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.
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.
When it comes to detective fiction it is perhaps a little known fact that the biggest selling crime novel of the 19th century appeared in that quondam den of iniquity, boom time Melbourne after the gold rushes. Released in 1886 a full year before the first Conan Doyle, in the words of one modern review the Australian novel ‘The Mystery of a Handsome Cab’ was “a crucial point in the genre’s transformation into detective fiction”, (Rzepka & Horsley). With a story line set in and around “Marvelous Melbourne” the book was a positive, pot boiling, sleuthing success from the moment it appeared giving its writer, Fergus Hume fifteen minutes of fame and selling 100,000 copies in its first two Australian print runs on its way to becoming an international bestseller.
As with any success however came the public demands for a follow up. The resulting loosely drawn sequel, ‘Madame Midas’ was published about two years later with a story line that transferred the drama from late 19th century Melbourne onto the Ballarat gold fields. Although it didn’t achieve anything like the runaway success of the first novel, Midas is notable for introducing the world to a murder mystery set within the scope of an Australian regional country town and featuring a narrative centered round an independently resourced and singularly minded pre-Suffragette female protagonist.
It is said that truth can be stranger than fiction. While the characters of Hume’s subsequent prolific literary output mostly descended into fantastical cloak and dagger melodrama, the fictionalized Madame Midas of his Ballarat based effort was an altogether different story. Hume based the portrait of Midas on his friend, Alice Cornwell whose real life tale reads like the scattered pages of a romanticized fiction. Lady mining magnate and financial wunderkind, part time inventor and full time newspaper baroness, Cornwell’s life was full of contradictions. They were contradictions however that made her a fortune and earned her the epithet “Princess Midas, the Lady of the Nuggets”. Hume found he had plenty of background material for a story, so much so that when the book became a play, Cornwell’s estranged husband sued over the content.
Fast forward a hundred years or so, give or take, and in what seemed like a continuation of the Hume whodunit tradition, Ballarat was again to become the setting for a fictional detective drama complete with its own behind the scenes, later court room problems. Viewers of the former ABC Australian TV period detective television series “The Doctor Blake Mysteries”, might have been forgiven for thinking that by the 1950s, Ballarat had become a pretty perilous place. In that post war country town of television theatrics, murders seemed to happen with an alarming regularity that would have surprised even Fergus Hume, the bloodless bodies of the lifeless victims bobbing out across the small screen with a clockwork consistency.
It was fiction but it proved to be rather fun and made good television, especially for the role of the lead character, the Police Surgeon Doctor Lucien Blake played by Craig McLachlan whose job it was to run to ground a new set of nefarious villains each week while supposedly juggling the duties of a neglected country medical practice and conducting a dilatory romance with his housekeeper. As a formula it was a clever take on the established detective genre and ran for five entertaining seasons before the ABC unexpectedly embarked on its own brazen act of cold blooded murder – inexplicably killing off the show at the end of 2017 at the height of its popularity in a process they claimed was a necessary cutback due to Federal Government imposed budgetary constraints.
The timing was opportune, or maybe not. That was a matter probably dependent on your view point for it came just before unassociated hashtag Me Too allegations of misconduct were being made against the show’s leading actor, allegations themselves which are now the subject of a high risk, 6½ million dollar defamation case brought on by the actor against two media outlets, but it left the show’s creators with very little room to manoeuvre.
So it came as some surprise then when last year the makers of the show, December Media, announced that the production would make a return to the small screen, albeit without its titular character, in a made for telly, movie length drama commissioned by a commercial broadcaster. The Seven Network had earlier shown interest in saving the production and with help from Film Victoria and Screen Australia in an out-of-rounds special funding commitment, they had offered December Media a lifeline. The broken strands of the show would be pasted back together into a story which propelled the remaining cast forward into the 1960s.
Perhaps opportunely, the doctor in the Doctor Blake series had married his former housekeeper in the last of the broadcast ABC stories thereby keeping the name in the title alive in spite of the actor’s absence. The show would be repackaged as simply “The Blake Mysteries” with Jean Blake, who in the earlier series had acted as a sounding board and wise counsel to the doctor, stepping up to the wicket as a sort Australian variant on the Miss Marple theme. If it rated well it was said there was a prospect of more things to come.
From the start the Blake franchise has been a brand of which the regional center of Ballarat has been proud and trips are still run on a regular basis to introduce tourists and the show’s legion of fans to some of the more prominent local landmarks used in the series. It may come as a surprise to readers of this blog then that when it came to finding locations for the new telemovie, Blake found itself at that most unlikely of “country town” destinations – suburban Yallambie in Melbourne’s north east.
Prior to filming last year, the producers had been looking around for a “haunted house” to build part of their telemovie around. They wanted a country style home of semi derelict stature which their script described had stood empty and abandoned for 30 years, but for logistical reasons it also had to be within easy reach of their South Melbourne based production team. Casting Yallambie Homestead as the “haunted house” of their dreams ticked the boxes.
Readers of these posts might recall another occasion when a visiting film crew lobbed here at Yallambie. That visit continued a tradition in the district that commenced with the earliest days of film making, but the Blake shoot was certainly on a scale never seen in Yallambie before.
As we watched more and more people troop through the gates carrying equipment and film paraphernalia down to the house on that first morning back in June, it quickly became apparent that this one was going to be bigger than Ben Hur.
An enormous lighting tower quickly went up at the head of the drive like Jack’s bean stalk and two early-model Police cars were parked underneath, one an original 1961 Ford Zephyr Mk 2 Police Divi van, the other a repurposed Zephyr sedan with a balsa wood siren prop and a temperamental head light that we learned later only operated at night when the driver got out and gave it a bang with the palm of his hand. These cars were driven by stunt drivers who in one of their action sequences were required to whirl the vehicles up to the front of the house in a spray of gravel. In trepidation I said, “See yonder shrubbery, planted there by the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’. It’s taken years to grow back to what you see before you after the first, (and last) time I took to it with the hedge trimmer.”
“What’s that you say? Drive right over it and flatten it into match wood. No worries, we can do that for you. Happy to oblige.”
Ben Hur and his chariot never had it so tough.
Residents of houses in the local area had received timely letters inside their post boxes the week before advising them of the planned activity in the back streets of Yallambie and a traffic controller had been strategically positioned in Tarcoola Drive with apparent instructions to lean on his paddle pop in a sleepy sort of way to bamboozle the passing motorists.
I once wrote a Halloween themed post for this blog but on the first evening of filming as a special effects fog was pumped into the night air, I overheard one of the child actors who had been cast in a role in the new movie comment as he looked up at the darkened house, “This place is really spooky. Does anyone even live here?”
That brought a smile to the old dial. “Just us ghosts I’m ’fraid young man.”
In spite of appearances to the contrary, the ghosts had vainly spent the weekend prior to this sprucing the wreckage, but the first thing the Blake crew did on arriving was to hang fake cobwebs around, empty bags of old leaves where they had previously been swept away, and generally turn our lives upside down in a topsy-turvy sort of way. If the house hadn’t looked derelict before they started, it did completely by the time the cameras were ready to roll, but this was entirely the effect they had been trying to achieve. Yallambie Homestead for film makers was they said “the gift that keeps on giving”.
One of the key scenes shot at the house called for an actor to smash his way out of a ceiling and somersault down the 23 flight staircase inside. Originally the plan had been for the actor to be positioned on the balcony outside throwing fictional broken slates off the roof, but perhaps after looking at the non-fictional very real crumbling state of the balcony, veteran director Ian Barry wisely chose to move the action inside. A stunt double was used for the tumble and a whole lot of special effects falling plaster, but the plan also called for the removal of some large furniture that was deemed to be blocking the way of the big landing.
“But that furniture hasn’t moved for years.”
“No worries, we have somebody to handle things like this.”
We soon learned there was a plethora of somebodies ready to handle all manner of things as the need arose. There was even a bloke whose sole job apparently was to look after the “blood”. Blake prides itself on the restraint of its drama but the “blood man” arrived armed with a special effects, fiberglass pool of blood lovingly prepared on a tray and ready to be placed near the foot of the stairs when required. Meanwhile the intended murder victim himself stalked around in the sun outside, talking on his mobile phone while waiting for his cue to lie down dead in what I guess was probably one of the less demanding of the on screen roles.
Catering tents and caravans were set up in the soccer ground car park in Yallambie near the Lower Plenty Rd Bridge and at meal times a shuttle bus ran between the locations and the sports field in order to get the empty stomachs of the cast and crew to the place where they could be filled. One thing I learned from observation is that the film production process requires many, many people all pulling together apparently in different directions before suddenly coming together at the moment the cameras start to roll. Hours of work might translate into only a few minutes or even seconds of screen time but for the interested bystander, it is a fascinating process to watch.
We watched as large blackout screens were erected in front of the house in an attempt to achieve continuity in some of the night scenes that for practical reasons had been scheduled to be filmed in daylight hours but later on, when filming had moved on to an outdoor shoot in Yallambie Park, the question then became how much camera time could be fitted in between the sun popping in and out from behind the clouds. Apparently too much sun can cause havoc with exposures so another of the aforementioned Blake “somebodies” had the job of peering at the sky through a glass then calling out his estimates of sun time between the patches in the overhead rolling clouds.
The child actors themselves had minders to oversee their welfare but it was the costume department’s dedication to the detail in their dress that I found extraordinary. The script required the children to be dressed in scout uniforms and these I learned had been borrowed from the Scout Heritage Center. The uniforms were not only authentic for the period but were decorated with the correct, matching insignia badges for a Ballarat based troop.
The script required not only Boy Scout uniforms but also a Boy Scout camp and this was cleverly constructed using bush skills on the banks of the River Plenty in Yallambie Park. Filming took place in the Park on two consecutive nights in front of a roaring campfire, which for OHS reasons, wasn’t a real camp fire at all but a very convincing gas log fire that could be pumped up into flame or extinguished as required.
The final result of all this Yallambie based film making aired on the Seven Network at the end of November. Personally, I found the format didn’t translate well onto commercial television with the need for ad breaks interrupting the flow of an already needlessly convoluted story line. All the same the telemovie still averaged 450,000 viewers across the five capital cities with another 247,000 tuning in from regional areas with the Seven Network’s Angus Ross reported as saying, “We never rush decisions around quality shows such as The Blake Mysteries but the first round of numbers are very encouraging.” Whether this is enough to save the Blake franchise in the long run remains to be seen. The Seven Network announced last week that it would not commission any further Blake stories in 2019 but maybe like Fergus Hume’s Handsome Cab, Madame Midas themed follow up, they are waiting on just the right character formula coming along for a sequel. The very large elephant in the Blake room has always been the absence from the production of the good Doctor himself. Towards the end of the November telemovie, actress Nadine Garner in the role of Jean Blake turns to the camera and says, “You can spend your whole life focusing on the past. Or you can look forward. Be grateful for the people you have and the time you have with them.”
She was speaking in character of course but the cast and crew were obviously offering up their feelings on events external to the show and those matters that have been outside of their control. As a writer of a blog that has busied itself in the past more often than not with history and the lives of people now long departed, those words struck with me a chord. Hosting the Blake crew at Yallambie was one hell of a ride and meeting the cast and crew while being a spectator to the organized chaos that is the process of film making was an absolute privilege. Whether Blake will be, like “Lazarus with a triple bypass”, resurrected for a third time after these events remains unclear. Like the stage version of Madame Midas, it may depend upon the result of an apparently unrelated court case. With the recent turmoil surrounding the decision makers at the ABC, perhaps our national broadcaster could start listening to their audiences and themselves consider reinstating free to air, one of their more recent successful ventures. Whatever the outcome, the Blake visit to the suburbs in down town Yallambie last year was an experience we will long remember, even after all else around here has become just history.
Legend has it that a dozen years or so before the founding of Melbourne, a South American pirate by the name of Benito Bonito took brief refuge at Port Phillip while on the run from the Royal Navy with the stolen “Treasures of Lima” in his hold. There in a cave at Pt Nepean it is said the pirate hid a fabulous hoard, sealing the entrance afterwards with an explosion of gunpowder. As you might expect from such a story, Bonito reportedly met his end soon after at the end of a rope hanging from an English yard arm but be that as it may, one thing is certain, the so called “Lost Lima Treasure” was never seen again.
Many doubted the origins of the tale and indeed whether Bonito had ever been anywhere near Port Phillip but the story persisted, gaining some currency 20 years later when a man turned up in the new settlement at Melbourne claiming to have been a cabin boy on Bonito’s pirate ship. Sporting a map tattooed onto his arm as a supposed proof of the existence of the pirate treasure, the old sailor found willing ears and wishful thinkers in the infant township. The map itself was no doubt a fake, used to con free drinks from gullible patrons in Melbourne’s early shanties but it did fuel an ongoing hope in the improbable. Numerous gopher holes soon appeared in the sand dunes at Pt Nepean, the work of would be treasure hunters or what is more likely literally true, eternal optimists.
It was the visiting American writer Mark Twain who once said that the history of Australia “does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies,” and further west along the Victorian coast another story, the legend of the “Mahogany Ship” sits somewhat nicely into this same category. It too involves a story of early map making and forgotten voyages into Australian seas, but in the case of the Mahogany Ship, the origins of the story are placed even earlier.
The legend of the Mahogany Ship revolves around the reported siting of an ancient shipwreck on the beach at Warrnambool in the 1840s. Contemporary eyewitness accounts described it as being of “antique design” of “hard dark timber – like mahogany” and sitting high in the sand dunes at a considerable distance from the high water mark. By the later years of the 19th century the shifting dunes had covered the wreck and its remembered location had been forgotten but by one count, 27 different eyewitness reports had been recorded and it was later speculated from these descriptions that the wreck had been a 16th century Portuguese caravel, lost on the south coast of Victoria during a voyage of discovery by Cristóvão de Mendonça in 1522. The theory goes that knowledge of the voyage and the maps made during it had been suppressed due to the Portuguese operating in what had then been deemed to be Spanish waters under the Treaty of Tordesillas, and that any other evidence was subsequently lost in the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755. To further the story, an ambiguous French copy of a Portuguese map purporting to show a Great South Land, “Jave la Grande” survived at Dieppe and this has been used by advocates of the Mahogany Ship story as confirmation of its truth ever since.
Mendonca aside, there is no doubting the importance of having a good map to find your place in the world and when Captain Cook arrived on the east coast of Australia in 1770 without one, the uncharted Great Barrier Reef very nearly caused his ruin off the coast of north east Queensland. With HM Bark Endeavour holed and fast taking on water, disaster loomed as Cook showed an almost uncanny presentiment to find the mouth of the Endeavour River, the only place for miles around where he could possibly beach his ship for repair. Some adherents to the Mahogany Ship story have suggested that Cook’s ability to navigate through treacherous reefs to safety owed more to his knowledge of ancient Portuguese maps than his own 18th century sailing ability, a suggestion that almost certainly does Great Britain’s greatest navigator a disservice, but it makes for an interesting conspiracy theory all the same.
Any study of the past inevitably involves map making and Yallambie is no exception. The Bakewells had a survey of their farm at Yallambee drawn up in the early 1850s, probably at a time when they were contemplating a return to England, and this map has appeared several times within these pages. It is a useful primary source and by comparing the information contained in it to the modern setting it is possible to draw some interesting conclusions about the layout of the Bakewell farm and the context of E L Bateman’s drawings within it and this, for the importance of the record, is worth affirming.
As has been stated in a previous post, it was the belief of the Wragge descendant, Nancy Bush that the original Bakewell cottage was located where the tennis court was later built, the foundations of the house presumably ending up as the starting point of her family’s grass court surface.
A second residential building stretched in a northerly direction up the slope and was connected to the cottage by a trellis covered walkway with a third building, marked as a kitchen wing on the survey map, placed at right angles at the far end. The location of these additional buildings is now largely buried under the floors of the Wragge era Yallambie Homestead.
A fence across the kitchen yard enclosed the southern end of a large building marked “dairy” on the Bakewell plan and this building was located where the smaller, present day Yallambie dairy stands to this day.
Another Nancy Bush belief held that the original cellar was located under the dairy and in Bateman’s Plenty Station View III which shows the southern end of this building behind the cottage, there would appear to be some sort of underground access into the side of the far building to confirm this.
North of the structure marked “hothouse” on the plan was a stable yard with a large stable block located on the eastern boundary and this building was still standing into the early 1980s when a modern mud brick home was built to replace it. Beyond the stables was a tool house and rick yard with a shrubbery and William Greig’s old hut and garden completing the picture within the immediate surrounds of the house.
The North East Link Authority when it made its bombshell announcement at the start of August about smashing a Freeway through Yallambie, released their own map of their plans but anyone who has tried looking at this map has found that it remains frustratingly unclear about the real intentions of their strategic planners. Their web site is little more than a sales pitch which studiously avoids any attempt at revealing too many facts while the so called pop up community consultation meetings that have been staged at various locations across the community have been even less use, an equal part spin and sometimes downright disinformation. At one of these recent meetings it was stated that a diamond shaped corridor B interchange at Lower Plenty Rd would go under the river and not over it and that it would be located on the eastern side of Main Rd. Oh, but tellingly that, “nothing has been decided”.
The lads at North East Link seem to have taken a leaf out of Nietzche’s book who famously said, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” The unstated fact is that trucks using the anticipated interchange would certainly require a grade of no more than 4%, so it is an impossibility to take the road in a tunnel under the Plenty River while still arriving at a meaningful level to connect access roads to Main and Lower Plenty Roads. Taking a road under the Plenty River flood plain would also involve tunnelling through a geologically unstable water table requiring constant pumping throughout the life of the road. My interpretation of the proposal is that if built, (perish the thought) the intention of North East Link is to exit the tunnel near the corner of Binowee Avenue and Moola Close, Yallambie and cross the Yallambie Flats on an elevated flyover and that saying otherwise is just a further attempt to draw a smoke screen over the whole exercise. Should corridor B ever be given the nod, when it comes to the crunch the engineers would wade in, the spin doctors would stand aside and the practicalities and liabilities of their plan would finally be admitted.
As the Herald Sun reported in a front page story on Wednesday, the full effect of a similar solution to another transport problem is only now beginning to be understood as the reality takes shape in Melbourne’s southeast.
Just picture for a moment a road of at least six, but more likely eight lanes stretching across the Plenty River flood plain, but if you can’t, here’s a digitally altered image of a picture I took of the landscape three years ago to give you an idea.
And just for good measure, the survey map used above but this time with corridor B splashed onto it in all its glory. Absurd as it might look, I think it is likely to be one of the more truthful representations of this unlikely proposal up to date. It’s a large file so click on it for the detail. You might even see your own roof somewhere in there.
It is part of an obvious attempt not to reveal too many facts about any of the proposed routes of North East Link before a final announcement is made later in the year. The late inclusion of corridor B within the proposal I think has a lot to do with the perceptions of Yallambie’s place in the world, or at least perceptions of the suburb in the eye of the authorities.
In the September edition of “RA”, the magazine of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, there is a four page article detailing the North East Link proposal complete with a generalised map by way of illustration. Interestingly the article states that “broadly, NELA has been looking at three possible routes for the proposed freeway,” going on to explain what in effect constitute the options for corridors A, C and D. The route for corridor B through Yallambie doesn’t rate a mention. The implication is that in real terms, corridor B serves the same business model as corridor C but that the Yallambie/Lower Plenty route has been belatedly included as something slightly easier to digest than the unpalatable Eltham option. I expect most people who heard about Yallambie as an alternative to the Eltham route last month had to then go and look up Yallambie on a map because in cartographical terms, when it comes to your place in the world, it’s all about where you draw the line.
If you drive along the top end of Bell Street in West Heidelberg today, an enormous apartment block is right now fast reshaping the landscape, sitting there like a latter day QE2 beached on top of the ridge. This apartment block carries the moniker “The Ivanhoe” in large, friendly letters emblazoned across its Upper Heidelberg Rd frontage and the building has been described by the property developer as being located in the suburb of Ivanhoe. The project website, obviously aimed at an overseas market, describes the suburb of Ivanhoe as “a sanctuary of leafy green streets, parklands and river walks with a strong sense of community and belonging.” The thing is, this description belies its location on the west corner of busy Bell Street and Upper Heidelberg Road. The location of “The Ivanhoe” is actually West Heidelberg, or at best Heidelberg Heights, to use the jargon of real estate agents. The border of the suburb of Ivanhoe ends at Banksia Street but it seems nobody stumping up the money to live in one of these apartments wants to wake up one day and find them self suddenly living in unfavoured West Heidelberg. The solution, just move a line on the map. Do you think anyone will notice?
North East Link obviously think nobody will notice when it comes down to the nitty gritty of moving lines around a map of their proposed corridors. It’s all about what you reckon you can get away with. The State Government has vowed that one of these suggested routes will have traffic thundering through it in the early 2020s but like Benito Boninto rampaging up and down the Peruvian coast, the Pirates of the North East Link aim to wreak havoc and destruction on impacted communities without so much as a by your leave. The explosion of gunpowder used in a cave at Pt Nepean will be nothing compared to what they have in mind. To them, communities and the people living in them are simply arbitrary boundaries – mere lines to shove around on a map wherever they want – an inconvenience to their plans best not discussed within delicate hearing.
The story of the 16th century Mahogany Ship and the presence of Captain Cook on the east coast of Australia in 1770 long ago entered the blurred line between historical fact and legendary fiction but in the years to come, how will we look back on the Pirates of the North East Link and the last months of 2017? Will the anger and bitterness that these road proposals raised be remembered or will their legacy live on in history as a postscript to the main story, the forgotten doodles in a road planner’s imagination?
From the hanging gardens in Babylon and the capabilities of the very capable Brown of Great Britain, garden fashions have come and gone like the seasons, to be remembered now like the weeds in a Bangay box hedge. 19th century Australia was no exception to this rule and in 1865, the English nurseryman John Gould Veitch wrote while visiting Victoria that there had grown up in the colony “a very decided spirit for the introduction of any novelty which may be likely to prove of use or ornament to the gardens of the colony.”
There were many novelties to distract Victorian gardeners but of all of them, it was the craze for collections of pine trees, or pinetums as they were sometimes known, that has left the greatest mark on our millennial landscape. We’ve all seen the presence or former presence of colonial homes marked in country Victoria by stands of tall conifers, sometimes long after the settlers and sometimes the homes themselves have vanished. Collecting conifers was for a while a fashion in 19th century Victoria and no garden of any consequence in the colony could be said to be ever truly complete without its own resident selection of trees.
“Floraville”, the Bakewells’ garden at Yallambee Park was already well established before this coniferous craze properly kicked off but Thomas Wragge, who adopted Yallambee in the 1860s and who purchased the property in 1872, appears to have been well placed to take over at least in spirit where the Bakewells maybe left off.
The background to this story has been shrouded by the passage of time but as mentioned in the previous post, the Yallambie identity “Old Harry” Ferne who lived on the river bank at Yallambie in the 1970s believed anecdotally that the pine trees that then surrounded his home were sourced from Victoria’s first Government Botanist and director of the Royal Botanic, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Winty Calder, writing in “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” repeats this legend but also speculates about the origins of the story, observing that:
“…von Mueller frequently gave seeds and plants to people. However, it is more likely that the Bakewells were the recipients of von Mueller’s plant material, during the period 1857-1873, than was Thomas. During those years von Mueller distributed many plants to public institutions and to private individuals, but he claimed in 1865 that ‘the distribution of plants to private gardens has been very limited and in reciprocation only’. Unfortunately the National Herbarium in Melbourne apparently now holds little of von Mueller’s correspondence with private individuals, such as Thomas Wragge or the Bakewells, or notes relating to associated exchange of plant material. But Thomas Wragge did gain possession of Yallambie two years before von Mueller ceased to be Director of the Botanic Gardens, even though he continued as Government Botanist. Before 1873, Thomas could have continued a plant exchange begun with the Bakewells, and it is not impossible that such an exchange might have continued for a few years after 1873…”
Even without a triplane, the “Green” Baron of Colonial Victoria certainly seems to have got around a bit. Public gardens were laid out at many goldfields centres with places like Ballarat, Bendigo, Castlemaine and Kyneton all receiving large numbers of trees and seeds for their Botanic Gardens from von Mueller. Indeed, a visit to a public garden in any reasonably sized town in country Victoria today will usually turn up at least a few trees with a claim to some sort of von Mueller provenance, with many of these trees being pines, araucarias or otherwise coniferous in nature.
Baron Sir Ferdinand von Mueller, KCMG came to Australia in 1847, arriving in Victoria in 1851. In 1853, Lieutenant Governor Charles La Trobe appointed him to the newly created role of Victorian Government Botanist and from 1857 he was also the Director of Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens. Mueller travelled widely throughout Victoria on prolonged field trips and on just one jaunt into the hitherto unexplored Buffalo Mountains and Southern Gippsland, he covered 1500 miles and added 936 new species to the Victorian plant list.
From the very beginning of his directorship, (or should that read dictatorship), of the Gardens, von Mueller saw the Gardens as an important collecting and distribution centre for plants and seeds throughout the new colony. During the period 1857-8 alone, the record states that no fewer than 39 public institutions and 206 private applicants received plants from von Mueller’s department, with 7120 plants and 22,438 packets of seeds being distributed and 57 gardeners receiving live cuttings.
With these numbers in mind it seems to me very possible that von Mueller might well have supplied plant material to the Bakewells in the 1850s, possibly in a reciprocal exchange. The Bakewells had established their garden in the early 1840s and by the mid-1850s it was well established and in a good position to take part in such an exchange. Furthermore, from the first days of settlement, Robert Bakewell conducted the garden at Yallambee as an early and successful experiment in Victorian Acclimatisation, the colonial principles of which the Baron was a well-known and early active supporter.
Another point worth considering is that when it came to approach, plants were not the only thing von Mueller was known to cultivate. He cultivated working relationships with people of consequence and was often rewarded handsomely for it. Von Mueller collected titles throughout his life like they were going out of fashion with the “Sir”, “Baron” and the “von” parts of his name being all titles that were added to his name during his lifetime. Not only were the Bakewells well-connected by religious and familial ties to the Howitts and through them to the wider cultural elite of Melbourne, but “Yallambee Park” had been acknowledged within intellectual circles with several internationally publicized descriptions.
Edward Latrobe Bateman, whose association with the Station Plenty (Yallambee) has been recounted in considerable detail previously in these pages, is another contender for a Mueller connection at Yallambee. He had been described as a “splendid artist” by von Mueller and at the Intercolonial Exhibition of 1866 which Mueller helped arrange, Bateman decorated a Great Hall and a Rotunda. Significantly, Bateman also found considerable later success as a garden designer of both public and private gardens. Obviously these people were all moving within the same circles.
Thomas Wragge by contrast was a farmer and although he would in time achieve pastoral success and considerable economic wealth, it has not been suggested that he moved within the same creative or intellectual associations as Bateman, or of the Bakewells and Howitts.
At any rate, whatever the origins of the Yallambie tree scape and whether Wragge inherited the genesis of the collection from the Bakewells, it seems clear now that Thomas and his family enjoyed the trees as they reached maturity at the end of the 19th century and that they probably continued to add to it up to and into the 20th.
In the 19th century plant collectors achieved fame as they combed the continents in search of new pines and no gardener was considered worth his salt without an ability to provide his patron with a collection of at least some description.
At nearby Eaglemont, where elm trees were once saved at the expense of those in Yallambie, the forester William Ferguson planted a great pinetum, the largest in the colony, on the summit of “Mount Eagle” for J H Brooke as a prelude to a grand estate envisaged for that place. The first curator of the Geelong Botanic Gardens, Daniel Bunce visited in 1861 and recorded that “under the skilful management of his gardener Mr Ferguson”, Brooke had accumulated “the largest number of conifers of any establishment in the colony”. The house was never built and Ferguson left the project in 1863 with Brooke himself leaving for Japan four years later. However, in the 21st century at least some of Brooke’s trees remain, hidden away inside the private gardens of wealthy Eaglemont homes, proof of the enduring nature of the grown landscape and especially the legacy of 19th century pinetums.
At Yallambie the Bakewell/Wragge conifer collection survived well into the 20th century and its condition was intact enough to draw comment from Old Harry in the 1970s and 80s. Over the years many landscape reports and surveys were written identifying its importance, first by Heidelberg City Council and then, after 1994, by Banyule City Council. One of the first but certainly not the last of these reports “Plenty River & Banyule Creek” by Gerner Sanderson Faggetter Cheesman was published in October 1983 and noted that:
“The introduced species planted adjacent to the homestead, Yallambie, also require thoughtful management, not because of any problem they create, but rather because of their cultural importance. The planting here reflects past fashions of the Victorian era. Tall, dark foliage plants such as Pinus spp., Araucaria spp., planted quite randomly are all in fair condition…”
Old Harry had recently moved into a new home in Tarcoola Drive when that report was published but a few years later another report (previously quoted here) was delivered by Loder & Bayly, Marily McBriar, the recommendations of which in part read:
“An area which requires protection and sensitive management. Conservation of important historic plants, eg. conifers, and partial reconstruction of farm elements…”
More than 30 years later the value of these reports and others like them would seem to be only in the ongoing evidence they provide of what Council hasn’t managed to deliver over time. One by one and sometimes more than one the trees of the pinetum have gone to pot, collapsing sometimes in spectacular fashion. In the last 20 years alone I have by my own count seen more than a dozen of these trees vanish and, with the exception of the trees in a few private gardens, they have not been replaced.
All the same, the list of old plantings that remain today in Yallambie Park and within private gardens nearby still manages to read like some sort of pine growers’ plant catalogue. The list includes Araucaria bidwilli (Bunya Bunya Pine), Araucaria cunninghamii (Hoop Pine), Callitris glaucophyla (Murray River Cypress Pine), Cedrus deodara (Himalayan Cedar), Chamaecyparis funebris (Funeral Cypress), Cupressus lusitanica and Cupressus lusitanica glauca (Mexican Cypress), Cupressus macrocapa (Monterey Cypress), Cupressus sempervirens (Italian Cypress), Cupressus torulosa (Bhutan Cypress), Pinus canariensis (Canary Islands Pine), Pinus nigra var maritima (Black Pine), Pinus pinaster (Maritime Pine), Pinus pinea (Stone Pine) and Pinus radiata (Monterey Pine). As an exercise in botanical history, this list which was sourced from several of the more recent Banyule Council studies, is a tribute to the surprising longevity of some of these species at Yallambie and a memorial to the garden in which they once stood.
Garden fashions have come and gone and the popularity of pines within an Australian river environment long ago lost their allure. At Yallambie, in spite of the recommendations contained within numerous commissioned reports, exotic plantings have given way to a native landscape.
As if to follow this cue, vandals imposing their own agenda once attacked one of Robert Bakewell’s Cypresses on the river bank, leaving the tree in a shockingly ringbarked state. The tree took months to die in a process that was heartbreaking to watch. A similar end was suffered by the 400 year old “Separation Tree”, a River Red Gum in the Royal Botanic Gardens that suffered two ringbarking attacks before its final demise a couple of years ago, leaving garden lovers and history buffs equally appalled.
The late, lamented Separation Tree was already well over 200 years old when von Mueller began his directorship in 1857. In 1873 however, a year after Thomas Wragge completed his purchase of Yallambie, the Baron was summarily sacked from his position at the Gardens. It was felt within some quarters that von Mueller was more concerned with the science of plants than the business of creating a pleasure gardens for the leisured elite of Melbourne.
During his tenure Mueller had urged the establishment of a plantation of conifers at the Gardens, its purpose supposedly being to demonstrate the usefulness of the forestry industry to Victoria. Numerous trees remain from Mueller’s pinetum and can be found on the Garden’s Hopetoun and Hutingfield Lawns today but the humiliation of his situation was almost too much for a Baron to bear. After his dismissal legend has it that Mueller never again set foot inside the Gardens, pining like Adam outside the Gates of Eden.
The work of his replacement, Mueller’s protégé the young William Guilfoyle, is now mostly the landscape we see at the Royal Botanic Gardens today. After 1883 Guilfoyle remodelled Mueller’s pinetum, changing it from regimented avenues of trees to strategically placed specimens which survive in the Gardens today as signature trees. Von Mueller’s approach had gone out of fashion, his legacy dead seemingly like the Dodo.
Contemporary reports suggest that Von Mueller’s demise was the result of the lack of fountains and statues installed at the Gardens under his watch, the absence of which was keenly felt by the Melbourne masses who had a seemingly insatiable thirst for such things.
Ironically, if you step off the tan and into the gardens today, one of the first things you may see hidden behind the neighbouring shrubbery outside the National Herbarium of Victoria, is a small statue of the good Baron himself. It was installed there in 1984 to mark 150 years of settlement, its presence in the Gardens seemingly illustrating a point. When it comes to gardening, if you wait long enough, inevitably you reap what you sow.
He was known locally as “Old Harry” and in the conservative pre-Whitlam era ’60s, Old Harry Ferne was something of a Yallambie eccentric. The stories that surrounded Harry were legendary and as he assured his listeners, they were all true. Well, mostly. A square peg in a round hole. You might say that they broke the mould when they made Old Harry.
Harry Ferne lived in a one room cottage on the banks of the Plenty River. He was a relative or maybe a sometime friend of the Temby family at Yallambie Homestead. Nobody was really quite sure exactly. He moved into a cottage in the garden on the river flat below the Homestead in 1968 and stayed there for more than a decade, even in the face of increasing pressure from Heidelberg City Council to move him out. In a recorded interview made in the early 1980s Harry remembered that, “When I arrived in the area there was a forest of trees. Now there’s a forest of houses.” (Heidelberger, 2 June, 1982)
Like a hermit at the bottom of the garden in the finest of English folly traditions, Old Harry was a bit of an enigma. He walked with a pronounced stoop that belied his clipped moustache and a somewhat understated military bearing. A “real gentleman” as one local described him but a man who was for all that, prepared to live outside of the mores of society. Local children from the nearby developing housing estate seemed drawn to him and “descended on him in droves, keen to fish for tadpoles in his water storage ponds,” or to simply spend time with this curious character with the mysterious past. In an era when children could spend as much time as they wanted with an older, unmarried man living alone in peculiar and reduced circumstances without anyone batting an eyelid, Old Harry and his stories became a magnet for juvenile gangs, the king of the kids in the Yallambie area.
Harry’s Yallambie Cottage was a single roomed timber dwelling that had been built at the foot of the Yallambie escarpment sometime in the dim dark, far distant past, nobody could quite remember when. Maybe it was a re-erection of a Bakewell pre-fab, but who knows. Harry said, “When I took over the cottage, it was a ruin. No windows, no door, no water and no sewerage. Just possums in the roof, bees in two walls and a wombat under the floorboards.”
Harry set to work and cleaned up the ramshackle building, laying brick paving and redeveloping the remnant gardens surrounding the exterior.
Harry was fascinated by the history of the area and especially the legend that Baron Ferdinand von Mueller had contributed to the Yallambie landscape. He would point out trees to interested listeners as possible contenders for a von Mueller provenance. Even in 1970 these trees were well over 100 years old and on one occasion Harry narrowly escaped with his life when a pair of trees from the Yallambie pinetum collapsed and nearly destroyed his house.
The Yallambie Cottage was surrounded by a forest of these exotic trees and in the winter months the smoke from Harry’s fires hung low, trapped by their overhanging branches. Harry did a lot of his cooking on a barbecue in a half barrel outside but his cottage also housed a cast iron range where he made toast and where an old kettle was kept continuously on the boil for anybody who cared to stop by long enough to share a yarn and a strong cup of tea.
Harry’s cottage neighboured the nearby old Yallambie pumping house which in the farming era had been used to draw water up from the river for use in the outlying paddocks. Invoking the principle that possession remains nine tenths of the law, Harry claimed the pumping house likewise as his own, although ostensibly it was located on Heidelberg City Council land. This was Harry’s world. It was a place to spend time with friends both young and old. It was a place to watch the passing of the seasons and to stare at the reflections in the waters of the river. And it was a place to think about the past.
Harry’s was a naturally artistic nature and he spent hours in the fields sketching the surrounding river landscape. He was a friend of the Dutch sculptor Rein Slagmolen whose artists’ colony at the nearby former convent, Casa Maria, was an early feature of the pre subdivisional landscape of Yallambie. Harry also had friends in the theatre and the opera who probably wondered at what they had struck when they came to visit him in his rural realm.
Harry kept a car, an early model VW Beetle, but it didn’t get driven about much. Harry didn’t find much need to get behind the wheel or to leave the area. The Temby children and others kept their horses on the Yallambie river flats and it was the horses that Harry preferred to populate his drawings with.
Harry kept an old concrete water trough near the cottage for the horses but when one enterprising young lad used Harry’s water colour paints to paint the trough an ultramarine blue, Harry was less than impressed.
In the summer months Harry harvested the fruit from the Yallambie orchards and in those days, there were many more trees than the few that remain today into the 21st millennium.
Pears, apples, loquats, figs, grapes and walnuts grew on the river flats in abundance but Harry also added to his crop by collecting baskets of blackberries from the vines that grew out of control along the river. Harry was a surprisingly good cook and the produce was baked into apple and blackberry pies and shared around the neighbourhood with friends and acquaintances. Throw in the occasional snared rabbit and Old Harry was virtually living off the land at Yallambie. “We’re 10 miles from the city, yet you would think we were 100 miles away,” he said. Every year on the 5th November a great bonfire would be kindled on the flats marking Guy Fawkes’ treasonous plot and “cracker night” would be celebrated with a great deal of noise and potatoes roasted in the embers of the fire.
There was no bath or shower in the Yallambie cottage and Harry’s ablutions were limited to a regular swim in the river. Toiletry arrangements involved a septic tank which Harry installed himself alongside the cottage but herein were sown the seeds to the eventual demise of his riverside rural idyll.
The cottage stood on the Plenty River flood plain. Three times in the 1970s Harry was flooded out and on one occasion he battled a surge of water that came up to his chest inside the house. Harry dug a deep 100 foot trench to the river and carted 10 tons of white sand onto the river flats to shore up the property and to protect it from flooding, but it was to no avail. The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works wanted Harry gone, reasoning that every time the river flooded there was of a risk of Harry’s septic getting into the stream. In 1978 the matter went all the way to the Housing Commission and The Honourable Geoff Hayes, the State Minister of Housing.
In the face of this Harry finally resolved to buy a block of land in Tarcoola Drive bordering the derelict Yallambie Homestead stables. He paid about $5000 for his block and designed and built a home, putting many of his own details into the construction of the interior, everything from the blue slate floor to the leadlight chimney window, (courtesy of his friendship with Rein Slagmolen). It was a far cry from the Yallambie Cottage but Harry didn’t stop there, carving a garden into the steep slope at the back of his Tarcoola Drive address, slashing blackberries and replacing them with clusters of pampas grass and a jungle of ferns. Hundreds of blue stone blocks were introduced into the landscape with Harry erecting a flying fox rope pulley to man handle the rocks down the slope and into position. Brick paving and ponds were designed to create a Japanese style feel to the garden.
Harry said, “I love the feeling of rocks and water. I want to achieve a harmony between man and nature. I don’t think I’ll ever actually finish the garden. It’s an ongoing evolutionary process.”
He never did finish. Time had moved on and “Old Harry” was now approaching an age befitting his moniker. Soon after moving into his new home, vandals burned the pumping house and the cottage to the ground on the river flats.
Harry said, “I don’t think I’ll ever shift out of Yallambie. It all depends whether I get married or not.”
The garden Harry built in Tarcoola Drive is now a ruin, his cottage and the pumping house little more than memory. The sobriquet “Harry’s” on a letter box of a house now the only pointer to the identity of its original owner.
Harry didn’t marry of course. He died 30 years ago from a coronary occlusion while on the Heidelberg Golf Course, proof if proof be needed that if you’ve gotta go, better to go while doing something you love.
But for all that there are some who still think that Harry was true to his word. At the setting of the sun as the shadows lengthen under the trees on the river escarpment, there is a very real feeling that maybe Harry never left Yallambie after all. It is a belief held by the current owner and visitors to the Tarcoola Drive house that Harry built. At the closing of the day, the spirit of Old Harry lives on.
The bees have made themselves at home behind the shingled walls of our verandah. On warm days the honey they make has been known to drip out onto the deck below, or even back into the ceiling inside the house where a stain on the plaster took several thousand licks of paint to conceal. Other than that though they don’t seem to be doing much real harm, and with the old verandah looking a bit shonky these days, it may be that honey is the only thing holding the whole humongous hotchpotch upright. With bees in trouble on several fronts, to my mind they might as well stay where they are. Our friends the bees are in need of all the help they can get.
You’ve probably heard that there’s something wrong with bees. They are on the decline worldwide with parasites, loss of habitat, pesticides and the mysterious colony collapse disorder held largely to blame, yet bees have been buzzing around this island earth since a time before the dinosaurs. As a motif they have long been used by man to symbolize industry and orderliness, yet on an evolutionary scale, it has taken us the mere blink of an eye to bring bees in this modern age to their bees’ bended knees.
The experimental film director Godfrey Reggio introduced the Native American word “Koyaanisqatsi” to popular culture in 1982. In the Hopi language it means “unbalanced life”, but in the more than three decades since, the situation Reggio described in film has not changed. All over Melbourne right now, developers are smashing up gardens for multiple occupancy dwellings, tearing up farm land for new suburbs, all the while cynically leaving here and there an occasional geriatric gum tree or token strip of park to appease the regulators. It’s not much chop for the people but it’s tantamount to a desert landscape for bees.
August was almond pollination season in the southern states of Australia. The two almond trees we have in our garden already have fruit on them, at least until the cockies cotton on to it, but in the natural order of things there are now many other plants following the almonds into flower. It highlights the importance of a diversity in flowering plants in the garden, an idea that has been promoted by bee activist and author, Doug Purdie, in books like “Backyard Bees”.
By contrast the monoculture farming techniques used up country creates Koyaanisqatsi of the highest order. These techniques offer bees rich sources of nectar for short periods, then nothing for the remainder of the year. Commercial production of almonds in the triangle between South Australia, NSW and north-west Victoria is a case in point and highlights the inherent dangers of these practices. It involves vast numbers of almond trees being grown artificially in a marginal landscape using lots of Murray River irrigation. Because there are few other trees in this area, truck-loads of bee hives are brought in from interstate every spring to assist in a pollination event which is is as surprising as it is unsustainable. Bees are brought from as far away as Queensland where worryingly a pest bee, the Asian Honey Bee, has recently been found. The Asian Honey Bee is believed to have been the original source of the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor which has caused so much damage to bee colonies around the planet. Australia remains one of the few places in the world where the destructor mite has not been seen but with the related Varroa jacobsoni already present on Asian honey bees around Townsville, the introduction of the destructor in the near future is now taken as a given. When that happens, it is farming practices like the almond pollination events of southern Australia that will make the spread of the mite across this island continent virtually unstoppable.
The European bee so familiar to our gardens was introduced to Australia in 1822 and in the nectar rich regions of our flowering eucalypt forests it soon became firmly established. It is the heavy work horse of the pollination world, a typical hive containing about 80,000 bees. Native bees, of which there are about 2000 varieties, are by comparison smaller, generally solitary and produce less honey. To the early settlers with their peculiar idea of finders keepers, this great southern land where little bits of Europe seemed so easily to reinvent itself must have seemed like a land flowing with proverbial milk and honey. In due course it had to be admitted that the keepers weren’t the finders after all but while the milk comes in suburban cartons these days, at Yallambie the second part of that flow equation can be thought of as being quite literally true.
Bees were probably kept in this area from the early days and in the second of the State Library’s c1856 daguerreotypes of Robert Bakewell’s garden, a rectangular shape in a lower corner may be evidence of a bee box positioned at that time on the Plenty River flats. If this interpretation could be proved to be correct, then in would put the Bakewells at the cutting edge of apiarist technology at that time since bee boxes with removable combs, as opposed to the more traditional skeps, were only perfected by Lorenzo Langstroth from an earlier design at the start of the 1850s.
Peter Barrett in “The Immigrant Bees”, (Springwood, 1995) quotes from Louisa Anne Meredith’s book “My Home in Tasmania” and uses her book as evidence of the Merediths’ bee keeping activities in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s. So the sight of bee boxes at Yallambee during Louisa’s 1856 visit would not, by association, seem to have been so out of place.
The Tembys kept bees during their tenure at Yallambie in the second half of the 20th century and a son of Ethel was still keeping bee boxes in Yallambie Park when we came to live here in the early 1990s. There were bees living inside a hollow oak in the Homestead garden at the time and I mentioned them to Ethel’s son, thinking they might be of use to him. “Yes, I can dispose of those feral bees,” he answered meaningfully. And so that was the end of that.
The bees are still in the oak and have now spread to an elm. They may have been the original source of the bees in our verandah. At this time of year the garden is literally buzzing with the busy little blighters. The Pride of Madeiras in our garden are in bloom and truly live up to their axiom, “the bee flowers”.
The above is about as good as I could manage with my simple point and shoot camera but it has been a good spring and there are plenty of other flowers in the garden around which the bees have been plying their trade. Some time ago my father in law turned up with a new lens on his camera and took the following series of photographs:
When seen up close in these pictures at a size not usually possible to our eyes, I like to wonder, ‘What goes on inside those little pin size heads?’ It’s all a question of scale and macro lens technology, but if you met one of these very alien looking little creatures up close, what sort of conversation might you have about their perspective on life? Do they know something we don’t know? Maybe you would find their space ships had been, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, “due to a terrible miscalculation of scale… accidentally swallowed by a small dog.”
Bees are known to forage up to 8km from their hives, even without their space ships, so the bees centrally located here at Yallambie are potentially now at work across the entire length and breadth of the City of Banyule. The Council doesn’t have any special planning laws restricting bee keeping in the community, providing all activities remain in accordance with the Apiary Code of Practice which requires the owner of hives to provide a nearby water source and also limits the number of hives and their location within urban environments. Bless them. I wonder if it insists on drinking straws for the bees as well?
Australia is a huge producer of honey and we actually produce more honey than our population of 23 million can consume. At the same time however we import honey into this country on a large scale. Australian honey is very pure and is therefore a valuable commodity on the world market. Not surprisingly therefore, cheap foreign honey is imported for the locals while the best home grown produce goes overseas. Ask any New Zealander about the cost of dairy produce in their country and you will hear a similar tale told.
For all of the problematic future facing our bees, they remain an integral part of the eco-system and the single most important link in our industrial food chain. All our crops are heavily reliant on their pollinating efforts but bees have been around a long time and over the passage of millennia have witnessed many changes. Whether they survive the current climate of change reflects on the ability of mankind itself to survive. So plant something flowering today and give the bees a helping hand. A world without bees would be quite simply a world without.
“The journey of life is like a man riding a bicycle. We know he got on the bicycle and started to move. We know that at some point he will stop and get off. We know that if he stops moving and does not get off he will fall off.” (William Golding)
According to one survey, 43% of all Australians own a bicycle. It’s not clear whether that statistic counts every rusted machine parked with bent pedals at the back of every garage, or every bike gathering dust under a house across the nation, but one thing is pretty clear. There are an awful lot of bikes out there. Bike riding is big in the north east and in Yallambie, the history of cycling is probably a lot more extensive than people generally realize as they pedal around the neighborhood.
The late 19th century saw the world’s first “bike craze” and a proliferation in the number of bike makers. Some of them, like the Dux Cycle Co. of Little Collins St, Melbourne which employed 150 workers, were established locally. The Dux cause was helped when a Dux was used for the first Perth to Brisbane cycle ride in 1897, a distance of nearly 6000km.
Australia found itself literally in the mainstream of the world-wide bicycle boom as it emerged from the financial recession of the early 1890s and by 1897 there were over 150 brands of home grown and imported bicycles to choose from. Innovations such as the tubular steel frame, the ball bearing, roller bearing chain and pneumatic tyres were all products of advanced manufacturing techniques but in practice, any reasonably competent home handyman or bush mechanic could assemble or repair them. While bikes were comparatively expensive to buy they were ultimately a much cheaper alternative to keeping a horse and trap or even to buying regular rail tickets. As Jim Fitzpatrick observed in the introduction to “The Bicycle and the Bush”, his widely regarded book on the history of Australian pedalling, the bicycle: “required no food or water, was two or three times as fast as a horse or a camel, and did not drop dead from eating poisonous plants.”
In Yallambie, Henry Ernest “Harry” Wragge, (born 1880), the youngest son of Yallambie Homestead’s Thomas Wragge, was an early exponent of bike riding in this district. Harry had a life-long fascination with all things mechanical and is known to have owned a bicycle by May, 1896. (Calder: Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales, p145). The first Australian Cycle Show was held in March that year and it would be interesting to know if the teenage Harry convinced his parents to purchase a bike after attending the show.
A photograph in the Bush collection shows a young Harry riding his bike along the Homestead Road in front of the house garden on what is now the Lower Plenty end of Yallambie Rd and another shows Harry at a slightly later date, standing proudly alongside his pushbike in front of the Yallambie stable yard. Harry’s machine was a diamond frame, “safety” bicycle, a style first perfected by Humber in 1890 and known as the “safety” because of the ease and safety of riding one compared to the “ordinary” or “Penny Farthing” type. It is a design that, with few real modifications, has remained the most common bicycle design up to the present day.
Another early rider was Ada Lawrey, the daughter of one of Diamond Creek’s first settlers and a music teacher who at the start of the 20th century used her bicycle to pedal widely around the district giving piano lessons. A photograph shows her inside the gates of her parents’ Diamond Creek home alongside a fine looking machine, complete with a bicycle luggage carrying valise attached to the frame, ideal perhaps for carrying her lunch box and fork, or maybe just a tuning fork.
Cycling clubs were formed in many places and city dwellers travelled on bicycles to places near and far in the country side that were a refreshing change to the grime and factories of inner-city Melbourne. In several of the earliest extant photographs of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, bicycles are seen pulled up outside the building, evidence perhaps of the importance of the old hotel as a stopping place for travellers on the Plenty River on the road from Melbourne to Eltham and beyond.
A 1907 newspaper report in “The Age” described a cycle race organized by the “League of Victorian Wheelmen” and promoted by the publican of the Plenty Bridge Hotel. The route followed country roads from the Plenty Bridge to Bundoora and back again over a “bad course” with “hilly roads and dangerous turns”. For the record, a Mr D Hall won the event, on a handicap.
When I surveyed my old bike at the back of the garage last week with this post in mind, it seemed like it too was starting with something of a handicap. It was purchased nearly a decade ago from a large supermarket chain, familiar to most people in this town, and looked like it was worth what I paid for it that day I went shopping with money for a loaf of bread and came home with a bike.
My thoughts strayed. ‘Whatever happened to the bike my father brought home as a rusted old frame “found in a paddock”?’ I spent weeks sanding and repairing that bit of scrap metal and then delivered newspapers from it on dark mornings throughout Rosanna. It later took me on trips as far afield as Bendigo and Ballarat and for a while it seemed indestructable but as I recall, died a sudden death one day as I rode home from Heidelberg Park with football boots dangling across the handlebars. The boots became entangled with the front wheel and, with the front wheel motion suddenly arrested, the rest of the bike and associated rider were destined to continue, the resulting Barnum & Bailey circus somersault a clown act to recall.
That’s what happened to it.
What chance today? In the end I wheeled out my wife’s old pushbike from the garage instead, a good looking, red “girl’s” version with no horizontal bar and streamers on the handlebars. The tyres were a bit perished but it had been a fine machine in its day although that day apparently had been some time ago.
“You’re not going out looking like that are you,” my wife said when she saw the overall effect of me sitting astride her glorious, red retro riding road machine in an outfit she said resembled a 1920s bathing costume.
“Why not? I forgive people wearing Lycra don’t I?”
“I’m glad he didn’t ask me,” said the boy not looking up from his iPhone.
“You don’t know what you’re missing. It’ll be just like Pokemon Go.”
TRAILING THE PLENTY RIVER:
The Plenty River Trail is a shared path that leaves the Main Yarra Trail near the confluence of the Plenty and Yarra Rivers in the south and follows the Plenty River valley to a point beyond the northern margins of Greensborough. The Main Yarra Trail is like a wide open highway compared to the Plenty River trail and gets commensurately more cycling traffic as a result.
As I approached the branch to the Plenty River Trail on a recent weekend now past, a tandem bicycle flew past me on a journey down the Yarra, its riders grinding away at the pedals on the level flood plain of the Yarra Trail to achieve a missile like velocity. ‘Cripes, I’d like to see them try that on up there,’ I thought to myself as I looked at the incline that is the start of the Plenty River Trail.
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do,
I’m half-crazy all for the love of you.
It won’t be a stylish marriage –
I can’t afford a carriage,
But you’d look sweet upon the seat
Of a bicycle built for two.”
The Plenty Trail leaves the Main Yarra Trail at Viewbank at this point and rises quickly to the vicinity of the old Viewbank Homestead archaeological site, an ascent of about 30m where commanding views are to be had out across Bulleen and Templestowe. The day I was there a fine winter breeze was blowing and enthusiasts were flying a large model sail plane out over the valley. It was presumably radio controlled since like a boomerang, it kept coming back no matter how many times they tried to get rid of it.
Beyond this, the path crosses Banyule Rd and runs in a straight line alongside Hendersons Rd. It passes a pony club where it descends steeply to a point at the end of Martins Lane where, as mentioned previously, my wife’s great grandfather once kept a spectacularly unsuccessful chicken farm.
The Trail then crosses the Plenty River, the first of many crossings, and follows a route at the back of Heidelberg Golf Club between the Club and the River. For many years this was the “missing link” in the trail as the Golf Club and Council struggled to come to an agreement about the siting of the path and a bridge. After agreement was reached, the link was finally opened to riders and pedestrians in March, 2007.
Crossing the River again via the Old Lower Plenty Road Bridge adjacent to the former site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, the Trail is then in Yallambie territory proper.
It passes the Yallambie Tennis Club and the Soccer Ground before rounding out onto the Yallambie common at the next bend in the River. The well-remembered “Lone” Hoop Pine, oak trees, cypresses and remnant orchard are the neglected features of the National Trust Classified landscape that can be found here.
The path then splits in two and there is a choice of following it for some way on either side of the River, a relic of the days when the River marked the boundary between the Shires of Diamond Valley and Eltham and the two banks were under separate administrations. Today the whole of the Plenty River Trail falls within the Municipality of Banyule with Yallambie at its centre.
Up river, the Montmorency Football Oval on the eastern or “Monty side” covers the site of a former tip. Wonder in awe at a time when it was thought environmentally OK to use a river landscape as a tipping ground! The area is well maintained but if you look closely at the river bank below the oval you can see some evidence of its previous use at places where the bank is eroded.
After Montmorency Secondary College is passed, the Trail arrives at the Willinda Park Athletics Track where it becomes a single path on the western side of the River. On the eastern side, the factories on Para Rd show their backs to the River but even here wild life can be found. I stood looking from a distance at what I thought was a tree stump at the back of the factories, trying to make my mind up about what I was looking at. Then it moved and the kangaroo I had in fact been watching, hopped away and out of sight.
At what was formerly the northern most boundary of the old Montmorency Farm, Para Rd and the Greensborough/Eltham single track railway cross the River using separate bridges and here the Plenty River Trail appears for the moment to end abruptly in a residential court. The Trail is not well sign posted throughout its length but at this point it leaves you guessing completely about what course to follow next. The answer is to travel about 100m along Bicton St and resume the Trail at the far end.
At Poulter Reserve the Greensborough rail station can be accessed by riders who have had enough and want to return home via a train or cross to the looming ugly presence of the Greensborough Plaza for a café latte.
Further on, the Trail crosses the River again under the Main Street Bridge next to the remains of the old swimming pool that was built in the Depression within the bed of the Plenty River itself.
Lost history abounds here. A photograph of bicycle riders at the original blue stone bridge in 1897 is another reminder of the area’s historic popularity with riders. The original 1864 blue stone bridge was removed progressively from 1974 until 1983, its massive blue stone buttresses being turned into a barbecue on the corner of Main St and St Helena Rd above in what was surely a loss to local history but a win for sausages.
A dinky little suspension bridge crosses to Whatmough Park on Partington’s Flat where the original farm, Willis Vale, was formerly situated until being burned out by a bushfire in the 1950s. Local football is played at many of the ovals along the River on any given weekend and the day I was at Partington’s, a DVFL game was in progress between St Mary’s and Epping. It might have been a reserves game but it was very popularly attended and an example of how I remember footy used to be played. The skills were of course a long way short of AFL standard but for all that, or perhaps because of it, I found it was a very enjoyable game to watch. Forget the “flood” of players up the ground, a feature of AFL football in the modern day. I saw a bit of mud, a bit of biffo and a full forward who stayed rooted to the goal square, waiting for the ball to be kicked to him.
And further to the record, after trailing early, St Mary’s beat Epping 11.16 to 9.3.
Up-river from Partington’s, the Plenty River Trail passes under the Greensborough Bypass Road which crosses the River on an elevated roadway high above. A plane could fly under it. A Zeppelin could park under it. At this location there is an un-signposted “goat track” from Plenty River Dr at a point just about opposite Booyan Cres. The “goat track” is a mountain bike switch back but by successfully negotiating the mud for a short distance access can be gained to the Greensborough Bypass Cycle Path and thence to the Metropolitan Ring Rd Trail. By all reports you won’t find a single B-Double semi travelling in the outside lane.
Staying on the Plenty River Trail the path arrives at the so called “Batman Apple Tree” next to an easement below Corowa Cres and adjacent to the old Maroondah Aqueduct Pipe Bridge.
Nearby the Pioneer Children’s Cemetery holds the unmarked graves of children from the Whatmough and Partington families, early settlers on this part of the River. Not far beyond is the official end of the Plenty River Trail at the base of a flight of stairs leading down from Punkerri Circuit.
Although it is sign posted to this effect the trail is actually longer than its official 12.3km length and follows a path further along Dry Creek, the merry sound of water running nearby which surely belies its name. The track passes through a closed gate and along an unmade path to an easement running between Plenty River Drive and Mclaughlans Lane where the 520 bus to Doreen has a stop on Sugar Gum Blvd. This is the final end of the Plenty River Trail but the vicinity also marks the south eastern approaches to the Plenty Gorge Parklands, whose mountain bike adventure trails beckon more determined riders.
My wife’s parents’ fox terrier hated garden hoses.
With a vengeance.
Usually all you had to do was turn on a garden tap to set little Rosie a howling. A few weeks ago the dog was out in their garden and keeping uncommonly quiet. On investigation she was found sitting astride the end of the garden hose, the running sprinkler held firmly beneath her body where she could snap in a conquering and triumphant way at the end of the flowing water.
“Ol’ Rosie,” I said after being told this story. “She’s been after that hose for years. I guess she reckons now she’s finally caught it, she might have taught it a damned good lesson. Just like the dog chasing the moon in that movie, Dean Spanley.”
Almost on queue and at the mention of Lord Dunsany’s story about reincarnation and the theme of the transmigration of souls, Rosie the dog in question, came in from the garden and to everyone’s great distress, foamed at the mouth, rolled over and died.
Right there in front of us.
Poor little Rosie. It soon became apparent that she had suffered a fatal snakebite, especially when signs of a battle and the mortal remains of a deadly Tiger Snake were found outside the next day. She was a plucky little terrier our Rosie, no doubt, but the timing of her demise was very strange. Maybe she will be reincarnated someday like the Dean in Dunsany’s book, but in her particular case with an inexplicable fear of snakes.
And garden hoses.
In Western medicine a snake is seen in the Rod of Asclepius, the ancient Greek symbol of the deity associated with medicine and healing, which is ironic given the dangers associated with some forms of snake bite. In Australia snake bite is an ever present danger of the summer months, particularly around river landscapes like those that exist along the eastern margins of Yallambie. One of the world’s most venomous snakes, the Tiger (Notechis scutatus) is an aggressive species although the availability of anti-venoms today means that the bite is usually manageable. They are all too common however along the rivers and I’ve seen several in our garden over time.
Nationwide, snakebite comes in after road trauma as the single biggest cause of the untimely demise of “man’s best friend” and in the time we have lived at Yallambie, our neighbours on all sides have lost pets to snake bite. A pity St Patrick never made it downunder to do his thing with snakes. Our next door neighbour’s pet moggy survived a snake bite although only after two lots of anti-venom at the vet costing $800 a pop. What price a pet? Another neighbour accidentally stepped on the head of a snake in his darkened garden at night, crushing the life out of it under foot in his open sandals. A lucky man perhaps but it shows the importance of keeping a battery torch handy in your garden at night.
In my earlier post, Dear Diary, of January 2015, I recounted a story once told to us of how the late Ethel Temby found a Tiger snake inside her home at Yallambie Homestead. When she saw the snake it was going under the back door, however its direction of travel was from the inside going out. On questioning her young sons they admitted that they had caught it in the garden some while previously and brought it secretly into the house to keep as a pet. This dangerous, so called, pet had escaped and been at large in the house for days before being spotted by Ethel, slip, sliding away.
There are a number of blue tongue lizards living in our garden this year which have become so used to us that they can literally be fed from the hand. I often see one or another poke its head out of the random rocks of the garden wall at the back of the kitchen as I walk by.
Blue tongues are a type of skink with back markings not unlike those of the Tiger snake, a fact that has given rise at times to some dangerous confusions. A lad in my youth, a hero of the school yard just for this story, once pulled what he thought was the tail of a blue tongue lizard from a hollow log. This so called “lizard” gradually revealed itself as being longer and longer in body but without any evident signs of the expected leg appendages. Suddenly came the drastic realization that, far from a lizard being held by the tail, the boy was actually tugging at the tail of a snake. You can well imagine the speed with which a retreat was conducted by the school children from the vicinity of the hollow log on that occasion.
Overseas visitors to our country sometimes comment on the perils of living in a society where you can be eaten by sharks in the ocean, burned to death by fire in the bush or fatally poisoned by the bite of spiders and snakes in and around the home. Growing up in Australia the boy scouts were taught that, in the case of a snake attack, a cut should be made into the wound with a pen knife and the poison sucked out. I don’t know if this advice ever saved a life but the action was later discouraged when it was realized that the knife wounds were often more dangerous than the bite itself.
As a small boy in Rosanna I remember my father once coming in and declaring that he had killed a black snake on our corner.
“How did you do that, Daddy?” I asked in my innocence.
“Picked it up by its tail Son, and cracked it like a whip.”
I was particularly impressed by this story and imagined for years my father, my hero, going around the neighbourhood, picking up snakes by their tails and cracking them right and left like stock whips.
Years later when I was grown I happened to recall this tale to my father and quizzed him about its veracity. He looked puzzled for a moment before recalling, that yes, he had killed a snake on the corner once upon a time but had done so by collecting it across the back with the edge of a garden spade.
In such ways are the illusions of our childhood destroyed.
It is said that to dream of snakes is to dream of your enemies. My wife said she dreamed of a snake the night before poor Rosie died in what might uncertainly be described as a premonition of events.
The serpent as an icon is almost as old as mankind itself with the snake of course infamously representing the temptations of the Devil in the Garden of Eden but in many other cultures, the idea of a snake shedding its skin is used as a metaphor for the reincarnation of the soul. The Kundalini awakening, the object of a powerful form of yogic theory, is described as being like a coiled serpent at the base of the spine. It is seen as a primordial and dormant energy present in three-and-a-half coils at the base of the spine in a triangular bone called the Sacrum, the Latin word for a holy bone identified as the last bone to be destroyed when the body is burnt.
Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail, symbolizes this cycle of life and the eternal return. Carl Jung included the Ouroboros as one of his psychological archetypes. For mine, that’s the best way of imagining the snake for I like to think of our Rosie making a return some time soon.
Take a second look at the communion wine the next time the Dean offers it your way. It just might be Dean Spanley or maybe the Rev Roscoe offering you a glass of the finest Tokay.