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’.

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.