Sunkisses

This is an extract from Chapter 16, ‘Let the sun shine’ in The Woman on the Mountain. It was also included as a stand-alone piece in an anthology by Catchfire Press called Stories for a Long Summer (2006).

Summer once meant glorious, golden sunshine, for outdoor playing and swimming, from sunup to sundown if we could wangle it. Painful sunburn and peeling skin was inevitable, every year, for everyone except those with foreign, that is, not English, Irish or Scottish, skin. We soothed the burns by dabbing with vinegar or cut tomatoes, picked at the dry skin as it peeled, and drew satisfaction from extra long strips removed. Noses and shoulders were always the worst and most frequently burnt. As new freckles appeared we joked about ‘sunkisses’. I could count mine then.

By my fifteenth year it was all about sunbaking in bikinis, a race to ‘get a tan’ quickest, grilling our bodies like skinny sausages, assisted by a coconut oil baste. This ritual was interrupted only by an occasional stroll to the water, mainly to see and be seen by the unattainable golden boys with their goods on show in Speedos. As our costumes shrank to four brief triangles, soft and virginal bands of flesh burnt so badly the pink turned livid, yellowish, and school uniforms and seats could hardly be borne on Mondays. But we persevered, for white skin had the connotation of slugs, not porcelain. Not that I’d ever have the choice again, having by now acquired a permanent shawl of sunkisses.

Fifteen years later, summer meant the annual angst in front of unfriendly mirrors and lying saleswomen over whether we could still get away with wearing a two-piece costume. It was spent supervising sandcastles and shell collections, soggy towels and gritty kids, with hardly a minute to ourselves for sunbaking. As we still did, with suntan lotion overall, zinc cream or sunscreen only applied to acknowledged vulnerable bits. We did wear hats.

These days summer brings danger. Sunbaking, suntanning, sunkisses – such antiquated words, such tragic innocence. Forget sunscreen; with the hole we’ve made in the ozone layer, we need sunblock. Slip, slop, slap. Kids are growing up with sunblock as their second skin, they swim in neck-to-knee lycra and aren’t allowed to play outside at school without a hat. They are taught to be as afraid of our once-beneficent sun as of strangers. It’s like science fiction come horribly true. I dread the announcement that constant exposure to sunscreen has been found to be carcinogenic, but I won’t be surprised.

My swimsuit mostly functions as a relic of my past, to be found scrunched in the back of a drawer along with lace handkerchiefs, suspender belts, French knickers and tired G-strings. Summer glare and heat are too savage for me to want to be outdoors at all. Instead of exposing winter flesh, I cover up more, never leaving my verandah without throwing on my sunfaded Akubra hat and the longsleeved cotton shirt, usually a man’s work shirt, second-hand, that will be hanging there.

Too many threatening spots and lumps have already been removed, after hiding amongst the thousands of freckles of my inappropriate Celtic skin. I go to my skin cancer clinic every six months for a checkup. The doctor, genetically brown-skinned and unfreckle-able, shakes his head at the mottled map of my youth each time I take off my shirt.

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

Grand bad design

A second Willy Wagtail decided to start a family on my other verandah. She made such a messy job of nest building, compared to the neat cylinder of my usual family, that I decided she must be a novice nester. Not only was it sloppy and sprawling untidily over the edge, but it seemed as if she’d made two attempts.

The eggs were laid in the first attempt, where the three babies barely fitted. The weather was heating up.

The mother had trouble fitting there herself, let alone reaching over to make deposits into the gaping orange beaks.

Their heads were indeed touching the eaves lining as the temperature rose. I was expecting tragedy.

But no, they just moved out to the lower annexe, the patio, where they were cool enough until they took off next day.

Mum was smarter than I’d given her credit for.

This is the climate chaos nest adaptation design.

Summer Surprises

After so much rain, the early summer heat is encouraging growth and blossoming and inviting birds and bees to sample the offerings.
It doesn’t seem to bother the plants that this heat alternates erratically with chilly mornings and nights.

And of course these are all plants blessed by being despised by my munching macropods!

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My most spectacular summer surprise is always the clump of Spider Lilies. From nothing they arch forth their broad straps of leaves and then their extravagantly designed flowers, trailing enticing scarves of white and extending shamelessly come-hither stamens.

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A close second are the Lilliums, heading for the sky afresh each summer and making at least two metres before they trumpet their bunches of elegant bells.

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Far less showy but making up for this lack in abundance is the Lilli-Pilli shrub, much loved by a world of insects. Who would miss Spring with such annual Summer surprises? It’s always incredible to me that these plants resurrect themselves, unaided and unreminded, every year.

Western summer

Despite heavy prunings at ground level by the wallabies and hence a slow start until I netted the base, the Glory Vine has excelled itself this year, and run the whole length of my western mudbrick wall.

In doing so, it has shaded all the windows – which was the intention. I never feel any heat through the unshaded wall but the windows (and the unused door) are the obvious heat leak.

From inside it means a dim green — and cool — light during the day.

By late afternoon when the sun is low in the west, I can momentarily get strange beams of light via small gaps amongst the leaves. These pierce the interior of my little cabin like rays of enlightenment before leaving me, as ignorant as ever.

Like rainbows and sunsets and morning sun on dewy webs, I am ever grateful for such ephemeral gifts from the natural world. As 2012 begins, once more I say to myself  – and the wallabies –  how lucky we are to live in such surroundings.

Bare-skinned gum trees

Late summer, and the smooth-trunked gum trees here have shed their bark clothes– perversely, just as it’s getting chilly. This  one near the path to the outdoor loo astonishes each time I walk by with the amount of bark strips from just one tree. No wonder we build up such a good fuel load for bushfires.

I always want to stroke the new bare trunks, cool to the touch, and yet warm too, with their slight dimples and bumps.

It was only in the photo, not the flesh, that I noticed this engaging detail (right) — an arm and hand, rather Gollum-like, pensively poised on the chin of this emerging face.

Even the saplings contribute a lot of bark to the forest floor, rising shamelessly bare and beautiful from their shredded skirts (left). The bigger ones here are often multi-trunked — the only reason they weren’t logged 50 years ago. The early morning sunlight has tinted this one with apricot, which I am admiring when I spot yet another detail.

Backlit spiders’ webs on a nearby Angophora, a complex of levels and patterns, given solidity for just a few minutes until the sun rises higher. What a world of surprises!

Orchid events

Every summer the tussocky forest floor becomes decorated with the pink and magenta spires of native Hyacinth Orchids (Dipodium punctatum). Every other year I have seen only solitary spires, and mostly that is so this summer, except for this clump of four. Their combined pinkness was so noticeable from a distance that it drew me to investigate.

Closer to the cabin, my rescued and relocated clump of indigenous King Orchids (Dendrobium speciosum) did not flower at all this  summer. Instead it seems to be putting all its energy into fat new leaf shoots, about a dozen in all, stretching up and out of their papery white sheaths.

I especially like the way the small pale green mouths first open, like baby birds, tongues ready to lap any moisture that falls. Their timing is perfect since we have had rain, and an extreme drop in temperatures — from 30ºC one day to 15ºC the next.

Sunshower power

Tropical storms, fruit splitting, grass growing faster than the wallabies’ appetites, ground squelching underfoot, leeches on the march as soon as I leave the verandah… this is not how summer is supposed to be here.

I am confined to the cabin and the verandah most of the time, and can only peer through the veil of rain at the wallabies keeping the roses stripped. They seem to have lost their taste for oregano, so it’s racing to bloom and seed before they attack it again.

I don’t mind the rain so much, as I must work at the computer every day. So I need power.

And, despite all the rain, I get it. The odd weather creates lots of sunshowers, and while there may be lumps of moss growing on the solar setup, the sunpower keeps charging the batteries.

Convenient magic!

Summer snow?

One brooding and steamy day in February, so still in summer, the weather finally decided to go into action and rain on my patch.
But it wasn’t completely decisive, as it retained the bright light and heat of sunshine as well.

From my verandah, the sunshower looked like it was raining diamonds, but on ‘film’ it looked like snow, as you see.
Mountain weather is full of surprises!

Bush bounty

I don’t plant annuals, so my garden is never the riot of colour that others manage. I rely on bushes and bulbs to surprise me with blossoms.

Outside the house yard, the surrounding bush does the same. Lately there has been an explosion of blossom on a select few of the Angophora floribunda trees. The chosen ones have been so covered that it looked like clotted cream from a short distance.
 I am assuming this is what caused the splashes of cream I could see a week earlier, way off on the far slopes of the higher ridges opposite. Too far away for detail, even with binoculars.
But in the immediate bush, I have no trouble spotting the highlights of summer wildflowers here, the Hyacinth Orchids, Dipodium punctatum. Apparently these orchids live on subterranean fungi which form on the decaying matter of the forest floor.

On tall maroon stalks, their strikingly coloured and splashed pink flowers stand and demand attention amongst the greens and beiges of the tussocks and blady grass. They get it.

Orchid fruit

orchid-fruit-1The spectacular flower spikes of my King Orchids are long devoid of their blossoms, studded with only the tiny gold memories of where they were once attached.

But last week I noticed that three of the spikes bore ribbed green lumps at their ends. One had twins!
orchid-fruit-2Up close they are elegantly sculpted, puffed and blown up like gooseberry paper cases, but no delicacy there; firm and fleshy, with a gold stripe down each rib, smart as the Tin Soldier’s trousers.

Summer whites

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Not cricket apparel or cool clothes, but flowers: free gifts that appear each summer to brighten my days and my by-then mostly green garden.

They all receive my admiration but none of them need or receive any attention in between.

The Spider Lilies are extraordinary, delicate space age creatures that prance and arabesque from fleshy  bulbs and leaves. Beside them flower the herbs yarrow and meadowsweet; the nearby oregano is about to burst into white flower spikes too.

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Twining daintily along my verandah and perfuming my evenings is the Mandevilla laxa, commonly called Chilean Jasmine, although it isn’t a jasmine at all.

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And the shed is being overwhelmed by a rioting fountain of Chinese Star Jasmine.

The scent of these flowers comes to me separately and together at different spots in the garden.

Sweet summer whites.

Summer slime

This summer is atypically steamy for my altitude (around 1000 metres or 3250 feet) and I am seeing strange phenomena that appear to be related to this new climate.

Not the least of which are these surreal deposits, spotted only in one small area up the hill from my cabin.

Several white blobs stood out amongst the greens and greys. Going closer, I saw that clumps of grass stalks were coated – or being coated?– with a sort of slime, translucently white, soft, yet firm enough to hold shape, some still dripping.

‘Ectoplasm’ was my first thought, thinking of the Ghostbusters film. It was immediately dismissed of course.

But had these rather disturbing gobs come from above, been dropped or spat? Or were they oozing up the stalks from the leaf litter below?

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Then I noticed that a nearby stone bore an equally strange blob of speckled grey slime.

Half a metre away, a twig was smothered in what appeared to be a combination one, white on grey.

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They all had to be some sort of spore.

The grey one was tough and rubbery to the touch, the white felt like powdercoated soft jelly.

Grass stalks collapsed under the latter’s weight as the day heated up, the powder darkened to cream.

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By next day they were all grey.

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It turns out they are Slime Moulds, from an extraordinary group of organisms called Myxomycetes — neither plant nor animal nor fungi. With more than 1000 species of these ‘intelligent slime’ identified, I am struck that I had not only never seen them (that I am aware of) but had never heard of them.

What a rich world!

Apparently they suddenly get together in a mass of protoplasm and ooze along very, very, very slowly, feeding until ready to start producing spore.

Most are brightly coloured and their forms are vastly varied – one of which has led to it being named ‘dog’s vomit’ slime, since that was the explanation usually given to its appearance.

Check out these sites if you want to get to know slime moulds better:

Great photo gallery

Nice short explanation by a Canadian botanist

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