An ugly wasteland, an indomitable dream, an early retirement from osteoarthritis . . . a legacy of undying love.
On a searing Gold Coast (Queensland) morning, my neighbour, Rollo Meyers, stood in his eponymous park in Runaway Bay, tipping water out of a wheelbarrow. The garden tools and spray bottles he kept stored in the tray clattered noisily to the rim as he angled the front braces toward the ground.
“It rained last night,” Rollo, who is 78, said. He wore a long-sleeved white cotton shirt, blue jeans and a pair of custom-made orthopaedic brown leather shoes.
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 the 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.”
“Before this was a park?” I asked.
“Before this was anything,” Rollo said. “It was just wasteland. There was nothing here at all.”
Rollo and his wife, Christine.
The “Rollo Meyers Park” was the brainchild of Rollo’s first wife, Christine, a feisty young German woman whom Rollo met while working as a dentist in London. Within 12 weeks of meeting they were married and, four years later, he took her home to Australia where they purchased a waterfront house with its own sandy beach in Runaway Bay.
It wasn’t long before Christine noticed the large block of empty land opposite their house. Ugly, sunburnt earth, bare but for litter and a handful of straggly bushes trailing dry and dusty leaves.
“You should clean it up,” she told Rollo.
“I can’t, it’s council land.”
“So what?” she replied.
It wasn’t until Rollo found himself forced into early retirement due to severe osteoarthritis at the age of 48 that he began to give serious thought to his wife’s idea.
He found himself studying the land opposite his house. Everything was dead or dying. The loose sand settling in thin drifts over the loam. As he stood there, watching the sun-scorched earth, he thought about his own poor health and his diagnosis of early-onset osteoarthritis.
The illness was a particularly cruel blow to Rollo. The only thing he could do, really, was to keep moving. But he hated going to the gym and he disliked being indoors.
He looked at the vacant lot. What if he could clean up this dustbowl? Could gardening be the physical therapy that his body so desperately needed?
Back then, the eastern end of Poinsettia Avenue had very little shade, with only a few stark pines and, ironically, not a single poinsettia. It seemed fitting to Rollo that he should start by planting some poinsettias in honour of the avenue’s name.
There was just one hurdle. The soil.
“There wasn’t any to speak of,” Rollo said. “The land used to be a marsh and when they deepened the harbour, all the sand was pumped up onto this block.”
It was Christine who encouraged Rollo to undertake a rigorous soil-improvement program. At first, they bought trailer-loads of soil that Rollo painstakingly dug through the sand. Then they added fertiliser and mulch, and hand watered the area.
As the soil became healthier they began to plant edibles. A variety of kitchen herbs, as well as vegetables. Then they graduated to fruit trees. Pawpaws, limes, banana plants, a macadamia nut tree. “And those . . . ” Rollo 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.”
The more you give the more you get, the more you share the less you fret.
Rollo 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,” Rollo said, shaking his hand. “He was my neighbour three doors down. He and his wife, Ailsa, now keep the parks watered.
“Frank is one of the many people who have worked on this place,” Rollo said, after Frank 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.”
Other neighbours volunteered, helping to look after the garden and two adjacent blocks of land as well. This was welcome news to Rollo who, by that stage, was spending four or five hours a day in the garden. The neighbourhood coalition started to hold regular meetings and organise working bees, and the Gold Coast’s first ever park care group—the Poinsettia Park Care Group—was formed.
“What did the council say?” I asked.
Rollo laughed. “The council was pretty haphazard,” he said. “They didn’t even notice how much the land was improving.”
Others, however, were more appreciative. Sheelagh Wennersten, who was assistant co-ordinator of the park care group, approached the council with a request to dedicate the land and formally turn it into the “Rollo Meyers Park”.
The council agreed to the request and the park was officially named in 1994. Rollo’s elation, however, was tempered with the realisation that having a park that bore his name came with a deeper sense of responsibility.
Several years later the park care group, who were by now looking after 2.5 hectares of public land, discovered that the local yacht club wanted to acquire some of the land in order to build a pokies club and extend a carpark.
The Poinsettia Park Care Group went into immediate action. They printed a “HANDS OFF OUR PARKS!” pamphlet and distributed hundreds of them to neighbouring streets, calling for 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,” Sheelagh told me when I spoke to her over the phone.
At the meeting, Sheelagh and her husband proposed an idea. What if they were to name these adjacent parks after Rollo as well?
Rollo, however, declined, as he felt that the name did not give credit to the dozens of other people who worked on the parks. In the end a compromise was reached. The smaller garden park would remain as “Rollo Meyers Park” and the adjacent parks became “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 by the council, 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,” Rollo said.
But if the community loved the parks, there was someone who loved them even more: Christine.
“She had this olive tree,” Rollo 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 over 30 years Rollo had battled osteoarthritis, prostate cancer, 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. Rollo fell silent and began to pick debris from out of the profusion of yellow gazanias now growing in the bowl.
“We scattered half of her ashes under the native hibiscus tree and half of them around the birdbath,” Rollo said. “We came out to this spot when we knew she was dying and it was an unspoken, mutual understanding between us that this was the place where she would stay.”
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.”
I watched Rollo hobble to the bench and kneel on the ground at the edge of the concrete slab the bench legs were fixed into. Light through the trees shone on his silver hair and bowed shoulders. He pushed aside the dried grass 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. “It’s worn away with time, unfortunately.”
“What did it say?” I asked.
“It was a quote by [American writer] 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.