The birds

A Rufus fantail pip-pip-pips in the garden. I watch it skitter along the central rib of a palm frond, which in an act of biomimicry, is also fantail shaped. The bird doesn’t stay long in one place. It swoops between frond and treetrunk, pausing  to unfurl its flashy tail, dancing from side to side. The bird is as fleet of foot as it is of wing. Two bounces and he’s off, taking his provocative self-advertisement elsewhere.

I’ve seen the Lewin’s honeyeater already this morning. I assume it’s the same bird I saw yesterday but it might not be. There are loads of them about. The Lewin’s has a liking, I’ve noticed, for the creamy two-inch trumpet-shaped flowers hanging in clusters from the drooping green stems of the male papaya tree. The birds have a knack for reaching their beaks right up inside the flowers, probing for nectar. The plundered flowers fall to the ground where they lie concentrated in piles beneath the Lewin’s favourite perches. The pattern they make on the soil a reflection of the Lewin’s desire.

I watch out the window of my studio as another creamy trumpet flower floats to the ground. The soil it lands upon is dark, rich and wet. It’s not like Richie and I to leave soil exposed: big permaculture no-no! But it’s something we’re trialling. What we’re doing is waiting for the rows of miniature broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, kailarn and kale that we sewed directly late last month to get a wriggle on: once their heads are a few inches above the soil we’ll lay on thick mulch, tucking them in to enjoy a slow season of growth and productivity. We’d never try it in summer. Too hot.

Looking again at the soil I imagine it smells sweetly of hummus, microbes and mycelium.

Like Richie and the papaya tree, the soil isn’t native to this place. It’s a ring-in. It landed here on the end of mine and Richie’s spades, gathered in wheelbarrows from the mountain of shit towering in the back of the ute: rotted cow manure from a dairy ten clicks down the road. Good Obi Obi cow shit.

My wife grows all her vegetables in it,” the farmer told us on the sunday we swung in yo collect it from the farm. “It’s fifty bucks a load,” he says, “one tonne.” The farmer reaches out his hand to take the note Richie is offering and folds it into the breast pocket of his faded yellow work shirt. “I reckon its money well spent. Like I said, me wife grows all her vegetables in it: lovely vegetables they are too: celery, cabbage, pumpkins. Shouldn’t be any seed in it. Been turning it for months. It got to well over sixty degrees in there, so they’re all baked. Unviable. See, it’s still hot in there,” he says, kicking aside the top layer of the pile with his boot to demonstrate. A faint coil of steam rises from the black soil. “Still a bit hot. I’d wait a bit for it to mature before applyin’ it,” he suggests helpfully.

Richie and I stand back from the pile and watch as the farmer climbs up into the driver’s seat of his bright orange digger. We watch as he fires up the engine, Vrooooooom! My nephew, Julian, would love this, I think to myself, imagining him miming the actions of the driver: tugging the gear-stick, shifting levers, pushing buttons, turning the wheel!

The farmer turns the steering wheel casually, as if it’s an extension of his arm. He maneuvers the sharp-toothed bucket so that it lines up squarely with the pile of shit in the middle of the dairy yard and begins aiming great scoops of it into the open aluminium tray of the ute. I feel nervous. Shards of shit rain down, pinging loudly off the metal. The vehicle judders, bouncing suggestively on dusty tyres as it receives the load.

The manure makes a pyramid in the tray of the ute.

When he’d done loading it, the farmer uses the bucket at the front of the digger to smooth down the apex of the pyramid, tilting the bucket gracefully as if it were a spatula and he is smoothing out the icing on a cake.

Shortly before we drive away the farmer sidles up and taps the roof of the ute, confessing, “There’s something to this climate change business.” Richie and I nod in agreement. Without saying more we continue to wrap the old blue tarp around the precious contents of the ute. Once that’s done we throw over the regulation stretchy net, clipping it securely in place. We don’t say it but we both appreciate how hard it must be for the farmer to admit it. Richie and I are a couple of ignorant hippy whippersnappers – for all he knows – so there’s nothing to lose by telling us but I wonder if he’d admit as much to his friends. What sort of conversations do they have, I wonder, he his other farmers buddies, around the dining room table on a sunday afternoon?

The farmer doesn’t need to sell the idea of climate change to us. We saw plenty of evidence of it during our travels, and heard plenty of testimonials. Very convincing they were too. Farmers everywhere – in each of the countries we visited between here and England, all twenty one of them – told us the same thing: that the weather has changed; everything’s skew-whiff; nothing is growing right; time to adapt or perish. People living close to the land – the farmers and tree-changers – know these things. They know a lot of things. Most of which I haven’t yet even begun to know or sense myself: perhaps am not ready to know.

Will you sell us some raw milk, we ask the farmer. The answer is the same answer we’ve got from every dairy farmer we’ve asked in the valley. No. Sorry. No can do. It’s against regulations. Again, sorry.

I’m sorry too. We’d pay substantially more per liter than the supermarkets do. I tell him this. He nods, but he can’t risk getting caught. I understand.

We say goodbye to the farmer and thank him for the ute-full of black gold. We hope it will result in a good crop of veggies this winter. He assures us it will.

Driving home through the Obi Obi valley, the ute sluggish under the influence of the one-tonne cargo of rotted maure, Richie and I turn to one another and begin discussing what the farmer has told us: that the soil this season is still too hot to sew the winter rye. The rye grass, the farmer had explained, noticing the blank looks on our faces, is usually sewn around early to mid-March as fodder for the cows. It’s late April now. I count the weeks on my fingers: that’s six weeks overdue! I wonder what it means for the cows and just as importantly, the farmer and his wife – their livelihood.

What sort of instrument do you use to measure the temperature of the soil, I ask Richie. He doesn’t know. A soil thermometer, he supposes.

Back in the garden it’s 9:35am and the bird action is beginning to slow down. The Lewin’s makes a brief reappearance, taking another shot at the papaya flowers. I wish her or him luck.

I feel tired. I’m tired a lot of the time, these days, or so it seems. Another coffee? No. There’s rosemary and mother of herb steeping in the teapot, picked fresh from the garden this morning. Me and my teapot have been inspired by Juliette de Bairclay Levy’s herbal memoirs, Traveller’s Joy and Spanish Mountain Life, which I’m ready before bed. The books are an unusual mix of travel memoir and herbal lore. Yesterday I read how Julieet cured herself and her small son from typhus in Southern Spain during the 1960s by bathing, intuitively, in the icy mill stream and fasting for weeks on end: drinking nothing but lemon water and honey.

Between yesterday and today the view outside the studio window – my window – has changed considerably. Richie is on a mission to ‘tidy up’ the rockwall/pond/tank area. He says it’s good for his head. I understand. I too know the therapeutic effect of weeding.

Returning home last night, wrung out from a session of Bikram yoga and a day of struggling with my memoir, I’d agreed to a tour of the garden, led by a triumphant Richie. The effects of his afternoon of labour were dramatic. He’s a hard worker. All of the vines  chocking the outlet from the tank had been removed, so too had the vegetation in the vicinity of the two ponds and the big square garden bed. Richie had carried the culled vegetation away and mounded into the center of the banana, hoping it would help to nurture a ludicrously large hand of ladyfinger bananas. The banana tree is only little. Four feet tall. So we still have another year or so to wait for our first bananas.

I inspect the two little ponds, constructed by the previous owner, Sid. They’re bare now. Richie explains that he has removed the papyrus and purple irises to make way for the aquatic crops we’d been harboring in white plastic buckets since our visit to Bellingen, last  January: water chestnut, lotus, and water potato. Our friends, Nick and Amy gave them to us, along with a whole tray of gramuchama, black sapote, cherry guavas, Brazilian cherries and more. Our Bellingen friends are generous with their plants, always propagating more than they need and giving them away to friends. Their tiny urban backyard is easily cramped and we (lucky us) have a big space to fill. Together, Richie and I peer down into the contents of the white buckets: hello friends.

The work on the pond commenced three days prior, on sunday afternoon. I’d spent the final hour of daylight on the lower terrace using the bush saw to attack branches of felled jacaranda while Richie commenced the work of clearing. I took pleasure in the power of the saw. Together, it and my arm razzed through a pile of fresh sappy wood, making a pile of 40cm-long rods that we’ll use next year as kindling for the fire, juuuuur ja jurr ju juuuur, goes the saw. In the time it had taken me to saw three rods I’d been called up to the ponds on three separate occasions.

Come look, a frog,” Richie cried after each new discovery, urging me to come, asking me to bring the camera.

You get the camera,” I retorted, more sternerly than intended, “I’ve got lace-ups’ on. You’ve got slip-ons,” I state needlessly, pointing down at his welliess, implying that my shoes are more inconvenient to take off than his. Without batting an eyelid he’d raced up the stairs kicking off the grotty wellies, flaying the timber with sprays of mud, before returning, a few moments later, to the pond-side, camera in hand, boots on feet.

Each of the frogs were of a different species: one small, dark and pimply. Maybe a barred frog? Another had flashy rocket-strips of white along the side of its mouth and neck, and the other was tiny, olive green.

Last night, as we walked around the garden, flashlight in hand, I noticed that Richie had cut back the papyrus awfully low. I wondered if the frogs would receive the protection they’d need from predators and from the hot summer sun. Would the water get too hot, killing the frog spawn that we’d seen so often, floating on the surface? Gazing by torch-light into the pond, I noticed how the layer of dead leaves that had been floating on top the previous day had now settled to the bottom. I recalled how a pimply toad had poked its head up from below the level of the water while Richie was photographing the frogs.

What should I do with it,” Richie had asked, meaning the toad.
Get a bucket and scoop it out. That’s what I usually do,” was my response. Richie did as I instructed, scooping the toad up inside a plastic bucket and relocating it downhill.

How did that get in there?” he wondered out aloud.
I don’t know,” is all I said. Toads aren’t meant to be climbers. Not that high. That’s what the man at the community garden told us during his seminar, ‘How to build ponds for wildlife’.

Peering down into the surface of the pond Richie and I discuss whether the chubby inch-long tadpoles  are toad tadpoles or if they belong to one of the frogs. “Not way to know,” I state, “Unless we collect them with a net and put them in a fish tank to observe them while they grow. That’s what we did at school.”

It’s 9:50am. I was wrong. The birds aren’t done for the day. A yellow breasted robin arrives on the scene. He’s here to check out the carnage in the garden. He perches, practically weightless, on the rock border surrounding the square garden next to the two ponds. I wonder what he, the robin, makes of Richie’s ‘improvements’ (I know it’s a ‘he’ because the females don’t have the gorgeous yellow plumage that this bird displays). Is he wondering where the two palms and the coffee bush have gone: the ones that grew – up until yesterday – in the middle of the square bed.

Richie has a plan for the square bed. On the rock ledge below the bed there are new occupants are waiting: tomato seedlings. We’ve sewn three different cultivars this year: yellow Balinese cherry tomatoes (never had much luck with them – this is our last attempt); mortgage lifters (big guys that will require canes for support); and Mitsos and Emily tomatoes, so named because the original seeds were gifts from our friends in Athens, Mitsos and Emily: two of our favourite, most warmly-remembered Couch Surfing hosts from our overland adventure.

Surprisingly, the tomatoes have suffered the translation from Athenian rooftop to subtropical southeast Queensland rainforest gulley admirably well. They’re good travellers. One sprawling plant was all we needed last year to keep us supplied with fruit for the winter. I’d had to cut out a lot of rotten bits from the tomatoes but there were still plenty for salads, dhal and tomatoey green beans: one of my favourite dishes, which I make regularly (but not as well as my mother). The secret is, she told me, you’ve got to use lots of olive oil, and sometimes – if the tomatoes are too acidic – a spoonful of brown sugar. I don’t tell Richie this. He’s off sugar at the moment.

I’m distracted from my green bean reverie by the appearance of a Superb fairy wren outside the window – blue iridescent crown blazing ravishingly. Overwhelmed by his beauty, I overlook, momentarily, his dun-coloured companion who is hovering nearby. They’re territorial birds. They stay close. Never straying far – one generation after another living close together, as neighbours.

The Superb fairy wrens, I have noticed, seem to have gotten over their youthful vanity. They’ve grown up, matured. I recall how they spent the first few months after Richie and I moved in checking themselves out in the two big mirrors Richie placed outside, leaning up against the shed for support: items left behind by the previous tenant. I see the birds regularly these days perching on the trunk of the tree fern or bounding from one horizontal branch to another of the primitive bamboo wigwam I banged together at the start of winter to support a crop of snow peas. The snow pea plants are in flower now.

Within the space of a moment the two fairywrens are gone – flown out of view – and a red-browed finch takes their place on the wigwam. It has its back to me. Its violent red knickerbockers peek cheekily from under its perky tail. The bird wears a narrow slanted mask over its eyes, also red: the same red as its undies. These birds are a favourite of mine. I’m thrilled by the rhythmic beating of their tiny wings when they take off spontaneously en masse, rising in a low-flying cloud from the tops of the dewy grass on the flats, which I pass in the mornings, on my walk up the hill.

I don’t recall seeing the birds much up around the house when we first moved in: only down on the flats. Now they seem to be a more or less constant presence. Perhaps they appreciate the fact that Richie and I are lazy lawn mowers and routinely let our grassy banks go to seed, and likewise the cobbler’s pegs, which are indomitable. The bees, I have discovered, love the cobbler’s peg flowers, so the weed has gone up in my estimation. I still think we could replace it with something less invasive. I’m sick of the sight of Richie’s work socks draped over the backs of chairs and on the timber deck outside the backdoor, bristling all over with the black spikes of cobbler’s peg seeds which grow in halos like the fluffy snowball heads of dandelions. Does he think they’ll drop off of their own accord?

This sunday just gone, Richie and I finished our afternoon in the garden by blanking out a large area of cobbler’s pegs that had colonised the steep bank above the water tank. We started off by strimming, and then laid carpet. Actually, Richie and I didn’t do it: Richie did, alone. He says I habitually substitute the word ‘we’ when what I really mean is ‘you’: for instance: “I think we [you] should build a shed.” In a few months, when the cobbler’s pegs and other weeds have died back under the carpet, we (and I mean we) will strip the carpet back and sew something more pleasant, something the bees like, and which we like too.

Juliette, the author of the herbal travel memoirs I’ve been reading, says that wherever bees can live, so too can humans. What does it say, then, that the bees are dying in great numbers? I’ve seen them on the ground recently: at the beach; in parks and gardens; by the sides of roads and on footpaths, wandering around, lone, disoriented. It’s terrible to see. Creatures that can fly should fly, and leave the land-lubbing to those of us without wings.

Lyrics of a song that’s been swirling around inside my head for weeks returns:

I’d rather be a sparrow than a snail
Yes I would
If I could, I surely would
Hmm mmm

I’d rather be a hammer than a nail
Yes I would
If I only could, I surely would
Hmm mmm

Away, I’d rather sail away
Like a swan that’s here and gone
A man gets tied up to the ground
He gives the world its saddest sound, its saddest sound
Hmm mmm

It’s Simon and Garfunkel, ‘El Condor Pasa’. I sang it in Mrs Wenngert’s sixth grade music class. She made us sing all sorts of funny songs: there was one about Jamaica that I seem to remember – something about the nights being hot and the smell of ackee rice and fish? What’s ackee, I wonder now, as I wondered then? Twenty-two years have passed between those music lessons and now and I still don’t know.

The reason I’m thinking about ‘El Condor Pasa’ so much these days is that it resonates with what I’m thinking and writing about. It captures the desperate longing to take wing: to travel and to be at one with nature, and not part of the cultivated ‘civilised’ world. It occurs to me that the protagonists of my permatravelogue would relate well to the song: they too long to be at one with the natural world, to re-wild themselves and learn the old ways of the world’s last remaining ‘cultures of place: indigenous people, peasants, gypsies… people like Juliette. I say ‘the protagonists’ now and not ‘Richie and I’ because, now that I’m writing the memoir and not simply thinking about writing the memoir, the two central characters are no longer ‘us’. They’re literary constructs. Like us, but definitely not us. How could they be?

What I’m beginning to understand, through the process of writing, is that it’s the author’s role to ventriloquize. And so I’m ventriloquizing for Richie and I, using my memory as an aid; constructing characters and supplementing what I remember of our journey with information from other sources, such as Juliette’s memoirs, which cover some of the same terrain we travelled and which contain marvelous details, such as the names of native plants that grow in the various regions of the world, and the uses and significance of these plants to the local human inhabitants. It’s brocade, this writing business. Most days I doubt whether I’ll ever become an adept weaver. Beginner’s mind. You have to start somewhere.

I’m hungry. I wonder if the porridge in the pot, gluggy with cold, will be alright if I add some more water and heat it up again. I get up from my chair, ready to walk through to the kitchen. As I go, I look up and see that the two fairy wrens, the male and female, are back. They’re flitting, not quite camouflaged but almost (that shimmering blue crown is a dead giveaway), through the tumbling rice bean bush that has grown tucked into the corner of the square garden: the only plant remaining from Richie’s de-clutter. Watching the birds I see that the rice bean is providing exactly what it is that they crave: a little cover and something to eat on the run. It occurs to me that what I want and what the birds want is precisely the same thing: a little bit of cover and a bite to eat. The porridge will do after all.

The End


Filed under Books, Doctoral Research, Earth Care, Food, Life Writing, Permaculture, Travel, Writing

3 responses to “The birds

  1. Kay

    Oh Nina,that was a delightful read, well done and thank you so much, I have been in the garden all afternoon tidying up and planting.You know how I enjoy watching the birds from our windows and it was a joy to read your experiences.Please keep them coming, love Kay xxx

  2. Nell

    Beautiful and thoughtful, Nina. Thanks for the delightful trip down into your secret valley for a few minutes. How do you get time amidst your other writing?

  3. christina doratis

    An inspiring read. It flows so well from the present moment to the past, gathering manures, building gardens, living in the bush and then the carefully placed reflections on Juliette’s writing and your own memoir. Stream of consciousness – so easy to read, revealing and absorbing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s