Yallambie is a suburb of Melbourne, 16km from the city in the "Goldilocks Zone", not too close and not too far out making the living there "just right". The area was first settled in the 1840s and a mid Victorian era homestead still stands above former agricultural land beside the Plenty River. Today just over 4000 souls call Yallambie home.
This day marks an ignominious event in world history. 75 years ago on August 6, 1945 an American B-29 Superfortress flying high over the Japanese city of Hiroshima dropped an Atomic weapon that destroyed the city in a flash. The rationale behind the use of Atomic weapons against a virtually defenceless civilian target at the end of World War 2 has long been debated and brings rightful condemnation today, but horrific though that weapon undoubtedly was, there is a counter, less familiar argument which suggests that ultimately The Bomb saved more lives than it cost.
Millions of them.
Harry Truman in his post-war memoir stated that the Atom Bomb saved at least a half-million American lives on the X-Day invasion beaches of Japan. Enemy losses were anticipated to be in the millions. It is said that history is written by the victors but throw into this equation the unacceptable consequences of radiation poisoning from nuclear weapons as demonstrated on Japanese civilians, knowledge of which undoubtedly saved the planet from heading down the path of a Third World War, and the argument becomes tendentious.
What this controversial subject has to do with the history of Yallambie is not immediately apparent but a clue may be provided by the above photograph that was taken at the “Watsonia” Camp, AKA the Simpson Barracks at Yallambie in November, 1945. This picture was sourced from the collection of the Australian War Memorial and was posted last month by Chris Scull on the Thomastown Area Facebook page which I follow. It shows ex-Prisoners of War being processed at the Yallambie location before being sent on to the Repatriation Hospital in Heidelberg. The survival of these men and others like them can be attributed to the sudden ending of the War by the Atomic Bombing of Japan in August, 1945 as, following any attempt at an Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands, their lives would almost certainly have been forfeit.
Even so, their numbers take a little getting used to. Of the 22,000 Australians who became Prisoners of War of the Japanese in World War 2, one in three perished in captivity. Roughly 14,000 survivors returned to Australia at the end of 1945 which, from a population of just 7 million, meant nearly one in every 500 Australians was an ex POW after the War, this writer’s own father included. Not many of that generation are alive today but with what’s been happening in the world lately, especially to people of a mature vintage, maybe it’s worth pausing for a moment and reflecting on what that generation went through.
Someone born a hundred years ago like my long dead father was conceived just after a Great War which killed at least 9 million combatants. A global pandemic then killed another 50 million people. Childhood was marked by financial ruin, the result of an economic crisis that started in 1928 but didn’t really end until war broke out again in 1939. That Second War killed between 70 and 85 million people, no one was really keeping a proper count by then, and a third war was only averted by the threat of the unacceptable consequences of Total War in the nuclear age. The Cold War they settled on lasted 50 years but the end of it did not usher in the advent of the egalitarian society that had always been hoped for. When people say the current plague is some sort of conspiracy and doesn’t affect them coz they’re not old, it is a reflection of just how entitled some of us have become. Centenarians alive today must look at our dystopian society and the retinue of incompetent and/or corrupt leaders on the larger world stage who have been prepared to put votes and popularity ahead of lives and wonder, just how did we let it come to this?
At the start of that Second War they carried gas masks around the suburban streets of London without complaint in daily expectation of a Nazi gas attack. Today a small minority, armed with “law degrees” from the University of Facebook have refused to wear a small mask to protect the lives of those around them because of what they call “human rights”. The State of Disaster that has been called by the Victorian Government has caused grumbling from these same people and it is true, it’s not a disaster in the manner of the tragic explosion that yesterday destroyed the Port of Beirut or for that matter, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago. It is a means of giving the governing authorities finite powers for a finite time but really, it is simply the power to save us from ourselves.
Returning ex POWs realized how fortunate their survival had been in 1945 and got on with things without complaint after World War 2. This new lockdown in Victoria is a depressing time to live through right now but it’s better than the alternative, especially if you are elderly. By cultivating a spirit of unity we can get through this and come out the other side, eventually.
If the kitchen is the heart of any home then I reckon the typical Australian homestead of the 19th Century was in need of some serious cardiac rehabilitation. Before the 1880s, the usual arrangement in an Australian farmstead was for the kitchen, together with the associated wash house and other domestic requirements, to stand separately away from the main building. Imagine creating your culinary masterpiece then needing to hike over open ground to eat it. Not exactly a practical arrangement and small wonder then that these houses generally featured a retinue of domestic staff hurrying from the kitchen at every hour of the day, from the crack of dawn until the dark of night.
It was a common enough setup in the early days and was found right up until the latter years of the Victorian era in any but the humblest of homes. Initially it was seen simply as a way of reducing fire risks but in practice it limited the heat from cooking fires entering into the living environment in the heat of the Australian summer and became a means of separating the kitchen realm from the normal social boundaries of home life.
The stand-alone kitchen might have been common but by 1850 it is estimated that half of all dwelling places in Australia were without even that since men living in rough huts in the bush tended to cook outdoors over open fires or in roughly constructed fireplaces. As noted previously, the Bakewell brothers’ home at Yallambee used open fire places, “the old English dog,” (W Howitt), however their prefabricated building must have been conceived with some sort of a separated kitchen in mind as evidenced by G A Gilbert’s early drawing of the property in which the little prefab house is clearly supported by the presence of other built structures. That much is apparent, but in the case of Thomas Wragge’s later homestead, the story is not so straightforward.
The common assumption has always been that Yallambie Homestead was built in 1872, the year the title was formally conveyed to Thomas by John Bakewell and the prelude to a significant jump in rate valuations on the property. At Yallambie today though, the kitchen forms a part of the main building, a fact seemingly at odds with a mid-Victoria build date. The answer may lie in the position of two kitchen fireplace chimneys which are attached to, yet are not a part of the north wall of the house, an indication maybe that the property underwent a secondary building phase even before Annie Murdoch’s 1923 renovation. A surviving letter sent from Tulla in 1898 and cited by Calder in Classing the Wool (p86), mentions structural work being done at Yallambie requiring removal of part of the slate roof of the house in that year and may be an indication of a secondary building date. Calder’s own interpretation of the dining arrangements at Yallambie, which was based on written sources, appears to describe the domestic setup after this change:
“A second wooden door (from the dining room) opened onto the verandah, and a third led to the kitchen via a small passage. Dinner was brought from the kitchen on a wheeled trolley and was kept warm in large silver servers.” Calder: p82, Classing the Wool
The only certainty is that the kitchen wing at Yallambie has undergone several significant alterations even into contemporary times. With this in mind, it might be interesting to discuss in general terms the typical kitchen of a 19th Century farm house since, in the absence of a clear record, this may give the only idea of what life was like on the domestic front at Yallambie in the early years.
The central focus in any 19th Century kitchen, big or small, was first and foremost the fireplace. By the 1870s cast iron stoves of many shapes and sizes were available in Australia, imported into the country from abroad and produced locally by Australian blacksmiths. In essence the stove was nothing more than an oblong iron box painted black and stuffed with burning wood but from it came the warmth, strength and appetizing smells that gave the kitchen its heart and soul. Geoffrey Blainey called it:
“…a workplace, a tiny factory. It was the nerve centre of the home and, at times, the scene of high theatre when everything went wrong.” Blainey, Black Kettle and Full Moon
And things could go wrong. Blainey called the domestic fire a fine servant but a harsh mistress, a situation Albert Facey might have been thinking of when writing his famous autobiography, “A Fortunate Life”, in which he described coming in from the paddocks one day to see smoke pouring from his house in Western Australia and watched it burn to the ground before his eyes.
The job of lighting the fire box was the first task of the day requiring patience as strips of bark, twigs and splinters of wood were coaxed into flame in the cold, pre-dawn darkness with flint and steel or, for the better provided household, a Lucifer match. A weekly supply of chopped firewood was needed to feed the stove and in those homes without domestic help the sight of a housewife with axe in hand at the back of a kitchen was said to be a sure sign of the presence of a wastrel husband inside.
The kitchen stove when working, and in most homes it was working every day of the year, gave off an intense heat although in all but the earliest models, there was no indication from the outside of the fires raging within. The handles of the ovens could become dangerously hot and children might be burned if they innocently reached out to touch but generally this only ever happened once. Such lessons were quickly learned but seldom forgotten.
An all-purpose apparatus the kitchen range was used for roasting, frying, steaming and boiling food and for making jams, candles, sauces and soaps. Typically a large iron kettle, blackened by flames, would be left on the flat top of the stove where it remained close to boiling, providing water for tea, washing dishes and numerous other household tasks. I remember my father describing the kitchen of an elderly relative in Ballarat between the wars, a maiden aunt who lived with her widowed sister. She bought tea by the seven pound Griffiths tin and kept a kettle left continuously close to the boil on the fire. When one day my father remarked on the rattling noise the kettle made Aunt looked up over the rim of the teacup that seemed never out of her hand and said with her gentle Scots brogue, “Never you mind that young Tom, that’s the alley.” No, Aunt didn’t boil cats in her pot. The alley was a marble made from pressed glass which commonly filled the end of the old lemonade bottles of that era. Small children would collect them to play at ‘marbles’ but old Aunt kept one in her kettle to rattle around in the boiling water to remove the lime scale. “Young Tom” of course wasn’t satisfied and insisted on seeing the kettle drained where the marble was found misshapen and indeed, half boiled away by the years of constant rattling.
Most farming properties baked their own bread in the 19th Century and there is anecdotal evidence that at Yallambie the kitchen once featured a “Scotch” or masonry style oven used for baking. Something similar is documented at the up country Wragge property Tulla, but most bread at Yallambie by the advent of the 20th century must have been baked more simply in a kitchen stove.
The Bush family installed a huge enamelled Standard E – AGA cooker at Yallambie after the Second War, in its day the most modern of kitchen appliances and a vast improvement on the earlier styles of kitchen range. The classic AGA stove was invented by a Swedish physicist in 1922 and was a technological wonder when introduced using heat from slow burning fuels to power its multiple ovens and cook tops but sadly, the Yallambie Standard E had already been removed when we got here, so a less elaborate if antique, Geelong made, IXL cast iron stove has been introduced in its stead. Sourced from the “Tell him he’s dreamin'” Trading Post when it was still a printed newspaper, the IXL had supposedly been removed from the Melbourne Grammar School.
Beyond the kitchen range, a big, roughly made deal table was a feature of the typical farm kitchen with a sideboard, wall clock, the inevitable chipped Staffordshires and perhaps a rocking chair completing the scene. Meat might be stored in a perforated zinc metal box or that unique Australian invention, a Coolgardie safe which was simply a wooden frame covered in hessian over which water could be continuously dripped to keep the contents cool. At Yallambie four massive iron hooks were also strategically arranged on the ceiling from which a beam was suspended and cuts of meat were hung until required for use.
“The wood-fire stove in the kitchen was always hot. Cured pigs, sausages, dried fruit and vegetables hung from a central beam beneath the ceiling.” Calder: Classing the Wool
All this required a domestic staff. Ethel Temby believed there had been up to 14 staff at one time but I’m guessing that was for the whole farm and that only a few of these would have been used as house servants. At Yallambie an electric servants’ bell was positioned on the wall outside the pantry to call attention to the needs of the family but if that bell was to ring now, I guess we’d be waiting a while for someone to come along in answer.
The Heidelberg Gasworks in Banksia St was producing coal gas from 1887 but at Yallambie lighting was limited to kerosene lamp and candle right up until the Second War.
The subdued lighting that resulted must have made reading kitchen books like Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management difficult but would have been a decided help when deciding against the need to sweep the floors again.
Slate and sandstone were favoured floor surfaces in kitchens although sometimes pine boards or linoleum covered pine boards were used. In some houses though, even grand boom time houses like Ravenswood in East Ivanhoe, the only floor in the kitchen area remained the bare earth. A properly formed earthen floor was a surprisingly durable surface and consisted of a special mix of ingredients that might include lime, sand, anvil dust, ox blood, furnace ash, ochre, oil or even stale milk. The resulting floor was deemed good enough for the paid help.
At Yallambie the kitchen floor was pine boards covered in later days with linoleum but this floor was completely rotted away by the end of the 20th Century and has been replaced by slate sourced from Mintaro in South Australia. Curiously, a blue stone step under a door at the back of the house once featured a deep depression which at first glance I mistook as evidence of a hundred years plus of hob nailed boots wearing a path across the threshold but which I now realize represented a hundred years of domestic staff having an axe to grind, literally. That’s where the cook got down on her knees and sharpened her carving knife.
Most houses planned today require a purpose built, state of the art kitchen constructed along clean lines and sporting shining surfaces and polished stainless steel at every turn. That sort of thing certainly has its uses in a sensible household but for mine, the quixotic impracticalities of an old kitchen still has a subtle charm, the primitive contours and earthy textures lending an attraction to the house beyond the synthetic materials so much in use today. Earthen ware plates stacked overhead on a dowelled plate rack, canisters lined up in a row on a sideboard, copper saucepans hanging from a hook, iron pots balanced on a tall stand, the smell of wood smoke and burnt toast on a damp morning – all these things lend a degree of ornamentation and rustic domesticity usually absent from the clinical world of a modern kitchen.
On a cold Melbourne afternoon in July there’s nothing like freshly baked scones from the oven. With another Stage 3 lock down looming, a couple of friends dropped by on Saturday and “Devonshire Tea” was the order of the day. I’m guessing thousands of scones must have been baked over the last 150 year in this kitchen, in solid fuel burning stoves and our modern gas/electric, but the recipe I used is the simplest thing and comes from 92 year old CWA member Muriel Halsted. Her lemonade scones became a viral sensation in April and can be prepared in minutes while your attention is elsewhere. On Saturday I halved the mixture, baking half plain and the other half with chopped prunes and tried lemon mineral water in place of lemonade. With lashings of jam and cream and freshly brewed tea these scones simply slide down like oysters as the conversation inevitably turns in another direction and that age old question.
Are they scones?
Or are they scones?
Set the oven at 220°
Measure five cups of self-raising flour and sift
Add a couple of pinches of salt
Fold in 300ml of cold cream
Add 300ml of lemon mineral water
Fold the mixture together until the flour is all mixed in and the texture is consistent
Add some chopped prunes or other dried fruit if preferred
Spread out onto a floured board and cut into rounds with an upended, thin edged drinking glass and brush with milk
Bake for 10 minutes or so or until golden brown, turning the tray once during cooking
Serve with butter, cream, jam and freshly brewed tea
There’s something soothing in the warmth of an open fire on a cold, Melbourne evening in winter. It’s like the heat on your face wakens some sort of genetic memory from a time when our collective ancestors gathered around the fire blazing at the mouth of a cave, the flickering light a protection against the unknown dangers of the night. As a domestic arrangement, hearth and home have been an inseparable part of our lives ever since those early fires moved from the caves to a favoured place inside our homes. Firstly to a centrally placed location in the Iron Age round houses and Saxon timbered halls of Northern Europe, then about a thousand years ago to a place on the walls of those stone castle building Normans.
By all reports the draughty old castles of the picture story books took some heating, but in this world of electric fires and central heating, it’s easy to forget now all the developments that have gone into getting to where we are today. One thing that a glance into the world of the blurry, glass plate photography of the 19th Century does not reveal is the smell of that world. The odours of the outhouse at the bottom of the garden or the aroma of wood smoke from thousands of kitchen cooking fires must have been something altogether and would have more or less permeated everything. In the 1880s when Melbourne after the gold rushes became known for a while as “Marvellous Melbourne”, the wags soon coined another term for it. “Marvellous Smellbourne” they dubbed the great, unsewered southern metropolis. With thousands of domestic fires pouring out their smoke and adding to the pollution of early industries, the air must have been pretty thick in those “good ol’ days”. The infamous peasouper fogs of old London for instance, the air that Dickens called a ‘London Particular’, were of course not fogs at all, but smogs. Thick, sulphurous layers of polluted air without parallel today, even in China, and those smogs were dangerous. They could kill people stone dead in their beds. Thankfully air quality has improved greatly since those dark times but for some this achievement just isn’t enough. Recent calls in the press have suggested the state government introduce a wood fire heater, buy back scheme aimed at improving air quality in Melbourne, a scheme similar to something already operating in the ACT. However, for those on a tight budget there sometimes just isn’t any alternative to getting out there and scavenging a bit of firewood and, then again, an open fire does have its comforts. Contemplating the glowing embers of a cosy living room fireplace with feet toasting nicely in their socks on the fender during the recent “work from home” protocol, I know where my thoughts on this lie. At such times my mind is apt to wander back to the days of those comfortable caves and, although I sometimes think the neighbours have given up burning proper firewood for old mattresses, really there’s nothing quite like having an open fire is there?
Ethel Temby in her memoir once remarked how cold Yallambie in the farming era could be compared to other neighbourhoods. Richard Willis’ diary which he kept through a Melbourne winter spent under canvas on the Lower Plenty in 1837 similarly contains various references to the cold and also to their primitive camp fire arrangements, “a sort of gipsy-looking affair to shelter us from the dews of heaven”. The deprivations and the extremes of that early Melbourne winter very nearly killed Richard but with developing settlement came civilization. Although the first settlers at Port Phillip are known to have heated their homes in relatively primitive fashion, when it comes down to it the Bakewells prefabricated home at Yallambee must have been snug enough. William Howitt reporting on his visit to the Bakewells in October, 1852 wrote:
One thing pleased me there, — the old English dog, in the fire-places of the country houses instead of stoves. Wood is the chief fuel; the fires it makes are very warm and cheerful; and at the Plenty we found them very acceptable, for it came on heavy rain, followed by a south wind, which is always cold. I don’t know when I felt it colder than when we arose at five o’clock in the morning to return. The valley was filled with white fog, and the grass glittered in the rising sun with a frosty dew. (William Howitt, Land, Labour and Gold, 1858)
Twenty years later when Thomas Wragge came to build his homestead, nearly every room would be provisioned with either a corner or sometimes a centrally placed fire place, the resulting roof line seeming to sprout chimneys at every protuberance. The fire places inside were for the most part plain – white marble used in the drawing room, black marble in the dining room and marble and slate painted to look like marble in the bedrooms and secondary rooms. The Victorian era would see a medley of styles used for interior decoration and with wealth rolling into Melbourne from the gold rushes, people had more money to spend on their homes but at Yallambie in the best Yeoman tradition, style was kept simple. In the 19th century the hearth blazed brightly throughout domestic life, a symbol of family togetherness and comfort. Geoffrey Blainey called this the “maternal spirit”, and it was a spirit that could be found in kitchens and front rooms right across the nation.
Can you see the faces in the fire?” old people would enquire of one another, because sometimes they observed that the flames and the silhouette of the burning wood took the shape of human faces.” (Blainey: Black Kettle and Full Moon)
Others were to take this idea a step further and maintained that flames were a means of foretelling the future and of predicting the weather. Pale coloured flame could mean rain, fierce flames a frost. Sooty smoke predicted the arrival of a stranger and fire retreating to one corner on a hearth meant a separation. Round cinders could mean money but rectangular, (or coffin shaped) cinders meant death.
I don’t know about any of that but then I haven’t seen too many round cinders in my time I guess. It’s true though that watching a fire does induce a dreamy, peaceful state of mind where thoughts are apt to wander. In most households a poker was usually kept near at hand to give the fire a prod as much to awaken those nearby from their reverie as anything else but it was an unwritten law that a visitor should not prod his host’s slow burning fire. The expression “back log” as applied to our working habits today comes from the large log commonly placed at the back of a wood burning fire and which was intended to burn throughout the night. Etiquette demanded that a visitor should never disturb this back log as touching it was deemed a discourtesy. The handling of the fire and poking at the back log was held to be the prerogative of the owner as anybody who has tried making toast on the end of a long toasting fork in front of an open fire will attest that fiddling with the fireplace can be a happy diversion. Just ask my son who throughout his childhood years was a dab hand at toasting marshmallows, “Burned to perfection, Dad.”
All the same, lighting a fire is best left to the potential pyromaniacs of a family. In the days before we had proper heating at Yallambie I once found my very understanding, then pregnant wife sitting in front of a cold fire place stuffed with half burned newspapers and charred logs, her tears of frustration soon followed predictably by the installation of some proper gas space heating in the house.
The ability to light a fire is something we now take for granted but imagine for a moment those cave men banging two rocks together or the Australian Aboriginals rubbing at sticks for hours to produce a flame. Fire was so important to the First Australians and so difficult to produce from scratch that care was taken never to let a flame go out and if one tribe needed to request fire from another, it was a request that could never be refused no matter what enmity might otherwise exist between them. In the early era of settlement right up until the gold rushes, most travellers carried a piece of hard English flint and a steel pocket knife which were used to make fire by a spark. The invention of the Lucifer match which could be lit by striking it against a wall or rough surface changed everything. At Yallambie we have a table with rough copper plates attached to the apron below the table top, a feature I believe to be a specially made surface for striking matches in an earlier era.
The development of the portable match is said to have been one cause of the eventual increased use of tobacco in the 19th century. Where lighting a pipe previously had required much fooling around with a flint and steel, matches made everything so much easier. Much too much easier I’d say. It’s taken until modern times for a majority of people to kick a habit so obviously injurious to health.
Thomas Wragge had a smoking room at Yallambie next door to the drawing room where the men would retire in the evening to puff away and yarn. The women would remain in the drawing room although Betty Lush, a grand-daughter of Thomas, remembered another fire side at Yallambie, writing later that, “I loved these visits even though nearly always in the early years I would fall asleep with a book by the billiard room fire while the older ones played a game or so after dinner.” (Recorded in Calder: Classing the Wool)
When Wragge’s daughter Sarah Annie Murdoch decided to remodel the house in 1923, marble chimney pieces were removed and smashed to pieces, some fire places were blocked up or repositioned, and wooden replacement fire surrounds were introduced into the house. In modern times though some of Annie’s replacements have themselves been replaced in an attempt to create a style thought to be more in keeping with a mid-Victorian era house. The white marble fire surround pictured above was made from pieces scrounged from multiple demolition yards on a shoestring budget. The enamelled grate was found at the back of a plumbing shop where it had sat for decades after being pulled out of a house in Brighton.
As the winter solstice passes by this weekend, the days will lengthen again in their stride. Not so long ago it seems I was writing about bushfires and summer heat waves. Those days seem far off now and much has happened this year in the interim, both here and abroad. Where we are heading right now is anybody’s guess but while it seems sometimes that the world beyond the front door has gone kaput, to my mind that’s all the more reason to celebrate what we do have at home. To put this in a nut shell and to throw another spin on some otherwise well-known, much oft repeated words.
“Home is where the hearth is.”
Finding a quick and easy solution to this epidemic thingo isn’t going to be easy. Like finding fairies at the bottom of the garden I reckon, but who says that can’t be done? The human race has survived diseases before and the end of the world has been predicted often and always since those first 7 Days of Creation. I guess the whole point of easing the lock down right now is that we may just have to learn to live and to die with this for a while. It won’t be easy but none of this is going away in a hurry, just like those yon garden fairies.
A curious concomitant of the need to leave the proletariat at home during this crisis has been that many people are only now discovering the park lands and gardens beyond their local streets, some for the first time. Suddenly there’s an alternative to their coffee shops and gymnasiums as people leave their cars at home in favour of Shank’s Pony and breathe in the deep fresh air of the great outdoors. It’s hardly surprising then, given what’s been happening. I’ve heard tell that during a similar time of plague in the 16th Century, Henry VIII took to his country estates, moving from house to house regularly in the belief that fresh air was more-healthy than city. “One is safer on the battlefield than in the city,” wrote his Chancellor Thomas More highlighting the dangers of close living conditions in the towns (while, given his fate, maybe not appreciating that an axe can be sharpened equally in both), but Thomas did have a point. The rural escape, the so called tree change of society has always had its appeal.
It’s an idea reflected in a growing trend that’s been dubbed “Cottagecore”, a movement promoting a romanticised interpretation of the life we imagine can be found in the countryside. Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers tried this on in the 70s in a much loved television show, but the movement has boomed during lockdown with real estate agents reporting an increase in enquiries for rural property and the hashtag cottagecore running at close to a quarter of a million posts on Instagram. Cottagecore as an idea promotes a belief that mental wellbeing can benefit from a removal from the fast paced environment of city living. “Rebalance your energy and remember relaxing is far from a waste of time,” says one young cottagecore influencer. I like the sound of that.
As a concept I’d say it’s not entirely without its parallel in Yallambie these days. “I’ve lived in this area for 20 years and never gone into the Park,” I’ve heard people say as they get out for the first time on these crisp autumn mornings or sunny afternoons. On a good day it can be a quite magical place if you’re seeing it with fresh eyes, a point apparently not lost on some park users. Under one of the magnificent Yallambie Oak trees, a relic from the distant farming era, somebody in a flight of fancy recently created a little grotto inside a hollow of one of the trees and sign posted it, “The Secret Garden.”
The Secret Garden is of course remembered as a work of children’s fiction, a tale of redemption through the beauty of landscape. The latest 2020 film adaption was in the can and became one of the first casualties of the Covid crisis but this thing was the work of children doing what children do best. Or maybe it was the work of an adult to whom a child like outlook on life remains no stranger. Whatever the inspiration, it was first and foremost a work of “art in the found object” and a nod to a “Borrowers” world usually kept just beyond our sight. While I was there a small girl balancing on training wheels wobbled into the park ahead of her mother and made excitedly straight for this tree. I watched to see if she was about to disappear like Alice down a rabbit hole but no, she was just a visitor and lingered only long enough to do some rearranging.
So who believes in faeries? Raise your hand Conan Doyle if you’re there but to paraphrase another writer, J M Barrie, it’s said that every time a child says they don’t believe in faeries, a fairy somewhere pops out of existence. The Findhorn community on the north east coast of Scotland is one place where this sort of belief is firmly rooted. That community was founded in a belief in the healing benefits of the spirits of the forest although these days I think they call it an experiment in everyday life, guided by the voice of an inner spirit. Whether you want to believe in that or not, the Quantum World is proof that there could be more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
So, as if to reinforce this point, further along from the oaks, I found this day the place where those fairies have obviously been hanging out locally all these years. There it was, a fairy tale glen of toad stools growing under the scattered remains of Baron von Mueller’s pinetum, the red caps of which I’m sure would have had Big Ears reaching into his pocket for his latch key.
To digress just a little, it’s been a good autumn for fungi don’t you know with all this extra rainfall and cool mornings resulting in a burst of toad stools and mushrooms which have been popping up seemingly everywhere. Out the back of the still vacant site of the Cactus House we found a lovely crop of mushrooms growing but generally people take about much notice of the Fungi Kingdom as they do the Faery Kingdom. Fungi is however a completely separate world to both the plant and animal kingdoms and has an estimated 2 to 3 million species world wide of which only 120,000 have been described. It includes microorganisms such as yeast and moulds, as well as the more familiar mushrooms of the dinner table. Those red cap, fairy tale toadstools though are officially classified as poisonous. So too are the yellow stainer and death cap, both of which apparently can be mistaken as mushrooms by the near sighted, but both of which are exceedingly toxic. In fact the death cap is very appropriately named. One bite of it will kill you stone dead. Every year various poisonings, usually of a minor type, are recorded in Australia during the mushroom season but this year the newspapers have been filled with more stories than usual, probably due to the extra fungi around and people getting out into the parks who haven’t been out there much before.
The reality is however that going for a walk these days is probably about the safest and most sensible form of recreation you can do. With nearly 5 million people calling Melbourne home, a figure that comes complete with all the benefits and disproportionate difficulties associated with such a number, Henry VIII himself would have been happy enough to get outside. We’ve always needed our parks and gardens but right now we need them like never before. Meanwhile the world keeps turning and the sun keeps shining. The faeries are out there for those who want them to be, dancing between the mushrooms on moonlit nights wherever the healing benefits of the spirits of the forest are needed.
Just before his unexpected death in New York City in 1980, John Lennon sang those strangely presentient words, “Nobody told me there’d be days like these.” The song was released posthumously, Lennon’s last ode to a fractious world, but 40 years on, how true were those words?
For a long time commentators have warned that the greatest threat to our civilization is not nuclear war or even the depletion of the Earth’s finite natural resources, though those threats are real enough. While billions have been spent every year maintaining armies we hoped would never be used and engaging in environmental talk fests that seemed to go nowhere, comparatively little has been spent building up a surplus of hospital buildings, medical staff and supplies and preparing the world for the predicted and seemingly inevitable fight to come. The fight against a new virus against which the human race has no natural immunity and the potential for a subsequent collapse in the existing social order.
Covid 19 may be that virus, or it may not. It’s still too early to say but ultimately it may be dependent on whether the slippery nature of the Covid 19 virus allows it to mutate into something more deadly in the coming months, a doomsday scenario that would not be without precedent. The so called Spanish Flu of 1918-19 returned in multiple forms before it was finally spent, killing an estimated 50 million people along the way and right now, even the best case scenarios are predicting the deaths of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people from Covid 19 worldwide.
The fact is, as a species the human race has always lived, and died with the ever present threat of a shortened life from disease. The devastating effect of Smallpox on Aboriginal people in Australia at the end of the 18th Century is one example of what can happen to a community when it comes into contact with diseases against which it has no natural immunity. The Black Death in 14th Century Europe is another. It is only in modern times that, with advances in medicine, we have developed a mistaken belief in our invulnerability. But the Asian Flu of 1956-58 killed two million, the 1968 Hong Kong Flu killed another million while AIDS is thought to have killed about 36 million at its peak. The victims of any of these plagues are a danger of being just numbers when presented on a page but just think about it for a moment. Each number represents a life lost, the suffering of a real person, each with their own story to tell and with friends and family effected by loss.
The threat to the human race from Covid 19 then is quite clear but as we go into lock down and into something not far short of Martial Law, it is the threat to our society and social order that is the elephant that has been crammed inside the isolation room alongside us. With businesses closing all around Melbourne and people who have never been without work suddenly out of work, the fabric of society itself suddenly seems very fragile. Last night when I stopped outside our local shop to admire the morale of a group of kids still willing to play basketball outdoors and to ask their permission for a photo, it was disconcerting to be suddenly met by the passing constabulary who appeared as if out of nowhere, questioned me and directed the group to break up and be on its way. The “Stay At Home” directive from the Victorian Government which began on 30 March means just that, unless you have a valid reason for being out, and already there have been reports of scores of people being fined for ignoring it.
For a nation that values its freedom and civil rights so highly there is something unnerving, almost sinister about this. Maybe it says something about this country that, while sales of toilet roll in Australia have soared, in the United States, it is the sale of firearms that has seen a similar growth. I mean, I think I know what people will do ultimately with all that stock piled toilet paper, but what are they going to do with the guns? I have family in the US but I worry and thank my lucky stars I live here.
Only two months ago I wrote a post about a much loved local dumpling shop while urging support of Asian businesses. That post seems an age ago now. Like so many others, the shop is closed with the owners struggling even to source the ingredients for their products at a price that matches their business model. It is a story being repeated all over Melbourne and all over the world in countless ways every day as the snowballing effects of this crisis unfolds.
It is a crisis but if you think about it, maybe it is a crisis with some unexpected benefits. People asked to stay at home for work or because they have no work to do are reconnecting with their loved ones and home lives in ways they have probably never thought of. Suddenly a job seems no longer so important, a car is just a tin box on wheels and a house is just some walls keeping you from being outside in the sunshine. It’s what we do beyond those walls, in our hearts and in our minds I mean that really define us. At last people who have never had time to stop and think are doing just that.
The streets of Yallambie are quiet now. Cars remain parked in their drives and the flight paths above are devoid of the planes that have previously always crossed our skies. In the evenings you can still see family groups in the Yallambie parklands, all of them maintaining the correct social distancing from other groups for fear of encountering the heavy hand of the law. (To avoid another run in with the authorities, photos used here have been recycled from previous posts). I see couples walking hand in hand, pushing a pram or walking a dog and think, ‘We still have our families. They haven’t managed to ban them yet.’ This after just six days, but where will we be in six months? Will the old order prevail or is this just a moment in time before we have a chance to reinvent ourselves and make a better world?
The current economic model of the Capitalist society emerged from the theories of men like Adam Smith writing in the 18th Century. Smith, the so called Father of Economics had a lot to say in the Scottish Enlightenment on the proper ordering of society but who says his ideas were necessarily the only right ideas? We have fought wars both real and Cold to maintain the ideas first espoused in “The Wealth of Nations”, but is a system where half of the world’s net wealth is held by just 1% of its 7 ½ billion people necessarily a fair society?
In 1968 John Lennon appeared in a now largely forgotten anti-war film, “How I Won the War.” In an eerie foretaste of his real fate a dozen years later, Lennon’s character is shot in the chest near the end of the film and turns to the camera dying, breaking the third wall with the words, “I knew it would end this way.” In those words is the ultimate truth. Life is by its very nature transitory. These days might seem like strange days right now but I want to believe that some good will eventually come out of living and in some cases dying in them. We cannot see now the shape of the new world that will eventually emerge from this but as Lennon once said, we can Imagine.
It’s a saying commonly attributed to Sir Isaac Newton who they say came up with the idea right about the time an apple bounced off his head. Where other people might have been inspired to think about whether they would have an apple for lunch, the father of modern Physics turned the incident into gravity’s universal law.
What goes up comes down. It’s one of life’s maxims don’t you think?
As if to prove the old boy Newton right, last Saturday morning as I travelled along Yallambie Rd past the Primary School, something drifted past the corner of my eye and descended into the school yard. This “Unidentified Flying Object” soon identified itself as a downward travelling hot air balloon, but whether it landed due to a shortage of propane or a stiffening breeze was unclear.
Recreational ballooning is not exactly unknown in this area as the scenic nature of the Yarra Plenty valleys has drawn balloon tourists from the earliest times. The following description of a balloon landing at Heidelberg comes from a time about when Thomas was building his homestead at Yallambie and one can only imagine the excitement such events may have caused in the 19th century in the era before heavier than air flight.
“…I then threw out our anchor attached to its rope. It dragged along the ground for a long distance, and was brought up by a stump, giving us a regular jerk, and flinging my companion over the edge of the car, but he stuck to his rope. The balloon now lay along the ground bumping up and down while we tugged at the valve keeping it open. Two men came up and promptly laid hold of our ropes, acting in a very intelligent manner, quite indifferent to some English peasantry when I have encountered in like circumstances. We sprang out of the car, and also laid hold of the ropes, the valve lying open of itself. ‘Where are we,’ inquired my companion. ‘Heidelberg,’ was the reply, and indeed with all our ideas of tumbling along with the hurricane we had only reached eleven miles from Melbourne.“ (From the Melbourne Herald, page 4, 16 Nov, 1875)
Fast forward into the modern age and with an International Space Station, robot trips to the planets and space telescopes looking into the inky depths of space, the heavens have become almost a common place. To find another time when the firmament caused similar wonderment we need to look to another time more than 50 years ago when, with the Space Race drawing to a close, eyes turned skyward to see – well who can say? Yes, there was the odd migratory duck, runaway kite and even the occasional Vietnam era helicopter gunship going around up there but there was something else too. Sightings of Unidentified Flying Objects, the UFOs of our popular imagination, experienced an upsurge.
Enter into this astronomical atmosphere Ray Dean, a real estate agent from Greensborough, who began selling land at a new estate north of Yallambie called Apollo Parkways. With that other Apollo, NASA’s Project Apollo making news at the time, Dean had the bright idea of installing a futuristic looking, portable Futuro House on the edge of the vacant sub division. Looking for all the world like a flying saucer grounded by a dodgy Dilithium Drive, the Futuro was in essence a red fibreglass prefabricated building, the moulds for its construction having been imported directly from Finland, a sort of harbinger of today’s Tiny House movement. It was used as the Apollo estate office and became something of a local landmark for a while, painted yellow and perched on top of a hill on the corner of Plenty River Drive and Diamond Creek Rd for more than a decade. It was later removed to another field in South Morang where it sat slowly falling to pieces and, in the face of a suggestion that it be included on a heritage register and returned to Greensborough, being dismantled in 2018 and put away into storage. All the same, you might have been forgiven for thinking for a while back in the 70s that the top of Greensborough hill had become the home of little green men.
The Futuro house may not have qualified as a real flying saucer but if you look further afield and to another school yard, another Apollo era story blurs that line. I’m talking this time of the so called ‘Westall Incident’, not a local story but a famous tale all the same that gets aired whenever the subject turns to regular bona fide UFO sightings in Melbourne. In Westall near Clayton in April 1966, over 200 students and teachers are reported to have sighted “a grey saucer-shaped craft with a slight purple hue and being about twice the size of a family car,” fly past the boundaries of the local school before landing in a neighbouring paddock.
The story has some credibility given the great number of eye witnesses to the event and the local council eventually built a children’s playground on the paddock in honour of the story, a playground with a central installation that to my mind looks suspiciously like a Futuro House. But what really happened in the school yard over there in Westall that day? One suggestion is that the Westall UFO was an escaped RAAF target drogue, a sort of wind sock usually towed by one plane for others to follow. Another suggestion is that the object was a rogue high altitude balloon, escaped from a joint US-Australian initiative to monitor atmospheric radiation levels following British nuclear testing at Maralinga earlier in the decade. Many of the witnesses to this day still maintain however that they saw a flying saucer.
Some people will tell you the “Truth is out there” but I’m thinking maybe it just hasn’t been found yet. Conspiracy theorists say Apollo never happened but maybe the only proof positive is that, given our truly insignificant place in the universe, the answers to some of life’s riddles may never be known.
Seen from a mindset of standing on this planet on the down side of up, it’s small wonder that the occasional distortion does get caught in the eye. On a cosmic scale, accelerated masses of sufficient size can cause waves in the curve of space time but for most of us it’s more about getting a little bit of perspective in the way we view the world and for that matter, anything else that lies out there in the great beyond. Heavens above, the world is in need of some perspective right now as unseen hands grasp for the last dunny roll in the shops and the media rejoices in spreading panic of a killer plague. Yes, a little bit of gravitas wouldn’t go astray but what we really need is some karmic balance and the knowledge that with every high in life, inevitably there will be an equal and opposite low. Not every balloon in life will turn out to be a flying saucer and not every flying saucer will turn out to be a balloon. Now doesn’t that bowdlerize something a certain learned physicist once said?
Perhaps you remember it as the place you called at on your way home from school, your pocket money burning a hole for a 5 cent, white wax paper bag of mixed lollies. Five cents could buy you a lot of tooth decay in those days. Or maybe you remember it as a place to meet the gang, a place where you could fool around with Coca Cola yo-yos on strings, trade Scanlens football cards or punish the sides of the old pin ball machine inside.
It was the witness to the springtide of our lives.
I’m talking of course of that pillar of small retail society, the ubiquitous Aussie milk bar. Now largely lost to history, as a concept it has now all but vanished, like the Polly Waffle chocolate bars it sold and those frozen Sunny Boy triangular ices – free tokens printed oh, so rarely, on the inside wrapping.
An ode to the milk bars of memory.
The milk bar sprang from the old corner shop tradition of a local store prepared to sell just about anything, a Ronnie Barker world of “Open All Hours” but with a uniquely Australian twist on the theme. New emigrants into Australia from Europe after the Second War mixed the idea of the corner shop with an American tradition of soda bars but instead of lemonade sodas, the home grown milk bar sold ice cream milk shakes. It also sold ice cream in cones, lemonade in bottles, hot meat pies, sometimes newspapers (in both the morning AND the afternoon), fags and even the occasional, dangerously addictive, non-prescription pain killer. You see the milk bar would sell you just about anything in a convenience line. It even sold milk, which in case you don’t remember, in those days came in pint sized glass bottles with the cream at the top of the bottle sealed up tight with silver foil.
Although coming late onto the scene, Yallambie too had its own milk bar. Responding to community demands for a local shop, the developer AV Jennings reserved a block of land for a shop, opposite the site of a planned kindergarten on the corner of Yallambie Rd and Binowee Ave. Opening around 1971, an artist’s rendering from four years earlier shows a building on a grander scale than the one finally completed. By 1973 the “milk bar” was already styling itself as a “supermarket”, going head to head with the next closest shopping precinct, the Lower Plenty strip in Main Rd.
This was an era when supermarkets closed at Noon on Saturday so the original concept at Yallambie was for a shop that would operate as a defacto general store but stay open at other times as a milk bar. It worked for a time but the rise of petrol stations operating as convenience stores eventually saw a change in the playing field and in more recent times, the age of digital trading has shifted it again. Anything that you might previously have bought at a milk bar you can now order online from Uber Eats or purchase at the local petrol station. The station in Lower Plenty Rd, Yallambie does all this while the presence of a well-known hamburger franchise next door serves that other traditional function of the milk bar, that of social venue. The fact that you will probably need a car to get to either of them is apparently of small consideration.
Over the last 50 years, the Yallambie shop has moved from milk bar to grocery store, from department store to pizza shop and finally to its latest adaption – an Asian grocer, a reflection perhaps on the changing face of a multicultural society.
You might think this is all a new trend but it’s interesting to reflect for a moment in these pages so often devoted to historical matters, that Chinese herbalists were a feature of Melbourne dating from the goldfields era while Afghan or Indian hawkers were once a common sight in outback Australia. On up country properties like Thomas Wragge’s Tulla in the Riverina, the dignified, bearded and turbaned travellers were sometimes the only way that country people could secure the latest in 19th century consumer society. Their wagons were specially designed with shelves and drawers with sides that could be lowered to display dress material, trousers, hats and shirts, patent medicines, essences, pins and all manner of wares. At Tulla the hawker arrived in the shearing season and set up shop just outside the Home Paddock, not so close to intrude on the homestead but close enough to be reached by foot. As Betty Lush, ne Wragge recalled, remembering her childhood and quoted in Calder’s ‘Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales’:
“At some time during the shearing period the Afghan hawkers would appear with their horse and cart. They were a sort of travelling store and were no doubt a useful institution for the shearers in those days of ‘humping your bluey’ and the nearest store 15 miles away. They always fascinated me. Not only for the variety of things that they stocked but they were colourful people with turbans. They were often quite generous too and many a time I came away from a visit to their cart with a paper cone of boiled sweets…”
A sort of veritable milk bar on wheels.
As an Asian grocery store, the “Yallambie Food Mart/Asian Groceries/Dollar Shop Supermarket” as it styles itself has a lot to live up to but, as it turns out, it is a remarkably well stocked institution for an emporium of this kind located in a suburban back street.
And yes, you can still buy your milk there.
Paul Keating famously described this as the “Asian Century” and has long insisted that we are part of it, in spite of a few claims to the contrary both here and abroad. There’s no escaping the fact that Australia is nearer Asia than it is to either of its previous two greatest spheres of influence, the United Kingdom and United States, neither of which seem to be particularly united just now. I’m afraid a bit of Xenophobia is an all too common part of the human condition, but have you noticed lately the results of unsubstantiated fears of COVID-19 coronavirus? In the heart of the Chinese community down Whitehorse Rd way, face masks have become the latest in fashion accessories and you could shoot a cannon down the middle of the street without fear of hitting anyone. Newspapers have reported that Asian restaurants across town are half empty half the time and at hours of the day when they should be the best part full. Already it has been reported that the iconic Shark Fin House in Little Bourke St, Melbourne, has closed its doors after an 80% drop in customer numbers. I ask you, whatever happened to the spirit of the Blitz?
Locally, there are Chinese takeaways near to Yallambie in Lower Plenty, Rosanna and Greensborough, so let’s pause for a moment and give them a thought.
Yow Sing near the corner of Rosanna and Lower Plenty Roads does a pretty mean, homemade dim sim, the ancient décor of the shop probably unchanged from a time 50 years before when the shop converted from a haberdashery known for some reason as “Blue Hills”. I’m thinking now might be a good time to try a dim sim there again as the building of the North East Link Project will soon separate this forgotten shopping precinct from Yallambie once and for all.
There are a number of other Chinese eating houses to choose from in easy reach from Yallambie. Several are located in Greensborough but for mine, the best tucker is found at “Li’s Dumplings” in Main Rd, Greensborough. And if you think that’s too far to travel for a feed, please note. You’ll find Li’s dumplings one of the items stocked frozen at the Yallambie shop, so put away those Uber eats.
Deciding to do our bit for the Blitz, we took ourselves off to Li’s Dumpling and Noodle in Greensborough for a meal last Friday night. The décor at Li’s is plain and the seats are hard, but the food and family style atmosphere is terrific. Li’s specialize in dumplings, the skins thin and light but strong enough to hold a variety of yummy fillings intact. They plunge the dumplings in boiling water, stirring vigorously to prevent them sticking then add a cup of cold water half way through the eight minute cooking process to bring out the flavour. I’m told this is the secret of boiling a good dumpling. Or if that doesn’t suit, you can get them fried, the bottoms of the dumplings turning a light golden brown in the process.
We don’t eat out much but when we do it often seems to be to this particular little restaurant that we go. That said, we haven’t got even a part way through the menu yet. Li’s is an establishment that probably does more takeaways than sit down meals and when we went in there with a birthday party once I think they nearly fell down in surprise. There’s an informal atmosphere present here, the sort of feeling you get when you enjoy a home cooked meal though Mum’s Sunday roast was never like this.
On this night we chose chicken and coriander dumplings to start with but there are many others you might choose from, each one rolled, pressed and filled by hand. I’m told that the range of fillings on the menu mirrors what a northern Chinese family might cook at home and reading from the list you’ll find lamb and coriander; chive, vermicelli and egg; fish and calamari; lamb and onion; spicy beef and others just too numerous to mention here.
We also ordered sizzling chicken, its sizzle filling the table with steam; honey chicken, the batter light and crisp and without that risk you get of it weighing heavily on an overstocked tum; and a beef fried noodles which I think would give the best fried noodles of my life a run for its money. That was a noodles I remember buying from a Chinese cook serving from a caravan window on an island in the Pacific years ago, a bit too far away now to pop out for a takeaway.
So, if you’re hungry and not just for the memory of Polly Waffle, get yourself down to your local shop and if that shop turns out to be a Chinese eating house or a repurposed milk bar, well you’ll be doing your bit for your local community right now. A changing world has made it hard going for the small retailer, the current fears of a global pandemic only compounding the problems for one section of our community. I suspect these problems aren’t going to go away for a little while yet but until they do, keep rattling those chopsticks.
For tens of thousands of years the presence of fire has been a reality check in this, the world’s smallest and outside of the Antarctic, the driest continent on Earth. Aboriginal people used these ingredients to their advantage in pre-history, regularly burning the countryside to reduce fuel loads and promote game in a practice we now call “firestick farming”. Early European navigators noted the smoke from the decks of their rolling ships and called Australia that “burning country” while remarking at the same time on the “park like” nature of its scenery. But it was no park. It was a carefully crafted mosaic habitat, created by the locals using a system of land management that had been learned and developed by their forebears over generations.
All human activity has the potential to force changes on the natural order and it seems likely that the Indigenous approach gradually modified the Australian landscape by promoting the spread of volatile, Eucalypt forest at the expense of naturally less flammable plants. The overland explorer of south-eastern Australia Thomas Mitchell observed that, “Fire, grass, kangaroos and human inhabitants seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia. Fire is necessary to burn the grass and form these open forests in which we find the large kangaroos.” In the Pacific Rim, the extinction of giant flightless Moa birds in New Zealand and the whole sale destruction of the Rapa Nui subtropical broadleaf forests of Easter Island shows what can happen when humans get it wrong but generally Australia’s First people lived in a harmonious relationship with the land.
The Australian continent the Aboriginals sought to successfully control is a hugely fire prone land and nowhere is this more-so than in its South Eastern corner. A recent report by an independent assessment group (Risk Frontiers) ranked the top 10 fire danger post codes in Australia by risk potential and wouldn’t you know it? They are all located in Victoria. It’s a danger that might not have been fully appreciated by the initial wave of European settlers in the 19th century but with the end of Aboriginal land management, the bush was primed for what came next. In terms of the area damaged, the devastating bush fires that consumed much of the Port Phillip District on “Black Thursday”, 6 February, 1851 still stand as the most wide spread of the dozens of major fires that have occurred in the State of Victoria since European settlement. Over five million hectares of country burned and a million sheep were destroyed in 1851, while the comparatively low human death toll of 12 is perhaps only a reflection of the small and dispersed population of the Port Phillip District at that time.
“Fire commenced by the upper Plenty River when bullock-drivers left a smouldering fire behind them. Driven by strong, hot, north winds, it swept through the Plenty and Diamond Creek districts and close to Heidelberg before joining with other fires. Thousands of hectares of grassland were burnt; dozens of homesteads, woolsheds, bridges and shacks were destroyed; crops were lost and thousands of head of stock incinerated. Even though so close to the source of the fire, “Yallambee” escaped.”
(Calder, “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, recording the tale of the 1851, Port Phillip District bush fires.)
As remarked by Calder, John and Robert Bakewell’s Yallambee Park missed most of the destruction wrought by the 1851 fires although it is known that other properties in Heidelberg area were amongst those affected. Fire was an ever present concern in the colonial period and Calder records that a later fire may have been the eventual fate of the Bakewells’ original wooden “Yallambee” farm house although direct evidence of this beyond the anecdotal would appear to be slight.
“It has been claimed that there was a serious fire in 1866 which destroyed the Bakewell house.” (Calder, ibid, p77)
The Plenty River at Yallambie marks the boundary between two fire services, the Country Fire Authority on the Lower Plenty side and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade on the Yallambie side but fires are no observer of official boundaries. On Christmas Eve last year fire trucks raced up Greensborough Rd from here towards a fire in the Plenty Gorge near the Metropolitan Ring Rd while the month before, four fires started overnight in Lower Plenty and Viewbank between Edward Willis Court and Seymour Rd. We could see the lights of the emergency service vehicles from that fire flashing across the valley in the night and wondered what was up. It was confirmation if confirmation had been needed that even here in the suburbs the landscape is not without fire risk.
The deadly Black Saturday Bushfires 10 years ago will never fade from memory and most people living on this side of town probably knew somebody directly affected by the disaster, but as our news services continue to ring this year with the latest stories of the calamitous 2020 bush fires sweeping across the country right at this moment, it is the national scale and the sheer breadth of the disaster that makes this fire season stand alone. Virtually the whole continent is on fire in some part or in some place, burning even as I sit here, typing about it like Nero on his fiddle while Rome burned. You can smell it on the air and see it in the afternoon light. There is no escape.
So what can we do? Australia has just recorded its hottest and driest year on record. Again. Many now believe that it is human-caused global warming that has raised the severity of heat events and the associated dangers of wildfire by speeding up the annual drying of the rural landscape. The southern part of Australia has warmed on average by about 1.5° C since 1950 but try telling the politicians that there are consequences to pulling fossil fuels out of the ground with our opposable thumbs to fuel antiquated carbon emitting power stations and you will likely be met by indifference. Some reports state that the 2019/20 fires have already filled the Australian skies with two thirds of the nation’s annual carbon dioxide emissions and experts are warning that it may take forests more than 100 years to re-absorb what’s been released so far in this season. That’s assuming that in a hundred years we still have forests.
Addressing the British Parliament in July last year on the dangers of man-made climate change, Legendary natural historian and documentary film maker, David Attenborough said that, “Australia is already facing having to deal with some of the most extreme manifestations of climate change.”The sight of Sir David looking out from behind the lens of his camera in the future and saying, “I told you so” ain’t going to help us much but maybe, just maybe it might be the consequences of this season’s fires that will at last spur Australia into some sort of climate action. Sir David has long resisted attempts at politicizing his life’s work but at age 93 he’s going for broke and taking aim at government policies head on:
“We have to convince bankers and big business that, in the end, the long-term future lies in having a healthy planet. And unless you do something about it… you’re going to lose your money.”
So there’s the crux of it. Mention furry animals and trees and you will be met by stony silence from Government circles but talk to them about economics and potential damage to property, the financial sector and the danger to the quintessential Aussie way of life and you just might get some action. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series, the Golgafrinchams adopt the leaf as legal tender, burning down all the forests they find in order to avoid the rampant hyper-inflation of the currency that the presence of too many trees has created. The story was a jest, yes but possibly you know a Golgafrincham. I suspect there may be one wanting to stand as your member come the next election.
Every Christmas time in a tradition dating back to the reign of King James I, a sprig of winter hawthorn blossom is presented to the reigning British monarch. By custom the blossom is used to decorate the Royal festive table but in doing so it poses a Yuletide conundrum. Christmas in the northern hemisphere, unlike Christmas here in the south, occurs in winter. So what is hawthorn doing flowering in the winter tide of an English December?
The unlikely answer is steeped in legend and early Christian folklore. Following the crucifixion, Saint Joseph of Arimathea is said to have travelled from the Holy Land to English shores where, weary after his long voyage, he thrust his staff into the ground on Wearyall Hill in Glastonbury. The day was Christmas Eve and the staff, which Joseph had earlier cut from the same tree Roman soldiers had used to make Christ’s Crown of Thorns, miraculously took root in the ground, developing overnight into a hawthorn with the unique ability to flower twice a year. Once in spring and again in the winter.
This then is the story of the tree they called the “Glastonbury Thorn”.
Written records of the Thorn do not appear until 1502 when it was recorded that the tree “do burge and bere greene leaves at Christmas” and “growth in Werall”, but undoubtedly the source of the legend is much older. Sir William Brereton visited the tree in 1635 and took cuttings from its branches, carving initials on its trunk and noting as he did so that many had done the same before him, writing afterwards “so famous and so much visited and frequented on the day of Christ’s nativity.”
Brereton was to become a formidable general in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army during those rather uncivil, English Civil Wars. He was Parliament’s Commander in Chief in Cheshire when James son, Charles I had his Crown forcibly removed which, being firmly attached to his head at the time, created something of a headache for the monarchy.
The King was replaced by the autocratic Cromwell, a Puritan zealot who, amongst other things, hated Christmas and kings but not necessarily in that order, dismissing the traditions of one as superstitious nonsense and the Divine Right of the other as an anachronous blight on society. The Thorn he regarded as just another ancient superstition so one of his blockheaded, Round Headed soldiers, taking inspiration from what they had done previously to the King, chopped at it with an axe. The Puritan commentator James Howell recorded that when he did so, the tree poked the solider in the eye with a thorn, blinding him.
“…going to cut down an ancient white hawthorn-tree, which because she budded before others, might be an occasion of superstition, had some of the prickles flew into his eye, and made him monocular.”
Chalk up one for the Mayblooms then.
After the death of that Christmas Grinche Cromwell, the restored Merry Monarch Charles II overturned the Yuletide ban and the Glastonbury Thorn was born anew from cuttings that had been preserved in church yards. The tree survives to this day as grafts in various places throughout Britain although in recent times Cromwellian style vandal attacks have been perpetrated on the plant growing in the original location at Wearyall Hill. Yet always the Thorn, like some sort of botanical Lazarus, rises again.
The Glastonbury Thorn is a variety of hawthorn, specifically Crataegus monogyna var. biflora, the biflora bit in the title referring to the plant’s unique ability to flower bi-annually. The appeal of this multi flowering tree is perhaps understandable as it is an addition to a story of a tree that has long been steeped in arcane folklore. In some places in the British Isles in years past, hawthorns were sometimes referred to as ‘faerie trees’ and it was said carrying a sprig in your pocket would protect you from evil and the depredations of the faeries that we all know lurk at the bottom of every garden.
Hawthorns in the form of the single flowering Crataegus monogyna were brought to Australia by the early settlers and the tree gives its name to a Melbourne suburb and an AFL footy team, the name apparently developing after a remark made in the early days by Superintendent Charles La Trobe when he compared the native shrubs to the east of the town to flowering hawthorn bushes.
Hawthorns in time were to become an invaluable hedging plant in the colonies and were used as windbreaks and as living boundary markers. Settlers found that thorns were particularly useful in retaining wandering stock as they could be planted in rows in a process known as hedge laying. In this process, trees were planted closely together with a pleach cut into the back of each trunk and a pliable hinge of wood at the front. The trunk of the tree would then be laid down at a 45° angle to the next trunk with stakes driven into the plants to keep them in position creating a unique-looking, stock proof hedge.
Post and rail fencing was a feature of Yallambie but it is probable that hawthorn hedging was also incorporated in places during the farming era as a few remnants of these plants remain marking old boundary lines along with a few stand-alone specimens. Regrettably Crataegus monogyna is classed as an environmental weed in Victoria resulting in a modern minimization of the plant alongside river side environments yet for all this, the reality is it is a beautiful small flowering tree, very hardy and much loved by native birds. Hawthorns were in bloom in Yallambie for a week or so in October with the peculiar, sickly sweet smell of their flowers filling the air and mixing with the drone of bees as a herald of the onset of warmer weather. Hawthorn flowers give way to pome fruit in an Australian December and as a cut foliage, this fruit or rather haw berries make a striking arrangement in a vase on the festive table without the disadvantage of the cats’ wee like fragrance of the earlier flowers.
Christmas is a time with some long established if controvertible traditions and the Christmas wanderings of Joseph of Arimathea could be said to be one of these. While the Gospels generally agree on the role he played in the burial of Jesus, they remain silent regarding other details. Prior to the fourth century, the previously stated legend developed that Joseph had come to Britain after the Crucifixion and Medieval writers in Britain were later able to furnish Joseph with a background story, binding him up to the Arthurian legend and declaring him responsible for bringing the cup of Christ’s Last Supper with him to English shores – the celebrated Holy Grail of legend.
Dan Brown borrowed a page from this well used book, making himself a wealthy man along the way and confirming the reality that every story has the potential to become legend. Like the idea behind the Nativity itself, the story of the Grail represents a search for meaning, a search that we are all on at one time or another and not just at Christmas. As for the common hawthorn, while it is true that it is an indigenous plant of the British Isles, some writers on this subject have also suggested that the bi-flowering variety Sir William Brereton found at Glastonbury might once have been a native of the Middle East.
Who’d have thunk? Stranger things than that are possible at Christmas. Ask any five-year old. In every fiction then it seems we might be closer to the truth than the lies that surround us and in every search can be found meaning.
What’s small and furry, has a duck bill and webbed feet, lays eggs while suckling it’s young and can be found on occasion with a sting close alongside its beaver like tail?
I’m sure you know the answer already although chances are, like me you’ve probably never seen one outside of a natural history museum. If you’ve got 20 cents in your pocket though, you could be closer to one than you think.
Ornithorhynchus anatinus – I was walking in the park early in the morning a week ago when I saw it. As I crossed the river from the Yallambie to Montmorency side at the bridge below the site of Casa Maria I heard a splash and, pausing to look upriver in the direction of the sound, I heard another movement just below me. Turning in the direction of the new sound, I was just in time to see something furry go into the water with a kersplosh and an instant later I saw it rolling over in the water of the overhanging river bank, unmistakable now in its appearance with a short, flat tail. It didn’t break the surface of the water again while I watched but I could see the direction that it took underwater, marked by a “V” on the surface of the pool heading in the direction of an obscuring reed bed and the source of the first splash. ‘Must be a pair of them,’ I thought as I turned away. ‘That’s a good sign for the health of the river.’
Playtpus, for that’s what my furry friend turned out to be, is a somewhat paradoxical animal. A semi-aquatic, egg laying, mammal it is the sole survivor of the family Ornithorhynchidae, in the genus Ornithorhynchus (bird billed). When stuffed examples were sent for study from Australia to Britain at the end of the 18th century, outraged scholars believed they were the victims of an attempted antipodean hoax for if the imaginary Babel Fish can be used as “a final and clinching proof of the non-existence of God,” then the Platypus is the ultimate contradiction. It proves that God has a sense of humour.
Platypus are possibly more common along watercourses in the suburbs than you might think. Shy and nocturnal, they are all too seldom seen however. Historically, the Plenty River is said to have been abundant with these aquatic native animals with Thomas Wragge’s grandson, Frank Wright remembering the river at Yallambie before the Great War, writing that, “Possums and platypus were plentiful. Often we would see six or ten platypus in a day.”(Wright, Recollections of the Plenty River, 1974, quoted in Calder, p212). Similarly Wragge’s great grandson, Bill Bush reported seeing them regularly while growing up at Yallambie in the 1950s but in all the years that we’ve lived here, this is the first time I’ve seen one.
That doesn’t necessarily mean the Platypus is an endangered species. Not yet. It is evidence only of the difficulties some species have adapting to life within an urbanised landscape and how unobservant we tend to be in our every day lives. I see wallabies often enough in Yallambie Park, including a pair that seem to have taken up residence on the ridge above the Platypus bathing pool. We’ve even had a beautiful, chocolate coloured swamp wallaby in our garden but while wallabies and kangaroos seem to have urbanized OK, other animals don’t necessarily adapt so well. Platypus are susceptible to illegal netting practices in the river and the morning I spotted the Platypus, I saw a dog running off the lead and into the water in the immediate vicinity of the sighting.
It has been reported that Australia has the fourth-highest level of animal species extinction in the world with the number of extinct species topping 40 with another 106 listed as critically endangered. Clearing land for urban expansion and agriculture, logging forests and damming rivers have all contributed to this problem while Victoria also enjoys the dubious reputation of being the most deforested state in Australia. More than 60 per cent of the forest that existed at the time of first settlement is now gone. The announcement yesterday by the State Government that logging of native timber in Victoria would end by 2030 is at least a step in the right direction and an indication that the Government is aware of the problem and concerned by the flow on effects of the destruction of native ecosystems. But will it be too little, too late? Already the critics are lining up, supported by a conservative Federal government, to claim that the State Government is putting furry animals ahead of timber industry jobs. A decade sometimes seems like a long way away.
Meanwhile we city folk can continue to take our walks in the reinstated setting of a suburban park land environment, convinced that everything is going to be alright Jack. It brings me joy to see our chocolate coloured swamp wallaby exploring the lower reaches of the garden although, given the history of urban landscapes, I suppose my chances of seeing another Platypus down by the river anytime soon are about as good as seeing the legendary Babel Fish.