Black lines loom above us
Blooms are appearing on the wattles by the side of the road and on the tree in the middle of the yard. The activity of the birds increases, week by week, as they intuit the coming of spring. Birds that I don’t know in this dry sandstone country, so different to the rolling hills and green valleys, rainforest, rivers and creeks of Gloucester. I have to start again with our massive, cumbersome Cayley’s What bird is that? ($20 at a second-hand shop many years ago – a purchase that seemed Quixotic at the time – pointless folly – but which has given us hours of entertainment and illumination, even when it has to be cross-checked with the two volumes of A field guide to Australian birds by Peter Slater).
A black and grey flycatcher in the wattle darts out and then, as if it realises it has forgotten something, darts back to the tree. There’s a black and white treecreeper on the gums behind the house, then on the poles near the pizza oven, making its hopping way up and around. When I went down to the chook house I walked past the canopy of a eucalypt full of silent silvereyes, giving themselves away only through the sudden flutter of their wings as they flew from branch to branch. From another tree nearby came a deep and melodious ‘whoo’, rising from ‘wh’ to ‘oo’: a white-headed pigeon, its large white belly puffed out. Closer to the house a different ‘whoo’ – a repetitive, shortened ‘whup whup’, very low, very rhythmic – a bird I’ve heard before and searched for in vain. It’s not the loud and proud wonga pigeon that we used to hear at Gloucester, its unstoppable call filling the valley, but almost the antithesis with its sombre, nearly sub-hearing vibratory noise.
Next to the house there is a little cloud of tiny birds in the eucalypt making their weightless way from leaf to leaf, searching, needle sharp and fast, for insects. Looking up towards the sun it’s hard to make them out, but maybe there are dots, and golden yellow bellies. Maybe they are weebills, or spotted or striated pardalotes. When I consult Cayley I think I can rule out the spotted pardalote, which is described as having ‘a monotonous call-note, like “slee-p ba-bee”’, as they cheeped constantly and vivaciously, but my imprecise ear hasn’t retained the difference between a ‘wit-e-chu’ (striated pardalote) or ‘weebill’ (weebill). Striated pardalotes would be so exotic! Even though they occur all over Australia, I’m yet to see one. I remember my upswelling of jealousy when a visitor to the farm told us of the pardalotes who return every year to his property in Victoria, to nest in a tiny gap in the wall of his house.
I haven’t had one full year here at Tapitallee yet, so I have no way of knowing how the bush has changed over the past 10, 20, 50 years. I can only observe the now. Yet, I’m sure it is changing.
Today’s news story from the Copernicus Climate Change Service says that it looks like July was the warmest July on record, following on from June having being the warmest June on record. Average temperatures in Europe were more than 2 degrees C above ‘normal’ (whatever that is now) and the global-average temperature was about 0.1 degrees C higher than the previous warmest in 2016. A graph on their website showing the daily average temperature for Europe in June has a dark line of dashes snaking above a tangle of other lines – the dark dashes represent 2019, the others represent every fifth year since 1979. The previous warmest year was 1999, but that never reaches the consistent heights of 2019. I can’t help but see the heavy black lines of the warmer years dominating the gentler pink and blue lines of other years, leading them to rise ever higher, a horrible metaphor for our world.
We can see now that climate change isn’t just affecting us this year, or last year, but for many years past. After many years denying the warnings of scientists, and more years believing it was way in the future, we are feeling, not the first faint stirrings, but the full and mature effects of a radical change to the climate.
In 2002 I bought a farm with two other people. Nine hundred acres of beauty. One failed friendship, one wedding and hundreds of phone calls later, we had permission from the local council to establish a community with eight houses. A further five years after that, on September 7, 2012, I sat at my desk, in my new house, for the first time. The farm project had started for me with a vision of a desk, with a large window and a large view outside. The vision hadn’t included the years of negotiation and discussion, of obstructive agencies and files that go ‘missing’. It hadn’t included the turmoil and heat of decision-making. But on September 7, 2012, at my desk, as I had imagined, there was an eagle high up in the sky, drifting on the air currents. The wind had been blowing, gusting all day but had finally calmed, and the eagle was gliding without being buffeted around. The trees were almost still, with the occasional shake a reminder of the day’s wildness.
Now that dream is over. Our share in the farm is sold, and someone else will be living in our house. They will see the bluewrens and the firetails. They will see frogs on the windows and snakes in the garden. They will hear wallabies at night, and watch the kookaburras ring the house, on gutters and fenceposts, at the right time of year. I hope they fill the birdbath with water, and let the swallows roost under the eaves.
At the entrance to the community garden I empty my compost bucket into the bin. Today I am not in a rush, and I stop and look around. They’ve been making changes in the garden and it’s more open. It’s easier to see the new raised garden bed with its flowering marigolds and purple crinkly kale. I walk along its length towards the shed, with three beehives on its roof. The bees are moving busily around the entrances, taking to the sky and disappearing. A movement in the old bath full of duckweed and branches lets me see one bee carefully balanced on the thick surface, drinking.
I am drawn deeper into the garden, drawn by mulched garden beds and climbing pea sprouts. A bay tree and a coffee bush, covered in berries, guard each side of the path. I go through them to the garden lots, each tended for better or worse. They form a narrow strip of optimism, their baby lettuces in rows, their tomatoes staked.
As I stand in silence, consumed by the sight of green leaves and brown soil, I hear a rustling. I track it to the back of an area newly overturned and composted, to a noise that becomes a pecking, a shaking of leaves. A small black head, still showing traces of baby grey-brown, bobs up and down, its neatly hooked beak worrying at a nugget of clumped soil. It extracts something – worm, beetle, sliver of decomposed meat – looks at me with satisfaction and gulps it down. It digs again, successfully, hops to one side and digs from a new direction, tossing aside rotted leaves to expose the soil and its morsels. Abruptly it looks at me again and flies off.
The song of the butcherbird is one of my favourites. I like to think that my compost was feeding that one.
A cone of streetlight fell onto an autumn tree in a winter night, shining its leaves and giving them colour. Clusters of rounded leaves – orange, yellow, red, light green – hung like lanterns papered in torn tissue by Matisse. They formed garlands that swung in the breeze, each piece in place, but when the traffic lights changed from red to green, and a torrent of cars swept up the oil-dark road, each leaf flew freely and the lanterns were flotsam, swept to and fro, and the tree shook off its garlands to become one mass, shaking, shivering.
We had some mint at the farm that, contrary to most expectations of mint, thrived in a very sunny, exposed spot that didn’t get a lot of water. It had taken a year to decide whether to live or die, but once it was established it thrived. Before we left the farm I picked a big bag of it, for tea and salads. It turned out to be a miracle bag, staying fresh for weeks. Even when some small pieces blackened, there were still other pieces that were bright green and fragrant. It was only when the mint was nearly finished that I thought that I could have kept it longer by letting it grow in water. So I found a few pieces that still had firm stalks, cut the bottoms off them and stuck them in a glass of water.
Like little shoots of green in spring that speak so loudly of promise and hope and rebirth, the mint stalks developed a fuzz that turned into tiny hairy roots that quickly extended into strings of root circling the inside of the glass. The leaf stem was shooting up too, growing long and lanky. New leaves sprouted, but they were light green and stunted. I put the glass in the tiny gap between the two layers of windows to let it catch the sun, but the water kept on evaporating. My mint needed a proper home.
When you want to grow something and you live in a flat, soil becomes a precious thing. I have found a community garden nearby, with community compost bins. Once or twice a week I go down there to empty our compost bucket, unable to let all that good proto-soil go into the garbage bin. I found a plastic pot on a throw-out pile in the street and took it down to the garden the next time I went with my compost. I wandered the garden, nostalgic for the time when I paid attention to each new leaf and shoot and bud, brushing against the clutch of unruly pumpkin vines, feeling the roughness of their leaves without needing to touch them. I walked under an arch of passionfruit, noted a rosella springing up, admired the size of kale leaves and a luxuriance of beans, hanging decoratively.
There was a mound of soil in a corner that looked like an emptied compost bin. I filled my scavenged plant pot and took it home, potted up the mint over the laundry tub, used an old vegetable tray (non-recyclable, so I’d intended to take it back to the shop) as a saucer, and put the mint back in a spot where it can catch the morning sun and dream of hills that caught the wind and called back to the cries of the black cockatoos.
There’s nature in the city too. On a hot day at Manly a line of cloud bubbled above the horizon. To the north it turned into a bulbous mass, all greys and blacks and whites tumbled together. The blue-grey sea was flat, punctuated by surfers catching what they could close to shore. We walked around to Shelley Beach, looked longingly at a clear green rock pool, almost feeling its soft fresh water cooling us under our clinging clothes.
Later, sitting by my grandson’s cot, I watched the sky lose colour while flying foxes crossed back and forth, their slow heavy flap carrying them past apartment blocks and aerials, power lines and treetops. The closer to night we got, the lighter the sky, until suddenly it switched and I was looking out at darkness, and lights were yellow in windows. The little boy beside me slept, clutching the book I’d used to bribe him into bed.
Another night I packed my handbag with glasses and wallet, headache pills and phone. I tucked a few mints into a corner as if I was going on a trek, or packing my child’s bag for a picnic. At the Opera House the air was thick, more rain ready to fall. Laughter in the forecourt came to me muffled, and lights formed blurry haloes. Japanese girls took photos of each other with the bridge in the background, its beams in the haze forming a subtle geometry of triangles and vertical lines. Seagulls wheeled overhead, flying in and out of the spotlights like disappearing tricks.
Packing the ute in a diminishing patch of shade, a wind blows hot and gusty and slams the door shut. The moisture from last night’s rain must be dried out again by now.
I take treats from the freezer to the chooks to help cool them down. The old boss is moulting, and is strangely slow to respond when I arrive with the food. I thank her for not dying in the night and giving me one more unpleasant task on this loaded day.
By the time the ute is packed, everything fitting in miraculously, but fitting better after a visit to the tip, it’s 3pm and the cafes in Gloucester are closing. Lunch finished at 2pm. Sorry. I take one last look at the main street, a row of shops baking in the blanketing heat. Two people walk on the shady side, looking for things to look at.
I drive out to the edge of town, where I think of the duck family that dwindled, week by week, as the parents led their ducklings back and forth across the road between the golf course and the shelter shed. I drive on, the heat baking my arm through the window of the ute. It’s so hot that I decided against checking the temperature. Knowing would only make it hotter. I drive past the petrol station at Stroud where we always bought our petrol. I stop for tea at the café on the expressway. I drive on, past people who I used to see every week. I am disappearing from their lives, and they are disappearing from mine.
Leaving the house I had checked the rooms, found I’d left the honey strainer in the laundry. I checked the rooms again, looked around the lounge room, thought of taking photos. But what would they show? A small rectangle of furniture, windows, curtains. They wouldn’t show the wonderment I felt every time I saw a frog on the window, one leg askew. Or a swallow on the shed roof, still for a lucky moment, its head so black and glossy, its breast and neck so russet. Photos wouldn’t show us sprawling on the lounge in winter in front of the fire. Or closing the curtains and sitting in the pleasant dim light under the fan in summer. They wouldn’t show how we would catch a glimpse of clouds or moon or stars through a window and go outside to admire billowing or light-catching or glowing or a mass of tiny lights against a black black background, and stand there, caught in thoughts of wonder, of distance and time and the universe.
I stopped checking the rooms, turned, and went out the door.
We’ve been outside paying homage to the night sky, the full moon, the cooling air after yet another hot day. I know this place so well now. I recognise the wet thud of a frog jumping down from wherever it’s been. The flashing light of a plane in the sky, so high up that no sound reaches us as it makes its steady way from north to south.
I didn’t expect to fall in love with this place. I didn’t even know you could fall in love with a piece of land. But I did fall in love with the land and the sky, with the heavy summer beetles that buzz loudly at night. The fussing of parrots as they settle down at dusk.
Now when I walk around the garden, I’m saying goodbye. We haven’t gone yet but I’m readying myself for that day when I won’t be worrying about a drooping avocado tree or welcoming the sudden leaves of a zucchini seed that has decided to sprout.
I’m readying myself to not hear the dawn sounds of the land and the birds waking, the backdrop of cicadas and crickets, the foreground of magpies and blue wrens. The kookaburras crisp and cackly. The dew still on the grevilleas.
Not watching the frills of mist curling around the tops of the trees as I drink my morning cup of tea.
A lone night bird flying silently in the nearly-dark sky, flapping up and diving swooping down, make wide arcing loops through the valley.
Enjoy the moment. It’s the only one you have.
Some years before we built our house here – where it always catches a breeze, on the edge of the hill, above the creek – lightning struck a tree on the bottom side of the track. We found it a couple of days later, still smouldering, and recollected a loud crack on the night of the storm. Heavy rain had meant that the fire hadn’t spread, despite the thickly burnt trunk, split down the middle.
Clouds are building up today, shielding us slightly from the fierce heat of the sun. The weather sites say there is no chance of rain, but we thought we heard the low rumble of thunder just now. A dry storm would cause all sorts of trouble. Fire would run a swift race through these crackle-dry paddocks.
There was a fire a couple of months ago at the corner where the highway meets our turn-off, Bucketts Way. Stark charcoal trunks stripped of foliage revealed houses we had never seen before. There is still a carpet of brown leaves among the blackened sticks, and pennants of copper leaves rustle on the tips of dead branches. But epicormic growth like bright-green velvet outlines the shapes of the trees.
Despite the adverse circumstances – the unusually heavy frost in winter, followed by yet another dry spring – some of the trees are powering on, producing fruit and forming beautiful canopies of fresh green foliage. One of the pears – the Williams – has excelled itself, with a cover of small, perfectly formed pearlets. So I’m disappointed to find, down among the rhubarb, one tiny pear, indented with tooth marks, cast aside in a, ‘phhh, that’s not even ripe’ sort of way.
It’s so dry that there’s a spider in the rain gauge. A young huntsman, it sits on the side of the gauge while the bottom fills up with whatever little showers we are blessed with and a mess of beetles. Christmas beetles, with their hunched shells, that flash rainbows off their glossy brown backs and wings when they fly. When I tip them out some are still alive, and they crawl off in a dazed wonder at being back in the world. The spider clings on, and I put her and the rain gauge back on the fence.
I’m kept awake at night by a frog that favours a spot right outside our bedroom window. I’m not sure if it’s a new frog, or just an old frog in a new position, but I can’t help thinking that it’s playing a zither. I lie in bed imagining its long arms and legs stretched out to pluck the strings with its fingertips. I imagine a jazz frog – happy jazz – in a little black and white striped jacket, a smile on its face as it weaves its esoteric way through the night.
Cool moist night air softly drifts into the house. Night chirrups. In the forest, a bird calls. Toe–toe-wit. Toe–toe-wit. Slow ‘Toe’ then quicker ‘toe-wit’.
Earlier, at dusk, two willy wagtails courting on our deck. One agitated and restless, jumping around, flying up to the rafters and down again, frantically twitching its tail back and forth and calling tch tch tch. The other sitting quietly on the back of a chair, watching, waiting, singing a beautiful melody once or twice. Loud, so close to where we are sitting. The restless one joins the quiet one and they are both still, regarding each other, as if lovingly. They sing quiet little songs to each other. They fly up into the corner of the deck, vanish from sight for a while, then come back down. Is that a post-coital cigarette they’re sharing?
Earlier, as the afternoon waned, two wallabies nibbled at the newly-mown grass. We watched them from the bedroom window. They knew we were there, but weren’t as anxious as wallabies in the past. Their big ears twitch and rotate at the sound of our voices, but they don’t leap away. We can see them so clearly. A white line runs from the mouth up to the eye. Their paws are black, foreshortening their arms. Black tips on their ears and nose. Red highlights on their backs and necks. Thick grey-beige fur elsewhere. Big black eyes, watchful.
Earlier, in the brash afternoon, the two blue wrens that have been frequenting the deck came by. The male – a young bright newly-blue boy – has been attacking his reflection in every window. We hear him tapping at the glass. His favourite spots are marked by a series of little white dots on the ground. He must sit for a while contemplating himself. The light brown female hops around, carefree, not needing either vanity or jealousy to fuel her days.
July 17, 2016
Down by the creek I hear a noisy flapping in the canopy, a bumbling from tree to tree. A heavy flight, wings beating in a high-pitched whirr, and it lands in a tree near me. I stare up, walk around the tree, finally see a bright little eye staring nervously down at me. I can’t see the pink chest but it must be a wompoo fruit dove, big and plump, shades of green in its head and body, bright golden dots strung across its wing.
Up in the garden there are the winter birds. The white-cheeked honeyeaters fill the stunted gums, dashing, hopping, sprinting – joyous, animated. They cluster in the trees, chasing and swirling. Eastern spinebills feed from the gradually opening flowers of a grevillea, their wings agitating in hover. A yellow robin flies urgently around the deck, crashing into a window, righting itself and fluttering off, a magpie in pursuit, zooming, jet-like, after its prey. The robin veers into the mess of shrubbery – curry plant, lemon verbena – and the magpie continues down the hill, returning moments later, putting on an extra cranky burst of speed in its frustration.
Meanwhile, in the chookyard, the broody hen continues to sit on as many eggs as she can collect. I have to be careful when I lift her off (unexpectedly thin bony body under all those puffed out feathers) to make sure she hasn’t gathered any eggs within her wings. I put her on the ground and she fluffs out, has a wander around the yard, a little drink, a peck of food, then returns to her nest.
There must have been a night of terror last week. We arrived to find feathers all over the yard and two of the chooks – the two Andalusians, Andy and Lucia – missing. On closer inspection, the feathers were black, or grey. Some were fluffy, like down, like feathers that must have been on their bellies. Others were bigger, like quills – they must have been the wing feathers – the feathers that we should have clipped a few weeks ago to keep them in their run.
They discovered that they could fly out of the run about a month ago. First it was just Bub, fluttering heavily up onto the gate, swaying there and waiting for a partner. Once Andy joined her they were away, jumping down into the garden and gradually exploring further and further afield. Bib and Lucia soon joined the escapees, leaving the two old aunties (whose wings were clipped last year, and who have never realised that their wing feathers have regrown) to enjoy the run of the run, just like old times. The wanderers grew bolder, staying out longer, venturing further, until we woke one morning to hear the pleasant sound of smug chooks and saw a little cavalcade of the four of them trotting down the hill to the happy lands of the onion seedlings, just waiting to be scratched up.
But Andy and Lucia – who were always slightly stupider – had trouble getting back into the run, and would scurry up and down the outside of the fence looking for a way in long after Bib and Bub had returned to the fold. Maybe one night they just gave up and settled down somewhere near the house, maybe on the porch. Telltale smears of blood on two of the glass doors conjure tragic images of terrified chooks trying to find safety.
Now Bib has gone broody, sitting in a half-comatose state all day on the two plastic eggs and any other real eggs that she can steal from the nesting boxes, leaving only the canny Bub to come and go as she pleases.
6 May 2016
Two willy wagtails are out on the deck, sitting under the cane chair on its crossbar. Seen up close their black and white colouring is so precise, so sharp and stylish. They are tcchhing at each other, sidling closer then away, facing their plump chests at each other then turning. One jumps down to the ground and starts singing, a clear joyful four-note tune that rises quickly and ends still on a happy note. I have heard that song all my life, in suburban backyards and in the bush, but never known who was singing it.
The bird that has stayed on the crossbar starts pecking at a piece of spidersweb hanging from the chair, pulls it off and drops it to the ground. The singing bird keeps singing and strutting, wagging its tail with that distinctive whole-body wagtail wag, and bowing its head. The bird on the chair adds the occasional tcchh. Then the singing bird flies up into the top corner of the deck, where the roof is thick with spiderswebs, and probably the spiders’ larders. The crossbar bird joins the singing bird up in the corner, where they flutter and fall back, flutter and fall back before they fly away, out into the morning sunshine.
We look back with nostalgia now on the weeks after the young chickens arrived. They were so frightened that they couldn’t walk up the ladder to their house. We had to go up to the pen at dusk every night, pick up the four drowsy chickens nestled together in the long grass, and place them in the house, closing the door on the squawks and bangs as the old chooks showed them to their roosts. Gradually they learned the way up, learning to go to bed before the older ones so they didn’t get pecked, like Ping, as they made their way through the door. Gradually they became a flock of six. The older ones slowly became less aggressive, the younger ones less scared. The younger ones discovered the tree, and pioneered roosting in its branches, impressing the older ones with this daring. We gave them names for the first time, calling the old ones the Aunties and the younger ones Andy and Lucia (the Andalusians) and Bib and Bub (the identical New Hampshires).
As predicted by the chook lady back in December, the two Aunties are now ‘spent’. Or nearly. They rarely lay eggs any more, and the darker Aunty, the one who used to rule the roost, who used to peck kind friends when they looked in to top up the water, is rapidly losing feathers. The base of her neck is bare, and she is hesitant about coming forward when there’s food in the offing. She sits on a branch in the tree, away from the rest of the flock below her. In contrast, her partner in crime, the lighter-coloured Aunty, the one who used to wait behind her boss for the scraps, is now top of the roost. She delivers a sharp peck to the younger ones when they come too close to her favourite foods – the sunflower seeds out of the mixed seed, or the rolled oats – which I am using for handfeeding in an attempt to make them all a little tamer.
But she is mellowing too, and when I leave the pen I look back and see her sharing the water dispenser with Bib (or Bub). Surely she can see the time coming when the younger ones realise that they’re bigger than her? Change is all around. The pen is full of feathers, either from moulting or fighting or both. Bib and Bub have started laying eggs – little pink-brown eggs with freckles, sometimes without their shells – and Andy and Lucia can’t be far behind. This Aunty’s time at the top of the ladder will be brief. Maybe there’s a lesson in this for all of us.
Back at the farm, where a flock of galahs flies overhead, bellies storybook pink. Back from a few days in Sydney, where long grey greasy footpaths string the way beside roads, where a tall man covered in sores wearing a lank dress walks, scattering neatly dressed woman with clutched handbags as they emerge from the Greek centre.
Back at the farm where black sapote flowers have appeared for the first time on our tree, grown from seed – the flowers turning into tiny fruit, little squashed balls with petals that come around and touch at the front like origami gifts.
Where the night smells of lemon verbena and scented geranium, washed into the air by a sudden storm, thunder booming and thin lines of lightning sparking through the sky.
There’s been a lot of indignation in the chook run. We bought four new little chickens on Sunday, two New Hampshires (chestnut brown, with a few black feathers in the tail) and two Andalusians (one black, one blue ie silvery-grey). They spent the first night in the old chook house – the little, pre-fab cutesy house that’s never been the same since the pig escaped from next door and headed for the chook food. The front door doesn’t really shut properly and the grass has taken over completely since the chooks moved to their new industrial-strength run. Nevertheless, with a bit of urgent weeding and displacing of spiders we made it liveable and the chickens quickly made it their home, snuggling down together in the nesting box in a delightful huddle of chestnut and black feathers.
Yesterday we fenced off a portion of the chook run and put the chickens in, along with their food bowl and water. The two old chooks were horrified. Even, terrified. They cackled loudly, crankily, for the rest of the day. It was the same noise they had made the day there was a brown snake in the run. The noise only stopped when the chickens all nestled together under the pomegranate tree for a siesta and were no longer visible. In the evening we caught the chickens and put them back in the pre-fab house.
This morning we put them in their section of the run again. The cackling started at once, but didn’t persevere for long. The older chooks even allowed themselves a peek at the enemy, and moved around their run more normally rather than running past any area where they could see the upstarts. But when we went to check on progress this afternoon we found the two New Hampshires had made their way into the main run, their quiet cheeping giving away their position. They were tucked into the long grass at one end while the old chooks remained firmly at the other end, with a very determined refusal to look in THAT direction. Later, at dusk, it was again the New Hampshires who appeared, striding across the lawn, having escaped the run but not having any real destination. We put down our dinner and ushered them back through the gate. They were as keen to be reunited with their Andalusian friends as we were.
The two old chooks will, according to the chicken lady, be ‘spent’ by the end of summer. For her this means they’ll be disposed of. For us, I suspect it means that they will no longer reliably lay eggs, but that they’ll fuss around the run until the grim reaper catches up with them, naturally.
When I was a very little girl, one of the jobs I enjoyed doing was helping my mother to hang out the washing. I would hand her the pegs as she put the washing on the line. We had our own measure of the heat of the day. If it was a cool day, two hankies would be pegged together. (It was never cool enough for each hankie to have its own peg.) If it was a warm day, three hankies would be pegged together, and if it was very hot, four. I would ask, ‘Is it a three-hankie day or a four-hankie day?’ as I felt the sun beating down on my hatless head, and my mother would tell me. I would then pick out the right number of hankies, and a peg, and hand it to her. Sometimes, if she wasn’t in a hurry, I would be allowed to pair the socks, and hand them to her with a peg as well.
Today is a four or even five hankie day. I hang out the washing and the line spins around, catching the wind. It will be dry before I get to the bottom of the basket. The thyme plants have shut down for the day, their leaves compressed. The birds have already headed down to the creek after spending the very early morning in the garden, looking for seeds and bathing in the birdbath. The sky is that far-away blue colour.
Even after I’ve come inside, and despite wearing my hat, I can feel the burn of the heat pressing down on the top of my head.
Since we got the bees, our minds have turned to flowers. Not a huge imperative in the garden beforehand, but now an ex-vegetable patch has become a patch of native plants – grevilleas, a low-growing banksia, melaleucas, an eremophila, a midyin berry, all being linked up by a creeping myoporum. They’ve done well, and most of them, even the tiny ones, have flowered. The melaleucas with puffs of lilac and white, the eremophila with a startlingly pink pendulous flower. One of the grevilleas has powered ahead, thickening up quickly and taking a greater share of the garden, threatening to dominate with its thrusting stems covered in fleshy grey-green leaves and spidery red flowers.
This morning a blue-banded bee had found the melaleuca lilac puffs and was unmissable with its distinctive buzz – loud and persistent – around the flowers, darting in impulsively then backing off to hover and buzz. We noticed that the large grevillea was being badly eaten by something. I had thought that the bare tips of the stems were new growth, but in fact the leaves had been munched off. I saw one caterpillar, thin and camouflaged, the same width as the stem, similar yellowy colour, with a slight red stripe along its length. I picked it off and put it on a brick where I squashed it. Then I saw another one, then a much larger one, with its colours more pronounced in side bands of red and greeny-brown. It reared up when I reached down for it, curling back and threatening me with its tiny rounded head, but it too was consigned to the killing brick. Soon the brick was covered in squelch, and I was so inured to the killing that I was just squashing them with my gloves.
When the plant seemed free of its invaders I noticed that a couple had fallen on the ground. Squash. Next to them was a sort of small white leathery sac, like an egg but malleable. I squashed that too – it was clearly associated with the caterpillars – and a green substance oozed out of it. It was the colour of a baby rug, cute and pastel. Then I saw some brown segmented creatures wriggling around the base of the grevillea. Their shells were hard and crunchy, pointed at both ends, and they could have been cocoons except that they were very active. They wriggled menacingly, like extras in Alien, pointing their blind tips at me. They too had pastel-green insides when squashed, the astonishingly benign colour oozing out between the ugly brown segments. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.
I had nearly the whole life cycle in front of me, from eggs in a sac, to needle-thin caterpillars, to large rearing-up caterpillars, to cocooned transition creatures. I was killing them all, knowing nothing of the caterpillar or its butterfly or their place in the ecosystem. All I knew was that they were stripping my grevillea, and I was fighting back.
18 November 2015
If I could, I would paint this scene. I would call it ‘Late afternoon with flying ants’. I would capture the bright late afternoon light on the little eucalypt – fading now, the leaves no longer glowing yellow but reduced to their usual grey-green – and the continuous flow of flying ants from the old tree stump. Each set of wings catches the light as it rises. Collectively they catch the wind, blowing to the north, then to the east. Reminding me ridiculously of a bubble machine, they stream up and out, glinting gold against a background of multiple greens – every green in the Derwent pencil box. The swallows circle them, paragons of control against the wafting mass of ants.
Once the sun is behind the hills, the land slowly darkens and the orchestra of the night commences. Against the violin section of cicadas and frogs, magpies, catbird and whipbird add highlights. The magpies are in the distance, their four-note call rising and falling sweetly. Closer in, the catbird adds a harsh, throaty stream, punctuated by the whip! whhhhip! whipbird. The deep repetitive bass of the wonga pigeon sets a dignified underlying tone. The magpies move further away, the catbird takes a solo. One frog calls, magnified from the drainpipe, chuckchuckchuck. The owlet nightjar starts its trilling, the frog-cicada chorus takes over, louder and louder, rhythmic, unstoppable. Kookaburras make a final call. It’s night-time.
In the dark night (the half-moon already well on its way into the west) the spotted marsh frog sputters out its crk crk crk, the stony creek frog purrs gently behind the house. A green tree frog is plastered to the bedroom door, its white belly flat against the glass, its sucker feet spread. When I turn off the light the bumps of moths and small insects against the door slows down, then stops.
30 October 2015
My gardening technique veers between ‘that should work’ and thorough research. ‘That should work’ has about a 50% success rate. Thorough research probably has a lower rate, because I can never quite find the exact answer to my question, and I end up reverting to ‘that should work’. Take these broad beans. They’ve grown well and we’ve had a decent crop, but now they’ve come to their end. We’ve stripped off the remaining beans and the stalks are wilting. Some are black and rubbery. I remember reading somewhere that you should leave broad bean roots in the ground as they fix nitrogen, so I drag out all our gardening books. Some of them say nothing about broad beans after you’ve harvested, but the rest seem to reach a consensus that you should dig the roots and stalks into the ground. None of them say the thing I remember, about leaving the roots in the ground to rot.
So I go out to the broad bean patch and chop down the stalks, which I then chop into smaller pieces. Some of them don’t chop easily, because the stalks are limp and just bend under the blade instead of cutting. Then I contemplate digging. Do I just dig them in, so that there are long bits of stalk through the soil? Or am I meant to be chopping them into finer pieces as I dig, so they’re integrated into the soil? I try chipping them in with the hoe, but that doesn’t work – same problem with the bendy stalks not wanting to be cut. At least the hoe helps me cover my bets by chopping through some of the roots. I then try digging with the fork, turning the soil over the stalks and roots, but it looks too chunky. Given that the books all recommend following broad bean crops with leafy greens, how are the leafy green seeds – which are tiny – going to manage in ground that is hillocked with partially-chopped broad bean roots and stalks?
I think about the term ‘no dig garden’.
I place a thick layer of mulch over the whole bed and water it in. Maybe the microbes will do the work for me. Maybe I’ll come back to this bed in a week’s time and find a beautifully even bed of tilth in which lettuce seeds will germinate and thrive, sucking up their extra nitrogen and expressing it in gorgeously ruffled fabulously flavoured leaves. That should work.
23 October 2015
It’s the time of night when the land turns monochrome. Colour leached out by the setting sun flies up into the sky turning the clouds pink. Kookaburras laugh out into the evening, before the frogs take up the chorus, spreading their chirrups across the drowsy land.
There’s no night-time flurry of swallows returning to their nest tonight, no more cheeping little heads raised above the edge of the nest’s mud wall. But this year it’s because of success, not failure. Last year the swallows had a dismal record of baby-rearing. Two lots of eggs were laid and babies hatched, only for us to find naked fledglings dead or gasping on the ground under the nest after a few weeks of rearing. I don’t know if this year’s parents are better, or if there has been some radical reshaping of the nest under strict Health and Safety Guidelines, but I feel like sending this year’s parents an award for most improved.
Ugly baby heads appeared a few weeks ago, their wildly disproportionate beaks gaping. Last week fluffy babies perched above the nest. This morning there were two baby swallows sitting on the railing, staring at the big world. Their parents came swooping in after a while but they weren’t stopping to stuff titbits into their mouths – they were there to entice them off the rail and out into the yonder. One of the babies followed, returning after one circuit to struggle back onto the rail. Its sibling stretched one wing out and scratched underneath, displaying a certain virtuosity. It spread its wings and flapped but stayed where it was. Then the parents were back swooping and scooping up both babies into their flight. The four of them flew around the valley and returned, the babies to the rail, the parents right back in to the nest, flying out with the third baby following. Swoop, fly, swoop, back to the rail and then all five are in the air, dipping and turning, skimming out of sight and returning to the home rail. The next time they all take off they don’t return. I see them on the edge of the tank, two bigger bodies, three littler ones, then no more.
October 6 2015
Extracting honey is slow. One drip at a time, it falls through the sieve into the bucket below, wax building up on the sides. It’s as slow as the emergency room in a country hospital on a public holiday, where at 1pm the nurse says, ‘The doctor is just having a rest. I had to call him out very early this morning for a case of anaphylactic shock. He hasn’t had his breakfast yet.’ Which means that she has also been on duty since very early this morning. One of the other patients waiting with us says, ‘I’m just grateful that we’ve got a hospital’, and we agree. We might have to wait three hours for Martin to see someone about his very painful shingles, but at least he can see someone. The nurse bandages a young man’s foot and knee – injured yesterday while riding a motorbike and obviously left overnight in the hope that she’ll be right mate – deals deftly with a 6-year-old with a rash, and takes everyone’s blood pressure every hour. She offers cool drinks to those who are waiting, and dashes up and down the corridor, a sister of mercy dispensing painkillers to those in need.
But back to the honey. There are emails every day from our bee group telling of swarms that people want removed from their trees, patios, front fences, back walls – and one today in a wine barrel. It’s spring and the bees have woken up, they’ve smelt the nectar and they’ve started making honey. If we’re not careful our bees will be swarming like all the others, having filled up the frames in their hive and wanting somewhere else to store their rations. We have to get some of those full frames out of the hive and replace them with empty ones. Martin is simply not well enough, so I kit up, alone for the first time, trying to manoeuvre the smoker to calm the bees while simultaneously removing frames to inspect them. Trying to speed things up I head for the middle frames, and immediately find one that is full. I take it out and replace it with an empty frame. I remove another frame but the bees are getting cranky. They leave off crawling all over the frames to explode out of the hive and start bombing me. The smoker goes out and I’m left defenceless.
It’s disaster if you panic, so I walk quietly back up to the deck, open the smoker, battle with the tight lid and start it up again. Egg carton, pine needles, light it, let it get going, push the lid back down. Smoke threads serenely out through the nozzle, promising puffs of protection. The bees calm down a little, I inspect a few more frames then decide that … whatever that phrase is about something being better than valour, put the lid back on the hive and clamp it shut. I brush the remaining bees off the one heavy, full frame, and bear it into the kitchen where we strip off the cappings and slot it into the extractor. We already have two frames from the other hive, so the extractor is full and ready to go. Our first go with our brand new extractor! We turn the handle and soon there is honey gathering at the bottom. We flip the frames and turn the handle again. We open the tap at the bottom so the honey can run into a bucket, a thick glistening golden ribbon. Once it’s all in the bucket we remember that we were meant to strain it, and that’s when it runs so slowly, the wax collecting in the strainer, the honey drip dripping through. Slow as the emergency room in a country hospital on a public holiday.
22 September 2015
We were driving down Bucketts Way on Sunday, and we’d just passed the turn-off to The Glen Nature Reserve. I started telling Martin about the bushwalk I’d been on in the reserve on the previous day. We had walked into the reserve along one of its many tracks, crossing and recrossing a shallow creek, yellow rocks on its bed, sudden dark pools by the side of the path. There were tall bluegums with ferns at their feet, smooth blue-white bark contrasting with the deeply textured brown bark of (and here my enjoyment in recalling the day is somewhat tempered by my ignorance) other trees. Possibly turpentines. Tiny blue and purple violets were springing up in the path. Purple, again, in the sprawling hardenbergia and the shrubby pea thingy that was everywhere. Paper daisies, their flowers about to burst out of their buds. Another vine, with starry yellow flowers, and one with a red pea flower. Black fungus frilling on just one particular tree trunk. On the other side of the track, a native clematis, its white flowers frothing. Higher up the path, where the steep slope below us held pockets of rainforest, I recognised the big green droopy leaves of a native tamarind from the rainforest at our place.
But we weren’t there for the trees so much as the birds. It was a walk led by a local man whose passion has been birds for the last 20 years. To me it was a cacophony of tweets and trills with an occasional rustling in the bush. To him it was the grey shrike thrush (the GST), the brown gerygone (tiny nondescript brown bird, hopping agitatedly through the undergrowth), the yellow thornbill (one walker said, ‘I have yellow thornbills at my place’ to which our leader replied, ‘Do you also have brown thornbills and buff-rumped thornbills?’). We saw a Wonga pigeon up ahead on the track, viewed its remarkable size through the binoculars as it wandered amiably away. We heard spotted pardalotes, and looked at their beautiful markings in the bird book. I longed to see one, high up in the canopies, to see its Indian embroidery of dots and dashes covering its head and neck and wings. We looked for its nest in the crumbling bank beside us, seeing every niche as a possible home for this tiny lerp-eating bird. We heard the Lewin’s honeyeater (the bird I’d failed to identify in our garden some time ago, with a greenish body and a white crescent behind its ear), saw the grey fantail (popularly called ‘the crazy bird’ at our place for its darting, twisting, random-looking movements in the air). During the first, lower, part of the walk the whipbirds kept us company, the male making the first call, the female replying with the whip. They disappeared some time during the slog up the hill, but as we walked down from the trig point (520 metres above sea-level) they reappeared. At that point our leader stopped us and said, ‘What’s that one?’ and it was so familiar it took us a while to realise that we were hearing bellbirds for the first time in the walk.
I didn’t get as far as telling Martin about the satisfaction of identifying the Lewin’s honeyeater. As we drove around a shallow corner, where reeds grow by the side of the road, a pair of ducks flew out. Their heavy bodies struggled to gain height. I braked. Not soon enough. Before I closed my eyes (yes!) (momentarily) I saw the panicked eye of a duck up close – very close. I saw a plump duck body full of life and pumping, terrified energy. Then I heard a loud thud. I opened my eyes to crazy cracks all over the windscreen. Unable to pull over into the deep ditches by the side of the road I kept driving. In the rear view mirror, a small inert body lay forlorn on the road.
I have a friend who writes a food blog. Last week she wrote about pigeon soup. If anyone wants to adapt her recipe and use a duck instead, I can tell you where there’s a fairly fresh one ready for cooking.
Another country, another currency, another language. Not just words like ‘skookum’ (big, strong) but conversations like, ‘Do you call that a truck?’ Another landscape, another blackberry bush, another pie. This time the blackberries were picked from rambling bushes on the edge of a Canadian rainforest – pine, spruce, fir trees reaching high, creating deep dark mossy places below, arbutus trees twisting thin red trunks out of craggy rocks, maples spreading wide green canopies – and the pie was made and eaten in a log cabin on the side of a still, clear lake dotted with tiny islands, looking across to a forested hillside, a short motorboat ride from the lapping ocean. The loons call, mournful trilling, burbling back and forth. Kingfishers play tag, maintaining a scolding chhhk chhhk as they divebomb each other. Creeks have to be cleared of beaver dams to make way for spawning fish.
We got to Canada from England via Iceland. The road from the airport to Reykjavik is through an 800-year-old lava flow, where lumps of weathered lava, covered with a blanket of mosses and lichens in yellows and greens, look as if the ground is still bubbling. Glimpses of clear blue sky give way to soft, wet fog that slowly covers the surrounding hills, hides the views of the sea at the end of each street, and starts to drip from the sky in icy rain. We go on a ‘Golden Circle’ tour that includes a visit to Thingvellir, site of the first Icelandic parliament; Gullfoss, a pounding waterfall falling from a glacier, thick and white behind distant black mountains; a hot springs area with steaming sulphurous pools, clouds of stinking mist that billow, and Geysir, the original geyser (which no longer gushes) and Strokkur, which does gush with sudden booming explosions, its pool pulsing like a giant’s pulse, filling the rock pool and falling back, the water becoming heavier, thicker, more forceful, more sanguine than normal water, then the push comes and the water fills with air, propelled upwards, in droplets and spitting spray. When I look up, the clouds look like someone has been knitting Icelandic patterns in the sky.
We flew to Canada over Baffin Island. You know when you’re by the sea, on a big brown rock shelf, with little perfectly round potholes, and long jagged crevices, and large areas of sharp rock that suddenly fall away? It’s like that, but from on high, and without those little red jelly-like blobs that cling to the insides of the pools, or the sound of the sea booming into caverns below your feet. Dodging my head to get a better view through my window, beyond the plane’s engine, I try to make sense of the white dots that appear in the sea along the shore, then form lines and clumps like so much flotsam and jetsam. Please don’t let them be flotsam and jetsam. Now they are joined together below us and the sea is nearly covered in lacy white, then the white stretches off into the distance until we don’t know what is ice and what is cloud. A tip of dark brown land appears then a wide blue-green channel with small streaks breaking its flat surface. Small streaks like a motorboat’s wake in a place where there is no sign of humans or motorboats. Am I seeing small streaks of a whale’s wake? Then a river claws its way through this red brown land, a blue line plaiting through a wide yellow bed, equipped for gushing snowmelt. Then the clouds cover the land.
August 23 2015
Of all the weeds on the farm the blackberries at least have the redeeming feature of providing useful, delicious fruit. But for the last three years we’ve had such dry springs that they have barely flowered, so there has been very little fruit. This means that my eyes were alert to the clusters of beautifully black blackberries that we saw yesterday as we walked along the canal, here in Brittany. The Nantes-Brest canal, a massive engineering feat of the early 19th century, traversing north-west France with its succession of locks, provides a perfect walking track. The towpath is flat and wide, running between fields and the water, edged with overhanging trees, with the occasional picturesque lock-keeper’s cottage – stone walls, lace at the windows, apple trees in the garden. We walked beside the water, sheltering under our umbrellas against sudden bursts of rain, and picked a few blackberries on the way. They were ripe, plump and sweet, so when we got back to the cottage we went on the hunt for more. We didn’t have far to go. There were enough growing in the hedgerow fence to fill our containers. Martin was volunteered to make a cake, his previous upside-down cake prowess making him the right person for the job. We had a recipe from last weekend’s (British) paper that looked perfect – Truro pudding, essentially a batter poured over fruit – and Nick offered to go and buy some self- raising flour. Nick’s knowledge of French, limited to saying thank you and asking for more ice-cream, did not make him the right person for the job, but he was game and returned triumphantly with a packet of flour that proclaimed ‘Pour toutes usages’. I pieced together the instructions on the packet to see if its ‘all uses’ included cakes, but it was the advertisement on the side for a different packet of flour labelled ‘Gateaux’ that finally persuaded me that I was holding a packet of plain flour.
Happily, on this packet of flour was a most unusual recipe for pastry, so the cake idea was shelved in favour of a tart. Martin followed the recipe (in a saucepan heat 1 cup of water, 100 g butter and a pinch of salt; add 2 cups of flour and mix to form a paste) then let it cool slightly and lined a pie dish with it. He blind baked it for about 10 minutes then put the fruit in (the blackberries plus some apples we had also found growing wild, finely sliced) and sprinkled it with sugar. He made a small custard with egg and milk and poured it over, then cooked the pie for about half an hour. This pie was a masterpiece. The pastry was crumbly, the filling was bursting with the flavour of the blackberries, the tartness of the apple still showing through. But that pastry! So simple, so good. Sometimes the best things really are the ones you find by chance.
5 August 2015
A friend stayed with us on Friday night. She arrived in the dark, driving cautiously along narrow gravel roads, aware of cows standing in the fields like rocks. After the tour of the house, where we point out its thermal efficiency, its water efficiency, its high ceilings and pretty tiles, we sat in front of the fire watching the deep orange embers form. We talked about difficult work colleagues. People are people she concluded, summing up an entire understanding of the inescapability of human frailty. People are people, I agreed, but some people are peopler than others.
In the morning she came out to the kitchen, startled by the light, the vistas, the beauty that she had woken up to. She loved the bare hill and the forested hills, she loved the siting of the house, facing the forest, poised on the corner of the valley. She loved the winter sun pouring in, heating the cement floor, bringing all those theories of thermal efficiency to life.
After she left I went to feed the chooks. I was a bit late and the bossy one was cranky, strutting, head high. As I was tipping the kitchen scraps onto the ground I saw, out of the corner of my eye, that she had risen up, wings spread wide, ready to attack me. I turned and, balletically, kicked out towards her. As I swung I felt a stillness around me. The butcher bird, above us in the dying tree, threw each pure, perfect, formed note of its song out into the clear, crisp morning air. The toe of my boot met the chook’s exposed chest. She retired to the corner of the pen, cluckily indignant, offended. People might be people, but chooks are chooks.
18 July 2015
After writing my last post, about the attack of the café monster, I came across a stanza in the book I’m reading:
His loathsome head aloft he reared,
With hellish hate he roared,
His slavering lips with froth were smeared,
Vilely his curses poured.
How fitting, with a slight change of gender.
The book I’m reading is Independent People by Halldor Laxness, in preparation for a (two day) touristic stopover in Iceland between visits to family in England and friends in Canada at the end of August. Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955, the only Icelandic person to do so to date. This book is so stupendously good that I’m slowing down now, not wanting to finish. When I’ve been reading it for a while, I look up and am surprised that I’m not snowed in, that I don’t live in the loft above the sheep in a dirty little croft with a fire that runs on smoky brush-sticks, that I don’t have to eat my porridge or my salted fish. I’m surprised that I’m not surrounded by the expanse of an Icelandic valley, with a stream that floods in summer and is buried beneath ice in winter.
We have had our first big frost, that kept the grass white until about 8 o’clock one morning, but it’s not house-covered-in-snow cold here. Yesterday we were watching bees in the broad bean flowers. They were having to work for the nectar, pushing down on the bottom section of the flower to make their way their way into the base. The flowers are light mauve, darkening in the middle to a deep purple. The brown bees push and scrabble at the bottom lip of the flower. Sun shines on the pale green leaves.
July 2 2015
Outside the air is freezing, so we’re not standing out there admiring the full moon or how close Venus and Jupiter are to each other. We’re inside with the curtains drawn to keep in the warmth of the fire. I’m feeling safe.
Driving up to the farm today Martin and I stopped at the café off the motorway, as we do every week. I sat at a table next to the windows that was catching a bit of afternoon sun. Outside, a woman and a bunch of children were eating through a range of bags, some from the Macdonalds, some from the café. As I sat down I saw a wind spring up and blow some of their bags and containers onto the ground. The woman turned and looked straight at me. I gave her an ‘oops, you may not have noticed some of your things have blown onto the ground’ smile and pointed at the ground. She gave me the finger.
Martin joined me at the table with the coffees and I told him about the woman and the finger. We looked out the window just as one of the children started picking up the rubbish and putting it in the bin. I couldn’t see the woman, but the kids were doing a great job out there. I returned to my coffee. Suddenly there was a face, inches from mine. The woman, snarling, ‘You stupid old c***. You presumptious c***. How dare you tell me what to do.’ And so on. I said, ‘Wow, you are rude’ which led to her repeating her attack then storming off, bumping into a chair which enraged her anew, causing her to turn back to me and attack again. Martin started to try to stop her, which drew her frenzy onto him. ‘I’m not talking to you!’ she screamed.
Eventually she was gone. The entire attention of the café was turned to us for a split second, then everyone turned away, pretending nothing had happened. One person said, ‘Someone forgot to take their tablets this morning’ which, although crude, was welcome support. The whole familiar café was suddenly unsafe, a place of harshness and brutality.
While the repetitive use of c*** was shocking – it’s a word I don’t use at all, because it seems to be no accident that the worst word in English refers to a distinctly female body part – it was the use of ‘old’ that really struck me. My hair is grey, and it needs a cut. I had dental surgery yesterday, so my face is pretty pale, and a little drawn. Was it my apparent age that let her express herself so furiously? She was maybe at the end of her 30s. She had three or four pre-teenage children with her, and a very overweight husband who I only noticed later, leading some of the children to the car. Was her attack a female version of young buck / old bull? Did she need to assert her (what’s the feminine version of ‘virility’? which is defined specifically as ‘having masculine vigour or strength’) feminine vigour by challenging an older woman?
I could say it was just one crazy person but it’s looking like a bit of a pattern. A few months ago I told a younger woman, who I know well, that she had done something thoughtless. She turned on me – also with a far stronger response than my initial comment warranted – and told me to ‘stop being a fool’ when I defended myself from her attack. She stopped short of the actual term, but ‘old’ and ‘fool’ go together, much like ‘horse’ and ‘carriage’.
I have been thinking about it. Getting old. Maybe those aches and pains aren’t just from too many hours at the computer, or too many hours weeding or mowing. Maybe they’re me, getting old. But does that make me vulnerable and deserving of attack?
I’ve been taking my mother – 94, competent and capable but with failing eyesight – around to retirement villages lately. It’s harder for her to get out these days and she needs more people around her. When I’m with her I’m glad that people take care of her, give her a seat, ask her if she’s ok walking up the stairs, tell her to watch out for cracks in the paving. But she is old, and she has special needs attached to having poor eyesight. These are not gratuitous reactions. My age is being seen as an opportunity for attack; hers evokes compassion.
June 18 2015
It’s harvest time. I walk through the sprawling pumpkin patch, stamping in the thick growth, the kikuyu gone mad. I have to walk slowly, bumping into pumpkins with the toes of my boots. The pumpkin stalks crack under my feet, signalling a pumpkin nearby to be found, skulking under layers of dried grass. Sometimes there is a nest of them, four or five close together. There is the occasional rotted one, a few that have been eaten out, and a largeish rodent that runs off, disappointed that I’ve taken its easy food source.
I dig up the turmeric too, carefully revealing the deep orange tubers with the point of my digging tool. I dig around the plant, then rock the whole root-ball out. It cracks out of the earth. Hand-shaped tubers intertwine. I prise them apart, sometimes dislodging just one finger from this clasped prayer. An enormous green centipede slithers out and over the black soil.
The cold air descends quickly, pushing me inside.
8 May 2015
Even now, on the edge of winter, the farm is a place of sparkling joy. Sun streams through the windows, warming the concrete floor, hitting points of sparkle. It’s almost too warm, with the embers of last night’s fire still glowing.
Outside, the hardenbergia is covered in flower buds, ready to open into a sprawling carpet of purple. Bean seeds are starting to come up, the boofheads of the plant world, shoving their heavy leaf through to the light. Lettuce seeds, carrot seeds, kale seeds have sprouted, making their way through the soil with their distinctive leaves – round, fluffy and scalloped respectively. Our Christmas-present cima di rapa seeds have made good progress, forming nice rows of radish-like green leaf. Precious midyin berry seeds, that sprouted some weeks ago, are developing their second leaves, with promising signs of thriving. Even the guava seeds, little bullets that we took from that most delicious fruit, are swelling, tiny green bumps appearing on the surface of the soil.
On the other side of the world, in London, my daughter-in-law waits to give birth, my son by her side. I wish birth for her could be as simple as for the guava, with a seed that swells and bursts above the soil into leaves. I hope my son will be as good a companion as the woman who sat by me as I was waiting to give birth to him. We sat and counted the seconds through my contractions, neither of us knowing what we were doing – but what a result!
15 May 2015
I had thought I would be able to write about the return of our bees with pleasure, triumph even. I had thought I could quote from Sylvia Plath’s poem, ‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’, making comparisons between her funereal imagery (she sees the bee box as ‘the coffin of a midget’) and my own happy experience. But no. Plath’s words are wildly prophetic. Once she has described the box, and the din that comes from it, she calls it ‘dangerous’, with the inhabitants ‘angrily clambering’. She is appalled by the noise (‘It is like a Roman mob’) and declares, ‘I have simply ordered a box of maniacs’. And then, like the Delphic oracle herself (to switch classics) she says, ‘I am no source of honey / So why should they turn on me?’
The thing that had actually been concerning me in moving the hive was its weight. We had to lift it from its temporary home of the last few months – where the bees had disgraced themselves by stinging their lovely host Tom not once but five times on the face – onto the back of the ute. Last time we looked, the two boxes of this hive were pretty full. The bottom box filling up with brood, the top box filling up with honey. Honey that we couldn’t extract because it wasn’t capped yet. But, as ever, our mentor Alwyn carried the load. Literally this time. The bees had managed to find a way out of the barrier across their doorway that was meant to keep them in overnight, so Alwyn lifted the hive while we slipped a piece of shadecloth underneath, then lifted it up the sides and tied it on, trapping most of the bees that were leaving to forage – some were inevitably left behind in this manoeuvre. Then he took one end of the hive while the two of us took the other, up to the tailgate of the ute and sliding it along to the back of the cabin. We tied it on, put the canopy down over it and drove it home. It was equally straightforward when we got home, sliding it off the ute, positioning it on its platform, removing the shadecloth and letting the bees go. They were cranky bees. They’d been trapped inside for most of the morning then bumped around to reach this new and unfamiliar place. And some of their group was missing. They bombed us, their little bodies crashing heavily into our helmets. They followed us up the hill to the cars, clambering on our suits, looking for a way in. But they didn’t get their chance. Alwyn drove away in his suit, an alien in a ute. We went inside and watched them from the window, crazy-flying around the entrance to the hive. ‘We’ll leave them alone,’ we said.
I thought I was leaving them alone by finishing a job I’d started earlier today – planting some bean seeds. I had a little patch all dug over – up near the house, a long way from the hive – and I popped the bean seeds in, put a cloche over them to stop any passing wallabies from walking on them / nibbling them, and watered them. I saw a blue-banded bee buzzing around some late tomato flowers. I congratulated myself on my confidence around bees, on how easily we had moved our hive, on how wonderful it was being a beekeeper. The next moment, I realised that the nearby buzzing wasn’t the blue-banded bee any more, but one possibly two bees caught in my hair. I stood still. Ha ha, bees in my hair. No worries. If I don’t panic they’ll just fly off. But they didn’t fly off. I bent down to brush them against a big bunch of parsley. Poor bees, can’t get out my hair. But they didn’t take the hint and kept up their angry buzzing until the burning pain of the sting hit me. Martin to the rescue, brushing the kamikaze bees out of my hair and getting me inside. Then the bees are in Martin’s hair, entangling themselves. Not by accident, but design. Even though we are no source of honey they have turned on us, the devils who disrupted them and stole them away.
Plath’s poem ends, ‘Tomorrow I will be sweet God, I will set them free. / The box is only temporary.’ I hope, in Plath’s case, they recognised her as their saviour, not their tormentor.
I spent a couple of hours this morning contemplating the front garden, digging up bits of it and pulling things out. The tomatoes have definitely overstayed their welcome – particularly the ones that have tiny little tomatoes no bigger than a pea. Their sprawling branches have started to occupy huge sections of the garden, for little reward. So they came out, and the capsicum / chilli mutant got a severe prune. I’ve decided it was too well staked this year, and the densely packed branches (that, in other years, have snapped off whenever we had high winds) have kept the bush too humid, so that a lot of the fruit has rotted. The constant rain this summer hasn’t helped either. Not that I’m criticising the rain.
Cutting back the capsicum / chilli revealed some kale, planted at the beginning of spring. It has been so deeply shaded that it is now barely bigger than when it went into the ground. Seeing its perseverance inspired me to expose it a little more to the light, so out came the Egyptian spinach (which was going to seed anyway), more tomato plants, and, inadvertently, a large rocket plant that had escaped my notice. I continued my swathe of terror against tomatoes and Egyptian spinach, and added warrigal greens to the pile of ‘once were food, now are weeds’. I might point out, all of these things were self-sown. They came out of nowhere and have been good to us, but it’s no good getting sentimental about them.
When I stopped for lunch, I looked out over my morning’s work – and saw very little. A small area of bare ground near the compost bin, with a large (self-sown) parsley that I couldn’t bear to take out. Another small area in front of that, separated by the radishes. Closer to the house, some room to the side of the asparagus, with some more of the rocket – it looks like it might keep going – and another patch near the stepping stone, where I’ve staked one tomato with a lot of larger green fruit – they’ll ripen. Four small patches of ground with room for more plants. ‘Maybe,’ I said to Martin, ‘we’ve invented a new type of gardening. Patch gardening. A type of gardening that spurns the over-technological application of straight rows, where plants are constrained in the straightjacket of lines, the monotony of one species. Where the seasons are narrowly regulated, and vegetables are on a timetable. Our plants are given free expression, in patches of ground where they can mingle as they will with other plants, without applying seasonal apartheid.’ ‘The Warre hive of gardening,’ said Martin.
I borrowed a book about chook sheds from one of our friends a few months back. I thought it was going to tell you about the essentials in a chook shed, maybe suggest optimal sizes for a chook run, but instead it was a series of pictures with little captions that said how this person had built their shed out of an old silo (complete with curving windows), or that person had converted their children’s cubby house. All of the photos made the sheds look adorable. I gave the book back saying, This is more like chook-shed-porn – something to look at, to salivate over, to desire.
But now that we have our own new chook shed, I have to admit that there’s nothing wrong with chook-shed-porn. Ours is made from recycled pallets and pre-rusted corrugated iron. It has a tiny door with a spindly ladder for the chooks, and a bigger door with a big bolt for us to reach the eggs and clean out the chook-poo straw. The chooks are contained by a wire fence that folds under, to deter digging predators, and it has a gate that springs shut via an ocky strap. Part Heath Robinson, part inspired improvisation, it works brilliantly.
Our old chook shed – a mere, uncharming, unhip kit – sits unloved, its door hanging off since the dog-next-door pushed too heavily to make her way to the eggs, its tiny run filling with a feral pumpkin. We’ve taken down the electric fence that we had used to give the chooks a bigger run. We’ve also stopped giving them unfettered access to the whole garden, and everyone seems happier. Our plants aren’t dug up the minute they’re planted. The chooks seem calmer in being contained, not bothered that they only have one tree (albeit their favourite – the chermoya) to scratch under. Maybe they’re just happy to sleep in such an adorable shed, to form such gorgeous tableaux as they climb their stairs, to be laying eggs in cut-out water containers, and to have a sustainable, ethical abode that could feature in a magazine on organic gardening.
1 April 2015
As we drive along Bucketts Way to the farm the haze starts to rise lightly from the fields. A whiteness shifting over green. I imagine putting my hand down on one of those white-covered fields and feeling the cold and damp of the blades of hard prickly grass under my palm. But I am in the car rushing down the road. The sky deepens in the east to indigo. In the west it’s washed out, a streak of grey cloud drawing a jagged line under its vast colourless expanse.
The moon brightens as the sky darkens. It’s a bit lopsided, still not full, missing a slice out of the bottom. The moon, the haze, the cooling air. Driving out of Sydney to miss the holiday traffic, through choked up roads that finally open onto highways. It all reminds me of Easters past, of my children running in a pack of children on long wide beaches, where the sea splashes fresh against yellow-grey sand as the sun fades. Wrapping children in towels and hurrying them back to holiday rental houses with lino floors and no heaters, cooking sausages on ancient rusty barbecues in dark backyards. Counting children to make sure that none have slipped away. Finding beds and sheets and looking for more blankets in dusty cupboards. Hearing voices rise and fall across the night. Traces of foil easter egg wrappings wherever you go.
Or my own childhood Easters at Lake Macquarie. My parents had a friend who lived there and we would visit every year. She lived right on the shore and the boy next door would take us out in the dinghy. Which was scary, out on the deep wide water. The jetty, where you could lie and peer through the cracks between the slats of wood, watching fish dart among the seaweed fronds, was better. That, and foraging through my showbag, eating licorice, are my main memories. We went every year to the Easter Show, in Moore Park, to see the fruit and vegetable displays and the cows and the sheep and the pigs and then – our annual binge of crass commercialism – to the showbag pavilion. I would buy a licorice showbag with little packets of licorice – licorice strips, allsorts, twists, chunks, bullets. At the bottom of the bag – and it was so exciting that I think it can only have happened once or twice – were two or three wide straps of red licorice, wrapped in tissue paper, precious. Too precious to eat. I would take my licorice bag with me to Lake Macquarie and ration out the pieces every day, hoping it would last forever. I would lie on the sharp broad grass by the side of the lake, listening to the water lapping, and hoping that would last forever too.
13 March 2015
Autumn hits with wild abandon, growing weeds and spinning storms through our valley. Everything seeds and stretches, fruiting, colonising madly, in its final throes of growth before death. Everything looks displaced, frenzied. Pumpkins scatter across the hillside, tomatoes lurch out of the garden beds, zucchinis melt raggedly back into the ground. Heavy rain, and unrelenting humidity on the non-rain days, leave the garden damp and panting.
Approaching the farm, I see that a patch of snowy cloud fills our valley.
Slow. A black cockatoo’s wings beat the air as it sails towards the forest. One cry as it reaches the trees.
Sometimes, some very few times, when times are very hard, when the community becomes a nettle patch, painful to walk through, with a lasting sting – but not as bad as a stinging tree – I think what it would be like to not live here, to not have to deal with nettles. It would mean I wouldn’t have a forest to stare at, to walk in, to learn the tiny corners of. I wouldn’t have a creek, to hear its happy rush after rain. I wouldn’t have birds to delight in, that catch my eye or ear as I’m gardening, their gentle hop, their cacophony. I wouldn’t have sudden moments of joy, breathtaking surprise, feeling honoured by a koala, an echidna. A frog. I wouldn’t have a garden to feed me my vegetables, my greens and tomatoes. That offers up a single magnificent strawberry, a cluster of special, delicious midyin berries, just in passing. I wouldn’t have chooks that pick grasshoppers delicately out of my fingers. I wouldn’t have stars drifting, or a moon bursting through night clouds. I wouldn’t have a place that makes me want to use words like ‘blessed’ and ‘soul’. So much I wouldn’t have.
26 February 2015
On Monday night we went to the Tim Minchin concert. The steps of the Opera House filled with happy people. The sun went down and the lights of the city filled the buildings with Klee-like patches of yellow. Ferries beetled in and out of Circular Quay, jolly with their patch of splashing water. Tim Minchin talked and belted around the stage, singing songs where the wordplay mixes sharp needles with custard. Nice custard that warms the heart; clever, acupuncture needles that hit the right spot and make you smile maniacally along with him.
On Tuesday I went to the state funeral for Faith Bandler. I suppose all funerals are moving, but this one, with its collection of people, many of whom are publicly important, gathered together to honour someone who has affected our world in so many valuable ways, without having had huge recognition in the wider community – this was particularly moving. Speaker after speaker talked of her grace, of her perseverance. She spent ten years speaking to community groups before the 1967 referendum – a referendum to change the constitution regarding Aboriginal people (including them in the census – as Linda Burney said, “before that we were nothing” – and removing the prohibition on the federal parliament having the power to make special laws about Aboriginal people) that was agreed to by 90.77% of the Australian people – the highest number ever. Faith Bandler was a formidable activist, feminist, strategist, mentor, humanitarian, internationalist – an inspiration. And she was, as Professor Paul Torzillo said so forcefully – and to the great appreciation of the until-then sober and respectfully quiet crowd – “she was a leftie, and we’re claiming her as ours.” Maybe Barry O’Farrell didn’t applaud that one.
On Wednesday I woke to the news that there was a crash on the Harbour Bridge. Southbound traffic was banked up to The Spit. Traffic on Wattle Street was at a standstill. Extensive delays through the peak hour. Buses delayed by an hour. It sounded like the whole centre of Sydney had turned into one massive traffic jam that I didn’t want to join. I dawdled in the flat, waiting for it to clear. By the time I did leave the streets were normal, with a feeling of relief about them. I drove across the bridge and up the highway, turned onto the motorway. I drove through heavy rain and sunshine, on wet roads and dry. I arrived at the farm in the late afternoon. The creeks greeted me with a bit more splash than they’ve had for months.
This morning, Thursday, I woke to this year’s family of blue wrens belting around the garden. Their tiny bodies are barely heavy enough to weigh down the parsley or basil they land on. The grass is wet from last night’s rain. Since last Sunday a lot of the zucchinis have melted, their big strong scratchy leaves gone, their hollow stalks reduced to a puddle on a yellowing stem. Wallabies have found the sweet potato and its leaves have gone too, only the stems left to stand, empty, on their vines. Two of our first plantings – the live fast die young tamarillos – have died and we cut one of them out last week. I pile its bare branches onto the mattress springs that the sweet potato grows through as one more hurdle for the wallabies. It’s good to give the tamarillos another purpose before they become kindling. They deserve a lengthy send-off. These pioneering trees formed the basis of the food forest in the top garden. We planted coffee bushes under their shade and shelter, ringed them with lemon grass and comfrey, grew out from them with greens, then carrots and tomatoes, then arrowroot, further out with marjoram and feijoa, joined their bed up with plum and peach trees. This summer we extended again, with turmeric and yacon, melon and cucumber. But the tamarillos were the first: they established the centre. Our first crop, they taught me to love the tart, red-blood ooze of their fruit.
This is my life. City and country. Light and dark. Frontloader and twin-tub. Chicken and egg. Joy and pain. Life and death.
February 21 2015
Jokes about regicide apart, it wasn’t easy killing the queen. Not that we did it. Our mentor, Alwyn, took us out to where he had sited our ailing hive and his (new swarm) hive, in someone’s lovely vegetable garden on the outskirts of town. We opened up both hives to find that our hive was still – after three months – just managing to replace itself, still only occupying the five original frames it came in. Our queen was there, and a new queen cell near her. ‘They know she’s no good,’ Alwyn said. A sixth frame had a massive hole in the middle of the wax. ‘Wax moth. Sign of an ailing hive,’ said Alwyn. Judgement day was upon us.
The new swarm hive, the control against which ours was being measured, was booming. Bees occupied every frame, the eggs were being laid in a regular pattern, we saw larvae and pollen and honey. The queen was wandering around with an entourage, a bubble of worker bees around her. Alwyn picked her up to put a blob of blue marker pen on her – it makes them easier to spot, and the colour coding for each year lets you know how old she is – but she scrambled out of his hand and flew off. We tiptoed around, not wanting to be the person who squashed the good queen, until Alwyn spotted her on the ground, picked her up and marked her and threw her through the front door of her hive. Then he turned to our hive. Our queen’s red-dotted back came into view, close to the new queen cell again. That red dot had once been the source of excitement, alerting us to our queen’s activity, showing us that all was well with our queen on her throne. Today, the red dot is sad. It marks her out for her fate. Alwyn reaches down – not with those careful fingers that held the other queen so lightly that she flew away, but with hard pincers that squash the queen and … she’s already gone. A smear. ‘What about the queen cell that they’re building?’ I ask. ‘That needs to go too,’ he says and it’s gone, broken in half. ‘Look,’ he says, pointing to a viscous substance in the cup-like half of the cell, ‘there’s the royal jelly they were feeding to the young queen.’
The rest of the procedure was quick. Alwyn placed a piece of newspaper over the top of our box, then some thin pieces of wood on three sides and another box on top. He punched holes in the paper with a nail. We moved the five frames from the good hive into the box along with three empty frames. The thin pieces of wood keep the boxes apart and give the bees in the top box an access door in one direction while the bees in the bottom box have their access in the other direction. This means the bees can go in and out of their own hives separately until they’ve eaten through the paper and the hives have combined.
We put the lid on top of the top box, and bricks on top of that. I wonder if I’m too soft to be a farmer.
February 12 2015
The joy of homecoming, recognition, is immediate, but it takes a while for the buzz of the drive and the city to leave me. I check the chooks. They look to see if I’m carrying the white bucket with their scraps, or even a caterpillar on a kale leaf, but I’m empty-handed and they ignore me. I walk around the garden. Finally, the zucchini have a decent crop and not just flowers and enormous leaves. I find an escapee at the back – it was probably tiny when we left last Saturday but it’s nearly 30 cm long now. The new zucchini – the Christmas present seeds – are already producing ball-shaped fruit, one way past tennis ball size. Should I pick it? The self-sown capsicum – the only sort we seem to be able to grow – has got half a dozen green capsicums. One down the bottom is turning red so I pick that. Tomatoes have started coming up where the beetroot came out, vying with the pepinos for space on the bank, apparently trying to outdo each other for the prize for the plant that spreads the most and produces the least at the moment.
Further along, the Jap pumpkins continue their rush down the hill, but they’re doing the right thing, with a satisfying number of flowers turning into little bulbs of green-striped pumpkins. The strawberries are breaking free of their cage – the one tiny area of order in this chaotic garden, where the strawberry plants are in a row, surrounded by mulch and looking something like a gardening photo – but their runners can’t be contained or rerouted any more and the cage will have to be expanded. The mandarin tree which has struggled for three years, and which we noticed only last week has finally started to thrive, is looking less happy. Some small branches are almost bare of leaves, and other leaves have large chunks taken out of them. Nasty looking caterpillars, orange, brown and white, have invaded. My secateurs are the nearest implement so I chop the ones I can see in half and hope I’ve got them all.
And now, my dinner of zucchini and pasta eaten, the night’s cool air around me, moths the size of small birds battering against the flyscreen, the slow chirrup of frogs and crickets an undecipherable background blur, I’m here.
3 February 2015
The morning sky is that lighter blue that says, enticingly, daringly, ‘autumn’. At the farm on the weekend the days had lost their burning heat and the nights were cold enough to push us indoors for dinner. We woke up on Sunday morning to a light mist over the hills, creeping down behind each tree to silhouette it briefly before devouring it.
Even Sydney has sky and weather. Sydney where a mother raised on Sesame Street sings to her daughter as they ride their matching scooters down the street. Where women give the man with a baby strapped to his chest admiring looks when he walks into the coffee shop. Where the two middle-aged men at the table next to me earnestly discuss whether single-breasted or double-breasted suits are currently in fashion. I switch off from their conversation to concentrate on my coffee-shop reading matter, a paper on BMAD (Bell miner associated dieback). BMAD is the source of some discussion at the farm, and puts a sour note into the beautiful call of the bellbirds (otherwise known as bell miners). Bellbirds have come a long way since they were Henry Kendall’s ‘silver-voiced birds, the darlings of daytime!’. They are now being blamed for facilitating infestations of psyllids (tiny sap-sucking insects) that feed on certain eucalypts and cause dieback, where the leaves are stripped from the canopy and the tree often dies. A further connection has been made with lantana around the base of the tree, as a nesting site for the bellbirds. The simplistic response has been that getting rid of the lantana will remove the bellbirds and therefore save the trees. But, as with anything in nature, it seems the solution is not that simple, because the cause is not that simple. The paper’s summary concludes that ‘there is a complexity of connections and interactions, many of which have yet to be deciphered.’
I leave the coffee shop and wander into Ming On Trading across the road. We’ve only ever bought chicken cages (round domes that we use to protect our vegetables from the wallabies) from Ming On, but today I go upstairs to a world of ribbon and trims, boxes overflowing with strings of sewn strawberries and fake fur. Two women speak rapid Chinese to each other, interspersing their conversation with the occasional English words – ‘sample invoice’, ‘ring downstairs’. It’s like a song I can’t quite get, their voices rising and falling and flowing, then stopped by harsh English syllables. Back outside a woman wearing a black hijab stops on the footpath to embrace her little girl who jumps and points into the sky, calling out excitedly, ‘An aeroplane!’. We exchange a smile at the joy of discovery. What a complexity of connections and interactions yet to be deciphered!
23 January 2015
When we opened our beehive last Friday it was a sorry sight. The bees were sluggish, and there weren’t many of them. There was a small amount of larvae but we couldn’t see any eggs, and we couldn’t see the queen. She’s quite distinctive – not only is she much bigger, but she has a blob of red paint on her abdomen, added by the people we bought her from. A hive can make a new queen, but it needs to be done from the egg stage. No eggs equals no new queen.
We were bad hive parents. Something had gone wrong, and as new hive owners it was bound to be our fault. We went to the monthly beekeepers meeting on Sunday, crestfallen. But the beekeepers are an immensely generous bunch, and nothing pleases them more than helping their fellow beekeepers, no matter how stupid they’ve been. They’re a bit like bees in that respect – it’s all about the group. So we came away from the meeting with many offers of assistance, plus an offer of a new nucleus – a queen with a few frames of her worker bees. We discussed how to manage our existing hive alongside the new nucleus, and the general consensus was that we should combine them using the newspaper method. In this method you put one box (the stronger colony) on the base, then a sheet of newspaper, then the box of the weaker colony on top. We were instructed on it, we were shown it, we looked at it on YouTube and we tried to absorb the many intricacies of this seemingly simple procedure. Wouldn’t all the bees escape during the moving of the boxes? No, they go back to the hive with their own pheromones. Wouldn’t they all fight and die? No, because they have to chew through the newspaper to combine, and by the time they’ve done that they’ve become accustomed to each other’s pheromones and they won’t fight. What if bees from the old hive fly in at the bottom where they are used to flying in? They’ll probably be ok as they’re bringing in food, not trying to rob it. And so on and so on.
Last night we picked up the new nucleus, along with the warmth and expertise of our new mentor. We drove home in the thick sultry night, surrounded by heavy air and stars, the bees strapped in to the back seat of the ute. And this morning we started the procedure. We talked about the steps we were going to follow, we got the smoker going, we put on our bee jackets, we took all the equipment down to the beehives. We opened our original hive for one last check. There were bees everywhere. Bees buzzing in and out of the front door, climbing all over the frames, busily depositing pollen and nectar, feeding larvae, tending to the queen … her tell-tale red blob of paint was slightly diminished, but there she was, her bum in a cell, probably laying an egg. On another frame a large bulbous cell stuck out – a cell that grows a queen. From seeming to have no queen we now had one alive and one in production. We closed up the hive and went to ring our mentor.
5 January 2015
Last night the chooks were dawdling to bed, having a last peck at the feed, a last sip at the water, when I felt something behind me and turned to see the moon, just above the hill, a creamy-yellow disc surrounded by a bright yellow haze, edged with a thin circle of red trim. Slowly it made its ascent into the night sky, amazing all around with its magnificence.
Tonight it is much later, and we sit in darkness as we eat our dinner, bombarded by grasshoppers. A pale line of light forms along the top of the hill but still the moon waits. A cloud above the hill is lit from below. A tiny edge of brightness rises and suddenly the whole moon is there, veiled.
Behind us the bleating frog bleats. Now that I’ve seen him – he sits on the edge of the water trough, calling out to any waiting female bleating frogs – I feel I owe him an apology for my harsh words last week. He’s a sturdy little fellow, maybe 5 cm long, identifiably male from the glimpses of a lemon-yellow underbelly at his armpits and tops of his legs. His long back is a greeny-brown, and his toes end in fat round tips. He is a definite benefit, his beauty less showy than the moon’s but no less remarkable.
29 December 2014
Yesterday’s rain has gone, leaving behind it a fresh night sky with bright spots of starlight. Where the mists rose from the hillside (drifting lines of white fog that meandered up, forming curlicues that hovered before being sucked back down into the forest) we can now see – although it has always been there – that there is a patch of rainforest in a gully surrounded by eucalypts. At the front of the forest a stand of young eucalypts stood uniformly tall, uniformly bare-trunked to a ball of leaves, when the mist silhouetted them against the hill.
The rain has other benefits, like the steady call of frogs as night falls. There is a low background consistent hum of croaks from the paddock; closer to the house a ‘crik crik crik’ noise. Coming in above that an intermittent grrr-aak, grrr-aak grinding its way through the dark. Then there is the loud discordant screech that stops and starts. What was once a general ‘sound of frogs’ – the sound of summer nights, washed air, grateful bush sighing – now pulls apart into the stony creek frog, the green tree frog, the common eastern froglet and, unmistakably, the bleating tree frog.
Although I’m not quite sure that the bleating tree frog could really be called a benefit.
The first time we came to see the farm with a view to buying it, the owner, Eva, a woman in her eighties, who had run the property since the ’50s as a dairy farm with her husband, dead for ten years when we met her, told us that the white cockatoos had been so bad in the orange trees that morning that she’d got out her shotgun and had a go at them. Part of me was shocked – shoot at cockatoos, those whimsical jesters? – but part of me knew that one day I would understand. That day has come, with the sight not of cockatoos but of three king parrots sitting in our apple trees this morning, pulling at the developing fruit, chewing through to the seeds then moving on to the next one, unmoved by our shouts or thrown stones. Not having a shotgun to hand I rushed up the embankment waving my arms until they rose in a leisurely manner and landed a few trees away, watching to see if I would leave them in peace. More rushing and waving sent them off into the paddock. Beautiful they may be, with glistening feathers of impossibly bright red and green, but we want those apples. Our two apple trees are only two or three metres high, our crop is only going to be in the order of 20 apples, but that makes them precious. Maybe when we have a garden full of established fruit trees, loaded down with fruit, I’ll be able to emulate Jackie French and have a more ‘one for you, one for me’ philosophy.
The day turned hot, and I had to wait until the evening cool to wrestle with netting. I had just finished (one tree fully enclosed and the other covered in netting bags like a badly decorated Christmas tree) when my neighbour Rachel appeared. She had just seen another koala. We hurried up the hill, up behind the houses and along the wallaby track. There, in a spindly tree, was the koala, as promised. Hunched in the tree, its back to us, dark grey fur with a redder tinge around its shoulders. It seemed smaller than the others – the one we’d seen in the tree by the creek, and the one Rachel had seen in a different tree further down the hill. This was the first one I had seen without the aid of binoculars, standing on a hill almost level with it in its tree. Suddenly every eucalyptus amplifolia has the potential to hold a koala, to be infinitely more interesting than it was yesterday.
That’s the thing with living on the farm. The excitement can be intense, like seeing a koala up close, or it can be soft, like seeing the new silhouette of a wrapped apple tree against the deep blue night sky.
December 13 2014
Driving up here from Sydney last week I saw a collection of birds in a swampy area outside the little settlement of Craven. Craven is something of a ghost village, with a death sentence on its head. One of the coal mines wants to dig up that particular piece of land where a row of houses sits, so the road is going to be moved some kilometres to the west to accommodate this completely reasonable desire. It hasn’t happened yet and the houses in Craven continue to be inhabited, and the gardens continue to grow, but everything looks a little impermanent and tenuous. I’m not sure if it depends on the price of coal rising or falling, but whatever it is, Craven is situated in limbo.
Outside Craven, on the Gloucester side, is one of the very few straight stretches of road on Buckett’s Way. The rain has filled the ditches with water and any low-lying paddocks with swamps, and it was in one of these temporary swamps that I saw a small group of waterbirds. A number of egrets and two enormous birds, bodies the size of pelicans but with long legs, bodies a rounded mound of black and white feathers and beaks thinner and pointier than a pelican. It was only when I looked in the bird book that I realised how lucky I had been to see them, as they were jabirus. They do, apparently, come as far south as this, although I had always assumed them to be birds of the tropical wetlands.
So this week, as we drove up, I looked very closely as we came out of Craven. Nothing on the swampy area – more swampy than ever, thanks to continuing blissful rain – but then, further into the paddock, it was there again. We did a u-turn at the top of the hill and came back down, got out of the car and crossed the road to watch it stalk, elegant, reaching down and moving on, flamingo-like with its legs that joint backwards. It patrolled the paddock, walking down then back again – big body, stick legs – a complete anomaly in a field that doesn’t usually contain anything more exciting than a cow.
December 4, 2014
We’ve been outside on our deck, watching the koala as the night approaches and a white moon – very slightly lopsided – rises. At first just a dark blob in the tree, the languid movements coalesce through the binoculars into a koala shape, white fluffy ears the first clear evidence. Then it turns to face me, and I see the black nose, the triangle forming with its eyes. It seems to be darker than the first time we saw it, with greater differentiation between a dark grey back and a very light chin, tummy, bottom. It raises its head, swaying up and down, and I hear the deep snorting rumble that keeps on alerting me to its presence.
Last week the moment of surprise and beauty came as we left the rainforest. We’d gone up there to finalise our fire management plan with John from the Rural Fire Service, panting up the hill as the morning heated up. Once through the lantana barrier we were immediately into the relief of cool shade. The ground was damp – recent light falls of rain captured by the forest – and the moist air surrounded us. We walked up to the photo point, pleased to see that the pink ribbon trail had survived to guide us in. The track was easy – so much easier than that first time, when I had no sense of where I was going, and the close forest kept out all landmarks for orientation.
We turned back at the photo point. The RFS man had seen enough to know what sort of forest it is – dry rainforest – and to see what types of habitats it supports. Ferns, orchids, turpentine, giant stinging tree – no palms. We walked back down the hill and through the lantana, out to the heat and the dry paddock. We were making our way towards a clump of wattle when Rachel noticed something blue in the massive fig tree that sits in the corner of the paddock. Bright blue, turquoise, teal – it was the tail of a large bird with a very pale green head, a darker green body and – suddenly we see the flash of yellow under its wings as it takes fright and moves a few branches further away. A Wompoo fruit dove, possibly a young one as we didn’t see any sign of the other unlikely colour – pink – that is on the adult bird. We have heard its call – a series of low, bubbling wom-poo, wom-poos that seem to fill the forest with something more tangible than sound – but, as with the koala, it is the sight of it that captivates me, holds me transfixed, unable to let go of the magic of the vision.
November 22 2014
For the last two Fridays we’ve been kept inside by the heavy hand of a hot day. A peaceful morning of lemon sun and bright birdsong gives way to the monotony of bellbirds. Leaves beaten dry clack in the wind.
As the last arcs of the sun fall behind the western hills we venture out, sitting on the eastern side of the house in a cool breeze. Last week a cloud of white ants flew into the air from an old tree stump, shining specks of light catching the last rays. They scattered through the air, flying with abandon, crashing into us and the trees and the ground. The chooks pecked avidly at every log they landed on. To the south a great grey streak of cloud splashed the sky. Trees on horizons turned black on grey-green hills.
When the night is completely dark the soft air hugs our bodies. First stars come shyly through the blackness.
November 14 2014
We were sitting on the back deck late in the day last Saturday with a farmer from Victoria, the father of one of our neighbours. We’d been discussing birds – he’d noticed a yellow-breasted whistler; I’d noticed my favourite bird, the leaden flycatcher, back in the garden on its migratory round, and I’d gone to get the bird book (a massive edition of Cayley) to show him approximately what it looks like – when Martin said, What’s that bird in the tree? and followed me inside to get the binoculars.
It turned out not to be a bird at all. It was a koala, in the exact tree that I had heard a sound from weeks ago when we were weeding by the creek, less than 100 metres from the house. We took turns with the binoculars, watching it climb higher, out onto branches that looked far too thin, making the branch shudder as it reached out for leaves. It climbed around the tree as dusk fell darker. I watched it turn towards us, giving me a full koala stare with its round face and fluffy ears. A kookaburra landed on the ground below it, and we only needed a wallaby (or an echidna perhaps) to wander past to create a complete Australiana diorama. We laughed, but our laughter was for our fortune, of being granted such a magnificent boon.
It was nowhere to be seen when we went down to look at the tree last night at dusk. We wandered around, cricking our necks, my ears yearning for the grunt or snort that would give it away. The bush creaked and sighed, but with bird sounds, late-evening chirps that sounded as muted as the sky. Just as we were leaving a sound came from further up the hill, in a stand of similar eucalypts – one tell-tale bellow.
November 4 2013
We have our bees, thanks to Martin’s intrepid journey to Maitland and back via bumpy winding roads in the dark, dodging bushfire and a tricky petrol gauge. A few were sacrificed to the god of travel, but the rest are out and about this morning, exploring their new surroundings.
We did our first lesson in beekeeping on Saturday. I think I’d expected a lot of talking about bees and honey, but instead we were marching up to the apiary along a sandy track in the sun and straight into watching how you start and stoke a bee smoker – a bit of paper to start it then pine needles, stringybark or paperbark, packed in loosely at first then stuffed in so you’ve got enough fuel to keep it smoking. Smoke calms the bees when you open the hive as they try to load themselves up with honey rather than attacking you. Our instructors – all generous, kind amateur beekeepers – told us that it needs to be cool smoke, not hot smoke that might harm the bees, and demonstrated what cool smoke is by puffing it onto our hands. It was cool. Once the smokers were puffing nicely we got kitted up – Martin and I (and quite a few others) in conspicuously white new beekeeping jackets with built-in hoods. Even manoeuvring into the jackets was a feat that needed assistance. We divided into small groups with an instructor to open each hive and almost immediately I had a frame of bees in my (gloved) hands.
Like many firsts, there’s nothing quite like the first time you hold a frame of bees. There in front of you is a multitude of bees, crawling all over the frame and indeed on your hands (gloves). You’re not running away from it, but you’re standing still, watching the bees get on with their business. Alarmed at first, I moved to actually seeing what they were doing in their busy wanderings. I saw a drone, briefly, before it flew off – the larger, male bee who serves a purpose once in its life (if it’s lucky, as our instructor said, chortling) – but the rest were all field bees, females who tend the hive and the brood and manufacture the honey by some alchemical process we may learn about next week. Sweat ran down my back in the heat, in the jacket, but holding bees, observing bees, learning how to swing the frame around to inspect both sides, seeing how to lever the frames out of the box, scrape the propolis off the edges and ensure that the frames were clean and adequately spaced – made for an exhilaration, a freedom from ancient fears that completely overcame my discomfort.
19 October 2014
Usually it’s Martin saying, ‘I just saw …’ or ‘Come here quickly – ohh, it’s gone’ but today it’s me saying, ‘I heard the strangest sounds – I came to get you but they stopped.’ I heard them first down by the creek. We were cutting lantana – we have a little bush regen project going down there, which is going very well, with lots of young trees coming up amid the dead lantana stalks – and I had moved towards the rainforest section while Martin was at the other, open, creek-bend, end. As I moved towards another section of lantana I heard a purring noise, that turned into a rhythmic snoring sound, getting louder then finally becoming pig-like snorts that tailed off, back to the purring. It could have been anything, coming from anywhere – a frog or a bird in the congested lantana that I was approaching, trying to scare me off? Then the sequence was repeated. It was coming from the rainforest, up the hill. The pig-like sound was disconcerting – wild pigs? They have a reputation for ferocity. I walked hesitantly towards the sound. Was it coming from a tree? Twice I walked up the hill, slowly, quietly, peering into trees, ready to leap back if a pig exploded from the bush. Twice I went back to my lantana when the sounds stopped.
The afternoon grew slower, the shadows longer. We went back to the house where I did some more weeding in the vegie garden while Martin made dinner. Suddenly, through the soft dusk, a commotion arose from the rainforest section of the creek. A series of loud shrieks and grunts and snorts, a cacophony, very guttural.
By now I had my suspicions but I had to check them, finding a great range of noises (shame about the American commentaries) at http://koalaland.com.au/what-sounds-do-koalas-make. I was right. There must have been at least two koalas by the creek. One of our neighbours sighted one a couple of weeks ago – climbing their verandah post, hoping it led to food – but that was the first evidence we’d ever had of koalas on the property beyond noticing a very strong distinctive odour in some areas. Today’s display shows that we have more than one. The farm reveals itself to be ever more precious.
11 October 2014
Spring may be a European concept, but here at the farm there’s a definite spring-like atmosphere. Normally staid goats cavort in the field, the three young ones following their parents in a steeplechase across a ditch. The swallows have been more successful as parents this year and in the space of two days their babies have transformed from tweeting beaks that look picturesquely over the rim of the nest to speeding bullets travelling in formation. The garden has exploded into waves of seeding asparagus, rocket and parsley while the kale and chicory are only slightly behind, bulbous with bees on their flowers. It’s a scene of complete serenity – the asparagus ferns wafting, the kale flowers punctuating the green distance with lemon-yellow flowers, the brown snake gliding past the compost bin …
This is the brown snake’s second languid appearance in exactly this spot in two days. I know it’s the same one because it has a small scar near the tip of the tail. I’m so close – collecting lettuce – that our eyes are at the same level. I can see that it has pale eyes, which helps me to identify it as an Eastern Brown Snake, rather than a King Brown (orange irises). It keeps gliding, moving its whole metre and a half length around the path established by its head, more interested in what may be in the compost bin than in me. I still remove myself swiftly, watching it at all times. It doesn’t exactly follow me, but it does end up on the paving near the sliding doors, casually searching, poking its nose up the corrugations of the tin for any lunchtime snacks. The frog we saw on Thursday night is not seen again.
More attractively, sightings of an echidna – a young one, sticking its long nose into the soil in a ‘you-can’t-see-me’ way – near the front gate, a young wallaby by the road and a pademelon vanishing up the gully. We have only seen the pademelon at night previously and it’s a treat to see it in daylight, to know its colouring (very dark brown, almost black, with a red tinge around the head) and see more clearly its powerful legs and stubby tail. Daylight saving must have confused the wildlife as well.
Grey floating mist settles heavily into the gullies, hiding the trees and the hills and cutting us off from distance. It reminds me of those Tasmanian calendars that were such standard fare for a couple of decades. They appeared so reliably at the end of every year, so much so that I took them for granted. Then I wanted them, and they were gone. They always featured mist: white mist curved like velvet over rocks; stretched wisps of mist swirled around treetops; time-lapsed mist rushed down rivers like tastefully-drawn cartoon ghosts. I valued those calendars for their connection with the heroic fights to save the Franklin River, for their vision of a splendid, dramatic world that was Australia – not another, more important, or more historic, or more beautiful country. They made mist special for me, beyond its own gusting, mesmerising specialness.
The trees and hills hidden by mist today were in full view yesterday under a clear blue sky. We walked up into an area of the property I’d never been to before, passing carefully through a sprawling edge of blackberry to a large open glade of wattle. It was cooler under the dappled wattle light. The soft floor was a nursery for seedlings, making us watch where we trod. On the edge of the grove a baby giant stinging tree extended its vast and dangerous leaves – disarmingly, heart-shaped – like a young beast yawning with razor sharp teeth. A baby native tamarind identified itself with one large serrated leaf on a spindly stalk. Saplings of white euodia of various sizes were springing up, ready to take over from the wattle once its short life ends. Like a textbook image of rainforest regeneration taking place, the grove, in its calm beauty, shouted Nature will win! What should grow, will grow!
We walked back to the flat and crossed the creek at a place I’ve crossed a hundred times, never noticing before how a fig and another tree entwine on the edge of the bank so it’s hard to see which branch belongs where. The other tree was identified yesterday as a shatterwood, joining all those other Australian names that speak of the colonists’ disaster or dismay – Wreck Bay, Lake Disappointment, Mount Warning, Cape Tribulation. I could almost feel the timberworkers’ disgust at this tree, so promising, so plump, so useless to them as it shattered. I could almost feel the tree’s laughter: I’m not here for you!
The clouds gathered in the dip in the hills to the west, slowly, unobtrusively. The air became humid and the air still. A catbird squawked down by the creek. In the distance a chattering bird set up a background strum. One of the children, invisible on the hill, called out, her high voice carrying like a melody. It was Sunday afternoon.
I don’t often get a Sunday afternoon. Generally I’m in the car, heading to Sydney. The afternoon spins by on four wheels, carried by the long stream of the black road past farms, through villages, alongside a scrappy industrial area. Then across the Hunter River and onto the highway, where the traffic gets more serious but the bush can still delight you with a clump of cheerful wattle or a cliff prettied by boronia. The Hawkesbury River widens as you come down the hill, solemn with the responsibility of being so scenic. The traffic becomes more manic and you’re drawn into Sydney, into traffic lights and narrow-laned roads, vistas of clumped high-rise and the curve of the Harbour Bridge. The road is so familiar that I can daydream the whole journey when I’m meant to be concentrating on someone else’s grammatical errors and structural flaws.
The afternoon drifted along. The clouds continued to gather non-threateningly, fluffy greys and whites, then they spilled over into the valley. They spread out, light blue sky glimpsing through. As evening approached they gained some suggestions of colour, pastel mauves and pinks like an old lady’s bathroom.
The chooks welcomed us on Thursday by clustering around the front garden, trying to join me in forbidden, fenced-off areas and digging around my feet as I cut vegetables for dinner. The asparagus crowns are sending stalks up in random abandon; the Chinese cabbages have remained small but have hearted; the ever-reliable kale has shaken off the aphids and produced whole new bouquets of grey curly leaves. I went inside for a moment with my vegetables and Martin called me out again, quickly. Two of the chooks were chasing one and a half metres of fast-moving, glossy, vibrant red-bellied black snake across the grass. The complete foolhardiness of their quest engrossed us – their little legs, their waggling bums in earnest pursuit. Did they think they had just seen the biggest, tastiest worm ever, or were they were actually chasing it away? Hard to say. We tried to call them back, out of danger, as the snake slowed down and they came closer to striking distance, but they wouldn’t respond. Martin threw a small rock which landed precisely between the chooks and the snake, causing the chooks to squawk and jump and the snake to double back and rear up. The chooks paused, but stood their ground, clucking indecisively while Martin changed tactics, grabbed some bread and called them to him. This time they came up the hill, leaving the snake to its own unfathomable devices, sniffing around the grass, twisting around an unknowable winding of paths, until it slid under the fence and out into the paddock.
The next day, in the garden, the neighbour’s half-grown piglets appeared around the corner of the house in a sudden galloping, snorting confusion. They snuffled around the path then careered down into the garden beds, oblivious to newly-planted trees, wire cages, carefully nurtured seedlings. They ran in ever more chaotic circles, stopping only to sniff, to try to root up the more enticing smells. They came towards us, cheerfully expecting food of some description, racketting off again when they saw our empty hands. Then the neighbours turned up with a bucket of pig pellets – shaken rapidly it drew them away, and back to their pen.
The swirling, ungovernable energy of the pigs remained. I was left with a feeling of impermanence, of the fragility of our little garden. Our delicately tended beds, our carefully arranged stakes, our little paths, our chicken wire and netting were suddenly inadequate, effete – barely even temporary obstacles in the path of determined disruption.
Saturday was the Gloucester Platypus Festival, bringing together local efforts in environmental sustainability. There’s a lot going on in our area that isn’t related to the more unsustainable enterprises like coal and CSG mining. Rain bucketed down on Friday night (no-one noticeably complaining) but you could hear the collective sigh of relief through the valley when Saturday was bright and blue-skyed and the event didn’t have to be cancelled. Weeks of work would have been wasted, and you couldn’t even have complained.
I was working on a ‘make your own milkshake’ stall, where the milkshake is placed at the front of an adapted bicycle and mixed by pedal power – which was provided by the purchaser. The idea of sitting on a stationary bike and pedalling in order to froth their own milkshake was so enticing to pretty much every child at the festival that we were rarely without a queue of customers. There were some who were shy, scared of failure or something new, and some who were too small and needed a parent, grandparent or sibling to ride for them. But mostly it was an energetic crowd, waiting patiently as each rider went through the necessarily slow process of riding the bike sufficiently to froth the milk. In terms of simple (and sustainable) pleasures, this must surely rate.
Back at the farm in the afternoon we gardened, filled with the satisfaction of putting seeds into damp ground. Our newest technique involves placing hessian over the seeds so the chooks can’t dig them up as they germinate ¬— the chances of germination having improved vastly in the last couple of weeks. That night, when we switched off the light, there was a lightness in the sky, the near-full moon throwing dim shadows through the garden. Right in front of our window two tiny dots of bright light appeared, surrounded by a small cloud of dots that moved in and out of perception. Fireflies adding their brief magic to the night.
31 August 2014
The creeks are running, the rivers are spread out, forcing their bulk along with a steady sense of importance. There is mud and squelch underfoot, and the lettuces and rocket have exploded with growth. The one downside of all this rain – and you really have to search for it – is that the second day of our HotSpots program had to be curtailed. We were going to participate in a controlled burn of a section of forest on a nearby property, but the ground was too wet. The road to the property was too slippery for the number of cars involved, and the forest floor would have proved impossible to light.
Even at the local RFS shed, where we could at least cover the theory, a demonstration of how to light a grassfire fizzled out despite multiple matches and special burners. But who could argue with rain? Who could criticise its beauty? The spluttering flames that failed to rise, the creeping fire that failed to take off were just part of the merriment. We went back to our theory, learned about who you have to talk to before you light a fire – notify neighbours, get permission from the RFS – learned how to measure fuel loads – ground, elevated and bark – learned how to calculate which level of fire danger the arrow should point to – depending on time of day, temperature, humidity, wind speed – and learned how you can use that measurement to determine how fast the fire will run, how far the flames will leap. It doesn’t take much for the fire danger to change from ‘high’ to ‘catastrophic’, where fires will run along the tree canopy and jump from ridge to ridge.
We saw the grim need for all this theory as we left the workshop. A few weeks ago a local landholder failed to observe any of the basic precautions that we had just been taught. They didn’t notify neighbours or the RFS, they didn’t consider the then-droughty conditions, or fuel loads or wind conditions. The result is there to be seen in the long deep scar of burnt land rising up one hill and down the next. One of their neighbours was informed, 20 minutes before the fire hit, that their property was in danger. The other day – after all the rain – this neighbour saw a tree go up in smoke. It was a hollow tree that had been smouldering internally for three weeks, harbouring the flames that had finally burst out. But the surrounding land was wet and, as with our demonstration burn, the fire failed to spread. Luckily.
23 August 2014
Not only have the chooks started laying eggs – they’ve discovered their wings, and fly out of the run as easily as they wolf down caterpillars. This means that they’re completely free-range in the garden now. I can see that this is going to run a fine line between having them do extremely useful things, like eating the bugs and aphids and turning over the soil, and creating utter chaos and destruction.
The first time they made it down to the house, and the front garden, they came cautiously, and fluttered off in a rush of wings when I stared at them through the window. But this morning they sashayed around the corner, with just a high self-satisfied chirruping bleat to herald their appearance. Standing and shooing them achieved nothing. They turned their backs on me and started rummaging in the silverbeet, kicking over the soil and having the occasional peck at a leaf. One of them ducked down and fluttered her wings – their most recent development, that seems to mean ‘pat me pat me’. I obliged, until she stood up, shook herself and wandered off.
It’s a wonder how much amusement a chook can provide. Not quite as much as the neighbour’s two piglets (that got so excited when I went to feed them last week that they couldn’t get out of the barrel they had been sleeping in and rolled it all over their yard) but the sort of affectionate, exasperated amusement that comes from watching them hunt and catch and chase, always following each other in fussy, hurried little steps and running to see what the other has found.
Oh by the way, it rained. Intermittent light showers, heavy showers, continual dampness. Misty mornings, overcast days, grey skies. Freshened leaves, greening paddocks. Beautiful.
14 August 2014
The weather forecast is for rain – 40mm originally, now downgraded to 20mm – but even 20mm would be very welcome. More than we’ve had all year. The paddocks are bare after drought and frost, and most of the cows in the area nibble at bare earth and are being hand fed. We still have some feed, and the cows still look plump, but they’re trying all sorts of things – wattle, lantana – that they wouldn’t normally consider. We’re on the edge of our seats waiting for rain. We’re on edge.
There’s something so deeply depressing about bare paddocks and bright blue skies that don’t even hold a cloud. You know powerlessness right there. Wishing and hoping is not going to make it rain. You can’t entice or seduce or implore it to happen. Nothing is going to make it rain except some eventual cycle of nature.
Again the day ended with a promisingly deeply black sky moving in late in the afternoon. The temperature dropped as the thick cover of cloud loomed and menaced. We could see it falling onto the hills in the distance, sheets of grey between the earth and the sky. We hurried up to the house from the creek flat, full of the anticipation of the sound of rain as we sat by the fire, breathing in the moister air and wondering if we would make it inside in time, whether we had enough dry wood and had we picked the greens for dinner? Then nothing.
August 9 2014
Finding our first two little brown eggs in the chooks’ nesting box this morning was the good news we needed. On the other side of Gloucester there is a vigil taking place outside AGL’s office to protest the fracking of four wells close to people’s houses – and close to a proposed new coal mine. This latest permission for AGL makes their threat of 330 coal seam gas wells very real. We drove through the Surat Basin in the middle of Queensland 18 months ago, where the pursuit of CSG is rampant. We have seen what it is like to live in the middle of a gasfield, and it’s a sad, lonely place. Towns are decimated because the mining companies buy out so many properties, not just for mining but also for buffer zones. The countryside is stripped of its people. The miners establish fenced-off camps to house their workers, who fly in, and fly out again. The land is made barren in more ways than one.
We left the chooks to feel proud of their achievement and spent the day in the pursuit of knowledge, learning about managing fire on our property, the difference between wet sclerophyll and dry sclerophyll forest, and who our neighbours are. We were taking part in our local Hotspots program, run by the RFS and some other government agencies. They took us – about 30 of us – to a property right out behind the State Conservation Area, where we picked up dry leaf litter to see how dry it was, and how easily burnt. We learnt that the fuel load of leaf litter, and any stick smaller than your finger, is the dangerous stuff in a wild fire, and that most wild fires are fires that were started by people then ‘got away’.
We learnt about the different time intervals – maybe five years, maybe 60 years – for fires to go through different areas, and how diversity will dwindle in an area that never has fire through it. Except rainforest. You don’t send a fire through a rainforest. We saw the teeth marks on a gum tree from the yellow-bellied gliders who bite into the tree to suck the sap. They climb down the tree and bite from above so they don’t get sap in their fur. We heard about the glossy black cockatoos and the rufous bettong and the red-legged pademelon, the powerful owl and the local koalas. We spent our day in a world where people care for the land, and want to learn how to care for it better.
August 1 2014
It was a wild hot day. The first of August, still the middle of winter, and it’s too hot in the sun. The air is full of bushfire smoke. The fire season has been declared early in our area, starting today, so yesterday there were burn-offs all around. With today’s wind whipping up ferocious gusts, many of those fires are still burning.
One particularly dramatic gust blew past the house like a gale, a vivid assertion of unassailable power. It blew the chook house right over, leaving the chooks indignant and homeless but unscathed. We didn’t get to them until late afternoon, by which time they’d made their own plans, escaped the run and spent a happy few hours foraging under the tamarillos and lemon grass. The chook house was only slightly damaged and was fixed with a few new screws and a couple of judicious cuts where things no longer quite met. It might have been designed for an effete Sydney backyard, but it’s holding its own in this more exposed environment.
It’s a dark night, the moon a sweet line of mellow light, the stars bright in a black sky. The air has cooled right down. I go into the bedroom to get my book and notice ears in the garden. The ears are still while the upright stalks of the rosemary bush sway in what’s left of the wind. Two wallabies are close by the house, eating the stumps of the parsley plants they’ve demolished in previous forays and moving in on the fennel. They are the smaller, lighter, greyer wallabies with black noses. Martin is still in the lounge room and their heads come up at every noise he makes. Heads down then Martin opens an envelope and heads shoot up, ears swivel, paws are still. Heads down, paws reaching out to grab flyaway fennel stems then Martin pushes his chair back and heads shoot up. I read recently about a study that has shown that the kangaroo / wallaby uses their tail like a fifth leg, particularly for taking off from a stationary position. I can’t see the tails of the wallabies in the garden, but when Martin turns off the sitting room light, they’re off, bounding down the hill.
July 24, 2014
Against the low-lying grey of the sky, stretching out in all directions, trapping the earth in layers of comfortless wool, a pale-blue puff rises straight ahead of me, like an exhalation of light. It brings texture to the still landscape, where husks of yellow grass cover the fields and hills, greyed-out tree trunks rise and slip by like film sets.
Calves and lambs bound in the fields, tiny, fresh, inquisitive. They frolic around their mothers who solemnly patrol the bare paddocks, searching out the feed they rejected yesterday. The black-faced sheep race around a shrunken dam, its sides lined with the corrugations of sheep traffic, its water black. Four horses in long coats gather around a bale of hay. An irrigated field is a startling green, its edges ragged.
The creek is nearly still, the pond near the causeway stagnant and slimy. The air bites as I walk down the hill.
13 July 2014
The blue wrens that were such fixtures during summer and autumn have been missing from our garden for weeks. They make an occasional visit as dusk falls when we hear rather than see them, a ghostly presence fluttering among the turned soil and weedings, searching out caterpillars and exposed worms. But in the last week they have been replaced by a group of slightly larger, plumper yellow-breasted birds, which are every bit as gregarious, and attentive when we’re gardening. Generally we only see these birds down at the creek, hopping around and watching us, perching sideways on any vine or tendril, but suddenly they are on the fenceposts and wires, taking up observation duty on the perches we have set up, and sitting decoratively on a spade handle as if they’ve been reading Beatrix Potter.
We look them up in our massive edition of Cayley’s What Bird is That? to check the correct name. We decide they are Eastern Yellow Robins, but annoyingly Cayley has entered them twice – in one entry he says that there are Eastern Yellow Robins as far as Newcastle and Northern Yellow Robins north of that, but in the other entry he says that they are now considered to be conspecific, all Eastern Yellow Robins. Whatever the common name, ours are Eopsaltria australis chrysorrhoa, with a dusky yellow breast and a brighter yellow patch on their rump. I think Cayley is being overly poetic when he describes this patch as a ‘golden rump’ that ‘glows brightly against dark tree-trunks in dim light’, but he’s correct in making their defining characteristic: ‘A friendly and trustful bird.’
The kookaburras have set up their winter vigil around the house; the currawongs have been flocking, filling the morning air with warbling and the sky with manoeuvrings. A family of honeyeaters passed through on Thursday – at least five adults and a baby. We’ve had trouble identifying this bird before, so I won’t start trying. It’s a large honeyeater, at least 15 cm, and in the past it’s appeared alone. This group appeared quite suddenly, the adults foraging in the same places as the robins. We first saw the baby, tucked into the lemon verbena, as one of the adults gave it something round and red. On closer, quiet inspection, this turned out to be a chilli. From the lemon verbena they had easy access to the chillis, and soon three of them were weighing down the small chilli bush, pecking vigorously at the red fruit. Mid-winter, and it’s lean pickings in the wild.
8 July 2014
When I go outside to let the chooks out, the air is as bright and crisp as the sun. There is a thin white layer of frost on the grass, and the leaves of the plants huddle in. An exuberant burst of song from the lyrebird fills the valley, rich and moist. It’s like velvet, yet the morning is as spare as cotton.
Once the sun comes over the hill and hits the ground, the frost is gone, leaving drops of water on the dried blades of yellowing grass. The cows are looking for the bits of feed they’ve been ignoring, next to trees, under fences, and the barbed wire is coated in little black tufts of cow hair. Kookaburras fly low across the paddocks. One darts from its watch on the roof to snatch a tiny green caterpillar from the kale. The land is looking shrunken, its coating becoming sparse.
There is a lot of fuss in the big gum by the creek as bowerbirds chase each other from branch to branch. I heard their noisy flap of wings, their guttural mumbles, when I arrived yesterday, the only sounds in the quiet valley. This morning they are still there, adding a flurry of warm life to the pale blue sky and the glinting trees.
28 June 2014
It rained last Sunday morning, huge bowling balls of thunder from the west rolling through the valley just after dawn. At the height of the storm little balls of hail bounced across the pavers. This morning the clouds were merely decorative, arranging themselves Magritte-like to intersperse with blue sky, then racing away, spreading out as they chased down the valley.
Swallows careered in the wind, darting in to inspect the fatal nest – too close to the eaves for teetering babies to balance – then swooping out again. One red feather flutters on its edge. Below the swallows’ nest a tomato has lodged in a crack in the paving. It soaks up the winter sun in its protected corner, producing little red tomatoes that delight visiting children.
This afternoon the sky grew dark in the west, dark-blue, then purple, then black. When I walked around the house I could see the sky falling away towards the east, felted in every shade of grey. The storm whipped in with cracks of thunder, flashes of lightning. Wind-blown rain covered the deck, gusting, evading capture for the tank.
June 19 2014
It seems more likely to me that we like diamonds because they remind us of the sparkle of waterdrops as the morning sun hits the leaves of trees across the valley, than the other way around.
Winter is here now, and the early morning sun slants in through the double doors when we open the curtains to let it in. It exposes every smear and cobweb across the doors, creating a film across the view beyond. I have to go outside into crisp air, cooler than the bright sun would suggest, to see the chicken wire around the kale transformed into a piece of magnificent, extravagant jewellery, glinting droplets suspended from every filament.
I arrived late yesterday afternoon, driving past mist that lay close to the river flats. As the evening lengthened, it filled every creek and riverbed with slow-rising swirls. The last light through the trees was swallowed by mist; branches that used to be covered by leaves ended in dark unfamiliar bunches of dripping black. Mist spread thick across the paddocks, covering cows, submerging houses. I drove through wisps of sliding cloud.
June 14 2014
The chooks are our unexpected allies in the battle against the kikuyu. They peck at its ends, grazing on it as their preferred food when they’re let out in the mornings. There’s a noticeable difference between the grass inside and outside their run.
Their run is 50 metres of electric mesh held up by pronged stakes. It took five of us about an hour to put it up, but that involved complex arrangements with tent pegs and ropes that I doubt the original developers had ever foreseen. It’s connected to a solar powered energizer with a dead battery that only works when the sun is shining fully onto it. That seems to be enough, and the chooks mainly stay inside, running in a six-legged pack whenever they see a person (or a car, or a dog), anticipating food. They’re generally rewarded.
We’ve had the chooks for about six weeks now. They’re still growing, their wattles developing slowly, their red combs edging out of the tops of their heads. Their pecking has become fiercer and I no longer let them eat out of my hand unless I have gloves on. I let them out when I’m gardening nearby so they can scratch and hunt, picking grubs delicately out of the leafy greens, or to have any snails or grubs that I find. They have a particular cry, a startled expression of joy, that greets these treats. The first one to reach me grabs whatever she can and runs, away from the others, her rump waggling. The other two follow, and I have to call them back to show them what else I have found. At dusk I catch them and put them back in the run. They file up the ramp into their penthouse suite, wobbling on their perch for a while in a show of maturity then, I suspect, going back to the comfort of the nesting box to sleep.
June 8 2014
The main type of grass on our farm is kikuyu, a sturdy running grass with deep roots. When one of the other families had to excavate deeply into the side of the hill to make a flat slab for their house, it exposed the devilishness of the kikuyu, with its long runners at least a metre below the surface of the soil. I’ve been pulling them up all day, and I know my dreams will be filled with my searching for their thick white strands, the feel of breaking them from the earth, the effort of extracting them.
One of our less successful attempts at holding the kikuyu at bay was to lay down a length of weedmatting on top of it. I say ‘our’, but Martin was never convinced. In my defence, it hasn’t been completely unsuccessful, since the grass has been substantially weakened by this treatment, and pulls up with less of a struggle than usual, sometimes even with a very satisfying length of runner attached. But not completely successful because we (and that is ‘we’) left the weedmat down for too long and it has decayed quite a lot in places. Small clumps of its plastic strands are interwoven with the grass, creating nasty little nests of inorganic impurity.
The cows have no complaints about the kikuyu. Four of the Friesians stood at the gate and watched me until I took them some clumps of grass. The bravest one inched forward, its head down against the gate, then lifting at the last minute to grab the grass from my hand. The others muscled in and started jostling at that. Soon four massive muzzles were reaching over the gate, sniffing wetly at me, wide nostrils twitching.
May 31 2014
I am woken by Martin whispering, ‘Look out the window’. A wallaby is standing in the garden. ‘Right where I planted the peas!’ Martin says. But neither of us jumps up to shoo it away. It looks straight at us, through the glass doors of the bedroom, then stands still, only its ears twitching. They rotate on its head, catching every nuance. It lifts its muzzle up high, sniffing something on the wind. It holds its little hands together daintily, its body still, its senses alert. It’s close enough for us to see its damp fur, beige on its front, red on its face, head and back. Then we hear the click of someone opening the top gate and its body tenses. It leaps up and – too quickly for me to see – it must turn in the air because it’s bounding down the hill, over the rhubarb and the new beetroot seedlings.
Soft white mist is rolling in. There are trickles in the downpipes. The yellow berries of the white cedar trees brighten the view, standing out on the tips of bare branches. The wompoo pigeon embarks on another round of fifty pomp-pomp-pomps. As I sit at my desk I hear a rustling above the bird calls – it’s a cow’s head rubbing against wire, pushing through the fence to reach a new patch of grass.
Last night when I came home the sky was so clear that the stars shone down and lightened the land. Star clouds gathered in the Milky Way; bright shining stars filled the deep sky. So high and vast, reaching down to the hilltops, silhouetting the trees. I woke the cows from their resting on the driveway. They looked at me through bleary eyes, rose reluctantly and lumbered a short distance away as I drove through. This is my everyday life here – the startling beauty of the common world.
24 May 2014
Hanging the washing on the line on a sunny day is probably the only domestic chore that I don’t mind. Being accompanied by the song of a lyrebird makes it truly enjoyable. I hear the song more clearly since we saw the lyrebird at Barrington Tops. It seems to encompass the deep shelter of the rainforest, arising from some cool and shady bower. I hear the rich leaf litter in its resonance, the curl of fernfronds in its embellishments. Today it is the butcher bird’s call that is being improved upon, with extra depth and trills. Yesterday it was the whipbird. When the true whipbird called, it sounded thin and unsubstantial compared to the full-bodied, lengthily-drawn out build-up and the fantastically opulent whip! at the end of the lyrebird’s version.
Even our neighbour’s goat – tethered in the blackberries in an attempt to both whittle down the blackberry shoots and entertain the goat – stops his crying, stands still then kneels and rests, his ever-poised head pointing towards the patch of forest where the lyrebird is performing. This goat lost his partner recently, probably to snakebite, and it appears that a goat’s grieving process is both lengthy and highly emotional. He cried for days after the death, and is still unhappy, picking at his food, growing thin. He’s healthy, his coat is good, he is given everything he needs. It just isn’t the same without his friend.
As the cows meander up from the creek the goat gets agitated. I think it’s his chance to make a new friend, but he eyes them warily. They regard him with interest, or maybe it’s his bowl of cereal and bucket of water that catch their attention. One wanders over and makes light work of the cereal. The goat stands at the end of his tether – yes! – and moves as the cow moves, keeping as much room as possible between them. A cow is a big beast close up so I shouldn’t be surprised, but both goat and cow are grazing animals, which would suggest an affinity. The first cow moves on and a second one comes to take its place, nudging the cereal bowl and looking for any lost crumbs. It reaches over towards the goat, sniffing, positioning its body so that my sight of the goat is obstructed. Suddenly the cow’s hindquarters twitch away. It bends its head around and sniffs again – its hindquarters twitch again. It lets the goat butt with his pointy little horns a few times before it wanders on, joining the herd as they make their way up the hill, munching and grabbing at clumps of grass. The goat watches them go, maybe a bit wistfully, sensing his missed opportunity, or maybe a bit triumphant that he had seen them off his patch, taking victory from their amiable roaming.
14 May 2014
Last Wednesday we drove up to Barrington Tops, a magnificent wilderness that sits above us. I feel its presence at the farm, its big winds, its cold air.
Turning right instead of left at the Scone Road, we drove first over Copeland Tops, where grass trees lined the road and bellbirds called over the chatter in the car. We emerged into a grassy valley, a plain almost, where a bird of prey sat on a fence post, untroubled by the car slowing to admire it, turning, slowly spreading out the full curve of its wings, lifting and flying away when it felt like it. Its face rounder than an eagle’s it may have been a hawk, fearless in this near-empty space. I always see this area as I first saw it, dusty yellowed grasses extending to the hills, ridiculously charming rivers – streams really, shallow water running over grey rocks through a canopy of trees. Although it is green today, it retains that colour-faded expansiveness.
After a sharp turn in the road – a dirt road now, going slower over the ruts – we start to climb. Our Canadian friends marvel at the treeferns – their size, their shape – and the bush becomes exotic to my eyes.
We stop to walk the Honeysuckle track into the Antarctic Beech forest. The air is cold, lightly-iced. We grab our extra jumpers and scarves and wish for gloves. We start to walk the track, noisy with exclamations, when we’re stilled by the sight of a lyrebird, scratching in the thick forest floor. She’s large, brown, her tail hanging behind. Like the hawk on the plain she appears to ignore us, but turns her back and moves slowly away, scratching as she walks into a deeper part of the forest. We find scratchings all along the rich dark soil of the track down the hill past the massive Antarctic Beeches. We see trees of enormous girth with saplings rising from their rootbase, one side covered in bright green moss that stops at an abrupt line, giving way to bare trunk; we see trees that have crashed down, crushing everything beneath them and making gaps in the canopy, leaving jagged spikes of wood where they split and long deeply mossy trunks that disappear into the undergrowth. Treeferns too have fallen over and grown up to the light again from where they fell, so bohemian with their velvet trunks supine, their new fronds finding whatever angle suits. Orchids, ferns, creepers, vines – everything twines and pushes and reaches, in endless manifestations of deep green. The ground is cushioned, muffled by leaf litter, red and yellow beech leaves, rich red brown rotted leaves and bark below.
It’s drier on the uphill slope. Bright green gives way to greyer green and lighter brown. We notice that the beeches have high branches that form right-angles, giving them a sort of saluting, hallelujah effect. The whole is bathed in cold, slightly hazy moisture that makes every view impressionistic, knocking off the corners and merging the colours.
As we walk up out of the forest, the sun comes out. The air is yellow, with the hope of warmth. From close by comes the sharp call of the lyrebird, a beautiful song sung in crisp bells.
6 May 2014
We’ve been trying to show our Canadian visitors all the exotic wildlife we can, listening for the bellbirds and the catbird, trying to remember that a kookaburra sitting on a fencepost is commonplace for us but wildly exciting for them. This morning we heard the black cockatoos for a moment and caught a glimpse of them in a tree near the creek – a few seconds of their mournful call, a black tail swiftly disappearing into the forest shadows.
I’m alone in the garden late in the afternoon, the sun low in the sky, the crisp night air replacing the afternoon’s languorous warmth. The others have gone to town to buy meat for dinner. I’m working on finishing weeding the bed that we edged with turmeric last year. Despite the tough season we’ve had over spring and summer the turmeric has not just sprouted but thrown up healthy leaves, and even flowers, and now risks being strangled by grass and chickweed. I’m making satisfying progress when I hear the call of the black cockatoos, the long cawing in a minor key filling the valley. I look up to see five of them above, the yellow splotches under their tails distinct. They’re flying together with long strokes of the wing when their call changes to a duck-like quack, then back to their normal elongated cry. They’re above a large gumtree on the creekflat when their cries change again, to a parrot-like cluck, then a few notes of a magpie-like warble. They circle the tree then two of them open their wings wide and dive, spiralling down like fighters at an airshow, twisting as they plummet, pulling themselves up and gliding in to land heavily on a branch. The other three take their turns, adding flourishes of fancy flying at will.
Ten minutes later another three cockatoos appear out of the west. They too fly over me, interspersing their calls with quacks and clucks. They approach the gumtree and the calls of all eight birds fill the air. The three new ones plummet and the tree explodes with flapping wings. The cockatoos scatter out over the creekflat, cawing and cackling. The explosion becomes contained, they collect, and land in a different tree. The chaos subsides, the cries die down, the valley is quiet.
3 May 2014
The chickens have grown noticeably in the last week, their combs starting to appear out of a red ridge in the top of their heads, their bodies plumping up, their bewilderment gone. They muscle their way out the coop door whenever it’s opened, and it’s time to give them more room to run. After a frenzy of internet searches to try to match the electric mesh fence and the solar power energizer, not bought as a kit but separately, we decide that the recommendation for our fence is an energizer of .8 joules, and the power produced by our actual energizer is about a quarter of that. It seems safe to put them together, with no danger of fried chook.
We put the fence up easily, enclosing a surprisingly large area of grass, and the coop door is ceremoniously opened. The chooks run out, run around their house, and run back in. Then they run out again, peck at the grass, venture a metre from their house, and run back in. They keep this up for some time, moving a little further away from the safety of their house with each foray. They’re a few metres away when something spooks them and they take to the air, flying and flapping back to the coop. But finally they make the break, and they’re strolling around their majestic yard, heads held high, clustered like children in a three-legged race, falling over each other to peck at the same moth.
A fierce wind sprang up during the night, buffeting us with icy gusts all day. It died down while we were constructing the fence, but by late afternoon with the sun setting, the temperature drops again. I go up to the coop to put the chooks away, but they’re already making for shelter, running up the ramp to the sleeping area. I checked on them last night, listening to their sleepy chirps, and lifted the lid to find them huddled together in a corner of the nesting box. Maybe they’ll learn to sleep on the perches when they’re grown-ups.
28 April 2014
We bought our first chickens on Saturday, three 12-week-old Isa Brown pullets. They chirped dejectedly all the way back to the farm, sitting in their cardboard box in the back of the car, then squawked in a half-hearted, helpless way when we picked them one at a time out of the box and placed them carefully in their newly-built house. They didn’t sit in their cosy perch-area mezzanine for long, but ran down the ramp and started nibbling at the grass, looking happier already.
Their house is a bit of an anomaly in our garden full of largely makeshift tree guards and plant protectors. We have a fine collection now of discarded wire baskets that we use to cover any plants that are more vulnerable to wallaby attack, like broccoli and kale. The chickens have a kit home, bought from an inner-Sydney person who longed to have chooks, but, after having the unconstructed coop sit in his bedroom for a year, decided to sell it. We put it together last week, fitting slot A to tab B, making a two-storey cage that strikes me as being high on dinkiness and low on sturdiness, but a good start. Once the chickens are settled we’ll put up a fence of 50 metres of electric mesh, keeping them in and the predators out, and they’ll have a movable run around their home.
I was telling someone today at work about the chickens. ‘Why is it that people buy three chickens?’ she asked. ‘I’ve heard of other people buying three. Is that the best number of chickens to have?’ ‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘We bought three because that’s all that the shop had for sale.’
21 April 2014
When I look at the garden bed that I’ve decided to weed, I have a moment of overwhelm. It’s too much. It’s too chaotic. I’ll never sort out the weeds from the plants I want in there. The crofton weed will be too hard to pull out. The chickweed will be too enmeshed with the bok choy and the ornamental sage. The cape gooseberry keeps getting eaten by beetles anyway so why bother? I sit on the edge of the garden, my weeding tool in my hand. The sun is warm, but not too warm. There is movement in the air, but it’s not windy. The light is clear, the sky a distant, dreamy blue. The day is filled with the jubilant crack of the whipbird and the burble of the magpie and why would I want to be inside? I’d rather be tugging at crofton weed.
Of course once I start I can’t stop. Kept going by the satisfaction of pulling out a long strand of a weedy groundcover (nameless, as I can’t identify it on any of the weed websites) complete with a number of its endless root systems, or of a particularly complex root of kikuyu, thick and white, that has infiltrated the very depths of the bed. Buoyed by looking back at clumps of black soil, dusted with mulch, around startled plants. They seem to shake themselves down and expand as they realise their freedom, released from the threat of suffocation and the enclosing gloom of overshadowing, from consumption by the caterpillars and snails that I’ve removed and squashed.
As I move down the bed my eye is caught by alien glints of gold and red foil. The children missed one of their targets in the easter egg hunt yesterday, and it hasn’t yet been found by the ants. Its garish, shiny wrapping conjures the sound of four happy children – with an average age of six – running through the garden, pouncing on eggs and rabbits. The sun was so hot in the middle of the day that we had to scatter the bounty then let the children loose immediately to avoid easter baskets full of melted chocolate. The hunt was followed by an unprompted reckoning up, where the four of them compared what they’d found and shared out the proceeds more fairly. What beautiful, shining children!
3 April 2014
After a brief shower yesterday evening (a sudden fall of heavy wet drops – if only they could have fallen 10 minutes later and let me finish my mowing) we heard the welcome sound of the blue wrens. They’ve been absent from the garden for weeks, but here they are, quick flitting through the heavy leaves of zucchini and pumpkin. One firetail joins them, assiduously crunching through seeds of grass, parsley, basil. The wrens are tiny, the same body-shape and colour as mice, the same swift anxious movements, even the same squeaks. They patrol the garden in their haphazard manner, flying into deeper cover at an insistent triple call that comes from somewhere in the fennel, hovering for swift forays to the front where the soil is more exposed and they peck and jump. They don’t lord it over the garden like the blue wrens in summer, who had strutted and postured, parading on the bean poles with loud commanding songs. They’re meek and mild, new baby hatchlings.
This morning the garden’s wonder is slime mould. One is puffball shaped, climbing a stake, while the other sprawls over a dandelion. Little tendrils appear to connect them, or show that they are the one … the one what? Creature? Plant? Are they one organism, or a collection?
They start the day a vibrant fluorescent yellow, but have now darkened to a peachy colour. Their powdery surface makes them look toxic, but various helpful websites tell us that they’re harmless, assisting in decomposition. They’re not fungi, but they use spores to reproduce. They can take many different forms – last time we had some it was like spilled paint tipped vibrantly over the soil. It appears that today’s are in their fruiting form. One type is attractively named the ‘dog vomit’ slime mould. Don’t blame the dog.
28 March 2014
There’s no-one else on the railway station. The fluorescent lights cast their bright light over an empty platform. Just me on the bench, and a few small flies around the lights. A bell rings intermittently down the line, like the bell at a railway crossing, except there is no railway crossing here. The road goes over the line, and makes a sharp, almost invisible turn left after the bridge. A dog barks. There are cones of light under the streetlights on the town side of the tracks. It’s like a painting of a small country town with all the elements in place. I have a burst of nostalgia for summer in the humid night, warm with the rain. I don’t even like summer, but the thought of summer nights carries with it a feeling of freedom and energy, of joy at the end of a hot day. I recall the joy of a cooling evening rather than the beating heat of an endless day.
A hard-shelled black beetle thuds into me. Another one falls loudly on the platform, landing on its back. It waves its legs ferociously, propelling itself along the ground. I miss the moment where it pushes itself over, but suddenly it’s walking quickly away, like someone who’s made a gaffe at a party. There are more beetles now, and many more insects around the lights. It was dusk when I arrived, but quite dark now. The dark has brought the insects in, concentrated them around the last source of light for the day.
22 March 2014
The land is bursting with ridiculous fecundity, as if we’re entering a season of growth. The forest in front of us is filled again with sounds of birds, competing songs patterning the air. A low underlying mumble of satin bower bird, a deep incessant throb of wonga pigeon, the steady beat of the bellbirds, the punctuation of the whip bird. Higher in the forest a chorus of excited parrots quarrels from tree to tree. Magpies sing arias from the back of the valley.
The garden is overflowing with energy. Seeds that have sat dormant through the drought are now emerging, to an uncertain future. A group of some sort of cucumber or zucchini (what did we plant there six months ago?) is sprouting in the top bed, where a late crop of tomatoes is flowering and fruiting. There is one fully-grown watermelon and more on the way. The watermelon vine is spreading down the bed, sending burgeoning green tennis balls poking through the tomato leaves. The rosemary, covered in purple blue flowers, buzzes with bees, both big (black and yellow) and small (blue and black). The kale has revived from its infestation of invisible bugs and has a new crown of crinkly grey leaves. Perversely, the silverbeet that fed us through the months without rain is now wilting, covered in rust. Rampant mizuna, mustard and parsley spring up in every spare spot around it. Heads of parsley droop with the weight of their seeds.
The cows are knee-deep in grass. Three Fernandos (white belt on small stocky black bodies) poke their curly-fringed faces over the fence and contemplate us. Tamed by full bellies, they no longer turn their heads eagerly when we open the gate. They don’t care about us and our green growth on this side of the fence any more. As they munch their way down the hill I wonder, should that be black heads and tails on white bodies?
8 March 2014
There’s a moth banging against the big windows, bashing itself against the glass. We hear it before we see it, bang bang bang. I turn to look and something flies in from the dark side of the door. It’s a brown frog, looking small and silly on the paving, having missed the moth and stunned itself in the process. The moth, bigger than the frog, has also taken a blow, and bashes itself with more ferocity against the doors, flying more crazily and haphazardly when I put the outside light on. It bumps blindly around, clutching me for a mistaken moment as it searches for whatever it seeks.
It’s getting too cool to eat outside, and the moths add another reason to eat in. The days are still too hot to work all day, so we cram our gardening into the late afternoon and eat late when it’s dark. At last the grass is growing enough to need mowing, the weeds are sprouting in their opportunistic way, and the vegetables that have sat stunted in the ground for all these months are buoyant and producing – zucchinis, bok choy, all manner of greens. A particularly robust Thai basil with a strong anise flavour has spread seeds all around and little basils are coming up through the garden. Our own mutant capsicum / chilli has doubled in size over the past two weeks and is covered in its crinkled red fruit – not too hot, just right for me, a chilli-heat wimp.
The small birds have vanished, as if the rain has washed them away. There is less evidence of the wallabies in the garden, the kale and the parsley safe again, small chosen patches of juicy grass nibbled down instead. We do see an immature male forest kingfisher on the bottom fence, its blue plumage not as bright or distinct, its actions not as swift or precise as its older relative who graced the fences near the road for a few weeks. An eagle perches on the dying tree above our house, chased away by two game galahs. The eagle stretches its shaggy-edged wings and flaps lazily away.
The bare hill has a sheen of green, and its curves take on the beauty of simplicity, its bones of eroded rock covered again. White clouds in a blue sky cluster and clump, the clean line of the hill’s swell standing out against their puffery.
February 21, 2014
The rain – not heavy, but constant light showers – has brought a cover of green to the paddocks, and life back into the struggling trees. The creek is not gushing but trickling a fresh line of life.
The rain has also brought bugs. Moths and butterflies are careering around in a last chance bid to lay their eggs. We inspect the trees and find that the olive’s top branches have been stripped by a massive finger-like green caterpillar that is now motionless, starting to pupate. Neither of us is able to interrupt this cycle of life, and Martin flicks it onto the grass instead.
I’m not so sentimental with the little bugs. The eggplants have managed to survive last week’s wallaby attack only to become infested with metallic flea beetles. They’ve turned the leaves into lace and are now clustering on the purple flowers. We had them last year on the eggplants as well, but not on anything else. Bugs are so specific. The brown spot on the silverbeet doesn’t affect the kale, and the caterpillars that are on the kale don’t touch the rocket or the silverbeet. There is scale on every citrus but not on any other trees. The red mustard has been decimated by something that ignores the zucchini plants in between.
Back to the books. Ignoring the carbaryl again, Jackie French recommends glue spray – her favourite spray – for beetles. It’s easy to make – mix flour with hot water then dilute with cold water and spray. You’d think after years of making custards, white sauces and playdough I could mix water into flour, but I end up with lumps in my glue spray. I strain it and spray it, all over the metallic flea beetles, and all over the pumpkin beetles (not so picky – they’re in the tomatoes now) for good measure. Now sit back and wait for them to die!
February 14, 2014
A little rain in the night. When we wake there is mist rising from the forest while light rain continues to fall. The mood is not yet of exhilaration, but of quiet optimism. A little cloud of red-browed finches hovers into the garden, descends on grasses and parsley, then one darts off and the others follow in a ragged bunch. From the creek we hear low trills and a gentle coo – probably the brown pigeons (brown cuckoo dove) we see on the tobacco bush. A whip bird breaks through with a triumphant note, and the call fades away in the gentle morning. The steady background hum and rise of the bellbirds is muted.
A large waterbird flies along the valley and loops over the creek, its languid stroke brushing through the soft air. I’ve always called these birds blue herons, but I check Cayley this time and find it’s a white-faced heron. They’ve been more visible during the drought and we’ve seen them in twos and threes, searching for the merest speck of water and food. This one perches on a dead tree, its grey back merging into the grey of the lichen-covered trunk.
The rain continues to fall, sometimes in stronger showers where you can hear the drops falling on the forest trees with a steady rush. A neighbour visits and says we had 9 mm to 9am.
The dead leaves on the vegetables near the house stand more starkly yellow and brown against those that have survived, revived and green and newly washed. I want to see new leaves grow, I want to give the heron on the tree a running creek and a good meal, but we’re all going to have to wait a bit longer.
February 7, 2014
Coming in to the farm yesterday afternoon, the dusty paddocks, sparse trees and dried out creeks, the river still trickling but only just, were almost more than I could bear. I had hoped, beyond reason, and with no assistance from the weather bureau, that we would have had some significant rain. That we would drive in to a lush landscape. Lush is a description that confounds reality. Even the slime on the creekbed is dry, blackened and cracking. The bare hill reveals red bones of soil below dried-out roots of grass.
Driving in the second time, after yoga in town, it’s mercifully dark. But the afternoon’s images stay with me. I lie in bed doing the crossword, trying to distract myself with word games. It’s working, when I hear a noise outside. A noisy lapping, just outside the window. Is it rain, falling softly? Moving quietly to the dark bathroom, I look out. A small head with sharp triangular ears pops up from behind the water chestnut trough, and appears to look straight at me. I think calm thoughts towards it. The head disappears and the lapping starts again. This is where the water has been going – not in evaporation. We’re watering the local wallabies. The noise becomes slurping, loud and unbroken. It continues for longer than I can stand there, and I go back to bed, my spirits revived by the glimpse of those quivering ears, the sound of one wallaby lapping.
In the morning it’s still dry, but the view has become less desolate for me. A family of bluewrens hops through the remnants of the garden, calling, jumping, flitting, preening. They find the birdbath has been filled so they splash and fluff. The cows, high up the hill, take fright at something and gallop down to us. They stop outside the fence to butt and tangle their heads together, then run on. Their bellies wobble as they run, their feet kick up and their tails lag behind.
But in the late afternoon I hear, again, the crash of a tree in the forest. It’s the third time in as many weeks that I’ve heard that mighty splinter and fall. The trees are stressed; nature is shedding what it can.
February 1, 2014
When I turn on the lights in the bedroom I notice a film of movement on the glass doors. I look closer and hear the faint tick tick of feet climbing the glass. The doors are often covered in insects on summer nights, and we’ve watched armies of them rise and fall. They climb to the top and drop down again, creating waves of motion in the periphery of vision. Usually they are tiny flies, so tiny that we’ve had to close the glass doors because they can crawl through the fly wire. These are much larger, about a centimetre long, with a bulbous yellow back and a red stripe. I am less amused by this waterfall of bugs when I recognise them as one of the creatures I’ve seen on the kale, one of the many reasons (along with the cluster caterpillars and the pumpkin beetles) that the few kale leaves that the wallabies have missed look like lace.
I’ve never translated those nighttime insects into daytime evidence of destruction before. This time I see nothing but the potential damage that is climbing up and down our door. Although I’m ready for bed and more suitable bedtime reading, I go and dig out the book by Judy McMaugh called What Garden Pest or Disease is That?, a depressing litany of beetles, caterpillars, flies, scale, fungus, rot, spot, blight, canker, rust. I shield my eyes from the more gruesome pictures of bundles of sawflies or infestations of mould as I flick through its pages. You wonder why you bother when there’s a whole double-page dedicated just to things that attack macadamias. Eventually I match tonight’s bugs to the photo of the redshouldered leaf beetle.
It turns out they are native beetles that occur in swarms – yes – most common in late spring or summer – yes. They chew ragged leaves in foliage – yes – and attack a wide range of plants. The author doesn’t mention kale, but I get the idea that it could easily form part of their diet. There’s something about a swarm that brings out an antagonism towards invasion in me. My eyes are drawn to Judy McMaugh’s usual response to insects – spray with carbaryl – but even she admits that this chemical is ‘of relatively low toxicity to humans but highly toxic to bees’. I remember to ask myself why I have a garden, and how that garden sits in the grand scheme of our environment, and my feelings soften. Awww. Red-shouldered beetles get hungry too.
31 January 2014
At dusk, the creek is strangely silent, the usual cacophony muted. A sole catbird, its husky croak lingering in the trees. A short burst of cicadas. Two black cockatoos fly a short distance, adding a few precious peals of their beautifully mournful calls to the uneasy evening. The air cools quickly.
We can talk of nothing but the weather. That is, the lack of rain. The paddocks are brown again, after the brief respite of the drizzle last week. The line where the bald hill meets forest is a series of grey patches – lantana, blackberry and more desirable trees that have lost their leaves, or failed to flourish at any time this summer. I am still angry at the crossword compiler who last week set the clue, ‘The brief account sounds pleasantly warm (7)’, playing on the homophone summery/summary, where the ‘pleasantly warm’ section of the clue is meant to indicate ‘summery’. Pleasantly warm it is not, in our summer. We’ve been spared, so far, the spectacular heat that some areas have had. Our high temperatures have been in the 30s, rather than the 40s. But the dry has been devastating, defeating, relentless. Not pleasant.
The wallabies are becoming desperate again, and any hint of growth on mizuna, parsley or kale vanishes overnight, nibbled to the stalk. The grass is crackle-yellow again. Any small plant that suffers a setback moves quickly to death’s door. Our last surviving strawberry plant was scuffled by a stray paw – creature unknown – and despite some extra mulching and water is now losing the battle for life, leaf by leaf. The appearance of animals that we rarely see – a large echidna down on the creekflat, trundling along in an immediately endearing manner; two goannas, implacably thudding by the side of the road – is a cause for concern. Why are they there? Why aren’t they in their normal habitats? Are they looking for food, water? Will they survive?
The forecast is for rain next Tuesday. I hope everything can last that long.
January 25, 2014
The weather gods are teasing us, sending dark grey clouds that promise a lot and deliver very little. There’s been one overcast day, one day of very light rain, one shower with heavy drops, strong enough to batter on the roof for a few precious minutes. We watched white cloud build in the west, then a parade of grey cloud across the north, billowing and chasing. I heard the soft murmur of rain in the night. It spatters the leaves of the trees, stops them from curling and makes them green again. The silverbeet stands tall again, and the zucchinis resume their growth. But it’s not enough to put water in the creek and make it flow again, not enough to cover the rocks where even the slime is drying out.
I have never seen the creek stop. It has always flowed in the eleven years that we have known it. It has always been a place of joyful movement, of pleasant shade, of peace. I have gone to it to see waterbeetles skim the surface, or little birds swooping through the dark tree-tunnels, or some surprise – a string-thin copper coloured watersnake that whipped around the pool; a thick, slick red-bellied black gliding across, ignoring us where we sat on a rock. Now, there are just a few ponds where the cows congregate. There’s a rumour of a trickle of water further up into the rainforest, but I can’t bear to inspect its dried-up bed, its revealed mud, its sordid green-brown skin, cracked and flaking.
January 18 2014
At 10am it is already too hot to do anything outside, so the fennel stalks that have sat on the table for weeks, waiting for me, now get their turn. Separating the fennel seeds from their stalks could be a contemplative task, a sort of meditation. But it is starting to look tedious. There is a big pile of stalks. I feel myself turning against the job. Maybe I could just put the whole lot in a paper bag, like I did last year, and pick off seeds when I need them. That didn’t really work. I forgot about them, kicked the bag when I went into the pantry, opened it time and again wondering why an empty bag was on the floor. I push myself on, thinking of the sense of completion that could come with finishing this job.
The whole week has been hot, and we’ve done very little in the garden. We sit and watch the plants wilt in the middle of the day, water and weed for an hour or so in the evening. It’s not satisfying.
After a few minutes of putting small collections of fennel stalks into the compost I develop a system: seeds on one side of the bowl, stalks thrown to the other.
We took our lovely guests to yoga during the week. Our yoga teacher, for shivasana at the end of the class, set us to count each breath. If we found our minds wandering, we were to go back to the beginning. One of our guests had counted up to 35, after having gone back to the beginning once. I got to four or five. ‘Monkey mind’, I said, pointing to myself. ‘It doesn’t go still. It might drift off, but it’s still there.’ The conversation turned, in an absolutist sort of way, to the benefits of silence, and stilling the mind. I know it’s nice to still the mind. I do it from time to time, and I feel the peacefulness, the serenity. But then I’m aware of feeling the peacefulness. I start to see a vast ocean, rolling in to a shore. Or the forest from our deck, its various greens mingling, the round tree canopies that rise above the rest, their white branches shining. Or I recall the birds, their songs surfacing from one tree then another. Which makes me think of the yellow robins by the creek when I was pulling out lantana in spring, coming closer to me, puffing out their already-round tummies, making their yellowness more prominent, always perching sideways from a hanging branch or vine.
The fennel seeds are done. There’s a satisfying pile of seeds on one side of the bowl, and a messy clump of stalks on the other. I run my hands through the seeds and pour them into a jar. I put the stalks in the compost, grateful for my monkey mind that left my hands to do the work.
January 14 2014
I had just turned out the light last night when I noticed a blotch against the window where no blotch had been before. Bright light shone through bruise-coloured clouds, big swells of grey turning red around the battered moon, one side missing. The blotch – almost rectangular – stood out from the doorframe, silhouetted. I sat up to see better what it was, and it darted away. A frog.
Despite the near-drought conditions, there are a number of frogs around the house. One jumped out of the seedlings when I moved them in the afternoon, making me squeal like a girl. Its beautiful velvet-brown skin brushed my hand as it jumped. It sat on the top of the pot and looked around, taking in the heat, the sun, my startled face relaxing as I saw it properly. One frog lives in the downpipe and bellows its croaks most evenings. One night last week it came out at dusk and ventured out along the pergola. We could see it move carefully down the beam. It was a good target for late-evening low-flying kookaburras: they sometimes do a final fly-by at about this time. Near the end of the beam it stopped for a moment – then leapt. Not just the two metres down to the ground, but in a vast arc, its tiny body in the air for just that moment. Then it was gone. Maybe into the water chestnuts, maybe right into the garden. We hunted with the torch, but its feat had delivered it where it wanted to be. Invisible.
January 8 2014
After a day of light rain, the garden is beautiful. No heartbreaking wilting, no dry earth. Purple-blue chicory flowers, the same shape but more intense than cornflowers; vibrant green silverbeet; springy okra plants and sprawling tomatoes. I never noticed weather, or the seasons, in the city. Maybe to see if I needed to take an umbrella, or if it was too hot for an afternoon walk, but it never really mattered. The city is there to change all that. Built shelters to walk beneath, food in the shops, water in the taps. At the farm, weather is everything. It determines what we do, what we eat now and in the future, whether we can have a long shower or a short wash.
I went to the garage on Monday. The air-conditioning had broken down. The mechanic asked me a few questions about the car, then asked what I was doing in this area. ‘I live here’, I said. ‘Ah.’ he said. ‘We could do with some rain.’ I’d passed the test. I knew the importance of weather.
January 3, 2014
The summer heat is like a bully, bearing down on everything, slamming us with its heavy fists. None of the nuance of an autumn morning, where crisp air can hold a warmer hint. Summer pushes its way in, flattens the weak and shrugs past the strong.
Yet somehow, it’s also a time of abundance. I wake up and see a massacre of small flies littered next to my pillow. They were buzzing me so much last night that reading became a noisy, chaotic ordeal, and I turned out the light mid-sentence. I go out to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and there is a puddle of their dead bodies on the floor, in a circle under where the kitchen light was on. They are sprinkled on the table next to the laptop where I was working. Their dead bodies blow in the breeze. I sweep them up into a black pile and throw it out onto the silverbeet. I won’t let so much energy and ex-life go completely to waste.
I go up to the top garden to water the tomatoes before it gets too hot. They get some mulch too, to help them through another day. One clump of tomatoes has either been burnt right off or been eaten by something, possibly grasshoppers. The wallabies don’t like tomatoes, and are even deterred from eating other things by their presence.
Seed packets might say ‘germinates in 14 days, pick in 6 weeks’, but there’s no guarantee. They haven’t factored in the sudden blast of furnace-air, the sudden gust of wind, the wallaby that eats the delicious new shoot or the bandicoot that burrows underneath it, sending its new developing roots out of the nourishing soil and into heartless exposure. They don’t warn you about the heartbreak of getting a seed germinated, planting it out and staking it only to find some creature has bounded through the patch during the night, upturning the stakes and the seedling. Seed packets are aspirational, projecting a mirage on your horizon. Just don’t die of thirst as you try to reach it.
January 1, 2014
The Wollemi pine is fading. The trunk is less green, and nearly all of the points where the branches meet the trunk are completely brown. I stare out at the paddock beyond, at the rudely healthy wattles and gums and white cedars, as if I’m hoping for a sign. Maybe a sign of forgiveness from the universe. It’s new year’s day, a time of new beginnings, but there’s no magic for this poor tree. A male Leaden Flycatcher lands on a strand of the fence. It’s my favourite bird at the moment, maybe because it’s so new in the garden, maybe because of its perfect plumpness, the beauty of its colouring, the precision of the place where the colour of lead meets white. It’s not my sign from the universe. It chastises me with a bossy tch-tch-tch.
I keep one mournful eye open for snakes in the grass around the Wollemi. We had planted it in a part of the garden we’ve been leaving untended. You can’t cultivate everything at once, and this section remained as long grass while the rest was tamed, through mowing and brushcutting and digging and planting. Martin cut a path through to the middle of it for the planting last week, but that remains surrounded by a large swathe of tangling kikuyu. The fact that we haven’t seen a snake for a few weeks makes me all the more wary. It’s hot, and there are plenty around.
The second-last snake was on the deck. We were having our coffee when I heard a chilling sound. I heard stealth. We looked behind the old floorboards we have piled up in the corner, and a coil of black snake stopped moving, its head lifted and stilled. We went inside, closed the glass doors, and watched. It uncoiled – well over a metre of red-bellied glossy snake – across the deck, but instead of heading for the garden it came towards the house and slid into the track of the doors. It moved down the track, undulating up the face of the doors, becoming more and more frustrated as it pushed itself higher up this solid void. It so believed in the penetrability of the glass that I stopped feeling safe. I couldn’t admire the close-up of its belly, but joined it in wondering if it would find a way in. It didn’t. It gave up, slouched behind the pumpkin rack for a while then disappeared.
That afternoon we were back on the deck, drinking tea. A pale pink-brown snake rushed out of the silverbeet, heading straight for us. Its dark eyes met mine and I called out ‘Snake!’. Martin and I both jumped up, pushing back our chairs. One of the chairs hit the metal dog bowl, which scraped loudly along the paving. The snake jumped too, and u-turned back into the silverbeet.
No snake sightings since then.
29 December 2013
Many Christmases ago, when I objected to the built-in obsolescence of a pine Christmas tree, one of our beautiful children gave us a Wollemi pine. It was a tiny little tree with a great big certificate. Its recent discovery, or I should say, its recent entry into our known world, overawed me. Could I keep this precious thing alive? Despite its lack of familiarity with the suburbs and their small gardens, it thrived in a pot. It sat under the jacaranda and grew its ancient leaves (leaves? branches? some other technical term?), the new growth extending from the previous year’s leaf (leaf?) in a bright-green flourish, a new crown of leaves (?) appearing at the top. It moved into a bigger pot, almost annually. The trunk thickened, and it became the happy bearer of baubles and tinsel, spending a week or so inside the house every December.
But when we moved out of the suburban house with the suburban garden and became bi-homal, as one friend describes it, with a flat in Sydney and the house at the farm, the fate of the Wollemi pine became uncertain. Although we continued to celebrate Christmas in Sydney, with our obstinately Sydney-based family, there was no room for a Wollemi pine in the flat. The obstacles were even greater at the farm. We have bushy gullies that might suit a Wollemi pine, but we were unwilling to introduce an alien species into them. We have all sorts of trees near the house, but we don’t want big trees – they’re a bushfire hazard, they drop leaves in the tank, they shade the house in winter. We wavered, week by week, unable to decide. Spring came, unseasonably dry, and it was a bad time to plant anything. Rain came, and we dashed around planting fruit trees and all the summer seeds we’d held off on. Whenever there was a high wind the Wollemi pine fell over in its now-inadequate pot. It was becoming battered, neglected. It entered my dreams. It played on my conscience. It endured. It grew a new crown and I felt less culpable until the day I found a grasshopper finishing off the last of the green shoots.
Yesterday we chose a spot, dug a hole, planted and staked the Wollemi pine. It was a hot day, the spot is quite near the house, and we had to tease out the roots ruthlessly. Today the wind is blowing fiercely, and the shadecloth I wrapped around it seems to bow it down, rather than protect it. I hope this is not a memorial to the Wollemi pine, but the beginning of a story of recovery, of rights wronged and neglect redressed. I’m going to water it again now, and put in stakes for the shadecloth. My remorse won’t let me do any less.
22 December, 2013
Talk at Christmas drinks turned to the ‘70s, with one couple reminiscing fondly about their first house, built for $25,000. It was decorated with orange vases filled with pampas grass, seaweed matting and quarry tiles on the floors, a flokati rug over pieces of foam to make a lounge, and a huge chianti bottle. “One day,” they said, “the girls were given a beach ball. They blew it up in the lounge room and before I could even say ‘Don’t throw that in the house’ it had bounced down the spiral staircase. It hit every step of the staircase and went straight into the chianti bottle. When we left that house six years later, we were still picking bits of green glass out of the seagrass matting.” I couldn’t make up a story that would evoke the ‘70s better than that.
Christmas drinks had to be inside, because it was too hot outside. It hasn’t yet reached that heat that sucks the breath out of you, that furnace heat, but it’s close. Cooler air slowly moved in once the sun went down, and we sat outside to feel the heat ebb away. Stars appeared in a hazy sky and we dragged the telescope out to magnify them into glorious brightness, transforming blurry constellations into shining dots that quivered around the edges as if we could see the gases burning.
13 December, 2013
Outside the house in the bright heat of the day, the birds are like a chorus forming a ring around me. Chirruping notes rise above the background of bellbirds and cicadas, cascading. Inside the house, Arvo Part on the CD player, runs in melancholy beauty. The two sets of music fill the air.
At the end of the day, the catbird is the last bird squawking. The hills mould into outlines, only the tall white trunks of the trees at the forest’s edge standing out. There’s a last burst of light when the sun’s pink rays reflect off the foaming cloud.
It rained on the weekend after a long dry spell. Months, in which the grass turned crunchy underfoot, seeds failed to germinate, and most of the garden died. Blueberries, the cape gooseberry, now dried sticks. Even the red mustard, usually unkillable, is nothing but shreds of dried leaf encrusted on the ground. The turmeric has disappeared and the comfrey seedlings have failed to take. But it’s rained now, and the tank has been overflowing, and we’re laying cow and sheep manure on the barren garden beds and digging it in and watering it. We’ll make mounds of compost for zucchini seeds and sow more mustard, sage, rocket, mizuna. Around last year’s mutant capsicum/chilli cross there’s a starburst of tiny seedlings pushing through with bright green life.
The rain brings fecundity everywhere. Thousands of tiny insects rise as we walk in the top garden, pocking onto the black plastic as they fall back down. The bower birds are busy in the gums by the creek, flitting around the branches and flying from tree to tree. There are both types there – the usual bower bird with the glossy black male and the greeny brown females, and the regent bower bird with the slightly smaller bright yellow and black male and browner females – and they seem to intermingle in the trees, fussing and rasping out their hoarse calls.
In the bathroom at night I find a dead lizard on the floor, a black cricket in the bathtub and baby spiders suspended from the shelf. The frog in the drainpipe sets up its thunderous croak. The air is clear of dust and smoke and the stars glisten.
Two eagles are circling in the late afternoon. The sky is a mottled grey backdrop to their long glides and the occasional steady beat of their wings.
The swallows are nesting again. One sits on the paving outside the bedroom, a feather in its beak, and contemplates a stick. It wants both. Its contemplation means that I can see its glossy black wings and red underbelly, still for once, not flying like a mirage through the air. It walks clumsily away to look at a different stick, then flies off and circles back to its original spot.
The moon appears in the sky, like a squashed egg, like a cat’s eye missing its mate, like a big opalescent jellyfish missing its tentacles. It’s big, and strange, and bright, loping lopsidedly through the night.
As we drive out of town we see something small and dark moving across the road ahead. A car approaching us flashes its lights and the driver points at the road. I wave in acknowledgment and slow down. It’s too large and fast to be one of the tortoises we regularly see squashed on these roads, and as we get closer we see the humped back and pointy nose of an echidna. It hurries across purposefully, an anxious pedestrian unaware that it is being cared for.
The berries on the white cedars are fading, no longer bright yellow but golden, muted, shrinking. Four large grey pigeons fly past in fighter jet formation, whooshing overhead.
Just as the light was fading a wallaby flew across the flat by the creek, followed by 5 or 6 others. Their movements were fluid, urgent even. They disappeared into the bush then emerged again moments later, flying back out, long leaps carrying them back across the flat and up the hill a little way. Then back, down to the creek, through the bush. Three or four times they made their circuit, crashing through the bushes by the creek until we thought there must be a dog or a pig down there, but only wallabies emerged, bounding away as the light disappeared.
Autumn, and everything is making a last mad rush before winter. Weeds are at their weediest. Spider webs appear overnight, misting the windows. The light is lower, shadows longer and more dramatic. The sun heats you at the same time as the wind hits you with its icy touch.
The rain keeps falling and the creek is rising again. It doesn’t yet have the force that it had last week, when the bend that we can see from the deck was white with its rush. But it has doubled in size from this morning, and the water is brown and hurried.
Wallabies hop through the rain, nibbling at the tips of the grass. One shakes itself and a cloud of water haloes around its head.
December 28, 2012
We arrived late in the afternoon yesterday. Checking how big the zucchinis had grown in our absence (of a week) I noticed something dark and mottled on a zucchini leaf. Coiled into its centre was a diamond python (I assume) – a skinny young one, barely weighing down the leaf. We admired it and photographed it, Martin sitting on the step next to it to show its size. Its black skin matte and polished, dotted with yellow. It slept through our entire observation, a bulge in its middle indicating a recent meal. We walked up to the path, about to inspect the rest of the garden, when I grabbed Martin’s arm and drew back before I even realised that I had seen a large (2 metre) red-bellied black snake making its swift way out of the seeding parsley, gliding parallel with the row of edging bricks that separated us. It kept up the hurried pace around the back of the cucumbers, then we caught its movement again over the self-seeded tomato with the tiny fruit, through the middle of one of the thyme bushes. It stopped with its head near the slab of concrete that serves us as an oversized stepping stone into the garden, its tongue flicking anxiously as we watched it. We had followed it along, at a distance. It watched with its tongue, we watched it watching, then it slid under the concrete in one smooth decisive motion. A little later, as we watched the concrete slab for signs of black snake, another movement commenced and the diamond python trickled over stalks of zucchini plant, scale by scale. It stopped often, lifting its head rigidly, sometimes straight, sometimes with an s-bend neck, feeling its way, sensing the world. It reached the concrete slab and peered under, then backed up, its neck emerging in reverse. It slid over to the compost bin, lifting itself up to sniff the airholes, stretching out to its full length of about a metre, giving us a better view of the telltale bump in its middle – maybe frog shape, or mouse shape. It moved on to the gravel, facing us, then slowly slowly inched across to the paving and along towards where we sat, its head raised, its tongue flicking. We retreated inside and watched it for the next half an hour as it twisted and curled, stopped and flicked, and finally slid off back into the garden, night descending and hiding it from view.
26 October 2012
It hasn’t rained for nearly two months – 5mm a couple of weeks ago doesn’t really count. The grass is yellow and crackles underfoot. The trees are struggling and we water them, bucket by bucket. Even the lillipilles by the creek are drooping, their leaves curling and contracting. A few drops of rain fell tonight, heavy drops that sounded good, but they didn’t amount to much. You could see the individual marks they made on the paving.
19 October 2012
I went down to the creek to water the chestnut and walnut trees and disturbed a goanna. It burst noisily out of its basking place into the water and swam upstream, away from me, swinging and rippling. There was something else around, trampling through the undergrowth, breaking twigs. Not afraid to be heard. And just as I was thinking of leaving it emerged, quite close, its enormous snout like a dinosaur, black and scaly, plodding with its huge feet step by noisy branch-cracking step.
24 August 2012
The new nectarine tree has one flower. Perfect and pink. A pink rim that fades to a paler centre. It sits like a startled eye on the trunk of the tree, otherwise bare, pointing towards the east. I wish it luck, but know it will be struck down before its fruit-bearing purpose is reached. One bud, on one young tree, is easy picking for Martin, who doesn’t let the trees bear until they’re older, stronger and possibly wiser.
23 August 2012
Darkness had just fallen, the last views of the hills disappearing into darkness, when I sensed something large climbing up the flyscreen on the louvre windows. A large rat, a bandicoot? I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a bandicoot, so could this be one? I called out to Martin, who declared it a small possum. It climbed to the top of the window and was stuck there, unable to find a foothold beyond. We took the torch outside and watched as it struggled with its deadend, its face anxious, its head twisting and searching. It had a furless tail, with a long white tip. Almost as soon as it had run off a storm hit, with wild winds and driving rain. It had been searching for shelter, aware before we were of the gathering drama.
18 August 2012
The wind is so strong that the bees are being blown away. I have been pulling out the mustard greens, gone to seed and cluttering up the garden, but the bees have been so busy in their flowers that I had left some. There’s not much in flower at the moment, and these feral blooms must be welcome food. But the wind, blowing strongly yesterday, gathering to gale force gusts today, shakes the bees out, sending clouds of them out to hover where they can, waiting for the gust to die so they can make their way back to pollen-collecting.
17 August 2012
The kookaburras, once wary sentinels, are now hustling in on the inner garden. They no longer cling to the outer fence, but feel free to perch on the tree stumps. The blue wrens keep their distance, but a honeyeater wanders in, nervy and restless, darting its head back and forth instead of attending to the grevillea flowers that attracted it. It dives into the birdbath, then emerges to tackle the flowers, jumping tensely from branch to branch. The kookaburra glides onto the lawn, attacking a cricket.
27 July 2012
The blue wrens know that we dig up food, and they follow us now, unconcerned as we throw clumps of weed and soil out onto the lawn. For some weeks now they’ve been edging closer, pecking at the garden beds while we drink our coffee, but today they joined us in our weeding, standing guard for any titbits that we were throwing their way. We are even recognised as protection against the kookaburras, watchful with beady eyes from perches on the roof and the fenceposts.
26 July 2012
It was dusk when we arrived and the wallabies were grazing near the front gate. They looked up as the car approached, their black paws held close to their bodies, tensed for the escape. The smaller one dashed, under the fence into the yard, while the larger one hopped more carelessly down the hill – less anxious, and more sensible. Their movement alerted others that I hadn’t seen, blending into the hillside in the fading light, and their thudding hops made a steady beat across the dry grass.