thomas m wilson

Deep green forests and cultured towns: From north-east NSW to Castlemaine

March 30th, 2019

I’ve just finished travelling from Perth, to south-east Queensland and north-east NSW, exploring the subtropical landscape and visiting friends and family, and then down to the small but cultured Victorian country town of Castlemaine, to talk at a festival along with writers such as Bruce Pascoe.

Castlemaine takes my vote for nicest small country town in Australia.  I am truly impressed by the amount of art galleries, cafes, stylish and eclectic bars and beautifully renovated nineteenth century architecture in this town of only nine thousand people.  Its basically an extension of inner north Melbourne in a Gold Rush town 120kms north of the city.

Walking the streets at six o’clock the first night I arrived with a warm sun shining, I was so impressed by this place.  It’s a mid nineteenth century town full of wide streets, and stately, English facades of banks and hotels of stone and wrought iron balconies, and thick hedges with verandah fronted weather-board houses snugly situated behind.  Old European trees line the streets.

The place has various arty Melbourne retirees and a sprinkling of younger people who have colonised the town and add a sense of culture and intelligence to its beautiful and spacious streets.  The place also has the air of a wild West town, with so much intact English nineteenth-century architecture sitting serenely in the middle of arid, inland Ironbark country in Australia.  I have to say as I walked along its streets on my first night, amongst the thickly trunked London plane trees, across the wide streets and stone pavers, I almost envied Victorians with their much greater share of European history under the feet and before their eyes in daily life.  Much more historical atmosphere here than in Western Australian country towns.  On the down side one of these nice, ‘quaint’ wooden old houses costs $650k.

This morning I was on a panel with Inga Simpson and Jessie Cole, at the Castlemaine State Festival, talking about the literature of landscape.  I’d read Inga Simpson’s book Understory before coming east.  The book recounts her time living in a forest in the Sunshine coast hinterland in south-east Queensland.  Chapters of the book have the names of trees endemic to that area, for example Cedar, Brush Box, Spotted Gum, Flame Tree, Bunya, and Lilly Pilly.  Back in Perth as I read the book I looked at images of the different trees online and realised that at least some of these trees have been planted as streets trees in Perth (for example brush box) or ornamental trees at UWA (for example the Flame tree).  I’ve known some of these trees my whole life, despite living thousands of kms away from there endemic area.  Australia’s Coat of Arms has a kangaroo and an emu on, but as Australians we share more aspects of the natural world than these two animals.  To see a giant Brush Box in its native region of the country is a reminder of the trees that make up this country.

A friend of mine lives just north of Nimbin in north-east NSW and last weekend it was a pleasure and a privilege to stay on his property in a small wooden cabin.  Space and birdsong and subtropical sunshine.

Just out of Nimbin we found a little rainforest creek one day and lay down in the cool fresh water and looked up at the ficus and palm leaves in the canopy and forgot about everything else but the feeling of cool water flowing down from the mountains.


After a bit of a journey through the Border Ranges National Park the view from the edge of a 24 million year old volcanic caldera was tinted by the setting sun.


Later in the trip I was reminded of the beauty of the Byron Bay hinterland, a mosaic of green paddocks and avocado and macadamia orchards.


The land around here is orchards and old trees and rolling green hills – like what England would have been like a hundred years ago in the south-west, but with a subtropical feel.  I for one feel a concordance with this landscape.



Walking up through Nightcap National Park along a gorge full of mature lowland rainforest trees and palms, the soundscape changed subtly.

The sounds of the native doves softly booming now and again, with their low cooing calls, over the forest’s quiet, and the sound of the trickling water in the creek below.  I can almost close my eyes and recall this soundscape and feel a blessed tranquility descend over me.

This trip has reminded me of some of the things about Australia that I love.

I return to Perth tomorrow morning.

10 Best Books of 2018

December 17th, 2018

The end of the year approaches and I look back at the world of new books….



Each year about this time the newspaper and the commentariat is full of lists of ‘Best Books of 2018’.  I usually have very little overlap with the choices of the journalists and commentators who make these lists (this year the novel The Overstory was on many lists and on mine), so I thought I’d contribute my selection.  I’ve given myself a limit of ten books, and the books have to have been published for the first time in 2018.

Pinker’s book, along with Hans Rosling Factfulness (which was almost on this list and I urge you to read), has made me much more grateful for everything that has been going right in the world.  I read the reviews of Pinker’s book before reading the book and am shocked at how so many reviewers themselves seem prone to the negativity bias that Pinker diganoses amongst the left-leaning intelligentsia.  I don’t agree with every sentence in the book but its still worth attending to.

Hari’s Lost Connections is a good summary of why you might still feel a sense of emptiness even when you’re sitting amongst the fruits of what progress we have achieved in the developed world (or the Level 4 world to use Rosling’s terminology).

Tony Hoagland died this year and we have lost one of contemporary English language poetry’s greatest voices.  Thankfully he left us with this new collection.  Mark Halliday’s book of poems Losers Dream On is also more than worth the price of admission.  Both men speak candidly about love, loss, death and reveal the funnier side of the inanities of contemporary life.

Damasio’s The Strange Order of Things: The closest I’ve read to a theory of life and everything in a while. Damasio demonstrates how feelings are mental representations of how close the inner environment of the viscera and the endocrine system is to the ideal of homeostasis. If the organism is in a state conducive to homeostasis then the feelings are of a pleasant nature. If far then of an unpleasant nature. The interesting thing is that the nature of emotion and affect in accompanying the regulation of homeostasis is new in terms of evolutionary time. Single celled bacteria don’t have feelings, but they do exhibit many of the behaviours that our affect goes along with. Brilliant book – possibly revolutionary.

The Plant Messiah of the title is Carlos Magdalena.  He works at Kew, and this long haired Spaniard takes you into the world of botanical horticulture and critically endangered plants.  Imagine finding a tree on a mountain in Mauritius and realising that there are only two of them left on the planet.   This book along with Richard Powers The Overstory (a novel at which the tree and trees are at the very centre of many different lives) have done a good job at pushing back at the plant blindness to which humans are prone.

The one biography that made my list is about Bruno Manser, the closest that we’ve had in the late twentieth century to a person who has grown up as a Westerner and then completely stepped into the world of traditional hunter-gatherers and taken on their lifeways and their culture.  Powerful and illuminating book, set in Borneo mainly.

Rule Makers Rule Breakers is a summary of recent research in cross-cultural psychology about why some cultures are more socially conservative (tight) and why some are more liberal (loose).  Important book to read if you want to understand the Middle East, amongst other regions.

Jonathan Haidt’s latest is a manual you should have in your pocket if you want to venture onto a university campus today.  Many lessons to take from the book, for example we should be preparing the child for the road, not the road for the child.  This isn’t Haidt’s best book (mainly because some of it is derived from his previous work), but it still makes my list for the significance of its messages.

  1. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.   Hari, Johann    (Bloomsbury USA 2018)
  2. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  Pinker, Steven            (Viking 2018)
  3. Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God: Poems.   Hoagland, Tony   Graywolf Press (2018)
  4. The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures.  Damasio, Antonio         Pantheon (2018)
  5. The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species.  Magdalena, Carlos              Penguin (2018)
  6. The Overstory.   Powers, Richard          William Heinemann (2018)
  7. Losers Dream On (Phoenix Poets).  Halliday, Mark University of Chicago Press (2018), 94 pages
  8. The Last Wild Men of Borneo: A True Story of Death and Treasure.  Hoffman, Carl William Morrow & Company (2018)
  9. Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World.  Gelfand, Michele   Scribner Book Company (2018)
  10. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.   Haidt, Jonathan, Allen Lane (2018)


And finally, here are the books that almost made my list of 10 Best Books published in 2018.  All of these have also made an impact on me.

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