Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Q&A: How do you clean a chainsaw?

In the living room, with a toothbrush. And a cloth, and a butter knife or skewer for those hard-to-reach nooks and crannies. At least, that's how I do it.

It's important to have the news, and usually a fire, going at the same time. And a glass of red, if not whisky.

If you're unfamiliar with chainsaws, you might think emptying a vacuum cleaner bag is a mess. And you'll be as amazed as I was at how dirty chainsaws get.

It's a combination of chain oil (essential at all times) and powderised timber.

No part of the machine is left uncaked... almost. Ironically, the chain itself is usually pretty clean.

It took me about half an hour, maybe a little more, to get it to this point.

Then, there's sharpening the chain. I have no vices (mechanical, I mean; plenty of personal ones), so I put the chainsaw on the floor between my knees to get the job done. Less than ideal. Vices (mechanical) are on my birthday wishlist.

If there's one thing more satisfying than having tools that get the job done, it's being able to maintain those tools in a state of good working order yourself. If only I could do the same with my sewing machine, which just came back from a $130 service, and for which the most I can do is wind new bobbin thread.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A new leaf

Not long ago, a neighbour who runs an environmental weed business came and mowed the dead gorse I had standing in the forest.

Mowing gorse is about the worst thing you can do with it, but I had semi-dead bushes a meter tall in there, which, apart from being a fire hazard, can regenerate all along their boughs when the time comes. Better to cut them and have to manage them at ground level, I thought.

While my neighbour was here he mentioned the Bradley sisters, Joan and Eileen, who developed the Bradley Method of bush regeneration. Basically, it's about reclaiming forest from weeds using small-scale manual means wherever possible. You can find good descriptions of it online.

"Give it an hour a week," said my neighbour. "Take a cup of tea out and some secateurs and just do a bit at a time, and you'll have a really lovely spot up there."

Perhaps it was the mention of tea, perhaps it was the little-by-little approach, and the importance of allowing time for regeneration in the Bradley technique, but to me it sounded meditative. The forest is a beautiful place to spend time, and I'd rather spend it pulling tiny gorse seedlings than spraying bushes of the stuff.

An orchid in the forest, flanked by a tiny gorse seedling
So today I got started with the Bradley method. To be fair, I was cutting and painting weed stems with poison, mainly gorse, and the good sisters Bradley were anti-chemicals. But the thing about going through the forest literally with a fine-toothed comb is that you see all the weeds, not just the ones you're trying to hit today.

With spraying, I get woody-weed poison, and point the wand at gorse and blackberry. But with this, you focus on an area, not a weed type. And the good thing about cut-and-paint poison (where you cut the stem and apply the poison with an artist's-type paint brush) is that there's no collateral damage. Also, it works.

I started in an area where there are few weeds, as the Bradleys advise, and practiced minimal soil disturbance as I went. I'd intended an hour, but I had no clock, so I went for as long as the tea did—which was about an hour anyway.

By getting down on my knees and looking so closely at the forest floor, I was able to see what was happening beneath the leaf litter, to avoid insects and discover plants I didn't know existed.

In a strange way, it was like getting to know an old friend in a different context, and unearthing things I never knew about them before. In the small space I worked on I found three different native groundcovers, for example, that, to the uninitiated, could easily be mistaken for gorse and would be killed by woody-weed spray.

Also, I realised that the tiny native violet leaves are, even now, stretching like fans above the mosses. Though it's mid-Autumn, I know it won't be long before the wattle flowers, and the greenhoods start preempting spring.

But this will be the challenge: to let the seasons have their way, and instead to stick to the sisters' approach, focusing on bringing healthy, growing forest right up to the worst-affected areas before I start on them.

It's a new philosophy for me, and an intriguing one. I'm hoping it will be good for the soul as well as the forest. Because—yes—it was meditative too.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Accidents happen

Late last year, around October, I had what you might call a near-death experience. Unlike the momentarily out-of-control car or the flash and pop of a shotgun, it lasted some hours.

In the weeks that followed I found a new mantra: on any given day, my only goal was simply not to die.

After it happened, I mentioned it to just one person, who had nothing to say about it. Otherwise, I kept it under my hat. It was, after all, the result of my own stupidity, yet at the same time, profound. It took some coming to.

But now, with the growing sense that it's behind me, it's becoming possible to consider without—or with less—fear that I might meet it again. And without—or with less—self-blame.

The morning after it happened I'd woken surprised, in a deadpan kind of way, that here was a new day. I had to go to town; I drove to the station and parked. It was a breezy spring morning, deserted, and beautiful in an understated way, delicate and gentle and entirely unremarkable.

I'd come so close to not seeing this. A hair's breadth stood between my being in this empty, sunlit road, and not. Who knew when I might next stick a knife in the toaster or trip into a mine shaft? Tonight? Tomorrow? I didn't have a lifetime's reassurance. I hadn't cheated death.

But what I did have—in fact, all I had—was that blustery spring day, green leaves and blue skies and blackbirds on the powerline above the station eave. I owned this time. Somehow, I'd made it for myself.

At this point I realised it was very important not to die.

I wonder if, at heart, this is why people are scared to be alone—because they might die. Perhaps it springs from something prehistoric, pre-human, that desire to be part of, to be cared for, to belong. Being alone is scary, it's true.

For all these months I couldn't trust myself. Look at these stupid decisions I'd made, and look where they'd led me. What kind of lunatic? etc. etc.

But now that's changing. Now I feel that the point is not that I came so close, but that I saved myself. Not that I did something risky, but that I survived.

This doesn't mean I can't trust myself; it proves I can.

Accidents happen. The goal isn't not to die, it's to keep living.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Getting somewhere

On the weekend, I had a bonfire to celebrate the house not burning down in Summer.

I didn't get much sleep on Friday night, but Saturday morning was so pretty that when I got up to let the birds out, I couldn't help but smile at the dewy grass, the fresh forest and the promise of more fun ahead. And it always is so much fun.

Everyone pitches in at the bonfire, helping to drag timber I've found and cut to the fire pit. It's hilly up here, so every trip back and forth is an effort. We need a reasonable amount of timber, too, to get us through hours of cold Autumn darkness, so it takes time.

Almost everyone struggled after a couple of trips dragging the timber down the hill. It was hot and tiring and probably a bit too much hard work after the long drive out of town in the lazy late-afternoon sun.

But after nearly seven years living in this place my legs and lungs are, apparently, accustomed to the gradient. All that running and riding and dragging the goat house around must have paid off. The "work" part of the afternoon was nothing to me. It seemed over in seconds, and to have entailed very little expenditure of energy.

At last, I found myself thinking as I took off my gloves, entirely surprised. Maybe I'm actually getting somewhere.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Not so long ago I joked with a friend that I'd found myself idly thinking Farmette was in the perfect location, close to everything.

Wineries. Cheese makers. Horseriding. Good markets. And so, so many places to walk and ride. What more could you ask for?

On the weekend I took the road west, through plains given over to enormous paddocks for growing grain. A mountain range. A hike, a lookout, endless chatter with a friend. Home after dark.

A couple of weeks ago I did a similar thing, solo. I didn't leave the house till after 1pm, and got back just on dusk. There were extinct volcanoes that time, and more lookouts, but none of the little brown snakes we saw baking in the sun this weekend, and none of the conversation.

Last week, driving to the pub down the road—which, incidentally, makes the best rissoles in the world—I glanced over and saw the sun setting in a pool of pink glory beneath some storm clouds. It was a small thing, just a moment, but an amazing one.

Because of it, I found myself smiling a dumb, wholly human smile—a feeling of awe conveyed by flesh and muscle, projected through the windscreen into the quickly darkening sky, and the inconceivable space beyond.

Sunday, March 30, 2014


I just took two bats out of the fireplace and put them on the deck. They were the latest in a long line of interlopers.
Found this guy in my veggie trolley in the summer
To be honest, I heard them in the chimney a few days ago, but they were a way up, about a metre from the firebox, so there was nothing to do.

But tonight, I could hear them scrabbling around in the scrunched up newspaper I had in the firebox. I'd told myself they were Bogong moths, which are endlessly spiralling down the chimney in Bogong moth season, but when I got the torch I could see their beady little eyes gazing blearily up at me, their pointy claws gripping the newspaper tightly.

Bats carry all sorts of diseases, but I always have leather riggers' gloves lying around, and after days in the fireplace, these little guys, each with a body about the size of a matchbox, weren't too sprightly.

I put them on the deck, like all the spiders and stick insects and praying mantises and God knows what else turns up in here. They took only a minute to crawl off the paper and over the edge of the deck. The survival instinct is strong even, apparently, when you're weak with hunger.

I wish them all happy lives. Outside.
This is what happens if I don't get them outside quickly enough

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Q&A: Can we go blackberrying?

Yes, yes we can.

I've had some strange questions about blackberrying in recent times, so I'm going to cover them all off in this handy, as they say, how-to.

What you need to know is that blackberries have a season and that season is now. Autumn. But blackberries don't just grow anywhere, so driving aimlessly into the countryside is no guarantee of anything.

There are blackberries all over the place near me, so I spend most of my walks and rides at this time of year scoping out which thickets seem to be doing well, which are getting the most sun, and which have the biggest, blackest berries. When I go out to pick them, I don't waste time on reconnaissance.

Someone asked how I avoid blackberries that have been sprayed with poison. Firstly, no one near me can afford to spray roadside blackberries. If they did, they'd have sprayed them with a coloured dye, which would be unmissable. And they'd have sprayed long before they fruited, so the plants would be a withered mess now.

The best thing to pick into is probably a bucket, but anything that's not a bag will do—the berries get squashed in bags, and the juice runs out and stains everything. Your hands will be ruined in the process—thorns, filaments of leaf, purple juice, blood—but it will be worth it for the berries. I promise.

What to do with your berry bounty is another question altogether. I freeze most of the berries and have them with fruit through the year. But of course there's jam, ice cream, cream-drenched cakes and, favourite of favourites, eating them in situ, the moment they're picked.

On Sunday I took my panniers and rode to a good thicket about six kilometres away, near a paddock full of black cows, some with calf. It was a cold evening, nearing dusk, and the landscape was blanketed with an almost wintery Sunday-night silence. Not even birds called.

Over the fence, dead grass stood still and golden before an enormous eucalypt. Looming above was an extinct volcano that's the mythological birthplace of the local indigenous people.

Nothing else in the world existed but that hill, those cows by their rush-addled lake, the eucalypt, that unbelievable silence, and my fingers, picking, picking, picking, turning purpler and purpler with blackberry juice.

I can't tell you just why, but I'd never felt so free in all my life.