Saturday, 18 January 2020

Green Respite

It has been a  couple of months since I last posted, and for much of that time I have been carrying buckets and watering cans around my gardens, fighting a rearguard action against advancing drought and heat.  When the restricted time allowed for watering each morning has passed, it has been out with the rakes and pruning gear, refreshing fire breaks, or up the ladder, cleaning gutters of the dead needles strewn from the Casuarinas by the hot, dry winds of spring and summer.

There was one half decent fall of rain in November, and a few miserly, drizzly showers in December, before the heat grew fiercer, the wind stronger, and the moisture was sucked from the ground again. 

As 2019 entered its final weeks we watched the northern ranges of NSW burn, and then, as Christmas approached, the central ranges were aflame, along with the southern ranges and coast, as well as much of Victoria, South Australia, West Australia, and Tasmania.  Smoke became our atmosphere as gardens wilted and the younger trees and shrubs began to die.  Lawns, well, they turned tawny long ago, and were now crumbling into the dust.

The stream beside our garden, once a reliable place to fish for trout, perch and yabbies, was reduced to a few shallow, muddy, smelly puddles, from which, after the temperatures passed 40 degrees Celsius, I had to net and bury the floating carcasses of oxygen deprived fish.  The level of the lake at the head of our little Valley on the Mountain began falling faster as the water bombing helicopters joined the westerly wind in sucking up its water.

As the smoke grew thicker, ash and charred leaves began to gently drift down and sprinkle everything with grey and black. The sound of sirens became just part of the ambient noise of the Mountains, and the news grew ever more alarming. Computers were set permanently to displaying the RFS fire maps and playing the local RFS radio frequency, in the hope that it might give us sufficient warning should the fires to our north and south suddenly change course.

Across the country, houses and then whole villages were destroyed, and lives were lost, including fire fighters.  Whole towns were forced to wade or drive into the salt water as flames of a ferocity not seen before charged all the way to the back of the beach.  Other towns didn't have the luxury of lake or ocean to flee to.

In one case a surge of fiery wind flipped a ten ton fire tanker over, killing one of its crew and injuring the others.  I have been in some pretty lively fires over the years, and been singed several times in the fighting of them, but I had never seen, or heard of, anything like that before.  Trees falling on or near trucks, and crown fires sweeping overhead and forcing crews to turn on the cabin spray bars and hunker down under fire blankets - yep, not so uncommon in the world of bushfire fighting, but that was just beyond anyone's experience.

The conversation here in the Mountains turned to safe places and suitable evacuation destinations - to stay and fight, or get out now, rather than be caught in heavy traffic on the long, bush-lined, winding road to the safety of the City on the Plain. 

As the smoke grew darker and the ash fell thicker, the air tankers began their bombing runs, laying long red swathes of water and fire retardent along the village edges.  Villages once described by real estate agents as "leafy refuges from the bustle of city life" were suddenly tiny, dangerously exposed enclaves within a huge expanse of potentially explosive forest and bush.  More houses and sheds burned, and residents who had not already fled were being told to take cover as it was now too late to leave safely.

Then the weather, at least on our Mountain, turned, and in less than two weeks we have had more rain than fell in the final three months of 2019.  RFS stations across much of the state have "stood down" and for the first time in many, many weeks, their roller doors are closed - their tankers quietly parked inside.  In Victoria, the battle continues, while in parts of Queensland, the fire fighters have retired but the SES is now flat out dealing with storms and flooding.  Oh, Australia....

At first glance, the green we Mountains Folk are accustomed to has returned.  The air no longer smells of charred bush, and the lawn mower had its first exercise since very early spring.  Dig deeper though - scratch among the mulch for example and find dry pockets of soil, or wander down to the barely trickling creek and look at its exposed, muddy banks, and it is obvious we have received a respite rather than a complete reprieve. Three or four days of hot westerly wind and we could be facing the fires again.

But for the moment, we are enjoying the cool and damp.  The ducks who normally lived by the shady pool down stream from the orchard had left us, but are back now that the water has returned to their favourite bathing spots - and little swirls show where, somehow, a few minnows survived the worst couple of weeks when the creek had only one small but shaded pond left for them to swim in. 

Perhaps, in a season or two, there will be redfin perch in our pools again, but I doubt the water will ever again be consistently cool enough to keep trout happy and healthy.

Our Magpies are happily finding food on their own account, instead of relying on scraps of mince from us to keep their younglings half satisfied.  We even had a visitor not seen before - a juvenile Ibis.

The grandkids wanted to name it Bin Chicken, but we settled on Binni - and he or she did a fine job of thinning out the snails and slugs that reappeared all over our garden within a couple of days of the first good rainfall.

Binni appears to have moved on again.  If the rain keeps falling, as it is again just now, we might be able to move on from this awful time and enjoy regrowth and green shoots.  If only our "leaders" would also move on from whatever venal or ideological fixation it is that has crippled their willingness to deal with the all too evident, looming disaster that is climate change.  Oh, Australia...

Thursday, 14 November 2019


The lovely rain I described in my last post - almost two months ago - was followed by only a few showers before the heat and dry wind swept in from the west, bearing the hopes, dreams, and topsoil of generations of farmers with it.  Those winds, as they whirled and tore at our gardens, have sucked most of the remaining moisture from our soil - Jamieson Creek no longer sings to us, but merely seeps down between exposed banks and tree roots, creeping towards the falls, and Lake Burragorang beyond.

It wasn't long before the smoke followed the dust, heralding the onset of one of our nastier fire seasons.  The Valley on The Mountain is so far unscathed by fire, apart from one escaped campfire in the scrub behind the lake.  The warnings of Catastrophic fire weather kept many of the usual tourists back down in The City on The Plain, and many of our local people decided it would be a good place to spend a couple of days, too.  We were fortunate that only a few, small fires broke out in the Blue Mountains this week, though they kept the firefighters and residents busy enough.

From any high point around here, in recent days, the huge clouds of smoke from the Gospers Mountain fire have made a startling curtain across the northern horizon.  Other days, The City has been invisible in a pall of smoke and air pollution, and I am glad my lungs are operating in a different part of the atmosphere.

My writer's conscience, despite the lack of blog posts in recent months, had not been bothering me as much as usual - this partly because of the progress I am making with the final edit of my current attempt at a novel, and partly because keeping the gardens alive, reconstructing an ageing and decrepit deck, tearing down old fencing, and filling vacant spots at the library have all but drowned it out.  Until now, when, suddenly, it has been awakened by circumstance.

With the worsening of the fire season has come the regular barrage of toxic politicking and trolling that inevitably launches itself at the throat of any who dare ask or suggest the question "Is this weather/fire danger/drought being made worse by climate change?"

Some of the nastier and loonier responses have come from our former Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, who dismissed the deaths of two people in the fires with the observation that they "most likely voted Green" - a comment that carried with it the unspoken implication that their deaths were thus their own fault for supporting the wrong political party. 

Could he say with certainty that they voted that way?  Well, no, but it doesn't matter because Barnaby was off on a new tangent, blaming the bushfires on changes to the sun's magnetic fields.  Does he really believe any of this nonsense? 

Probably not, but it serves to stir up certain parts of his support base for whom labels like "Greenie" or "Conservationist" or "National Parks" are triggers guaranteed to induce a frothing, apoplectic rage at those "others", while making sure that they are more likely to vote for Barnaby in the future.

Across all forms of media, but especially the internet, the old straw men are set up and knocked over, as the trolls manufacture posts to "prove" that the fires are all the fault of the "Greenies" who have obstructed all forms of hazard reduction until the inevitable firestorms erupt - or are the fault of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who have "locked up" the Parks to prevent any burning off occurring in them.

My experience is the opposite of those lies.  I did twenty years of service with the VBFB and RFS, as well as some paid firefighting with NP&WS, in a rural area that consisted of entangled farms, State Forest, weekend properties, and National Parks.

My brigade had a large membership, and was one of the busiest in the shire - indeed, one of the busiest in the Hunter Valley.  We regularly worked with NP&WS on hazard reductions in and around the adjacent National Parks, and they helped us whenever they could - despite being perpetually understaffed.  The claims that no HRs happen in Parks is just completely untrue.  NP&WS not only planned these things well ahead, but talked to us about what they hoped to acheive.

As for those detestable Greenies that so quickly raise Barnaby and Co's blood pressure - many members of my brigade and the neighbouring brigades espoused Green or conservationist political views.  Did they vote Green?  I wasn't looking over their shoulders at the ballot box, but some of them did hand out Green how to vote cards, so probably.

The brigades in our sector were peopled by people - community members - of various genders - male and female, straight and gay - young (16) and old (up to almost 80) - from a variety of ethnic, cultural, belief, and non-belief backgrounds - and from all across the educational and social spectrum of Australian society.

They were all, no matter what political or personal labels some might like to pin on them, there when needed, sweating in the smoke and flames and dust and diesel fumes, risking their very lives for the sake of the community, near and far.  They attended small hazard reductions, huge blazes, long campaign fires, out of area responses to fire, flood, and other emergencies.

They attended house fires, air crashes, car crashes - some fatal, truck fires, flood rescues, and looked for lost bushwalkers and missing children.  They cut steps down steep hillsides to help the ambulance teams reach motorcycle riders who had unexpectedly parted ways with their machines and ended up in the bottom of a gulley, down among the thorns and death adders.

They worked all night with their own chainsaws, as well as the ones from the fire tankers, clearing away hundreds of fallen trees along the main road and private driveways, checking on the safety of every resident in the district, after a tornado carved a 40 km long scar through the forests and farms of our area.

Those "Greenies" that Barnaby and his ilk so despise and condemn lived in the bush too - they turned out with the rest of the brigade (Green, Liberal, Labor, Democrat, Country Party, or donkey voter) to carry out hazard reductions and other fire mitigation preparations, and they looked after their own properties and kept an eye on their neighbours welfare too.

When politicians write off people or classes of people by applying a sneering label to them, they are treating the whole community with contempt, and dodging their own obligations as elected members of our governing class to work for the benefit of all our people - not merely for themselves.

Thursday, 19 September 2019


Has it only been three weeks since last I posted here?  To my writing conscience it feels like it has been months that a quiet little voice has been trying to push its way through the hubbub that has been life of late, demanding that I do what I had committed to do, and publish each week.  That little voice, though, was not strong enough to drown out the other jobs that were calling for attention- some scheduled, some not, some deemed urgent by me, or by other people, and most of them taking more time than originally allotted to them.

But now, after so many dry, windy, soil-baking months, proper rain has fallen on our Valley on The Mountain, and the creek, for so long timidly creeping down between bare banks towards the falls, is singing and dancing down the rocks and through the reeds.  The flush of chilly water has the Eustachius out their muddy lairs in search of mates, and the Cherax too will soon be doing the same. 

My ungrateful gardens, so long struggling despite what seemed to me to be an huge investment in time, effort, and water, have responded to the snow and rain by leaping to attention.  Blossom and leaf-bud have gone from dormant to bursting over night, and cabbages that seemed unwilling to grow at all have suddenly tripled in size.  Tardy irises that seemed ready to give up the ghost are hurling flower stems in every direction and crab apples are blessing the bees with an unexpected abundance of nectar.

Now, a walk in the garden, instead of being a way to build an ever longer list of chores to be done, is a brilliant, scented, soothing blessing of what is, and inspiration for the future. 

Though that list of things to do is still there, I guess - so back to the editing..........

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Rivulets of Gold

Despite recent snowfalls, this has been the driest winter I've seen here in our little valley on the mountain - but today the rain began falling.  As I crossed the carpark behind our little library by the pine trees I noticed this.....

My phone camera doesn't properly capture the soft gold of the pine pollen being gathered by the first runnels of water, but gives an idea of just how much pollen has drifted to the ground in the recent winds of late winter.....

Soon tiny rivers of gold were swirling across the tarmac and down the hill.  How much of it will become high protein food for all manner of worms, beetles, ants and other creatures, and how much of it will go back to the soil that the pines drew its components from, is a mystery.  Some windy days I have seen vast sheets of gold blowing from the wind-shaken pine trees beyond the creek, and it easy to imagine that many, many tons of pollen are settling all across our Blue Mountains.   I know the bees have already had their turn at this bounty, as I've seen them busy everywhere as the days grow longer.

The lichen looks happier too - at last, spring is making its entrance.....

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Beyond Reason

Stop Being Reasonable is the title and main theme of a book that I have just read, written by Australian philosopher Eleanor Gordon-Smith.  She discusses the mythology about, and limits of, reason as the idealised form of human decision making and behaviour, and gives some remarkable case studies to guide our own thinking and self awareness.

Gordon-Smith was recently interviewed on the ABC regarding one of those case studies.  In what many would regard as a risky, courageous endeavour, she took her recorder and notebook and set out to walk past building sites, shopping centres, and even down that strangest of Australian places - Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross. 

When, as so often happens to women in such locations, she was cat-called, whistled at, or propositioned by male strangers, she stopped, introduced herself, and asked them "Why?" 

The resulting answers, given in the full knowledge that they were being recorded by a woman who intended to analyse and publish, and who had the skills and qualifications to do so, were candid and disturbing, and often less than reasonable - especially if you, like me, were brought up believing in the power of human reason, and the superiority of reason over emotion.

The book delves into our ability to discern truth from falsehood, to decide which to believe or live by, and to remember accurately (or not) the course of our decision making, and the reasons we made those decisions.  As well referenced as any academic text, it is written in concise, accurate language that makes its questions and partial answers (like all good science, each question answered tends to raise many more follow-up questions) comprehensible and well worth reading.

I was going to say "enjoyable" but some of the thought processes and rationales revealed, as well as some aspects of the case studies in the book, are disturbing.  Why am I reviewing and recommending this book on a blog that is largely addressed to writing?

Because it offers some new perspectives on how and why we, and by extension, our characters think and decide and act in the ways we and they do - and the more we understand how our own minds work, the better we can understand our protagonists.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Types of Victory

This is not the first novel I have set myself to writing.  Previous efforts grew tangled and turgid, despite the simplicity and clarity of the initial concept, until, even if an ending was reached, the work as a whole seemed beyond repair or redemption.  It can make the writer's way seem a long, dark road indeed.

For several years, between short stories, drawing, gardening, family, and a host of other occupations (including paid work), and a great deal of procrastination, I have been pushing the story forward, inch by inch - occasionally even a few yards at a time - until, when I was a bit over half way through, I could suddenly see the ending clearly enough to know what territory remained between where I was and where I wanted to be.  When I arrived at that destination it was a feeling of relief as much as one of victory, but still a victory worth having.

It was an excellent moment, seeing the whole picture of the road ahead - no longer lost, but heading downhill towards a destination long sought. 

How much more wonderful is that feeling of relief that washes over you as you lean back in your chair knowing that the paragraph just laid on the page is, indeed, The End.  The Final Words on the Final Page.  Yes, I know - it isn't really over.  There is yet the second trip, and possibly third, or fourth trip still to be made across that same ground - tidying and trimming, even hacking away dense clumps of excess words.  There will be little additions needed as well, to clarify (or confuse, if that's what you want) the situation for the reader.

Then there are the spelling and grammatical errors that you really do not want present on any page when you do find an editor willing to have a look at your precious creation - nope, the journey seems far from over; and yet the relief remains.  You took an idea and a bucket full of words, scattered them across hundreds of pages - pushed and pulled at the resulting sentences and paragraphs - and so often wondered if you could really cross the finish line with something that wouldn't need consigning to the rubbish bin as soon as you got there.

Today, though, has been a different kind of victory; a victory in the form of a Second Draft complete and tidy in it's plot and style.

No feeling of relief this time, just unalloyed pleasure at the creation emerging from the raw materials.

It is a victory that suddenly makes other victories seem possible - time to go back, perhaps, to some of those other ideas that I thought so good then, and start afresh upon a new road, towards another destination.

Monday, 22 July 2019

The calendar says mid-winter, but my garden doesn't think so - despite the snow that fell a few weeks ago, and the frosts that have fallen upon us from time to time.

I emptied the compost bin a day ago, harvesting barrow loads of dark, rich compost and working it in around the young vegetables.  A good dose of water on top of that and the seedlings that had been sitting close to the ground, waiting for the next icy blast, are suddenly standing proud, enjoying the sunshine.

and the flowers are happy, too....

Meanwhile, on the far side of The City on the Plain, where the Great Eastern Firebreak begins, there is no sign of winter at all....

I suppose Winter will be back to take another swipe at our little Valley on the Mountain, but until it does, we'll keep on enjoying the balmy weather and sunshine...

The only thing that is missing from this early spring is our friend, Charlie the Copperhead snake - and I'm sure he'll be in the picture soon...