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Something is stealing my water.
It’s actually the chooks’ water, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t an important matter, one of life and death. They have a ten-day waterer, but in the last two weeks it’s been depleted every day, and the hens aren’t impressed, not at all. Could it be that with this unseasonally warm winter and spring they are thirstier than usual? But even at the height of summer they don’t drink this much.
Could the sparrows be the ones who are drinking it, the sparrows who are determined to drive me crazy with their pesky ways?
It just might be that there’s something else in my little garden.
Every morning I wake to find the mulch disturbed, some of it flicked over the paving and stepping stones. I always broom it back to where I want it – that is, after all, the whole point of having a garden – but the next morning there they are again, the scatterings of mulch. Something is digging, and it might also be drinking.
Recently, if I’m up early enough and look out into the hopeful dawn, I sometimes see a darting shape, almost as if it’s been flung across the yard by sling-shot. Yesterday morning, I waited for the light to come and got a better look: it’s small, and black, with a bright red beak. It’s a blackbird.
They say blackbirds came to Australia in the 1850s via Melbourne, and since then have formed colonies up the east coast, particularly in the lush, basaltic gardens of the Blue Mountains. But also, quite evidently, in my Goulburn yard (now that Cat the Ripper is nothing more than an ache in my stomach that won’t go away).
Is it the blackbird that’s stealing the water? It’s possible that it is.
Unless I also have a snake. But let’s not go there.
Sometimes I’ve seen a large brown hawk sitting on the ridge of the old shed that is my garage. The hawk could be after the sparrows, or the chooks, or even my blackbird. What a little world is in my garden. There are days when I wish that I could sort myself out, forget about this whole writing madness, and just let plants and birds be all I need, let this small patch of life sustain me, in essence be my water – so I could live out my days simply sipping.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 16 November 2013.)
Each Monday afternoon, at 5pm, he leaves the writing room, calls The Old Lady of the House to attention, gets her into her lead, and leaves his home for the hills. Past the old houses, all that red brick and corrugated iron, the good, thick chimneys, some windows with stained glass. Past the houses from the ’60s and ’70s (not two of architecture’s best decades) and past the newer houses on their big blocks, massive blocks, until they’re five-acre lots complete with post-and-rail fences and four-wheel-drives in the driveways, gazebos too, and water features.
It’s not until he takes a side road and the walking becomes steeper and he and the dog begin to puff that his mind starts to settle and empty. For this is what he wants: emptiness. There’s no Facebook up here, no Twitter, and no one can phone him because the mobile’s back on the fridge where it should be.
The road climbs ever higher, and now there are small paddocks with sheep grazing absently between stands of struggling eucalypts. The sheep are oblivious to the view, but they shouldn’t be – it’s expansive, and endless, which is not so much a fact but a feeling. To the west is the low rump of a range, wind-turbines barely visible; if they’re turning he can’t tell.
But it’s the south that he’s here to see. The south is a very different view: glorious, rolling, distant mountains; they must be somewhere between Braidwood and Canberra. The blue could be from a different planet.
So here he is, late on Monday afternoon, up on the ridge at the edge of town, looking south into that other, mountainous world.
Decades ago, when studying landscape architecture for his undergraduate degree, he discovered J. Appleton’s ‘Prospect-Refuge’ theory. It explains much about the world. Humans are attracted to views because they can gauge what sort of weather’s coming, or see an advancing enemy. Refuge is all about protection no matter what, which is why we like to sit in public places with our backs against a wall. It makes sense.
When, an hour later, he’s back home and the Old Lady is having a well-deserved drink from her water-bowl, he googles J. Appleton and his or her theory. But there are no references to it. Not one. Did he make it up?
Even if he did, it doesn’t mean that it’s not true.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 21 October 2013.)
It’s a rare event for a dictionary to fail me but that’s exactly what happened a minute ago: my usually trustworthy Oxford Australian Dictionary (1992) couldn’t come up with the goods, and what a sinking feeling that was. Then the unspeakable happened: my Roget’s Thesaurus (1976) failed as well. I reached for the Pears’ Cyclopaedia (1932) but it too fell short. I pulled my copy of Soule’s Synonyms (1904) off the shelf – at last there was hope.
What have I been looking for? A definition of lane.
Where I live, a town dating from the 1820s, we have many lanes; in fact, we’re cross-hatched with them. I adore them. Consisting of two roughly parallel lines of compacted gravel or dirt bordered by knee-high grass, those narrow throughways between old houses. I walk the dog down them. I take them when going to the mainstreet.
I remember being a little boy and visiting cousins out at Young and they had a rear lane; how lucky I thought they were. For two years in the 1990s I lived at Cottesloe Beach, Perth, and there was a lane behind my flat; how lucky I thought I was. I’ve named the on-line literary journal I co-edit Verity La after a lane in the Sydney Building, Canberra, and in Hong Kong recently my camera regularly found itself pointed towards backstreets and laneways.
These days, I might walk the lanes of my home-town because they offer protection from the winds, but mostly I take them because you can peer into backyards – wild veggie patches, saggy chookyards, an outdoor dunny turned into a wood-store, a rusted metal seat in the sun, a broken cricket bat…
When walking a lane there’s a sense that words like private and public don’t matter, that life can’t be categorised by what is yours and what is mine. Lanes are semi-places, they’re reserved, they’re reticent. That’s why dictionaries struggle with them.
The best the Oxford could do was “a narrow road or street”, which is downright wrong. The Roget’s was able to suggest words like “short-cut”, but in the end this is clutching at straws. Perhaps in 1902 there was a better understanding of these things, because the Soule’s got as far as “alley, narrow passage or way”; as definitions go it’s prosaic but at least there’s accuracy.
How would I define lane?
I wouldn’t, I can’t; I too would fail miserably. I’ll just keep walking them, being with them, because their elusiveness makes me feel whole.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 24 March 2012. This is my fiftieth piece for the First Word column; many thanks to Gillian Lord)