Another Country Diary

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3 February '02

Gundagai hills and approaching stormThe zen of the long drive.

Living (and traveling) between cities and the country has been a consistent part of my life from the time, when as a teenager, I moved from the country to Melbourne to go to college. It was hard to get back there until I bought my first car when I was 20. Since then, I have been heading either from the city to the country or from Sydney to Melbourne following work. I'm used to it and I like it. Traveling alone on a long drive has a complexity that always gives me something new and it's not the same things that you get from 'travel'. 

As a Traveler or Tourist, you're looking for new experiences and sensations from your journey and the destinations you visit. While that can happen in a car, most of these trips were just about getting from A to B and could have been by air or train (if you didn't also need the car when you arrived. And if you could afford it.) I've been driving from Melbourne to Sydney at least  four or five times a year for thirty years or so. When I started that trip of around 3000 kilometers it took more than a day (especially in the old cars I used to own), requiring an overnight stop or roadside sleep. Now it can be driven in 10 hours in relative comfort. From Bungendore it takes about 7 hours to get to Melbourne and 3 to Sydney. 

First you get the thinking time. There are still gaps in the journey where the car radio doesn't work, and if there's no cassette music I feel like listening too in the small green kid's suitcase I use to store the tapes, then it's silence. That is quality think time. It's partly why I overcome my guilt about traveling alone in my 'environment antagonistic petrol burning car' and avoid picking up hitchhikers, even when they look benign and friendly. This is my space and I enjoy the quiet and the freedom of things being at my rhythm. 

The other aspect involves the urge to record some of that now very familiar scenery (with an occasional fresh moment as a new bit of dual highway is opened) and the strange doggedness of getting to the destination. It becomes an intellectual tussle. "Wow, look at the light on that hill. I 'hafta' photograph it. I'll just pull over. Hmm, where is it safe? Damn, can't slow down now, there's a truck behind. I'll just signal and then try and find a spot. Oh, now it's not as nice, it was better with those trees framing the edge. I'll go back. Damn, the highway is divided so I'll have to find somewhere to turn around. God that was beautiful, just the perfect angle! Go on truck, pass me so I can stop. I can't see anywhere ahead. Oh, it's too much trouble, there'll be another good shot ahead", and you speed up again, and there isn't an angle as nice or you flash past another "Wow" moment and the same equivocating process starts again.

It's like that much quoted Seamus Heaney poem Postscript where he writes about driving through County Clare  "when the wind and the light are working off each other". 

Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And find the heart unlatched and blow it open.

This time, just out of Gundagai I did stop. Not at the first wow moment but before the light had changed. Just before the clouds swept a heavy summer thunderstorm over the road and everyone slowed or pulled over as the highway was inches deep in water. Five minutes later it was gone, leaving only that intoxicating smell of rain on dry ground and dry grass, that came through the air conditioner. It prompted me to open the windows and filled the car with hot wet ion charged air.

Memo to self: Don't just avoid the dilemma by trying to photograph out the window with one hand while you're traveling at 110k. Even if the clouds are spectacular and the light patterns weird. Just watch the road or you'll die.

4 February '02
Apples in the rainRain and more rain. On the weekend the Canberra Times published an 'ACT in Drought' headline and story. It's been raining steadily ever since. From 9am Monday morning we've had over 2 inches in the old scale (actually about 58mm). We don't have a rain gauge at the moment, the one that lived on the garden gate for years cracked in a heavy frost. The gutters in the older areas of town are just grassed hollows and they become long ponds very quickly. The newer streets are concreted but there's been a conscious push to keep the open 'country town' look of the other areas. It puts less strain on the drains because it soaks away and we just have to put up with the rivers outside our gates at times like this.

Last week the old Victa mower that Jan's dad gave us five years ago finally refused to start, after being absolutely bulletproof and reliable all that time. It's had minor maintenance by me and a new set of blades every few months but it's blown a hole in the casing and lost it's ability to grip the grass catcher on both sides. I figured it was time for another one, and looked around today for a re-conditioned second-hand model. I gave up after driving all over town, and I think it's time for the investment in a new one. In the meantime with the warmth and rain the grass has grown another inch or two, and is sitting there with a wet green taunt on its face.
5 February '02
Cinneraria in the rain. Click for bigger image.It's still raining. (Us country folk always have to talk about the weather.) The silver cinneraria has been beaten around by heavy rain and looks most untidy outside the kitchen window. The leaves hold the water droplets for ages. Behind it in the photograph is the little lemon tree that's been hit by the frost each year since we planted it. At the moment it is looking very green and glossy. I promise I'll build a better shelter this winter, just draping plastic over it isn't enough.

The usual matter of fact Bureau of Meteorology report for the ACT was quite chatty when I checked it online last night. There was almost a short novel on the day's page. The results for Tuggeranong were apparently reported incorrectly the day before. People had obviously sent in their own totals and there was talk of historical records before the Canberra airport bureau office opened in 1939. All very chatty. Apparently we've already doubled the average monthly rainfall (52.9mm) in the first five days of the month. What that means to the farmers is that the paddocks are already showing green under the dry grass and you can see the dams filling. There's a shallow soak with a car tire in it on the road into town that we use as a gauge. 'It's over the tire!'...'Yeah, I noticed'. 'It's drying out, you can see the tire'...'Yeah, hope it rains soon' etc. 

I know that it is raining because the flat roof in the back is leaking inside, and I can hear the drips into the buckets from my work room up the front of the house. It only happens when the rain is really heavy and I think it's a design fault in the ridge gutter where it tries to make the runoff turn a corner and it then comes in under the iron. I'll have to have a go at caulking it when it dries.

The dogs and cat have to be really serious about going out to wee. The look on their faces makes you think they blame you for it. 'Damn you for house training me!' On one of these expeditions, the cat caught a thumbnail sized frog and brought it inside. It had one leg sticking out a bit but was hopping ok. I caught it and released it outside. The cat is still looking around under the couch thinking she'll find it.

There are lots of frogs in the yard because of our pond in the back garden. We don't often have them visit, but sometimes late at night, they come towards the light and the insects, and hop through the open back door. In the pond they make quite a racket, although our neighbors say they don't mind. With the wind and heavy rain I don't think anyone will have heard them for a while, even with summer's open windows. 

6 February '02
The rain has eased and I now can walk through that sneering long wet grass and inspect the estate. The nectarines that are on the low branches have been nibbled through the nets, they're still too 'green' and hard to be attractive to birds or possums. It's probably snails because the long wet  grass gives them perfect access.  I'll prop them up and see if that stops them. 

In spring, our horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) had masses of the lovely conical flowers and developed lots of small nuts. Today there's a handful of the large prickly 'conkers' left. The other's seemed to have withered leaving one strong nut on each branch. I love the bud stage when the stalks are like forks, spiked with glossy buds and all sticky, but the flowers and dark green leaves are also pretty, and then there's the autumn leaves and ... yep, I like the chestnut tree. Why the other nuts shriveled I don't know.

Chestnut trees often grow to 40m (131ft) tall. Probably not in my time, but I'm sure a future neighbor whose fence line it sits on, will have something to say about totally blocking their entire yard from morning summer sunlight. Is large tree planting a guerilla greeny action? Or just antisocial behaviour? (It was planted at least ten years before we arrived I hasten to add, and I do like my neighbours ...)
8 February '02
Evening primroses on roadsideThis time I vowed to stop. It was an early start to get to a 10.00am meeting in Sydney, but the whole valley was full of misty patches and early sunlight screaming 'take me!'. The rain had gone and the warmth of the morning was steaming the moisture from every puddle. The first light was spectacular as the sun came through, and there were kangaroos feeding close to the road, and the hills were showing just the peaks above the mist in the valley. I stopped. I stopped again at Tarago and the avenue of elms(?) opposite The Loaded Dog pub was looking very European. Then all the road edges were spotted with the evening primroses and I stopped again. 

Consequently I was late for my meeting.

The evening primroses Oenothera stricta are biennial so it's always a surprise to see so many, they seem to need rain but then they stay around for months. Always on the roadside, they sometimes form dense groups but usually string out with single plants wide apart. The flower buds are reddish brown and they then unfold into four large yellow petals with a notch in the edge. They have four 'spreading stigmatic lobes' and eight stamens 'with dorsifixed anthers' (it means 'attached at or by the back') as my favourite wild plants text, A field guide to Weeds in Australia by Charles Lamp and Frank Collet.
Inkata Press 1976), says.

Now here's the best bit. Why are they called 'evening' primroses? Because they open at dusk and are fertilised then by moths and insects. After fertilization the flower apparently darkens but I've never noticed a change. The came originally from Chile via Europe and are quite common in western Victoria. The seeds are oil rich and used in herbal medicine.
9 February '02
It's the Art Gallery effect. You know how when you go and see an exhibition and you come out with eyes changed and the world's become a painting? We saw the Decades exhibition at the Gallery of NSW and some great paintings of early 1920's Sydney along with some black and white photographs from Olive Cotton that I had never seen before. 

While we were inside, there was a wild storm with lightning and blankets of gray rain, abstracting the navy dockyard and the wharves. We stood at the floor to ceiling strip windows in the north side of the gallery, and watched as it passed over and the sun came out. Then we turned around to the dynamics of the paintings. 

Outside it was all fresh washed, with the road black and shiny and the colours intense. It made me think how long it's been since I've photographed in black and white. My digital camera has a black and white mode (you can't cheat and bring the colour back, it's a real choice forcing you to concentrate on what monochrome does best. Simplify and abstract.) Of course there's still some techno cheating involved. You see the viewfinder image in pixilated black and white.  
Fred Harden
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