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.

 

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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.

An Autumn Day and Oyster Shells

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Port Melbourne: 8-20 degrees and my phone shows a big yellow sun on Monday, May 18.

The dawn is pink and the tide low, leaving a scalloped shoreline from the Lagoon Pier to the Kerferd Road Pier. Smal, flat sandy islands, some of them populated by a couple of gulls on the seaward side, are connected to the beach by water-rippled and barely exposed peninsulars of sand.

The tide is just starting to turn by the time I get down to the water’s edge at mid morning. The air is still and the sea quietly moves inwards in shallow, curving ripples.The pace is slow on the beach; serious exercise is confined to the footpath beside Beach Road.

Shells crunch under my shoes and I realize that a lot of oyster shells have been washed up. They lie partially embedded in the sand with their weathered grey and buff ridged domes exposed to the sun.

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I like to turn them over to see what patterns, what paintings, have been etched into their sheltered concavities. Each one is different and each is a perfectly composed image within a rippled frame.

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I sit on the sand, not exactly warm but not too cold. The Bay is in front and the City behind. The traffic sounds quite muted today with only an occasional blare of sound from an accelerating truck. The red and white Spirit of Tasmania Ferry punctuates the Port end and St Kilda , Brighton and Sandringham curve around to the left. The water stretches to a silvery horizon.

A solitary swimmer cuts through the water, safely inside the yellow boat markers. He (I think ‘he’) has a strong, fast stroke and a steady kick. His black wetsuit has a red strip on the inside arms and the insistent, rhythmic red and black flashing of his arms gives him the look of a brightly coloured sea creature. Surprisingly quickly he has moved right past me.

Dogs bustle by, the owners look relaxed and the sand island in front of me is now covered in water. Five gulls are actively dipping their heads, flapping wings, walking and watching the water.

It’s feeding time for them and coffee time for me.

 

The Blackbird and the Hawk

10.15 am. A flutter of wings at wheel height  in front of me resolves into a blackbird. I’m driving slowly through our semi-underground carpark. The blackbird- is it the one I hear singing?- perches on the yellow metal rail above a tumble of tethered bikes. It settles its feathers and does a little jump.

The carpark is half underground and the top level to the open air is enclosed by a metal grille, too narrow for a blackbird to fly through. I hope it can eventually get out by following a car.

11.35 am. Back home and I’m vaguely looking at the sky and bustling clouds, with coffee in hand. A creamy flash of the underside of a bird banking hard against the cliff face of our apartment building jolts me alert. A hawk! I lean out over the balcony and see its brown back and wings, following the shoreline about twenty metres out to sea. Intently and repeatedly, it flaps up and then dives almost to the water’s surface, behaving more like a fishing seagull than a hawk. The bird heads into the strong Westerly towards Station Pier and the Tasmanian ferry and, in seconds, it was out of sight around the corner of our building.

This was the first time I’d seen a hawk here, so close to the water. I wonder if there is a connection between my two unusual bird sightings. Had the hawk been around earlier and frightened the blackbird into our carpark?

 

Footpath Gardens: Esplanade West, Port Melbourne

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It’s  late February now, the end of summer, and a couple of months after these pictures were taken. The tomatoes are being picked, the lemons ripening and the peppers are colouring- all this on the footpath of Esplanade West.

The gardener landed here in Port Melbourne on a migrant ship from Greece and has lived and worked in Port Melbourne ever since. He is now retired. His front garden has a trellised crop of tomatoes over two metres tall and out on the footpath is his garden extension.

I wonder if the peach tree is the one he was given by a relative and which he initially planted on the edge of the nearby Lagoon Oval. He was furious when the Council made him move it. I was there that day, walking my ancient dog, Phoebe.

At the beginning of summer, I noticed  him walking back to his house with an empty bucket. He’d been watering a further outpost of his empire, a couple of tomato plants planted in a small section of non- asphalted footpath a few houses down. Theseplants are now about a metre high,staked and bare stalked with a few ripening fruits. He nips off the leaves once the fruit starts ripening.

Further down Esplanade West, the footpath gardening is more conventional, such as a pretty border of gazanias and baby’s tears around a melaleuca. There’s a clipped hedge of native shrubs screening a front door from the street.

But nothing to equal the fruit and vegies further up the street.IMG_20141021_115453