Flash Fiction: Owl

Owen wasn’t the sharpest owl in the tree, but it wasn’t his fault. His Mum said it was because he fell out of the nest when he was only a few days old. She reckoned that he landed on his head and that was why his eyesight was a bit out of alignment. It certainly made flying a challenge. He could still remember his first few attempts. The sense of trepidation, the trembling of his wings as he flung them out, mimicking the deep swoops and thrusts that he’d seen the others do. The first few wing beats were spectacular, or so they told him afterwards. Or perhaps they were spectacular when compared to his spiralled tumble to the ground.

But over time he’d found a way to adapt. By squinting, just a little, his vision seemed to balance out. When the others took off at night he was the last to leave. It was better that way. Less chance of somehow tangling his way into another owl’s flight path. This had happened a few times and the indignant squeaks and squawks were worse than any trapped prey that he’d heard.

And Owen found it easier to whistle, just a little, as he flew. This had caused rumblings of discontent within the parliament and he’d been lectured several times on the importance of silence in flight. It wasn’t all about the stereotype, or so he was told, but there wasn’t a lot of tolerance for an owl who whistled.

He had to admit that it was impressive to watch other owls go about their nightly hunts. The extraordinary vision and finely tuned senses picked up any movement within microseconds with a degree of accuracy which was breathtaking, especially for the prey. The typical image of an owl was still, quiet and wise, but he knew that it was their ability as honed killers that deserved praise.

Over time he trained himself to whistle after the kill. He had learned the importance of fitting in, mostly, with his fellow owls.

{Photo: three green owls}

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Impressions of Launceston, Tasmania

A couple of months ago, I headed off to Launceston for a few days. There is something almost comforting about the compactness of Tasmania; even in a few short days it is possible to see a lot of places if the mood takes you, or you can simply enjoy just being and really exploring a place if that is your preference. The year before I had a similar break in Hobart which was invigorating and relaxing. I was curious to see what the largest city in the north of the island had to offer.

Launceston streetscape, Cameron Street

Launceston streetscape – Cameron Street

Launceston is located in a natural basin at the head of the Tamar River, where it joins the North and South Esk. Mere minutes from the centre of the city, the South Esk plunges into Cataract Gorge, a steep basalt chasm. This is a popular tourist destination with paths along the cliff face and boasts the world’s longest single chairlift span.

Statue of Dr Pugh with Chalmer's Church in background

Dr Pugh and Chalmer’s Church, Prince’s Square

It is home to many nineteenth-century buildings, and there are many architectural delights to discover. Many of the fine heritage buildings have discrete but informative plaques outlying their history and previous uses, as appropriate. There are several suggested walks around the city which follow heritage buildings, stories of trade, public offices and places of worship. One of the first buildings that caught my eye was Chalmer’s Church. It opened for worship in 1860 and is an example of the Free Church of Scotland in Tasmania. It overlooks Prince’s Square, which has been many things including a parade ground. The statue that can be glimpsed in the bottom middle of the photo is of Dr William Russ Pugh who in the 1840s was the first person to operate with general aesthetic in the Southern Hemisphere.

Val d'Osne Fountain in Prince's Square

Val d’Osne Fountain in Prince’s Square

City Park was a lovely place for a wander. The land was originally used to house Launceston’s Government House and by 1841 the area was being used as a People’s Park, with a small admission fee. The gardens were gifted to the people of Launceston as a public park in 1863. In 1897 the Children’s Jubilee Fountain was installed to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. There is also a large colony of Japanese Macaques in the park, a mark of the sister city relationship with Ikeda City in Japan.

Jubilee Fountain and John Hart Conservatory in City Park

Jubilee Fountain and John Hart Conservatory

Across the river, the former Launceston Railway Workshops are now home to the Queen Victoria Museum. At one time there were over 270 railway stations in Tasmania. The passenger railway service was closed in 1978 but there are quite a few heritage railways in operation around the island and bulk freight still uses part of the rail network.

North Esk River views including brewery

North Esk River view with breweries along the riverbank

For a city of over 80,000 with lots of interesting buildings and places to visit, a handful of days wasn’t really enough to do it justice. I kept being drawn back to the river with its links to the commercial history of the town, its development, and the consequences of flooding – there have been 36 significant floods recorded to date. It was while strolling along the riverbank, taking in views of the Boag brewery and old Custom House, that I first saw Tasmanian Native Hens.

Tasmanian Native Hens

Tasmanian Native Hens

Launceston is a central base for further exploration, with Devonport relatively close by along with historic towns including the nearby Evandale, Ross and the mural town of Sheffield all within an easy drive. Hobart is about 200 kilometres away – not far in mainland terms but there was enough to keep my attention within Launceston, and it is a place that I’m sure I’ll return to again.

{Photo: gargoyle from church in Launceston}

November is NaNoWriMo

Like many writers around the world, I will be participating in NaNoWriMo this year. This annual event calls out a challenge to writers to put procrastination aside and commit to writing 50,000 words in a month. A daily average of 1,666 words, give or take, will get you to the finish line. But as with all memorable experiences, it is more about the journey than the destination.

This will be my third NaNoWriMo. I don’t do it every year for various reasons. The majority of my writing is in the short story form, so writing 50,000 words in a month doesn’t really fit in with that approach. But there are often stories or ideas that cannot be confined to a restricted word count. Sometimes it is good to explore an idea over a longer format, to give characters a chance to develop and discover things along the way.

The word count is a challenge but I’m not overly concerned about it as I was able to meet the target at my last two attempts. It was easier the second time as I knew what to expect, and on days when the words were flowing, I made the most of it to provide a buffer for the days when life got in the way. There is comfort in knowing that even if the word count isn’t met, I will have more words written by the end of November than if I’d not participated.

And I do like a creative challenge. Since May I have been writing a minimum of 250 words a day on various topics. This has included short stories, flash fiction, blog posts and general personal rants that help to keep my sanity in check. It has helped me feel connected to writing, and on most days I write beyond the minimum. There are some days when it is a bit of a challenge but I’ve surprised myself by maintaining the momentum. Ideas seem to pop up throughout the day, or I’ll wake up with a clear idea of what I want to write, which is a special kind of thrill.

The prospect of writing 50,000 words in a month is a challenge, even with a regular writing habit to draw strength from. But I like the idea of pushing myself creatively for a month, to give writing extra focus, and to be part of a worldwide community of writers who are also out there, scribbling and tapping and creating worlds of their own at the same time.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo – or some other creative challenge?

[Photo: a reminder that you can do hard things, spotted at Lane Cove]

Warming to Wattlebirds

Wattlebirds are mentioned early on in Where Song Began by Tim Low. Noted ornithologist John Gould described the sound made by little wattlebirds as similar to the sound made by a person vomiting. It is true that their call is harsh, but living in an area populated by red wattlebirds has softened my view of them.

 

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Red wattlebird in flight

As a honeyeater, red wattlebirds are a fiercely territorial bird. They call out to mark their territory and play an important role as pollinators. To watch a wattlebird or two tug away at nectar-filled blossoms is quite a sight to behold, as they are quite large birds although the Tasmanian yellow wattlebird is the largest honeyeater.

Little wattlebird

Little wattlebird, Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens

In the earlier days of colonisation, wattlebirds were hunted for the dinner table.

Red wattlebirds sold in Sydney’s poultry shops in large numbers. They were pronounced the best eating bird in the bush. Sugar produces a sweet meat that pleased colonial bellies. (p. 28)

Whilst these birds are no longer hunted for food, they provide a regular background of calls and clucks with a steady presence throughout the year. They are shy yet bold, not willing to come too close yet not entirely uncomfortable with human presence. They will take on magpies and currawongs, birds larger and known for their territorial aggression, in order to preserve their area. They are active birds, shifting quickly from trees to bushes in search of nectar.

Red wattle bird

Red wattlebird

They have a narrow beak, as befits a honeyeater, and reddish eyes which match their red wattles. These are small flaps of skin that hang beneath their neck. The red wattlebirds have a yellow underbelly.

Not all of their calls are harsh; some are softer and more gentle on the ears. Hearing their distinctive call is one of the wonderful reminders for me that I am home.

[Photo: red wattlebird]

Writing Prompt: It Would Only Take A Couple of Clicks …

It would only take a couple of clicks to do it, to get ahead of Jacko, but I wasn’t sure I should do it. It wasn’t out of pity. Don’t get me wrong. Jacko was a bastard and most of the crew would be pleased to beat him at a session, let alone over a day. He was the gun shearer in the area and everyone knew it. His reputation seeped beyond the district boundaries so that people passing through knew of him if they had friends or relatives in the surrounding towns.

We’d matched each other, sheep for sheep, all day. At first he’d hammed it up, singing out and showboating with his shears, sighing loudly as our calls for ‘sheepo’ came increasingly in tandem. Then, after morning smoko, he started sledging. I ignored him, which made him worse. But I focused my energy on working faster and cleaner, wasting less movement and needing less tar. By lunch we were even again.

He shouldered me as he passed me on the way back, and the afternoon was full of sly tricks and sleights. We were down to the last two sheep of the day, and the rest of the crew had backed off, some cleaning their gear as we went for it, click for click. I was sweating so much I could hardly see, my hands slick with greasy wool that filled the pocked holes where burrs had torn at my skin. All I could see were sheep bellies and chests and legs and a blur of khaki eyes, boggled by fear.

I could hear Jacko grunt with effort, then curse as his sheep buckled. It happens. They’re not as stupid as people think. They pick up on emotions like other animals do.

To hell with it. I gave one last burst of clicks, tossed off the fleece and sent the sheep on its way. The shed erupted in a cheer as I unbent my back, every muscle screaming in protest. As the cheer faded I heard Jacko’s final click. He didn’t raise his eyes to mine. It wasn’t easy to be beaten by a girl.

[Photo: sign at Rydalmere]

Ten Tunnel Train Trip

Recently I caught the train from the upper Blue Mountains to Lithgow. In recent years the only time I have taken this journey was when I was on the Indian Pacific. We had crossed the mountains on dusk, which was beautiful, but by the time we began the descent from Mount Victoria to Lithgow, it was dark.

So off I set on a gorgeous winter’s day. It was warm and mild for a change. The train was on time and before long I was settled in a carriage, watching the scenery as the track ran alongside the highway before detouring through patches of the country that you can only see from a train. The views opened up on the approach to Blackheath, with the Megalong Valley spread out on a clear day. Mount Victoria was a major station, and the end of the line for a while until the Lithgow Zig Zag railway was completed.

View over Kanimbla Valley

View over Kanimbla Valley

From Mt Victoria, the train passes through the sidings at Bell and Zig Zag, and a guard needs to be notified if a stop is required at either of these locations. Near the Zig Zag station, there are blackened stumps and trees; a legacy of the 2013 fires.

The descent from Mount Victoria to Lithgow initially comprised of a series of switchbacks to manage the steep grade, and it included three viaducts which can still be glimpsed today. The Zig Zag was replaced in 1910, and the track travels through ten tunnels cut through sandstone. These tunnels vary from 70 metres to 825 metres in length. In addition to making the journey safer, the ten tunnel deviation saved up to thirty minutes on journey times. The gradient was reduced, enabling increased loads on trains. The tunnels are considered to be an engineering achievement and included the deepest cutting on the NSW rail system.

Zig Zag Viaduct

Zig Zag Viaduct

At the entrance of each tunnel, the driver gave a soft toot on the horn. On the return trip, I noticed that each tunnel is numbered in descending order from the Sydney end with a firm directive of ‘WHISTLE’ emblazoned at each entrance. There is something about tunnels; the compression of air, the sudden darkness. I only spotted the occasional blur of white light in a couple of them.

As the train sweeps along from Mount Victoria, there are views over the Hartley Valley. There was some low cloud at one point but it cleared quickly to reveal views of the valley. Bright bursts of wattle livened up the passing scenery, which was a mixture of trees, heath and ferns for most of the trip. Travelling between the ten tunnels there were large sandstone outcrops.

Lithgow Station

Lithgow Station

I had a quick wander around Lithgow before catching the return train back, enjoying the views as the train moved smoothly along the tracks. There is the whisper of metal on steel, interlaced with station announcements.

It was great to be able to enjoy the trip and to be a passenger for a change. It was good to travel to a familiar place but on a different mode of transport.

When was the last time you travelled to a familiar location a different way?

[Photo: Mt Victoria Station]

Book Review: Taboo by Kim Scott

Sometimes books cross your path at the right time. Taboo had been recommended by a fellow avid reader as one of several books that I should keep an eye out for. When I started to read Taboo, it coincided with a week with some travel and much time in the air and waiting for flights or on trains was spent with Gerry, Tilly and Dan in the south west of Western Australia.

Recently ABC aired a series called Mystery Road, which is about two young men including a local Aboriginal who go missing from a large cattle station. The background setting is a small town with a mix of locals and backpackers frequenting the local pub. One of the characters is a young woman who was sexually abused when aged thirteen. There are echoes of streets with houses and yards that need attention, a community in disarray and the sexual abuse of children in Taboo as well, but there is also a strong sense of trying to understand and reconcile what has happened in the past.

Whilst there are various viewpoints and characters in the book, the main players are Dan, Tilly and Gerry. Dan is the link with the white colonial past. Recently widowed, he lives on the family farm which is run down and eking an existence in lean times. He is on his own with two small dogs for company. His brother, Malcolm, keeps an eye on him and their sibling bond includes a religious connection. There are early hints of a disconnect between Dan and his son, Doug. There is also a sense of foreshadowing: Dan had thought he’d spotted Doug somewhere, in the city perhaps, and was surprised at his appearance, his shaved head, and even at a glance could see that there was something amiss both with Dan and the woman he was with.

Tilly is at the heart of the story. In her early teens, her mother tells her that her father is Aboriginal, in jail, and wants to see her. They travel together to see him but Tilly is left to go into the jail alone and is guided by an Aunty who she meets there. Aunty Cheryl is to have a significant impact on her life. Tilly meets her father and continues to go to see him with Cheryl’s help and encouragement. Cheryl offers a different way of life, something more exotic and glamorous than what her mother can provide.

Gerry is the link between Dan and Tilly. Gerald is one of the twins – his twin brother is called Gerard. We meet Gerry just as he leaves jail, having been inside for a few months due to a misdemeanour of Gerard’s. It isn’t always clear in some parts of the book, especially from Tilly’s perspective, which twin is the good twin and which is the other as they both are called Gerry and are nearly identical in appearance and dress. Even tattoos are similar. During his stints in jail, Gerry has connected with Tilly’s father, Jim Coolman. Jim has lived a life in and out of jail, marred by drugs and drink and violence. But he has found a sense of connection and belonging by bringing the local Noongar language back into use. Jim has been running sessions in the jail and he speaks to Tilly of the importance of language in their visits.

The early introduction to Tilly is when she travels to a remote location to be picked up by Gerry (both Gerrys are there) and shuttled out to the ironically named Hopetown. There is to be an unveiling at a Peace Park, a plaque to acknowledge the town as the site of a massacre of Aborigines in the late 1800s. The actual site of the massacre is on Dan’s family farm.

There are elements of the supernatural in Taboo, with the people of the past never really that far away. Dan sees his wife in a doorway and is comforted by her presence. Throughout the landscape around Hopetown and Dan’s farm, in particular, there are quickening shadows at various times, including when Noongar people are walking around the property to visit old watering holes and the like. Tilly feels their presence too, especially when danger circles around her.

There are symbols and echoes of images. Early on, Dan reaches for a smooth stone on a windowsill which has been warmed by the sun. Towards the end of the novel, there are stones in Gerald’s pockets as he makes a pilgrimage of sorts across the pathways of his ancestors. When he stops to drink water, he sometimes exchanges one stone for another, then resumes his journey with them heavy in his pockets. There is a circularity to the narrative, starting with an out of control truck with unidentified occupants which becomes clear at the end of the novel. There is also the repetitive cycle of abuse by the powerful over those without power, across the generations. And a sense of the visiting mob being unwelcome in their own country, being met a couple of times with resistance and it is made clear that they should move along, that they have no right to be there.

But the book also brims with moments of humour and sharp observation. It is difficult not to wince at the naive enthusiasm and obliviousness of the newly appointed Aboriginal Support Officer at Tilly’s school who seems determined to create a token performance of dancing, art and didgeridoo.

‘Lots of people lost their culture down this way. We can fix that up. I’ll get some workshops, some classes or something happening. We’ll have excursions – we had one this morning, to the Aboriginal Community College.’ She named the suburb. ‘But it was terrible, those poor kids.’

‘How do you mean?’ asked Tilly.

‘None of them could play didj. Some of us, some of our kids, will have to go and teach them.’

‘Didj doesn’t come from down here.’

‘Oh, Tilly, but it’s so Aboriginal. Didgeridoo means Aborigine to everyone, surely!’

‘Well, I don’t know.’

Then there is the warmth and kinship of the busload of Noongar people, collected by Wally the bus driver, for the gathering and unveiling of the plaque at the Peace Park. One of my favourite minor characters was Beryl, one of those bossy women who help ensure people are fed and things happen, but with an edge that cuts through any insincerity. There is the cheeky elder, Wilfred, who makes bird puppets and recognises the importance of Tilly as one of the next generation, ‘tough and precious’.

It was the kind of book which stays with you, and which challenges assumptions and creates characters that you wonder about, long after the final page is read.

There is an excellent review of this book by Lisa Hill here.

[Photo: The Company of Trees by Ro Murray and Mandy Burgess spotted at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba]

History Herstory Our Story: Parramatta Female Factory – 200 Years

The foundation stone for the Parramatta Female Factory was laid on 9 July 1818 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie. The bicentennial of this event was marked by a community gathering in which stories of women, children and men who were linked to the history of this place were acknowledged.

The day’s events included a dedication ceremony, historical re-enactments, speeches and the unveiling of a commemorative wall. There was also a Welcome to Country, acknowledging the Barramattagal ancestral ground.

The Parramatta Female Factory was commissioned by Governor Macquarie in response to the growing challenge of creating an environment where convict women could be housed, gainfully employed, be selected as possible servants or wives, and punished if required.

North Tower of Ward 1 featuring clock that was once located on Female Factory main barrack

North Tower of Ward 1 featuring clock that was once located on Female Factory main barrack

The role of women in the colonial society was contentious on various fronts, and not least of all because the female population was significantly lower than that of men. An anonymous letter had been sent to Earl Bathurst accusing Macquarie of condoning prostitution by not providing accommodation for unmarried women. Macquarie had requested approval to build accommodation previously but had been denied. Reverend Samuel Marsden had plans already drawn up; these plans were passed on to Colonial Architect Francis Greenway by Macquarie. The plans were to build a factory and barracks to lodge 300 women on four acres enclosed by a nine-foot stone wall.

The factory model was used for a further twelve factories around the state and the country as the colony expanded. It was to be built alongside the Parramatta River, in part to provide access to the river for spinning flax and bleaching linen. Government House was on the other side. The Factory “stood on the edge of its large barren grounds as if straining across the river to the settlement.” (Macquarie’s World, Marjorie Barnard).

Female Factory Store and Dispensary

Female Factory Store and Dispensary

Factories were designed with multiple purposes in mind including British bridewells, workhouse and prison. Various work was carried out by women on the site, including producing linen, wool picking and spinning, stone breaking and working within the factory itself. It is estimated that about 5,000 women passed through the Parramatta factory. Women were employed as servants by private settlers and returned for various reasons, such as reassignment, the birth of children or court-ordered punishments.

The site had a history of overcrowding, mismanagement and poor conditions, and there were various riots at the site as a result. A class system was put in place to separate women eligible for assignment, women approaching the end of their imprisonment, and women who had committed crimes in the colony or had broken the strict factory rules.

View from riverbank towards industrial sections

View from riverbank towards industrial sections

In Women Transported: Life in Australia’s Convict Female Factories, a handbook to an exhibition compiled by various researchers and contributors, it is noted that it was estimated that at least 25,000 convict women were transported to Australia. Of these, between nine and ten thousand are estimated to have passed through one of the colonial convict female factories. There were two in Parramatta (the original one had been located above the gaol) and two in Moreton Bay; others were located at Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Hobart Town, Cascades, Launceston, Ross and George Town. Many of the factories were developed as adjuncts to gaols.

The description below of a typical journey to the Parramatta Female Factory is from A History of Australia (Volume 1) by Manning Clark.

These women were taken by boat from Sydney Cove to Parramatta. This journey lasted from morning to evening in fair weather, but with an adverse wind darkness came down before the end of the journey, when great irregularities took place and the women frequently arrived at Parramatta in a state of intoxication and plundered of their property, to begin their servitude the next day in destitution and on a hangover. By an odd irony this was generally their first experience of life in a colony which had been created for their reformation as well as their punishment.

The Factory, located in Fleet Street in North Parramatta, formed part of a complex of government buildings in the Parramatta area which played an important part in the development of the colony of New South Wales. Some of the original factory buildings remain; others were demolished when the site was later repurposed as an asylum. The high walls that are a familiar sight in locations including Gladesville Hospital (a custom built asylum) are present here too. The factory is now part of the Cumberland Hospital complex, under Western Sydney Health, and NSW Institute of Psychiatry. The Parramatta Female Factory Precinct, which incorporates the Female Factory and Roman Catholic Orphan School (later Parramatta Lunatic Asylum and Parramatta Girls Home) has been in continuous use as an institutional site since 1818.

Hospital administration building, built c 1910 over the original gated entrance to the Female Factory

Hospital administration building built c 1910 over the original gated entrance to the Female Factory

A walk around the grounds shows a mix of heritage sandstone buildings and other buildings from different decades. On one perimeter there are the high walls of the defunct Parramatta Gaol. A short bridge over the Parramatta River provides access to the modern Cumberland Hospital.

There were a variety of stall and historic displays set up in the airing yard, a grassed space protected on three sides by sandstone buildings. Beyond a fence, the ground slopes down to the river and there was much bird activity and a colony of grey-headed flying foxes. They were mainly suspended from branches, tightly bound and resting, but the group of noisy people below may have been disturbing them as there were regular squawks and squabbles as positions were jockeyed for and the odd bat took to the sky before circling back to nudge someone else out of position.

Grey-headed flying fox

Grey-headed flying fox

Other colourful displays during the day included several people dressed in historical costume, including a man playing the role of Samuel Marsden (with a flogging whip, striding about and asking who the owners of children were), a schoolmistress and a matron. They provided a lively touch to what was, for the most part, a day of sharing family stories connected to a difficult time and place in our history.

Historic Actors at Commemoration

Historic Actors at Commemoration

As part of the bicentennial ceremony, following a number of interesting and personal speeches commemorating some of the many women and children who passed through the factory site, a plaque was unveiled. This contains the first names of some of the women who entered the factory gates as part of their journey through the colony.

Parramatta Female Factory Memorial

Parramatta Female Factory Memorial

There is an excellent site created by the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct Association Incorporated (Parragirls) which provides an overview of the site over its many decades of institutional life. There are common – and devastating – echoes across generations of women with stories linked to the area.

Snatches of Songs

There are snatches of songs that come to mind at different times. Sometimes these are situational based prompts, providing a familiar kind of comfort. At other times, the mind seems to throw up surprising references that require a bit of further reflection.

If I stay up late, for whatever reason, and feel a bit sleep-deprived the next day, one of my favourite song snatches is from Late Last Night by Todd Snider:

Well could you try to keep it down, I was up kinda late last night?
Now I’m feeling’ like I usually feel after I feel alright
I don’t want hear another word about mornin’
I can’t take the light … 
Well could you try to keep it down I was up kinda late last night?

For those moments when a big decision is required but the whole thing feels a bit overwhelming? Try Little Decisions by Paul Kelly:

Little decisions are the kind I can make 
Big resolutions are so easy to break
I don’t want to hear about your big decisions

Sometimes for no particular reason at all, Anna Begins by Counting Crows reappears as an ear worm to hum:

… kindness falls like rain
It washes her away and Anna begins to change her mind

But it isn’t only lyrics that come to mind. Sometimes it is a tune, such as Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. Or Sing, Sing, Sing by Benny Goodwin. Just writing it out makes me start to whistle. And perhaps not tunefully. But that doesn’t matter!

I like to have musical references in my fiction sometimes too. In a flash fiction piece I managed to work in a reference to The Honeymoon is Over by The Cruel Sea which still makes me smile when I think of it.

What musical moments come to mind for you?

[Photo: servants bells at Elizabeth Farm, Parramatta]

Scratchings At The Heart

Driving home tonight I listened to a podcast interview with a clinical psychologist. Dr Chris Blazina had completed a study on the relationship between men and their dogs. One of the findings was that for the majority of the middle-aged men who participated in the survey, the relationship they had with their dogs was one of the most safe and trustworthy relationships in their life.

This was in part a reflection of how, in general terms, men may have a smaller group of friendships and people that they are willing to confide in when compared to women of a similar age.

But it also highlights the importance of dogs in people’s lives. A couple of men had called in and left voicemail comments about their relationship with their dogs which provided further insight. John, a farmer, had sadly lost his working dog, Ned, after many years of faithful service. He spoke not only of the usefulness of dogs in a working sense – along with the frustration when they act of their own accord when they believe they know best – but of the sense of loneliness when that constant positive presence is no longer there.

Another caller was a carpenter who had a young border collie called Pip as a working companion. Pip made the workday better, helped with handling stressful situations, and was great at breaking down barriers with customers and other tradespeople on work sites. Tradies felt a bit freer to play with the dog, or speak to her in a high-pitched voice which they normally wouldn’t use.

The study confirmed the important role played by dogs in our lives and relationships in general. Losing a much loved companion animal can be as devastating as the loss of a friend, loved one or the end of a relationship. Animals also play an important role in enhancing our relationships with the people that matter in to us.

Our lives are richer on many levels for being shared with our companion animals.

Scratchings at the heart was one man’s description of his relationship with his dog.

[Photo: dog in bathtub at Gunning, NSW]