Julia Baird accidentally wrote the perfect book for our time

Awe and wonder will help you through the dark times, says journalist Julia Baird

Life & Style
There are proven health benefits of walking among trees. Picture: Phil Goodwin/Unsplash

There are proven health benefits of walking among trees. Picture: Phil Goodwin/Unsplash

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Julia Baird has written a book that speaks to the mood of today.

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There was a time, years ago, that I began to recognise the benefits of trees in my life. The soothing qualities of foliage, of leaf canopy, of branches arching serenely over garden beds.

I even wrote about it, of the experience, one late summer afternoon, of standing in a street waiting for a taxi, having just interviewed a dying man, and with a long evening of writing ahead of me.

Just the sight of the treescape was enough to soothe me. It, and the sounds of the neighbourhood, of birds and weather and cars and life, has always been like a balm.

Julia Baird is on the same page.

She delays our interview for 10 minutes while she makes a cup of tea, and steps onto her porch to sip and reflect, a still moment in what will be another frantic day. It's a couple of weeks into the onset of coronavirus into Australian life, and it has fast become the biggest story of the year, the decade, possibly the century. A high-profile journalist based in Sydney, Baird hosts The Drum on ABC television, and writes columns for the Sydney Morning Herald and the New York Times.

Julia Baird is often captivated by cuttlefish on her daily beach swims. Picture: Nick Dawkins

Julia Baird is often captivated by cuttlefish on her daily beach swims. Picture: Nick Dawkins

She has also just written a book, one that, astonishingly, is all about how to cope when the world around you goes dark. Phosphorescence is an investigation into how we can find internal happiness, even when facing the greatest odds - the light within, the phosphorescence that can sustain us when the ground is shifting beneath our feet.

From swimming in the ocean to considering the stars, walking in forests to accepting one's flaws, nurturing friendship to finding a sense of purpose, there are things that matter enough to sustain us through life's "muck and grit", if only you know how to recognise them.

In the process of writing, Baird spoke to psychologists, scientists, poets and doctors, artists and family members and friends, read widely and tried out many of these things for herself.

The book, published last week, was a labour of love, written over the past few years. The timing of its emergence into the world has been purely coincidental, if not serendipitous.

"I wasn't really expecting the world to go dark, the entire world, I just did not anticipate that in any sense," she says.

So, I can't help asking, how is she coping right now, with this strange new collective reality?

"I'm working so hard, I'm so acutely conscious of it, it's almost like so much adrenaline to get the show right and to stay on top of it and to keep people informed and to try to work out what is actually going on and what we all need to do, that that's kind of taken all my energy," she says.

"I'm trying to stay quiet otherwise. I had a swim yesterday, I've been thinking very hard about what to do with my kids. But I'm just trying to observe and document and get it right right now."

There will be time later, of course, to reflect, and digest. Her book covers that off quite well, alongside friendship, time spent in nature, the power of hope, of optimism, of daring, of kindness.

And Phosphorescence is also an intimate memoir, based partly around her own experience of being diagnosed with cancer five years ago.

"I often wondered what it would be like to have a cancer growing inside your body," she wrote in the New York Times in 2015.

"To suddenly discover you are carrying something that is eating you away, growing in an ugly, consuming mass in or around your bones or organs.To be blithely stepping through life, unaware that your insides are betraying you."

At the time, she was told there was a high chance the tumour that swelled her belly, like a diabolical unborn baby, was advanced ovarian cancer. The diagnosis turned out to be another, rare form of non-aggressive cancer that nevertheless required three painful surgeries.

It was an experience like no other - the sudden sickening shift, the before and after, where your old life is right in front of you, just beyond reach and fast retreating.

It was, in fact, much like what is happening now, as the world succumbs to an invisible menace, hurling up walls and slamming shut doors in an effort to stem the tide.

To be clear, Baird and I are cities apart, having a comfortable conversation, her on her porch, me in the office I'll be vacating just days later. But in both cities, and indeed, all over Australia, queues are forming outside Centrelink, of hundreds and hundreds of people who have become jobless overnight. There's fear and uncertainty, and shock at the sheer suddenness of it all. Overseas, people are dying in droves, and the virus is spreading through Europe, India, and America, especially in Baird's old hometown of New York City.

It's impossible not to feel a sickening sense of foreboding. How will we see ourselves through these times?

Julia Baird says we can all find our own, non-combustible inner glow to help us through dark times. Picture: Susan Papazian

Julia Baird says we can all find our own, non-combustible inner glow to help us through dark times. Picture: Susan Papazian

Baird has thought a lot about this since her diagnosis, although she's adamant she never set out to write a cancer memoir.

"That is one experience I had through which I learned a whole lot of stuff about the cross-beams of resilience, and the things that kept me going," she says.

"And not in a dissolve-into-giggles, hilarity way, and not in an instant moment of happiness or 'hashtag-inspo' kind of way, but what was it that enabled me to put one foot in front of the other when things got dark?"

She had been in the process of writing a major biography of Queen Victoria when she became ill. Once that book was finished - a major, years-long undertaking - she realised she had plenty more to say. But this time, it was about working out how to identify sources of strength, comfort and stillness.

Baird is Christian, but she realised there was more to her recovery - her ability to withstand her experience - than faith alone.

"I was just really drawn to what are the things that give us comfort, that make us strong, that quiet strength, that calm and that stillness," she says.

"A lot of people do have that sense, and you meet them and you know it, whether it's through an innate disposition, or a spiritual discipline, or there's someone who surfs a lot, or hikes a lot, or seems to have their priorities sorted or someone who has kind of somehow inoculated themselves.

"Not against harm, because you can't prevent suffering, it's what you do to walk your way through that, and it's the one thing that we all have in common."

And as often as not, she says, there is an innate human need to feel small, and overwhelmed. Not by horror, of course, but by the vastness of the universe, and the sense of being part of a community moving through it together.

"I write a lot about it in the book, a need to be small, to feel small, and I think that's why nature is so comforting, and ocean swimming, under the stars at night, or on the edges of a vast sea.

"You feel small, and there's something incredibly reassuring about that. You're part of a bigger universe.

"We keep telling ourselves to puff yourself up and feel big and occupy space and all that stuff, but actually, I think we psychologically have a yearning to be small, and I think suffering makes us small."

She's anxious, though, to point out that the book has nothing to do will wellness, or positivity for positivity's sake. It's not an exhortation to make the most of a bad experience and come out, glowing, on the other side.

"I didn't mean that at all. I mean that really quiet, non-combustible light. How do we stay upright, how do we keep moving?"

In her research, she was struck, for example, by the fact that there is an entire body of research devoted to the importance of being around living things.

"I just had a few key pillars of things that I wanted to say, things that I've been thinking about for actually many years, about beauty and about friendship and about the natural world, and when I dug into it, I was really struck by the fact that there's this whole nascent, growing body of science into the importance of green, the importance of trees, and being outside, and awe and wonder," she says.

"Social scientists are really trying to understand now, but at the same time, I was very struck that we've got a lot of people conducting experiments in suits in labs or wherever they are, [but it's] actually an ancient wisdom that indigenous people have been telling us for a very long time, about listening to country and about learning stillness, and the importance of family and all those kinds of things."

In the meantime, though, the world can look grim, and many are wondering how we will ever recover.

"We're in a global pandemic, with a looming recession, people are deeply unwell, people are dying, people are losing relatives, economies are severely under threat, the bushfires may yet start up again, the planet is in peril," Baird says.

"I don't want anyone to think in any way that I'm advocating a kind 'hashtag wellness', advocating that you go and lie under a tree and everything is going to be fine, or go for a swim and look at the stars or whatever.

"It's the sense that we really need to have our wits about us right now, and we really need to be as strong as we can...

"I actually think that the bigger the issues are, and the more intractable the issues are, the more important it is that we find ways to survive and keep cool heads and try to work out how on earth we're going to get out of all of this."

With that in mind, it can be instructive to find solace in the smallest wonders of the world around us, as well as the largest.

She quotes the British writer Iris Murdoch, who had it down pat when she wrote, "People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us."

It's all about looking beyond yourself, and your own problems, and seeing the wonder of the world instead.

"Hunt things that make you gasp and wonder, and do that with your children, make them wonder, and a core part of that is about looking outwards," Baird says.

"And not at yourself, not at curating yourself, and not like further and further into your own thoughts and rumination, but think about other people, and think about astonishing things, and look outwards - I think that can have quite a miraculous impact on people."

  • Phosphorescence is published by HarperCollins.
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