One day earlier last year (April, 2013) we opened the mail to find that Bass Coast Shire Council, under Special Charge Scheme No. 27, planned to charge us $32,700 to seal, concrete curb and channel our dirt road and lay a concrete footpath. About 450 houses in the heart of Cape Paterson have been similarly afflicted because we choose to live on the original unsealed roads.
Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I love dirt roads.
We were very pleased to find a block of land on a dirt road. We didn’t want to live on a suburban style subdivision with a vista of dark grey asphalt, white curbs and white concrete footpaths, white concrete driveways and neatly mown grass nature strips planted with trees at measured intervals. We didn’t want the rigid geometry and hardness of such a scheme.
We wanted the irregularity of gravel merging into the surrounding soil and vegetation. We wanted remnant trees from the original subdivision to remind us of the land as it was before us. We liked the large overgrown planted trees and gardens which sprawled onto the roughly mown grass stretching to the edge of the gravel. We liked the natural curves of vegetation and road and the lack of a single straight line.
Our lives tend to be dominated by metaphorical straight lines: rigid timetables, appointments and deadlines from which we have little escape. Coming home to the informality of a dirt road offers a rest from structure. It’s a clear marker of change and the opportunity to refresh and rest.
There’s a visual quietness about a dirt road. If you’re lucky enough to have local gravel, it sits softly in the landscape, almost merging into the land from which it came. Imported gravel soon settles with rain, fallen leaves and use. On our road at the moment, I’m enjoying walking across smooth old crushed bricks emerging through the top layer of gravel and wondering about where they came from and I’m pleased that they have been reused. There’s a connection with the earth and a suggestion of old paths walked by many feet.
Our dirt roads are shared. Families walk on them to the beach, kids practise their bike skids, people ride bikes to the shop, the beach and their friends’ houses. Dogs get walked, prams get pushed and cricket games are played on the quieter roads. Cars travel slowly on the dirt surface as they expect to share the space. Walkers feel safe because the crunch of gravel gives plenty of warning of an approaching car.
I like living on a dirt road because it brings back memories of playing on the road back at Eaglehawk. Our house was on a curve and there was a wide sweep of ‘ non-road’ on the outer curve which gave us a gently sloping gravel playing area. In summer, we would play cricket out there till we could no longer see the ball, and in winter, a seemingly endless game of kick the kick with a sodden bloated football.
Years later, as parents of young children, we sought refuge from the hot footpaths and sealed roads of the inner suburbs and chose to live on a dirt road at Warrandyte for twenty four years. Again, I loved the informality, the safety of slow driving, and the sense of sitting softly in the environment.
There, actually more so than here at Cape Paterson, with summer, came the dust. A cloud would rise after each infrequent car passed and would hang in the air before it settled on the roadside bushes and occasionally, inside. I feel sorry for the plants but that’s summer, it’s just part of what the season is about.
And with winter, rain will come if we’re lucky and the leaves will be rinsed off. Roads will damp down, some puddles appear, water will soak into the soil and replenish the groundwater. Some roadside drains will fill and not empty immediately but they generally dry out before too long. We’re built on sand here and usually no water lies around for very long, especially if the Council maintains its surface drains regularly.
There’s a pleasing feeling of the roads looking after themselves and the environment without too much bother.
We love our dirt roads because there is a sense of fit with their small, quiet village environment. They are calming, aesthetically pleasing and safe.
Rural Councils can use Special Charge Schemes to standardise all roads to a ‘one size fits all’ urban model. However, small coastal communities have a particular character which should be respected, valued and preserved.
The fear is that one day these special neighbourhoods might be declared extinct.
Post Script. April, 2014.
After a vigorous year long campaign from the community based Preserve the Cape group, the Council was forced to abandon the Scheme because of a 64% ‘Against’ vote from affected ratepayers.