A Country Diary

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19 January '02

While Jan and I were netting the fruit trees, I picked up some hazelnuts that had fallen on the ground. I was surprised that they were ripe/full size/brown and that they had fallen already (there are still green ones on the bushes). There were only a handful or two, still in their attractive husks. I rubbed the husks off, pleased how clean and unblemished they were (usually we are still picking them from the ground for weeks after they drop and they can be dirty and faded).

Hazelnuts (maybe)When I took to them with the nutcracker, I was surprised to find the first one, then all of them, hollow. No trace of a nut. I can only assume that these fell or were nibbled off by parrots before the kernel had formed. Judging from the good size of these, the centre must develop quite late in the season. 

As they dry you can tell there's a nut inside when you shake it, a soft rattle that you feel in your fingers rather than actually hear.
20 January '02

The old apricot tree at the side of our herb garden (actually in the back yard of Val, one of our nine neighbors*, has avoided bird attacks to ripen a few 'tons' of fruit. 

I easily picked a bucket full today and when she came to the fence, gave her a plastic bag of the cleanest ripe fruit, and then took the rest and dried them. Scraping off the scabby bits leaves a scrappy looking fruit, but even clean skinned ones, after an overnight in the fruit dryer always look so different to the smooth and uniform commercial varieties, that you'd think they were a different fruit. The taste is always so much more intense, and there's none of the sulfur they get dipped in to preserve their colour (and which makes my throat tighten after a couple of pieces).

Home Dried Apricots
We usually just put a jar of these on the table, and our daughters and their visiting friends soon get through what would be pounds of fresh fruit that ordinarily they'd never eat. Funny thing that.

*We have a long half acre block that runs parallel and one block over from the next cross street. There are six houses that back on to our block on one side, two units at the rear and one neighbour sharing the other long side. Assume two adults and three kids in each (conservative for Bungendore) then we have around forty-five neighbours. Who needs to live in a highrise?

21 January '02
Autumn quince leaves caught in a bird netI've been checking the bird nets over the fruit trees a few times during the day. Two years ago, I covered the small nectarine tree in the side flower garden bed to protect half a dozen or so nice plump fruit (the tree was about five years old I guess, its first crop). It was while I was working in Canberra and not home during the day, trusting the automatic switch to turn on the well pump and water the garden. Sometimes it would be days before I'd go down the back of the yard to survey the domain.

I don't know when I noticed the dead starling twisted up in the net with its shit sprayed everywhere. It had been dead for days. When we finally picked the few nectarines, it didn't seem that the whole process was worth it.

One bird for six nectarines? I figured I'd buy my fruit guilt free when I needed it. The commercial orchardists must have a better ratio surely.

So last year I didn't put up any nets, other than over the quinces. (That could be because that is so accessible. It's a low, easy to cover tree and the fruit develops late after everything else has gone so it seems special. Its more likely we'd developed a lust for our home made membrillo, quince paste.) While the birds appreciated the feed, it didn't solve the dilemma. The trees are still there, still growing.

To compound it, this year there has been a great set of fruit. And because I'm pretty much home during the day to free any trapped birds, I went out and bought another $70 worth of nets and covered the cherries, peaches, nectarines, apricots, plums, and grapes. When they've been picked or pecked, I'll move one to cover the quinces.

There's still plenty for the possums, parrots and cockatoos at the tops of the trees that I can't cover, but there's so much fruit everywhere at the moment it seems they're not interested. Past year's they have come in a flock, at the peak moment when you can't believe your good luck that they haven't touched the fruit. Usually just days from being perfectly ripe. They descend together, fighting for seat, and sit around cacking what can only be dinner party conversation, but not so noisy that they draw your attention. They eat each piece attentively to the stone or core unless the drop it, and then leave an hour later, after stripping the tree completely. Except for the green fruit and partly ripened fruit they just take a bite from that, and drop it. They're not that desperate.
22 January '02
Rain. And we needed it. Everything we haven't had sprinklers on has stopped growing. 

It was hardly strong enough to hear through the open bedroom window, but it must have fallen steadily through the night. There was no wind, so it fell straight down without hitting the painted sheet metal that's covering the old bricks on our window ledges. We might not have heard it at all but were woken by a big possum hacking and hissing loudly just before dawn. The dogs raced out barking when we shouted at it, but it didn't stop performing until Jan shone the torch on it. Then it thumped off across the verandah.

The front of our house were our bedroom is, has high ceilings and a high peaked roof. The rain has to be really heavy before we get that pleasurable sound of rain on the roof sending you to sleep. (the back of the house with the kitchen and bathroom has low flat roof and it's very loud.) Only in summer when the windows are open at night to cool the house, do we know it has rained at all sometimes.

When I went to open the gate for Jan as she drove off to work, I noticed the little maple tree had delicate pools of rainwater in the hollows of the leaves. I tried to photograph them but they are so light, and every breath of wind made them blur and dance around. If I'd had the tripod and raised the shutter speed and ... 

I've been working at Grey today, taking the rest of the staff photos I started for them last year. I didn't get home and into the garden until about 4.30, and by then it had dried out and was quiet humid. Of course it means that I'll now have to cut the grass this weekend.
20 January '02
There must have been some 'country' worth recording along the way as I drove up and back from Sydney. I don't remember any other than a moment or two of rainy landscapes. I must have been thinking about other things. 

That was until I turned off the highway at Goulburn and saw a Black Shouldered Kite hovering directly in front of me. When I reached for the camera and waited the interminable time it takes for it to be ready, I noticed there was a second kite. I don't know if this was a breeding 'couple'  but they drifted along the roadside edge and seemed unconcerned about me inside the car. The kites, hawks and falcons around this valley are my favourite special birds.

Just outside of Tyrannaville I passed a car parked off the edge of the road, and a few minutes later I came over the hill to a black robed priest talking on a mobile phone. I stopped, and backed up, and asked if he needed a lift, figuring he was going to the Holy Cross Seminary further down the road. As I was clearing the camera bag and stuff off the passenger seat, he said that his car battery had died because he left his parking lights on during the day. I offered the use of my jumper leads and drove back and got him going again. He asked my name and said he'd say a prayer for me.

I thanked him and told him the story how on one of my early morning trips I came past the Seminary (I think it's also a working sheep farm called Inverlochie) in heavy fog. The seminary is built on the small hill beside one bit of the chain of Mulwaree Ponds, and always has a pocket of heavy fog along the water way. I rounded the bend to the surprise of two black robed 'brothers' walking side by side in the middle of the road. I was as startled as they were, and they flapped their arms and leapt in a few animated frames off the road laughing. In the absolute white they had looked like two crows, with black feathers spread. We swapped wordless gratitude that I hadn't hit them and I sped up again.

I said it was one of those mental images that I'd filed away for some future  movie script, but I don't think he was that interested in my  Fellini-esque moments. Obviously in a hurry, he thanked me again and drove off.

I  got back in my car and headed home into the (overcast) sunset. The programme on the radio was on the growth of Buddhism in the west.

22 January '02
Peaches just as they came from the tree I chased off a dozen or so cockatoos when I went to check the nets and the sprinklers, and decided that it was time to pick some of the peaches, before they got to all of them. I collected a bucket of the ripe ones (there'll be the same amount ready tomorrow) and brought them inside. Kate wouldn't believe that they were ours and home grown. She picked one up, turned it over and said, 'They're too nice'. That's an 18 year old who has always known shop bought, (and always been ambivalent about the taste of any fruit other than apples and grapes. It's my daughter Aurore who is the fruit fanatic. She'd climb over barbed wire to get a ripe mango.)

Everyone knows it's a problem and it's in danger of becoming a cliché. Ripe and fresh picked fruit tastes better then green picked and cool store gas ripened. Which is great for me in my big back yard, but without an accessible local growers market, how do you feed quality to the masses? What subversive twist can we add to the process? You don't want to destroy farmers and orchardist's livelihood, but there has to be pressure to get people to ignore the produce in the supermarket unless it's in season and ripe. They do it for vine ripened tomatoes  and charge a premium that many people would be happy to pay. (I find those sometimes just as tasteless, so I'm sure there's probably a con involved there. Barely ripe tomatoes with a bit of vine attached?)

There were no birds in the nets but a beetle had wound itself up in a ball of tangled plastic and I spent a frustrating ten minutes trying to get it out, even getting the nail scissors to trim the bits that had caught around it's legs. I felt pretty silly but found it hard to stop once I'd started. I removed it with all legs intact. (By the way how many legs does a beetle have? Just kidding.

I balanced it on the grapevine and it promptly fell into the grass. It's was too weak to hang on and now the ants will probably get it.
Fred Harden
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