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.

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.