While writing Wildflower Spirit Journey, there was a subtle theme that kept popping up for me over and over again: holism. I saw it in my mother’s nature-based spirituality, the Aboriginal art I was surrounded by as a child, and the yin-yang teaching style given to me by my spirit guides, Khryse and Tomas.
Both my grandmother and my great-uncle had an enormous childhood influence on my life, imprinting within me their love for nature, science, anatomy and physiology, helping people, wildflowers and photography. My grandmother was a doctor. My great-uncle was an arid zone botanist. And there have been many times through my life I have been tempted to walk in their footsteps, but my love for holism has steered me in other directions.
This is a photograph of me with two Aboriginal Artists in Papunya Tula, where my great-uncle Peter was working as a teacher. Kaapa and Johnny W are two of my favourite artists. My mother and I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Australian National Gallery in Canberra and seeing my great-uncle’s collection of Aboriginal Art. It was very moving to see art we remembered hanging on Grandma’s walls! My great-uncle was passionate about supporting the Aboriginal artists at the beginning of the Western Desert Art Movement, which was initiated by his friend and colleague Geoff Bardon:
“Exhausted from trying to rally government support for the Aboriginal artists, Geoff had a health breakdown, and for a few years Peter stepped into his wake and held everything together for him. Peter often purchased paintings to support the Aboriginal artists, and was given many paintings as gifts. Eventually Peter’s own health broke down from the stress, which may have been a blessing in disguise because the end of his teaching career led to a new beginning in botany. When Peter’s art collection was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, he returned a lot of the money he received to the original artists and created a trust fund from which artists’ families are regularly paid royalties.
I love Aboriginal art because it has a strong connection to the land and it uses story-telling to teach people. I grew up with dot paintings, which depict the land from above, like a map….”
For me, Aboriginal art is a perfect metaphor for reductionism and holism. You can study each tiny dot in a dot painting very carefully, but if you get lost in that detail, you won’t be able to see the picture created by many dots combined together as a whole. Medicine is like this too: we reduce the body into separate systems and then forget that these systems are interconnected as a whole. We isolate and concentrate a plant chemical and turn it into a drug, but are we missing something magical and profound about the combination of many plant chemicals naturally combined together in a whole food?
My grandma was an incredible doctor and I have enormous respect for medicine, but I do think science has lost connection with holistic wisdom while in pursuit of reductionist knowledge. The photograph of me with Kaapa and Johnny W. was probably taken on one of Grandma’s many trips out to the Aboriginal communities:
“Grandma wanted to work with Aboriginal people, so Alice was the perfect setting for her, being central to many remote Aboriginal communities. Besides being the first female Resident Doctor in Alice Springs, Grandma broke new ground by developing programs for immunisation, hearing assessment, nursing and infant health, ensuring that all these services were made available in remote areas. She was also involved with a committee that was instrumental in arranging the first school classes for profoundly deaf children. In 1973, her work with handicapped children earned her a World Health Organisation fellowship for overseas post-graduate study, which she completed in England. Her husband and two youngest children went with her.”
“Whenever I was unwell as a child, Grandma would sit me down and explain what was happening in my body, using hand-drawn diagrams to illustrate. As a result, I became fascinated with anatomy and physiology. When I grew old enough to take myself to other doctors in the community, I was astonished to find myself ushered out the door ten minutes later with a prescription in my hand, none the wiser about my own health, and baffled as to why that was accepted practice. My son just had the same experience with his first doctor’s visit, over 25 years later, so not much has changed!”
I was spoiled having Grandma as a family doctor. She gave me an insight into what medicine could be, were it practised with more heart and wholeness. Grandma often used to say that most of the healing she provided came from her capacity to listen. “This is where the real healing happens”, she would say. She was, quite naturally, famous for her bedside manner! The whole person mattered to her. Here’s another excerpt from my book, about my own career choices:
“My interests in high school were quite diverse, but there were four main themes that shone through for me: writing, art, singing and biology. I did briefly consider a career in medicine because I loved anatomy and physiology and the idea of helping people, but I decided against it because I didn’t want to cut anything up.”
After letting go of the medicine idea, I began a degree in English literature, but it didn’t last long: yet again, reductionist over-analysis ruined the magic for me, and steered me in a different direction:
“With bus fumes bringing on morning sickness, travelling to and from university became a struggle and I rapidly came to the conclusion that English Literature, quite frankly, wasn’t worth all the trouble. My love of Shakespeare was in danger of being destroyed by the unpleasant experience of dissecting and analysing him, so I withdrew from the course and focused on being a mother. In my spare time, I ran a small business making ceramic jewellery and pondered: What do I really want to do? The answer dawned on me a few years later while I was pregnant with our second child: naturopathy!
A naturopathy degree would immerse me in the wonderful world of nutrition, herbal medicine and anatomy and physiology without ever asking me to cut anything up. Reading through the course description reminded me of my childhood. Mum had encouraged us to think of food as medicine, teaching us how to recognise nutritional deficiency signs and to know which foods would treat these deficiencies. I had finally found a course that excited me, but with only one income and two young children, we simply couldn’t afford the fees.
Grandma Anne heard about my dilemma and came to the rescue. “I’m going to pay for your first year” she said. “I’d much rather give you your inheritance before I die, so I can enjoy watching you benefit from it!” Her brother Peter later paid for the remainder of my course.”
This family-to-the-rescue approach is classic in my family. We have an holistic sense of ‘we are all in this together’ and a deep love for education that is encouraged at every turn. My grandma is gone now, but she lives on in so many ways, such as my naturopathy, my values to do with helping others, and my love for wildflower photography.
“I love taking macro shots where the flower fills the entire screen, and then zooming in even further to study all the minute details, like the fine hairs and the texture of the petals. The abstract shapes and colours that appear under magnification fascinate me, enchanting my artist’s brain and igniting my imagination. My great-uncle Peter the botanist thinks my macro obsession is a bit silly, because you need to see other details like the leaves and the shape of the plant as a whole to properly identify it. Grandma was incredibly good at doing exactly this, and the more I worked with her book, the more awed I became by her skill.
I have considered studying botany a few times, but decided against it. Botanists are forever taking plant specimens and I can’t bear the thought of picking parts off plants and watching all the life, colour and shape get squished out of them in a press. I’d much rather admire them through the lens of a camera and walk away, leaving them intact.”