December 2022 – January 2023
A patch of land
It is light, just. The sun is a long way from breaking over the ocean horizon, distinguishable in the dimness some kilometres away. It is unbelievably still, but the air is full of movement. You can sense the birds stirring. The animals going home for the night. There is the faint crashing sound of the ocean.
I creep through the house, past the room where my small daughter sleeps amid a corona of blonde curls, past the form of her father asleep on the couch where he has settled, lulled finally into deep sleep and out of his tortured dreams by white noise from the television.
The tumult of the political year is over and we are once again down on the New South Wales south coast, in our quiet retreat from the world, and I am liberated for a few hours of peace, in the garden I have been building for the birds.
This is my most ambitious garden in its scale and imaginings. But it is also the one that has been most thwarted by lack of time and other commitments, and by resistance to any form of change by its fellow owner.
For now, in this early morning light, it is just me and the plants and the birds.
We spend four or six weeks straight at the house at this stage of our lives over the summer holidays. And I am out in the garden most mornings, trying to not get overwhelmed by all the work that could be done in it, if there were nothing else to do in life.
It is a native garden. My long absences mean the plants often battle for months against a springtime surge of grasses and seasonal weeds, which slither unseen, along runners under the surface, to come up and choke my young plants.
Couch and buffalo grass, mats of clumping weeds such as violets, all prosper frustratingly until my natives are big enough to keep them at bay. And until they do, I put aside my blind terror of funnel-webs and redbacks, brown and red-bellied black snakes, and crawl along the ground on my belly under the foliage of grevilleas and banksias, correas and eriostemon, yanking at the weeds with one hand, bracing myself for flight with the other.
There had been a plan, a design for the garden in the beginning, drawn up by old schoolfriends who had become landscape architects. But you can’t doggedly stick to plans, as gardens make up their own minds about what will survive and what will not. After stubbornly replanting designated plants on the plan a few times, only to see them die, I started to let the garden tell me how it should grow. And of course I began to learn this hillside: where the light comes from, and when; where the oddly barren or sandy bits of soil are; where the water runs off during torrential rain.
I look at how the light is changing as things grow. I sense how some plants that suffered greatly in the first couple of years – baking on an exposed hillside in a drought – are finally finding some comfort, not just in their own size but also in the growth further down the hill, which is now protecting them from the worst of the north-easterly wind that starts up at about 10 each summer morning and races across the lake and up our hill.
It had just been a bare paddock – old dairy country – when we first bought it. While blessed by a spectacular view, it was an exposed place and there was not much incentive to go and sit outside with the threat of being blown away. Even the birds would fly from our neighbour’s place, straight past us, to the neighbours on the other side. The previous owners had cut down all the trees. They, too, had a plan for the garden, though somewhat different to mine. It included introduced species, cutting down all the casuarinas, planting some nice willows.
While my plan was for native plants, and preferably ones from the local area, I had one indulgence. In a sentimental nod to my childhood home, I planted two jacarandas between the house and the view. They civilise the glaring summer sun when it first rises above the horizon and hits our north-east facing house, and its glass walls, with all its force.
The birds eventually discovered the jacarandas are a splendid spot to stop and look at the scenery. The droopy foliage protects them from the gaze of the sea eagle, which spends afternoons riding the updraft in the adjacent valley. I could sit for hours in the living room just a few metres away and watch them hopping in and out of the branches and blossoms. The wattlebirds jump noisily between the jacarandas, kangaroo paws and grevilleas. The black cockatoos swing wildly on the still slight banksias, dwarfing their perches as they tuck into the cones. The lorikeets monster any other birds that invade the space: white-headed pigeons, topknots, rosellas. The magpies soar down to the front door when I come home and sing me a song. A lone kookaburra eyes me from the top of an old, dying eucalypt.
But what I am particularly listening for in those peaceful early morning forays is “my” whipbird. You very rarely see an eastern whipbird – its punky head and sheeny green coat. But as I work away on the slope in the garden, the familiar crack of its call – and its answer – swirls around me, keeping me company. One minute down the hill. The next between me and the house, maybe only a few metres away.
I love the sense that this has become the birds’ garden, rather than mine. When I am away from it, I like to think of them in it each day, undisturbed by my presence.
The birds are so unused to you being in their domain that, when you are standing in it, there are near misses – the brief touch of a wing tip on your face, as a bird races past on its usual flight path across the headland.
One early morning as I lay on my belly under the grevilleas, trying not to think about snakes, I felt something brush against the tip of my fingers. Not a snake, as it happened, but an eastern whipbird, casually hopping across my hand. It barely noticed me being there, or perhaps its toleration of me was its own welcome.
Either way, I felt my work was complete.
The thing about gardens is that they are about both shaping things and letting them shape you. By definition, you want to make a mark on the landscape. But the longer you work in any particular garden, the more you have to conform to what the garden throws back at you. You change it – and yourself – as it develops, and its scale changes as some plants grow larger and others stay the same. You discover new plants you didn’t know about, or the pleasure when some foliage you hadn’t really thought about before is illuminated by late afternoon light.
Instead of obsessively racing around each week to see what is growing, you learn the pleasures of walking away and leaving plants to their own devices; of calming down and letting things take their course. You return to find a spindly plant from a pot transformed into a substantial presence in the garden, asserting its happiness at being there. Or others refusing to fit in with your aesthetic liking for three plants in a grouping, with only one or two surviving.
You become a curator of something that has developed a life of its own, rather than a creator.
Life, however, like a garden, evolves and it has become harder and harder to spend time in my garden on the hill. I have shared this beautiful place with people I love. And everyone who has been there loves its great peace. Soon this garden will not be mine anymore. It was such a project of love. Such a reward and escape during very difficult years.
But I rarely get to go and spend time in it these days. And it is time to move on.
There was a time when I could not have contemplated leaving this place, and especially leaving the garden for someone else to transform in their own way. Someone who may not have the patience to live with it through a cycle of seasons to see what it throws up.
But this hillside will make its own mark on its new owner, as it did on me.
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