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.

The Leaving of Esme

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It’s been a while since my last post and I don’t really know why, except to say that I guess life has intruded.
Since I last wrote, my oldest and dearest chicken Esme, had to be dispatched. She had been failing for some time. Meghan, the ever compassionate and diligent vet, tried but couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Some antibiotics later, some worming solution, isolation in the guinea pig hutch for a few days; none of it worked. I watched when I threw the food scraps to the chooks as Esme pretended to eat, picking up bits but dropping them again. Such was the unusual nature of this avian creature, that even at her sickest, the other chickens never ostracised her.
Usually, at the first sign of illness, before any human could notice, the other chickens will start to pick on the affected chicken, chasing them away from water and food and even violently setting upon them as they did with Sylvia when she was ill. (Although given Sylvia’s bullying tactics I can’t help thinking that was karma).
But no one ever gave Esme any grief. No predator ever took her, even though she free-ranged whenever she wanted, where ever she wanted. What can it be about a chicken that would make other chickens intrinsically respect them?
Esme would escape the confines of the coop and come up to the house and start clucking if I was late taking the scraps down. One afternoon I was so late that she actually came to the back screen door and began banging on it. When I called “Essie!” to her in a sing-song voice, she would shake her head vigorously as though the sound tickled her brain. She was unlike any other chicken.
When Esme disappeared one night when she was very sick, I feared something had finally taken her in her weakened state, and I was sad. But at eleven o’clock the next morning I looked up from my desk to see her pecking about on the lawn as usual. I was astonished, but shouldn’t have been surprised. She had disappeared on many occasions overnight and always turned up. I entertained the vain hope that perhaps she’d made a miraculous recovery, but when I looked again she was sitting in the garden and flies were hovering around her. I knew then that her time had come.
You may think, like my husband, that a chicken should be dispatched with an axe. I could no more end Esme’s life with an axe than I could my dog, Maggie’s and so we set off on Essie’s last journey to the vet.
Meghan looked crestfallen that she had failed to diagnose the problem and could do nothing more to help. I promised her I wasn’t going to fall apart; she said she couldn’t guarantee she wouldn’t. She took me through to the treatment area where she had everything ready to go. I placed Esme on the table. She was so weak now that she couldn’t even sit upright, so I lay her on her side. Meghan slipped a small plastic cone-shaped mask over her little head and let the anaesthetic gas put her to sleep. Esme’s eyes closed and she lay breathing evenly. Meghan then lifted a wing and sought a vein in which to inject the drug that would stop her breathing, unceremoniously called “Lethabarb”. The veins were tiny. Using an insulin syringe and needle, Meghan drew up the green liquid and injected it into the vein. It took a few doses because Esme’s circulation had all but shut down. And then I realised she was no longer breathing.
I left her for Meghan to perform an autopsy for her own and the veterinary students interest, to see what had caused her illness. They would then safely dispose of her. If we tried to bury her on the property she might be dug up by a goanna. Rather gruesome for us, but potentially fatal for the goanna, which would also get a dose of the Lethabarb.
And so Esme, who was in the first ever batch of chickens I bought, before I knew the ways of chickens, and who strangely commanded the respect of her fellow chickens to the end, at the age of 8 years, departed. When I got out of the car on arriving home, I swear I heard her once more. I like to think she was saying goodbye.

PS: She had a diseased liver. We still don’t know why.

No oranges this year

I am in a lather of sweat, the cicadas in the gum trees are building to an industrial level of noise and many plants that have been valiantly hanging on to life are finally succumbing, their leaves draining of colour, turning crisp and shrivelled. It’s hot. An orange tree that has been growing itself by the main road, providing oranges to whomever can get there with a ladder first is, for the first time, showing signs of stress. It hasn’t rained here properly since a weekend of three violent storms dumped heavy rain in early December. Our tank is barely a quarter full and our dam is but a muddy puddle.

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Last weekend we holed up inside in the airconditioning–something we only use in extreme heat–while the temperature outside climbed into the high 30s. I had to let the chooks out of their pen so they could find cooler places. They quickly made their way up the hill, wings held out from their bodies, beaks open and panting, and made for the cool of the dirt under the house. I filled a dish of water and set it down for them. They just stood and stared at me. I had never seen them so stressed.

The television showed footage of bushfires in Tasmania and New South Wales. Another fire wiped out a resort near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, where the temperature hasn’t fallen under 40 yet this year. Last week a heavy pall of smoke from fires on nearby Bribie Island drifted over us, obscuring the mountains; we could barely see out the front gate from the house.

Afternoon smoke haze

Normally at this time of year our tank is overflowing; we watch the overflow tank overflow and wish we could catch all that excess water. I hang wet clothes under the house and when I check them the next day they’re still damp and starting to smell. I refuse to buy a clothes dryer because they use so much power and the clothes dry eventually. And I don’t want to contribute any more to this overtaxed planet, suffocating under an excess of carbon dioxide and starting to sweat under it’s ever thickening blanket of gases.

When I was in high school, back in the 80s, our science teacher, Mr. Hawkin, used to talk passionately and urgently about “the greenhouse effect”. He told us that the buildup of emissions from the burning of fossil fuels would cause the planet to heat up, that we would see extreme weather events, that it would become increasingly hard to grow our food as periods of drought increased in length and frequency. Occasionally, in the media, you would see the greenhouse effect referred to, but it was treated like something mad, radical scientists were scaremongering about and anyway, it was way off in the future like flying cars. Hawkin used to make me feel shit-scared, but then the bell would go and I’d forget about it.

Mr. Hawkin is probably retired now. He’d be in his 60s. I imagine he kept telling his students about this mythical “greenhouse effect”. I wonder if anyone ever acted on anything he said. I think, certainly in recent years, I have always striven to conserve electricity and not waste things, but then my mother was of the depression and war years, so it was probably her careful ways that instilled this. But I wonder if anyone has actually taken action based on what he told us, studying science at university, buying a hybrid car, not using plastic bags at the checkout, striving for self-sufficiency. Not enough people listened to him or any of the other scientists who tried and are still trying to warn us. I think the time for warnings is well and truly over. Now we have to work out how we’re going to survive. There may be no oranges from that tree by the road this year, and that will just be the beginning.

Dog and Chicken go to the Vet.

On Monday morning, as my dog, Maggie, jumped up to put her front paws on the side of the bed to greet me as she does every morning, she let out a sharp, high-pitched yelp. She then slunk away and wouldn’t come when I called her back. I got up and sat on the floor with her to check her out, but couldn’t find anything: no ticks, no obvious injury. She was very quiet and didn’t even hassle me for her breakfast. I decided not to feed her in case it was serious. She tried to put her front paws up on my knees but recoiled, and when she went downstairs, did so very slowly and carefully.

As soon as the vet opened I called them, explained the problem and they told me to come in at 10. In the mean time, Maggie retreated to her bed and sat there shivering in obvious pain. I started to get really worried. What if she had some internal damage and was bleeding? What if some poisonous thing had bitten her and the venom was taking effect? Should I take her up to the vet early instead of waiting? But I didn’t want to look like one of those neurotic pet owners.

So in order to feel like I was doing something I gave her some rescue remedy. Now I have never experienced any miraculous effects from rescue remedy but always keep it in my bag. If you can give a few drops to yourself or someone else in times of extremis you at least feel useful. So I managed to get a few drops onto the outside of Maggie’s lips and she licked them off. She sat there looking as mournful as ever, but I decided there was nothing more I could do, so I left her to rest on her bed and got on with my chores.

I walked out to the kitchen and picked up the scrap bucket for the chickens and was about to head out the door when Maggie appeared. Taking the scraps to the chooks is the highlight of her day and she wasn’t going to miss it. Lo and behold, she rushed ahead of me as usual, took off down the stairs with no trouble and was soon up on her hind legs against the side of the pen barking at the doves that always get trapped in there. Could it be that rescue remedy actually works?

Now I had an appointment at the vet, but what seemed to be a perfectly healthy dog! I equivocated, but decided to tale her anyway, just in case.

But just in case she was fine, I decided to maximise my visit. While down at the chooks, I got hold of Esme, the misbehaving chook, and had a good look at her. She had chicken shit caked all around her nether regions and I wondered whether there might be some infection as a result and this was causing her strange behaviour. So I tucked her under my arm, brought her up to the house, cleared the dirty newspaper from the carry cage and put some fresh stuff in and locked her in there. She was not impressed. Not only was she now closely confined, I had taken her straight after I threw the scraps into the pen and she was missing out. She kept shifting around and giving me menacing looks.

So at 10, I walked into the vet with one apparently healthy dog and one outraged chicken. Dogs being superior to chickens in the minds of humans,   Maggie was examined first. After prodding and poking and twisting her this way and that, the vet could find no obvious defect and decided it must have been a muscle spasm that had resolved itself. I didn’t mention the rescue remedy. She told me to keep Maggie confined and quiet, just to be on the safe side. I nodded obediently.

Next, Esme was extracted from her cage and placed on the table. The vet felt her all over, lifted her wings and listened to her chicken heart and lungs. Esme’s response to this was to make pull herself up to full height and crow as loudly as possible. But if she felt indignant at that, the best was yet to come. The vet pulled her gloves on and committed the ultimate humiliation. Even Brian, the rooster, had never violated Esme to such an extent. She gave another outraged crow. The vet declared her nether regions healthy but took away a little sample to examine more closely.

While we waited, Maggie paced around a few times, told me she was bored and wanted to go now and sat down and curled up on the floor in resignation. Meanwhile, Esme was enjoying the unusual experience of being stroked by a human. As I ran my hand along her silky, black feathers she first sat down and then her eyelids began to flutter and her head slowly droop. She was asleep! As I continued to stroke her I pondered on the absurdity of my life that I had been brought to a point where I was standing in a room with a sulking dog and a somnolent chicken who hadn’t been feeling quite herself.

The vet eventually returned to say she’d found nothing unusual in the sample but it might be best to worm Esme and all the other chickens. I felt nervous. How big were the other chickens, she asked. Bigger than Esme, I replied. And we have a rooster who’s quite big. Hmmm. Could we weigh him? I put my head in my hands and groaned. No, don’t worry, it’s ok, she replied. I said, no I didn’t mind doing it, but could just visualise capturing the rooster under cover of darkness, while he was sleepy, and trying to make him stand on a set of bathroom scales and keep him still long enough. We’d already had Brian to the vet after he ate a giant rubber band, most of which was tangled around his legs. He was found stumbling around the carport making a loud, strangled noise. The vet had knocked him out, then tried to pull the rubber band out, but it was firmly fixed somewhere deep inside. She pulled it out as far as possible, snipped it off and we took him home. He’s never crowed properly since. Yeah, maybe we could weigh him…

So I left the vet with two apparently healthy animals, slightly poorer and with two bottles of liquid that I’m supposed to administer to the flock. I was also instructed to cut away the shit encrusted feathers from Esme’s bum and wash it lest she become flyblown and they eat away her flesh. God I love that chook.

Come on Esme. It won't hurt a bit.