As we were learning to live together in our Sydney paradise, I never once took my eye, or my heart, off those four acres of land that lay waiting to the north. And now our year was up. We had said we were going to let our new property sit for a year before we tried to improve it in any way, and now that waiting period was over. It was time to consider what we wanted to do next on the land.
What was the first thing that came up?
The pines, of course.
We’d had advice from Greater Taree Council that when we built a new house, it would have to be thirty metres from any trees. That meant a wide band of pines was going to have to go. My pressing agenda – to get a house built as quickly as possible – finally drew alongside the others’ pressing agenda – to get rid of pines.
One weekend when four of us – Eve, Daniel, Rick and me – were relaxing at The Shed, we stepped outside to survey the hillside. We paced out thirty metres down the hill from the edge of the building site and tied a ribbon around a tree, then did the same toward the other side of the property. We had learned that it’s considered a good thing to get rid of pines along a fence line, and when we stood on the building site looking down toward the valley, we could see that the views would be enormously improved with the removal of a few extra metres of pine along Farmer John’s fence. So we paced that out and marked a few bordering trees there as well.
The following morning, Daniel borrowed our neighbour Steve, along with his chain saw, and felled half a dozen trees along his fence line. Concerned about pines as a fire hazard, Steve was delighted to help get rid of them. He cut them into manageable pieces, and Rick and Daniel lugged them into a pile on the hillside.
That left only another 500 or so to deal with.
Steve recommended we speak to a local guy named Warren about clearing the rest of the pines. With a big excavator, he was considered to be the man for the job. When I rang Warren through the week, he said sure, he’d go around to the property and have a look.
A few days later, he rang back. “Yeah,” he said, “checked it out. I’ll do it. $2000 to take ’em down, stack ’em and burn ’em.”
The Shedders conferred and agreed. I rang him back and told him the job was his.
Two weeks later, the laconic Warren rang again. “Well, it’s done as it’s gonna get,” he said. “I couldn’t get ’em to burn so they’re still piled there. But they’re down.”
I asked him how it had gone.
“Yeah, well, okay, I guess,” he said. “Took longer than I thought.”
The following weekend Michael, Judy, Rick and I drove up to the property to inspect our latest investment. It was raining, and we stood under our umbrellas, staring in awe at three enormous piles of felled trees that lay across a moonscape of root craters and scarred earth.
Although only a few dozen metres of pines had been removed, the landscape was unrecognisable. Where there had been dense feathery pine forest, there was now raw barren earth, already beginning to sculpt into small ravines as the rain buffetted down. I could feel my heart contracting at the atrocity we had committed.
As we stood there almost speechless, Trevor, our neighbour across the street, sauntered over, oblivious to the rain and keen to have a chat. He painted a graphic picture of the epic struggle poor Warren had had in knocking the pines down. They had long tap roots deeply sunken into the red clay soil, and had been agonisingly hard to remove even with his big excavator.
It felt like a travesty. But when, at Judy’s direction, I raised my eyes off the ground and the scraggly piles, I felt a first stirring of hope. Where there had been a wall of pine forest, there was now an open view to the river and the hills beyond – truly a pleasing sight. And most important, I realised that we now had a fire-resistant corridor to protect the house we would surely begin building soon.
Remember the story about the frog in the well? Two steps up, one step back – it took that frog forever but he eventually climbed his way to the top. Looking at that hillside warzone, balanced against the views opening up beyond it, I asked myself, is this two steps forward and one back, or the other way around? Does this frog-in-the-well story have a happy outcome?
As I stood there contemplating the nature of the work ahead of us, I thought: this is only a trifling taste of what it’s going to take to get us settled here.
* * *
Although we hadn’t ended up taking Lyndon and Beth on as partners in the big property up Dorrigo way, we’d stayed in touch. As we pursued our own path, they did the same. They discovered another couple looking for a rural lifestyle, and decided to buy a small farm near Wauchope, only an hour’s drive from our own location.
That was how we got to know Andrew, who was Lyndon and Beth’s partner in that venture.
Andrew was taciturn, weathered, strong – more inclined to action than conversation. He was a passionate horticulturalist, respectful of the land and fanatical about organic growing methods. He probably found plants easier to work with than people. Within moments of meeting him, I knew he was someone who could be trusted to provide good advice about our project. He didn’t say much, but when he did, he spoke with experience about the land, local conditions and native fauna.
He came to visit one weekend when we were at the property. We toured the acreage with him. We showed him its dark side: the erosion on the hillside, the battered cars lined up across the road, the underskirts of the house next door, the competitive lantana. He absorbed our comments, then ambled with us down the hillside, indicating various plants among the new growth with the toe of his work boots, pointing out what was a weed and what was a friendly native species struggling for a foothold. Clipboard in hand, I frantically took notes, desperate for some insights into how we could begin to beautify this unsightly chaos.
We fed Andrew lunch, and he went home to think about a strategy for us.
Hours later, there was an email:
To: Heather, Rick, Eve, Daniel, Michael, Judy
Subject: Starting your garden
It was a real treat to see your property today. What a great framework you’ve got to hang something beautiful on.
Here’s what I think you should do:
First of all, secure the hillside from erosion and get some competition for the weeds happening. I recommend planting a corridor of grasses and vines along the stretch where the pines have been removed.
I’m happy to order them and put them in with you. 200 should do. We’ll get tubestock and with my growers’ discount, they’ll only be a dollar or so each. Let me know next time you’re coming up. I’ll meet you there and show you how to create a hole in which a plant is pretty much guaranteed to grow.
Andrew always closed his emails with this phrase in his signature: “Life begins the day you start a garden.” I liked the idea that yet another aspect of my life could open up as our Mitchells Island gardens took shape.
We agreed to Andrew’s proposal, and on his instructions picked up the 200 little tubestock. I looked at the tiny plants with some dismay. Each plant was growing in a pot only three centimetres square. The more ambitious grasses stretched to a mere ten centimetres in height. How could these insignificant life forms hold their own on that desolate hillside?
On a warm late spring day, Michael, Judy, Rick and I met Andrew and his wife Theresa at The Shed. They showed up armed with shovels, mattocks, water crystals, bamboo stakes and protective plastic guards.
For each piece of tubestock we mattocked a little hole. Andrew showed us how using water crystals would help solve the problem caused because we wouldn’t be around to give the seedlings regular watering: you put a handful of water-soaked crystals in the bottom of each hole, and those crystals will provide moisture for the roots for many weeks. Moreover, when there’s a good rain, the crystals will gather up water again and be ready to nourish the seedling through a dry spell for another several weeks. Magic.
After adding the water crystals, we’d add a bit of fertiliser, pat the soil back around the little shoot, and finally create a protective tent for it with three bamboo stakes and a triangle of plastic.
Although I’d been raised on a farm, and had helped with the planting of many a tree, this was all new to me. There’d been some changes in methods in the last forty or fifty years.
* * *
Several months later we decided it was time to address the eyesore of the old cars across the road. We asked Andrew what plantings he would advise as our first privacy hedge. This email came back.
To: Heather, Rick, Eve, Daniel, Michael, Judy
Subject: Re: Next steps
What follows is a rough guide to setting out the plants.
The beds need to be about 2 metres wide. This set out may look sparse to begin with, but these guys will fill it out. Don’t arrange the plants in a straight line, and try to vary the distance between each one as best you can. Doing this gives you a sense of how difficult replicating ‘natural chaos’ can be.
Xmas bush in the top corner, blueberry ash in the middle and native frangipani towards the gate. Banksias in the front. Purple mint-bush along the neighbour’s boundary bed. Use the remaining Acacias and Bursarias to fill in between what is already laid out.
I’ll order you 49 plants. I’d say put roughly 22 along the neighbour’s fenceline, with the balance along the road. If you are happy with the mix and layout, start digging!
Now more confident in our green thumbs, we planted the tiny tubestock natives all along the roadside and neighbour’s fenceline. I watered them and told them to hurry up, as they were our best hope against the property’s worst blemishes.
We paid Andrew with a ride-on lawnmower that had come with our property. We hadn’t been successful in keeping the old beast going, but Andrew wasn’t daunted in the slightest. With his mechanical ingenuity and common sense, he’s probably still maintaining his lawns with that mower.
Miraculously, almost all those little pieces of grass, vine and infant trees grew and grew, eventually peering over their plastic barriers. They were a metre high in no time.
Yes, the new grasses and trees were growing enthusiastically – however, less enthusiastically than were the weeds. I couldn’t believe the luxurious growth of an incredible variety of weed species. Andrew had explained that the seeds had been accumulating under the pines for years, waiting for their shot at sun and rain. Now their time had come and they were determined to take full advantage.
We pulled weeds until our backs screamed in protest. We swung the hoe, the mattock and the scythe. We sawed off lantana, painting each end of the cut with Roundup. I learned about fire-ants and the week of damage even one bite can do to a patch of skin. I strained muscles in places where I hadn’t even known they existed.
I willed the newly planted species: grow, babies, grow! Get ahead of this invasive army of weeds.
My training as a youngster on the farm hadn’t prepared me for a battle like this one.
So much work – a monumental amount of it loomed ahead. And so much uncertainty – no one could guarantee what would work and what wouldn’t. I thought back to an elderly gardening friend who had once declared, give me plants over people any time. Contemplating the problems that faced us, I wasn’t so sure he was accurate. What I encountered with staff at work was nothing in comparison with this unruly lot.
But as I leaned on my hoe, watching Judy swing the mattock at a clump of paspalum that was threatening to engulf one of our little vines, I realised there was something else my training on the farm hadn’t prepared me for: partnership. There were five other people as eager as I was to create something beautiful here, and to team up in fashioning a vision, in planning, in making decisions, in doing the work. This doesn’t have to be long years of struggle – this can be a joyful game in the company of committed partners.
At moments like this, it actually felt true.
* * *
Over time the hillside began its transformation. The new spiky grasses grew into clusters more than a metre wide. The vines we’d planted skittered up stumps and across eroded ravines. Deprived of its layer of pine needles, the mosquito population dwindled to the point where mozzies were no longer a nuisance.
A big remaining problem took the form of the three piles of pine logs and stumps, unkempt interruptions to our views of the valley below. They were slowly being overtaken by a canopy of lantana and tobacco plants, which in themselves were adding to the problem. The logs were a year and half old by now, dry but showing no signs of decay.
Rick and I were up at the property for the week when we spoke with a neighbour, Greg, who we knew had something to do with the local fire brigade. Rick told him we’d had thoughts of picking a calm day, then tossing a match into one of the piles and watching it go up. But, he added, we weren’t sure about how pine burned and were worried the blaze might get out of control.
Greg scratched under his hat and said, “Well, you’re not really supposed to do that, although I can see it’s a job that needs doing. If you do decide to go ahead, let me know unofficially and I’ll make sure the truck is nearby.” He paused. “I’m actually the assistant fire chief,” he added, causing us to pale somewhat.
He rang us at The Shed an hour later. “I’ve had a better idea: I think the fire brigade should have a practice burn on your wood piles. There are a couple of new guys on the team who haven’t got their hours in yet. Let me talk to the Chief and see what we can come up with.”
I was ecstatic. Not only would we get the piles burned – but legally, safely and by someone else.
Accordingly, the next morning the fire truck showed up, with three fire fighters jamming the front seat and another hanging off the side. Closely behind it, the fire chief’s truck and two other vehicles arrived. The troops were here. I counted seven men who would be making sure our pines didn’t take Mitchells Island with them when they went up in flame.
Rick and I stepped out of The Shed to say hello. Greg introduced us around, and we exchanged pleasantries. The men told us about a house fire on Mitchells Island they’d fought a few days prior – they’d lost the house but saved all the outbuildings. The men were mostly retired, volunteers who kept their skills and equipment primed against days such as that one when they were desperately required.
As they positioned their trucks, unwound their hoses and set up their equipment, I couldn’t believe the effort that was going into burning our unsightly piles of pine.
The first problem was not managing the blaze, but rather starting it. You’d think eighteen months of drying would have turned that wood into tinder – but it hadn’t. We got our first lesson in pine-burning early in the day: this species of pine doesn’t burn well. One of the trainees got out the propane torch and scorched the ground for several minutes before finally getting a decent blaze going.
The men had lots of opinions, about pine as well as about everything else. They had a heated discussion about the removal of the pines in the first place: whether they were a noxious weed or a good lumber crop / windbreak / land beautifier. They had mixed views about whether the logs would burn well in the fireplace or not, and whether or not this particular pine would leave residue in the chimney.
I learned more that day about Mitchells Island lore than I had in several years of owning the land. The men told stories about the big fire that had raced across the Island fifty years before. They kicked their toes into the soil, unearthing shells and explaining that there was a time in the not too distant past when this was all under water. They philosophised about the fire-fighter’s life: 90% dead boring, 9% mildly interesting and 1% total panic. They gave one of the guys a hard time about his wife, who’d recently announced her intention to move by herself into another part of the house. The hose got a workout as they struggled to save a paperbark that lived too close to one of the blazing piles.
They didn’t look 90% bored to me. They looked like people who enjoyed one another’s company, who knew how to spend a quiet moment when they got one, who were happy to be part of what they could see was an important community service.
Best of all, we got a good start on the burning of the pines.
As Greg was preparing to leave, he took us aside. “You’ve got a good start on that wood, compliments of the local fire brigade. Officially, that’s it for burning,” he said. “Council will never let you have another go, they’ve got that stroppy about setting fires in semi-residential areas.” He waggled his eyebrows, looking at us expectantly as if we were school children from whom he was hopeful of some independent thought. He paused. “Those piles will probably go out overnight if left to their own devices….”
“…But if we were to provide a little help to keep them going…” I supplied cautiously.
Greg nodded enthusiastically. “The fire brigade can’t help anymore and you can’t officially start fires without us. But as these blazes have already started, they might just keep going until most of these logs get burned …”
“Yes, they will,” Rick said stoutly. “I’m just sure they will.”
“Excellent,” Greg replied. “And I do have a log-roller you can borrow if you need it,” he added with a final bit of neighbourly anarchy.
The message was clear enough. Get down there, keep those fires going, keep shoving logs on, burn those suckers because there will never be another opportunity to do it.
I have never in my life worked as physically hard as I did that week. Every day was a routine of confirming the fires had indeed nearly gone out during the night, of building a new fire, of shoving logs into the hot spots and keeping them burning all day. Rick and I applied every principle of leverage and gravity we’d ever learned in high school. Michael and Judy came up from Sydney on the final weekend and threw their shoulders into the fray as well.
It was a source of enormous pride for us that by the day we had to go back to the city, there wasn’t a log, a root, a stump left.
The piles were gone. The land was ready for building.
I could feel how my own attachment to the land was growing with every adventure – and misadventure – we had on it. With every weed pulled, log pushed, tree planted, my own roots reached deeper into the soil.
I was ready to settle into this new home.