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.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Summer dreaming

I just spent $65 on seeds. Really, I did.

$65 seems a lot, but then I tell myself other people have more expensive hobbies than growing vegetables. Right?

Over the past few years I've worn down my seed supplies to practically nothing: some saved lettuce and mizuna seed, a drizzle of radish seed, and the remains of some packets of peas and beans. That's it.

Given the success of my winter seed-raising, which saw me planting out fine carrot and lettuce and fennel seedlings last weekend, in spite of good sense and weather forecasts, I've been inspired.

A wayward carrot that appeared in
the garden in Autumn
This summer, I tell myself, will not be last summer!

(For those who've joined us recently, last summer, everything died.)

This summer, I think, will be different!

I do this each spring: enjoy a few rainy days and tell myself I'll lavish the garden beds with water all summer if that's what I need to do to get a decent haul. I'll be out there each evening with the hose and the seaweed solution, cajoling the things into growing.

What's more likely is I'll go into water-conservation mode after the first rain-free week, and spend my evenings out with friends rather than tending tender shoots to greater tenderness. And everything will die.

However, this summer, I have a new plan! That plan is to grow most things in spring, then leave only a few things in from February to the end of March, raising new seedlings inside to be planted out in April. This way, I'll miss the hottest of the hot weather, and avoid wasting water barely keeping things alive.

It's the latest in a long line of vegetable experiments. I expect some successes among the inevitable failures. But the most important thing, I think, is to let yourself be inspired, and to learn a little more each time.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Renovation project: the asparagus bed

When I came to Farmette I made an asparagus bed, and planted something like twelve crowns into it.

The wisdom about making garden beds near the house is true: the asparagus bed became more unkempt than any other part of the place, and is further from the house, too. It's the only true garden bed that doesn't have soaker hose to it (that may be a summer project) and it didn't fare well in those hot weeks of the last, very dry summer. At all.

It's also reclaimed from virgin hillside, so keeping the native grasses and groundcovers out is practically impossible. And then there's the fact that until this year, I've manured it every Autumn, which seems only to have encouraged grass to flourish.

This morning, it was all weeds.

My mum says don't ever use horse manure: it's too full of weed seeds. She's right.  I peeled off the top layer of grass (and decent soil) with the mattock and then wondered what to do with the bed.

The few remaining asparagus crowns are clustered at the ends of the bed. But after mulching all ten fruit trees, and restacking the woodshed, I wasn't jumping at the chance to dig the bed over.

Then I remembered I'd planned today to plant some Jerusalem artichokes. Why not put them into the asparagus bed!? There they could break up the soil over the summer, and I could actually plan (for once in my life) to order some new asparagus crowns before next July.

Here's how the bed looked after I took off the weeds and measured out roughly where the artichokes should go. They're staggered because the long side of the bed faces North, so I wanted each one to get plenty of sun.

I didn't really go hard with the digging. For each one I just took out a shovelful of soil, dropped the artichoke into the hole, and covered it over. Then, of course, there was more mulch. The chickens were a big help with the compost pile I dug this out of, as you can imagine. I think I spent as much time scraping straw back into the pile as I did shovelling compost into the barrow.

This was it in the end. I expect great things of the Jerusalem artichokes.  I'll update you as the season, and matters, progress. But you can expect great things, too.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A history in trees

Trees are a living history, particularly in a place like this where the past sneaks up on you every chance it gets.

A walk in the forest turns up hundred-and-sixty-year-old footpaths; at the bottom of my block there is a clay mine of the same age, and scattered through the bush are the scanty remains of homes, of gold processing plants, of toil from long ago.

Those habitations had gardens, too; in the forest you can find paired pines that once marked the gate to a home, bulbs gone-wild and rambling Elderberry. The historical photos in the local pub show young editions of oaks and pines and elms that remain, older and larger, on the streets here even now.

So to see one of these go this week was a sad affair. It was a truly enormous pine—one of the largest in town—that stood between the school and Farmette. The stump measures somewhere between two and three metres across. It took three days to bring down.

Winds the week before had damaged some other pines at the school, and the teachers had panicked. So a number of old pines—four? Five?—came down in the space of a week or so.

This was sad from an historical perspective. Much as I'm no fan of introduced species in a place like this, it was an amazing tree, and part of the town's heritage. The photos don't do it justice; in the photo below, it stood as tall as the pine on the right, and filled all the space framed by the eucalypts.

The good news? More North-Eastern exposure for Farmette, particularly the living room. Will it make a difference to the heating? To the solar panel output? Time will tell.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Omens and explanations

I can tell when something's awry outside, because the goats get all attentive, their ears and tails up and their faces, for once, pointing in the same direction.

The rooster calls to the hens, draws himself up to full height, and struts around as if he owns the place—but without taking his eyes off whatever the concern is.

This time, it was a big, shiny echidna under a tree near the veggie bed. (They're usually big and shiny. Not much bothers an echidna.)

I watched it and took a few photos and thought, that's odd before going back to what I was doing.

But in the hours afterward I found myself wondering why an echidna had come out of the forest to the cleared, green area to find ants. This had never happened before. Was it the cold weather that had done it? Had he been pushed out of his normal dining spots by an intruder? Was the behaviour tied to the looming spring? What did it say about the local ant colonies? And what did that say about...

I had to consciously stop myself from getting carried away. How easy it is to look for cause and effect, even in the absence of either knowledge of where to search, or the understanding to know when you've found an answer.

Our need to explain the unprecedented is intoxicating. We roll our eyes at children asking "Why?", yet we spend our lives doing the same thing. So much of human endeavour is dedicated to that question in some form or other. Our personal and professional lives are quests to find answers, then give them to others.

But just as important as asking "Why?" is recognising when you don't know enough to perceive the answer, even if it lurches up and punches you in the face. Sometimes, we need more background information before we can even know if there's a question to ask. After all, the answer to "Why?" can be as simple as "Why not?"

If we can't face the true limits of our knowledge, our most ardent search is in vain. We risk seeing cause where there is none, and casting as fateful omens nature's most mundane, truly random events. Which in itself can do more harm than having no answer at all.

This isn't just about echidnas, but it's fair to say I need to find out more about them, too.

Saturday, August 2, 2014


When the train rolled into the station at 12.30am this morning, I saw the few cars in the carpark had ice on their windscreens. Including mine.

I remembered checking my weather app in the taxi on the way to the station just over an hour earlier: it forecast a low of -2 celcius overnight. And it had been snowing when I parked the car.

You never really want a windscreen scraper until that one night or morning of the year when the thing ices over. In fact, the whole car was iced over—the door locks, the doors, the wipers frozen to the windscreen, ice in the washer wells.

Eventually, with the help of water and an errant napkin and a lot of scrubbing and the uniced wipers, I got the windscreen clear enough to drive home—slowly, in case of black ice.  And this morning I woke to the biggest frost I can remember.

It was snowing before I left for work yesterday, and my neighbour had been sending me videos of snow falling all morning. Now it looked as if it had kept up all day—there was still a small ridge of snow against the west side of the goats' house, and everywhere was ice. The ducks' gate was frozen shut; their ponds were iced over.

I let the ducks and hens out (they were about as unimpressed as the goats look in this picture) and ran around taking photos.

It was still freezing, but what else are you going to do? The sun was coming, and this kind of weather is always an event!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A birthday break

Birthdays are great for making you stop, sit up and look around. They are for me, anyway.

This year, I repeated last year's whale-watching expedition.

But I took more time, and fit in a few extra adventures...

I find getting away from home is the best way to get a fresh perspective on the place, and my place in it. But to take a good holiday and echo it a year later gave me an even stronger sense of reflection than usual.

As I stood on the clifftop the first night, I realised that here was a chance to look back on what had happened in the last twelve months, to see how far I felt I'd traveled, and what I thought I'd learned. And so for three days, that was what I did.

I stayed at a budget motel that has views over the water, and where the lovely sounds of the sea reach right into the rooms.

At night I missed the deep, dreamy silence of Farmette. The coastal countryside is greener and easier than the land around here. But when I got home, the wind in the trees reminded me of waves lashing wet sand. And I found myself dreaming of being a cow-herd when I grow up.

The break convinced me that spring really is coming now—and there's so much to do to get ready for it. The blackcurrant is already in bud; the goats are only getting wilder. I came racing home with plans for Farmette, and plans for myself: new goals and a fresh perspective on what I can make of things here.

The birthday break gave me lots of ideas.