‘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

 

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Cows in the Garden

I was woken by the sound of heavy, snuffling breathing and trampling outside my bedroom window. Daytime was seeping around the closed venetian blinds but this didn’t sound like the milkie. I knelt up in bed and pulled down a slat of the blind. It was a cow!

‘It’s a cow!’ I yelled and raced in to mum and dad’s room. They were just getting up to look too. The trampling, breathing, munching and muffled mooing was coming in loudly through their window. My sister and brother ran in and we all piled up to see what was happening.

Our front garden was full of large brown cows steadily grazing on the buffalo grass of the lawn and occasionally leaning across to the flowers in front of the verandah.

‘The roses!’ Mum and Dad ran to the front door. ‘Get out of here!’

We all ended up on the verandah shouting and waving at the small herd of oblivious cows. I was a bit scared of these huge animals so close and hoped that they wouldn’t decide to walk up the couple of steps to join us on the verandah. Dad was braver and went down to shoo them out of the open driveway gate which is where they had entered our garden. By now, a fed up looking man had appeared to gather up his herd and take them back up to the paddock at the top of our street.

The garden and grass were chewed and churned. The paper boy had been and The Age (pre- plastic wrapping) was trampled and rather brown and green. The milk was safe in its bottles on the edge of the verandah.

‘At least we’ve got some manure,’ I said. That didn’t go down particularly well and I was sent off to get ready for school.

My story from the 1950s in Eaglehawk came to mind when thinking about development pressure on the market gardens on Melbourne’s urban fringes and seeing images of house fences butting up against a thriving market garden. If Melbourne had ever had anything resembling a green belt, as London does, that belt would be morphing into an elasticated waistband.

I began to think about boundaries, containment and separation.

Our street had ended at the top of the hill. The cemetery and scrub were to the left and paddocks to the right. The cows had wandered out from one of these paddocks for their early morning excursion. I had always liked the clear division between streets and houses and the emptiness of the bush and, except for going into Bendigo, there was always a clear point where the houses stopped and something else began. This something else offered a sort of freedom for both my body and imagination.

Our society needs to value what is different. We need to celebrate the astonishing fact that 40% of our fresh produce comes from Melbourne’s edges and encourage and develop that as part of our cultural life. We need to value our remaining pockets of natural landscape along our rivers and creeks. Children and adults need the refreshment of the transition from an urban landscape into a landscape of difference.

 

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.

My Mother’s Bread Board

 

Breadboard top

 

We have a new bread board at our house.

It’s smaller than a sheet of A4 paper. It has curved edges and a raised rectangular surface for cutting. This surface, crisscrossed by knife marks, has been worn through on the long edges to erode a hollow. A deep split carries through to the underside which is marked by the tree rings of the pine from which it has been cut. This side is even more concave.

Breadboard Growth Rings

I was holding the board as I made my initial notes and thought tenderly of its long life and the kitchens it has worked in.

I think I remember this board being present for all of my life. It was always in the kitchen of 25 Church Street, Eaglehawk, Victoria, Australia, The World, The Universe where I grew up. When clean and dry, it leant next to a larger round board tucked beside the bread bin. As a child, I remember being told to turn it over if I wanted to chop tomatoes or anything other than bread. “We don’t want the bread to smell of onions.” I think you were allowed to chop butter for pastry on the top bread side.

What a lot of meals it has been involved in! There were six of us, and sometimes seven, when Dad’s father came to live with us. We always had three vegetables, white, green and yellow, served with whatever meat it was. I now remember the vegetable knife: small, fiercely sharp and with a painted red handle. No wonder the chopping side wore thin and hollow.

When Mum, aged 86, moved bravely from her home of nearly sixty years to her unit at Donvale Retirement Village in Melbourne’s outer east, the bread board came with her. Here, they settled into a new kitchen with wide benches, a noisy fan forced oven and the wonders of a double sink. Instead of being washed up in a single sink facing a wall, now the board could be washed and rinsed and sit in a dish rack in the afternoon sun facing a gravel courtyard and a bank planted up with diosma, grevillea, westringea and agapanthus. For years, since the advent of sliced bread, it had become mostly a chopping board. However, her lunchtime sandwich would still be made on the top. Gradually the board did even less work when Mum increasingly ate bought frozen meals as her sight and energy faded.

By the time she was 92, she was getting very tired managing on her own, even with a lot of carers coming in to help, so the painful decision was made to move into supported care where she would be safe and looked after. This time, her world contracted to a single room which she furnished with her special cedar chest of drawers, her very comfortable reclining chair and some pictures.

Again, I had to clear her house. Such of a lot of it was my life too because what she had brought from Eaglehawk was a crystallization of what was important to her and most of that was very familiar to me. I found that there were items that I could quite easily put in the skip as rubbish, even though I didn’t want to think about that too much, then there were better items that were clearly suitable for the Salvation Army. Last, there were the items that swiftly brought pangs into my heart and painful tears to my eyes. The breadboard was one of these.

It lives with us now in our flat which we moved into at about much the same time as Mum moved from Eaglehawk. I like to use it, even though it rattles and wobbles on our hard benches. Its lineage stretches back to those childhood Eaglehawk days and the memories of food and eating in that big, family kitchen looking onto the grevillea bush with honeyeaters hopping around inside it.

Concave

The board has worn and hollowed, as has my mother in her increasing frailty. But it has endured, still displaying its original growth rings. My mother’s brave inner spirit lives on in her worn old body generating respect for the strength and endurance of age. This thin old chopping board reveals the work and nourishing of a lifetime.

The Diesel

I was putting the washing on the clothes horse inside our Port Melbourne flat when I heard the strong, rich, vibrant sound of a diesel train’s horn.

“I heard a diesel!”I called out and then started wondering if everyone called those trains, ‘a diesel’. It sounds a bit odd.

We used to hear that sound a lot in Eaglehawk as the train from Swan Hill passed through Eaglehawk on its way to Melbourne. It would sound its horn at every level crossing and I would hear the horn getting louder and then fading away as the train headed towards Bendigo. We lived a good few blocks away from the railway line so usually didn’t hear the train itself, except on late-summer nights.

I remember lying in bed as a child, hot and under just a sheet, and hearing a deep,deep, heavy, groaning rumble approach and then recede into the distance. The familiar horn accompanied it. I could almost imagine the ground vibrating.

These were the wheat trains, travelling slowly and by night, from the wheat towns in the North West of the State to Melbourne and the Port. I liked knowing that about the trains. I think I knew that the wheat was probably going to go on ships, to England, maybe.

As an adult I have driven through these small towns with a railway siding and huge silos and can imagine the work and activity and satisfaction of getting that crop onto the train and sent away.

I’ve always liked the sound of the diesel’s horn and have been pleased to hear in in the urban environment of Port Melbourne. Sometimes at Lagoon Oval I’ll hear it come across from the docks and it feels as if the country has come to the city.

I hope I’ll hear it from inside the flat again, while I’m putting washing on the clothes horse. It’s a far cry from hearing the horn at Eaglehawk whilst helping Mum hang up the washing on the long clothesline in the back yard. I was glad to be reminded of that.