Sunday 27 May 2012

The Fellowship of the Foot

"There will be many footpaths in Utopia." - HG Wells 

[Walking and talking: profound yet simple] 

They are unlike the people you spend most of your life among: family, work mates, friends. The people you meet while out walking may not even have names - or names that you know. Some will meet your eye and greet you, others will keep their gaze steadfastly elsewhere, perhaps groundward, perhaps somewhere over your left shoulder.

Sometimes you’ll try to make a connection with the cautious ones. Just the other morning a woman was walking a dog whose gait and behaviour was so similar to my dog’s, that as I overtook her I had to ask if it was a Staffordshire terrier. I had to ask twice actually, because we were both wearing white earbuds, which can limit things. But eventually we had a 10 second dog conversation, the sort that confirms the dog's breed and gender, and its status as “spoiled”, but nothing much more.

The fellowship of the foot is sometimes that simple. Or simpler even, in the case of a nod or a muttered "Morning". Of course there are others who you get to know much better. Like Dave and Donna, a retired couple who share the backtrack with us. They walk their dog "Fred" there every day and knew our previous dog well enough for them to talk about “Angus” for years after his death.

Donna knows “Noo”, our current dog, well too: knows her nervous disposition, her barks and raised hackles when calm “Fred” is about. Donna carries treats, and rewards “Noo” for coming, and for calming. She gives us hope that our old dog may pick up new tricks.

[Noo enjoying the bush] 
We talk about other things too: the state of the bush, the weather, holidays, mountain bikers (Dave is not keen on them). But if there is one focus among the people along the track, it’s animals. Apart from walking their dogs, and occasionally riding their horses there, some neighbours have even made it a pet burial ground.

Some months back a brightly painted wooden cross appeared beside the track. It was inscribed to “Lucky”, with a few heart-felt words honouring their demised dog. Then a week ago we noticed another similar-styled cross next to the first. This time it was for “Flick”.

We paused beside the impromptu pet cemetery, reading the inscriptions and thinking. Half to herself Lynne said “Flick ‘n’ Lucky”. I couldn’t resist replying “Looks like they weren’t so flick’n lucky”, breaking the mood and sending us both down the track laughing like naughty children.

The backtrack isn’t just used by domestic animals. We see, hear and find evidence of many native birds, mammals and other animals on our walks. And they don’t only limit themselves to the bush.

One morning while on the footpath near the Cascade Brewery, I witnessed an unusual congregation of birds, a kind of avian cold war between sulphur-crested cockatoos and currawongs. It was as though I’d come across an animated “Spy vs Spy”: the cockatoos all white except for their crests, the currawongs all black but for their golden eyes and white tail markings.

[A Black Currawong plays the strong, silent type] 
The two species were sitting on top of open wooden apple bins inside the factory grounds. It was apple harvest time, and the birds knew there were plenty there for the pecking. I paused to watch, counting more than a dozen of each type of bird busy at the apple boxes, with more flying in and out from the tall water silos across the road.

I wondered how the two very different species might interact. The currawong all silent swoop and precision, the cockatoo raucous, unpredictable, manouverable: stealth fighter meets combat chopper.

[A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. Photo by Lynne Grant] 
As I watched a cocky landed atop a box right next to a feeding currawong. The latter paused and looked up at the cockatoo, just a wingspan away. The cockatoo arched forward, unfurled its crest, and let out an ear-piercing “RAAARRRKK!”. It was too much for the currawong, which flapped off to find a vacant box.

Further down the footpath I came come across Tommy, who walks with the aid of a zimmer frame. We’ve chatted for many years, enough for me to know he’s a war veteran, that he lives in a retirement village, and that he has cancer. Walking is his one freedom. I sometimes slow and walk with him towards town, where he goes for breakfast and a change of scene.

Tommy knows a little of my life too, just snatches perhaps, about travel or grandchildren or walking. It’s enough that we can go a year or more without coming across each other, and then take up again like old friends. And it’s enough that my walks will be just that bit poorer when Tommy is no longer there.

Something as simple as walking side by side, sharing informally while your focus is elsewhere, walking and talking, can make connections whose impact is deeper than time. That’s the fellowship of the foot.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Other Sunshines

Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us, even in the leafless winter. 
Mary Oliver

It was probably overdue. It’s late autumn after all. But the cold front still caught me by surprise. Strong winds slammed into the house in the small hours, pulling me out of a deep sleep as something loose crashed around outside.

[Sister Moon comes close, May 6th, 2012] 
All week the night sky had been unusually bright, a full-to-waning moon orbiting as close as it would for some time. But when I peered outside to check the damage the sky was dark, the moon smothered in thick wet cloud. It was pouring, and I guessed – or hoped – that any harm was minor. I stumbled back to bed.

Thankfully the morning revealed no damage to the house. Further afield bright-rimmed clouds, tall and fat, were still busy hurling snow at Kunanyi/Mt Wellington and its lower slopes. There was no disguising it, even if it was just a notice of intentions, winter was back in the neighbourhood.

For much of human history, at least in cool and temperate places, winter has been the time of disease and death. It’s been the season during which the old and the vulnerable have been picked off. I suppose the common fear of winter – I feel it sometimes myself – derives from a deep-seated race memory that stretches back into pre-history.

But far from reaching for the mukluks and mufflers, we Tasmanians just add another layer of clothing, preferably one that can be easily removed when the warm returns. It’s not as though we’re going to be laid up by snow for days or weeks at a time.

And sure enough, two days after that cold front, the mountain’s snow has melted, and daytime temperatures are back to the high teens (Celsius). We wonder, not for the first time, whether winter is just crying wolf again.

Far more predictable than snow and cold, and almost as feared, is our loss of sunshine. Summer sunsets flood my writing loft with light and heat – sometimes too much so. But now, as autumn resolves into winter, the sun has retreated, setting in the north-west. And it’s many hours earlier than in summer, sending only pale and slanted light into my west-facing window. Most days I don’t even get home in daylight.

[Sunshine wattle blossoms brighten up autumn and winter] 
So I choose to make the most of daylight hours by walking in our bush of a morning. There, in these last few weeks, I have been comforted by the oddly-timed blooming of one of our more humble native plants, the sunshine wattle. Its botanical name is Acacia terminalis, although it once bore the species name discolor. That earlier Latin name means “wattle of a different colour”, as it is so much paler and less conspicuous than our more famous golden wattles. It is also a great deal smaller than most, being lucky if it reaches 3m in height, at least in our bush.

One grey, wet morning I am drawn over to a stand of these wattles. Their profuse, pale blooms are set off by the tree’s dark foliage. True to their name they seem to shine in the gloom, smiling in the face of coming winter. I find my own mood lightening just by being among them.

[Sunshine wattle lives up to its name in our nearby bushland] 

I discover later that the distilled essence of sunshine wattle is alleged to have similar effects when used in aromatherapy. One company extols its ability to promote optimism in those who have had a difficulty or are stuck in the past.

I’m rather sceptical about aromatherapy. I also resist spending money on that which is basically free. So as winter deepens, if I find myself in need of a shot of optimism, I think I know just where to find it.

Sunday 6 May 2012

The Omnivore's Delight

Omnivores, whether bears, ravens, dogs or humans, have a dilemma at this time of the year. We have such a glut of fresh food that we don’t quite know what to do with it all.

[Part of the great lettuce glut of 2012] 

We could simply wait: the glut will fade away as quickly as our Tasmanian daylight. While today we have 10 hours of daylight, by the winter solstice in a few weeks time, we will be down to 9 hours. And even then the sun, busy powering the plants of the northern hemisphere, will be giving our food plants scant attention.

Presented with a surplus of food, and a shortening of days, most omnivores have an irresistible urge to do something with their bounty. Some deal with the boom or bust situation by gorging themselves when food is plentiful, and going into torpor or hibernation when it’s scarce. It works well enough for Alaska’s brown bears. Along the Pacific coast of Alaska, the summer glut of salmon is hard to believe. Millions of large, plump salmonids swim into a finite number of streams to spawn. Bears – and humans – literally have to walk over fish to cross a creek or move along a shore.

[Expired Alaskan salmon: just a few of the millions]  

You might expect that bears would gobble down fish indiscriminately. In fact they become quite fussy. When we were in Sitka in south-east Alaska, we came across fish that had small holes in their heads and slits along their bellies, but were otherwise intact. The lumbering bears, perhaps 3 metres tall and with paws the size of dinner plates, had used their claws as delicately as scalpals to remove just the brains and roe, the parts with the highest fat content.

The same fussy eaters would then supplement their fish diet with other plant matter, especially berries. We did likewise when we discovered blueberries growing wild in Sitka’s wet forests. Oh to have that kind of scroggin in our bush!

After their extended feast, brown bears head to their dens for around six months. It’s generally called hibernation, although the bears don’t stay fully asleep. In many cases the females even give birth during the winter, not something any mammal would sleep through. Australia’s eastern pygmy possums, fattened on nectar and insects, favour torpor rather than hibernation, as described in this earlier post.

Another response to surplus is to put food aside in some form so it can be accessed and consumed during the lean times. Butcher birds, woodpeckers and squirrels are among those to “squirrel away” their food. Dogs bury bones as part of the same instinct.

Humans, with their mastery of fire, glass, metals and refrigeration, have a substantial advantage over most omnivores. We can, in truth, store summer in a jar. Or less romantically, in the fridge or freezer. In Alaska many of our friends smoke salmon to preserve it over the winter months. Cured, smoked and salted meats were staples for many centuries prior to refrigeration. They continue to be hugely popular.

[Summer in a jar: chutneys by Lynne]

Our own glut includes tomatoes, lettuce, basil, and parsley. And even though much of our fruit is finished, we’ve also been able to find a few late raspberries and apples. We have no shortage of recipes for tomatoes and apples, especially sauces and chutneys. A few hours work help us to store the ghost of summer in the pantry. While both basil and parsley can be dried for later use, we turn our excess, blended with oil, pine nuts and parmesan, into delightfully tangy pesto.

Lettuce is more problematic. Lettuce pesto doesn’t have a convincing ring to it. Neither will it freeze or dry. Despite our best eating efforts, much of last summer’s crop is either shooting or becoming rabbit food. One friend believes that’s all it’s good for, although I can’t agree with him on that. I will miss the wet crunchy freshness of homegrown lettuce over the next few months.

One bitter-sweet seasonal marker for us is the autumn colouring of Tasmania’s endemic fagus (Nothofagus gunnii). We make our annual pilgrimage to Mt Field’s Tarn Shelf to see its beautiful autumn display. Although the colouring and dropping of leaves tell us that colder, darker times are on their way, I never tire of seeing that flame lick across the high slopes. The colouring seems an act of both retreat and triumph.

[Fagus lights up the Tarn Shelf in Mt Field National Park] 
On our way home we happen across the last of the season’s fresh raspberries for sale in Westerway. At home a handful of late berries struggles to redden, but at the berry farm they have just enough to sell by the punnet. Back in our kitchen I combine fresh and frozen raspberries and sylvan berries, and cook up a large pan of hybrid red berry jam.

I know that in the depths of winter a spoonful of that jam will bring a summer smile to my soul. Although it’s highly doubtful I need delay sampling it until winter.