AUSTRALIAN poet Judith Wright sought refuge in the remote natural beauty of Tamborine Mountain. Little did she know that her safe haven would provide such a wealth of inspiration for so many of her poems.
Judith remained on the mountain for nearly 30 years and raised her daughter Meredith McKinney there. She is buried in the tiny Tamborine cemetery.
A new Federal Government electorate, Wright, has been named after Judith, which takes in her beloved Tamborine Mountain.
Tamborine Mountain inspired Judith Wright
Judith Wright’s first connection with Tamborine Mountain was as a place to escape. She moved to the Mountain in 1948, to avoid the critical glare that would otherwise surround her relationship with a separated married man 20 years her senior. She searched for a place where she and her lover Jack McKinney – a philosopher and writer – could be together without succumbing to the judgements of onlookers.
“Tamborine was as good as you could get when it came to being out of the spotlight,” says Judith’s only child, Meredith McKinney. “My father was still married to someone else, and he was 20 years older than my mother. She had a reputation to protect as a young woman. Such things were important at that time.”
“She had a little bit of money from her family and she wanted to buy somewhere where he could live. He was essentially homeless, he’d left his family… She found a little place at Tamborine on Long Road. That’s where Jack went, and she came up on the bus every weekend. She moved up there full-time a couple of years later.”
In those days Tamborine Mountain was a remote, tiny community, very different to the Tamborine of today. There wasn’t a town centre back then, simply a few shops and a couple of small settlements with scattered farms between Tamborine was kind to Judith and Jack. Their relationship blossomed and Meredith was born in 1950. Although they could not marry until the divorce laws changed, Judith changed her name to McKinney by deed poll so Meredith would have an easier passage through school. She continued to write under the name Judith Wright as she always had done.
Her happiest years
“Certainly those years on the Mountain were her happiest because she was with Jack, but also because she loved Tamborine so much,” says Meredith. “The presence of the National Parks was wonderful for them. They wrote lots and went walking a lot. The main part of her poetry was written there.”
In the early days of her writing career Judith was forced to seek other work to supplement the low-paying writing work.
She secured work with the University of Queensland as a statistician.
“She had to earn a living so she became a statistician at the uni, which was a complete farce because she couldn’t do maths,” says Meredith. “In those days anyone could get any job, it was just after the War. Poetry was really her passion. It was so strong, it was imperative in her life that she write. It was a huge liberation to her to devote herself to this thing she loved.”
The natural world, so abundant on Tamborine, was always central in Judith’s poems. Meredith and her mother would often walk and explore the National Parks down the sides of the mountain, walks which clearly inspired much of Judith’s work.
“She wrote some poems simply about that world. A lot of her poems were about the birds,” says Meredith. “There’s a whole volume called Birds. They’re really simple poems, a lot for children, probably written for me. It was a really powerful, symbolic world for her, particularly the forest and the timelessness, the depth of it all.”
In many ways Judith Wright was a contradiction. She was a naturally shy and introverted woman, but on the other hand she was incredibly strong willed. She was independent, a trait which served her well when she lost much of her hearing in her early 20s.
“That was the beginning. She decided she was not going to make it in the normal world of love and marriage and all that. It made things extremely difficult socially,” says Meredith. “That developed her core strength, which really is what saw her through in her whole life.”
This strength to stand up for issues and beliefs she was passionate about showed itself more fully later in Judith’s life, when she became politically active. In the 1960s she was instrumental in organizing the conservation movement in Queensland.
“It really hadn’t existed before then,” says Meredith. “In the beginning it was just really because she could see the destruction happening to the natural habitat, she could see it was happening everywhere and nobody seemed to be doing anything. She said, ‘This can’t go on.’. Initially it was meant to be an educational thing, to try and get into schools and talk to kids about the natural world. It just grew from there. So many people had the same feelings but had never thought to do anything beyond just feeling it.”
“That swept her up into a whole new self. She became a very socially active person, a very forceful speaker.”
Jack McKinney died in 1966 but Judith remained on the mountain for another nine years. She finally decided it was time to leave in 1975 when she became disillusioned with the Queensland politics of the day under the leadership of Sir Joh Bjelke Peterson.
“They were fine antagonists those two,” says Meredith. “She fought him through the courts to save the Barrier Reef from oil drilling, and because of that the Reef became a conservation area. “She was the first President of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland. She did find Queensland extremely oppressive, though. And she was lonely at home. I’d left, and increasingly she had friends in Canberra and a man she loved, so she found land down there and made her move. I think Tamborine was changing a lot by then.”
Judith fought two big campaigns in her life – the first was for the conservation of the environment and the second was to secure land rights for the Aboriginal people. Her interest in Aboriginal land rights was sparked by her friendship with fellow poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker).
Aboriginal land rights
“That’s what she spent her final couple of decades doing,” says Meredith. “Oodgeroo started to write poems, and send her poems to Judith. She was extremely moved by them. Oodgeroo used to go and stay at Tamborine with her. They were very special friends. It was early days, and people weren’t really talking about Aboriginal land rights then. It was an uphill battle trying to shift perceptions, and then suddenly it all took off. Mum and Nugget Coombs formed the Aboriginal Treaty Committee – they were trying to convince the white population that this was necessary. Then there was a sudden surge of political consciousness among Aborigines themselves, and they decided to hand over the torch.”
Meredith has very fond memories of a youth spent on Tamborine Mountain, exploring and imagining with her mother.
“It was idyllic, just idyllic,” she says. “The natural world was all around. That was my constant thing, to go out and play there without any sense of danger. No areas were forbidden. I just roamed all over the mountain. I went up the road to the little two-room primary school. It really was as though I was being brought up deep inside the natural world. We had a lush garden and the national parks were so close. My mother and I would often walk out into the rainforest, and I’d go out to play in these wonderful old trees which had been hollowed out by strangler figs – they created great caves in the middle of the trees. It was very gothic stuff.”
In 2004 Meredith McKinney and Patricia Clarke compiled a book called The Equal Heart and Mind: Letters between Judith Wright and Jack McKinney.
Lyrebirds by Judith Wright
Over the west side of the mountain,
that’s lyrebird country.
I could go down there, they say, in the early morning,
and I’d see them, I’d hear them.
Ten years, and I have never gone.
I’ll never go.
I’ll never see the lyrebirds –
the few, the shy, the fabulous,
the dying poets.
I should see them, if I lay there in the dew:
first a single movement
like a waterdrop falling, then stillness,
then a brown head, brown eyes,
a splendid bird, bearing
like a crest the symbol of his art,
the high symmetrical shape of the perfect lyre.
I should hear that master practising his art.
No, I have never gone.
Some things ought to be left secret, alone;
some things – birds like walking fables –
ought to inhabit nowhere but the reverence of the heart.