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Georgina Reid Conspires With Nature
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Conversations
14 July 2022

Georgina Reid Conspires With Nature

Interview by Kirsty de Garis

Georgina Reid Conspires With Nature

If you love to read and think deeply, Georgina Reid is a wonderful conversation partner. A gardener, landscape designer and journalism graduate, she launched her website, The Planthunter, almost a decade ago. It immediately found an audience of nature-curious garden lovers. Since that time, Georgina has done what I consider to be a wild act of optimism in the face of overwhelming evidence against: she launched a print journal, Wonderground, which comes out twice a year. Here’s where you’ll find everything from Bill Henson moving his late mother’s entire garden – roots and all – to a new location when he sold her home, to an essay from Elizabeth Farrelly about buying and farming rural land. Similarly to how Anna Wintour uses fashion as a lens to frame the pressing issues of the moment, Georgina uses the garden to explore the urgent issues of our time. It is brilliant and beautiful.

It was a searching personal essay from Georgina in issue two of Wonderground that made me know we needed to hear from her for this issue, exploring a meaningful life: In “Other Motherhood”, she nakedly examines what it is to be a childless woman in our culture, and where she cultivates meaning in her life when society says the only valuable role for a woman is in being a parent. The piece is generous and loving and cuts to the quick of femininity in today’s world.

The ancient root of the English word conspire, way back before its connotations developed a more sinister tone, means “to breathe with”. That’s how Georgina is. She breathes with the nature around and within her, to offer something timeless and priceless in our commodity-driven world: care.

I met Georgina at the end of a jetty on the Hawkesbury River, north of Sydney, on a morning so foggy I didn’t see her boat until she pulled up alongside me. We made our way through the magical gloom to the riverside home that she shares with her partner and their two dogs. By the time I left a few hours later, uninterrupted sun had drenched our setting on a perfect late autumn afternoon. It was the ideal backdrop for a deep conversation about what it is to continue to choose living a big life, in whatever way shows up for you.

This story originally ran in issue #70 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #70 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #70 of Dumbo Feather

Let’s start at the start. I think it was in your first issue of Wonderground, you said that so much of what’s meaningful in a life exists in and grows out of the landscape of childhood. So I’m interested in what your childhood was like.

Well, a farm in central New South Wales. Near a town called Molong, which is northwest of Orange. I carry that landscape in me. Its lovely open, undulating country. We grew wheat and had sheep, and a garden of course. My mum’s a great gardener. I really wanted to be with my mum, and she was in the garden, so that’s where I was. I would traipse around behind her. I can remember dividing agapanthus with her. Or planting those little cottage garden seed mixes that you get. Mum had a massive veggie garden. And my brother and I, we had a little patch there. We were always in the garden in some way, or in the paddocks. We would take spaghetti and sliced cheese, and an old saucepan and some water into the paddocks. Make a small fire, cook our spaghetti and put our cheese on top…it was probably gross. But it was also so great. Having that freedom to go out into a paddock and light a fire and make your own dinner.

So how did your interest in plants develop into a profession?

I studied communications at uni. In the holidays I would come home and work in the garden with mum. Mulching or redesigning some garden beds or whatever. I was always doing that. I nearly studied law, thank god I didn’t. I never once thought that working with plants and land was of any great importance. I think it says a lot about what we value as a society. I wanted to do something that sounded good, basically. Which you do when you’re that age I guess, and that’s how society tells us to be.

I don’t even know why I chose journalism. I think one of my reasons was that I could then go back to the country. I finished, but I wasn’t very good at it. I was researching at a job in the city and I came across permaculture. And it just made sense. I’d always been playing with plants and working in the garden or being immersed in landscape. But I hadn’t ever seen those actions framed in a broader philosophical context before. And I guess learning about permaculture, I was like, “Oh, this is like a whole way to live, this whole systems thinking approach.” You know, connectedness, that of course feels so right to me. But I never heard it or read about it being articulated in that way before. So I said, “Right, I’m going to study permaculture.” And of course I didn’t (laughs). I studied horticulture and landscape design at TAFE because I wanted to learn more about plants first. I loved it so much.

I think I came to it with this real snobbery around, “Oh, well you know, it’s not university.” That TAFE is a second-class education. But it was so much work. It was intense. And the teachers were so passionate. And it’s like a door just opened, it was really exciting.

How much of it was practical, hands-in-the-dirt, compared with in the head?

A fair amount. It was a lot about learning flower structures and identifying plants. And there was a design stream as well, which is what I did. I just remember seeing the world completely differently. I was driving down this road going to TAFE. We must have been learning all of the different trees. All of the sudden I started seeing things: There’s a jacaranda, and there’s a liquid amber. It’s always stuck with me ’cause I think it’s such an important lesson, or observation, around being in the world. I hadn’t seen that landscape before. It was just a backdrop. I drove past it every single day, and it was not something that ever crossed my mind to be interested in, or to know about. Then the minute I had a small amount of information, I began seeing this place in a completely different way.

I guess that’s the power of knowledge – to make things visible.

And having a language for it.

Yes. It’s like the lights came on in the world and, I started seeing everything. One of the things I think about a lot is the way we think about nature, the way we talk about nature and plants and animals. It’s like they’re just a backdrop to this exceptional story of the human. Its so problematic. When you start seeing and when you start looking it’s like, “Look at this place! What an incredible place to be!”

Then you went and worked with Jamie Durie. From my perception, that would have been jarring.

I was young. And it was exciting. I learned such a lot from him. He’s an amazing creative thinker and has a really interesting way of being in the world. It was a great studio and we did crazy projects. Any time you’d say, “That can’t be built” or, “That’s too much”, Jamie would be like, “No, let’s do it. This is how…” And he would work it out and he’d make it happen. Having someone so experimental…

The Frank Gehry of the garden world.

Sort of. He used to joke, and this is very true of him, he’d say, “I’m like cordial, I need to be diluted by at least 10!” And that’s true! And so he’d have one excellent idea and it’s like, “Stop there. That would be incredible.” But then he’d keep adding, adding, adding.

Were you designing?

Yeah. There were about 10 designers. Mostly landscape architects and a few landscape designers. And there was no pretentiousness. It was, if you’ve got good ideas and you can do it, then do it. It was a great studio to work in. I loved it. It was a very open design process; super creative.

When did The Planthunter become part of the story?

When I worked with Jamie he was writing columns for Women’s Weekly and doing books and stuff like that. Because of my background, I was also quite useful in that regard. So I wrote for his books, his columns. I started writing when I was working for Jamie. And I realised I quite liked it, even though I was very emphatic that I was not a writer but a designer! I realized, too, that I was quite good at it, when I was writing about things I was interested in and loved. I launched The Planthunter in 2013. It feels like such a long time ago now. By that point I’d been designing gardens and thinking about them for nearly a decade. I’m very interested in people and I had a lot of questions, particularly around humans and nature. People and plants. I was curious about why people make gardens. What makes us create something beautiful for the sake of it? I came to realise that the human drive to make gardens speaks to a much deeper relationship. This is what I wanted to write about – not how to prune hydrangeas or top ten indoor plants – but there was no outlet for my words or ideas. So I made my own.

Another reason I started The Planthunter was that a few years earlier, I had this boyfriend who was an environmental activist and artist. He’s super interesting, incredibly smart. And he did some great projects and I believed in every single thing that he did. But the way he did it was all about making people feel guilty. By the end, I was so over it, I wanted to fly around the world ten times, just to piss him off. Of course, I didn’t, but it says a lot about how to push people away from change, not take them along with you. It was a great lesson, and made me start thinking about how to tell stories that will get people on board.

Talk to me about that. Where did you land on it?

So, he was talking about big environmental issues – flying, eating meat, housing – all of those things. And here I was, a garden designer, thinking about gardens and plants. Most people working in the space of big environmental stories would think what I was doing was an indulgence. I realised, though, that all the big things my ex-boyfriend was talking about come down to relationship. Plants are an immediate felt presence in everyone’s lives.

Every single person, it doesn’t matter if you’re a plumber or a politician, when you ask them, they will tell you a plant story that means something deep to them. There’s an emotional connection, a relationship, immediately.

Doesn’t matter who it is. Talking about plants, highlighting the world that is immediately around you, is perhaps a good place to start to get people to think about where they are in the world and how they are in the world. And what is important.

For many people, nature is a concept. There’s this idea that’s its worth fighting for, but it’s often not a direct, felt, relationship. And I think that’s been a big issue with the environmental movement. There’s a disconnect there. It’s like nature is this thing that’s out there, but it’s everywhere and it’s right here. And relationship is the only way that you get people to connect in a meaningful way.

But also responding to fury, which is what it feels like sometimes, is exhausting.

And it doesn’t get you anywhere. If you make people feel guilty, they just switch off. And I was doing that exact thing. I agreed with every single thing my ex-boyfriend said. But, after a while, I just switched off and I wanted to do the opposite. So I thought, “How do I seduce people?” We all want to be seduced. We all want to feel something. Essentially, it’s about getting people to fall in love.

I think there’s this dichotomy. The separation of the head from the rest of us. That this mind is the only thing that’s worth something.

Meanwhile, we devalue so much. We’re seeing it now with caring jobs – nurses, aged care workers, early childhood workers, even gardeners. How do we expect people to care, arguably the most important, and most human of professions, for minimum wage? Meanwhile, people make millions clear-felling forests for toilet paper. It’s astounding.

It’s a curious spot that we find ourselves in, and hopefully we can learn and fix it. But I don’t know. I studied history twice. And I’m not so sure that we will learn. So now you’re here. Moved from Marrickville to…

Milsons Passage.

It’s beautiful. How was that flip of environment for you? What was it like?

I just loved it. It didn’t feel like coming home ’cause my childhood landscape is home. Maybe it was like making a home rather than coming home. I feel like myself here. It doesn’t have the weight of going home. It’s a relationship that I’m making now. It’s a new conversation.

And you made this, where we’re sitting right now. This studio with all the windows. Even the process, I imagine, of framing that view of the river out there, to look at while you’re working, is exquisite.

It’s the best.

I’m curious to know how that environment influences your quality of life and how you think. How often do you leave?

Not very often. I don’t need to leave here. I don’t need much external stimulation. I think the big revelation for me has been the river. I never thought of myself as a water person. It hadn’t ever been something that I craved or thought I needed. But it absolutely is…the river is like another person in my life. Quite seriously. I don’t even like saying, “It”, because the river is not an object –back to language again. It’s not an it.  River is river. River is Dyarubbin.

I need to develop pronouns for non-human beings that don’t objectify them. That’s one of my life goals. We talk about plants as it, we talk about river as it. We talk about tree as it. There is nothing that is objective about any of them. I watch Dyarubbin from here and Dyarubbin watches me. River is not an object, but a being.

Such an incredible being. So Wonderground journal, the first. How did it come to be?

Well, I built this shed. And then, I thought, “Now I’ve got a shed, I should do something great in it.” I always wanted to make a printed thing. I didn’t have the audience to begin with. So growing The Planthunter digital platform was a smart thing to do, because it meant I had an audience for the print publication.

I don’t read online if I can avoid it. I found myself subscribing to Griffith Review and Granta, those kinds of publications, and enjoying taking myself away from the screen and reading. Overall, digital has never been quite the right medium for me because I like thoughtful, meandering things. With digital, you need to give people a sugar hit. I can do that, but I’m more interested in changing hearts and minds and making people think. Not to say it doesn’t happen online. But I felt like maybe the best place for what I wanted to do was print. I wanted to make something that could be held.

I wanted to push myself as well, ’cause I’d been doing Planthunter for so long. And there’s something so contained about making a print issue. There’s so much that goes into it, as you know. To pull something together like that. And, you know, the composition of the ideas and the writers – that balance. I just love that. I love the making. I wanted to challenge myself and learn a new medium. And here we are. Issue three.

Put your work out in the world and be proud of it, as Joan Didion said. Then you changed the name of the website from Planthunter to Wonderground. In your letter to readers, you said there’s no time to indulge in fear, but plenty of time for action. I wonder about that call to action, that this moment speaks to for you.

I’ve realised that my action is in writing, and in telling stories. That’s what I’m good at. And I know in my guts that that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. And if I am serious about words and language and story, then I really need to stand strongly in that place. The Planthunter, as a title had grown increasingly uncomfortable for me. It speaks to many things, but in particular, the ongoing violence of colonisation, of taking things that have not been offered. I changed the name to Wonderground because I want to use language that speaks of how things can be, of how we can grow words and worlds together. So, words are my action. It’s being in the world and writing about it in a way that offers something, that is an act of care. My writing is an act of care and love. Seventy-five per cent love, 25 per cent fear.

(laughs)

Fear is useful! It’s good to drive some action, but it doesn’t sustain action. Love can do that. It’s moving into that space of being in love with this place right now, and acting from there.

This activism, this love that you share through writing is what’s fascinating to me. It brings me to your piece “Other Motherhood” that you wrote in Issue Two of Wonderground. Could you describe the content, the background of the essay? You open with a story about never feeling so alone as when you’re on a weekend with beloved girlfriends with children who weren’t there, but were there. That was such an evocative opening to a story.

The question of having children or not having children has been very present in my life over the last seven or eight years. I’ve written thousands and thousands of words around it; I’ve written and written and written. I write to try to understand what I’m feeling, what is meaningful to me. The context is that I didn’t know whether I wanted to have kids or not. And sometimes I still don’t. (laughs) After all this time, it’s still foggy and a bit grey.

If I want kids, is it a cultural pressure? Or is it a family thing? Or is it me really wanting kids? And  if I don’t want kids, what’s wrong with me? (laughs) I guess that piece and all the writing that preceded it were ways of trying to understand how I felt about motherhood. One thing that was great in hindsight, but painful at the time, was my partner saying, “You have to work this out for yourself…” He put it back on me. “You need to know what you’re truly feeling.”

(laughs) “Tell me what I feel!”

“Tell me.” I just wanted someone to tell me. And now I’m so grateful. Because it put me on this path of trying to dig into what I felt and why. I’m fascinated by where things – ideas and feelings – come from. And inevitably it’s not as clear as you think. I took a deep dive into trying to understand what motherhood means. . And it’s so complicated.

Very.

I always assumed that I would somehow accidentally fall into motherhood, you know, and I wouldn’t have to think about it. And…(laughs)…no. It’s this massive knot, it’s such a tangle. And it’s fascinating.

I have to keep holding myself to that piece of writing. That piece was very, very true to me. But I have to keep taking myself back to it and saying, “This is who I am in the world, and this is how I can be in the world,” and be that. I go and see my family and so much about their lives is looking after these gorgeous little kids. And so much of my mother’s life is looking after my nieces and nephews. How much it means to her, that type of care. I’ll probably cry now. But it’s very confronting to me in a lot of ways, to think that the ways I care are not going to be necessarily seen or given that cultural value. Yeah, I’m crying.

I don’t think that’s resolved in me yet. That takes time. I care in so many ways. And they’re so deeply meaningful to me. If I was a more evolved human, maybe I wouldn’t need external affirmation. But there’s a part that feels deficient even though I know, for fuck’s sake, I am not. It hangs around. No matter how much I care, how much I write.

I can understand that. It’s so complex. In a way that it never would be for men.

No. I guess I feel for mothers in a lot of ways because their self gets taken from them. And they give it, and there’s no judgement there because that’s a wonderful thing. But I have so much freedom. And I really appreciate it. I’ve never been able to conform in any particular way.

(laughs)

And that’s the other thing that I find interesting about all of this, and trying to understand how I feel about motherhood, is that I’m always saying, “Well I’m not doing that, I’m doing something else over here.” If someone else had started something like The Planthunter there’s no way I would have started it. I would have been like, “No, that’s done, I’ll do something else.” And that’s just always how I’ve been on a whole lot of levels. I’ve never gotten married, I’ve never ticked any of the boxes that women are supposed to tick.

I know in my very deep heart of hearts that I’m on – a hundred per cent – the right path. But there’s always that little niggling voice that goes, “Why can’t you just like move to the country and have some kids and make your mum happy and…?” You know. Do that.

But thank goodness you haven’t done it.

Yeah! I know! It’s likely I’d be pretty unhappy. Or mildly happy. Which is terrible.

I think women aren’t always honest about that – about the loneliness.

No.

There’s that poem, In the Park, by Glen Harwood. The last line is, “They have eaten me alive.”

Oh God!

It’s an extraordinary line. And there are some women I can talk about that with, the loneliness I felt in early motherhood, and others who would be horrified by the concept. Your final line in that essay is, “I aspire to be no less than a tree.” I love how you talk about how the tree is open to what’s around it.

I aspire to being open, with some kind of mad exuberance, to the world. And being present to what appears. This is what trees do. A eucalypt blossoms, and it goes into this wild frenzy of generosity, sharing their flowers with the flying foxes and the nectar-feeding birds and all of the creatures. And of course, this is about reproduction. The tree does that to reproduce. For a while, I was like, “That’s killing my whole argument.” ’Cause I’m not reproducing. But then of course I am. It’s just that the ways I reproduce aren’t seen as clearly. I’m not creating biological offspring so it’s less obvious. But also, just standing. Just being in the world and being open to the world I think is all you can really do, isn’t it?

I think so. We have to keep trying.

Artist Janet Laurence has been a guide for me around care and creative output. She’s the one who said, “If you don’t have kids, think of how expansive your care can be.” Of course, I’d never once had it flipped like that in my head. She started that whole train of thought for me. But what she does in the world, and the energy that she puts into her output and her art and her activism… I look to her and think I’d like to be somewhere between Janet and a tree.

(laughs) That’s not a bad way to be!

That’d be pretty great. In some ways it’s such a privilege to live the way I live because I have all this space for reflection if I want it. And I guess a lot of women who are raising families, there’s no room for that.

No.

There’s very little room for that. And I guess even if you do, it would be nearly an indulgence because it’s like do you feel guilty ’cause you’re not looking after your kids or you’re not thinking about your kids?

That whole internal story is so complex. There’s something audacious about stepping outside of it. And just saying, “Actually I say no to all of that.” I struggle with having neat ribbons in my daughter’s hair and doing great birthday parties and all of that, which I’ve continually failed at. My birthday cakes suck. To love them wildly and be good enough is no longer a thing. And I think, well this is serving nobody, ’cause maybe it’s just raising a bunch of narcissists.

That story doesn’t serve mothers. And the cultural narratives around child-free women don’t serve me. None of it serves anyone. That was one of the things that made me want to write and publish something, even though it was terrifying. When I was trying to understand how I felt and process what I was feeling, I couldn’t find writing about that. Or if it did exist, it often felt binary or defensive, shutting down conversation, rather than encouraging new ways of seeing other-motherhood as what it can be – a really important and rich way of being in the world. I guess with that piece, it was important to me that it felt generous, wherever you are on the spectrum of motherhood/other-motherhood, rather than saying, “This is better or that’s worse.” If that makes sense.

It does make sense. And I think as well that as the years pass, you move into a different season and conversations change. The friends who I get excited about now are the ones who I do things with. I made two beautiful new girlfriends when we moved out of the city, who I walk with. One every Wednesday morning after I’d dropped the kids at the bus. I’d far prefer to do that and eat cheese sandwiches and drink thermos tea in the wilderness, than sit around and talk.

About your kids.

Yeah! (laughs) Exactly! It’s just not as interesting!

No. I feel pretty happy about other-motherhood for now. But also, in saying that, it’s never cut and dried. There will always be some kind of grief for me around not becoming a mother. I think it’s important to acknowledge that holes exist in every life, and no one decision means you can avoid them. So I closed one door and I opened another. I feel a responsibility – to do something with this space, this freedom, to grow and care in ways that are right for me. I want to look back and be like, “That was a great thing.” And not regret anything. I’m pretty sure I won’t.

But it evolves too, right? We can live double the years that we have now if we’re lucky. There’s so much space in there to do amazing work. That’s an opportunity. There’s this concept of what a big life is. Which is a broad canvas. And the ways in which people can live big lives look massively different. What I love about what you do is talk about that very closeness. Because we’re not encouraged to think like that any more.

Culturally, I wonder if we’re scared of intimacy? Which is fascinating, because intimacy often leads to love. Or if not love, certainly strong emotion. Are we scared of feeling things? Are we scared of ourselves? I don’t know if that’s true but it is confounding that the one thing we all want and need, the one thing that any life comes down to – love, which is connection and intimacy and respect and care – is undermined in so many ways by the world we live in right now.

For me, the garden is about intimacy, about being in intimate relation with place. It isn’t often seen that way, of course. It’s often seen as a set of jobs for the weekend. But it can also be about having a conversation with a place, being very present to a place. There’s so much to be learned if you listen to places. I do a lot of talking in the garden. And in the bush. Because, the plants and birds and rocks are my neighbours and friends. I don’t give a shit if it sounds airy-fairy. I’m sick of apologising. I talk to other-than-human beings. It’s just how I am. It’s not a terrible way to be.

I read a lot about nature, the climate crisis and our environment. So often you get to the end of an article or a book about big thinking and ideas, maybe an interview with a scientist or someone, and nearly everyone comes back to talking about the same things – being intimate with a place and connecting on a love level. It comes back to intimacy. I’m seeing that more in other people’s writing, now. Typically we’ve devalued that. And this is clear in much modern communication around nature and environment. The language of science and objectivity takes precedence, and love has long been a dirty word. It says a lot about what we’ve typically valued. You know, the closer you are to the earth, the lower down the scale of human goodness you are, that kind of thing.  But I think people are realising that’s not true.

Anyone who lives wisely, lives close to the land. And that’s not just people who I think are wise. It isn’t knowledge. It’s wisdom. It’s a different thing. It’s a relationship that you can’t get from a book.

I used to want to know the answers to things. And now as I get older I think, “It doesn’t really matter.” The why has become less important. It’s the smaller questions, rather than the big ones, that are interesting. I am certainly very interested in questions. I want to write a whole essay that is just one huge list of questions.

(laughs) I think you should do that.

I will. One of these days. I think it’s a good way to be. Curious. That’s a good way to live a meaningful life. Just being curious. Doors will continue to open. Jewels will continue to show themselves.


You can read this conversation in issue 70 of Dumbo Feather. Pick up your copy online or find us at your local independent retailer. 

Kirsty de Garis

Kirsty is the Editor of Dumbo Feather magazine. Kirsty is constantly on the lookout for conversations with extraordinary people and thought leaders who will help to guide us into the next economy.

Kirsty spends half her life in the suburbs of Sydney and the other half on a remote farm in the Snowy Mountains. She’s a loving wife and mum, and loves hiking in the high country and ocean swims. She never travels without a good book.

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