Passage of the Seasons – Chronicles from the Australian Savannas and Rainforests




By Diane Lucas and Colwyn Campbell

Take a journey to see and feel ‘The Passage of Seasons’ across a tropical year through the senses and observations of two passionate women naturalists living under different habitat conditions in tropical Australia—from the savannas of the Northern Territory’s Top End and the cloudy rainforests of Queensland’s Wet Tropics. Through this exchange they have compiled extracts from their letters, their diaries, garden notes, sketches, observations, songs, verses and stories of life and raising children in the bush. Colwyn has added to this dialogue, images from their writings, with her carefully worked sketches and paintings, to share with you.

‘If was a moth I would like to rub my proboscis into that flower’s nectar’ (Diane)

‘What captures me are the intricacies of Nature’ (Diane)

Being engaged by Nature, brings strength to the soul’ (Diane)

‘The bush sings to those who listen’ (Diane)

‘The golden heads of Kahili Ginger glow like beacons, attracting birds, bees and butterflies. In the evenings the air is filled with their intoxicating sweetflagrance.’ (Colwyn)

‘The air is soft and sensual and from the rainforest a mix of scents waft: the scent of rain, wet grass, damp earth, damp leaves, subtle aromasfiomfitngi, faint hints of decay and delicate fragranarfromflowerr unseen high in the canopy.’ (Colwyn)

‘Satin Bower-birds are active again around Paluma. Concealed in the undergrowth of the firest, they practise their courtship repertoires. (Colwyn)

Review: Peter Cooke

“Through the pages of “Passage of the Seasons” we are privileged to join the life journeys of Di in the savannah of the NT’s Top End and Colwyn in the cloud forest of Paluma. This is a book of many parts. It is a nature book, but a very special nature book in which people, particularly the authors’ families and friends, are centrally placed in the landscapes which inspire their conversations. Alongside scientific observations and descriptions are embedded the feelings and experiences of the observers as the seasons turn month by month ….. whether against the background of wild nature or in the cultivated nature of their home gardens.

The letter-writing form of the book is also special and increasingly rare in the digital age. The inventor of email, Shiva Ayadurai, observes that texting, SMS, chat or Twitter have destroyed letter writing. In this not-so-brave new world, wise and elegant wordsmithing has been largely replaced by the five-second video grab headline or 140-characterd micro-blogging. The establishment of a postal service in England in 1606 allowed anyone with price of a stamp to communicate with anyone with an address. Women were quick to take advantage of the improved logistic advantages and the creation of a private space for two people to converse across slow time and far distant space. Linguists credit women writers of the 17th and 18th centuries with inventing a more personal, private and introspective form of letter writing, using informal styles that were conversational and spontaneous, more like speech and just as lively, vibrant and at times as playful as speech, while addressing subjects from the mundane to the profound. Di and Colwyn have built on that tradition of style and The Passage of Seasons confirms it still works just fine in the 21st century.

Another ancestral influence and inspiration for Passage of the Seasons was the emergence of the genre of nature diaries, a genre not exclusively female but one which continues to resonate strongly amongst biophile women writers and their audiences. Both Colwyn and Di acknowledge the strong inspiration and influence of the English woman writer Edith Blackwell Holden, who fashioned her Nature Notes for 1906 as a model for her students’ work while teaching art at the Solihull School for girls in England. Edith Holden’s collection of seasonal observations, poetry, and pictures of birds, plants, and insects wasn’t even considered for publication when it was composed and it wasn’t until 1977 that her nature notes were finally published and became a world best seller under the title The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady.

Other seminal sources of inspiration acknowledged by Di and Colwyn include

  • Earth, fire, air and water, an exchange of letters between two women artists Anne Dangars and Grace Crowley, edited by Helen Topliss.
  • Densey Clyne’s formidable catalogue of nature books, especially the Garden Jungle
  • Jackie French’s ‘Seasons of content‘
  • ’The 3,000 Mile Garden’, conversations between Leslie Land and Roger Phillips focused on their gardens on different continents
  • And finally ‘A Gardener’s Log’ and other books by Edna Walling which Di’s mother passed to her.

As well as these shared European influences, Di brings to the Passage of Seasons perspectives on nature and human relationships drawn from decades of interactions and friendships with the indigenous people of Western Arnhem Land.

For Colwyn, Pen Pal friendships with contemporaries in the US and the UK helped make her into a self-confessed life-long compulsive letter writer. In the mid-20th century school children were encouraged to engage with pen friends in other countries. Some of these formally encouraged pen-friendships were very long lasting. In 2018 the record for a pen friendship was between Ruth Magee from Canada and Beryl Richmond in the UK who at that time had corresponded for 78 years and 160 days. They did manage to meet but only twice and only briefly. For Di, going off to boarding school at 10 going on 11 ramped up a regular pattern of letter writing. Di and her dad exchanged letters on a weekly basis. Mum, she says, was just too busy in her garden and keeping house.

The conception and gestation of Seasons began back in Darwin some years after Colwyn and Di were introduced in Darwin in 2001 by a mutual friend, Leonie Norrington, at the launch of Leonie’s Tropical Food Gardens”, a book which Colwyn illustrated. They found they shared lifelong interests in gardening, writing and art. They got to know one another better as Diane often called in at Colwyn’s husband’s book exchange in rural Darwin.  Diane at that time was part-time teaching and already writing books for children. Colwyn says: “I was rapt when Diane told me about a book that was germinating in her mind and asked if I would illustrate it.” And so began their collaboration with Waterlilies, their first book together and self-published in 2007. It was a great learning curve, says Colwyn and they were thrilled when Waterlilies received a “Notable Book” award.  It has since had four reprints.   This book, along with three others, are on the recommended reading list for Indigenous literacy and they have three other books in the pipeline, also for children.

So began five or six years of letter writing that has culminated in our being here tonight to launch The Passage of Seasons — a literary journey during which personal nature diaries have been folded in with intimate stories of family and friends, initally in private correspondence between Di and Colwyn across a great distance. What the authors are sharing now is a sensory feast for all, from Colwyn’s lovingly created and charming illustrations to their mutual keen written observations and commentary on the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and touches of nature that await those who open their hearts and minds to the call of the wild. As Colwyn says “what we hoped to achieve was something that would take the reader away from everyday worries to a peaceful mindset, not too taxing, requiring no serious level of concentration but rather to be conducive to contemplation of the natural world around us all”

The passage of seasons achieves all those goals and is a magnificent celebration of nature, of friendship and lives well lived.”

Review: Christian Clare Robertson’s launch speech – Darwin Botanic Gardens April 2023

“Diane lives on a rural property at Berry Springs, 60 kms south of Darwin. She is the author of several much loved children’s books and is well known and respected, especially here in the Top End. She has led an adventurous life, being choppered into some extremely remote parts of the north, as well as in Africa and other extraordinary locations while working on environmental surveys. She has also lived and worked as a teacher among the indigenous people of Western Arnhem Land, and in the process learned language.

Colwyn lived, at the time of writing, at Paluma, a mountain-top village in the cloud-forest 85 kms north of Townsville. Diane and Colwyn have collaborated on several children’s books with Diane as author and Colwyn illustrating – but this book is the first time they have been co-authors.

And, as for me – I’m, a painter, mainly landscape, but other things too, including plants.

Despite having lots of great stories to tell you still shouldn’t ever allow yourself to agree to launch your own book or open your own show – too close to it, ‘nuts and bolts’, you can’t say how wonderful it is, and above all, you can’t retrieve that clear vast overview of your first impression.

The scope of this book is fascinating, contrasting two most distinct regions of northern Australia, the dry savanna of the Top End with the lush wet tropics of the east coast. Has anyone compared or contrasted these two regions before?

As an overview I can’t help thinking of a glorious Persian carpet, a myriad of tiny details each worthy of close scrutiny and which seen together create a formal, structured pattern. Each small detail can be savoured and revisited, perhaps seasonally; being cyclic it always remains relevant.

This collaboration has endured over about seven years, a tour de force in itself. Writing and illustrating and song are three quite separate ‘languages’, and are interpreted by the brain in different ways. You have successfully dealt with this balancing act by allowing each of you to have her own distinct voice and character and special contributions to the book as a whole.

Chronicles – the authors are well aware of the true meaning of this word, which is carefully chosen. A record or narrative of past events, a chronological record, a historical document, a life history.

And here I’m reminded to think about the great diarists, whose first-hand accounts of events are enduringly fascinating and help us to understand their times. You are seeing through their eyes as we will now see through yours.

So yes, I feel that this book, which today is delightful to read, will not only endure but will become mor important as time goes on. After all, a book is still the best way to pass on knowledge to the next generations, much more permanent than all our glorious technology.

As a historian friend once told me, ours will not be a well-documented era as we will not be able to retrieve all that digital information once we lose the machines that read it.

Colwyn’s patience and accuracy when drawing the plants and animals reminds me to mention the particular discipline required. The plant samples usually don’t last long so need to be drawn quite quickly. It’s a lesson in humility too, as every living creature has its own overarching structure which is predictable and immutable. You can’t add or remove a leaf or flower to a plant wherever you like because unless it conforms to the pattern it will look wrong. Once you understand its growth pattern you can even see if a tree is missing a limb, and ask yourself what might have caused it – perhaps a cyclone, and thus discern its possible personal history.

The act of drawing, or describing and recording, teaches you to see, as the form you are studying will provide most of the answer to your questions if you look carefully enough. Plus the undivided attention you give it means that you are likely to remember and understand what you have learned.

A journal such as this, or a series of drawings, become a record of a particular time, a snapshot – in effect a portrait. Time stands still, at first, when the description or drawing coincides with reality; then as time passes, the disjunction increases and you begin to notice elements that were at first invisible. Even in this book it is possible to notice subtle changes in the process of occurring.

After reading your letters, Colwyn, I feel as if I would recognise Paluma, and understand many of its issues, even though it is a very different environment from the one I’m much more used to here in the Top End.

And Diane, through your writing I’m seeing not just through your eyes but also hearing the voices of the Bininj people of western Arnhem Land with whom you have spent so much time – not just their voices and songs but those of their ancestors, indigenous wisdom necessary for survival in this ancient continent we find ourselves living in, knowledge that could all too easily slip away and be lost. People like you are creating a bridge between our two cultures.

Colwyn on the other hand has not had this advantage as the Aboriginal inhabitants have disappeared long ago from her region, with only the merest scraps of culture surviving. All these plants and creatures would have had names long ago – these and a great deal of vital knowledge have been lost. She has had to more or less go it alone, carefully observing and describing, both through her exquisitely and accurate drawings and her writing.

We are immigrant people with only a couple of hundred years behind us, and we are still on our learning curve. We have inadvertently disrupted or destroyed many of the interconnecting threads that we didn’t even know existed. These held together the environment as a whole, the plants, animals, birds and insects, the original peoples and even the land itself.

Indeed when I first arrived in Darwin in 1977 to take up a new job at the art school I was struck by the oddity of the divide between ‘our’ part of the country and the rest of this vast region, Aboriginal land.

Not just that we couldn’t visit it, but it was like a being blind in one eye – we lived our lives knowing it was there but we couldn’t see it.

The history of this continent stretches back for untold millennia, and only the latest fraction of it is ours. Yet we think of ourselves as Australian, and many of us feel a deep love for our country. I suspect that a book like this will give us an insight as to how we can learn to understand it more fully, and eventually to truly belong.”