04 July 2007

A Stromlo life

Warning - this is a picture and schmaltz heavy post!

My entire life has been wound up with Mt Stromlo Observatory. I was 1 month old when my mum and dad took me to live on Mt Stromlo in 1964, where my dad did his PhD in Astronomy. I used to visit Daddy in his office. There were 20 houses, and a close community.

We moved to the States for some years while Dad did his post-docs - and we lived on the mountain again when we came back. We lived in a variety of houses on the mountain for 6 years, almost all of them wonderful old heritage buildings, double-brick with high ceilings, mullioned windows, no insulation, sited for a British hemisphere, but full of character. We were there for the late 1970s and early 1980s - when I was in 6th to 11th grade.

I walked countless mornings up to the Admin Building to get the mini-bus down to school. My brothers and sisters and I had cubby houses in the pine forest. We rescued abandoned cats. We played 'horses' and make-believe and cricket and rode bikes with the other Stromlo kids. We were scornful of the visitors who drove up the winding road at a snail's pace. We ran down the Back Track. We owned the place, the telescopes, the kangaroos, the secret paths, even the office buildings were ours.

I met my future husband at College (Year 12); moved out of home; studied and lived on the ANU campus. My husband and I were married at my parent's home on Mt Stromlo in 1985, house #19, in the huge glorious old English-style garden, that my mother worked in practically full time.

My husband had had a lifelong passion for Astrophysics, and was accepted into the PhD course in 1989. We moved to Mt Stromlo, where we lived for another 5 years, living in one of the 'temporary' fibro cottages, that were still used for students. My first time as a 'Stromlo Wife', instead of a 'Stromlo Kid'. As far as I know, I'm the only person to ever have been both. It was cold in winter, hot in summer, and small, but it was ours. It had a huge yard, full of pine trees, rocks, snakes, and friends nearby. Both our children were born while we lived there. We had cats to find the snakes before the kids did (it worked).

We had a great community of friends - PhD students, and post-docs, with their families and children. We had Dessert Night once a week - meet at a different house each time, bring a dessert to share (yum!). The astronomy community is very international; we had friends from New Zealand, America, Korea, Canada, Sweden, Germany, France... I had wonderful girlfriends, who lived nearby and also had babies.

In 1993 we moved to the States ourselves, for my husband's post-doc. And returned a few years later once again to Mt Stromlo. We lived in the same house I'd lived in as a baby. A few months later we moved off the mountain, when the chance to live in a larger house presented itself.

On 18 January 2003 the worst bushfires in memory hit Canberra, and Mt Stromlo was gutted. Many of the houses were destroyed, including my parents' old home, where we'd been married. The office buildings survived, as did some of the houses of my childhood, and the new Visitors Centre. Everything else was broken and dead. Whole telescope domes were vaporised, falling again as metal rain.

Although the fires had threatened our home in Fisher - the flames were across the road - the deepest trauma was driving up to Mt Stromlo a couple of days after the fire. It was utterly shocking. The devastation was unspeakable... there wasn't even a pine needle left. All the books in the library were solid ash (which takes incredible heat).

I think they were the saddest days in my life, those days after the fire, and the memories still make me cry.

Today we attended the opening of the new Admin Building, now called the Commonwealth Solar Observatory Building (as a nod to the Observatory's beginnings in the 1920s). It has been beautifully restored - the heritage of the building has been saved wherever possible, or recreated. The insides are modern, while embracing the past. Sections of original brick paving have been retained inside the building. Some of my childhood 'secret places' are still there. The new Library is full of light (if not books), with a wonderful spiral staircase. The whole building sports large works of art from the ANU's collection.

In the Library there's even a piece by me, which I did after the fires, and donated to the Observatory; it's called Archive. The burnt papers were blown out of the telescopes' control rooms during the fires - my husband picked them up from along the side of the road. The small canvases on the right hold found objects I collected, molten telescope dome 'rain', molten and shattered window glass, burnt nails...

The new Common Room is a modern addition to the heritage building, and has stunning views to the north. It was just wonderful to walk through the building today, and meet up with old Stromlo friends I've known all my life (including the boy who I used to have a crush on when I was 12 - he's still pretty cute, too!), and current colleagues and friends. Oh yeah, there were a few politicians and suchlike too, but we ignored them. It was renewing to be able to stand in the rebuilt building that has been a steady presence in my life, and still recognise it. It still holds my history.

All the photos here are of the new building (apart from the burnt library). And this photo below is a small part of the view from my husband's office... not bad, hey?

And now for a bit of light-hearted relief - yes, Lily knows the best place to sleep if her pink lace shawl isn't available - the knitting bag!

Normal silliness shall be resumed tomorrow :)


  1. Jejuen that's an amazing post. What a testament to that awful time in Canberra and what a wonderful way to capture the spirit of renewal.

    I thoroughly enjoyed that.

    And your hubby's office view is wonderful. Good work capturing the rainbow!

    Silly Lily!

  2. Oh I really enjoyed your post. And I am so glad that the new building has been done well and captures the spirit of the old.

  3. Hi, I'm new to reading your blog and I had to tell you that I loved this post. So well written and so true to your heart.

  4. I love this post - it's clear that Stromlo has had such a strong impact on your life, I can only imagine at your devastation after the fires. Your artwork is wonderful. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  5. Splendid post! Thanks for taking us along. Very heart-warming and happy.

    Silly Lily!

    And I love your collage!!

  6. Beautiful post and even more beautiful collage!

  7. A beautifully written post jejune, I love it. thankyou for sharing this really important part of you. I especially love your collage - its so moving, I would love to see it in real life one day soon (is it in the public area?). I'm so glad you found yesterday a positive experience after such a tragedgy.

    As for that Lily...funny puppy!

  8. Jejune - thank you for sharing this post. My son lost his group home in the fires and it was devastating. I still get tears when I think about it. But I also remember feeling the loss of Stromlo deeply. Thanks for telling your story so eloquently.

  9. That just blew me away. What a wonderful life, and what devastation. And what about you being a closet Rosalie Gascoigne - did you actually know her, or was that before your time?

    Earrings will be posted at the weekend. School hols and cr*p weather and needing to catch the bus down to the shops have encouraged me to stay at home this week and knit!

  10. Thank you so much for sharing such a large part of your life. The most wonderful thing about the internet, I think, is the ability for people all over the world to share bits of their lives like this, for all the world to see.

    So terribly sad about the fires, but wonderful that you're all starting to rebuild!

    And bravo to you, for having the smarts to appreciate it all.

  11. Thanks everyone for your wonderful comments :)

    Yes, I did know Rosalie, although not very well. She was more a friend of my parents when I was a baby. As an adult, I met her once or twice, a few years before she died. A very inspirational woman and artist!

  12. Thanks for this; I've forwarded it to some USA astrophysics students I know who did work at Stromlo as part of their postgrad studies. They were all really upset at it's destruction.

    I wish we had had a gathering of some sort a few years after the Ash Wednesday bushfires had gone through the Adelaide hills. I still feel like there's been a step missed in that process, which I've only just become aware of as an adult.

  13. everyone before me has already said it but "fabulous post" and please don't feel that you need to denigrate your emotion by referring to it as smaltz. I'm sure none of your regular readers would never belittle your so very genuine post.

  14. amazing pix, old and new...what a terrible fire it was. you could write a book about 'you and stromlo' i imagine! fantastic collage too, thanks for the great post :)

  15. I remebere thr news about it being destroyed: it really has been part of your life so this is a happy day!!
    Oh how sweet is Lily in the knitting bag???

  16. hello, fab post. We all were upset at Mt Stromlo going like that.

    by the way did your hubby go to the ASA conference at Macquarie Uni this week?

  17. Jujune, what a fabulous post - so very interesting to a Sydneysider.

    Your collage is just beautiful.

    Thank you for sharing a wonderful part of your life.

    And Lily ... so very, very cute.

  18. great post, my favorite is the picture of Lily. What a sweetheart!

  19. Wow - I'm late to it, but what a great, great post; So well written: I felt like I was there, growing up in the coolest of all places to grow up in, and was devastated (though I thought it might be coming) to hear of its destruction. I'm so glad to hear it's being repaired - and hope it returns to its full glory. What a cool, cool experience to have had!


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