Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer
The autumn crop of chickens arrived in the dying days of summer, born to the young brown hen whose very favourite thing is sitting on a pile of eggs and hunkering down until she hatches a whole bunch of new chickens to follow her around. When she turns broody we call up our friends in Strathalbyn, where Murray our ex-rooster is spending his days away from the neighbour’s complaints about his macho pre-dawn crowing. Fertilised eggs duly arrive from Strath, to replace all those unfertilised ones laid by our girls-only flock. Twenty-one days later, eight eggs hatch only two chicks. Perhaps Murray has been remaining faithful to the memory of his Magill flock, and hasn’t been doing his duty amongst those country hens, as he ought?
Three weeks later, these two small chicks are out and about in the chicken run, and have discovered what every chick before them has discovered – that small is beautiful, and that chicks can get through chicken wire to the veggie patch next door, from which all the hungry hens behind them are filtered out. Today they have found the Grain Amaranth, a magnificent deep-red flowering plant that drops tiny seeds smaller than a pin head, but higher in protein than just about any other seed. Chicks seem born knowing how to scratch and fossick, and these two are eagerly searching out the tiny yellow seeds that have fallen to the ground, seemingly just for them.
Life’s been hectic lately, and I’m starting to fret about the winter crops, all of which I should have well along in the seedbeds by now. There are plenty of things around here still undone, and I’m slowly learning not to give myself a mental flogging because the garden, the shed, my paperwork, my business, my studies, the extension and all the other accoutrements of a modern life are in a state of some disarray.
But life with a veggie patch has its compensations. I was gathering silverbeet leaves for the chooks early one morning during this last week, when the young mother over the back fence called out to me. There she stood in the early morning sun, holding her young baby in her arms, and looking as radiant as only young mothers can. It’s been years since I’ve broken into a trot, but I was across the veggie garden in a flash, and Reina passed three-month old Roshani through the fence for me to hold. I could have wept – this was one more thing that I’d been wanting to do for months, but had found no chance to organise.
This is no ordinary human baby – I’m her grandfather! Well, there are no common bloodlines, but I’m the old guy in the veggie patch through the back fence. When this first-born was on the way, I had asked especially if I could have the grandfather’s role – all the men-folk of my generation and beyond on both sides of our neighbour’s family are gone. Every child should know days in a garden, the taste of soil, the joys of stuffing strawberries into their mouth straight off the plant, and the beauty of butterfly wings nearby. Between the very young and the very old there is a certain slow measure to the passing of the days, and a great pleasure therein for both.
Two other wonderful things happened this past week, which showed me once again that long hours of lonely effort bring forth some singularly beautiful moments. On the one hand, after months and years of effort, I sent off the final draft of a paper to a prestigious limnological journal that has accepted it for publication. I’d discovered a whole new way to measure stratification in lakes and reservoirs, and written about this.
But it was the veggie garden that bought me the greatest pleasure – a letter came from the cancer care group, who have returned to the Fern Avenue Garden to grow healthy food for themselves. They’d asked me if I’d mind taking them on a tour through my garden.
So one bright morning in the first few days of autumn I’d ducked out of work, and we were soon eating fruit off the fig orange and peach trees. Over in the herb garden we set about tasting chocolate peppermint leaves, ruminating about whether a certain plant was a pineapple sage or something else, identifying seeds from radishes, smelling carrot flowers and picking yellow and red tomatoes. We inspected the chickens and my ‘chicken fly-over’, which is like a freeway over-pass, but built from old timber. The humans walk over the top, and the chooks walk underneath, allowing them to move across to the opposite side of the veggie garden without me having to hassle myself opening and closing gates.
When all that was done, we sat down to morning tea in the shade of our half-built extension out the back of this old house. It was cool and pleasant there, and my wife served homemade biscuits with Moroccan tea (black tea with a sprig of fresh peppermint in it). These kind folks then presented me with an enormous bottle of red wine for my troubles. (That was trouble? Standing in my garden during a working day, talking ten-to-the-dozen and enjoying myself immensely?)So it was a wonderful surprise to come home from work this week to find a letter from these same good folk, expressing again their pleasure and enjoyment of the ‘veggie patch tour down-under’.
But what remains with me is the parting words of a very beautiful woman from this group, who had felt inspired by her visit, and spoke nostalgically of her memories of her own father in his veggie patch, with chooks and fruit trees and a rainwater tank. I was left wondering whether many of us from the Baby-Boomer generation also have such long-buried memories of young days spent in a garden just like his. Perhaps we all carry memories that have been lost in our busy lives, but that can be re-awakened by a sight or a smell or a taste.
If such a beautiful legacy could remain for so many decades with this woman, then I in my turn can provide that for a young Indian-Australian girl still in her mother’s arms, but with an old bloke over the back fence standing by with fork and hoe and tins of veggie seeds, ready to create memories for her that will endure long after he himself is gone.