This is a story close to home but only in the geographical sense, because to be honest I have no comprehension of what life must feel like for the Blooms. I hesitate to say I'm inspired by Sam as there's something a little patronising in that; but Sam, her three boys and husband Cameron sure have motivated me to get off my ass and dive into life. As far as parenting goes they would write one hell of a book, one nearly as good as that other one "Penguin Bloom". You might have heard of it? The book about an odd little bird who saved a family? Well that's where our story begins, not in the pages of a book but in the backyard of the Bloom's, an ordinary family dealing with an extraordinary circumstance and the love of a magpie or three...
Many of you probably know the Blooms. Either from the book 'Penguin Bloom' or Instagram @penguinthemagpie where Cameron, a well known photographer chronicles the journey of hope and courage through the not so everyday life of his family. For those of you who haven't met the Blooms, let me introduce you.
Home is Sydney's Northern Beaches. A home that sits perched on the edge of a hill overlooking the craggy cliffs and endless blue of Newport Beach and beyond. A home in the true meaning of the sense from which every corner something new can be discovered about the people who live here. Hanging from the ceiling over the dining table are crow feathers suspended from driftwood. In the kitchen sits a pile of honeycomb waiting to be bottled, a labour of love collected from the beehives that reside on the roof; now a family business called Bungan Honey. To the left is a wall of exotic treasures collected from far away lands (including a mummified Falcon); I see paintings and photographs on the walls from Sam, Cameron and other photographers. A painting of Penguin by Joshua Yeldham sits amongst the family portraits. Over by the fireplace lay jars and bowls of oddities and curiosities, a telltale sign of explorers and nature lovers.
There are three boys. Rueben at the age of fourteen is more mature than me. Not only is he a great conversationalist but he is a DOER, capital D. No screen-ager here, instead an entrepreneur who is making a trade by building beautiful art. Mobiles made from feathers, hand woven baskets, wooden Christmas trees and painted log stools, which, I believe might give Mark Tuckey a run for his money. Then there is Noah who is an extraordinary guitarist and I say this with no GST. From the moment we arrived till the moment we left he casually strolled about the place strumming the guitar like this was ordinary behaviour for a thirteen year old . The youngest is Oli who is eleven and a man of action, backflipping out of windows and any other ledge he could find. He carries those final moments of babyhood upon his precious face, never far from his mother's side.
Cameron is the dad. A bloody good photographer whose works you may have seen grace the pages of Vogue and the New York Times. He has an energy that is infectious; a trait that I'm sure played a lead role in their survival as a family over the past couple of years. Then there is Sam, the foundation on which this family is built. It was evident when shooting that she is the sun and the moon of which they all orbit. Physically she may be bound to a wheelchair but her spirit is not and that is what I first noticed about Sam. I also noticed that she is super fit and rocks a mean tan which I soon discovered had something to do with her passion for the ocean and kayaking. There is a sense of humility and grace to Sam, compassion and kindness that you instantly recognise upon first meeting her. She's funny, a sharp shooter and I'm guessing suffers fools lightly. I really enjoyed our brief time together. She makes me not want to be afraid; to embrace life and push myself to places I might not normally go, to be a better person and to be better to others. Last but not least, there's Puffin and Panda. Two baby magpies who have taken up residence at the Blooms just as Penguin did before.
Penguin The Magpie
They say angels come in all shapes and sizes but in the form of a magpie? Well that would have to be a first. An injured baby chic, Penguin was abandoned after falling from her nest. The Blooms, in the darkest of times took her into their home with the intention of rescuing her. What happened next is nothing short of a miracle and through a friendship born from compassion, hope and courage it is Penguin who rescues Sam and in turn the family Bloom.
I read the book out loud to my Sam, crying through the words, laughing through the words, feeling through the words. It was only when Sam Bloom speaks candidly in the epilogue about sitting on the edge of family life that I couldn't read any further. I had to put the book down to try and fully grasp the meaning of her words, to which I could not. You see Sam could be you or me. Her crime was only her love of life and her spirit of adventure, one she had always dreamt of sharing with her boys. Finally, on an oversees family holiday she is able to do so; and it's here where life takes an unimaginable devastating turn. To get a better view of their holiday surroundings, Sam simply leaned on what was cruelly labelled a 'safety fence' before falling and being left paralysed from the waist down. It is here I strongly urge you to read the book written by their good friend Bradley Trevor Greive, an award winning author whose books regularly appear on the New York Times best seller list. Sometimes there are no words which is where Cameron's stunning and deeply personal images come into play taking you deep into a truly unique love story.
I don't want to talk about the past so much here, rather, about what lies ahead for Sam and her men, of which there is indeed much. Hollywood has come knocking and I am so excited for Cameron, Sam and the boys to hear that Naomi Watts will play Sam in the film based on the book, as well as co-produce alongside Reese Witherspoon, Bruna Papandrea and Emma Cooper later next year. “Sam’s undeniable spirit and the intense physical and emotional journey she and her family embraced resonated with me both as a storyteller and as a mother,” Watts says. Papandrea had a similar reaction. “Every family will respond to this universal and heartwarming story of a family dealing with tragedy,” she said. The book’s subjects hope the movie will create awareness and financial support for the spinal cord injury research being undertaken by SpinalCure Australia, Wings for Life, and The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation".
I feel like Penguin will become a part of Australian folklore. Where do you think she is now?In a funny way Penguin became a bit of a celebrity - everyone wanted to be friends with her but for us, she was family. As she matured, her time away from home extended and became more sporadic. Being on her own made it difficult finding her own territory and eventually we saw her mixing with other magpies near to home. I suspect her time growing up with us was just a stepping stone to true love in the wild. We hope she’s a mother now.
New to the family are Puffin and Panda...... Explain how that came about? How did they get their names?
Sam and the boys were selling our Bungan Honey at a market just outside her mums house at Bilgola Beach. The gusty Westerly winds blowing that day toppled two babies from their nest. They were too young and vulnerable to be left, so we began looking after them immediately. Penguin’s are from the South Pole, so Puffin was named after the North Pole. Panda is a tribute to BTG (Bradley Trevor Greive), otherwise known as a Bear.
Do you have favourites? Do they?
They have unique personalities just like Penguin, but Puffin is a bit more affectionate – We call them the terrible twins because they are always play fighting. They both love to fall asleep in your arms or cuddle up next to you.
I was seriously floored when I saw the two of them playing with one another. It is like nothing I’ve seen before from birds…..Magpie whisperer?
They are hilarious as siblings. Always chasing each other and rolling over pecking each other much like puppies. Do you know they actually play hide and seek – one will look around the corner then run the other way until caught. They chase each other around with abundant energy then like all children sleep for an hour. Magpie whisperer definitely not but just a safe and fun place to grow up. It is important to give them the strength and courage to be free – and although we supplement their diet with a proper omnivore mix they are now able to look after themselves. Watching them fly up to sleep side by side in the trees every night is a beautiful sight.
Do you think they are just being friendly to you so they can be in the movie now that Penguin has spread his wings?
I’m assuming they think they have as good a chance as any.
Sam, how do you feel about Naomi Watts telling your story, being you?
I’m really honoured that such an accomplished actress like Naomi feels so passionate about our story. I think it is fabulous that all the producers are mothers of young children and will be able to empathise the hardships we all faced as a family. Naomi will do a fantastic job portraying the emotional and physical pain along with the everyday challenges that someone with a spinal cord injury faces. It’s not going to be an easy role but I look forward to collaborating with Naomi and the team.
Sam, in the book Cameron’s images of Penguin mirror your journey. She is you. Was there a clear moment where you realised that you were not just rescuing her but she was rescuing you?
The first year out of hospital was by far the hardest, both mentally and physically. I was often home alone and felt detached from the world and at times even my own family. I felt like I was always just a spectator, watching from the sidelines which I found completely soul destroying and made me feel worthless as a mum and to just about everyone. Within the first month of caring for Penguin, I loved looking after her and cherished her companionship. She helped boost my confidence, gave me a purpose and bought some happiness back into my life. It is fair to say that Penguin – such a gorgeous, fragile little bird not only helped me but rescued our whole family by bringing laughter and joy back into our lives.
How much has the book played a role in the healing of the family? First Penguin who brings hope, compassion and friendship into what I can only imagine as the darkest of times and then the book whom people from all over the world have fallen in love with.
When Sam came home from hospital we thought things would get better – the boys had their mother back after 7 months and I felt that I’d been reunited with my love. But for Sam, things could not have been worse – she was stuck at home looking out at her favourite surf spot she once loved. This was the cruelest part of all – everything Sam loved doing was just moments away but now impossible. There were months of tears and trying to make sense of it all which was at times beyond all of us. As the book says, “I was slowly but surely losing the love of my life.and then Penguin arrived’.
Creating the book with BTG was a cathartic experience for both Sam and I, we spent about 6 months chatting to each other on Skype and I had forwarded over 2000 images chosen from 14000. Staying busy during this process was part of the healing and moreover creating something of beauty that we are all proud of is the best we could hope for. Ultimately the boys and Sam have 2 years of their life documented in a way that is unique and told like no other love story. As with all successful projects, we wouldn’t have had the success without BTG’s total commitment to the book and love for Sam. He said Penguin Bloom is by far the most beautiful book he’s ever written and that he cried a river writing it.
This morning I was sent the most beautiful drawings from a Portuguese teacher whose 9 year olds were inspired by my photos and drew images of Penguin and our family surrounded by love hearts. There is nothing more heart warming than knowing you are bringing happiness and empathy to children on the other side of the globe. Just knowing someone cares that much about your family is healing.
Cameron: Your photography is very intimate, deeply personal. You are a master story teller capturing moments that swell the heart and fill the soul. How has Penguin, Sam’s accident and the book changed or effected the way you work as a photographer?
I've always been a spontaneous photographer – love documenting things as they happen. Shooting travel and weddings most of my life seemed to have prepared me well for this book. Working with kids and animals does take some patience and at times luck.
I want to say congratulations on raising such beautiful kids. Their manners, outlook on life and obvious love and respect for you both and one another is inspiring. I can only imagine the journey they have been one especially after reading the book. What is some sound parenting advice you could share with us, especially those raising boys.
We give the boys a fair bit of freedom, but that’s partly because they just had to grow up more quickly. Making time for them has been especially hard although I’m so fortunate I work from home and see more of the boys than most fathers. I think I have focused on Sam much more than the boys needs, consequently they have developed a sense of resilience and ability to get on with things. We have always been big on manners and encourage social interaction. Noah’s passion for music has been wonderful to watch as has Rueben’s building and crafting gorgeous things out of scrap and found items. Oli unfortunately remains a dare devil but It’s in these traits that make all our kids unique and something we must encourage and support. Giving our kids some culture from the city is important but nothing replaces the wonder and beauty of being surrounded by nature and the sea. If you haven’t noticed, we love animals but not your usual variety – we had snakes for a couple of years, are currently keeping chickens, looked after two lambs a few weeks ago, have 4 bee hives and as of last week a young Butcher Bird.
Sam: If you could have people reading this take one thing away what would it be?
First, never forget that life is a fragile and precious thing. Anything and everything can be taken away from you when you least expect it, through no fault of your own. So make the most of every opportunity you have to live your life fully and to share the best of yourself with those you love most.
And finally, you don’t have to suffer a terrible accident like I did to face difficult challenges. We all face different challenges every day, and life can be hard and painful for anyone. But when it seems unbearable, do your best to remain open to love. It’s not easy, but it makes all the difference. No matter how much you hurt, or how bad you feel, accepting the love of others and loving them in return, to whatever degree you can, will help to make you whole again. Trust me, I know.
Oh yeah, one last thing. That poem in the beginning of the book ‘FAMILY’ by Eduardo Galeano, it’s possibly one of the most beautiful poems I have ever read. Is there a special story behind that?
I was photographing a wedding when I heard it being read out by an American with a beautiful voice…. I felt this amazing connection to the Earth and knew I’d found the opening of our book.
Shop the book 'Penguin the Magpie'
Photographed by Jo Yeldham whom I thank for these beautiful images and our time working together.
Images 3|8|9|10|12 are from the book 'Penguin Bloom' photographed by Cameron Bloom
Thank you to the FAMILY BLOOM for sharing your home with us, your reality and most importantly your honey!!!