Thursday, 31 January 2008

Down in the gully

Close readers may remember my writing about a cyclone in the late 1800s that resulted in massive gully erosion cutting the main road from Marburg to Minden. The road has never been restored although it is gazetted on maps and even Google Maps shows it as going through. Now the Warrego Highway is the main connection with two smaller connections through the Tallegalla Hills. I have always been curious about how an entire gully could wash out – what kind of rain must there have been?

Having gone through this unusually damp summer, I now know that a combination of previous saturating rain followed by a concentrated downpour leads to this kind of erosion. If the heavy clay soil is wet enough, any additional rain just runs off the surface and down the nearest gully, hopefully intercepted by someone’s dam. When you have these conditions you can stand and watch the hills turn white with the water running off every runnel and bump.

On Sunday, a very peculiar day, I had my first chance to check out the famous gully. It is amazing. Deep, heavily grassed and surrounded by trees, you could be in another world. You can just see houses on one crest but otherwise you are surrounded by the sound of grass and trees and cupped by the intense blue sky above. Blithe Boy and I rode down together on the trailer of concrete chunks. I felt like I was travelling back in time. Blithe Boy was silently entranced by the tractor. I suspect he’ll be another who will have to be convinced that a tractor isn’t necessary for two acres.

Apparently only a few weeks ago you could have whitewater rafted down the gully. We were blissfully unconscious of that rainfall – Christmas shopping in downtown Brisbane and coming home to a washed out driveway. Erosion continues apace and there are some impressive holes under the dense cover of grass. Our interests and that of a thoughtful neighbour coincided. We had a large amount of concrete to remove from Mr. Blithe’s two days of jackhammering the laundry slab and the neighbour needed the holes filled. Besides which, he had noticed our marked exhaustion and pitched in. We had planned a quiet day of recuperation and perhaps a little of the test match.

Instead, with the help of our neighbour and his shiny new tractor we shifted concrete. Added to this we had a potential builder visit, other neighbours hitching a ride in on the trailer for a quick visit, and the arrival of mother-in-law and friend whom I had completely forgotten were planning to visit. All this while covered in a particularly clinging mix of sweat, concrete dust and sunscreen.

This same neighbour also helped us out by slashing a path in the front paddock for the truck to follow. We don’t want it to have any reason to wander off track whenever day the house arrives. I can only say that this is the right kind of neighbour to have – kind, tractor-owning and perhaps keen to get me back to blogging. Thanks Neighbour!

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Notes from Germany Hills

Names are important markers of social history. Names of places, names of things and people’s names all can give clues to the past. I was fascinated by a recent email from someone whose family came from Prussian to Queensland in 1875 on the Lammershagen. His family were originally French Hugenots who had lived in Prussia for hundreds of years. Although by 1875 the family only spoke German, they still carried their French family name of Petitjean. By the time they got off the ship in Queensland, their name had metamorphosed into Kleinhans. It had the same meaning of “Littlejohn” but spoke of German rather than French heritage. On the other side of this person’s family, their name of Schäler was transformed by an Irish immigration official to Schealler using the Irish “O’Shea” spelling to translate the German umlaut sound.

In the 1800s the hills between Lowood and Marburg were known by some as Germany Hills. According to one source, the area between Marburg and Prenzlau was even referred to by people as “Der Uckermark” because of all the Prussians who had settled there. The photograph below is the Schaler family at Germany Hills (the family farm was at Tarampa). In front of the family are pineapple plants, behind them are banana trees amongst others. Imagine how exotic such a photograph would have seemed to those who stayed behind. There is little in the image to show the hardship of these early farmers, growing crops that they perhaps had never before encountered.

Brad Schealler, now living in Rockhampton, mentions some of the family stories of the early days. His grandfather as a boy used to carry buckets of wine to the people working in the fields using a wooden yoke over his shoulders. Can you imagine what Occupational Health and Safety would say about the wine, let alone a boy carrying it to the fields? His grandfather recalls family excursions to the local billabong where they formed lines to walk through the water to catch eels with their feet. And at Christmas after a whisky, grandfather would speak “german(ish) like Santa Klaus.” Brad also remembers his great grandfather “doing his own dentistry with a small pocket knife that he also used to slice his chewing tobacco and to threaten his pet galah.”

It’s stories like these and the old photos that really bring the past to life before me. I love the way the man on the right of the photo has his hat tilted over his face and seems to be trying to look debonair and somehow not part of the group. It reminds me that the people I read about really were people with their own concerns, loves, hates and thoughts. Time hides these from me, but I can try to imagine their experiences and lives and to write about these. Somehow too, being a relative newcomer to Queensland and to country life and having had a peripatetic early existence gives me a bit of insight into their fears and experiences.

A Friday sleep in

Due to rains elsewhere, a truck breakdown and other commitments on the part of the moving company, the house shift has been postponed to this coming Wednesday, 6 February. I’m disappointed, but not upset. It’s more of a planning headache than anything else. But I was really looking forward to Friday morning. A splatter of rain woke me at 4am today and one of my first thoughts was “This time on Friday, the house will be here.” I’ll just have to be patient a bit longer and I’m not very good at that.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Big plans

I had big plans for today, my first day with the children back at school, Mr. Blithe back at work and no demolition immediately on the agenda. I was going to have a quiet day recuperating from the last week of constant activity, read a little, write a little and definitely not tackle the laundry. However, my morning was spent rushing around doing all the errands that accumulated over the last weeks including returning a jackhammer to the hire company and picking up a difficult-to-track down textbook which was the last thing on my school list. I felt better about my usual state of disorganisation at the bookshop because I was only buying one last book – I waited behind a long line of parents buying their entire booklist.

I really don’t like going into towns, or really anywhere there are lots of people and cars which is ironic for someone who grew up in mega-cities. I don’t mind the bustle so much as the traffic, having only learnt how to drive properly as an adult (why drive when there was good public transport everywhere?). My dislike is compounded by the fact that I have an irrational dislike of parking stations so I always end up parking miles away and hiking into town. This is all good exercise except when you are returning laden with purchases, library books and Blithe Boy.

The best part about driving into Ipswich is coming home on my favourite road which skirts the ridge on the eastern side of the Marburg valley before weaving down into town. It has all the requisite roller-coaster crests and dips, sharp turns, no traffic and is garlanded by the trees, hills, grass, sky, clouds and light that comprise the Rosewood Scrub. As I drive I feel my tension easing until finally I am off the sealed road and onto the gravel that leads to home.

Coming up my driveway I noticed that there is no laundry on the back of the house. Of course, I knew that it was gone, after all it took a lot of sweat and time to remove it, but it is a visual shock to see the house as it was when it was built. One of the unexpected pleasures of the work was uncovering some of the original architectural details of the house such as the trim on the back portico (used only in the sense of an overhanging roof and not anything grander). The first picture below shows how the trim was covered up: using fibro and an external skin of tin sheeting. Underneath was the trim and a very large nest of grass which seemed to be currently uninhabited. We’ve left the overhang and trim in the hope that the builder will be able to incorporate it into the connection to the new house.

Right now we have things pretty much ready for the house to arrive. The new arrival date is February 1, this Friday. According to the house removers, the house will get here around 3am, then the “blokes” will have a bit of a nap and breakfast before tackling the hill paddock at 5.30am using a bulldozer to drag it across the grass. It will be a fascinating process and it will also be interesting to see how the renovations will affect my writing and other plans for this year.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Life of the mind?

I’m discovering a truth perhaps long known to others: that it is very difficult to have a life of the mind when one is physically exhausted. I have not been doing the bulk of the work but what I have done has left me aching and unable to think clearly at the end of the day. In contrast, while I am working I have ideas swirling around my head of things to write, thoughts of my characters, plans for the future…It is just getting them down on paper when I stop. Did you know that one’s forearms and wrists can ache too much to type? Yes, I admit to a certain “weenyness.”

We are trying to do as much of the prep work as we can in order to save money for finishing off the house. The council papers came through with a comprehensive list of requirements for certification of completion, and more importantly, a strict deadline of six months including sanding back and painting the exterior of the house. With the council holding this and our bond over our heads, we certainly are in modern terms “incentivised.” Of course, there is the gap between what we can do and what is out of our hands – my current task is to sort out the builder as we need someone on the job as soon as the house is delivered. The removal company brings the house, restumps it, insulates and re-roofs and does some minor repairs, then we are on our own.

My partner has taken five days off work and we are working like mad to get everything ready. One thing we’ve completed is shifting the greywater tank. This involved digging a large hole (thanks for the help Danté), digging out the tank, moving it and replumbing. We’ve had the electricians here to turn off power to the laundry and demolition thereof is next on the agenda. Then we have to empty and move a 3000 gallon water tank and remove about 4 square metres of concrete slab.

Even the children have been on the job, backfilling the plumbing trenches behind us and cheerfully stomping down the dirt. Geeks that we are, we had a discussion of stratification and its relevance to which colour dirt goes in the holes in which order. I’m sure that the house removers and builder will not be this careful although one of my children will probably tell them that they should be.

On the positive side, this is great exercise and has turned into a real family activity (although the demolition site is strictly off limits to the children). On the negative side, I’m getting little writing done. But there is a season for everything…And this blog has generated some interesting correspondence that I hope to be able to tell you about soon.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008


January 31st has been selected as the big day for the house arrival. Book your seats, pack your snacks, bring your cameras…and pray, or do whatever you do, for dry weather, not just on the day but for about a week beforehand to dry out the ground. Even the bulldozer that I have booked would have problems if it is as wet as it is at the moment. I promise photos for those unable to be in attendance.

I have never had any need for a bulldozer before – I hope I asked the right questions and conveyed the correct information. The “dozer man” is bringing “the big one” and needed to be reassured that the house moving crew will be in attendance as well. Now I have to find out whether the dozer will fit through regular farm gates or if I have to get the “fence guy” on the job too.

I need to line up the plumber, electrician and yes, the builder, hopefully out of therapy in time. I am dithering as to whether to go with him or try to get someone else. On the positive side, he doesn’t have anything else lined up and would like a small, straightforward job to get him back in the swing of things. On the other hand, how likely are we to send him straight back into hospital?

And there is a small matter of demolishing our laundry which has to be first emptied, working out what to do laundry-wise in the interim, tanks to shift…the list goes on. As always at the start of big projects, I am excited but nervous. Here’s to the future!

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Baggy Green

In general, I am what a friend calls “asportal.” Sure I can get excited watching the World Cup football or get caught up in Olympic coverage, but I don’t really follow or play any sport. I played all the required sports growing up: hockey, rounders and cross country at my English-style primary school; basketball, softball, tennis and cross country at the American school; swimming, lifesaving and volleyball in Australia. Really I would I have preferred to be left alone to read.

My partner is very keen on sport and likes to keep me vaguely informed about important things as how the Packers are playing (American football), what is happening in the world of cricket etc. He has learnt though to pitch his stories the right way though. A few days ago he lured me into a sporting topic by dropping the fact that he had read that the Australia cricket team’s badges are the pre-Federation coat of arms, not our current coat of arms. I think this was a response to me calling the cricket website Baggy Blue instead of Baggy Green. A Baggy Green is the cap that Australian cricketers receive when they are selected for international competition. All the caps are numbered and once received are kept for the rest of the player’s life. In fact, in 2006, Cricket Australia decided that the Baggy Green image could be used on player’s graves.

Intrigued as he knew I would be, I began to investigate. After all, it is the height of cricket season here so I am just participating in the seasonal culture. And it is indeed the case.

The first recorded cricket match in Australia was played in 1804 between the officers and crew of the HMS Calcutta in what is now Hyde Park in Sydney. By the 1830s there was a club competition in Sydney and by 1851, the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania were playing inter-state matches. The English team first toured in 1861 and the first international test match between England and the Australian colonies was played on 15 March 1877 (which by the way Australia won by 45 runs).

As Australia did not exist as a country and the players were drawn from club players all over the continent, they had to come up with a badge. They chose to use a variation of the early coat of arms on their caps and offical blazers. That badge is used to this day, in spite of the existence of an official Federation coat of arms.

The official coat of arms can be seen here, but my personal preference is the elegant metal rendition gracing the front of the ACT Supreme Court. The twining branches are wattle and the designs on the shield represent the six states. The seven-pointed star represents the six states with an extra point for the Commonwealth territories.

I love the image below of the pre-Federation coat of arms taken from the cover of an album celebrating Federation. If you compare it to the picture of Adam Gilchrist wearing his Baggy Green, you will notice that the kangaroo and emu are reversed.

To put it in the context of my work. Australia and England were playing cricket in the period that most German migrants arrived. Most colonies had club competitions running so the Jaeckels might have seen people playing this strange game as they waited in Brisbane to select land. Most migrant children would have learnt the game playing in the backyards and on the school playground. Cricket in Australia has always been egalitarian and every little settlement would have had teams. Most of the towns in this area still do and generate players for state and even international competition.

It’s amazing how colonial history tinges the pages of today. I suspect that many fans and players would not even know the historical significance of the badges, but I am pleased that such an artefact of the past exists.

Monday, 14 January 2008


Saturday was a glorious day and I took a few moments in my favourite late afternoon/early evening time to take some photographs. I wondered as I photographed the current lushness of the land if this is how it would have looked in the 1860s and 1870s. Not the open paddocks of course, but the growth and green and the water reflecting the skies.

I know the early settlers very quickly learnt to dam the gullies to store water. Now, almost every gully is pockmarked with strings of dams. The higher your land, the earlier and more you can claim the run-off. It’s all about location. A previous neighbour used to complain about people higher up the hill unfairly enlarging their dam and taking an unfair share of the water. An acquaintance in Stanthorpe told me how one day she mentioned to her neighbours how much she appreciated their recent work contouring their land as her precious rose garden was well watered. The next day, the neighbours were out with their earthmoving equipment remedying the oversight. As a former orchardist, she should have known to keep quiet. When Stanthorpe Shire Council (soon to be protestingly merged with Warwick) started talking about restricting landowner’s rights to put dams wherever they wanted in order to ensure adequate runoff to the town water supply dam, there was nearly uprising in the district. The notion of water as a national resource is a difficult topic.

We personally are not too concerned about runoff as long as our driveway doesn’t wash out. The neighbours are welcome to whatever runs onto their land. In fact, with at least one child far from the age of reason our full dam concerns me more than it pleases me. But I can’t imagine that anyone in this area is skirmishing about water right now. There is more than enough to go around and the grass and mosquitoes to prove it.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Building the future

I’m not fond of webmail but one feature can occasionally be useful: the date and time stamp on conversations. According to Gmail, what occupied me fully yesterday started a mere 24 hours ago. In the ensuing day, I spent many of the daylight hours on the telephone and emailing, trying to sort out details for our house move. Council approval has been given pending one issue and this issue is complicated. Having done little unrelated to this yesterday, in the early evening I took a few moments to reflect on the twists and turns of the day. Little did I know that life had an even more bizarre twist with which to amuse me.

The phone rang. I checked my watch. At 9pm it wasn’t likely to be the house removers, the local council, my mortgage broker or even a telemarketer. Concluding that it was likely to be someone with who I wished to speak, probably my parents, I lifted the receiver. It was our builder, or at least the person I wish to be our builder – highly recommended by the delightful people who renovated our bathroom, restructured part of our floor plan and constructed a replica archway to complete the flow of rooms. Sadly this couple are now focusing exclusively on bathrooms, but their own removal house had been completed by this builder. This very builder who was calling to explain why he hadn’t returned any of my calls since before Christmas and on whom I had given up.

If you are going to excuse a month of silence, unreturned phone calls and messages, you need a good excuse and this was a doozy – a stay in a mental health facility. He had only just had his phone returned and was allowed to communicate with outsiders. I must come across as sympathetic or he was just thrilled to talk to someone outside the facility. We had an extended conversation complete with recommendation of the clinic.

The conclusion: I’ll call him in a few weeks to see how he’s going. My partner isn’t sure that we need to add a mentally fragile builder to the already interesting mix. My sympathies have been aroused and besides, given my past experiences with the building profession, I think I prefer a depressed builder recommended by people I trust than a cheerful scoundrel.

The second conclusion: based on yesterday, I suspect that I won’t get much writing done over the next few weeks, but we’ll see how it goes.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Scribing the present

I am tired and cranky. The unseasonably cool, rainy and pleasant temperatures of Christmas and the new year have given way to sultry, broiling heat of the kind that makes me fantasise about lying beside a palm-fringed pool being brought drinks by an efficient waiter. The pressing humidity is punctuated by thunderstorms that sweep past bringing blasts of cool air to loiter briefly before the humidity triumphs again. The fans seem to stir the air only enough to allow the hoards of mosquitoes to draft towards their prey (me) more efficiently. All that water lying around has bred mosquitoes of Minnesotan (“Land of Lakes”) proportions and quantity.

On the other hand, the heavy rain that resulted in floods on the coast to the north and south as well as inland between Warwick and the coast, mostly missed us. We had rain but not the spectacular 300mm in 3 hours reported in some locales. There has been localised flash flooding in many places. I suspect that Ipswich City Council is not feeling sheepish any more about the millions spent on the Marburg Detention Basin – an impressive piece of engineering that has until recently looked a bit like Noah’s ark in the paddocks in the valley. It is designed not to dam the flow of Black Snake Creek in times of flood but to “detain” the water, releasing it slowly to politely proceed down a widened and straightened watercourse, to wind its way to the Brisbane River and eventually to Moreton Bay.

The children naturally are tired and cranky too. The last several weeks of having both parents in constant attendance at various festivities has given way to an irate mother pointing out exactly why they can’t have every moment of her attention. This mother, entirely ignoring her New Year’s resolution of increased patience, has demanded that at some points they must entertain themselves. Matters were not helped by ABC replacing children’s television programming over the last week with the Hopman Cup. My partner treacherously did not support my view that there are more children who want to watch afternoon television than tennis fans. I suspect that my long history of disinterest in sports undermines my argument. Instead of television I have had to compete with them for broadband access. Oh the woes of contemporary child raising!

Today, normal programming resumed, an afternoon storm has temporarily dropped the temperature and I am seizing a few moments to write and think. I’ve had a chance to browse some of the online newspapers, had my fix of news and favourite columnists (reading Verlyn Kinkenborg’s description of -5˚F temperatures on his farm made me momentarily cooler) and even read of a new writing package for Macintosh OSX written and programmed by a writer for writers (Scrivener). I look forward to experimenting with it. 2008 may be my year of new software and hopefully, of concrete results from it.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Cooking with a view

Yesterday I embarked on one of my goals for 2008: to start learning a new software package for image manipulation. In one of those long computing sagas that are very boring even to those in the middle of them, I have been using Adobe Photoshop on a PowerPC for my images. The PowerPC is elderly in computer terms and cranky and I haven’t been able to rely on it for a while. I can’t afford to upgrade Photoshop to run on OSX on the newer iMac so I have plunged headfirst into the world of open source programs.

A relative encouraged me to try out GIMP. Wary of programs that are named after disabilities, I started out by discovering that GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. I then had to find out what GNU meant. I now know that it means Gnu Is Not Unix and that Gnu is really Gnu/Linux or what most of us would refer to as simply Linux.

Between finding out this information and trying to do things with the programme, I started to hyperventilate. I am a long-time Mac user, lulled into security by the ease and intuitiveness of these computers and their programmes. On most Macs I am comfortable simply fiddling around with things until I work out how to do them, confident that I am unlikely to trash anything vital. Like my meat, I prefer my computing not to show from whence it came. The closest I have ever come to the innards of programs was using Pine on a Unix server when I first started using email in the 1980s. I am informed that Pine is a sophisticated, easy-to-use system so that makes my experience exactly zilch.

GIMP started out by testing my second goal of 2008 – to be more patient. It is a program that is smaller than its help manual, a fact that always raises a red flag in my mind. I spent a good chunk of yesterday trying to figure out how to resize some images. Having wasted time yesterday, today I started where I really should have – with the help manual. Within several minutes I had worked out how to do what I needed to do. The main problem for me is that the interface is such that you don’t always realise that you have done what you set out to do. Hopefully this will come with time and practice.

All this was to bring you the two images below of our lovely dishevelled hillsides, shaggy with grass. I looked up from cooking dinner the other evening to a break in the wind and greyness of recent days. It was one of those golden moments when your heart leaps with joy to realise the beauty of the place in which you live and the privilege of being able to glance out from your everyday activities to this …

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Blown away

A friend commented on the academic tone of the previous post and suggested as more interesting an exposé of the extended Blithe family Christmas revels. Although this would serve to reassure him of his own family normalcy, in the interests of continued family harmony, I must decline. Let’s just say that when I read of the Christmas Eve massacre in the United States of an entire family by family members, I felt that on the global scale, the Blithe family was relatively well, blithe. Our only physical memento of the festivities is four perfect sets of toddler teeth marks on the anatomy of our youngest. Let’s just say that toddlers are territorial animals. And there is a certain twitchiness on my part when upcoming family gatherings are mentioned. As I get older I become more persuaded of the concept of “good fences making good neighbours” especially as applied to the extended family.

Meanwhile back at Blithe Hill, relative harmony reigns again, at least as much as a houseful of children on summer holidays allows. So far we have managed not to be blown off our hillside by the sub-cyclonic gales generated by the weather system offshore that has forced the evacuation of campers from Fraser Island, beach closures from the Sunshine to the Gold Coasts and cancellation of the Gold Coast New Year’s Eve fireworks. We had more rain on New Year’s Day than in the entire previous January. Since then, we have had little rain, but a constant southerly gale that makes us feel as if we are sheltering inside a seashell on a particularly rough coast.

Today when I walked down to the relative calm of the road to collect our mail, returning I felt as if I was ascending into the ocean. In the gully I could hear the wind tossing the trees above me but I walked in calm air. As I climbed higher it was a battle against the wind. The now-long grass whipped in a frenzy, trees bent, every leaf alive and our television aerial is attempting to become just that. I’ve had to stash away all the loose toys, tools, the wheelie bins and shift the potted plants to shelter. The wind reminds me that our road was cut in half by cyclonic rains in the late 1800s and never fully repaired. If you don’t hear anything further from me, the rest of the road may have gone and the wind may have relocated us northwards.

Gales and all though, I’m glad to be home.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Pushme Pullme

Economic historians like to talk about push and pull factors for migration. A lot of migration historians writing in the American context focus on pull factors – the reasons why people would be attracted to a country, specifically theirs. However, as I have written before, there are also a lot of push factors operating in migration. These push and pull factors change in significance at various times. According to Simone Wegge at CUNY, early German migration from Hesse to the United States was governed by factors such as economic status in Germany, inheritance style of each area (property institutions), skills and family links with earlier migrants. In the later half of the nineteenth century, relationships with previous migrants became the most important factor influencing the decision to migrate. Thus, migration in the 1840s and 50s was mainly affected by push factors and migration in the 1870s by pull factors like having family members or people from your village already settled in an area.

Wegge’s work is interesting because she looks at migrant self-selection, that is what made people choose to migrate. By looking at 50,000 migrant records she found that artisans were more heavily represented than farmers and labourers as well as wealthier people. The very poor could not afford to migrate and the rich didn’t need to. The artisan had money and transferable skills and was not tied to the land.

Areas that practiced impartible inheritance had higher migration rates. That is, when property was handed down in one piece to the oldest child or son, younger children had no expectations and less reason to stay. This was particularly relevant for British migrants to Australia. Many a younger son, not just the black sheep, found their way to the new colony. Wegge also found that those who inherited property often compensated their siblings with cash payments that could then be used by them to migrate.

Women migrated both to be with family and also to more easily find partners. Marriage in Europe was a serious matter in which the prospective husband had to prove economic viability. Sometimes marriage was easier in a new country without such constraints. After all, everyone was finding their way and trying to make a new life and old ways of doing things were not always carried over.

Wegge’s research supports my idea of the Jaeckels as a family unit, supported by a skill (baking), with a sound but not affluent financial background. The Jaeckels are exactly the kind of family that could make an independent decision to migrate and to try to make their way in a new land.