Archive for February, 2009


What is particularly weird, given the fact that a good part of our state is still on fire, is that in between the awful northerlies (which in Melbourne means hot), fire bans and fear, there has not been a summer to speak of. Instead of long clear days ranging from high 20s to mid-30s (the world we used to have), it’s brief spells of brutal heat interspersed with longer stretches of dull cooler weather (today’s max is estimated at 24 centigrade). So much so that D from the Tree Project (who yesterday delivered us two new envelopes) says half of the seeds seem to think it’s already winter and therefore too late to sprout. The only constant is the drought.

Meanwhile, half of Wilson’s Promontery, the southernmost tip and one of the most gorgeous parts of mainland Australia, has been burnt in the past week. When i last checked, the fires were only about a kilometre from Tidal River, the township where we used to stay as kids in the old huts, and where I later camped with assorted friends and boyfriends and much alcoholic cider and Stones Green Ginger Wine. At night you could hear the wombats blundering around outside the tent. And once (though this may not have been the Prom, now that I think of it) some living thing dropped from the roof of the tent onto my sleeping bag where it struggled (while I screamed) before disappearing magically through the zipped shut door. An insoluble mystery. We like those.

I was thinking this morning as I lay in bed with the papers (Pete being at work) that even if we humans find a way of surviving this new climate, so many  other animals won’t. How can we justify doing so little to try and stop or at least contain this process?

On a brighter note, as i lay there, I dreamed up this great idea for umbrellas, or rather parasols, made from some sort of new solar fabric, which would charge batteries in the stem and handle, which we could later take out and use at home. Or something.


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The other night at counter tea, we looked across the road and saw a nature strip, busy with plants, and a woman with a blue wheelbarrow making her way across the road towards it. Aha, I thought, a guerrilla gardener! The next day when I had coffee with my friend Zig, she started telling me about the same nature strip. It turns out she knows the woman, who is not officially a GG, but that she and a group of locals have adopted the strip and filled it with flowers and vegetables, which they water with the grey water kindly donated by the pub we ate dinner in. I won’t say where it is, because technically it’s not meant to be there. The council apparently knows, but turns a blind eye. They’re afraid someone will drop dead or stub their toe and then sue. So this little garden lives on, thanks to the locals, and unofficially the council, on the side of a busy inner suburban road, and if you’re hungry you can wander in and pick a cabbage. But try to put something back if you can.

This week we also planted eucalyptus globulus bicostata – which sounds better as Victorian Blue Gum. More tiny piles of spice. I am getting quite good at dividing the seeds into ever smaller mounds. Now we have three boxes again. (Only four more to go…) Before we plant I ring our local tree project organiser to fess up about the disaster. I’m tripping over my words, but I can almost feel him shrug over the phone. Whatever, it is, he says, it’s been done before. We arrange for more seeds to be delivered.

Yesterday Pete planted eucalyptus obliqua seeds (below, but much much smaller in life!), which apart from growing up to 90 metres high (way too big to be hidden in a veggie patch) also turns out to have been the first eucalypt species described in 1788, having been collected from Bruny Island, Tasmania on one of Captain Cook’s Pacific expeditions.


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I wake in the early hours of the morning. Someone, a dream figure – no, Pete – is standing next to the bed, saying my name. His voice is tight. Something has happened. He sounds as if someone has died. “I’ve dropped one of the boxes of seedlings,” he says. Together we go out to the dark back yard. Outside the door is a mound of broken polystyrene, seed tubes and potting mix. I want to cry. There is nothing to do; it is done. We go back to bed. Pete had woken to the sound of rain – almost the first in two months – and remembered that the tubes needed to be under cover. The seeds were so tiny that it might only take a few fat rain drops to blast them, cartoon-like, out of the safety of their tubes In the dark, he had carried the cartons, each on its bit of worm farm, one at a time in under the awning at the back and onto a second and smaller table. As he let go of the third box, it simply crashed over the edge and onto the brick paving. Forty-eight tubes. We make our way silently back to bed. I for once have the wisdom not to share my priceless thoughts as to how Pete might have managed the situation better. Besides I could easily have done the same thing myself. We are bad parents. Bad.

Now that it is done, we lie for a while longer in heavy silence, before I ask, “Do you know which box you dropped?”.


Each of us is doing the calculation. There is a one in three chance that the box that fell was the one that housed the seeds that might have been sterile. There is the same chance that lying broken on the ground beneath a pile of potting mix and pots are our tiny green sprouts, our fragile insurance against the future.

“Don’t look,” I say. Oh coward. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”

More lying in the dark.

“I can’t bear it,” says Pete at last, and so we get up again and walk silently though the darkened house and Pete turns on the outside light, while I peer closely into the remaining two boxes. The leaves are not heart-shaped after all. They are like tiny kidneys, snuggled up in matching pairs. Back in bed we hold hands in the dark, relief pulsing between us, but for a long time neither of us can sleep. Pete is having flashbacks (the tipping; the sickening thump). When I finally doze I dream of misfortune and loss.

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Our instructor, D, has auburn hair, a remnant Canadian accent and the sort of wry humour that thrives in war zones. She passes around photos with images of deformed and dying seedlings, as she lists all the things that can go wrong. Too much sun. Too little. Ditto water. Pests that can lay waste our tiny plantations. Slugs. Snails. Caterpillars that pose as twigs, spiders that use the vein-thick branches to bind into nests. Ants. Possums (who are not cute). Diseases. Mould – “really, really, really common,” warns D.

D has seen it all before. The first year she was involved in this project, she says, the depot where volunteers picked up their seeds and then returned them five months later as seedlings was “like a sick bay”. The landholders who had collected the seeds were counting on them as windbreaks, or to hold the soil together or to suck the salt from the groundwater. One got only eight out of the 48 boxes of seedlings he was expecting.

Disease and pestilence aside, the other biggest threat to our tiny charges is ourselves. Each grower is to receive seven polystyrene boxes, into which 48 tubes will fit. Once we pick up our grower’s packs and get them home, we will need to fill each tube. Not to loose and not too tight. And then divide each packet of seed into 48 and put a few seeds into each tube. Then we have to remember to water them twice a day with a fine sprayer ($8 at Bunnings), keep them out of the heavy rain, protect them from the afternoon sun. After they germinate, we are to remove all but three of the seedlings from each pot, and then some time later, cut the two smallest off at the base with scissors, leaving just one in each container. Survival of the fittest. Except, as Dee explains, growers can be sentimental. Some can’t bear to play god, or not that sort of god; they leave three or more seedlings in each tube. “I nearly want to cry when they show up with multiple seedlings and weeds,” says D, rather sternly. I am definitely not, I decide, going to be one of those flakes.


Hectic but good. Christmas, summer holidays at the beach – eating sleeping reading swimming eating. I float around in the glow of my own goodness (Warming. What warming?) without actually having to do anything. I start back at work on Thursday January 22, and soften the blow with a two-day week followed on Saturday by a drive to an old friend’s Healesville shack and then a balmy evening sitting under the stars at a Yarra Valley winery watching the still-sexy-at-73 Leonard Cohen doing his wonderful thing.

The last week of January begins innocuously enough with another couple of days of sun and clear blue skies (except that these clear skies are now making everyone nervous) and then mid-week it hits. Three consecutive days in which the temperature tops 43, dropping only to 29 or 30 at night. It is hard to comprehend the heat. When I step outside, my body literally panics; my heart races, my breathing quickens, anxiety pulses through me. For three days I have a headache and my back throbs. For three nights the kids sleep on mattresses on John’s floor beneath the airconditioner. At home, Pete and I drag ourselves from the fridge to the shower and finally bed where we rotisserie ourselves all night in our fan-forced oven. The whole world feels ill. Terminal.

Feb 4

While I am at work Pete drives to the Kensington saleyards and returns with seven polystyrene boxes, seven bags of potting mix, seven small bags of fertiliser pellets, seven small sacks of sterilised river sand, a huge bag of plastic seedling tubes and a handful of small paper envelopes each bearing the title, botanical and popular, of a different eucalypt, along with a landholder’s name and instructions for propagation.

Seven boxes, each of which will hold 48 tubes. 7×48=345. Only another 20 and we’d have 365. A year’s worth of trees. (Although D seems to think one of the packets of seeds might not take. No one’s had any luck with them this year.)

Feb 7

Our first planting is due on or as close as possible to Saturday February 7. Pete is working so we decide to do it on Sunday. Besides the day is going to be a nightmare. The forecast is for temperatures of more than 44 degrees, with furious northerly winds. This time though I am ready. Frannie is away and Finn and I prepare as if for an air raid. I draw all the curtains and shut all the doors. We make one trip at about 11am (already the wind juddering in great walls of heat). We go to the supermarket (airconditioning on full blast – glass doors opening and closing as if nothing has changed) and buy watermelon and icy poles; then to the video shop (more air conditioning; we wander idly and come home with more dvds than we will ever watch). Then home and onto the sofa where we sit quietly for much of the afternoon. I have several cold showers and at about 4.30 drive to pick up Pete from work (more air conditioning in the car – more carbon emissions, but this is survival I think to myself, knowing nothing) and then to John’s house where Finn will stay for the night. We are childless. By the time Pete and I get home, there has been a tiny shift; the wind has wriggled around and the air is a little cooler. Thank God, I say. Let’s go out for dinner. That night, we drive to a newly opened Turkish-style restaurant where we eat imam bayildi (“The imam fainted”- an eggplant stew so fragrant and delicious that we nearly faint ourselves) and fish kebabs with pumpkin and walnut pide and sauvignon blanc. We leave relaxed and replete, congratulating ourselves on our find.

February 8

On Sunday morning we wake up and turn on the television. Armageddon has come to Victoria. Last night, at almost the time that I stepped from the house into the yard and breathed a small sigh as I felt the wind flicker and change, a massive fire front of unimaginable speed and temperature turned in its tracks and devoured the small towns of Kinglake and Marysville, and devastated many others, melted gutters and metal sheds, vaporised houses, and cooked families in their cars. The sky was on fire. The heat was so intense that sheep were exploding in their paddocks. Flaming kangaroos leapt from the bush and possums ran up the legs of fire fighters. As we sat in our lovely city restaurant enjoying our sweet lives, more than 200 people were dying or about to die. I don’t think I knew any of those who were killed, but I know people who knew people. I knew Kinglake: my first boyfriend, or the first one I lived with, lived for a short while in a mudbrick house on Wild Dog Creek Road. We listened to Mark Gillespie and Joni Mitchell (Help Me) and woke to gum trees. It was like living inside a song (admittedly West coast circa 1975) at least for a while. The house must be gone now.

I also knew St Andrews, where in my early 20s I would trek regularly to the hippy market and sip chai and dream of long-haired hippy lovers (I was always too unhippyish to actually get one). And Flowerdale, where with another partner, I would later search for a block of land, which we eventually found on the King parrot creek, and which he bought. We were going to build a house there, set back a little from the creek, perhaps overlooking the billabong. We planted trees and even camped once or twice, and then eventually separated. Flowerdale is mainly gone now too.

Anyway this is the news we wake to on Sunday, the day on which we plant our first two cartons of seeds, the day after the fires – though the fires will burn for weeks (some are still burning now) and it will be a fortnight before the death count settles at more than 200. On Black Saturday, as it is now known, the temperature in my city, Melbourne, hit 46.4 degrees centigrade, the highest on record. Meanwhile London is covered in snow.

We set up our work table, pull on our latex gloves, and in a large plastic container mix potting mix and fertilizer. Then we fill the tubes, small black plastic pots, and tap them sharply on the edge of the container to shake the soil down (D has warned against pushing it down with our fingers, which might compress the soil and prevent the roots from burrowing in) and line them up in the polystyrene container. Forty-eight tubes. Finally, we open the first packet of seeds.

My god they’re so small. I had imagined solid knobbly sorts of seeds. Instead these are so tiny you can inhale them. A pile of reddish brown pepper on a dinner plate, which I divide (pepper, not plate) with a knife into four, then eight and so on until they are arrayed in neat, suggestive lines. Then we take each tiny mound (pete between thumb and finger, me on the knife) and sprinkle them onto the prepared soil. (His technique is quicker, but I am convinced that mine is more effective; though I am too polite to mention it.) It is surprisingly peaceful. After that we finish them off with a thin layer of river gravel to help keep the soil moist and to stop the seeds drifting away on the breeze. Then we put outside on an old table, perched on perforated plastic boxes – sections of an old worm farm we have found in the garden – to allow them to ventilate.

Feb 14

It is not until now, as we start to prepare the third batch of seeds, that we realise that our seven packets of seeds are only six. Either we have lost one (unlikely, we decide, even for us) or it was never there. I ring and speak to our area co-ordinator. He sounds tired. Or resigned. He’ll follow it up. I helpfully add that we didn’t get any plant labels either or our “waterproof” pencil. He will follow that up too.

Feb 17

First sprouting. Pixels of green. I am surprised at the intensity of my response, the flush of protectiveness. They are new life. They are the future. Eucalyptus microcarpa. Leaves like tiny hearts. I anthropomorphise shamelessly.

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