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.