This is the story of Margaret Clement, the so-called Lady of the Swamp, who vanished without trace in 1952.
We did not choose to live alone
Rather, solitude like the water overcame us
Place is a habit overcoming us
Click on the picture to listen to an excerpt from Josephine’s audio poem, with sound and production by Tom Kazas…
The sound poem ‘Ladyswamp’ has its origins in the accumulation of silt. Silt was pivotal in the (mis)fortunes of two belles of Melbourne society, Margaret and Jeannie Clement, whose family purchased Tullaree homestead, an 1100 hectare property on the Tarwin River flats in South Gippsland,1907. After Jeannie died an invalid in 1950, Margaret, so-called ‘lady of the swamp’ remained on the property for another two years before vanishing in mysterious circumstances. Believed murdered, her body was never found.
That these sisters persisted in occupying the land, despite their being unable to manage it in the manner of their colonial forbears, is of great interest to us.
For me, their story became one of declination; this was a ‘fault line’ I wanted to pursue in my writing. In my use of the word ‘declination’ I also refer to its rare meaning, that of ‘courteous refusal’. The sisters sank into poverty, clinging to their heavily mortgaged land, courteously refusing outside help, as the drainage channels silted up and the swamp reclaimed the land.
Declination, in its astronomical sense is “the angular distance of a heavenly body (north or south) from the celestial equator, corresponding to terrestrial latitude”. Declination also means “the dip of the magnetic needle”; a metaphor I want to use to suggest a shift or alteration in consciousness. I think Patrick alludes to something like this in his first post which describes the ‘wonder of performance’. In my writing I tried to imagine a shift in Margaret Clement’s consciousness as she made her ritual wade through the swamp to and from the homestead, decaying on its island plateau. I see her sense of place as being formed by the movement of her legs loose in the swamp.
And below is Patrick’s speculative opening scene for a screenplay
INT. TULLAREE:JEANNIE’S ROOM – MORNING
A deep stillness in the room. The furnishings, wallpaper and curtains a expensive, but dusty and poorly maintained.
We hear the sounds of frogs and water birds filtering through from outside.
We see the body of seventy year old JEANNIE on her bed, bathed in sunlight. Her face is covered by a hand towel. She looks as though she has been dead for perhaps a day or so.
We hear the back door open and close, then steps heading to the kitchen. The steps move up the hallway. Moments later, Jeannie’s sister Margaret appears in the doorway. She is bent over and stiff with the cold. She has an armful of spindly melaleuca.
A long moment as she stares at the body. She contemplates setting the wood down, but thinks better of it and heads back down the hall. We hear her deposit the wood at the kitchen hearth. Then we hear her come back up the hall.
She re-enters the room, pulls up a chair and sits.
We hear the piping of a swamp harrier from outside. Margaret goes to the window.
Hear that? The swamp harrier – calling it’s young. I expect she’s found them a feed.
She watches for a moment then sits back down. She is a little lost. She sinks into memory. We hear a piano and a woman singing perhaps a Schubert song, not expertly, but pleasantly. Margaret listens for a while.
(continuing) Was that you? Or was it me?
She steels herself for a moment, then gets up from the chair and goes to Jeannie. A pause and then she removes the towel. Jeannie’s face is pale and beautiful. She seems much younger than Margaret. The picture is ruined by Jeannie’s eyes still being open. Margaret frowns and tries to concentrate.
Margaret raises her hand towards Jeannie’s brow. It is obvious that she wants to close the eyes, but she just can’t do it. As she gets closer her hand begins to shake uncontrollably.
(continuing) It’s the blessed arthritis.
She tries to steady her hand with the other, but the best she can do is to lessen the tremors. When she gets close to Jeannie she is in danger of poking her in the eye. She shudders and pulls her hand away. She quickly puts the hand towel back in position.
(continuing) I’m sorry, Jeannie.
She leaves the room.