Hope is the thing with feathers*

Recently, while sitting under a tree in the Domain, trying to eat an egg sandwich, I was attacked by a Noisy Miner. Claws in the head. Several times. With one arm helicoptering desperately above me to ward it off, I used the other arm, having dumped the egg sandwhich in my lap, to gather nearby twigs and stick them into my hairclip. This made a crown of thorns, of sorts, but didn’t stop the attacks. It did keep the claws out of my head though. Unfortunately the thorns didn’t come with silicone comfort tips. My only consolation was that I wasn’t this native Australian honeyeater’s only victim. As I walked away, I watched several of its other victims clutching their skulls in agony.

Luckily, not all my encounters with birds are of the schlock horror variety. The other night, I watched four Bull Bulls scampering around on the branches of the dragon palm outside my window. I think they were settling in for the evening. It involved a lot of loud  chhhheeeeping!!!!!! chhhheeeeping!!!!!! chhhheeeeping!!!!!! and screeeeeching!!!!! and pushing!!!!! each other off branches. Not too different, I guess, to what goes on in most suburban homes at bedtime. They eventually quietened down and by then it was dark and I could no longer see anything through the window except my own reflection. Hopefully that didn’t keep the birds awake for too long. When I fell asleep, I dreamt about them. My disembodied self, zoomed in on their tiny claws which were clasping the branch just in case a gale sprang up. (N.B. Birds don’t actually hang onto a branch like we would. Their talons automatically lock into position as the ankle and knee joints bend. This isn’t released until they straighten their legs again.) In my dream, I watched them sleep: their feathers fluffed up for warmth, their heads tucked right down into their shoulders, and their eyes ready to flick open at the slightest sound, just in case a cat sprang up.

And only a little while ago, while standing at the rail on the top deck of the Manly ferry, I was joined by a flock of seagulls (not the band, the birds). I wasn’t on the Freshwater but one of the smaller Emerald class catamarans. I love the big old ferries. They make the seven-mile journey across the harbour to Manly feel like an early twentieth century voyage across an ocean. However, I’ve come to appreciate the unique excitement of travelling past the Heads on a smaller boat, waiting to be catapulted into the swell. On this night the moon was full, lighting a bright path across the harbour. So, if I had suddenly been thrown off, I would’ve been clearly visible in the water, arms wildly helicoptering above my head, thanks to the earlier opportunity to practice warding off danger.

But that didn’t happen. Instead I watched the seagulls, just a silver tipped wingspan away from me, as they glided exuberantly in the slipstream of the ferry. They were so close, I could clearly see their white feathered underbellies, and their webbed orange feet, tucked in for flight. Occasionally a seagull would accidently swerve onto deck space as the boat navigated the waves. One by one, they flipped back on the wind, spiraling downwards like miniature kamikaze planes. Each time, just before touching the water, they pulled themselves miraculously out of the dive and back into formation. It was an amazing performance. Were they hunting? Or just using the vessel’s momentum to save energy? Why not just sit on the roof and relax? But then why miss the joy ride? They travelled with us all the way to the Quay where we parted ways as they flew under the Harbour Bridge and onwards to some night roost in the inner harbour.

If you’re thinking that these sleek silver-feathered things I’m describing don’t sound like any seagull you’ve ever met, then I totally agree with you. I put this anomaly down to the enchantment of the high seas, where wind and water often return us to wildness. Closer to home, I’ve had plenty of not so magical encounters with this orange footed scavenger. It’s availed itself of my beach-side breakfast many a time. And who hasn’t witnessed the swarm of seagulls over a chip? But one of my favourite memories is from a few years ago when their squawking aggressive nature was on full display. On that day, I was walking along the waterfront at Rose Bay when I found myself rescuing a seagull from a nasty tangle of fishing line; and in return it rescued me.

I wrote about that adventure here.


Attributions: *‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ by Emily Dickinson https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42889/hope-is-the-thing-with-feathers-314

Images in order of use: Bilby, CC BY 3.0  via Wikimedia Commons; Aditya Pal, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons; Authors own; Glen Fergus, CC BY-SA 2.5  via Wikimedia Commons; OSX, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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The Tiny Chapel

This enchanting little travellers’ chapel is in the Megalong Valley, a few kilometres from Little Hartley.

It was created by Sherry Weller, inspired by the many tiny roadside churches she saw along highways in the USA. Places for weary travellers to stop and rest, perhaps even a haven to retreat to after an episode of road rage. We could do with a few in Sydney.

They can also be found in Europe along with many ancient roadside shrines. Perhaps they are a gentle reminder that travel can be both dangerous and joyous. Inside, this small ecumenical space is lit by the sun through leadlight windows depicting native flora.

On my visit, I sat on the lovely old wooden bench, looking through the central window which folded open, onto bright green paddocks. The drought had only recently broken and I was grateful for the rain. This was still in the time before the pandemic and the devastating floods of the last two years. But bushfires had ravaged the Blue Mountains to the north of where I sat and so the fact that the Megalong Valley, and this tiny church, had narrowly escaped seemed like a small miracle.

As I sat, in quiet contemplation, a mob of grazing kangaroos moved into view. It was like being in a wildlife watching hide, secretly observing these furry lives amongst the serene hills of this beautiful valley.

While I can’t wait to visit again, I often fly there in my imagination, particularly when I’m having trouble getting to sleep. I imagine this little place in mist and snow, under the summer sun, or bathed by moonlight, letting it lull me into that curious other place that we retreat to each night. And I often think of the two donkeys whose paddock abuts this tiny church and who reward those who stop here by allowing them a pat. Next time I’ll be sure to carry a sweet treat with me.


This post is part of the Spirit of Place series:

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The Sky Beyond The Bell Fry

I would like to admit a passion for old country churches.

They are a splendid excuse to pause when on a road trip. Although most of them are closed, I often wander the deserted church yard trying to peer through the stained-glass windows. When the inside remains a mystery, because the windows are usually too high for me to look through, I content myself with imagining the pews and the altars; the exposed wooden beams of high ceilings; the weddings and christenings, and moments of solace, that hopefully still happen there. Then I stand and watch the light of the day play on the outside sandstone facade or wonder at the colour of the sky beyond the bell fry. I long ago gave up trying to photograph these hallowed places, unable to capture their material dimensions, let alone their liminal magic.

Recently I’ve also become a devotee of suburban churches. Where I live, the landscape is thick with them. Within a one-kilometre radius of home I’ve counted sixteen Christian churches, including three cathedrals and a Quaker meeting place. In this same circumference there is also a mosque and a Taoist temple. Each of these places intrigues me with their sacred individuality.

There are many beautiful churches that I’ve had the luck to visit over the years, but in this one I experienced a moment of ecstasy, perhaps a glimpse beyond the temporal; an inkling of the world’s deep complexity.

St Bonaventura, Catholic Church, Leura

St Bonaventura, Catholic Church, Leura

Although I’m not a practicing Catholic, this was the religion I was brought up in and so it still forms part of the tapestry of who I am. About twenty years ago, during Sunday mass at this beautiful church on the edge of Leura village, I had a mysterious encounter. It’s very hard to describe but to put it as simply as possible, it was as if a sudden flash of pure white energy, like an electric arrow, flew out from the crucifix behind the altar, and struck me in the heart. I began to weep and couldn’t stop. To not disturb the service I had to leave. Standing outside in the weak May sunshine I cried myself out until I felt emptied of all the fear and sadness that I’d been holding onto. I can’t explain what happened but my father had recently passed away, perhaps because of this I was more open to a metaphysical experience.

From my years as a child attending Saturday morning Italian school, I know that bonaventura means good fortune or good adventure. My first thought after this event was that perhaps my father was communicating with me that he was well in his new world. But seeing as he identified as an atheist this place seemed an odd choice. When later I looked up the saint who the church is named after, I found that he was a medieval Italian philosopher and theologian of the order of Saint Francis, born at Bagnoregio, in the Lazio region of central Italy. Interestingly Lazio is the region of Italy where my father was also born. I thought this was a strange coincidence but I’m not sure I believe in the intercession of saints.

Twenty years on, I still feel awe at the immensity of what we can’t explain but grateful for this moment of deeply felt religious experience. I don’t understand what happened. But it happened. Perhaps I’m simply not yet tall enough to see through these high windows.

                                        Bagnoregio, Lazio, Italy

(Images: Sardaka, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons; New2022, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

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An Armada of Blue Bottles

Recently I was reading an article about Bluebottles. This summer has seen masses of these small stinging vessels washed up all along the east coast of Australia causing lots of angst for beach-goers. Apparently, they don’t want to sting us; it’s how they fish. And they don’t even want to land on our beaches; as the biologist interviewed in the article gracefully explained, the armada of bluebottles is ‘at the mercy of the wind’.

Her use of the collective noun for these creatures got me to wondering about our penchant for such creative group labels when it comes to our animal friends. They range from the very common ones everyone knows:
a school of fish;
a swarm of bees;
a mob of kangaroos;
a string of race horses;
a murder of crows;
a barrel of monkeys;

To the unfamiliar:
a shrewdness of apes;
a raft of otters;
a wake of vultures;
a scurry of squirrels;
a battery of barracudas;
an ambush of tigers;
a skulk of foxes;
a memory of elephants;
a hover of trout;
a manner of meerkats;

And the extraordinary:
a shiver of sharks;
a ubiquity of sparrows;
a gever of stingrays;
a bind of eels;
a boil of hawks;
a smack of jellyfish;
a congress of baboons;
a parliament of owls, thought to be from Chaucer’s poem, ‘a parliament of fowls’;
and an exaltation of larks,
from the 15th century Book of Saint Albans, about hawking, hunting, and heraldry.

I’m reminded by this list that animals are the sometimes intimate, mostly mysterious, others that share this planet with us. Our awe for these creatures is surely reflected in these splendid labels devised with the same creative zest that accompanies some of humanity’s greatest literary endeavours. Some are surprisingly appropriate; others sound like they were made up by a novelist and yet others mirror the political and social behaviours of humans. I wonder if in the animal world there is a collective noun for us.

I can imagine a menagerie of exotic beasts whiling away their time in captivity making up appropriate names for human behaviour to date:
a procrastination of people,
when it comes to action on climate change;
a filibuster of humans,
when it comes to saving animal species and habitats;
a shilly shally of citizens,
when it comes to taking civic action to protect the oceans;
and a commonwealth of fools when it’s come to voting for the planet.

Although I know it was just a whim of the wind that has sent us an armada of bluebottles this summer, I can’t help but think that their rather idiosyncratic name, Portuguese man o’ war, named after their resemblance to an 18th-century Portuguese sailing warship, holds a message about the future. Bear with me while I continue on this flight of fancy. I think it’s pretty clear what the message is. In the last two years in Australia, and across the world, we’ve had wild summer bush fires, an ongoing pandemic, severe flooding, and evermore extreme weather. Our global temperatures are rising and I can’t help but think that the planet is rebelling at our treatment of it. We need to reduce greenhouse gasses fast. And although you can think about this and feel despair, I choose to feel hope, because in Australia, 2022 is a federal election year and we have a real chance to make a choice that makes a difference.

In a democracy, one of the collective nouns we use for human beings is an electorate of voters, but unlike the blue bottles, we get to choose which way we go.



Images: Blue Bottle – Andreas Schwind, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons; Monkeys – Rajeev3065, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons; Meerkats – Ashleigh Thompson, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons; Owls: Travelwayoflife, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons; Ship of fools – Pieter van der Heyden, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Articles: Bluebottle Jellyfish Numbers Explode by Georgie Burgess and A Drudge of Lexicographers Presents Collective Nouns by Merriam-Webster. Links:

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Recently I read about the #30wears movement in the newspaper and was delighted to see that finally my doom scrolling has paid off.

Started by a climate activist, it’s become a bit of a hit on Instagram. A nice change from reading about models who make money out of product placement, and self-educated well being activists who know more about how to survive a pandemic than all of the doctors and nurses in our health system put together.

This particular Instagrammer’s aim is much simpler: to wear each item of clothing in her wardrobe at least thirty times. It’s an idea that’s gained traction amongst some influential people who are not afraid to be seen in public in the same clothes over and over again. For example, the article suggested that Angela Merkel has seven brightly coloured blazers that she wears on weekly rotation over black trousers. And Jill Biden was spotted in the same dress twice, or was that the same spotted dress? And of course, although I wasn’t mentioned in the article, I too have been known to wear an outfit more than once.

In the past I’ve been concerned that this might impact on my career. But now, I can let go of any lingering doubts that consistently appearing in my PJs for online work meetings is not appropriate. And it’s a relief to know that this is not the cause of the regular emails from HR about retirement planning. Perhaps they missed the memo that I won’t be eligible for any government pension until 2037. That’s another 17 years of wearing PJs to online meetings. Because if you think we’re returning to the office anytime soon you should probably be put out to pasture.

And I can now stop worrying that the important people in my life, like the security guard at Woollies who stops me to make sure I’ve checked in, will notice that I’m wearing the same trackies and jumper that I wore yesterday, and the day before, and the week before that.


But best of all, I can shed my shame about appearing two years running in the same dress at the family Christmas lunch; not that the way things are going there will be a family Christmas lunch, to worry about what to wear to, this year.

In fact, I got so excited about this celebration of wearing the same clothes over and over again that I decided to spend some of my valuable


time, to


I like to use the word wardrobe because it connotes a large, beautifully organised, walk in space; quite unlike the broom stick, held up by two giant black plastic clamps, that my, and my partner’s, clothes actually hang on.


I decided to peruse my open air closet and calculate how many times I’ve worn each item. I recommend this activity if you’ve run out of things to do this lock down. It’s wonderfully time consuming and requires only a hyper calculator and a lot of time. I discovered that some of my clothes are so old they are not so much clothes, as a second skin. I’ve worn them so often that people would have trouble recognising me without them. And as I calculated the years they’ve kept me company I had a lot of fun designing little hash tags for them.






Finally, I’m done. Chuffed to be doing my bit for the planet I can upload these images onto my new Instagram page


and sit back proudly.

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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.


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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.

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‘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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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;

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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?


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.


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.


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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