KLUGE-RUHE ABORIGINAL ART MUSEUM, VIRGINIA
NORTH CAROLINA BOTANIC GARDENS
After Tennessee, Michael and I headed for Charlottesville, Virginia, where I was to give my next lecture. It would have been an uneventful trip, but for the hundreds of trucks that filled the highway. They were not as large or as long as the semi-trailers common to Northern Territory roads, but enough to make the trip hair-raising in parts. Lesley had warned us of this.
The country was beautiful, with high mountains, rolling hills, mostly covered with tall trees – so different from the Top End and most of Australia. I thought Michael, a history buff, might have wished to stop at the site of some of the great battlefields, eg Lexington. I certainly would have liked to have stopped to look for warblers in the forests we passed. However, we had to be at the Kluge-Ruhe Museum before 4 pm, and so he decided to keep going, our only stop being for fuel and an uninspiring takeaway burger.
We left the Smokey Mountains, Tennessee, at 8 am and arrived at the museum eight hours later.
It was a magnificent Jefferson-style mansion painted white and set among extensive gardens. It was not particularly old, having been built in the 1930s in a style to match our home for the next two days - a quaint little white two-storey cottage attached to a round, red brick silo only fifty metres or so from the main building. The cottage had been built in 1850 and the silo in the very early 1800s. I decided the cottage, with its wooden beams, staircase with a second floor walkway to the top of the silo, was my dream home!
Margo Smith, anthropologist and curator of the Museum turned up late the next morning having had to take her sick dog to the vet. We sympathised. She showed us around, and I learned even more about this wonderful establishment, the gift of a couple of very generous benefactors, John Kluge and Professor Ruhe. The two men had fallen in love with Aboriginal art, and had donated their collections. Many of my Kunwinjku relatives' paintings were in the collection. They were not in the museum but at the nearby Univesity of Virginia.
That afternoon we had an all too brief couple of hours to do some birding along the river. We saw no new birds but enjoyed the walk anyway, through high trees and dense foliage.
About twenty or thirty attended the talk that evening, most being older women with an interest in Aboriginal art. Margo had asked me to talk about, not the art, but the fauna of the Top End, my semi-traditional family, and ecotourism. These were topics all were interested in but rarely got to hear about. I focused on the Nganjmirras, my adoptive family, and one of the most prominent families in the Aboriginal art world. I told of the “mother” country at Baby Dreaming, and how we had worked to break down barriers and empower women and families through targetted, appropriate tourism.
I mentioned how the NT Government had funded us for a while, but then decided I wasn't “qualified” to train as I didn't have a “certificate 4”. Neither did the semi-traditional elders who I'd trained and had gone on to teach others. That they, and I, had the skills, knowledge and values desired by visitors was of little importance.
Whenever I've mentioned this the audience has reacted with disbelief that the experiences they desire are of so little importance.
Afterwards we all adjourned for supper. Margo wished to take us out to dinner, but by then Michael and I were fading fast. It had been a long two days.
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA
Early the next morning Michael and I set off yet again, this time in the direction of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. This time the drive was not so arduous. I had hoped to travel east to Richmond, and then to the coast in the hope of spotting some shorebirds, but our GPS had other ideas, and we didn't wish to risk getting lost.
Ritchie Bell, Professor Emeritus, University of Carolina and founder of the NC Botanical Gardens, and botanical legend, and his wife, Dr. Anne Lindsey, were to be our hosts. Anne is an authority on Cherokee plant usage. They live in the midst of pristine forest on the edge of the town, and are building a “green” house nearby. Unfortunately it has run well over budget and time and is causing the Lindsey-Bells a few headaches. Michael and I went to look at the house with Anne and Ritchie's friends, Nancy Easterling and Chuck Anderson. It is quite a mansion, three storeys high and built by master craftsmen, largely out of timber. There is a comprehensive rainwater collection system and a “green” roof, literally, with all sorts of plants sprouting.
The next day we lunched with Evelyn McNeill-Sims, and her daughter Nancy Preston who funded these lectures in honour of her mother's long dedication to the wildflowers of North Carolina. About fifty people turned up including the director of the NC Botanic Gardens, a member of the NC legislature, and several other prominent citizens, some of whom had been to Australia.
Evelyn, now 99, is a wonderful lady with a great sense of humour, and a sharp wit, and we kept up a running conversation all meal. Nancy's great-grand-daughter, Olympia, was also there with her mother, and the oldest member of the family was utterly enchanted with the little girl whom she'd only seen a few times.
The lecture was originally to be on weeds common to both Australia and the USA, but Nancy who had arranged the lecture, asked me the night before to include autobiographical slides, and to talk about my semi-traditional family. I spoke at length about the Kunwinjku children on outstations, and how they learned about plants and the natural environment at a very early age. I also dwelled on how we were all connected – plants, people, environment.
Afterwards Ritchie showed me the assessment form that attendees were asked to fill out, pointing to a scale ranging from poor to excellent. He pointed to “excellent” and moving his finger to the left, said that not only had my lecture been “much more than excellent”, but that it had been the best in the ten year history of the lectures, and that I was “the total biologist”. Rare praise indeed from such a fine and invaluable contributor to American botany and conservation. Similar comments came from others, including Evelyn. Ritchie and Anne wish to arrange a return visit sponsored by the NC Botanic Gardens and the University of NC.
That night we had to drive back to Charlotte to return our hire car, and the next morning we departed for Hawaii.
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