Chantelle in her garden
Story and photographs by Tracie McMahon
Chantelle Cambridge recently presented the final in a series of gardening talks hosted by Lithgow Library Learning Centre. Standing in the shade of fifty-year-old elms in a flowery white dress, she was Instagram perfect, but the journey that led her here would have flattened many.
Her story was a familiar one for Lithgow youth. She worked locally before leaving Lithgow to explore greater opportunities. Everything appeared to be going to plan, until it didn’t.
“In 2018, I went through the hardest moment of my life when I gave birth to my little girl Ettie. Unfortunately she was still born. My heart was completely broken. I was just a walking shell.”
This was compounded by a subsequent relationship breakdown. Chantelle channelled her emotions into her garden. She started self-educating online, visiting nurseries and trialling things in her own backyard on the South Coast. Soon, she realised she wanted to be around family. Her love of the outdoors came from them, her childhood memories rich with mountain-top searches for fossils and frogs.
Chantelle’s home garden in Oakey Park
At thirty, Chantelle returned to Lithgow and began an apprenticeship with Lithgow City Council’s Parks and Gardens Team. She says it was physically demanding and she regularly clocked fifteen kilometres of whipper-snippering in a day! But, she was determined to make it in a male-dominated industry.
Unfortunately, during her apprenticeship, she injured her shoulder at work. Placed on light duties at the Lithgow Library Learning Centre, someone floated the idea of a weekly gardening talk. She was hesitant: “I had no idea how to start or what to expect. I thought, how can I do a new topic every week? What will I talk about? What if they don’t like it?” However, she had been feeling for some time that there was more to horticulture than digging holes and lawn mowing, so she rose to the challenge.
Well, the people came. And they liked it. Every week the audience grew as friends referred friends, who referred friends. Ten months on, a community has grown around these talks. Their enthusiasm is such that they decided to form a group: the Lithgow Garden Social Club. With the series ending, they will continue meeting regularly to swap garden advice and catch up for a chat. With her apprenticeship wrapping up, Chantelle has agreed to continue leading the group. She also hopes to start teaching aspiring gardeners at TAFE, a new avenue to share her knowledge.
Chantelle’s home garden
The engagement with her talks is visible in the crowd as they watch with pens poised to hear her dole out final words of advice on succulents and cottage gardening. Chantelle reflects now: “As hard as it was to come to terms with my injury, there has been a massive silver lining. This gardening group has honestly changed my life, it has given me confidence. It has dramatically improved my mental health.” She signs off with a joyous “I absolutely love my life!”
Chantelle at Farmers Creek
The group gather around an urn and cakes. I look around at smiling faces, sipping tea, chomping down on carrot cake (made by Chantelle’s aunt), and rushing to get all their words out before they wave goodbye. It seems to me that this is not just her journey, but the journey of all those who encouraged and supported her, and those who were in turn encouraged by the group she helped create. This regular catch-up might have changed more lives than just Chantelle’s.
If you would like to join the garden social club, they meet regularly at the Salvation Army Hall on the corner of Cook and Mort St Lithgow on Mondays at 10.30 am. New members are always welcome.
The Lithgow Library Learning Centre hosts other community groups and talks. You can find their program at Home – Lithgow Library .
This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.