Midwinter Lagoon at Port Melbourne

Liz Low. The Age. 26.6.2018

The ABC weather maps have recently been beautiful and exciting. Blue, green and white bands of rain systems swirled and scythed across our brown continent and the surrounding seas and islands. They reflected the days of harsh cold Northerlies from the desert interior and then the shift to the Antarctic Southerly wind. Winter had finally arrived.

The Southerly pushed up waves in the bay towards the small dunes backing the Port Melbourne beach. The familiar, ephemeral pond filled in front of the Life Saving Club as the sea tried to reclaim its large lagoon from the flats, roads and oval we’ve built on it.

This time, the waves also broke through up near Middle Park and water slipped stealthily behind the dunes to create a long, shallow lagoon lying behind the basalt sea wall which protects Beaconsfield Parade. This wall is a very clear barrier between the built environment and the natural world.

Now, the marram grasses are partly submerged and ropes of pigface float, getting plump and juicy. The water lies across the access paths and laps at the concrete ramps.  A layer of scum is pushed into corners, reminding me of the scum that rises to the surface of a freshly boiling stockpot. However, this scum holds a neat square of bubble wrap but surprisingly little other rubbish.

A few days later, it’s stopped raining, the wind has dropped and the bay is flat and streaked in pearly blue. It allows container ships to slip quietly up the channel without tugs. Except for the trucks roaring along the road and the drilling from yet another building site, it’s quiet. The lagoon is still there, lying under the winter sun, and a salt bush reflects its silvery foliage in the brown water. The water level is dropping, leaving contour lines of sea-crushed grass on the ramps.

Lagoons behind sandbars vary hugely in scale and I enjoy the fact that this little urban lagoon, stretched out between the bay and the road, is similar to large permanent systems such as the Gippsland Lakes.

Nature still imposes itself on our carefully controlled environment. Storms and fogs close airports, floods create havoc, lava and mud flows engulf villages, sinkholes swallow houses, snow closes motorways and drought creates famine. These natural events remind me that we humans are just one part of a global natural system.

Here in southern Australia, it’s midwinter and soon, in increments of a second per day, the sun will start to rise earlier and set later.  It will continue to be cold, lagoons will subside and rise again, we’ll be battered by opposing wind systems but, for me, even thinking about the increasing daylight is something to embrace.

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The Last Swim of Summer

Published in The Age. 29 APRIL. 2018

It was only a few days ago, that I was thinking about having my last swim of summer. The swimmable days had kept on coming, way past Easter. By now, my beach towel was stiff and heavy with salt and I was starting to wonder when I’d give it a wash.

As a kid in the 1950s, I never thought of a particular swim as being the last one of the season. Each time I went swimming, I’d race into the sandy bottomed, concrete walled Eaglehawk baths to play as usual and not think much about whether I was cold or not. By Easter, I was so distracted by the Bendigo Easter Fair and the dragons, processions and sideshows that I didn’t even think of swimming. Then, sometime during winter, I’d ride down to the Park and see that the pool had been drained and the sand lay dry and open to the sky.

Outdoor pools with fences and turnstiles are predictable. The Bendigo Pool would always close sometime during the week after Easter and that would be the end of my teenage swimming until November.

The unpredictability continued through my adult working parent life. We lived at Warrandyte for over 20 years and we swam in the Yarra. Each year, by March, we were all embedded back at work and school, and took fewer and fewer walks along the dusty track which threaded towards the swimming hole through the bush reserve between our back fences and the river.

My last swim would be a bit like this. Along the track, I heard the creaking of the ‘witch’s tree’ which used to scare our kids, noted the corner where our oldest daughter rode over a snake, crossed the firebreak separating the last house from the Koornong Reserve and reached the bank above the swimming hole.

The reeds and willows had started to dry off, the air felt quiet and the sun warmed my back. Down at the water’s edge, I felt coolness as the river exhaled. The end-of-summer water level was low and the upstream reef stretched almost across the river to the bank of Jumping Creek Reserve. The ‘sitting rocks’ on the downstream reef were high and dry. I breathed in the familiar smell of muddy river water and stepped into the gravel and mud bottomed river. The band of warmth on the surface of the water was very thin and the cold rose up my legs until I had to make myself push off and swim. It was freezing and I swam out to where the current grabbed me, floated down with it a bit and headed back to shore. All rather fast!

At home, I’d need a shower to warm up and wash off the river smell.

Since thinking about these last swims, a huge autumnal cold change banged in from the South West, bringing actual cold air and rain.  I’ve washed my beach towel.

As usual, my last swim has been retrospective!

In Praise of Pepper Trees

In praise of the pepper tree

On a hot afternoon, pepper trees gave a deep shade.
On a hot afternoon, pepper trees gave a deep shade.

Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

My life has been bookended by pepper trees.

I knew a lot of them in Eaglehawk. The house on the corner of our street had huge, rounded, drooping pepper trees growing in the chook yard and hanging over the dirt footpath.

On an endless hot afternoon these trees gave a deep shade and we kids would gather down there on our bikes. The footpath merged with the road over a shallow gutter and we could play chicken and do skids, or race around pretending to be on a motorbike by pegging swap cards to the wheel prongs so that they’d riffle and buzz on the spokes. The pink peppercorns fell to the ground and made a happy crunchy sound under our tyres.

The leaves were always a bit sticky and the papery pink berries hung in pretty globules among the green. I’d rub off the peppery pink husk and bite into the berry. The taste was a bit puzzling because it wasn’t like the white pepper in our pepper shaker, but the strong stingy feeling still had some peppery connection.

Every school yard had pepper trees and sometimes they formed a small green tree cave whose curtains you could run through, trailing branches over your shoulder. Their bark was rough and scratchy and oozed stickiness, which usually put me off climbing.

For about 40 years, my adult life in inner Melbourne and then out at Warrandyte had been mostly free of pepper trees. But then we did a ”city-change” to Port Melbourne and suddenly I saw pepper trees again.

Port Phillip Council has an imaginative street tree planting policy and I found that the street trees helped make up for the loss of bush landscape. I walk home from the tram stop under pink fruiting pepper trees. Some are getting large enough to droop over a corner nature strip, sheltering not chooks or kids, but succulents.

There’s an oldish pepper tree at the local kinder that is right on the fence line. The fence has been kinked around it, giving the trunk to the street and the shade to the kids and the chooks in their little house underneath.

I walk by, crunching peppercorns, hearing and smelling chooks, just like Church Street, Eaglehawk, more than 60 years ago.

Liz Low is an Age contributor.

The Uncertain Process of Dying

 

‘I had become aware of how uncertain the process of dying is’

The Age. 10 March. 2018

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Photo: Shutterstock

My 96-year-old mother had a couple of full rehearsals for dying.

The last one was staged about four months before her actual death. I was woken by a phone call from her nursing home to be told that Mum had had a fall in her bathroom, vomited, lacerated her face, possibly broken her arm and had just left in an ambulance for hospital.

Nick and I tracked her down to cubicle 3 in the emergency department. Mum’s body lay flat and small underneath an inflated nylon warming blanket and all I could see was her gaunt face dominated by a large dark red gash on her forehead. Blood had trickled and dried down the side of her face. She had oxygen tubes in her nostrils and was attached to blipping and flashing machines behind her.

”Mum. We’re here.”

Her eyes flicked open. They were huge, staring and unfocused. I realised that over the years she had lost all her eyelashes.

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She came back into herself.

”Oh, Lizzie,” she croaked in an unrecognisable deep voice. She spoke slowly of what had happened to her in the night.

By mid-afternoon, she had been diagnosed with pneumonia and cleared of worse possibilities. The doctor liaised with the nursing home and organised for her to be nursed there. She suggested that we take her back in our car. We drove through endless suburbs in peak-hour traffic with my tiny mother slumped in the front seat in her pink fluffy dressing gown.

Back at the nursing home, she was settled in the recliner in her familiar room. The last of the afternoon sun shone on her lap, and if it weren’t for the abrasion on her forehead, it would have been hard to believe that she had not been there all day. We all sighed with relief and exhaustion.

The following morning I had a phone call from the visiting doctor, who described Mum’s pneumonia as serious. He discussed the possibility of palliative care should she not respond to antibiotics, and how that process would work. The words ”palliative care” struck a blow to my heart. However, my sister visited Mum later that day and reported that she was much improved.

By now, I didn’t know what to think. It was a repeat of an earlier dress rehearsal almost exactly a year before. Then, she had been taken to hospital with a complication of an ongoing condition. I received a night-time call from another careful and courteous doctor saying that Mum had confirmed her Advanced Care Directive that she wanted no interventions or investigations and was therefore content to be sent back to the nursing home.

That had felt like the beginning of the process of actually dying. She had already told me that since about her 90th birthday, she had thought that she was just filling in time. She was mentally bright but her body was crumbling about her.

Next day, I entered her room preparing for an ill, weak mother, but there she was, sitting in her chair, feeling much better and eating a banana.

My reactions to each of these dress rehearsals were similar: relief that she was recovering, sadness at her diminished degree of wellbeing, resignation that this was going to go on and on, frustration at the lack of conclusiveness, and weariness of having to endure the emotional stress of thinking that this might be the end, yet again.

About four months after the fall and pneumonia, I had a call from the nursing home saying that Mum was quite unwell with a temperature and a cough. We went to see her that afternoon and this was clearly different from the other illnesses. Firstly, she was actually in bed. She was very croaky and weak but amused by her hallucinations of my husband and my father building a cupboard in the corner of her room.

I was deeply disturbed. This was very different and shocking. The moorings were slipping. I sat beside her and felt my entire body sinking.

My sister visited next day, and reported that Mum was mostly unconscious. Over the next few days she sank deeper and deeper. We said our goodbyes and she died quietly, a week after that hallucinatory visit. I was content and grateful that after all the drama and pain of her dress rehearsals, the final act of her life had passed quietly and with dignity.

I had become aware of how uncertain the process of dying is. We control so much in our lives and we try to control dying, but ultimately it is the readiness of our own bodies and minds which makes possible that final, unpredictable moment of surrender. I was merely the onlooker as Mum navigated the waters of her last voyage.