II. Arrival: Trying to Make Art Out of Admiration

I arrived in Australia jet lagged with time-travel and revelation; I could hold boundaries with my anxious! Though my journey had already been momentous the work had not yet begun. Tom and I got in the car (the driver on the wrong side…) and drove out of Brisbane (and the time changed, yet again…) and proceeded to get thoroughly lost. I had surrendered to the journey, though, and so I trusted Tom would get us to the Garden and get me filled in on what to expect there. He did his best but, nonetheless, the culture shock was intense.

The final stretch of our journey was over a mountain, on a winding road, past the waving of verdant ferns and trunk upon trunk of strange, beautiful, tropical trees. I wanted to ask Tom what every thing was called – those violet flowers, that grey-trunked sapling – but their names slipped through my saturated brain. Instead, I held my questions and just marveled at the greenery, the lushness all around. Finally, we arrived.

“Take off your shoes!” Tom encouraged. “It’s a bog so they’ll just get muddy anyway.”

It was, in fact, a bog; each step I took across the sodden ground became a puddle, each footprint a small muddy lake. The grass was intensely verdant, thriving, and around us were rolling fields framed by green mountains; open blue sky and the long fingers of thriving trees reaching up, photosynthesizing. Gingerly, unused to my bare feet after a seemingly-endless New York winter, I followed him across the yard to investigate the yurt where I would be staying, meet the donkeys and the chickens. I felt like Dorothy; I certainly wasn’t in East Harlem anymore!


Tom picked up a passionfruit from the yard and handed it to me; I took it, dumbfounded, and he showed me how to break it open to get at its sweet, crunchy, pulpy interior. I had never held an actual passionfruit before. Until that moment I had suspected that they were merely a made-up flavor that beverage companies invented to sell a tropical flavoring. Sticky-mouthed, I was pleased to be wrong.

At the house, we assembled lunch from an array of farmer’s market goodness and I had my first slice of Tom’s heavenly gluten-free bread (the best I’ve ever tasted). Bex and the children arrived home after we’d eaten; at ages 6 and 3, they are younger than the humans I’m used to working with, but delightful nonetheless. I explained to Bex and Tom that I was trying to stay up until night to try and battle my jet lag; they suggested we go to the beach. Eager to submerge myself, I agreed and we all piled into the van and rode to the ocean.

Getting in the ocean always feels like a sacred experience; even when I am at the dirty beach at Coney Island (which is, in fact, next to a wastewater treatment plant…) I like to rush in alone, to have a minute to reconnect and say hello to the surging water. The beach at Wollumbum couldn’t be more different than Coney Island. It’s a cove – soft, pale sand and smooth tumbled stones, patrolled by bush turkeys – and the late afternoon light fell onto the pink and turquoise foam in bands of shining unreality. I was so jet-lagged, so culture-shocked, so tired in my body and boggled in my mind, I couldn’t even take a photo, couldn’t have recorded that beauty if I had tried. Even now, not even three weeks later, I’m grasping at the memory of it and I find I’ve got only the awe to hold onto. Even if I could go there now, stand on that beach at the same time of day, I could never recapture that moment.

There is lots of beauty here, in New York. The sunset behind the skyline, the view from the Q train as it crosses from one island to the other and you can see down the East River, past the arches of the Brooklyn Bridge and the towers clustered on the southern tip of Manhattan, to Governors’ island and the Statue of Liberty, distant, green, and dignified, presiding over the harbor. The parks – their rolling, manicured hills and plants and the people who lounge in them, a kaleidoscope of human faces. The art, everywhere; the treasures in museums and on street corners, graffitied onto buildings under the shadow of the elevated trains. It’s a different kind of beauty, and it’s all mashed up with the ugliness that we make as the inevitable by-product of living all close together, in a place that’s cold, cold, cold half of every year. It’s hard to see it when you’ve spent too long without getting out, when your eyes get cynical. I can see it now, because I’ve gone away and come back, but that first afternoon in Mullum I felt so saturated by the natural beauty I felt soft and pink and naive. I felt as though I’d been born.

That night, after dinner, the bats streamed overhead, hundreds of them, in the cool, dusky blue of twilight. Quiet, peaceful, their colony went out in search of food, harming no one, following the sight of the sound of their voices across the falling dark. And when the night came, I saw the Milky Way for the first time.

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Mel Compo is an interdisciplinary artist, playworker, and facilitator at the New York City Agile Learning Center. Their work with children centers play, art-making, city adventuring, and open conversation about language, bodies, gender, networks, emotional intelligence, brain plasticity, and cycles of growth. Mel studied the intersections of SDE, poetry, and the history of American education NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. They live in Brooklyn, New York.

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