Wasteland rescuers birth parks movement
Suvi Mahonen describes how through example two people ignited the formation of groups that protect neglected blocks of land from predatory developers, by creating a community park.
On a searingly hot Gold Coast morning, my neighbour, Rollo Meyers, stood in his eponymous park in Runaway Bay, tipping water out of a wheelbarrow.
“It rained last night,” Meyers reminded me. He wore a long-sleeved white cotton shirt, blue jeans and a pair of custom-made orthopaedic brown leather shoes. “I wear them because my left leg’s longer than my right,” he told me. “I’ve had four hip replacements, but they buggered up the first one.”
He limped over to a giant fig tree, its enormous buttress roots like panelling. “This was only a tiny sapling when I planted it,” he said. “It was when my wife was still alive.”
He bent down awkwardly to pull a weed sprouting through sugar cane mulch.
“And that poinciana over there,” he said. A gust of wind from the broadwater inlet created a swell through the green ferny leaves of the tree. “That was planted 21 years ago, when my father died.”
The ‘Rollo Meyers Park’ was the brainchild of Meyers’s first wife, Christine, a feisty young German woman whom Rollo met while working in London. Fair, with a cheeky smile and sharp brown eyes that saw right through his playboy grin, Meyers knew, immediately, that she was the one for him. Within 12 weeks of meeting they were married and, four years later, he brought her home to Australia where Meyers, a dentist, set up practice in Brisbane.
Time passed. Two children were born. A weekender was purchased – a waterfront house with its own sandy beach at Runaway Bay, Gold Coast.
Soon, Christine noticed the large block of empty land opposite their house. Ugly, sun-burnt earth, bare but for litter and a handful of straggly bushes trailing dry and dusty leaves.
“You should clean it up,” she told Meyers.
“I can’t, its council land.”
“So what?” she said. “In Germany, people wouldn’t tolerate it. They would do something about it.”
He said he might, but it wasn’t until Meyers found himself forced into early retirement at the age of 48, because of severe osteoarthritis, that he began to give serious thought to Christine’s idea.
No colour or birdlife
He found himself studying the land opposite his house at Runaway Bay. Everything was dead or dying, the loose sand settling in thin drifts over the loam. There was no colour or birdlife. No trace of fertile growth.
Gazing at the sun-scorched earth, he thought about his own poor health. He had done everything recommended to him since receiving his diagnosis of early-onset osteoarthritis. He had gone to specialists. He had given up alcohol. He was taking supplements, and had regular physiotherapy. But despite all this, he was on an inexorable journey toward becoming an invalid.
He looked at the circular vacant lot, bounded by the close. What if he could clean up this dustbowl? Could gardening be the physical therapy his body so desperately needed?
He saw that Poinsettia Avenue had little shade, only a few stark pines and, ironically, not a single poinsettia tree. It would be fitting to plant some poinsettias in honour of the avenue’s name.
There was just one hurdle. The soil.
“There wasn’t any to speak of,” Meyers said. “The land used to be a marsh, and when they deepened the harbour, all the sand was pumped up onto this block.”
Soil, fertiliser, mulch
Christine encouraged Meyers to undertake a rigorous soil-improvement program. At first, they bought trailer-loads of soil that Meyers painstakingly dug through the sand. Then they added fertiliser and mulch, and hand watered the area where the poinsettias would be planted.
As the soil became healthier they first planted edibles. A variety of kitchen herbs, as well as vegetables – like celery and capsicum – that had been shown to help with arthritis pain. Then they graduated to fruit trees. Pawpaws, limes, banana plants, a macadamia nut tree. “And those – ” Meyers extended his arm toward several towering palms, beyond which boats bobbed gently in the Runaway Bay marina. “I planted those from coconuts that had washed up on the beach.”
While Meyers was happy “just mucking about”, Christine insisted that the park become a properly landscaped garden, with ordered beds, lawn and flowers.
“She was a remarkable woman,” Meyers said, stopping to pluck a grasshopper from a lemon tree leaf. “We were so different. I was a poser. She was the real thing.”
Keeping the park watered
Meyers waved as a middle-aged man dressed in a pair of light blue denim shorts and a white polo top approached us across the lawn. “This is Frank Gould,” Meyers said, shaking his hand. “He was my neighbour three doors down. He and his wife, Ailsa, now keep the park watered.”
“The natural rainfall just isn’t enough,” Gould said. “We don’t use any town water. It’s all subterranean. It’s a bit brackish, but most plants can tolerate it.”
“Frank is one of the many people who have worked on this place,” Meyers said, after Gould wandered away to check the sprinkler heads. “The park became a very social thing. People going on their morning walks would stop and talk. Many of them donated plants from their own gardens. Cuttings, seeds – you know? Transplants from their own yard.”
First to put their hands up were Meyers’s neighbours, Alan and Jean Leary. Then other neighbours volunteered, telling Meyers they wanted to help him care for not just that garden, but two adjacent blocks of land as well. The neighbourhood coalition started to hold regular meetings and organise working bees, birthing the Gold Coast’s first park care group – the Poinsettia Park Care Group.
I was curious about one thing: “What did the council say?”
Meyers laughed. “The council was pretty haphazard,” he said. “They didn’t even notice how much the land was improving.”
Others, however, were more appreciative. A woman named Dr Sheelagh Wennersten, who was assistant coordinator of the park care group, along with a group of other residents, approached the council with a request to dedicate the land, and formally turn it into the ‘Rollo Meyers Park’. They did this both to honour Meyers’s hard work, and to stay ahead of rumours circulating that developers wanted the land subdivided.
The council agreed to the request, and the park was officially named in 1994. Meyers no longer saw his work in the garden as simply his physical therapy, but as maintaining a community legacy.
Wennersten’s actions turned out to be prescient. Several years later the park care group, by that time looking after six acres of public land in total, discovered that the local yacht club wanted to acquire some of the land in order to build a ‘pokies’ club and extend a carpark.
“It was devastating,” Meyers said.
Public meeting called
The Poinsettia Park Care Group sprang into action. They printed hundreds of “HANDS OFF OUR PARKS!” pamphlets, distributed them to neighbouring streets and called an urgent public meeting the following Sunday at the park.
The response was overwhelming. “People came from all over, because they knew that if it happened to us, it could happen to them, too,” Wennersten told me when I spoke to her over the phone.
At the meeting, Wennersten and her husband proposed an idea. What if they were to name these adjacent parks after Meyers as well?
Again, the council agreed. Meyers, however, declined, as he felt that the name did not give credit to the dozens of other people who worked on the parks. A compromise was reached. The smaller garden park would remain the ‘Rollo Meyers Park’, and the adjacent parks became the ‘Poinsettia Park’.
Despite this, the yacht club ploughed ahead with its attempt to acquire the land. Debate was passionate and, when the club’s application was finally rejected, the park care group held a large party in the park to celebrate.
“I discovered how much the local community had come to value the parklands,” Meyers said.
But if the community loved the parks, there was someone who loved them even more: Christine. Particularly the garden named after her husband just across from their home, where they’d relocated after Meyers’s retirement.
The olive tree flowered
“She had this olive tree,” Meyers said as we walked slowly back across the road to the garden, squinting in the full glare of the noonday sun. “She nursed it for nine years, fertilising it and watering it. Finally, in the last year of her life, just before she died, it flowered and produced olives.”
For more than 30 years Meyers had battled osteoarthritis, prostate cancer, dozens of skin cancers as well as three heart bypass surgeries and yet it was his wife who passed away early. Christine was only 66 years old when, in 2007, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Nine weeks later she was dead.
We reached the garden’s centre feature, a birdbath with a cherub playing a horn in its bowl. Meyers fell silent and began to pick debris from out of the profusion of yellow gazanias now growing in the bowl. Several small hard gum nuts. A curled leaf. A small white downy feather.
The council no longer allows standing water in the birdbath because of mosquitoes. The council has also removed many of his fruit trees – including Christine’s beloved olive tree – deemed an “introduced species”.
I looked down at a small white statue of a little girl, sunlit, pale and alabaster in the lovingly-tended circle of daisies beneath the bowl. It was given to Meyers by one of the park care group members following Christine’s death.
“We scattered half of her ashes under the native hibiscus tree, over there, and half of them here, around the birdbath,” Meyers said. “It was an unspoken, mutual understanding between us that this was the place where she would stay.” He feels Christine’s presence in the garden.
He stared back across the road to the second park adjacent to the sailing club. “That poinciana over there was planted 12 years ago when my mother died. And that other one, on the northern side with the agapanthus and gazanias beneath it, was planted for Christine’s best friend, Daila Hoadley, when she died, in 1992.” He wiped his brow. “We’ve stopped other developments over the years. And we kept the garden alive during the eight-year drought.”
I asked Meyers for an estimate of how much time and money he has spent on the parks through the years. He shook his head and laughed. “I don’t want to think about it,” he said.
We crossed the lawn. A short way from the ‘Rollo Meyers Park’ sign was a bench. Inscribed upon the metal plaque riveted onto the backrest were the words: “In loving memory of Christine Meyers for her loving care and nurturing of the park”.
A man’s good life
As I stood reading the numbers that marked the beginning and end of Christine’s life – 24.01.41 to 19.08.07 – Meyers told me his prostate cancer was back, after an II-year remission, and the hormone treatment specialists had put him on was not working.
“I’ve had a good life,” he said. “I’ve had two remarkable women. Christine, and my second wife, Yvonne. ” He paused. “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone. I’m planning to euthanise myself before it gets too bad.”
I looked at him, startled. “Really?”
He shrugged. “Who knows?” he admitted with a wry grin.
We stood and looked over the park. The macadamia nut tree was in fruit, heavy solid globular shells hardening. A pair of gum trees behind us. May bushes with their long stems spilling in an arch. The soft sway of an Australian native red berry tree. The tall pines. Flowers in the beds. A magnolia.
Meyers turned, hobbled to the bench and knelt at the edge of the concrete slab under the bench legs. Light through the trees shone on his silver hair and bowed shoulders. He pushed aside the dried grass and pawed at the dirt and fallen leaves on the concrete floor.
“One of the park care group members wrote a verse on the concrete here while it was setting,” he said. He sighed. “It’s worn away with time, unfortunately.”
“What did it say?” I asked.
“It was a quote by Helen Steiner Rice.” He took a deep breath. “The more you give the more you get, the more you share the less you fret.”
He held my gaze, his eyes welling.
Suvi Mahonen is a freelance journalist based on the Gold Coast, Queensland.