It is a very dry spring. Distant fires have burned for weeks, and each week I look eagerly at the weather forecast, hoping that a 20% chance of rain due in days might gradually increase.
The lower dam has dried up. Vivid green grasses and moss are growing in the damp dirt that remains, forming a circle around the bare patch where the last traces of water disappeared a week ago. Deep cracks have formed in the dry mud. The upper dam still holds a little water, but it is the lowest it has ever been in our 12 years living here.
Recently we have had evenings where the air has been thick with smoke from fires, the sun a violent and vivid orange as it approaches the horizon, glowering through the murky air. The humidity is low, the days so hot and dry that you can take washing in a couple of hours after hanging it out.
I saw this koala moving across the ground from the verandah. Squinting at it without my glasses on, I initially thought it was a small dog, but quickly realised my mistake. It climbed a small tree next to the lower dam, and stayed still as we tiptoed closer for a look. Later in the day it moved to a higher tree, comfortably nestled in a crook between two branches, and stayed for a couple of days before moving on during the night. I keep gazing up into the trees each morning to see if it has returned, but I suspect it was moving through the area looking for a mate, and has now journeyed onwards.
Our back verandah stretches the length of the house, and if you stand at the top of the stairs you can look down into the garden towards the rear dam. When the water is low, you can sit on the back stairs and watch wading birds picking their way along in the shallow water. After some rain, when the dam level is higher, we see ducks flying in; usually Pacific black ducks and Australian wood ducks. I’ve taken a surprising number of photos of birds and wildlife from the verandah; recently a koala spent the day in one of the grey gums at the side of the house, and I could prop my elbows on the railing and take a few photos of it wedged into a forked branch.
On the weekend we had a full day of steady rain, and I bundled Edward into a rain outfit of ski jacket and surf shorts so that he could muck around in the puddles. Rivulets of water started running down the driveway as they unfortunately do every time it rains heavily, taking stones and gravel with them and depositing them into the drain that runs alongside the driveway and then under it, taking the water into the dam. Or at least it’s supposed to; bits of driveway previously washed into the drain have hampered its operation somewhat.
I stayed up on the somewhat dry verandah, as I had the baby strapped to me as she snoozed in her carrier, taking some photos with my zoom lens and watching the bright blue of Edward’s jacket as he puttered back and forth getting his legs thoroughly covered in mud.
My only zoom lens is a cheap Nikkor 70-200mm that I’ve had for around a decade, since I bought my first Nikon body. (Typing that was the first time I realised I’ve had that lens for a decade and now I feel terrifically old). I would like a better and longer zoom, but it would be an expensive purchase so I perpetually put it off, only remembering this with mild frustration when I’m trying and failing to take a photo of a bird in flight. However, taking a moment to try and find a shot that will work within the limitations of the lens is usually worthwhile; its restrictions create opportunities that I might have overlooked otherwise.
Each day when the husband parks his car, a noisy friarbird flutters down and perches on the side-mirror, overfilled with delight to see its beloved reflection again. It sings, swings acrobatically around the mirror, flutters over to the other side of the car to the other mirror and joyfully realises – oh! you’re here as well! It’s probably not the healthiest behaviour for a bird, but it’s rather sweet to watch. It likes to spend some of the day perched companionably on top of one of the mirrors, chirping away to itself, and occasionally defecating on the car (much to the husband’s irritation).
I’m not sure what these weeds are that are filling our garden, but those little v-shaped spikes lodge themselves in firmly at the slightest brush of fabric, pulling their tiny spine free of the seed. I then crossly pull them out of my pants or shirt and scatter them wherever I happen to be, helpfully assisting them in fulfilling their biological imperative and contributing to their spread through the garden. They’re quite beautiful up close though, with the miniature intricacy of the spikes. I admire their tenacity.
It was dark when I arrived home tonight, and unbuckled Ted from his carseat, hooking his bags over my arms. We paused in the garden before heading up the stairs towards the house, and I pointed up to the sky. “Look up there, Ted – can you see the stars?” His head tilted back, nestled in next to mine and he gazed upwards with his mouth open, his warm breath puffing on my cheek smelling of milk and the strawberries he’d just eaten. The faint light from the house was shining in his eyes and he had an expression of astounded wonder on his face which he gets several times a day (generally while looking at rather more prosaic things). Seeing that expression is one of my favourite things in the world. It makes my heart ache.
“Ahhh! Baaah!” he exclaimed, waving his arm excitedly upwards. “That’s the Milky Way. And that… I think that’s part of Orion. Aren’t they beautiful?” He repeated his “baaaaah” which I took as agreement, and then he turned away, distracted by the sound of the frogs calling from the dam, moment of wonder at an end. We walked up the stairs, unlocked the door, and went inside.
It has been raining heavily on and off for the past two days, and poured overnight. The lower dam has flooded its banks again, spreading into a small lake in the backyard, and all day a steady stream of water has been rushing down the driveway and the gutters towards it. Our house is down a slope hidden from the main road, which unfortunately in wet weather means that a great deal of water rushes towards and, ideally, around the house, towards the lower dam. Unfortunately in my experience drainage rarely conforms to an ideal, and inevitably the area under the house gathers water and turns into a little clay pit, waiting for an unsuspecting pedestrian to sink their be-thonged foot into its sticky depths.
I have been inspired into various cleaning and organising tasks, prompted presumably by my pregnancy, which has now reached its halfway mark. I have been tackling the Chair of Doom, the place where for some reason I have chosen to file all our bills, tax related papers and receipts for the past two years. It is a horrid chair, but it is now mostly emptied, its contents either thrown away or filed (actually in a filing cabinet this time).
Every time the rain stops it sounds as if a dozen water features have been installed outside, water rushing down drains and trickling out of tank overflows. The chooks are hunched in a resigned fashion on their perch, waiting for a little sunshine to dry out their pen, and as dusk falls the frog chorus has started, the “bop bop bop” sound of the pobblebonks joining the longer calls of frogs I don’t know, and the occasional croaking of toads.
After 4 weeks of the chooks living in Chickendome, I thought they were ready to be let out for the day. I wanted them to be familiar enough with their Chickendome that they didn’t wander too far away from it, and weren’t reluctant to be locked back in at night. It all went very well – they were delighted to be given free reign of the garden, but mostly did circuits of the house, grubbing around in the gardens and looking very much like their jungle fowl ancestors (particularly when they were wading through some very tall weeds). Towards the end of each day they gravitated back to Chickendome, either heading inside themselves or hanging around next to it waiting for me to tempt them with sunflower seeds (which they adore).
It’s lovely heading out to hang out the washing, and suddenly having an audience of four chooks who have wandered over to see what you’re doing. I really like hearing their rustlings and scratchings outside, and their burring murmerings to each other. They haven’t started laying yet, but I think they were a little young when we got them. We’re happily anticipating our first eggs. We’ll have some friends spending a few nights with us in a couple of weeks, and I am secretly hoping to feed them some home grown eggs. Hear that, chookies? You’re eating plenty of laying mash – put some of it to use, there’s my good girls.
Chickendome is finally completed and inhabited by four red point of lay chooks I picked up at the produce store today, where they were loaded into the car for me, and I was offered a cuppa. I like the produce store.
The chooks spent some time in their box when we put them in Chickendome, before venturing out, checking out their water and food supplies, and starting to scratch and peck around. They seem to be enjoying themselves. I’m going to leave them locked in for about two weeks or so before letting them out on weekends to have a bit of a roam around the property. Now we’ll just need to wait for them to settle in and grow up a little before we start getting eggs.
In his own hunt for domestication genes, Andersson is taking a close look at the most populous domesticated animal on Earth: the chicken. Their ancestors, red jungle fowl, roamed freely in the jungles of India, Nepal, and other parts of South and Southeast Asia. Somewhere around 8,000 years ago, humans started breeding them for food. Last year Andersson and his colleagues compared the full genomes of domesticated chickens with those of zoo-based populations of red jungle fowl. They identified a mutation, in a gene known as TSHR, that was found only in domestic populations. The implication is that TSHR thereby played some role in domestication, and now the team is working to determine exactly what the TSHR mutation controls. Andersson hypothesizes that it could play a role in the birds’ reproductive cycles, allowing chickens to breed more frequently in captivity than red jungle fowl do in the wild—a trait early farmers would have been eager to perpetuate. The same difference exists between wolves, which reproduce once a year and in the same season, and dogs, which can breed multiple times a year, in any season.
(from Animal Domestication: Taming the Wild, in National Geographic)
The husband keeps pointing out that Chickendome is not actually a dome – I think he would have preferred it if we had built this geodesic dome chook pen, as at least the name would have been more accurate.
In a few years I’d like to experiment with getting some different chook breeds, and perhaps a rooster. This post on how to choose chooks is interesting – chooks that lay blue eggs sound like fun.
A hive of bees – or what looked to me like a hive of bees – have been collecting pollen from the blossoms in one of the palms for the past week, thrumming away as we walked somewhat warily underneath them each day. I have been wondering what their honey will taste like. I suppose unless you plant specific things near your bee hives, your honey is going to be a bit of a mixture of whatever is flowering near you at a certain time.
I had at least two large spiders crawl across my pants today when I flapped my hands frantically at them and did a graceful little dance trying to get them off. We were moving a stack of wood that had been cut from a dead tree that we took down a year or more ago – it has been left in a pile ever since, being a good example of our general attitude of benign neglect towards our property. But this year we are trying to be better landowners, and have been spending time each weekend in the garden, weeding and mowing and hauling things around.
We loaded the rotted pieces into the ute to take down to the dump, and I carried the rest up to the woodstore underneath the house. Yesterday we bought a chainsaw, which has made pruning tree branches a much quicker process – although to my mind, the more exciting part of that trip to the shops was firstly, the discovery of a huge secondhand bookshop (one of those wonderful ones where all the shelves are at least double-stacked with books) and secondly, dropping into the produce store and putting my name down for four laying chooks for us to pick up next weekend. Chickendome will finally have residents. And we will have eggs. Well, once they have relaxed into their new surroundings and get down to laying.
We have started getting boxes of fruit and vegetables from Food Connect – local and mostly organic produce, from farmers who get paid more than they would selling to big supermarkets. I have been wanting to eat more seasonably and sustainably since reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma last year, and so far had only succeeded in feeling vaguely guilty. This seemed like a good opportunity to do something differently. We’ve only been getting the boxes for a couple of weeks – so far, the only unidentified item was some sort of yellow squash, which I am going to grill. The most wonderful thing has been the red Muscat grapes, the most beautifully sweet and juicy grapes I’ve ever eaten. And there’ll be no more of them in a week or so – the tragedies of seasonal produce.
Last weekend, the husband painted the door to Chickendome (our new chicken pen, still under construction) a rather nice blue colour. Today, we finished the wire – while it still needs more wiring together by way of snake proofing, the basic structure is now finished. Chickendome lives!
“You know, I still have some glittery gold letters left over from when I decorated my ukulele case – don’t you think “Chickendome” in gold letters would look great above the door?”
The husband then handed me a spray can of black paint, a metal sheet to block spray, gave me a little lecture about spraying in careful small strokes, and took one of the cars out for a drive. When he returned, I presented him with the above, and said, “Well, I used the sheet, and then I thought I didn’t need it, and then a fair bit of black paint got on the blue, and I discovered I actually did need it after all, and then I thought I’d fix it by painting that bit black. But it does look a bit weird.”
I think it’s clear that I don’t have a career ahead of me in painting. But I don’t suppose the chooks will mind.