invited to give a key note address at The National Library, in honour of Peter Cundall, a much loved gardening celebrity. He had just retired after decades as a prominent television host on Australia’s national television station. At the lunch before the big event I was shocked that people approached him, dragged him up from his seat while he was trying to enjoy his meal and insisted on having their picture taken with him. One woman even kissed him on the lips. EEEK! He told me that he cannot even go into a supermarket to buy cheese without people asking him which variety he is buying. I am told that ‘celebrity chefs’ have the same problem. Perhaps it is that television brings these people into our lives so often we forget that we don’t actually know them.

When Peter commented that I must find it the same I demurred: “Certainly not.” No one recognises me, which is fine. I am never ‘camera ready’ as one young friend in Public Relations advises her clients to be! But there was one incident, I remembered. I had spoken at a writers’ festival, and after my address I was sitting chatting with my publisher at an outdoor table. A woman rushed up to us with an excited and expectant look on her face. I assumed she was intending to say how much she enjoyed my books. I prepared myself to be gracious in reply. However, she shouted “I love your glasses. Where did you buy them.” With that she took my blue and tan-rimmed glasses – without which I cannot see - off my startled face and put them on. A tiny, but most unwelcome invasion of privacy, and my personal space, it gave me a little insight into what some celebrities must go through.

There is not much celebrity in giving lectures, either, something regularly requested of garden writers. And while I love libraries, they can often, inadvertently I am sure, make tricky demands of writers in all genres. And most people who attend lectures at libraries happily tell you that they don’t buy books. That’s why they joined the library. Fair enough, but audiences should note that it can take many hours to prepare a good lecture, with, in the case of a garden writer, a well-constructed Powerpoint presentation. And a kindly note to librarians: don’t wheel in other writers’ books to sell when an author has given up his morning to speak to your Friends’ or Members’ event.

I was discussing events at libraries with a garden writer colleague a few years ago. I had driven several hours south of Sydney to reach a certain library, I told her. The President of the Friends had suggested I bring my books to sell, so I assumed I would at least re-coup my petrol.

Before my address, the President spent some 40 minutes on ‘housekeeping’ and discussing the following month’s lecturer. Then she said “No need to buy Holly’s book today as I have bought a copy for the library.” And all this took so much time that the audience was desperate, by this stage, to get to the buffet lunch, rather than to listen to me. And so I had to lug boxes of books back to the car and back to Sydney.

Anyway, I related this sorry tale to my colleague, who said she had also spoken for the same library, having got herself down to the venue on the train. After the address, she was presented with a very unattractive teaspoon for her troubles. On the way home on the train she was so offended by the somewhat ungracious and ungrateful behaviour of her hosts that she flung the teaspoon out of the train window, and with that, the sapphire in her engagement ring went too. We were both in no doubt that we were not celebrities!

*****  

Ross and I had started planning the trip to Hawaii, for all our children and their partners, mid-way through 2012. It was, in part, my demonstration of my determination to beat ‘The Thing.’ So, in November 2013, Ross and I had two weeks, ‘stateside’ in the United States. We then met the children at Honolulu airport in Hawaii and flew to Kaua’i, the oldest and most northerly island of the Hawaiian archipelago. Justly dubbed ‘The Garden Isle,’ Kaua’i is a 1,456.4 km2 jewel of rich volcanic soil and high rainfall in which tropical plants – both native and exotic - flourish.

Kaua’i, discovered by Polynesian voyagers centuries ago, is blessed with spring fed waterfalls that crash onto white-sand beaches, is decorated with jungle covered, emerald green mountains that melt into a clear sea and with groves of palms that bend and sway under a bloated moon.

Archaeologists believe the earliest settlers to the Hawaiian Islands had arrived by 200 AD, probably from the Marquesas Islands to the south. A second wave of immigrants arrived in about 1200 AD from the islands around Tahiti, bringing with them a complex social and religious system. The northern part of Kaua’i, Hanalei Bay, with its protective mountain folds, its springs and streams, heavy rainfall, and its abundant marine life soil, was among the first areas settled. We had rented a very beautiful, very large house in this beautiful spot.

The trip was a wonderful success, with dinners, which regularly became a little raucous, around the large table on the lanai – as the Hawaiians call the verandah – each evening. Corny as it may be, ‘Blue Hawaii’ has long been one of my favourite songs. My 60th birthday dinner was held at the beautiful Halekulani Hotel, overlooking an Hawaiian sunset: I was surrounded by my family. What more could I ask for?

I had been so strong for so many months, that, when the meltdown came, on Christmas Eve 2013, it surprised and shocked the family. It was caused by such a silly, little, thing. I had been fussing about making that delicious and decadent Italian dessert, Tiramisu, for Christmas Day: we would have that instead of plumb pudding. I was the only one who liked plumb pudding, in any case - and we all loved Tiramisu.

Ross, trying to be kind and considerate, kept telling me that we didn’t need a pudding. Instead of accepting his comments for the considerate concern that they represented, I got huffy, and said we couldn’t have a Christmas lunch without a pudding. Then I burnt my hand on a sandwich maker that had been left on. It was just a little burn, but it hurt, and it pushed me over the edge. I stood at the kitchen sink with my hand under the running tap, and sobbed. Bawled my eyes out, in fact. Sobbed and sobbed. Loudly. Ross is not good with histrionics, and so he ignored me. My two sons, eyes wide in disbelief, rushed over, one bringing a plastic bag of water and ice cubes, the other putting a strong arm around my shoulders. Silly behaviour from me, but it had just all become too much. I was tired of being brave.

Happily, as all our Christmas’s have been, the day was wonderful – and the Tiramisu delicious! For the first time ever we were just immediate family around the lunch table. After brunch and present opening, all the boys defected to the television room to watch the football – or was it the cricket? The girls moved to the kitchen to cook, and gossip. I suppose it was a very Aussie Christmas.

I spent the 14th February 2014, Valentine’s Day, at the Prince of Wales hospital, undergoing a battery of tests: a blood test, a CT scan and an MRI – all accessed through my beloved PowerPort. It was an extremely stressful day, and in the days leading up to these six-monthly tests I had hardly slept. Is this going to be my life, now? Getting a reprieve for six months and then worrying in the lead up to the tests? My tests were ‘all clear’: a weight was lifted off my shoulders and I became, again, very emotional.

I am now officially ‘in remission’, or ‘cancer free’, although I hardly dare say it. I appear in a fund raising video for The Nelune Foundation, which is raising many millions of dollars for a new Cancer Centre at POW, described as ‘Holly Kerr Forsyth: Cancer Survivor.’

It now remains for me to get fit again: essential to support the immune system. The University of New South Wales runs a ‘Lifestyle Clinic’ offering ‘exercise and lifestyle therapies during and after cancer treatment.’

How have I survived five malignant tumours? It was, in no particular order, thanks to a superbly skilled medical team, including oncologists, surgeons, radiologists, nurses and orderlies, good luck, and staying strongly positive throughout: easier said than done, especially after I.V. chemotherapy starts. And because of the unconditional and unremitting love of my husband, children, sisters and friends.

I felt an urgent need to write about this experience; this adventure: that it was important to relate what I had gone through. I hope it will help others who might be undergoing treatment and inspire everyone to grasp adventures, with or without a camera.

Writing for me is like exercise is for many other people. I feel quite unsettled – almost distressed – if I am not at my laptop every day, and usually for many hours. Some people feel like that about exercise. They become agitated if they don’t run daily. I wish I had that devotion to exercise, but the truth is I will come up with any excuse to avoid it. I must change that; must get off the sofa. Close the laptop.

But I want to share the words of someone else – I can’t remember who – about writing. It has helped me greatly as I try to put relevant words on paper. To get those words in the right order, as Tom Stoppard said.

Three things are needed for good writing, I read:

“A fully imagined audience. Something important or interesting to say. And, a Sense of Urgency.” Those thoughts have resonated with me as I have sought to reveal some moments, and months and years, of my life. I hope it helps some going through tough times, and interests others who are lucky enough to escape this dreaded ‘Thing.’

As I’ve gone through my writing life, researching and reading along the way, I’ve collected favourite words and thoughts of thinkers and philosophers through several centuries. Many of them relate to gardens, and places of beauty. So, the last words could go to any one of a selection of world leaders, politicians, historians, artists, writers, philosophers or psychologists who wrote of the important things in life. I’ve already quoted the Greek historian, Xenophon, who wrote, in 399 BC, of the Persian King Cyrus: “The great king, in all the districts he resides, takes care that there are Paradises – full of all the good and beautiful things that the soil will provide.”

Or Thomas Jefferson in the early 19th century: we know from his letter books that Jefferson was passionate about his garden at Monticello, in Virginia, where, in his three-hectare vegie garden, he planted some 300 varieties of vegetables. “I can honestly say,” he wrote to a friend, “that I would rather be in my garden than at a long table dining with all the heads of state” - to Robert Browning, who wrote, “Trust in nature for the laws of beauty and utility.” As the designer, writer and artist William Morris, the proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

But I particularly love the words of the American wilderness explorer and environmentalist, John Muir, who wrote, in 1911, in his book, ‘The Yosemite,’ “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread; places to play and pray in, where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” And as his President, Theodore Roosevelt realised, and set in legislation, it’s a joy, and a privilege, to be in pristine places.

This search for beauty - the search for Paradise - is something, I suggest, that all cultures – and their garden makers - have in common, whether we garden on a balcony in the city in the shadow of tall buildings, or on country hectares - or on the edge of a glorious lake like the great banking and industrial families of Italy, Switzerland and Germany.

It’s a cliché I suppose; certainly a true-ism to say that it’s the simple things that make us most happy. Think, for instance, of the utter bliss of holding your sleeping child – or grandchild - in your arms. Or the satisfaction of sharing a perfect cup of coffee and a good chat with a friend who wants nothing more from you than the pleasure of your company. Standing in a garden in the early morning light on a soft spring or summer day, the scent of anticipation hovering in the air, is another of such simple, but perfect, pleasures.

Perhaps the Swiss psycho-analyst Karl Gustav Jung was thinking about landscape and garden images - which he often used in his therapy - when he warned against, “Man’s estrangement from the mythical realm and the subsequent shrinking of his existence to the mere factual.”

And I read recently that you need just three things for happiness: Someone to love; something to do; and something to look forward to. I have these things in abundance.