Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Christmas greetings and a temporary farewell

I wish all of you a wonderful Christmas and a 2008 full of excitement and satisfaction.

I am deep in family activities and all the joy that children bring to Christmas. Putting up Christmas decorations with sweat dripping; baking goodies in the cool of evening; trying to find that last-minute perfect gift online with every cicada and frog in town a-courting outside the window; psychologically preparing myself for the extended family gathering; walks to observe the amazing phenomenon of water in our dam; a small child standing in wonder looking at a new bike that can’t be ridden until Christmas; debates over suitable desserts for the day (there is something to be said for traditions and I bet few families have to debate over what can be made that will survive a two hour drive in the heat) – these are the things of which a sub-tropical Christmas are made.

I’ll be back in the new year, hopefully brimming with ideas and things to share with you.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Coming up the river

The Brisbane River is a Limpopo of a river: not in terms of length but in its grey-green, greasiness. Since Wivenhoe Dam was built in the 1970s, it is a sluggish, muddy river meandering its tidal way from the Brisbane Valley to Moreton Bay. Apparently until the 1930s it was noted for the clarity of its water with visibility of up to 5 metres. Now, visibility of approximately 20 centimetres is normal. In real life this means is that all you see is the muddy surface creased occasionally by white waves guarded by riverbanks punctuated by the occasional private and public jetty.

Like many waterways, the Brisbane River was a natural highway for inland exploration. At the time of the explorers, Cunningham and John Oxley the river was fringed by a variety of open grasslands, rain and other forests. In 1823 Oxley explored eighty kilometres inland and his reports directly led to the foundation of a penal settlement on the river.

Yesterday evening I travelled upstream by RiverCat ferry from the city to St. Lucia. A damp wind mingled with raindrops blew in my face and my mind was on those early settlers. I thought about them travelling upstream by steamer, watching the forests and grassland passing by and wondering about their future. My view was of freeways, galleries, museums, commerce and expensive housing disappearing in the wake of the rapidly moving catamaran. Wandering around the CBD in the drizzle, I saw a building built in 1860 and thought that the Jaeckels would have seen that as they were waiting for their steamer to take them to Ipswich. For one moment, a family of migrants standing with all their possessions waiting on a riverbank was more real to me than the Christmas crowds, lights and bustle.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Climate shock

It is the last day of school before the summer break. The sky is intensely blue and the clouds frilled spotless white. The sounds of cicadas, birds and in the evenings, the frogs are deafening. Driving down our road is like being in a rustling green and cream tunnel of shadows. The grass is head high and all you can see as you drive is the road, the walls of green and the sky.

The local council spent days over the last week scraping, regrading and resurfacing our road -- dumping loads of dirt, wetting it all down and rolling it into submission. Twice during the process, their careful work washed out in the rainstorms. Wednesday evening we drove to presentation night with twin streams rushing down either side of us and spreading into pools on the flats. I wore my work boots in case we bogged down somewhere. Water was across the road coming home.

Our driveway requires careful navigation in first gear and a steady nerve to ascend. There is water in dams that I never knew existed. Secret bends and pools of water have appeared in Black Snake Creek.

Our tanks are full of water for the first time in years. 59,000 litres of water mean that we can wash our cars or even the windows if we are so inclined. The grass and trees are growing as we watch. Mushrooms are coming up on our lawn. And the air, the air is damp and smells of growing things. Breathing it and moving through it is enervating.

My partner brought to my attention King O’Malley’s 1903 speech pleading for consideration of Bombala as the location for Australia’s new capital. O'Malley argued passionately that the “history of the world shows that cold climates have produced the greatest geniuses…wherever a hot climate prevails, the country is revolutionary. Take the sons of some of the greatest men in the world, and put them into a hot climate like Tumut or Albury, and in three generations their lineal descendants will degenerate…I want to have a climate where men can hope. We cannot have hope in hot countries.”

Sleepwalking through the humidity I understand his argument, but oh the luxury of water and the joy of a living land.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Much to do about nothing

My week:

Extended family birthday lunch;
A small professional disappointment;
Swimming carnival;
Parent-teacher conference;
Speech night;
School break-up day;
Christmas carol service;
One birthday cake, one lamb roast, eight dozen cookies, two culinary disasters, ten packed lunches, normal number of regular meals;
Research and writing - zilch;
Thoughts of running away to untraceable location with in-house catering, housekeeping, broadband access and beach - innumerable.

And did I mention that my mother is visiting for a week?

Monday, 10 December 2007

Stamping the past

Many people forget that the country that we know as Australia only came into existence in 1901. Prior to this, six colonies had been established. Sometimes this was done by establishing new colonies and sometimes by carving up larger colonies. This is why the Jaeckels migrated to the colony of Queensland and not to Australia. Each of the colonies competed for migrants and many colonies had their own agents in Germany.

The rough timeline for establishment of colonies is as follows:

New South Wales, 1788
Van Dieman’s Land, 1825 (becomes Tasmania in 1855)
Western Australia, 1829
South Australia, 1836
Port Phillip separated from NSW and renamed Victoria, 1850
Queensland separates from NSW, 1855.

I always find it confusing because every colonial act has several dates: British parliamentary creation of the colony, letters of patent establishing the colony, proclamation of government (all this happening in Britain) and then things actually happening in the colonies. For a great site with digital versions of many historical documents visit Documenting a Democracy.

On the weekend I saw some Queensland stamps and was curious as to when they would have been used. According to Australia Post, the first stamps in the continent of Australia were issued by New South Wales on 1 January 1850 although embossed letter sheets had been used since 1838. The earliest Queensland stamps are dated around 1860. I assumed the stamps I saw would pre-date the Federation in 1901 but have found that this is not necessarily the case. After Federation, states continued to use colonial stamps until about 1913. It wasn’t until 1911 that postal rates across Australia became uniform. On 2 January 1913 a red one penny stamp bearing a kangaroo and map became the first stamp to bear the name Australia. I was fascinated to read too that the last definitive stamp bearing the monarch’s head appeared in 1971. Since then, there has been a stamp issued each year to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s birthday, but stamps have carried a wide range of other images.

Friday, 7 December 2007

The things we do for love

One way of making the strange feel less so is surrounding oneself with something familiar. People who move a lot often have things that they take with them so that each new place has something familiar about it. When I was a child my mother always made sure that we had our special toys, favourite books and framed photos wherever we were. I remember having one of those wallet photo frames with a photograph of my parents on one side and our whole family on the other and my precious Holly Hobby doll who accompanied me long after her fabric started wearing out. My mother also used to write us letters every week without fail – long tales of what she and Dad had been doing, illustrated with her quirky drawings of plants and animals. At one point our family of five were in four different countries and she used to incorporate news from all of us into her letters so that we were connected across the miles.

My mother-in-law has always loved roses and I think that they serve a similar function of familiarity and reassurance for her, reminding her of the long, fertile, green summers of southern Germany. I don’t think I realised how much she missed the colour and lushness of Germany until we visited many years ago. We were living in Minnesota at the time and it was really just a hop across to Europe compared to the long haul from Australia. I didn’t know much about gardening or plants then and I was amazed at the colour that spilled from the window boxes of every house, the front gardens bursting with bloom and the graveyards that looked like arboretums (or is that arboreta?).

Every house that my mother-in-law has lived in since she came to Australia, she has planted flowers and especially roses. A few winters ago, she dug up all her favourites and delivered them to us. I too love roses but my acquaintance has been of the appreciation-of bouquets-and-other-people’s-gardens kind. And I have discovered something – that it is very hard to grow roses and hold fast to ideals of locally appropriate planting and organic gardening.

Every insect and other pest in the area sees the roses as an exotic buffet offered for their personal delectation. The first few years, the battle was with mealy bug. Companion planting of garlic seemed to fix that problem. The grasshoppers though appear to be winning their battle and rose beetles show up regularly to pillage. Now with the rain, black spot is making inroads. Yesterday I tried to remove and rake up all the infected leaves. What the books don’t really tell you is how much work organic gardening can be. If you are growing exotic plants, it’s not being at one with nature, it’s all-out war. And did I mention hand-picking 46 caterpillars off the mandarin tree (which is only about 1 metre tall)?

With most of the garden I practice Darwinian principles. That which survives more is planted. That which doesn’t or which turns out to be too much work, gets replaced. I can’t however, get rid of the roses. I’ve compromised and have gone with a combination of organic principles (companion planting, mulching, hand removing diseased parts, fertilisation, white oil for scale and encouraging ladybirds and other useful insects) and the occasional chemical dose for black spot. For the sake of history and sentiment I can live with a little cognitive dissonance. I suspect that many migrant families would have tried to bring plants and seeds with them from home and I wonder how they fared.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Local colour

There are days when I realise that I’m not in Kansas, or Minnesota, any more. Did you know that the Queensland Department of Main Roads has a standard form for movement of houses? In typical government-speak, it is Document M4238: New Letter of No Objection Application – Building Movements. Less typically, it is a simple one-page document that only needs the location of origin, destination for the house and a straightforward description (roof on or off, how many pieces the house is in, dimensions.) I presume one also needs to be a licensed and registered house remover to gain approval. The department also closes the roads to house movements between 19 December and 2 January because of the volume of traffic during the period (and I presume the unusual holiday traffic patterns and times).

Why do I know this? Well there is my natural high level of curiosity and there is also the fact that today we received verbal approval from council to move our house. Official documentation will not come out until 18 December by which time we will have entered the Christmas hiatus. Australia slowly comes back to life in mid to late January. The Christmas/summer shutdown used to drive my Chinese colleagues in Sydney insane and I see that Kevin Rudd is in agreement and vows to have his new ministers back on the job straight after Boxing Day. Then there is a two-week lead-in time to obtain permits, arrange the police escort etc. so we are looking at the end of January.

As soon as actual dates are forthcoming, we will be planning moving festivities. It has been suggested that issuing tickets and provision of light refreshments to interested bystanders and neighbours might somewhat offset the cost of the bulldozer that will be required to drag the house on a trailer up the approximately 40 degree gradient gravel driveway and over the paddocks.

When I shake my head in amazement that we live in a place that has standard operating procedures for the transport of houses, I also remember that we now live somewhere where the purchase of a removal house is an attractive and economical option for extension of elderly houses. I like to think of it as an advanced form of recycling. Conservation of our heritage aside, I just can’t bear to see old houses gutted and destroyed. Some people rescue kittens. I have a soft spot for houses and trees.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Seven basic plots and one variation

In my wanders through literature, I found the suggestion that there are only seven basic plots on which all stories are based. The idea comes from a book by the aptly named Christopher Booker, which was published in 2004 and comprises a staggering 736 pages. Apparently one of the seven plots is not brevity. The publisher’s synopsis suggests that Booker proposes a “hidden universal language” that underlies every story told and gives us a new way of understanding “what stories are and why we tell them.”

Naturally Amazon declined to list these plots, but the blogosphere was more obliging. A quick google found the website of game designer Chris Bateman who obliging provides the following list with examples:

1. Overcoming the Monster (and the Thrilling Escape from Death) e.g. Beowulf, War of the Worlds, Star Wars: A New Hope
2. Rags to Riches e.g. Cinderella, Great Expectations
3. The Quest e.g. The Odyssey, Watership Down
4. Voyage & Return e.g. Alice in Wonderland, Gone With the Wind
5. Comedy e.g. some Shakespeare, Jane Austen
6. Tragedy e.g. Macbeth, Anna Karenina
7. Rebirth e.g. Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol

My pondering on these plots and their significance for me was interrupted by Blithe Boy informing me that he had swallowed a Chinese checker. Being the third child, not the first (for whom when I called the nurse-practitioner at our clinic over a massive bang on the head, the nurse memorably said “This must be your first child honey”), I carefully examined the checkers set and my son. Before calling our clinic, I checked the shape of the checker and concluded that it probably wouldn’t harm him. I then carefully placed all the checkers in the right spots and found none missing. Conclusion: stand-down red alert and rehousing of checkers in less accessible location.

I can’t decide what plot this story falls under: comedy, overcoming the monster or the quest. Sometimes raising children seems like all three.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Goozbrys and the hand of God

My grandfather lived in Sydney all his life. He travelled in the United States and Europe and extensively around eastern Australia but his focus was firmly on home. To him I owe my exposure to the worlds of pottery, fine furniture making, geology, chickens, vegetable and fruit growing, fixing things, hoarding, architecture, history, obscure navigational shortcuts and rural byways and many of the things that I have found most useful in my everyday life. He was curious about the world and to him that meant finding out how things worked – usually by taking them apart and putting them back together. He was a master craftsman who valued and created things that lasted.

I often think of him as I work around the garden. In the middle of Sydney, he raised chickens, zebra finches, budgerigars, apricots, grapes, mulberries, corn, silverbeet, Jerusalem artichokes and many other vegetables. I see birds and interesting plants and want to point them out to him. He never saw our hillside as he died my first year in the United States. I remember watching huge fluffy snowflakes slowly floating outside the windows of a seminar room on the day of his death and visiting his grave in Sydney long after other people had recovered from their grief.

I think of him often – my computer sits on the desk that was made by his father and was in his study as long as I can remember. Some of the plants in my garden come from his. Last time we were in Sydney, my mother gave me a handful of cape gooseberries from her garden whose seed originally came from his. She wanted me to plant them in Marburg. I still haven’t done so, but I found out recently that the cape gooseberry has a long history in this area.

When the settlers started felling trees as required under the terms of their land grants they were left with a tangle of roots, stumps and brush. The easiest way to deal with this was burning. According to Digger Schumann “due to the combined influence of the weather, birds, and the all-seeing eye of God, the first reward that the pioneers received following the hard work of cutting the scrub and the ensuing ‘burn-off’ was a spontaneous crop of cape gooseberries” (pronounced by all as goozbrys). People started saving the seeds in order to plant them whenever they burnt off in order to “give the birds and the Lord just a little help.”

According to Schumann, goozbrys became a vital crop in the Rosewood Scrub because they bridged the gap between clearing the scrub and harvesting major crops. Whole families were involved in picking the crop and getting it ready for the market (which involved removing the papery husk or cape, then packing the fruit in cleaned four gallon kerosene tins and shipping it off to the grower’s agent in Roma Street, Brisbane). The process was so labour intensive that it affected school attendance. He cites the Tallegalla schoolmaster’s concern in 1890 about Mabel Herman who “was absent the whole of previous month picking Cape gooseberries.”

Schumann doesn’t think that it was a major source of income for most families, but that for most, something was better than nothing even with deductions for “freight (iniquitous), commission, (an imposition by bloodsuckers who lived off the backs of hard-working farmers), and last of all, Stamp Duty, (for which all the curses of hell were called to rain down on the Government of the day.)”

As I look at my handful of gooseberry seeds, I smile at Schumann’s accounts and my own memories. My only hesitation is that mention of how the fruit first started growing in the area (birds and the hand of God). Looking for information on the fruit, I read that because of the fruit’s popularity with birds and other wildlife, it can be easily spread and become a problem weed especially in areas of native regeneration. For the moment, the seed will stay out of the ground. But I think the Jaeckels will certainly be making and purveying goozbry pies once they settle into their new life.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Flighty conveyances

On one of my recent visits to the Rosewood Scrub Historical Society I picked up a little booklet “Tales of the Rosewood Scrub: Memories of a Barefoot Boyhood” by Digger Schumann. It is fascinating to read Digger’s memories of growing up in this area in the 1930s. Some of his memories are of stories told to him by his grandparents about the very earliest days of scrub settlement and are a great insight into what everyday life was like for farming families.

One story about his grandmother’s weekly Friday shopping trip to Rosewood struck a chord with me as I unpacked my own groceries today. Grandma Martha Mary would drive her horse, Jean hitched up to her sulky. One of the men in the family would take the flighty horse for several rounds of the front paddock first to settle her down before turning her over to Martha Mary. Her path would have followed fairly closely the path one would take today from Two Tree Hill, along the ridges of the Tallegalla hills and down into Rosewood.

Once in Rosewood, Jean would be hitched to the railing behind Sellar’s Store. Grandma would bring along some grain from home in an old sugar bag and empty it into one of the feed bins attached to the fence. Digger writes that:

“Parking achieved, Grandma would perch on one of several high cane-bottomed chairs that stood along the counter to dictate her order which would be packed and loaded onto the tray of the sulky while she attended to other matters; perhaps at the haberdashery counter of Ruhno’s General store around the corner as Sellars dealt only in groceries and hardware.”

In another of “those” conversations the other day someone was bemoaning how dreadfully behaved children were today in supermarkets. A wise older lady pointed out that the experience described above was what shopping with children was like for her. There was no trailing around a store filled with goodies, selecting products while simultaneously trying to entertain children and remove their prehensile grips from easily accessible merchandise. She would take her list to the store, wait at the counter and have everything selected, packed away and delivered for her. Her take on the whole process was that while freedom of choice can be a good thing, that parents of today have very different challenges.

I personally take the pro-active approach of shopping when the older children are at school and taking along a container of biscuits to distract the smallest as we wheel along aisles. We have also been known to make loud car noises and chuck the occasional wheelie – hey whatever it takes! And while my trusty steed Myrtle carries me reliably to and from shopping, she does prefer snacks of the more petroleum-based kind and rarely needs to be settled down before trips.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Suggestions please

Reading through the annual Summer Reading Guide that comes in The Weekend Australian around this time each year, I was thrilled to see that some of my favourite authors have new books out. Being thrifty and also hoarding cash for inevitable cost haemorrhaging on the house extension, I have made myself a list for the next six months of library visits. Pause for a plug for our local library: the Ipswich Global Information Centre. Very “1984” in its naming, but it has a huge range of books and carries many of the latest publications, sometimes even before they are reviewed in the national press. In addition to the large library in the Ipswich CBD, they also run the mobile library service that cycles around all the little country towns and areas. Marburg gets a visit every second Tuesday. Rosewood being larger (and possibly, as the home of the chairperson of the library committee), gets the library every Friday and every second Wednesday. Library visit day is one of the major social events in town and you are guaranteed to meet up with many neighbours (or at least the ones that count…, I mean read).

The other thing I noticed reading the guide, is that many of the featured books have fantastic titles. At the moment, I am still referring to my book as exactly that, “my book.” So I am calling for suggestions for a working title, that is, something I can call it for the moment. I can’t offer any guarantees as to whether suggestions will carry through to the final manuscript, but please feel free to offer ideas.

Nota bene: Between elections and other things, I realise that there has been little historical content here recently. I apologise, but I do also need to point out that I’m focusing on writing at the moment so don’t have quite so much time for digging up other stories. My original plan was to finish the first draft of the book by Christmas. This is still possible if a miracle occurs, so please bear with me.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Olde-timey cooking

I hear a lot of nostalgia for the past from people with whom I mix. There is a trope common to many Western societies that we have lost valuable ways of doing things from the past --ways that called on notions of respect, taking time about things, appreciating that making something of worth takes time. The whole Slow Food movement is an example of this kind of turning back to older ways of doing things. I have a lot of sympathy for this perspective, but it is very much a product of prosperous societies with the money and time for nostalgia. To paraphrase apologists for China’s human rights record “When you are trying to survive every day, you don’t have much time for human rights (or Slow Food for that matter.)”

What brought these thoughts to mind was making chutney yesterday. I started peeling and chopping vegetables and fruit at 3.30pm and was bottling the chutney at 9pm. Perhaps it was my inexperience, perhaps the fact that I also helped with homework, read with the kids, made rafts of vegemite toast for afternoon tea, cooked dinner and juggled a few other things in between, but it seemed like a major investment of time for 6 ½ bottles of admittedly gorgeous smelling and looking chutney (I haven’t had a moment to taste it properly yet.) I know that I will feel a great sense of satisfaction when these jars are tucked next to other presents under the Christmas tree and even more when I am spooning it out onto my sausages in a few months time. But when I think of the time and physical resources that went into this, I have to wonder if it is worth it.

My brother and his family live in Central Asia. Preserving food is an essential part of life for them. If they don’t bottle fruit and vegetables frantically in their short summer, there is nothing but rice, cheese and fat sheep for the winter. They don’t have time or the resources for elaborate pickled or sweetened concoctions. It is a matter of getting the fruit and vegetables to last under the easiest possible methods of preservation. They don’t have much electricity. While it is cotton picking season they have a few hours of electricity in the evenings but when the itinerant workers leave, so does the power supply. Spending five hours boiling a chutney would be a waste of time and precious energy. Cooking it over the wood stove would be a profligate use of fuel unless they were cooking something else at the same time or heating the house.

I suspect that it was a lot like this for early migrants to Queensland. Preserving food would have been a skill taught to every German daughter by her mother. This kind of food would have been essential for surviving cold northern hemisphere winters. Migrants would have been ready to continue this tradition but it wasn’t really necessary once they arrived in Queensland. In this part of southeast Queensland, vegetables can be grown year round outside. The main problem is shade and water in summer, not cold temperatures, frost and snow. Down in the valleys, frost lies on the coldest winter days but many of the hillsides are above the frost-line. People can and do grow tropical fruit in their back gardens. And for fruit that requires chilling time to grow, there’s the Granite Belt over the other side of Cunningham’s Gap. It must have seemed like some kind of food paradise.

Preserving changed from being an essential part of everyday life, to being an optional extra. Later still came refrigeration, freezers and supermarkets. I wonder if this is why people retain traditional ways of jam and chutney-making, the value-added luxury end of preserving and the simpler preserving methods have died out.

Monday, 26 November 2007


Friday night the heavens opened. First, a dramatic storm from the west then a solid wall of water from the north. We were all awake at 4am with the deafening noise of continuous heavy rain. Lying in the dark listening to wave after wave of drumming, two things were on my mind: our driveway and whether this was an omen for the election. If it was an omen, was it a good or a bad portent? Omens are so tricky that way.

The driveway survived but required substantial work. We were scraping roadbase off our front paddock and filling chasms on Sunday afternoon while fantasising about heavy machinery and truckloads of fresh gravel. Whenever we get heavy rain, I remember that our quiet dead-end road was once the main road to Minden and points west. The road washed out in the late 1880s in a rare cyclone and has never been “fixed.” Having seen our driveway and the gully left by that 1880s cyclone, I can understand the delay.

For the first time in several years our tanks are close to full and the garden is lush and green. I don’t feel like quite such a fool for having planted that magnolia grandiflora down the front paddock.

And as for portends and omens, as always it is how you look at things. In one way, it might have been a parting gift from the previously omnipotent John Howard. In another light, it could be seen as signifying change and a fresh start. Or the winds of change…Its effect was making election day slow and wet (not to mention how long it actually takes to vote “below the line” in a booth with the ballot paper curling up both sides of the booth, children underfoot and trying to concurrently count up from one and down from 65 to make sure you had a number in every box.)

Three of my four hopes for this election came about which is pretty good in the game of politics. Ironically, I have spent much of today reassuring people that the end of the world probably isn’t quite nigh even with wall to wall Labor governments across Australia at state and federal levels. I’m not sure how that came to be my job to be a Labor apologist. Perhaps I am the only person left of right that some people know.

Tomorrow, away from champagne of politics and back to the bread and butter of writing, although I’ve never thought they couldn’t be mixed.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Me too!

Less than 48 hours remain now before our federal election. I love politics for themselves but I am particularly grateful for their diversion at this time. The council has got a bee in its bonnet about our proposed extension and we are awaiting their verdict. I was worried about plumbing issues when I should have been worried about town planning (had I been aware even that this was an issue.) I spend a few Alice in Wonderland hours yesterday talking in circles with a town planner who was convinced that we were moving a house onto our block and joining it to ours for “dual occupancy” purposes. In one of those moments reminiscent of Cold War movies, the person insisted that dual occupancy was fine as long as we admitted that was what we were doing and went through the appropriate processes. I heard echoes of “Just confess and everything will be alright.” After all there is another kitchen and bathroom in the new part of the house. The fact that we indicated on the plans that the fixtures in these rooms would be removed to provide a rumpus room and a hallway proved nothing.

I have a difficult relationship with bureaucracy after boarding school, visa offices and embassies around the world, a certain American university’s international student office, and our very own Centrelink amongst others. A certain administrative “we know what’s best” tone sets me on edge. Regarding the council, my far more sensible partner points out that this is something that we just have to work our way through and be patient. So I divert my mind with politics.

After nearly twelve years in office for the Coalition (Liberal and National parties) most pundits are predicting a landslide for Labor. Perhaps it’s the catchy “Kevin ‘07” American-politics style logo or maybe people are just ready for a change. If this does happen we will go from John Howard to the man commonly portrayed by political cartoonists as Tintin. Rudd himself is downplaying the potential win while continuing his look of confident future-leader-material.

I have been using the web to help me make up my mind on whether to vote above or below the line on my Senate ballot paper (white). For my overseas readers, we have a preferential voting system. If you vote above the line you mark “1” in the box of the party of your choice. This means that you allow the order of your preferences to be decided by the party of your choice. For example, if you support the Australian Democrats, their preference distribution for Queensland is listed here. If you vote below the line, you have to number every box in order of your preference. On the (green) ballot paper for the House of Representatives, that is, the representative for your local electorate, you have to number each of the boxes in your order of preference.

I don’t think I have received as many letters addressed to Dr. Blithe in the past six years as I have in the last six weeks. Ironically, many trees have been sacrificed to court the vote of a household that mainly sources political information on the internet.

Our new government will be decided on Saturday. The ramifications of whatever happens will reverberate over the coming few weeks and months. When and what the council decides is unknown, but at least I’ll be diverted in the meantime.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Two school stories and a moral

Sixty years ago a young girl was walking home from school with an even younger boy. The girl was somewhere between ten and thirteen, already smart and hard-working. She loved school but wasn’t very keen on the four mile walk there and four miles back supervising and chivvying along her neighbour’s young son. They walked along the Bruce Highway, then just a gravel road. They were grateful for any lifts that were offered to them – mostly from people they knew but occasionally a stranger would help them out.

On this day, the young boy was excited to see all the army trucks with their brisking snapping Stars and Stripes pennants adorning every bonnet. Even more exciting were the outriders on their big motorcycles escorting the convoys of soldiers. Right now there was only one motorcyclist in sight and he pulled up beside them. “Have you seen a convoy of trucks? I seem to have lost them.” The girl was surprised – there weren’t that many places around Gympie that a convoy of trucks could go.

“Hey girl, why don’t you lose your kid brother and meet me over in that lane? I’ll give you a ride, but I don’t want the little fella hanging around.” Like I said, this girl was pretty smart even though she had never travelled far from her family farm. She grabbed her neighbour’s son and ran as fast as she could, diving through every fence that loomed in front of her until she was safely home. Sixty years later she remembers the look on the man’s face and her fear. But she still walked four miles to school and four miles back every day.

Around the same time, another young girl moved onto a farm in Tallegalla just outside Rosewood. Now the farm is owned by the mine, then it was a successful dairy farm. She had been going to the Ashwell school and continued to do so. She and her brothers didn’t walk, they rode their horses and pastured them in the school paddock during the day. It was a long ride down the hill to Urry Road then several miles along the plain to the school. She wasn’t too keen on the ride as she wasn’t big and the horses were. One day, a boy riding with them asked her if she knew what horses did if you whipped them. She had a pretty clear idea but said nothing. He whacked his horse firmly and found himself on the ground near the hooves of a rearing horse. He broke his arm. She admits to remembering a small smug feeling of “Serves him right” all these years later. She also remembers being tired all the time from the milking, the cleaning, the ride, school, another ride then the milking and cleaning again.

And the moral? You don’t always hear what you expect when someone bemoans the fact that few children today make their own way to and from school.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Brief observations of a family

In a day starting early with a council plumbing inspection my attention has been firmly on the future and it has been hard to turn my mind to thoughts of the past. Leafing through a booklet that I have to return tomorrow, several things caught my eye. The booklet is the family history of my friend whose grandparents were born in Marburg, Germany and migrated to Queensland in 1884. This friend told me excitedly a few months ago that she was going on a bus trip to the Gold Coast, a place where she had never been before in her eighty or so years. It struck me that in living the farming life in rural Queensland, her life mirrors what her grandparents would have expected for themselves if they hadn’t picked up their entire lives and moved to the other side of the world. She moved on her marriage from Gympie to Rosewood. They married in Germany and were in Queensland for their first anniversary.

Another thing I noticed was how few of the children born in Australia received much education. The first generation of boys got two or three years of school before they were expected to contribute fully to family income. Many started work at 12. The oldest son of Elizabeth and Johannes was born in Coorparoo in 1887. By the age of 11 he was working felling scrub and by 14, he had his own contract felling scrub at Tamborine Mountain. This wasn’t unusual for migrant families. I wonder if it was different from expectations for other families or if it was simply a function of socio-economic status? If you were poor whatever your ethnic background, your children worked early. Only if you were affluent could you afford to not use your children’s earning potential.

Most of Elizabeth and Johannes’ children married early and into non-German families. Only one generation after arrival alliances were cemented with the families Scott, Ferguson, Ansell, Thorogood, Nickols, Crump and Davies. Only two of the second generation married into German pioneer families, marrying the two sisters Kruger. Given that this family has more than 600 descendants in the area today, marriage into the wider community may have been a successful strategy.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Travelling tales

A weekend with my mother-in-law in Stanthorpe reminded me to investigate a bit further the colonial botanist and explorer Allan Cunningham who famously described the Rosewood Scrub as “impenetrable.” In 1828 he passed through the Rosewood Scrub on his way to explore the eastern side of what had become known as Cunningham’s Gap.

Today, the main route from Brisbane to Stanthorpe runs though this gap. It is a picturesque drive with a road looping upwards through deep rainforest. We always open the car windows to listen for the whipping tone of bellbirds. It is also sometimes a bit of a driving adventure with the huge B-doubles grinding slowly uphill, lapped by impatient motorists.

For many years explorers had sought some way through the Great Dividing Range to link up the lushly fertile Darling Downs and the penal colony at Moreton Bay. Cunningham is credited with the discovery of the downs and also the crossing. Ironically, according to official historical information the gap found and used by Cunningham was not easily accessible, nor useful for transport. Apparently transport companies objected to having their goods lowered over cliffs by rope. For a fairly contemporary idea of what the range crossing looked like,
Conrad Martens painted this picture in 1856. A much easier route was found through Spicer’s Gap – the route used by aborigines moving between the downs and the bay area. This route was used by bullock carts for many years until in 1927 when a road was constructed through Cunningham’s Gap.

This road is not the only route over the Dividing Range. We often choose instead to travel via Gatton and Ma Ma Creek, coming out of the hills onto the plains at the Toowoomba-Warwick Road. It’s a marvellous overview of how soil type and geology have influenced settlement and farming in a small area. Even the small valleys on the Downs side of the range are intensively planted with grain crops. The fields of the Lockyer Valley around Gatton are irrigated vegetable crops drawing water from creeks and bores whereas any farming still done in the Rosewood Scrub tends to the equine and bovine-type (yes I just like using those words).

I asked my family if they thought Allan Cunningham was surprised when he came over the gap and found all these prosperous grain farms on the Darling Downs. My facetiousness was received only with rolling of eyes. I guess I should be grateful that I wasn’t left to walk home.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Demanding stories

Reading two very disparate commentaries recently, I was struck by their common argument. One commentary was a 2005 article from The New Yorker on Philip Pullman. The other was a 2007 blog entry by an Australian publisher of children’s books, Andrew Kelly of Black Dog Books.

Kelly wrote: “I think we have too much of the “merely decorative word” in the scripts that come to us. Some of the editorial work we do is paring out the merely decorative which seems almost to be a modern addiction. The thought seems to be ‘If I put enough icing on this cake it will taste good.’ Nobody wants to expose the story on which the book has been built.”

Laura Miller’s fascinating article on Pullman spends some time exploring Pullman’s championing of the art of storytelling. Pullman provocatively stated “In adult literary fiction, stories are there on sufferance. Other things are felt to be more important: technique, style, literary knowingness…If they could write novels without stories in them, they would. Sometimes they do.” Miller suggests that to Pullman “stories are the elementary particles of meaning, without which we’d be less than fully human.” When Pullman won the Carnegie Medal he pointed out that “We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them. We all need stories, but children are more frank about it.”

Much of my academic research focused on the function of storytelling in modern media. Creating narratives that explain who we are and how we got to a certain point is one of the jobs of a good journalist. And if that journalist can provide moral interpretations and a satisfying closure, you get a narrative that resonates with people.

My task now is to look at what I am writing to find out if the bones of a good story really are there and to make sure that I don’t cloak that story with narrative froufrou. As to why I was reading an archived New Yorker article on Philip Pullman? Well, that’s a story for another day.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Infernal distractions

I wish that I started every morning full of energy and enthusiasm but that is not the case. What I do is start with long lists of things to do which are rapidly subsumed beneath the demands that leap on top of me whenever my eyes are on something else. I’ve just spent an hour on the telephone to someone, briefing them on the proposed Marburg website. Maybe because they live and work in Byron Bay, they were exceptionally relaxed and chatty, so much so that I ran out of credit on my mobile phone and I had to call back by landline.

I found out that Byron Bay has a population of 8,000 but has about 1.5 million visitors annually. Perhaps it is the ocean, the whales, the Blues festival, Splendour in the Grass or just the friendliness of the inhabitants. We are not aspiring quite so high in Marburg – after all, where would everyone stay? They might even have to install traffic lights, or provide parking. And then the Residents’ Association would be less than popular.

This whole process of developing the website is taking much longer than I anticipated. Perhaps it is my inexperience in committee work and the very convoluted workings of Marburg life. The highlight though is the people I have met and with whom I have worked. Painful though it can be sometimes to get things done in the country (anywhere really), working with community groups is always rewarding in the less-tangible things – feeling part of a community, getting to know people, finding out whom is related to whom (really essential knowledge in a small town) and doing something for a community in which you live, amongst other things. It’s not good for time management though.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

How green the hills

112.5mm of rain in two weeks has transformed the Rosewood Scrub. Before I moved here, I had no idea of what rainfall meant. I had never measured rainfall nor knew what a particular measurement meant. Now I know that that much rain on our roof is 10,125 litres of rain in our tanks, centimetres of grass grown, trees revitalised and sending out shoots, dams slowly refilling. Today as I drove back from Ipswich, as soon as I got out of town I could smell the countryside growing. The hills breathed out moist fertile breaths. Beside the road, there were fields of green grass covered with swathes of purple and white flowers. Weeds perhaps, but beautiful. Even the skies are washed clean and decorated with impeccably fluffy white clouds. Nights are cool, days are breezy and pleasant. This I will try to remember when summer closes down on us, we suffocate in the breathless heat and the grass crunches again under my feet.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Making Germans

Austria was defeated by Prussia in 1866. German unification is generally taken as being in 1871. David Blackbourn points out that 1871 was not the end point, but really the beginning of Prussian efforts to create a nation of Germany. He refers to Massimo d’Azeglio, an Italian nationalist who said of Italy “We have made Italy, now we have to make the Italians.” What had been created was a location for the idea of Germany, in the form of what Blackbourn calls a “sovereign, territorially defined national state, with a constitution, a parliament and a German chancellor.”

Prussia was 60% of the territory and population of the new Germany. The German emperor was the former king of Prussia and the Prussian prime minister took up the role of chancellor. The Prussian army “effectively became the German army.”

Unity brought such things as the rule of law, legal accountability of ministers, commercial codes and unified currency. These are all institutions that are essential to efficient functioning of the modern state. Blackbourn points out though that there were problems such as the threat of authoritarianism from Bismarck as a political and military “strong man”, opportunities for corruption during the implementation of administrative rule, general political uncertainty and looming economic crises. However, everyone in the new Germany spoke the same language so that was a good starting point, even if opponents simply used the language to insult each other.

Blackbourn sees the 1870s as crucial in modern German history – a decade of consolidation, where relationships between German provinces were formalised, administrative functions such as national railways and other bureaucracies established and industries important for economic development set up. Other historians have painted a less positive picture, one which he describes as “marked by abiding Prusso-German authoritarianism and deep internal fissures accentuated by the deliberate playing up of ‘friend-foe’ distinctions.”

Trying to understand the process of German unification and the making of Germans is important to me as I write about the Jaeckels in Germany. I’m trying to get a sense of how a small business owning family, part of an emerging middle-class, would respond to a Prussian administration. For the purposes of my story I need to take the perspective of historians who saw conflict in this top-down unification. I particularly like the idea of this “deliberate playing up of ‘friend-foe’ distinctions.” I can see how that would play nicely alongside well-established town rivalries and interactions.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

In remembrance

I surprised myself today by buying a poppy badge for Remembrance Day (upcoming on the 11th). There was a man sitting outside the grocery store, not pushing his wares at all, simply there with his artificial poppies and badges. Normally I would just walk straight past. Those of you who know me personally, know that I am strongly anti-war and at times awkwardly anti-military. My pragmatic self admits to the necessity of arms and armies. My idealistic self believes them not to be necessary, an admission of failure on the part of humans to be civilised. And like most people, I don’t like failure particularly a failure that is so often repeated.

Recently though, I read Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers, a novel about German migrants in Canada. The focus of the novel is the creation of the massive Canadian National Vimy Memorial. Actually the focus of the novel is the amazing characters with which it is peopled, but the hook on which the story is hung, is that of the memorial. Reading about the experiences of Tilman, a probably autistic young man, in the trenches, reminded me that the First World War was fought by young men who did not have much say. The failure was not theirs but their governments’, yet they were the ones who fought in the trenches and died horribly. For them I will wear a poppy.

One passage in Urquhart’s book made me think of the Rosewood Scrub and wonder about its inhabitants’ response to World War One. She writes:

No one in Shoneval wanted to enlist. This reluctance would be later attributed to the German background of the village by a simplistic but effective propaganda machine designed to make people in Canada increasingly aware of racial and ethnic difference. The truth was that nobody wanted to enlist because they had spent the Sunday afternoons of their childhoods listening to grandparents count their blessings – the most important of which was freedom from armed conflict. Large proportions of the elder population had left behind war-torn Bavaria in their youth precisely for this reason. Even more had left behind the constant deadly squabbles over Alsace. They had not abandoned ancestral homelands, endured the misery of a pitching ship, battled armies of trees and insects, watched their spouses and children die wretchedly and far too soon only to see their grandchildren return to the battlegrounds from which they had fled.


In any given day I can either work on the Jaeckels’ story, blog or do something else. On the weekend I wrote and other tasks were ignored. Earlier in the week I managed to blog and yesterday was taken up with unexpected visitors and some paperwork. Part of it is a time issue – there are only so many quiet minutes in a given day. Part of it involves emotional energy. I often think of myself as lazy because sometimes I find myself totally unable to get my mind around writing. It takes an effort of will to wrench my mind away from the everyday and towards the past. Other times, the past seems more with me than others.

All this is to apologise dear readers, if I am not as consistent in my communications with you as I wish to be.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

A loaf of bread

Today I pulled back slightly from the abyss of chaos and managed to wrap up the certification documentation for the school project and the website development document. Yet I didn’t manage to write any more of the book even though the Jaeckels were dancing around in my head clamouring with ideas and words. With my mind on the Jaeckels, the fact that I was hungry and it is chilly today after rain, I spent some time thinking about bread and baking.

I love bread and bread-making and like to read about it. Recently it was the 5 year anniversary of the death of the famous Parisian baker Lionel Poilâne. On this anniversary, much has been written about Poilâne and the bread his eponymous store still sells. Poilâne was famous for his rustic French loaves made only from wheat, leaven and salt. I paid attention to the descriptions of his bread because it is the kind of bread that the Jaeckels would have made in their bakery. Fascinatingly, Poilâne argued that the baguette that is to many people a symbol of French bread is a modern invention that has colonised popular imagination. He believed that the rustic rye and sourdough loaves that were his specialty are more representative of true French and European bread.

The Poilâne bakery sells sourdough, rye, current and raisin loaves, walnut bread, and butter cookies. Compared with modern Australian bakeries, this is a very small selection, but it is typical of a bakery producing labour-intensive hand-made breads. I’ve been looking at the breads for sale on the website and imagining the Jaeckels producing loaves such as these. I’ve also been dipping into notes I made earlier this year about wood-fired ovens and the process of using these. I’m trying to work out what kind of oven would have been available on board ship. If you remember, Michael Jaeckel works on board ship as a baker, receiving a salary and also fulfilling the requirement for all migrants to assist with on-board duties. And now, I’ve made myself hungry again …

Monday, 5 November 2007

Portrait of chaos

There are things that mothers are meant to know. Things like not wearing white shirts (tomato sauce, peanut butter, jam and chocolate are all difficult stains to remove), not letting your children read scary books too late at night, and most importantly, having a flexible schedule on any given day. I think this last one is a kind of code for disguising the fact that mothers, or at least this one, aren’t actually organised enough to have a proper schedule. When I was a paid employee I was almost painfully organised. It was my defense against a natural inclination to disorder. Scheduling, making lists, referring to my diary were all ways of keeping chaos at bay.

Now I have a wall calendar that loosely tracks my days. It is dependent however on two things: remembering to write things on it and remembering to look at it. Today, I realised that there is a third variable which is actually getting the right things written on it.

My loosely planned day today included working on getting the proposed multi-purpose court for the school certified, that is, the plans okayed for construction which by some strange quirk of funding agencies, we are required to do before our grant application for the remainder of the funding is actually even considered. Then I was going to work on writing something for the website development for the Residents’ Association on that I could take with me to the meeting of the Historical Society tonight to give to a colleague. I also needed to take a cheque from the P & C to another person at the meeting who is involved with a different organization. In between these things, I had a loose commitment to such household necessities as laundry, playing Connect 4 with Blithe Boy and perhaps a little blogging. Just to make sure all of this was going to work, I called this person to make sure they would be at the meeting.

My schedule had already started fraying with several people at the school who were needed to sign documents and issue cheques not available today. I practiced shrugging and saying “manana” while mentally calculating the number of days left till the grant deadline. Then the person on the other end of the phone line complimented me on my plan to hand over the cheque, but pointed out that the meeting had been yesterday. Descent into chaos complete. Now I had to ring the president of the Historical Society to apologise for the absence of her newly elected and clearly unreliable vice-president. I had to come up with another plan to hand over the cheque and I have to connect via email with the other website committee members.

On the other hand, I now have a free spot in my schedule tonight. And my writing is going well. The Prussian administration is ready to take over Marburg and the comfortable life of the Jaeckels is about to change. I have a good pen, a thick notebook filling with stories, a enlarging computer file and a sense of purpose and excitement. This weekend’s Australian Review has the headline “Frustration, Obscurity, Poverty: Why do writers bother?” Because it is such a thrill when it all starts to come together.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

And fauna too

When the Rosewood Scrub was first settled, one of the major challenges for farmers after the backbreaking labour of clearing the land and planting crops, was to protect these from wallabies. I imagine that some settlers would have been used to the idea of protecting crops from deer so it would not have been entirely new to them.

According to Frank Snars, in addition to sugar cane, a wide variety of other crops were grown in the area including oats, lucerne, maize, cotton, arrowroot, potatoes, panicum, sorghum, imphee, pumpkins, rape (canola), mangel-wurzels and a wide variety of fruits and domestic vegetables.

Admitting to wide agricultural ignorance, I had to look up some of the crops. According to Queensland’s Department of Primary Industry “Millets and panicums are small-seeded, quick-maturing summer crops ideal for double cropping and changeover cropping.” Imphee is African sugar cane (Holcus saccharatus), which resembles sorghum, or Chinese sugar cane.

I have always wanted to know what a mangel-wurzel was and now know that they are members of the beet family. This crop was developed in the 1700s in Germany specifically as a feed crop. Chard, beetroot and sugarbeet are all members of the same family. The mangel-wurzel was also called the “scarcity beet” and eaten when other foods could not be obtained. They could also be used to make a form of beer. Never underestimate the human capacity to find things with which to make alcohol.

Back to the subject of wildlife, Fred Kleidon wrote that “Fences 4 feet high made of palings split from the trunks of tree were erected around the crops of maize, potatoes, cotton and vegetables to stop the wallabies, bandicoots and cattle from eating them.”

Wallabies and bandicoots are much rarer today. Perhaps because I am not a morning person, nor required to be setting off for work in the early dawn, I rarely see much wildlife. We will occasionally see a wallaby hopping across the paddocks behind our house or bouncing through the fences. I have even seen echidnas wandering across the road. The last week however, we have had a visitor hanging around our house. On Sunday morning, a wallaby was sleeping in the shade of the trampoline. This morning as I sleepily washed my face, I practically came face to face with it outside the bathroom window. It is shy but not frightened. It will look at us though the window until some creak of the floorboards or noise sets it off. I am amazed by its beauty, but concerned by its predilection for proximity to houses. I wonder if it is eating the grass or if it is a gourmet, snacking lightly on rocket, basil, mint and parsley. We are lucky that we can enjoy its presence without worrying about its intrusion.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Fabulous flora

I’ve been thinking about how different and strange the plants in Australia must have seemed to German eyes. I’ve written about how odd the greenness and lushness of European and Midwestern American foliage appeared to my eyes. Similarly Australia’s native forests must have disconcerted many on arrival.

In the spareness of much native flora, there is an elusive beauty. There is the appreciation of the many shades of subtle green. There are the sometimes astonishing changes with season. There are the distinct beauties of texture (new bark versus old bark, fruiting nuts and dried cases, fluffy flowers), form (sinuous curves, twiggy outcrops, reaching for the sky) and there are the changing colours of leaf, bark and flower.

I have to interject here a family anecdote about my grandparents’ trip to America in the 1960s. They visited relatives on the East Coast and also spent some time in Texas. Taken touring there by a local, all the gum trees were pointed out to them with great pride as “you probably ain’t used to our eucalypts.” The Texan gentleman refused to believe my grandfather’s assertions that eucalypts are native to Australia and that he indeed was used to them.

Every year the lemon scented gum in our garden changes almost overnight. One day it is a stately brown clad matron. The next it seems to burst out of its skin, shrugging pinkish bark off in tatters to reveal pure ivory flesh which shades to green in the sunlight. Then slowly over months, it shrouds itself again.

These changes have become part of the fabric of our lives but the first cycle was astonishing. Imagine if you had never seen such changes. All trees changes with seasons but many trees here are not deciduous. If they lose leaves, it is often linked to available water, not temperature. Many trees that are deciduous elsewhere are not so here. And many native trees do look sparse as they struggle to conserve moisture in narrow waxy leaves or spines.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Marburg madness

The last few days have been a whirl of Marburg-related activity starting with African drumming and an art show on Friday night, progressing through a day of festivities and a street parade, jumping to a Monday opening ceremony for the new school playground. Politicians have been much in evidence. It’s not that long till November 24 and there are babies to be kissed, hands to be shaken and names to forget. Between the federal elections this year and local council elections coming in March, support is running high for local projects and we are grateful, though our votes are not for sale. I haven’t decided yet if it is more or less ethical to take money with no intention of voting for the donor.

Friday night and Saturday were the second annual Black Snake Creek Festival. Perhaps out of gratitude for our offering a festival in its name, or perhaps in response to the enthusiastic drumming, heavy overnight rain last night meant that the creek was running this morning. I have never seen water flowing in the creek so it was quite exciting (when I could take my eyes off the somewhat treacherous driving conditions long enough to admire it.)

Getting back to the festival. It was wonderful to see the community enjoying themselves, mingling under trees in the park and greeting friends. Too often people bemoan the decline of small towns and don’t take time to celebrate the good things – knowing people, having an occasion to celebrate, showcasing local organisations and talent. There was music all day on the bandstand, craft workshops for the kids, face painting, food, land care displays, art, stalls, a parade and food.

Can I mention the fabulous Marburger here? Lettuce, tomato, beetroot, meat patty, bacon, fried onions, egg and sauce on a bun. I think my hands finally are rid of the smell of onion after a mid-morning onion crisis led to on-site rapid onion peeling and slicing. The local school hamburger stall is the main food purveyor at the festival and it is our most successful fundraiser of the year. We sell burgers from 6pm till late on the Friday night and 10am till late on the Saturday. It is an amazing amount of work, but the camaraderie and rewards are great.

Sunday, all of Marburg drowsed in post-festival exhaustion and heavy humidity. The official forecast was for a slight chance of a storm. Old-timers predicted heavy rain and they were right. Nature put on a magnificent display.

Now as I write I am deafened by the frogs having their own celebration. Rain in the Scrub is always followed by the sound of frogs and the tang of smoke. Locals take the chance to burn off rubbish when there is less danger of fires escaping and the frogs are just happy and warming up for their own carnivale.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Pinging off

In a fine piece of academic work coached in language we can all understand, the University of Queensland’s Dr. Toni Johnson-Woods has drawn similarities between colonial exploitation of Australia and the potential excesses of space exploration.

Dr. Johnson-Woods argues that there is a belief that other planets are there to be exploited for the benefit of humankind.

“The focus is on exploitation of the minerals. Basically, it’s just Australia all over again…You go out like the British did to Australia, you take everything you bloody can out of a place, and then you ping off.”

I wonder if that is the attitude held by early migrants: that they were coming to Australia for what they could get. On the other hand, unlike British colonisers, most were here to stay so they did have a vested interest in caring for their environment.

Looking at a photograph of early sugar cane farming in Marburg, I was reminded of Johnson-Woods’ comments. The hills are covered in heavy scrub, but the plains are totally cleared and planted with sugar cane. You can only imagine the labour required to do this, and the total refashioning of the ecosystem from dense forest to cleared farmland. Trees were felled, stumps were burnt and grubbed out. Such land-clearing practices as Sir Joh’s (former Queensland premier and advocate of nature serving man) favourite chain between pairs of bulldozers would have aroused envy.

It’s easy to look back and criticise, but I also have to remember that migrants were bound by law to clear a certain percentage of their land in order to retain their land grants. And that Queensland was built on exploitation of natural resources. For me it is about whether we see the natural world existing to serve humans or if we are merely a part of that world with certain duties of care.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Slices of life

Life has been a little hectic in the Blithe household between pupil-free days, childhood fevers, coughs and middle of the night disturbances, various meetings, paperwork for the extension and just the everyday rush of a household. You may have noticed the abbreviated late night postings. Not much writing has been done and to be honest, not a lot of thinking either.

One thing that has been on my mind has been an interview I read in the Weekend Australian of multiple Man Booker prize nominee Anita Desai and her daughter, Kiran, who won the prize last year. I was fascinated by Anita’s description of how she trained herself only to write when her children were not at home. As soon as they went to school she started writing and it was all put away by the time they got home in the afternoon. During school holidays her work was put away entirely. Her perspective was that “They hated seeing my manuscripts or published books. They would be upset if they saw my name in book reviews. They thought that if you are a mother, that is all you should be. They had to grow up before they could bear it.”

Kiran’s perspective is illuminating. She felt that “My mother’s books appeared as if by magic. She kept her writing very private – we barely knew she was doing it…I was completely unconscious as a child of how hard it was for her to produce her work.”

I appreciate these slices of other people’s lives. They show that the world over, you either write or you don’t. If it is important to you, then it is something you do, whatever it takes. If this book is really something that I want to do, then I will find a way to do it in spite of, or perhaps because of all the other things in my life. On that note, I’d better do something about dinner.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

First huts

Browsing around the archives of Picture Queensland, I came across this wonderful image dated 1880. I don’t know if it was a postcard designed to send home to those in Germany or if it was part of some official literature about what to expect in Queensland. It is tentatively labelled as being in Rosewood and has the printed caption “ Erste Wohnhutte eines Deutschen Ansiedlers” or “First hut of a German settler.”

The picture is clearly posed. All the family are out the front of the house in their best clothes. One horse has been led into the picture, the other looks like it has drifted off. See, just a slab hut but TWO horses. I also love the amateurishness of the building. The huts look as if they are holding each other up and were perhaps built by someone with little building experience. But it’s shelter and did I mention the two horses? It’s certainly enough to write home about.

I found another image of a German farming family taken in 1872. Here too the family are lined up in their best clothes. Here too, what I take to be the father is proudly displaying his horses, one for riding, the other for the wagon. The radical difference is the buildings – brick shed, tiled roof, semi-timbered walls. If it wasn’t for the towering gum trees behind the buildings, you could have been in any prosperous European farmyard. The farm is in Bethania, on the Logan River. Twenty-two families on the Susanne Godeffroy (which arrived in Brisbane on 17th January 1864 from Hamburg) founded a community based largely on their shared religious values of Old Lutheranism. They appear to have prospered.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Forty-one names

1849 is the first date on the board and 1888 the last. In between the 1860s, 70s and 80s predominate. The board hangs from the wall in the historical society, gold lettered and shiny varnished. On the left are names of settlers who arrived in those years. On the right are the names of direct descendants still living in the Rosewood Scrub in 1988, the year of Australia’s Bicentenary. These are names I recognise from daily life, people who can so clearly trace back their families to their arrival in Queensland. These are names of people who did not move on once they arrived in the Scrub. They picked a place and stayed there and their descendants have not moved far.

One hundred or so years isn’t much in the context of European history, or of Aboriginal stewardship of the land, but it is impressive in the context of the fluidity of Australian European settlement. Even today, people move for work, for personal reasons, for lifestyle. Ideas about the ownership of land, one’s place in the world and being part of a community don’t always figure into people’s decision-making processes. Perhaps they didn’t for these people either. Perhaps they just never had a good reason to move.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Pictures of indolence

I decided today that I will spend one day a week writing my novel instead of blogging and decided to make it Fridays. Having made that decision, I proceeded to distract myself entirely with the internet, exchanging emails with friends, talking with my family, reading other people’s writing and to general mental dissolution.

Having taken myself firmly to task, I will show you the view from my new office window, in case you wonder what might possibly distract me outside. The crested pigeons are nesting in the pittorsporum tree, which has swayed in the breeze all day. I tell you this to build up the picture, not to justify my sloth. The second picture is the view over my shoulder although I cheat somewhat and show you a picture after our small hailstorm of a week ago. Today I couldn’t blame my lack of progress on thunder, hail or rainbows.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Bastard scrub

I haven’t yet decided if it is a good thing or a bad thing that several of my neighbours read this. It does encourage me to keep some of my more pungent personal observations to myself. Yesterday I was hailed as I hauled our rubbish bins up the hill. I try to think of the task of pulling two wheelie bins 100 metres uphill as a form of exotic exercise, telling myself that other people would pay money for this workout. This mental exercise doesn’t always work. It has improved since my son has decided that he doesn’t need to be carried uphill at the same time.

The hailer was a neighbour, the subject rural water. Apparently what I thought of as rural water is merely low-pressure reticulated water. Rural water is a specific term for water provided by a local water board. These boards are formal associations with the right to levy charges for water supply. A local example is the Glamorgan Vale Water Board (founded in 1967) which pumps water from the Brisbane River and supplies it over an extended area (as close to Marburg as Postman’s Track). The water is untreated “raw” water intended for stock. Some people connect it to houses to use for non-potable purposes such as flushing toilets. Such water boards are under the authority of the Queensland government Department of Natural Resources and Water.

I also found out about the geology of the area, having confessed publicly to not understanding the geology underlying the Scrub. Apparently south of the Warrego Highway is “good Scrub” overlying the Walloon Coal Measure. North of the highway is “bastard Scrub” (laid over the Koukandowie Formation), prone to gully erosion and lacking the fertility of its southern neighbour. For a geological overview of the Clarence-Moreton Basin for those with a technical bent click here.

For the purposes of my task, I wonder if selecting good scrub or bastard scrub was merely a matter of luck or if there was any way that people would find out which was the better land before they got here (or even after). I suspect one clue may have been how quickly people wanted to sell selections of the bastard scrub compared with how tightly held good scrub was. The irony is that the bastard scrub is closer to the Brisbane River and would have seemed a better bet (and is currently within the area of the Glamorgan Vale Water Board) while the good scrub is further from the river and has no natural sources of water, not even an aquifer. So you could go for fertile and dry or poor soil and water. Life wasn’t meant to be easy for these early settlers.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Hamish the Horse

Yesterday my children came back from school bearing a handful of literature from Hamish. Who is Hamish and what has he to do with the education of my children? Hamish is apparently the friendly face of educating locals about Equine Influenza, which has swept across southeast Queensland. Hamish asks important questions like:

1. Equine influenza is a sickness that:
a) people can catch
b) horses catch, but not people,
c) dogs and cats catch.
2. If I see a horse on my way to or from school, should I pat it?
3. What should I do if I am looking after a horse that has equine influenza and my personal favourite, “While equine influenza is around it’s: a) a good idea to move horses any time, b) against the law to move horses, c) OK to move horses on Tuesdays.”

While we don’t have horses, we have seen the effects of this previously foreign disease sweep across the Scrub. One of the initial outbreaks was in Warwick quickly followed by Minden, Rosewood and Marburg. Marburg has been the site of some of the only deaths from EI in Queensland. The most noticeable thing for us has been the disappearance of horse movement. In the course of an average day people ride horses along our road, neighbours move horses in trailers, local trainers take their horses along the main road to the showground and the showground is busy with training runs and the Sunday race meeting. All this has ceased until further notice.

Hamish’s quiz was accompanied by various horse-related puzzles and a thick sheaf of instructions for measures to prevent spread of EI. I was amazed by the complexity of implementing these. Perhaps this explains the rapid spread of the disease. I suspect many horse owners just can’t see the point of trying to avoid the disease, much along the line of parents who deliberately expose their children to childhood diseases in order to “just get it over with.” The problem as far it is has been explained to me is that once this disease gets a foothold, it becomes a permanent problem that continues to flare at intervals causing distress to the horses and financial hardship to their owners. Already many horse related businesses are in financial difficulty as are horse breeders and racers.

Perhaps one of the more disturbing instructions was that people who have horses and children attending school should make sure that their children disinfect and shower before going to school and on their return, because the disease can be passed via clothing, skin and footwear person to person for up to three days. Realistically this can’t be happening.

Australia has always been vulnerable to the invasion of previously unknown organisms. From earliest times quarantine has been a feature of migration and Australians are accustomed to stringent customs and quarantine requirements for travelling. The Jaeckels would have had to wait offshore for several weeks on arrival in Australia and landed at an offshore quarantine station if there were visible signs of disease among passengers and crew. Nonetheless there is a history of imported diseases and organisms sweeping across the country.

I was amazed the first time I went to the United States and we were permitted to bring in unpackaged foodstuffs, honey and fruit. Australians have been accused of using their customs and quarantine regulations to circumvent free trade requirements, but it is valid for us to argue that we have an unique environment, perched at this end of the globe, that is vulnerable and in need of protection. The failure of quarantine that led to this outbreak illustrates this vulnerability. And now small communities in Queensland are affected in concrete and material ways.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

"I say coal, you say resource"

I don’t understand the geology behind it, or underneath it as the case may be, but the hills of the Rosewood Scrub are coal-bearing. Other than the sugar cane that was grown for a short time in the Marburg valley, the main reason for a branch train line down the valley was coal. There is still a commercial mine on the Rosewood side of the Tallegalla Hills that sends its coal to power an electricity station at Swanbank.

Most of my family and friends here know my attitude to the commercial mining. Officially it is meant to be drawing to a close but I have heard the stories for some time and will wait to see what happens. When we were first looking at properties in the area, my partner spent forty-five minutes with the mining company’s PR person. In all that time, he never mentioned the word coal: it was always “the resource.” He basically said that mining would not continue in the near future unless the price of the resource rose significantly. In that scenario, mining could continue indefinitely. When we first bought our house you could not see the mine. Now it has carved away part of the hills on the skyline. I am not opposed to extractive industries per se. What I object to is the continuation of mining in what has been identified as a residential growth area and the concomitant dust, noise and light pollution alongside heavy vehicles running constantly through a small one-main-street town. As children play in the park in Rosewood, mining trucks constantly rumble past.

What fascinates me though is the fact that historically most mining in the area was small-scale family mines. Just as people had house cows, chickens and pigs for meat, so some had a mine on their property. As you drive around the area, you come upon evidence of these mines. Leaning crazily, often festooned with vines, the wooden supports for the mine head still dot gullies. They can be hard to spot and even harder to photograph but they are there, evidence of cottage-industry resource extraction – or coal mining as we like to call it.

[Don't forget that you can click on the images for a larger view.]

Monday, 15 October 2007

Domestic science versus domestic arts

Last night at approximately 6pm, my partner looked me in the eye and told me that he didn’t think he’d have our internet connection back up for at least a couple of days. I gulped and tried not to panic. After all, there are so many worse things in the world, aren’t there? I have to say that his abilities are greater than he had confidence in, because everything was working fine within a few hours. I hardly even had time to feel the pain of separation. Afterwards, I tasked him with the question of whether he had really thought we’d be offline for so long. His reply was along the lines of not wanting to raise hopes too high, keeping expectations low and considering all possibilities, in other words, keeping the broadband addict calm and away from her stash, leaving him to do his job in peace. And I’m not complaining, because it all worked out perfectly.

I hear you asking why things were disconnected in the first place? The answer isn’t simple. The plan was to move our office to our former living room when the new part of the house was added. The office would then become play space for the children. The office would have plenty of room and the living room would be in its new expanded location. About four months ago, we bought some new sofas, which awkwardly arrive this afternoon, several months before their new location is ready. The only spot to fit two sofas in our house is what is now the former office. An action plan for the weekend was called for and immediately implemented.

The end result: much furniture moved, a major archaeological dig undertaken behind the filing cabinets and the sofa, a small forest’s worth of forest by-products sent on their way, piles of dust removed, some verification of inanimate objects undertaken, a stunningly tidy office created and an empty playroom awaiting temporary filling with sofas.

I’ve already tried to check my email in the empty room several times and had to redirect my steps. My son is confused: he’s not allowed in the office but he’s not sure now where he is or isn’t allowed to go and you see him hovering in doorways. I can’t recognise a workspace that is clean, light -filled and airy and has all the computing requirements on the same workspace.

For the first time I actually have all my research bits and pieces in one spot so I can now tell you that the Marburg Boy’s Rural School burnt down in 1959, the same year that Marburg had a hail storm with stones the size of cricket balls. The school’s official history from the 125th Anniversary publication outlines the purpose of the rural school as “providing the senior pupils of Primary Schools in country districts special training in Farm Craft and in Domestic Science. They gave both boys and girls a basic knowledge of agricultural science and processes, together with in the case of boys a practical acquaintance with such manual arts as Woodwork, Metalwork and Leatherwork and in the case of girls a knowledge of Domestic Science and ability in Domestic Arts.” I wonder what is the difference between domestic science and domestic arts and if I knew, would behind my sofa have looked so bad?

Friday, 12 October 2007

In search of skills

Reading one of the Rosewood Historical Society’s publications on early life in the Scrub, I came across this description of life expectations for girls:

“Girls learnt early in life that their destiny was to marry a hard worker and a good provider. They learnt to cook, to make dresses, to knit and crochet.”

I’ve loaned my copy of the book to a friend so I can’t tell you the matching expectations for boys. I expect that they were to learn useful farming, construction and odd job skills and to find the right well-trained wife. Although these skills were essential for settlers, it is clear from the records that townships quickly sprang up with associated businesses to provide some of these skills. This was not quite the remote frontier of say, Laura Ingalls Wilder, where if you couldn’t grow or make something, you did without it. Although life was hard, the settlers were under 100 kilometres from the largest town in Queensland (Brisbane) and within a day’s travel from Ipswich which boasted many stores and tradespeople. Marburg had stores, a butter factory and other businesses, Rosewood was over the hills and the railway soon became a vital link for the area.

In the process of planning our renovation, I sometimes feel that we are as isolated as those early migrants. People are keen to work with us until we say where we live, then it becomes a case of “can’t possibly do it before x” or “well we could look but there’d be travel cost etc.” I’ve been reading a friend’s blog of their renovations in Portland, Oregon and wondered if it would be better to convince them to come stay for a while. They seem to have many of the useful skills that my parents and schools neglected to teach me in the pursuit of a more conventional education. I wonder if I should have gone to rural school? On the other hand, judging by the comment above, I may have been precluded by gender from learning the really useful things like carpentry, plumbing and electrical work.

I did manage by some chance of fate to manage the first part of the equation even if I fail on the other parts. I was encouraged though to read today in our local free newspaper that someone was selling a vacuum cleaner “2 years old, used 4 times.” Apparently my domestic shortcomings are not unique. And I can cook and crochet.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Old photographs

I’ve been looking at old photographs trying to get an idea of how people dressed and the effect this would have on their behaviour. I just finished reading one of Colleen McCullough’s migrant history novels “The Touch.” In this, a young Scots woman is sent out to Australia by her father to marry a distant cousin made good. This cousin wants a good, naive, malleable “home bride” now that he is thinking of family and the future. As with all of her books, it is a great yarn, but I found fascinating how she evoked the feelings and thoughts of this young bride as she arrives in Sydney in her Scots “good clothes” which of course are totally unsuitable. Her hot, uncomfortable formal attire mirrors her discomfort and misery. Her attitude towards the new land and life changes markedly when she dresses in a way more suitable to the climate and lifestyle.

Imagine arriving from Germany, in clothes that would have been suitable for a northern climate. Most fabrics were still made of wool. Women and girls wore woollen stockings and underwear. Men had their woollen trousers, long-sleeved shirts and jackets. Clothing, especially for working class people was dark. A good example is this photo of Wilhelm and Wilhelmine was probably taken soon after their arrival here, to send back home to Germany.

Here too is a photograph of Anna and a younger sister, probably taken at the same time. I am struck by her dark attire and serious demenour, but then portraiture was a serious business then and she was probably quite uncomfortable in her best clothes.

Most of the year here, daytime temperatures are mid-twenties (degrees centigrade) and upwards. The weather forecast for the coming Saturday and Sunday says “Dry and cool. Maximum temperatures 27C-28C.” This last week we have had daytime highs of 35C and it isn’t high summer yet. Our winters are mild and last for a couple of months. Even with cool overnights and frosts, daytime temperatures are in the mid-twenties. Clothing suitable for Germany would have been totally unsuitable here. I noticed in later photographs of Anna’s family, that people are more comfortably attired: the women in ¾ length skirts and blouses, the men in suits, girls in light dresses and socks rather than stockings and boys in shorts albeit worn with a suit jacket. Part of this would be changing fashions, part the demands of the climate. But it is clear that people quickly adapted to the new country.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Natural questions

Naturalisation is an odd term that roughly corresponds with the notion of citizenship. It was complicated in Australia by the fact that we were a British colony that wanted to maintain strong ties to Britain, and one in which many people felt themselves to be British rather than Australian. The whole idea of an Australian identity is a late twentieth century notion still rejected by some colonial stalwarts. According to the National Archives of Australia:

At Federation in 1901, ‘British subject’ was the sole civic status noted in the Australian Constitution. The Australasian Federal Convention of 1897–98 was unable to agree on a definition of the term ‘citizen’ and wanted to preserve British nationality in Australia. An administrative concept of citizenship arose from the need to distinguish between British subjects who were permanent residents and those who were merely visitors. This was necessary for the Commonwealth to exercise its powers over immigration and deportation. Motivated by the nationalism of Arthur Calwell, the Minister for Immigration 1945–49, this administrative concept was formalised in the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948. In 1958 the Act was amended so that naturalisation could only be revoked if obtained by fraud. This prevented a naturalised person being stripped of citizenship and deported.

Throughout the 1960s, Australian citizens were still required to declare their nationality as British. The term ‘Australian nationality’ had no official recognition or meaning until the Act was amended in 1969 and renamed the Citizenship Act. This followed a growing sense of Australian nationalism and the declining importance for Australians of the British Empire. In 1973 the Act was renamed the Australian Citizenship Act. It was not until 1984 that Australian citizens ceased to be British subjects.

Wilhelm and his family would have been naturalised together under the umbrella of Wilhelm. Remember at this time, Wilhelmine would not have been allowed to vote or own property, so she was effectively an offshoot of Wilhelm. According to Ann-Mari Jordens, “Until 1969, children of married women could only attain their citizenship status through their fathers, and the definition of ‘responsible parent’ was amended only in 1984 to give equal rights to both parents. Before then, a father could take his child out of Australia without its mother's permission.” My partner who arrived in Australia in 1965, received his citizenship through his father qualifying for residency and then citizenship. I don’t know if he would have been required to leave the country if his parents separated before his citizenship came through.

In Wilhelm’s case, if he had died before he was naturalised, his widow would have had to remarry, not only for financial security, but also to obtain citizenship for her children.

The whole idea of naturalisation in the context of a German migrant arriving in Queensland in the 1880s is incredibly complex. Germany had only been recently unified under a Prussian government so the whole idea of being German was still new. Wilhelm probably would not have thought of himself as such. Federation of the colonies in Australia didn’t occur until 1901, so Queensland was a separate administration. Wilhelm would have become a British subject foremost and a resident of the colony of Queensland second.

On the other hand, I suspect that once migrants arrived and dispersed, provided they minded their own business, citizenship and such would not have been a big issue. The Beutels were landed at Rockhampton in 1880 as part of a government drive to settle migrants away from Brisbane and southeast Queensland. Yet by May, they were already as far south as Beenleigh and within a year, they were 50 kilometres from Brisbane. Somehow, in that year, they traversed 700 kilometres, probably by coastal steamer and on foot, to get to where the government would rather they weren’t. The determination of migrants to obtain a new home and a good life cannot be underestimated.