20/10/2016 § Leave a comment

Other people’s words about … settlement

It is no wonder that most Adelaide inhabitants have little idea of what the pre-European vegetation of the Adelaide Plains looked like, because over vast swathes of suburbia, unless one knows exactly where to look, it is basically all gone and has been for over a hundred years. Add to this the interest in recent decades in planting Australian natives that may have been sourced from regions over a thousand kilometres away and there is little wonder that confusion exists about the identity of the truly indigenous plants of the Adelaide Plains.

from ‘The Native Plants of Adelaide
by Phil Bagust and Lynda Tout-Smith

We bought our house south of Adelaide almost twenty years ago, back when house prices were still affordable along the coast, if you went far enough away from the city. I didn’t know the area of Aldinga very well before we moved there: when I was a child, it was still a little coastal country town within driving distance of Adelaide. City people spent their summer holidays there each year. That was all I knew about it.

Guinea flower (hibbertia)

Guinea flower (hibbertia)

Smooth riceflower (pimelea glauca)

Smooth riceflower (pimelea glauca)

Aldinga isn’t a small country town anymore: since we’ve moved there, it’s been swallowed up in the growing suburban sprawl — those vast swathes of suburbia — along the coast north and south of Adelaide. It’s no longer a holiday town, either. People travel farther afield these days for their holidays, mostly overseas. Many of the beach shacks have been knocked down, but some (like ours) still stand.

Pink fairy, a spider orchid (caladenia latifolia)

Pink fairy, a spider orchid (caladenia latifolia)

Old man's beard (clematis microphylla)

Old man’s beard (clematis microphylla)

Flame heath (astraloma conostephioides)

Flame heath (astraloma conostephioides)

Aldinga Scrub is a patch of native coastal vegetation growing just inland of the beach: an environment of dense, bushy vegetation growing on low sandy dunes. I had never heard of it before we moved here. It is, in fact, the only patch of remnant (pre-European) coastal vegetation left in South Australia. It’s not pristine — there are many weeds growing in it. The climate within the Scrub itself has changed, too, due to the diversion of natural stormwater by farmers onto encroaching farmland.

And yet, wandering through — listening to the songs of the shrike-thrushes and whistlers and magpies and fantails; stumbling across a lone echidna trundling through the undergrowth; standing back to allow a kangaroo with a joey in her pouch bound past — I feel as though I get a hint of what the place was like before European settlement. Hence the photographs on today’s post, which I took in mid-September, as spring took hold of the Scrub.

Paper-flower (thomasia petalocalyx)

Paper-flower (thomasia petalocalyx)

Variable groundsel (senecio lotus)

Variable groundsel (senecio lotus)

I’ve never named the Scrub explicitly on my blog before, though I’ve posted many photographs of it. I feel fiercely protective of the place — because of its unique status; because I discovered it late in life; because I know that the more that we encroach upon it, the more it disappears. Because, because, because.

Meanwhile, I am still teaching myself the names of the native birds and animals and plants and insects who inhabit the Scrub. I wander about, learning and wondering. I may never really know its original nature, but I plan to go on teaching myself about it until the day I die.

Snatched phrases

13/10/2016 § Leave a comment

‘The sun is setting …
All the yellow is gone from the water now; the sea heaves and stirs like some grey scaly beast that is restless and moves in its sleep.’

from ‘The Collaborator
by Margaret Leroy



06/10/2016 § 3 Comments

Other people’s words about … therapy

And perhaps not coincidentally, he also found himself doubting therapy — its promises, its premises — for the first time. He had never before questioned that therapy was, at worst, a benign treatment: when he was younger, he had even considered it a form of luxury, this right to speak about his life, essentially uninterrupted, for fifty minutes proof that he had somehow become someone whose life deserved such lengthy consideration, such an indulgent listener. But now, he was conscious of his own impatience with what he had begun to see as the sinister pedantry of therapy, its suggestion that life was somehow reparable, that there existed a societal norm and that the patient was being guided toward conforming to it.

‘You seem to be holding back, Willem,’ said Idriss — his shrink now for years — and he was quiet. Therapy, therapists, promised a rigorous lack of judgment (but wasn’t that an impossibility, to talk to a person and not be judged?), and yet behind every question was a nudge, one that pushed you gently but inexorably toward a recognition of some flaw, toward solving a problem you hadn’t known existed.

From ‘A Little Life
by Hanya Yanaghihara (p. 568)

When I was sixteen, I received in-patient treatment for an eating disorder. Though my weight loss wasn’t life-threatening, I had become stuck in a pattern of abstinence that my doctor considered a risk to both my physical and my mental health in the long term. And so, into hospital I went.

I am grateful for the treatment I received during the six weeks I spent on that ward. I am grateful to the dietitian who laughed when I told her I didn’t like Mars Bars, and said, ‘That’s your anorexia speaking.’ (Actually, I genuinely don’t like Mars Bars, but I am extremely fond of Cherry Ripes, so I think I pass the test.) I am grateful to the plump, curly-haired nurse whose pudgy feet squelched in her white shoes as she plodded down the corridor carrying a bedpan, who said, ‘If you can’t help yourself to a biscuit from that tin on the table just because you feel like eating one, you’re not better.’ I am grateful to the patient in her mid-fifties who sat opposite the dinner table from me one evening, asking me to pour her a glass of water, ‘because, you see,’ she told me — and her face was a maze of articulated wrinkles and creases as she leaned across the table to speak, her shoulders prematurely humped, her voice husky from years of smoking instead of eating — ‘my wrist bones are so fragile from osteoporosis that I can’t lift the water jug in case I get a fracture.’

I am grateful to these people, because they helped to strip starvation of its glamour for me. Because they helped me to escape.

Regular weigh-ins were a part of the hospital treatment ...

Regular weigh-ins were a part of the hospital treatment …

During my time in hospital and afterwards, my therapists talked to me about getting well, moving on, recovering, leading a normal life, finding happiness. Because we talked about these things, I assumed they were not only achievable but also desirable — essential, even. Many people make the same assumption.

But now I am not so sure. I don’t think therapy’s orientation towards focusing on health and happiness and normality is sinister (Yanaghihara’s word). But I do think, like Yanaghihara, that some people’s lives are not reparable, or that some aspects of their lives are not reparable. Some people suffer terribly, some people less so; in either case, there are times when a person’s suffering cannot be eased, either through therapy or through other means. In that context, perhaps there are qualities other than health and happiness which a person might explore. Resilience, for example. Dignity. Grace. Surrender.

I think of Viktor Frankl, who wrote so eloquently and poignantly about people’s need to find meaning in their suffering, if that suffering was unavoidable. I think we shy away from that word, these days — unavoidable. We form goals, we foster dreams, we try to shape our lives, based on that act of shying away. I think this is a mistake.

... but the number on the scale is only one factor in the equation

… but the number on the scale is only one factor in the equation

There is only so much you can can say in one post, and so I will leave the rest for another day. Instead, I will finish with some more words by Yanaghihara — words that, I think, complement these thoughts, though the millennial New York society she writes about is so far away from the terrible world of Frankl’s concentration camp:

But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.

(p. 41)

This is a tricky subject to write about, not least because it involves personal disclosure, if only on my side. But I would love to know what you, my readers, think about this. Please leave a comment and let me know. Your thoughts matter to me.

Snatched phrases

29/09/2016 § 1 Comment

‘A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.’

from ‘The Faraway Nearby
by Rebecca Solnit

Sometimes, when I’m reading, a small phrase or a sentence will catch my eye, hidden away in the middle of the paragraph, or at the bottom of a page. Perhaps the words in that phrase snag my attention because they are beautiful; or perhaps the thought behind the phrase is beautiful — complex and lingering — despite the simplicity of the actual words.

I write these phrases down in a notebook and treasure them, as you might a necklace your mother gave you when you were a young woman, or a china teacup that once belonged to your grandmother. Sometimes, when I’m writing them down, the word ‘stolen’ creeps into my mind: there is something about the act of recording them which makes me feel I have snatched them from their creator and reappropriated them as mine, storing them inside my heart.

Snatched phrases: today’s post, quoting Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful words about books, is the first in an occasional series here with this theme. However you think of these words, whatever your definition of the word ‘stolen’, they are yours now, too. Writers write for others, after all; writing is about the transmission of words and ideas from a writer to his or her readers — readers like you and me.

And they are not really stolen at all, these words. It feels that way at first, because they are so precious and so beautiful. But in fact, it is the other way around: the words have stolen our hearts. To read is to be captured, over and over again. I can think of no better form of thievery.

At ease on this earth

22/09/2016 § 3 Comments

Other people’s words about … beauty

I am haunted by waters. It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on this earth unless there’s a river nearby.

from To the River
by Olivia Laing

Haunted by waters. Isn’t that a beautiful phrase?

Though the words I’ve quoted above are about a river rather than the sea, still, they ring true for me. For most of my adult life — except for the two or three years I spent in my early twenties, travelling and working abroad — I have chosen to live within walking distance of the sea. In my late twenties and thirties, as I’ve mentioned before, I lived in a series of share households: different houses every eighteen months or so, different housemates. But each of those houses was close to the sea.

These days, I divide my time between two homes. The houses themselves are roughly seventy kilometres apart — one north of Adelaide, one south — but they are both just a few minutes’ walk to the beach. Open a window in either of them, and you can hear waves rolling onto shore. Step onto the front porch, and you’ll smell seaweed drying out beyond the water’s reach — a damp, bleached, faintly rotten smell. Look around indoors, and you’ll see drifts of sand piling up in the corners.

The sea surrounds me. It’s how I make sense of things. It’s how I feel at ease.


There’s another phrase I love in the words above: susceptible to beauty.

Like anyone else, I have good days and bad days. There are days when I feel at home, here on this earth: when my skin feels comfortable beneath the layers of my clothes, and the warmth of the sun feels kind and good. And there are days when the world seems vast, alien, spinning, remote. What gets me through those latter kinds of day are tiny moments of beauty, out there by the water: pinpricks of sunlight sparkling on the tips of waves, like sequins on a piece of cloth; clouds chasing across the horizon, billowing and grey; a cluster of yellow flowers growing in the dip of a dune, petals cupped to reflect the light.


I took the photographs you see here late one August afternoon, just a few weeks ago. Sitting at my desk, working at my computer, I felt hemmed in suddenly: by streets and footpaths, by fences and cement driveways, by the sound of my neighbour hawking up sputum in his bathroom. The longing to get away from all of that was so strong it felt akin to starving. I felt hollow through and through.

I shut down my computer, stepped outside, and walked down the road to the sea.


Five minutes later there I was, standing on the sand, looking out at the water and the sky. It was close to sunset and I wandered a while along the shore, released at last: from work and worry and words. And I saw something, then, that I don’t know how to describe, though I’ll try: I saw spring coming. The air had a certain quality to it — a softness, perhaps, after the steely bleakness of winter. I thought that if I reached out with my hand I might touch that beautiful softness. It seemed possible, just for a moment.

Looking at the photographs now, I don’t see what I did then. Perhaps you don’t, either. But I know that I saw it, all the same. It was one of those moments — those tiny moments of beauty — to which I, like Olivia Laing, am susceptible.

I am grateful for those moments, is what I’m trying to say. They give me a kind of gladness. They bring me home.

The reader

08/09/2016 § 7 Comments

Other people’s words about … books

She has always been the reader — no-one else in the family is that interested. She had carted her books from house to house as a student, the boxes growing in number each time, keeping them because she could not imagine doing otherwise, and because she thought that there was something permanent in a book, that it lasted forever. But now, when she takes an older paperback out to reread or loan, she is surprised at how fragile it has become, the paper threatening to tear in her hands if she turns the page, tiny black specks embedded in its tissue pages; bugs, probably. She should have cleared them out, she thinks. Packed them up in boxes for recycling. No-one would want them when she was gone.

From ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain

I grew up in a house in which every room contained a bookcase or a wall lined with bookshelves. I remember kneeling in front of those shelves as a child, scanning them, trying to make sense of the order in which they had been shelved, trying — with a child’s sense of incomprehension — to understand the titles. There were lots of orange paperback spines (oh, those old Penguin classics!). There were fat, hardback dictionaries — volume after volume of them. There were thick novels with white covers and raised lettering. There were books with titles like Fear of Flying, which didn’t seem to be about flying at all. There were books with titles containing words like ‘teach’ and ‘literature’ and ‘linguistics’ and ‘semantics’.

And none of these books had pictures in them.


I made a vow when I was about seven or eight years old that I would never, ever read an adult book. The books on my parents’ shelves seemed to be about — or to come from — a disturbing adult world: a world of which I knew I wanted no part. And so the first time I read a book without any illustrations, I felt half-proud, and half-afraid. Was I crossing over to adulthood now, after all? Could I stop myself? It seemed not. Reading, in the end, was more than just enjoyable: it was essential.

As a young woman, I lived for many years in a series of rented houses and share households. My housemates and I each had our own bedroom, but we shared saucepans and bowls and TVs and washing machines. We talked about the films we wanted to see, the music we liked to listen to, the books we had just read. We cooked for each other and shared bottles of cheap red wine and chardonnay. We borrowed novels from the local library, and bought tattered secondhand paperbacks from the local op shop.

During those years, I stored any books I owned on a makeshift shelf that I’d constructed by putting bricks on my bedroom floor and laying a plank of wood over the top of the bricks. Later, I went through a phase where I decided that lettuce crates were a cool way to store my books. I couldn’t bring myself to buy a proper bookshelf. I was afraid, I think, of making the commitment. A bookshelf spelled permanency. It spelled adulthood. It spelled turning into your parents. I wasn’t going to do that. (Why, I wonder, are we so fervently against turning into our elders when we are young? Now I would be honoured to think I was, or am, like either of my parents.)


I don’t remember exactly when I gave in to owning a bookshelf: to growing up, to admitting, happily, that I shared my parents’ passion for literature. I am glad that I did, though. The books on my shelves may one day fade, their pages tearing, their covers warping with damp. They may seem meaningless to anyone else. And yet there is something permanent in them: there is something that lasts forever, despite their physical frailty.

Reading transports to you another world: a world of someone else’s creation. It makes you feel things — sadness, joy, anger, bewilderment. Writers share their worlds with us; their books are their gifts. Those gifts leave an imprint on us. You can’t store that imprint on a plank of wood resting on a brick. You can’t stack it in a lettuce crate. And you certainly can’t pack it up and recycle it.

As you may have noticed, I have recently dropped the frequency of my posts a little. I hope to pop in with a post roughly fortnightly or so, but … quality rather than quantity, right?! And there is only so much reading one woman — or this woman, at any rate — can do …

A bitter pill to swallow

24/08/2016 § 2 Comments

Other people’s words about … cures

We feel sick even if we are physically well. We are organically diseased by lack or excess. Most of our healers — mainstream and alternative — now act and are treated like shopkeepers, and have become entrepreneurs (or the pawns of entrepreneurs). If they don’t give us the goods — the diagnosis and pill — we’ll shop elsewhere. We seek passive means of attaining health and longevity, which is what medicine (both conventional and alternative) promotes. We want diagnoses. We want solutions we can browse, buy and swallow, be they pharmaceuticals, tinctures or vitamins. It’s convenient for politicians, suits industry very nicely. Pills are our tiny white black holes: absorbing all our hope, agency and energy. They divert attention from prevention, population health and inequity; they promote consumption.

from ‘Too many pills?
by Karen Hitchcock
in The Monthly magazine (September 2015)

I like Hitchcock’s thinking. A doctor who works on the acute medical ward of a big city hospital, she pulls no punches when it comes to discussing health in our society.

Health, she says, is more than just a physical issue. It is an issue of combined mental, physical, environmental, interpersonal, social and political factors.

Too many pills?

Too many pills?

I can’t do justice to her argument here. It is complex and passionate, encompassing the need for both personal action (at the individual level) and social action (at the socio-political level). And it is about considering the idea of a cure not as something we can buy but rather as something we should do.

And, oh, these are words well worth reading.

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