I’m astonished to discover it’s winter already. Summer and Autumn flew by. We’ve had a lot going on and at times it’s felt like we were just keeping our heads above water. Or perhaps that’s the wrong metaphor for the hot, dry summer we’ve just been through. Limping through the desert?? Just getting through, anyway. Life can be tricky sometimes, can’t it? We’ve had our fair share of trickiness over the years and I do occasionally wish for a normal, boring life. At this point in my life I’m not particularly fussy or demanding. I’d settle for stability, enough of the basic necessities, good food and simple comforts. I’m not that interested in material things – I’d be more than happy with a healthy body & mind for me and my loved ones, plenty of sleep, sunshine, laughter and hugs. And it’s not like we don’t have a lot of that already – we do. And we’re on track for even more of it, but there are balances and checks every step of the way. Moving to the country has had its pros and cons. A healthy body and mind demand some sacrifices. Not everyone will be happy with the choices you make. Human bodies age. Good food costs more in time and effort that you can sometimes invest, and you don’t always get enough sleep, feel like laughing or appreciate the simple comforts.
On the plus side, my health is improving, the dam is full again, there are enormous parsnips in my garden… and I have a job! I’m a bit late in sharing that news, but I’m happy to report my gainful employment with the Open Food Network. For the last 4 months I’ve been doing about a day a week of customer support work, helping local farmers and producers use this fabulous open source software platform. The OFN is a not for profit organisation that I volunteered with many years back, and did a bit of content work for just before I got sick. Their goal is to make food fair by putting control back in the hands of the people who grow and eat the food. Producers get the tools they need to create a path to market, and people like you and me get to buy it, knowing that our cash goes straight into the farmer’s pocket. It’s a win – win! And speaking of win-wins, I get to work from home, manage my own hours and feel good about making a difference. I also get to work with great people who have a genuine passion for what they do. It’s been the perfect next step in my return to health and the big wide world.
The new work routine has slotted fairly easily into my life. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to manage the commitment, small as it is, but any negatives have been balanced out by the positives. Probably the biggest impact has been my reduced tolerance for ‘leisure’ screen time. Now that I have to sit at a screen for a short while each day, my body complains if I do much more. It’s pretty weird. If I spend too long sitting or working on a laptop, a strange kind of ‘screaming’ feeling rises in my body. It’s hard to describe but feels like a distressing kind of restlessness, with elements of anger or panic. It’s a bit like I’m possessed and something’s trying to get out (me?). It subsides as soon as I stand up and start moving. Usually, one or two hours a day is my limit and if I stick to that I feel pretty good. Given I could sit and research or read all day, it’s a positive thing to be connecting with my body in this way. It feels like my soul talking, telling me what I need to hear – which is move and go outside! Of course this does limit my blog and insta posting, but I know my audience (all 7 of you) will understand.
Season of the winter garden
Here’s a pic of our winter plantings getting started back in Feb. It’s the first time I’ve raised seeds for winter vegies. We started early but probably didn’t quite get there in time. We should be harvesting by now, but all we’ve got are greens and parsnips. Awesome parsnips, it’s true, but still. We’re following Matt and Lentil’s guide from their book Grown and Gathered but fell a little behind, partly due to procrastination (too hot to go outside!), but mostly because so many seeds failed and seedlings were munched. I think most of the plantings will go to sleep soon, and we’ll have to wait til early Spring for everything to wake up and kick into action. We’ve got broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, peas, snow peas, white, red and brown onions, leek, broad beans and garlic in the ground, all looking pretty good. The beans have been slow to take off and I had to raise heaps of extra brassicas cos they all got munched, and munched, and munched. Anyway the garden looks lush and healthy and I feel happy when I see it out the kitchen window.
Here at the foot of the mountain we’re getting more rain than the surrounding towns. It’s misty most mornings and damp in the evening, even on drier, sunny days. It’s been a relief not to have to water every day, though it took a few weeks to get out of my summer habits. I like watering, but I think in a year or two we might install a drip system in the kitchen garden. It’s more efficient and better way to conserve our precious water.
Along with the rains, winter has brought with it a chance to reconnect, slow down and breathe in that fresh, crisp air. I’m feeling stronger, I swim twice a week (in a heated pool, obviously!) and am outside more than ever. I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about ‘nature’ and the fact that we as humans consider ourselves separate to, rather than a part of nature. Now that my eyes have been opened, it seems absurd to me that we stand here and look out at nature, or talk about it as something other than what we are. We ARE nature. We’re made of the same stuff. According to American Science writer Dorion Sagan, our cells live in a unique combination of water and salts that mirrors the composition of the early seas. And it’s not just human cells – all of life on earth preserves the ancient environment of our home. We are part of this place, and it is part of us. When we deny ourselves access to nature, we deny ourselves access to our own identity. We cut ourselves off from our self, our family and our life support system. No wonder we feel lost.
Whenever I walk outside on our property, or along the walking track in our neighbourhood, I come back feeling more motivated, alive and refreshed. And I notice things. I notice new plants popping up where there weren’t any last week. I notice the dips that are more lush than the higher ground surrounding them. I notice how the water always follows the same path after heavy rain, washing away the topsoil to create the clay track that we humans follow as we wander. Yesterday I noticed bulbs coming up and remembered how pretty they were last year when they flowered. And I notice that winter here is not the same as the winter I’m reading about in books written by Europeans or North Americans.
In the Northern Hemisphere, winter is a time of hibernation for all of nature. It snows, nothing grows, and people take shelter. They rest, consolidate and prepare for the next growing season. Here in this part of Australia, while a lot of common (mostly introduced) plants bunker down and die back over winter, indigenous plants are coming back to life, bursting with green shoots and new growth. It’s actually the hot and dry summers here that indigenous plants need shelter from, and that’s when they bunker down and conserve their energy. Since moving here I’ve come to feel the same way. In the city, disconnected from nature, Summer was a time to play, stay up late and socialise. Here, exposed to the elements, I feel it the way the plants do. It’s just too hot in summer. I need to slow down, conserve my energy and do what I can to stay hydrated. The more familiar I become with the life forms and conditions I interact with on a daily basis, the more I appreciate the enormous disconnect we have with the land on which our feet are planted.
Seasons of the land we stand on
The first peoples of this country had a very different understanding of seasons to the Summer, Autumn, Winter & Spring that we imported from the Northern Hemisphere. Australia is a huge continent with enormous variation in climate – so there was no single seasonal calendar that all Aboriginal people followed. Some of these indigenous calendars were documented, but sadly, no-one asked the people of the Gunung Willam Balluk – here at the foot of Mt Macedon – how they named or recognised the seasons. Or if someone did ask, it was never recorded. We do know that most Aboriginal groups in SE Australia recognised five or six seasons with distinct characteristics that fall roughly around the times that we identify as late Autumn/early Winter, mid Winter, late Winter/pre-Spring, mid Spring, late Spring/high Summer and late Summer/early Autumn. These seasons would have been known for the food sources that became available at that time or the changes in environment or lifestyle they would herald.
Having spent just over a year here on the land, I’m a long way from being familiar with all the distinct seasonal changes, but already I recognise some of the patterns and shifts, and I can see how different they are to the European seasons that we try to squeeze them into. Imagine the greater connection we could feel with nature if we organised our calendar by what our senses perceive from the land we live on? Rather than ignore the flowering wattle and the emergence of bulbs in August, let’s celebrate their beauty. It’s Orchid season now – so why wait til the official declaration of Spring to celebrate new life? When Spring does arrive, and our European trees begin to flower, yes there’s joy in the beauty of the blossoms and the delicious fruits they herald. But also, let’s celebrate the indigenous root vegetables that are ready to harvest. While we busily plant and wait for our European foods to emerge, these nutritious roots are ready to eat now – so let’s have a Murnong harvest festival! In Autumn, how about we focus less on the fall of leaves from deciduous trees, and more on the return of water to the landscape. This is a time to work, capturing water that will soak into the parched soil and bring back life. Lets celebrate the arrival of the rains we’ve been longing for and a chance to heal our thirsty country.
As we move into deep winter, the season of flooding lowlands, we’ll be making the most of softer clay and digging ditches (called Swales) along the contour of our sloping block. These swales will capture rainfall before it runs off the property, slowing the flow and allowing it to sink into the ground. Keeping our precious water in the ground means healthier soils, less watering in summer and healthier, happier country. In a few weeks we’ll clear a lot of the fallen dead wood down in our little forest and have a bonfire. We’ll leave some of the dead wood in place though; logs for habitat and bark and leaves to build the mulch base that’s essential for a healthy soil ecosystem. The cool of winter makes it easier to do this kind of heavy work. For the same reason we’ll use this time to mark out and clear paths which will keep heavy humans off the soil in our native regeneration area and build a fence around the kitchen garden. It’s not exactly a busy time, but there are enough jobs to keep us active and outside; just enough to balance out the hours spent doing my absolutely favourite thing – reading by the fire!