Day 26. Living in the hills on the periphery of Melbourne, it’s always fairly quiet around here. We don’t have neighbours within hearing distance, and the road isn’t close by. There’s one small general store, a primary school, a rural supplies store, a pub, bakery and a pizza place. Most of these are now closed or open on a limited basis. Time has come to a standstill. The nearby flight path is silent, the early morning workers’ cars are few and far between. The kitchen clock tics more loudly, evoking memories of dark, claustrophobic antique shops crammed with heavy wooden furniture, tapestries, Victoriana and mantelpiece clocks. The wooden beams creak overhead, expanding and contracting with the day’s heat; an annoying fly hums about, landing on my arm as I write. This deathly quiet seems like I’ve stepped back in time to another place in another century. On days like this, the black dog hovers too close for comfort.
It’s almost four weeks of self-isolation now and I can count the days of escape on one hand. Simple pleasures- a walk around an oval, a short drive to a nearby township to pick up a special order, or to drop something off from a distance, a long awaited postal delivery- have become the highlights of my month.
One of those outings occurred on Day 10. We left home early as the morning fog still hovered above the creek valley below our place. The drive took us through the hills that form part of our district and followed the steep descent to the township of Yarra Glen, suspended below the road in a pool of blinding light. Travelling along the fertile plains of the Yarra Valley to Coldstream, we passed by vineyards and strawberry farms, fields of dark leafed cabbage and paddocks of sheep and cattle. Our mission was to collect a few day old chickens from a hatchery, a necessary and essential trip, officer, in order to provide future laying hens for my small self- sufficient farm. It is a familiar landscape: I’ve been travelling through these same hills for forty years. Yet on this occasion, the landscape seemed to sing with extraordinary beauty. I discovered new vistas, old railway bridges and distant mountain ranges that I had ignored all these years. Less traffic, the cold, clean air of the morning, the silver sun rising through the glinting frost in the valley, I felt a rare euphoria, a joy that emanated from being immersed in nature.
I made a resolution on Day 10, that when all this is over, I want to go on more picnics in the nearby hills and valleys. To be a part of this landscape while we still have it. To do what our ancestors did on their days off. And when I’m more confident about the state of the world, perhaps I’ll take a longer drive to other beautiful landscapes and bush within Victoria, to visit this land with new eyes.
I remember the turning point vividly, that year when I decided that enough was enough, which in reality, was far too much. It was the beginning of my awakening about Christmas Day, an ongoing change of mindset, involving rewriting tradition and re-evaluating family, place and gifting.
It was my turn to host the Christmas family lunch in 2016, a rotating event shared by my three siblings. As my mother, the matriarch, was ( and is ) alive and well, an annual Christmas lunch was taken for granted, but it was a tradition that we all began to feel uneasy about as the logistics of hosting and catering for the day became a nightmare. At the age of 93 that year, and still living independently in her own home, it was a grand event involving her four children, their partners, her grandchildren and partners, and her great grandchildren, a cast of 32 people or more. Despite discussions about simplifying the day, it never happened. Along with cleaning, house sprucing, decorating and shopping, preparation involved finding 32 sets of plates, cutlery, and glasses suitable for water, wine and beer, 32 assorted chairs, six tables, and tablecloths to cover them, clearing a room large enough to hold the tables and guests comfortably, the assembling of serving platters, table napkins, and the emptying of fridges to store food on the day. Eskies full of ice were strategically placed around for drinks, extra bins ready for recycling. On that occasion, a pissoir for outside male use was erected so that at least some of the 30 plus people wouldn’t flush away our essential tank water supply. Long lists began in early December, the whole month dedicated to planning the lunch, with inside/outdoors options considered, subject to weather conditions.
On that Christmas day, like so many other years in Australia, the weather turned hot and windy, the north wind blowing at gale force through my property perched on a ridge in the country. The temperature was 39ºc, and along with strong wind gusts of over 50 kmph, an outside garden event was definitely out of the question. The day was declared a Total Fire Ban day, which meant no barbecuing could take place. The day was categorised as Severe under Victoria’s bushfire rating codification system, introduced after the Black Saturday bushfire of 2009. Part of the preparation for the day always involved this unnerving uncertainty about the weather- could we have a BBQ, maybe a picnic outside, what about a buffet on the veranda? None of these options were suitable for a blustery, terrifying total fire ban day.
On that day in question, three Christmases ago, I watched my mother sit quietly, sometimes with eyes closed, on a couch in the only air- conditioned room of our house, which wasn’t functioning very well given the constant door opening by excited children and desperate smokers. On phones and computers, others nervously watched the CFA ( Country Fire Authority) information site and weather reports: my brother received a barrage of anxious calls from his partner about her bushfire fears for her area. The happy young children opened an obscene number of gifts, someone forgot to bring their KK gift, a second- nephew didn’t know our names, younger generation partners said very little and you just knew they would rather be somewhere else, but that invisible hand of tradition forced them to attend. And I cooked, stood on my feet all day, ate very little, orchestrated and at times delegated, spoke to no one much, checked fire reports and found it hard to smile. I should have cancelled the day, my mother was struggling with the heat. One of the most unnerving aspects of the day was the fear of evacuating a large group of city dwellers who had no experience or theoretical knowledge of what to do if confronted with an imminent bushfire. The day did not make sense.
After the guests left, we sat among the mess and debris and breathed a sigh of relief. Slowly regarding the waste of leftover food and paper, discarded tissue hats and bits of plastic landfill from bonbons, dishes and cloths to be washed and furniture to be re-arranged, I realised that I felt deeply upset and exasperated. Never again. On that day, I made a firm resolution that our Christmas traditions needed to change.
Since then, I’ve found some peace and no longer practice self flagellation about Christmas Day. As I was using my last piece of Christmas paper last week, one stashed from years before, I did so with real joy. The empty cardboard roll symbolised the end to another wasteful practice. I turned to my fabric stash and cut into a colourful Indian Sari to wrap a gift. I also discovered another stash of op-shop rolls of ribbons suitable for tying gifts. I assembled a small bag of assorted fabric oddments dedicated to this purpose, tucking it into the linen press. Like the Japanese gift wrapping, Furoshiki, I am pleased to send my fabrics and ribbons on their way- they’ll be reused, they’ll travel, they might even return. I’ve made a few batches of Amaretti biscuits, the spice reminiscent of a more ancient tradition of gifts, perfumed with the scent of orange. My adult children ask what food they should bring and I answer, whatever you like, something simple. Mr T now spends his pre-Chrismas days doing essential maintenance for our survival in the Australian bush, removing piles of fallen leaves and twigs from the front of our house, an ongoing task during bushfire season, a season that now stretches longer than in years gone by. Sadly, the season coincides with Christmas. We’re slowly getting our priorities right.
There’s nothing more local than a home garden. I often wander around with my camera, capturing seasonal change, growth and decay. The garden takes me away from my moods, my inner chatter, my inside world. In any season, il giardino is quiet and full of sensory pleasure.
This Buddha sits close to our house. It is the stone Buddha from our old garden, one of a handful of surviving objects from the Black Saturday Bushfires of 2009 which destroyed our home. When I find an interesting looking stone or rock, I add it to Buddha’s feet. Bushfire is a hot topic in the local area, with extremely divergent views on how to deal with the bush. One local plant, Burgan, is at the centre of this debate, a bush known by the CFA, a fire fighting association, as ‘petrol bush’. Due to its high flammability and tendency to spread like an invasive weed, most locals like to keep this pest under control on their bush blocks. Permit requirements to clear Burgan were dropped by our local shire council (Nillumbik) after the Black Saturday bushfires. Seven years after that fire, which razed a quarter of the shire, with 42 deaths within the council’s borders and hundreds of homes destroyed, the local council plans to reinstate permits to clear this bush on privately held land. Our local Council has become wedded to an extreme ideology which is at odds with reality. Local Madness.
View from my front door. A dam is a wonderful thing and was the first improvement we made on our land after arriving in our current home almost 7 years ago. It is our local water supply for the vegetable garden, a local water supply for the CFA fire brigade should they need it and is also a local watering hole for native animals and birds. Can you believe that our Local Council does not approve of dams on private property? New local planning laws have become fraught with red tape. A line has been drawn on a map which includes this wonderful dam. It is now part of a Core Habitat zone, which, in effect, prevents us from removing any local plants from its perimeter or fixing the walls should it spring a leak, without resorting to a lengthy and expensive local permit process. Local madness.
Planting in purple and blue attracts more bees to the garden. The local bees have been sleepy this season as the weather has been too cold and wet. Now that the sun is shining and the Echium are out, the bees are returning. This blue flower is often completely covered with bees.
Borage flowers can be used in salads, but more importantly, bees also love borage. Many of these flowering shrubs, because they are not native to the district, are viewed as weeds by some prominent local environmentalists. Without bees, our vegetable and fruit supplies would vanish very quickly. There are also many native Australian flowering bushes in the garden. Bees like diversity and so do I.
I’m supposed to be packing for a short road trip, making some biscuits and treats for the journey and generally getting organised. But there are a few distracting characters at my back door and kitchen window dropping in for a chat. How did these Birdie Num Nums become my new best friends? They stand on the outside ledge of the kitchen window and watch me wash up, then follow me around the house. Mr T walks to the garden: they fly by his shoulder and sing good morning in his ear. They sit in the nearest Melia tree, like sparkling red and green Christmas baubles, singing or chatting to each other or to us. Sometimes they ask for a handout of sunflower seeds: mostly they are just looking, thankyou.
washing basket and num nums
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King Parrot at my kitchen window.
Strictly speaking, the title of Num Nums is reserved for the visiting gregarious King Parrots. We have many other visitors to our veranda. The loud, raucous hoodlums of the bush, the Sulphur- Crested Cockatoos are welcome if they behave themselves. I noticed a couple of Cockies grooming each other the other day and as I got closer, I became convinced that one was applying special Cocky gel to the other one’s yellow crest.
This well-behaved lone Cocky, looking like some lovely white garden prop, was an early morning visitor.
There are other less frequent visitors: Crimson Rosellas, Corellas, Galahs, Kookaburras, wild Wood ducks, Wattle birds with their scratchy, ex- smokers chatter, the mysterious lone Sacred Heron ( always too shy for a photo) and the smaller hovering honey eating birds, the Eastern Spinebill and the New Holland Honey eater, always in a flutter.
These characters come to remind me about the country life I love, as I toy with the idea of a move to the city. Thank you Birdie Num Nums and Friends.
I include the link below to a wonderful fragment of an old Peter Sellers film, The Party, which may help to explain the title of this post to those who haven’t had the joy of seeing this film before.