Monday, November 16, 2020

Stone Stories #2 Putting them back

A boy with brown feet and brown eyes has been hanging around me over the last few days. His parents and siblings are camping nearby. When I first met him he was trailing a thick sisal rope tied around his waist and was trying to tow the campervan away with his brute strength. Later, he followed Selkie back to my house. He carried two bamboo sticks that he’d been carving. We’ve spent hours going through my boxes of big and little treasures; jewellery, sharks’ teeth, whale bones and gemstones. He announced that the fossilised megalodon tooth and the smaller of the curved sperm whale teeth were his favourites.

‘What about Fergal?’ I asked him.


‘Yeah, Fergal Sharkie,’ I said pointing to the stuffed carpet shark hanging on the wall.

‘Oh, he’s alright,’ he said. ‘But the fox skin is better.’

I could feel my seven year old alter ego swell with pride.

On the beach just down from the house are gemstones, clusters of tiny stones coloured like garnets and amber. The larger stones contain striations of gold and chocolate, kinda like those chef-endorsed ice cream brands. When the inlet fills, the corals and other critters colonise the stones, living all over or under them. Mullet feed on the coral aggregates. In the 1950s, someone built a break water for the boats. It’s possible they constructed it from ancient Aboriginal fish traps. Fish trap stones, concentrated in one place from hard labour a long time ago, are an easy source of stones. 

When the huts were all broken into a few months ago (read all about the dastardly Quokkas here), a lot of the hut owners came down to the coast to inspect the damage. Most of them live in far flung inland towns and having a hut ‘at the coast’ is one of those deliriously wonderful privileges open only to the generation previous to me. That is, unless you own several CBD premises, a city beachside house and a business that allows you to call yourself an interior decorator (ie you sell tiles).

So, I was out the back of Hyacinth and Rupert’s hut with them, inspecting where the thief had broken a window to get in, when I looked down to see stacks of Broke Inlet stones from the beach. There weren’t only a few stones. I was looking at hundreds, if not thousands. Given the earthworks, I gathered H & R had taken them from the beach to build a retaining wall. The corals snail-trailed over the stones were calcifying as they died. 

‘Where did you get those stones from, Hyacinth?’

‘Oh, we hauled them here,’ she said, striding away, ‘from somewhere else.’ Both were stressed about the break in and so I left her lie where it lay. It was obvious they’d come from the beach. One half of the wall was already cemented in.

After ruminating on the stones for a few weeks, I sent Hyacinth a text message. ‘Please put back the Broke Inlet stones. They are habitat for all kinds of critters and should stay where they are. They’ve provided homes for invertebrates and fish for tens of thousands of years and you are using them for a retaining wall? Really?’

Didn’t hear back.

Another month. I bailed up the Parks and Wildlife ranger outside the Post Office. ‘Here’s a hypothetical for you .. say someone was building a retaining wall at Broke Inlet, using the stones from the beach …’ She looked at me warily. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘I’ll get rinsed if I dob anyone in. It’s the Code of the Coast. What happens at the Coast stays at the Coast. But I know this is wrong. How do I change their minds about this? Is it actually illegal?’

It is illegal to remove any natural material from below the low tide mark, according to the 1984 CALM Act, an Act I’ve always railed against, but anyway. So, I sent another text to Hyacinth. ‘Would you like me to save your backs and a criminal conviction? I’ll put the stones back myself if you like.’ 

For someone so status oriented (I haven’t called this character after Hyacinth Bucket for nothing) she sure kept her cool. She replied that her and Rupert had so many family issues going on right now, they would deal ‘with the problem as soon as humanly possible.’

While I was glad ‘the problem’ had been recognised as a problem, I began to entertain doubts about my stand. Yowie changed the subject whenever I brought it up, as did other squatter hut dwellers. Maybe they thought I was a crank or a control freak. Maybe I was wrong? Maybe I was one of those tree changer newcomers who starts up a ‘Friends of XXX’ group and becomes a total pain in the bureaucratic arse? I asked Flame’s partner, an old-time resident, what he thought. ‘No, it’s fucked,’ he said. ‘They’ve got enough money to buy whatever they want. They just felt entitled to take those stones. It’s fucked.’

‘As soon as humanly possible’ involved Hyacinth and Rupert cementing the rest of the Broke Inlet stones into the retaining wall the next time they came down from the city. When I saw the slopped cement over the corals and the stones, I felt disappointed in them and in myself. All I wanted was for us all to be better people.

No one at the inlet wanted to talk to me about it anymore. ‘You’re like a dog with a bone about this,’ said the squatters who’d agreed with me previously. Outsider folk said, ‘Well I’m glad you are taking up the fight. I can’t do conflict, myself, so thanks for taking this one on.’ But they had no idea what it is like to live here.

I’d just alienated my only neighbour within 25 kilometres. Hyacinth and Rupert have helped me out in the past but now they disappeared into their hut as soon as I drove past. The last message I sent to them was; ‘Hi just letting you know I’ve dismantled part of your retaining wall and returned the stones to the beach. When you are next down, I’d love to talk about dismantling the rest of the wall and putting the stones back. Sarah’ 

I did that on a Sunday afternoon long weekend, in fuck-it mode, in front of everyone.

I went into Albany after that and learned that Hyacinth and Rupert would be back that week. Hyacinth slunk into the hut when I returned (I doubt she will ever speak to me again) and Rupert, once he’d gone behind the hut to inspect my wilful damage, came out to glare at me. ‘Would you like to talk tonight about returning those stones?’ I asked him. I was expecting that a good dose of valium would get me through this encounter.

‘There’s nothing to talk about Sarah.’


‘You took one load back to the beach. We took another two. We built the retaining wall out of quarry stones in the end.’

‘That is the BEST possible outcome Rupert!’ I said. No valium required and I kinda half believed his yarn. Big sigh of relief.

And then he offered me some bull herring and I thanked him.

I have more to say about the taking of stones. It's a biggie in this country and yes, I’ve done it myself. This is just one story and I’ve had a great few days, hanging out with a kid who appreciates stones as much as I do.


  1. So impressed with your warrior woman stand Sarah. Most people just don't have the guts. Of course you are right and as they realised in the end, they were wrong. Sometimes things really are that black and white. Someone has to stand up for the country, the animals and plants. I do it too and I know how hard and unpopular it is. Good on you! XX

  2. Yeah it's a tricky one in such a tiny community and that Hyacinth sure can hold a grudge. I think they actually thought that when they moved the stones there, they owned them and that I stole them. It was also that act which made them finally understand how serious it was.
    That said, we have to pick our battles, I think. Focus on one or two things and go hard!

    1. The whole 'ownership' thing is fraught. Ideologically I think it sucks but in reality I want to 'own' my own home because I don't trust others to do the right thing. Ownership is often seen as an 'invader' construct in this country but although Aboriginal people claim they don't 'own' their country as such, they kind of do. They also treat their own people as 'owned' and expect a level of exchange and support and are quite strident about that. It would be brilliant if we could share stuff more but human nature being what it is.....It is incredibly rude to take communal stuff and then claim it's yours though - like the rocks.

      And yes, I have taken rocks too and I know it's not right. But taking a few isn't the same as taking a heap to build yourself a wall - or is it?

    2. I've taken rocks too, one or two because they are beautiful. It was pointed out to me that I was hypocritical because there are some of the same stones in my garden but they've been there for 25 years! I think taking several hundred or thousand to cement into a retaining wall is different - treating nature as a resource we own. It's akin to mining. Or stealing.

      It's the slippery slope too, where someone else sees their wall and thinks 'hey that looks good, I might do the same' and next minute stones are being harvested and sold at Bunnings. It's illegal for a reason.

      I've had this conversation a lot recently, muddling through the ethics, as we've all taken a stone(s) from the beach at some time. The penny drops when I mention habitat loss. I guess living here and watching the ecology of this place in real time has made me aware of the important part they play in the whole system. These days I wouldn't take stones off beaches or wilderness areas. There are plenty of roadside stones already disturbed which I still consider rich pickings.

  3. Yeh well if they're people from the city who think it is ok yah and all that to have a quaint little hut at the coast then you did the right thing. If it had been anybody else I guess it the situation would never have arisen anyhow, like a local, but yes, I would have been absolutely fuming mad and told them exactly what I thought and I probably wouldn't have been so subtle about it as you, i.e. the text, I would have just said as soon as I saw them even if they were dealing with a break in. Rupert sounds like he is ok, better than her. No wonder she said they have issues.

    1. She was trying to fob me off with 'Can't you see we're BUSY??'

  4. Love that you're walking an aficionado of Treasures through your Wunderkammer. (Your quokka link takes me curiously to the backroom of mine - is this a comment on my dancing with copyright? Honest, officer, I'm only taking what's in the public domain!)

    The wall: Is Hyacinth the tile seller with the inflated job description? Small wonder appropriating a gross or two of rocks was considered perfectly okay. It could have made a nice feature in a magazine spread about their rustic shack. Stylista on the coast shows us how ... Pity it's meant there's now a proverbial wall between you and your nearest. Hopefully Rupert will navigate you to calmer waters eventually. Agree, we've all souvenired stuff, else where do we store our memories sometimes, but on the face of it a normal person would have to feel like a robber taking more than a couple. Small communities with their mix of holiday-homers have always got something going on.

    1. That's interesting Pipistrello re the backroom. There's been something going on with the Cookies notice in Australian blogger platforms.

      Yes, the tile seller and you've nailed the rustic shabby chic beach shack magazine spread.