TREES WHICH LIE DOWN.

The entry to the Bay Beach at Cape Paterson is through a narrow tea tree path curving across the low dune backing the beach. This last summer, we have been taking a small step up the prostrate tea tree trunk lying across the path onto the sand banked up behind it. Almost twenty years ago we just had to duck under the leaning tree. Then, later, came the stage of adults clambering over and children wriggling under the barrier presented by the trunk. A few years later it became easy to just step over and now the trunk offers this barely noticeable step up. I wonder if by next summer it will be totally under the sand blown up through the tea tree tunnel by the winter Southerlies.

This single tea tree has reminded me of the reclining tea trees in the central plantation of Beaconsfield Parade between Port Melbourne and St Kilda. These are very old and thick trunked trees, blown by the South Westerlies into a permanent position of least resistance. Their grey, twisted, hairy barked trunks insist on doing what they want and I like to see them being so unstructured in what is essentially an urban landscape of cars, trucks and footpaths and buildings. It’s a reminder that just across the road is Port Phillip Bay. A bit further on is the Rip, Bass Strait and the Southern Ocean with its fierce Westerlies. All that pent-up wildness makes its mark on those trees.

And then I think of mulberry trees and their habit of gracefully lying down as they age. My childhood garden had a mulberry tree which reclined gently towards the side fence. Its wide trunk could be walked up half way, straddled like a very make-believe horse and was difficult to mow around. There was another mulberry tree near Bendigo in the paddocks on the Melbourne side of Big Hill. We would go there for Sunday afternoon picnics with Mum’s parents. They would park on the very wide roadside reserve, drink thermos tea and chat and doze in the late summer sun, while we kids raced across the paddocks, through fences to the dark green mounding mulberry colony. The thick rough leaves hid a green glowing climbing paradise of low trunk-bridges and sloping branches; all ours and completely private.

I’m remembering the absolute contrast of the mulberry trees on the lawns of Cliveden House (involved in the notorious Profumo affair) above the Thames in England. Again, I saw a family group of very old mulberry trees, this time reclining, not in dry paddocks near Bendigo, but on close cut lawns, surrounded by ancient walls, perennial borders, formal driveways and rose gardens. The National Trust had put up signs telling visitors that the trees are very old and politely asking the public to not climb them. This sign was being completely ignored by shouting children clambering over the unexpected climbing frame.

I like the way that these trees have decided not to stay vertical but have succumbed to the need to have a good lie down.

 

HOLLYHOCKS

This summer I’ve rediscovered the hollyhock. Last year, our neighbour had a tall magnificent display of crimson hollyhocks which I could catch glimpses of through a nail hole in the back fence. They swayed and glowed against the grey of the planks. She gave me a little dried pouch of the seeds which I scattered in the soil. Obviously, they needed more attention than that, because nothing happened.

Last spring, on one of my ramblings around Bunnings garden section, I saw a punnet of hollyhocks – Dwarf Pastel. Well, I didn’t particularly want ‘dwarf’ nor ‘pastel’ but as that was the only offering, I bought them and planted them in the new flower bed up against the back fence. The seedlings sat there, not dying, and gradually filled out and it seemed that I had some hollyhock plants. But would they flower this summer?

Over the weeks and months, they spiked up, looking modestly dwarf and green.

By mid-January, flower buds had bulged against the green columns of the stalks. What colour would they be?   And then a succession of revelations! First a very pale pink, soft crinkled flower unfurled its skirt, then a creamy apricot, a crimson and last, another pale pink. Each bloom looked a bit pallid as it unfolded but gained depth after a day in the light. And so much for ‘dwarf’! Only one has remained at about a metre high. It is the one in the most sun and it has also branched out into a bushy plant with a few stalks. The ones against the side fence with less sun have grown and grown, stretching up tall and thin to have more sun on their flower heads.

I’ve loved seeing their soft pretty flowers against the green foliage and the grey weathered fence. I can see them from inside the house and also from the back deck.

They’ve brought back memories of the Eaglehawk hollyhocks. We never had any in the garden when I was a child but much later, after the almond tree had gone and Mum and Dad had put in a low curved stone wall to tidy up that bit of lawn and slope, hollyhocks appeared on the lawn side of the wall.  They were huge spires of green and pinky crimson, taller than I am. Mum would laugh at them in amazement, almost apologetic about their abundance. They just seemed to look after themselves and reappear each year. The Eaglehawk soil is rich and the sky, open and wide.

I would take seed back to Warrandyte, where we lived at the time, sprinkle it, but nothing happened. I’m not very patient with seed but now think I need to concentrate on respecting it and doing the seed germination thing properly!

Our soil is not a natural for hollyhocks. We are on the slope of an ancient dune curving through the heart of Cape Paterson and have hydrophobic sand. I’ve dug in compost, much to the delight of Mrs Blackbird, watered and mulched and it’s improving very gradually. This year I put in a soaker hose to snake through the flower bed, and that has been a great help.

It mystifies me how the hollyhock seeds itself and exists so casually in stone European streets. I see small pink spires creeping out of crevices and bursting from a tiny patch of earth between a wall and a stone pavement.

These hollyhocks have typified what a lot of gardening is for me. It’s about embodying memories and ideas of gardens past and bringing them in to the present and then the future.

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.

‘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

 

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!

Tiger Snake

 

Easter Saturday at Cape Paterson was fine and clear and Second Beach was just asking to be visited. I’d not been able to walk on anything other than footpaths for the last few months following my hip replacement in the middle of January. A whole summer had passed me by while I gradually built up my strength and flexibility.

The path to the beach stretched and wound between the banksia and tea trees. My legs and hip were able to walk on the soft uneven sand with enjoyment. The familiar dune vegetation honey smell hung in the air as I followed the path up to the top. There in the distance was the ocean, blue and bright, at the end of the stretch of green trees and bushes that the path threaded through. I was so happy to be on that soft, sandy path and even happier to reach the peak of the actual beach dune looking at the waves and water spreading to the horizon.

My family ran down the dune to the beach. I was very content to stay up there. I found a comfortable sandy slope where the sand had invaded and filled up the old viewing platform. The sand was warm under my back. Down below, the surfers quietly sat on their boards, apparently with no waves worth catching. The waves rolled in steadily and calmly, a few people walked along the beach. I watched some gulls flying towards First Beach and heard only the gentle roar of breaking waves.

I turned my head to the side. A snake, stretched half out of the low bushes, was looking at me. I saw its sloping, scaly face, low and front on. I could see its wide mouth and lips. Its tawny body was about as thick as my wrist and its stripes gleamed in the sun as if they’d been varnished.

We looked at each other for about a second. It turned its head and slid back down along its body to return sleekly to its green cover.

There I had been! On my back, only about a metre and half away from a tiger snake, low enough to have looked it in the face.

There, I was! Still there, but sitting now and looking at where the snake had been. I wasn’t frightened, more amazed and excited. It’s not often you get the chance to look at a wild snake from its level. We had each wanted to lie on the warm sand and I would have been quite happy to share the space with it if it promised to come no further. Unlikely, I know.

Usually, I’m very frightened of snakes when I come across them on a path. The speed of their quick flick away intensifies that fear of how fast and powerful their strike must be. This time, perhaps it was the quietness of the moment that made a tiger snake of about a metre in length seem interesting and not threatening.

Later, I looked up D H Lawrence’s poem, “Snake”, which I hadn’t read for years and was pleased to find…

                     ‘I felt so honoured.’

——————————————————————————————————————–This took place exactly where I took the new photo for the Cape Paterson page and on the same day.

 

A Perfect Swim at Bubby Beach

The tide was nearly full, the water calm, greeny blue and crystal clear. I waded in, up and up crept the water, cold to the top of the thighs, cold to the waist and above, no more! I pushed off, ducked my head under and rolled onto my back. The water was crisp and cooling, my scalp felt cool. I backstroked out a bit ,enveloped by the panorama of small dunes on my right, the faded green lifesaving clubhouse to the centre and the banks of tree rising to the left; banksias, teatrees, melaleucas, wattles, a whole range of greens, and finally, the rock platform and pool to my left with the boat ramp and cliffs further on.

The water was deeper and colder. The sandy bottom flickered with undulating sunny golden reflections of the tiny surface ripples. Out to sea and the open horizon, the water deepened to a rich blue in gradations from the greeny water I was floating in. I just stood and floated in the water, idly kicking and waving my arms to stay afloat.

I was immersed in water, weightless yet supported. I could taste the clean saltiness. The sky reflected the blue of the sea, the dunes were a soft gold, the marram grass a dusty grey green, just like the club house set back amongst the sand, grass and trees. The trees were a dense mass of different greens and their rounded canopies balanced the spikiness of the grasses on the opposite side of the little bay. Enclosing me on each side were the two arms of the rock platforms which made Bubby Beach bay so safe and calm to swim in.

And with a flip, I could gaze out to the indigo horizon with only water between my eyes, so low, between me and it.