Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Q&A: What in hell is that noise?

There are many mysterious sounds in the forest, each a perfectly logical basis (as far as I'm concerned) for belief in the bunyip.

But at this time of year, when the nights are mild, tender, and freshened by the slightest breeze, the forest emits a sound of screaming that really is blood-curdling.

That's right: screaming. There you'll be, sitting down with a gin and tonic when suddenly the hair stands up on the back of your neck, and a scream shatters the peaceful dark.

I'd read about boobook owls that reputedly screech, but according to this site, it's a fox.

Listen to the first recording in the list on that page. Then imagine yourself home alone at night, not a light to be seen, surrounded by a forest alive with the secrets of millennia.

Perhaps there's a sliver of moon, now sharp and bright, now fuzzy with cloud. The leaves, still just a moment ago, toss restlessly on the breeze as if the trees themselves are breathing.

Then, that sound. It slices through the forest, mournful, terrifying. You catch your breath. It comes again, and once more, floating around the bowl of the valley as if disembodied.

You know it's just an animal. It has to be, right? But nothing makes you feel more suddenly alone, more pitifully human, more aware of your own paltry heartbeat than that sound.

More recordings? Here's a video. Prepare to have your socks blown off.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Home grown

Striking native plants isn't as easy as European plants, or so I hear.

But after Beelzebub ripped a large branch off one of the pretty, delicate, slow-growing ti trees I planted along the drive, I decided to try to make the best of it. Other than sticking some in a vase, striking the new spring growth was the only idea I had.

I've only ever struck berry cuttings—loganberries, gooseberries—but they were a success. So even though I don't have proper hardwood rooting hormone, or special native potting mix, perhaps, perhaps one of the six cuttings I made will take and I'll be able to beef up the driveway planting.

In the meantime, I've taken to mowing around the best-positioned clumps of kangaroo grass on the driveway each spring. They stand tall, seed-heads nodding alongside the ti tree in the sun, a small tribute to the beauty of flora really indigenous to this place, regardless of fire risk.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Grapefruit four ways

This was my weekend: grapefruit four ways.

There's an idea that sustainability means disconnection — going off the grid in as many ways as possible. But while Farmette may not be powered by big business, it is powered by friends.

My friend (and my boss) in Melbourne has a surfeit of grapefuit. I took two big bags and made grapefruit curd, grapefruit preserved in syrup, Earl Grey grapefruit marmalade and Vin de Pamplemousse. 

These last two, pictured in the middle here, fore and aft, came from a really great cook book loaned to me by Sir Permaculturing, up in Kyneton. Vin de Pamplemousse involves sugar and sauvignon blanc, vodka and vanilla beans (this last Madagascan, a birthday gift from a friend). Oh, and limes from a lucky neighbour with a warm garden down the road.

Two bags made seven jars of curd, eight of marmalade, five of grapefruit in syrup and four litres of the vin (which takes months to mature, so just keep your shirt on, ok?). 

It was a busy weekend. So busy that I didn't get to bake bread made with sourdough starter given to me by another friend until this morning. I did a boring old high-tin loaf, half wholemeal. It was delicious. And, baked on Monday morning at ten, quite the working-from-home luxury.

I'd never made sourdough before. Or preserved with grapefruit. Without friends to inspire us, to share their goodness with us, where would we be?

I'm taking a jar of marmalade and curd in to share as afternoon tea with friends at work tomorrow. 

(The marmalade is dynamite, by the way. The tea gives it a great flavour. I have lofty expectations of the Vin de Pamplemousse, I can tell you.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Q&A: What about offal?

In recent weeks I've killed three cockerels for the freezer. Which meant three big livers and hearts were packed away in there, too.

Livers aren't difficult to get out of the bird, but if you're not careful in your cleaning, you can get the contents of the gut or spleen on them, which ruins them. So the procurement of a clean, whole liver and well trimmed heart takes some care and skill. Not much, but some. To eat them in a recipe that you love is a only fair recompense for your trouble.

Friends occasionally ask if I make pate with the liver, but I'd need to kill a lot of birds to make any amount of pate. And I have another, equally indulgent recipe that I love: chicken liver curry. To that I can add hearts as well—small morsels that wouldn't exactly make a meal otherwise.

The recipe comes from an old Indonesian cookbook I bought second-hand, written by an Australian woman who'd married an Indonesian man. There are few ingredients. Basically, the livers and hearts are cooked in minutes as pure coconut milk riddled with onion, ginger, tamarind, bay, turmeric, chilli and garlic warms around them.

There's no frying anything first: you mix the meat and spices, then turn them into the coconut milk and start the heat. This isn't a technique I've come across before, but it makes for an unbelievably delicate and flavoursome curry.

Fresh turmeric is difficult to come by this far from city markets, so I had to use the dried powder this time. But still, it was amazing. And amazingly indulgent.

Like this potato recipe, intended as a solitary reward for the gardener, I think of chicken liver curry as the ultimate solitary reward for the fowl keeper. And, it has to be said, killer and cleaner.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Make it yourself

This week, I made a pair of jeans. Between my figure and fashion I have a hard time finding jeans I like, so finally I cracked and decided to try making some.

It took three hours one evening. They worked out. I like them.

And with that, another bastion of modern commercialism came crashing down: you can make jeans you love. You don't need to pay $150 for a decent pair. That whole takes-special-skill, industrial-sewing-machine, yellow-thread thing is a sham designed to distract us from the truth.

This week, I made a pair of jeans. Last week, it was lemon ice cream. The week before, I repaired the screen doors to my deck and garage.

I did none of these things with professional skill, and none has a professional finish (though that ice cream is pretty damn good). All of them approximate, but do not replicate, their commercial counterparts. They are their own things, unique. They are imperfect; they work as intended.

In a moment of enormous self-congratulation I wondered, "Is there nothing I can't do?!", "I" referring not to me personally, but to any ordinary unskilled human. The answer, specifically speaking, is yes, but generally speaking, no. There is nothing you can't do. This realisation feels like a wonderful gift. The more you do, the more you can do, and do easily.

This week, I made a pair of jeans, and my need for the products of contemporary commerce wore thinner than ever.

Who needs new, made things from shiny shops? Don't believe the hype. Try making it yourself.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A good day to disappear

This time a year ago I was on my way to Central Australia. To total independence. To complete freedom.

The day I left a friend texted me farewell, and said, "It's a good day to disappear into the desert." And I did. I  know it's a cliche to say that a holiday changed your life, but that one changed mine. For many reasons, and in many ways, but primarily this: it proved to me that unfettered by responsibility and relieved of expectation, I have fun.

If this is a world where people are defined by their commitments, and I think it largely is, finding that your default solo state isn't bewilderment or flailing or loss, but fun, is a worthy discovery.

For those two weeks I wasn't a daughter or a sister or a friend. Not an aunt or a niece. Not a colleague or a contact or neighbour or lover or even a travelling companion.

I was just myself. Just another unremarkable, unrepeatable human being. Out there in the desert you can see the peopled millennia reaching back into time. And yet there you are, the only human being for kilometres, and the only living being you can see.

How you deal with that kind of isolation inevitably says something about you. I loved it with a passion that alarms me still.

Monday, September 1, 2014

She was right about the stars

Recently, a friend saw the stars at Farmette and was overcome.

"But look at them!" She cried, peering into the dark. "Is that ... cloud? Or is it the Milky Way?!"

It was the Milky Way. Sometimes, it takes people who don't actually live here to remind me of what's good in this place. Another way is to go further afield and experience things afresh.

This weekend I went to a place about an hour away that I'd only ever been to once, as a child. I couldn't remember it, but there I saw Eagles and lava bombs, watched Mercury appear beneath a pock-marked moon, heard Musk Ducks calling as a distant freight train rumbled low and heavy across the tree-fringed plain.

It was a modest trip: a drive, a walk up a hill, camping on a lake's edge. Towns whose newest, biggest structure was the CFA shed. Towns comprising just the CFA shed and maybe a church or hall. Dual carriageways that give way abruptly to unsealed backroads lined with eucalypts. T-intersections with No Through Roads in both directions. And wattle everywhere.

But that kind of flexibility was one of the reasons I wanted to live out of town in the first place. To have nice weather and go somewhere new. A place doesn't have to be fancy to remind you of what's good.

It was also another chance to put into practice what I've learned here: from astronomy courses and bird-watching days, leaflets on flora identification, books on indigenous history, geological maps, park maps ... and talking to people.

The weekend was punctuated with two Geoffs: the Geoff who looked after the campground by the lake where I stayed, and the Geoff who gave me the keys to the mountain. Because the mountain is only open on Sundays, and I was there on a Saturday. The park website said to ask for the key at the service station, which I expected would be closed by the afternoon.

But it wasn't. The only service station in a town with a takeaway, a grocery, and a pub, it was built of clean, whitewashed brick, and Geoff was the only person I saw.

"I thought you'd be closed!" I said as he gave me the keys and told me to lock the gate behind me, otherwise others would come in and they'd never get us all off the mountain.

He smiled. "Open till six," he said, looking past me to the empty street. "Though I don't know why."

Geoff at the campground had the bald head, grey beard and gravel voice of a biker. He told me he'd had an accident that had left him with half a voice box and a steel plate in his chest.

"I still ride," he said, reaching for the beer on the dash. "The bike's 200 kilos. You need to be fit to take it out. I just do short trips, nice weather. Got ten visits to the hospital between now and Christmas, but what are you going to do?" he asked, his grey eyes gazing out through the windscreen. "That's life."

People ask me how I can stand to go camping alone, to deserted places where there's literally no one else. But I find there's always a lot to think about.