Retirement in excelsior

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A land beset by falls and gods, Burrawang is coping the only way it knows how – by coating the paths with pristine white gravel and topiary-ing the trees…

At first glance, this one-street strip is standard country fare: pub? Check. Butcher? Check. Rusted utes and verge-grazing wallabies? Hang on. No. Where are the long-downed soldiers of the road, decrepit hulks that double as kiddy playthings and brown-snake hatching spots? Where are the drought-riven wobblies who have learnt to survive by nibbling the chrysanthemums? Where, in fact, is all the country?

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A note on the tastefully curated village website reads:

First settled in 1862, the village of Burrawang is nestled in the very heart  of the Highlands. It is a village that is proud of its picturesque quaintness and its nineteenth-century charm.

Our unique cottages and country gardens are little different today than they were a century ago. The local business houses, too, are famed for their old-world charm, personal service and kind hospitality. Let our village take you back in time to an era of tranquility and peace

And with its predilection for imposing gates, bells that gently tinkle in the breeze, snowy blossoms [swept fastidiously into piles] and curt, shorn verges, that ‘charm’ and ‘quaintness’ is all too apparent.

Fat, blowsy camellias spill their load in a greasy swill of colour at every corner. Well-bred tradies have tastefully branded vehicles parked outside white picket fences, and the $8 toast is missing its butter, which the Tin Lid puts down to “old-world charm” in a pique of sarcasm that fills me with pride.

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Maplewood, Hathaway, The Folly, Kricklewood – we’re a long way from Dunroamin’ here Toto. In fact, with its robust endorsement of all things ornate and quaint, Burrawang – with its alarming appreciation of symmetry – is almost too tidy. Even the For Lease signs are cultivated with the discerning reader in mind.

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This lofty self-appreciation is appreciated by squabbles of daytrippers. It is soaked up from the front seat of the luxury SUV or sampled from a tasting platter at the General Store. Smartphones click and snap, capturing the sights for posterity, a sports car here,
a suitably aged produce box there…

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Tea is served with a hand-knitted blanket at the general store, while a nice sav blanc is accompanied by artisanal bread and an iPad-clutching waiter, intent on fulfilling every future desire you might have, from truffle-infused string fries to smashed [insert superfood here]. Its retro appeal belies a very contemporary take on country living, and while the menu is gastronomic, I miss the four’n’twenty aroma and fly-stripped flaps of the corner store, complete with grimace-faced attendant and back copies of Earthmoving Equipment moulding alongside wrinkled Granny Smiths.

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But the bunting matches the local school’s colours, so that’s a win…

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A congregation of magpies warbles from the war memorial, their head-bowing respect tinged with swooping intent, beady eyes watching every flicker of movement. They appear to be looking closely at what is on offer at Burrawang School of Arts; home to the annual Burrawang Ball and “regular morning teas,” the hall offers Sketching in the Gardens workshops and group meditation, though I get the distinct impression neither impresses the birds.

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The town’s utilities require no meditative practice at all. Lined up in military formation, they are innately themselves, considered, calm and centred, albeit itching for someone to notice…

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Retirement is many things: beyond withdrawing from active working life, it is the closing of one chapter, while another begins, it’s drophead Saabs and lunch at the golf club, or large-print thrillers and cheese sarnies in front of the midday movie depending on whether you have achieved financial freedom or must now rely on increased dependence upon the state.

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With its foodie hotspots, botanical concept boutiques, Italian homewares, an emphasis on sustainable and seasonal eating, keep cups, regional galleries, sculpture gardens, its own symphony orchestra, lash salons and a destination store for mid-century fanatics, the Southern Highlands is the epitome of life after work. It is a mid-life merry-go-round featuring fine wine and cultured conversation, manicured lawns and stylish wellies with which to exercise the Cavoodle.

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Burrawang is a sanctuary, seclusion from vagaries of old age and the indignity of poverty, loneliness, fear, despair and a loss of hope, though I am not naive enough to think this sadness does not exist here. Rather it is well hidden, shrouded in well-cut linen and cinnamon scented.

But there is something missing. And I can’t quite put my finger on it.

I want to think of the new chapter in an ageing life as the zenith, the summit of the journey to reach ‘old growth’. For many, this too-tidy town is that, the crest. But it is also an ‘experiential destination’, a hot spot for those with time on their hands, and it runs the risk of becoming contrived in its perfection, a tasting plate for retirement with too many expensive sides on offer.

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There is old growth here – gentle giants creak on the wind, their shade life-sustaining, their roots the substrate to the township. But they are kept at arm’s length, shunned from participating in the country weddings, garden symphonies and stylised eating plans.

 

Perhaps if they were allowed to creep a little closer, if the land surrounding them was a little less manicured, controlled… Perhaps if there was a frisson of gentle disobedience reintroduced, in homage to the highland heroes of whom tales are told around every fire, of cattle rustling and bareback chases, shearing battles and barrels of rum? Perhaps then I could settle into old age in a place like Burrawang.

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