The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Under Granite Skies of the Australian Bush
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”
John Burroughs (1837 – 1921)
Naturalist and Essayist
On another getaway weekend, my partner Harry and I head north out of Melbourne. We wind down our car windows and breathe in the crisp scent of gums and tea tree as we travel a little slower on the gravel road that leads to our cabin in the bush. For the past two hours we have hummed down the bitumen highway between Melbourne and Sydney, leaving behind the static energy and growing expanse of metropolitan Melbourne. On reaching a rustic country school and making a right turn, Harry and I smile silently at one another, his eyes bright with anticipation. Our Labrador, Nev, begins to stir on the floor by my feet – he recognises the approaching scent of paradise too! The road narrows and twists, ruts become larger, the ride bumpier. Harry looks for signs of change, for fallen trees, for dead wombats or spiny echidnas on the dirt road. Dusk is the most dangerous time to be driving along these quiet bush tracks as shy black wallabies come out to graze on tender wild shoots by the roadside. We did accidentally hit a young Western Grey kangaroo once. To our astonishment, after a few stunned moments, the creature lifted himself off the road with his weapon of a tail and bounced gracefully over a wire fence to join the mob of wallabies grazing in the paddock.
This land has suffered many years of drought, horrific bush fires, with rivers and creeks drying up, water tables retreating further into the earth, native trees brittle and brown from the absence of moisture. Forest floors so dry that every human step pulverises the fallen branches into piles of crunchy bark, creating a haven for termites and other industrious insects. But two years ago, with the turning tide of La Niña, the drought broke in most parts of Australia, and for a time, nature’s regrowth produced shoots and branches, flowing rivers and creeks, and the hibernating insects and wildflowers awoke in a thirsty landscape now drenched by the welcomed rains.
A cattle gate bars the road leading to our cabin. Nev sits expectantly as I get out of the car to unclip the chain, my boots crunching on loose gravel. It takes only this moment of arrival to shift time backwards in our minds to the last time we were here. I launch a shrill whinny to let the wild horses know we have arrived. The chestnut mare echoes back a distant whinny as three broad shapes clop towards the car. The draft horse known as ‘Little’ is a friendly hunk of a beast, who pokes his whiskered nostrils inside the window to check our hands for treats, the odour of warm horse flesh is strong on the afternoon breeze. Harry continues his search for any signs of human intrusion or damage from fallen trees as we bump slowly along the dusty track. Past the two dams, wild overhanging branches of the wattles scrape along the side of our car, frightening King parrots and Gang-Gang cockatoos from the branches of towering blue gums. The flowering blackwoods fill the air with a vague scent of bush honey. Nestled firmly on emerald green branches, grow prolific clusters of creamy-yellow pom- pom flowers (I have studied them with a magnifying glass when describing them for my garden journal).
Harry makes a mental note of the overgrown wattles encroaching on the track, plotting to remove them with his chain saw if he gets time on this trip. I throw my partner a smile – we come with so many grand ideas to do this and do that, but often end up sitting on the wooden veranda doing absolutely nothing, or listen to audio books while sipping champagne or play guitar and sing by a bonfire of burning logs. As we bump to a halt by the woodshed, the slow whirring down sound of the engine opens our city-ears to a torrent of silence. Bright saffron rays splinter the light through the forest of peppermint gums behind our cabin, and we call a happy ‘coo-ee’ to the native brush-tail possums and grunting koalas in residence.
I am not by nature, an early riser – but there is a mystical air that ascends with the shifting movement as night breaks into day. I steal a few precious moments while Harry sleeps to witness the sunrise alone. Creeping out of the warm cabin with a mug of hot tea, I make myself comfortable on the rough wooden veranda beside a curled up Nev. Snug in woollen socks and fluffy dressing gown, I pat my canine companion as the bush comes alive all around us. It amazes me how nature carries my thoughts away into a space of dreamy nothingness – the chatter of a monkey-mind muted by every other sense perking up to catch the sounds of creatures stirring, the scent of flowers opening. As a soft light lifts from the frosty ground, an unmistakeable hierarchy of bird calls ushers in the new day. Kookaburras from gumtree to gumtree, chasing each other along the dense forest of old eucalypts.
Nev stirs and a soft breeze tickles my skin. An intense perfume from wisteria flowers soon arouses masses of native bees, who buzz with euphoric anticipation, courting kisses with the fair lilac-maiden a few feet away. Sitting quietly, my mind asks a question: how can the simplest of things bring the deepest sense of happiness? Like sensing the patience of Nature in her ever-changing moods as we blend with her cycles, by day and by night. On some occasions, I have been known to weed under a full moon, my hands straying over the different textures of foliage feeling for the weeds among the vulnerable vegetable seedlings we try to grow in an enclosed garden: being with ‘country’ is pure joy!
The original custodians of this arid land honoured her many moods and respected her natural cycles. The Australian Aborigines were a nomadic people of hunter gatherers living in harmony with the changing seasons: with the sky as a roof, the earth as a bed. Their history dates back at least forty thousand years before white settlement in 1788. and there existed three hundred different languages spoken upon this vast continent. Aboriginal tradition is built upon the mystical stories known as the Dreamtime. These myths from ancient times are still regarded as a record of Aboriginal truths. Elders of the tribe not only upheld their traditions but passed on their wisdom and their knowledge of prolific bush tucker in the form of herbs, fruits, insects, reptiles, fish and native animals.
The love within our hearts for this haven never dwindles, discovering with childlike abandon nature’s little wonders. The calendar of time is viewed through our senses and what I lack in seeing, Harry, often affectionately referred to as ‘professor google’, can usually recall fascinating data about life, the universe and everything (except on the topics of child birth and aromatherapy!). He has watched and observed this small patch of ground intimately for over twenty years. Friends who come for short visits cannot escape Harry’s infectious enthusiasm that invariably initiates them into another world less visited. Everything from how to catch elusive yabbies in the dam, where to find rare orchids and Alpine grass flowers, how to distinguish a kangaroo path from a track leading to nowhere, how to read animal tracks and recognise their burrows, learning the symbiotic relationship between lichens and the environment, understanding the stars in the night sky and knowing the interstellar dust by name. And, if ever one should be so unfortunate, to know what one must do to survive a venomous snake bite!
During late spring, when the Eastern Brown and Tiger snakes come out from winter hibernation to find a mate and warm their cold skins in the full sun, we must tread firm and loud – for they are deaf creatures and only feel our presence by vibrations on the ground. A lot of palaver is heard as we stomp the course to the stream where we kick off our rugged boots to dip hot feet in the running water. I do not venture into these regions alone but am still ever mindful the native snakes may also be inhabiting our fruit garden, so I move with care, listening for a slithering sound on warm grass, or intuit their presence by a log or perfect hiding place. So it is with some reservation that I agree to walk to the stream with Harry in the snake-optimum months: as if dodging native bees, biting mosquitoes, jumping fire-ants and active spiders were not enough to dampen his trekking spirit, we walk an easy kilometre to the creek, not parting grip from Harry’s hand, as I trot close to his side like a shy and uneasy colt.
What we treasure most is how the ordinary is the extraordinary. Life by the creek bed is astounding, where my fear is replaced with reverence for the miniature world busy surviving the rigors of a changing environment. If we are really lucky, and tread lightly, we may find a rare orchid known as Austral Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes australis) springing up in marshy patches beside the creek bed. The flowers burst forth during the summer months, and what is so stunning about this orchid is its bright pink flowers edged with a white frilly lip that wind around in a perfect spiral from a single stem. Harry captures the image on macro-setting on a camera so I can admire her beauty up close. We pick our way over fallen branches, heading a little downstream to the watering hole where a carpet of lichens cover granite boulders of all sizes. Like a spongy soft towel inviting us to lie down, the sound of water playing over rocks stills our conversation. The moment is filled with listening to the heartbeat of the bush. I tease away a small patch of fibres of the lichen clinging to the rough surface, fascinated to feel its mossy structure. Lichens do not require a food source other than light, air and minerals it catches from showers of rain. Lichen contains a unique acid that eats away at the rock surface so that in time, the huge granite boulder eventually disintegrates and turns into more soil for the forest floor.
We dip our feet into the cool stream. The water carries a brownish oil slick – the sap from surrounding tea-trees. This is where my knowledge based on Aromatherapy practice informs encyclopedic professor-google about the healing properties of this remarkable oil. The indigenous Bundjalung people of eastern Australia used various parts of the tea-tree plant in traditional medicine. The crushed leaves produce oil that we use today as an inhalation for coughs and colds (but must not be used internally). This highly pungent oil is not only a handy antiseptic way out here in remote country, but carries healing properties within tiny molecules that work as an antibacterial and antifungal oil. The bubbles frothing naturally by our feet enliven our spirits – refreshed and invigorated, we leave the creek bed and pick our way slowly back to the cabin through the forest of dry woods and wattles, dense bracken and tall native grasses.
“The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it,
can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.”
Back in the enclosed garden, Harry and I tend to our small collection of fruit trees, vines and berries. Weeds grow like giant shrubs in our absence and one of my tenacious practices is trying to keep the vegetable patch free from these equally stubborn plant intruders. Then there is my repellent garden song, sung in the key of ‘F’ accompanying a new planting of seeds, that a harvest of some sort will be left intact after the possums, wombats, wallabees and bird life have feasted on their share in our absence. With each visit, I dart around the garden, brush away the soil with impatient fingers, and if any vegetables have remained on the vines, Harry and I sing ‘Hallelujah’ and celebrate with much rejoicing – and bottle the fruit or make sweet preserves before the wild life discover our windfall!
A decent supply of hot water is as valuable as gold out here beyond the black stump. A pot of hot water can be the result of years of planning and mutual management. A day to collect and chainsaw fallen logs into the right size pieces that fit the fire box inside the cabin. Another day to stack and store the wood off the damp ground to keep it dry through the very wet winter months. A year’s firewood has to be stored in advance so there is always good burning fuel in store. Then once the wood has cured and dried, dozens of trips to and fro the wood shed to cabin are stepped out, bringing bags loaded with blue gum chunks into the cabin to burn in the Jotul stove. Water can now be brought to the boil, which can take an hour, and only now is hot water produced for washing the dishes, or if we are feeling smug about our stack of dry wood, I can indulge in washing my hair! On special occasions, we light the wood fire underneath the outdoor bath tub and sit sipping champagne, watching the stars decked out in all their glory. Harry describes the Milky Way from the Pleiades to the Coal Sack in great detail as I also have night blindness and am lucky to see the flames of the wood rising higher under the bath. As the night progresses, the water gets hotter, charging our cheeks with colour!
I hear Harry moving about the cabin, preparing a delicious pot of percolated coffee. Nev smells something delicious too and springs off the veranda, his brown eyes alight, his tail wagging. My ‘dreamtime’ is interrupted by the stirrings of my companions and I move from the veranda, now drenched with sunshine to scratch around with happy hands and plant another seed, another bulb, a hopeful fruit pip: and as the seasons come and go, we too return like boomerangs to the beauty under granite skies of the Australian bush.
© Maribel Steel 2012
Photographs: © Harry Williamson & Jenny Morse 2012
An extract of a poem by
Henry Kendall (1839 – 1882)
“October, the maiden of bright yellow tresses,
Loiters for love in these cool wildernesses;
Loiters, knee-deep, in the grasses, to listen,
Where dripping rocks gleam and the leafy pools glisten:
Then is the time when the water-moons splendid
Break with their gold, and are scattered or blended
Over the creeks, till the woodlands have warning
Of songs of the bell-bird and wings of the Morning.
Welcome as waters unkissed by the summers
Are the voices of bell-birds to thirsty far-comers.
When fiery December sets foot in the forest,
And the need of the wayfarer presses the sorest,
Pent in the ridges for ever and ever
The bell-birds direct him to spring and to river,
With ring and with ripple, like runnels whose torrents
Are toned by the pebbles and leaves in the currents.
Often I sit, looking back to a childhood,
Mixt with the sights and the sounds of the wildwood,
Longing for power and the sweetness to fashion,
Lyrics with beats like the heart-beats of Passion;—
Songs interwoven of lights and of laughters
Borrowed from bell-birds in far forest-rafters;
So I might keep in the city and alleys
The beauty and strength of the deep mountain valleys,
Charming to slumber the pain of my losses
With glimpses of creeks and a vision of mosses.”
Maribel Steel Bio
Maribel is a writer, blogger, speaker, mother and vocalist. She lives in Melbourne, Australia with her partner Harry, and teenage son, Mike. At the age of fifteen, Maribel was diagnosed with an incurable eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) but it is the journey towards blindness she is grateful for, learning to trust her other senses: to hear, to touch, to smell, to intuit, to love and to laugh.
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