A flash of gold and a stash of blue

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Season of mists and mellow tinnies: the Hawkesbury in fall

Autumn lasted for aroundabout a fortnight this year.  The endless summer of an apocalyptic El Nino wrapped up in mid-May, giving the deciduous trees an extremely tight schedule to dispense with their leaves before this weekend’s torrential rain.

We’ve had autumnal glory in the kitchen as well.  When Keats talked about the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, I’m not sure he was thinking about bananas.  In theory our crop of tiny fragrant fruits should have been perfect for lunchboxes, but I made the mistake of describing the first-ripened one as “Geoffrey”.   After this, not only Geoffrey but all his brothers were deemed “too cute” to be eaten.

As well as the gold in the fruitbowl, there’s been plenty of gold in the trees.  The yellow-tailed black cockatoos are back in force, mewling and crunching in the radiata pines.

Yellow tail and autumn leaves horizontal

Fly by from a yellow tailed black cockatoo

And for the first time this year, I’ve noticed the migrating yellow-faced honeyeaters.  Thousands of them pass through the Blue Mountains most autumns, it seems, but this year they’ve been funnelled between the mountains and the coast, through the Hunter Valley.  I first spotted them darting through the riverside casuarinas at Karuah National Park, on our trip north, but since we’ve been back, I’ve seen flocks of them with their travelling companions, the noisy friarbirds, pouring up the Hawkesbury.  I’ve even seen them on the way to work, taking a moment out on their journey to watch the commuters boarding the morning train at Berowra Station.

But not all the autumnal excitement has been touched with gold.  Last weekend, halfway through detaining my broad beans (fencing, netting and a mulch of lavender and liquidambar – doubtless all in vain) I spotted a little collation of royal blue underneath the pomegranate tree. Nerf gun ammunition, the lid of a milk container, a peg.  Signs that we need to tidy up the yard, and a hint that randy bowerbirds might just do it for us.

 

More autumnal reflections from our backyard:

Let them eat light!

Autumn in terminal decline?

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Backyard gold

Experiments with kiwifruit

Thanks to exhaustive if faintly intrusive matchmaking with a ladder and a paintbrush back in October, we have a bumper crop in the kiwi arbor.

Four years ago the northern wall of the kitchen was occupied by a dank lean-to, usable only for turning your bike into the kind of rust-bucket that can be safely left overnight at train stations.  But we don’t need these kinds of amenities.  If you leave your bike unlocked outside the pub in Berowra, it might get taken by a drunk on his wobbly way home, but if it does, the bartender will recognise the miscreant on the CCTV footage and leave a friendly message on the guy’s answering machine to return it in the morning.  Even the pelotons of MAMILS leave their featherlight carbon-fibre bikes untethered at the end-of-ride coffee shop.

great sky near Berowra for crop

Blue skies over Berowa

So, with no need for a bespoke bicycle corroding zone, we replaced the corrugated iron over the frame of the lean-to with couple of precociously fruitful Sweetie kiwifruit vines, a low chill variety from Daleys Fruits in Maleny.  Last year we had a handful of fruit that the possums seemed enjoy.  If they’re planning to eat the whole crop this year they’d better be hungry.

I’m feigning disinterest in what happens to my kiwi harvest but let’s be real – the last few years have turned me from a lentil-eating hippie into an antipodean Mr McGregor, the pointlessly enraged gardener who would love to turn Peter Rabbit and his fluffy little brothers and sisters into a delicious warming casserole.

Don’t get me wrong, while I do covet the infinitely soft possum-fur jumpers that vengeful New Zealanders knit from our invasive marsupials, I’m not spending my nights under the kiwi trellis with a gun in my hand.  That said, the rugby-league style gum shield I wear overnight to stop me grinding my teeth to dust (expensive, but since it doubles as a contraceptive, probably good value) does date from about the time I started trying to grow fruit in the backyard.

No, I’m taking a less brutal and more scientific approach to harvest-management.  I have a control – the fruit I’m leaving untouched on the vine.  And I have two intervention groups – there’s the kiwis I’ve picked early, hard as furry brown rocks, and left to ripen in the fruitbowl, and then there’s the bunches I’ve put into protective custody in mesh exclusion bags.

I maintain a cautious optimism that I will get to eat at at least some ripe fruit.  This upbeat attitude has nothing to do with early success.  While commercial kiwifruit are usually picked unripe and can be kept on ice for two months or more, so far my early harvest has withered slightly but maintained a mouth puckering acidity, as evidenced by our school holiday Ph testing activity.

I can’t seem to kick the habit of growing red cabbages, despite the fact that no one in the house, myself included, really wants to eat them.  They’re just so pretty!

Purple cabbage leaves wide crop

Red cabbage abstract

So apart from feeding the leaves to the cabbage white butterflies that my 9 year old keeps in her bedroom as “pets”, what else can you do with leafy brassicas too chewy for coleslaw?  Well, you can boil them up and use the purple cooking water as a very cool litmus test.

There’s nothing kids like more than squeezing out half the toothpaste tube, making potions out of bicarb, tomato sauce and milk, or filling every single glass in the kitchen with disgusting viscous liquids.  We even ended up with a boys v girls Ph contest – boys obviously preferring alkaline household products, while as we all know, historically girls inevitably favour acids.  Including our long-cossetted kiwifruit, which turned our cabbage water a pleasing deep pink.

Litmus test from the side cropped

The results of the purple cabbage litmus tests

Early indications are the mesh exclusion bags aren’t doing much better than the fruit bowl in the protection and ripening caper. I can’t remember a pre-masticated fruit being present when I tied the bag around this bunch.  We seem to have a Houdini of the rodent world somewhere on the premises.  The outcome so far is not as dismal, at least, as 2014’s doomed attempt at protecting peaches.  The mammal and insect pests deployed a pincer movement – rats gnawing a hole in the bags and fruitflies pouring through to finish the job.

No, my optimism about getting to wrap my laughing gear around some home-grown kiwifruit sorbet is based on the barely nibbled fruit discarded the ground under the vines.  Whatever is chowing down on my crop just isn’t very keen.  Perhaps they have a sweet tooth.

How, I hear you ask, can you tell when to harvest your kiwifruit?  Well, apparently if you cut one open and the seeds have turned black it’s ready for harvest: its starches will turn slowly to sugar in storage. But there is a more scientific way.  Sugar solutions refract light, particularly polarised light, differently from your ordinary tap water. So your go-to-device for measuring sweetness (reported in Brix) is a refractometer.  The savvy kiwi farmer picks her fruit at a bit over 6 degrees Brix, it seems.  Let’s just hope the brush tailed possums can’t tell their pouches from their polarising light and the satin bowerbirds couldn’t track down a refractometer on ebay.

Love, death and stray cats

It’s not often that I find myself on same page at Tony Abbott, Australia’s climate change denying PM.  But having exhausted the potential of their previous three word slogans, the conservative government recently moved on to a new one: “Kill the Cats”.  After this week’s events I think I could find some common cause with Tones on this theme.

I know you shouldn’t have favourites but Shyla was my favourite chicken.

She came to our place as a bundle of fluff and managed, uniquely, to survive our enthusiastic but doofus chick rearing.  She was the hen you would trip over at the chookhouse gate, where she would be pacing up and down the second the back door opened.  And then she would follow you round the garden waiting for lovely things like grapes or curlworms or weevil ridden comestibles and if none of those were forthcoming, peck your butt to see if it would make an adequate alternative.  Her response to a human approaching was to squat and jiggle in what I think translates loosely from hen as “ok, you can mount me now”.  Which was faintly disturbing, while at the same time suggested an affection of some strange kind.

And that’s not even mentioning the fact that she was our one reliable layer, producing a daily egg all winter long.

Since she was such a useful, friendly and characterful girl, she was obviously the first choice for a midnight snack when a great big feral cat came visiting our yard in the dead of night this past week.  I don’t want to sound callous but the bloody thing could have taken Snowball the silky bantam – smaller, ancient, more visible in dim lighting, huffy around humans, laying eggs only when the weather and the tides are just right.

But no, it had to grab Shyla, the life and soul of the backyard. The Top Chook took one for the team.

Everyone’s very subdued down in the bottom of the garden now, accepting the indignity of being carried, half-asleep, from their perilous perch on the edge of the fig tree barrel, to secure lodgings in Palm Beach, the long-abandoned vernacular modernist chicken coop.

Shyla was the victim of our hubris – the one who paid the ultimate price of six years without locking the chooks up at night.

So what changed in our suburban ecosystem?  I reckon it’s the departure of the (somewhat annoying) little yappy dog next door.  The neighbours on the other side have a laconic German Shepherd who doesn’t even chase the chooks.  But the yapster would have given a cat a run for its money.  If Tony and cronies want to get rid of feral cats, it’s not red-necks with guns that will do the job.  Scientists reckon the best strategy is to restore the top predators – dingoes.  Based on anecdotal evidence – the death toll in our backyard – I reckon they’re right.

With sufficient vigilance we can protect the chooks but we can’t do much for the bandicoot that still noses its way through the veggie garden at night.  Bandicoots recognise dingoes (and dogs more generally) – they know to avoid them.  In fact, some scientists have argued that this makes dingoes – placentals, only here for 50,000 years or so – natives.  But bandicoots still haven’t figured out cats.

I’m trying to find some positives in the situation.  My latest planting of broad beans has sprouted, magically unmolested.  I could attribute this success to my lavender mulch, or to the carefully secured veggie net, or the cold weather that has probably driven the local rodent population indoors (where we live.  Gulp.)  But perhaps the feral feline took a few rats as a chaser after devouring poor Shyla.  It’s a choice, it seems, eggs or beans.  Not fair!  I want both!

It’s all very sad.  Our eight year old got it right as she sobbed herself to sleep the other night: “you know where there’s someone in your care and you can’t protect them, you feel like there’s a hole in your heart”.  Yeah, babe I do.

I’ve been thinking about another lost lovely one this week.  The twelfth anniversary of our son’s death has just passed us by.  Born, unexpectedly, with a lopsided and innovatively organised brain, he was a bonny baby boy, whose plump little body suffered many seizures and would never really do quite what he wanted.  He had a short but lovely life, that ended suddenly and surprisingly (we shouldn’t really have been surprised) before dawn on on a beautiful winter’s morning, just like these last glorious days.

For a time, during the relentless rumination that followed our sleepy newborn’s diagnosis, I spent a lot of time thinking about stray cats.

Stray cats crapping in our pocket sized backyard.  Stray cats with a payload of toxoplasmosis gondii, “one of the most successful parasites on Earth”.  It inhabits the bodies of around half of the world’s human population, and plenty of other warm blooded animals too, but only reproduces only inside pussycats, emerging to infect other creatures, the parasite transmitted through cysts lurking in its poo.

Recently there’s been a pop science fascination with the consequences of toxoplasmosis infection.  While (most of the many many) infected people are asymptomatic, researchers have found that rats with the parasite become risk takers.  Losing their natural fear of cats, some even become attracted to the scent of their predator (not coincidentally, the parasite’s host).  Humans with toxo, too, seems to have somewhat different personalities than those without.  This idea, that humans – philosophers and planet conquerers – might have our very selves shaped by a single celled organism, disturbs and fascinates us.

If you are unlucky enough to be infected for the first time in the early weeks of pregnancy, your baby can be born with congenital toxoplasmosis, with possible serious consequences for the child’s health.  Toxo can cause problems with vision and hearing, seizures and intellectual disability.  Which is why I found myself thinking so long and hard, a decade or so ago, about my lack of gardening gloves and the roaming neighbourhood moggies.

In the end, my ruminations about infected cat shit went nowhere, like the dwelling upon dioxins from the incinerated corpses of foot-and-mouth infected cows that filled the air that year, or my endless Googling on the chromosonal origins of pachygyria (“Come back if you have another one with the same thing” the genetic counsellor suggested.  We were floored.  Although not quite so amazed as when she asked us, the Scotsman and the Australian, if we were cousins)

Very very occasionally Tony Abbott, MP, is accidentally right: sometimes shit just happens.

How do we make sense of these things, the deaths of our beloved children and the untimely demise of our pet chickens?  How are they connected, the miraculous germination of broadbeans and the midnight movements of predators?  The passing of parasites and personality traits from rats to cats to cat lovers?  The hidden life of the soil and the secrets in our bloodstream that can elate us and destroy us, often at the very same time?

Bandicoot in the Sacred Garden

Is it just me, or does this sound like the title of an atrocious 1970s Australian erotic film? Admittedly I’ve never heard a bloke describe their wedding tackle as any kind of marsupial.  Is this a failure of the national imagination? Possibly.

Anyway, the “sacred garden” is not as lewd as it sounds – it’s the name our eight year old has given the veggie patch that shelters beneath the frame of our ancient trampoline.

I’m not quite sure why she views it as a holy site.  It could be the shape.  In the organic gardening world, it seems, circles, mandalas and spirals have some mystical life-giving power that doesn’t flow through your old fashioned rectangular plot.   I’m skeptical, but at this stage in our death-match with the brush turkeys I’ll take any advantage I can get.  From chook dome to remodelled tramp to recycled children’s bicycle wheels, there are no corners here.

And the Mandala of Aviary Wire does seem to have worked its magic on my brassicas, despite extreme flimsiness.  Having been abandoned by the side of the road after a rich and full life getting between bouncing children and broken ankles, the trampoline net is more a spiritual than a physical barrier to aerial raiders, held in place by optimism and zip ties.  But to date, my newly planted garlic – positioned, of course, in a protective ring around the broccoli – has remained in the ground and my crop of red mustard and baby bok choi, while small, is perfectly formed.

It’s not looking so good on the broad bean front, despite a lavender and rose geranium mulch that makes the chook dome smell like a seniors’ underpants’ drawer.  I’d like to think a benevolent long-nosed bandicoot is squeezing in under the wire to snaffle the curl grubs amongst the asparagus crowns.  But I suspect that in reality I’m hosting rodents with keen insights into the politics of eco-nationalism.  “When you go in and take the beans, Rupert, make sure you leave a cone-shaped hole.  That way the marsupial-loving hippie will never dare leave rat poison out again.”  If only I owned an infra-red video camera with a motion sensor I might find out for sure – or at least collect some footage of hirsute visitors for that retro Ocker erotica.

 

Of snakes and snakebeans

This sight out the window as I stumbled into the kitchen for the first cup of tea of a Monday morning made the caffeine hit mostly redundant.   Snakey the diamond python’s back in town.

Last time we saw her was early spring a year ago. I looked up from the computer, wondering about the din the little wattlebirds were making, and there she was, stretching up for a sunny rooftop.

I’m worried about the timing of Snakey’s visit.  After a good five years of prevaricating, we finally decided to use rat poison near the house. You can predict and even understand when the vermin demolish your nearly ripe corn-on-the-cob – it’s almost obligatory for your quasi-rural pest population.  But when they won’t leave your broccolini alone it’s all gone too far.

Leaving the house on a late-night mid-winter drive, I saw a tawny frogmouth flash out of the dark.  Another evening a surprised visitor landed on the balustrade of the back deck, only to realise three humans, stock still with beers half-raised to their lips, were unexpected keeping the rodents away.  And we’ve seen Snakey wait, poised for hours, then suddenly strike a rat on a twilight mission for chookhouse grain.  A glorious sight.  But pythons might only eat one a fortnight – it’s that low energy lifestyle.  Sadly there’s no sign of such dietary modesty in the case of the sweet potato munching rattus rattus.

We tried humane traps too.  But what do you do with the terrified beasts, usually the littler, stupider ones, after their night in a cage?  Counsel them?  Release them in the nearest industrial estate?  Figure out some new, psychologically gruelling way of killing them, all the while deluding yourself that it might be somehow be painless?

So not so long ago we reluctantly, guiltily, laid down baits in inaccessible places and endured our penance, the smell of death.

So over my cup of Earl Grey, I anxiously inspected Snakey’s features for signs of toxicity.  She’d chosen her spot judiciously, beside our neighbour’s chicken shed and right above the rat run down to ours.   She looked torpid: had she taken a poisoned rat, one dying slowly and easier to catch than the others?  Wasn’t her jaw somehow slack and asymmetrical, her pose ungainly…?  All I can say is, don’t try phrenology or poker with snakes.  They are danged hard to read.

By the time I got home from work she was gone.  I must confess, in the subsequent days, I have become slightly more cautious with my footing as I head down to peg the washing on the line.

Snakey seems to have brought the subtropical summer with its run-to-the-washing-line storms.  I was that nervous commuter, glancing up at the looming alien mother-ship and hoping I’d get home before all hell broke loose.  Then, same thing, same time, next day. And the next. A regular 4 o’clock Apocalyse.

It’s like the Nile River Delta out back.  As you can see from the flood-art-installation above, every item a child or lazy BBQ tender has carelessly discarded in the backyard now has its own rich pile of alluvium.

The subtropical plants are glowing.  The tumeric has reappeared in the understory as just suddenly as the snake has in the vines.  It dies right down over the winter, and come early December, just when you think it’s a goner, the leaves start nudging through the soil.  Given my dodgy record with propagation, I’m specially pleased to see the this year’s young ‘uns.  Instead of wimping out and buying plants from the ever reliable Daleys, I buried some fresh rhizomes from my weekly organic veggie box and crossed my fingers.

Inspired the marvellous Sri Lankan cooking of my clever sister in law and her mum, I’m trying to grow the ingredients for my favourite mid-week meal of 2014, snake bean curry.  I probably don’t have the stamina to harvest and process my own tumeric powder, but thanks to the big rain, the “Red Dragon” yard long beans are leaping out of the ground, and my baby curry leaf plant – in a pot near the house where I can nip off its weedy berries and quash any suckers – seems to be doing well so far, despite attentions from a nearby lebanese cucumber.  Now, if only I could keep my coriander from bolting for more than 15 minutes I’d be ready to hit the kitchen.  With luck, I’ll still be under the steady supervising eye of Snakey.

Death, hot compost and chicken addictions

Something weird happened today.  With a self-important summons to the other chooks, Treasure sped over the large disgusting vat of compost tea lurking under the tumbler and took a long, luxurious drink. After a good sup, she briskly trotted away with the kind of dirty stain on her snowy chest that speaks of an all-absorbing gastronomic experience.  Is this a chicken version of the breakfast long black?

Chicken coffee

Nom nom nom

Knowing as I do in the contents of the compost tumbler – innocent things like lawn clippings, comfrey cuttings and fallen maple leaves; but also less pleasing items –  mouldy citrus peel, rotten pears and fetid greens, barnhouse bedding weighed down with healthy gobbets of chicken manure, and in consequence a fine array of crawling and creeping things, their offspring and their excreta – the idea of the chickens necking great drafts of the liquid that oozes from this brew is really quite disturbing.

In general, I view keeping chickens as bit like teaching adults (my day job).  Kindy teachers have to wipe away tears, give cuddles and clean up vomit, but when you teach in higher education you can more or less rely on students to handle the basics on their own.  I don’t like to patronise my chooks – I reckon they have a fair idea of where to hang out, how to spend their time and what’s okay to eat.

But perhaps I’m being too laissez faire.  Maybe I should treat my hens more like my children and start policing their behaviour a bit more vigilantly.  Possibly letting the girls drink compost tea is the equivalent of doling out supersized glasses of Coke (and a Happy Meal?) to under tens.

This is the dark side of the compost tumbler.  It seems so sleek and neat, holding its dubious contents high above things that squirm and scamper and gnaw in the night.  You spin her wheel and steer her like a noble vessel towards the promised land of super-speedy compost, black gold faster than lightning.  And I can say, hand on heart, that after fifteen years of steadfast unintentional cold composting, one bucket of kitchen scraps at a time, with this tumbler, I’ve seen my very first batch of the good stuff, cooked within an inch of its life.  While most things (except for teaspoons and the plastic tags on bread bags) will rot down eventually regardless of how incompetently you build your heap or how infrequently you turn the pile, there is something glorious about seeing steam rising from your compost and knowing the nasties – weed seeds and plant viruses and pathogens – have been fricasseed.

But the path to hot compost is not pure.  Here’s what I found on the innocuous sounding Soil Forum while hunting out the best compost recipes, the perfect balance between browns (carbon rich things that crunch) and greens (nitrogen rich things that squelch):

“when we say that “anything” can go into a tumbler, we do mean “almost anything”. Whole small animals are OK but I would do deer heads in a separate pile! (Make too much noise flopping around in there!) I do have 20 deer lower legs on hand but they’d create quite a tangle sent through in one batch. However, I may simply saw them in half and run them all through the next hot batch.”

No, that wasn’t a post from Sarah Palin, though I’m sure she could cook up a fine tumblerful of deer-heads if she turned her hand to it. In case you were wondering, deer body-parts would count as greens (squelch).  Always put them in the very centre of your tumbler, where it’s hottest. (seriously, in contrast to anything Sarah might say, for rat, health and aesthetic reasons I never compost dead animals – there’s not a lot of corpses going round in a vegetarian household, and any tragedies that do occur are accompanied by a tiny funeral and ceremonial interring)

That said, there’s no getting around it: composting is still all about death and decomposition.  An interesting bit of that Peter Greenaway film “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” comes to me.  The cook says:

“I charge a lot for anything black. Grapes, olives, black currants. People like to remind themselves of death. Eating black food is like consuming death. Like saying: “Death, I’m eating you”. Black truffles are the most expensive. Caviar. Death and birth. The end and the beginning.”

I quite like the idea that the chickens are engaged in some kind of philosophical act drinking up their ordure-enriched powerade.  That it’s not just forbidden pleasure, the subtle piquancy of insect exoskeletons or a health-giving blast of liquidised potassium that holds such appeal, but that they’re drinking deep from the existential heart of gardening.

The egg eaters

Someone’s been eating eggs.  I don’t mean us, although obviously we have been eating them, and with great relish too.   I tried and failed to take a photograph of this morning’s scramble, that glorious renaissance of the freshly-laid goog.  It seems that these eggs are simply too magnificent to be captured by mortal photographic technology.  All that remained on film was this ineffable golden glow.

Scrambled egg yellow

No, I don’t mean us, the authorised Egg Robbers.  Some other creature has been eating eggs. It could be a rat or a possum. It could be Snakey the Diamond Python – there was a mysterious predatory smell in the garden over the last couple of days, along with scattered beige feathers. Andy Ninja was looking distinctly rumpled, like an ambitious nocturnal reptile might have tried to make her, perched temptingly amidst the lower branches of the coral tree, a late-night snack .  But I fear it may be…. a Cannibal Chicken.

The kids are on the case: “We questioned each of the chickens, by showing them an egg.  Shyla and Treasure were interested, but not too interested.  But Luna went close to it… too close.  I think she tried to peck it.”  So, after this exhaustive forensic investigation, Luna is in the frame (in a possible miscarriage of justice, Abbey the elusive Barnevelder escaped questioning by being impossible to catch).

Who is the inner Luna?  Who can say, although the disturbing photograph suggests an interior vortex and a single glowing eye.  Beware, Luna, we will be watching you…