Dancing with Wombats: Spring 2021
Wombats are ‘hard times only’ friends. As soon as the grass grew again, they abandoned us. We’d had almost a decade of drought, and even when it wasn’t officially drought, winters were dry, and the wombats were hungry.
But on January 20 last year it began to rain – and it has rained at least twice a week since, with floods now and then. There is also grass – so much land was left bare after the fires that I’ve been sowing pasture grass near the house and cottage, and native grass mixtures up on the hills.
The new areas are lush and green, with a kangaroo, wallaby or wombat every two metres, leaving us only with Wild Whiskers still living under our bedroom, pretending she had never met us before, much less nosed at the living room windows every afternoon demanding carrots.
There is also Possum X, who has moved back into the loquat tree, but even Rosie the wallaby has abandoned us for greener pastures, which means we have geraniums blooming again, and the roses haven’t been nibbled.
There is also Roadbat, just down the orchard, who had a gigantic hole under what should have been the track that allows cars to drive right up to the house, but instead became a wombat front garden. My son carried a gigantic boulder up on the tractor, and tipped it into the hole, leaving enough room for one wombat to comfortably go in and out, but making the road stable again – for a while, at least. I told him wombats always win.
Now, a month of industrious wombat digging later, Roadbat’s entrance is even larger than it was before. But Roadbat hasn’t quite won, because he’s dug the new opening on the far side of the track, so now a vehicle can get up here – just – while a smug wombat sleeps below.
I miss the wombat horde. I don’t miss getting up at 2am to refresh the food supply, as I did during the fires, but I hadn’t realised how much I expect to see a wombat or two outside each window, or watch them drinking from the pond every time I glance up from the computer.
They don’t need the pond now, nor do they come out till about 10pm, munch for a while, then go back to the burrows to sleep – or for a little excavation, just for the fun of it. But they are fat and healthy and doing what wombats should, which is ignoring humans, wallabies, possums, and anything that isn’t dirt or grass or just occasionally, other wombats.
Annoyed wombat at pond
There is one growling outside my window as I write this. It’s a cold night, and late, and the wind is muttering as well as the wombat, so possibly Wild Whiskers is feeling peckish for something with more calories than grass. But if she wants it, she’s going to have to get up earlier. I am warm, and extremely comfortable, and not about to put on coat, hat, gloves, scarf and boots to go and feed the wombat.
Or not yet.
The Book Bunker
It looks like a cross between a Tardis and a storybook gypsy caravan, thus fulfilling two fantasies – and I love it. It now stores several thousand books, the ones that can’t be replaced, from second-hand memoirs to self-published collections of old letters to copies of ancient manuscripts, to books I love, but for some reason can’t get reprinted.
I have a feeling we might restart civilisation from the contents of the Book Bunker. It has everything from how to build a house, to delivering a baby to reasonably recent works on physics. It should survive a bushfire or a tree falling on it. It was designed by Tom Coupe, who creates bushfire proof tiny houses, on the theory that while tiny houses can be transported, they shouldn’t be on the road when evacuating from a bushfire, plus most houses burn down while the owners aren’t there.
This one is floor to ceiling shelves, but with room for a bed between them, and my grandson reckons it might be paradise to sleep there, reaching up by lantern light to pick out any book you want to read.
We spent the Horror Summer lugging boxes of books to safe places that then became not safe – if anywhere was safe, eventually. Now we can evacuate and come back and find all the references I need to write waiting for us – and a shelter to sleep in too.
If we can’t evacuate, which is now likely, as the road we all used to evacuate last year has collapsed in the post bushfire floods, we also need a safe place here. It doesn’t look like the mountain road will be open for years, if ever, though the council hopes to be able to get it to fire trail standard at least, so in an emergency cars (but not trucks or caravans) can all go up in a slow and possibly supervised group together.
The Book Bunker isn’t a human haven – it is remarkably airtight, but possibly not enough to prevent someone inside suffocating with fire all around. We now also have another bunker, smaller, and used for storage, but one that can be adapted to shelter six people for two hours if necessary.
I hope it won’t be. There will be more bushfires, but hopefully we will be able to escape long before it might be necessary to shelter. But roads can be the most vulnerable places in bushfires, especially if bridges burn. We’re prepared.
And the Book Bunker is a darling place to sit, and mooch through books, and gaze out at the birds and trees and creek.
I know it’s lockdown somewhere again when every second email, every five minutes, if from another young person who wants to write a story but doesn’t know what to write about, can I please send one kilo of ideas, preferably chocolate coated. Well, okay, not the last bit. I answer, though not with ideas – if you don’t have an idea, or better still, 600 of them, you don’t want to write a story, you want the elves to weave it for you so it’s there when you wake up. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t mind if the elves took my 72 million ideas and had them written by breakfast time either.
The kids write because they are slightly scared, and also lonely, and want contact, and enjoyed A Waltz for Matilda or Night Ride into Danger and feel that makes us friends. Which is does, in some way I can’t quite account for. Possibly it’s because author and readers have shared a private world, which links us, even if we have never met and I am finding it difficult as always to keep up with the correspondence, or rather, or rather, these days, not keeping up with it. Eighty emails a day is about all I can cope with, and even then that means I don't get much off the next novel written.
A new novel is always terrifying. It never gets less terrifying. I lost myself writing Hearts of Gold this year, just as much as I did as I wrote The Angel of Waterloo. So much so, in fact, that I would be reading another book and put it down, wanting to get back to the world of Kat, Viola and Titania. That doesn't mean the book is working. It just means it's working for me. And thinking of sending it out into the world for others to judge is, well, terrifying.
At least it has the most stunning cover, just as the Angel of Waterloo's cover was glorious, too. But I’m also missing being able to write the next chapter because I have finished their stories. Luckily there is another book brewing, and I’m having to restrain myself from beginning to write it because it needs perhaps a little more research, or possibly that research is going to tell me I need to think a lot more, before the first chapter is tapped out.
I can’t wait.
Back to lock down. I feel guilty that it has affected us so little, and guiltier still that it’s affected us in some good ways. After my years of surgery, with fractured and infected bones, and then the three months of bushfire and the floods, the first lockdown gave us time and peace to clear some of the debris so we could safely drive through the property; remove the trees that might fall on power lines and start unpacking the boxes and suitcases left ready to take to hospital or refuge.
We have thousands of acres to wander in, cliffs to climb, or that I could once climb and can still gaze at. and remember the joy of climbing them. The creek is burbling and laughing at us. The animals are fat. The garden is gloriously productive.
And when there is no lockdown, but just caution, there are walks with friends, short walks to feed the animals or watch the wombats pray long walks to explore the guppies, walks by myself that I now take late every afternoon instead of early morning, to see who is eating what, or sometimes who is eating who, as the wedgetail eagles or the powerful owls come down to capture a possum.
I listen to the powerful out at night, to the barn owls, to the quarrels of possum eggs and his descendants in the loquat or the lemon tree and the orange tree where for some reason they have eaten every single Seville orange while ignoring the sweet varieties that have been left for us. I thought this year possibly we might have enough Seville oranges to tempt jam makers to make us a pot or two of marmalade. It's not to be. But we do have a very fat and contented possum.
And yet… for most of my life I’ve thought I was a gregarious hermit, happy to spend days or weeks with no human conversation except email and a phone call or two, and of course the worlds in books.
I've found out I'm not quite as hermit-like as I originally thought. I miss the festivals. I miss going to schools, seeing kids bounce as they ask questions, and finding out what they think is fascinating in a book and what they love. And of course, what they find boring, because kids are the most honest audience in the world and will always tell you if they find something could be improved. ‘could you please put some murders on the first page and maybe a pterodactyl?’
I do weep sometimes for the mess of the so-called Hotel Quarantine System.
Decades ago, while writing Dark Wind Blowing, I rang the centre for disaster planning to find out exactly what our biohazard disaster plans were and was told they didn’t exist.
Australia was even getting rid of all areas where people might be safely quarantined – and had been in the past – on the theory that we’d never have an epidemic again, a decision made against all qualified advice at the time warning that any place with shared air conditioning was not suitable for quarantine. This included all our major hospitals.
It was obvious in January 2020 that this was a pandemic that would last for years, not weeks or months. And yet we still have temporary solutions that are not solutions at all.
This is terrifying, not just because of the danger, especially to our children, who don’t even have the refuge of vaccine and are now vulnerable with the Delta variant, but because it is unnecessary. We are a wealthy country, an educated country, an unusually cooperative country; it is only that which has kept us relatively safe, as well as the extraordinary efforts of those who have created the vaccines, made them and distributed them despite the lack of organisation and forethought of those who are supposed to be our leaders.
Sometimes I feel like slipping a note under the doors of Parliament House saying, ‘Could you just ask any parish council or bushfire brigade to tell you how to organise things better than you are now (when political point scoring is clearly more important than the lives and livelihoods of Australians)?’.
I weep for those left overseas. I weep for the countries and the people we have not helped, even though we could have helped them. I weep for the scientists who can create vaccines or remedies but do not have the backing of the government to do so.
It should not be like this, just as with so many other crises on our poor battered planet. It doesn't have to be like this. We have solutions for every problem our planet faces. What we lack is the political will to implement them, or the social will to demand that politicians do so.
There have been some longlistings this year: a ‘Notable Book’ for The Fire Wombat, from the CBCA; and the latest is a longlisting for the Sisters in Crime ‘Children’s Crime Novel of the Year’, for The Ghost of Howlers Beach, the first of the Butter O'Bryan mysteries. There was also a longlisting for the Book Links Award for Children’s Historical Fiction, for The Schoolmaster’s Daughter.
It's been a strange year to be a writer, just as it has been a strange and often terrible year for so many people. A writer always has to send a book out into the unknown, but after that you get to see the faces of readers at festivals, and book launches, and talks at libraries or halls.
I’ve been doing several Zooms a week, but it’s not the same, possibly because on Zoom the audience can see and hear me, but I can’t see them except in glimpses.
The books are selling. I hope they are loved, or are, at least, entertaining. But it's still strange to have so little connection with those who have read the books, or who are going to read them.
Out: End of November 2021
Some girls are born to be loved,
Some are born to be useful,
And some are born to be bad …
Indulged and wealthy Kat Fitzhubert is ‘sold’ in an arranged marriage to a colony across the world. Viola Montefiore is the dark-skinned changeling of a ducal family, kept hidden and then shipped away. Titania Boot is as broad as a carthorse, and as useful.
On the long sea voyage from their homeland of England, these three women are fast bonded in an unlikely friendship. In the turmoil of an 1850s-Australia reinventing itself from convict colonies to a land of gold rushes and elusive riches, one woman forges a business empire. Another brews illegal hooch with a bushranger as the valleys and indigenous lands around her are destroyed. The third vanishes on her wedding day, in a scandal that will intrigue and mystify Sydney's polite society and beyond.
HarperCollins are describing it as ‘a magnificent and broad sweeping saga’. I profoundly hope it might be. It is a book that defies the myth of colonial women as ‘merely’ wives or servants, petty thieves or whores. Instead, this book shows them as business-women, farmers, bushrangers and illegal brewers, as well as arbiters of a destiny far richer than the glitter and lure of gold.
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...
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.
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.
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 Spring Garden
Seville oranges under avocado tree
We only get a spring like this every 20 years or so. There are flowers everywhere, paper-white jonquils and yellow daffodils, and the first Lady Banks’ rose clambering up above the woodpile. Soon there will be wonga wonga vine and Clematis dripping from every tree.
I had never seen such fat Camellias. The silver beet is knee-high, and the potato bed has decided to grow itself from tiny spuds left in last year. The possums have eaten half the parsley, but that doesn't matter. There's still far more than we can eat. And as for Tahitian limes, we can't give enough away. Would somebody please like two or three cases of limes to be left on the footpath in Braidwood for collection?
The avocados are blooming. The oranges are ripening. There are fruit buds on the apple trees. And we have just put in new varieties of macadamia, some longans, two bunya nuts and the six heritage varieties of apple tree and winter pear trees and quinces to replace the fruit trees we lost during the drought and bushfires.
The trouble is that every tree I thought had died has now come back again (except one). Even the afore-mentioned Camellias have returned and bushes that hadn't had any leaves for over two years are not only budding leaves but have dozens or even hundreds of flowers as well.
If this spring is as lush as I think it will be it is going to be the most beautiful of summers. We deserve one. It has indeed been a hard few years. It's good to remember the generosity and beauty that our planet can still provide, as well as the disasters it can inflict on us (or that we inflict on it).
So this is a time to plant. Plant everything. Fill the garden with flowers, annuals and perennials, fill the vegetable garden with everything you want to eat, including melons, and sunflowers – for the birds, and just for the joy of watching their faces follow the sun. Plant fruit trees; plant roses; plant native bushes, also for the birds, and for the million insects that will enjoy them. Just plant.
This is one spring when things will grow and grow and grow. Don't waste it.
Don't waste time mowing the lawn, either. When lawn goes to seed, it produces grass seed, a feast for so many small birds who would rather pluck their food fresh from your garden than dry seed from a bird table. Your lawn isn't going to grow so long it’ll climb through the windows and strangle you in your bed. Lawn grass will only grow ankle-high, even if the weeds grow longer. Just this once let the lawn grow shaggy. Concentrate on planting. Concentrate on harvesting. Concentrate on smelling 1,000 flowers, the scent of new grass and budding leaves. Just enjoy it. And don't waste time on anything you might consider chores.
100 Things to Avoid in Spring
1. Hang your freshly washed sheets under the wattle trees. You want to sleep in two layers of pollen? Wattle pollen doesn’t travel far, but it LOVES wet washing.
2. Cycle through flowering rye grass without a sci-fi type mask. All that pollen just loves sweaty faces. And irritates your eyes.
3. Fill vases of gloriously scented jonquils next to the seat that your sinus-aflicted best friend will be sitting in.
4. Give your hostess a giant bunch of home-grown liliums without removing the fluffy yellow (or orange) stamens. Their pollen is indelible. No tablecloth or white carpet will ever be the same.
5. Plant tomatoes too early. A frost IS coming. They WILL die (or be badly affected and become stunted, unthrifty bushes).
6. Plant carrots too early. They will go to seed, all top and no bum.
7. Plant six zucchini seedlings. I know they look cute and tiny now. Think of those monster marrows lurking under the leaves in January. All 2,648 of them.
8. Hesitate to buy that third punnet of tomato seedlings (that you will keep protected till the soil is warm enough to sit on comfortably). You can never have too many home-grown tomatoes. Last season I puréed all the leftover ones, raw, not cooked, and froze them in containers. Winter soups and stews have never been so good.
9. Forget to plant potatoes: they will just stop growing if we get a cold snap and restart once the warmth returns. A home-grown spud is a delight.
10. Waste your fences: cover with ultra-fragrant, old-fashioned sweet peas for great bunches of blooms to give away till Christmas.
11. Plant Petunias without snail bait. Unless you are seriously into kindness-to-snails.
12. Buy pots of blooming pansies, even if they are cheap. They may be about to kark it now summer’s coming.
13. Plant Petunias at all if your ultra-sophisticated friends scoff at Petunias. (Unless you have the courage of your whims and then you can plant them for drought-resistant colour all summer long. Or snail tucker.)
14. Plant marigolds. At all. Ever. Too bright and they stink if you stuff them in a vase. And they don’t repel sap suckers – they encourage them.
15. Sneer at dahlias. Except maybe the plate-sized ones that need three stakes to keep them upright. This will be a long, hot summer and dahlias will live on their hump, like camels, and survive all that heat and keep on blooming.
16. Be nasty to anyone who calls their pelargoniums ‘geraniums’. They’ve been called geraniums for long enough for it to be used legitimately as a common name. Get used to it.
17. Eat snails that have eaten Petunias. Snails for human consumption need to diet for three weeks on food that is edible for humans (like lettuce). And be cooked extremely well.
18. Eat the marigolds. All those ‘marigold’ recipes come from the UK or the US where they call calendulas ‘marigolds’. Calendulas are edible, marigolds (as in Tagetes spp.) are not.
19. Eat calendulas unless you like the texture of damp wash cloth, and the flavor of nothing in particular (although if you like the look of scraps of slightly slimy orange and yellow petals in your salad, throw some in).
20. Eat rose petals — ditto. Looks good, rotten texture.
21. Eat pansies. Won’t kill you, just feels like there’s a slug in your salad.
22. Make lavender sugar with any variety other than Lavandula angustifolia. The others have a faint tang of camphor and may even be toxic.
23. Make crystallised violets – to decorate your cakes with – using African violets. Wrong violets. See ‘Botanical Poisons’ below.
24. Decorate your cake with fresh daffodils. They exude a toxic sap.
25. Be embarrassed to hang your undies on the lavender bush. Who cares if the neighbours know, your knickers smell divine.
26. Be embarrassed to hang your undies on the mock orange bush either, for a different scent entirely.
27. Be embarrassed to dry your bloke’s undies on the pineapple or fruit salad sage bushes, if he prefers a spicy scent.
28. Stint on slow-release plant food for your pots and hanging baskets.
29. Stint on some hanging baskets to cheer up the front door area.
30. Hesitate to layer dried carnations in your underwear drawer for a truly ‘old spice’ scent.
31. Wonder why your roses don’t last as long as florists’ ones do. Poorly fed roses don’t last as long.
32. Try to poison rich relatives with a cake decorated with fresh daffodils. Like most plants the active ingredients can vary. They will likely only become crook enough to be seriously wrathful and change their wills.
33. Make a pot of tea with the water from a vase in which daffodils have been sitting. Not that I can think why you would. But don’t, anyway.
34. Use oleander wood as skewers at the next barbeque. See ‘poisoning relatives’ above.
35. Neglect the need for flowers at Christmas. E.g. a new flush of roses or sterile agapanthus (the ones that don’t set seed).
36. Plant yacón. Unless you like crisp roots with no flavour.
37. Throw out elderly chokos. Plant them as soon as frosts are over. Pick tiny ones with no ‘choke’ when thumbnail size.
38. Harvest watercress or river mint from a creek for a bush tucker feast. You may also ingest liver fluke