Feeding the Magpies

One of my Dad’s favourite expressions around mealtimes was that it was like ‘feeding the magpies’. I was reminded of this recently when I was distracted by a noisy young magpie, calling for food. It was loud and insistent, crying out until a parent returned with a morsel of food for consumption. The feeding mustn’t have been quick enough as the noise continued right up until the food was positioned in the young magpie’s beak, with the parent arching back in order to drop the food into the open mouth. As soon as it disappeared the noise started again.

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Feeding the magpie – open beak waiting for food

Off went the parent to source some more food. The young magpie poked around in the garden a bit and drank some rainwater out of a hollow in the path. The parent returned with more sustenance, and they moved around the garden a bit, hunting for the next treat. Another magpie flew in with a worm, and there was a bit of jostling about as the young magpie looked between the two food sources with great interest. Once both tidbits were consumed, the three birds walked the garden, looking for more food until a currawong landed in a nearby tree.

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Feeding time

One magpie immediately flew up into the tree, making warning noises and pushing at the currawong. The currawong held its ground, not meeting the warning with a similar response, but remaining steadfast on the branch. After a while the magpie rejoined the two magpies on the ground, and a wattle bird flew in and gave the currawong another serve, shoving it further down the branch before perching in the branch above. The size difference seemed not to matter, and I was reminded of Tim Low’s comments in Where Song Began about how aggressive Australian honeyeaters are.

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Currawong (left upper branch) and magpie working out their territory

Many insights into the behaviour of Australian magpies are provided by Dr Gisela Kaplan in her book Australian Magpie: Biology and Behaviour of an Unusual Songbird. The feeding of young magpies is taken care of by both parents as well as helpers when available. Earthworms are a popular choice for the baby chicks and fledglings as magpies don’t drink water until they are more mobile. The young are fed constantly for the first three months are so, then there is a further period of two to three months when they are shown how to fend for themselves, with some assistance if required. A process of weaning applies, with parents and helpers withholding food if need be to encourage the young to be self-sufficient.

It was interesting to be able to watch just a small part of the process of feeding the magpies.

And worth noting, too, that it was recently voted as Australian Bird of the Year 2017.

[Photo: magpies feeding]

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Blanket Stitch: Musings on Craft for the Soul

Recently I was thinking of Pip Lincolne’s book Craft for the Soul and how much I like dipping into its pages. My mind meandered off, thinking about how I’m not really a crafty person. I can do basic mending and can knit squares and scarves. For a while, I used to make my own tops, frustrated at the lack of colour and choices available in a regional town. It was something that brought much pleasure: the thoughtful selection of fabric based on design and texture, and matching the thread and buttons to the material. I enjoyed the process of preparing the fabric, cutting and shaping it to suit. I think, too, this was when my love affair with audiobooks started. Making clothing is a mindful task, and I enjoyed listening to stories as I constructed something wearable out of a block of fabric.

That night, after thinking of how little craft I have done, I woke thinking about my blanket. It is made of many woollen rectangles, knitted over months. Most are stocking stitch, although a few show some more sophisticated patterns. Some of my favourites were made using blended wool, incorporating a variety of colours. Seeing one colour fade out and another take over was one of the pleasures of the yarn. The rectangles are in a range of colours; the shape of each piece is the common thread.

One winter I took the piles of woollen rectangles to my Nan’s place. We laid them on a table and moved the squares around to get colours working together. We decided on the number of pieces required for width and length, making piles in the agreed row order.

Then the stitching began, using multicoloured yarn to link the pieces together. With Nan’s help, the blanket began to take shape as squares were joined by blanket stitch, then rows linked together until the blanket grew into a recognisable form. As we worked there was conversation and companionship amidst the cups of tea. The blanket continued to grow until all the pieces had a place of their own.

The blanket has been a constant source of warmth and comfort for many years. In winter it is the base layer as other blankets and quilts are added to counter mountain chills. In summer it is often the only source of warmth for the early hours when the night cools down in preparation for the day ahead.

When there were severe bushfires through the mountains in 2013, this blanket was one of the few possessions I put into my car, just in case I couldn’t make it back and my home was lost.

Some squares have fared better than others over the years, but overall it is holding together well. It is a daily reminder of a precious pocket of time with someone who I loved, and who loved me. And a reminder too of a time when there was craft in my soul.

Do you have craft in your soul?

[Photo: part of the blanket]

Capertee Train Trip

Old trains capture my imagination. A short steam train ride in Tasmania remains a favourite memory from years ago – as the train tootled along, there were sheep scattering off the tracks in all directions. When the opportunity came up to travel from Lithgow to Capertee on an old CPH railmotor, I took it.

The train line to Capertee is no longer a passenger line, like many old lines across the state. The Gwabegar line remains open for coal trains and the railway travels through Wallerawang, Portland and Ben Bullen before arriving at the small village of Capertee.

But the destination is only part of the journey. There were three carriages of fellow travellers on this trip, and there was a frisson of excitement as the train arrived at Lithgow station, precisely on time. Our guide for the day was Graeme, the president of the Capertee Progress Association. He was decked out in tails and a top hat, which seemed entirely appropriate. Armed with a megaphone he had the passengers organised in no time at all.

 

CPH Railmotor arriving at Lithgow station

 

On the journey out I shared the trip with one of the volunteer train guards, who told some interesting stories of some of the heritage train trips he’d been on around the state. We marvelled at the rolling green hills, still soaked after days of heavy rain, the mob of kangaroos on the golf course at Marrangaroo, and the smaller groupings of roos startled by the train, springing into action and bounding at speed alongside the carriage.

But the real star of the show was the scenery. The landscape became increasingly rocky and steep, and there were swathes of darkness as the train rumbled through tunnels. The rocking of the carriages, the smell of diesel, the excited chatter of a large group of people, all of this faded into the background as the wide canyons and valleys came into view. The area has the largest enclosed canyon in the world.

In recent travels, I’ve been through quite a few small country towns. I find them interesting, as no two are really alike. Some places feel heavy with a sense of their own demise as people move away for work and lifestyle reasons. Capertee, although small, has a sense of vibrancy. The town knew that the train was coming and there were markets and activities lined up for the visitors. A sign near the market proclaimed it to be ‘train day’ and there were various stalls set up inside and around the local hall. Part of the proceeds from the train trip was to be used to help maintain and upkeep the hall, which remains a living hub for the community.

Inside the hall, there were many photos of gatherings from previous years, along with local landmarks including the Glen Davis Shale Mine. Outside there was a BBQ for the hungry hordes and a special performance from the Lithgow Pipe Band. It was great – a professional and entertaining performance, and it will take me a long time to forget their rendition of Hokey Pokey. Santa had paid a visit earlier in the day, but I had been having a wander around the Glen Davis Shale Mine.

 

Lithgow Pipe Band performing at Capertee

 

When the train pulled back in at the station – it had followed the line out through to Kandos before returning – it was a happy crowd that piled on board with local purchases and memories of a day out in a friendly country town.

Have you had a day out of the ordinary lately?

[Photo: CPH ‘Tin Hare’ railmotors leaving Capertee for Kandos, part of the heritage fleet at Lachlan Valley Railway]

One Change to Your Writing World

Deadlines are a motivator for me, reliably generating action. About a year ago I enrolled in an online course about making time to write with content access for 12 months. I’m not quite sure how but I managed to forget about it entirely until about three weeks before it was to expire. In my mind I’d been moaning about not having time to write. If only I’d made the time to do the course earlier …

With writing courses there are usually actions that can be incorporated into existing routines. As I worked through the course, I thought about how I could mix up my process to reclaim the sense of joy that writing provides in my life. One of the last sections was about tools to help you write, including a tip to check out available writing applications. I have tried many apps but find that writing in Word or Pages, with using Scrivener for larger pieces, works well enough. I can synchronise through the cloud and over time it has become easier to track down documents, regardless of the application used to create them.

One of the icons that popped up for writing applications was Ulysses. I had seen it before but it didn’t appeal at the time. Upon revisiting it, I saw there was a 14 day trial available. The online reviews were largely positive and upfront about the differences compared to traditional word-processing applications. There was talk of markdown and coding along with an assurance that it wasn’t critical to get too involved in this side.

What appealed was writing across my phone, tablet and laptop with automatic synchronisation. The ability to export in various formats was attractive, as was the option to export straight into WordPress. Whilst I can use the draft blog post section in WordPress, the idea of having draft posts in the one spot but sortable by keywords or groups suits the way my mind works.

So I’m giving it a go. Whilst I don’t want an endless proliferation of programs and platforms to write on, this meets my current needs as I’m working on a number of short stories, blog posts, and a couple of longer pieces. I can easily see work in progress, and move around projects without jumping between applications. There is a very simple writing environment which also helps to focus on the task at hand.

By taking on this suggestion I have had a burst of writing activity. Whether it is sustainable will tell over time. For now, I’m glad that shaking up my routine has lead to a feeling of reconnection with the world of writing.

When was the last time you made a single change to your writing?

[Photo: butterfly in the garden]

Songs in the Key of Jane

We hear our names spoken thousands if not millions of times during our lives. It is no surprise then that we become conditioned to respond when we hear our name, even when it isn’t us being called.

I have a simple, old-fashioned name. Growing up I used to marvel at the extravagant spelling of Lady Jayne hairbrushes and combs. Imagine the luxury of a ‘y’ in your name. An upside of an unadorned name is that you don’t usually have to spell it, although I have been called all sorts of variations from Jan to Jenny, Jean to Joanne.

Another bonus is the number of songs out there celebrating Janes in a multitude of ways. Here are some standouts.

  • Janey Don’t You Lose Heart by Bruce Springsteen. I discovered this song by chance in a book review following the release of a biography of The Boss a few years ago. There was a passing reference to the song in the article and I tracked it down. Perfect for those moments when ‘you feel like a stranger … who knows too much’.
  • Sister Jane by New World was one of those songs from the early 1970s which seemed to appear on compilation record albums. Poor Jane was in a bit of strife for falling in love again and was being urged to leave town on a plane before she goes insane (oh the joys of rhyming). This clip is worth a look if only for the hairstyles.
  • Jane Says by Jane’s Addiction offers a much darker version. The Jane in this song is a prostitute with a drug habit and capacity for violence. She’s never been in love, doesn’t know what it’s like and only knows if someone wants her.
  • Maroon Five offered an entire album with Songs About Jane released in 2002.

Do you have a favourite ‘name’ song?

With a nod to the ‘So You Want To Be A Writer’ podcast which provided the inspiration around name songs (ep 213).

[Photo: keys suspended near a lookout at Glenbrook with Penrith in the background] 

Jottings on Jacarandas

Although the magnificent lilac-blue blooms are beginning to fade, I thought I’d take some time this week to celebrate the magnificent jacaranda trees that bring such delight each spring.

They thrive in the warmer climate of Sydney and surrounding areas, and I have noticed on recent train trips that they don’t appear much beyond Faulconbridge and Springwood. Perhaps that is why they seem to be more spectacular to me in recent years as they are not a constant backdrop in the upper mountains.

Avenue of jacarandas in Victoria Park, Dubbo

Avenue of jacarandas in Victoria Park, Dubbo

Many people admire their blooms, and it has been a newsworthy issue of late with tourists getting into a bit of bother by blocking streets or propping at odd angles in order to get the best selfie with jacaranda blossoms as a backdrop.

I heard a story which might be an urban myth about Sydney hospitals sending mothers and their new-born babes home with a jacaranda seedling, with the trees growing alongside the children. Whether it is true or not, it is sweet image and casts a different light on the lilac trees scattered throughout Sydney suburbs and further afield.

Little wattlebird in jacaranda tree at Kiama

Little wattlebird in jacaranda tree at Kiama

I came across a wonderful article by Helen Curran of Sydney Living Museums titled The Dream Tree: Jacaranda, Sydney Icon. It provides an overview of Sydney’s love affair with the jacaranda tree and its transformative effect upon the landscape from October to November. It is hard to imagine now, but as an imported tree from Brazil, initial plantings were limited mainly to botanical gardens. The rarity only enhanced its appeal with an assertion in the Sydney Morning Herald that it was ‘well worth a journey of 50 miles’ to see the tree in the Botanic Garden.

There were issues with propagation and it wasn’t until 1868 that this was overcome. The trees became more widespread and were a popular choice for public planting programs from the early to mid-twentieth century. One of the loveliest references in Curran’s article was a tree at Potts Point known by children as ‘the dream tree’, which seems to capture the magic of the jacaranda.

A lovely painting of jacaranda trees spotted at op shop recently

A lovely painting of jacaranda trees spotted at op shop recently

But it isn’t just Sydney, of course, that holds jacaranda trees in high esteem. Jacarandas can be found up and down the coast, and Grafton has so heartily embraced the jacaranda tree that there is an annual festival for all things purple, including a street parade and key locations which offer particularly photographic specimens. Listening to a podcast recently, I heard how the jacarandas in Queensland have deeper hues of lilac than those further along the eastern coastline, the colours shifting slightly as the trees blossom in succession through Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.

Curran provides a perfect summary of Sydney’s enchantment with jacarandas:

The jacaranda may not always have been Sydney’s, but for a few magical weeks it is a dream tree for the city – ardently, abundantly ours.

Do you have the delight of jacaranda trees in springtime?

[Photo: jacaranda and flame tree blossoms entwined – a popular pairing and visual treat]

Jacaranda, A Poem by Vivian Smith

The images that spring to mind are not

the images I need to catch the feeling:

soft-focus photograph or ballet girl in veils

or even sea light moving on the ceiling –

 

plangent, wispy, soft in the wrong way.

I need the point where strong and frail combine:

the drift and fall of mauve in powder blue,

the cool leaf’s fishbone shadow line.

 

Washed out, fastidious, the blue

jacaranda flowers in the street

with all the creative happiness of art,

showing age and lightness still meet.

 

It brings the same joy again this year.

When he was four my son running to greet

his mother called, “Hey look at the blue tree:

the jack on the veranda’s in the street.”

 

by Vivian Smith

[Photo: jacaranda blossoms]

Some Thoughts on Storytelling by Marion Halligan

Recently I came across a collection of stories, poems and essays gathered in a book called Storykeepers, edited by Marion Halligan and released in 2001. The collection includes contributions from a broad range of Australian writers and poets, and was triggered by the centenary of Australian Federation. Each contributor was asked to select an Australian writer from the past who was of interest or an influence upon them, and to write a response to their work.

In the introduction by Halligan, some thoughts on storytelling are offered. Stories offer an immense scope for ambiguity and complexity. From childhood, the phrase once upon a time is like “a code that brings a multitude of small exhortations and large promises with it”.

Storytelling is described as one of the most natural of human activities, something we instinctively do as children returning home from school, or upon arriving home from work. An example is given of a child telling a story of an event at school with enthusiasm, sound effects and a natural instinct for timing and plot. When asked to repeat the impressive story, the child looks vacant, mumbles something and heads off: “The story has been told, its narrative impulse has been obeyed, the teller is no longer interested.”

The ability to polish, edit and embellish stories improves as we grow older. It becomes less about what actually happened in some instances: “We are all unreliable narrators when it comes to crafting good stories.”

We are all storykeepers, writes Halligan, from the personal and intimate to family lore and even the stories of countries.

This book was found by chance in a second-hand bookshop in Kiama (south coast of New South Wales), and I was pleased to find that another blogger had also stumbled across it – there is a review of it here.

Storykeepers edited by Marion Halligan (2001)  ISBN: 1876631104

[Photo: shared circle]

 

Head In The Clouds

I know that I am in a pocket of relaxation when I find myself watching clouds. The calming sensation of simply watching tufts of vapour gather and take on massed formations before splintering into separate threads – it symbolises a shift into deeper thoughts or just pondering.

There are other times when the natural world offers moments of welcome distraction – spend some time watching the swell and surge of the ocean, or lose your thoughts in lush green foliage under a canopy of trees. There is something elemental about being absorbed, even temporarily, in nature that seems to recalibrate my mind and soul.

This isn’t to say that the usual pattern of thoughts and mental to-dos vanish, but at these times there seems to be more scope to think a bit differently and to puzzle things out.

A quick google search shows that I am not the only cloud appreciator. There is an exquisite time-lapse clip here with calming music to mesmerise the mind on a day when access to the sky is limited, or if there is a cloudless sky.

There is even a Cloud Appreciation Society with thousands of members in over 100 countries. Membership benefits include receiving a cloud a day. Their manifesto rallies against ‘blue-sky thinking’ and advocates that “clouds are for dreams and their contemplation benefits the soul”. I heartily agree with their declaration to all who will listen:

Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!

During a TED talk by the Society’s founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney (called Cloudy with a Chance of Joy), we are reminded that clouds provide an opportunity to tune in and slow down whilst watching clouds. They offer a chance to find the exotic in the everyday, in an activity that is aimless yet important in providing a legitimate form of doing nothing in an otherwise overly busy life. Cloud watching is good for ideas, creativity and for your soul.

I’m off to do some cloud-gazing. How about you?

[Photo: clouds above Hartley Valley, towards Mt York]

Writing Prompt: She Rode Off On A Harley

She rode off on a Harley. For a woman who had never caused a fuss or drawn attention to herself, it was an act of defiance. And it wasn’t even her Harley. It belonged to one of my mates, Deano. Lucky he was asleep although how he slept through the roar of the engine and the broad spray of dirt and gravel flung against the wall of the house as if tossed with a careless hand was beyond me. I guess we had drunk a bit the night before.

I was barely awake at the time and had knuckles digging into both of my eyeballs, trying to get a visual confirmation on what I was hearing. There were no raised voices – that would have been expected. I didn’t even twig that something was wrong until Eden woke me up. He said it was urgent, that I had to do something. I’d shrugged him off, rolled over in the bed, but he kept at me. He yanked the blanket off me, throwing it across the room. I swore at him, foul curses that would have earned me a clip across the ears if Mum had heard me. Then I had to get up. It was freezing. The fire must have gone out overnight. But that never happened. Mum was always up with the first light, getting a start on the washing or cleaning or getting breakfast ready.

‘Where’s Mum?’ I’d hissed the words at Eden as I dragged on yesterday’s clothes. They were tumbled and dirty, right where I’d left them. Mum was obsessive about clean clothes. We’d joke that the only way to keep anything out of her endless washing cycle was to not take it off. She must be crook. ‘Well?’ I took a step towards Eden but he slipped around the doorway and scooted off down the hallway.

It was then that I heard the roar of the bike. Loud, rumbling, deep and low enough to give the windows at the front of the house the jitters. I’d made it to the front door just in time to see Mum’s right hand give a rough salute as she disappeared with some mate of Deano’s off into the distance, my old school backpack loaded up and the sleeve of her favourite cardigan catching and waving in the wind.

[Photo: bikes spotted at Marulan]