Disappearing Natives

I sometimes try to imagine the original inhabitants of this area on my little patch of ground: whether it was important to them, what they did here. This was once their land, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Aboriginal person in this area. Many were massacred by the first white settlers, either with guns or, most wickedly, after eating damper made using flour deliberately laced with arsenic.

We have lost so much by losing these people. They understood this land, its plants and animals and seasons. What would Australia have been like if white people had chosen to respect and build ties with the Aboriginal people? Most probably there would not now be over 50 species of animal extinct. And counting. The beloved koala is endangered. It has no where to live, its habitat sacrificed to new housing developments. As the forested land near us is owned by the water board and therefore not for development, many koalas are relocated here after being rescued. Some have been orphaned after their mothers were killed on the road. Here they have space to live, but are still at risk of attack by the wild dogs that no one has yet been able to eradicate. These are domestic dogs that have been dumped in the bush by owners who no longer want them and have then bred with the native dingo. They are cunning and elusive. A few pet dogs have been taken by wild dogs along our road.

I sometimes hear koalas growling at night out in the bush. At first I thought I was hearing wild pigs, another feral animal that roams this area. It would be a rather terrifying sound to someone sleeping out in the bush at night and who didn’t know what it was. The neighbours actually spotted one in a tree on their property recently. In almost nine years, we’ve seen just one.

At least there are plenty of wallabies. Early in the morning and in the late afternoon you hear them crashing through the bush. If they’re moving you can see them; when they stop, they melt into the surroundings. Sadly, I hit one one afternoon coming home. It sprang out of the bush at the side of the road a split second before I hit it. I didn’t even have time to hit the breaks. I pulled over and went back to see if it was dead. Mercifully it was, but here was a beautiful creature that I was responsible for killing.
As I was driving home late at night a couple of weeks ago, a bandicoot ran out onto the road between me and the car in front. It ran to the middle, then back then forward again, its nocturnal eyes confused by the headlights. I tried to slow down and hoped that it would get across the road before I hit it. I thought maybe I’d just missed it, but felt a bump under the back wheel. Another little creature dead.

Every day you see possums, snakes, goannas, lizards and birds that have been killed on the roads. I once saw a duck that had been hit. Strangely it was sitting upright, but covered in blood, and its partner duck kept circling it and nudging it. Our (fairly recent) ancestors having eliminated the native human inhabitants, it’s as though we are now, albeit unintentionally, gradually eliminating the native animals.

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Illness

Illness is never welcome, but sometimes it can be a blessing.
Yesterday I was struck down with a vomiting bug. Every time I moved my stomach began to cramp and a fresh wave of nausea would grip me. This morning the worst of it is over, but I have no energy and no appetite. So I sit on the verandah with a book, but I keep being distracted by the sounds around me. The heat is gradually building as it did yesterday. The bees are loudly swarming in a tree with small, white flowers and in the few frangipanis. Constant birdcall fills the air, particularly from the bell-birds. These never used to be heard from our house, but if you walked up the road a bit you could hear them calling from the forested gully. Now they seem to be everywhere. They have been a problem in other parts of the country, pushing out other birds and taking over. I hope that isn’t happening here.
As a child I used to love hearing bell-birds and when we drove through areas where they lived, I would wind the car window down so I could hear their clear notes. Now I live with them.

The butcher bird’s penetrating song still rises above all else now and then: the same few notes. They compose a different one each spring.

There are frequent, albeit brief, windows when I can hear only natural sounds–nothing man-made. Strange how the man-made sounds–cars, trucks, planes, earth-movers–suggest destruction.

We were out to dinner on Saturday night. One of our dishes was some red-claw yabbies. As I ate them I thought about where they had come from and imagined them quietly swimming along in whatever body of water they had lived, scouring the bottom for food. I looked around me and wondered if anyone else gave a thought to where the food they were enjoying had come from. All the plants and animals they were eating had once lived in the quiet, slow environment of the natural world. Even if farmed, they moved and grew at their own pace, oblivious of their fate.

Most of us are so disconnected from the natural world that we can’t know the harm we are doing to it, even as the number of hot days increase, the glaciers and polar icecaps melt, bushfires rage and floods devastate. But our disconnection is, I believe, also doing harm to our mental and physical health. Life is too fast for us. We were never designed to run from one thing to the next like we do. Even those who appear to cope fine with the fast pace of life, even thrive on it; doesn’t it catch up with them eventually?

Our dam is almost dry and our tank is getting low. If we had to grow our own food, we would be in serious trouble. But we don’t. We can go to the shop. That’s where our food comes from. We can pretend we don’t rely on the natural world.

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Far from the madding crowd.

For the last two afternoons I have taken Maggie down to the neighbours’ dam for a swim. Their dam is much bigger than ours–usually about three metres deep–but I’ve never seen it so low. But it didn’t matter to Maggie, who was in and paddling before I even got down there. She does some laps, swims to the side, gets out and shakes herself, then stands there waiting for me to start throwing sticks. I think she would fetch sticks from the water all day if I kept throwing them.
But the thing that struck me while I stood there in the late afternoon, was the calm stillness around me. The trees stand quietly. The birds flit from branch to branch, twittering to one another and occasionally swooping down to dip in the water. They fly back up onto their branch and shake themselves, rearranging their feathers before diving down again for another dip. The sun still has some warmth in it, but loses its fierceness as it goes down and the softness of Autumn is already tempering everything; having weathered the brutal heat and hard light of summer, everything breathes a quiet sigh of relief.
I often think of those in the city when I’m sitting by the dam or walking along the track above the river in the morning. I can hear the roar of cars from the main road as people race to school and work, but the countryside is indifferent to it all. Far from the frantic pace of the inner city, of people hurrying across intersections, while impatient drivers wait for the lights to change, with the roar and rush and beeping of the pedestrian lights, the natural world carries on doing what it has always done, oblivious of the worries and stress of human beings who need to be somewhere. Trees quietly grow, occasionally rustled by a breeze or, when storms sweep through, standing firm or sometimes giving up a branch or even their whole trunk if they must. The wallabies lay low in the grassy paddocks during the heat of the day and creep down to the water holes in the early morning and late afternoon, bounding away in a moment if startled.
Yesterday, as I hung out the washing, a single bell-bird called from a tree nearby: a single, clear note that rang out and was answered by others. I stood and listened and thought how fortunate I am.

Waiting for the rain.

We waited all summer for the rain to come, but it never did. Now we are officially in Autumn. Last night there was a brief heavy downpour and there have been brief showers today. Our tank is about full, but our dam is almost dry.

Before I watered my plants yesterday afternoon I walked down to check the water level. As Maggie ran ahead of me as usual a wallaby bounded away up the hill into the next property. I tell her she mustn’t chase the wallabies; goannas are fine, but not wallabies. The float, which is attached to the hose from the pump to keep it from sinking to the bottom and sucking up mud, is not floating. It is resting on the bottom of the dam. I don’t turn on the pump in case it does suck up mud and breaks. I finally have to water the plants with a watering can using the house tank. This can’t go on.

I constructed a vegetable garden up on the hill a few months ago. My existing garden beds have become too shaded as the trees have grown up over them. To lop them would be very expensive as they are on a slope and not very accessible. I haphazardly planted beans and lettuce and silverbeet seedlings in the new garden. I put a net over them, but as they grew, had to pull it back to give them room. Inevitably, the chooks or scrub turkeys or both destroyed them. It serves me right; I need to fence and net them properly. A pumpkin vine survives, but I hold slim hope of getting any pumpkins. You can’t garden half-heartedly. At least I still have lots of herbs.

But this lack of rain is worrying. Bushfire is a constant threat in the back of my mind, even though Queensland doesn’t usually have big fires, unlike the southern states. It’s humid here in the summer, whereas it’s very dry in the summer down south. Our bushfire season is late winter and spring–August to November when the rain usually returns. The Rural Fire Brigade have been warning of a bad season every year for the past few years, but not much happens. When we have a lot of rain over the summer they say it means there’ll be lots of fuel to burn. If we have little rain over summer, does this mean there will be less fuel? I think it means everything will be that much drier and more likely to burn. It’s been more than 40 years since there were big fires in this area. Perhaps that means we’re overdue.