[10 August 2020: I originally uploaded this post on 13 October 2004. Last night, the Emerging Artist and I stayed at the current incarnation of the Falls. As you’d expect, it’s moved on. Mary White has died, but has left a marvellous legacy. The Falls Forest Retreat (web address unchanged from 14 years ago) is a lovely place to spend a night, and even more so to spend a weekend and go on walks in the convenanted bushland.]
A couple of months ago when I was looking on the WWW for places to stay on this break, I came across The Falls Forest Retreat. I’d been led to it by a smaller notice that indicated it was a gay-friendly nudist site, but the prospect of hanging about with a lot of naked people wasn’t what enticed me to click on the link. In fact, it seems that I didn’t even mention the site to Penny at the time, probably because of that, plus a whiff of (for want of a better word) eco-hucksterism. But as we were driving up the coast on Saturday, I remembered it and suggested that we leave the main road at Johns River and drop in at The Falls, possibly to stay the night.
The reason for my suggestion, and for Penny’s alacrity in taking it up, lies some 35 years in the past, when The Falls was a farm that had seen better days, at the foot of a small volcanic cone, incorporating many acres of bushland, a waterfall, a huge fig tree, cow paddocks covered in bracken, a decrepit orchard and a sad farmhouse.
About that time, Mollie had a vision. (In case anyone comes in late, Mollie is my mother-in-law, now in a nursing home with dementia.) She had been a quixotic environmentalist for decades – she boycotted the first supermarket in Adelaide in the early 1950s for selling environmentally harmful pink toilet paper. When she was in her early 50s, her husband Ron had been pretty much sacked from his job as general manager of a large insurance company (a new, hard-edged managerial style was to be introduced), and was running a consultancy with Mollie as secretarial worker – which both of them found frustrating. With quite a lot of organising experience behind her thanks to her involvement in the anti-Vietnam-war movement, and a head full of ideas about organic gardening and environmental responsibility, Mollie decided to go for a bigger life. She set her heart on establishing a sustainable community somewhere in the country. She and Ron joined forces with a number of other couples – initially similarly well-off people in their 50s who had been with them in the anti-War movement – to build a commune. When they responded to the ad for The Falls, they fell in love at first sight, and the project was under way.
When I met Penny in 1976, she would refer to her parents as early-retiree hippies living on a geriatric commune. (They were probably about the age that Penny and I are now, but I won’t dwell on that.) We were still in our first flush of low-serotonin euphoria – that is to say, newly fallen in love – when I first met the parents: Mollie in compost-stained overalls and Ron coming in on the tractor from an afternoon slashing bracken. By that time, the buildings were pretty much complete. There was a communal building, The Roundhouse, with a large kitchen, a pool table and a sunken triangular conversation pit in front of an ample fireplace; and six units for the participating couples. Not all of them were occupied yet, and Penny and I slept on a mattress on the bare cement floor of one of them. They had a huge vegetable garden – Mollie was passionate about mulching. There were bees, chickens, ducks, a paddock of agisted cattle, newly planted fruit trees, plus bracken and lantana to slash and rocks to be cleared from the paddocks. Visiting members of the younger generation were expected to lend a hand. We were also expected to join in bush-walking, skinny-dipping, tea-drinking with the elders. The place was magic.
Over the next years, the saga of The Falls formed part of the backdrop as Penny and I were setting up our life together. On their visits to Sydney, Mollie and Ron would regale us with tales, of the joys certainly (a visitor from China praised them for keeping the outside pit toilet, the ‘Loo with a View’ looking up the mountain, as well as the septic system, quoting Chairman Mao’s dictum about walking on two legs), but also of the anguishes of their life. There were now six participating couples, each living with a degree of independence, but all involved in the communal enterprise. Ron and Mollie’s previous experience in variations of the nuclear family hadn’t prepared them for the inevitable politics of regular decision making meetings, and the different, often conflicting, ideas of what the place was all about. The other participants were: Mike and Toby, formerly of New York, he retired from work in advertising, she a graphic designer who would have liked to be an opera singer; Phil and Bill, Quakers with a passion for the environment; John and Anita, shopkeepers from nearby Taree who were attracted by the idea of communal living; Jack and Carol, farmers who liked the idea of working towards retirement by farming with a group; and Beryl, the only single person, a magnificent eccentric who seemed to see it as an intellectual adventure.
So there was Mollie, completely inexperienced in country ways, pushing for organic gardening, in fierce argument with Jack who understood how to make a farm work and had little respect for her high-falutin’ ideas; there was Toby singing arias to the cows when there was Work To Be Done; there was someone having an affair with somebody in town and the spouse going predictably nuts; there was Bill insisting on everything being ideologically pure, and Mike adamant about the need to be laid back. Mollie was often distraught about being accused of guilt-tripping. Someone left, and a new couple arrived, ten years younger than the others, the woman a Communist activist from Melbourne, fiercely intolerant of the middle-class muddling-through she met there. And through it all affable, tolerant Ron acted like a social leaven, a warp to Mollie’s earnest weft, a reminder that they all liked each other. I’ve got no doubt he was as dedicated to the place as Mollie was, but in a way I think he loved it for what it was while she loved it for what it could become.
When Ron had a stroke in 1979, it was a disaster. Partly paralysed and with his vision affected, he could no longer do his share of the work, and nor could he fill his crucial peacemaking function because he became irritable and depressed. After some months, Ron and Mollie sold their share and moved away, disappointed and at least a little bitter. The commune lasted only a few years after that, and the property was soon sold, with some unpleasantness about the divvying up of the profits. On her wall in the nursing home, Mollie has an image of one of the units that a friend painted from a photograph. And apart from occasional vague whispers, I knew nothing about it until I saw that web site earlier this year, claiming a history as a resort going back to 1910, and touting the set of a long-forgotten television series as one of its attractions.
So on Saturday night, as John w Howard was being voted in as Prime Minister yet again, Penny and I drove down the gravel road to The Falls 2004-style, with muted expectations. The impact was almost physical as we drove through the gate, around the huge fig tree and up the sweep of drive through recently mowed lawn, past the sculptural rocks that (I think) had been dragged to their present position as one of The Men’s projects, and up to the farmhouse. The ancient lemon tree near the house was gone, the garden had shrunk, but the roundhouse, the units, the sheds, the lay of the land, were all familiar.
As we stepped out of the car, we were greeted by a vigorous, white-haired woman who turned out to be the owner, Mary E. White. She shuddered when I told her of the nudist-friendly reference. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Someone said it would be suitable for a nudist resort because it’s right at the end of the road, but I couldn’t bear the thought of those naked bottoms sitting on my furniture.’ Though she didn’t say so, I believe that the web site is as it was when she bought the property 12 months ago – she has been much too busy to attend to it. She has covenanted the part of the property that is under bush, which is a way of protecting it from future development. She has spent the last year, helped by a son, uncovering the old gardens, ridding the property once more of lantana and bracken, establishing a new vegetable garden and chicken run, converting to a bore water supply (which made it necessary to dig up and replace all the pipes laid by Mollie’s generation of builders). The result is that where we had half-expected to find a more or less cynical commercial enterprise, we found the place as if uncannily preserved. Ron and Mollie’s unit had the same light fittings, the same tiles, the same built-in cupboards. The stone walls built by Ron and The Men were as they had been – a result of hundreds of hours work rooting out lantana, but the effect was as if time had stood still. The books on the Roundhouse shelves had the same eclectic feel – much about conservation, but also what you’d expect from a reader born in the 1920s.
Mary said that over these 12 months of hard work, suddenly in this new place after living in the same house in the northern suburbs of Sydney for decades, she has felt that she was living in someone else’s dream. It’s hard to resist the idea that the dream was Mollie’s. An extraordinary number of factors make her an ideal heir to Mollie’s dream: she is close to 80, just a little younger than Mollie; she is a passionate environmentalist, palaeo-botanist to be precise; what’s more, her family home was in Balgowlah, a couple of blocks from where Mollie and Ron lived 50 years ago. Her aim is to have the place functioning as an environmental education and conference centre, and she’s well on the way: 40 people from National Parks and Wildlife are arriving for a conference/ meeting in the near future. Once things are settled, she plans to get back to her writing: she is the author of many books, mainly on the history of the Australian environment, the most recent covering the last 5 billion years.
It was an emotional visit for Penny and me. Meeting Mary was a total delight, and she was equally delighted to hear what Penny could tell her of the history of the place. We went for walks in the evening and again in the morning – to the Falls themselves, and the beautiful Cascades, and yes, past the relics of the set of the forgotten TV series. I don’t think Mollie’s Alzheimer’s would let her understand what we were talking about if we tried to tell her, but it’s deeply gratifying that her baton has been passed on, not down the generations, but to someone of her own generation eminently fitted by passion and expertise to take it.
Apart from anything else, it’s good to be reminded that elections aren’t everything. (Mary, incidentally, told us a story about John Howard being a true gentleman once when she was struggling with luggage at an airport. Perhaps that’s an omen …)