Postcard from a place #3

Wongo Creek 

The greyness of the gum, or, was it white ?  Like horses.  Why is it that white horses are called greys ? 

And, in the beginning of the story there is a hint of the middle and the end.  A rush of curiosity and an inability to settle for just accepting..a need to find out ..to know, and then, knowing, to want to know why ! 

The greyness of the gum stood stark on the hillside where it rose gently up toward the grain shed.  Pink and grey galahs would roost in the top branches, gymnastic and abrasive all at once, swinging loudly from the electricity wires which ran overhead.  Salt bush plants dotted the gentle hillside at its base, providing a hurdling track for a little boy, racing homeward after locking up the calf for the night, clearing the bushes with one leg stretched in front, and one leg tucked up, just like the pictures of champion hurdlers. 

The house itself stood within its own yard, surrounded on three sides by verandahs, like hands held up to eyes against the sun. The house had evolved with the passing of time:  back verandah enclosed at some stage to form another room and part of that enclosed again to make an office. 

The front verandah faced east, with palisades of cream timber. The front door led directly into the hall which dissected the house and attempted to provide a breezeway.  On either side of the hall was my parents’ bedroom and my sisters’ bedroom.  My room was opposite the loungeroom further up the hall.  The hallway then spilled into the linoleum floored dining room with kitchen and bathroom adjoining.  Out the back door to the back verandah and the pantry, or junkroom, beside the laundry. 

Our toilet was an outhouse, perched above a large pit dug into the clay soil.  The seat was a smoothly worn hole in a timber ledge built above the pit, and we lit the way there at night with a hurricane lantern which was kept near the back door.  While primitive, there was a certain character to these nocturnal toilet visits, lit lantern in hand.  When only a stand up job was needed, it wasn’t necessary to visit the toilet, but rather to stand near the garage tankstand, watching the lights of

Tamworth glowing in the distance against the night sky, and seeing the brilliance of the milky way and other stars as they stretched out overhead. 

There came a time where the old pit nearly filled up.  A new pit was dug nearby and the outhouse itself was moved across to cover the new pit.  Old steel wheels off a horse drawn machine of some sort were placed at right angles around the entrance to the toilet to provide a decorative entrance. 

Two large peppertrees shaded the back yard, green spindly leaves and rough bark, pink, round “peppers” and sticky sap.  The pepper trees always seemed to grow really well around country saleyards and went hand in hand with sheep and dust.  Our pepper trees provided shade for the water bag and a place to build a treehouse, using bits of long worn out harvesters, and corrugated iron.  A ladder ran up to the treehouse in the peppertree behind the toilet.  The floor of the treehouse was made from a square steel perforated sieve perched on steel  fence posts jammed between the spreading branches.  Just through the fence in the orchard, the overflow from the windmill tank emptied into a small puddle which we, at one stage, dug out to form a muddy wallow for cooling off in. 

The orchard was a collection of a few fruit trees of varying productivity.  The apricot tree bore the most fruit. Its branches would be weighed down in the later part of the year until we harvested all of the ripe fruit and then spent hours pressing the halves of apricot into big glass jars. These were then capped and boiled in the Vacola kit, cooled and left to become a staple dessert throughout the year. Other apricots were made into jam. 

Apricot jam on bread which only arrived via the mailman three times per week tended to lose its appeal after a while. 

The orchard also yielded a few plums and just a few peaches and nectarines.  We had had a quince tree too, and sometimes ate stewed quince with home made ice cream.  At one stage we tried to extend the overflow from the windmill tank to become a mini irrigation channel feeding water to the few trees in our orchard, but it wasn’t ever a massive success, and the survival of the trees was left largely to my mum’s persistent efforts with a bucket and the grey water from the variety of washing machines we had. 

The windmill behind the house fed a water trough and a system of pipes which gave us water for the garden.  Bore water wasn’t much good to drink, but would do if it was really hot and there was nothing else around.  I often wonder just what bugs must have been ingested from any number of dams, pools in contour banks and creeks, all in the name of slaking a healthy thirst during some of the hot, dry summers which formed a backdrop to the landscape. 

Years later, as the water supply in the bore began to dwindle, Dad hired a water diviner to come and find a new supply.  Every country town seemed to have a range of people who provided all sorts of services: rabbit trappers, burr cutters, and, in this case, water divining.  The water diviner traversed the area at the back of the house, holding a piece of copper wire supported in a small tube of copper pipe. The wire would rotate when he was on top of the water stream underground. Luckily, it seemed to work, as the drilling rig which turned up afterward managed to find a good supply of water in the new spot. 

Soon, a small shed was fashioned nearby and a pump installed and polythene piping laid to push the water up the hill to a tap near the grain shed and the pig pens.  This was a big step forward and saved a lot of filling of forty four gallon drums and buckets. 

The grain shed was a place of variety.  There was once a snake, coiled and sinister behind a wheat bag. Adrenalin pumped as a boy used a shovel to decide what seemed a contest for who would emerge victorious.  Maybe there was not, in truth, a need to do more than walk past.  But, in a world mixed between imaginings of far away, wonderful places, there is a bitter sweet partnership between the stark, real country landscape, the boy, and the world of imagination, the horizon of  possibility. 

The grain shed also hid a world of hiding and levels.  We could be up and down great pyramids of stacked bags of seed wheat. This was a place to play and imagine.  In a world of ground floor living, even the potential to be at differing levels within a single room was a source of wonder and interest.  The grain shed had its surprises too, seen in the discovery, nearer Christmas, of a parental stash of presents. 

Bags were shaken and stacked, the floor swept, dust swirling: ready for the store for this year.  The grain shed was a place of connection between the now and the then.  It was secured with a big swinging door of corrugated iron and wood, held closed by a long bolt plunged deep into a smoothed hole, bored initially with a brace and bit, augering through green pine.   

At other times, the grain shed was a place of hot dusty work.  The wheat grader would arrive, all cogs and belts and wire drums, and those wonderful sieves, rolling and clattering. The seed wheat would be graded, the weed seeds and cracked wheat sorted out to become chook feed, the good grains to become seed for next year. 

The contractors who made the creaking grader work were like so many of the people who provided a backdrop of services for the farming communities.  They often seemed different, speaking more roughly, being a bit less restrained in their manner and language, and living in town.  They always seemed to know exactly what they were doing, and to have none of the sense of awe and wonder with which I approached life.  It was a theme I would find repeated with shearers, burr cutters, rabbit trappers and any one of the many people who provided paid labour for the farm sector.  I was rarely comfortable in the atmosphere of ribald banter which formed part of this male work environment, my discomfort probably throwing up all manner of perceptions from others. 

A great, tall cypress pine stood in the pig yard next to the grain shed.  This was not an easy tree to climb, but the view from its radiating branches was special and the angles of the branches and the trunk were perfect for thinking of spars and rigging and setting sails and feeling the wind, thoughts billowing out like sheets. Many of the books I devoured centred around the sea, and sailing ships.  It was not so much the sense of any wish to go sailing, but more the sense of discovery, of journeying, of going where there were new and exciting things to find across the horizon.  A clear view, across an ocean of farmland, stretching seventeen miles to the east to where the spur of the range and the distant radio aerial combined as pointers to our home town. 

The landmarks in the middle distance were numerous.  The line of the fence which ran east from the bottom of our laneway down through the three corner paddock to Bell’s lane was a reminder that there used to be a roadway running there.  The sight of the upper reaches of  Keepit Dam was also evident from up in the tree and from the front verandah. of our farmhouse, surrounding a whole forest of drowned trees, and placing a visible divide between former communities and lanes and roadways. 

Keepit Dam was completed some time in the late fifties, to provide water for more farming downstream in the Namoi River.  As the dam gradually filled, former farmlands were inundated and properties resumed.  The alternate years of drought and flood which followed saw the dam fill up and then recede. 

One year, the dam had receded and looked like staying that way.  One farmer, who had lost his land to the growing lake, decided to take a gamble and plant a paddock full of wheat.  In one of those curious twists of fate which seem to accompany so much of what happens when one is reliant on nature, the crop was growing well until heavy rains filled the dam and the crop, and months of effort, was flooded. 

Further in the distance was Thorley’s Hill, named after the family who had the farm nearby.  At this point, the road ran down the hill and the distant glint of sunlight off cars nearly ten miles away, or their headlights later in the darkness gave early warning of a car on its way to our part of the world. 

Pigs were itinerant features of the farm.  At one stage, I had determined that there must be some form of causal relationship between straw, sows and piglets.  My father would announce that the sow was going to have piglets, and then fresh straw would be scattered in the pen. A later visit to the pen would see a litter of pink piglets, cute and rambunctious; cluttering and butting teats to feed.  They were pink peas in a grunting pod, packed as neatly and as tightly as the green peas we scooped from the pea pods and dumped into the old silver colander.  Processes and a sequence of events were a part of it all.  Pregnant pigs, straw, then piglets.  Peas, shelling, dinner. 

Dinner, one Christmas, came in the form of roast pork, grown from one of our very own pigs.  A pig, squealing its last before being lowered, now dead and head first, into a forty four gallon drum full of boiling water over a fire near the killing tree.  The skin of the pig could now be shaved, so that the crackling we would all enjoy was not interrupted by the stout bristly hairs of the pig. 

It is amazing, in reflection, to consider the juxtaposition which occurred on such a frequent basis of the absolute bloody reality of killing and cooking animals for food.  Dogs rummaged amongst the discarded entrails of sheep, throat cut and skin punched off a carcass hanging from the kurragong killing tree.  The chest cavity, held open by a stout knife with an old wooden handle, curing overnight in the coolness, to be cut up in the early morning before the flies might have an opportunity to spoil the meat.  Chops, shoulders and legs, all hacked from the carcass with a cleaver wielded on the solid chopping block set up in the backyard. 

We ate a lot of lamb.  Chops were grilled on the stovetop, legs of lamb baked in the oven, fired from the stove firebox by a fire which was set each morning.  It was my job to collect the small kindling “chips” to light the fire and to make sure that enough wood was cut to fill the wood box in the pantry.  The fire was always helped into life with liberal doses of kerosene, tipped from an old enamel teapot, lidless and cracked. 

For a brief while, my parents tried to make some extra money by raising chickens for sale to one of the hotels in Tamworth, about forty five miles away.  Chicken was then a meal of some luxury, in those days before mass production.  The chickens would meet their end with an axe stroke on the woodheap and then hang, flapping just a little, from the four corners of the rotary clothesline in the back yard.  

Sheep, along with wheat growing, were the main staples of life on what was commonly described as a “mixed” farm.  Not for us the dedicated thousands of acres of land given over to raising fine quality merino sheep, to be shorn for a fat wool cheque.  Nor indeed, did we see the thousand acre wheat paddocks, flat and rich brown, of the more western areas.  Our wheat paddocks were crisscrossed with contour banks, pushed into place by bulldozers to control the flow of water across denuded land and to prevent further degradation through the soil erosion which had posed such a problem in rural areas. 

This, then was the backdrop to my childhood.  There was always, however, a much wider, more vibrant world at large in my mind.