Margaret the Magpie

Margaret the Magpie’s baby is dead.

I found it on the curve of the road when I had wandered out after breakfast to see how the garden was getting on. I had been pleased to see the first agapanthus splitting open its flower pod then, out of the corner of my eye, noticed a small mound on the dirt road.  I stepped closer. It was a bird.

Up closer, I recognised it as a magpie chick. It must be Margaret’s. It was absolutely flattened, wings spread wide, head sideways and beak parted, legs and claws splayed. The grey brown down on its breast gently fluttered in the wind. There was a string of guts on the gravel, so recently burst from its body that they were still red and moist. A blow fly appeared.

Weeping quietly, I picked it up by its two wings. The blob of guts dangled. My tears burst as I carried it off the dirt road into our garden.

We had been feeding a lone, nervy, female magpie for a couple of months. She would appear on the back of the chair on the deck and stare into the room, compelling me to drop everything and feed her. She never sang.

We decided she needed a name as she seemed such a regular and recognisable visitor. ‘Margaret’ seemed to fit.

During the last few weeks we realised that she was appearing more often and taking large quantities of food. Aha! She must have some chicks in a nest. On a walk, we heard the unmistakable calling of hungry magpie chicks from a tree on the other side of the park. There was a large nest up in a tall gum and later we saw Margaret swooping up to it.

Recently, after she’d swallowed a large amount of food to regurgitate for the chicks, she’d take a few intact pellets in her beak. The record was three at once. I joked that she was putting her babies onto solids.

Last Saturday, Margaret appeared almost as soon as I’d opened the curtains, staring hard at me through the rain. She looked terrible: wet plumage blown in all directions, thin and jumpy. I was very pleased to feed her and have a quiet chat about the babies.

On Sunday morning, a calmer day, she swooped off with her full crop to a gum tree just over the road. ‘Feed me!’ squawking started up amidst a flutter of wings. Through the leaves we saw a large chick with a fluffy brown-grey breast and back. Margaret ferried food back and forth. The chick flew closer and perched on the heavy black cable between the lamp posts where it sat there comfortably, still being fed. A bit later, it flew off with its mother to land on the grass of the park. It was interesting to watch the chick walking around with its mum, learning to peck at the ground.

Over the next couple of days, it flew up to the trees in our garden, getting closer and closer. We looked forward to the day when it would land on the deck railing to be fed with its mother. Margaret started to sing small songs which seemed to coincide with the emergence of her fledgling.

It was on its fourth day out of the nest, that it was run over and killed.

Later that morning, Margaret flew up to the deck and looked at me. I offered her some food. She took a bit of time to approach but took a small quantity. She hopped back, cleaned her beak and flew off in a slow rising swoop across the park. A small song floated back across the grass.

She was eating for one again.

FOOTPATH GARDENS

FOOTPATH GARDENING.

Nature strips are in the news! (‘City of Forgotten Green Spaces’, by Adrian Marshall The Age, 21/10). My morning walk takes me past a footpath vegie garden. Recently, it’s been cleared in readiness for the summer crop and I’m guessing it will be tomatoes and capsicums again. There is a young peach tree giving light shade. The bed is covered by wilted lettuce and cabbage leaves, quietly rotting down to feed the soil. This year there is a newly built wire mesh fence around the patch.

The garden started small, a square left from a dead street tree, but over the years has crept down the footpath to make a good-sized rectangle. However, this is no nature strip garden. It is a garden embedded in an inner city asphalt footpath.

A couple of houses down is a similar bed, housing an olive and a lemon tree and more wilted lettuce and cabbage leaves. I wonder if it had been started by the same gardener. Nature strip planting is ‘contagious’ writes Adrian Marshall. All down the street, residents have freestyled with planting in the precious soil surrounding their street trees. There is a flourishing fig tree and more peach or almond trees. One house has also expanded its square into a rectangle and is growing indigenous coastal plants. Others have opted for daisy bushes, gazanias and hebes.

Around the corner in a street full of traffic and parked cars is a low fenced garden of petunias with its tree bearing a sign, ‘Welcome to my Garden’.

The kindergarten, with its pepper tree and chooks, has built raised timber beds of herbs and green vegetables outside its entrance.

On the other side of the block is a group of fenced gardens under their trees, filled with an abundant mix of Californian Poppies, artichokes, herbs and even an echium. Again, maybe one house inspired its neighbours. In the same street is a bed of roses and petunias. The gardens sit safely in the footpaths, the low fences there just as protection against dogs.

The plants emerging from the hard paving give a break from grey asphalt and parked cars. There is an individuality and quirkiness to them which is enlivening and refreshing. On a walk to the shops or the bank, I see them change with the seasons and enjoy a new planting. I’m interested that they seem safe from possums.

I’m reminded of the childhood guessing game, ‘Animal, Mineral or Vegetable’, where the entire world is divided into these three components. I realize that my city apartment living comprises mainly the Mineral views, and that I need these walks to replenish the Vegetable and Animal elements in my life.

The appropriation of the footpath for gardens is encouraged by the City of Port Phillip. The Council is aware of the positive community benefits arising from this engagement with the local environment where residents can personalise their urban space. Its website provides advice such as the siting of your nature strip garden bed, basic gardening tips and even suggestions of suitable plant species.

I’m grateful to my neighbours who provide these gardens and appreciative of our Council which has such far sightedness about urban nature.

Liz Low

Author of ‘Eaglehawk Girl. A Free Range Child’.

MAN, DOG AND MAGPIE

MAN, DOG AND MAGPIE.

I was heading towards the shops for milk and bread and saw an old brown cattle dog on the nature strip. His white face was down, sniffing the scruffy grass, his hind legs splayed. He decided to take a step forward but his back legs gave way and he lurched to the side. As I grew nearer, he looked at me.

‘Hello’, I said. ‘You’re an old boy, aren’t you?’

His owner, an old boy himself, smiled.

‘Yes, he’s got muscle wastage in his hindquarters.’

‘Yes, I can see that.’ Indeed, his hips were hollow.

The dog continued to sniff and take small staggers across the dried-up grass. He dropped and did a shakey, slow, yellow pee. There was no strength to lift his leg.

‘How old is he?’

‘Oh, he’s seventeen and four months.’

‘That’s a good age. My dog was fourteen and ten months when she died.’

‘Yes, we used to walk fifty kilometres a week when he was younger. Now, it’s just out here in front.’

‘That would have kept you both fit.’

‘Yes, I just bring him out when he wants to now.  You know, I’ve had to adjust his feeds because he can’t stand at his bowl long enough for a full feed. So I give him three meals a day. He has chicken and rice in the morning, beef and rice for lunch and then for dinner I give him warm chicken pieces. He just loves those. You should just see him chase them around his bowl.’

We stand and smile at the love given to the dog.

‘Oh, hello you,’ he looks across to a magpie walking on the grass near the dog. ‘Come on then.’

The maggie swoops low past us and lands on the black iron railings of the single fronted cottage we’re standing near.

I turn to continue on my way to the shops and he and his dog head towards the open gate.

The magpie looks directly at me and sings a quiet, reflective song. My soul soaks up the gift of the liquid notes.

‘Oh, how beautiful. Thank you, maggie.’

‘Yes, I feed him too. He comes to see me. And the wattlebird.’

I’d noticed the wattlebird fussing around on the guttering above our heads. I’m familiar with wattlebirds bothering magpies and say so.

‘Yes, I throw a bit of food up to him too.’

‘What do you feed them.’

‘Oh, minced steak.  I go through a couple of hundred grams a week.’

The bird continued to look directly at me, now just over a metre away, and opened its beak to release a different beautiful song which floated up over the parked cars and through the early spring leaves of the plane trees. I gazed in gratitude at its crisp plumage and powerful beak.

‘Well, I’d better get on,’ I say to the man.

‘Yes’, he replies, heading into his front door after the dog, which had finally made it up the front step. In the sunlight at the end of a long hallway, washing was draped on a clothes horse. A large dog bed almost filled the width of the hall.

‘Yes, now my days are spent looking after the dog and the birds.’

‘Well, you could do worse than that. Bye.’

I walked on, thinking, ‘Where did that cliché come from? I’m becoming jolly and elderly!’

But then, I realised that the simple words offered a profound truth about the comfort of animals, the happiness generated by loving something and the potential loneliness of old age. The best thing was, it said all of that but wasn’t sentimental or intrusive. Maybe there’s a place for clichés after all.

Post Script. 10.12.18

Albert has died.

I learnt today, passing the house again, that the dog was called Albert and that he had died. The man was at his gate at his gate talking to a woman with a pram and I heard fragments of a conversation which had to be about the death of a dog. I stopped, excused myself for interrupting and asked the question.

Yes, he had died. The man still feels terrible. Albert died on Oct 17. He had called the vet as there was no doubt that his dog was fading.

This was three days before his own birthday on 20th. That day was the worst day of his life.

The local traders brought him flowers and still ask after him.

Now, the front room, Albert’s room, is a shrine. Albert’s ashes are in there and all his photos of Albert are around the room.

We agreed that losing a dog sometimes seems harder to bear than losing a person.

 

Man and Dog

 

Fontaine de Vaucluse. France.

We walk down the path after looking at the deep pool at the base of a towering limestone cliff. It’s the source of the Sorgue River which now rushes clear and green beside us. The plane trees branching across the path are in fresh leaf.

Music rises abruptly above the sound of rushing water and voices of the other visitors. It’s the mechanical sound of a street organ. We turn the corner and there is a colourful, decorated box standing next to a tall vigorous man wearing scarves and a matching bright waistcoat. He takes a breath and out rings his voice. His song is loud and clear and lively.

Then I see his strong, lean dog. His short black coat is a bit ruffled and uneven as if he hasn’t finished losing his winter fur. The dog stands diagonally to his master looking up the path towards us. There is something about his stance that suggests embarrassment. I could imagine a thought bubble above him.

‘Oh,no! He’s doing this singing thing again’.

WHAT IS IT ABOUT HOSPITALS?

 

We leant on the windowsill checking out the silver birches. Yesterday, the one on the left had some bright green leaves in the middle of the tree and the one on the right had no leaves at all. Today the left hand one was a haze of green and the other now also had patches of life. The leaves themselves were crisply defined in the morning sun.

But what was also interesting was the tree felling in the little park opposite. I’m used to seeing window cleaners abseiling down our building with buckets and sponge mops attached to their harnesses, but here the man attached to the tree had a chainsaw hanging from his belt. Gradually, he worked his way down the tree, lopping branches as he went, then sections of the trunk until the tree was a small stump and he was standing as he cut it down to ground level.

‘Well, shall we go for our walk?’ I asked Lyn.

“Yes. Let’s do it.’

We left the room for the first time since arriving, me in my hospital dressing gown and Jan in her own. She was small and the one-size-fits-all was far too long for her. I liked mine. It was a heavy pale blue striped cotton and fitted me well. We were each still in our surgical white stockings, me in my Birkies and Jan in her slippers.

‘Bye!’ we called to nurses behind the desk opposite our door.

So off we headed, exploring the labyrinth of our floor at the Cabrini. It turned out to be a long loop of a corridor with patients on the outside and admin rooms in the core of the building. We chatted away. She was an 82 year old retired nurse and good company. By the time we had solved the administrative and nursing problems of the hospital and done a quick run down of this that and the other, we were back at our room, ready to hop into bed for a little rest before lunch.

We had each had our surgeries done the previous afternoon and during the evening chatted to each other from our opposite beds and brewed up a plan that we were not ready to go home the next morning as expected. I didn’t feel that my pain management was sorted out enough and she didn’t feel ready to go home by herself. Besides, I felt that I wanted a rest. I wanted to be brought my meals, have a bit of a chat with Lyn who I liked, and have a read and just catch up with myself.

So that morning when the surgeon arrived, I explained that although I knew he thought I was ready to go home, I wanted to stay in another day. He was a bit surprised but was ok with that. I had heard Jan having the same conversation with her surgeon who had arrived even earlier than mine. We were set for the day.

I know that people usually like to get out of hospital as soon as they can but I have a strange attachment to them

I had been happy to get dropped off at Entrance B and go through Door H to DOSA  (Day of Surgical Admission) on the First Floor by myself. There was a check in desk right in front of the lift doors. A cheerful young man had all my details ready. I felt the relief you have at the airport when they find your name on their computers and start checking you in. I sat and waited for a few minutes before being taken to a cubicle with a pile of instructions about stripping, dressing gowns, clothes in bag, special underpants and socks, and everything to be put in a locker except for reading classes and to wait, ‘Over there’. OK.

And there I was, waiting with a few others, all stripped bare except for our regulation underpants and bright orange socks, the ubiquitous dressing gown and in my case holding my reading glasses in their turquoise case. I was very pleased with their locker system because sometimes all your stuff is just in a great big paper bag underneath your bed, which doesn’t feel very secure.

From then on, I was swept through the system: my specs put into a bigger clear plastic box that went with me under the bed, into the operating theatre, then recovery, until finally I was wheeled along the corridors to a four bedded room. I discovered later that my belongings had been moved to a locker in this room, waiting for me. I was about to be decanted into a bed back from the window but saw an empty bed next to the window.

‘Is there any chance that I could have that window bed, please? I’d love to be by the window.’

‘Why not,’ they decided and there I was, in a bed by the window, looking at the evening sky and a bare branched silver birch. Eventually some soup and sandwiches came, as did Jan in the place opposite.

I read a bit, listened to the ABC Classics on my phone and felt quite pleased with my room and companion.

What is it about hospitals?

Usually I have a feeling of relief at finally getting there so that my problem can be solved, whether it’s delivering a baby, or perhaps relieving the months of pain and restrictions by getting a new hip joint.

I trust doctors to do the right thing.

I don’t mind some pain as part of the process of getting my body working again.

I like being part of a huge system which is dedicated to me and which ever part of the body needs attention this time. I like the way that everyone works together with one goal in mind. It reminds me of what I liked about working in a school. That we were all there to make each child feel good and learn.

Mum tells me that Dad used to take me on his hospital rounds at the weekend when I was a baby. I could imagine how exciting it would have been for the patients to have a baby carried into the ward. Maybe I just want all that attention again!

Old Mulberry Trees

Our mulberry tree at Eaglehawk reclined in the side garden outside the bathroom window and while Mum was plaiting my hair, I would look out and plan my climb. Its trunk made a ramp just right for small children to clamber up to where it forked. Here, we could perch like a koala or scramble out onto a branch. The tree had a child capacity of about five.

The best time of the year was when the nubbly hard green fruit had finally ripened into clusters of soft, black, gleaming berries. We would swarm into the tree, tuck into a snug spot, reach out and pick a little handful of fruit. The sweet juice oozed all over us: on our hands, down our chins, onto our shirts and legs. We loved our purple lips and teeth.

The leaves were large and a bit rough on our bare skin. We knew that silkworms ate mulberry tree leaves because Les, the big boy from the house at the back, had silk worms and Mum would give him leaves. Once I took in some leaves for him and we had an embarrassing conversation about what the black specks at the bottom of his silkworm box were. It turned out that they were silkworm poo but Les found it hard to say the ‘poo’ word to a small girl. This was the early 1950s.  As an adult, I’ve learnt that silkworms prefer the leaves of the white mulberry.  Nevertheless, Les managed to get silk thread from his worms and wound it around a little metal spool. I wonder what he did with it.

I remember Mum and Dad being worried about damage to the mulberry’s roots when we put in a septic tank and again, later, when a deep sewage trench was excavated right through the length of our garden. The trench was about two metres deep, straight down through the orange clay. Each time the tree survived.  My youngest sister, the last child at home, remembers sitting in the tree eating a sandwich on a plate which Mum brought to her.

A few years ago, in the gardens of Clivedon House, near Windsor in the UK, I came across a grove of mulberry trees lying down and taking it easy as if they were having a picnic.  Branches crowned in rounded clumps of dark green leaves rose from the horizontal trunks sprawling on the green English lawns. Inside the colony, it felt like being in a small forest or a tree cave and despite signs forbidding climbing, children did just that. The trees were irresistible.

Over the years our Eaglehawk tree sank lower and lower and leant harder and harder onto the neighbour’s fence. It was maturing within the luxuriant garden which surrounded the entire house.

When Mum finally sold the house to come to a retirement village in Melbourne, she had been with the mulberry tree and our house for fifty-nine years. By then, the tree would have been about one hundred years old.

When I was up in Bendigo about a year later, I went out to Eaglehawk to have a look at our old house.

We drove around the corner and there it was, isolated in a sea of asphalt and concrete.  The new owners had razed the entire garden: roses, mature deciduous trees, a jacaranda, shrubs, lawns and the fruit trees which had lined the back and side fences. With them went the mulberry tree.

Something in me died.

Ten years later, I returned. The house now had a small formal garden which was starting to soften the edges. I walked up the straight front path, stepped up onto the verandah and knocked on the front door. I heard the familiar sound of footsteps walking up the hall. I introduced myself.

‘Oh, Hello. How lovely to meet you. We often think about your family in here.’

And then: ‘Would you like to come in and have a look?’

I couldn’t believe it, of course I would.

These owners had bought from the original renovator and loved the house. They welcomed me as part of the history of the house and were interested in what the house and garden had been like when our family had grown up in it. The mulberry tree came into the conversation.

They are now going to plant a new mulberry tree in memory of the old garden and our family.

‘Eaglehawk Girl. A Freerange Child’ is launched.

‘Eaglehawk Girl’ is a memoir of my free range childhood in Eaglehawk, Victoria, Australia in the 1950s.

Brolga Publishing and I launched it on Wednesday, October 24.

It’s available from Australian bookshops, Booktopia and will be available on US Amazon in a few weeks.

The content fits into Eaglehawk Childhood here on the blog.

Happy reading.

The book is googlable under the title.

For some reason the image of the cover is lying down. Sorry.

Liz Low