Food and fun

dandenong forest

poodle

Sharyn&AnneWhile in Victoria I spent an amusing few hours on a community radio (3MDR) show with host Ann Creber. This dynamic pixie of a woman also hosted me for several days at her home, which she shares with husband David, two large poodles, Nina and Georgie, and hundreds of antique dishes and pots and pans — props for her food photography styling — plus more modern gear for menu testing as well as cooking for her ‘Whispers of Provence’ lines of preserves, jams and vinegars.

Rose petal vinegar was in process, the petals collected from Ann’s wonderfully wild Dandenongs garden, where natives like fern trees and giant mountain ash eucalypts happily share the slopes with oaks and birches, lawn daisies and buttercups, foxgloves and heritage roses.

At the bottom of the garden she keeps alpacas, ducks and chooks. And I can vouch for the quality of Ann’s omelettes.

Being a professional foodie, Ann gets invited to cookbook launches like the one she took me to, somewhere posh, high above the heart of Melbourne. It was for a truly beautiful book called Turquoise by Ann’s friends, Lucy & Greg Malouf. Published by Hardie Grant, it’s as much Turkish travelogue as recipe book; the photographs are stunning.

The gathering included the sort of glitterati and fashion followers that you just don’t see in a country town. I was gawking unashamedly as I scoffed whatever vegetarian offerings passed by on platters carried by extremely aloof young men.

Preston market

The other Victorian food treat was a visit to Preston Markets, where people of every colour and culture mingle around shops and stalls offering every imaginable type of produce.

They even have a wine stall, where you can refill your ceramic stoppered glass bottles! Now that’s civilised.

Clearly not everyone found the experience as fascinating as I did.

I came back to NSW determined to use more fresh dill as well as mint and parsley in my Middle Eastern concoctions, to have another go at keeping the possums off my roses, and wishing we had more migrants in our Hunter Valley towns! Woollies just doesn’t compare as a sensory shopping treat.

I love libraries

November was another month of library talks for me. Victoria’s Eastern Regional Libraries booked me to address their Reading Café at Lilydale.

This is a most civilised affair where the audience munch on sandwiches and cake and sip a cuppa while I read from my book and generally rave on.

Sharyn reads

Sharyn with booksAt the marvellous mudbrick Eltham Library they nibbled on cheese and bickies and sipped wine in an equally civilised manner. Hot question times followed, and at Eltham we only stopped because the library was closing.

But the most civilised part about Victorian libraries is that they pay their speakers! They appear to understand that writers need to eat in between the free fare do’s.

Back in NSW, I was treated to an underground tour of the warrens beneath the State Library as their vibrant PR person, Deb McBurnie, guided me up from the car park to the elegant Friends’ Room. Once again the audience nibbled while I talked, only this time they paid for the privilege.

As part of the Library’s free exhibition, ‘Impact: A Changing Land’, I thought it a good chance to go to town about the impact of coalmining in the Hunter Valley, showing large photos of treasures like Anvil Hill that will become trash if that mine goes ahead.

NSW Talk

Given that the State Parliament is only a few doors up the road in Macquarie Street, there was a lot of fingerpointing and blame allocation from me. The audience didn’t exactly stand up and shout ‘Shame!’ when I mentioned Mr Sartor’s name, but there was a great deal of vehement head-nodding.

I also took the chance to plead for environmentally-minded Senate voting the following Saturday.

And it would seem that they and thousands of others did just that. Let’s hope the new gang finds the courage to take us beyond coal.

Goanna brunch

goanna one

goanna two

goanna threeI haven’t seen goannas on my mountain, but they are quite common in many places. This one, the Lace Monitor, is the only type I’ve ever seen, mostly in sandy areas.

It’s one of Australia’s largest lizards, with the males sometimes exceeding 2 metres in length. Having always been told that goannas will run up the nearest vertical object, be it tree or person, when disturbed, I watched this Hunter resident from a safe distance, grateful for the zoom on my camera.

I was very wary of those sharp claws and powerful legs. Admiring the pixellated pattern of stripes and spots on its loose skin, I could see why ‘lace’. It also recalled certain indigenous art styles.

They are carnivorous, eating any carrion. And many a farmer has cursed the egg thief in their hen house. Tossed an egg, this goanna caught and swallowed it effortlessly.

No more eggs forthcoming, it turned and lumbered away, swishing its long tail, which ended in a brown needle-point, in poised arcs. In the shade of a nearby ironbark, it sprawled its back legs flat and settled down to contemplative digestion of that egg, which had so mysteriously arrived in time for brunch.

Victoria, here I come!

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Next week I’ll be passing once more through the dust-laden skies of the poor old Hunter Valley. Looking north to Muswellbrook, you’d think it was Los Angeles smog, but no, just way too many coalmines.

I’ll be heading south, booktalking again, to Victoria. Having won two national short story awards given by Victorian Shires in the past, I’m happy to be returning.

On Monday November 12th I’ll be speaking at Lilydale Library’s Reading Café at 12.30.

On Tuesday afternoon the dynamic Ann Creber will be talking with me on her 3MDR radio show, ‘The Good Life’.

On Wednesday 14th at 7pm I’ll be speaking at the Eltham Library as part of their Red Chair series by artists.

Back in NSW, the following week I’m speaking at the State Library in Macquarie Street, Sydney, as part of their exhibition, ‘Impact: A Changing Land’.

This will be at 12 noon on Wednesday 21st and I’ll be doing a double act on the topic of ‘Choosing the good life’ with Adrienne Langman, author of ‘Choosing Eden: the real dirt on the coming energy crisis’.

Stopping coal from Newcastle

beach boy

The historic Nobby’s Lighthouse guards the entry to Newcastle Harbour, the world’s largest coal exporting port.

Last Saturday a whole bunch of dangerously concerned people took to the water in kayaks and canoes, rafts and rubber rings, to stop at least some of that coal leaving to further fuel climate chaos.

Ten coal ships were meant to leave that day, but only two did.

family protest

The police were out in force, on land and sea, to help protect Australia from such ill-intentioned folk. How dare they try to deflect the planet from destruction!

The long-haired organiser, Steve Phillips of Rising Tide, typified the kind of people involved: for all they knew he could have been concealing more than his son in that baby carrier.

When a coal ship actually approached, I headed out on the water with all the others, to be rounded up by police jet skis and rubber boats, so didn’t take photos of the extremely large black ship looming over the volunteer flotilla, nor of the big grey police boat that broke up the group.

police

And if that coal ship did pass, at least it was slowed up almost to a standstill. The people’s point was made.

Thanks, Rachael

rachael treasureThanks to Rachael Treasure for her kind remarks about The Woman on the Mountain on her entertaining website, Treasure’s Tales.

Rachael is the best-selling author of popular novels about country life, including The Rouseabout, Jillaroo and The Stockman and has just been voted Tasmanian Rural Woman of the Year.

Land use — alive or dead

rolling fields

Driving through the Upper Hunter Valley lately, I was struck with the beauty of the few productive farming valleys still operating. They were alive with a variety of textures and colours, and although man-made, they fitted in with the natural beauty of the mountains beyond.

They were complementary because they were all living. The soil was doing what it was supposed to — growing plants, be they trees, grass, weeds or hay. It felt like part of the cycle of life.

This was in depressing contrast to many other places in the Hunter, where the light splotches in the landscape are not from hay or wheat, but from the artificial mountains of coal overburden, like these at the Bengalla mine near Muswellbrook, which at their edges, loom incredibly close above the actual town.

coal dump

It was also in great contrast to where I’d been, just over the range in the Mudgee area, driving through other once-productive valleys condemned to mining, with the farms abandoned, houses, fences and sheds decaying, awaiting their fate — disembowelment.

The Wilpinjong mine near Wollar is only about 16 months old but it’s an ugly sight of dead country already. They’ve actually pumped dry the first set of bores they drilled, and are now drilling more and pumping from further afield. Very sustainable.

coal mine

coal dust

It is not near any main road or highway but is right beside the rural dirt roads along which people must still live. Pale dust from flying trucks and dumped overburdens, black coal dust from the working excavator, 24 hour noise — it was all gung-ho and who cares out there!

No doubt they would insist that ‘strict environmental guidelines’ are being complied with. The locals know better.

Meet Glenn Albrecht

I’ve added a new link to bring Glenn Albrecht’s blog healthearth to your notice. It’s a treat as he’s a lyrical eco-philosopher. On it he writes commentary, eco-poems and eco-song lyrics — with apologies where due to such as Peter Garrett and Bob Dylan.

Glenn is also Associate Professor in Environmental Studies at the University of Newcastle.

I first knew him as the inventor of the term ‘solastalgia’, which describes the homesickness you feel when you are still at home, as your once familiar, thought-to-be forever landscape is changed abruptly and beyond your power to control.

This has happened with the massive Hunter open cut coalmines, but applies to other disasters like hurricanes, that we once called ‘natural’.

With the increasing climate chaos caused by us, I no longer use that term.

Lyrebird lads

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lyrebird 2

lyrebird 3

lyrebird4.jpgFriends of mine live in a dry sandy valley nestled up against curving sandstone ridges. There is plenty of cover for birds in the thick understorey of flowering native shrubs, and beneath them is mainly sticks and bark and rocks and sand, with little grass.

Water is precious here, so they have made a small rectangular pond (2.4m x 1.5m x 600m deep in the middle) close to their house, for the animals and birds who live here too.

On my last visit I saw a young Superb Lyrebird take a bath there.

The male Superb Lyrebird, named for his elegant tail, shaped like the lyre instrument when raised in display, has one of the most complicated songs of all the birds in the world. He not only mimics sounds he fancies in his environment, whether made by birds or man, but interprets and assimilates the sounds into his own song.

As in many birds, the female has no need of superb tail or song, for she is the one to be courted. I thought this visitor was a female at first, but the tail feathers of young males can resemble those of the female or a mixture of mail and female. They do not breed until they have the full fantastic set, to properly court a female.

This one had the broad central feathers of a female but the developing marked side feathers of a male, which will one day form the lyre shape. And since it was fanning that tail a little, a young male it was.

In subdued grey and brown, he walked daintily around the entire perimeter of the pond first, dipping a toe in the water every now and then, as if to test the temperature. He bent over as he did so, perhaps admiring his reflection in the pool.

Finally he ventured in, widely-splayed feet immersed first, then up to the knees. He wriggled and splashed, dipping and ducking under, fluffing up his body and head feathers until he looked like a punk version of himself.

Hopping out, he didn’t shake dry, but hightailed it up the hill. I could see another one, perhaps another of the teenage males, waiting under cover of the shrubs. Waiting to become as superb as their dads.

Railway writer

Have just returned from a heady week of ideas and words at the Watermark Literary Muster in the village of Kendall, NSW. Being broke as usual, I was most grateful for an offer of free accommodation from Peta Simmons, a woman whose generosity is as large as her laugh. She’d never met me, just wanted to help writers.

Her guest ‘humpy’ turned out to be to be a cute cottage behind her house, all on one large deck. Hidden behind trees, it was right beside the railway line, the railway crossing and the railway bridge over the lazy brown river.

railway bridgeThis gave me a novel experience – being awoken by the dinging of the level crossing bells before being shaken by the rising roar of the train as it belted past and over the metal bridge. The house is built of steel, on big recycled steel posts, deeply embedded in the ground on rubber-topped pads. The train tremor reverberates through the whole house and the bodies of its inhabitants. Yet this was a thrill rather a worry: the place felt extremely secure and I went back to sleep each time.

Its other plus is that it is right on the river, which, in between long slow drifts of leaves, blinked with the coloured reflections of a passenger express or a goods train as it flew over the criss-crossed steel suspension bridge.

tree stumpOn the last day of the Muster, we were taken by the Kendall Historical Society up into the mountains behind the village, for a walk along the old Longworth Logging Tramway.

Here logging trains were inched over wooden rails, past giant trees, and across log bridges in gullies, to take the timber down to the very river next to which I’d been sleeping. This was how delicate selective logging used to be before giant companies and giant machines invented clearfelling.

Our guide had owned a timber company: we agreed that unsustainable logging practices were unnecessary and had caused many of the industry problems and the closures.

We both shook sorrowful heads at the waste of good timber in the whole wood pulp disaster. Good greenies and good loggers are in agreement here.

In control

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Driving up the New England Highway to Muswellbrook, in the heart of coalmine country, I noticed that, as always, the air was clear and fresh. The mines are obviously doing what they’re supposed to, which is keep any effects within the site area.

Thus when I look towards that hidden distant mine void, the airborne dust I see is either an illusion, or it will turn around when it realises the wind is blowing it off site.

So reassuring that they are in control of their dust.

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The other comforting evidence that our masters keep their word and know what they’re talking about regards canola.

This is especially important because I understand they are considering removing the ban on GM canola crops in NSW. We are assured no GM crops would escape and infect other crops.

Funny though, how one good burst of rain has sent canola into frantic growth all up and down the roadsides and railway lines, over the paddocks and up the hillsides, if you can peer through the murk to see the hills.

Yellow, yellow everywhere, and none of it intentionally sown in this non-canola-growing area. I had to ask a local to check my disbelief, so dense and vast was the spread of canola in paddocks.

The fine seed was apparently in stockfeed mix used extensively here during the drought. Canola is the new feral here; it beats fireweed and capeweed as the Yellow Peril this season for sure. How much wider will it have spread next year?

But of course GM canola will be under control.

Talking book woman

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The Woman survived her 10 days bookstorming the NSW North Coast and New England — but only just. Hadn’t expected to find talking so exhausting, since I’m in constant training.

But I guess a set talk, with passion and humour and drama, is a performance. It was followed by perhaps half an hour of lively questions, many on the environmental issues, where the lack of action is clearly worrying people.

I learned not to judge by appearances, as the most conservative looking elderly lady might ask me very well-informed questions on the Anvil Hill mine.

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I never stopped talking for the two hours most sessions took, as when people queued up for me to sign their books, I would ask a little about them so I could write something relevant. That might release a potted life history, and I would have enjoyed long conversations with most.

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I love libraries anyway, but was astonished at how the newer libraries are involving their communities. At the brand new Taree Library I was their first author event. Seventy people turned up for the evening, which had a lot to do with the very prominent display. And with the enthusiastic Margie and her staff, who turned out cheese platters and served wine as if they did it daily. Librarians have jettisoned their old twinset and beads image, and Taree Library rocks!

Where the libraries had active Friends of the Library groups, such as at Forster, the hospitality created a very welcoming atmosphere, with pikelets and cakes and cuppas, but which I rarely had time to consume.

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The newish Port Macquarie and Tamworth Libraries were very keen and had good spaces for such events — AND they presented me with gifts of local goodies, like wine! That’s Kay, at Tamworth, (left) my last stop. The letdown was at Lismore, one of the biggest towns/cities, where I felt like I shouldn’t have bothered, since they hadn’t.

I not only met librarians like Kerry (centre left) but local booksellers like Jodi (centre right) from the ABC Shop at Ballina, who’d gone to much trouble to set up eye-catching displays in their shops.

Another notable one was the Coffs Harbour Dymocks, where the vibrant Natalie (right) is a real events person and supports local authors especially.

I admit I enjoyed all the dressing up, but I’m extremely glad to be back on the mountain in my stained trackies and flannelette shirt, raking up horse poo and getting down and dirty in the vegetable garden.