I first came across Marie Byles while travelling through northern India visiting the significant sites where Buddha had lived and taught, the famous Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya being amongst them. This experience was enhanced by reading a book about Buddha’s life told through the eyes of one of his disciples, Footprints of Gautama Buddha. Reading this engagingly told story in the places where the actual historical events unfolded helped me to relate to Buddha as a real human being while absorbing the energy that still exists in these sites even after 2500 years. Although my two travelling companions and I had just completed a 20 day meditation retreat we were not in a pious “pilgrimage” state of mind, we had spontaneously decided to visit these sites of interest to all followers of Buddha’s teachings. However, by the end of this journey I felt profoundly changed. We meditated under the Bodhi tree and at the place in Sarnath where Buddha taught his first sermon to his five original disciples. Each location had exuded a sense of calm and peacefulness.
I had no idea that the author of the book that had so greatly enhanced my experience was Australian. So I was surprised when I saw an article in the newspaper about Marie Byles about a year after I had returned to live in Sydney. The article was to publicise an open day at her home “Ahimsa” in Cheltenham that she had gifted to the National Trust before she died in 1979. The property, named for Gandhi’s principle of non-violence, illustrated much about the woman who, I was to learn, was an influential environmentalist as well as being the first female solicitor to practise in New South Wales. When I visited Ahimsa and spoke with its current tenant and close neighbours I discovered an Australian woman who had lived the most incredible life. I couldn’t believe she was not more well-known.
The more I learnt about Marie (pronounced Mah-ree) the more compelled I felt to continue the research and writing. She had written prodigiously. Besides the six book she had had published, her papers, stored in the Mitchell Library contained a vast amount of material – letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and unpublished manuscripts. I became absorbed in her adventurous life through reading her accounts of bushwalking and mountain climbing expeditions published in the monthly journal of the Sydney Bushwalking Club, the peak organisation for conservation in NSW. I also managed to interview a range of people who had known Marie – as well as her fellow bushwalkers I spoke with her colleagues in the legal profession, including her first partner in 1932, as well as a few of the women who had worked for Marie in her law practice in Eastwood from the 1930s-1960s. It was an education for me, learning about the changes to the law regarding women’s rights that she and other feminists like Rose Scott had fought for, history of feminism and the conservation movement.