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Indira Naidoo stands next to a tall strangler fig tree looking up.

The Tree of Life

Sam Cooney
In the depths of grief, Indira Naidoo turns to the natural world around her for answers.

Cover of 'The Space Between the Stars'
The Space Between the Stars by Indira Naidoo 
You already know Indira Naidoo. Still, it would be remiss of me to not stop for a moment and recognise that into which she has grown: one of Australia’s most popular broadcasters and public figures. During her 30-year award-winning journalistic career, she’s hosted and reported for ABC’s Late Edition nightly news and SBS’s World News Tonight, starred as a special guest presenter on ABC TV’s Gardening Australia, and hosted three seasons of the SBS TV series Filthy Rich and Homeless. She was once the media manager at Choice, where she created the now-annual Choice Shonky Awards for the worst consumer products. She has also worked for the UN in Geneva and has been a long-term ambassador for Sydney’s homeless crisis centre, the Wayside Chapel. Her first book, the best-selling The Edible Balcony, was published in 2011; the follow-up, The Edible City, was published in 2015. And now she has written and published a third book, though this one is different to anything she’s ever done.

The Space Between the Stars is many books at once. It is a biography of a person lost, a memoir of the aftermath for a person left behind, a collection of interviews and profiles of intimate observers of the hyperlocal, and a clarion call to turn ourselves more towards nature. It suggests that the natural world can heal and provide answers, especially because it seeks not to do so. All this in less than 200 pages: 23 short chapters bound within a beautiful cloth-covered hardback cover.

It was only when I began reading her book that I realised that Naidoo and I live only a few minutes from each other. This was a delight because it meant I was able to immediately recognise much of what she describes in the book as she moves through her local urban environment, and even more because she’s caused me to see the streets and parks I walk through every day more intimately and profoundly.

We arrange a time to talk, and I ask Naidoo about this focus on our neighbourhood. The answer should’ve been obvious; she says that ‘it only really came about this way because we were all in lockdown, and I only had five kilometres around me I could go. The library, where I would normally go when doing research and interviewing and writing, was closed. And so I had to find these guides who I could spend time with within our five kilometre overlaps, and it had to happen outside. It all took two years in total.’

The intimate observers of the natural world who Naidoo features in the book are many and varied. There’s Phil, amateur astronomer and willing instructor for other potential stargazers, who ventures onto Naidoo’s apartment balcony "one evening with his telescope to show her various far-flung wonders. University researcher and dedicated feather-hunter Kate, who created the world’s first ‘feather map’, which pinpoints exactly where various bird species are located at various times of the year, shows Naidoo just how many different feathers we are all likely to walk past in just a few minutes’ stroll.

Further into the book, Diego, an edible weed forager, reveals to Naidoo a bounty of ingredients poking up in all kinds of patches and corners of the suburbs. Renowned comedian Steve, also an avid birdwatcher, introduces her to ‘atlassing’ — returning to the same place time and time again to observe the birds in a particular area. Michael, teacher of kite-flying to anyone who wants to learn, lets Naidoo run about a park holding on to a string. Esteemed entomologist, ‘antman’ Ajay, crouches over with Naidoo so they can watch the various types of ants going about their daily business. She even teams up with her granddaughter, Abbie, after a rainy day, both on a mission to find only the very best puddles, study them, and perhaps even splash in them if deemed appropriate.

Of this latter exploration — but also of all the slowing down and paying attention she attempts — Naidoo writes in the book:

‘When you’re a child you’re closer to the ground. You notice what’s around your feet – feathers, or shells on the beach, shiny pebbles, lichen-covered sticks, tiny ants. Their world is your world. Children are more conscious of being in the earth, not just on it. They develop a topophilia or place-love for these treasured spaces. They do handstands, build caves and castles, roll around and daydream in it. They develop an intimacy with these earth places that the adults in their world eventually pull them away from by insisting that they Don’t put things in your mouth, or Always wear shoes or Don’t walk on the grass. Eventually the calling cards of nature — like feathers — become something removed, foreign and dirty.’

I remark that this, I guess, is something all adults lose from their childhood. She agrees: ‘I thought before writing this book that I was a person fairly present in the world. Then I was presented with an opportunity in my grief to really find the joy in the most simple things, especially those in nature around me. Two years earlier I would’ve seen these things, but not really seen them. And the way I listen now, and hear things, and feel the weather on my skin … A lot of my senses have really heightened in the past couple of years.’

As Naidoo says, this isn’t a book simply about paying more attention to nature — or, rather, this new attention of hers wasn’t just a lark — but was caused by a deeply traumatic event in her life. Indeed, she views her turn towards nature as what saved her. ‘This was the first big grief I’d ever experienced in my life,’ she tells me, ‘so I really had no preparation for what it was going to be like.

‘Not that any grief is really like any other grief. Grief is just a very singular, individual experience. We all lost the same person in the same circumstance, but depending on our angle and your proximity, it was completely different. Everyone in my family stepped onto quite a different path. And that in itself is quite a lonely thing.’

Indira Naidoo stands next to a tall strangler fig tree looking up.
Photo by Joy Lai
I ask if this loneliness is where the book came from, and she confirms: ‘I had to make sense of the way I was thinking and feeling, for myself, essentially, and journalling and writing has always been the way that I’ve done that. I’ve always jotted ideas and notes down since I was quite small. It’s part of my journalism, so I don’t think of it differently.’

However, she wasn’t even thinking of writing a book. ‘My publisher contacted me right out of the blue, in the middle of a lockdown, and said she thought there’d be interest in a book about biophilia and the power of nature and was that something I thought I could write given some of the books I’ve written in the past. She didn’t know my sister had died.’

Naidoo then tells me all about the extraordinary fig tree that plays such a huge role in The Space Between the Stars. ‘I had already started walking to my tree in the gardens as a way to deal with my despair, so I was gaining a sense of solace from that. But the question was, could I actually write while in my grief? I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think writing, or even nature, could heal you with such a big grief. It was almost a proving to myself, putting the hypothesis out there, to see if it was possible. And I really didn’t know at the beginning of writing the book, because I wrote it fresh a few weeks into my grief, with only the last section written a year later. I was surprised, not only watching my healing process, but also watching the process of writing and delivering the book; I didn’t think either of them would happen.’

I put to her that one of the lines in the book that most struck me reads, ‘I am trying to solve a murder mystery no detective could ever crack. And that’s because it’s not a whodunnit, but a whydunnit. The victim was the assailant.’ I say that I imagine sitting down to write a book about the suicide of her sister and her grief and her turn to nature might have seemed a completely overwhelming task. Yet she came up with quite an inspired structure for the book, one that sought out or invited in to her world different individuals, people who pay intimate attention to some part of the world or universe around us, more closely than most of us adults do.

‘It absolutely was the thickest, densest blanket that descended upon me in terms of the writing part,’ she says. ‘How I could possibly explore this story and this very big grief — and in a time of huge national grief and global grief, layer upon layer upon layer, so, so dense, and so muddied. And yet I had this innate belief that my art-making would lead me to where I needed to go. Surrendering to that belief was really the key to beginning the process of how to write this story.’

I circle back once more to ask her about the text of the book itself, for it could’ve been so heavy as both an object and a read, could’ve been so much more dense, intense and longer than it is. There is so much more that might have been explored — within herself, and within the various people she spends time with, and learns from. Yet the book is quite light and dynamic. And nimble — it doesn’t get bogged down at all. Was this very deliberate?

‘I was very conscious of the heaviness of suicide,’ Naidoo says. ‘And while I was going through this grief, I couldn’t find any reading material at all that helped me, nothing that really captured what I was experiencing, nothing that made me feel better. And maybe there just isn’t a way to feel better through reading. But I’m generally an optimistic person. Also the journalist in me wanted to find a way through, to find answers. None of the usual psychobabble books that get recommended helped, nor did the famous grief memoirs. And then, completely accidentally, I happened to find a whole lot of nature guides, ones that along with being full of scientific knowledge and research had very spiritual outlooks with how they just accepted things as they are. Which is just not a very journalistic way of looking at the world. They observe and accept.’

She pauses, and then tells me that the thing that surprised and helped her most is that these nature writers aren’t afraid of using their hearts as well as their heads. ‘They helped me unlock my heart so that I could raise it to the level of my head. The connection through the heart first was to be my way through this.’

We’re just about out of time to talk, and Naidoo has mentioned more than once that she thinks of The Space Between the Stars as a fairytale, despite its clear non-fiction-ness, and so I ask why. ‘Most fairytales have these beautiful moments of joy,’ she says, ‘but then these terrible, dark, foreboding, horrible parts as well. And this story was a typical fairytale — it could’ve been written by the Grimm brothers, really.

‘But what was really important and fortunate is that from very early on I didn’t set out to find the answer to “Why?”, which is the question we ask when death visits us — and much more traumatically so when the death is a suicide. I was very lucky that I knew, that I understood, very early on, that this was not going to be the question that I wanted to ask, that it was going to be a question of “How do I find meaning in what has happened?” Nature helped me realise what question to ask myself, because once I started embedding myself in nature I saw cycles of life and death and renewal, and I could find parallels to what was happening in my life. Does a tree ask “Why?” Does a plant? Of course they don’t. They don’t look for meaning in their presence because their presence is their meaning.’

Sam Cooney is a writer, editor, publisher and teacher who ran the literary magazine The Lifted Brow from 2012 to 2020 and founded the small press Brow Books. He now works for SBS.

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This story appears in Openbook spring 2022.


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