In­fi­nite pat­terns of an in­tri­cate beauty

Cape Arid

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Vic­to­ria Lau­rie Vic­to­ria Lau­rie

CAMPED out in Western Aus­tralia’s re­mote Cape Arid for weeks at a time, na­ture artists Philippa and Alex Nikulin­sky savoured events they came to call happenings, epipha­nies and soul pic­tures.

A hap­pen­ing could be watch­ing a tiny honey pos­sum sip­ping nec­tar from pale golden banksia cones. The epiphany was notic­ing that this unique WA mar­su­pial, al­legedly noc­tur­nal, was scam­per­ing about in broad day­light. Philippa writes: ‘‘ Af­ter three days watch­ing it, I could pre­dict the par­tic­u­lar path it would fol­low down a leaf and on to an­other flower.’’

Soul pic­tures were sublime mo­ments that eluded cap­ture, such as a heart-stop­ping en­counter when a mar­ble-skinned python slid lan­guidly over Alex’s feet. Or the in­stant when they stum­bled on a grove of mus­tard-yel­low Christ­mas trees, el­e­gant as a clas­si­cal land­scape, that framed the gran­ite mas­sif of Cape Arid.

This hus­band-and-wife pair have pro­duced an ex­quis­ite pic­to­rial record of this lit­tle­known wilder­ness, a na­tional park on the doorstep of the Nullar­bor Plain. For Philippa, Cape Arid is the lat­est in a string of pub­li­ca­tions hon­our­ing the flora and fauna of her home state, in­clud­ing seven wa­ter­colour di­aries and five books, one of which she was in­vited to present to the Queen dur­ing the Com­mon­wealth Heads of Gov­ern­ment Meet­ing in Perth last year.

Alex Nikulin­sky is a late­comer to art: in his mid-50s, he swapped his statis­ti­cian’s job for art school and care of the cou­ple’s four sons while Philippa made fre­quent field trips to the bush. Cape Arid is his first book.

These days, they travel to­gether in two heav­ily laden four-wheel-drives. He stays in their bush camp paint­ing composite land­scapes in Chi­nese ink; she dis­ap­pears for many hours, binoc­u­lars, cam­era and pen­cils in hand. In thick note­books, she ren­ders the in­tri­cate de­tail of each plant, in­sect or mam­mal en­coun­tered on that day.

Later, back in her glass-walled stu­dio in Perth, she works each nat­u­ral el­e­ment into a com­plex com­po­si­tion, pleas­ing to both sci­en­tific and artis­tic eyes. Bi­ol­o­gists have been able to tell which in­sect species live on cer­tain eu­ca­lypts by look­ing at her ac­cu­rate ren­der­ings of nib­bled leaves. By Philippa Nikulin­sky and Alex Nikulin­sky Fremantle Press, 64pp, $65 (HB)

The pair’s pow­ers of ob­ser­va­tion have been honed across five decades of com­pan­ion­able na­ture-watch­ing. A Cape Arid orchid has even been named in Philippa’s hon­our; look closely at the at­trac­tive tan­gle of wild­flow­ers in her Hill Springs tableau and you’ll spot a cher­ished Gran­ite China orchid, or Cyan­ic­ula nikulin­skyae.

Cape Arid Na­tional Park, lo­cated 1000km east of Perth, is a sandy ex­panse that nur­tures in­cred­i­ble bio­di­ver­sity. But it can also be daunt­ing, racked by howl­ing winds, sear­ing sum­mer heat and dense clouds of flies.

The first of 11 camp­ing trips, made across four years, be­gan badly. Af­ter their marathon drive, the Nikulin­skys ar­rived to dis­cover that Cape Arid had been rav­aged by wild­fire.

They soon re­alised it was a blank nat­u­ral can­vas that time would em­bel­lish. ‘‘ Ev­ery plant that comes up af­ter fire has a mo­ment of glory,’’ Philippa says. ‘‘ The first lit­tle orchid, the first sedge to come up from the black­ened ground is mag­i­cal. We watched as things grew un­til, by the fourth year, we were wit­ness­ing the whole wild­flower bo­nanza.’’

In­fi­nite pat­tern­ing in na­ture ex­cites Alex’s math­e­mat­i­cal mind: ‘‘ Be­tween the hori­zon and the dark colour­less mass of in­dif­fer­ent fo­liage is a fil­i­gree of frac­tals.’’ For his wife, in­fi­nite de­tail finds or­der and care­ful com­po­si­tion on the page: ‘‘ Each plant is spe­cial, but they live in community. One is hid­ing an­other, or in­ter­twines, and in­sects, birds and spi­ders live among them. It’s the in­te­gra­tion of na­ture that ap­peals to me.’’

Jot­ted field notes and spare writ­ings all con­vey this cou­ple’s fierce loy­alty to a dif­fi­cult and beau­ti­ful place. Alex says: ‘‘ So of­ten, in places like Cape Arid, peo­ple wind the win­dow down, there’s a blank look and they turn around and leave. But over time, even­tu­ally, the place speaks to you.’’

Cape Arid

The tan­gled web of life . . . an il­lus­tra­tion from

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