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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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?

 

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.

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

Footpath Gardening. A Traffic Shield and a Memory

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This carefully planted and maintained nature strip shrubbery shields the residents of the corner apartment building from the traffic whizzing from Beaconsfield Parade into Pickles Street. I think it would help with headlight glare and be a really good psychological barrier against the barrage of traffic.

A few weeks ago, a couple of days before my hip replacement operation (just wait, there is a connection), I was rung by an admissions nurse from the hospital for some final checking. After we’d gone through that, she commented that it will be lovely for me to go walks along the beach front as part of my rehabilitation. I was surprised and said something like, “Ah, you recognise the address?”

“Yes. I was born and grew up in the house on the corner of the Beach Road and Pickles Street. I used to love living there.”

Still on the phone, I walked to our front windows.

“I’m looking at that corner right now,”I said. “How amazing”

“Yes, I used to ride my bike to Sunday School at the Anglican Church and I was a member of the Port Melbourne Lifesaving Club.The house isn’t there any more. I’d love to be back there.”

“Maybe a retirement plan,” I suggested.

We hung up, each having relished a surprising personal connection and conversation.

Her house has been replaced by a solid attractive apartment building. I had taken the photos for this Gardening on the Footpath project a few months ago. When I can walk that far again, I will visit that corner and think about that nameless nurse and her childhood house opposite the beach.

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