My dictionary defines a garden as “A plot of land adjoining a house, used for the cultivation of grass, flowers, vegetables, or fruit, and for recreation.”
Typically, a front garden is ornamental, with the back garden being more practical – vegetable patch, orchard, children’s playground, washing line, garden shed. That’s not to say that back gardens can’t be attractive too. The larger the space, the more opportunity for water features, hidden rooms walled by manicured shrubs or formal layouts of flowers. Gardens may be notable for their views, or their abundance of colour, or their productiveness of food. Introduced species, or ‘exotics’, mingle with natives amongst laid out paths, perhaps a seat placed strategically to better enjoy what the space has to offer. Neat fences divide areas and keep in pets.
Our garden has all these things, but not as the dictionary would define. We’re building our house on a hundred acres of grazing land with another four hundred of bush behind us. With National Park to the north and south, and State forest to the east, our property sits at the top of the escarpment approximately fifty kilometres as the eagle flies from the southern coast of New South Wales. Landscaping is years away. Meantime, we live in a shed and every day I wander the trails.
The place was logged decades ago – the massive stumps of fallen giants
Banksias that I struggled to grow in suburbia cover the hillside, their twisted trunks so broad I can’t reach my arms around them. Their haloed flower cones appear as candles on a Christmas tree, their dark scalloped leaves softer to touch than they look. Long young shoots spring of paler hue, marking a good season for growth. Trees expand, shedding skin to hang in tattered ribbons like tangled fly strips in a doorway. Peppermint tingles my nostrils.
As I climb up from a thousand metres, my breath draws deep. A lyrebird legs across the track in front of me, wings out, tail bobbing those feathers that give the species its name. It hurries into the undergrowth – to defend its mound or lead me away? Within moments it is gone. It is obviously more acclimatised to this height than I.
A kangaroo thuds nearby, also disturbed by my passing. Branches crack and snap as the marsupial forces a path through the tangle of ti-tree and wattle. Old man’s beard, brittle wisps of lichen, hangs in webs from trunk and limb, deceptively scratchy against bare skin like a bathroom loofah.
I stop, one foot held in mid-air, then back off slowly. A yellow-bellied black snake suns on the track, absorbing warmth from the granite beneath. I detour around his sinuous form, step by careful step, and carry on my way. A pair of kookaburras laugh – it sounds as if they find my reticence a joke, but in fact I think they are just telling me this is their territory.
Gossamer fog rolls up the hill on the afternoon easterly, bringing refreshing coolness and welcome moisture. Beads cling to eucalypt leaves and fern fronds, dripping into dank leaf litter. A break in the canopy reveals a soaring wedge-tailed eagle, gliding in effortless circles only metres from the treetops. A trio of yellow-tailed black cockatoos screeches a track to their nightly roost. They follow the same aerial pathway every afternoon. Where have they have been all day? Perhaps cracking open pine nuts on the lower slopes.
I stumble out of the trees into the dense poa tussock, feathers of flowers hanging moist to soak my jeans to the knees. As the mist shifts, a sunbeam turns the bent heads of each stem into a shimmering prism of green, yellow and pink light as if a jewel box has been scattered over the grass tips. I freeze mid-stride, an audible gasp escapes my lips. Such unexpected beauty.
I found a blue-tongue lizard on the track yesterday, cream belly to the sky. Its unnecessary death saddened me, but other creatures will benefit from the feed. I remember my first hard lesson as a child, as my father told me “something dies when the lion feeds”. Moving the corpse out of further squash range, I wondered if it was the same one I saw a week ago several hundred metres away. How far do they roam? Do they have a regular route? The orange bands across its back look like tire tracks, an ironic mark of destiny. Only as long as my hand, I have seen others as big as my forearm.
Statues of patience waiting for food, or sunning on hard-backed earth, my heart races as I spot the triangular head and scaled body “Snake!”. But then I relax as the miniature crocodile form appears, another reptile whose ancestors stretch back beyond any time I can imagine. I’ve heard that where blue-tongues live, there are no snakes. Do these varied lizards deter their legless cousins, or do they only occupy land devoid of serpents? Or maybe it is a myth. I’ve never seen the species together, but that doesn’t prove a thing.
I can hear the murmur of the river in the bottom of the valley, tumbling over rocks in a ravine screened by wooded hills. I think of the journey ahead for those captured raindrops, travelling through fern-filled gullies even more ancient than the lizards, across sandy-bottomed creeks and through stony crevices, gliding around reeds, capturing flotsam along the way to finally be spewed out of the river’s mouth.
When we first visited our property, the former owner showed us a tumbling creek through a fairyland grotto. “You’ll never see this dry up”, he said with conviction. For the next five years we never saw it run again, but this year’s twice than average rainfall has once again filled the rock pools fed by tinkling waterfalls. Dragonflies hover and flit – copper and bronze, fire reds and oranges. Water spiders skip across the tensioned surface, tadpoles and larvae wriggle and swell.
Behind the shed, a tiny robin, vivid scarlet breast a beacon announcing the start of spring, has found a mate. Her dull grey camouflage hides where she sits on the nest built into a wash-out of the wall. The heavy rains spill a curtain across her front door, a spectacular water feature, but one that threatens to unearth her perch. Eggs laid, the father brings moths and other treasures for her nourishment. The hatchlings gape with greedy beaks and keep both parents busy. With their first flutterings, they explore the barbed wire fence and the horse’s water trough. One is not so lucky as it discovers that glass windows are solid. The wet warm season has its benefits – there is time for another clutch.
Spiderlings balloon into the shed on threads of silk, catching hold of cups and cushions, books and bedsteads. They weave their hold into every corner, join chair to radio, pot-plant to picture frame. Strands tickle my face as I flutter about with my duster, moving on these arachnids from their new adventure playground. But there is no keeping them, and the masses of black beetles with trumpet proboscis, from invading our space with only roller doors to shutter inside from out.
Our two grey horses – an old Thoroughbred racer and an Arabian endurance gelding – stroll around the fence that defines our space from theirs. The old adage “the grass must be greener on the other side of the fence” is surely true, as an open gate, for just an instant, invites them in. The fruit bowl of apples and bananas tempts them closer, or is it our company? Or maybe the shade provided by the roof limits the annoyance of blood-sucking flies.
What is this arbitrary line we draw in wire across the paddock to say “This side we will tame, the rest is wild.”? Do the ants care that they march across the boundary? What of the birds that fly above? There is no fencing them in or out. What do we actually hope to achieve with our strands of steel? Eastern grey kangaroos, as tall as me, effortlessly bound from one side to the other, undisturbed by our presence, content to nibble on green shoots made lush by our discarded washing-up water. Barging wombats and burrowing bunnies pay no heed when tasty morsels tempt. Maybe it is people we are trying to keep at bay?
A sudden movement catches my husband’s eye. He stops the car on the grassed-over logs that bridge the fern-filled gully. “What have you seen?”
What? We had no idea these arboreal marsupials lived in the area. I see a grey blur ascend the rough bark of a messmate stringybark. We creep closer, camera in hand. The koala reaches a branch a few metres above our heads and stares down at us. We stare up and click away. Not wanting to distress our unexpected guest, we retreat to the car and move on. Have there always been koalas here? This is the first we’ve seen in five years. There have been stories of koala in the peppermint stands over the back of us, but no amount of exploring resulted in any signs. We believed the tales either as tall as the trees, or of a far gone past.
Since that sighting, we have heard the mating bark of a male koala behind our shed. It is likely too far from the sighting to be the same one, despite the size of their home circuits. Or is it a young male seeking territory for the first time, and a mate to go with it? Or perhaps the recent logging on either side of us has driven this loner out of his home trees?
Whatever the reason, we are glad of his presence. We won’t be turning any of our forests into wood chips or lumber. As part of our self-sufficiency, we do take a few live trees for fence posts, but these are already sprouting new growth in regeneration. We are selective about the dead timber that we use to feed our wood heater, sure to leave habitat for grubs and other insects at the bottom of the food chain. In our fuel gathering, we re-open passage to marshy clearings, an aid in the event of fire. Succulent lawns appear, mown short by grazing wallabies. Galaxies of flowers swirl around the borders; violet starbursts, false dandelion suns, scatterings of white petals like the Milky Way. A whole constellation fits in the palm of my hand, moons of white pom-poms pitted with craters and daisies with golden hearts.
I came across a black feral sow with two brown spotted piglets whilst out walking this morning. The rotting leaf litter muffled my approach – she didn’t detect me with her snout already sunk, snuffling, in the moist ground. I absorbed the enticing aroma of damp soil as my feet shuffled. Then I realised I had positioned myself between mother and offspring, only metres away; not a safe spot. Should I back away like I did with the snake? Climb a tree? I didn’t want to experience her gouging tusks.
I clapped my hands. She looked up, stereotypically piggy-eyed, and grunted. I released my pent up breath as she turned away and scuttled down the hill. Her independent youngsters went the other way with bounds and squeals. I decided to rest awhile on a log (there are many such seats available) for the family to be re-united before I trespassed further into the vegetable patch of these introduced species. No-one considers wild pigs ‘exotic’, yet they didn’t ask to be born here.
Bird-dropping patches of lichen splatter the faces of granite boulders. Two to three times my height, they doze amongst the trees, passing time at a different pace. Saplings struggle to find purchase in cracks and crevices, grasping onto life.
The massive rocks are like self-contained worlds, islands in a sea of green with damp caves and sheer cliff faces, scalable by only the nimblest bug. This is their universe, the edge of the boulder their horizon. I scramble to the top, my lizards-perch view of distant mountains only partially obscured by a gum-leaf veil.
The neighbouring farmer came to visit us recently. At eighty-four, he still musters his cattle and sheep on foot. He runs over his thousands of hectares, whistling to his stock who emerge from the scrub at his call. “Pity you have to look at those rotten old hills”, was his comment on where we are building our house. I thought he was joking at first – we think the view is magnificent, rolling layers of green to challenge any artist’s palette. But he meant what he said. To him, the unproductive hillsides added nothing of value to his farm, only a place where animals hid amongst impenetrable scrub or bogged in swamps. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder.
When our friends make the two hour journey from the city to visit us, we always take them for a drive or walk – depending on their physical ability – up the back of our property. “What do you think of my back garden?” I used to ask. Even those that think us mad to have chosen our remote lifestyle have to admit we have found a very special place.
But over the years I have changed my tune. I no longer see the varied flora and fauna as living in our back garden. Rather, I am just another creature living in nature’s front garden.