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.

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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.

Six months in

Today it’s been six months since my housemate and I landed in Melbourne. I can’t quite believe it’s been that long. But at the same time it seems like I’ve been here much longer. Time is still doing strange things for me.

A number of people said to both my housemate and I before we left Sydney that it takes six months to a year to really start feeling at home in a place after you’ve moved, and that’s certainly what I remember from when I moved in the other direction five and a half years ago.

Actually, when I’d been in Sydney six months, I had a bit of a breakdown. The enormity of what I’d done hit me for the first time. I’m not sure it will be like that this time around (well, I certainly hope it isn’t), if only because there was a lot more lead time before this move than there was for the earlier one.

Do I feel at home in Melbourne? The simple answer is yes. Yes, I do feel at home here. The more complicated answer is that I feel more at home in myself here than I think I ever did in Sydney — but I don’t really know how much of that is to do with the places themselves and how much is just growing up a little more.

The first few months in Melbourne were very strange for me. I guess because I’d lived here before, and because my housemate and I have ended up living in a neighbourhood in which I’d lived before, I had the strange sensation of not being entirely sure where I was in time. I mean, I knew intellectually, of course. The best way I can think to describe how I felt was that my body wasn’t quite sure. The scents, the sounds, the particular colourscape of Melbourne; those things belonged to a different time in my life, and here I was all of a sudden living among them again.

I was describing this sensation to a friend from Sydney who came to visit, and he asked me if it was because Melbourne had changed, either subtly or otherwise. I realised that it wasn’t that at all. Melbourne was much the same. But I had changed. I’d changed in the five years I’d lived in Sydney (of course), and being in Melbourne again was like being face to face with the version of me who lived here all those years ago.

Thankfully, that strangeness has mostly passed now. And what’s settled is a increasing calmness. I’ve found myself being paid to do things I love, which is obviously great. I’m living in a great house in a great area. I feel like I can take a breath and, for the first time in a long time, think about what I might like to do in the next few years. Of course there are plenty of little improvements that could be made (there always are), but for the most part, life is pretty good, six months in. Thanks Melbourne.

~

TreesWhile I’ve been settling in, I’ve been taking pictures of the garden as I play around in it, improving the soil and planting things. The bottom picture is of a couple of lilly pillies that were already in the garden when we moved in. I think I took this the day we picked up the keys. The top picture I took a couple of weeks ago. That they’ve grown so much (and gone a bit wild, really) I think perfectly illustrates the first six months of life in Melbourne for me.

House and garden

Yesterday we signed the lease for a little cottage-style house in Melbourne’s Brunswick, and my mind has immediately gone mad, thinking about what I can do with the courtyard garden. So many plans.

The friends my housemate and I are staying with have chooks, and they’re so lovely that I’d dearly love to take them with me (plus, think of the eggs!). They’re so inquisitive. I crouched down in the grass to take this photo, and they all came over immediately, thinking I had food, and then eyed me curiously when they realised that I didn’t.

Unfortunately, my courtyard garden will not accommodate chooks — there’s no grass for them, it’d be cruel. So I’m adding chooks to my list of things to have when I’m a Proper Grown Up and live on a bit of land somewhere.

My words in Death of a Scenester

Melbourne ‘zournal’, Death of a Scenester is launching its fifth issue, Food, next Saturday night in Abbotsford in Melbourne. Some words of mine on growing my own food and the subtleties of vegetarianism will appear in this issue.

Unfortunately I can’t make it to the launch, but if you’re in Melbourne, do try and get along! I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on a copy of this issue.

Gardening

I never thought I’d be a gardener.

The house I grew up in had an enormous front and back yard, and my brothers and I spent many hours playing in the garden, making cubby-houses out of bushes and soup out of mud and berries. A trip to the local nursery on a weekend with Mum and Dad was a fairly regular occurrence. But I never really understood the appeal of being on hands and knees, with dirty hands, at risk of attack from any number of nasty creepy crawlies.

And yet, as an adult, most weekends I find myself looking forward to spending some time in the garden. I get distracted by nurseries. I notice when my neighbours have planted something new, or pulled something out. These days, gardening for me is very much like yoga: it requires a regular commitment, is full of frustration and disappointment, but made entirely worth the effort by the joy that comes with any achievement, no matter how small. Gardening, like yoga, gives me a chance to really appreciate small things.

The switch from non-gardener to gardener has been a gradual one, and I can’t say exactly where it started. My Mum, a certain former housemate and a few other people have helped me along the way. Hey, maybe I was never really a non-gardener in the first place.

My love of gardening can be directly attributed to my love of food — most of my garden is edible. (Except the jonquils. They’re just purdy.)

In some of my research for a writing project on food and culture, I came across this article on The Conversation (an independent source of information, analysis and commentary from the Australian university and research sector, launched earlier this year):

“Food. It is the great unifier of place and race, the common ground sustaining our very existence. Why then, does food production feature so minimally in public space and urban design?

Under the weight of looming threats to energy, population and economy, the time is ripe to rethink our design focus.

Traditionally, urban design has been dominated by the use of ornamental exotic and indigenous plants while edible species have been minimally utilised.

Now, as we move towards a potential crisis in food production it is more important than ever to rethink our design practices.”

(Read the rest over at The Conversation.)

I firmly support the idea of bringing some food production into cities. It’s unlikely that cities will ever support themselves entirely, but I don’t think that’s the point. My garden does not produce enough to be my sole source of food, but it does contribute to what ends up on my plate. Perhaps more importantly, it gives me a much better idea of where the food I do buy has come from, and the kind of work that’s gone into producing it. That increased awareness, I think, can only lead to good things.

So much of any yoga practice is about noticing what’s there — often below the surface. Food gardening, for me, is another way of practicing yoga without a mat.

~

This is cross-posted over at my yoga blog, om gam yoga.

Settling in

These last two Saturdays I’ve wandered around the corner to the local farmers’ markets (I act cool about it, but really I’m ridiculously excited that I live so close and can do my shopping there each week… But more on that in a later post) and come back with a few little things to put in the bare garden. Last week I got baby spinach and chives, this week curly parsley.

I brought my worm farm with me from my last house, and the worms — collectively referred to as The Barries — are settling in nicely. I’m a wee bit fascinated with the worm farm. You put food scraps in, basically do nothing, and out comes this amazing fertiliser. From that fertiliser you grow more food, from which there are scraps, which you put in the worm farm… Etc etc. It creates a neat little ecosystem in your own house/garden.

I’m a bit obsessed with The Barries, if I’m honest. I’ve been known to pick apple cores up off the street and bring my food scraps home from a weekend away to give to them. When I used to work in an office, the other women on my team used to give me their food scraps to take home. I love The Barries. Maybe a little too much.

Anyway, they’re helping me out in the new house, with my new responsibilities as resident gardener. In my last house I helped with the garden occasionally, but I was by no means the decision maker. Now I’m kinda in charge. And I’m sure I’m going to make mistakes, kill things and hopefully imprint into my brain some of the plant names that come so easily to my Mum and my old housemate Erin. Gardening regularly is a new adventure for me (any tips are welcome).

In the last few days the rocket seeds I planted last weekend sprouted, and this morning some tiny, tiny shoots from the carrot seeds are tentatively peering out of the soil. I’ve spent a whole lot of time this morning crouched down next to them marveling at their tiny green-ness. I might just be eating them in a month or so.

Here are the little rocket sprouts. Hello little friends… Keep growing strong, won’t you?