April 2021: Whipbirds, Wild Fruits and Other Magics
I heard a whipbird this morning, the first in two years since before there were drought and fires. The autumn light is filtering through the trees, the house smells of toasting buns, and a thousand small wrens are flickering from leaf to leaf. Suddenly, this morning, I thought ‘this is peace.’
For what’s supposed to be a monthly blog, this one has managed to squeeze out a couple of times a year in the last few years. They have been harder than I’ve admitted -- orthopaedic surgery that became infected; a surgeon who wouldn’t admit it; and by the time I found an independent surgeon and then saved up enough to afford the corrective surgery, it had become very major indeed, and then my spine fractured sometime during the time I was unconscious. Add three months of bushfire around us soon after, five major floods, the deaths of my mother and close friends, the repercussions of the pandemic…
This week I’ve been whipper-snipping for the first time in four years and pruning with the kids, and okay, I needed a crutch by late afternoon but it is so good to use my body once more. I’m cooking with real enjoyment again, too.
I’m also, strangely, finally settling into who I am as a writer, spending half my time on works for young people and half for adults, with The Angel of Waterloo as the first book in a new series, the second, still untitled, being edited, and the third in that wonderful stage where a million ideas come together. There is never one inspiration for a book – it would be thin, physically and thematically, if there were. Instead, people, ideas, places coalesce, and the book evolves from there.
We’ve finally installed an approved bushfire bunker -- we will always evacuate but this is a last resort. The ‘Book Bunker’ comes next week, a transportable fireproof bunker where I’ll keep my most precious books and records, valuable in that they can’t be replaced -- a lifetime of foraging in second hand book shops, a few thousands books humanity could possibly use to rebuild civilisation. I adore Google et al, but we only need one major solar flare, the kind that happens at least once a century, and our world computer systems and much else will crash; probably only a temporary disaster, but there is something reassuring about knowing the world has repositories of books and seeds.
Mostly, though, for my work, I need the books. Many are collections of old letters or diaries, the kind that will never be digitised, voices from the past that tell of the way things really were, not how we have chosen to remember them. Books are heavy to evacuate. The Book Bunker will mean we can always come back to words and seeds.
This is a time of regeneration. It may sound strange to read those words during a pandemic and the crises of global warming and pollution. But in the past few years humanity has finally been seeing the world again, and millions are beginning to meet the challenges. It’s only tiny still, but just like the call of the whipbirds this morning, it’s a beginning.
There isn’t much. There’s so much grass the wombats waddle out at midnight, eat, then go back to their burrows and sleep. It’s been a hard few years for them. We will see them more -- not just their prints and droppings -- as the days cool, the sun drops behind the ridges mid-afternoon, less nutrition is in the grass, and they hope for carrots or other crunchies as a midwinter pick-me-up. But just now they are simply being wombats, enduring humans -- except for a few droppings by the front doormat, just to say ‘you are still mine.’
Surprisingly, I’ve come to love zoom workshops. They are very different from the ones in person, far more intimate, and seem to work best with a short talk then Q and A with long answers. As I don’t have to travel for them I can do more, and am enjoying them enormously. If you’d like to book one for your school or book club, it’s $300 per session, with sessions ranging from 30 minutes to two hours depending on age and topic, but the price can be negotiated downwards to ‘free’ if there is nothing in the budget, as the convenience of zoom means I can talk to schools that are too remote for the students to have author talks.
So far these have been working well:
Kinder to Year 2 Reading Diary of a Wombat – interactive- and then telling the true story of the wombat in the book, and how that story became a book. A longer workshop them shows them how to create a similar picture book themselves. How to Grow Absolutely Anything – This is a Q and A. The kids suggest a plant or a food, and we talk about how the plant is grown and the food is made. The Animals in My Garden – Basic ecology combined with stories about Wild Whiskers the wombat and Rosie the wallaby and Lacy Goanna and George the echidna, a subtle way of explaining habitats and niches and forest types and how the land changes with season and weather patterns. Year 2 upwards The Fire Wombat – a talk about the book created with Danny Snell, how various animals respond to fire, and how people can help and fires be prevented and fought and homes made fireproof. Drought, Flood, Fire, Cyclone, Pandemic – a talk about the ‘Disaster’ series created with Bruce Whatley, focusing on the causes of each disaster, the ways we can live with the challenges of the natural world, and the power of kindness. Year 3 Upwards One Two Three WRITE – a workshop designed to help the challenges of Naplan, or any situation where students need to write on demand. We talk about how books and stories evolve, so that you always have a store of ideas, images, places and plots that can be juggled to fit whatever you are asked to do. The Book and its Inspiration (for example Nanberry: Black Brother White; Tom Appleby, Convict Boy; The Night They Stormed Eureka; Hitler’s Daughter; Pennies for Hitler; Pirate Boy of Sydney Cove; Pharaoh; The Goat Who Sailed the World and all the others) Each talk gives the historical background of the book, the various research methods, editing and revision etc. The latest book, Night Ride into Danger, has the Cobb and Co coaches and gold rushes and bushranger as its background, and like all my books, is based on real events. How to Find the Magic Book – A good workshop for reluctant readers, showing how to ‘taste’ a book, be boss of the book, work out the kind of book you will love so much you can’t bear to stop reading it and how you can borrow a million books for free from a library. An extraordinary success rate. A Book is a Song – How to write text that sings, not just with images, but the music and rhythm of language. Adults and Older Students Six Steps to a Brilliant Picture Book The Six Best Ways to Publish a Book Eating History – using food to establish character, plot, background and theme as well as time and place, from prehistory to the present day. Includes emailed recipes from 3,000 years ago till now. (Also have launched an Instagram post @eating_history_book_by_book for those interested. Just for Fun
Seasonal Recipes from the Garden – sorbets, the perfect cake, three minute dinners and medieval feasts…whatever you from a glut of zucchinis and apples to a dozen ways with pumpkin or any fruit or veg you fancy, recipes both savoury and sweet, tips of preserving, cooking over a fire, jam and jelly making, ice-creams and feel like. How to Grow Everything Except Chocolate in Your Backyard Chooks, Books and Wombats: Forty plus years of living and writing in the valley Are You Really Sure You Want to be a Writer? Twenty Predictions for the Next Twenty Years: history does not necessarily repeat itself, but the study of history in its broadest sense can be the basis for extraordinarily accurate predictions A Virtual Tour Around Our Garden (wombats included)
It’s been six months of very varied books, which feels entirely right.
Legends of the Lost Lilies (Miss Lily #5)
This is the fifth and final book in the Miss Lily series, tracing the major shift in how we have seen ourselves as women from 1900-1976.
It’s also the story of Sophie, Violette, Hannelore, Green, Ethel, Rose and Miss Lily herself; because there is no one ‘women’s story’, nor, indeed a conclusion. But: this was a beginning. Each book is based on women that have been ignored or deleted from the historical records, from the vital work of women in World War I – most of it unofficial, like the majority of the medical and provisioning of the armies, plus transport in many cases too – to this final book, the espionage agents of World War II.
The women of SOE, sent to aid French resistance groups, have been celebrated, but the longer term work, both covert and in the war Ministries, again has been deleted, partly because some operations, at least, were still ongoing in the Cold War that followed World War II. But other work was carefully hidden, as it showed too clearly the deep incompetence of a male hierarchy, where jobs were still given to ‘one of us’ or ‘a chap I was at school with’. Which still happens, of course, but now we deplore it instead of applaud it.
It’s hard to leave the world of Shillings and Thuringia, to leave Sophie and Hannelore, to see Rose and her daughters stride out into the world and not follow them. But the Miss Lily series was written backwards -- this book came first, and I had to write the others that led up to it before I could publish this one. It is from a time when ‘the lovely ladies’ knew irrevocably they were the strong women they had always been, and that at least, for their daughters, both of heart and body, there would be no turning back.
The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle (The Butter O'Bryan Mysteries #2)
A story of adventure and mystery and some hilarity in the 1932 depression, with a castle, a monster, eccentric aunts and the beginnings of modern movies, an industry in which, for a while, Australia led the world.
Out: May 2021
This is based on a real Cobb & Co night mail journey from Braidwood to Goulburn in the 1870s. Young Jem Donavan takes the reins when his father is injured, facing floods, mist, mud, and the secrets of seven passengers.
The seventh secret may be deadly.
There is also a hidden treasure – a real one, which may still be waiting to be found. The book might just give you clues about where it could be...
The Fire Wombat (with Danny Snell)
A picture book. This is the true story of a small wombat who staggered towards us from the smoke at 2 am in the 2019-2020 bushfires, and of the animals she led to safety. It is also a story of uncounted volunteers, of hope and renewal. Longlisted for the ABIA awards and made a CBCA Notable.
Henrietta Bartlett, an assistant surgeon from the Napoleonic wars at a time when women were not surgeons, nor, officially, on battlefields, seeks and finds love, a challenge and a chance to continue the science of medicine in a colony at the end of the world, and in ways she never expected. It is a story of how the Napoleonic wars shaped colonisation and the nature of our nation; of how British military culture met with the Australian indigenous concept of war needing to finish by nightfall to limit collateral damage. It also tells of how, at certain times and in some places, there was friendship, love and exchange of knowledge between indigenous and colonial women. The history of tragedy and slaughter of indigenous people must be told, but these stories need to be remembered too.
It is also, of course, a story of the many roles of women throughout history that are only now being acknowledged, from Hen’s surgical skill to Elizabeth’s farming, from Mrs Cook’s indomitable ability to survive to Jessica’s deep indigenous knowledge. It is a story of adventure, mystery, and above all love -- for each woman in this book has her own love story, as well as love for the land on which this book was written.
Please read it. (I have never asked that before).
The Schoolmaster’s Daughter was released earlier last year – I’m not quite sure what crisis was occurring just then. I love the book, which I don’t say about all my books. Each review focussed exactly on the heart of the book and why I wrote it – a coming of age for a girl and a nation, where the Commonwealth's first law was of racial division, forcibly removing Pacific Islanders who had come as slaves, adventurers or indentured workers for decades to Australia, as well as their children, for whom Australia was home. It’s about the fight for education for those with dark skin as well as for women; how books can light a future; how battles might take decades to win, but how they eventually are.
It’s also the real stories of my grandmothers, combined. And even the shipwreck, the secret school, and the treasure on the beach, are true.
Pandemic (with Bruce Whatley)
Scholastic had what we thought might be the final book in the Disaster series ready to go to print – Earthquake. Then the pandemic hit. So, while Bruce was in quarantine for a fortnight so he could see his mother in South Australia, we created this, and Scholastic edited and designed it with similar speed and dedication. It is the story of the 1918-1921 Spanish Flu pandemic and, again, a true story about my great-grandmother, as well as the two heroes of the pandemic that almost vanished from the world: kindness and quarantine. Luckily we still have both those gifts to help us now.
It is the story of hope and help and happiness — even in a pandemic.
Pete the Sheep: The Musical
This is magic,. The season has begun at Darling Harbour, then it goes on a long tour for the rest of the year. See if it’s coming to a theatre near you, and grab a kid or two and see it, or just go yourself. It’s based on the picture book with Bruce Whatley but the humour is both sophisticated as well as kid-friendly, the music divine -- and the company, Monkey Baa, a place of genius.
The Autumn Garden
Choko hanging off the lemon tree
I’ve also been ordering masses of fruit trees -- more varieties of quince and apples. We have a lot of apples but the trees of old varieties I love are getting on, so it’s time to ensure supply. Also we have new selections of: macadamia; chestnuts; winter pears, which died in the drought; and cherries; as well as daffodil and jonquil bulbs as almost none came up last year after the fires. But as soon as I ordered more, some leaves began to peep through the soil so possibly more bulbs were simply dormant.
I’ve also discovered even more fruit trees are coming back from being dead-looking sticks, and others surviving under the almost head-high weeds we are gradually getting under control.
In autumn the soil cools down and things start growing. Autumn flushes are as marked as spring flushes. Fruit swells as much in a week as it did in the previous month and new soft shoots appear all over the place.
Don’t clean up the garden. Leave those corn stalks, radish going to seed and patches of weeds alone. The weeds probably won’t seed or run about till spring anyway – and they’ll protect the soil and help insulate your plants.
Gardeners who recommend you spend your peaceful winter months ‘tidying up the garden’ just have a fetish for straight rows and nice chocolatey, bare earth. This may help their spirits but it won’t help the garden. Gardens are wasted on people with a passion for sweat and blisters. Gentle pottering and a bit of contemplation are more affective than maniacs with mattocks.
Autumn is the time to prepare for the hungry gap. The hungry gap is spring to early-summer. It’s the time when you have eaten most of the surplus from last autumn – the apples, pumpkins, old carrots and parsnips in the garden – but the new season’s crops are still months away from maturing.
A few hundred years ago the hungry gap was the starvation time, the scurvy and plague time, when the weather was warming up but people’s diet was still poor.
If you don’t have enough crops in by now you will either be hungry or you’ll have to go shopping at the supermarket in spring.
Anything you plant now must either be quick-maturing, or the sort of plant that will go quickly to seed as soon as the weather heats up: like peas, cauliflowers, and broccoli – the sprouts and pods you eat are the immature seed heads. Plant to eat them in spring.
The carrots, celery, silverbeet, etc. you planted last spring will have to last you to the next one; the pumpkins and melons ripening on the vine will be stored through winter; the cauliflower and other brassicas should be steadily maturing. Start putting in brown-skinned, long-keeping onions now. If, in temperate areas, the soil is still warm enough to sit on, put in winter lettuce, winter radish, Chinese mustard, kale, corn salad and swedes. Plant pots of herbs, artichoke suckers. Coriander rushes to seed in hot weather - try it now! Plant seedlings of broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, Chinese cabbage, lettuce, leeks, mustard, silverbeet, spinach, seeds of broad beans, onions. In frost-free areas you can also plant beans, capsicum, parsnips, carrots, beetroot, Scorzonera, burdock and potatoes.
Plant evergreen fruit trees. Start checking catalogues for the deciduous fruit trees you want to plant in winter – or you may have to stick with the nursery selections.
All the ‘year-rounders’ (like celery, silver beet, carrots and beetroot) plus Chinese cabbage and the last of the summer vegetables. Chokos will be fruiting now, even in cool areas. Dig up kumaras, oca, cassava, taro, yacon, or Jerusalem artichokes. Potatoes should be ready too.
Now is the time to dig up ginger root; native ginger roots; turmeric roots; orris root; galangal root, arrowroot, horseradish. Stir fry the first mature chilacayotes with garlic ginger and soy sauce.
In colder regions autumn is the harvest season, frantic with bottling. Where I live, most harvests are in summer. Autumn harvests are gentler: late apples, late pears, pomegranates, medlars, quinces. The fruit is full of summer sun without that almost frantic, fermented sweetness that crops get in high summer.
This is the time for gathering whatever will be spoiled by winter cold: green tomatoes to make into green tomato pickle, and immature cucumbers and pumpkin to slice and stir-fry.
Pomegranates, medlars, pears, Valencia oranges, lemons, early limes, olives, late figs, quinces, Granny Smith and other ‘medium late’ apples, passionfruit, tamarillos, late grapes, chestnuts, walnuts, persimmons, grapefruit, guava, feijoa, strawberry guava, carob, chestnut, fig, Brazilian cherry, pomegranate, guava, jackfruit, early calamondins, lillypillies, olive, kerriberry, late strawberries, raspberries, bananas, avocados, Irish strawberry-tree fruit, melons, pistachios, and pecan.
Ripening immature vegetables. Pull up tomatoes, capsicum, vines, etc. with as much soil as possible. Hang them in a shed or under the veranda. The crop will continue to ripen. Even green tomatoes will keep ripening on newspaper indoors – check for bad ones often. Don’t dig root crops till you’re going to use them – they’ll be sweeter for the cold. If the ground may freeze, mulch over them or try to shelter them with tall plants around them. Move some potted plants next to them – I use a prolific climbing geranium in pots to protect small vulnerable plants.
This is the time to think about last-minute seed saving. Transplant any carrots, parsnips, etc. which you may be saving for seed into a less used part of the garden should they be in the way where they are.
Transplanting them now will only make them go to seed quicker. Stake them well: they’ll get top heavy when the seed heads form and may fall down, causing the seed to rot or sprout prematurely.
Think about green-manuring unused ground to prepare it for spring – clearing weeds, fixing nitrogen, and adding humus: lucerne, broad beans, peas, and field peas.
But plant. And plant. It regenerates the planet. It regenerates you.
A Year of Nuts:
Nuts are a classic survival food. They can be stored for years – and certainly at least until your trees crop again the following year.
The number of nut trees you need will vary enormously. It depends on whether you rely on them for part of your protein, or whether you just want them for nibbling or to put into cakes. Two almonds (or a double-graft almond) and one other nut tree will be enough for most households – but once you’ve got the nuts they’re never wasted. I would grow as many as you can accommodate. Try a hedge of hazelnuts in cold areas, or a trimmed hedge of macadamias in warmer spots.
Feb: macadamia, almond, early hazelnuts
March: almonds, early hazelnuts, pecan, bunya nuts
April: pistachio, bunya nuts, pecan, walnuts, pine nuts
May: pistachio, bunya nuts, pecan, walnuts, chestnuts, pine nuts
June-December : macadamias
I’m giving a workshop on Eating History next week. Writing food gives a sense of time, of place, of theme and character. Tell me what you had for breakfast and I’ll tell you about yourself. Or not. Just sometimes I remember to be tactful.
These are 1940s recipes – some older, some that have stayed in use, but all popular in the days of rationing and shortages and when something delicious gave life joy.
There are two condensed milk recipes -- a great staple in the days without fridges. Both recipes are incredibly delicious.