The Summit of Her Ambition: The Spirited Life of Marie Byles 1900-1979 (Self-published, $39.95)

Marie Byles biography

The front cover of Anne McLeod’s new biography examining the life of Marie Byles.

When Marie Byles wrote her memoir she called it “Many Lives in One”. It was never published, but now Anne McLeod has filled that gap, covering Marie’s multiple interests, struggles and activities ranging from being a pioneer in law, a women’s rights activist, bushwalker, mountaineer, conservationist and seeker after inner peace through meditation. The reader will soon discover how many of these activities were closely linked. Marie was a strong-minded person, referred to at working bees at Bouddi as “The Governor”.

Marie’s mountaineering activities took her to the New Zealand’s Southern Alps where she climbed Mt Cook and several virgin peaks, Norway, Canada and South China, preferring to make the sea voyages in cargo ships. Enthralling accounts of these adventures can be found in her 1931 book By Cargo Boat and Mountain. Of course Marie’s climbing interests also took her to Australian peaks such as in the Blue Mountains, the Warrumbungles and the Australian Alps. Conservation was a natural next step and at various times she served the Sydney Bush Walking Club (as Honorary Secretary, Vice-President and Editor of The Bushwalker) and the New South Wales Federation of Bushwalking Clubs (as Honorary Solicitor and President). In 1939 with the help of Paddy Pallin she founded the Bush Club. Among her personal conservation achievements were the reservation of what became Bouddi National Park and the Barren Grounds Nature Reserve.

In 1941, on a Bush Club walk, when a boy became ill and had to be carried out, Marie shouldered his pack as well as her own. The outcome was badly damaged feet that restricted her outdoor activities for the rest of her life. After this time most of Marie’s journeys were in her mind as she began a long search for spiritual enlightenment through meditation and the study of Buddhism. Marie had supported the proposals of prominent conservationist Myles Dunphy, including his plan for a Greater Blue Mountains National Park but now became a personal opponent of his efforts to have areas set aside as primitive areas (wilderness areas) for recreation. As Anne McLeod says these two people held “fundamentally different cosmological views of the world”. While Dunphy thought that such areas should be preserved to provide for a distinct form of recreation as well as nature conservation, Marie, argued that nature had rights of its own and that primitive areas should not be intruded upon by humans. This is but one example of the activity connections between the many lives lived by Marie Byles that are explored in detail in this book and that should therefore appeal to a wide range of readers.

Read Wild‘s interview with the author Anne McLeod here.