Moving Dad’s place

When this was built at the Mountain, I never imagined it would have to be moved. But it has, twice.

There was no way I was leaving it behind anywhere, but the last time was too much for it.

The beach pebble chimney survived its cracking, staying vertical and attached.

But I had to patch the ferro-cement roof– and pretty rough it is.

I am waiting for it to weather grey and gather lichen, to fit in.

But on the south side the roof has fitted in here beautifully, with the moss as thick and velvety green as ever.

Here the little cabin is placed right opposite my side steps, so I can sit and look at it, say hello as I pass…

This extract from The Woman on the Mountain, of the original construction and site, will show you why:

Dad’s place
It’s a pretty good place, with a view across the dam to the bush, terrific sunsets, and a couple of wattles just in front.

Now how does that song go?… ‘It’s Ju-ly and the winter sun is shining, and the Cootamundra wattle is my friend… All at once my childhood never left me, ‘cause wattle blossom brings it back again.’

Yeah. And I got plenty of time for memories now.

My daughter often drops by for a chat, and my granddaughter brings my great-granddaughter to see me every few weeks. A right little card, she is, picks me fresh flowers every time she visits!

Much better than bein’ cooped up in one of them boxes, side-by-side with all the others, even if they do have landscapin’ and rose gardens. Give me this horse-cropped pasture any day.

We’d decided to build a cabin on my block for Dad. No reason why we three women couldn’t do it, if I kept the plan and method simple. My sisters had no building experience, but Dad wouldn’t care about rough edges and wonky lines.

As he’d been a carpenter by trade, I thought it best not to use timber; might make the mistakes too obvious, be an irritant, even for an easy-going bloke like Dad. Considering bushfires, and what was handy, a stone cabin seemed best.

I’d chosen a spot by the wattles, near some big rocks that would make perfect beer-o’clock sitting spots. My sisters arrived, and approved the site. We set to work. Citybased Sister One looked so funny in my spare gum boots and old felt hat that I wished Dad was here to see. She was to pass materials to me, while Sister Three was assigned to mixing cement.

We levelled the site, and boxed in for the slab. Our arms were aching by the time we’d mixed and trowelled and smoothed, but satisfyingly so. Sister Three went to make tea for smoko while Sister One and I watered and covered the setting concrete.

Next day we started the walls, leaving enough of the slab exposed for an all-round verandah. He’d want that to enjoy the view. It was a small cabin, but we fitted in a window on the eastern wall, for morning sun, and another on the northern wall, beside the door.

Dad loved an open fire, but Mum had put her foot down and insisted it be replaced by a less messy closed-in one, of a nasty shiny brown with a mean little mica window behind which the fire struggled for identity. It did warm the room, but not our hearts; it wasn’t even worth looking at, couldn’t conjure up a single flickering image or inspire a dreamy thought train…

So we made a big chimney on the west, where we could imagine him in front of a fine blaze, cooking his snags on it if he wanted. And making forbidden messes! Narrowing to a freestanding column, that chimney was a challenge, but ended up only slightly askew.

On the last evening of my sisters’ visit we drank to Dad as we admired our work, joking about what he’d think of it. He’d surely laugh at us girls as builders, especially Sister One who never went anywhere without makeup, and for whom a broken nail was a disaster. But for him she’d worked au natural and got dirty without complaint.

They had to return home, leaving the roof to me. Cutting tin was too hard, so I was using ferro-cement over chickenwire and hessian. Dad would shake his head at this unconventional method, but it would make a good watertight roof.

Now came the hard part. All the roofing materials ready, I went to get Dad. He had to move in now, because neither the door nor the windows of this cabin would open; my roof would close it forever.

As I carried the grey plastic sealed box I could hear small shifting gritty sounds that made me tremble; these were more than ashes.
He fitted snugly in his cabin.

I draped the hessian over the wire. He’s gone.

I hate doing this.

‘Sorry!’ I sobbed, as I worked the cement in.

Interment is… so… final.

It’s done.

Relief films over the hole in my heart.

Rest in peace, Dad.

I’ll be down for a beer tomorrow at 5.00. OK?

You can buy The Woman on the Mountain and my other books here.

Snakes Alive…

This is an extract from The Woman on the Mountain, Chapter 18, ‘Snakes Alive and Dead’, .

‘Once, when I was about nine, Dad and I and the leech-burning neighbour were in the bean paddock when we noticed a really big black snake sunning itself on a log beside the track. The practice then was to kill any snake one saw. The neighbour told Dad to throw his hat on the ground in front of the snake, and then run home for the hoe. He reckoned the snake wouldn’t move until the hat did.

‘I didn’t believe the snake would be so stupid, while the neighbour and I were standing — living, breathing, and so vulnerable — nearby. But he was right. That powerful, brilliant black creature was mesmerised by the hat and ignored us completely. Dad arrived, panting, and before I could think about it, swung the hoe high above his head and down, with all his strength, onto the motionless enemy. He chopped through the thick body once, twice, seemingly many times, in a turmoil now of thrashing black and red, and pink, until it lay still.

‘I think Dad felt as sick as I did.’

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

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.

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.

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.

Woman at work

This drawing was meant for Chapter 12 of The Woman the Mountain, ‘While the woman’s away…’ which is mainly about the wildlife moving in and taking over when I wasn’t there.

Here’s the relevant extract about one of the ultimately futile attempts to keep them out…

When the rain finally stopped, I began fortifying the fence against the wallabies, slowly and erratically, depending on when I could afford another roll of chickenwire. As I clipped it on to the old hingelock netting, I was forced to get up close and personal to the past.

I’d erected this house fence ten years ago, when I came back to live here. My dream had included a large garden in the midst of the regenerating bush and its abundant — and voracious — wildlife. That required a netting fence. As my partner was already engrossed in his creative and income-earning pursuits — absolutely single-mindedly, as many men can be — I did most of it myself. I dug the holes and tamped around the wooden posts with the head of the crowbar, which isn’t easy to do on your own and still have the heavy posts end up roughly vertical. A fair bit of boomps-a-daisy balancing was needed.

In between the wooden posts I banged in the steel star posts with my wonderful ‘putter-inner’, a heavy iron cylinder, closed at one end, that a friend had welded up for me. The shop ones, called post-drivers, have handles, and I suppose they are all bought by weak women — Real Men use iron mallets that I can barely lift off the ground, let alone above my head.

And I’m no weakling, despite being small. But some jobs don’t only depend on strength. They’re just bloody impossible without the right tool — like my ‘puller-outer’, a shop-bought manual post-lifter, which makes removing star posts and tomato stakes amazingly easy, and which, I suspect, even Real Men might use.

These are the sort of tools I love: dead simple and very effective, requiring neither mechanical knowledge nor great strength, needing no manual, using no fuel, hiding no spark plugs, able to be forgotten and left out in the rain without damage, enabling little me to do heavy work. In fact they’re the sort of old-fashioned items that are usually discontinued nowadays — too simple, too enduring, a one-off purchase that brings no economic and ongoing joy to anyone but the buyer. What a useless thing to keep manufacturing!

Posts all in, my partner strained up several strands of plain wire for me to attach the hingelock to, as I can’t seem to get into my head how to set the chains and teeth of my fence strainer so it works. Or perhaps I’m just scared of the way it bites and snaps and strains almost to breaking point.

Then I unrolled the old hingelock netting, relic of my first dream of a bush life seventeen years previously. My then husband and I had fenced in several large areas for vegetable gardens, since we thought we’d grow fancy foods like globe artichokes and asparagus — and back in the 1970s these were fancy, rarely seen in shops. After the marriage broke up, so did the fences, only more slowly.

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

Wet school days

Few modern parents would allow their children to take the risks that I frequently did to get to school in weather; well, perhaps they still would in the country…

From The Woman on the Mountain, Chapter 13: Wet and Wild

By the time I was thirteen I was used to our farm creek flooding, when I had to wade barefoot through knee- to thigh-deep water that covered the lower parts of our track and the road to the bus stop, half a mile away. My school shoes and stockings and a little towel were in my Globite school case, balanced on my head with one hand, the other keeping my tunic tucked up into my navy bloomers.

There was first the hurdle of our rickety wooden bridge, which lost at least one of its round logs each flood, the gap hidden beneath milky brown rushing water. It was a matter of inching forward, feeling with my toes for the gap that might drop me through to certain drowning, as the creek was full of bobbing and whirling branches and logs — more than a match for my feeble dogpaddle.

The farmer’s wife at the house next to the bus stop always let me get dressed on her verandah. I’d dry my cold legs and red feet, still tingling from walking on the sharp gravel of the road, and put on my black cotton stockings. Later in this particular flood school morning, I was commanded to the blackboard by the formidable Sister Augustine. I had passed up the aisle between the desks and was halfway across the open space of lino before the blackboard, when Sister’s sharp Irish voice rang out in the slow-rising-then-fast-falling rhythm she used for my name when I was about to get into trouble: ‘Sha-a-a…ryn Munro! What on earth is that?’ pointing at the floor near my feet.

Everybody stared at a trail of dark red spots that led from my desk to where I stood and where the spots were forming a small pool of what appeared to be blood. This blood was coming from somewhere up under my tunic, and given that menstruation was in the offing for all of us, she could have been more tactful. I was so ignorant it didn’t occur to me, or I’d have been even more embarrassed.

I was publicly commanded to go and find out what the trouble was. As I slunk out the door, she called, ‘Well at least there’s nothing the matter with your blood; it’s a lovely rich red!’ (She also taught biology — and geography, as it was a very small school.) In the toilets I rushed to unclip my suspenders and pull down my stockings. Out rolled a fat, gorged leech, its puncture mark on my thigh, just above where the stockings ended, still steadily oozing blood. It must have been there for hours, as it was now nearly eleven o’clock.

On my return I explained what the cause was, which drew not much more than a general ‘Ugh!’ from the class and a ‘Really!’ from my teacher, who gave me a bandaid and sent me to fetch a mop and bucket to clean up the blood. I had the distinct feeling that I had displayed something too basic, peasant-like, for my superior town classmates.

And I still shudder at leeches!

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

Jail baby

This sketch was intended for Chapter two: ‘Getting out of jail’, of The Woman on the Mountain. We lived here, in a village of 200 people, for 10 years before we went bush; both my children were born while here.

‘It would be hard to imagine a more extreme downsizing to a 3 x 4-metre tent than from the grand complex that locals simply called ‘the old jail’. Built in the late nineteenth century, it encompassed courthouse, police station, three-cell jail and exercise courtyard, plus the residence, with accommodation for a special constable tacked on later. Not to forget the back-to-back outdoor double toilet — the most imposing proverbial ‘brick shithouse’ imaginable.

‘Grand.

‘There was a separate kitchen/dining room building, as was the safety custom in the days of wood-fuelled cooking, linked to the main house by a breezeway. The latter also led to the heavy iron door, complete with spy hatch and massive iron bolt, accessing the jail courtyard, open to the sky except for iron bars, and thence to the cells. These had similar iron doors — creak of rust, clang of finality — no getting out of there.

‘Atmospheric.

‘… A few pot plants and hanging baskets turned the exercise yard into a pleasantly sunny, protected courtyard, accessible also from the lounge room via an iron-barred door.

‘I’d had to promise not to get pregnant until we’d repaid the loan for the total purchase amount of $6000 (truly!) and even that loan was only possible through personal string-pulling by my in-laws. In the 1960s a wife’s income was not taken into account and women could not borrow. The Pill had arrived, but if bank managers knew about it, they weren’t letting on.’

That antique cane pram in which my babies basked in the exercise yard was a family heirloom that I desecrated by painting bright orange. 

‘Here I feel obliged also to confess that I painted a beautiful, borrowed, antique cane bassinet and stand with gloss enamel ‘Aquarius Green’, a rather acidic lime. It was the era of the musical Hair, ‘the dawning of the age of Aquarius’, plus that’s my star sign — but neither seems a worthy excuse in retrospect.’

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

Moving mountains again

The time has come for me to leave another beautiful mountain area. After only two and a half years here, I am not embedded in the country as I was at my Mountain, which owned me for 36 years. I still grieve for the loss of the Mountain.

I had thought four acres would be a downsizing from 135 acres, but I had overlooked the difference between semi-alpine bushland and subtropical ex-dairy land. I became primarily a landscape gardener instead of a writer.

Writing is my priority in the next stage of my life, especially the fourth book that has been proving so difficult, but that must be written.

The peace and natural beauty of here has gently weaned me away from living amongst wallabies instead of people and I have made good friends (humans) within this unusually vibrant and sympatico community. I won’t move too far from them, but I feel I may now be able to cope with having houses next door.

So if you know of anyone looking for a green haven, please pass this on!

Information here.

Queer creatures

When you step out of your ute in a Macdonalds carpark (yes, I confess: a rare last resort!) you don’t expect to be eye-to-eye with a prehistoric creature like this.

It was most uncomfortably perched on top of a harshly pruned hedge, as spiky as itself.

I think it’s a water dragon but there was none of that substance about. It, like the dragons, is usually found at ground level.

Maybe it was waiting to be fed leftovers from Maccas?

By the way, at least I learnt that Maccas still doesn’t cater for vegetarians.

Coffee with fries, please.

gourds

Meanwhile at home, I have two far more smooth and docile creatures in residence.

The Gramma couple are snuggling up in a corner while I consider how best to use these gifts from a neighbour. I’ve done the Gramma Pie they requested. Very nice too, but it was more an exercise in disguising the Gramma than making the most of its flavour (?).

Anything could have provided the bulk.

Anyway, I’m not sure I can bear to break up this loving pair. Well, he seems a bit uppity, but she clearly adores him.

Transplants of the heart

Back in my old Mountain home, the verandah grew a living green blind each summer, blazed red and pink in autumn, and leaflessly let in the sunshine all winter.

Naturally, I took cuttings of this Ornamental Grape to bring with me.

They survived the trip and the transplant and here they are flagging their first autumn on their new verandah home.

transplants-2

The other decoration on this verandah are the intricate spiderwebs between the uprights, only visible when delineated by a fine morning mist.

transplants-3

The spiders do other useful work, such as binding the leaves of the little Nagami Cumquat into a neat parcel.

transplants-4

With great difficulty I also brought with me my Dad’s Place. It was built by me and my sisters to house his ashes.

Not having been designed to be mobile, it weighed a ton.

But here it is, resettled, its lavender and wormwood plant settings fast making it look less newly transplanted. My grandkids have decorated the steps and verandah for him.

Fittingly, behind it is a terracotta chimneypot from my childhood farm, Dad’s orchard venture. I never saw it on a chimney, but I always loved it and I have carted it about for over 50 years. It lived in the rockery at the Mountain for the last 35.

transplants-5

Here the southern face of its ferro-cement roof has grown a velvety green moss. I consider this makes up for the ridgeline crack it suffered in the move.

Moving mountains

As you see, I have moved from what was my mountain and its range to a new set of mountains. This is what I woke up to the very first morning. So I (and you) can look forward to many good sunrises.

I am tucked into the side of the hill in this mountain-ringed narrow valley, with the little creek forming the border of my rural five acres.

moving-2

It was a wet and soggy mountain I left and an even soggier hill I reached; four-wheel drive needed as I sank into the ‘lawn’.

As I get time to explore I will share my nature discoveries here… I am just waiting for the first snake. But already I know there are kooks, carolling magpies, crazy wattle birds and many small birds — and a pair of Welcome Swallows are nesting on the verandah just outside where I sit. 

I can’t tell you for sure what the little birds are yet as I haven’t found my bird books; they’re in one of the dozens of boxes that tower teeteringly everywhere in here amidst the stranded furniture that I can’t think how to fit in.

moving-3

How did I ever fit it all in before, in my little cabin? It looked so sadly sweet as I said goodbye after 36 years.

But good people have bought it and will love it and make it their own.

Of course a rural rather than a bush block brings a different set of challenges. Instead of conserving natural values, here I must replace them and rescue them from the onslaught of weeds, from fireweed, dock, wild ageratum and lantana to the ubiquitous Camphor Laurel trees.

If I thought I was moving to an easier life, I was temporarily deranged. When I am sorted out more here, and in between spending time at Gloucester to help them fight AGL’s CSG project in that beautiful valley — please visit the Gloucester Groundswell site.

I think I feel another book coming on.

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