Colouring a shed

I inherited a perfectly neat and serviceable but boringly plain shed when I moved here.

It happened to be green, with a reddish trim. I fancied a Virginia Creeper might suit, but doubted it would creep up smooth tin like this.

The nursery couldn’t guarantee it would.

I took the chance.

But very slowly, those little sucker paws struggled up, with a bit of support from wires to start with, as guides.

After one year, it had managed this much.

And yet now, by its second year, it has taken over the shed beautifully, the colours matching. It gives me great pleasure to see it.

Colour aside, I do know why it has done so well, because when I emptied a compost bin nearby I found its roots had found their way in at the base.

Compost well spent!

Water works

Where I had lived for the past 4 years it had rained a lot — and very often only there, in that exact part of this spectacular valley, while adjacent areas missed out.

Where I live now has been hanging out for some of that rain, with the ponds almost dry and even this sole duck wandering the roads looking for wetter pastures.

But after a week of wet days, some deluges and much drizzle, the wetlands flood mitigation works below my place is roaring with white water, the channels are overflowing and smoothing pathways through the Wandering Jew ground cover that dominates.

This makes beautiful patterns with the water — and can be forgiven for the moment for its invasiveness.

Not to be forgiven are the tides of plastic rubbish waiting to swell and overflow their pools.

Waiting to catch them is this steel rubbish trap, through which the water pours, into the stormwater drain that runs under the road to the next creek. These traps are why my house will hopefully not be flooded ever again, as it was in the 70s, long before these water works were undertaken and the forest planted around them.

The solitary road-running Black Duck has found the freshened and filled ponds, but so far no other water birds can be seen.

Having just watched some of ‘Drowning in Plastic’, a BBC series on our appalling plastic waste and what it is doing to our waterways and water creatures, I am aware how lucky we are to have those traps to stop even this amount of plastic heading down to the Manning River and out to sea

Duck Trails

The swamp/pond in the reserve below my block generally looks like a smooth bowling green. But now and then I see dark tracks through the algae topping carpet.

Going closer to investigate, I see two handsome Black Ducks entering the water, joining another bird that from a distance I assume will be a Purple Swamp Hen.

The ducks begin effortlessly gliding across the pond, trailblazing as they go. The trails close back over quite quickly. I could see four Black Ducks on the pond in all.

Black Ducks (Anas superciliosa) are common all over Australia. For once, males and females are similarly striking: the black eye stripes, peach cheeks and stunning individually outlined feathers, with a flashy emerald green ‘speculum’ hiding amongst them.

The other lone waterbird has me baffled. The colours aren’t right on the head and that distinctive yellow/lime beak has me beat. Could it be a Coot in a particular phase? Can anyone help?

From swamp to stream

Normally I have a view of a swamp, algae covered except where ducks forge a path. It’s the most permanent of a deliberately created wetlands complex of often dry depressions, built for flood mitigation with metal traps to catch debris.

I don’t usually get to see white water or hear it rushing through the forest, yet after a few days of welcome heavy rain, my swamp is transformed as it does its job of moving water.

Weedy sinks are pools, low-lying parts of the forest are semi-submerged and a small creek has found a path through the bottom of my garden.

And I know you’ve probably seen enough of these fungi, but I love that they are so prolific, with new colonies appearing every few days in this wet weather.

Water is Life!

Harnessing sunshine

When planning to move to the bush back in the late 1970s, the main company I knew where one could get items essential for the alternative life, like a manual stone mill for grinding flour, was Self-Sufficiency Supplies, then in Newcastle. It was run by Brian England.

Amazingly, that company is still going, based in Kempsey, and with Brian still at the helm. The world has at last caught up with Brian’s vision, and his company is renowned, as their signs say, as ‘Solar Experts’.

I’d written several Owner Builder Magazine stories where Self-Sufficiency Supplies had installed the solar electricity systems and heard nothing but praise for Brian and team. He is also the winner of the 2015 National Solar Installation Award and was inducted into the Solar Hall of Fame in 2016.

So naturally it was Brian I called for my first step in making my new home as self-sufficient as possible.

My north-facing roof could fit 16 panels, a 4KW system, grid-connected for the time being.

Once a safe path was devised across and along my unsupported bullnose verandah roof, team members Jamie Metcalf and Sean Paterson erected the support frames.

It was afternoon and the day had well and truly heated up by the time Sean installed the first panel. He’d already spent far too much time inside my overly hot roof space helping run the cables, but seemed to always wear a smile regardless.

It was late in the day as he carried the last panels up to Jamie.

For the whole day electrician Dave Aulsebrook had been working below on what looked like complicated wiring.

Brian England was there to supervise and be consulted on any curly issues; he says that each team member is pretty much a ‘jack of all trades’.

Finally my neat control board on the verandah was complete, ready to be programmed and set to work, converting sunlight into power.

Those of you who have read The Woman on the Mountain know I was on stand alone solar for 20 years, so it has felt weird and wasteful not to be doing that.

Whilst I am still grid-connected, using it as backup, my electricity supplier, Powershop, will give me about 12.8 c per KW I feed in. Check Powershop out if you haven’t already, top marks for flexibiilty in buying and pricing and communication as well as green credentials… and mention my name please if you switch! (Enova are good but had said they couldn’t supply here.)

After a long and hot day, my smiling Solar Experts had set my system up, checked it out and explained the manuals. They packed their gear, ready to drive back the several hours to Kempsey.

Familiar faces

As at my last two homes, I see a lot of wildlife just from my decks and verandahs, perhaps because I choose homes that are part eyrie.

Not having heard kookaburras here yet, I was delighted to see this one last evening, just metres away from my side verandah. Such a handsome fellow!

Next day, I heard the unmistakable continual rusty sawing of a young Yellow Tailed Black Cockatoo. Rushing out to that same verandah, I spotted him, large and loud, carrying on as only a baby magpie can beat.

This equally handsome fellow was in a Silky Oak, but where was the parent? Not in the same tree…

No, but near enough, busy in a Casuarina, ignoring the whining young. I am so happy that these familiar avian faces are appearing in my new place, making me feel more at home with each visit.

But this place is all about trees; even the clothesline is a pulley system off the high back deck, where I send my washing out into the air space between trees… past the reach of the yellow droppings of birds in the Silky Oak.

Treetop home

There have been no posts for a while as I’ve been immersed in the chaos of moving house again.

This time — the absolute last! — it was to a rural town, where I share my block with this Tawny Frogmouth, one of my favourite birds.

A quiet, retiring, serenely beautiful bird, with ‘eyelashes’ to envy. Their roosting habit is often described as ‘cryptic’, mimicking broken branches; this one is easier than usual to spot, being on its nest.

I am still waiting to hear its distinctive, if unmusical, call.

And with a few dozen Rainbow Lorikeets – not quiet. In fact they are known as ‘a noisy conspicuous bird’, whose ‘shrill screech and sharp chattering’ leave no doubt as to their presence

They are currently feeding on/decimating a big Queensland Silky Oak (Grevillea robusta) tree that is far too close to my house, so it will not be there for much longer.

(The Frogmouth’s She Oak is safe.)

Before that they were busy on a red bottlebrush tree out the front. They are the only Lorikeet with a blue head, striking against the red beak and above the orange, yellow and red bands and splashes on the predominantly green body.

One of the reasons why I will see lots of birds here is that my large block is edged on two sides by a forested wetlands reserve. I know I won’t see wallabies but have resigned myself to that wonderful Mountain stage of my life being past.

But here the rain still falls and works with the early morning sun to make diamonds to turn my mundane clothesline into regimented linear splendour. Despite the culture shock of road traffic on one side, I remain blessed.

Wintry work

This drawing was meant for Chapter 5, ‘Living for Weekends’, of The Woman on the Mountain.

We’d moved there into the still very basic cabin, and I’d taken the writing work from my old design firm…

In a way it’s as if I remained part of the company even after I’d left and moved back here for good. They used to call me ‘our woman on the mountain’, as one says ‘our man in New York’, although the connotations of gumleaves and gumboots were probably less impressive.

They had to tolerate a long and turbulent teething period in those pre-email communication days. We were using a program called Carbon Copy (I think) where my computer linked to theirs via a primitive modem. I’d try to get the modem to work on my dreadful phone line, waiting for that magic sound, the electronic gargle of a successful connection. Someone had to sit at a computer at their end to receive it, and stay there to respond, even if it was unbelievably slow. I’d be sitting here trying to get it through, never sure if the person down there had given up, or wandered off to make a coffee or take a phone call. To find out, I’d have to disconnect and ring them, as I only had one line. Then we’d have to start all over again. Hair-tearingly not ideal.

I think that was when I first discovered the release to be derived from screaming Charlie Brown one-liners — ‘A-a-a-a-rgh!’ — from the verandah.

… But at least I was living and working here, even if conditions weren’t ideal. … I’d be shivering at my desk at the other end of the cabin from the combustion stove. Working on the computer, I’d be wearing fingerless gloves, beanie, thick socks and boots, tights, leggings, long woollen skirt, singlet, skivvy, woollen jumper, vest, cardigan and shawl, with a rug over my knees. Dead elegant — and cold. I cursed again the uninsulated roof.’

I have copies of The Woman on the Mountain which you can buy at a special price here.

Al fresco loo

The sun on your knees, a view of birds and bush… who’d want an indoor loo? This sketch and extract is from The Woman on the Mountain, Chapter 14, ‘The Simple Life’.

‘Contrary to popular mythology, the simple life is not found in the country but in the city, where you simply pay your bills and press a button for everything you need, and you don’t have to know how any of it works or be able to fix it yourself.

‘My next self-sufficient system is sanitation. I have what is called a ‘long drop’, a big hole in the ground with my old jail’s lidded seat over it and a shelter shed over that. It was originally a metre-cubed hole, dug into bedrock with pick and crowbar in 1978. I’d assumed it would last a few years, but it’s still going. Beside the seat is a lidded enamel canister which officially says SUGAR, but as nobody takes tea there I think it’s safe from confusion with my Texta-scrawled LIME. A sprinkle of the latter now and then is enough to keep the material breaking down, while an evaporation pipe dries it out and reduces the volume.

I always thought I’d build a dry composting toilet one day, but the only real difference from my current one would be that I’d get to use the resulting compost.

A few overly civilised visitors have had difficulty using my sanitation arrangements. I’ve never asked whether this was from the dark pit yawning beneath them or the idea of communal storage, but the ensuing psychosomatic constipation was real. They couldn’t wait — or rather, they could — to get back to a proper flushing loo. I feel sorry for them, so unable to accept that they’re part of the animal world, with the same basic processes necessary for survival. They were possibly also uncomfortable without a door to shut, but the toilet faces away from the house, and they wouldn’t see the birds and trees otherwise.

Having grown up with a pan toilet — a far-too-short drop — I consider mine quite manageably distant and salubrious. That toilet, complete with harsh and unabsorbent newspaper squares impaled on a large nail, was dark and spider-scary because it wasn’t done to leave the door open; and smelly, often maggoty, because it was never emptied soon enough. When Dad worked away from home for a month once, Mum and I had to do it, and I understood why he’d kept putting it off. But that first row of orange trees, in the burial range, had the glossiest, greenest leaves, and the biggest, juiciest fruit, of all the trees in the orchard.

The disadvantage of my toilet is that it’s a fair hike up the hill when you’re in a hurry or it’s raining. If the pit ever does fill up, I’ll build the new toilet on the flat, still outdoors, perhaps reached by a covered walkway. And I’ll plant an orange tree on the old site.

I have copies of The Woman on the Mountain which you can buy at a special price here.

The water word is out

After the White-faced Heron staking a claim on my pond, the word seems to have got out to other water birds that the pond is here and the surrounding lawn is soggy enough to easily poke a long waterbird beak into.

A small troupe of iridescent Straw-necked Ibis were here the other day, strutting and poking happily, until the Magpies sent all but one packing.

Then it too took off, recognising, as do most birds, that maggies rule.

I am keen to see what other waterbirds visit, now the word is out.

Shading to infinity

My Glory Vine is wearing its Autumn garb; when the leaves turn red, right? They look red, as I come out to the verandah, with the morning light behind it.

But then I step outside and look back at it and the shade of the main leaves externally is so different that I have no name for it: but no ‘red’ I can think of will fit. I mentally go through my old paintbox tubes with all the evocative names of colours. As for the small ones, well, ‘salmon’ perhaps?

And yet, a few metres further along, they choose more burnished shades, with only red herringbone veins.

On the eastern side they are opting to hold on to green, to refuse to give in to one red shade, choose reds only in blotches, or restricted to edges.

Twining through the Glory Vine on this side is the Mandevilla Laxa, (right) whose slender pendulous leaves are showing gold and red shades for the first time, with clearly defined stages and veins. How odd that they are donning Autumn garb more here nearer the coast than they did not at 3,000 feet?

I miss the Wisteria’s golden contribution from those days so I am welcoming this… and all the subtle shades to infinity that Autumn can offer, even here in subtropical Australia.

Morning benediction

Most times I am awake and risen early. Some days it’s more worth it than others. Like today, as the sun rose in just the right spot over the escarpment to be split into morning glory rays of benediction by a perfectly placed tall tree.

Within minutes the sideways rays grew longer, the view brighter. The day was here.

All too soon it settled into the more usual lovely misty layers gently steaming skywards, with only a faint ‘hand of god’ ray visible.

Worth getting up before sunrise to catch that moment? Oh yes.