Edgelands

I’m on my way to visit my mother but I’m early. I don’t want to interrupt her while she’s watching her favourite soapie, the one I’ve dubbed Italian Doctors in Love, so I decide to take a detour. I get off the bus and walk into a place that when I lived in this area I wasn’t allowed to enter. Back then it was private property; an example of remnant farm land on the very edge of our sprawling city.

Back in the late 1980’s when I was at university, I would get off the train at Fairfield Station after what was in those days an hour’s journey from Redfern and Sydney Uni. It’s now forty-five minutes despite the distance remaining the same; a modern miracle. I would then board the bus for my twenty-five-minute ride home. No miraculous change there unfortunately. We would travel through layers of suburb, moving further and further away from the railway line until we reached what I used to think of as the edge of civilisation. The Cowpasture Road. On winter nights particularly, the darkness of this old road edged by pasture land following on so quickly from the treeless streets lined with suburban McMansions that we’d just travelled through, made me feel like I’d come to the end of the world. It was usually just myself and the bus driver left by this stage, as the rest of the journey was on the return loop to the station. There’s no way that back then I would have got off the bus here voluntarily. Then again there weren’t Italian soap operas waiting to greet me at the end of the journey either. Well not on television anyway. Now as I step off the bus, I’m in an area that is much more welcoming despite the extremely busy four lane road I have to cross to reach this entrance to the Western Sydney Parklands.

This is an old place. Much older than my memory. Much older than the road or the farm that was here before an Act of Parliament created this much needed recreation area in south western Sydney. It belonged to the Darug peoples who would have managed the land here for food, and hunted wallabies and possums, to be eaten around fires built also for talk and trade with others of the Cumberland Plain. Their descendants are still the Traditional Custodians of this land.1

Back at university I didn’t know the local history of the area. All I knew was that this back road in the sticks wasn’t the exciting metropolitan city that I wanted to live in. In fact, when asked to research the local history of where I lived for one of my history courses, I chose Newtown. Much more interesting, I thought. Perhaps this was because I hadn’t yet discovered the cool study of psychogeography, the effect of geographical location on our psychological experiences. And uber cool words like edgelands and rural urban fringe hadn’t been invented to describe the ugly, semi industrial border between the new housing developments of the outer suburbs and the left-over agricultural land of colonial times.

Now Western Sydney Parklands meanders for 27 kilometres through Blacktown, Fairfield and Liverpool Councils. There are concrete paths for bikes and walkers through the old paddocks but I decide to follow one of the swathes mown through the meadow that begins next to an old dam that is now a deep green pond surrounded by Zebra grass and a new grove of Paperbark and Crown Ash.

It’s mid-October and a warm morning so I’m delighted when this cross country track finally meets the Pimelea Loop, a lovely name for the concrete path that I spurned earlier. I have no idea where it leads but I’m excited by the names on the sign, Moonrise, Sugar Loaf Ridge, Ginger Meggs Memorial, so I turn south and hope I don’t regret this impromptu hike.

The sound of birds and buzz of dragon flies camouflages the distant hum of the traffic on Cowpasture Road. Just off the path I spot abandoned wooden gates that would have been used to isolate sheep before dipping, but are now the centre pieces of a quaint picnic area. Lantana and wild artichoke vie with Patterson’s curse amongst the long grasses next to the path. But these distractions are not enough to mask the strain on my ham strings; I am now definitely climbing a hill. Perhaps there will be an amazing lookout as a reward for the sweat which is rolling down my face. I reach the crest of the hill but there is only the other side, the path now edged with shea oak and young gums.

Finally, the land levels out and I’m surrounded by head high wild wheat grass. As the path emerges into the open again, I see a tall dead paddock gum and hear frogs in a nearby dam. So, this is what was out there in the dark beyond, all those years that I sat in the warmth of the night bus imagining myself elsewhere.

Two hills later I spot The Dairy, a modern picnic area with tables, toilets and bubblers. A few hundred yards away are the gates I entered through an hour ago. There are a huge number of paths that I could continue to follow in this amazing stretch of nature within our city but Italian Doctors in Love will well and truly be over and so I head back to the bus stop to complete my original journey, hopefully in time for a well-earned lunch, courtesy of my mother.

Images: On the Cowpasture Road, Chrisr: Bunbury’s, from Views of Sydney and Surrounding District by Edward Mason, ca. 1821-1823; 1892. Courtesy of State Library of NSW PXC 459; Map courtesy of Western Sydney Parklands, westernsydneyparklands.com.au; other images author’s own.

1https://www.westernsydneyparklands.com.au/about-us/our-story/aboriginal-heritage/

Posted in Habitat, My Mother and Me, Spirit of Place | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dante and I and the ride from Hell

I don’t think of myself as an envious person. And I wouldn’t say I was too proud, although I admit that I am sometimes greedy, but recent events have made me not so sure of this.  

My local library had just reopened for browsing and I was very excited. This was something I used to do a lot before COVID-19 wrought havoc on our lives and closed all the libraries. It was time to go to the library again and it was time to ride my bike to get there. That was not something that I used to do a lot but if we’ve learnt anything from this pandemic, it’s that we need to grab opportunities when we can.

So, I got on my bike and began to peddle. I took the bike path that leads away from the ridge where I live and down into what used to be swamp and is now Green Square. As I pedalled, I felt the wind through my hair and a level of freedom that I hadn’t experienced in months. I should do this every day, I thought to myself, as I smelt spring in the air, heard the birds tweeting in the trees, and rode past cute puppies frolicking in the park.

At the library, I flashed the big green tick from my QR code check in at the friendly staff and breathed a huge sigh of satisfaction as, after almost eight months, I was in a library again. I was extra excited because usually at this branch of the library you can’t actually browse, and only occasionally is this due to a global pandemic endangering our lives. The library is configured so that people sitting at tables, or in comfy arm chairs with their lap tops, are also sitting in front of the books. It’s obviously a new design aesthetic where the books are just wall paper for the real business of a library, which happens online. But on this visit, there was no one there. Only browsers of books. That is, only people who want to read books. That is, only me. In ecstasy I browsed for my full thirty-minute allocation of time. That’s three minutes per book, I calculated as I borrowed my ten books. The maximum allowed.

I was very pleased with the variety of books I’d chosen, from intellectually taxing to light reading. One of these, Dante’s Divine Comedy, I had never had the courage to attempt. But if living through a pandemic teaches you anything it’s to face your fears, or at least admit them. This long narrative poem describes Dante’s travels through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise as his soul battles with divine justice. I was sure that it would make riveting reading through the long nights of the Pando that still lay ahead.  

With a big smile for the staff and a big bag for the books, I exited the library and made my way back to my … bike. Ah yes. That’s when I remembered that I’d ridden a bike, not a lorry, to the library. Luckily my bike has a basket at the front and a cute little luggage carrier at the back. The luggage carrier comes complete with an oci strap. In the 70s and 80s octopus straps were very popular with fathers for loading car rooves. Today they are most often used by library nerds on bikes. After securing my books, some of which went into my back pack, which was secured onto my back which was secured onto the bike, I was off.

I rode smoothly around the pedestrians exiting from Green Square station. A few months ago, this would have been more difficult and involved dodging around about 500 people. Today it was easy to avoid the one person that straggled out of the station. As I said to myself earlier, when I could actually see the books in the library for a change, the pandemic takes and the pandemic gives. I then negotiated the traffic on O’Riordan Street, the hyper busy main arterial road south from the CBD to the airport. This was tricky. The pandemic has given us nothing here. I had to wait for someone to come along and push the traffic light pedestrian crossing button so that my lights would turn green. I wasn’t going to touch that button. After all we don’t have a vaccine yet. I utilised my time however, imagining cute accessories that I could strap onto my bike which could be used to push buttons at traffic lights.

 

Finally, someone came along and after waiting for a while, then giving me what could have been an exasperated look, pushed the button. I noted approvingly that they used their elbow. The light turned green and we were off. I was keen to get back onto the bike path and experience the wind through my hair and hear the birds again as I whizzed by, and glimpse cute puppies. The first kilometre was a breeze and I had just begun to ease into the experience and imagine myself riding to new and amazing places across Sydney, never walking again, when unexpectedly my bike began to slow down. I had to push twice as hard on the peddles to keep up the momentum, then three times as hard, then… Was my tire flat? Had I accidently upshifted the gears to high? I tried to check while maintaining forward momentum. No. All was as it should be. But looking up again, all I could see ahead of me now was a long steep slope and in the far distance, barely visible, a distant peak. My destination. How had the terrain changed so dramatically in the half hour I’d been in the library?  

I noticed that the temperature had also changed. What had been a mild spring day was now a hot and sticky afternoon. What had been my forehead was now a waterfall of sweat and what had been a pretty dress was now a wet rag. With no other choice but to push on, each circle of the pedals roughly equivalent to one of Dante’s nine rings of hell, except my circles were infinite in number, I grunted and puffed my way up the hill. It dawned on me that perhaps this was my personal inferno, my punishment for vile sins committed. The sin of pride in myself and my bike as I’d swooped down the hill earlier. The sin of greed as I’d hogged the library aisles to myself, glad that the pandemic had disrupted its use for others. The sin of gluttony as I loaded book after book into the borrowing machine, and cake after cake into my stomach earlier on in the pandemic. And the sin of sloth that had kept me off my bike ever since I’d bought it.

Then suddenly these concentric circles of torment tightened again. I looked down upon hearing a snarl and feeling the vibration of slobbering jaws close to my ankle. One of the puppies that had been so cute on the way down the hill, now resembling a fully grown German Shepherd, was snapping at my heels with all the inbred hatred of anything on wheels that is built into the DNA of all dogs. Simultaneously several of the birds that had entertained me earlier with their sweet songs now took the opportunity to swoop past, beaks snapping, only centimetres from my right ear. It seemed as if all my extremities were under attack. But at least they weren’t the swarms of wasps and hornets that had apparently attacked Dante in the vestibule of hell. I considered offloading some of the books to lighten my load but that would not endear me to the divine powers that were obviously watching this all too human comedy. And besides, stopping would only advantage the beasts that were hell bent on chasing me. So, I pushed on, determined not to concede, and slowly climbed the mountain that I had earlier foolishly written off as merely a hill. Behind me, as if from the tomb of Lucifer himself I continued to hear the wild howls of the slavering hoards.

Finally, I arrived home. I remember little of the rest of the journey. Only relief.  After unloading my two-wheel vehicle, incapable of coherent thought or movement, I simply lay on my bed. I was close to catatonic but also happy that I hadn’t stopped, or collapsed or worst still, fainted. Still riding on the wings of that victory, or perhaps unable to relax because of the adrenalin still pumping through my body, I decided to pursue my next challenge. I opened Dante’s Divine Comedy and began to read. I was so tired that rather than start at the beginning I opened a page randomly. After all, it was a poem, what difference could it make. It turns out a lot. Not because it didn’t make any sense but because I had randomly chosen a section that proved to me that I’d just bested a famous Italian poet. No, not in the literary stakes but where it counts, in the real world.

When Dante and his companion, Virgil, reach the River Acheron which they must cross by ferry to reach Hell proper, he doesn’t describe the ferry ride. That’s because by that stage he’d fainted. He may have written the Divine Comedy, the pre-eminent work in Italian literature and one of the greatest works of world literature but he couldn’t finish the ride. Feeling enormous pride in myself, I fell asleep, the Divine Comedy gently slipping from my fingers.

Images: All but the first, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Posted in The Sages, What Are You Reading? | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

‘Cucinati al umido’ – Italian for what I just said.

I now have a spice cupboard. Well I have spices in my cupboard. Two spices. Paprika and Chilli. They are enabling spices. Over the years I have discovered that much is possible with these two friends in the house. And if I add a lot of lemon juice, even I can now make something that is vaguely edible. It also helps to be living through a pandemic; no longer do I just pop out to a restaurant if I’ve destroyed the food before it reaches the table. But it isn’t just the pandemic that has re-awoken my respect for these ingredients and the food traditions they represent.

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Let me give you an example from the 90’s. Yes, I was alive then, and cooking. Well attempting to cook; I drew the line at eating out six nights a week.

I’d just left home and was renting a little one bedroom in Ashfield. I’d bought a wok and truly believed that I could replicate the meals I loved in the Thai restaurants that were my second home in those days. I think we can leave that story there. I don’t think I really need to humiliate myself by telling you the results of my efforts at stir frying vegetables in a cheap wok over an old electric plate on the one day a week that I bothered trying to eat at home.

You see, I had fallen for the furphy, fed to my generation, that anyone could be a chef. Well some of us could; the trained chefs amongst us. But most of us, or at least me, would have been better off replicating the food that we ate while growing up. The kind of food that I’d watched my mother make.

It was mainly vegetables; meat was a rare treat. A lot of potatoes, which I had to peel, and onions, which I had to chop when I got home from school so that they were ready for mum when she got home from a day at the factory. The basic idea was to sauté the vegetables in some olive oil and garlic and of course chilli or paprika, or both, then add a little stock and let them cook slowly until they were soft and tasty. ‘Cucinati al umido’ – Italian for what I just said. And I also learnt, from the mothers of the Greek girls I hung out with as a teenager, that lemon juice is your friend.

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But when I left home, I wanted to forge my own life, not replicate that of my parents. I wanted to leave all those old ways behind. So, I bought a trendy wok and rejected the everyday frying pan. And in so doing I also rejected the years of learning I‘d unknowingly gained in my mother’s kitchen, instead attempting to cook a type of cuisine that was wholly new to me. It was literally like a fish deciding to ride a bicycle because it thought swimming, which it had being doing all its life, was now boring. You learn by watching, listening and trying. And when you do one thing over and over again, eventually you become an expert at that one thing.

1200px-Wok_cooking_and_fire_by_romainguy

But I was a young, well paid, professional and even though my only expertise in Thai cooking was ordering number thirty seven, admittedly over and over again, I assumed that I would be able to cook it. I’d never even seen those Thai chefs doing their stuff and wouldn’t have a clue how it was made. But I loved Thai food, so that would surely be enough? How naïve. How arrogant to devalue their expertise. And how silly to have devalued the expertise I did have. I had not only watched my mother cooking my whole life but had been her sous chef for 15 years.

So, now that I haven’t been allowed into a restaurant for four months, (yes, I know restrictions have eased, but my fear hasn’t) it’s been either reclaim my heritage or starve. So, I started with broccoli and rediscovered how delicious it is with pasta, and in sandwiches. Yes, the same broccoli sandwiches that the bullies at school teased me about. I’m finally standing up for myself.

And I’ve cooked cauliflower, capsicums, eggplants, mushrooms, peas, potatoes, and even made a quick tomato sauce, in this way. But I have never cooked cabbage. Mainly because I’ve never had the opportunity. But also because I hate cabbage. I mean who doesn’t. Cabbage is a vegetable that would need a huge marketing budget to sell it and it still wouldn’t guarantee success. Or a world war to make you desperate enough to eat it. Or a pandemic.

Witte_kool

Well I’ve finally got the last one. What an opportunity. Or at least that’s how I decided to view the cabbage that my mother gave me the last time I visited her. She usually gifts me food when I visit and I always accept, even pre-pando. But now that I like to have a full fridge and overflowing cupboards, and a box of essentials under the dining table and in the… never mind.

So, when my mother ran out to the car the other day, just as I was leaving, and said, “Do you want a cabbage? They gave me two” – they being her local bartering buddies, all Italian migrants over seventy-five, who source their food from their back yards and goodness knows where else – I of course said yes. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. But I also couldn’t, in these times, say no to free food. Even cabbage.

By the time I got home I’d had a rethink. I would just throw the thing out. But as I took the cabbage out of the plastic bag, I noticed its amazing green, almost absinthe, outer leaves. Its crisp firm texture. And its gentle roundness. Perhaps I had maligned this vegetable. Held in my hands, over the bin, my foot poised on the lid pedal, it had a certain beauty, a dignity in the face of its cruel demise. I hesitated. Why did I hate this vegetable? What had it ever done to me? Was I so shallow that I would judge a fellow creature of this earth by its reputation? And so, amnesty was given.

Also, I knew that I had plenty of chilli and paprika in the cupboard. And if I shredded it really finely, perhaps I could pretend it was something else. And if I cooked it with some of the green capsicum and potatoes that I had in the fridge it might get lost amongst the other vegetables. And if I sautéed it in lots of olive oil, garlic and leek, then simmered it in a good vegetable stock until it was all cooked down, it would hardly be recognisable. And of course, right at the end, if I drenched it, I mean drizzled, lemon juice all over it, it might actually be tasty. Lemon juice is, along with paprika and chilli, a miracle cooking ingredient. It can turn anyone into a semi- competent cook.

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The true test came when we sat down to eat dinner. I’d added some thin rice noodles to the dish in my desperate attempt at the continuing disguise of this vegetable. Amazingly we were actually able to eat it. It could also have been the excellent bottle of Riesling that I’d chosen to accompany dinner, much of which had been drunk during the cooking, making it another miracle cooking ingredient. But perhaps, it was also a reward for having accepted my heritage and using some of the knowledge drilled into me by my mother all those years ago. It’s taken a pandemic but I’m now grateful for all those hours spent peeling potatoes and chopping onions. It’s come in handy when I’m still too chicken to step into a restaurant.

 

Image Attributions: Paprika by Katina Rogers; Wok cooking by  romainguy and Lemon Juice by David Goehring all CC BY creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0. White Cabbage by Rasbak / CC BY-SA creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/; Noodles by Susan Slater / CC BY-SA creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0
Posted in Experiments with Food, My Mother and Me, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wildlife Encounters

I was startled by a loud thump, thump, thump. A sound halfway between familiar and threatening. It seemed to be coming from the coastal heath land behind us.

We were sitting beside the river at Princetown, a tiny hamlet next to a wide estuary, admiring the rich surrounding wetlands and the green hills in the distance. We’d pulled in at this idyllic spot on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria after spending the day gazing in awe at the Twelve Apostles. There are actually now only eight of these giant limestone stacks left. They were formed by the Southern Ocean pounding the coastal cliffs over thousands of years. Before heading back across the Otway Ranges to our accommodation in the beautiful seaside village of Apollo Bay, we’d decided to stop and have a picnic dinner. That’s when we had our first encounter.

Turning around I saw a very large roo standing at the edge of the bush path that led over the hill to the beach. He was very close to us. I could see the sharp claws on the ends of his paws. And he was very tall. Perhaps that’s why their Latin name is Macropus giganteus.  I looked at him warily. He looked at me with utter disdain. Then he hopped right past us and onto the one lane wooden bridge that spanned the river. It’s a very long bridge so we watched him jump gracefully along until he disappeared into the caravan park on the other side.

Just as we began to eat again, a second roo, smaller than the first, and not giving us a second glance, hopped out from the same path, straight onto the bridge. It’s long grey stride also disappearing towards the camp ground in the distance. Of course we should have expected to see another one as they usually hang around in mobs, sometimes of ten or more. It also seems that they hang around caravan parks, rocking up for the nightly ritual of a feed from the tourists. Briefly I wondered if I should try my luck hopping over the bridge for a bit of BBQ sausage or steak rather than continue with the cheese and tomato sandwiches I’d packed. Perhaps I’m not as cute as these furry marsupials but surely my one footed version of their springy leap would be worth rewarding, for comic aptitude if nothing else.

As I was contemplating my chances I heard the thump, thump, thump, again. Then another roo, even bigger than the first, popped out of the bushes. It stopped short when it saw us. I’m not sure which one of us looked more fearful. And then it quickly disappeared back into the thick brush. A minute later it flew out from the bushes a little further along, directly onto the road, and to the bridge, where it stopped short once again, looking both ways in a panic. Was this the first time it had been here? Couldn’t it see the camp ground? Or smell the sizzling sausages? Perhaps I should go and get some freshly barbecued meat for it…. Then before I could do anything it hopped back in the direction it had come, heading straight towards the Great Ocean Road.

Now it was our turn to panic. A roo that size bouncing onto one of the busiest tourist drives in Australia could be catastrophic. Should we run after it? Perhaps get in the car and chase it down before it reached the road? Or at least climb the hill and wave madly at the oncoming traffic? As we stood there trying to decide on a course of action we suddenly saw the roo coming back  down the road. As it neared us we realised that it was being followed by a car, inching along slowly behind the roo with its headlights on. We watched as the distraught creature crossed the long wooden bridge and then just as it got close to the other side it panicked again. Another car was waiting patiently to cross at the other end, and our poor roo must have felt trapped because as soon as it was off the bridge it made a wild side dash, hopping frantically away along the river bank.

By now the sun had set, and lovely as the dusk was, we knew we had a long drive ahead through heavily forested mountains. We packed up our picnic and left this picturesque place at the mouth of the Gellibrand river and got back onto the Great Ocean Road.  It was  about twenty minutes later, as my partner was driving very carefully along the narrow, winding road that we had our second encounter. Rounding a bend, illuminated suddenly by our high beams, was an animal I’d never seen up close in the wild before. There on the road right in front of us was a full grown koala calmly waddling along in the middle of our lane. My partner slammed on the breaks and we came to a sudden stop. Thank goodness that the car behind us had had the sense to keep a safe distance between us.

Looking through the windscreen it seemed that the koala had not even noticed that we were there. It continued to nonchalantly go about its business despite the fact that it had just been in imminent danger of being squashed. But what was its business in the middle of the road I wondered? Why wasn’t it in a tree eating gum leaves? And why did it look like it was hypnotised? Perhaps it was bamboozled by the intensity of light shining onto the road as the car behind us had also pulled up. Maybe it was just hungry and confused? For the second time that evening we were trying to second guess the thoughts of a cute marsupial. Should one of us get out of the car and move the animal off the road? Should we call WIRES? Should we just drive around it? Just as I reached for the door handle determined to act, the koala began to meander back to the side of the road. A few minutes later, with several cars now stopped behind us, we drove away after the animal had moved out of sight. It was a sad irony that we’d been hearing about koalas and other Australian wildlife being caught in the horrific bush fires that were ravaging the east coast and yet here on the relatively fire free southern coast of Australia we’d also encountered a koala in mortal danger.

Fortunately the only other wild life we spotted on the remainder of our holiday was a distant emu far off in a pale yellow field as we neared the Riverina town of Narrandera. By then we’d left the coast and the deep chill of the Southern Ocean and were making our way back to Sydney via an inland route to avoid the fires and road closures along central and western Victoria and southern NSW. We’d spent the night before in Jerilderie, a town which apparently produces a quarter of Australia’s tomatoes. It’s also well known as the place where Ned Kelly and his gang held up the local bank.

That day we drove over 600 kilometres with the temperature reaching a record breaking 46 degrees as we made our way through the still pretty but drought ravaged towns of Coolamon, Murrumburrah, Temora and Young to Cowra. By late afternoon we reached Bathurst and stopped for a break and to assess the viability of crossing the mountains to get to Sydney that night. The reports on the radio had warned that the predicted southerly change would bring high speed winds that could aggravate the fires in the Grose Valley and on the outskirts of Sydney, possibly closing the Great Western Highway. We knew we weren’t the only ones on the road trying to get back home that day. The Princess Highway, south of Sydney had been reopened and thousands of people were leaving the South Coast and there were also fires burning out of control in the Southern Highlands which is why we’d deliberately avoided the Hume Highway. A news update told us that although it was safe to cross the mountains Penrith had reached a staggering 48.9 degrees Celsius, making it the hottest place in Australia and in fact on Earth. We were stunned. It was hard to believe that the tremendous heat we’d experienced in country NSW that day was eclipsed by the temperature in a suburb of Sydney. In a somber mood we made our way up the mountain to Katoomba where we stopped for a meal.

As we drove down the mountain after dinner we counted fire truck after fire truck steadily making their way home. We  guessed that they’d spent the day fighting fires that had broken out on the outskirts of Sydney and also controlling the massive fire to the north that still burned wildly. Driving through Penrith at about 8pm the thermometer on the dashboard recorded 38 degrees; a temperature that we would have balked at in the past but that we were now almost grateful for. The rest of the drive along the M4 into the city was very quiet. I never thought I’d miss the Saturday night hoons, with their max exhausts and thumping music, racing each other into the city at death speeds. But they would have been a harbinger of normality. Instead we returned from our travels to a ghostly city, wreathed in smoke, and traumatised by this strange and dangerous summer.

 

Post Script: This post is dedicated to the estimated one billion wild animals that have perished in this season’s horrific bush fires. My heart also goes out to the families of the thirty two people that have lost their lives and to those that have lost their homes. We are deeply indebted to the courageous souls that have been fighting these fires.

Image Attributions: Unfortunately only one of the photos is my own as I was too gob smacked by both the scenery and the wildlife encountered on this trip to snap anything decent. I’m grateful to Wikimedia Commons and these authors for allowing me to share their work.

12 Apostles, Pavel Špindler via creativecommons.org; Eastern Grey Kangaroo,  fir0002  flagstaffotos[at]gmail.com Canon 20D + Canon 400mm f/5.6 L [GFDL 1.2 via creativecommons.org; Koala, Arnaud Gaillard via creativecommons.org;

Posted in climate change, Habitat, The Animal Kingdom | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Rat Before Christmas

A few years ago, when we lived in the art-deco flat in Double Bay, I was woken by a mysterious night visitor. It was the week before Christmas and as I lay in my bed in a state of alarm the red numbers on the digital clock clicked forward to three thirty six am. I remained very still, almost without breath, listening  carefully, but I couldn’t stop my mind from ricocheting wildly.

Is it under the bed?

Does it know I’m here?

What is it doing?

Silence.

Was I dreaming?

And then there it was again, the sound that had woken me. The scuttling of claws on wood. It scurried into the room, dashed under my bed, did something, I don’t know what, and then scurried out again.

Where did it go?

Is it in the kitchen?

How big is it?

I lay in bed, besieged, unable to move.  I was too scared to put on the lamp. Irrational, I know. It was probably just a mouse.

It could be a rat.

Maybe it’s Santa.

A bit early.

This went on for several nights until finally I summoned the courage to get up. I crept into the kitchen and flicked on the light, determined to catch it out. But there was nothing there. I had been expecting to see something large and furry, somewhere between a mouse and a possum. Hopefully not a rat. But if it had to be a rat, perhaps it could be a native rat. Perhaps some yellow-footed antechinus; some remnant of ancient rainforest life. But as my eyes adjusted I realised that my kitchen was a veritable menagerie of night life. Christmas beetles flying suicidal missions against the window pane, moths vibrating  against light fittings, spiders gliding astutely behind objects, and cockroaches….

I hate cockroaches.

… scattering, much more slowly than I would like into the dark recesses under the bright kitchen appliances. All except one fellow, a particularly large, particularly shiny one, that calmly continued to clear the crumbs off the kitchen table. And when I swatted my hand at it, it didn’t flinch. It was comfortable, unafraid, completely habituated to living off my leftovers. And as I stood there I felt a little miffed.

Am I the stranger here?

Another spider, a good sized huntsman, crouched at the sink, watching me. They’re supposed to be natural pesticides. They trap and eat insects. I have a good relationship with these spiders, as long as they stay on the ceiling. But this one had decided to come down for a drink of water.

The cockroach was still on the table. I acted swiftly, grabbing the can of insecticide that I kept on top of the fridge, and spraying a jet of poison right at it. I kept my finger on the trigger until the force of the spray pushed it right off the table.

There.

This is my home. I don’t remember agreeing to share it with these strange creatures.

On the floor, having landed on its back, the cockroach struggled for a few seconds and then managed to right itself; but the chemicals had done their job, and it took only a few wobbly steps before it stopped.

The spider was still watching.

Why is it still watching? What does it think I’m going to do? Let the cockroach keep eating off my table? Where would that end? Already the house is invaded by these pests. They are actually waking me up. It’s only a matter of time before they eat me alive. I have nothing to feel guilty about. Tomorrow I will ring the pest control man.

I picked up the dustpan and broom and swept the dead cockroach into the bin. Then I washed my hands carefully in the sink. I didn’t want to breathe in pesticide while I slept.

Pesticide. Insecticide. Matricide. Patricide. Suicide. Homicide.

Cide.

From the Latin, to cut down, to kill.

I noticed that the spider had gone.

But as I turned, I swiveled awkwardly, coming down on the side of my foot, because there it was, splayed in all its furry geometry in the centre of one of the floor tiles. My foot had almost come down on top of it.

Splaticide. Spidercide.

Why was it on the floor? Did it want to eat the cockroach? Didn’t it know that’s dangerous?

Seeing as I was trying to second guess the random thoughts of an arachnid, I decided that it was time to go back to bed.

Over the next few days, as I lay in bed each night, I once again heard the scurrying back and forth of my mysterious visitor. The claws tapped in and out of the room in the dark but I didn’t get up. I just remained still, exhibiting the patience of a spider, watching, waiting, wondering.

What does it do under my bed?

I listened to the sounds outside. The occasional bird woken in its sleep; a bat crying as it ranged from tree to tree; what might be the low hoot of an owl as it landed on a wire, waiting the arrival of its next mouse; and the ever present snuffle and growl of possums. I didn’t want to get up. I didn’t want to find out what this creature was up to. Because then I would have to do something about it. And the killing of the cockroach, witnessed by eight eyes, had unnerved me.

I’d looked up Huntsman spiders on the internet the day after. They don’t have webs, which I knew. But they have eight eyes, which I didn’t know. Most spiders have four but the Huntsman has eight. I got so fascinated by my research that I forgot to ring up about the pest control.

After I learnt about the spiders I willed myself to look under the bed. There was nothing there. Nothing but the usual clutter that fills this conveniently out of sight storage area; fold up chairs, suitcases, rolls of leftover Christmas wrap, a set of golf clubs, the vacuum cleaner. And what looked like large tumbleweeds; strange balls of fluff made from human hair, dust and other detritus.

I don’t remember storing them there.

I will have to vacuum.

And then, two nights before Christmas, I was woken again, but this time not by claws clicking under my bed but by the sound of a glass shattering. It sounded like one of the wine glasses. The good ones that were standing next to the sink waiting to be washed.  And when I flicked on the kitchen light, there it was. Rather large. Much larger than the cockroach. And very furry. And very fast. I watched it race across the space between the splashbacks and the sink, and leap into the gap behind the stove. A gap I’d never noticed before. And as I leaned over the stove to look into the gap, I noticed that the counter next to the stove was covered in hundreds of tiny repeating paw prints with little claws, like a screen print.

So the next morning I went to the supermarket and bought a wooden rat trap, plastic gloves and a huge bottle of disinfectant. It was Christmas Eve and the woman at the check out made a joke that someone would be delighted with their presents tomorrow. I managed a thin smile. I had an important task to do before I could indulge in the spirit of Christmas.

When I got home I searched the internet; cheese wrapped in lettuce is apparently the most effective bait. I set the trap on the floor, right next to the kitchen stove. Then I filled a bucket with water and poured in a huge amount of disinfectant. I opened the double cupboard doors under the sink to get out a cloth rag. I was determined to scrub down every inch of counter and floor, every inch of kitchen, every inch of my bedroom, every inch of the house. I had to get right down on my hands and knees, and reach behind bottles and plastic bags, to get at the rags. I couldn’t find them so I had to pull everything out of the cupboard. And that’s when I saw it.

It looked like a small sculpture. A soft grey-blue felt bowl.

Are they the rags?

It was like something that a mother would carry a small child in; or an ancient artefact, like a primitive form of basket weaving, that you might see under glass in a museum; or a whole lot of hair and fluff pulled out of a vacuum cleaner and woven through with strips of gnawed fabric.

It’s a nest!

This is what it’s been up to.

Is it planning to move the whole family in?

My heart was beating very quickly. I had to act now. There was no room for anyone else at this inn. I got the vacuum cleaner out from under the bed, plugged it in, switched it on, and aimed the plastic brush head straight at the object. It was like watching a python swallowing a small bird. With a gluttonous roar the vacuum cleaner sucked that beautiful object into its belly. When it was over I switched it off and closed the cupboard door. Then I took the tea towel from the rack, soaked it in the bucket of disinfectant, and eliminated the pattern of paws from the counter top. That’s all it took. It was all over. Now I could get down to the business of preparing for Christmas. I had presents to wrap and a trifle to make.

But later that afternoon, as I was spooning a layer of custard over the top of the sponge finger biscuits, and sipping some of the sherry that I’d reserved for the trifle, my eye caught sight of the rat trap wedged in between the stove and the sink cabinet, with its gift of cheese and lettuce. And on the cupboard door, just beneath the overhanging ledge of the counter, was the Huntsman, eyes wide open, watching, waiting, wondering.

Haven’t you done enough damage?

Do you really think you’ll sleep tonight?

Will you ever be able to wash this stain from your soul?

I was a little unnerved. I didn’t usually communicate telepathically with spiders. And this eight eyed, eight legged anthropod was accusing me of killing one of the glorious creatures of this mysterious universe, created by God, or whatever else, and simply going about its daily survival.

Very quickly, before the rational part of my brain could question my assumption that a spider could practice thought transference, I stepped on the foot pedal of the nearby bin and jammed the lid open. Then I gingerly reached for the rectangle of wood that was quietly waiting to slay the innocent rodent. Using the tines of a fork I released the catch  which had held the lethal spring back and let it snap shut. Relived that it hadn’t crushed one of my fingers in the process, I threw the trap into the bin and securely lowered the lid.

And so, with a lighter heart, I took up my spoon once more and ate the rest of the custard, warm and straight from the bowl. And then I drank the sherry, so as to be merry, when I welcomed my faithful friend once more, on that night before Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 

The images used in this blog post are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons – “Santa’s arrival” by Clement C. Moore; “A still life study of insects on a sprig of rosemary with butterflies, a bumble bee, beetles and other insects” by Jan van Kessel the Elder; Illustration by Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville from Hetzel edition of 20000 Leagues Under The Sea; “Control of rats and mice” by Tracy Storer, University of California Davis Libraries; “Marley’s ghost”, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Carol. Illustrations by John Leech.

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Stacks and Snacks

When I was a child I had to go to Italian School every Saturday morning. I hated Italian school. But I loved that afterwards I was allowed to walk to nearby Liverpool Library where my mum would pick me up after she’d finished her grocery shopping.

Each week I’d come home with a stack of books to read. I remember my delight at discovering Flambards by K.M Peyton, a series of novels about an orphaned heiress who is sent to live with her horrible uncle on his rundown country estate in Cornwall. Although I wasn’t an orphan, and didn’t have a horrible uncle, I still related to the main character, but most of all, I envied her the adventures she had to have to keep me turning the pages.

My other favourite books at the time also featured difficult quests and perilous journeys.  And whilst I’d outgrown the Famous Five and Secret Seven stories, I still dreamed of coming home from school to a luscious tea of scones, cherry cream cake and ginger pop, rather than a note telling me to peel the potatoes and take the clothes off the line. Instead I’d throw down my school bag, ignore the note, and curl up with the next volume of the Nancy Drew mysteries or the Trixie Belden Girl Detective series.  My only disappointment with these books was the characters’ lack of interest in food.

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Child Reading by Henry Lyman Saÿyen

Liverpool Library was where I learnt to browse and it was a skill that helped me through university.  During my four years at Sydney Uni I practically lived in the Fisher Library stack honing my unique research methodology. I’d bypass the catalogue (and the research topic) and simply  browse the shelves in my areas of interest. This was usually the 700 – 900s (Art, Literature, History), with rare forays into the 300s (Education) when assignment deadlines loomed. But on my way to those shelves that were loaded down with boring tomes on curricula and public policy issues in secondary schools, I’d have to pass 641.5 (Food) and so my essays would often cite some interesting sources.

Customs House Library, Sydney

To this day, although I love a good book store, I pop into a library at least once a week, browsing the shelves in the same haphazard manner that was so successful at uni and taking home a stack of books to read. City of Sydney is my local area so I’ve borrowed books from all of its eleven library branches. Each, with its own quirky characteristics, is a  little adventure to get to and wander around in. There’s Customs House Library at Circular Quay with its stunning spiral staircase and light filled reading room full of novels and people working quietly on their own books. There’s the modern, glass clad Surry Hills branch on busy Crown Street, which contrasts wonderfully with the older historic buildings that house the Waterloo, Newtown and Glebe branches of the library. And soon the Haymarket branch will move to a brand new reading nest housed in a timber spiral, designed by Japanese Architects Kengo Kuma & Associates. 1

The new Haymarket library in the The Darling Exchange by Kengo Kuma. Source: City of Sydney

But if I was going to give a Best Library prize it would go to Woollahra Library, which I’m still a member of despite having moved out of the area. It houses an excellent collection of both fiction and non-fiction and an enormous number of new books.  Best of all, the Double Bay branch has a giant red slippery slide connecting two levels of the library. It made carting my books to the borrowing kiosk a scream, until the library ladies told me to shush and let the children use the play equipment. So lately I’ve been visiting the Watsons Bay branch instead. It’s in a tiny house on the waterfront in this charming seaside hamlet and although there are no slippery dips, and very few books, it’s the most fun of all the libraries to get to – just a quick trip across the harbour on a ferry.  And if my adventure on the sea makes me hungry I can always stop at Doyles on the Beach for a light snack; for their famous fish and chips or a seafood chowder, or the dark chocolate brulee with a side of mint gelato and home made biscotti.

Robertson Park, Watsons Bay

I often wish that I lived on the north side of the harbour, then I’d be a member of the Lane Cove Library. I had the pleasure of attending an event there once and was gobsmacked by their collection. But even more memorable was the bus trip I took to get there. At Wynyard, I missed the 285 Express via the Freeway, and boarded a bus that also said it was going to Lane Cove, via the scenic route, I soon discovered. Although I arrived late for the event, sadly missing the canapes and bubbly that had been served to welcome guests, I didn’t regret my 55 minute journey along tree lined winding roads, complete with enormous mansions, high above the loopy inlets of the Lane Cove River.

But ironically one of my favourite libraries is a place where I’m not allowed to borrow any of the books. This just enhances the adventure of visiting the Mitchell Library which houses the magnificent collection of manuscripts, maps and pictures donated by David Scott Mitchell in 1907. You can look at these, if you book ahead and specify exactly what you want to examine, but you can’t touch. You’re asked to put your belongings in a locker, keeping only a pencil and notepad with you, and then you’re given white archivist gloves with which to turn any pages. The librarians have eagle eyes, instantly spotting any wrong doing. They immediately rush out from behind their desk to scold you and threaten eviction. Luckily, it’s part of the State Library, so when you are inevitably evicted, you can meander into an exhibition, or better still, visit the cafe and gift shop which are filled with lovely things that you are allowed to eat and touch.

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Mitchell Library Reading Room

I keep a list of libraries that I would love to one day visit. The list includes the British Library, which I actually have visited but don’t remember. It was straight after uni, after a year on a full time teacher’s wage, and sadly I was much more interested in London fashion, and how much of it I could cart home, than in looking at Shakespeare’s First Folio, or hand written originals  of Alice in Wonderland and Beowulf.  It’s now as lost to me as the Great Library of Alexandria, another on my list, and one of the most magnificent libraries of the ancient world. Tragically much of it was destroyed by fire in 48 BC, the rest was wrecked by revolution in 275 AD.  I’d also love to visit the New York Public Library as featured in The Day After Tomorrow, one of my favourite block buster films about the end of the world. But each time I think about splurging on the air fare I decide to buy another iTunes card instead and watch one of the fifty films and TV shows that have been set in this beautiful building.

Map Division Room, New York Public Library

So perhaps I’ll have to content myself with exploring two libraries closer to home and more fitting the current style of my budget. I’ve been told that both Katoomba Library in the Blue Mountains and Kiama Library on the South Coast are beautiful spaces with  stunning views. One looks out onto the blue of Storm Bay with the Pacific Ocean twinkling beyond. The other apparently has panoramic views of the misty peaks and valleys that surround the town . Each is a two hour train trip away – perfect for curling up with a good book and and a little bite to eat. But how to choose which to visit first?

Once again I turn to  my childhood reading for inspiration. What would George, Anne, Julian, Dick and Timmy the dog do? They’d either toss a coin, or choose alphabetically. Katoomba it is! They’d have a jolly good breakfast before they left home and pack some scrumptious snacks for the train ride. Then, on arrival in this high mountain town,  they’d visit one of the six bakeries and patisseries to get a few essentials for lunch. And after a good browse in the library they’d pop into the two delicious bake houses at nearby Blackheath for supper supplies. Then they’d do it all again the next day at Kiama which also has six bakeries!

So these are some of my favourite book places. What are yours?

The slippery slide at Double Bay Library

Sources and images:

1 https://news.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/articles/new-library-at-darling-square-to-take-flight-in-2019

Attributions via commons.wikimedia.org: Henry Lyman Saÿyen: Child Reading; Customs House Library staircase by Jason7825; Watsons Bay by Adam J.W.C.; The map division room of the New York Public library by GK tramrunner229

Image of the new Haymarket library in the The Darling Exchange by Kengo Kuma, courtesy of City of Sydney

All other images authors own.

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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.

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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;

Posted in climate change, Habitat, My Mother and Me | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

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!
Posted in Book Review, climate change, democracy, Habitat, Spirit of Place, Time, What Are You Reading? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments