Another Country Diary

Links to images and other pages are in blue, mouse-over pop-up comments are burgundy.
5 June '02
Want a slice of my birthday cake? 
Well, you'll hafta ask the fairies.

Arbutus revisited. I mentioned the Strawberry tree in an entry on autumn/winter berries. I've since found out that Jan's parents have one in their yard in Melbourne and that to Jan it was known as the 'climbing tree' because that's what they did in it. I also found that her mum has a few small trees that she's dug up and potted so we've decided that we'd like to plant one here in our yard. Jan thinks of it as some horticultural family continuity, but it may have to be our grandchildren's children who get to climb in it.

The tree is obviously tough enough to withstand our winters and reading Mrs Greive's Herbal it seems to be wide spread in Europe as well as growing wild in Ireland around Killarney

The narcotic nature of it's fruit and being able to make a wine from it with the same properties, doesn't attract this old hippie but I'll find out more about it. Seems like another thing we'll plant that fits right in with the other decorative but poisonous plantings across the yard. We'll never be able to pass this place on to a young family. But I'm not feeling irresponsible in the least.
6 June '02
The tray backed truck overtook me on the double lines just past Smith's Gap. The road a head was clear and I smiled at the impatience. It then sat just in front of me all the way to the highway, on it's rear window there were two signs and one of those twee full colour transfers of a Rotweiler. The biggest sign, in red, said "Don't like my driving? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT" Yep I thought.  I tried to and take a photo while I was driving (not that dangerous with a digital camera but not recommended folks) They're all blurred but if I see it again it should go into the 'bad boys in utes' collection. 

On a higher level, I haven't seen anyone photograph the phenomena that is the Hume Highway truck culture. It's probably because of the work involved in becoming part of it so you see things as an insider, but it seems like it would be great to take part, even from the edges. It would be difficult because it's a moving target subject. It doesn't sit still and unless the drivers are is eating dinner at one of the service stations I stop at, or are parked having a regulation sleep, you'd have to be moving with them in all kinds of weather, and at night.

Coming home from Melbourne last trip, I came through Tarcutta at about 2 am. and I was amazed at the number of trucks parked in the blue glow of the street lights. I guessed at about sixty or so, lining the road edges, parked in the centre median area, with silver van sides forming a corridor of strangely static heavy metal. No people were moving, no cafe or pub open that I could see, even the Tarcutta RSL with it's 'Family Chinese Meals' was in darkness. I presumed that everyone was asleep in their cabs. It was such a strong image that I want to go back, with tripod and some long exposures to capture it. I'll make some attempt at capturing some of the highway moments when I can. Like this one.

The above copy of 'Highway Evangelist. The Voice of the Christian Truckie' I picked up in the Shell service station at Berrima. It consists of four sheets of foolscap folded and centre stapled and is printed in Mittagong on what looks like a home offset press, by John Wheeler Printing. I presume it's the same John Wheeler but now called Chaplain John Wheeler (sic), who leads Transport For Christ - Australia.  There's a website that will give you a taste of the publication and the ministry that aims to be ' an interdenominational Christian organization dedicated to winning truck drivers to Jesus Christ and establishing them in faith'. To help the task along, there are photos of trucks, both big and strange models, and a similar mix of articles. One about health -"Our Bodies are our Temples, lose some weight" exhorts the truckie eating fatty take away food to 'lighten his load', and there's a description by a driver who was working in Brooklyn on September 11. Another about a Russian Ministry to transport workers there, and some standard  'Where will you spend eternity' 'repent now' and 'Show you're a Christian' pieces. It's all a bit hopeful in the trucking environment I know, but there's some charm to that. 

So now, I'll be looking out for those Christian witness stickers as they thunder past me at 130k downhill past Belangalo on my trips home. If there's a wanna be Christian truckie in your life, you can get them a free copy of the Highway Evangalist at a truck stop near you. Tell 'em to Honk ok?

8 June '02
Here's another for that 'bad boys in utes' collection. I wonder if there's a hidden  backwoods redneck community that serves up these guys? This ute came up behind me as I slowed to go through Tarago and was obviously pissed at me going slow. ( 65 in a 60 zone. I'm no saint on the open road with the speed limit but I'm careful around towns.) You can't go too fast into Tarago because here's a sharp right hand bend to the road that then goes beside the hall, shop and pub. If you overshoot you used to end up in a paddock, but there's now a newly sealed narrow road that goes straight ahead.
When I turned, the ute continued on and appeared in front of me just beside the school. I could see the guys laughing in the cab, but my interest was taken by the shortcut that I hadn't ever noticed. I then sat behind them for the next 20k and although it was quiet on the road and early morning, there was no road rule that seemed to apply to their vehicle at all. Double lines were crossed on bends and the Lake Bathurst speed signs were a signal to speed up. Just past there, I felt I had to record the image above for you. Five minutes on, the ute turned at one of the lanes that head over the railway line into the hills towards the Federal Highway. The sign posts are always to names of small communities that I've been meaning to explore sometime with my camera in hand. Remind me to take my banjo when I do.
10 June '02

Images are - the cover of Uncle Tungsten, the spidery thin filaments in one of our low 
wattage night lights that get tangled when bumped and then glow extra brightly until they die, and one of Canberra's many spectacular fire works displays (FM 104's Skyfire in March 02). Maybe fireworks are all we've left as a display those violent chemical reactions. 

I finished reading Oliver Sack's story of his 'chemical' boyhood some time ago, but have taken a while to write this. The immediate response to the book (as it was for my English mate Norman) was 'Yes! I felt just like that as a boy'. 'Yes! That was me and my chemistry set'. (For Norman growing up in London it was a few more 'yesses' - 'Yes! I went to that museum... I loved that Periodic Table display... I bought my chemicals at that store.') 

So I've been thinking a lot about what Sacks identified as his dramatic adolescent 'life changes' and I've been considering that almost certainly what he went through was a wider experience tied to that time and into the early sixties. It certainly echoes my own and I presume many others of our baby boomer age. His description of physical abuse at private school during the war and his withdrawal into another world that was pure and rational as compensation, are all his own of course (lucky me). It's easy now to see how it shaped what his future interests would be, and as readers of his books, we can only be grateful for that time of transformation in his life and how it has given us his writing today. 

If you're a Sacks fan, this book does tell you about his childhood but it's really about the history of chemistry and in particular the development of atomic theory. Don't attempt it unless you have better than a passing interest in those topics. He cleverly uses some personal experiences and the influence of his amazing uncles as a literary device to provide us with a lot of later research and history in a subject that still attracts him.

What I hadn't expected was that reading the book would bring back a lot of my own experiences with childhood chemistry sets and the obligatory explosions and smells. What it also made me realise was that the emphasis on 'safe' experiments in schools has robbed students of any of the excitement of learning about the subject of chemistry that I experienced. Watching how changes of state happen in a test tube, noting the colours in violent reactions that tell you what is happening chemically. Handling acids, and finding that phosphoric acid needed a glass stopper because it eats into rubber ones. Cutting a pea sized lump of a sodium and watching its shiny metallic face disappear to gray as it oxidised immediately and then dropping it into water to see it fizz and move violently (and explode noisily in larger lumps). Then dipping a finger into the water to taste the salt. How can you understand or learn that without experience? How much stronger it would be and easier to remember for the students if they could?

One of our teachers was demonstrating the effect of the acid and alkali that made up a fire extinguisher's contents. He opened the swing windows of the science room and from his front desk sprayed over the kids heads and out the window. No parent complained (that I recall) about the marks on their kids clothes or the smudged ink in our books, and we all remembered the power and strength of that chemical reaction. It would never happen in that admittedly cavalier fashion now. I also remember watching wooden tapers glow brightly in a test tube of oxygen, and being treated to the theatre of sparkling magnesium ribbon becoming an incandescent flare when plunged into a beaker of the gas. Lighting up the classroom on a gray winter school day.

I can well understand why both our younger daughters, although interested and inquisitive about electricity, physics and good at maths and science in general, gave up on chemistry as a school subject. I felt the loss more than they did when they dropped it.

My first chemistry set was a large commercial box of small test tubes with cork stoppers, full of chemicals and metals. Later the chemicals and glassware were bought separately at Selbys in Melbourne, a supplier to schools and laboratories. It was also possible to buy basic chemicals at the local country store, sulphur, saltpeter, ammonia, magnesium sulphate where all household items. My Melbourne grandfather would buy items on request and send brown paper parcels of sometimes doubtful safety, by post to us in the country. My favourite book was a blue covered leatherette bound one on Organic Chemistry, and I remember working through the qualities of Sulphur, from rubbery coils that formed when melted and poured into water to the inevitable gunpowder. But I knew that element and could tell you all about its changes of state even before we covered it in school.

Sacks fascination with the chemical aspects of photography and chemical toners I also shared (helped along by my father) and the photographic interest took over and I eventually had to move my chemistry set from the laundry, out into the yard where there was a big black Dodge car body, propped up on blocks, with the seats removed. My photography interests, enlargers, developing trays etc. had taken over the available bench space. I'm not sure what my mother thought about the constant smell of fixer and acid stop bath as she did the laundry, but she had some relief from the other stains and odours when I moved my 'lab' outside. 

Those developing smells were on my skin for the next twenty years until I could afford to get someone else to print my pictures (or the shift to colour and Kodachrome movies dictated it). There was some loss in that however, and I've returned to my own processing at times. That feeling of powerful chemical magic watching an image come up through the developer, rippled with reflections of the dark room red light, is still lurking and as I imagine it, I can smell it.

Years later I understood how the early alchemists were using their chemistry as an allegory for things of 'deeper meaning' (I was reading a lot of the weirder bits of Carl Jung at the time). I was also fascinated about those leading figures of alchemical history, their searches for transmutation and how their understanding fused into modern chemistry. Oliver Sacks' book brought that sense of the 'super-natural' back vividly as well. 

Uncle Tungsten is an enthusiasts history of chemistry for a Boy's Own Annual generation. It's a shame to think that there will not be another 'generation' with those experiences, to follow us.

Fred Harden  
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