Sunflowers 

Excuse me, I say, is this your garden?

It is the end of the week. I’m extremely tired and have been for a long walk. On my way home, I have caught a woman coming out of a house with a wonderful garden behind the front fence and another on the verge, with sunflowers just starting to bloom. It is one of my favourite parts of this particular regular walking route. 

Well, I planted it, yes, she says. She hesitates slightly. 

I tell her how much I love it, how I admire it every time I walk past. 

She relaxes. She is older than I am by maybe fifteen years. Her hair is short, neat, and dark—quite the opposite of mine: long, unruly, fair. Her face is friendly; eyes, bright. She smiles easily. She tells me about the garden’s history, the difficulties with the local council, the concerns of some of her neighbours. But also about her idea that a garden in this spot could be a small source of joy for passersby. 

Do you garden? she asks me. 

I do, I tell her, and bemoan the terrible soil in my front garden, which seems to want to grow almost nothing, no matter how much garden waste and compost and spent coffee grounds and green manure and mulch I throw at it. Unlike the back garden, which is overgrown, wild, and full of food. The front garden is a source of ongoing, quiet frustration for me; something almost always at the back of my mind, so that every now and then a possible solution pops into my head. 

Have you tried sunflowers? she asks me, they seem to grow anywhere and everywhere, even in terrible soil. 

I haven’t tried sunflowers. 

She tells me about the garden behind her front fence, fairly well established now, that only two years ago would grow almost nothing because of low soil quality. But sunflowers grew just fine. 

I could give you some seeds, she says, I’m sure I’ve got some lying around. 

I think I probably I have some sunflower seeds lying around somewhere at home, so I don’t take her up on the offer this time. But we exchange names, and chat about work and households and takeaway dinners on a Friday night. I am struck for about the seven hundredth time since I began gardening just how unlikely it is that I would have met this complete stranger were it not for a garden and a curiosity in me that lends itself to friendliness—a trait that is no doubt amplified by the practice of gardening itself, where curiosity about a plant, a seed, the soil, becomes paying friendly attention: watching, listening. 

We talk about succulents. About how many of the succulents in her verge garden have been grown from cuttings. I tell her about the giant jade plant on my parents’ front verandah, grown from a cutting given to my mum by an old housemate and dear friend of mine at the time we lived together. 

She tells me to come and knock on her door if I realise I do need sunflower seeds. 

I wander home thinking about cities and culture and agriculture and tending to plants; about how many conversations I have had with complete strangers because of a garden; and how the link between cities, culture, agriculture and sociability is so strong and so old that it’s almost invisible. Until someone sows some sunflower seeds on their front verge. 

Cycles

The compost bucket is heavy in my arms. It is so full that the lid won’t stay on properly and through the gaps wafts a smell that means I can’t possibly ignore the fact that what I eat is something that was once alive: the smell of rotting, mould and decay. Of something that was once alive but is no longer. I walk quickly, and the liquid in the bucket sloshes around. I make a mental note to be aware of this when I empty the bucket into the bigger outside bin in a moment, lest there be any stinky splashing. 

The compost bin lives about halfway down our backyard, near the shed. To get there, I leave the house by the deck doors, peer around the side of the bucket to make sure I don’t trip down the stairs, and then make my way across the patchy grass, hoping there are no bindis popping up yet.

As smelly as the kitchen compost bucket is, it is the outside bin I find most confronting. It doesn’t smell, but it has bugs. Thousands of them. Once or twice I’ve also found mice out here. 

When I reach the bin, I put the bucket down and squint as I open the bin’s lid. The insects rush out at my face in a cloud, heading for my nostrils and squinting eyes. They take a few moments to clear, and I shake them away from my face. I empty the bucket, holding it firmly while I tap the bottom to dislodge the slimey bits of pumpkin from the bottom of its insides, trying to avoid dropping the bucket into the dark cavern of the bin. The pumpkin goop is thick and squelchy sounding and reluctant to leave the bucket, stretching and sliding around the bottom of the bucket instead of falling. But it does eventually fall and lands somewhere in the large bin with a satisfying muffled thud.

IMG_0434.JPGWhen the bucket is empty, I put the lid back on and skip back to the house, pleased to have completed the smelly chore. 

I am perhaps eight or nine in this memory. But it could also be cobbled together from any evening in my childhood. Empyting the compost bucket into the outside bin was a regular household chore throughout my entire childhood. 

There was a point sometime last year that I realised I was a bit obsessed with organic waste — and that maybe I always had been. The empyting of the kitchen compost bin into the outside bin, and all the sensory grossness of the task, looms large in my childhood memories.

IMG_0435.JPGI’m not sure now whether these experiences were unpleasant for me as a child, but I tend now to think of them as confronting but worthwhile. Lessons of a very visceral kind in how life works. Certainly they’re not unpleasant memories — just vivid. And they have not in any way made me want to avoid food scraps and food waste.

As an adult, I’ve initiated and emptied compost buckets on behalf of whole sharehouses, and I’ve acquired and become bizarrely fond of thousands of composting worms.* I’m not disgusted easily (except, perhaps, by bugs, but then maybe that makes sense too, given these memories) and my hands have touched and held much food that is very far from being at its best.

And now I find myself undertaking a major research project on food waste that will see me making things from food scraps (albeit before they’re too stinky or slimey) and making a radio feature about it. 

IMG_0436.JPGIt occurs to me know that when I started this blog years ago, I called it ‘avocado and lemon’ because those were two foods that I have always loved to eat together, and now two of the food scraps I’ll be making things from will be lemon and avocado detritus (the third food item is spent coffee grounds). It occurs to me too that the reason that I chose those particular food items is that they’re problematic in large amounts in the compost.

It’s funny, isn’t it, how life seems to move in circles?

*I called all the worms Barry, in case you were wondering. Known collectively as The Barries. I’m not sure why. Barry just seemed like a good name for such an immensely helpful critter.

Pausing

20140728-195347-71627070.jpgIt’s been a long time since I wrote here. 

This afternoon, still heavy with the virus that’s pestered me for two and a half weeks now—never quite enough to make me rest completely, but never quite loosening its woolly grip on my brain—I sat in the backyard and watched the garden. I watched the garden that I’ve built these last three months from what was basically a patch of grass. The kale and broccoli are nearly knee-height now, the garlic not far behind. The various beans and peas have climbed up to hip height, and all the leafy greens are beginning to look less like seedlings. I’d just mown the grass and it smelled like a Sunday afternoon.

And it occurred to me all of a sudden that I’ve been here instead of doing any of the writing I usually do for myself. I’ve been building and digging and watching and hoping and imagining. I’ve been letting myself settle into this place, to the new house, to the new research, to what feels like a new stage of my life. 

20140728-195348-71628304.jpgIt fascinates me, the way that life moves on without me even realising and without me really being ready for the shift. Watching myself try to catch up is interesting too. It’s funny how I so often think that to catch up I have to walk faster, maybe even run. What I’m beginning to realise is that the best thing to do is exactly the opposite: slow down, maybe even stop.

I’ve ended up in a place I never really expected to be. Even though I’m not sure what it was that I expected instead. I’ve ended up in a place where my household bakes bread every weekend, where the neighbour shares his sourdough starter with us. Where other neighbours bring over bags of lemons and pieces of furniture and lace curtains.  Where after just three months in the house, I know the names of half the people on the street. I’ve ended up in a place where I’ve lost count of the different plant varieties I’ve put in the ground in the backyard, where I’m teaching and writing about yoga, where I’m researching a topic that I’ve realised in retrospect I’ve been inadvertently preparing for since the compost bins and septic tanks of my childhood. 

20140728-195349-71629295.jpgWhere I’m about to undertake a major creative project that’s not exactly writing. Something that’s more making and recording and a little bit performative. This, especially this, I never expected. 

To be perfectly honest, it’s all been a bit overwhelming. Success and failure each have their own set of challenges, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the two, especially if I’m trying to run in all the different directions to keep up with it all. 

So here I am, I thought to myself in the garden this afternoon. Just breathing. Just watching the sun go down. Just feeling grateful.

And it’s been a long time since I simply sat here.

Finding time: hunting for sticks

Sticks at feetCrunching through the dry undergrowth of a patch of trees in parklands close to my house, I am peering at all the sticks under my boots, looking for the straightest and strongest ones. I hear a loud crunch and a crack from several metres away; the friend I’ve recruited to help me has found something. There are more cracks and crunches and the rustling of leaves — he’s obviously found a pile of them. I crouch down to inspect a pile of sticks and twigs at my feet. Above me a bird calls out again and again in alarm — or perhaps warning — and flits from tree to tree. The air around me smells like damp eucalyptus, after rain earlier in the day.

“It’s okay,” I tell the bird. “I’ll be out of your way soon.”

The sticks are mostly unsuitable: too brittle, too bent. But there are one or two that are okay. I add them to the collection I’m already carrying, and clamber out of the bushy area to find my friend.

He’s found a collection of larger branches that have fallen from a tree. He holds up the ones he’s picked for my approval, and then breaks up a few bigger branches in the pile for their parts. We carry the collection back to a pile we’ve been making this last hour or so on the edge of a garden bed near where his car is parked. We take stock. There are lots of larger sticks, but we need more smaller sticks. Leaving the pile, we head off again.

~

It’s been windy these last few weeks in Melbourne; the winds that come with the change of season at springtime. For much of that time, I’ve been on the lookout for sticks in parks and under trees on roadsides, anticipating several outings for stick hunting. I want the sticks to build things with in my backyard: structures for beans and peas and cucumbers to grow up, stakes for tomatoes and other plants. The plants are growing steadily in my little hothouse, and I’ve been vaguely planning the kinds of structures I’ll need to construct.

I’ve approached the building of my garden coming into this summer season a little differently to previous years. Perhaps because of some other reading I’ve been doing on waste, I’ve found myself trying to think of ways I can make or build things rather than nipping down to the hardware store for bamboo stakes. It’s certainly not that I’m aiming to build everything in the garden from sticks and things I’ve found, but the reading on waste has somewhat shifted my perspective on the usefulness of the things around me. And now that I’m on the lookout for this kind of stuff, I’m seeing it everywhere. Which is to say that I’m seeing usefulness and abundance everywhere. It’s really rather wonderful.

Because it’s not possible for me to carry a giant pile of sticks home on my own (nor, I anticipate, build the planned structures from them), I’ve had to ask for help, and my wonderful friends have been very generous. And this is the other somewhat unexpected outcome of approaching things this way: I have been reminded of the generosity of my friends, and, perhaps even more than that, the stick gathering has been an opportunity for me to spend extended stretches of time with them. Talking about life, solving problems, being serious, being silly, laughing.

~

Stick hunting sunshineLate in the afternoon the day before I went stick gathering with my friend with the car, my housemate and I went for a long wander around our suburb, also looking for sticks. We were limited to what we could carry home, but we still managed to gather quite a lot. Along with smaller bundles of sticks, she ended up with what she referred to as her “Gandalf stick”, and I ended up with a long branch I carried over my shoulder, which required some careful manoeuvring to stop from catching on things. My housemate said she hoped that one of the people glancing strangely at us as we passed them with our load would ask us what we were doing with the sticks. (Sadly, no one did.) As we traipsed home with our strange cargo, the springtime sun sinking, making everything glow, blinking from behind buildings and trees as we walked, I couldn’t help but feel like this time was something magical. 

A giant pile of sticksThe pile of sticks from both these trips sits now in my backyard, waiting for me to start building. Various friends have promised to help with this job — and with other things in the garden — and I am somewhat overwhelmed, in the best way possible, by how amazing the people in my life are. I can’t wait to share the (literal) fruits of this labour with them later in the season.

Passing time: conversations with gardeners

NastursiumThe garden is on a familiar street around the corner from a house I lived in years ago; I walk past it most weekends on my way to and from places I need to be. I don’t remember it from when I lived around the corner, although I’m sure the same people have lived in that house for decades. But in the years since I lived nearby I’ve become the kind of person who maps out walking journeys by the gardens I know I can peer at as I amble.

The house itself disappears behind the garden and its rambling structures; two large patches divided by the path that leads to the front door. Trellises, bean poles, shade cloth, chicken wire. Structures that will be covered in green come summer.

The gardener is standing out the front, leaning on one of the brick fence pillars, resting his walking stick there. As I approach in my noisy boots, he turns to look at me and I say hello. He smiles broadly and returns the greeting.

What are you growing? I ask him, stopping in front of the fence.

Tomato, he says, his Italian accent thick. He comes up to my shoulder, or thereabouts, and is wearing grey tracksuit pants held up by braces. It’s a warm day, so under the braces he wears only a plain white t-shirt. On his feet he wears slippers. Beans, he says, and gestures to what will be a wall of beans in a few months.

Is this garlic? I ask him. He smiles and nods. And fennel?

Yes, yes. All this, he says, sweeping his arm out to include the whole garden, one hundred dollars of manure. One hundred dollars, that’s all, for all this. If the weather is good, lots of food; if not, maybe not so much.

Let’s hope the weather’s good this season, I say.

It passes the time, he says. Passes the time.

It does, I say, and laugh. I tell him I walk past often and admire his garden. He had broccoli in last time I saw it.

Take some of this, he says, and points to the giant parsley plant in front of us. People take it all the time, he tells me, but the plant still grows well.

I tell him thank you but I have a large parsley plant at home myself.

You garden? he asks me. I nod. You have a house? How big is your yard?

About half the size of your front yard, I tell him. So I can’t grow quite as much. But I have herbs and have sprouted some tomatoes and beans and other things for summer.

It passes the time, he says, and smiles. I nod and smile back.

I’d better keep going, I tell him, but maybe I’ll see you when I walk past next week.

It passes the time, he says and rests his elbows on the pillar next to his walking stick.

It passes the time, I agree, enjoy the rest of your day.

Thank you, he calls out after me as I wander off down the street in my noisy boots, smiling.

Old houses

Yesterday I wandered, on a whim, over to the south end of Newtown. I’d arranged to meet up with a friend in a cafe on King St, and to get there I chose a route that would take me past a house I lived in for two and a half years.

Pearl Street.

A house that will forever be the source of an enormous amount of nostalgia for me. It was the house in which I rediscovered myself after a major relationship breakup, it was the house in which I began to form an idea of what I wanted my adult life to look like, and in which I began to take steps toward that life. My Pearl Street housemates became like family (which I wrote about here when we all moved out of that house).

The house, when I came to it yesterday, had changed a lot. And it was for sale. Its cracked and worn cement front path had been replaced with neat pavers; the front garden we’d grown veggies in had been restructured and reduced; and the entire house, which had been a sunny yellow when we’d lived there, had been repainted a very mild off-white. Pearl Street as I knew it was gone.

I stood at the front gate, still the old green cast iron thing I knew so well, and stared at the place, trying to take in all its changes. Trying to let them sink in. It was sad, but not devastating.

And it seemed somehow appropriate that this place that is so meaningful in my story should have moved on, when I’m about to do so myself. A month from now, my current housemate (and dear friend) and I will pack up our lives in Sydney so we can move down to Melbourne. I’ve been saying for years that I wanted to move back to Melbourne. In fact, I’m sure I came home to Pearl Street more than once from a trip to Melbourne announcing that I was going to move back down south. But something about that house (and many other things besides) kept me in the sunny city. Somehow, I always knew that while I lived in that house I’d not be able to commit to moving away from Sydney.

My housie and I have been preparing for some months now for this move, and the whole time I’ve been swinging wildly between immense excitement and equally immense sadness. I am sad to leave this city. I am sad to leave all the people I love who live here (and near to here). But seeing yesterday that Pearl Street has moved on has somehow helped me to let go a little, to be sure that it is time for me to move on too. It’s not so much that my sadness at leaving has gone, it’s just that I’ve worked out how to hold it so it doesn’t colour everything else.