Most of Australia seems to have had atypical summer weather. Here in the Red Centre of the country, we had turned mostly green from higher than normal rainfall. But now things are turning golden and brown again as we settle back into hot, dry summer weather. As with all climates, when the weather changes, the insects and animals modify their reproduction and their habits to accomodate.At the moment we are having a plague of tiny grasshoppers eating every non-indigenous leaf in sight. You’d think we would learn, but we want our European herbs and fruit trees so we ignore the obvious and persevere.
Mantis in the basil
caterpillar in her best camoflage
I did see a hopeful sign in the basil patch this week, this very well camouflaged Mantis.
The equally camouflaged caterpillar was not such a welcome sight, but I took this photo in the river bed on a weed, not at home, so I’m hoping he prefers indigenous plants, especially weeds!
Last year we got up one morning to this sight on our patio. If you spotted the ‘roo poo’ amongst the ravaged Ponytail Palm pieces, you will have guessed the culprit. There are a couple of plants in our garden which seem to regularly piss off the locals that frequent us and they let us know about it. Recently, I saw on a program called Kangaroo Dundee (filmed here, near Alice Springs by the BBC and shown around the world, apparently) that the Roos will sort of box and tear at plants to practice their fighting skills against the other males in the mob. We have also been told that sometimes they are digging at the irrigation system for water that they can smell. Since keeping the large water bowl for them, we have fewer episodes, but still the occasional misadventure.
Palm minus its ponytail
Ponytail Palm, new growth
I’m happy to report, the Ponytail Palm survived and looks like it will be a nice shape again…eventually. This photo was taken over a month ago after one of the rains.
This big ole fella was in bad shape the first time he lumbered through our breezeway. We are thinking we might need to rename it the roo-way because they use it so often and seem to think it was built just for them. He visits every so often and I see him taking long drinks at the water bowl and he relaxes in the shade. A couple of nights ago just on dark we noticed him reclining happily in the boundary area near the compost bins. It was too dark to photograph him but, the next morning as I surveyed the outer kingdom, I saw his ‘hip hole’.
Old fella relaxing in the shade
Old fella, battered and tired
hip hole where ‘old fella’ rests
I thought I’d try my hand at posting my first video because I want you to hear the beautiful song of a Pied Butcherbird, a type of Magpie. They are not a colourful specimen like the parrots, but they are handsome in their own way. They ‘carol’ (sing), from our patio and nearby trees, sometimes for half an hour at a time. This juvenile is sitting on the edge of the sink practicing its little heart out. It is one of three babies born to a mother earlier in the season and we hear them fairly often. I hasten to add, Butcherbirds (YouTube link so that you can see and hear the bird closer) are not named this for nothing. I have seen them stalk a pigeon which must have been weak, and kill it with their strong pointed beaks, and devour it until all that was left were some feathers on the grass. That is nature for you.
Finally, a couple of days ago I made my way down the dark hallway at 5.30am, turned on the office light, looked down, and there, inches from my foot was this little darling. In 16 years of living in this house I have never seen a frog inside. This is arid land, surrounded by plains and desert. Rarely do we even see them outside unless we have just had a huge rain. We have not had rain for weeks now and whether or not this little fella was confused or caught in a time warp, I have no idea. He was fine with having his portrait taken, but when it came to catching him he was quite a challenge. First of all he was barely an inch long and I was trying to be gentle so I didn’t harm him. And secondly, he PEED, all over my hand and the floor—TWICE. Eventually I managed to gently trap him in my hand and put him outside, where I hope a hungry Butcher Bird didn’t swoop down and gobble him up!
On the evening of November 12 Alice Springs experienced a sudden and violent storm. It has helped me process it, to document the following 10 days or so and it seemed to me it might be of interest to others. It is not heavily edited, it is just a series of entries like a diary with accompanying photos. This is not a ‘pity party’ it is just what happens when we have these unexpected events. Ours was small compared to the many who have lost their homes and loved ones across the country and the world these last ten days…
24 Hrs after…
We have worked very hard today and with the help of several neighbours and friends are making some headway in the cleanup task. We were able to cut away enough of the large tree that fell into the courtyard and landed on my herb garden for me to uncover the herbs. I can’t believe they might even survive! Also my six week old Grevillea that was doing beautifully was smashed down flat, but when I uncovered it and stood it up this morning it looked pretty happy. We staked it and tied it to give it some extra stability and hopefully whoever comes to finish removing the tree will avoid crushing it again. There are about four suburbs that have been smashed by what really looks like a series of small tornadoes. The tops of trees are ripped off or ripped out of the ground by the roots, both typical of tornado damage, though our storm was classified as a ‘micro-burst’. Also we have a layer of red dust that was driven through the cracks of our rammed earth house and onto every surface inside. I have been dusting and wiping and vacuuming while Don has been repairing the watering system and removing branches until we are so weary we had to stop. Many people have it worse than us, which is always the case. We are grateful we are both fine and the house is intact. I did have a cry over the trees and consequently the birdsong that was absent this morning. But there has also been the kindness of neighbours to be happy about.
36 hrs after…
Unaided by sleep, but with a need to see what the storm had brought to the scenery on my morning walk, I was up early and out the door by 5.45am. As I walked out the door I was still shocked by the 20 metre tree on its side, protruding through the courtyard fence. And yet, once again I was truly grateful it had fallen exactly between our house and the neighbours. No one injured and neither house damaged. Just the fence and spa pump/filter. The large tree at the top of our sloping block had also fallen graciously, aligned with the driveway and straight across the road, hurting no one. Had it fallen back it would have smashed our house. Had the tree out the front fallen to either side it would have smashed a house. So lucky. There will be no more big trees planted on this site. Message received. After the incessant clatter of chainsaws and leaf blowers on the weekend, the silence this morning was almost disturbing…a kind of grieving, exhausted quiet.
I walked the circuit I had done a few days before. The broken trees and damaged houses were evidence I had not dreamed it. Walking down the 8th fairway I looked ahead and saw my favourite tree. Still standing. But as I neared it I realised about a third of it lay on the ground at my feet. I studied the sight and out of my mouth came words ‘I’m so sorry baby. I’m so sorry.’ I photographed it to compare to the photo I printed that was taken on my walk three days before the ‘Blow’. It would be my next painting. It was especially poignant now seeing its diminished state. I couldn’t force my feet to move, they rooted me in place while I began grieving for the tree. When I finally moved along I saw other familiar shapes that I had photographed over the years, now sadly misshapen, which is saying a lot given some of my particular favourites are bent and have rather extreme shapes to begin with. To me they were beautiful. Wabi-sabi. (Perfectly imperfect) They will be again.
When I finally reached the home stretch I was devastated to see the damage to the grove of large old gum trees, again that I had photographed only days before as the morning light shone through the trees and grasses. It hit me like a blow to the gut as I walked home into the morning sun and cool breeze. When I arrived home Don was pulling his suitcase out to load into the car for our trip to the airport. He looked at me and asked ‘how was your walk?’. I pointed toward the west, from where the storm had come, and as my mouth opened my voice cracked into tears and I said ‘Oh the trees, the trees are so devastated. My favourite tree will recover but it will not be the same.’ He encouraged me by saying ‘You can document its recovery.’ Yes, I will.
Four Days after the storm…
The birds are trying to reorganise themselves, having lost the trees in which they had nests, and the perches from which they sang and watched the neighbourhood. The Galahs have taken to sitting in a tree that will be removed in due course and they will have to move on again. They seem strangely displaced but amenable to the new circumstances at the same time.
On Wednesday after the Saturday storm I am still trying to get someone to come and take away a huge broken branch that is sitting up in the tree near the road and the top of our driveway. Have rung Emergency Services twice and consulted with the Town Council who says they can’t help because it is on private property (though I note they CAN take lots of taxes from that same private property to pay for things other than public safety). I have also called multiple tree trimmers, yet I still have this problem of a dangerous branch hanging precariously over the road and the footpath! One fellow who is still cutting trees off of houses says he will come have a look when he gets a chance and that is the closest I’ve come to getting anything done. The worry and distraction of it has me unable to do anything creative so I’m washing windows (as it rains, but only windows that are under cover, out of the rain) and vacuuming and mopping up red dirt from the floors that came in during the storm. It is some of the least fun I’ve had in a while and today it occurred to me this entire year has been given over to renovations and renewal of the house, garden, and my physical person. I’m over it but do realise we have no say in these matters, we just have to go with the flow.
The herbs that were flattened have indeed declared their will to carry on and look perky and none the worse for their ordeal. The same is true for the grevillea bush.
This morning I walked yet another route, skirting by the Olive Pink Botanic Garden. The tree damage there is substantial too, ranging from large branches to whole trees being torn out. I have also noticed the local birds are busy trying to rearrange themselves now that their favourite roosting trees are gone. The gardener who came here to advise me about the dangling branch on the verge, was telling me after the storm on Saturday she sat out in her garden and was sure the birds sounded quite upset and disturbed by what had happened. No doubt.
The big guns have been throwing around the debris from the storm like it is chip packets, onto backs of trucks to become green waste at the tip. The sound of chainsaws and backhoes, leaf blowers and trucks on our small urban street are almost welcome now. I know it means progress in cleaning up what we cannot deny and what is done. Part of my brain goes into denial when I look out the kitchen window at the remnants of a beautiful tree that will no longer wear bird nests nor provide perches for the dawn chorus. We all grieve in different ways and for different relationships. Life is full of grief, as the Queen reminded us ‘grief is the price we pay for loving’. So I love trees, animals and art as well as humans and good health and a dozen other things, and likewise I grieve for them, each in my own way for what they have meant.
The wind is quite strong again just now and I wonder if I will ever get over the anxiety of it after last Saturday. Wind has never been my favourite of Mother Nature’s creations, and yet of course I know it is necessary, or at least unavoidable. We are the interlopers here, trying to live with nature in our unskilled human way. Hopefully when the tall trees left are trimmed and the loose debris carried away and the repairs are done I will lose this excess anxiety…and resume my normal anxiety.
The recovery is also down to Nature. I noticed this morning the little herb garden is flourishing, almost as if that smack on the head was a wake up call! Though I suspect it was more likely to be the 15ml or so rain and overcast skies we’ve had that have aided their recovery. There has been noticeable change every day since the storm. Gardens love warmth and rain and a little sun but not our usual very hot temps this time of year.
Today is a full week after the day after.
The insurance company is sending someone in a couple of days and there are no storms predicted this week. I’m feeling calmer and still mindful of those who have suffered so much worse in the terrible floods in New South Wales. Yesterday I was actually able to get into the studio again and do some creating. I began painting my favourite tree. It felt so good to be able to do something positive and especially something with a tree in it.
This morning I woke knowing the cooler, dryer change had come in over night. I walked before 6am and felt the cool breeze on my skin. The sun was already up and I needed sunglasses. Every day I see more tree damage that I hadn’t noticed previously. The estimate of 10,000 is probably right. The tree above and to the side of my clothesline rubs damaged branches together reminding me it will need a major trim as soon as someone is available to do it. The day is dry and breezy and a pleasure to hang sheets and clothes on the line. Most of the time I’m happy to not have a clothes dryer. I would miss the crystal sky, the sketchy clouds and the day the Wedge Tail Eagle rode the thermals above me.
Day 11 Final entry
The cleanup has begun in earnest at our place. The beaver patrol arrived before 9am yesterday and dispatched the once gorgeous Eucalyptus Sideroxylon into pieces. The skilled Kubota operator picking up each section operating delicate steel fingers and lifting it on the truck to be taken away. More grief. But relief. The grevillea was spared as was the small rosemary bush that struggled to live three times now, with serious disruptions but a will to grow.
Last evening a family of Pied Butcher Birds visited. They occasionally come to inspect the area where I feed the crested pigeons, but there is only ever seed, and they are meat/insect eaters. Seeing the largest one come up to inspect the feeding area, I quickly remembered the fresh ground beef mince I had in the fridge and grabbed a teaspoon or so of it and went outside. I slowly approached the feeding plate and the curious Butcher Bird surprisingly took a couple of steps toward me. I placed the meat on the plate in three small dabs all the while its large eyes following me. As soon as I backed away it grabbed all three dabs quickly and turned to a smaller bird to its side and fed it! Mum feeding her adolescent child. Magic.
We worked our way through all the seasons in five days over Christmas. Three days before, it was pouring rain, which we badly needed and was an absolute gift. It was also unseasonably cool. My winter track suit even made an unexpected appearance one morning, but the high humidity had me changing again before lunch time. Ok, so our version of seasons is less extreme than most, but it was still quite unusual. We went from the hottest November on record, to almost the coolest Christmas on record. We only missed by about 2 degrees celsius….it was 26C (78F) and the record was 24.2C(75F)
The additions of daughter and sausage dog added their own weather pattern to the immediate environment. When the house that I had tidied within a hair of its existence suddenly looked like a whirlwind had hit, she laughingly swept her hand through the hair and sang ‘I’m home’. I realised I had missed all of the disarray and young energy.
The river flowed energetically for the first time in a couple of years. We’ve had other trickles and teases, but nothing that would lead one to believe the water table was being replenished. This one hinted it might just happen by the time La Niña is finished with us.
There are amazing changes that happen when you live in an arid zone and the rains come. First of all the smell is delicious…once you get passed that first shower that highlights the smell of decomposing things. Eew. The eucalyptus and rain trees perfume the air like walking into the soap factory we visited earlier this year. The factory made their own herbal and other essential oil essences and I could feel myself being uplifted with every breath. It is the same here, after a good rain. Driving to pick up my husband from the airport which I hadn’t done in almost a week, felt like I had been transported to another planet—the one with green stuff on the ground and a landscape that has been sharpened by a high definition filter.
Another change that rapidly takes place is not just the growth of plants, but the very appearance of them, where previously had been barren soil and rock. The wild Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) first emerged after a rainfall of only 10ml a few weeks ago. By the time another 80ml had come, it was filling every available space and growing larger each day. Surely I had just missed it in years passed, but it seemed to be everywhere! When we visited the soap factory at Babylonstoren earlier this year, we had taken a tour of the gardens. We learned that our common jade plant, growing with abandon, was edible! I’d seen kangaroo eating the tips of it but until our guide showed it to us and mentioned it was edible, I had not equated the kangaroo experience with a human one. She said, watching what animals eat can often give us a clue to what we can eat, and then there is chocolate which is toxic to dogs. Never mind. Wild Purslane is also edible, and has a salty, slightly sour taste and a slight crunch. It reminds me of the texture (but not the flavour) of Japanese wakame salad.
As well as the Purslane multiplying, the Naked Lady lilies positively raced toward the heavens with each day of cloud and rain. The day the cloud cleared, they opened their pinkness to the world. Their life is brief but there is no sadness to it. The blushing blossoms nod in the breezes, rejoicing a short, happy life.
Once the rain stopped, the cloud cleared fairly quickly but unfamiliar humidity remained heavily in the air and morning dew sparkled on the newly emerged green shoots. Insects flourished too, everything from mosquitoes to flying ants, bees, dragonflies and bush flies, a veritable feast for birds. We’ve already discovered a few intruders, attacking the refreshed garden. And so it goes. Temperatures returned to the more normal range, but on the very tolerant side through Christmas, and headed toward hot for the New Year. It was a wonderful break.
My usually quiet days turned to a happy mixture of baking and cooking, sausage cuddling, the occasional short nap, tv viewing, drinks with friends, gift exchanges and basking in love. Four days and a hundred photos later, the house was suddenly silent again. Only the orchestra of Pied Butcher birds and Cicadas singing, and the tumbling of the washing machine remained. There was no warm little body squirming into my lap, no funny quips or gorgeous smiles from our daughter, no reliable assistance and generous compliment from my husband. Armed with ham sandwiches and Christmas baking, at day break they slipped quietly out of the driveway and began their 1500 kilometre journey to her home. Faced with a pile of clothes, sheets and towels to wash, only the sheets now remain. Her perfume clings to them. Maybe they can wait until the scent has faded to nothing. Then I will be able to bear washing them. This was the first time in 8 years she had been able to be here for Christmas. Of all the years, this one would have been my choice.
Long may the memory last.
**The long drive happened because the airlines are not yet transporting animals and there was no place Allison could leave Leni while she came home. Her lovely Dad offered his driving services and flew down to drive with her north, and home again, and then flew home from Adelaide. It was a big effort for all of us, but so worth it.
This is the valley about five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m there most mornings ahead of the golfers, so, very early. The sun is not fully up and it is tingeing the mountains various shades of pink and orange that if you painted it people would say ‘that doesn’t look real’. But in person it does.
In this valley each morning I listen to the Pied Butcher Birds carolling to each other, practicing their glorious songs for all to hear. The Kites sweep the sky looking for early morning prey. Dingoes are ghosting along, dissolving into the scrub as if they are apparitions. On days when there are no dingoes I see kangaroos gliding across the fairways, racing to secret themselves away for a daytime sleep.
Occasionally I see other humans, some walking their dogs around the trails and we smile and greet each other—fellow nature lovers out in the wee hours. And just now the wee hours are hovering around freezing, zero if you are in the metric school of thought, 32 if you are of the Fahrenheit persuasion. I leave a trail, my breath blowing a pale white cloud after me as I puff up the hill to warm stiff muscles more quickly. At the crest of the hill, this valley stretches out its arms, never failing to impress still drowsy eyes.
It was down near the back of the buggy trail in this valley six months ago that I found the tiny, five month old joey, hissing and crying bitterly in its life threatening circumstance. I scooped him up, carrying him in my tee shirt, hurriedly back to the top of the hill and home to call for help. The Kangaroo Sanctuary came in an hour or so to collect him and we named him Amos. We surmised that his mother, in a bid for one or the other of them to survive, had jettisoned him from her pouch and into the cool air on the dusty track. Miraculously, he had escaped notice until I arrived.
A couple of days later I walked that trail again and could smell death all around. At least two bodies lay decaying in the hills of the valley. It was not a smell you would mistake. It saddened me to know that the little joey’s mum was probably one of them. For a while I couldn’t walk that way again.The reality was just too visceral.
For a couple of weeks the Kangaroo Sanctuary sent me regular photos and news of dear little Amos. He was healthy and had even started to grow some hair! And then, a week before we departed on our trip to the Southern Ocean, a message from the Sanctuary…Amos had suddenly declined and within less than two days had died. They told me this is the way it happens. Mostly they survive, but when they die, it is sudden, and for no apparent reason they can identify.
I could scarcely believe how much I had bonded with little Amos and how very sad I was that his life had ceased. I cried off and on all day when I found out. It was probably just as well that I couldn’t allow myself too much time to grieve because we had to prepare for the trip.
There has been so much sadness and hardship in the world since then, that I have not wanted to write this to you. Putting another sad thing out into the world seemed unnecessary, and probably still is, so I apologise. I kept waiting and hoping there would come some kind of clarity to me for the reason I would be chosen to save the tiny life and then have it taken away again. None came.
And then I remembered what Tahnee at the Sanctuary had said to me ‘You can take comfort in knowing he was safe and loved when he passed.’ His end was not violent, it was quiet and warm and in loving care.
Sometimes there are just no other reasons, there is just love.
Still dark, I lay in bed, door open to the cool early dawn air. Musical tones, almost conversational, and a little eerie, drift in from not far away. The dingoes are back.
pied butcher bird
Pied Butcher Bird practices her beautiful song for quite a long while. I stretch and bend my body toward functionality, which is my morning practice. The piercing song sinks deep into my psyche. I wonder what theunfortunately named bird was singing about? A nice insect it had just consumed? A good place to perch? Come here…this garden has no cats or dogs and they keep a nice bowl of water too.
I set off on my morning walk…listening to a favourite podcast. The episode was from Krista Tippett (On Being) interviewing beloved Irish poet, Michael Longley. More and more, I find myself being drawn to poets and their concise artistry.
The interview started with Michael Longley quoting his own favourite poet:
“There’s a line by John Clare that I adore. I love John Clare. I revere him. “Poets love nature, and themselves are love.” And I believe that with all my heart. And part of writing is adoration. For me, celebrating the wildflowers or the birds is like a kind of worship.”
Those words pulled me in and for the remainder of the walk I was absorbed in a sort of reverie of someone else’s experiences, uniquely expressed, yet similar to my own. That is what art hopes to achieve, something previously unidentified, but immediately recognisable.
The Wedge Tail Kites (large birds of prey) circled above me, occasionally landing near enough to see how large they were. Some are big enough that my neighbour carries a golf club to chase them away, lest their carnivorous tendencies see her young puppy as breakfast!
In my ears, unfolded ‘The Vitality of Ordinary Things’.* Even thinking about it now reminds me of my own strong connection with tiny and ordinary pieces of life. It has only been in the last decade or so that I have recognised my own fascination with this side of life. I think it has always been there. I just hadn’t realised it was a theme—perhaps not had the mental space to see it.
Once you see a thing, it cannot be unseen.
Home again. My daily habit is to water the rosemary plants, growing in pots along the patio. I lifted the metal watering bowl we keep in the outside sink. A sizeable, andnearly expired, lizard had curled up underneath and was still–eyes closed, but not yet dead. Poor thing, what is there to do? I picked it up gently and placed it in the shade of the vines, surrounding the rosemary pots, hoping it wasn’t too late for it to revive. Its response was not encouraging. As you know, I’m sympathetic to the lizards around here and this was one I didn’t often see–about three times the length of a gecko and with lovely patterned skin. After laying his limp body in the shade, I dribbled a little water over him. Eyes still shut, he looked dehydrated, hovering near death. I suspect he had crawled into the sink for water and then couldn’t get out again. It happens sometimes, and with our hot weather, anything that small can dehydrate quickly.
I felt sad, and more than a little worried for him, having lost Bernie so recently.
Wanting to know…and yet fearing how the lizard fared, I waited a few hours to check on him. I carefully picked through the vines to peek and see if by some miracle he had revived. ‘My stars and garters!’, as my Aunt used to say! There he was blinking back at me. He looked almost normal and not in a huge rush to scurry away. And me with no camera.
But I have a pen.
How much more of an ordinary thing can one do, but to interact with nature? Then again, how much more of an extra-ordinary thing can one do but to save a life?
Anything, however small, may make a poem; nothing, however great, is certain to. –Edward Thomas
likeness of rescued lizard
*for the uninitiated, Michael Longley has the most gentle and calm Irish voice and explains so well the creative life of a poet as well as some of the complexities of life in Northern Ireland. He is an agnostic, so if this bothers you, try to put it to one side. You will see that he is deeply reverent and impishly delightful. The link I have given is so that you can listen to the interview on the computer or read the transcript, or see the title and find it in your podcast app. I have to say, though, it is his lovely, lilting voice that enhances his thoughts and humour, so if you can listen. It is worthwhile.
Whenever I am asked what the climate is like in Alice, I answer that the temperatures range from -4 or -5C overnight in the winter to 40C+(104F) daytime highs in the summer. They usually respond with “Wow, that is hot” and it is the customary inside joke to reply “But it’s a dry heat”. At the moment, I really can’t say that without a huge caveat that we had 50% more rain than normal last year and it appears the pattern is continuing. The humidity and heat seep to my inner workings like rust into a motor, and nearly stop me. What doesn’t happen in the mornings before about 11am, seldom gets done until after a protracted siesta. (It is 6am and I am listening to rain as I write this)
can you see the green tinge on the ranges?
Don at work at the dining table with visitor and her joey looking in
Of course the local environment and our garden have responded to the wetter conditions, but not always in the ways we might have expected. The Ranges and outcrops are decidedly tinged with green, looking more like Ireland or Scotland than Central Australia. Wildlife is behaving somewhat differently, too. Usually when we have enough rain to boost the food sources in the scrub near town, the wallabies and kangaroos retreat from town to the bush and we don’t see them until things dry out again. This summer we’ve seen fairly regular appearances of them, one even stopping to have a look before breakfast earlier this week. My husband was working at the dining table and quietly called me to come have a look. I can usually tell by the quality of his voice if I need to grab my phone for a photo, and sure enough that was the case. A short while after this wallaby visited, a larger one, with joey under its own power, bounded up the steps and through the breezeway. They often use it as a ‘cut through’ to the scrub that is only one row of houses behind us. It was an entertaining way to start the day.
After the rain, droplets glisten like jewels
Curiously, a small family of dingoes has established itself nearby as well. It has happened previously, and is of some consternation to locals as the dingoes become fairly immune to urban life. Local domestic dogs have been taken and I have personally been stalked on my morning walks. The Rangers try to capture and relocate them when possible, but it can take a while. On a recent morning walk there were two dead and disemboweled wallabies near the path, and the following day another one. Very unsettling–and just possibly, the reason for the mums and their joeys to be moved in from out bush, if there has been a dingo population explosion–but I’m just speculating.
Bearded Dragon lizard (about 35cm/14″) long
Bearded dragon lizards have also made their presence known in larger than usual numbers this year. Found this poor fellow recently deceased along the walking path this morning. We have one in particular at our place that suns itself on the grassy knoll in front of the dining windows. (behind where the wallaby appeared) We watch with great interest how brave he is. One morning he seemed doomed, fending off five butcher birds that had him trapped. He prevailed, snapping back and outwitting them.
The native flora in the area has blossomed profusely, providing stunning photography subjects, as well as exceptionally stunning hay fever. Fortunately mine is mostly controlled with lubricating eyedrops and my husband has a nasal spray that he uses so that we can both sleep at night.
Because the cloud and rain kept the earlier summer months cooler than normal, many flowering plants came on later than usual. Our citrus trees have suffered the most, the lime having only about a dozen fruits and the lemon tree which is normally prolific, not a single fruit. Puzzling. Both trees are about 15 years old and, except for the first year, have never missed a year without more than enough fruit for us and the neighbours.
there’s a fungus among us
perfectly carved leaf veins
mushrooms are a rare sight here
Todd River flooding the causeway we normally travel to town
lady bug landed on piece of plastic wrap
In the darkest hours, the Outer Kingdom is filled with a din of crickets punctuated by the clicking of burrowing frogs that have come to the surface for their short life cycle. Spiders have nearly taken over outside, spanning incredible distances that I can’t help but admire…from afar. Every morning on my walk I have to carry a stick to clear the webs in front of me. Walking into spider webs is very unpleasant. I’ve seen grown men react worse than me. Ants frantically try to find dryer ground in between bouts of rain. Last summer we had the giant grasshoppers, but this is the summer of the teeny tiny ones. Their hundreds are no less damaging, devouring the tasty green parts of fig leaves with incredible precision. I live in hope of one year having figs on this, my third attempt of growing fig trees in 25 years. There has also been an explosion of that most charming of insects, the lady bug. I have had a dozen or more inside the house, which I have gently transported to the Outer Kingdom again. In fact, just now, when taking a break from writing I walked to the kitchen, and there was another one ensconced on a piece of plastic wrap!
I can’t help but think if I lived in a big city and the weather was significantly different, I may have missed all the changes taking place. But here, it is in our faces, and mostly we like it that way…as long as it isn’t attached to a web.
I’ve written on this topic a few times in the past, but I hope you can stand a little more. I’ve written half a dozen draft posts over recent months, and haven’t published a single one. It’s very hard to write with perspective about things that are ongoing. This has been a challenging year for many of us, not least of which is the frog that has taken up residence in our plumbing. He/she is only the size of my thumb and when I can catch him I put him outside again, but as I write he is ‘chirruping’ loudly from the bathroom sink drain. We had a shower together yesterday, he singing to me from the protection of the drain, and me wondering if he/she is raising a noisy family!
What is equally true is the world is very very beautiful–in many ways we fail to see or allow to touch us.
In my life the little things that have saved me almost as much as the love…small moments, tiny events, simple actions. It’s one of the reasons my day feels lacking if I can’t start it with a walk at sunrise. Yes, it helps that I’m a morning person, but this year with serious sleep deprivation even though I am awake early…sometimes very, VERY early, it has been challenging. I’ve been doing it for so long, decades now, that my body almost goes through the preparations without me having to think about it. It knows that those bird sightings and the melodious carol of the Pied Butcherbird, the beautiful skies, and the movement that relaxes my muscles and bones set me up for the day. But sleep deprivation has intervened and some recalibrations (and naps) have been required.
This year has been a series of physical/medical challenges for me. Nothing life threatening, but requiring attention, time and energy to respond to. Some years are like that, have you noticed? One of the tactics I used, but didn’t realise until afterward is something the experts call ‘attention deployment’. This is when you engage in something that takes your mind away from whatever it is you want to momentarily forget. They say it is different than ignoring a thing, it is only a breather from it. It gives a little break, though it isn’t clear to me if tiny frogs are meant to be included. Earlier in the year I was cleaning out and renovating the house, while also renovating my body. Lately I’ve turned to reading, painting and experimenting with flavours in the kitchen as well as brewing my own cleaning fluid.
Nothing is too lame. What does it matter if something sounds strange? If it interests you and diverts one’s attention enough to be helpful, relaxing even–do it.
Citrus season has just finished here in Central Australia but continues for a little longer in the southern regions. Our lemon tree has been bountiful. My neighbours had to be away for five weeks or so and left the fate of the fruit on their six orange trees to ME! I water their plants and check on the house regularly and pick the fruit up off the ground so it doesn’t draw pests. With the oranges, I make orange and almond cake, that deliciously sweet and moist gluten free cake that I normally save for special outings to cafes. When I’m just eating the oranges for breakfast or snacks, I save the peels and add them to a jar that has white vinegar in it. Once the jar is filled I put a note on top of it that has the date two weeks hence when the brew will be done. The vinegar draws out the orange oil (also works with lemons) and at maturity you strain out the fruit peelings and put them in your compost, and bottle the liquid for cleaning. I have read you dilute it with water, which I have done with the lemon brew, 1/4C lemon vinegar to 1C hot water for cleaning windows. Use it with a lint free microfibre cloth and it does a brilliant job. The orange one I use 1C diluted with 1/2C water as a kitchen and sink cleaner. It works with whatever cloth you use, and the smell is delicious and it is nontoxic. Today I cleaned out our smelly letter box in which a poor little gekko had died and begun to decompose. All smells lovely again now.
Distractions? Let’s not forget a good craft or art practice. Recently our daughter attended a Cowboys-and-Cowgirls-Christmas-in-July party for her office. She sent me a photo of bedazzling her costume and told me it is ‘surprisingly relaxing’. I’m slightly trepidatious that she may be covered head to toe in sequins and rhinestones the next time I see her!
Life has always been hard. During the last Pandemic it was so much worse than now. If you want to read a novel that starts there and comes into the present, Isabel Allende’s new novel ‘Violeta’ is an interesting distraction, not a difficult read and describes lives in other times and places over a period of 100 years.
My little garden is another distraction that produces things which I can harvest from time to time. This is the third year since I built it and I now have surprise seeds that sprout like gifts from the earth and present me with chilies, lettuces and basil. The early spring/late winter dandelion leaves also add some zip to the occasional salad at the moment. I’ve left the broccoli and some of the lettuce and rocket (arugula) go to seed so the poor bees have something to eat until other things start to flower again. We’ve had the coldest Winter we can remember here in Alice, so things will take a little while to recover from frost bite. But a couple of weeks ago we had a glorious 16mm of rain which have helped bring on Spring. Meanwhile the bees enjoy the yellow flowers as well as the blue flowers of the four rosemary bushes in our garden. And little by little I’m potting up starts from winter cuttings and freshening soil and planting more natives for the bees and birds and us to enjoy.
And then there are the tiny pleasures, so easy to miss. The way the light illuminates my kitchen in the evening at the end of Winter. The little wallaby that peers at me as I eat my breakfast. The ever changing skies morning and evening.
I’m inclined to agree with Rilke.
In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer
Last night was hellish. It was preceded by a few difficult weeks and a few more are yet ahead. Keeping the lid on one’s life at the moment is more challenging than usual, even for an optimist like myself.
We were only a week out of renovations, most of which I handled on my own. This is not easy during a Pandemic when labour is in short supply and most of the skilled workers have been soaked up by the booming housing market. After six months it is done…except that one sticking door that I’ve worked on twice but still needs further attention.
Just as my anxiety was recovering, a dental issue hit. And then worsened. And now needs surgery, and I don’t mean the normal kind, I mean the anaesthesia kind that a Maxillofacial specialist performs but you have to fly interstate to have done. But first pain, then a root canal, and all the while trying to dodge the winter flu and continuing rise in cases of the latest BA4 and BA5 strains of Covid.
But returning to the hell that was Territory Day. ‘Cracker Night’ is an excuse to be wild and inconsiderate with noise, the way New Year’s Eve is an excuse to get drunk and behave badly. Over the 22 years since we have lived here the neighbourhood has deteriorated as builders have bought and transformed houses without understanding the peaceful character of the neighbourhood. The quiet, considered life we knew has been bought, but feels stolen. It is now filled with loud motorbikes, fast drivers, construction noises and late, sometimes all night parties, not to mention one very aggressive dog that lives next to us. It has been disappointing. Anyone who knows us would understand none of those things are part of our lifestyle.
Firecrackers are illegal in most of the rest of Australia except by special permit, and with good reason. But we live in the Frontier, and for 12 hours on Territory Day, July 1, fireworks are available to anyone who fronts up with the money. And worse, there are almost no restrictions for where they are allowed to be set off. From 6-11pm last night the neighbourhood hooligans did their worst. The neighbourhood pets were given anti-anxiety meds to help get through, the rest of us suffered. It was more than my nerves could endure. During the sleepless hours I was doubtful I could continue to live in a place where so little regard is given to the elderly and peaceable inhabitants.
After tossing and turning and shedding a few tears I finally propped myself up on pillows and reached for my phone as distraction. I mostly use Instagram for creative inspiration and so I opened it and there, the first thing I saw were words by the poet, Mary Oliver.
She left this earth three years ago. She would have loved that her words have lived on and have the power to help. At 4.30am, with little sleep and sad heart, I realised as soon as I read this what I must do. I must let no one steal my love for this place, these skies, trees and rocky outcrops. I must let no one steal my early morning walks with the sound of wind in the trees and the Budgies chattering overhead, or the Butcherbirds carolling across the valley.
And a little while later I bundled myself up and out into the cold winter morning and reclaimed my love.
This time last year we were watching large swathes of Australia burn. I rescued a little kangaroo joey, that sadly died a few weeks later, too. As we watched the very disturbing video of our country on fire and the animals and humans in deep distress, so began a year of not wanting to turn on the news, but being afraid not to. I felt powerless. Of course things only got worse in that regard, as the year went on. I tried to focus on the things I could do something about…self, home, communications, donations and everyday life.
One very gratifying thing I did was donate to The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. They have done something that few recipients of my donations have done over the years. They send updates via their ‘go fund me’ page and by email. The most recent update brought tears to my eyes and I thought you would find it interesting to read. One of the main targets, funded by the donations, are drinking stations used not just by koalas, but other wildlife as well. It’s fills the most basic of needs, water, in a very dry land. And it involves humans to keep them maintained, which seems like a great way to raise our consciousness about what we can do. So here is their lovely update.
We are still reaping some rewards from the rains at Christmas, though we’ve had days filled with hot, dry wind and so things are drying out and looking tired again. There is no real rain in sight, but we watch the horizon with hope.
Cicadas are having a bumper year, if the number of nymph shells I’m seeing, and the deafening din are indicators. They are incredibly hard to see until they are lying dead on the ground. I gaze up at the trees and can never find them, though the tree is screaming with their presence. I did watch one flying a few days ago–a strange noisy blur as it went singing along overhead. I’m sure I’ve come across some mythological tale of the sound of cicadas being used to drive one of the gods insane. What chance does a mere mortal have? At least the carnivorous birds will be feasting well. Here is another little treat for your viewing pleasure, the work of artist Lucienne Rickard in Tasmania. She has spent the passed sixteen months drawing exquisite images of extinct Tasmanian animals and then erasing them for her Extinction Studies. Get the reference? In some cases she spent over a hundred hours doing a detailed drawing of an animal, and then erasing it while viewers watched on. Recently on her Instagram feed @luciennerickard she drew the loveliest life size image of a cicada nymph, not included in the extinction studies, just for ‘fun’. Her work is really superb and I highly recommend having a look.
Speaking of carnivorous birds…a family of Pied Butcherbirds (Cracticus nigrogularis) has settled around our place for the time being. They are mostly insect and small animal feeders, and they have the most beautiful song, similar to that of a Magpie. The two youngsters are nearly the size of the parents, which are about the size of crows, but their behaviours are that of teenagers–still wanting parents to feed them, and still wandering about, curious to test all kinds of things in the environment. One day a young one found its reflection in our windows and it pecked at the image, trying to get a response. The parent came along and tried to distract it, but the youngster was determined, so the parent must have thought, ‘Well there’s one that’s occupied for a while, I’ll go check on the other one!’ and flew away. Eventually the teenager departed, but it was back the next morning, peering into the glass deeply, turning its head side to side trying to figure out that alternate Universe on the other side.
I feel a kinship with that young Butcherbird sometimes…wondering if there is some great intelligence watching me peer into the everything-ness, trying to figure out what to do with life on my side of the glass.