The White Cliffs of Dover: Edges, Distance and War.

The White Cliffs of Dover: Edges, Distance and War.

I wasn’t prepared for the sheer whiteness of the White Cliffs of Dover. The grassy clifftop walk threads its way like sheep trails, from Dover towards the South Foreland Lighthouse. You don’t actually see the cliffs until a bit of height lays out angled scoops of white dropping vertically from the green scalloped cliff edge. I’m grabbed by the beauty of the clean, open landscape.

I walk to the edge, checking for splits in the soil under the grass, and peer over. The soil is only about a foot deep and underneath, the chalk is brilliantly white and threaded in dotted layers of flints. Straight below, the cloudy water of the Channel washes up onto grey pebbles and the dark seaweedy rock platform.

Almost the day before, I had been walking along the beach at Port Melbourne. The sand sloped gently towards the water’s edges and I crunched broken shells underfoot. It was low tide and the sand was exposed in swooping curves. The water was clear and stretched across the Bay to the low hills of Mornington Peninsula.

From the Cliff top, I looked out to sea and realised that the long, dark grey line of land across the Channel was France. Except for the tall buildings of Calais, it looked just like the Mornington Peninsula. St Margaret’s Bay, nearby, is where the Channel swimmers come ashore or push off for the twenty-two mile swim.

I felt the small island’s physical vulnerability to invasion from the European continent. It gave some insight to the whole Brexit mess.

The cliffs offer a perpetual visual reminder of the proximity of Europe and the two World Wars. They are riddled with military tunnels and backed by rows of gun emplacements. Even the air space reinforces these memories when the raspy roar of a restored Spitfire fills the sky. The small brown plane with the RAF insignia on its tail flies parallel to the cliffs, low and close. It climbs, does flips and dominates the moment.

Back at Port Melbourne, the physical traces of war are relatively gentle: the statue of the waving sailor, memories of the troop ships leaving for Europe and Africa, the band rotunda donated by women to welcome home the wounded servicemen and the small war memorial. The Mornington Peninsula is just part of Victoria across the bay, and not a threatening land mass.

I think about edges and distance. The coast is a clear line between the solidity of what we know and the shifting formlessness of a mass of water. I enjoyed the physical contrast between the clean abruptness of Dover’s cliffs compared to our quiet merging of sand and sea. Here, the tea trees are in spring flower but there, the wind contorted hawthorns were thick with autumnal berries.  I think of how distance from Europe largely insulated us from the daily reality of war. I’m grateful for the emotional impact of the military archaeology and for the memories of the beauty and power of the White Cliffs of Dover.

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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.

 

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.

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 Language of Ageing. #2

And then there are the ‘loves, darlings and sweethearts’.

We had met some friends for dinner at a restaurant and had barely settled, when we became the instant sweethearts and darlings of the young waitress.

She presented a beautifully stuffed zucchini flower.

‘There you are, darling. Enjoy!’

And later, after the main course,and after we had all been her dearest loves of the night, in a high voice with a big question mark in it, ‘Is everything alright, sweetheart?’

No! It wasn’t. I was fed up with all these endearments.

‘Look! I’m not your sweetheart or your darling. I don’t know you and you don’t know me.’

She just didn’t get it. ‘But I’m just being friendly.’

And immediately the service became very cold and rather brusque.

The Language of Ageing. #1

I started unloading my basket of shopping onto the counter at the IGA and said, ‘Hello’, to the young man behind the till.

‘How are we today?’

Fed up with having the ‘we’ thing again, actually, but…

“I’m alright, thanks. How are you?’

‘Good, thanks.’

Ping. Ping. Ping. He swiped the shopping through.

There was no one else up at the counter, so I thought I’d give it a go. He looked bright and perhaps able to get it.

‘Actually, do you realize how offensive it is to say ‘we’ like that to an older person?’ I asked with a smile.

He stopped, looked at me, blushed and exclaimed, ‘I am sorry,’ with a question mark in his voice.

‘Yep.  All my friends can’t stand being called ‘we’.

‘Um. What’s wrong with it? I didn’t even think about it.’

‘Well, it’s a bit patronizing.  It sounds as if I’m in a nursing home or something,’…  and you shouldn’t even use it there, I’m thinking, but didn’t say.  I’m staying cheerful and a bit jokey. I resist talking about ‘we’ being a plural etc.

‘Ohh yes.’

‘Actually, when you think about it, it’s pretty ageist language.’

‘Oh no! I am sorry. I didn’t mean it. Well, how will I say it then?’

‘ You could just say, ‘How are you?’ like you would to anyone. Actually, I think using the ‘we’ is a bit sexist too. I don’t think you’d say it to an older man by himself.’

‘Oh, no. It’s getting worse! I’m mortified.’

I really liked this young man. He absolutely got what I was talking about and was confident to talk about the issue.

I paid, picked up my bag and said ‘Goodbye. And thanks for listening to that.’

‘Good bye and thank you,’

Gosh that went well. Writing it sounds like a training exercise.

I see him from time to time and always enjoy responding to his knowing, ‘How are you?’