Sunday, August 22, 2021

Kangaroo politics

We've had this old boomer hanging around the house lately. I wrote a post about him chasing the dog along the bottom track. She's also bailed him up in the bush between the house and the inlet. It seems he hangs out in this liminal zone. When I first saw them together, the dog was howling at him and he had up his boxing paws and neither animal could work out who had the upper hand. Every time I've seen them together, they are trying to negotiate power structures and kinda failing.

Sometimes, early in the morning before I get out of bed but after light has filled the house, I can hear the splashing of an animal crashing through the shallow waters of the inlet. Experience tells me it is my dog chasing that boomer roo into the water. I'll put on my boots and run down to the shore, call her back. I'll see her swimming in circles around the old man kangaroo, who is sitting low in the water with just his head emerged. And she'll come back, my dog, shaking the briny from her hackles.

Anecdotes swarm of kangaroos that lead dogs into dams, swamps and rivers, and then drown them once the dogs are out of their depth. People I know have told me of this very occurrence, of seeing it happen right in front of them and not being able to do a thing. It seems my dog and this old boomer have a relationship that I don't totally understand. I've been so worried about what might happen when I go to work, leaving my dog at home. I'm worried that I'll find her dead or drowned on the shore, or that this bush dog has gone one step too far and killed the old boy.

A neighbour had a chat with me on the beach the other day (yes I have a neighbour now). Apparently he's seen this same old boomer walk out into the water and sink down, so that just his snout is showing above the water line. 'I've never seen anything like it,' he said. 'Maybe he's trying to get rid of ticks?'

'So my dog wasn't chasing him in?'




Saturday, August 21, 2021

Instructions for Towermen

The Forester's Manual of the 1950s details the criteria in selecting men and women to serve as towermen ...

1. Must have good eyesight.

2.Must have reasonably good enunciation and good hearing for use of the telephone.

3. Must be capable of reading a map and learning the countryside visible from the tower.

4. Must become profficient in using the instruments and in furnishing reliable information.

5. Must be able to endure the necessary isolation and take care of himself and must be sober. 

I love the 1950s language in the book 'Lookouts of the Karri Country. The instructions are a cultural artifact of their time. Although acknowledging that both men and women 'man' the towers or work the fire line, we still use phrases like 'men in attendance' (the somewhat misleading log book abbreviation is 'MIA') and 'towermen'. I do like that on radio support we are simply called 'Tower'. One of the first women I know who worked the tower I'm at now used to go up there when her husband had had enough after too many straight days. She'd carry her baby son up the mountain in a bassinet, watch for fires all day, while breastfeeding.

The firetowers around here are a mix of huts atop mountains, huts set into the crowns of the biggest tree in the forest and actual towers constructed of wood and steel. Here's one of the latter: (Bit a Kombi love down there too)

The point of firetowers is early smoke detection and the mapping of bushfires. We're up high and looking for smoke all day. When we call a smoke in, crew can mobilise on the ground and find it quickly. Yes, we have to be of sober habits, have good eyesight and be able to stay on the ball for hours, days, without losing our shit. * (See footnote)

 In fire prone areas the forestry and land management mobs, who meandered between different government departments over the last century, got bushmen to create the towers. These men pegged their way up the hugest karri trees to find good lookout spots, climbed mountains or built towers. They would peg their way up a 100 metre karri, take out the crown and then carry up materials hand over foot to build a hut right at the top. Decades later, people began to realise (derr - in hindsight) that taking out the crown sickens the tree and makes it no longer structurally safe for a fire lookout and cuts short the life of the tree. Yes well of course ... but before we all pile on these people I'd like you to look at these photos.


Each year that I'm on the tower, I begin the season with a medical, including vision testing. As I age, my vision range is changing. I find it hard seeing street signs while driving at night and yet I can see a plume of smoke at 35km and work out on the map exactly where it is.

Instructions to Towermen (1939)

!. At 8am he will obtain the early morning fire weather forecast and pass it on to neighbouring towers or divisions ...

2. Report the wind direction and strength and visibility in each of the four quarters of the compass to the District Headquarters.

3. Maintain a careful watch at all times for smoke.

There are more instructions for towermen and many of them haven't changed. Forest grid mapping and Alpha, Bravo, Charlie universal alphabets still remain. We still record wind direction and speed every hour, the relative humidity and temperature too.

Tourists walk up the mountain to the tower now. It's a major southern forests tourist trail. They're often amazed to see me here. They express that this system must be so antiquated, what with drones and spotter aircraft. They think I must be a volunteer. When I'm windexing the windows of the tower to see more clearly, they think I'm a government-hired cleaner.

I sit up here and watch the eagles circle, looking for prey. I look for smoke. I compete every day with the spotter pilot - ours is a blood sport borne out in the smoko room. Their gig is a twice daily circuit of the area and pilot prestige. My gig - all day, sitting up in the clouds on top of a mountain, watching, looking, seeing.

* 'Camping out in a hut at the base of the tower could also become trying. But boredom, especially on days of little activity, was the major problem. This could result in depression known as 'Towerman's Syndrome', which cropped up in most forestry districts towards the end of every fire season, and was difficult to counter.' p.30

* Evans. D, Lookouts of the Karri Country, CALM, Perth, 1993.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The bar is broken!

 As promised, here are some pictures from the same place as in my former post. I think the sand bar probably breached last night and this morning we have a beach. A beach! Now we can go for walks without crashing through snaky reeds and tea tree swamps.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Swing Saws and the Queen

So this post is about swing saws. Have any of you heard about them? Swing saws are pretty much the most dangerous pieces of farming equipment I ever come across. Forget about tractor fatalities or deaths/dismemberments/injuries caused by post hole drillers, let alone those ATV bike rollovers. Swing saws are part of an archive of 1920s new chums (immigrants) turning up to buy and clear land in a country that delights in the mythology of the hard-working land clearer, and part of the mythology when bits of wood or the saw itself turns on the operator in a kind of karmic deliverance.

I'll get back to swing saws in a moment. For now, here is a photo of my dog. 

Queen. She was early-morning sunning when I took this pic.

The inlet is about to bust its bar. I've never seen the water sitting so patiently on the banks and I've been here for a few years now ... but it's full and ready to split, ready to spill out into the sea. I'll post this photo and then when the bar breaks, I'll post another photo from the same spot. Stay tuned.

Back to the swing saw. They are pretty much a petrol engine driving a circular saw blade attached to a rotary hoe set up where you can turn the blade from vertical to horizontal. During the farm sale and the assorted paraphernalia that went with it, the swing saw sold to a local farmer who promised me he would never, ever work the thing. He bought it as an article of interest and it was to be hung in his shed for perpetuity. He promised me that.

Others had expressed interest in the swing saw because old WW2 motorcycle engines had been repurposed into these land-clearing, sleeper-making, personal decapitation machines. I'm not kidding you. Have a look at this puppy and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Vaxed, Baby

 I was late.

This is normal. I can set off an hour early only to discover the car needs fuel or the body needs fuel or there is a tree across the track or the dog has run off or an emergency phone call.

Anyway, I was late and the receptionist called me as I passed the bay named after an interloper. 'If you are not going to make this appointment, please let us know, so we can give the vaccine to someone else.' So when I shouldered my bag and myself into the clinic twenty minutes late, she said 'just sit over there beside room 6 and wait'.

The doctor, a portly Indian man in his sixties, left room 6, went to the reception and returned with a small, green plastic kidney tray. 'This way,' he gestured.

'Which arm?' The green tray held a hypodermic and a tiny vial. 'Right or left?'

'I don't care, any arm,' I said. But he obviously needed to know so I said, 'left arm thanks.' 

'Right then, roll up your sleeve.' Or, as I pulled my dress down over my shoulder, 'Okay, roll down your sleeve.'

As he injected me, he asked 'What kind of books do you write. Novels?'

'Yes. Novels. I write novels. Sometimes.'

'All done. Good.' He binned the needle and the empty vaccine bottle and then fiddled with the forms on his computer. 'Don't go yet. There'll be trouble outside if I don't fill out this bit.'

I felt like dropping to my knees and thanking this stranger. I exited his room almost bowing and scraping. I felt so grateful in that moment. Maybe this sentiment is silly. Not sure.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

When Bella Toa went to jail


“Use your head, can’t you, use your head, you’re on Earth, there’s no cure for that.” Samuel Beckett


She could recite her whakapapa back to the Kingi movement on the north island. She descended from prophets and warriors. But despite her royalty, the charges of cultivation of marijuana still meant she would go to jail. The night before Bella Toa was locked up, she picked two men to sleep with.

One man was her ex-husband. Pete looked like Sean Penn with a few less teeth and was a recovery expert in the local support group. Unlike Bella Toa, Pete’s whakapapa was a vague recollection of Pakeha settler/farmers and shop keepers. Robbie was her best friend, a stoic Ngai Tahu stonemason who used to scoff at Donna Toa’s penchant for Pakeha men and then one day saw the way Pete looked at her.

Robbie and Pete were both sea people and crewed the Taonga around the harbour on Saturday race meets. One day, long before the raid, Bella Toa found a new song and played it for them. I love this song, she said. Listen to this. She’d been divorced from Pete for six months and as the song played, all three stared at each other.

Who sings this? He asked.

David Gray.

And the room, laced with divorce and love and potential, morphed at the sound of this name spoken aloud. The same name of a man who’d opened fire on people across the harbour twenty years ago, when Pete, Bella Toa and Robbie had stood together, listening to the gunshots crack across the water out near the sand spit, near where the albatrosses wheeled about their cliffy nests.

That’s a pretty fucking weird name for someone who wrote such a great song, said Robbie.

Driving. Before Portobello, where the bottom road traces the edge of the peninsula, Robbie pointed out the iron door set into the sand stone cliffs. That’s where his ancestors were locked up at night, he said to Bella Toa, before the treaty, back when they were indentured labour to the colonists. Building this causeway which they drove now, in a Mitsubishi Magna, with buckets of rocks. Bella Toa didn’t know how true this all was, about the iron door in the wall or the buckets of rocks. She was on her way to court at the time. She was probably going to jail. She lit a cigarette and wound down the window a notch, careful not to let in the cold.

They’d grown the crop in the hills up near the hydro. High country on a north facing slope. It was a family venture, she and two of her sons worked it but then, weeks before harvest, her oldest son had a nasty breakup with his girlfriend and that was that.

This is our whenua, our country, our womb, Bella Toa said in court on sentencing day. If I want to grow weed in my own country, who are you to say that is wrong. This is my country. What are your laws except colonial travesties? These are not my laws. This is bullshit law.

A Maori woman arguing on the wrong side of town for her pot-smoking family didn’t go down well. The judge, all but putting on his black cap, said law is law and you are sentenced to two years in prison for cultivation and supply.

The night before, Pete, now to be the full-time parent of their youngest child and ex-husband of a felon, asked Bella Toa for a pre-jail bucket list. I’d like to have you in my bed tonight, she said. And I’d like Robbie too.

And so Bella Toa made a slow dinner of boil up and they sipped on the pork broth, gnawed at the bones and ate huge chunks of potato and kumera, drank wine until her brow became sweaty with anticipation. At some stage of the night Bella Toa got up from the bed to make them all cups of tea. Kettle whistled on the gas flame. She returned with the tray wobbling with cups and teapot and milk jug, to see the two loves of her life sitting side by side in the bed. They’d thrown the covers aside and were comparing their penises.

Like little boys, she thought. She stopped and the tea strainer slipped. Pete and Robbie beckoned her over to sit between them in the bed. She put down the tray, climbed over Robbie and curled into their collective warmth.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Self medication: mushrooms, crabs, sunshine, poetry.

Happy Winter Solstice folks! We didn't have a family bonfire this year, instead there was major flooding, lightning bringing down power lines, wind at 9 or 10 on the Beaufort scale uprooting whole trees and other extenuating circumstances that involved women without nipples...*

 During this time I've had the worst head cold in years, spent a fair bit of time at the inlet cold, sick and lonely (in isolation basically; no one wants me any where near them), surrounded in butter menthol wrappers and dirty dishes. Yes, and whingy whiny too. So a day or so before the Solstice, when the morning was still and warm with pre-storm languour, I popped a mushroom in my mouth and dragged my sorry carcass down to the beach to sit on a rock, to feel the sun ripple through my chilled spine.

I sat on the same rock where I snapped the crocodile a month or so ago and sipped some hot apple cider vinegar and honey. Over at the boat ramp sat a white ute with fish tubs on the back. Couldn't see the man's boat and then I could - a white rooster tail over the other side of the inlet. As he got closer, I could see that it was Steeleye, his red checked shirt and khaki waders his standard dress code. Dog sat to attention at my feet and whined.

We chatted about the cobbler while he packed the fish. 'Caught three last night', he said as he hefted some stingray wings into the icebox. This is really unusual here and worrying for me as I love wading. 


Pelicans began to crowd his boat, growling at each other like kelpies waiting for the scraps. Steeleye gave me a couple of blue manna crabs, rare as well in these parts but the inlet was open for so long last year that all sorts of strange things have been going on - cobbler, stingrays, blue mannas. I even found a marron once, trying to find the fresh and stranded in salt water.

The shroom began to kick in, doing its work on my molars first and spreading to my jaws, behind my eyes. I thanked Steeleye for the crabs and gathered them up by their claws. Walking up to the house, a lightening of my spine and the clicking of crabs at my side, I heard Steeleye's ute rattle along the track, boat trailer thumping behind. Wouldn't be back for a while, he'd said, too many yellow eye mullet and they're only 40 cents a kilo at the moment.

Back in the kitchen I boiled up the crabs to crimson and spread newspaper over the bench. Wasabi and some vinegar in a little bowl. I jointed the crabs' limbs and sucked out my first feast of the season, lifted the carapaces and vinegared away the yellow guts.

I was supposed to drive down south and stay with family that night before the Solstice but I couldn't handle the thought of swagging it on the floor, sick. So instead I fed on fresh crabs, feeling the heady rush of the shroom trip swimming into the fuggy ache of the head cold, listening to Marianne Faithful recite The Lady of Shalott.#

* Not really.

# 'She Walks in Beauty' by Marianne Faithful and Warren Ellis is a wonderful album if you are into either of these two AND the Romantic poets all in one place.