The boy and I are at home with colds and I’m enjoying the quiet. Outside our northern windows, on the other side of the board fence, is a strip of spotted gum, buloke, melaleuca and ironbark. Beyond that is a stretch of grass dotted with eucalypts which slopes down to a creek, which is hidden from here, and the far slope which is also half covered with eucalypts.
You may be confused if you’ve had the impression that I live in the inner city. Have I moved? Do I live on a property somewhere in the country? There are no sheep, cows or horses on the grassy paddock; a man comes every month with a ride on mower to keep the grass down. Am I some millionaire landowner?
No – I’m about 8 ks from the city centre, as the crow flies. I’m lucky enough to live in the last house on the end of a street which abuts on one of Melbourne’s linear parks, resurrected and revegetated from an old bluestone quarry in the 1970s and 80s. If I’m standing at the kitchen sink, I can just barely make out a house or two and the corner of a car park on the opposite side. If I’m sitting down, I might as well be somewhere in Gippsland.
I quite enjoy washing dishes when I can gaze out at the park. It’s especially beautiful in the slanting light of the mid-late afternoon, where the sun’s a golden pollen giving everything that Dutch Old Masters glow, even in winter. The suburb comes out to play – Dads with little daughters on their shoulders or kicking footballs, old men with impromptu bocce, the Adidas-and-lycra runners and the older migrant women who jog or power walk in their skirts, stockings and sensible shoes. Friends who I wave to from our window as they walk. Groups of kids renewing the tyre swing in its time honoured position on the creek (we’ve had our turn with that). Lots of prams, and of course, the dogs. Labradors and retrievers goofing, pugs and Lhasa apsos huffing around with great purpose, kelpies and heelers grinning and leaping high after a tennis ball. So much happiness.
We moved in in April 1994, after a massive coup by the SO, who found the house in the classified ads, whereupon I was all, “Get with the times, SO, it is all about the internet these days”, but we drove out here to see the house, and I was all, YOU DO NOT MEAN TO TELL ME IT’S THIS HOUSE, and anyway we are never going to get it because people are going to pay megabucks for a house in this position despite it being a 50’s weatherboard*, but as it happened people didn’t want to pay megabucks for it in 1994 because the suburb’s next to Footscray and that was still the most Terrible place Ever, according to people who had never been there. So that was a huge win for SO and for the rest of us.
Over the last decade and a half I’ve circumnavigated the Park at least once a day and gazed out over the grassy creek and sat on the back verandah watching the honeyeaters and fruit bats in the trees. I’ve done planting days and watched the changes that have happened over that time. The biggest change, of course, is the Big Dry.
In the early morning, my usual walking time, I’d see a resident cormorant and a resident grey heron perching above the creek. There were a couple of ducks who came and went, and the occasional flock of Sacred Ibis. The creek was loud with frogs. A few years later, the rain was all but gone and the pain in the landscape was increasing.
Of course, every summer the green grass slopes will fade to yellow and white as they always do here. But those summers, the grass faded to yellow in spring and blew away in summer, revealing the silty black soil underneath. And the wind! Spring is always windy but I couldn’t remember gales like these, extending into summer now and blowing the naked soil off the earth. I’d look out of my window and see the trees leaning, birds and animals hidden. Some of the gusts were so violent and- it seemed- malevolent, I wondered if our little wooden house would be torn from its stumps and Maggie and I would end up, like Judy Garland and Toto, somewhere far from here. Fortunately that never happened, but I heard accounts from other suburbs of SES workers covering roofless houses with tarpaulins and sawing up fallen trees.
Almost every day a new tree would fall and I would spot another beginning to die. The cormorant and the grey heron slowly faded away. The ducks still visit occasionally. I rarely hear frogs now, even the pobblebonks who live under the sandy soil.
We have just had a rash of deaths of trees for which the rains came too late. The melaleuca right next to the kitchen window, where I would watch the wattle birds swinging and bickering and doing acrobatics, has gone. There has been an uproar of chainsawing and mulching. It’s pouring down now as I write, but a few days ago I put in some broccoli and silverbeet seedlings and the spade turned dry earth. Even after all the rain we’ve had it’s as if nothing can quench its thirst.
The local park Friends group holds a planting day every few months. If it had been up to me, I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened. My pessimism would have taken over; I wouldn’t have wanted to plant young trees and shrubs only to watch them die slowly. But they got me out there, and not everything has died. In fact, I’m seeing some of the young trees start to grow to maturity. There’s something to be said for optimism, but we’ve been told to expect the Big Dry as the beginning of a new normal, and the pessimism is hard to shake.
This post was supposed to be for World Environment day, but then when am I ever on time for any World Day. Our position in urban bushland means that as a city dweller, contra the usual stereotype, I can’t just retreat into my world of home and TV and escape from nature. It’s there, right on the other side of my kitchen window. I can literally say that there hasn’t been a day in the last ten years where climate change hasn’t nagged at me.
I worry that we’re at the beginning of desertification. That’s not to say deserts are worthless. Who’s to say what fascinating dry-land vegetative and wind erosion-sculpted geographic forms might be here in the far future. But I liked our South-Eastern environment as it was and if this will be the new normal, if the current rains are a statistical blip rather than a recovery, I’ll mourn its passing.
*Another blow to the fiction that I live in a Victorian terrace with a cast iron balcony like Hal Porter’s.