Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Loafing and Idling

Never start on an expedition without the trusty thermos

Paul and I have many things in common, and one of those is the passionate pursuit of the idle life. We like slow. We like quiet. We like pottering and wasting time. We like stopping and chatting. Paul is a champion chatter and can talk to just about anybody about anything, at great length. We never go to the movies, or to restaurants, because we just don't feel like it. We like messing about in the garden, and if we are doing a job, we stop a lot to make tea, or because it's wine and cheese time.

When we go out somewhere, we take a picnic and a thermos, and a picnic blanket and some rugs and some cushions, and sometimes a book. Then it is an expedition, which is exciting, because who knows what will happen? We planned an expedition on Sunday. We planned the picnic, and what we were going to bring, but not where we were going. When we got in the car we still didn't know where we were going.

"Where are we heading?" I asked.
"No idea!" said Paul, happily.

We meandered aimlessly up the river, going by all the back roads and looking at the boats and Paul told me about his little boat and where he had moored it, and when I asked what it had looked like we were driving past the boatyard where he used to work on it, so we turned in and mooched around the quiet Sunday afternoon yard, with its litter of ropes and lines and piles of scrap, paint tins and the old tractor that tows the boats up the hard. Paul showed me the little clinker-built boat that was like his, and told me about the working bees they would have on the boats that turned into parties at which more drinking than working was done. We talked to a nice old man about his cray boat that he fishes from out of St Helens, we inspected an old Chinese junk being smartened up and repainted, we watched the old boats slowly rusting into the ground in front of our very eyes.

Further up the river we discovered Patricia's Beach, a little spit of sand and bush. Just big enough for a picnic blanket and a nap while watching tiny birds in the flowering tea-tree, cormorants and seagulls flying by, and the white sails of yachts tacking up the river. The Tamar is a tidal river and we watched it come closer and closer until we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and packed up to come home.

I remember I was going somewhere with this tale, but there has been so much meandering I have temporarily lost my bearings.. loafing and idling - yes, and the value of doing nothing. This expedition is was one of the more energetic ones we have undertaken. Sometimes we walk a hundred metres from Paul's mountain cabin and lie on a giant boulder for the afternoon and listen to the birds. After twenty years of sitting on a mountain listening to birds, Paul can actually speak Bird, and he tells me what they are saying. Today he rang me to tell me that the birds had been yelling that there was a snake, and he went outside, and sure enough, there was the snake. It takes a lot of years of idling and loafing and listening carefully to learn to speak Bird. Since I have had my verandah built I have been spending many hours watching and listening to my city bird friends. I can recognise them all now, by their calls, and have noticed that some of them are seasonal. Who knew? Birds say different things at different times of the year.

Another wonderful thing I have started to do up on the mountain is to find out what the wild flowers are called, and write a list of when they flower. Paul has set up his microscope so I can look at the flowers in minute detail. I have discovered that a single wattle blossom looks like a bouquet of orchids under the microscope. It is a whole new world of marvellous.

There is a whole world of busy out there for those who want it. There are endless ways to spend money in order to have 'fun'. Me, I love to spend what time I have to spare lying about and listening to birds, idling away an afternoon on a picnic blanket with a cup of properly brewed tea. I say, if you are tempted by the idle life, create some space for loafing about. Turn off your screens and lie in a hammock. Find a small, absorbing, cheap hobby that takes you outside. Birdwatching, finding out the names of flowers, identifying edible weeds, looking at creatures in rock pools, star gazing, finding shapes in clouds, reading poetry under a tree.

Hammocks make idling at home into real luxury. I recently put up our old hammock between our new verandah posts, and life suddenly got so much better. Idling is now possible just a step outside the back door.

Idling and creatively doing nothing very much seems to be a bit of a lost art in a world devoted to productivity. But I commend it to you as a way of sinking slowly back into yourself, finding pleasure in the small and insignificant details of life and rediscovering the joy of naps.

Friday, October 19, 2018

The Great Tomato Catastrophe of 2018

Six weeks ago I planted out my first tray of seeds. The daffodils were blooming, the wattle birds were hanging upside down on the crocosmia outside the window. It was cold and the nights were still frosty. Now the daffodils have finished and the herb robert and the foxgloves are blooming pink in the garden.

This spring I am determined to grow all my vegies and flowers from seed. No more plastic punnets from the garden centre. No, I have plenty of plastic punnets in the shed. I have plenty of seed, and I have used so much of it this spring, even the really old stuff. I replanted the beetroot three times. After the first two times I realised that the packet of seed I had just wasn't going to sprout, but luckily I saved my own beetroot seed from last year, and that sprouted within a couple of days. Fresh seed is the best! Having said that, some of the very old seed is sprouting pretty well, too. It all depends on the plant and how well the seed is stored as to how long seed stays viable. I keep mine airtight in the coolest room in the house. Paul gave me a bucket of seed from his place the other day. It is all ancient, and stored in a hot shed, but you just never know. I will plant it and see.

One month ago I had two trays of seedlings living on the kitchen table. I planted out the hardiest ones in the garden - first the peas. It was either the pigeons or the blackbirds which pecked the tops of every.single.seedling overnight. I then made a twig fortress to protect them, but to be honest they have never quite recovered from that first setback. A whole packet of snow peas!

Then came the Great Tomato Catastrophe of 2018. I planted out forty-two tiny tomato plants into pots of compost. I have plenty of compost. But this is fairly woody compost, maybe not cooked quite as long as it needs to be for planting into. Which is ok in general as I am using it as a mulch.. but the poor little tomatoes turned up their toes, turned yellow, and died. I think the woody mulch drew too much nitrogen out of their little leaves..

Lesson learned - don't use the compost as a planting medium by itself.. but.. forty-two tomato plants! aaargh! I have replanted, but straight out into the garden this time. Fingers are crossed. If frost threatens, I will run out and put jars over the little babies. Gardening, such a gamble. Maybe that is part of the excitement.

So far this spring I have planted out lettuce, rocket, broccoli, kale, zucchini and cucumbers into the garden. I have capsicums, more lettuce, beetroot, basil, chilli and a whole tray of flowers still on my table. I take them out for an airing in the sunshine or rain every day, to accustom them to Weather.

I love having the seedlings on the dining room table. Baby plants are utterly adorable. I talk to them at every meal and every time I open my laptop. I think they like me. Although the tomatoes still haunt me with their reproachful little yellow leaves..

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

What I Did On My Holiday

So the girls flew away to have adventures with their dad, and I, well, you know how it is.. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to paint the bathroom. It's always difficult to paint the bathroom because it is always in use and anywhere along a continuum from damp to wringing wet, so for three days I painted in the daytime and commuted to the mountain cabin to use Paul's shower and have him cook for me. Oh, the bliss. Apparently I am an Extravagant Wastrel in Paul's kitchen, and turn up the gas too high under the pot, and cut off too much of the vegetables and put them in the worm bucket. Honestly, those poor worms would never get a square meal if I didn't visit regularly. Anyway, for my sins I am banished to read on the couch while Paul cooks. It is very hard.

Then Paul pours the wine and suggests we have a little wander down to the creek to see how the fires are burning.. we won't stay for long, he promises, just a little look and then we'll be straight back up to finish dinner. He puts his pleading puppy dog eyes on. We go and inspect the fires. They are very little fires, smouldering during the day under a blanket of ash, with more sticks and little logs, piles of bark and dried grass thrown on in the evening when the humidity rises and the wind drops. The cool spring night keeps the fires from getting away and burning the trees all around. Paul is clearing a fire break around his house and making a clear path down to the water turbine along the creek. Not long ago I read a list of the most fire-prone native plant species. Paul has them all. So to eliminate brush where he wants paths and a clear space near the creek, he makes these little fires in the spring and autumn. They provide nutrients in their ash for the big eucalypts, and encourage the native grass to grow, so that where he has burnt starts to look like a manicured English park. Well, except for the giant eucalypts and the bush all round. This very small, localised style of burning was practised by the First Peoples of Australia for millenia, to create grasslands for encouraging kangaroo grazing grounds, and to create beneficial conditions for growing useful crops like the yam daisy, which looks like a smaller, more delicate cousin of the dandelion, with an edible root.

Also, they possibly did it because it is enormously fun. Of course, no sooner are we at the fires than Paul seizes the shovel leaning handily against the nearest tree, and starts shovelling on more debris. Up crackle the flames and the sparks fly in the twilight gloom. "Shall I set this patch of cut grass alight?" he asks himself meditatively. Cut grass grows in huge clumps and is immensely flammable. Paul digs out a shovelful of glowing embers from the base of a fire and tips it into the middle of a cut grass clump. It smokes like a chimney, then smoulders, then busts into a column of flame and sparks. Paul's eyes begin to gleam insanely in the firelight. "Maybe that one over there as well? While we're here.." Soon it is deep dusk and periodically a man jogs past me with a shovelful of live coals, cackling with the glee of a confirmed arsonist. I peer interestedly at a tree, wine glass in hand. "This one seems to be on fire," I mention. "Should I do something?"
"Bash it with a shovel," comes back the advice from the pyrotechnics expert. "Then rake the burnt bark out."

It really is the most addictive kind of fun. Just one more branch on the fire, one more tea tree seedling to uproot, one more pile to light up. Eventually I remember the dinner, which must be saved. Clearly it is up to me, kitchen ban or no kitchen ban. The cook is too busy lighting another clump of cut grass. I look back and see the fire licking upwards, with Paul leaping like a demented goblin in black silhouette in front of the flames.

Dinner will be slightly late tonight.