When the Pivitonians met the Bloods

The stars in heaven aligned. The stars came out to play. Geelong have carried off their 10th V/AFL Premiership.

For anybody who was on the Moon last weekend and somehow missed that final score, Geelong 20.13 (133) d Sydney 8.4 (52) at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in front of a crowd of over 100,000.

Before the game I had heard it said that Geelong and Sydney had never met to decide a Premiership, but that isn’t quite the full story is it? Until the 1980s the Sydney Swans were the South Melbourne Football Club, a club which along with Geelong was a foundation member of the Victorian Football League in 1897. If you look back far enough into the stories of these clubs, Geelong and South Melbourne, you will find a tale to be told.

Before the VFL formed, teams played regularly in the Victorian Football Association competition and in the 1880s, the two strongest teams running around in the VFA were Geelong and South Melbourne. Together, these two teams managed to win 12 of the 13 premierships decided between 1878 and 1890.

The Geelong Football Club in 1884. (Source: Wikipedia)

This was a bit before my time you know, but I can tell you it was an era before the round robin style finals series we are all familiar with and which is now used to decide the Premiership. The team that finished on top of the ladder at the end of the home and away season was deemed to be the premier team of that year and in 1886 both South Melbourne and Geelong went into September undefeated. A meeting planned between the two teams that month would decide it. The winner would go to the top of the table and become the Premiership team, the loser would finish as the runner up. It was a match that even to modern eyes had all the trappings of a Grand Final of the modern era.

A team of 19th Century Australian Rules Footballers seated in front of a grandstand.
The South Melbourne Football Club in 1890. In an era before the concept of an “Away” jumper, Geelong played in blue hoops, South red which I guess must have caused a little confusion. (Source: Wikipedia)

This famous game has been called “the sport’s most important match of the 19th century”, and has become known to modern football historians, (yes, there really are such a thing) as the “Match of the Century”.

The “villainous” South Melbourne recruit, William Bushby pictured two years after the Lakeside Oval clash. (Source: Stump & Co photograph, Wikipedia)

The lead up to the game was steeped in controversy. In their last meeting resulting in a draw, South Melbourne had been accused of deliberately turning up late for the game to achieve a shortened match in a tactic to combat Geelong’s perceived greater endurance and athleticism. Professionalism was yet to be openly accepted in sport and tensions were raised further when it was revealed that South had somehow convinced a certain Mr William Bushby, the Captain of the Port Adelaide Football Club and reputedly the best Australian footballer “in the world,” to travel from the Colony of South Australia to Victoria to play in the game. Bushby said he had come to Victoria for a short time for a business opportunity, but nobody was letting on what the opportunity might involve.

The night before the game, these tensions turned to alarm then outrage when it was discovered that the rail line near Newport had been pulled up in an apparent attempt to derail the Geelong service in front of two special trains bringing the team and its supporters, an act of sabotage committed by persons quote, “unknown”.

They took their football seriously in 1886.

As reported by a thrilled writer in the Argus newspaper:

“No football match ever played in the colonies excited the same amount of interest as the premiership decider between Geelong and South Melbourne.” (The Argus, p10, 6 September, 1886)

The game took place on Saturday, 4 September, 1886 at the old South Melbourne, Lakeside Oval where over 34,000 people crammed into an outer designed to hold about a third of that number, while as many again jostled outside the closed gates. This was the largest crowd to see a football game of any type anywhere in the world up to that point and to this day it remains one of the largest to ever witness a VFA game.

News of the score or rumours of the score were breathlessly passed up and down Clarendon Street in South Melbourne by an excited mob gathering outside packed shops. Finally, after the bell sounded at the ground to announce the end of the match there was a cry from the largely parochial South Melbourne crowd inside. Geelong were the victors, 4.19 to 1.5 and, perhaps fittingly that scoundrel Bushby had hardly touched the ball. His direct opponent, the Geelong Captain Dave Hickinbottom, was named by contemporary sports writers as Best On Ground.

136 years later Geelong and the team that in another time was South Melbourne have played the game that has been pencilled in by some as their first ever meeting in a Grand Final. The match was a rout, criticized by many as a debacle not worth watching but I say this again. That’s all a matter of perspective. To say I enjoyed it is an understatement.

When I was old enough to choose a football team to pin my hope and heart upon, it seemed to me that Geelong and South Melbourne were regularly fighting it out on the bottom of the ladder for the right to the wooden spoon. Sort of like the situation between these two clubs in the 1880s, but in reverse. The only way seemed to be up from there.

A football scarf hanging on a blue door
VFL Cats scarf hanging at the door, Yallambie, September, 2022
A picture of a footballer on a magazine.
Geelong’s record breaking captain, Selwood pictured on the cover of the 2022 GF Footy Record.

So, like millions of other Australians, I watched the game on the telly at home last Saturday, a Geelong scarf from the VFL era draped over the front door here. Our boy was fortunate enough to get himself a ticket and was there to witness history, texting me pictures and providing a commentary like a modern day version of the Clarendon Street summary of 1886. It was clear from the emotion seen when the veteran Geelong Captain Joel Selwood kicked a goal just before the final siren that this would be the Cat Cap’s last game, and what a way to finish.

“Nipper” Trezise (right) chasing the ball in a Geelong v Collingwood game of the 1950s. (Private Collection)

This family has always been Geelong on both sides, the result of an earlier family connection, and it’s moments like these that bring it all home. I messaged a cousin after the game and eventually received a reply. She had fallen asleep before the first bounce and only woke up when it was over.

Life’s like that. Close your eyes, and you will miss it.

Time and place

The Queen is dead.

Long live the King.

Words not heard in British nations since the end of the Victorian era and the death of another long reigned monarch. The death of Queen Elizabeth marks the end of an era and is a sobering reminder if anybody needs one that nothing lasts forever, even an Australian dependence on a political institution that has stood the test of time for generations. In the words of the US President last week, “in a world of constant change, she was a steadying presence.” What this has to do with Yallambie, God, the Footy, freshwater fishing and a humble meat pasty is unclear, but at a time when scientists are floundering to find a unifying Theory Of Everything, I propose that in some ways, everything is connected.

Most people alive today have never known a time when there was a monarch other than QE2, and while I expect the time will come in my life time when Australia votes to become a Republic within the British Commonwealth, that time is not now. Many people my age will remember primary school years when we were required to line up at the obligatory school assembly on a Monday morning to sing the national anthem, “God Save the Queen” before marching around the quadrangle, out of step and out of tune. The lyric, “Long to reign over us,” has proved prescience but when Punk Rock happened, God Save the Queen gave the institution a whole new meaning. In her lifetime, the late Queen oversaw the gradual dismantling of the British Empire as an institution, an institution with a colonial past during which so much of Yallambie’s history was written. Modern sensibilities find much of the history of Empire problematic but the past is past and cannot be unwritten. If we can learn from it, then something is achieved.

Prince Charles Edward Stuart painted by William Mosman around 1750.

The recent renaming of a beer maker, the Colonial Brewing Company of Western Australia is apparently a matter of import to some people, but I’m wondering, are we merely paying lip service to the issue? What’s in a name anyway? With the passing of the Queen, there are some who suggested that the new king might style himself on one of his other given names – George, Arthur or even Philip. After all, there was precedent. His grandfather Bertie named himself George while his mother called herself Elizabeth II, even although there had never been an Elizabeth I of Great Britain. Given the unfortunate history of those earlier kings with a Charlie moniker, it might not have come as a surprise. One Charles spent the first 10 years of his reign in exile, another found himself shorter mid reign by the length of a head and his neck while a third, the Bonnie Prince Pretender of Floraville association himself was never even crowned.

So the present day version went for the obvious and Charles III has been quickly proclaimed as King of Australia while his mother is buried on the other side of the world this evening, (Australian time). Yes, under the current laws of this land there really is a king of Australia but did you know, another less widely appreciated role of the king is as the “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”, something that would have meant something to those earlier Yallambie “Colonials”. For a new King who is a life-long Anglican but who has called for mutual tolerance in religion and has been known to talk to his plants, I find something delightful in this.

So the King’s eldest son William gets to go up a rung on the ladder, by tradition becoming the Prince of Wales in the process although I don’t suppose anybody asked the Welsh their thoughts on this matter. William, Prince of Wales, also gets to be the new Duke of Cornwall, a title which comes with a £1bn estate and a multi-million pound annual income, most of it earned from assets that perhaps surprisingly are not actually located in Cornwall or which will allow him to give up his day job, waving at people and cutting ribbons.

The grave of Thomas Wentworth Wills at Warringal Cemetery, Heidelberg. “The founder of Australian football”

When I think of things that come from Cornwall I think of King Arthur, Tintagel and the Cornish pasty, not particularly in that order. With Geelong set to play in another AFL Grand Final next week, it got me thinking. Has it really been a year since I wrote about Tom Wills lying in the dust at Warringal, footy finals and that great Australian culinary masterpiece, the Aussie meat pie?

This writer’s father (right) fishing for river trout in the 1950s

My mother, dead these long years, came from Surrey but I remember her making a pretty mean old pasty back in the day. She would bake them and put them in a hamper for the footy or for my father to take wrapped in lunch paper on fishing trips to the Mitta Mitta, on which trips if he relied on what ended up on his fishing line, he would possibly have gone hungry.

Mum’s old recipe called for carrot and peas, alongside the more traditional ingredients. I remember her saying the extra ingredients really disqualified them as proper Cornish pasties, but that’s the way my dad liked it and that’s the way she baked them. I made these again last week for the televised finals and it is only by doing so now that I realize just how much work is and always was required.

The match day ball from the 1952 Grand Final. (Source: Victorian Collections, from the Geelong Football Club) https://victoriancollections.net.au/items/5a08191a21ea671aa81c88e9

The boy and I were at the game on Friday night with 77 thousand others to see what turned out to be a very one sided affair. Geelong by a country mile you might say. I heard people, apparently without a vested interest, say as we left the ground that it wasn’t a very good game, but I guess that is all a matter of your perspective. For those who believe in omens, there was a news story the other day that reflected on the fact that the last two grand finals played under a new monarch, in 1937 and 1952, were both won by Geelong. The stars align in their eternal passage across the skies as a new king takes to the throne. Time moves on, the Queen is dead. “Carpe Diem Geelong”.

How to make a Cornish pasty in Australia,
and without reference to Cornwall

Ingredients:
I X quantity of shortcrust pastry
500g of lean mince steak
200g chopped ham or bacon
2 onions
2 X carrot
A couple of potatoes
A cup of freshly shelled peas
½ turnip
2 X teaspoons salt
A dozen shakes of ground pepper
2 X spoons of Worcestershire sauce
1 X teaspoon of crushed garlic
2 X spoons of chopped parsley
Extra parsley sprigs to garnish

Method:
Your true Cornish pasty would never have carrot or peas in the recipe, but really a pasty can have whatever you like to put into it and in whatever quantities you care to name. It’s said the old time Cornish miners would take their pasties into the mines and warm them on a shovel over a candle. In the dark I don’t suppose they could see what they were eating. This is the way I made them at home a week ago during the televised finals, without a shovel and without need of a candle.

Collect the ingredients. Peel and dice the onions, carrots, potatoes and turnip. Place the meat, chopped vegetables, peas, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, crushed garlic and chopped parsley into a large basin and mix well. Roll out the shortcrust pastry into sheets onto a lightly floured surface. I used frozen pastry, which is of course much, much easier. Cut each sheet into a round shape and place a generous quantity of the prepared mixture onto each. Brush half way around the edges with a little water and fold one half of the sheet across onto the other into the shape of a crescent. Use a fork to seal the edges and crimp along the side. Place each pasty onto an oven tray and prick across the top with a fork. Glaze with a little milk and bake in a warm oven at 200°C for 10 minutes, then at 150 °C for 30-35 minutes, or until brown and golden. Garnish with the extra parsley sprigs, and serve. Makes about a dozen pasties, depending on the size.

A pasty, stuffed tomato, chips and peas

Quacked

Since the outbreak of the “mystery virus of unknown origin” in early 2020, there’s been a lot said about the state of our public health system. While roads and tunnels have caught the attention and some might say the imagination of government, it is the chronic underfunding of hospitals that has constantly been exposed in that time. It might seem patently obvious to you for me to say so now, but let’s face it, if you need a hospital these days it’s likely you’ll be taking your life in your hands.

Medical practices and medical practitioners have been around for as long as people have been getting sick and in ancient times there was little to distinguish the rational science of medicine from magic. It’s a long time since the tribal shaman handed out medical advice but after two years of pandemic during which we have heard calls from the now infamous suggestion that people try injecting bleach as a sort of general cure all, to dire predictions from the doctors of WHO forecasting the next global outbreak of pathogen, it’s getting harder all the time to remain objective.

One of the better known Doctors of WHO.

If you look back on the past at the 19th Century to see where we’ve come from, we find that some things that were once standard medical practices are now an anachronism. Bloodletting, which had existed since ancient times, was one thing that persisted well into the Century, the process supposed to rid the patient or should I say victim of impurities in the body. It was performed by a barber-surgeon, as distinct from the physician, and was almost without exception harmful to patients. This barbaric practice might now be a thing of the past but oddly enough it has been commemorated in a curious way by the red and white pole of the barbershop where you get your haircut, the white representative of bandages and the red of blood that once flowed freely under the barber’s ministrations.

Back then the law was far from clear about the credentials required to practice medicine and, bad haircuts aside, claims of extraordinary medical abilities by charlatans proliferated. A “medical degree” could mean just about anything, the only limitations being the owner’s ingenuity and overall resourcefulness. It might be a document picked up second hand in a pawn shop if a legitimate certificate, or forged and worth no more than the paper it was printed on if not. This was the era of the medical quack, the term originating from the middle-Dutch word, “quacksalver”, meaning somebody who boasts or brags about themselves and there were more quacks to be found than ducks on a lake. Quacks like “Professor” Jaeger of Vienna who reportedly made a fortune producing a product he called his “Soul Pills”, having made the discovery he said that the human soul was “not an immaterial spirit, but an odour emanating from the person.”

“This odour the professor has decoyed, bottled, and afterwards infused into “capillary pills”. (Singleton Argus, NSW, Feb, 1886)

Taken internally the pills were supposed to impart the swallower with the best moral and mental qualities, as distilled from others. Oh, if only life was that simple.

A list of potions available to the quack involve some conventional and other not so conventional items including something called “mummy”, supposedly ground up Egyptian mummies taken from their tombs, and “snake oil” made famous in the old West. The notorious snake oil salesman of parody is said to have started in the United States after a man called Clark Stanley sold liniment there which he said contained snake oil, “the cure for everything”. Clark’s oil in fact contained a mixture of beef fat, pepper and turpentine and perhaps unsurprisingly, contained about as much oil distilled from snakes as that other famous yet highly effective analgesic rub, Tiger Balm has ever contained tigers.

Here in Melbourne, from 1860 onwards a certain Dr Hailprim, a self-appointed Jewish Rabbi and occasional fortune teller, offered services to diggers heading to the goldfields that included an alleged ability to auger the location of the next gold strike. When the gold ran out, or very likely some time before, the doctor turned his attention to a chemist shop in Russell Street from where he sold patent medicines. His critics claimed these medicines consisted primarily of “dog fat” and furthermore that the source of the dog fat required a dog to be killed in a particularly strange manner and always at the very stroke of midnight.

Dr Godfrey Howitt, by Samuel Calvert, 1873.

While this was an era famous for its quacks, not all medical men were necessarily cast from this quacking mould. An exceptional exception in Melbourne was the brother in law of Yallambee’s John and Robert Bakewell, Dr Godfrey Howitt. Dr Godfrey had arrived in Port Phillip in 1840 with his family and brothers in law and soon established a very successful medical career at the top end of Collins Street. Howitt was almost single-handedly responsible for the development of medicine as a serious scientific pursuit in Melbourne and was honorary physician of the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum in 1847, a member of the University of Melbourne council from 1853, founder of the University Medical School in 1858 and vice president of the Philosophical Society of Victoria in 1854.

Home of Dr Godfrey and Phoebe (ne Bakewell) Howitt on the corner of Collins Street East and Spring Street, Melbourne, 1868. (Source: State Library Victoria)

Godfrey Howitt died in 1873 by which time it had become illegal to lay claim to spurious medical degrees, although there were always some still willing to try. As detailed in his 1978 book, “Kill or Cure”, Peter Phillips tells of a self-described “specialist physician renowned throughout the Colonies” who was brought before the courts in 1885. When asked if he was entitled to the letters MRCP he used after his name, the physician coolly explained that MRCP did not stand as some might assume for Member of the Royal College of Physicians, but those places he had previously worked – Malvern, Royal Park, Carlton and Preston. The case was dismissed, the judge presumably impressed by the audacity of the “physician” and, according to Phillips, sent out into society to collect as many more letters after his name as there were still places left for him to ply his quackery.

Picture of a hospital facility in the early 20th Century taken from the air.
An aerial photograph of the Austin Hospital, Heidelberg in 1929 with the Warringal village at top right of the picture. (Source: Picture by Charles Pratt, Airspy, State Library Victoria) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/20940

Melbourne in the 19th Century was an infinitely developing if infinitely unsewered metropolis. As an urban centre it had sprung into life in response to the gold rushes but beyond the grand public structures, by its unfettered growth it had become a hugely jerry built place which civic authorities struggled to organize and govern. Sickness was endemic in this age before antibiotics and at Heidelberg, Elizabeth Austin was to achieve immortality for her late husband’s name by donating money for a hospital for “incurables”. It’s said she did this after one of her own servants at Barwon Park near Winchelsea contracted tuberculosis and it was found that the only hospital accommodation then available for terminally ill patients from the serving classes was at the badly equipped prison hospital.

large stone house with drive in the country.
Elizabeth Austin’s home, Barwon Park at Winchelsea.

Tuberculosis, or Consumption as it was known, caused widespread public concern throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th but was only determined to be contagious as late as the 1880s. It is spread when a person with an active pulmonary infection coughs onto another. Two of Thomas Wragge’s daughters were to die of the disease, Jessie at Yallambie in 1910 and Caroline (Carrie) two years earlier at “The Trossachs”, in Odenwald Rd, Eaglemont. In Carrie’s case, it is thought the illness developed after she had earlier taken on the care of another consumptive family member, Louisa (Louie) Hearn.

“At that time admission to the Austin Hospital at Heidelberg was avoided as much as possible, because it was regarded as little more than a death house for patients with tuberculosis and cancer. To meet this need, Carrie and Frank took Louie into their home so Carrie could help her, even though she had two small children of her own to care for.” (Calder, Classing the Wool, p140)

The sight of face masks on our streets today might lead you to think that in some respects we haven’t gone that far and indeed have come full circle. Once again prevention has become the simplest form of cure and a bar of soap is the number one item you can put in any medical kit. In spite of this or maybe because of it, the subject still seems somehow to be open for debate.

Hand painted tiles displaying words "do not spit".
An old tiled sign on the walls of the underpass at Flinders St Station, Melbourne. A relic from a century old, public health campaign, the sign survived a recent refurbishment during another health scare.

The year before his 1996 death, Carl Sagan wrote of a foreboding he had of what he saw as a looming time, a time “when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide back into superstition and darkness.” (Sagan: The Demon-Haunted World, 1995)

I don’t know about you, but I’m off to the barbers. I want to get a haircut, pick up some medical advice and to see a man about a duck.

A duck perched on top of a chimney.

Zen and the art of fireplace bellows maintenance

They tell me it was Benjamin Franklin who once said, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” but personally, I like Mark Twain’s further take on that sage wisdom. Referencing Franklin, Samuel Clemens is supposed to have added, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow just as well.” Very Zen and useful advice for procrastinators everywhere. At this house, we find that’s true more than most.

While writing my last post and thinking about the blacksmith’s forge, I’d been absentmindedly glancing at the old fireplace bellows down beside the fireplace that have been kicking around there for as long as I can remember. Back in the day, a fireplace was the most common source of heating a house through a long Melbourne winter, both in town and up country, so a bellows used for coaxing a flame from a dying fire was important.  Vintage bellows are pretty common and many are decorated in pleasing fashion almost like works of art, but nails rust, leather perishes and wood dries out and cracks, so when found they are often in a sorry state of repair. While not actually decrepit, it had been a long time since our bellows had done what they had been designed to do

I looked at those bellows and they seemed to look back at me, as if to say, “Enough of the writing already, what about me?” Those bellows had been made by long dead hands and in truth were a beautifully carved thing, but sadly the leather parts had rotted away long ago to practically nothing. If we were ever going to get them to breathe their fire again, well then they needed to be fixed. But where do you take something like that to be repaired these days? The answer is, well you don’t. If you want something done in life, sometimes you have to be prepared to do it yourself, which is probably why those old bellows had for such a long time been floating around here in their state of disrepair.

I examined the fireplace bellows closely. Although the guts were mostly missing, surely there couldn’t be that much to the mechanism could there? They consisted of two rigid boards, nicely carved with a metal nozzle between where the air would normally be forced out. A simple valve on the backboard was designed to allow air to be sucked into the bellows as they expanded, and to close when the air was being forced out.

Hmmm, doesn’t sound so very complicated, does it?

drawing of hands holding a simple fireplace bellows
Diagram of a simple fireplace hand type bellows. (Source: Wikipedia)

The first thing to do then was to remove the old domed nails holding the remnants of the leather sides in place. I tried prising the first nail off with the edge of a knife and heard it break and fly across the room for my effort. Not a good start. Proceeding more cautiously I eventually had all the nails removed and saved for reuse. I looked them over. Machine made so maybe these bellows were not as old as they looked, or as old as I had always assumed them to be.

The two boards of a fire bellows are most usually hinged by a piece of leather but I decided to improve on this by introducing an old brass hinge, secured of course with flat headed screws, even though I calculated the screws would eventually be hidden under the shroud of the leather diaphragm. A short string between the two boards was supposed to limit the expansion of the boards and a heavy gauge wire fastened on the underside of the backboard and anchored with string served as a spring.

The hardest part was working out the shape of the missing leather sides. I measured it off with an old dressmakers’ tape and realized I was going to need a rather longer piece of leather than I had anticipated. Fortunately, we had some left over raw leather from a job lot we picked up a long time ago. The shape of the leather sides required I would describe as looking like an elongated almond, a sort of flattened disc with a bump in the middle. I found this easiest to get right by drawing a template of one quarter, then doubling up the design and doubling up again, cutting the leather oversize to allow for the excess to be trimmed once it was fastened in place.

I used contact adhesive to glue the leather, wetting the leather to aid in taking up the shape and securing with brass tacks, adding a leather boot over the hinge at the nozzle to achieve some approximation of an airtight chamber. The sides were trimmed with a thin strip of leather and the reused domed nails. An aniline stain was used to dye the leather and match it to the colour of the timber boards.

The finishing touch consisted of a little Neatsfoot Oil on the leather and some beeswax rubbed into the boards. I pointed it at the dog and gave it a squeeze. It worked. She took off to hide under the table.

Brilliant, this might stop some yapping.

So that is how it took an hour or two to repair something that has probably been waiting for attention longer than I have been walking around on this planet. Afterwards, I looked at the very many other things that need doing around here and which is par for the course living in a 150 year old house. I wondered, what next?

We all know that procrastination can be the thief of time, but I find there is a peculiar satisfaction in repairing something that is broken. Just as much satisfaction as there is in finding something in a good state of repair. This is as true of fire bellows as it is in personal relationships and the world we live in. As an allegory of the search for a meaning in life, I think Zen and the art of fire bellows maintenance might just about be as good as any.

Prometheus’ gift

In Greek myth, Prometheus was an elder god who one rainy day, not able to get out and with time on his hands, fashioned the human race from clay and gifted it with the knowledge of civilization.

It’s the sort of thing you do when you’re a Greek god, you know.

Prometheus was a Titan, a sort of Fat Controller of the ancient world with origins in the earliest form of the Greek Pantheon. In most versions of the myth, Prometheus steals fire from the flaming forge of Hephaestus, smuggling it to earth in a sheaf of fennel sticks for the greater benefit of all mankind. It was an act for which the big cheese Zeus punished him, but it was believed by the Greeks to be the source of all civilization, a thing still honoured today in the form of the flaming torch in the quadrennial opening ceremony of the modern Olympics.

Indigenous Australians hunting kangaroos with spears
“Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos” by Joseph Lycett, c1820. (Source: National Library of Australia)

Fire has always been thought of as a fundamental element and the ability to control it was seen as one of the critical points in the evolution of technology. Fire was being used by modern humans at least 125,000 years ago and by proto humans much, much earlier. It was used to manage the landscape and to provide warmth and light at night. It could be used to harden the pointy sticks the cavemen used to hunt their woolly mammoths and to split the sharpened flint blades of their stone tools. It is unclear exactly when our ancestors first discovered, probably through trial and error and a bit of indigestion that roasting the leg of a woolly mammoth was much yummier than bolting it down raw, but obviously the use of fire was an extremely important step in the biological and social evolution of the species. By the arrival of the Bronze Age about 5000 years ago, we were getting very inventive with it. Somehow someone came up with the idea of burning two types of rocks together, copper and tin to produce an alloy with so many expanded properties that the makers of such objects were deemed to hold almost supernatural powers.

There was nothing of the occult about it though. Just knowledge learned through trial and error. Bronze Age tools shaped the pyramids and built empires across the Mediterranean world for 2000 years – that is until it all went kaput around about 1200BC in a time mysteriously termed, “the Bronze Age collapse”. Nobody really knows what led to the end of Bronze Age empires roughly all about the same time, but one theory sometimes mentioned is the discovery of a new metal around about the same time – the Age of Iron.

Iron requires much hotter temperatures than tin or copper for smelting so new techniques were needed beyond the simple pottery kilns of the earlier people. Charcoal burning forges were developed in which bellows of varying design were used to force oxygen into the fire to increase temperatures. This technology was more complicated than anything found in the earlier Bronze Age but the basics remained the same. Start a fire and chuck some rocks into the flames. In the production of iron it was found that by introducing small amounts of carbon and hammering the result endlessly, the result was an extremely hard metal. The blacksmith was born.

Cart wheels and a horse outside a wooden building
The village blacksmith shop that operated in Burgundy Street, Heidelberg from the 1870s. (Source: A Pictorial History of Heidelberg since 1836, Heidelberg Historical Society)

It is a thing not readily appreciated now, but up until the modern day the local blacksmith must have been one of the most commonplace sights found in village life. The hammer blows of the typically muscle bound smith working at his forge would have been heard endlessly up and down and across the colonial landscape. It’s no coincidence then that the word used as a surname is still the most commonly found name in Australia. Iron was an essential commodity of the early settler community and the first pages of John Batman’s journal in 1835 give some indication of this with his description of the purchase of iron tools at Port Sorell while waiting for a fair wind to carry him over to Port Phillip:

A strongly built blacksmith in leather apron standing with hand on hip holding up a tankard of ale, a bottle of the ale on an anvil beside him.
“The hammer blows of the typically muscle bound smith working at his forge would have been heard endlessly up and down and across the colonial landscape.” Artwork by Arthur von Tossau from an advertisement for Victoria Brewery Bitter Ale, Victorian Patents Office Copyright Collection, c1890.

“May 23 – Got from those men four mawlrings, three axes, one hoe, one cross cut saw, four files, two throws, one shingle, and one paling ditto, one saw set, one gimlet, one auger, five wedges, one handsaw one spade.”

Iron forged steering ring taken from a bullock wagon left over from the farming days at Yallambie

I don’t know what a mawlring is but apparently Batman needed four of them in order to found a city. Clearly these were all iron made tools and evidently Batman wasn’t anticipating finding a blacksmith capable of producing them where he was going. Within a few years of Batman’s journal and in one of the earliest written reports from the land that would later become Yallambie, the gentleman settler William Greig wrote about how, after blunting the iron blade of his plough, it needed to be sent to a neighbouring farm to be sharpened.

The blacksmith was required in just about every aspect of farm life in the settler era. Blacksmiths were responsible for the fabrication and repair of practically any metal item you care to think of – from the simple hand forged nails and hinges used in building, the pots and pans used in the kitchen, blades of tools used in the garden, iron shoes of the horses and the metal tyres needed by the wheelwright. Even to the heated brands that marked the livestock. The services required of the blacksmith were many.

Two men with hammers and an anvil
An up country, bush blacksmith with rudimentary forge. (Source: State Library of Victoria)
An old horseshoe nailed to a fence post.
Rusted horseshoe nailed onto a fence post at Yallambie
Rusted horseshoes
Rusted iron horseshoes dug out of the garden at Yallambie

It seems likely that at Yallambee, the Bakewells and after them the Wragges would have had access to a smith when required and more particularly, if the number of old horseshoes found in the garden at Yallambie these days is anything to go by, a farrier actually located on the property producing shoes for the working horses. View V in Edward La Trobe Bateman’s series of drawings depicting the Bakewell brothers’ Yallambee, portrays a number of slab constructed, bark roof station outbuildings in which a blacksmith forge could well be one of the unidentified buildings present. In an arrangement probably not dissimilar to Yallambie, Winty Calder writing of the Wragge upcountry station Tulla said that the working yards at the homestead consisted of “a carpenter’s shop; a stables and harness room; a cart house with bark-slab roof” and “a blacksmith’s shop; stock yards, and milking bails”. (Calder: Classing the Wool, p164)

Bark roofed, slab constructed farm outbuildings.
The Station Plenty, (Yallambie) view V (detail of station outbuildings) by Edward La Trobe Bateman 1853-1856. (Source: National Gallery of Victoria)

Whether it was a thing found on a farm or in a town, the principles of blacksmithing remained the same. The central feature of the blacksmith’s shop was the forge, basically a masonry platform holding the blacksmith’s fire underneath a hooded chimney with a heavy anvil located nearby. With a fire kindled in its heart and air beating in regular time to the pump of the bellows, the forge seemed to glow with life in the darkness. It was a darkness kept deliberately dim by the blacksmith to aid in judging the temperature of the red hot iron but for some the warmth and shadows only added to a feeling of an intangible mystery.

Old crumbling brick building
“…by the 20th Century it was a mystery that had faded.” Old blacksmith shop in Menzies Alley, East Melbourne, c1920. (Source: Picture by Ruth Hollick, State Library of Victoria)

It was a mystery born in fire but by the 20th Century it was a mystery that had faded. The surge in machine made items and subsequent rise in mass production reduced the role of the blacksmith almost to the point of extinction. But Prometheus’ gift is a gift that keeps on giving. Blacksmithing exists now as a bespoke industry with those who practice the craft thought of more as artists than industrialists.

A collective concern with the problems associated with global warming has lately seen the appeal of the naked flame in any form fall from favour, but if you’ve ever watched smoke curl from a chimney on a cold winter’s morning you may have sensed the primordial. It comes from the left over memories of the time when our ancestors on a dark night danced a merry step around the camp fire, poking the leg of a woolly mammoth into the embers while warming their bare bottoms at the flames.

Terra incognita

When it came to naming places in a land they confidently thought of as Terra Nullius, those Brits were a pretty prosaic lot. In 1770 Captain James Cook marked the eastern coast of Australia on his map as “New South Wales”, writing in his journal as he did so that the land he could see from HM Bark Endeavour looked for all the world to him like the Welsh hills. I guess the horizon can look like anything from a rolling deck when you’ve been chewing on sauerkraut for months.

With the arrival of a colonising fleet of convicts 18 years later, a new settlement was established and named after the British Home Secretary at that time, Lord Sydney Thomas Townshend, which is about the only thing we remember Townshend for these days. With the style set it is perhaps not surprising that about 50 years later, when it came to naming the town that was to become Victoria’s capital city, Melbourne was named after a now long forgotten British PM. If the people who actually lived there had had their way though, it might have been different. They initially wanted to call the ragged collection of tents and mud and wattle huts “Bearbrass”, the origins of which name have been debated closely by those in the know but which I have my suspicions may have been simple rhyming slang for something nearer the mark.

Locally, the name of Heidelberg expanded on this emerging pattern. It was named by canny land speculators during Melbourne’s first land boom under the impression there was a quid to be made by comparing the antipodean landscape to a town in Europe no one had ever heard of and which was not yet part of a Federated Germany. When it came to separating from New South Wales though, its little surprise that the names of the new colonies were hardly overflowing with inspiration. Victoria was named after a Queen in a faraway land while the land to the north was named – you guessed it, Queensland. Sheeesh.

All of which rather flies in the face of another sometimes overlooked truth. These places already had names and had done so for tens of thousands of years. The land on which Melbourne was situated was known as Naarm by the first nations, its river was Birrarung and the people were the Wurundjeri. The fact that the settlers called the river the Yarra instead of Birrarung stemmed from a little cross language misunderstanding since the term, yarra was a pronunciation of the shape the current made on the water, and not the name for the river itself. Even when they wanted to give the local names a try, there remained plenty of room for error.

Bakewell era survey map of “Yallambee”. (Source: Bill Bush Collection)

The Bakewells appear to have been one instance of Port Phillip settlers willing to give local names a try. When they were casting around for a name for their farm to the north east of Naarm, a property that had been called from the first days of settlement “The Station Plenty”, “Yallambee” was the Bakewells’ choice. It was an Indigenous word the meaning of which has been given as, “to dwell at ease” although its exact tribal origins remain unclear. It was a popular Indigenous word in the settler community and was used as a place or property name several times under various spellings in Victoria and in the other colonies. Thomas Wragge would later change the spelling of “Yallambee” to “Yallambie”, it is said to avoid confusion with some one or all of these other “Yallambees”.

Lead light sign
“,,,used as a place or property name several times under various spellings”

Indigenous words have found their way into use as European place names regularly across Australia, appearing to be exotic on the one hand while giving just a parting nod to the displaced tribes on the other. When Australia achieved its Federation in 1901, these First Australians were not recognized under the newly adopted constitution, a fact undoubtedly rooted in the racism present in that era but also for reasons that were cynically political. At the constitutional conventions that preceded Federation, it was argued that giving Indigenous Australians a vote would unfairly wait the power of the landed class of rural Australia as it was feared farmers would instruct easily manipulated Indigenous farm hands on the subject of who they should vote for at any election, making a mockery of the whole democratic process.

The lack of citizenship of Australia’s first citizens was to remain an embarrassing oversight and one that was not rectified until a 1967 national referendum allowed a change to the constitution, admitting First Nations people to full citizenship for the first time. The result of that belated referendum at 91% was the highest Yes vote ever recorded in Australia, but it does leave me to wonder, what were those other 9% thinking?

Folding brochure from land auction during subdivision of the Yallambie estate
Folding brochure reversed

This was the era when A V Jennings were busy carving up the old Yallambie estate for subdivision and the time must have seemed right therefore to choose from a plethora of Indigenous words for use as street names. Most Yallambie streets from the Jennings era record some sort of Indigenous word. Tarcoola meaning river bend, Aminya meaning quiet and Kardinia meaning sunrise to name but a few.

A list of Indigenous words used as suburban street names.
A list of street names used on the original A V Jennings estate, from “Yallambie, a history. (Yallambie Primary School, 1971-1991)

In addition to his Yallambee property, John Bakewell maintained interests in several other pastoral properties including a vast run at Western Port, his so called “Tooradin Empire”. The name Tooradin is another Indigenous word and means “river monster”. The first attempt at European settlement of this area had taken place in 1826, partly in response to Hume and Hovell’s glowing report of land they had explored three years earlier having arrived at Port Phillip Bay while believing, due to an error of navigation, that they were at Western Port. Located east of Melbourne, Western Port creates confusion to this day in those unfamiliar with the Victorian coast. Named by George Bass in 1798 while exploring the entrance to the Strait that would later bear his name, the port was at that time the furthest point charted west of the existing settlements.

Map of the Western Port squatting runs, sourced from “The Good Country”, by Neil Gunson, 1968, and marking several but not all of Mickle, Bakewell and Lyall’s properties. These included Tooradin or “Old Manton’s”, Tobin Yallock or “Torbinurruck”, Red Bluff and the Great Swamp.
A brass commemorative plaque
Plaque in Jamieson Street, Corinella commemorating the attempted settlement at Western Port in 1826.

The short lived Western Port settlement of 1826 was not a success but then the whole point of the exercise in the first place had been to obstruct a possible attempt at settlement by the French. The site chosen on a peninsula at what is now the sleepy, holiday hamlet of Corinella was all about British occupation of a strategic and easily defensible location. Soil fertility and availability of fresh water was not considered.

An ongoing French interest in Australia had been demonstrated across a long period by successive expeditions of exploration and another, led by Nicolas Baudin in 1803 managed to chart most of the southern coast line of Australia. Baudin called the coast he explored “La Terre Napoleon”, naming coastal features in French and, like the British, not stopping to make enquiry of the traditional owners. In a letter to the English King’s representative in Sydney, the aptly named Governor King, Baudin wrote however that:

“To my way of thinking, I have never been able to conceive that there was justice or even fairness on the part of Europeans in seizing, in the name of their governments, a land seen for the first time, when it is inhabited by men who have not always deserved the title of savages or cannibals.”

Baudin’s words reflect the Enlightenment principles which, in the early years at least, drove the French approach to Pacific exploration. Nicolas Baudin died on Mauritius on his return voyage to Europe but already a more pragmatic attitude was developing in France. Although the words are possibly apocryphal, Napoleon is supposed to have said of the explorer, “Baudin did well to die. On his return I would have hanged him”, apparently for failing to contest Britain’s territorial claims.

Today, place names like La Perouse in Sydney, the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia and French Island in Western Port itself all offer a glimpse of what might have been if Britannica had for one moment ceased to rule the waves during the Napoleonic era but it would be the British names that eventually stuck on the map. It might seem now like these explorers were playing some sort of pin the tail on the donkey, but the process of naming implied ownership. La Trobe University’s Lucy Ellem, writing about the Bakewells’ Plenty River farm in a 2016 unpublished paper, “Plenty Botanical”, states that,The right to name is the right to own. In naming lies possession… The process of naming, which Adam began, guided the Bakewells’ creation of a new Eden, an artificial paradise, in a land of plenty.”

And at Yallambie, a word with a pleasing Indigenous feel, that means to dwell at ease.

A burning issue

You’re probably familiar with that old Aussie idiom, “The Big Smoke”. It’s used in reference to a big town or city, most usually of an Australian state capital, and has its origins in the early years of Australia when Indigenous people referred to any European settlement as a “big smoke”, as opposed to the “little smoke” of their own camp fires. As an expression it was soon adopted by European settlers, with Melbourne thus becoming a “Big Smoke”, but have you noticed something about the Big Smoke these days? There just ain’t so much of it about anymore.

Autumn leaves scattered under a tree
Autumn colours in the garden at Yallambie, April, 2022. (McLachlan)

The autumn is a beautiful time of the year in Melbourne with mild temperatures and settled weather, perfect conditions you would think for a little garden burn off. I can remember a time in my childhood when the annual fall of autumn leaves would be raked into piles, a match applied and the leaves left to smoke for hours on end until all that remained was ash, but changing attitudes to city air quality saw an end to this sort of thing. These days the only smoke you will smell is probably drifting into town from up country where properly managed, Indigenous style, cool burning takes place with the change of seasons in order to reduce the potential of summer bushfire.

Large bonfire burning at night
Winter Solstice at Montsalvat, Eltham, June, 2015. (Picture by Allison Hyland. Source from the Winter Solstice Festival, Facebook)
Preparations for a mid 20th Century, Guy Fawkes style bonfire complete with tractor tyre and a model “Guy” on top. (Picture: Argus file photo/Google search)

The option of having a damn good burn off once in a while was a luxury enjoyed by those earlier, pre-climate change generations and there are some today who will remember that time and the build-up to “Cracker Night” and the annual Guy Fawkes bonfire. Anything and everything that would burn would go onto that pyre and sometimes a few other things beside. Winty Calder in “Classing the Wool” described her father’s infant memory of a bonfire at the Wragge, Wakool River country property when Frank Wright pulled the cooling end of a fencing wire from the fire, only to be burned as he grasped at it further along its length, (Calder, p176). Although rarer these days, the appeal of a bonfire in winter has never really diminished, evidenced in part by the continued popularity of mid-winter Solstice Festivals across Melbourne, including those staged in recent years at Montsalvat and Edendale Farm in Eltham.

Incinerator/barbecue in a backyard with fields beyond the fence
Shallow inversion layer of air trapping fog across proposed site of the Australian Radiation Laboratory, 1974. Note the barbecue/incinerator located on the back fence. (Source: PIT Environmental Impact Statement)
Advertising material
Advertising for besser block incinerator for sale from David Jones in Sydney, $25.95

Individually in the suburbs of Melbourne, there was a time when it seemed that every backyard kept an incinerator, usually a Besser block built box in which rubbish of a combustible nature would be stuffed to be lit once a week, usually it seemed when the washing was hanging fresh on the Hills Hoist. Such practices added considerably to air pollution in the city and by the last quarter of the 20th Century there were increasing calls to limit the practice, or outlaw it altogether. In Yallambie, the building of the original suburb in the 1970s and into the 1980s coincided with this decline in incinerator use and one of the points made in John O’Connor’s 1974 Environment Impact investigation into the ARL proposal was that many residents had already elected to dispose of rubbish in ways other than burning in a response to meteorological conditions across the valley, (Appendice 8).

A foggy morning at the site of the proposed Australian Radiation Laboratory. (Source: PIT Environmental Impact Statement, 1974)
Actress Greta Garbo
The actress type Garbo, not the “beefy armed, blue-singletted” sort that used to collect our rubbish bins. (Picture: Wikipedia)

Backyard incinerators were eventually banned by local governments across Melbourne about 40 years ago, around about the time that the old galvanized rubbish bins collected by those beefy armed, blue-singletted garbos were replaced by plastic wheelie bins collected by extendable armed, transfer station trucks. This coincided with the big push to sort household rubbish into recyclables, green waste and hard rubbish and with Banyule Council this month delivering new bins to Yallambie residents, the system is apparently still open for refinement. The only burn offs permitted now are on suburban blocks over a ¼ hectare in size, but the amount of red tape involved in securing a permit for this and the cost of the permit fee of $157 means that at this house, we have never bothered.

Per capita Australia is one of the world’s largest producers of greenhouse gases and our past reliance on electricity generated by burning brown coal means that regulating a few suburban autumn burns is not going to make that much difference to the bigger picture. The planned closure of the Yallourn W power plant in the Latrobe Valley which supplies about 20% of Victoria’s electricity and replacing it in part by a grid-scale battery, storing power generated from renewable energy, is a sign perhaps of the direction the wind is blowing. We hear a lot about battery systems being the way of the future and the rapid advances in this technology have seen them become available in everything from your mobile phone, to cars and the national power network. The world need for lithium to build these batteries has as a result grown exponentially and wouldn’t you know it, Australia is by far the largest supplier to this date.

Mirror reflections on a salt lake
Reflections on Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt pan high up in the Andes of South America gives the impression of walking on water. (Picture: Gerald Mueller, March, 2022)

Unlike lithium sourced from South America where it is taken from evaporated pools of brine pumped from beneath dry salt pans, Australian lithium is refined from an ore called Spodumene mined in Western Australia. You would think replacing old energies with renewables incorporating lithium battery technology would be a clear win all round but recycling batteries at the end of their life has emerged as the next big issue with battery producers for commercial reasons refusing to identify the mix of metals used with nickel, toxic cobalt, manganese, rare earths and graphite mixed up with the lithium in a variety of combinations. The only way of extracting these at the end of the life of a battery is by burning it, which to my mind rather takes us back to where we started from.

In India, so called “Waste To Energy” plants operate which are designed to burn rubbish, fueling turbines to generate electricity which is then fed into the national power grid. The environmental problems associated with operating such plants are obvious but intriguingly the trouble in India has always been finding enough rubbish to burn in these furnaces as the average person on the the Sub Continent is just so darned good at recycling. It’s said we live in the West these days in a throw-away society and it’s true that we are far more likely now to throw something away than repair it. The days of my dad hammering new soles onto his shoes or mum darning socks are long gone. Likewise, the Besser block incinerators and Guy Fawkes bonfires are things of the past, relics of a pre-climate change era before the fundamentals of environment protection were properly understood.

So today, what’s our excuse?

Answering the Fermi Paradox

The green, bug-eyed monster from outer space is an image familiar to most people. It draws its inspiration from the pulp novels and B grade movies of the 1950s when the bug eyed monster standing on the gang plank of his flying saucer, armed with a death ray and demanding to be taken to a leader was a metaphorical vision for the collective fears of a post-World War 2, post-Colonial world dominated by Cold War. Leaders might be in short supply these days and a new hot war has replaced the Cold but you can bet your bottom dollar the bug eyed monsters are still out there, waiting to do their darndest as the world goes down a familiar path.

The Great Nebula in Orion as photographed by Joseph Turner in 1883 using. the Great Melbourne Telescope. (Source: Museum Victoria)

With hundreds of billions of stars in this galaxy and billions of galaxies in an ever expanding universe beyond you would think there would be plenty of room for the bug-eyed in us and everything else besides. Since about 1960 though, various SETI experiments around the world have been scanning the heavens for extra-terrestrial intelligence and have found guess what? Nothing – which raises a question first posed by Enrico Fermi in 1950, the so called “Fermi Paradox”. If alien life is waiting for us somewhere out there, with the universe the size it is, well, where is everybody? Frank Drake attempted to quantify this question with his famous equation in 1961, but as the equation must by need use purely conjectural starting data, the answer to Drake is always going to be entirely arbitrary with a solution anywhere from the number one, (that’s us), to just about any other number you care to want to believe in.

Halley’s Comet photographed in the skies over Rosanna, February, 1986

In fiction, Douglas Adams thought of a widely populated galaxy where interstellar travel was such a commonplace that hitching a ride on a passing space ship wasn’t such a big deal. His explanation for UFO sightings was simplicity itself. UFO’s were “rich kids with nothing to do”, he said. Cruising around in their space ships on the lookout for planets that hadn’t made interstellar contact, they would find an isolated spot and find some poor geek whom no one’s ever going to believe and strut about in front of him wearing silly antennas on their head making beep, beep noises. 

Adams’ aliens it seems had a penchant for the childish, practical joke.

The late Stephen Hawking by contrast proposed a very different idea for the extra-terrestrial. Should our species ever make contact with aliens, Hawking thought the exchange would be brief. Very brief.

“If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

Forget the antennas and beep beep noises. The way Hawking saw it, the gulf would be so wide that the human race could be snuffed out of existence by the visiting extra-terrestrials before they even noticed us flattened underfoot.  

Both theories have merit but when you think about it, they are like two sides of the one coin in where they will take us. Without proof it’s only ever going to be conjecture but in our search for the alien, do we really need to look so far afield? Look around on any given day and you will see what I mean. It’s all around us and it’s called life on this planet, in all its diversity. 

I’m talking about the sort of alien life most of us hardly notice. There was such an alien in our garden only the other day, a strange, green bug-eyed creature. The praying mantis, to my mind is as near to a bug-eyed monster as you’re going to get on this planet. I certainly wouldn’t want to meet one up close if the scales were reversed. 

A praying mantis standing on a fence post
Green, bug-eyed monster in the garden at Yallambie, March, 2022.

The praying mantis is so named for the peculiar, “praying” stance it adopts with its forward limbs when hunting. After watching it for a while I began to get the distinct impression that maybe it wasn’t me who was doing the watching after all but that it was I who was being watched by those large, inquisitive eyes. What was it thinking in that tiny bug brain? Strange to relate, scientists have lately begun to accept that certain insects can experience a range of emotions and this one appeared to react to my presence, actively moving towards me when I motioned at it and standing quite happily on the back of my hand all the time while I studied it. The mantis is the bug most commonly used by people as a pet and they can live for about a year if looked after properly. At this time of year in the autumn the mantis female lays its eggs in a mating ritual that often involves the female eating the male, so you wouldn’t want to invite one home to dinner after meeting on Tinder.

In the Egyptian book of the dead the mantis aided in guiding souls to the underworld, and mantises form a common motif in the art of Pre-Columbian Nicaragua where they represent a spirit called Madre Culebra. Perhaps the best tradition though comes from South Africa where it’s said the appearance of a mantis in the home means your ancestors are present.

Who’s watching who?

The green bug eyed monster in Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tells Arthur Dent, “Hi fellas, hop right in, I can take you as far as the Basington roundabout?” commencing a wild ride for the pyjama wearing Arthur across the galaxy in a search for the question to the answer of the meaning of life, but maybe the story was missing the point all along. Our green friend was returned to the garden and is probably out there somewhere right now making plans for its next dinner date which is all part of an infinite universe only one part of which we ever get to experience on a regular basis. There is only one planet in the Universe where we can be for sure life exists and it is this one, right here, right now. We don’t need to hitchhike across the Galaxy to find it. If you go with the number one as your answer to Drake’s equation, then life on that one planet is an incomprehensibly precious thing, to be cherished in all its diversity, from the highest mountains to the deepest oceans, even to the occasional green, bug-eyed monster found on a leaf in Yallambie.

The art of listening

They say that silence is golden and that sometimes it’s better to listen than to be heard.

In Yallambie Park last October there appeared one morning a couple of open faced, Perspex triangular boxes the mysterious purpose of which was not immediately apparent to the cursory glance. What were they for? Had they been beamed down overnight by a visiting alien space ship in lieu of the usual crop rings on the grass? I do recall seeing something similar as a central, unresolvable enigma in Stanley Kubrick’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey. In that landmark spaceship flick, a big, black monolith is tasked by aliens with the job of waking mankind up to itself.

“Stop, listen,” art in Yallambie Park, February, 2022.

That film was made over 50 years ago but in some ways, the thingamajigs in Yallambie Park might be closer in inspiration to Kubrick’s monolith than you may possibly think at first. The Yallambie boxes are part of a temporary community art installation in the park titled, “Stop, Listen” by Vincent Giles and Alice Bennett. The boxes have appeared at two parkside locations in the City of Banyule – one at Yallambie Park and the other near Warringal Park over in Heidelberg. The sites were chosen by the artists themselves as having local appeal and providing the potential of acoustically rich environments for avifauna and pedestrian traffic. The big idea is to stand inside one of these boxes, to face out towards the surrounding area and to stop and listen to everything around you. You see, most of us never stop long enough to appreciate the world around us and these structures, in spite of their wonky build and temporary star picket post quality, work surprisingly well acoustically. I’ve stood inside them on several occasions since Christmas and listened to the change of sounds the horn like structure of their form creates.

Art lover on the Main Yarra Trail, Heidelberg, February, 2022.

The Stop, Listen artists were paid $6000 for this project after securing a grant under Banyule Council’s annual Arts & Culture Project Grants scheme last year. The concept, location and installation of the art was developed and managed by the artists themselves. The money spent might seem over generous to some or tight fisted to others, but what price art? I don’t really know. Art, as they say, means different things to all who experience it. When I was down in Warringal Park on the weekend to look at the other Stop, Listen installation located there, the dog walkers were out in force and as I observed, dogs too can show their appreciation of art. Isn’t there a certain, Marcel Duchamp “Art of the Readymade” in every fire hydrant seen by a little dog?

“Stop, listen,” art north of Warringal Park, Heidelberg, February, 2022.

When I was at art school and learning the tricks of the trade in graphic design, I remember being introduced to contemporary art by way of a foam cup glued to a piece of black painted cardboard. The price tag at that time was half the cost of a small house, but it was art, or so they told me. A Styrofoam cup can be elevated to the dignity of a work of art simply by the artist’s act of choice. Art can be as simple as that.

It’s a fact that art and the performing arts have always had a raw deal in Australia and two years of pandemic have seen them pushed continually last on the handouts list. Personally, I’d like to see more of our dollars spent on the arts and less on roads and war machines, for it is my belief that it is from art that the worth of any civilization can be measured. Art in all its forms is all around us in every aspect of our daily lives and we would know this if only we could see it as such. If we could recognize its intrinsic value, the world might be a very different place. In one of my early posts I made comment about a POW of the Japanese who, observing the penchant for art in his captors, came to realize them not as barbarians but as fellow human creatures. From the transitory nature of simple installations like Stop, Listen we can come to understand the nature of art and the natural art in our nature.

Two men inside a sound cone
Secret Agent 86 and The Chief meet inside the infamous “Cone of Silence”.

Those who recall repeats of the old American spy spoof comedy, “Get Smart” will remember the acoustic problems Secret Agent 86 and The Chief found when using their “Cone of Silence.” It was a running gag, the purpose of which was supposed to enable secret conversations inside. The reality however was that use of the cone inevitably made conversation inside impossible while easy for those outside to overhear. How many of the world’s problem could have been solved before they started if there had been no secrets and instead transparency in all things? When the President of the Russian Federation says, “We have no plans to invade Ukraine,” does he mean the tanks are on their way? When a Chinese frigate sailing in Australian economic zone waters shines a military grade laser at RAAF aircraft, what do we read into this message? Are these things even happening or has the rhetoric of propaganda distorted the facts to our hearing? Maybe it’s time to sit down and talk things through before they go any further. In any situation other than the vacuum of space, sound is an ever present medium but using it to communicate properly is as much a gift of our civilization as the use of our opposable thumbs. It’s getting a balance and a perspective across cultural barriers that has always been the problem.

A line of scripture pasted inside the artwork in Yallambie Park.

While looking at the Yallambie Stop, Listen cones I noticed that someone has pasted a line of scripture, probably by way of ministry but in the very act itself, also creating art in a way. The line was 6:33 from Matthew’s Gospel but personally I like the line that follows, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” Matt 6:34

When first seen by the monkeys, Kubrick’s Monolith was silent. It erupted into a cacophony of alien sound only at the touch of that first monkey hand but the sounds soon had all the monkeys jumping up and down, walking upright and waging war upon their neighbours. Silence can be golden. All we need to do is to dump the rhetoric, get a bit of perspective and listen.

Tyger Tyger

It might seem to some people living abroad that Australia is a scary place, a land chock-a-block filled with dangerous animals, and that’s not just the ones we let loose on Canberra. There are lots of things that bite and sting in this country and of course, even in the broad coastal waters that surround it. It’s part of the natural order of the physical world with all the biodiversity and variety of life and habitat which that entails. Steve Irwin made a successful career out of promoting this to the world, wrestling crocodiles for entertainment until taking it all a little too far one day, he booked himself in for that final curtain call from which in this life there is no encore.

Sign on the Plenty River below Montmorency Park.

Everybody who has heard the song knows of the dangers of finding a Redback spider on a toilet seat at night and mention has been made before about the possibility of finding snakes in the vicinity of a river landscape. Snakes are a particular concern in this area with many homes in Yallambie located in proximity to the Plenty River and seldom a summer goes by when we do not see a snake here or at least hear of one nearby.

Tiger snake scientific illustration.

The Tiger Snake, (Notechis scutatus) is the snake most commonly found in the City of Banyule. It is a highly venomous species which is found throughout the southern regions of Australia, striped like a tiger olive and brown with seasonal variations occurring in colour. Tigers produce 20 or 30 live young in summer after mating in the spring. We had a Tiger in our rose garden last year and the year before we found one on the front door step at night, but usually the sight of birds lining up in the branches and going crook at something on the ground during the daylight hours is warning enough that there might be a snake about.

Tigers are also notably good climbers and last week with the birds squawking suspiciously at the back of the house again, my wife discovered a large one poking its head out of the hollow in our back oak tree. There is a hole just above head height in this tree below the bee hive and she said she looked up because she had an uncanny feeling that something was watching her. By the time I got out there our Tiger was on the move, apparently intending to settle inside a nest of the large elkhorn fern I had tied into position only the day before. I came armed with a phone camera in one hand and an axe in the other but, remembering that most people get bitten when trying to kill or frighten a snake and also that the species is in actual fact protected in this State, I chose the camera.

Tiger snake in the back oak tree at Yallambie, January, 2022. (McLachlan)

So there it is, taken from a small distance while remaining out of harm’s way. Frightening isn’t it? But at the same time strangely beautiful.

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night

Copy A of William Blake’s original printing of The Tyger, 1794. (Source: British Museum via Wikipedia)
Tiger on the move on the Plenty River Trail, Montmorency, January, 2022. (Source: Jack Charles, via Monty Life 3094 FB Group)

Usually, if given half a chance, a snake will keep its own counsel and so after I had made a bit of noise around the tree, this particular Tiger was encouraged to be on its way to a destination unknown. Dear reader, maybe it’s in your own Yallambie garden right now? There are certainly a few snakes around this January. Later that same day this video was posted on a Montmorency FB group page, the location reportedly near the Lower Plenty football ground on the Montmorency side of the River.

The Tiger is said to be one of the most poisonous snakes in the world and with its wide distribution, before the development of antivenins, the species was responsible for regular fatalities. Untreated, death in humans will occur in about half of all Tiger snake bites. On average maybe two people still die each year in Australia from Tiger snake bite, usually in places where access to medical aid is not readily available.

Instructions from 50 year old Melbourne made snakebite lancet kit.

The danger of snake attack must have taken a little getting used to in colonial Australia, especially for Irish settlers coming from a country where there are famously no snakes. In the early years of the 19th Century, the Irish gentleman convict Sir Henry Browne Hayes surrounded Vaucluse, the house he built near South Head in Sydney Harbour, with a moat of Irish peat turf in the belief that the soil, coming from a land once blessed by St Patrick, would prevent snakes from crossing over into the property. Hayes had earlier been transported for kidnapping an Irish heiress and forcibly marrying her for her money so it could be argued that the real snake in this story was to be found inside already. Curiously though, it was later claimed in an exercise of wishful thinking that the moat had been highly effective in achieving its goal.

The wife of the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Lady Jane Franklin had her own ideas about snakes and was so concerned by what she saw as the problem on the island that when she came to the Colony in 1839 she personally funded a bounty of a shilling for the head of every snake killed. The scheme brought ridicule and she was persuaded to abandon it when it became clear that the convicts were neglecting their work to pursue Lady Jane’s money for jam. Certainly it didn’t have the effect on the island’s snake population that Lady Jane hoped or which a similar bounty scheme on the Tasmanian Tiger that was introduced at about the same time would bring. That scheme resulted in that particular Tiger’s eventual extinction.

The snake bounty cost Lady Jane £600 in one season but she was not the sort of person to sit at home idly pouring tea as the wife of the Lieutenant Governor when she wanted something done. She purchased 130 acres (53 ha) of land near Hobart Town for a botanical garden where she built a museum of natural history and in 1843 when the Franklins left the Colony, she handed over 400 acres (162 ha) for a university. Two years later, Sir John Franklin was named the commander of the infamous expedition that, in an attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage, became trapped in the ice where it descended into madness and destruction. Lady Jane never accepted the death of her husband and for decades after the Admiralty had officially given up hope of finding survivors, personally funded multiple search expeditions into the Arctic. On one occasion she travelled to Out Stack, the northern most part of the Shetland Islands of Scotland and the north most part of the British Isles just to get as close as she possibly could to her missing husband. Not surprisingly she found Out Stack uninhabited by people, missing expeditioners, and snakes.

Lady Jane never fully realized some of her ambitions. Her museum of natural history was converted into an apple store after her departure from Van Diemen’s Land and her husband’s missing polar exploring ships were not found until this century. As for ridding Tasmania of snakes, that barmy idea was never going to get anywhere and had about as much legs as a snake. The reality is, snakes do play an important middle-order predator link in the chain of our ecosystem and they help keep the numbers of introduced pests like rats and mice under control. That’s why in most Australian states, snakes and other reptiles are protected under the Nature Conservation Act of 1992 and to kill and injure or take one from the wild may incur a fine up to $7,500, or even a jail sentence.

So should you ever experience that creeping feeling in the garden that something is watching you with its cold, reptilian stare, please don’t panic. Remember that the watcher like most other things in this world has a place and its own reason for being. The danger of the snake is real but there is beauty also, a metaphor for life itself really.

Telling tales of life in the suburb, it's history, homes and hyperbole

%d bloggers like this: