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Friday, 14 April 2017

Our Easter is in the autumn

Easter in Australia is a major holiday period.  Our schools have a four-term year, with the first two terms being divided by a break beginning around (or before) Good Friday and running through the following week.  Nominally, it is autumn, but this blog includes a dozen or so species of wildflowers that were photographed, in bloom, in the sanctuary where I work on North Head, on 11 April 2017.

Our seasons are weird, as I said before. Anyhow, the first six are: three banksias and three Acacia species.

Many Sydney people will be off to the coast, or inland, or anywhere, queuing in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours, just to escape the crowds.  We who stay here say nothing about how Sydney at Easter can be very quiet indeed, for most of the remaining locals gather in just a few crowded venues.

In a research plot, fenced from rabbits,
the flannel flowers and wattle do well.
Here is a flannel flower or Actinotus,
called by that name from the feel of the petals.
Australia is a nominally Christian country, but once again this year, we will be reminded of just how nominal that allegiance is.  All over the nation, churches will swell to almost-full, as they only ever do at Christmas and Easter, but even then, few churches will overflow as they did in my youth.

Australian people seem to be able to find the comfort they need in more material things.  Perhaps we miss the symbolism northern hemisphere people get from celebrating the Resurrection in the spring.

Lambertia sp.
Epacris longiflora, long known also
as Native Fuchsia
Be that as it may, it is still autumn for us now.  We have just had two days in a row with 20 degree (C) temperatures in Sydney.  Over the Easter weekend, we have been promised maxima of 25C each day.

In Canberra, and in the mountains west of Sydney, and in the more pretentious suburbs, their foreign deciduous trees are turning to autumn colours and losing their leaves.  Elsewhere, people grow sensible Australian trees which are never bare, except after a bushfire.

One year at this time, a small bushfire broke out on the next ridge, smothering us in smoke.  It was a minor burn, though it crowned once or twice, sending flames up into the sky, and raining ash on the the houses nearby.

The blaze was soon controlled, but it's an ill wind, they say.  During the holidays that year, I found time to poke around the burnt areas, to see what relics I could uncover of the earliest inhabitants, whose engravings dawn many of the sandstone rock faces throughout the bush.  After a fire, many of these surfaces become accessible for the first time in maybe thirty years.

The clean smell of bush smoke was actually a blessing, for there had been a smell of mothballs on the bus, as woollen jumpers (our name for what others may call a pullover or a sweater) are resurrected from storage for yet another year.  All over Sydney, electric one-bar radiators are being pulled out and given their annual run-in, adding a distinctive burnt dust smell to the great indoors.

Our old dog always recognised autumn.  He would lie curled on his bed in their conservatory each morning, rather than standing hopefully and peering through the glass at us as we ate breakfast.  The humans are often a little less wise, and many of them will be swimming still. perhaps I will be among them.

Glycine, a delicate member of the pea family
We are ambivalent about our autumn.  Many people will cross the mountains to Bathurst on Thursday and Friday for a weekend of camping, drinking, and motor-bike races, but many will decide that it is too cold for a last swim, and spend their time in museums and art galleries.  After six years working in the museum industry, I have some sympathy for my former colleagues as they prepare for the onslaught of the masses.

Grevillea buxifolia, the grey spider flower,
is around for most of each year,
Few people will go walking in the bush, which is where you will find us in the next week or so, making the most of the peace and quiet.

My wife and I found a whole new series of rock engravings two weeks ago on an isolated ridge.  We will work our way slowly along the ridge, following the fine smooth sandstone bed that attracted the artists. 

Hakea or needle bush
Not all sandstones are the same, but this stratum was once a washed-out river bed, filled later by sand that was particularly pure and free of clay, making a smooth, flat, tough sandstone surface to work on.

The bush tracks around Sydney are deserted right now, partly because there are fewer flowers blooming, maybe as few as a dozen or so species right now, and also because it is also Easter Show time.

I go to ‘the Show’ about once in ten years, and always come away swearing I will never do it again.  It looked for a while as if we would be going this year, and I found myself looking contemplatively at places I might fall from, breaking a leg as I land. That would  have saved me, but strategically placed rain did the job instead. Now the crowds will be too large.

Woollsia pungens commemorates an early Australian botanist,
William Woolls. Like Grevillea buxifolia, it flowers all the
year, almost.
One thing is certain: you will never find me travelling the roads at Easter.  There are just too many people driving at Easter.  Not that they can drive fast, of course, but there will be an ill-concealed fury in their driving that I have decided I can do without.

It would be enough to have to mill around the Royal Agricultural Society Showground with 150 000 other people, growing footsore and weary, getting annoyed by either dust or mud or both, becoming exasperated by outrageous prices, and yet somehow being entranced by some of the sights and smells that return me to my childhood.

Instead, I am at home, doing a last listen to the mp3 files version of my next book, a massive Australian history, as big as three normal paperbacks, which will be called Not Your Usual Australian Tales.

I will have more to say about that in a week or so, but here's an anecdote from the end of my foreword:
On a personal note, I have another reason for doubting paper records: I was born in Queensland in the latter days of World War II. When my father, who was in the RAAF, moved north into “the islands”, my mother flew to Sydney with me as a babe in arms on an Air Force Catalina.
The RAAF was subject to inflexible regulations, and the number of passengers allowed on a Catalina was restricted. An Air Commodore on the flight ordered that I be embarked as a Gladstone bag, and that was how I appeared on the manifest, so anybody would seek in vain who sought evidence of my travels on faded, curled, foolscap sheets.
I am grateful to the Air Commodore, but according to my mother, not the most reliable of witnesses, I showed my gratitude at the time by throwing up on him. I tend to believe this, because I have always been a bit of an anarchist at heart, but posthumously (so far as he is concerned), I express my thanks to that kindly and probably slightly smelly Air Commodore.
Still, neither my travel nor the arc allegedly described by my stomach contents appear anywhere in any surviving record. There is a lesson there for us all.

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