Art and nature: Sunday Reed and Autumn Laing

When I finished reading Alex Miller’s latest novel, Autumn Laing, a coincidence led me to a book that Miller himself read in the process of creating Autumn Laing. This latter book is The Heart Garden: Sunday Reed and Heide, by art historian Janine Burke.

To simply move from one of these books to the other is no great step, as Autumn Laing is loosely based on the historical figures of Sunday and John Reed, patrons of modern art in Melbourne, and on Sidney Nolan, Sunday Reed’s lover who lived for many years with the Reeds at their home, Heide, now the Heide Museum of Modern Art.

But I would perhaps not have gone on to read The Heart Garden were it not for my internship at The Conversation. I came across a press release about Janine Burke’s latest book Nest: The Art of Birds, and contacted Janine to ask her to write a short piece for us, not yet aware that she was Sunday Reed’s biographer. Continue reading


Photo taken by me, on some nameless supermarket film.

I have never been much of a gardener, always keeping too busy with ships or horses. But my Mum is quite the opposite – she has always, as far as I know, had a garden, and throughout my lifetime she has always loved it. Her mother before her was, I think, much the same.

I’m back at home this summer and my parents are away, so I’m left solely in charge of the garden. I don’t have to do much, except for water by hand – almost the entire garden has to be watered every second day, and some plants every day.

The way I feel about this is part of the shift in seeing one’s parents, or at least their endeavours, in a different light – the shift that perhaps every child reaches, gradually or abruptly, at some stage of their teenage years or early adulthood. A few days ago I followed Mum through the garden while she watered. She showed me what needed to be done and how often, pointing out the plants that would droop if I forgot them, telling me which ones to pay special attention in hot weather. And so I had to look at her garden, really look at it. I noticed the garden’s orderliness, its density, its thick greenery; I noticed how each plant has its place and its space. I noticed how Mum watered each with a care specific to it, and how she knew each one. She spoke of her plants as though they were animals, and I remembered how upset she always is if one of them dies needlessly, because of a lack of care.

Yesterday and today I have been on my own in the evenings, retracing Mum’s footsteps with the hose. I have lingered over-long on some plants, not wanting to under-water, not wanting to let any of them die. And I begin to understand why Mum does not seem to see watering as a chore. It is peaceful, wandering the garden in the cool of the evening, listening to the gush of the water, making sure that the water goes straight to the plants and is not wasted. My mind wandered. I thought of the Queensland floods, and I imagined rose bushes underwater or washed utterly away. I thought of sailing, of acres of salt water and its constant motion. I thought of the struggling garden in my grandmother’s house on the other side of the country, where I live.

In spite of these thoughts and their disparity, linked only by water, the garden has made me feel peaceful this evening, and I am glad of it.