Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Pots in my Garden

A tribute to a remarkable woman - an artist and a potter.
Dorothea Crooks

Nestled amongst the lush foliage, in the corner of an overgrown English-style garden, stands a curiously shaped urn.

Rays of sunlight filter through the leafy canopy highlighting the azure glaze on its well-proportioned contours.

Beneath the plaited vines of a white climbing rose, another comely pot is almost hidden from view.

On the banks on the Wungong Brook, nestled in the foothills of the Darling Range (Western Australia), an overgrown garden hides an unusual collection of sculpted pots – the work of Dorothea Crooks, an extraordinary craftswoman.

Lost for a generation, but not forgotten, these strangely shaped vessels had become part of the studio garden at Waterway Farm but it was not until she reached her mid-80s that Dorothea decided to hold her first pottery exhibition.

She entitled it The Pots in my Garden.

Dorothea Crooks had been involved with crafts all her life. Growing up in a family whose business was the production of high-class teddy-bears, she had learned the art of toy making from an early age. To her, handcrafting was a way of life.

As she matured, she graduated from fashioning bears to floral artistry, enjoying the western contemporary style and intuitive work telling a story in flowers. But for this talented lady, the artists’ bowls and vases were, “symmetrical and boring”. Dorothea wanted containers with character to enhance her floral art.

But rather than allowing this to deter her, it inspired her to create her own pots and, as a result, she decided to become a potter.

In 1965, Dorothea and Bruce Crooks moved to Waterway Farm in the foothills of the Darling Range. The land, rich in the history of early Western Australian settlement, was described in the Perth Gazette of 1860 as, one of the most desirable properties in the colony. Watered all year round by the crystal waters of the Wungong Brook, the area was once a camping ground for the early settlers, providing a ford across the swift flowing stream.

In these idyllic surroundings, Dorothea built her studio and, by the side of the Wungong Brook, she created an English-style cottage garden.
To complete her dream, she added a three-chambered brick kiln constructed in the traditional style of the Chinese climbing kilns.
Here, with the guidance of Western Australian potter, Meg Sheen, Dorothea learned how to mould the urns and vases for her floral displays.

She never used a wheel. She disliked symmetrical pottery and worked entirely by hand, first coiling the wet clay then patiently and laboriously working it to achieve the smooth finish she desired.

Firing the kiln with deal, pinecones, nuts and even bones, she created so much heat that flames would belch from the chimney and she would experiment with various painting and glazing effects.

She achieved striking finishes by allowing powdery ash to burn into the firing clay creating a bubbly effect.

"If you want to create something different, you must be prepared to take risks," she said. As a result, every ornamental pot was distinctive in shape, texture and colour.
From coiling pots, Dorothea progressed to sculptured clay portraits moulding strange and unusual faces, including her Voodoo and oriental heads. Polishing them with Nugget shoe polish and oil, she would try anything until she achieved the colour she wanted.

But before her creative work had reached its peak, it was halted. Suffering a back injury as the result of an accident, she was unable to walk. Confined to a wheelchair, she could no longer lift the huge clay vases and had to accept that she had fired her last pot.
Her career as a potter was over.

Not wanting to part with her work, the collection was transported into the studio garden and placed amongst the colour kaleidoscope of flowers, shrubs and fragrant vines.

Beneath the arching boughs of the broad Chinese elm, the pots remained undisturbed for many years.

But for Dorothea they were never forgotten. One morning, as she wandered through the garden’s petalled pathways, she felt the need to resurrect the pottery which had lain dormant for so long.

She wanted to share her work with others and decided to hold an exhibition so she commissioned three well-known West Australian artists to capture, on canvas, the pots as they rested in her garden.

As summer turned into autumn and the hues into reds and golds, the elegant urns and vases were wheeled into the studio.
“A lot of them, I had forgotten,” she said.

The presentation of a stunning collection of drawings and paintings in charcoal, chalks, oils and watercolours complemented Dorothea’s Pots in my Garden exhibition.

And although most of the pots were returned to the garden, Dorothea derives pleasure from the ones that she has kept in her studio.

Although, it is quite possible that a few forgotten pots still remain undisturbed, hidden beneath the bower of tangled flowers and vines, now growing wild on the fertile banks of the Wungong Brook.

I wrote this article several years ago and it was accepted for publication by a prestigious Australian magazine.
But before it went to print, the submissions editor moved on and the new editorial staff had different ideas so the story was never published.

Having subsequently moved thousands of miles away to the other side of Australia, I lost touch with Mrs Crooks, and only recently discovered that she died, in 2006, aged 92.

I also learned that the farm and studio were sold and I can’t help wondering what happened to her wonderful craft work.

It may seem a little late now, but knowing how thrilled she was at the prospect of seeing her story in print, I decided to publish here on my blog.

It’s never too late to remember.

R.I.P. Dorothea Crooks 1914 - 2006

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

"Winter is Coming" - and with it comes an increase in fire danger

Winter is synonymous with wood fires and electric blankets, and July, being the coldest month of the year, is the time when most house fires and fatalities occur.
In winter, Tasmanians spend more time indoors and make greater use of heating appliances than residents of other Australian states.

Whilst carelessness is a significant contributing factor to house fires, most residential blazes are caused by heating and cooking appliances that are faulty, misused or left unattended.

Hanging clothes in front of heaters, or allowing sparks to shoot from an unguarded fire, are two of the major causes. Faulty electric blanket wiring or switches is another.

‘It can take as little as three minutes to lose your home and family to a fire,’ Tasmania Fire Service chief officer, Mike Brown said in a recently launched awareness campaign.

Sadly, the people most at risk of falling victim to domestic fires are children, the elderly and people with disabilities. In some instances the risk of becoming a fire fatality is compounded by the installation of home security devices.

Fitted metal grills on windows and security doors are intended to protect the home owner from forced entry, but they have the potential of compounding the risk of the resident becoming trapped in their own home and falling victim to a fire.

It is a Catch 22 situation.
Heavy-duty security doors also hinder the brigade’s entry into the premises.
In a fire emergency every second is vital.

Damien Killalea, Director Community Fire Safety (Tasmania Fire Service) recounts the tragic deaths of two people in a house fire in Tasmania some years ago. One died because he was unable to escape through a locked door.
Phill Cribb of Fire and Emergency Services (WA) recounted three deaths in three years from residents being unable to exit their homes when a fire took hold.

‘I am aware of one victim,’ he said, ‘who got to the door and had the security door keys in their hand but could not get the door open.’

Kevin Devitt of Queensland Fire and Rescue Service described a tragic fire at the home of an elderly woman several years ago, who had recently had a security screen installed. When a fire took hold, she was unable to find her keys and died as a result of the blaze.

While deadlocks and security grilles may deter thieves, they can be deadly in a fire.
Keys to deadlocked doors should be left in the lock or very close by. There is no time to search for them when a fire erupts.

Security shutters installed to keep criminals out should be fitted with a quick release mechanism to allow the occupant to exit in an emergency.
Panic screens can be pushed out from the inside.

Mr Killalea advised that in 2011, Tasmania recorded three fire-related accidental deaths in residential dwellings.

In 2012 there was only one accidental fatality and in 2013 there were no deaths in house fires in the state.

Eighteen years ago, Tasmania significantly increased its focus on fire fatalities, and house fires.

‘As a result we’ve seen significant decreases in both these areas,’ he said.
It appears the campaigns and other initiatives are having a positive effect.

Some important advice from Tasmania Fire Service:
Every house should have working smoke alarms; one in each bedroom and in hallways to exits.
Every household should have a fire escape plan – possibly the most important plan you will ever make.
In the case of fire, get out quickly, and once outside – stay outside.
Keep keys in deadlocks or very close by and never allow newspapers or boxes to pile up in hallways. The best fire escape plan is worthless if your escape route is blocked.

More information on fire safety and security in the home can be found on the Tasmania Fire Service website

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Your Breast. Your Life. Your Decision. The choices confronting women with Breast Cancer

They say that cancer is a word and not a sentence, and these days, most women survive breast cancer.

However, when the phone rings or you step into the doctor’s office and hear the words, “I’m sorry to tell you it’s cancer”, all the positive advice you have ever heard flies out the window.
From that moment on, your total focus is on the malignant process that is going on inside your breast. Suddenly you are consumed by fear – fear of death, fear of pain, fear of disfigurement, fear of losing your husband or lover, and the fear of not seeing your children grow up.

Yet, within minutes, hours or days of receiving this devastating news, you are asked to consider a choice about the treatment you will need. But how can a lay-person make an educated decision based on a five minute explanation in the doctor’s rooms – a decision that will affect their life.

I wonder how many women, when listening to the diagnosis delivered in clinical language, understand the terminology they are confronted with. Words like ductal, lobular, in-situ and multi-focal are lost in a sea of bewilderment and apprehension – emotions that are all-encompassing.

Few women realise that not all cancers present as a single lump. That certain types of breast tumours can arise bilaterally (in both breasts) and multi-focally (as many tiny cancer seedings scattered about in the tissue); therefore the removal of a lump, or even of one complete breast, may not prevent the cancer from recurring.

Unfortunately, as far as treatment is concerned, there is no one hat fits all.
Therefore, having some understanding of the disease processes and the different types of cancer affecting the breast makes it easier to understand why different treatments are prescribed.
But even then, the surgeon’s approach can raise questions. He might consider he is looking after his patient’s best interests (in the case of very early or in-situ lesions) by advising he will do nothing but ‘wait and see’ but, from a psychological point of view, the ‘wait and see’ option leaves the patient fearful of what is going on inside her. How fast if the tumour growing? Is it a ticking time-bomb that is about to explode.

Depending on the location and nature of the tumour, many women, especially younger women, are offered conservative surgery thereby avoiding mutilating surgery – a frightening term. For others, however, particularly those with advanced disease, radical mastectomy is deemed appropriate.

But even with a small and early tumour, some women feel compelled to be rid of the offending breast. And those with a strong family history of breast cancer, even though they are cancer free, may opt to have both breasts removed as a prophylactic procedure.

The period of grace between receiving that diagnosis and surgery is often quite brief but for every minute and every hour of that time your mind is consumed with thoughts of the disease. Clear constructive thinking and concentration in the workplace is virtually impossible. Yet it is in this mind-frame that you must make the decision that will affect you for the rest of your life.
While some women prefer not to know all the facts or learn of the ramifications, there are many, particularly younger women who want to know everything they can about the disease that is affecting them.

Whatever decision your make, it must be based not only on factual evidence and sound expert advice but should take into account your inner feelings and desires. It must be an informed decision and one you can live with.

It has been proven, that women who consider all aspects of their cancer, consider the options available and subsequently make those hard decisions, will find the experience changes their outlook on life. They will discover a new inner strength. Battling and beating cancer offers a life changing opportunity to try new things they have never done before.

Kathy LaTour in her book, The Breast Cancer Companion wrote that breast cancer is a battle fought on two fronts – the physical and the emotional. But that the emotional battle is unique to each woman and varies greatly according to her age, her history, her personal power, her sense of self, her support system and her determination.

Kathy added: ‘Those cancer patients that do the best are those who are active in their treatment option and feel empowered in their choices for a cure.
It seems logical that in order to live one has to want to.’

Take control of your life.
The choice is yours.
The decision is in your hands.

The facts:
Today, most women survive breast cancer.
Belgium has the highest rate of breast cancer in the world.
The UK has the 7th highest breast cancer rate followed by the USA which is 9th and Australia and New Zealand 17th and 19th respectively.
In Australia, 1 in 8 women are affected by breast cancer at some time in their lives.
Scientists estimate about 42% of breast cancer cases in the UK could be prevented through drinking less alcohol, being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight.
Author’s note:

Following a fine needle biopsy, I was diagnosed with lobular carcinoma in-situ in 1994. My surgeon suggested I do nothing but ‘wait and see’. However, having worked as a cytotechnologist for 20 years diagnosing cancer cells down a microscope, and having lost my sister, and maternal and paternal aunts to breast cancer, I opted for an immediate bi-lateral mastectomy. Since then my life has changed. I have gained in self-confidence and done things I never dreamed I was capable of doing including becoming a published author.

Take control of your life. The choice is yours. The decision is in your hands.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Imagination - what does it mean to you?

"What do you value above all else?"

That’s easy - my imagination.
Without it life would be empty.

Imagination accompanies me wherever I go.

I use it consciously by day.
Unconsciously by night.

It fuels my thoughts, my dreams.

I rely on it for inspiration.

Without it the writer could not write.
The artist could not paint nor the sculptor carve images in wood or stone.

Imagination transports me on a magic carpet.
With it I can fly.
Be a bird.
Be an astronaut or deep-sea diver.

I can live in the present, in the Middle Ages or in a future time.

I can walk through New York, Moscow or Timbuktu and travel wherever my imagination chooses to take me.

I can be any age I want to be – a child, a teenager, a crone.
I can be man or woman, boy or girl.
An animal.
A vampire.

Imagination permits me to discard convention, dress as I please, say what I want.
It broadcasts dialogue in my brain, a never-ending stream of conversations.
It laughs.
It cries – a constant tympani of sounds that only I can hear.

It allows me to be brave, outspoken, malicious, evil – a character unlike the person that I am.

I can imagine horrors that I pray will never happen, and sample lives of those less fortunate than me.

It makes me Prince or King, President or pauper, and all within the blinking of an eye.

Imagination is a crystal ball that lets me glimpse into the future.
I see the house before it’s built.
The trees grown tall before I plant the saplings.
I see the flowers blooming as I cast the seeds.

And so the list goes on...
What do I value above all else?
Without a doubt – my imagination

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

TEA – its story hidden in the bottom of a cup. Stories of kings and commodities, of cucumber sandwiches, and of clipper ships.

Tea – Ceylon, China, India. Tea – Earl Grey, Green, Chamomile. Tea – brewed, steeped, mashed, jiggler dangled. Tea – an infusion of leaves in boiling water.

Just a cup of char, you say. No, that is where you are wrong. You may be surprised to learn that deep within the cup lies a tale more interesting than any book. In fact, the stories it could tell would fill a library.

Allow me to demonstrate. First, I boil a pot of fresh-drawn water, warm the base of a fine porcelain teapot, then scatter in two teaspoons of some exotic blend. Onto the dark dried leaves I gently pour the steaming liquid.

Notice how the leaves separate and swirl, swimming in circles, then settle gracefully to the bottom. You must allow at least three minutes for the brew to stand before pouring the infusion carefully into a china cup. Sip slowly and let your taste buds savour the slightly bitter brew. Enjoy and relax just as Mrs Isabella Beeton directed.

But that is not the end of the story. It is just the beginning. You are about to learn of the secrets that lie dormant at the bottom of the cup.

The fortune-teller, wise woman, sage, reads from the cup and delivers a divination of things yet to come. She sees the images as clearly as a photograph - of life, of death, and love hanging somewhere like a carrot up ahead. She sees the lover, the colour of his eyes, his dark brown hair, his suntanned skin.

You look and see a soggy mass of leaves. Not satisfied. Then wait, I’ll pour another cup. I assure you, the story of the leaf is no illusion. There are no hallucinatory charms in this infusion.

Look deeper into the dregs and you will find stories by the score. Tales of foreign lands, of fortunes wagered and won and wild adventures on the high seas.

Close your eyes as you gaze at the leaves.

You’ll find yourself in China 5000 years ago where farmers learned to cultivate the tall green bush that grows high upon cloud-shrouded hills. The flush of top shoots is the prize plucked by strange people in this foreign land.

Then Dutchmen sailed to the East, bargained for the leaves and took samples home with them. Tales of the new brew quickly spread through Europe. A drink, refreshingly exotic. A drink fit for a king. Merchants in the City pricked up their ears. A trade in tea could make each one of them a million pounds.

And so began the race to transport tea, to bring the cargo swiftly back to England. A race between the fastest ships afloat – the flying clipper ships. At no other time in history were so many gracious ships built so quickly. Tall square-rigged ships flying more sails than any ships before or after. Built with holds broad enough to carry that one commodity – Tea.

As sailors braved the rolling seas and battled pirates and mutineers, and greedy merchants wagered all they had to buy the season’s crop, the challenge keened – each ship vying to beat the record time from the Orient, around the Cape to home – in less than 80 days. These were the greatest races of the sea. Huge vessels sailing neck and neck, from China to the Thames and dropping anchor at the finish line less than half an hour apart.

The Cutty Sark, her record still intact, rests at Greenwich beside the River Thames. Perhaps one day she’ll loose her sheets and shake out her dusty canvas. Perhaps her sky-scrapers will once again cut through the clouds.
But I think not.

Drink up.
What do you see?

Gilt letters on the invitation card announce: A Tea Party on the Palace Lawn. Fine ladies dressed in crinolines bravely sample the strange exotic drink while nibbling cucumber sandwiched cut delicately into tiny triangles. Such luxury befitting only aristocracy.

But look again. This time to the West. To Boston Harbour and Paul Revere, and chests of tea dropped into the ocean. An ominous storm is brewing. It hangs heavy on the air and carries with it the smell of Revolution.

Another cup?
What’s that you say?
Everyone drinks tea today.

I know. In factories, homes and offices people drink their beverage, their so-called cuppa tea, its flavour drowned in cow’s milk and sugar substitutes. Ground so fine no single leaf is granted freedom to float up to the surface.

The gipsy rubs her eyes but sees no future in the bottom of the cup. Who can recognise this brew? A bag of leaves enveloped in a shroud of white with cotton strings pulled tightly round its throat, its name printed on a swinging tag, hanging like the label on the corpse’s toe, cold on the mortuary shelf. No future now. It’s past forgotten.

Is it really the same drink? I wonder.

So, my friend, if one day you’re feeling low and listless, why not investigate?
Break free the winding cloth of gauze which smothers it.

Release the leaves. Allow the particles to fall and settle to their tale. Enjoy the drink, and when you’re done, gaze to the bottom of the cup.

The stories are still there for you to read, mysterious and exotic, stories of Kings and commodities, of cucumber sandwiches and of clipper ships.

Relax and enjoy your cuppa.

Breast Cancer in 15-39 year olds – are their special needs being met?

For teenage girls, young mums, or women looking towards marriage and motherhood, the psychological effects of a cancer diagnosis and breast surgery can be devastating.

When I spoke with Heather White (not real name), some time ago, she recounted how isolated and frightened she had felt when confronted with the diagnosis at age twenty-seven. At the time she had a 15 month-old child and was hoping to have another baby. A year after her operation and the loss of both breasts (bilateral mastectomy), Heather gave birth to a daughter.

Heather believes that the needs of young women in the prime of their reproductive years, often with a baby, or planning a family are quite different to those of the women old enough to be their mothers or grandmothers. Their need for emotional support is much higher than that of older victims.

Women of menopause age and older have usually raised a family, and have the support of a husband or long-term partner. Conversely, many younger victims (some little more than girls) have no partner to provide the emotional support necessary, or may have only been in a relationship for a short time.

While some marriages breakdown in consequence of the treatment, younger women suffer greater psychological effects in seeking or retaining a partner after mutilating surgery (the term the surgeon uses).

“Body image is important,” Heather said. “A lot of girls go into denial over how they look.” Hence the reason they opt for breast conservation options such as lumpectomy and less radical surgery, and many opt for breast reconstruction following mastectomy.

From a positive standpoint, today’s young victims are better educated than their older counterparts. They ask more questions and are more inclined to take a greater part in the decision making when it comes to surgical options.

Looking back at the level of support she received pre- and post-operatively, Heather felt that the breast support services from early diagnosis to follow-up were directed towards older women and that the psycho-social needs of young victims like herself were largely unmet.

It has been shown that the anxiety levels in younger breast cancer victims are three times higher than found in older women. Radical mastectomy with the loss of one or both breasts, results in loss of confidence and self-esteem. This can then lead to increased levels of depression, withdrawal and social dysfunction. Though the physical support these women receive is good, the psychological and emotional support is often lacking.

While the psycho-social needs of young breast cancer victims are recognized, more research into the field of psycho-oncology is essential. Hopefully this will lead to further improvement in the supportive care provided for young victims of breast cancer.

At the time of writing, 61 young women aged from 15-39 were diagnosed with primary breast cancer compared to 1020 over 40 years of age. These figures changed little over 5 years (Western Australia).
The author was diagnosed with early breast cancer at age 48 and worked in the field of cancer diagnosis for 20 years.
Pic: Copacobana Beach, Rio - what woman would not want to be seen there?
Pic: Breast Cancer survivors paddle a Dragon Boat.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Driving Tired – a warning from a young mum who fell asleep at the wheel

This is Nicole’s story as she related it to me:

"I had borrowed Dad's Hilux to take my girls shopping. It was nearly lunchtime when I packed the groceries in the car and we set off for the 50 km drive home from Perth (Australia). It was warm, so I wound the car window down."

Nicole remembers the day well. Her three year old daughter, Jessica, was sitting in the back. She had an adult seat belt on. Courtney, only ten months old, was in a child safety seat.

"She was asleep," said Nicole. "And for a second I fell asleep too."

She remembers the sound of the wheels hitting the gravel and trying to get the car back onto the bitumen. "But I overcorrected and the car swerved. I put my hand out of the window and onto the roof in an attempt to hold on."
The Toyota rolled four times.

"When it stopped, my first thoughts were for the girls. Shopping was scattered everywhere inside the car. Jessica had bumped her head but she was okay. Courtney was still in the child seat but she was crying."

Nicole glanced at her right arm. All the flesh and muscle had been stripped from it. "I couldn't reach round with my left arm to unfasten Courtney's harness, and, as the car was on its side, even if I did, I knew she would roll out and I wouldn't be able to catch her. Fortunately," said Nicole, "Jessica managed to get herself out of her seat belt but when she saw my arm she was scared.

"I told her it was only beetroot juice from the shopping and asked her to check on her sister. I never felt any pain. I was just worried about the girls."

Nicole said it seemed like ages before help arrived, but she was lucky because a car had been following and had witnessed the accident happen. Though Nicole was not aware of it at the time, her injuries were critical. Her shoulder, upper arm and forearm were broken. Her wrist, hand and knuckle were shattered. And apart from the fractures, her arm was de-gloved from the back of her hand to the elbow.

"I spent a month in hospital," she said. Much of that time was in the Burns Unit where she underwent reconstruction and skin grafts. A steel plate was inserted into her upper arm and pins and screws in her hand. Muscle from her abdomen was used to replace the muscle stripped from her forearm, this was then covered with skin taken from her leg. Bone from her hip was used to rebuild her shattered wrist.

"I learned afterwards they were going to amputate my arm," Nicole said. "At first, because of the pain, I wished it had gone. But now I am glad I have it."

Though Nicole will never regain full use of her arm, she knows she was lucky she did not suffer brain or spinal injury, and that because of the seat belts, her two girls, survived uninjured. Her accident was the direct result of falling asleep at the wheel.

Dr Mark Rosekind, a fatigue specialist at NASA's Ames Research Centre in California, said drowsy people are notoriously bad at judging their ability to stay awake. If you are travelling at 100 km per hour and close your eyes for two seconds, the car will travel 50 metres. Enough distance to do plenty of damage.

"These days I make sure I never drive when I'm tired," Nicole said.

This post was first published in the Toodyay Herald (Western Australia) as “When the bough breaks…”by Margaret Muir.
Vehicle crash image Pic: This accident happened in Gympie, Qld in 2013 when the learner driver lost control. The Hilux rolled three times but thanks to their seat belts, the two women occupants survived.