Wild Wild Life

I

The other day I found a leech in the garden. It was in the saucer under the pot in which the rosemary died, after a fungus ate its roots during last summer’s dry. I’d put the rosemary out under the edge of the shelter over the washing line where the run off soaked into the dirt, causing a green slime to grow over the outside of the pot and a black grit to gather in the saucer. It was in this grit that I found the leech. It looked healthy enough but seemed sluggish; it didn’t have the brilliant gold stripes along its sides like the ones I sometimes picked up at Pearl Beach. And it showed no inclination to suck my blood. I let it go in another water logged pot down by the compost bin. Later I found a second one, dead, beneath the ex-rosemary pot’s saucer, as if the rain had drowned then dissolved it into amorphous tissue. I didn’t know leeches could drown.

There’s a small blueberry bush, covered in pink and cream flowers, growing next to where this pot used to stand. Last summer we did get one or two small sweet fruit from it but the birds ate the rest. Serendipitously, I associate blueberries with leeches because, one time when we were visiting a blueberry farm near Wamberal, I took one of the boys down into a gully so he could go to the toilet; and while there we were attacked by leeches. Jesse, who was four or five at the time, screamed and ran and I had to go after him and catch him and pick him up and pick the leeches off his legs. They have a toothed V shaped mouth that suckers onto your flesh, then they inject an anaesthetic and a thinner into your blood; it takes some force to remove them. Later on that day, when we were driving away, I found one engorged, swollen like a tumour, between my toes.

Out on the path that runs down the side of the house, after rain, slugs gather around the pale purple lilly pilly berries fallen from the myrtle hedge onto the concrete. Their mucous trails make silvery webs. Or labyrinths at the heart of which lies a disintegrating fruit. It takes the slugs days, or weeks, to eat a single berry. First they gnaw away the skin, then they start upon the pulp and, after that, the seeds. Small creatures, they don’t need much. After the last spell of rain I found one dead, perhaps stranded when the path dried out. It was black and shriveled into a cigar-shaped crinkle of tissue. They are nocturnal and I haven’t seen one alive or feeding yet. Except when they crawl through the air vents and I stand on one as I walk around the house.

Today at my desk, after our swim, I felt something on the back of my neck and brushed it away. Some kind of bug. Later, in the sitting room, reading Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a re-telling of Homer’s Iliad from the point of view of Briseis and the Trojan women, I felt it again. That involuntary shudder you experience upon discovering the presence of an unknown creature upon your skin. I flicked it away and it fell upon the rug. It was a ladybird. Very beautiful, burnished gold and black, one gossamer membrane protruding from beneath the carapace over its wings. It was still alive, maybe even undamaged. I let it go outside. Whether it was the same one that was on my neck in the study, or another, I do not know.

Last February, after I returned from Japan, there was a deluge that lasted several days. It was the heaviest rain on record―since the time before. I did look it up but cannot now remember when that was. A hundred years ago maybe. Suffice to say this is an event which happens periodically and will obviously continue to do so. During this storm I realised our house, which we bought only recently, in the midst of Black Summer, with the smoke of hundreds of bushfires turning the air orange-yellow, is built upon the northern slope of a slight rise; so that the land tends downhill. As did the rain, roaring on the roof, pouring through the gutters, flooding into the drains.

When it stopped, and I was on my way down the side of the house to put the rubbish and the recycling into the bins, I met an animal. A rodent of some kind. Or a marsupial. Quite large. Brownish skin, golden along the ridge of the spine. A short, stumpy tail. A hunch in the back. It was foraging amongst the clippings I’d left to rot on the ground after the last time I clipped the myrtle hedge. It hopped, unhurriedly, across the path and into an open grill that leads under the house. Just before it went in it paused and looked up at me with a bright incurious eye: as if to say, you live here too, do you?

Subsequently I went online to try to work out what it was. There are a few possibilities. One is that it’s a brown rat, aka the Norwegian rat, the wharf rat, the ship rat, the sewer rat. Another is that it’s a native, also a rodent, sometimes called the bush rat. They are nocturnal, however, and uncommon in urban areas; whereas this one seemed quite at home in the broad daylight. The third possibility is that it’s some kind of marsupial. An antechinus perhaps. There are fifteen varieties of these here; it is a dasyurid, like quolls and Tasmanian Devils. The largest, the dusky antechinus, feeds mostly on insects and small reptiles but will eat fruits, seeds and so forth. It is diurnal and may come forth at any hour of the day or night.

I didn’t see one of them again for a while and when I did I still wasn’t sure what it was. One balmy autumn evening Mayu and I were sitting outside and saw a couple of them scurrying along the top of the green metal fence that divides this house from the one next door. They were smaller than the one upon the path, about half the size; but with the same hunch in the back, the same stubby tail, the same hopping gait. Subsequently we saw more of them, even smaller, about the size of a mouse. I watched one through the window of the bedroom at the front of the house for quite a long time as it snuffled in the leaf litter under a gardenia bush.

The people who sold us this house had two growing children and one of them kept pets in a wooden hutch out by the compost bin. Guinea pigs maybe; or rabbits. I don’t know. They took the hutch with them when they went, exposing an oblong patch of bare ground at the edge of the lawn. Over time, crumbs and seeds and other detritus must have fallen through the cracks in the timber and, once the hutch was gone, birds came to feed upon it: noisy minas, Indian minas, spotted doves. There might have been a bit of competition between these three species; or it might have been that the minas, of both kinds, weren’t very interested in the food we started putting out for them. After a while, the patch was only visited, several times a day, by a pair of spotted doves; later we started feeding them on the lawn.

We bought the seed mix from a supermarket and soon noticed that the doves, although they devoured everything else, did not eat a long wheat-like grain that was included in the selection. The rat, however, or the antechinus, or whatever it was, did. Over a number of days we watched one come out from under the house near the washing line, hop across the grass and then spend some time among the seeds, apparently stuffing its cheeks with grain. After that it would go back under the house, presumably to store its harvest, before returning for more. Sometimes there were brief confrontations with the spotted doves, who seemed, surprisingly, always to prevail.

Once when I surprised an animal out there, it hid behind the compost bin. There is what looks like the entrance to a burrow, now plugged, back there in the soft earth next to the fence, and I wondered if that was where it had gone. I waited and watched and after a while it came around the side of the bin, saw me standing there, and disappeared again. A while later it came back around the other side of the bin. Again it saw me and again retreated. Glossy and bright eyed. I walked away.

After that we stopped seeing them for a while. Perhaps they had stored enough grain for the winter; or eaten enough to make hibernation possible; if they hibernate. There’s clearly a family living under the house, the little mouse-like ones, the middle-sized ones we saw hopping along the fence, the big grand one I first saw out on the path.

The spotted dove, ubiquitous in Sydney, is not a native. They are an Asian bird, introduced to Melbourne in the 1860s, and flourishing along the east coast ever since. They are beautiful and shy, with a pale whitish-purple head, a pink breast, light brown back and wings, and a checkerboard pattern, white and black, on either side of the neck; which gives them their name.

They call constantly from the trees, a distinctive coo-cor-cor, which some people find irritating. Males and females look very much alike and when our pair first started visiting, we spent some time learning to distinguish one from the other. The male, who always flies down first, has a slimmer body, a whiter head, and a pointy tuft at the throat; the female is plumper, shyer and with a more purpled head.

And then there was one. Without a point of comparison, it took us a while to work out it was the male who was still coming: partly because of the way he started to flirt with Mayu. When she was out there he would fly down, walk importantly across the lawn, hop onto the deck and start arching his back, spreading his tail and extending his wings in the way that male pigeons do when they are courting. Sometimes he showed his cloaca. She responded by giving him food; and perhaps that was the point. She’d talk to him too, and he grew accustomed to her voice. He seems to like it when she speaks Japanese. He sat on the fence for about ten minutes the other day, listening to her talking to a friend on the phone.

Of course we wondered what had happened to the female. Spotted doves are monogamous and they mate for life. There are cats around―next door has one and there’s another, a bold tabby, who’s visited a few times. Was she dead? Did they break up? Or was she sitting on a nest somewhere? And then she came back. Her reappearance coincided with a period during which the male called incessantly from inside the myrtle hedge, though I could never work out exactly where he was.

Then, a couple of times, they made love before us on the deck. They would hop up, bill and coo, then she would settle down and plump up her feathers and wait for him. He’d strut around a bit, with his chest puffed out. If, in his afflatus, he forgot about her, she’d remind him with a peck or two.

After they’d consummated, they’d both perch on the edge of the deck and make a tender, triumphant sound. Calling out to their peers perhaps. Or to their descendants. Not long after that I found some pieces of egg shell on the lawn under the myrtle tree that grows beside the compost bin. They are sitting next to the Buddha now, on the ochre sill below the laundry window.

Apparently spotted dove nests are so frail, so flimsily built, you can sometimes see the two white eggs they contain from underneath. Nevertheless, they must be robust enough, because their numbers keep on increasing. We are now feeding the children, or the grand children, of the original pair. Not with supermarket seed, we go to a pet shop now. No preservatives, the punky girl that served me said. No additives.

Halfway down Peace Lane, where I walk most days, there’s a cohort of a dozen or so spotted doves, including several juveniles. They are slimmer than ours, perhaps because they live mostly on crumbs of white bread left out by the ancient Greeks whose back yards open onto the lane way. Spotted doves breed all year round but most commonly between September and December. Perhaps by next year we’ll have an even bigger family of doves visiting the lawn in our back yard.

II

When you buy property, you also buy an ecosystem. Or a portion of an ecosystem. We are living over what was once a swamp, in a valley of low-lying land with a creek running through it on its way to join the Cooks River, which then debouches into Botany Bay. Both swamp and creek were called Gumbramorra, a word whose meaning is obscure.

The Dictionary of Sydney records: Gumbramorra Swamp consisted of marshland at the foot of the declining sandstone and shoal ridges, in a relatively narrow area surrounded by low hills. At the mouth of the Gumbramorra Creek were mudflats, which were also evident in the swamp itself. Behind these mudflats and mangroves was a salt marsh. These conditions supported abundant wildlife.

Local historian Sue Castrique, in an essay on Gumbramorra, records: Aunty Fran Bodkin is a Dharawal elder who grew up on her mother’s traditional land. She is a botanist, environmental scientist and educator who has an intense interest in plants and climate and works to bring together Dharawal knowledge and Western science. The swamp, she says, was a special place for the Bidigal clan.

‘We were the bitterwater peoples, the oyster eaters because we ate shellfish from the swamps. We were the swamp walkers. We drank the water from the rivers and swamps, not quite fresh water, and not quite salt water. One thing we knew was that where the reeds grow you can drink the water, at the base of the reeds.

Aunty Fran grew up when there were still remnants of the swamp, mostly near the river, in Midjuburri, now called Marrickville. There was so much edible stuff, she says. Black shelled mussels, other shellfish, eels and the reeds with their sweet tubers. When the myall wattle, Acacia binervia, flowered, it meant the mullet would be running in the river.

It wasn’t all about food. We used the mud flats on the banks as skating rinks. It was the most beautiful mud, it was so slippery. We would run and jump on the mud and slide for metres after metres. We would come home and Mum would be at the gate with the hose. Early European settlers, however, avoided Gumbramorra. It was useful to them only for watering cattle or for digging up clay in order to make bricks.

All that changed during a drought in the 1880s, when the swamp dried out, leaving bare flat clay beds behind. One Thomas Saywell drew up a plan for a new suburb there, to be called Tramvale, and then sold the land to three Sydney businessmen, Mathias Bohrsmann, Henry French and William Shirlow, a tailor, a draper and a bootmaker, respectively. They increased the number of blocks to 160, added laneways to the rear of the rows of houses to be built, and put the estate on the market. The blocks were small, prices were low, terms were easy and a real estate frenzy ensued. The buyers were working people, labourers, cab drivers, railway workers and, for some reason, a large number of widows. Locals who lived nearby knew Tramvale flooded―they had seen it under water―but, in 1882, Gumbramorra had been dry for three years.

Castrique continues: In 1889, after four days of torrential rain, Tramvale became a lake. The rain coincided with an exceptional tide, the highest for twenty years, and water rose rapidly. Women and shivering children were rescued by boat. Worse, once the houses dried off, they were coated in a greasy slick of sewage and tannery waste.

In 1867, a huge tannery had been built on the headwaters of Gumbramorra Creek. It drew water for the tanning pits from the creek and then dumped its waste back into it. Rushes grew profusely in the nutrient-rich waters, trapping a soupy mix of animal scraps and leather particles that choked the watercourse. At the same time, sewage from newly-built houses in Stanmore and Newtown flowed down into the valley, creating a black stinking mud whose smell was described as indescribable.

Subsequently, the Reverend Thomas Roseby, a Congregational minister, suggested the basin should be turned into a lake. There were precedents. Roseby had lived in Ballarat and knew Lake Wendouree, a natural wetland dammed during the gold rushes and turned into a reserve. Another example was in Centennial Park, a series of ponds created out of the Lachlan Swamp in 1887. How easily, wrote Roseby, the whole place might be turned into paradise.

It was not to be. Instead, house building continued, incrementally, and the floods continued too. The first pumping station began to be built in 1898 and gradually, piecemeal, over many years, some degree of control over the flooding was attained. The most vulnerable areas were rezoned and are given over to light industry. Those paint and automobile shops on the other side of Illawarra Road.

Meanwhile the brick pits, emptied of their clay, filled up with water. They were used by local kids as swimming holes; but they had their own dangers: if a little one fell in, s/he might not be able to clamber back up the slippery slope. There were quite a few drownings; and so, in time, the pits were filled in.

The one at the end of our street was made over into a velodrome that was used during the 1938 Empire Games. The closing ceremony was held there, with a crowd of about 40,000 attending. Henson Park is still a sports ground where rugby league, AFL and cricket are played; and, where, in all seasons, people walk themselves and their children and their dogs.

III

When I put a post up on Facebook about the rodent or marsupial or whatever it was I saw down the side of the house, Ray Goodwin, who used to live here but is now in Murwillumbah, wrote to say that the rats of Marrickville are legendary and have built networks of tunnels which go all the way back up to Circular Quay.

He said their lineage is ancient: if they are ship rats, they will have been here since the First Fleet arrived in 1788. Or, if one or two hopped off Cook’s ships in Botany Bay in 1770, even longer. And that’s to say nothing about earlier incursions by Dutch and Portuguese ships, all of which would also have had rats aboard.

When most people think of rats, they think of exterminators; but we are reluctant to poison whatever creatures we have living here; especially if they turn out to be natives. Even if they aren’t, it still doesn’t seem a good idea to leave toxic substances around. Hasn’t there been enough killing? What else might die?

Anyway, if this whole suburb is rat-infested, with entrenched populations, if we poisoned ours, wouldn’t others move into the space they formerly occupied? Mayu’s friend Big Sue, when she was staying here, put it best: so long as they don’t come inside, they’re not really a problem.

We did have an exterminator come around after we moved in, and the year after too. Matt is big, steady, calm guy with a ponytail. He drives a Hilux with the number plate PRED8OR and lives out west, along the Hawkesbury River. After he laid baits outside of the house for cockroaches, and checked for signs of white ants, he stood chatting with us in the kitchen. When I mentioned the animal that might have been a marsupial he gave me a long level look and said a single word: rodents.

It was December, 2019, at the height of the Black Summer bushfires, the first time he came. He told us his wife, a Dharug woman, was having a children’s book, which she wrote and illustrated, published through Broome-based Magabala Books; and was contributing to mural designs for the new airport being built out at Badgerys Creek. He said his wife said that other indigenous people out west, from a different mob, reckoned the fires we were having then recur in a 250 year cycle, meaning the last big burn had taken place around the time James Cook was sailing up the coast of eastern Australia in 1770.

I remembered reading in Cook’s Journals about the smoaks of many fires seen burning upon the land. I’d always assumed he meant cooking fires; but maybe they were bushfires. Who can say? I felt an obscure sense of reassurance in hearing about this long cycle of burning; along with the residual guilt that I might thereby become one of those who denies the effects of global warming consequent upon human behaviour.

I was thinking about Matt the other night when I saw a cockroach just above the sink on the kitchen wall. Blattodea are a very old species. This was a big one, with a white stripe along the outside of its wings. I’ve always thought, on no good authority, that they are native. Garden cockroaches, we used to say. It was immobile and stayed still while I trapped it under a glass, slid a postcard between the mouth of the tumbler and the wall, upended the glass then took it outside, where I let it go among the plants edging the lawn.

How did it get inside? Under the door perhaps. How do the ants, which cluster in the kitchen, enter the house? Today I saw dozens of them gathering around the twin power points on the wall next to the stove, for what purpose I do not know. Most of them will end up dead, from a surfeit of electrons perhaps, making a scatter of black cyphers upon the white bench below. The same fate awaits those which assemble around the hinges of the doors that close the pantry cupboard: what are they eating? Glue made from cow bones? If so, why does it kill them?

A house, however solid it may seem, is actually a membrane made up of other membranes, all of them permeable. Especially a house that’s more than a hundred years old, as this one is, and built over a swamp. Walls are one of the membranes and they too let things in.

Last winter we had to have the front bedroom resealed against rising damp: water overflowing from leaking gutters infiltrates the old, porous bricks, rises up and, having nowhere else to go, begins to ooze through the walls. Some mornings I found water pooled along the tops of the skirting boards; or lying puddled upon the floor. Moisture seeps in the windows too. Sometimes when we woke up, the insides of the glass were dripping with condensation. It couldn’t just have been our breath, there was too much of it.

IIII

Our own skin, which we like to think of as impermeable, exudes water every time we sweat. What does it allow in? Now, in a time of plague, we are sensitized to the permeability of our bodies, the way tiny rogue fragments of DNA, called viruses, can make their way into our mouths or noses, past the skin of our throats, our trachea, our oesophagus, our lungs and into our blood, there to reproduce and then go on to invade other bodily parts; the brain, the liver, the kidneys. After that they explode, in an orgy of generation, and we cough or breath them out, so that they can infect the cells of others. Our bodies, too, are ecosystems.

I find the continuity between self and others reassuring. I like the feeling of extension, and the implied interdependence of things; as much as I like the continuity between built structures, like this house, and the living things with which it is surrounded and interpenetrated. I’m reassured in the same way by the discovery that some of the uneaten seeds we’ve been leaving out for the birds have germinated and are now covering the ground where the hutch once stood with seedlings. I don’t know what they are but that does not bother me. We will find out in time; or else we will not.

What pleases me just as much is that what I thought was a vertical branch of the lilly pilly, growing over a corner of the garden, is actually a camellia, now covered in pink and white flowers; camellia is the plant from whose leaves we make tea. These ones, as if blushing at the thought of their own beauty, bend their heads down over the lawn.

Now and again a moon-coloured flower falls, to lie resplendent and rotting amongst the seedlings of whatever is growing there. The doves too, pink and grey, look elegant when they come down to feed on the seeds we leave out for them. As for the dusky antechinus, if that’s what they are, who knows? They are younger than us, and have been here for very much longer.

image : path down the side of the house, after rain

1 Comment

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One response to “Wild Wild Life

  1. Kayte

    What a wonderful read. Thank you.

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