The Lorna McDonald Essay Prize 2019 Winner

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Growing Up on the Capricorn Coast

by Nicola Apps


Nostalgia is a sickness I am told, something that dislocates us from time and space, something akin to homesickness. Perhaps nostalgia is not so much a longing for the past as a spiritual malaise, a disconnection from our belonging place. Perhaps T.S. Eliot is right in Little Gidding and the whole point of this incredibly long life is to get back to where we started from and ‘recognise it for the first time’.


No wonder I feel so ill. Memories of the Capricorn Coast of my youth caress, then crash like waves upon the shores of my mind, stirring up a maelstrom of sand, irritating my presence, disturbing my chi. Context may ease the tension, soothe the gut, ameliorate the cynicism.


Violent blows and bruises coloured my childhood, as did gentle picnics by crystal rapids, bedtime stories, dusty old-shed secrets and laughter from the belly. All that joy and sorrow mixed up in me like some crazy artist’s palette, murky greeny-browns encroaching on clear yellow, bold-lit blue.


My sisters and I grew up in Papua New Guinea, on the equator, where it was hot and wet or hot and dry. Always hot. Sex pulsed through the land like a heartbeat, an earthbeat. At sing-sings the women’s feet never left the ground, though their hips sent grass skirts flying high over their heads. Rattling shell bracelets and kundu drums gave rhythm to the men, who leapt and cavorted in colourful bird of paradise frenzy, sporting huge wooden penises. The mudmen were very scary. They wore no colour at all – just mud all over their naked bodies and masks made of mud, studded with pig teeth. One came right up to me in the stand, his eyes hating me for being the little white tourist I was.


I loved PNG and when at thirteen I had to leave, a bell jar depression descended that took at least a decade to lift. Perhaps I was plagued by nostalgia even then.


In 1975 my family hit Yeppoon like a cyclone, pre-empting the actual cyclone David by a year. We were three pretty new girls to play with and two worldly adults bent on bringing their sophisticated party culture to a sleepy seaside town. They reinvigorated the local theatre group, started an environment centre, hosted political parties and pulled together a strong core of lefty friends. Always a child of the earth, loving the feeling of Her beneath my feet, I suffered ‘barefoot Annie’ taunts until I could bear them no longer, so took to wearing thongs, finding solace and some sort of belonging in the back of panel vans with pimply boys with names like ‘Pineapple’ and ‘Grub’. And I fell in love, more than once.


In those days the Roxy movie theatre was in full swing and I loved it! I wallpapered my whole bedroom with old movie posters found behind the stage. I’ll never forget those crude images of Lana Turner with pointy breasts clad in white satin, surrounded by intense stares and gossip in Imitation of Life, or Doris Day and Rock Hudson lining up for a big pash in Pillow Talk. These were the images that I went to sleep to every night, the scenes I emulated. The seats in the Roxy were deckchairs, the floor was dirt. Many a girl of my age had her first kiss, her first sexual experience, in those deckchairs, sighing with wonder, dreaming of stars. The Roxy movie theatre morphed into a cement box cinema then a surfwear shop. It seems to me the youth of Yeppoon now have so much less to do. Where Yeppoon Central Shopping Centre is now, where trees along creek banks were cut down to make room for McDonalds’ signs, there used to be a skating rink. There used to be a fun parlour in the main street and a very active groovy Youth Group that once put on a play at the old town hall called JC Superseed. Very 1970s. It had everything you could hope for in a homegrown production, especially hope.


When Central had its grand opening people dressed in their Sunday best to attend. Something else that’s changed a lot on the Capricorn Coast, which makes my nostalgia flare up something terrible, are the business hours. Yeppoon and surrounds are open for business ALL the time, seven days a week, from early to late. Back in the day all Yeppoon businesses closed at midday on a Wednesday and were definitely closed on a Sunday, that being a day of worshipping something other than retail therapy and the Money God. Late night shopping on a Thursday night began in Rockhampton. What started as an exciting adventure has ended in a daze of mindless consumerism. There are some lovely little shops in Yeppoon today, but you won’t find fresh pineapple crush anywhere. You will find supermarket chains and fast fatty food outlets, the precursor to becoming obese, yet starved of nutrition.


I’m so happy the farmers’ market is still going strong. My beloved mother helped paint the ‘social justice’ gypsy van that still serves chai, still brings locals together to gossip and share, every Saturday morning. Here is where you’ll meet the old folk who have lived and loved and grown food for decades. Some pineapple farmers have healed their depleted soils and diversified into tropical fruits. I was lucky enough to be in the very first agriculture and animal husbandry classes offered at Yeppoon State High. They were my favourite lessons, taught by my favourite teacher. He showed us that planting along the contour made more sense than planting in straight lines up and down the hills. I eventually followed in his footsteps; now I teach permaculture.


I was also lucky to grow up in a time when pokies hadn’t replaced live bands in pubs and dancing was huge. Our mayor was a DJ back then, a real entrepreneur who had big dreams for the Capricorn Coast. I thought of him while recently watching the Hoodoo Gurus playing on the beachfront stage, to thousands of people. That must have made him happy. In those days there were no identity checks – my girlfriends and I went dancing in the pubs as a matter of course and were served beer by the jug. It was a pedophile’s wet-dream come true, all those sweaty laughing drunk thirteen-year-old girls looking for excitement on a Sunday afternoon. Yes, this was in the days when the pubs closed between ‘sessions’. We had to actually wait sometimes for some pleasures.


Still grieving PNG, I couldn’t wait to get out of Yeppoon and, as soon as I graduated from high school, I moved to Rockhampton, to work at the Rockhampton Girls’ Grammar School. Non scholae, sed vitae. Not only for school, but for life, we are learning. What a stunning piece of 1890 architecture by E.M. Hockings – all those mystic turrets gracing the Athelstane Range, secret nooks and crannies awaiting exploration. The Helen E. Downs reading room was a tiny space where you walked back in time. In 1980 this window to the past collided with a future hardly imaginable, when a huge computer was installed and the reading room was no more. A year of that was enough and I left the area altogether, to go to Uni in Armidale, to follow a passion for theatre.


Today Capricorn Coast youth still have Footlights theatre school and new additions include the skatepark, the kraken, a promenade along the beachfront and a lagoon – they’re all fun too. Scenic bike paths are more plentiful. It’s important to recognise when the dark and heavy clouds of nostalgia lift enough to let the light in, though my sustainability-biased mind questions the wisdom of maintaining all that infrastructure on a foreshore bound for the sea. It’s indisputable though: we live in a beautiful place. To walk along a deserted beach, climb a dune, sit on a midden under the shade of a pandanus tree, look out to the islands, experience light dancing on water and marvel at the swirling changing patterns of nature … whatever could be better?


Now i humbly grok, with deep understanding, that all of this, these sweeping sea views and the rainforests, grass plains and caves behind, always was and always will be Darumbal land. Wade Mann teaches cultural awareness, and from him I learned I live in clanlands of Burri-burra, part of tribal Taroombul, in Darumbal country. Wyrdly, I knew green tree frog was my totem before I knew it was the overarching totem of all Darumbal land. Buderoo. I’d always had an affinity with frogs and one night many years ago I was explaining to a girlfriend how I felt green tree frog was my totem. Mid-sentence, out of the dusk, a frog jumped onto my arm. I didn’t flinch, just looked at it, looked at her and laughed. From such magic moments life is made. I love to think of the first people of this land, tending their mosaic parklands, performing constant ceremonies, living in their comfortable homes, sleeping on thick mattresses of paper bark, covered in fur in the colder months, sitting around fires, listening to stories from the deep quantum field, the Dreamtime. I comfort myself with the thought that at exactly the same time Ancient Egyptians were fighting over spoils, seeking power over lands and each other, the first people of this land were doing what they’d been doing since the beginning of time: tearing bread together, eating from their storehouses of yams, harvesting fresh greens to augment the night’s kangaroo, catching fish using ingeniously designed traps. I hear the laughter of the children, the chatter of the adults; the joy of a life lived totally free and in tune with nature. In the first people I see humanity fulfilling our only role in the ecosystem; caring for our earth, managing habitat. If we’re not of Darumbal heritage we are strangers in a strange land. We think a river that has always been Toonooba is called Fitzroy. We’re wrong. We think a mountain that has always been Goorwala is foolishly called Mt Wheeler, after a mass-murderer. We couldn’t be more wrong. Little wonder nostalgia is afflicting us in plague proportions. We are arrogant pretenders in this country, but Mother Earth, like her first people, is above all, generous. Herein lies one cure for nostalgia: take this body for a barefoot walk. Walk Her. Walk from the highest point to the lowest point. Follow the mountain to the river, the river to the sea. The lore of the land is thus absorbed, through earth Herself. And if you really want to hear our mother’s heart, put your ear to the earth.


Perhaps to find our belonging place we have to traverse our very DNA, mine it for genetic memory, find the indigene within. Through all the gross white noise there is a subtle silence calling us. Whatever land our bloodline originally hails from, if we go back far enough there is still a point of deep connection with the earth. I can feel the wilds of Éire in my blood, hear that Gaelic Goddess calling my name. She knows I’ve not forgotten Her. I can still feel Alba in my blood and know to ameliorate his fury by making offerings to the ancient springs. I still feel the pain of my Saxon heritage, hear the screams of my sisters, mothers, daughters as they are burned as witches for following the old ways. Ways that do not suit patriarchal capitalism. Such screams can only end in silence.


Silence, like a cancer, grows. My mother’s cancer grew silently and steadily, mycelium running and, by the end of ’88, she was dead. Luckily, as a 24 years young woman I was between gigs and could share her last eighteen months. This is what brought me back to the Capricorn Coast from theatre in Armidale and advertising in Sydney: family. What a special poignant time with my mother. She never lost her passion for social and environmental justice, but over the course of her last year on earth I watched her find peace and calm, possibly for the first time in her life. She told me cancer was like a flower. We sat on her verandah at the close of every day, talking – her talking, me listening, asking questions.


During this time I fell in love with the man who was to give me my first beloved child, who was born two weeks before mum died. Prick, pierce! Byfield, with him, proved to be a surprise pocket of community, replete with judgment and gossip, which I experienced firsthand when our marriage failed and I moved down the hill to be with another beautiful man. I loved my years there, immersed in nature, although living the pioneer life with no money and three little children wore down my resilience and I cried tears of relief when we moved to suburban Yeppoon, bringing a bit of rainforest with us.


Now again, after six years away in rainbow country, family brings me home, this time to children and grandchildren, not parents. This is where the kernel of nostalgia is to be found, the grape of melancholy. Family. Blood. Our original belonging place.


Weft, warp. Weft, warp. Time weaves the wyrd, relentlessly, as wind and waves pushing sands around, changing the coastline irrevocably. The beach I’ve been walking for forty-five years keeps changing – creeks don’t flow the way they used to, pandanus are swallowed by the sea. Thirty years ago, at Great Keppel Island, my second beloved husband and I honeymooned under the melaleucas, which were inland then, behind the dunes. Now those same trees are falling into the sea, as is the restaurant. We’re trying to hold back the tide, literally, with great beached-whale sandbags, but we all know in our nostalgic hearts it is a futile mission. Nothing can hold back the tide and sea levels keep rising.


If only the consciousness of man would rise at the same rate! But still, every two years, ‘we’ host Talisman Sabre, war games that start bushfires and destroy seagrass beds and scare away species we don’t even know about yet. Peace is not a concept that’s entertained even lightly, anywhere. Our collective amygdala is in charge, crying out ‘destroy or be destroyed!’ This rapacious mindset rips millions of tonnes of coal from our fragile earth, because ‘our’ lust for power will not be quenched. Candlelight and lovemaking hold no appeal when the amygdala runs the show. Sigh. Nostalgia.


Though not a religious woman, if I were boss of the world I would make a day of rest mandatory. One day a week when everybody, barmaids, check-out folk, trolley boys, stockbrokers and miners alike, gets to stay home, sleep in, play with the kids and relax. A weekly day of relative silence, where birdsong holds court over chainsaws and lawn mowers. And while I’m at it as boss of the world, I’d institute an international day of non-violence, one day a year when humanity aspired to simply not hurt anyone or anything, just to see if we like it enough for it to catch on. All weapons down. No guns, bombs, fists, sharp knives, harsh words. No bulldozers, no secateurs, no spades, no branding irons. Just one day of kindness, if possible. Kindness is always possible, asserts the Dalai Lama, and I concur. I can still imagine a peaceful world if i humbly yield.


Being the change i want to see, i imagine i am an onion. Right in my centre, at the still point, there is a tiny shining pearl, bursting with original innocence. All i have to do is peel back the layers, let the light in. From this essential space – a field of immanence – place, which is nowhere, and time, which is always present, i breathe in.


Nostalgia disappears.


Photo courtesy Peter Lawrence. Prize winner Nicola Apps speaks for the lives lost of manifold species in recent bushfires near Yeppoon.


36 Responses

  1. Nicola Apps

    Thanks so much for this great honour. It was pure delight meeting Lorna’s family last night, and friends. I can’t express how grateful I am. Truly.

  2. Christine Sellman

    I love to be taken a journey when reading
    Nicola certainly has the ability to do this, weaving a picture of her journey and taking us all along for the ride

  3. Jane Swingler

    Beautiful I so enjoyed reading a small part of your life growing up in PNG &Qld. It left me feeling there is more … I feel it’s time for a novel Nicky!! If it’s not already in the making 😀

  4. Lesley Synge

    Congratulations Nicola! Evocative and candid, poetic and resonant – to read your essay is to feel nurtured, awakened, and blessed!

  5. Libby Homer

    a well deserved winner-an evocative nostalgic piece – many of us will relate to some aspect of the authors reminisces

  6. Michael Powell

    Stunning piece of literature. Required a little perseverance to leave the world of the Facebook meme, with its addictive 60 sec attention requirement and capital I’s and adapt to the fluid and earthy writing style of a meaningful journey, but once grounded i could have travelled for ever.

    Thank you for the reconnection Nikki. i look forward to the book

  7. Anthea Cuddihy

    I’m certain some of those political parties and lefty friends are part of the foundation of who I am today… Thank you for this pathway, which led me back to some fond memories.

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