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Non-fiction reviews

 

Margaret Connell - Where the Wildflowers Bloom

13 November 1990

Where the Wildflowers Bloom (An Artist's Outback Journey)
Margaret Connell
Kangaroo Press


Published in The Age



If you're still stuck for a Christmas gift for that difficult-to-please, creative or special person, this magnificent book of Australian wildflower paintings would be hard to go past.

Margaret Connell packed her husband and three grown children into the family car a while back - when the Outback was awash with unprecedented rains - and set off from her home in Deniliquin, southern NSW, to draw and paint the profusion of wildflowers (and grasses, and fungi, and even the odd butterfly) which were making such rare and welcome appearances. She also wrote a journal of the trip, which accompanies the illustrations. It tells not only of tracking down rare plants, but of family games of football on dusty roadsides, the horrors of "bull dust" and tinned food, and of the author's impressions of Outback publicans (generous, helpful) and garage proprietors (generally less so). Her son Nick would sing some rather singular ditties to keep himself awake while driving - and the author even obliges us with an occasional verse of The Drover's Dream and the like.

In counterpoint to this jolly family tale, opposite each illustration is a paragraph with formal botanical information on the subject plant - region, preferred soils, seasons, foliage, flowers and seeds.

This is a multi-dimensional book - warm yet exact: an impressive blend of science and art - which will be valued by botanists and loungeroom amateurs alike.

Which brings us to the illustrations themselves. All 43 of them are in full colour. (The originals now hang in some of the finest loungerooms in the country.) As Celia Rosser says of them in her foreword:

Her paintings reflect the obvious attention paid to the subjects' finer structures, often showing colouring and subtle detail that are almost impossible to reproduce photographically. An unusually attractive addition to her art is the group of composite works which reflect her enthusiasm and willingness to venture into new forms of expression with the highest standards of illustration.

Robert Ingpen (in a second foreword) adds that "Her drawings speak to us on behalf of the plants and wildflowers. And with the help of her sensitive narrative their story becomes a book with a secret and timeless message for us all."

The Connells' journey took them down into Victoria (Deniliquin residents are almost honorary Victorians, and nearly all regard Melbourne as their big city of choice), then out west into South Australia via the Little Desert. Then the family turned north, through Coober Pedy, to the MacDonnell Ranges in central Australia. At Tennant Creek they went east and swept down in a wide arc right through the middle of Queensland; then down through Bourke, Forbes and Jerilderie to home.

The trip covered thousands of kilometres, yet was completed within a month. This was essential, because the specimens - most of which were to be properly painted later at home - would not stay fresh for longer. In the interim they were kept in a special esky, which was respected like the Ark of the Covenant for the duration.

The effort and planning for this unusual trip has certainly paid off. Every page of Where the Wildflowers Bloom, whether text or illustration, contains the flavour of the Australian Outback: which is - as much as anything is - the soul of Australia itself.


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