Down our road and around the corner, people have recently built a tiny house on what was once grazing land. It’s on my drive into town, so for the past year or two, I’ve been checking out their progress. First, up went a very large shed, with solar panels on the roof. Then, in went a very large water tank alongside the shed. Months later, they started building the house.
Interesting, I thought. The big shed fronts the road. The tiny house is behind the shed. That’s not the way it used to be done.
Then, in came all these bales of hay, long lines of them, striping the gently sloping land. Finally, staked seedling protectors – hundreds of them – cradled the tender stalks of little plants. Green plastic is ubiquitous in our neck of the woods, as newcomers like us and those neighbours down the road attempt to replant and restore land degraded by clearing and grazing.
I’ve loved watching the progress of these new neighbours. Simon and I have lived on our own bush block for nearly ten years now, and it still seems very new but also very much like our always-home. When we arrived, our land had been planted up by the people who built the house we now live in, and they had chosen an all-native garden, which nevertheless they must have had to nurture with hard work through drought years. The year we came, it bucketed down, the dam filled up, everything sprouted and the birds proliferated. Each summer now, most bushes and trees survive. Come autumn, if the rains come, you can hear the plants breathing out, exuding green smells and blossoming with tiny flowers.
That first year, I learnt a bit about water, and the way it moves across land. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as I was then, sloshing through puddles with a shovel to channel water away from the flooded bits. Pete next door – who is never as happy as when he’s behind the wheel of his ancient tractor – chuckled at the muddy sight of me, with a broad grin on my face. “Mucking around with water”, we agreed, is our idea of a good time
But I had so much to learn – and I’m not saying that with a downward inflection, denoting disapproval of that younger self. Hear my voice rising upwards in tone and with a smiling lilt: I had so much to learn!
For instance – the obsession with dams and bores, even on farming properties but certainly on tree-change properties like ours, is odd. Pace Pete-next door, but bulldozing a great big hole is rather silly, given that in summer it all evaporates anyway, and given that a long, snaking channel is going to work much better for water retention.
From the neighbour the other side, I learned to love bushes that don’t fit the conventional idea of beauty. Early on, he tried to point out to me that poisoning Sweet Bursaria was not a good idea. This spiny plant, which is the only host for the endangered Eltham Copper butterfly, was popping up everywhere across a patch of our place, and I stupidly thought that was bad. Sweet Bursaria – like the honey-fragrant needlewood which the black cockatoos adore, like the ever-flowering Westringia that the honeyeaters fossick in all year round – is a very special plant, gloriously messy, subtle in its blossoming, a haven for small birds. When a new one pops up now, I punch the air.
Again, I look back on that former me with a sort of wonder – not that I was stupid, even though I was, but that I have had the opportunity to learn, to know better. A kind of enlightenment.
I don’t want to be angry at the harm done by people who came to this part of the world in quest of riches, displacing with violence the people who lived here, cruelling a delicate landscape, poisoning what they couldn’t perceive as useful or beautiful. I want instead to think about people like the new neighbours, as I watch their optimistic toil, and the way they are transforming the bit of land they are husbanding.
I’m grateful to this Bendigo, this Central Victoria, for that opportunity to learn about such optimism, hope and joy, about the deep and real pleasure of feeling at home in a place. And in the same way, I’m grateful to Amy Doak and her small and flourishing Accidental Publishing, for creating this book of stories by and about my home place. I’d like to think that it’s all connected: I watch those neighbours, I read these stories, I am part of it, it is part of me.
We are all custodians: of land, of stories, of life itself. The short stories in Amy’s Goldfields book, written by people with talent and expertise, are like the staked green plant protectors helping us all to grow. May they proliferate wildly across our entire region.
This is an edited version of the Foreword to Goldfields, with stories by Sally Abbott, Jess Anastasi, Carmel Bird, John Charalambous, Dianne Dempsey, Amy Doak, Pam Harvey, Colin King, Lauren Mitchell, Katrina Nannestad and Steve Proposch, published by Accidental Publishing.