Conversations about trees and travellers
THERE is something so majestic about angophora trees, especially at dusk when they are bathed in light and glow all rough and rosy. “George Johnston said they were as pink as Petra and twice as beautiful,” Maisie Drysdale, widow of artist Russell, told me one evening as we looked out at her garden in Killcare.
Maisie and I were neighbours then, and she had been great friends with authors Johnston and Charmian Clift, who used to stay with her at her house, designed by Guilford Bell, who had it built in the 1960s as pavilions connected by courtyards and gallery halls.
Maisie was never boastful about such rarefied connections and you got the impression that she imagined George and Charmian could just as easily have stayed at your house and chatted long into the night about their lives on the Greek island of Hydra.
Maisie was a retired librarian then, almost 15 years ago, and the sort of person who expected you to have visited Petra, at last once, and someone you could turn to if you wanted to know about trees. Up she’d get and walk slowly with her cane to her home library, ordered according to the Dewey system, and find you a book about the vegetation of the NSW central coast and the exact picture you had hoped for.
I was enthralled to learn that the restless travel writer Bruce Chatwin had stayed with the Drysdales. “An odd chap,” Maisie said of him. “He walked about here without his trousers and generally showed off.”
I can’t look at an angophora now and not think of Petra, in Jordan, and its pink sandstone columns that reminded George of the Australian bush. It makes me remember Maisie, too, who died in 2001 but shortly before had telephoned and asked me to deliver her a book the next day. She was in the mood for a Japanese novel. “Anything, really, a Kawabata or a Mishima?”
Maisie had known poet Harold Stewart, too, whose translations of Japanese haiku, A Net of Fireflies and A Chime of Windbells, are the most precious books I own. “Never lend those unless you are prepared to let them go,” she said. Then, after a stroke, she was gone and so too the chats of trees and travellers.