April 22, 2014
No flower, with the exception of the lotus, has more symbolic meaning than the rose,” says Vivien Hillgorve, the owner of Mom’s Head Gardens, in Santa Rosa, Calif., and the teacher of a popular class on rose propagation, history, and mythology. Whether the rose was born from the blood of Venus or the sweat of Muhammad, throughout time immemorial roses have been a traditional symbol of love, treasured by kings and queens and revered by poets.
“It is said the first rose was from Persia and that the ornate hanging gardens of Babylon had 300 varieties of roses,” Hillgrove notes. She adds that the Romans scattered rose petals on the graves of their dead to symbolize the short life of both humans and roses. The Elizabethans took their cue from the early Christians and sat in rose gardens to induce a quiet and calm mood. The Victorians used the language of roses to communicate secret love–red meant undying devotion, white stood for purity and innocence, yellow for jealousy. By the beginning of the 18th century, the American Colonists were using roses for wines, dyes, medicines, pomanders, potpourris, confections, perfumes, and oils.
“Essential oil of rose was discovered quite by accident,” says Hillgrove. Legend states that for the marriage feast of the Persian Emperor Dhihanguyr to Princess Nour-Djihan, a canal was built to encircle the wedding party. Courtiers scattered rose petals on top of the water and when the bride dipped her hand into the canal during the heat of the midday sun, her fingers became covered with aromatic rose oil. Soon thereafter, apothecaries pursued this concept and, using their alembics, began distilling rose perfume. The Gallica rose–often referred to as the damask rose–is the variety most commonly associated with apothecaries. Today the attar, or essential oil, produced from roses in Bulgaria’s Kazanlik Valley is considered the best (the most fragrant). One acre of land yields three tons of damask roses; however, the distillation of these roses will only yield two liters of attar.
Judy Griffin, herbalist and author of Mother Nature’s Herbal (Llewellyn Publications; 1997; $19.95), uses apothecary roses like the Gallicas to treat a variety of ills. “Petals and hips steeped in tea bring down fevers and clear toxins out of the body,” she says, noting that rose hips contain more vitamin C than oranges and are also rich in vitamins A and B. “Rose syrup can be taken to relieve sore throats, and rose water placed on the temples can help end a headache.” Griffin further recommends a rose-water wash to help tighten sagging skin and rose cream to keep the skin smooth.
Ms. Griffin is also the creator of Petite Fleur Essences: rose-oil remedies made from antique roses that she grows herself. “Modern hybrids usually live only 30 to 40 years,” she says, “whereas antique varieties can live 150 years or more. As a result, the fragrances from antique roses are more potent and their healing properties are more effective.” Ms. Griffin has found that her antique rose oil blends have a distinct restorative effect on the nerves, and she notes that “they can lift depression, calm the heart, relieve insomnia, and soothe irritability, grief, and anger.”
Lucy Aguirree-Kelley, an occupational therapist at Baylor University Medical Center, in Dallas, Tex., uses Ms. Griffin’s antique rose oil blends as part of the hospital’s Healing Environment Program. Three years ago, Griffin created three blends for the hospital’s blood and bone-marrow and cardiac transplant patients. The oils are used in conjunction with visualization techniques and massage.
One of the blends, Bouquet of Harmony, was created to ease anxiety caused either by pain or by having to wait for a transplant. All essences are applied to the upper fold of the right ear. “A patient can feel the effects of the roses in 17 seconds or less,” says Ms. Aguirree-Kelley.
Another blend is called Managing Pain and is primarily administered after blood and bone-marrow transplants. On a scale of one to 10, one being low and 10 being high, patients have reported lowering their pain level to a two. Ms. Aguirree-Kelley observes that most pain medications have a list of side effects, including lethargy, drowsiness, and nausea. “If a patient can skip this type of pain medication and use flower essences, there is more opportunity for rehabilitation,” she says. “As an occupational Therapist, I want to get my patients out of bed and moving-getting them stronger.”
The last blend used at Baylor is simply called self-Image. Many of Ms. Aguirree-Kelley’s patients experience hair loss from chemotherapy or weight gain from bone-marrow transplants and the Self-Image blend helps them to overcome body-image problems. The results have proved to be so effective that she is now using the essences with patients suffering from chemical dependency. ” These blends are a wonderful way for dependents to gain control of their craving,” she says. “The essences help turn loose painful memories, but when patients do recall these memories, they react to them with kindness, rather than anxiety and dread.”
April 11, 2014
ONE NIGHT THREE SUMMERS AGO A WILD WIND whipped around our house. It whistled at the windows and howled down the chimney. Rain hammered on the roof all night long; sleep was intermittent. In the morning, the light in the kitchen seemed oddly strange–brighter than usual at breakfast time. When I opened the back door, I saw a great deal more sky than normal. As I tried to decipher my sleepy confusion I suddenly realized that a gigantic piece of the oak tree was lying on the ground. The gnarled branches of the huge limb reached up toward its other half as though beseeching it to help pull it back into place.
In shock and disbelief, I ran across the wet grass and leaned against the tree’s massive trunk. As I gazed up at the splintered remains of the huge branch, two squirrels scampered noisily back and forth, frantically trying to get their bearings. I stared at the raw, yellow wound in silent disbelief and wondered if the rest of the tree could be saved.
Our tree man, John Stokes, is a soft-spoken individual who agrees with me that trees have souls. We consider them guardians of the small communities of birds, bugs, and other creatures that live in them, and we secretly share the notion that trees are more important than houses. When we purchased this place, my husband told my parents, “Faith has bought some trees. A house goes with them.”
As we walked around the oak and clambered over the jumble of downed branches, John shook his head sadly and examined the standing half of the tree. “See that rot?” he asked, pointing to a dark stain. I nodded. “Water has gotten into the crotch and I don’t know how deep the decay goes.
He climbed around in the tree, tapping and knocking. Then he cabled together the two remaining limbs and gave the roots a deep feeding. Just before he left he placed his hand on the tree for a silent moment. It looked as though he was giving it a blessing. The next day he and his crew removed the fallen branches.
THAT AUTUMN THE SQUIRRELS GATHERED ACORNS and buried them in their usual hiding places. When the children came to visit we spread blankets beneath the remaining half of the tree, shaded from the late afternoon sun by its generous leaves. As we sat under the broad, spreading branches, we recalled our daughters’ tea parties, held in this spot, and the tree fort that Drew and his buddies built in the large crotch of the tree. My husband had suspended a swing from a low branch, and a woven hammock hung from the tree inviting us to rest awhile, read a book, look at the clouds.
The tree had always been a focus for family activities. Birthday gatherings were held at a table set beneath its branches. It was the base for games of capture the flag and kick the can. Each fall, we delighted in watching the blue jays and tufted titmice, cardinals, and chickadees dart and flit among the twigs, then swoop down to pluck a sunflower seed from the feeder I had suspended from a branch. The family of squirrels that made their home in the oak delighted us with their acrobatics as they slid down the feeder wire to steal seeds.
Sarah played house beneath the tree and later wrote poetry there. Eleanor climbed as high as she could and looked off into the distance, where she was sure her future lay. Drew practiced rappelling from the top of the tree to the ground in one swift movement–one that he would repeat eight years later on the cliffs in Yellowstone National Park.
THE SPRING AFTER THE STORM THE OLD OAK SEEMED TO THRIVE. WE gradually got used to its lopsided look. But that was also the year of a summerlong drought. John Stokes paid monthly house calls and merely said, “We’ll see.” The next winter was bitter cold with little snow to provide much-needed moisture.
I had always used the size of the tree’s leaves as a guide for planting: big as a mouse’s ear, I would plant corn; big as a squirrel’s ear, the tomatoes could be put out, the melon and cucumber seeds could go in. But two years after the storm, the leaves were still struggling by June. John Stokes came out to visit his patient. “If the leaves don’t grow, you’re going to get sunscald,” he said. Looking at my stricken face, he added, “but I’ve seen trees worse off than this make it. Perhaps we will have a good summer.
But we didn’t. The following winter a strong north wind cracked one of the big remaining limbs in two. Last spring, while the maples blossomed with red, fuzzy catkins and the willows turned pale chartreuse, the oak kept itself cloaked in winter’s barrenness. The other trees were full of life: Birds twittered in branches, squirrels flittered about, spring breezes rustled new leaves. But the oak tree stood silent.
John came to see his patient one last time. As we stood quietly looking at the oak, he removed his hat.
THE NEXT MORNING THE AIR WAS FILLED WITH THE WHINE OF THE chain saw and the drone of the wood chipper. I hid myself in my study and turned the music up loud. By noon the oak was gone. Although we had grown used to the gradually diminishing shade outcast by our poor, old tree, the harsh sunlight was hard on my eyes.
John pointed proudly to an enormous stack of firewood. “There’s enough to keep you warm all winter,” he said. I smiled. It would be a cozy legacy from a dear friend. Then he showed me a huge pile of wood chips. It cheered me to realize that the death of the oak would mean renewed life for the azaleas and rhododendrons.
When my husband came home that evening, we walked out to where the oak had stood. He tried to comfort me by observing that the view of our neighbor’s fields was now unobstructed. He pointed to a strong, young maple sapling that stood at the edge of the woods. “Maples grow quickly and their colors are beautiful in the autumn,” he said. “I think it would be good for you-for all of us-if we were to move that tree here.” So we moved it.
He was right. When something or someone we love disappears it creates an empty space, a hole in the fabric of outlives. I think it is in our natures to want to fill the void left behind. Whenever someone I love has died, I plant a tree in his or her memory. A chestnut for my grandfather, a stewartia for my mother, golden rain trees for a young friend, Brian, and also for my father. As the trees have flourished, my sorrow has diminished. Those trees will be here long after I have departed.
The oak tree sheltered our family. It protected our house from winter winds and gave us shade in the summer. But as I look at the little maple I realize that in a few years it will gracefully accept the mantle inherited from its predecessor. Our granddaughters will build a tree house in it. Bob and I will read in its cooling shade. Each spring when its bright-red catkins blossom, it will remind me that nature replaces that which it takes away and that a tree in new leaf is a sure sign of hope.
March 28, 2014
In the gathering twilight, furtive figures dart across the lawn. The song of the peepers and the katydids is joined by excited shouts of “Got one!” or “Quick, Daddy, catch it!”
Carter has discovered fireflies. In my own naivete I had thought everyone knew what a firefly was. I was sure that, come summer, each and every town in America was decorated by the twinkling of their nighttime flights. But I was wrong.
On the first evening of their visit to our home in Virginia’s Piedmont, we had been sitting on the porch, lingering at the table after dinner, when suddenly Carter gasped, “Oh, look, a shooting star!” Then, gazing about excitedly, she said, “And another one. And another.”
We looked where she was pointing and saw the fireflies blinking their Morse code of love. Carter was out of her chair in an instant and began chasing the twinkling bugs, squealing in delight. Mason, sitting in her mother’s lap, clapped her dimpled hands and cooed with pleasure. Our son, Drew, ran to join his daughter, saying, “I’d forgotten about the fireflies.”
I turned to my daughter-in-law, who was smiling at the excitement of her family. “You don’t have fireflies in Utah?” I asked. Jill shook her head. Of course not, I realized. Fireflies spend the day in the cool, damp grass. Then, when darkness begins to fall, they emerge into the coolness of evening and begin their courtship dance. Slowly they rise to the tops of the trees, where they garland the branches like tiny ropes of twinkling diamonds. Utah is mostly desert; it is hot and dry. There is no cool, deep grass for the fireflies.
WHY IS IT THAT THAT WHICH WE KNOW, THAT which we have lived, we think to be the province of all people? When I went away to school, I was astonished that not everyone there knew how to sew. That was just part of growing up, I thought. My surprise gave way to pleasure when I discovered I could earn spending money by mending and altering things for others.
Over the years I’ve discovered that assumptions can get me into trouble. In my enthusiasm for learning more about other people and different cultures I sometimes rush pell-mell into conversations without thinking. I’m working on that. So is our younger daughter.
“You’ve never seen snow?” Sarah asked incredulously of her fellow teachers her first week in Mobile, Ala. Several shook their heads no.
“Astonishing,” she murmured.
“Well,” one young woman offered, her arms full of books, “it did snow a little bit once when I was a kid. But I was asleep and it was gone before I woke up.”
Two years later, when Sarah moved to New York City, her friend Scott offered to help her drive her rental van. “Maybe I’ll get to see snow,” he said hopefully. Their plan was to make their first stop at our house. The night they arrived, it was sleeting heavily. They collapsed in exhaustion after 16 hours of driving. When Scott awoke the next day, five inches of fresh snow covered the ground with its soft whiteness. More was falling.
Sarah was ecstatic. “Do we still have a sled?” she asked eagerly. Of course we had a sled. No one gives away a sled. You never know when you might need one.
What fun it was to watch those two squeeze themselves onto a tiny red toboggan and career down the hill. They sledded for half an hour and then made snow angels. A snowball fight and making snowmen ensued. Looking out the frosted windows, I saw Scott catching snowflakes on his tongue. Just as my children had done; just as I had done before them. He was as excited as–well, as excited as Carter chasing her first fireflies.
WHAT A PLEASURE IT IS TO SEE SOMEONE EXPERIENCE A FIRST JOY OR A new discovery. When our daughter Eleanor was a senior in high school, she spent the academic year in a little French village near Lyons. She wrote home of finally conquering the language, making friends, learning how to make a dessert called langue de chats. Our Christmas present to her that year was an airplane ticket for her French “sister,” Veronique, to come and visit us that summer. “Vero” had never been out of the Loire Valley.
For a month we saw our country through French eyes. Vero loved American food (although Eleanor was, by now, looking down her nose at it), thought having a little sister was “chouette,” and that hot dogs were equally cool.
As a hostess present, Vero had brought us a tin of dried chanterelles that she and her parents had gathered. She showed me how to make potage aux champignons with them. I’d never made anything with dried mushrooms before, soup included, which surprised her. Now her version of mushroom soup is one of my favorite recipes.
THIS EVENING, AS I WATCH DREW SHOW HIS daughter how to gently cup her hands around the glimmering fireflies, I reflect on the sense of wonder that children have. That we all have, actually, when confronted with something new and wonderful. Tomorrow Carter will take her very first ride on a pony. Our neighbor has a gentle brown mare named Montana that, he says, can’t wait to have a little girl on her back. I must look and see if I still have that old cowboy hat that Drew loved to wear when he was about Carter’s age.
Drew races to the porch. “Have you got a bug jar, Mom?” he asks.
I know why he wants it. He and Carter will put a few fireflies in the jar and add some grass and a stick for climbing, as he and his sisters used to do. The jar will rest by Carter’s bed and she will slowly slip off to sleep watching nature’s night-light softly glowing on the bedside table.
I know I’ve got a jar in the back of the cupboard somewhere. A peanut butter jar with lots of holes poked in the lid,
“Mom?” Drew asks again, bringing me back to the present.
“Of course I have a jar,” I laugh. “You never throw away a bug jar; you never know when you might need it.”
He smiles and suddenly I am not looking at my six-foot-three son, but his three-foot-six former self who asked that same question so many years ago. First-time discoveries are wonderful. Second-time rediscoveries are pretty good, too.
It’s great fun to watch creepy-crawly things at close range. With a bug jar you can have your own private view into the world of insects. Just find a clean jar–glass works well, but plastic might be safer should it be dropped–with a screw-top lid. Punch about a dozen holes in the lid and fill it with a bit of grass, several leaves, a stick or two, and a few drops of water. Now catch your bug. Slugs and snails make fine temporary pets, too. Their slow progress across the glass is fascinating to watch. Winged or not, big or small, most bugs will do fine for a day in a jar. Just be sure to keep it out of direct sunlight and don’t forget to let your critters out after 24 hours.
March 5, 2014
Why should you bother to write a will? The best reasons are to ensure that children under 18 will be well cared for and that worldly goods, savings, and investments are distributed as you wish, rather than according to the directives of an administrator for the probate court. Every adult who owns property–whether it’s an heirloom rocking chair, a 24-room mansion on 40 acres, or a priceless art collection–should make out a will. And every parent with a child under 18 should name a guardian for that child in his or her will.
Drawing up a will is your opportunity to make your intentions clear, and to keep important decisions in your hands. This isn’t to say that officers of the probate court in your town don’t try to be fair when distributing assets of those who have died “intestate,” but court-appointed administrators must attend to a personal estate according to the impersonal laws of the state. Unwritten wishes of the deceased can’t be considered, forcing a court to select the person or persons it views as the best guardian for minors. It also puts into the court’s control any monies held in the estate that are intended to be passed along to minor children. Moreover, without a will, the probate process may prove much more costly than administrating an estate governed by a will. In the end, heirs may receive less, the state and lawyers, more.
Some families mistakenly believe that a written will avoids probate or that, on the other hand, not having a will excuses one from probate. Neither case is so. Every will–and every estate with recognizable assets but no will–goes through probate. “A will cannot effect the transfer of a deceased person’s property until the survivors present it to probate court,” explains Carlyn McCaffrey, a trust and estates attorney in New York City, “which court in some states is called a surrogate court.
People who die without a will often had every intention of writing one. They planned to get to it next year, when they had found the right lawyer, or just “someday.” These folks were victims of their own procrastination. “Some people believe that once they’ve made a will, the act of doing so will hasten their death,” muses McCaffrey, “although I should add that I’ve never seen this happen.”
If you do already have a will, however, consider these suggestions: Keep your will up to date. “You should certainly update it when there is a significant change in the law, your assets, or your family structure,” advises McCaffrey. You may also decide to distribute growing assets in a different way, setting aside some for a favorite charity, perhaps. If your will is the do-it-yourself variety–either written on a form purchased from a stationery store or through one of several software packages–you might want to consider consulting a professional. Christine Albright, a trust and estates attorney in Chicago, says she is “concerned about any individual doing his or her own estate planning. Almost surely he or she will miss something they would have changed had they known the facts. There is simply no one-size-fits-all way to write a will.”
Nor can the best will-writing manuals in your library cover everything. For example, many people believe life insurance is tax-exempt. “I don’t know what their life-insurance salesperson told them,” Albright says, “but if the deceased leaves the benefits from a policy to several family members, or to his or her estate, or to a trust, the proceeds will become part of the gross estate and will be subject to federal and state estate taxes.”
“A written will witnessed by two disinterested observers,” McCaffrey points our, “is the most widely recognized document for passing on assets. A few states recognize a holographic will-one that is handwritten by the deceased prior to death and is not witnessed-and the laws in those states could change. However, you should check state laws before even thinking about that method.”
Some married couples insist on making separate, private wills, a strategy that can lead to confusion and pain for the family later on. “If the marriage is sound,” McCaffrey advises, “it’s a better idea for a husband and wife to make out their wills together so the family has a coordinated estate plan.”
The good news is that, between husband and wife, gift taxes and estate taxes fly out the window. “Anything left by husband to wife or wife to husband, so long as the recipient spouse is a U.S. citizen, is exempt from estate taxes,” McCaffrey explains. “I can leave my spouse a million dollars and he won’t pay an estate tax because we have what’s called an unlimited marital deduction.” While this transfer of assets may seem simple, federal and state governments have made a few exceptions for transfers of interests in trusts and annuities on which taxes may be due. Hiring an attorney to figure out the complications makes sense.
During your lifetime, of course, you can reduce the value of your estate and save your children some of the agony of wading through probate. The Internal Revenue Service allows you and your spouse to give up to $10,000 a year to every one of your children free of gift tax, and your children will not have to pay income taxes on this amount. Perhaps the greatest gift of all you can leave behind is to spell out matters of property clearly, allowing your heirs to grieve privately and remember you well.
SEVEN QUICK RULES ABOUT WILLS
1 You must be at least 18 to make one.
2 You must be mentally competent.
3 You must have a provision clearly stating your intention to pass on your property.
4 Your will must be in writing.
5 Your will must be signed.
6 Your signature must be witnessed by two disinterested adults who are competent to testify in court. Each witness signs in the presence of the other.
7 In most states, people cannot disinherit spouses but can disinherit children. And a deceased partner cannot leave an estate to a mistress or lover.
Once you’ve compiled your last will and testament, you’ll want to keep it, along with other valuable property, someplace safe and sound. Here are some points to consider regarding safe-deposit boxes.
WHAT SHOULD BE KEPT IN A SAFE-DEPOSIT BOX? If you keep your will or a copy of it in the box, be sure that your executor always has access to the original (wherever it may be stored). Other things to store: videos and photos of your home and valuables (for insurance purposes); titles to property; family records; stock and bond certificates; appraisal documents; jewelry, or other small valuables.
WHAT SHOULD NOT BE KEPT IN A SAFE-DEPOSIT BOX? Don’t stash anything you might need in an emergency–power of attorney, passport, living will, or funeral instructions. Storing cash is legal, but the money won’t earn interest or be FDIC-insured.
HOW SAFE ARE SAFE-DEPOSIT BOXES? Vaults are built to be fire-resistant but may not be completely fireproof. Boxes are often not safe from rising water, so documents should be stored inside sealable plastic bags or airtight plastic containers. Since their contents are confidential, safe-deposit boxes are generally not insured or insurable.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE CONTENTS UPON THE RENTER’S DEATH?
Some states require a court order or affidavit to open the box. Very few states allow box renters to designate a beneficiary in case of death. If fees go unpaid for more than two years, banks usually auction off the contents, but the renter’s heirs are still entitled to the proceeds.
February 12, 2014
A burly fellow in oxford-cloth shirt and tweed jacket hoisted his pint of amber ale high and bellowed, “Praise the Lord!” An extraordinary exhortation to hear in a tavern, perhaps, but the Lord Nelson Brewery Hotel is a far cry from ordinary. Perched atop the rocky bluff that rises from Sydney Harbour, this crowded Aussie hangout is the oldest continuously licensed pub in The Rocks, the historic heart of the Australian nation.
On January 26, 1788, a fleet of 11 ships under the command of England’s Captain Arthur Phillip moored in Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) to unload its cargo: British, Scots, and Irish convicts transported halfway around the globe to populate a colony founded in the farthest-flung territory of England’s empire. As 570 men and 160 women (some guilty of crimes no worse than filching a crust of bread) hobbled ashore, their leg irons were removed. The remote land was considered prison enough.
A hodgepodge of tents and rough shacks housing a motley mix of soldiers, sailors, craftsmen, merchants, renegades, and visionaries soon clung precariously to the craggy cliff. In the settlement dubbed simply “The Rocks,” wealth and poverty coexisted in narrow alleys with pubs and brothels. Within 30 years, the colony became one of the world’s most notorious ports. Seamen swore you could hear the noise from a league away and smell the place a mile offshore.
Though once reluctant to acknowledge the grimness of their nation’s origins, Australians now salute the colony’s founders and pay homage to traditions that took root there. Pubs–a fixture of the Sydney streetscape for more than 150 years–were originally required by law to offer accommodations. The Lord Nelson, built in 1841, is one of a growing number that have upheld the custom.
While escorting me to my room, the porter pointed our glass-faced niches that hold artifacts discovered during the building’s restoration. A tattered newspaper page headlining Admiral Nelson’s 1805 triumph at Trafalgar, found in the cellar, is now the centerpiece of an admirable collection of Nelson memorabilia that hangs in the chic dining room.
In my cozy room under the eaves of the former attic, the view from a casement window overlooked a patchwork of corrugated-tin and tiled rooftops. Tucked between the Harbour Bridge and the central business district’s skyscrapers and facing the world-renowned Sydney Opera House, The Rocks is Australia’s most celebrated slice of urban real estate.
Signing on for a Rocks walking tour is a surefooted way to explore the historic neighborhood. Walkabouts begin at the Old Sailors’ Home, where seamen, whose hard-earned wages were once marks for cutthroats and con artists, could be assured of finding safe haven, clean beds, and good food, providing the salty tars would attend daily church service. Alongside sits a stone cottage. Built by John and Mary Cadman (both sentenced to the penal colony for life–he for stealing a horse, she for pinching a handkerchief), it is the oldest house in Australia.
From there, tours follow the shoreline. Past a massive anchor that’s the only remnant of the First Fleet’s flagship, HMS Sirius, a statue of Captain William Bligh (famed more for the 1789 mutiny on his ship, HMS Bounty, than for his role as the colony’s second governor), and a replica of Bligh’s ill-fated ship, which offers daily cruises in Sydney Harbour.
At one end of the waterfront stand seven huge warehouses built by Scotsman Robert Campbell, who rose to merchant-prince status early in the 1800s by shipping the first loads of exports from Australia. Massive block and tackle that hauled goods up from the holds of cargo ships now dangle high overhead; areas where the colon’s supplies were stored now house a trio of restaurants. Outdoor seating shaded by impermeable white canvas rigged to tall masts creates the illusion that a flotilla of ships is still moored there.
For more than 100 years the harbor was the center of Sydney’s life. But as the city expanded and farms were developed west of the Great Dividing Range, The Rocks slid into decay. By the 1970s Sydney’s seediest neighborhood stood on this valuable waterfront property, and the city council voted to raze the area. Residents, however, raised such a ruckus that The Rocks was granted heritage status. An obelisk–built to honor the district’s place in Australian history– shows a soldier, a pair of settlers, and, lest memory pale, a convict with a ball and chain fixed to his sculpted ankle.
At every turn The Rocks is steeped in history. The streets are paved in cobblestones, the buildings faced with lacy wrought iron, both once ballast in ships’ holds. Nurses’ Walk, the only trace left of the colonial hospital where it’s said patients who weren’t cured by bleeding, purging, or amputation said their prayers and died, lies in the neighborhood, as do the Gothic Revival Garrison Church, to which the king’s red-coated regiment marched every day for Morning Prayer, and the Royal Observatory, where the Southern Hemisphere’s oldest telescope turns on its base of two-pound cannonballs.
The best view of The Rocks is had from the Harbour Bridge. Designed by English civil engineer Ralph Freeman and completed in 1933, the span was a technological wonder of its time. Though completely self-supporting, the engineers thought their design would look better if pylons were added. Three serve maintenance functions, but the southeast pylon holds an exhibition of the construction. An Art Deco mural of the famous Bondi Beach lifesavers graces the stairs that lead to an observation deck 261 feet above the water.
In 1988, entrepreneur Paul Cave imagined that some folks might want to go higher than the observation deck. After satisfying 62 objections voiced by various government agencies, he was granted access to the catwalks that rise to the arch’s crest. As I pulled on climber’s coveralls, a smiling Sydneysider murmured “no worries, mate” as he strapped on the heavy belt and guylines that would be my umbilical cord to the suspension cable. I doubted my sanity.
After a trial run along a mock catwalk, my group moved out in fearless single file. Through the pylon and onto the bridge. Our footsteps rang like hammers on steel. We hauled ourselves up ladders that cut between the City Rail high-speed line and streams of traffic whizzing into the city. We climbed. We paused. We climbed some more. It was easy.
All too soon we gained the summit. Australia’s flag with its star-studded image of the Southern Cross fluttered overhead. I felt like a lookout in the crow’s nest of a tall ship. Far below, the glistening water of Sydney Harbour trailed away to the sea. To the left lay the Opera House; to the right sprawled The Rocks. Even from my gull’s perch I could spy the Lord Nelson. I swore to raise my own cold glass of frothy ale that evening to praise the staunch men and women who had climbed the cliff to chisel their homes and carve a nation out of solid bedrock.