Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Travelling south

I flew down to Sydney last Friday for a family party. My parents had their 40th anniversary two years ago and turn 70 next year but this is the year when all of my siblings are in the country at the same time. We are not a party family, nor much for large gatherings, so it was a big deal. Sixty adults and a good dozen children gathered at a friend’s house for lunch. The forecast was for a perfect day of 25C. By 7.30am we were sweating and starting to crisp up as we set up the gazebo and tables. It was much hotter than forecast, a fiercely bright day of ferociously blue skies and burning sun. Guests reclined on the grass under the trees while children undaunted and sunburnt rearranged the gravel of the driveway.

It was a good day. My parents were thrilled that all those people gathered for their sakes. Both of them spoke and both cried a little. The Powerpoint presentation worked, the food was plentiful, cold fruit punch flowed and friendships were renewed. We remembered loved ones who had long passed away and friends that could not be there.

A new grandchild arrived the night before adding to the excitement and incidently temporarily stranding me.

It was a good trip. It was good to go and even better to return which is how things should be. I had time to think, to read, to sleep and even time to write. And it made my parents very happy. It’s nice to know that even as an adult you can occasionally do that.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Of storytelling and poetry

On telling stories with a little help from Judith Wright:

South of my days' circle, part of my blood's country,
rises that tableland, high delicate outline
of bony slopes wincing under the winter;
low trees blue-leaved and olive; outcropping granite-
clean, lean, hungry country. The creek's leaf-silenced,
willow-choked, the slope a tangle of medlar and crab-apple,
branching over and under, blotched with a green lichen;
and the old cottage lurches in for shelter.

O cold the black-frost night. The walls draw in for warmth
and the old roof cracks its joints; the slung kettle
hisses a leak on the fire. Hardly to be believed that summer
will turn up again some day in a wave of rambler roses,
thrust its hot face in here to tell another yarn-
a story old Dan can spin into a blanket against the winter.
Seventy years of stories he clutches round his bones.
Seventy summers are hived in him like old honey.

…Wake, old man. This is winter, and the yarns are over.
No one is listening.
South of my days’ circle
I know it dark against the stars, the lean high country
full of old stories that still go walking in my sleep.

This is an extract from one of Wright’s most famous poems. Born in 1915, her descriptive poetry of Australia has become part of the canon at least partly because she was one of the earliest poets to celebrate the Australian landscape in its own right. I’ve had her “Selected Poems” in my bookcase since school days and only now am reading them properly, trying to get a sense of country and place for the Jaeckels, in the same way as I am reading Dutch colonial literature to get a sense of place for Batavia. The best aspect of this writing thing, you have a good excuse for reading (as if I ever needed one).

I'm also trying to work out how to weave "Seventy years of stories he clutches around his bones/Seventy summers are hived in him like old honey" into my parents' story. It's odd but potent imagery and I can't decide whether to use it or not.

If you don’t mind pointing your browser to a socialist website, there is a lovely obituary to Judith Wright here. She died in 2000.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Telling family stories

Mr Blithe pointed out last night that it doesn’t look good. One minute I’m moping around then not a word from me for days. The good news is that I’m still here. The bad news is that I’ve been really busy and my writing and blogging are going to be intermittent for a while longer. My parents’ significant anniversary and seventieth birthday party is looming and in a fit of uncharacteristic enthusiasm (at least for this point in my life), I volunteered to make a Powerpoint presentation of family history for it. This party has become a PARTY – something requiring great organisation and telephonic to-ing and fro-ing over the kilometres. My mobile phone has been ringing with questions such as “How much crème caramel do I need to make?” (or should that be cremes caramels?); “What else do you need?”; “What kind of salad should I make?”; “What can I give them as a present?”

As for the presentation, there isn’t one yet and I am flying to Sydney on Friday for the party on Saturday. I’ve been wading through masses of family photographs. These are well-travelled photographs. Some have come from the New Zealand of my father’s childhood, others from Sydney. Many are photos sent home over the years by my parents to their parents, trying to chronicle for them the growth of their grandchildren in faraway Asia.

Some photos were airmailed from Taiwan to New Zealand, kept in albums for years and then given to me when my grandmother died. I have one album marked on the cover with my grandmother’s writing that contains all the photos sent to her over the years. She kept it with her in the nursing home so that she could remember her family. My father left New Zealand in 1964 and hasn’t been back permanently since then. His history there is old history.

Other photos were taken in Malaysia or Hong Kong or Tajikistan or the United States or Taiwan. I have a picture of my eldest meeting her grandmother for the first time at Minneapolis airport. My daughter is red-faced and spotty and you can’t see that I am covered in hives in an allergic reaction to something at the hospital (birth perhaps?). I remember it though.

There are graduation photos and wedding photos. People joining the family and people leaving. Progression from the family motorcycle of my childhood through various cars all remembered. One image of our ute and I instantly can remember sitting on the bench seats in the covered back squabbling with my siblings. My parents had it good. We had to rap on the glass between us for them to even notice us let alone adjudicate our fights.

How do you choose just a few images to represent lives? I’ve narrowed it down to seventy-four and I know that there are many gaps. Seventy-four pictures have been scanned, cropped, rotated, sharpened, colour-corrected, tidied up and resized. Many have faded in their travels and in tropical storage. Some were taken with a camera that perennially grew mould in the lens in the tropical humidity. Still they are the images of our family’s past even to the crackles and spots (and that’s just the pictures).

Now it’s time for me to work out how to tell the story for all those people gathered this weekend. People who don’t have the gathered weight of family knowledge. People who share the knowledge but remember it differently. Story-telling is important and I have a couple of days to get it right, or at least satisfying to me.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

The lowdown on low

Children difficult (or is it me?)… house unfinished… father staying to paint and comment on my life… school holidays looming… crisis of parenting confidence… surprise party in Sydney to prepare for that is no longer a surprise… a gazillion photographs to scan and turn into Powerpoint presentation for aforementioned party… arranging for builder to come back… trying to get house removers to respond to emails and phone calls... tired… grumpy… cynical… 15 minutes of writing over two days…

Weather delightful… house at least getting painted… friend reading the post about Batavia and bringing a pile of Dutch East Indies literature for me (who’d have thought that I’d be reading Dutch colonial fiction?)… my father coming 800 kilometres to help me paint… a neighbour realising that I didn’t sound cheerful… a few new readers… children… well let’s not go there.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Not a normal year

In a normal year, winter means cooler temperatures, less rain and subsequently a pause in such gardening activities as mowing the lawns and digging out weeds. It’s a time for contemplating your garden, planning for the future and catching up on other jobs. This year the winter was unusually cool so we haven’t had to mow for some time. This is good because our mower has been out of commission. And we have hardly had a moment to even think about gardening.

Getting the mower sorted out coincided with my father’s arrival for a week to do painting so the garden actually got some attention. I spent Saturday afternoon pruning and clearing the front garden. I couldn’t remember the last time I had done anything in the garden. Actually that’s wrong – I remember planting the bulbs although not where I planted all of them and certainly not what all of them were. The garden surprisingly looked very respectable for Blithe Boy’s birthday party on Sunday afternoon. Several of the guests rode in on horseback so we even got a little bonus grass trimming in a neat circle around where they were tied. It seemed remarkably bucolic to have guests arriving via horseback. The rest of the guests eschewed historical verisimilitude and came by motor vehicle rather than by German wagon (yes I have always wanted to used those words in a sentence thank-you).

Today, the lawn looked magnificent. Unfortunately I can now see the prickles that have colonised it over the winter and have spent the morning pulling them up. It is such a nice change from painting. I find pruning and weeding very therapeutic. There’s something about getting dirt under your fingernails, the sunshine and fresh air and the triumphant heap of weeds that is soothing.

In a normal year we try to maintain the yard in four rough zones. There’s the house zone that is a constant battle to keep prickle free. Any delusions I had about organic maintenance of prickle-free areas have disappeared in the reality of the constant battle against encroachment of weeds from neighbouring farms. The house zone has flower beds and even a formal rose garden that is looking somewhat neglected. The second zone is the rest of the top of the hill that shades away into a line of conifers before disappearing into the fields. The third zone is approximately half of the former front paddock. Eventually I want this to be a gravel garden of the Beth Chatto school with a more formal layout at the top end descending into an orchard area then the flat grassed area at the bottom of our driveway which is one of our only flat pieces of land. Mr Blithe thinks of it as a potential cricket pitch. The reality of keeping a gravel garden a garden and not a gravel waterfall on our sloping land is a problem yet to be tackled. A girl has got to have some dreams. The fourth area is the remainder of the front paddock that we have planted with a few crow’s ash and is mainly wild grass. Mr Blithe likes to mow meandering paths through the tall grass to create a hillside walk that connects all the tree plantings.

Somewhat sunburnt and tired from the weeding, I am now focusing on not feeling guilty to be here writing while my father paints. My rationalisation is that I wouldn’t normally be painting at this time of day, but being obsessive and being brought up Protestant does have its downside.

Friday, 12 September 2008

A carboniferous era

A modern phrase that troubles me greatly is the ubiquitous “carbon footprint.” I hear it everywhere and often on the lips of people who can’t actually define what it means. I booked an air ticket to Sydney for later this month and the airline offered to offset my carbon – for a fee of course. I was much too busy working out how to avoid the plethora of other fees that the airline piles on top of their quoted “cheap airfare” to look at how they actually proposed to do this.

Perhaps one reason that I so like Verlyn Klinkenborg’s is that he shares much of my doubt. A few months ago he neatly defined carbon footprints as “the measurable totality of your environmental impact, or, to put it more simply, what your way of life actually costs the planet.” Thanks are due to him too for his phrase "carboniferous era."

He and I are in agreement that understanding the impact of your personal consumption on the environment is vital, but we also share unease at the glibness with which this phrase trip off people’s tongues. Part of it, Klinkenborg explains is that “the phrase sounds conscientious. You feel as though you’re reducing global warming by saying it.” People seem to use it as an excuse to continue a lifestyle of consumption while assuaging guilt by throwing more money at it. Klinkenborg argues that two things that humans do “most instinctively are manipulate language and create markets, and those two instincts converge when it comes to carbon footprints.” And that is the main source of my unease -- that people are profiting from sounding green without necessarily doing anything that directly benefits the environment.

So why I am pondering carbon footprints, or rather, why more so than usual? The last few days, the air has been heavy with woodsmoke. Our neighbour has been burning off cleared scrub from his gully and the westerly wind has been blowing it straight in our front windows. I was thinking about how it must have been when settlers were first clearing this land. The valley must have been constantly full of smoke, perhaps for years at a time as they painstakingly chopped down trees, dragged away stumps and burnt the remainder to obtain land clear enough for farming. Most were small-cropping and dairy farming so the land needed to be pretty clear and flat. An immense amount of physical energy went into simply getting ready to farm. Did this change the local climate? It certainly changed the physical environment. Marburg and environs went in a very few years from deep forest and thick scrub to pastures and fields dotted with houses.

The irony in this case is that our neighbour is an award-winning environmentalist who is clearing land in order to revegetate it. Talking to him recently, he spoke about how people laud the amazing ability of trees to store carbon while they don’t consider the size of the carbon footprint created by planting trees. There’s a large bulldozer burning diesel for days as it clears the land, there’s the carbon released from the burning of cleared branches and trees. More carbon is released when the land is deep ripped to allow for planting. There’s carbon released from using a tractor and a petrol-driven tree planter. Has anyone compared the amount of carbon released compared to the amount stored? I wonder. The end result though is positive: soil protection, prevention of erosion, creation of wildlife habitats, preservation of native flora, aesthetics plus carbon storage.

A further irony is the effort required today to return land to some semblance of its original. Those migrants who so painfully clearly the land would never have imagined similar efforts going into replanting forests. And I wonder what they would think about it?

Thursday, 11 September 2008

A new measure

I have a favourite writing pen. Fat and turquoise blue, it is emblazoned with a Queensland Government advertising logo. Mr Blithe obtained it for me, knowing that I would like it. I like its weight, how easy it is to hold and its soft cushioned grip. I feel defiantly old-fashioned to be sitting at my dining table on an op shop chair, using a pen to write on paper. How retro. But it is quiet and quick. No waiting in the early morning semi-light for a computer to boot up. No whirs and beeps to disturb sleeping children. I simply pick up the pen that I stash in a spot hidden from family depredations, pull my thick notepad out from my “Mum’s-absolutely-not-to-be-touched” workbox and get to work. I have nothing against computers, no Luddite tendencies, no idealism about what constitutes “real” writing. It’s simply about practicality and actually getting some writing done.

Today my pen ran out of ink. I had another one identical to this, but I have either put it in too safe a spot or not put it in a safe enough spot. I looked at my pen in dismay. It ran out of ink in the middle of the sentence, right when Blithe Boy wandered in looking for me. I had a moment of disorientation. What could be wrong with my pen, why was Blithe Boy awake and what had I been writing only a moment before?

And then I realised something. I only use this pen for writing my novel so I have a new measure. Whenever people ask how the book is going, I can look at them and say “One pen’s worth so far.”

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Writing my life

Making resolutions and being resolute are clearly two different things. I’m doing fine on plans that I have some control over, but other things are more difficult. Writing is still not coming easily but the story is moving along. I realised today that I had hoped to finish it by last Christmas and that this year’s festive season is already looming. The Jaeckels are having a brief interlude in Batavia before continuing their trip. As I try to get more exercise walking early a couple of mornings a week, I spend most of the time mulling over the storyline (when I’m not staggering along, trying not to collapse in front of any of my neighbour’s houses). Perhaps this is why my story is coming together, because I actually have some time to think about what is happening in the story and what I would like to happen. I like to imagine that I am writing a better book by taking the extra time, but that might just be pandering to myself.

I read a lot more children’s literature now than I used to pre-the emergence of literate children and I have noticed that the best books are plot-driven. Many are as carefully and elaborately plotted and written as adult fiction (and in some cases much more so). These kind of well-plotted and written books are a kind of bridge book – books that children and adults can read with equal pleasure. Examples that I have recently read have been Lili Wilkinson’s Scatterheart and Garth Nix’s series The Keys of the Kingdom. Coincidently both authors are Australian and it’s been an unexpected pleasure to learn so much from Australian writers and to simply enjoy their writing. I’ve been meaning for weeks to spend a bit of time thinking and writing about Wilkinson’s book because her plotting and story structure are so good.

I’ve noticed that serious issues aren’t avoided in these books. They are woven into the story as they are woven into our lives. But they are dealt with in ways appropriate to the target ages of the readership. My book (for which I still don’t even have a working title) is aimed at young readers, but it is one that I would like adults to enjoy as well. So I have been mulling over ways to make that happen.

One of my other resolutions was to do with the house and some of that seems out of my control. Painting proceeds apace, but so does the calendar. I worked out that if I continued at the same rate, it would take me another four months (that I don’t have). We’ve fixed up some of the things the council wanted, but they are holding firm on the stair issue. Somehow we have to re-engineer both new stairs to have 75cm wide landings at the top. It’s heartbreaking and frustrating and definitely trying my tolerance, if not my sanity.

Amidst all of this, everyday life continues and my final resolution was to enjoy it and not to let all these other concerns strain over into family life. If I’m successful on any of the above, you’ll read it here.

Friday, 5 September 2008

Being resolute

In Australia I always think spring is a better time than the New Year to be making resolutions. New Year’s Eve falls in the middle of a long summer, after the end of the school year and all the fun and tensions of Christmas. The school year comes to an end in a flurry of activities, then there is a tiny pause in which the children explode with anticipation over Christmas. In our family there is also a birthday between the end of the school year and Christmas. There’s Christmas itself, delightful in the parts involving immediate family and sometimes less so in extended family, and often a long drive down to Sydney. I am often cranky and tired (even more so than usual). It’s no time to be planning major life changes or even minor adjustments.

Spring on the other hand is a season of promise and anticipation. One eases out of the coolness of winter with pleasure at the balminess of the spring air. If we’re in luck we have September rain, blossoms, grass and the promise of a less-dry summer. We haven’t yet hit the unrelenting heat of January and February when winter seems illusory. The world seems a nicer, more hopeful place.

Every year around this time I decide to turn my life around. I’m going to be more organised, more pleasant, more patient, less irritable, healthier, fitter, tidier, more satisfied with my life, do more in the garden, grow my own vegetables, watch less television, clean the house more often, read more erudite books, avoid junk food, finish off projects – simply be a better human being all around.

This lasts for a few weeks and then I fall back into my slovenly ways. So this year I am determined to simply focus on a few things. I want to finish the book, finish the renovations, remember to enjoy being with my family and squeeze in a small amount of exercise. The rest will have to wait.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Driving into spring

It’s officially the third day of spring and for once the calendar and the weather agree. Today is gloriously blue and white and golden. The breeze carries the smell of blossoms and the potential of rain. The birds are chirping and busily preening and the snakes are on the move. Yesterday as I came over the blind crest on our road there was a long almost coppery shape sliding over the gravel that darted back into the grass at the car’s arrival.

I drove over to Forest Hill today ostensibly on a boring errand taking the errant starter motor and battery of our ride-on mower to the auto electrician. Really it was just an excuse for one of my favourite drives. You swoop down the highway to the turnoff, then immediately are in the middle of wide fields garlanded with a band of bare hills along the horizon.

Forest Hill is a tiny town in the middle of the fields anchored by its railway line and two pubs. Every time I go there I wonder what it has that Marburg lacks. Even on a Wednesday morning there are people wandering the streets and stopping for coffee. Well, for starters it has places to get coffee. I wonder though how it manages to sustain these. According to my neighbour, it’s only been in the last five years that the town has crept out of its post-farming somnolence. Perhaps there is hope for Marburg after all. It does have proximity to the university at Gatton and a large hinterland from which to draw, but we have all of Ipswich and surrounding areas. I like the balance they’ve achieved in Forest Hill as it remains small, but charming and obviously successful. People make the five kilometre detour from the highway just to stop, wander and have a short break. The need to exit the highway has been presented as a difficulty for Marburg, but Forest Hill seems to have overcome this over time.

I like to come back home the back way through Laidley, Grandchester, Rosewood then finally home. It makes for a 70 plus kilometre loop, Marburg to Marburg, but it’s a wonderful drive. You head first through the broad fields of the Lockyer Valley then skirt Laidley and start to climb over the Little Liverpool Range. The blacktop winds through red dirt and shallow cuttings ashimmer with shadows cast by the ranks of green, grey and silver trees. You pop out of the trees into tiny valleys carved into a paddock or two with old sheds leaning against the slope. For a moment your throat tightens with the loneliness and isolation that early farmers must have felt, trying to carve a living out of this unsettled and unsettling expanse of forest and dirt. Then it’s back into the trees and hills. There’s the slow S–bend through Grandchester, crossing the railway then watching for wandering chickens from the old house on the left. Then the run into Rosewood and a sharp turn northwards over Tallagalla and onto the home stretch.

Every time I drive this route I think about how easy it is for me. I take the children to school then am home for lunch. Coming along the Rosewood Road I had to slow down and go around a cart pulled by two horses. It’s not a common sight any more. I slowed to 20kph and detoured carefully (horses have right of way in Queensland). By the time I turned into our road, I couldn’t see the horses in the distance. I thought of farmers in their German wagons and was grateful for my sturdy old station wagon.

The motor vehicle really has saved the country in a way that city dwellers can’t quite imagine. I hear people talking about how the future will be increasingly carless – that the idea of driving around will become obsolete. And I wonder if anyone has any thoughts as to how that will be accomplished outside urban areas?

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Languages and internet quirks

For some time now I have been receiving German language spam on the email account associated with Two Tree Hill. I’m trying to decide if this is a sign of success or just symptomatic of the world widespread of rubbish. I am offered “online bestellen,” “Original qualität,” “100% wirksam”… and the sad thing is that this kind of Germanglish has propagated. Fortunately the spam filter is extremely effective and I only see these when I occasionally check my spam folder for “real” messages that might have been shunted in that direction. Oddly enough Mr Blithe seems to get mainly Spanish spam on his account. I have yet to work out that one.

When I tell people that I am writing a book about German migrants to Queensland (and believe me, it’s not something I tend to tell a lot of people) they assume that I speak German. I think that it would be very useful but it’s not something that I have time to do now. I can just imagine putting off writing even longer just so that I can improve my original research.

Language need not be a barrier though. I’ve never forgotten the first history course I ever took at university. The lecturer handed out a heavy photocopied book in Dutch, the journal of a Dutch explorer for the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (United East India Company or VOC). At our looks of shock and protestations of not being able to read Dutch, let alone 17th century Dutch, he merely smiled and suggested that we get started. And it was amazing what we could work out from the material. His idea, I imagine, was to get us to overcome fear at tackling original documents. It seemed to work. I haven’t been afraid to at least try to look at historical materials since that point.

On the subject of writing though, I’ve got the Jaeckels as far as Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies, now Jakarta, capital of Indonesia. Most migrant ships did not stop on the way to the colonies, but there are records of occasional port calls into Java. I imagine that a ship full of paying passengers might easily want to stop to take on supplies and water. A savvy ship owner could also use the opportunity to profit by carrying mail and special orders from Hamburg to Batavia and Batavia to Queensland. The VOC had a lock on trade to Batavia until Java passed into British hands in 1811. After that point the port was open to trade. The photograph below shows the port in 1870 much as the Jaeckels would have seen it (had they not been fictitious). You can see the strong Dutch influence and get a sense of how someone crossing the ocean in a ship might have been relieved and comforted at such signs of civilisation so far from home.