Lepidoptera

Did you know that a lepidopterist is an entomologist who studies butterflies?

But what is someone called who kills butterflies?

A little while ago I realised there was a problem with my Lime. It’s three years old and lives in a terracotta pot on my balcony. With a lot of care and nurturing I’d finally coaxed it to bear fruit. Four tiny limes had formed beneath the waxy yellow-white blooms that had recently flowered. I was excited. So you can imagine my distress, when on one of my morning inspections, I noticed that something had munched about a third of the tree. I could now see the street where before there had only been dark green foliage. I was livid. So you can imagine my delight, when a few days later on a mid-afternoon meander around my potted garden, I spotted the culprit. A small but savage ogre, with a scaly chocolate, caramelly coating of miniature horns, spiking out from all over its body, was the villain responsible for the potentially fatal damage to my citrus sapling.

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And then my heart lodged in my throat as I spotted the rest of them, stationed like an army of vicious little dragons all over the tree. There were at least ten of these two-toned titans splayed against the bottle green lime leaves that were left. Someone said they resembled bird droppings: maybe without your glasses, and from a long way away. And bird droppings would’ve been a cinch to flick off. But when I tried to gently nudge one of these small thieves off the leaf it reared up at me, with its fangs stretched wide, spitting vitriol. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but the monstrous little leviathan refused to budge.

So I took action, as any good gardener would to protect their domain. And in so doing I did sacrifice a fair few more leaves of the tree but I felt the means justified the end. Taking a deep breath I mustered my courage and quickly plucked the leaf that the barbarian still gripped, from its branch.  With a firm flick of the wrist, I hurled it over the balcony and down onto the footpath below, checking for passers by as I watched it tumble away.  And then I did the same for each of the other leaves that harboured these beasts.  I would have to keep a careful eye out from now on for the return of danger, as it wouldn’t surprise me if these brutes were capable of crawling up several stories of brick wall to get back into my tree.

In between my hourly border patrols on the following days, I delved into the online world of caterpillars to try to understand why my citrus plant had been attacked. And that’s when I discovered that I’d committed lepidopteracide. My scaly monsters were actually the larvae stage of butterflies. Suddenly I was flooded with memories and knowledge from childhood. What kind of idiot doesn’t know that a caterpillar turns into a butterfly or moth? Remember cocoons? And who could forget silk worms? Oh how we consign the world to oblivion! How we become hardened and criminal as we age! My ravenous little chewers were actually the instar or pre-pupa stage of the Papilio aegeus, or Citrus Swallowtail Butterflies. Probably named after King Aegeus of Ancient Greece1.

I was horrified. You can imagine my anguish as I read that these were just the innocent immature larvae who would’ve turned green with white or pink markings once mature, growing to a maximum length of 45 mm. Then they would’ve deftly attached themselves to the leaf via a silk cocoon and spent weeks or even months (depending on the temperature) in this trans-formative stage, before emerging as adult butterflies, with black and yellow markings, and red and blue eye spots.

Oh what a fiend am I!

To have selfishly destroyed these winged beauties (albeit in their ugly, horny stage). And particularly in these despairing times when pesticides are already killing off thousands of bees and butterflies, these creatures are essential for the pollination of our plants and the creation of our agricultural food bowls. Oh, to have added to this tragedy of the commons (albeit unintentionally). Oh wail and weep. What to do! What to do! How to make amends? If I had a first born child I’d gladly offer it to the gods in recompense!

I was devastated. So you can imagine my surprise when a few days later, miraculously, as I have no offspring to bargain with, the universe answered my call, and a Faustian pact was born. The life of one of my other young trees would be sacrificed in exchange for the return of the Papilio aegeus to my garden. Well the message wasn’t delivered in quite so many words. But I gleaned the general meaning when one evening I stepped onto the balcony to pinch a leaf from my baby curry tree for the vegetable casserole I was stewing, only to find an immature caterpillar rearing at me once more. No wonder they are so admired in lepidopterist circles. Not only are they handsome but they’re smart enough to avoid the tree of death and find something new to chew on.

So I have now fulfilled my part of the bargain and let the little monster be. It sits and chews all day and seems to sleep on the underside of the leaf at night.  I look forward to seeing it transform through its various stages. But just in case younger generations are dumber, and decide to re-colonise the Lime tree, I have a strategy. I will still pick them off, leaf by leaf, but this time I’ll place them carefully in a box and transport them to a new home. According to Wikipedia2, caterpillars feed on the leaves of the Rutaceae family of plants, commonly known as rue or citrus. All I have to do is find a common orange, Finger lime, Australian willow, lanolin bush or pot of parsley that is anywhere but on my balcony. Actually my mother has a full grown lemon tree. And now that I think of it, the neighbour has a rather lovely kumquat.

1http://lepidoptera.butterflyhouse.com.au/faqs/glossary.html#instar

2https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rutaceae

Images: 1. sagesomethymes; 2 Orchard Swallowtail butterfly by Summerdrought via wikimedia commons; 3 Lemon Tree by Fastily via wikimedia commons.

Posted in Habitat, My Mother and Me, The Animal Kingdom, Writing Nature and Place | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Like living on a yacht

The windows of our one bedroom flat open to both the south and north. In the early hours of the morning after a hot summer day I hear the cords rattle against the blinds, like rigging slapping the mast of a yacht. Then I hear the rustle of the scout breeze, the warm air that’s travelled ahead, and feel it wash over me. It’s pushed north by the Southerly behind it, which comes roaring through a few minutes later.  I pull up the blinds and the rooms fill with newly chilled air. Loose notes fly off the desk, calendar pages turn, and the corkboard tumbles off the shelf onto the floor. Suddenly this six story apartment block feels like a small boat on an open ocean.

Recently I was reading Elaine Bunting’s description of the mental map of sounds you develop while living on a yacht. “…a change in the usual symphony of noises can tell you when something is wrong. No matter how deep your sleep off watch, the slightest new sound or change of frequency will wake you instantly.” 1  Even though I don’t live on a yacht I can relate. Our kitchen is so small, just a bench and sink in a pantry space off the lounge, it’s like a galley. In fact the whole apartment is so small that, what with the wind blasting a gale around the balcony and the sounds of the suburb marking the hours like a ship’s bell; it does sometimes feel like we’re living on a boat.

Some mornings I wake up to the blast of a fog horn. I know instantly that it’s the cruise ship season and that there is thick mist on the harbour. Once a week I’m woken by the bells of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral ringing in parishioners, and I know instantly that it’s Sunday. But my usual morning wake up call is via the flock of resident lorikeets that begin to screech for their breakfast in the neighbour’s eucalypts as soon as the sun comes up, and I know instantly that I’m not going to get anymore sleep. Luckily there are also the delicate curlicues of currawongs, and on cloudy days, the ‘aaaahhh, aaaaghhh, aaaarghh’ of a raven, to round off the symphony of sound that brings me back to consciousness most days.

During the day I’m very much surrounded by land sounds.  There’s a lot of foot traffic outside the south windows. As I sit at my desk typing I’m often privy to the traumas of passers by, usually expressed through loud conversations on their mobile phones, or as a desperate soap opera conducted by yelling back and forth across the road. This is the soundtrack of poverty and drug addiction in a sometimes sad and desperate suburb. I don’t usually hear the whole conversation though, thanks to the constancy of traffic and the roar of the bus as it pulls to a stop. And luckily there is also the squeal of children in the school across the road signalling that it’s time to put on the kettle or eat lunch. Most afternoons I also hear the clip, clop, clip, clop of the mounted police horses as they make their dignified way up the street. An hour later I hear the same ambling gait echoing down our back lane. I once read complaining letters in the local paper that the police were not cleaning up after their horses. According to the Daily Telegraph, who also got into the act, a police spokeswoman said, “The waste from horses is often sought by members of the public for their gardens.” 2 I should leave my desk more often to avail myself of this free local produce for my pot plants and so indulge my sense of smell as well as sound.

In the evenings, as I prepare dinner in the galley, all the cool little bars on our street are open and there is a lively buzz in the air. And as I’m trying to fall asleep I know it’s midnight when the closing time laughter and shouting spills out onto the street as patrons walk to the station or stand chatting while waiting for an Uber. If I’m still lying awake in the early hours of the morning, listening to the creaky squeak of a fruit bat flying by, I’ll hear the first train horn on the railway line and know instantly that it’s four-thirty am.  I can try to get a few hours of sleep or I can get up and enjoy the unusual silence emanating from the street.

Like the ship’s bells that regulate routine at sea, these are the sounds of my suburb that whirl around me wind-like, night and day, anchoring my sleeping and waking hours with the knowledge of exactly where I am and what time it is. So I don’t need a watch but I have invested in a pair of ear plugs thanks to the advice in Elaine Bunting’s article. “Being attuned to changes in sounds is such a useful skill that many skippers sailing on long passages offshore forbid crew to listen to music on earphones while on watch. …That said, you can’t visit any length on board a crewed yacht without stashing away some good earplugs in your wash bag. These are among the best value bits of nautical equipment you will ever buy. There are times when their magical ability to extinguish a cacophony of noise, especially the man made ones, is absolutely priceless.” 3

Quotes

1 & 3  https://www.yachtingworld.com/blogs/elaine-bunting/listening-noises-board-yacht-mean-60517

https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/central-sydney/nsw-police-have-defended-the-right-of-horses-to-poop-in-sydneys-city-streets/news-story/fcef691d470843e98d0b138e10d01a95

Images via Wikimedia Commons: 1. Sailing Boat, Evening Effect  by Claude Monet;  2. Container Garden by saskia; 3. Peacemaker ship’s bell by Doug Coldwell;

 

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Imaginary Good

“Why is it, that doing something, is so much harder than thinking about doing something?

This fascinating existential question confronted me recently while I was thinking about my mother’s solar panels.

She lives in a suburb where roofs outnumber trees 10:0.  A perfect place to harness the power of the sun. I’d been telling her for a while now that it would be good for both the environment and her hip pocket to install solar panels. Together we’d sit at her kitchen table, eating her delicious Olive Oil, Fennel and Chilli Biscuits, and drinking a glass of her home made wine, as I pointed out that she’d be able to run her air conditioner all day and save money on her electricity bill at the same time. To myself I’d think, “Why doesn’t she just get them?” To her, I’d say, “Why don’t you just get them?” But I’d return on my next visit, and the one after that, and still her roof remained bare of photo-voltaic membranes.

Then one day, during one of these conversations, trying to be extra helpful, I said, “Why don’t you ask someone who’s already got panels on their roof to tell you how they did it?” Frankly I didn’t know why she hadn’t thought of this herself. Well it turns out she had. She told me all about feed in tariffs; and that you have to use all your appliances in the day time, because that’s when you’re using the electricity you generate, but at night, you’re using electricity from the grid, so you pay for it.

“So if you only use electricity in the day time, you’ll never pay an electricity bill again?” I asked.  Although it didn’t make any sense to me, I was quite excited by the idea.

But she explained that it was a little more complicated than that. You could also get a battery she told me. And then you could store your electricity and use it at night.

“Wow,” I said.

But batteries are very expensive she said, so that was out.

Although my mother now had a lot of information, she still hadn’t done anything about getting solar panels. Just as I was wondering why, if she really wanted them, she didn’t just get them, she handed me a leaflet. It was one of those ads that gets shoved into your letterbox, the type that most people are too busy to look at, so put straight into the recycling bin.  But my mother, being retired, had not only kept it, but also carefully examined it, and now she wanted me to do the same. It was an ad for solar panels offering a 50% discount on products and installation if you called the number NOW!

And suddenly I had one of those rare flashes of insight. My mother was actually asking me to install solar panels on her roof. Well, not expecting me to actually get up there and do it myself, but to organise it. I realised that she’d been trying to politely ask me to do this for weeks. And I’d thought we were just sitting around eating biscuits and drinking wine.

“Just ring them and get a quote,” my mother said. Was that a little frustration I detected in her tone? Was she, an Italian migrant for whom English is a second language, wondering why a tertiary educated first language speaker couldn’t make a phone call?

So because I’d disappointed her in so many ways so far in my life, by not getting married, by not giving her grandchildren, to name just two, I decided that this time I would come through for her. I would give her solar panels. Well, she’d still have to pay for them. I’d just organise it for her. There and then I appointed myself her solar panel project manager.

And so I rang the number on the brochure and I wasn’t wrong in naming this a project. Forty five minutes later, I’d inspected the electricity board, taken photos of the roof, checked out my mothers house on satellite maps, got out the compass to work out which way was north, and trawled through her last year’s worth of electricity bills, all so that the sales person on the other end of the phone could generate a quote.

But it felt great to take action.  And so I got straight onto the internet and found two more companies that installed solar panels and rang them for quotes too. They were stunned that I already knew that my mother has single phase electricity and an average pitch to her north facing roof. It didn’t seem to tweak with them that perhaps I’d done this all before.

After three phone calls I was exhausted. Just getting quotes for solar panels had taken all afternoon. This could takeover my whole life! I might never be able to lie on the couch, and just imagine things, again.

But just two years down the track, I’m standing in my mother’s front yard admiring the solar panels on her roof. She’s disappeared inside so I follow her in. I raid her biscuit tin as a reward for doing our bit in the battle against climate change.  Then I lie on the couch in her front room, with the air con blasting, sipping a glass of her home made wine and imagining a world where we achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030, one roof at a time.  That’s when my mother comes in with a leaflet which she hands to me. It’s an ad for installing a solar battery. It offers a 50% discount if you call the number NOW!

“Just ring them and get a quote,” she says. “It is not so hard.”

 

 

 

Images: 1)  An aerial view of housing developments near Markham, Ontario, photo by I Duke – Wikimedia Commons;  2) & 3) Writer’s own;  4) Wayne National Forest Solar Panel Construction – Wikimedia Commons;

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Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver and other books that marked my year

If you’ve ever looked at the world and asked yourself, ‘What the hell just happened?’ you’ll enjoy ‘Unsheltered’ by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite fiction writers.

Set in Vineland, New Jersey, in 2016, we meet Willa Knox, a woman who’s just lost her job and whose house is literally crumbling around her. Meanwhile an egotistical, misogynist bully is about to be elected President of the nation.

How could two hardworking people do everything right in life,” Willa asks, and end up destitute?” 

We also meet Thatcher Greenwood and Mary Treat, in the same place 150 years earlier, scientists and kindred spirits, who battle the status quo in their small town.

‘Unsheltered’ is an amusing and engaging portrait of bewilderment. Of ordinary life becoming impossible. It depicts the fear of those who still have something to lose; and the sad realisation that doing the right thing, doesn’t make them right. But sometimes the path of loss leads to hope.

Kingsolver accurately measures the political and emotional pulse of our times and renders it beautifully on the page.

It’s been, for me, a year of delving into fiction and the discovery of new voices  whose works I’ll now avidly await. It’s also been a time of re-immersion into writers whose past work I’ve admired. Interestingly, both in my fiction and non-fiction reading, it’s been mainly an American year. And most, but not all, of the writers have been women.

 

Three novels that I loved, discovered while browsing through Basement Books in the Central Station pedestrian tunnel, were ‘The Cookbook Collector’ by Allegra Goodman, a luscious tale about two very opposite sisters and how they navigate love, death and reality;  ‘The Garden of Small Beginnings’ by Abbi Waxman, a very funny book about taking the risk to love and hope, and get your hands dirty again, after a terrible tragedy; and the sensual and spell binding, ‘Breath’ by Tim Winton: a tale of sex, the wildness of adolescence, and the  spiritual pull of the surf.

Another book that I spent a lot of time with, and that spilled its influence into my writing was an Australian book, although not entirely Australian in content, ‘A Place on Earth: An anthology of Nature Writing from Australia and North America’ edited by Mark Tredinnick. It’s a varied and sublime collection of pieces about places, both wild and the urban, and the magic to be found in our communion with landscape.

And ‘Thistles’ by Australian playwright Noelle Janaczewska is the book I intend to enjoy over these last days of 2018. It promises to be a humane and eclectic curio of place, plants, literature and the exploration of what it is to be ‘home’.

I hope you have enjoyed some splendid reading this year and wish you magic finds on the shelves of your local book store in the new year!
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The Desire Path

The clock on this silly season is counting down and I only have a few days left to indulge my passion for beautiful objects in the name of gift giving. I leave the house and head into the city but at the last minute decide to eschew the department stores and label name boutiques in the city centre and veer to its eastern edge, where I know I can fulfill my yearning for the artisanal, and my hunger for the hand made.

At Martin Place train station I follow the signs to Sydney Hospital and emerge just a few steps from Macquarie Street, opposite the statue of Il Porcellino. Right next to it is The Little Shop housed in what was once the Northern Gatehouse of the hospital. Run by the Friends of Sydney Hospital volunteers this tiny space is filled with a menagerie of crocheted animals, beautiful hand knitted jumpers and anything else you can imagine made from wool. Perfect gifts for newborns and young children and anyone that hankers after a cute animal toy. I buy my mother a knitted purple pig. A miniature of the statue outside I guess.

Emerging from this wonderland of yarn I turn left into the hospital courtyard and walk through to the Domain – the people’s park. A place of lunchtime crowds, outdoor concerts and, in days gone by, cricket games and soap box oratories (see Get on Your Soap Box). Following the path across this part of the city’s lung system, leads straight to the Art Gallery of NSW, which is worth a whole day visit and several returns, but today I’m just here for the Gallery Shop.

I browse the bookshelves packed with titles about art and artists, fashion and photography, classic novels and modern literature. I relish the beautiful collection of children’s books. There are also posters, prints and postcards, and original jewellery and artefacts that would all make wonderful gifts. I covet umbrellas, arty socks, scarves and bags; boxes of gift cards, diaries and calendars; and beautifully illustrated exhibition catalogues. Defying the temptation to load up, and grateful that it’s not yet Christmas Eve, I leave with just a small book by one of my favourite writers. This traipse is still in its early stages and I realise now I should have bought my little red shopping trolley.

Outside the building, after I admire Walter Vernon’s early Greek classical stone façade, I find myself at the edge of the green that spreads south from the gallery. A few metres away is Art Gallery Road, with its tarmac footpath, but before me beckons a dirt path through the grass. It runs past the Police Memorial and stretches on towards the Domain Car Park.  It looks like the kind of rough goat track that you might find in a country field.

I’ve read about these strange pre-roads. Town planners call them desire paths and they are sometimes referred to as desire lines in urban design circles.  They are paths “created as a consequence of erosion caused by human or animal foot-fall.”1  I follow this unexpected trail all the way to St Mary’s Road, across it is the continuation of my haphazard track, now a real asphalt path through the lower eastern side of Cook + Phillip Park, which sits in the shadow of St Mary’s Cathedral.

I contemplate a quick visit to light a candle and utter some prayers of gratitude in the gothic structure that towers above me but decide that’s a separate excursion, as is the Australian Museum that sits grandly at the top of William Street, when I emerge from the cover of Port Jackson figs, at the other end of the park. Besides, it’s time for cake.

I walk a little way east and turn left at Riley Street, discovering I’m not the only one craving sustenance. On the bench outside Flour and Stone bakery an older lady sits with two teenage boys. They eat pies. I can’t tell  if they’re her grandsons but I can tell that they’re eating the Chicken, Leek & Tarragon pie and the Slow Braised Lamb, Potato and Rosemary pie. She enjoys a Pannacotta Lamington.  Her eyes are closed and I recognise the look of bliss on her face because I’ve had one of these before, when a work colleague generously indulged us for afternoon tea. It’s how I heard about this amazing little bakery.

Inside a crowd of well dressed professionals, absconded from their offices, treat themselves to perfectly baked Madeleines while awaiting their take away coffees. There are also parents with children, tourists perhaps, or locals enjoying the first day of the school holidays, and rich slices of the Valrhona Manjari Chocolate – a baked chocolate mousse cake. When it’s my turn to order I scan the counter. The chocolate cake is gone. I can choose from Italian Christmas cake; old fashioned vanilla slice; hazelnut torte; pistachio, raspberry and rose tea cake; or a buttermilk ricotta and poached pear muffin.  I order the muffin and a coffee, and squeeze into a seat at the window.

Once suitably fortified I head back out to William Street and walk two blocks east along this grungy artery that connects the CBD to the Eastern Suburbs. Once the haunt of Kenneth Slessor’s “dips and molls, with flip and shiny gaze”2 it’s now a car hire corridor. There are also plenty of cafés, a chocolatier, a hospitality supplies shop open to the public, a traditional hardware store, and plenty of eating houses in the nearby streets. But I’m not ready for lunch yet. I’m headed to the corner of Palmer Street and the Australian Design Centre’s Object Shop and Gallery.

As I step inside I fall in love. This is the kind of place that inspires my inner artist, and gives me buckets of hope for the future of our little globe, and of course plenty of options to fill the Christmas stockings.  I wander through their current exhibition, Designing Bright Futures, admiring the ingenious and exquisite work of twelve emerging designers. I love Hannah Goddard’s Material Ecology, a hand made dress put together from ‘repurposed linen, silk, lace, and recycled wooden spools’3.

In the object shop I’m mesmerised by the whimsical ceramic houses of Central Coast artist, Keiko Matsui; the charming hand painted monsters by Emma Kidd; and Catriona Pollard’s beautiful baskets and, and, and actually everything else. Because I want to buy all the beautiful pieces in this shop, I get that this is the time to practice my slow, deep breathing, as I carefully step away from the counter, and nonchalantly back out the door. I will return, once I’ve trawled their website and worked out exactly what to buy, for who.

Back on the busy street I cross the road and walk up the gentle slope towards the famous Coca Cola sign to Grand Days, a vintage boutique and book shop whose name harks back to the 1930’s and a Frank Moorehouse novel that I love. There are luscious clothes, eclectic bric-a-brac, an entire room devoted to vinyl, and hundreds of books. I try on a pink and purple sixties shift dress and buy it, along with a book about a cat that visits a lonely Japanese couple and decides to stay. Obviously I have no problems making decisions about what to buy for myself. Just other people.

It’s now time to end this jaunt so I head to nearby Kings Cross station. I briefly consider walking back to the city via Potts Point, and the McElhone Stairs, down to Woolloomooloo, and back through The Domain but decide to stick with the train option. But not before I devour several Vietnamese rice paper rolls at AnNam Café on Darlinghurst Road.

Afterwards, as I meander to my train, I muse on the magic to be found exploring these old quarters of our city, becoming a true ‘citizen of the street’, as coined by Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Sydney, like many other cities, is a great place for roving afoot. If you can find the forgotten corners and pockets of one of its many suburbs, you can experience the heady delight of discovery and the return of wonder. And also cake.

 

 

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desire_path   

2https://www.poemhunter.com/best-poems/kenneth-slessor/william-street/

3 https://australiandesigncentre.com/designing-bright-futures/hannah-goddard/

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Whales to Starboard

“What’s there not to love?” Paul, my partner, asks. “Two days and three nights surrounded by the ocean; cocktails delivered to your deck chair, sublime sunsets and dancing the night away.”

But I’m thinking Poseidon Adventure and Titanic.

Then he tells me the price.

“Only $100 a night. That’s everything! Except drinks.”

Allowing myself to be swayed, I say, “Guess there aren’t that many icebergs in the Pacific Ocean.”

And that’s how I find myself on a cruise ship; heading out of Sydney Harbour on a Friday afternoon with no destination but the sea itself.

I’m relying on the 9 bars, 7 restaurants, 6 Jacuzzis, 3 pools, 2 theatres, 1 casino and a flying fox to keep my mind off the possibility of this 260 metre, 77 000 tonne liner sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor. But soon I relax and begin to enjoy life on board ship. A Strawberry Daiquiri while watching the sunset at the Ocean Bar. A Pina Colada as we while away the dusk listening to Jazz in the Quarterdeck Lounge.  And a Semillon, with dinner at the Waterfront Grill. Despite myself, I’m getting used to this more quickly than I thought possible. Later that night in my cabin, gently rocked by the almost imperceptible sway of the ship, I sleep like an infant in a cradle.

The next morning, after several coffees and a buffet breakfast, we walk the promenade deck. I’m mesmerised by the deep blue of the ocean. I could circle this ship all day. But alas it’s time for morning tea. On the lido deck some of our fellow passengers are already quaffing their liquid lunches. I limit myself to the sweets bar and choose a lounge chair. There’s very little swell. We might survive this after all. Soothed by a slice of baked lemon cheesecake, and the shimmer of sunlight on the sea, I doze off.

Suddenly I’m woken by an announcement from the Bridge.

“Good Afternoon. This is your Captain speaking.”

I bolt upright. It’s the call to abandon ship and man the life rafts! Thank goodness I paid close attention at the safety muster yesterday. And I popped my life jacket under the deck chair earlier, just in case.

“Apologies for the interruption,” he continues. “There are whales straight ahead of us, with a couple of calves. We’ll go about. So stand at Starboard and enjoy the view.” Sheepishly I remove the life jacket and move to the railing. I’m glad Paul’s playing shuffleboard on the sports deck and hasn’t witnessed my panic.

Then I see them: six humpback whales, swimming in pairs, two of them smaller than the others. They must be the babies.  It feels as if the ship has stopped. Around me, people have gathered, lining the deck, staring in silent wonder as the whales roll and play, spraying watery liquid from their spouts. We drift, quite close, alongside them.

Like us, these magnificent creatures are travelling north, but unlike us, they’re fasting. Living off their fat reserves until their return to the Southern Ocean for a summer Krill feast. As we watch, the largest whale lifts its tail clear of the water and slaps it back down onto the surface.  A collective “Oh” exhales across the ship. A moment of deep communion between these awe-inspiring animals and a pod of humans. Is this what the ancients meant by the grace of god?

Paul is beside me now. Together we watch the whales merge with the waves as the ship sails on.  And then it’s time for lunch. But as I turn away, a low bellow echoes across the water. The lunch bell? A siren? A whale song.

Later we stand at the railing until the sun slips over the earth’s edge.  As the remaining light seeps slowly away, and dusk deepens into twilight, I spot Venus, the evening star. Just risen, it hangs low in the early night sky. I think about my new Cetacean friends, swimming through the dark waters, and wonder how our species can bear to pollute these oceans. How can we stand by as the ice caps melt and the Krill disappear?

Back on shore a few days later, I’m waiting for my takeaway coffee. The ground seems to sway slightly and I’m back on the boat, reliving that soul stopping moment watching the whales. Then my name is called; I grab my latte, my mind already in the office, as the baleen dream dips away over the horizon behind me.

Whale image unfortunately not the author’s own 
- By Christine  Zenino from Chicago US via Wikimedia Commons
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The windswept doorstep of the year

August is almost over. And so is winter. I’ve loved the slowly lengthening days that carry the hope of spring. The newly lit hours that creep in after the solstice always seem so familiar; like a lost memory returned, promising warmth. But the nights are still chilly, and although during the day the sun is warm, the shade is bitterly cold. As I round the corner at the bottom of my street the wind suddenly cuts raw across my face. It’s an icy alpine gust. Although it’s not actually snowing here I have no trouble imagining it covering the ground somewhere to the south.

This wind is like a quirky local character; its furious whistle follows me around, and indoors it hovers at the edge of my conscience. When I wake in the mornings I lie in bed watching it play in the Lilli Pilli outside the window. And as I wash the dishes in the evenings, I see it again, this time from the kitchen window, capering in the Crow’s Ash on the footpath. But usually I just feel the freezing gale that races up the ridge of the hill our street is on.

We first moved here in late August and on the first day I opened all the windows wide. The purifying south winds swept through the house like auguring spirits. At the time I thought this was just the way of this place and nicknamed it the windy suburb. But as the months went by I realised the winds were both seasonal and directional. In spring the warm northern zephyr floats freely through the house, but in summer it transforms into a hot, dry, north-westerly that feels like it’s traveled directly from the Strzelecki Desert. I can see why 17th century  navigators were inspired to draw up charts that captured the cardinal winds in the imagined stillness of a compass rose.

There’s an old saying that August is the windiest month of the year. And as if to fulfill this promise, each year the sharp southerly, bringing snow wind from the Southern Alps, arrives right on time in the early days of the month. Les Murray put it beautifully in the first stanza of his poignant poem, A New England Farm, August 1914.1

“August is the windy month,                                                                                                           The month of mares’ tails high in heaven,                                                                                    August is the fiery month,                                                                                                                The windswept doorstep of the year.”

And Aunty Fran Bodkin, a descendant of the D’harawal people of the Bidiagal clan and educator of ancient D’harawal knowledge at UWS, tells us in her perpetual calendar that August is “cold and windy: build shelters to face the rising sun; time to begin the journey to the highlands along the rivers; plenty of fish.2 But interestingly according to Sydney’s weather bureau records the windiest month is actually November. Perhaps August is just the first of the windy months.

Despite the Antarctic sting of the wind, this eighth month of the year is one of my favourites. I love that the sun comes up now well before seven and doesn’t set until almost half past five. There have been sudden days of heat, reminiscent of summer. One day, quite early in the month, the thermometer reached a scary 26 degrees, bringing the fear that Spring was here too soon. And reminding us that climate change is upon us. But then thankfully the month lapsed back into an intense icebox cold.  Perhaps these fluctuations are just the rhythms of this place; the adjustments at the edges of the seasons. The British imported the idea of four fixed seasons but the Dharawal previously recognised six seasons in the Sydney region. But even within the European tradition there was local variation. The new season started at the beginning of a month, but my father, who hailed from Southern Europe, insisted that Spring and Autumn began on the equinox.

The birds however follow no human calendar. For them August is the month where they emerge from their winter quiet with a flurry of nesting activity. Except for the Rainbow Lorikeets for whom every month is just the season of screeching. At dawn they shout from the branches of the paperbark in the back yard before flinging themselves onto the neighbour’s balcony railing. Seeds were once left out for them overnight so each morning now they scream for their breakfast.

But as the month has deepened the Currawong calls now ring out like medieval church bells; a deep, rich, melodic caroling outside the window. A much lovelier sound to wake to  than the shrieking of the Lorikeets.  The pesky parrots have been a little more civilised ever since the larger passerines have arrived. I remember this time last year surprising a Pied Currawong in my blueberry pot helping itself to the handful of purple berries that had sprouted. They were named bell magpies for their calls in the early days of European colonisation. They feed on small lizards, insects, caterpillars and berries. Some also take smaller birds. Perhaps the Lorikeets know this.

They are serious birds unlike the clown like Corellas that flock together at sunset, twenty or thirty of them, squawking through the skies in a swirling storm of white. Where have they been all day? Probably in some park tearing the trees to shreds. But luckily not in our local park where the Ibis rule. As I walk through each morning I’ve noticed that the Ibis are honking impatiently and pushing past each other to get at the sticks floating in the fountain. These regal water birds were revered as Gods in Ancient Egypt but are denigrated as bin chooks in Sydney. That’s because we usually see them foraging through the city’s garbage for food. But in our park they fly gracefully up into the Alexander palms and add their finds to their platform nest of sticks; an all day work in progress that ends only when they settle in for a quiet evening in the tree tops as dusk moves across the suburb.

It’s the Ibis and their nest building that remind me that August is pre-spring and come September we can begin to unfurl and prepare for the long warm months ahead.

 

1   A New England farm, August 1914 by Les Murray   www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/murray-les/a-new-england-farm-august-1914-0577012 

2  Aunty Fran Bodkin  dharawalstories.com/2015/09/24/perpetual-calendar/

Images [Public domain] via Wikimedia: Map of the Winds, 1650,Jan Janssonius; Brisbane City Council (Rainbow Lorikeets); Pied Currawong, Blue Mountains; Australian White Ibis by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos; and snow photo courtesy of Sharon Walker via abc.net.au.

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