I took one look at Sue Vincent’s photo prompt for this week and was immediately transported back in time to sunny days lazing about beside a river that looked very similar to the one in Sue’s photo. The one main difference was that the buildings were much further away from the river I knew.
I haven’t thought of that place in years and years –
Back when my oldest kids were young my best friend owned an old farmhouse on a few acres on Melbourne’s fringe. There was a tract of Crown Land beside her property that she was able to rent for just $8 a year. A meandering river formed the far boundary of the portion she rented.
On warm sunny afternoons in the school holidays I would drive out to the farmhouse with my kids. My friend’s kids were of a similar age to mine and attended the same alternate school. They were great friends. One of the skills they perfected at the alternate school was the making of the good ol’ Aussie damper made famous in old bush yarns. The recipe is a simple one – add a pinch or two of salt to some flour, add water and mix to form a stiff dough.
As the more domesticated of our collection of wild children made up the dough my friend and I would gather up the other things we needed for our picnic – chiefly a water bottle, a box of matches and enough newspaper to get a fire going.
Once the dough was made my friend would pick up the mixing bowl and we’d set off. First we walked through her garden where bees buzzed around scented flowers then we’d climb through a hole in the fence and set out across the Crown Land. Here garden plants gave way to tall eucalypts and native grasses. The two older boys in our midst led the way talking loudly about their derring-do on wild adventures that occurred mostly in their imagination. The two older girls followed behind chatting in a learned fashion about books and romantic heroines. Their hippy skirts trailed out around them as they swept grandly through the golden afternoon. The two younger children walked closer to us and my friend and I slowed our walking pace to match theirs.
Down at the river the kids would clamber about on the rocks closest to the riverbank while my friend and I gathered firewood and built a little fire. Once it had burned down to form a few coals we’d call the kids back to cook their damper. This they did by wrapping the sticky dough around a stick and holding it out towards the fire. With luck they’d cook this mess into something vaguely edible but more often than not they would sear the outside to black charcoal while the inside remained doughy. Needless to say not much damper was actually consumed. The picnic was more about being beside the river and forgetting about the outside world for a while. Both my friend and I were sole parents so we both relished this time away from routines and work.
In my memory we spent many afternoons by the river but I think really we only went down there a handful of times. I do remember the last time we went. It was during a long summer drought so we didn’t light a fire. The river had dwindled to a series of muddy puddles and the air was hot and dry. We had taken the kids down that day simply to get away from our hot, stuffy houses.
Shortly after that visit both my friend and I went through major life changes which saw us both selling our houses and moving away. It wasn’t so long after that either when my friend and her youngest child died in a terrible fire which burnt the old house they lived in to the ground.
Such are memories.
In my mind a lot that happened during that time has been buried under the weight of the years that followed. My kids are grown now and the alternate school and hippy skirts were left behind long ago. Occasionally we hear news of my friend’s two surviving children. The pain of loss separated us years ago and we never found our way back to the easy connection we once had.
How strange that this memory should have unfolded so completely in response to Sue’s photo. Visual images can lead us to some unexpected places.
How strange too that so much of it concerns fire – both the pleasant little cooking fires we can gather round and the out-of-control fires that sear our lives and changes things irrevocably. My heart goes out to the people who have suffered so terribly in the Californian bushfires. Having lived through some terrifying bushfires in Australia the photos I have been seeing of the California fires are all too real. This morning I woke up thinking that perhaps it is time we turned to indigenous people and learnt from them about their cool burn methods of fire management. I wrote about this earlier this year https://beinginnatureblog.wordpress.com/2018/03/19/fire-farming/
Even more importantly we need to get serious about climate change and work together to bring about real change on this issue.