Thursday, January 29, 2009

Human Sex: Weird and Silly, Messy and Sublime

John Corvino has an insightful article over at the Independent Gay Forum in which he ponders: “Why are [the] opponents [of gay people and same-sex marriage] obsessed with ‘butt-sex’?”

Good question. Honestly, I sometimes feel that, more often than not, it is those who are supposedly aghast at the idea of same-sex relations who seem the most fixated on writing and talking about such relations – albeit in a totally reductionist and thus dehumanizing way.

Corvino lists some recent examples of this type of fixation. For instance, he notes that a conservative pastor recently complained on his blog that gays “expect us to approve of butt sex and call it marriage.”

In the following excerpt from his article, “Gay Sex Isn’t Weird. Sex Is,” Corvino responds to the various “butt-sex”-fixated complaints of the anti-gay crowd.


Sex makes no sense in the abstract. But then you have urges, and you eventually act on them, and what once seemed weird and gross becomes . . . wow.

Our opponents recognize this in their own lives, but they can’t envision it elsewhere. It’s a profound failure of moral imagination – which is essential for empathy, which is at the foundation of the Golden Rule.

How can one “love thy neighbor as thyself” without any real effort to understand thy neighbor?

Our opponents contemplate our lives, our love, our longing, and what do they see? “Butt sex.” Such obtuseness is depressing.

Of course, not all gays engage in “butt sex” – some of us never do – and not only gays engage in “butt sex.”

Of course, most of what we do in bed is exactly the same as most of what they do in bed: cuddling and touching and caressing and kissing and sucking and rubbing and so on. (Not to mention sleeping, which when shared regularly can be beautifully intimate as well.)

What we do is the same not just in terms of formal acts. It’s the same in terms of being weird, and silly, and messy, and sublime.

Yes, Virginia, we make funny faces when we come, too.

It’s always easier to criticize the weirdness in others than to confront the weirdness in the mirror. (Perhaps that’s why mirrors in the bedroom are thought to be kinky.)

Our opponents take anxiety about sex – a natural and virtually universal human phenomenon – and wield it as a weapon against us. Shame on them.

As for the marriage-equality fight, what do you say to someone who thinks that we expect her “to approve of butt sex and call it marriage”?

Thankfully, another poster responded to that one more effectively than I ever could.

The respondent described herself as a lifelong Christian, daughter of a conservative minister, and “personally against gay marriage but passionate about gay civil rights.” (This description will strike some as paradoxical, but bravo to her for understanding the difference between personal beliefs and public policy.)

She then warmly depicts a gay couple she knows who have adopted two special-needs children. The children, she writes, “RADIATE happiness at each other, their parents, and the people around them. Somehow ‘butt sex’ doesn’t seem to neatly contain all the emotions, commitment, and wondrous devotion that their parents’ relationship has provided them with.”

She concludes by chiding her fellow Christian, “Please think carefully before you speak.”

Amen to that.

To read John Corvino’s article in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Real Holiness
Making Love, Giving Life
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Relationship: The Crucial Factor in Sexual Morality
What is a “Lifestyle”?
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Joan Timmerman on the “Wisdom of the Body”
A Wise and Thoughtful Study of Sexual Ethics

Image 1: “Relationship” by Raphael Perez.
Image 2: Peter Foss.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Bayly Family - January 2009

For an all-too-brief few days earlier this month (January 18-22), the entire Bayly family (my parents, myself, and my two brothers and their families) gathered in Port Macquarie. It was the first time since July 2006 that we have all been together.

Following are some photos from those five days, as well as from earlier in my two month long visit home to Australia - one that ends tomorrow with my return to the snow and ice of Minnesota.

It’s certainly been a great visit - with trips to Newtown, Exeter, and Gunnedah to reconnect with relatives and friends, and time spent amidst the beautiful coastal landscape around Port Macquarie.

But more than any other past return visit to Australia (and this has been the sixth since my relocation to the U.S. in 1994), this one was focused particularly on members of my immediate family as together we shared both good and
difficult times. Thus while I’m definitely looking forward to returning to my life and work in Minnesota, I’m also mindful of a deep feeling of sadness at the thought of once again leaving my wonderful family.

Above: My parents, Gordon and Margaret Bayly - December 2008.

Above: The Bayly boys - January 21, 2009.

I’m standing in the middle with my older brother, Chris, at right, and my younger brother, Tim, at left.

Above: And here we are in 1973! Chris definitely has the best outfit!

Above: My older brother, Chris, and his family. From left: Cathie, Mitchell, Liam, Ryan, Chris, and Brendan.

In July/August of last year, Chris and Cathie and three of my nephews visited me in Minnesota. For photos of their visit, see here.

Above: My younger brother, Tim, and his family. From left: Tim, Sami, Ros, and Layne.

Above: With Tim and Ros - Christmas Day 2008. (Ros painted the beautiful picture on the wall behind us. For another example of her work, click here.)

Above: Layne and Sami - Christmas Day 2008.

Above: Members of the Bayly family with my Mum’s brother, Michael Sparkes, and his wife, Val - visiting Port Macquarie from Gunnedah (January 20-22).

From left: Cathie, Uncle Michael, Aunty Val, Mitchell, Liam, Mum, Brendan, and Ryan.

Above: Three generations of the family: My Dad (at left), his eldest son (my brother, Chris, at right), and Chris’ eldest son, Ryan (center) - January 18 (Chris’ birthday!), 2009.

Above: Mum, Liam, me, Mitchell, Liam, and my brother, Tim - January 18, 2009.

Above: My niece, Layne, stands with two of her cousins from her Dad’s side of the family (my nephews Ryan and Liam), and her cousin from her Mum’s side of the family (Rory, standing at left).

Above: Rory, Ryan, Layne, and Liam in 1996.

Above: With Mum and Dad - December 2008.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Beach Cricket
The Bayly Family - July 2006
My “Bone Country”

Monday, January 26, 2009

A Declaration for Reform and Renewal

The following Declaration was released yesterday by the American Catholic Council, a coalition of major reform organizations in the United States, including Call to Action, Voice of the Faithful, and the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church.

This Declaration’s publication and overall call for change within Roman Catholicism is a positive and hopeful development - and evidence, I believe, of the work of the Spirit within the church.


American Catholic Council

Declaration for Reform and Renewal

After years of dialogue and experience with the often-unrealized reforms set in motion by the Second Vatican Council, the American Catholic Council, a coalition of representatives of organizations, communities and individuals, calls for a representative assembly of the Catholic Church in the United States to consider the state of our Church.

We do this because the Signs of the Times reveal a serious deterioration in the life of the Catholic Church in our country: We see:

- Closed parishes, broken communities, and unavailable sacraments.

- Sexually-abused children and young people and ineffective clerical response to correct this institutional sin.

- Dwindling financial support and widespread fiscal mismanagement.

- Paternalistic, monarchical leadership that is often unresponsive, repressive, and ineffective.

- A seriously compromised social justice mission--because internal institutional justice is lacking.

- Catholics abandoning the Church with demoralizing frequency.

- A community starved for a spirituality that fits our modern lives, consistent with out maturity, experience and education.

We acknowledge co-responsibility for these conditions - for no community can be governed without its implicit or explicit consent. We “consent” with financial and personal support, with participation, or, often, with passivity.

We do not challenge the faith we were given or the essential beliefs of our creeds and councils. We do know that this faith is not tied to the governance structure of any one historical period or culture. We seek a Church in which all the baptized have an effective voice in decision-making and a ministry worthy of their calling.

We are wise enough to know that we shall never have a perfect Church. We do not, however, want to be far from a Church that is free and honest, even if it is one in which we are called at times to uncomfortable accountability and responsibility.

We seek a Church that is inclusive, compassionate, trustworthy, and representative.

We seek a Church that actively listens to the Spirit in its people and that worships and evangelizes in the fullness of that inspiration.

We seek a Church that addresses the spiritual hunger of all Catholics, including marginalized and former Catholics.

We seek to multiply the bread of the Eucharist so that a malnourished Catholic Community can encounter Christ with all the healing power of his sacramental presence through the preservation of parish community and a radically inclusive theology of ministry.

We seek reform of the governing structures in our Church so that they reflect the better aspects of the American experience: a democratic spirit, concern for human rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and a tradition of participation and representation.


We take as our norm the Gospel and the life-giving elements in our Tradition, especially the earliest history of our Church and the renaissance promised by the Second Vatican Council. We are guided, furthermore, by the wisdom gained from decades of intensive reform and renewal efforts in the post-Vatican II Church of the United States.

Jesus called all to the Reign of God without reservation. The ministry and table fellowship of Jesus found place for the marginalized and the previously uninvited, for the adversaries and the advocates, for friends and religious leaders, for the poor and the rich, for the searching and for those who do not search, for women and men.

The disciples of Christ became a New Testament community of Churches, democratic in believing the Spirit was given to all. These communities were never perfect. St. Paul tells us there was factionalism as well as harmony and confusion as well as clarity. Nonetheless, these communities proved themselves reliable and became the embodiment of the living Christ. They selected their leaders and held them accountable. They recognized a wide diversity of charisms and ministries, validated not by one person or office, but by the community at large.

The inclusive, collegial model lasted for centuries. It led to a global Church, the conversion of the Roman Empire, and the first Ecumenical Councils. It created a spiritual and sacramental Tradition that continues to enrich our lives. A Church from below proved itself trustworthy with the Gospel and responsive to the creative Spirit.

We summon those who share our vision or question it, those who want the Church to be more than it is now, and those who yearn for the renewed and reformed Church that the Gospel, Vatican II and the Signs of our Times require.

In the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero, we are conscious that we are “only the workers, not the Master Builder.” But, together we can fashion a charter of rights and an expansive ministry, a social justice agenda, and an inclusive community.

With God’s help and with the Spirit at work in all of us, we can become Christians, such that the world will marvel at our love for one another and at the service we give the human family. We do not despair of this possibility. If you do not, join us.

American Catholic Council
January 25, 2009

Recommended Off-site Link:
American Catholic Council

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Beyond Papalism
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
What It Means to Be Catholic

"Homosexuality is Not Unnatural"

Following is an excerpt from “Homophobia – No Compromise Possible,” a 2004 essay by Bishop John Shelby Spong.

Bishop Spong’s wise words are a timely antidote to the
foolishness we’ve been hearing of late from the Roman Catholic hierarchy.


The emerging new consciousness . . . asserts that homosexual people are neither morally depraved nor mentally sick, since one’s sexual orientation is not a choice; but something to which one awakens. It is like the dawning realization that one is male or female, part of a particular race or nation or even right or left-handed. A just and moral society cannot be erected on a premise that some human beings are subhuman or perverted, not on the basis of their doing but on the basis of their being. It matters not what any source of ancient wisdom has previously declared.

The Bible, for example, was once quoted to support slavery, to oppose science and to prevent women from achieving equality. On every one of those issues the Bible was quite simply wrong. To quote it now to uphold the evil of homophobia is no less wrong. These efforts will fail as they always do. The ultimate tragedy is, however, that some church leaders, ever on the wrong side of great moral questions of history, never seem to learn history’s lesson that any prejudice once publicly challenged by a new consciousness is doomed.

As I survey the debate on this issue in all parts of the Christian tradition, a tragic failure of leadership is once again depressingly obvious. The Roman Catholic hierarchy simply takes the old definition and labors first to defang it and then to perfume it. They call homosexuality “unnatural,” or “a deviation,” urging that it be suppressed wherever possible and controlled where not possible. Homosexuality, however, has now been incontrovertibly identified as present in the world of higher mammals. It also appears to be a stable and unchanging percentage of the human race at all times and in all places. These data suggest that homosexuality is not unnatural at all but is a minority aspect of the created order that appears quite normally in all higher forms of life.

- John Shelby Spong

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
In the Garden of Spirituality - Joan Timmerman
Perspectives on Natural Law – Daniel Helminiak
Perspectives on Natural Law – Gregory Baum
The Pope’s “Scandalous” Stance on Homosexuality
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology!
Celebrating Our Sanctifying Truth
Compassion, Christian Community, and Homosexuality
The Bible and Homosexuality

More on "Spiritual Paternity"

The latest posting over at the Progressive Catholic Voice is an interesting piece by Ed Kohner on “Homosexual Priests and Spiritual Paternity.” (You may recall that Paula Ruddy had an article on this same topic published in the PCV last week.)

The term “spiritual paternity” refers to what is supposedly carried out by the very nature of the priesthood. Of course, when one defines (and limits) the nature of priesthood in this way, one can then argue that gay men, like women, lack this particular male and straight and celibate spiritual quality. It also helps when one buys into the Vatican’s erroneous and irresponsible view of homosexuality as a disordered behavior, a deviation that retards human maturity and spiritual development.

Following is an excerpt from Ed Kohler’s reflection on this idea of spiritual paternity. As you’ll see, it deftly exposes the hypocrisy of the Vatican’s stance on homosexuality and the priesthood.


Cardinal Zenon Grocholewski, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, made a number of allegations about homosexuals and the Roman Catholic priesthood in a press interview October 30, 2008.

The Cardinal maintained that no one may be admitted to Holy Orders who has a deeply seated tendency to practice homosexuality. He labeled homosexuals defective human beings who lack the normal heterosexual tendency, deviates of a certain type, irregular males with a disordered psyche, all of which combine to create, if ordained, a type of wound on their priesthood and in forming relations with others.

The following conclusions may be drawn from the Cardinal’s allegations:

1. Seminarians with this tendency must be weeded out, a pogrom initiated to expel them from the seminary.

2. The pogrom should also include homosexual priests and bishops because they too have the tendency.

3. Sacraments administered by homosexual priests are invalid because they lack “spiritual paternity” which is of the nature of the priesthood itself.

4. It is a legitimate pastoral concern to ask a priest if he is homosexual before confessing or scheduling a baptism, or a bishop before he administers confirmation or holy orders.

Kohler goes on to list several other “conclusions.” To read them all, visit the Progressive Catholic Voice, here.

Recommended Off-site Link:
“Spiritual Paternity”: Why Homosexual Men Cannot Be Ordained Catholic Priests
- Paula Ruddy (Progressive Catholic Voice, January 13, 2009).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Homosexuality and the Priesthood
Vatican Stance on Gay Priests Signals Urgent Need for Renewal & Reform
A Humorous Look at Internalized Homophobia

Image: St. Francis Seminary, Milwaukee.

The Painted Forest

Images: Michael Bayly.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Return to Ellenborough Falls

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Competent Parenting Doesn’t Require “Traditional Marriage”

I always appreciate reading the perspective of Colleen Kochivar-Baker over at Enlightened Catholicism.

Recently, Colleen shared her thoughts on parenting and “traditional marriage.” Her observations remind me of the following from a 2002 article in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics:

A growing body of scientific literature demonstrates that children who grow up with one or two gay and/or lesbian parents fare as well in emotional, cognitive, social, and sexual functioning as do children whose parents are heterosexual. Children’s optimal development seems to be influenced more by the nature of the relationships and interactions within the family unit than by the particular structural form it takes.*

Following is an excerpt from Colleen’s reflection.


The Church’s current emphasis on “traditional marriage” is poorly conceived in my humble opinion. What worked to support marriages in the idyllic 1950’s has been completely undermined by those very same generations. My parents’ generation, whose lives culminated in large houses and Lincolns and Jaguars, cannot begin to conceive of the fact their children became parents, spouses, and adults in a society which could only support that same concept of family on mobility, isolation, and huge personal debt.

This form of traditional marriage is not only unsustainable, it’s almost destroyed the economic and social fabric of this country. We cannot go back. We must develop a concept of marriage and family which is sustainable, realistic, just, and places equal responsibility on both partners to make the parenting part work.

Marriage might be crucial to the well being of a society, at least in so far as marriages produce future generations, but all kinds of relationships can parent those future generations. Frankly I’m tired of all the rhetoric about traditional marriage. Like the rest of the country seems to be, I'm not particularly vested in the success of individual marriages, but I am vested in what happens to the children in that marriage. I’d much rather the social conversation swirled around competent parenting. Successful parenting is what the future is all about, not traditional marriage.

It’s one of the lessons we should be taking from our current president. He wasn’t the product of a successful traditional marriage, he was the product of successful parenting. Just because we as a society no longer do marriage all that well, doesn’t mean we can’t do parenting well. It’s time we separated the two notions of marriage and parenting. Whether we like it or not, that’s the way society is moving. Adjusting to this is not caving into secularism, it’s realism, and it’s about putting children first.

To read Colleen’s reflection in its entirety, click here.

* Pediatrics, Vol. 109 No. 2 February 2002, pp. 341-344.

Recommended Off-site Link:
The Gospel’s Queer Values - Queering the Church, January 26, 2009.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Celebrating the Presence of God Within All Families
The Changing Face of “Traditional Marriage”
One Catholic Gay Parent Who Isn’t Leaving the Church
Gay Adoption: A Catholic Lawyer’s Perspective

Saturday, January 24, 2009

"That Utterly Profound 'In-Loveness'"

A selection of finalists for the 2008 Archibald Prize is currently on display in Port Macquarie. Included is the 2008 winner of the prestigious Archibald Prize, Del Kathryn Barton’s “You Are What is Most Beautiful About Me: A Self Portrait with Kell and Arella.”

About her winning work, Barton says:

This painting celebrates the love I have for my two children and how my relationship with them has radically informed and indeed transformed my understanding of who I am. The title of the work – you are what is most beautiful about me – alludes to that utterly profound ‘in-loveness’ that all mothers have for their children. Both my children have taken my world by storm and very little compares to the devotion I feel for them both. The intensity of this emotion is not something that I could have prepared myself for. The alchemy of life offered forth from my inhabitable woman’s body is perhaps the greatest gift of my life.

I think Barton’s powerful words also describe God’s love for humanity. The Christian tradition, after all, tells us that we are “children of God.” Unlike some religious folks, I have no problem imaging God as “mother.” Indeed, I resonate with the words attributed to Pope John Paul I: “God is both father and mother – but more mother than father.”

I am also mindful of the Roman Catholic understanding of church as “Mother Church.” Yet this seems to me to be a very different kind of mother than that described so beautifully by Del Kathryn Barton. “Mother Church” has always seemed to me to be insecure, smothering, and overly controlling – qualities more reflective, I’d say, of the mothering experienced by many of the men in charge of the church, than of other more healthy expressions and experiences of mothering.*

I think one hallmark of good psychological and spiritual health is an openness to growth and change. (I recall how the Desert Fathers and Mothers understood sin primarily as the refusal to grow!) Barton seems to me to be a very healthy individual and mother. I’d even go so far to say that I believe she has a truer sense and thus a more truthful articulation of what it means to be a mother than do the clerics of the Roman church. Her observation, for instance, of “that utterly profound ‘in-loveness’ that all mothers have for their children” is simply wonderful and beautiful.

It’s an “in-loveness” that, like any authentic love, opens all those involved to radical transformation. Thus Barton can say that “my relationship with [my children] has radically informed and indeed transformed my understanding of who I am.” Here again is another significant difference between a real mother’s awareness of what it means to be a mother, and the Church’s. We only need to observe the Church’s (lack of) understanding and treatment of its female and gay “children” to realize the profound lack of relationship it has with these groups and its utter unwillingness to have its self-understanding and teachings informed and transformed by them or by any healthy and respectful relationship with them.

It’s all very tragic and dysfunctional, wouldn’t you say?

* Such negative qualities represent the shadow side of feminine energy. Sadly, these qualities have been embodied for generations by some women, more often than not out of sheer frustration and despair at the oppression of patriarchy and the shadow side of masculine energy – conquest and domination. I don’t think it’s an over-generalization to say that many “mama’s boys” from these same generations became priests, and that many of these, in turn, perpetuated this unhealthy expression of mothering through their fixation on a warped understanding of “mother church.” It’s an understanding that, sadly, has been almost deified – and certainly codified into the church’s self-understanding.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Voices of Parental Authority and Wisdom
The Bishops’ “Guidelines” – A Parent’s Response
Catholic Rainbow (Australian) Parents
Grandma Knows Best
Elizabeth Johnson and Images of God (Part 1)
Elizabeth Johnson and Images of God (Part 2)

Interiors IV

Images: Michael Bayly.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Interiors II
Interiors III
Rainy October Afternoon

Friday, January 23, 2009

Perspectives on Natural Law

Part 6: William C. McDonough

Following is a sixth perspective on the concept of natural law from the compilation of perspectives that the leadership of the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM) sent last November to Archbishop John Nienstedt and to every priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (For why we shared these perspectives, click here.)

This particular perspective is from Catholic theologian William C. McDonough and focuses on four ideas, present in the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes, for a “Catholic natural law morality.” It is a perspective excerpted from an article entitled “The Church in the Modern World: Rereading Gaudium et Spes After Thirty Years” that McDonough wrote for the compilation Vatican II: The Continuing Agenda (edited by Anthony J. Cernera, Sacred Heart University Press, 1997, pp. 113-133).


. . . I ask about the implications for moral theology of the decision of Gaudium et Spes to keep the church in the modern world. . . . So from the start I wish to be clear that what follows should be read not as a road map for the revision of moral theology but as a hope-filled extension and application of Gaudium et Spes to a very urgent task before us.

What is evidently needed is an understanding of morality as spirituality, a spirituality that arises from the natural desire for happiness that is built into all human beings. Servais Pinckaers summarizes the connection between morality and spirituality in this way: “The spontaneous, universal desire that receives an unhoped-for answer lifts human hope to its highest pitch.” [note to Pinckaers, 1995 at 311]. What follows are four ideas, already arising in Gaudium et Spes, for a morality that would lift human hope to its highest pitch.

a. Catholic morality will be a natural law morality, and it will not be like preconciliar natural law moralities.

Quoting Vincent McNamara, 1989, at 105: “The problem which many have found with the version of natural law which dominated Roman Catholic morality was that the whole person was not kept in view: certain aspects seemed to be given a significance and prominence out of relation to the total person. The ongoing task, of course, is to understand what it means to be a person, to discover what are the lines of human wholeness, what humanizes, what are genuine human goods. But we should not expect to be able to prove that a piece of behavior is inhuman and therefore immoral as clearly as we can prove something in the natural sciences. It is not something that can be easily ‘read off’ from a definition of human nature.”

Keeping church and world together in reading Gaudium et Spes will result in a very different form of natural low morality than is described above. First such a morality will acknowledge the church’s dependence on human experience, human judgment and the relevant human sciences in its discernment of moral norms. . . .

b. Catholic natural law morality will have unchanging moral norms, and they will not be focused on sexual morality.

. . . Gaudium et Spes does have a list of what have become known as intrinsically evil acts. And to begin listing those actions one should not look to the area of human sexuality but to the area of direct attacks on human beings.

c. Catholic natural law morality will focus on our common humanity, and will find that commonality at the interior level of virtue more than at the exterior level of norm.

. . . Part two of Gaudium et Spes opens the way to a rethinking of Catholic morality as beginning from a few absolute prohibitions and moving toward a morality of virtue.

d. Catholic natural law morality, situated in the communio of virtue, will integrate concerns for subsidiarity with concerns for the common good.

. . . It is only inclusive communities of virtue that can equip persons for the task that Gaudium et Spes enjoins to us: our humanization as persons through our divinization. And this, perhaps the most challenging moral implication of all in our reading of Gaudium et Spes, is simply another instance of the Thomistic spirit of the document. The way Aquinas put it is that “the higher one’s degree of goodness, the more universal is one’s desire for good. Imperfect things extend no further than their own individual good. God, who is most perfect in good, is the good of all being.” The way Gaudium et Spes puts it is that the church can only be the church in the modern world.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 1 - Herbert McCabe, OP
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 2 - Judith Web Kay
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 3 - Daniel Helminiak
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 4 - Garry Wills
Perspectives on Natural Law: Part 5 - Gregory Baum
Dialoguing with the Archbishop on Natural Law

Thursday, January 22, 2009

My "Bone Country"

Red dust settles deep in my skin.
I don’t where it stops and where I begin.

“Western Wall”
Rosanne Cash

Recently I traveled from Port Macquarie to Gunnedah – the town in rural New South Wales were I was born and spent my childhood and adolescence.

Gunnedah is located in the Namoi River Valley of north-western New South Wales. It’s a hot, often dry farming area, part of the Liverpool Plains. “Gunnedah” is an Aboriginal word meaning “place of white stones” a reference to outcrops of sandstone in the area.

The area now occupied by the town was settled by Europeans in 1833. Forty years later, the Town and Country Journal described the settlement of Gunnedah as a “straggling little town” comprised of 500 “hardy souls.”

Through my maternal grandmother’s family, the Millerds, we can trace our family’s connection to Gunnedah back to the town’s earliest days. My father’s side of the family has its roots in nearby Gulgong (where we even have a couple of streets named after us: Bayly St. and Little Bayly St.) Not surprisingly, I consider this part of Australia to be my “bone country,” the place of my earthly origins; the place that has a claim on me; the place I carry in some way with me, no matter how far I roam.

Above: Conadilly St., Gunnedah’s main street, looking west toward the clock tower of Gunnedah Town Hall - Friday, January 16, 2009.

Above: A similar view of Conadilly Street in the early 1950s.

Here’s an interesting little bit of history (courtesy of the book, The Way We Were: Sesquicentenary of Gunnedah, 1856-2006 by Ron McLean:

The fledging township began to develop around Maitland Street, the thoroughfare closet to the [Namoi] river, spreading slowly along designated streets running off it at right angles. In 1864, however, the town’s destiny was drastically altered by a flood of massive proportions, with homes and businesses destroyed or badly damaged by the raging torrent. It was then that the folly of concentrating the commercial centre of the town in an area prone to extensive flooding became apparent.

The issue opened up sharp lines of debate in the community, with most business people and home-owners canvassing a move to higher ground, which brought them into conflict with George Cohen, the town’s second storekeeper, who intended “staying put.” He was supported by other business owners who had bought land at what they considered high prices on the understanding that Maitland Street would remain the business centre.

It didn’t. But the citizens of Gunnedah later honoured George Cohen by naming the town’s bridge over the Namoi River after him.

Above: The view of the commercial centre of Gunnedah from the roof of the Gunnedah Water Tower Museum - Saturday, January 17, 2009.

Above: Established in 1980, the Water Tower Museum is located in Gunnedah’s first concrete reservoir, built in 1908 atop what later became known as Anzac Hill. This original town reservoir remained in service until the 1950s when the town council built a larger reservoir next to it.

Above: Looking toward the Kelvin Hills (at left) from atop the Gunnedah Water Tower Museum - Saturday, January 17, 2009.

The Kelvin Hills are located 20km north-east of Gunnedah and are characterized by sandstone ridges and steep bluffs that rise above the surrounding farmland. Isolated from the mountain ranges to the north and east, the highest point of these ridges is 885m. The Kelvin State Forest covers much of these hills and contains a waterfall, numerous feral goats, a cave that is home to a colony of bent-wing bats, and (as you can see from the photo above) sweeping views of the surrounding forest and farmland.

In my youth, I would often go on hikes through the Kelvin State Forest - usually with our good family friend Gwen Riordan and members of her family. My last visit to the hills of Kelvin was in January 2001, when I accompanied my older brother Chris and his family to the area. (They were visiting Gunnedah from their home in Melbourne). The photo of me above was taken at this time - which was about a year or so before my parents left Gunnedah and relocated to Port Macquarie.

Above: Looking toward Pensioner’s Hill from the roof of the Gunnedah Water Tower Museum – Saturday, January 17, 2009.

Pensioner’s Hill received its name during the Great Depression of the 1930s, although destitute families had first put up their tents or “humpies” on this site during the economic depression of the 1890s.

One of the factors that encouraged “swaggies” and their families to camp on this particular hill in the 1930s was the open water reservoir (still located on the northern escarpment) which contained over 1,000,000 litres (250,000 gallons) and was built by the Railway Department in 1915.

The last residents were evicted and their dwellings demolished by the Gunnedah Municipal Council in 1977 as the dwellings were deemed “unsafe and unhygienic.”

Above: Gunnedah Town Hall, which has had a new coat of paint since last I saw it!

Located on the corner of Conadilly and Chandos Streets, the Town Hall was first built in 1900 as a single-storey structure. Over the years the building was enlarged - with a second storey being added in 1918, and a clock tower constructed (complete with a four-dial electric clock and bell) in 1937.

In The Way We Were: Sesquicentenary of Gunnedah, 1856-2006, Ron McLean notes that:

In 1942 the main hall was extensively damaged by fire, with the stage totally destroyed. A new stage was built and the interior of the building was refurbished with art deco plasterwork. The feature of the refurbishment was the first use of fluorescent lighting in a public hall in New South Wales.

. . . Gunnedah Town Hall remained the administrative centre of the Municipal Council from 1918 until December 1963 when the new administration building and council chambers were completed in Elgin Street.

Above: Gunnedah Town Hall in 1934 - three years before the addition of the building’s clock tower.

In 1956 the Gunnedah Municipal Council adopted a “civic modernization program” which saw over the course of the next few years the removal of all the verandahs in the main street. My Dad can remember how he and his friends from the Gunnedah Municipal Band helped dismantle the ornate wrought iron verandah of the Town Hall.

Above: My Mum and Dad, early in their courtship, in Gunnedah in the mid-1950s. Dad is in his band uniform.

Above: The Bayly boys: Michael (b. 1965), Tim (1967), and Chris (1963).

This portrait was one of a series taken around 1970. I would have been four or five at the time but I can still vaguely remember the photographer coming to our home in Gunnedah, setting up a backdrop in our lounge room, and taking a series of photos. My older brother was missing a front tooth, and it had to be later painted in on the photographs! As for my teeth - I look like I have a pair of little fangs!

Above: The Gunnedah Miners’ Memorial - Friday, January 16, 2009.

Erected in November 2000, the Miners’ Memorial honours the twenty miners who have died in a little more that a century of coal mining in the Gunnedah district.

Notes McLean in The Way We Were:

Mining started in the Gunnedah area in 1880 when well-sinkers found a coal stream on the Backjack frontage to Wandobah Road. First miners Barney McCosker and James Pryor sank crude pits and started mining the seams, carting by dray to the railhead in Gunnedah.

The first fatality occurred in 1897 when 23-year-old Bernard McCosker, a nephew of Barney McCosker, was killed in a fall of rock at Gunnedah Colliery.

My maternal grandmother’s first husband, Jack Louis, was killed in a mine workshop in nearby Werris Creek. The eldest of their two children, Eric (my Mum’s half-brother) was hit and killed by a coal truck while traveling to work at the Gunnedah Mine on his motor cycle. He was only in his early twenties. Both father and son are honoured on the Miners’ Memorial.

The second child of my grandmother Olive Millerd (1906-1997) and her first husband Jack Louis is my Aunty Fay (pictured above at left, and at right as a child with her brother Eric).

Olive’s second husband was
Valentine Sparkes (1891-1971). They had four children: Margaret (my Mum), Michael, Catherine (who died in infancy), and Ruth (whom I stayed with during my recent visit to Gunnedah). Ruth is pictured with Fay and I above at right. (That’s little Suzy, Ruth’s dog, that I’m holding).

Speaking of dogs, my grandmother’s brother, Jack Millerd, owned the famous Australian greyhound Chief Havoc. According to The Way We Were:

[Chief Havoc] was to the greyhound racing industry in the 1940s what the mighty Phar Lap had been to thoroughbred racing in the 1930s.

. . . The dog had 26 wins from 36 starts with five seconds and two thirds. Many of his wins were on city tracks, as the greyhound with blistering pace and an uncanny race sense carved a place in greyhound and sporting history. In one legendary solo run at Harold Park in May 1947, he broke five track records and equalled another before a crowd of 17,000.

Above: My Mum as a child in Gunnedah with her brother, Michael.

Above: My maternal grandmother, Olive Sparkes, celebrating her 90th birthday in 1996 with her children (from left) Fay, Margaret, Ruth, and Michael. This photo was taken to accompany an article about Nanna Sparkes’ birthday that appeared in Gunnedah’s newspaper, the Namoi Valley Independent.

Right: With my cousin, Therese - one of four children of Fay and her recently deceased husband Bert Wicks. Of the couple’s other children, their eldest, Kevin, and youngest, Steven, live in Gunnedah.

I didn’t get a chance to see Kevin or Steven (whom I attended high school with) and their respective families when in Gunnedah last week. However, when Steven and his family were recently holidaying in Port Macquarie (four hours east of Gunnedah) they visited my parents’ home where the photo below, showing me with them, was taken.

Above: Here’s another photo from the Bayly family archives! It’s Christmas 1981 and pictured on Nanna Sparkes’ front porch are (back row from left) my Mum, Uncle Rex (Ruth’s husband, who sadly passed away in March 2006), my older brother Chris, my younger brother Tim, and my Dad. In the front row from left are Fay, her daughter Therese, and Therese’s daughter Vanessa.

Left: As well as catching up with Ruth, Fay, and Therese, I also visited Uncle Michael and Aunty Val when I was recently in Gunnedah (although the photo of me with them at left was actually taken last night during a visit of theirs to Port Macquarie).

I also visited long-time family friends John and Heather Sills (whom I last saw in September 2006), Gwen Riordan, and Peter and Delores Worthington (whose son Andrew was a good friend of mine during my school days at St. Xavier’s Primary School. (I’m pictured with Andrew’s Dad, Peter, at right.)

Above: Speaking of old school friends, one of the few that I still manage to stay in contact with is David Callaghan (pictured above with his wife Tracy). During my recent visit to Gunnedah we met and shared a few beers, memories, and laughs at the Club House Hotel.

David and I were almost in every class together through primary and high school - starting in kindergarten with Miss Hegney!

In the class photo above from 1971, I’m pictured in the second row, second from the right, while David is in the same row, fourth from right (standing next to Miss Hegney).

The colour photo at left is of me in kindergarten. I’m not sure why this was taken in colour while the class one was not!

Above: St. Mary’s boys! My high school mates (from left) Mark, David, Andrew, Anthony, Dennis, and Martin. This photo was taken during our high school’s athletic carnival in 1983.

Above: We loved nothing better than going out and exploring the hills, caves, and bushland around Gunnedah - a pastime made all the more readily available to us once we started driving. Pictured from left: Anthony, Dennis, David, Martin, and Andrew.

Above: With David and another school mate, Denise, by the Namoi River in 1983. That’s me on the right with my family’s dog, Deano. And that’s my (first) car on the left - a Ford Falcon 500. Yes, I know, I look like such a boy that it’s hard to believe that I was driving!

But I was and I did! And it would be my trusty Ford Falcon that carried me on my journey away from Gunnedah - starting in 1984 when I began my teaching training in Armidale, a city in the New England Highlands, about three hours north-east of Gunnedah. From Armidale I went to Canberra for a year (1987), before beginning teaching in Goulburn in the Southern Highlands (1988-1993).

In 1994 I relocated to the States, and that’s where I’ve lived ever since. It’s not now home, but rather
another home - as is Port Macquarie where my parents live; and as is still Gunnedah and its surrounding natural landscape, my “bone country.”

See also the 2006 Wild Reed posts:
Gunnedah (Part 1)
Gunnedah (Part 2)
Gunnedah (Part 3)
Gunnedah (Part 4)
Remembering Nanna Smith
The Bayly Family - July 2006 (Part 1)
The Bayly Family - July 2006 (Part 2)
The Bayly Family - July 2006 (Part 3)
Catholic Rainbow (Australian) Parents
One of These Boys . . .