A Portrait of my Mother
by Mark Boulet

Picture a woman. My mother.
Small, petit, ash-blond hair. A vitality that is infectious.
A stern up-bringing, a demanding manner, a boundless love.
A laugh that is loud and more than a little wicked.
A hug that squeezes me in two.
Wrinkles of smiles around her eyes.

This is my clumsy attempt to talk about her connections with nature.
To explore the place in which she grew.
To try and understand her feelings about living in a still-alien place.
To talk about her garden.
To begin to understand how this influenced my own relations with the Earth.

A small, rural town in Southern Germany.
Close to Switzerland and Austria.
An old town, a medieval history.
A strong sense of place.
A small community, growing up there you knew everyone.

Fertile fields swept out into the distance next to the family house.
In the evening, looking from the window, she could see deer grazing.

Most of the time as a young girl was spent outside.
There was no other choice.
At home, it was too cramped and small.
There was a sense of freedom outdoors.
Of being able to go wherever you wanted.
“That’s what I miss most.
There are too many houses and fences in the Melbourne suburbs.”

Out with friends, roaming the nearby woods.
Playing games,
pushing doll prams through the trees,
making stick-and-moss gardens,
constructing houses in the sweeping roots of pine trees.
Being warned of rabid foxes. The delicious thrill of fear at the thought of meeting one.
Looking out for squirrels, mice, deer, birds and wild boar.

An abandoned quarry.
Two huge holes and some small hills.
Grown over, become wild, with grass and trees.
The perfect playground, home to games and wild fantasies.
Cross mothers, scolding kids for coming home with grass stains on clothing.
Sending them outside again the next day.

“I was a bit strange! I liked to go out alone”
A solitary child at times.
The house was too small and one could never be alone.
Taking a book. Reading in special spots in the forest.
The pine forest behind her, her house just visible in the distance.

As a chid in a rural town, you knew where your food came from.
Eggs, meat and vegetables.
All fresh, all straight from the farmer.
The region was known for its rich soil.
Its green grass.
Its excellent cheeses and rich milk.
Daily trips to a nearby farmhouse with her milk-cans.
The cow-stalls were attached to the farmhouse.
“The place reeked! Yet it was always warm because the cows were so close.”

Her mother taught her to recognise mushrooms.
Which ones could be eaten and which ones would make a small girl sick.
Drinking from fresh streams.
At times the forest was like a giant food cupboard.
In summer, wild berries fed hungry mouths and left fingers sticky.
Stealing unripe apples from the neighbour’s back-yard.
Sore stomachs from the tart green fruit.

Her father was an agricultural scientist and trainer.
He knew all the local farmers.
Sundays would usually involve trips out onto the land.
Her nose wrinkles at remembered visits to farmyards.
“God! They just stank!”

Father also knew the names of every plant and every bird.
“When I went for Sunday walks with him, he told me about everything we came across.”
But the best times were still with friends.
Roaming far and wide through the forests.
Discovering things for themselves.
Just being outside.

“Fresh air! That was important.”
Her parents encouraged being outside. Encouraged taking long walks
Being in the fresh air.
When sick, she knew that she was getting better when her mother would push her outside.
“Fresh air would always make you feel better.”

Long Sunday walks with her family. It was important to be outside.
To get exercise. To be in the fresh air.
Walking to the moors.
They were famous for their healing properties.
People came from all around to bathe in the peaty mud-baths.
Old soldiers with missing limbs and damaged bodies.
The thick, rich earth healing and providing comfort.

Yet as she grew older, things changed.
She stopped walking with her parents.
Television was introduced.
She had to go to another town for school.
There was more homework.
More homework meant more time spent at her desk.

The family moved to a bigger house.
There was more space to move.
The solitary girl got her own room.
There was no need to escape outdoors.

“I still went outside, but there were other things to do.”
Parties, music and movies demanded attention.
The old group of friends she grew up began to drift apart.
Other friends were made in other places.
There were still times spent outdoors.
Skiing, swimming, trips to the Black Forest.
But the sense of playing outdoors seemed to have gone.

Why does this happen to so many of us?
Why does this happen to me?
The child-like sense of wonder and fun outdoors begins to fade.
Our fun become manufactured.
Movies, video games, night-clubs.
Modern life begins to get in the way.
School and study eat up time.
Most of the time we do not think about it.
Sometimes we do and are sad.

My mother moved away from her town and went to university.
She met my father and a new life began.
Marriage, children, a new country.

Five years in America.
A busy time of growing kids, little money, new faces.
I remember times spent outdoors, on long road trips and on camping trips.
I was always encouraged to go outside.
The house was cramped and small.
Roaming around with friends, running wild.
Coming home with grass-stains on my clothes.
The outdoors was my play-ground.
After all, fresh-air was important!

Another new country. This one even more different.
Australia was alien to my mother.
Northern America was a bit like Germany, but here, the land is different.
There is not enough green.
The colours are less rich.
Faded greens and browns.
So much red.
Where are the pine trees?
The juicy green of rural Germany is missing.

The bush is alien.
It is not comfortable to be in it alone. It is scary.
There is not a sense of knowing.
She did not grow up here.
The beaches are nice, but they are not home.
She is not rooted in the land.
The times she spent outdoors as a child connected her.
To a place.
She is still homesick for that place.
She misses the rural landscape.
Misses the sound of the wind in pine forests.

Yet there are good things.
The wide open spaces. Fewer people.
A sense of untouched country.
The beaches on cold, windy evenings.
The wind nipping her cheeks.
She appreciates these things.
Yet there will always be a sense of strangeness.

This strangeness is not felt by her children.
It is not felt by me.
We spent a lot of time growing up here.
This is more our place.

The smells, sights and sounds of this land are a home to me.
Yet it is a home I have had to discover myself.
I understand now why my mother, why my parents, did not teach me about the land.
It is not theirs.
They are strangers to it.
They live here and love it.
But how can they teach about something they did not grow up in?
How can my mother teach me to look for mushrooms?
She does not know the ones to eat and the ones which would make a small boy sick.

Yet this is not to blame.
It simply is.

So my mother starts a garden.
Now our story has reached present time.
Now we are speaking about a mother I know well.
Whose passion has dominated our family for years.
Yet I have never asked “why?”


Picture a garden bursting with colours.
This is my mother’s garden.
Both at the front and back of our house, the garden blooms.
It has grown.
To become so large that its presence is the first thing you feel when you come to our house

Roses, creepers, geraniums, waratahs, mosses and fuchsias.
Everything is lovingly mulched.
Two compost bins brood on the corner.
Quirky things poke out here and there.
Small clay ducks, wooden frogs and angel statues.
A clay Loch Ness Monster that used to scare the neighbours’ children.
A wooden sled. A ceramic wombat.
And roses. Always more roses.

The garden is controlled chaos and over it my mother rules.
Bent over double, red tracksuit pants bright in the sun.
She wears an old pair of my sneakers.
Weeding, planting, digging and mulching.
Planning, always planning.

There is no large front-fence around our house.
Why keep something like this only for ourselves?
Strangers stop and admire the flowers.

They smile and my mother beams.

To put something in the earth and to watch it grow is her greatest joy.
To plant it.
To care for it.
To watch it transform into something living and beautiful.
Who can exactly describe that sort of feeling?
Who would want to?

A sense of creation spurs her on.
She used to throw herself into knitting.
Then it was colourful lead-light windows decorating the house.
Now it is a garden.
With endless space and possibilities for change and further creation.
Shaping a place to match her.
A sense of herself in a place.
A sense of creation providing a sense of connection.
“The plants know that I am there.”

The children have grown and are independent.
She has more time.
The pressures of motherhood have lessened.
Perhaps there is a sense of continuing to nurture and care?
For something else that requires her help to grow.

She only plants flowers.
She loves the colour.
But why not plant vegetables for the family to eat?
That feels like work. Like responsibility.
She would be worried of producing food which is not good enough.
Which her children may not like.
The flowers are only for her.
If they do not bloom, it does not matter.
Beauty is planted for beauty’s sake.

The strange child who loves to be alone.
Thinking, while her hands are busy.
Doing what she likes to do.
Alone in her garden.
Which is therapy. Which is a healer.
A place for calmness and simple rewards.
Relief from the stress of work.
Healing from the pains of life.
Separation, death of parents, fights with children.

My mother’s garden provides a sense of connection.
By this creation, she has a sense of place.
A sense of belonging in a strange land.

She dreams of a larger place.
A piece of land in Tasmania.
Over there it is a bit more like home.
Cooler, greener, with more mountains.
She dreams of planting trees.
Maybe a vineyard.
Trying her hand at vegetables.

An old, mud-brick farm house.
With chickens and ducks.

What have I learnt from my mother?
What is reflected in my own connections with Earth?
To be honest, I am not sure.
Sometimes as a child you are unaware of what your parents do for you.
What they are trying to teach you.
Yet, small things come back at the strangest of times.
Then they make sense.

I am discovering a love for planting.
Of digging my fingers in the dirt.
I dream of my own garden.
Losing myself in a piece of land.
Planting flowers and vegetables.

For this I am grateful to my mother.
Who taught me.
Without words.
The joy in planting.
The joy in being outside.
The importance of fresh air.