Installment 1 of Making Friends with Plants and becoming at home with Nature
My life began in a small town in the Riverina in the southern area of New South Wales called Henty.
The land around was flat and unremarkable, the climate fairly dry though had its own beauty, It was just right for growing wheat and oats and raising sheep both for their wool and meat – and there were some cattle as well.
Much of the land had been cleared of the native eucalypts and shrubs and fenced in so as to make way for crops and grazing.
There was a scattering a small neatly designed towns and villages throughout the district. The ones along the 80 miles of train line between Wagga and Albury were built 10 miles apart with Henty right in the middle, and each had storage silos, beside their railway stations waiting to be filled with grain. The little town twenty miles along the line was called The Rock because it was next to the one big hillside for miles around. As a little girl I tended to think of it as a mountain!
Henty’s town plan was also very orderly. – two long streets running north/south, parallel to the railway line and six cross streets, creating identical house blocks with ample back yards for playing in. Our street was about in the middle.
I could go on! – such are the clearly etched memories of my childhood environment.
The more colourful memories belong to the realm of events and experiences, and even many of them seemed to move at a fairly slow and unremarkable pace, including the
war which hovered like a dull shadow over our lives, adults and children alike, for several years.
My parents had married as soon as they could afford to after the great depression ended roundabout 1933, and they settled in a roomy old brick house in the centre of town which had previously housed my uncle Jack and his family, and where my much loved grandma stayed on with us, her hours often spent rocking my cradle out on the sunny back veranda until she died in 1937.
My aunt Bet and Dad’s brother Fred were there most of the time as well. They had all gradually come across originally for Mt. Gambier in Sth. Australia.
I, Shirley Elizabeth, was born in 1934 and little brother Frankie arrived two years after that.
There were always lots of visitors coming and going so I remember it as a very busy place.
By the time I was at kindergarten there were another two girls in the family. – and around that time, the war had started and Dad had gone to join the R.A.A.F, He spent what seemed like a very long time away from us – mainly in Darwin. My youngest sister Leonie was born a while after the war ended and that completed the family.
Over all of that time, and up until we all moved to Wagga to live in 1948. the house and garden barely seemed to change, which is maybe why I still remember just how it
looked and felt so vividly, especially the garden and surrounds, although my recollection of many events is naturally rather blurred.
More than in any other place I have lived, my memories are suffused with the sights, sounds and smells of my Henty home – and it was the smells of nature that remain the clearest and most pleasant.
The few trees and shrubs around the house were already fully grown when we began life there; there were not many plants to care for and only the front hedge needed occasional attention.
It was traditional to have rose bushes in the front garden and these usually managed to
produce beautiful scented blooms with little human intervention, – the climate seems to have been just right for them.
It was much the same for the rather neglected old orchard on the spare block adjoining the house.
It wasn’t too good for playing in because of the long dry grass – we were told to be wary of snakes and had also learnt to dodge the stinging nettles.- (though, strangely enough, I don’t recollect ever coming across a snake! ) –
However, it always seemed worth taking the risk to climb up for apples, which were quite tasty as long as you avoided the odd codling moths inside them.
I remember a very tall palm tree standing sentinel near the steps leading up onto the large, sunny back verandah. It was home to a sleepy old owl who was ever present and simply ignored us all.
What the garden lacked in flowers it certainly made up for with trees – only a few, but tall and strong and generous and were probably the favourites in most people’s yards because of their plentiful shade, managed without much water – and weren’t gum trees, which I thought of as belonging more scattered through the countryside.
By far our biggest tree was a huge Kurrajong, and we spent lots of time on the rope and timber swing which was suspended from one of its lower branches.
It stood in one corner of the white gravelled backyard; there were straggly grape vines growing along the paling fence on the side, on the other side of which was a side block behind the orchard, with a chook run as well as a couple of out-of-bounds old storage sheds full of spiders and rusty machinery and other mysteries.
At the back of the yard was the dunny and a big clump of bamboo kept it cool and sheltered from the hot midday sun.
This was where I could browse through the Women’s Weekly in secret! It was of course intended for use as loo paper, but I found it easy adult reading – not much reading material around during the war and I had run out of kid’s books to read early in primary school.
Another tree I was fond of down the back was the heaven tree which created shade for the car-shed
and wood-shed, and also for me when I climbed onto the tin roof and hid under its branches in summer.
This was my favourite secret spot when I needed some peace and quiet (even though I had to put up with the leaves which were rather sticky and smelly!)
On the other side of the house was a wonderful Morning Glory climber growing around two sides of the sleep-out,
producing vibrant orange bell-shaped flowers,
– I loved to wake up to the sight and smell of them in the morning when the weather was warm enough to allow us to sleep out there.
Nearby an underground tank held all our reserve water, and a hand pump which had to be pushed backwards and forwards to send water up into the galvanized iron tank which sat high up on top of a small square brick out-house,
This was where the chook food and tools were stored. I helped to feed the chooks, and I loved the sweet smell of the bran once it was mixed with hot water, and I loved being allowed to collect the eggs and supervise the baby chicks sometimes.
There were a couple of rows of small rectangular brick-bordered flower beds where an assortment of annuals grew — Ice-land poppies, stocks, pansies, snapdragons – all the old faithfuls ;
next to them was a bed of carefully nurtured lettuces and spinach and other vegies and further along wandering pumpkin vines and cucumbers ; they all received regular buckets of rinsing water from the adjacent wash-house.
The flowering annuals and the roses were treasured for the splashes of colour that they brought to the yard in spring and summer. I was so hungry for the sight of anything with bright colours that I would collect the paper labels that I carefully prized off the Ardmona fruit tins and jam jars to put into my scrapbook. Pictures from the peach tins and two-fruits were my favourites.
Water always remained a very scarce commodity, both for bathing and gardening, until a public water supply was connected to the town quite sometime after the war.
A couple of orange trees, a mandarin and a lemon tree which grew down near the brick heap inside the back gate thrived in spite of little water, as did a sweetly perfumed honeysuckle vine covering an archway near the back verandah which often served us as a miniature cubby house.
Oh! And how could I forget to mention the big peppercorn tree as well. All of the precious shade trees were sturdy and drought resistant just like the gum trees out in the paddocks!
I often marvel at how vivid my memory has remained of that home, not so much the happenings, but the colours and smells and textures of the whole place, particularly the out of doors areas.
Any impressions and information that I absorbed relating to plant life and gardening during these early years were totally by osmosis, as I was rarely expected to make any contribution, not that there was that much to look after.
Cooking, washing linen and nappies in the old wood-fired copper, cleaning, sewing and shopping all kept my mother very busy and we were encouraged to stay out ‘from under her feet’ – though I liked it when I got to help her with the shopping especially when rewarded with an ice-cream cone from the Greek cafe. in the main street
By the time we were old enough to go to school – and luckily this meant simply crossing the back lane and ducking under a wire fence at the back of the school yard – we also acquired bicycles and the freedom to go
cycling either alone or with friends. We would ride up country lanes, clamber along dry creek beds searching puddles for frogs and prodding rabbit burrows.
We’d see who could make the longest dandelion chains, and best of all after rain, roam through the cow and sheep paddocks gathering wild mushrooms. This is a joy denied to most kids these days apparently thanks to the extensive use of super-phosphate in the paddocks!
Once we were lucky enough to find an abandoned haystack, just right to climb and slide down, but it finally became off-limits when one of the boys, Johnny Smeaton, came down head first and broke his nose and we all got into major trouble and had our wanderings restricted for a while.
Going swimming was a rare treat and unfortunately I never did have the chance to learn to swim properly.
We were sometimes taken during warm weather to a goodly sized waterhole called the Billabong near Culcairn, ten miles south of us, but best of all were the family picnics beside the Murrumbidgee river near Wagga 40 miles to the north of us , or to the Murray river at Albury 40 miles south!
The real treats were the occasional little holidays when Aunt Bet would take me to visit family friends on their farms.
These were real bush experiences. When we went to the Gorman’s home at Fairfield just 13 miles away we would take the train to Yerong Creek 1o miles along the track, then off to the homestead by horse and buggy, usually driven by one of the kids. There were yabbies to catch in the dam, rabbits to hunt, animals to feed and plenty of company to play with.
Other times we travelled an extra 10 miles further north to the Rock to the Montague’s farm where I remember trying to learn to ride on a fat little Shetland pony which would discourage me by pigrooting.
Life changed radically once I completed primary school at aged 10, soon to be 11.
Henty offered little by way of good high school education, Dad was still away at the war and so it was decided to send me further afield to boarding school in spite of my age.
From the beginning of secondary school onwards I spent very little time at my Henty home,
I went first to boarding school at Santa Sabina, a fine boarding school
in Sydney for two years and then, once the war was over, returning south to board at Mt. Erin Convent in Wagga where I would be much closer to Henty and the family. I eventually completed high school there.
I remember marvelling at the lovely big gardens and wide well-watered lawns at both schools when I first saw them, even though they were not there to be played upon.- they were such a contrast to the grounds of our modest little primary school back in Henty and I marvelled at the fine big buildings surrounded by so much green.
Back home at our primary school the playing area was very bare with just a clay surface – good enough for playing hopscotch and skipping and ball games on, though no one had thought to plant any shade trees for us: probably deterred by the challenge of keeping them alive by using scarce water.
During the war-time a corner of the school playground ground did have one very curious feature – a jig-jag row of five trenches, about 7-8 ft. long and 3 ft. wide, as I remember it, dug about six feet deep into the clay which we would be expected to jump into for safety in the event of a Japanese air-raid.
Unfortunately they filled with water when the rain eventually came and were only ever occupied by mosquitoes!
Coming back from boarding school in the city to attend yet another boarding
school in the county happily meant having more contact with the bush again.
Boarders at Mt. Erin were allowed out one Sunday a month with family, This was a specially happy memory when Mum, Dad and younger siblings would come up to Wagga and we’d all head out of town to spend the day picnicking under the gum trees by the Murrumbidgee river, playing together and feasting and swimming.
As well as that, the school had a convent farm just out of town where we all, nuns and boarders alike, celebrated St. Pats day in grand style by picnicking while watched by curious grazing cows and some stray chickens, and later paddling in the river.
Making friends with other boarders also meant more chances for having farm visits to their homes during school holidays.
The high school years were followed by more study at University in Sydney and by this time the family had relocated to Wagga.
From there on I rarely had any steady home life. After I graduated I moved around a lot, searching out locum work in pharmacies both in the country and the city in order to learn more about my own country before heading overseas, and also, because my expenses were covered when I was out of town, I was enable to save up more quickly towards my next major goal – the big trip overseas.
Up till that time, apart from Sydney, I had never explored beyond the gentle plains of the Riverina – except for a family marathon journey by car to Mt. Gambier in South Australia where my father’s family came from when I was a car-sick prone 4 year old, – and that is quite another story! – memories of stoppings to heave over cliff edges of the Great Ocean Rd. rewarded by living by the beach and seeing the awe-inspiring Blue Lake. Interesting to notice the pictures that stay in the mind for years when so much else lies forgotten….
By late 1958, I was ready to set out overseas -I had finally saved enough – and I spent 2 1/2 wonderful years in Europe, studying and travelling, and occasionally working in London when the funds ran out. It was not until 1963 when I married, that I finally had my first opportunity to try my hand at creating my own garden …(see my next instalment)