I remember another kind of summer

Yesterday, after a day of running round, which went from gruesome - having part of a cracked tooth removed with pliers (more visits to the dentist, oh goody) to delightful, hanging out with Betty, Ruby and baby Maeve, I stopped of at the GJs to see whether they had a long metric quilt ruler (no, they didn't) and as it was getting close to 4.00pm when the clearway on Lygon Street starts, I parked on a side street I haven't been down for ages. What a shock. Half the street trees were dead, or so cactus they might as well be. I expect grass to brown off and gardens to have the odd casualty, but this was startling. We're talking big tea trees here. It was really sad.

I've been looking through old photo albums, contemplating uploading some pictures of the old house to Flickr, as a kind of backup. When I look way back, I'm reminded that summer in Melbourne wasn't always like this. In a couple of sets of photos, I'm struck by how green and lush the garden is. Not the green you get after a winter of just average rain, but the deep green of sustained rain. Then I'm shot back to the nineties when we sometimes used to have the kind of warm wet summer where everything stayed pretty green until February. There were a couple of summers when the laneway flooded, and one when I got home from a New Year's earthcore and the water was lapping at the front door. There had been a thunderstorm and the stormwater in the lane was clogged. These were the kind of summers where you could grow vegetables and flowers without hardly trying. Even when it got dry, there was still plenty of moisture in the subsoil and we were allowed to use sprinklers, watering systems and hoses. On a warm evening being out in the garden watering the garden, with damp soil and mulch squishing up your toes was one of those pleasures of summer. It wasn't really that long ago, maybe fourteen years. But long ago enough that people new to Melbourne might think that it's always been dry like this.

In all honesty, I don't think I've had a really great summer garden since 1999. That was the year I lived on homegrown tomatoes and basil, corn and beans. Things had started to dry off, which is probably why the tomatoes did so well, but we could still water as much as we liked. After that, there was this terrible year when it was so hot and dry that there was no moisture left anywhere. The soil completely dried out. Even now, it doesn't seem to have completely and become properly saturated all the way down. That year no matter how much I mulched and watered, I just couldn't replicate the bounty of the year before. What survived that year became the backbone of my future garden. A ruthless survival of the fittest. Every year since, I've felt my enthusiasm as a gardener wane just a little bit more. I've hoped for it to be better, wished for a long wet spring followed by a damp summer. But at least I had a garden around me. Some greener that had been established in better, wetter times.

Of course I remember other droughts. As a young child I remember not being allowed to water your garden except with a bucket and digging a bore at my nan and pa's place. But I don't think dry spells ever went on as long as this and it always felt like a temporary thing, not a new reality.  Perhaps that's the difference between my perception of things as a child and as an adult, but somehow I don't think so. Now as I plan our new garden, I'm thinking about what might still look lush when times are tough. What we might use to establish new plants and keep them alive over next summer. How to eventually have enough growing and covering the soil that we don't live in a dust bowl. To gain back that feeling of ease one has when surrounded by a garden. Even a tatty one. One thing I know, no more silver birches. The ones around here look shattered. Possibly I'll plant a Melia tree, some small eucalypts and roses. Some quick growing wattles as a short term filler (they make great mulch after about five years). And fruit trees. The rest of the garden will have to be of very tough stuff too. A small vegetable patch protected with shade cloth. Hardy bedding plants and herbs. No more grass than can be watered with grey water. I wonder whether we'll have balmy wet summers again. It would be very nice, but I'm not counting on it.

day of mourning

Today was a National Day of mourning for victims of the worst bushfires in Australian history. Two hundred and nine people dead, over 7000 people homeless or displaced, whole towns burnt down. Not  where I live, but on the fringes of my town. While Grace was having her nap, I watched parts of the service on ABC online. Had a cry. As I went about my day today, I gave in and let the sadness just be, without analysis or thinking about what can or should be be done.  Thoughts about those people who died, or who lost someone dear to them. Parents who lost children, children who lost parents. People who lost grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbours. People who had a home and now they don't. Whole towns full of grief and loss.

I thought about the firefighthers and the relief workers, the people who search the houses and paddocks, the police and the bureaucrats, all the different sorts of helpers. About the people living in adjacent areas. How strange it must seem to be carrying on as usual. Or not quite as usual. Or definitely not as usual, as some towns are coming under renewed fire threat when the weather heats up again tomorrow. About how people have been really brave and how recovery efforts are already underway. About how schools are re-opening. 

Under all the action there must run a river of sadness. Even here, where people in my part of the city are going on as usual, there's an undercurrent. Like the grey tinge at the edge of the sky sometimes. I guess it's to be expected. It will take a long time for this to pass.


It's hard to know where to begin writing anything, it's been such an overwhelming week. So I'm just going to start at the beginning and see where I end up. On Black Saturday as it's now known, I was at one of my regular craft weekends. This time down the beach. In the morning the weather started out pleasantly enough and everyone hoped the forecast was wrong, but once the clouds burned off, it got hot. Seriously hot. At Angelsea it was only about 43 (109C), but you could see the nasty winds outside as we sat inside sweating and sewing. Fire weather. As we were to the west of the city, we knew the cool change would come early and that we could go to the beach. Still, I was a little nervous. The house was in a heavily treed area that had burned on Ash Wednesday in 1983 and before I left home, I had gave G the exact address just in case. As the heat rose and wind became wild and nasty, I made my own personal fire plan,the beach with a woollen blanket or if I couldn't find one, a rug from the floor. But in a way I was more worried about G and Grace at home in the city where the temperature reached a nasty 47C (116F), unheard of for Melbourne. He sounded tired and melted when I rung and I wondered whether it had been fair to leave him and Grace. My biggest fear should I be caught in any catastrophe is being separated from my family and it felt like one of the those days when any number of things could have gone wrong. We of course, living in the inner suburbs were safe and far from harm's way.

famous view of the Melbourne from Kinglake, now burnt - the Herald Sun

The first inkling of the horrible disaster surrounding our city was when one of the women on the craft weekend got a text kinglake gone. Anxious calls were made and people's loved ones were safe and we kept on crafting. Later that night before going to bed, Suzie heard more of the disaster unfolding on the neighbour's radio and we crept out into the night to hear. Di got the ABC going in the lounge and we sat and listened for a while. It was bad, fires in Gippsland from the Princes highway in the east to the Hume highway heading North. Murrindindi, Toolangi, Kinglake, Marysville. Fire within 2 km of central Bendigo, a major regional town. Fire in Narre Waren, which is an outer suburb of Melbourne. Beechworth, Resedale, Horsham. The state was aflame. In the morning it was blissfully cool, there was some rain even and we kept crafting. Not one of us knew the true extent of fast moving inferno devasting towns and the beauty of craft weekend kind of wrapped us in a cocoon of good things, craft, food and conversation. On the drive back, the sky was greyer and thicker than usual and I felt relieved to arrive home. G told me of what he had heard on the radio and how bad it was. Later after Grace was in bed, I sat and watched the news. Then it hit me and I wept. For the people who died, over 180 now with more to come, stories of lucky escapes and pain, for the sheer awfulness and terror what people experienced. For the people not knowing what had happened to their family and friends, for the people caught trying to escape (read this at H&B). For the people that got away and lost everything. For the 7000 people homeless or displaced. For communities ravaged.  For the horrible loss of it all.

Work last week had a grim edge. I was anxious that my uncle aunt and cousins and that friends who live in the hills were OK. They are. Other colleagues had similar sorts of worries. There were people moving around, bustling in and out. A sense of urgency alongside the mundane busyness of what we do. I work for C'link and we've been having quick daily meetings to be updated on the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment as policy and procedure evolve. Often there were more than a few moist eyes in the room. Quite a few of us have said we would work at the relief centres if required. It's work I have the skills to do and I'm ready to go, with G's blessing and support, but at the same time the thought terrifies me. It would be good to do something concrete. Then I wonder would I be up to the task? Chances are though, my job will be to carry on as normal or to backfill for someone else. And that is OK too. C'link has come in for serious criticism, which made me feel so sad and ashamed because I know that my colleagues on the ground would have been doing their best with the instructions they were given, but I also know that there is always a way around proof of identity issues in extreme circumstances. Thankfully this has been addressed and now we all have extremely clear instructions to priortise helping bushfire survivors in any way possible. There has also been massive behind the scenes work to try and deliver payments to people already receiving a benefit without them needing to lodge forms. I'm sure it won't be perfect but the bureaucrats will be trying. The list of postcodes affected illustrates yet again the enormity of it all. (How right I was, see C'link stuff up again here....)

View of the fire on Saturday night from Doncaster - The Age

Now I just wish I could do more. I wanted to give blood, which as my mum said would make you feel as though had given something of yourself, but after a careful reading of the FAQ, I'm not eligible.  We've donated cash to the Red Cross, which seems like the most sensible and practical thing to do.They certainly don't need any more material aid at the moment. Sorting through it all takes time and cash means that what is actually needed can be bought. There's also a really comprehensive list of ways to help, crafty and otherwise here at Handmade Help. I'm working out what I can do, because helping, even if it feels a bit lame, seems like the only way forward.

So all week I've been a bit teary. So have many people around me. Indeed, you could hear the emotion in the voice of deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard when she made this speech (transcribed in a heart wrenching post by Kim). There were leaky eyes in the parliament and the Prime Minister on telly was holding back tears. G says that people not directly affected are taking on the emotion and owning it. But how can you not? This is the biggest peacetime disaster this country has ever known and part of it has been taking place within an easy hour's drive. Everyone knows someone affected or who knows someone.  And what Australian gets to middle age without being touched somehow by fire? The stories pass through families, between friends, in casual conversations. Every time there is a big fire, I have this clear memory of a moment after school when I stood at the gate to my primary school watching the Dandenongs burn. Knowing that my father fighting the fire there (Mum think it was 1969 and he was helping his best friend's family in Montrose). I remember walking out of Coles in February 1983 and the sky had turned black. There have been many more fires since then and although I have never actually been in any of them or lost someone in a fire, watching them unfold always touches something primal and makes me cry. And these ones, the 2009 fires, are by far the worst yet. And they are still burning. Last night and tonight I saw orange firefighting helicopters overhead as they returned to the airport. They are menacing and comforting at the same time. Today the sky was grey, the rising and setting sun was red and every now and then the air smelled of smoke. Rain would be good.

slowly drifts into sleep

Last Saturday, I was lucky enough to be treated to a day at Sewjourn (otherwise known as craft heaven). Suse won a prize of a day crafting there and got to take a friend, and that friend was me (thanks Suse!). Lucky me. (If my tone seems strange, it's because I'm reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbabra Kingsolver in almost every spare moment - even standing at the tram stop -  and I think I am being taken over by the character Rachel). I took the quilt for Maeve that I've been working on for quite a while. Actually though, the making of this quilt has mostly been part of my inner craft life. So progress has been slow. Luckily she is very little and hangs out in her mum and dad's arms (and sometimes her aunty's - such a cuddly little baby). I'm blaming the heat and my lack of skillz with a rotary cutter. Before going on the craft day, I watched this lady on youtube explain how to cut fabric with a cutter, again and again, trying to figure out where I was going wrong.Then I got distracted by watching videos of all these crazy quilt ladies. I love the idea of quilts and quilting, but there's also something very scary about it as a craft. Is because of the precision and maths required, or just that thing of cutting up fabric into tiny little squares only to sew it back together again? Or how it seems to be very addictive? Then I got nervous about the craft day, would it be full of scary and crazy quilters? 

Kind of crazy, yes. Scary, no. Well, not on a personal level. The quilting work was awesomely good. Hovering on that edge between somewhat intimidating and totally inspiring. But you know what it's like with a room full of crafters, eventhough you're doing your own stuff, soon enough you're looking at this and that and asking questions, picking up tips and watching how things are done and nattering away and then someone offers to show you how to use a rotary cutter when you're ready. And they do. And lo and behold, it is no longer a mystery and after a day of much cutting, I have these mad rotary cutter skillz (or a start anyway). Thanks Meredithe!

All in all it was a great day, with awesome company (full list here on Bronwyns's blog), lunch laid on, cupcakes and air conditioning. And a big photo session with Suse on the way home in a cooling breeze. It was great. I even didn't feel guilty about lingering because I wasn't driving. Lovely. Much scampiness from Grace on my return home, but she loves her target t-shirt with the rough noddy applique. That I should photograph (note to self - photo any actual crafting that is half way presentable).

I'd show you the quilt in progress too, but my sister, mother of the newborn Maeve, reads here occasionally. She knows I'm making a quilt, but I'd like to keep some element of surprise. I really did think that I'd ffinish it on Saturday, but of course I didn't. Still I have this coming weekend, which is a full blown craft retreat with my regular group (aren't I lucky). But I also feel the need to make something to wear to work. Coming up with clean, seasonally appropriate clothes three days in a row being a challenge right now. So who knows. I might see how the weekend goes.