714598-a89cfdda-7fc3-11e3-89a5-f01a1cd39a6c[Amazing pic: Stuart McEvoy, News Ltd]

When we went back for a look in February I felt more worried about the Grampians than our house.

During the last ten years they have had three major bushfires, and when I say major I mean 600 or more square kilometres completely burnt out, in 2006 more than 50 percent of the park area.Unknown images-1 copy 2In 2011 there were most unusual floods which created a great deal of damage and generated monster land slips, unprecedented in my life time and longer. Above is a picture [thank you Thomas Parkes] of the Silverband Road, formerly an established two-lane bitumen road. To the left the road at Zumsteins, the only way over the ranges for vehicles. Below, a land slip in the Serra Range.IMG_0913

Six months later there was a localised earthquake which registered 3.8 on the Richter scale.

And then in January this year the north-west side was ablaze again. You can see the fire’s extent in this photo.

IDL TIFF fileThe grey bit is what has been burnt. You can see Lake Wartook. Our place would be half way to the west (left) between it and the limit of the burning. You can also see how dry the country is.

Many bush fires in Australia are started deliberately, including some of the ones on 7 Feb 2009 which burnt 1.1 million hectares, destroyed more than 6000 buildings, injured 414 people and took the lives of 173. The energy released by this set of fires was estimated to be the equivalent of 1,500 Hiroshima atomic bombs. Temperatures of 1200 degrees C were reached. That’s enough to melt rock. It also razed one of our favourite towns where we were heading that very day before Myrna decided that it wasn’t a good idea and we turned around. You don’t try to fight such things directly.

However this fire, like many in the Grampians, was started by a dry electrical storm. It began at several points towards the top of the photo and, driven by fierce northerlies, swept south. To see one of these fires in full pomp is to have nightmares for the rest of your life. 353wartook-300x0This is the fire cloud I would say nearly directly above the Wartook area where our house was located. This news photo was taken from Stawell, more than 40 kilometres away. Look at the comparative size of the mountains.

IMG_0542We got out of the car and the first thing that hit me was the smell.

It wasn’t like wood smoke which, at least when it’s fresh, can be quite sweet. It was acrid and sour, charred rather than burnt material. This is three weeks after January 20 when it went up.

But it had all gone up. The ground cover, the heaths and the bracken, completely gone; not much sign of the second layer either, the melaleucas, the leptospermum, the banksias, the native pine. Many of the canopy trees were also damaged beyond repair. I was especially sorry about this huge yellow box which draped over our front veranda and had a family of phascogales living in it. IMG_0548Perhaps ironically, it would have been less damaged if it hadn’t been for the heat generated by the house burning. Not enough to kill those bella donnas though.


This is our gate. It may have been important for the CFA (Country Fire Authority) or SES (State Emergency Service) boys to drive over it. I don’t know. But they did. There was no fence or gate posts to bother them.

Hand made bricks without frogs from Jung.verandaIMG_0553

junction 1IMG_0557

3/8″ coach screws, favoured joining medium.

The first fire and the last. The Jetmaster was left quite intact.

first fire 1IMG_0556

IMG_0555One of the famous concrete stanchions with 150×75 Oregon from the ceiling structure of Horsham HS. The fire was hot enough to flake the concrete. And an important photo given what I had to say about the slab we built the shed on.IMG_0561

In excellent condition: no cracks or chipping, no movement. You could go and whip up another shed there tomorrow. Take that Fred Heinz. The shed didn’t burn in the fire. It had been like this for a while. Things come; things go.

And so they do.

We sold the property to a service station owner who wanted somewhere to retire. He partitioned the big room with dividing walls and put a flat ceiling in, built a connecting corridor between the bedrooms and the main room, pulled up the quarry tiles and tried to straighten the fireplace, lifted the toilet pan, put pickets around the back deck, got the power on and painted everything.afterwards

The next owner, a legend among the women of the Wimmera, undid a certain amount of this and got some of the bracken under control. As far as I know Girin Flat became a very cool out-of-town party venue. The next owner got going with bluestone and might have planted the bella donnas. But regardless, it wasn’t the house we built and there is no reason in the world why any of those things shouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t ours any more.

Woody (the legend) built a pottery and tea rooms on the road, one component of the commercialisation and development of the Wartook area and the Grampians in general. Our house hidden back in the bush was offered as holiday accommodation, now in almost endless supply. For that purpose it was probably still too exotic and ‘mucky’ to attract tourists. So the couple of times we have gone back for a look over the past 20 years it stood as forsaken but not derelict. Freddy Heinz might be pleased or perhaps he might think he did his job and that was all that was required: not the consequences of your actions, but their conformity with the appropriate conventions of behavior was what mattered in the end.

Then it got burnt down.

The Taylor’s house — all that western red cedar at $19.12 a lineal metre — went up; the Raleigh’s was saved. The Pykes would have been fair square in the fiercest of the blazing drives, but being Will he may have had a cunning plan. For all I know the Carters are still there. Maybe Bradney has taken over. John and Dan are dead. We haven’t heard anything about Diane for years. Rod Parker and John Anderson have died. But Geoffrey Ainsworth lives nearby and we still go to the football. Not everything changes.IMG_0571

‘Trees with rough bark such as Red Stringy Bark (Eucalyptus macrorhyncha) and Messmate (Eucalyptus oblique) have epicormic buds (dormant growth buds) deep beneath the bark, which are protected from fire. When the tree is burnt and the foliage removed, the epicormic buds are triggered into life and start to grow. Once these buds sprout, the tree then begins to regrow all of the lost foliage and, over time, will recover.’

The bush doesn’t acknowledge the idea of ‘damage’ of course. That’s very much an anthropocentric reading of a situation. Nature’s not tough; it’s just nature.

Do I regret our adventure in the Grampians? Not one second of it. When Myrna hears people talk about going off to live in the bush, she usually says she’s glad we did it when we were young because we got it out of our system and don’t have to do it again. When she left Girin Flat and went to live in a normal house where something happened when you flicked a switch she swooned with delight. I think that’s right. I hope it is. It would be the sensible response. I have patches of thinking I’d like to build another house in the bush, but not, never, under the conditions we had then. So much work. But do I regret it? How sad to have regrets.

Am I sad about the fate of the house? Not for a second. I had a great time building it and I did enjoy living in it — we both did. The fire going, wonderful Alladin lamplight, fantastic food with some nice wine, friends round the table delighted to be there, a game of Briscola, Linda Ronstadt singing ‘Love has no Pride’ in the background, a walk before bed down through the orchard and the shed clearing across to the pump and then back to the house listening to the noises of the night creatures. Come on … there’s not much better than that.

As for all the complaint, possibly the dominant theme, in the journals — well, there were things that were difficult. Sometimes on still white nights when you could hear wind coming up the valley from minutes away and it would hit the house like a bus … Not that the house ever moved, it was just that there were times when it felt like we were out on some sort of edge. In the case of a fire we would most certainly have been. Maybe the screech owl …

But the generative causes of the complaints were mainly human in origin. It was a relief to come back to the city to discover there were people who thought, and acted, more like we did. It was grand to be normal.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAm I sad about the fate of the house? That photo above of the Silverband Road … a week ago we drove down that road. It has been restored. Epicormic roadworks, the sort that rebuilt London and Dresden (the pic), the sort that will have to apply in Homs and Aleppo, the sort that allow any of us to get through any day. How we are able to recover from knocks — enforced retirement, loss of a loved one, unexpected failure, deep disappointment — is one of the great mysteries of consciousness. But from an evolutionary perspective it is all plain as day. Some people don’t recover of course — which makes the fact that so many of us do, from so many apparently appalling incidents, even more remarkable.

Am I sad about the fate of the house? Forty years ago. Lot of water under the bridge. It was a different house. Scarcely been back. Moved on mate, moved on. Pretty much when I drove out the gate for the last time.Backview#2


An application for subdivision of Lot 50C Parish of Wartook lodged with the Shire of Arapiles on August 4th 1974 was returned approved on April 9th 1975 just eight months after it was submitted. That meant that the process of buying the land could commence.

polesBy that time I had found, felled, skinned, transported and weathered the trunks of four big trees, two yellow box, one messmate, one stringy bark, and ended up with four big (reasonably) straight poles. On April 10th with the aid of my ute I got the poles in, and by the end of the 13th I’d finished the box for the slab. I did the preliminary feed plumbing on the 19th and the waste plumbing on the 20th. We were living in Horsham at the time and I was working on this at the weekends and sometimes coming out to the land after school. When I was doing my school work I’m not sure.

Then on the 3rd May the concrete trucks rumbled in to Girin Flat again. I had made fewer mistakes this time but 22 cubic metres of concrete are never going to be less than daunting.

slab#1These pictures indicate the help: Robert, Myrna’s brother, in the white T-shirt, John and a very heavily pregnant Gabi who were living in Horsham, the Sproulls. During the whole enterprise we had a great deal of volunteer labour. It would be curmudgeonly to complain but, you know, a lot of time spent supervising, and as I got better at it, a certain amount of time spent pulling out work and doing it again. But on balance, you would never complain. In building there is a permanent role for at least a second person. There is so much repetitious hackwork and Mernz and Geoffrey Ainsworth did as much of that as I did and often more neatly.

By the time the fifth truck came the vertical boxes I’d built for the upright concrete stanchions were groaning and sweating unhappily and I could no longer bear to look. They ended up with rather more hour glass figures than you would like, but the straight sides were where I needed them to be, straight and reasonably vertical. Patina.

How many things did I write off as patina (lit: a film or incrustation, usually green, produced by oxidation on the surface of old bronze and often esteemed as being of ornamental value, but here: ‘a dodgy bit adding to the character of the whole’. So much patina was employed. Sloyd would have walked away, horrified.)

By the time the fifth truck came we had, as usual, plenty of concrete, always a bad moment. Concrete waits for no man and dumping four cubic metres of concrete somewhere … well, you’d notice. I rapidly improvised a verandah, a slab for ‘other use’ and asked the driver to rinse out where we couldn’t see.

slab#2I nearly did have a fit that day. So much was bound up in getting that slab in: two years of focus and thought, not to mention 18 months of struggle with lawyers, a surveyor and the Shire’s building inspector. I looked at the way I had built the stanchion boxes and how pathetically flimsy they were, scarcely supported, and knew it was all wrong. I hadn’t thought about how the concrete was going to get in them (and in the end, see at left, Barry Sproull indefatigably filled them all by hand with a bucket!), and I just wanted everyone and everything to go away. But the workers kept on working. I went off and had a walk around and a cup of tea and when I came back most of it was done. I noted at the end of this day: It now remains only to build the house.

On the 20 May I was exactly 25 and a half and celebrated by buying 15 pine poles (the veranda posts, skinned and soaked in creosote and sump oil; Myrna had to be taken to hospital with an allergic reaction to creosote) from Horsham Rotary Club for $7. My father was round at the time and noted wistfully: ‘I guess you can’t make a straight veranda out of bent poles just as you can’t make a good world out of bent people.’ My mother concurred, importantly, as she was generally the authority on the moral dimensions of trees. But, on the other hand, while you may not be able to make a straight veranda you might be able to make one which is perfectly serviceable, and that might be the difference between the good tradesman, described elsewhere in these blogs, and me. (Below: Pole wrangling: Geoffrey Ainsworth, Rod Parker and the non-owner-builder.)logswhole frame25th May. The house now has a roof framework and a veranda that it didn’t before. The weather has come and gone a bit, a couple of nice days but mostly shitty and wintry [during two weeks of flat-out building in the May holidays.] Apart from a sore wrist and some tender fingers there have been no major mishaps. It’s interesting how with the addition of the form of the veranda the external aspect has changed and internally you are suddenly aware of these heights, especially in the bathroom, which are going to be lovely. Cutting and shaping the poles I don’t want to do again immediately.

hand tools 1Cutting and shaping the four poles was a matter of balancing on top of a ladder with nothing to lean against trying to get a series of straight cuts with a bush saw through a foot of very hard wood. With power tools and a bit of scaffolding it would now take me about half an hour. But with no power tools — and no power tools were used in the building of this house; no power — it took me a lot of two days.junction 1

June 8. Nigh unto death. I don’t think I would really care at the moment if I never saw another hammer or nail. I’ve had it. Went over to Mt Gambier on Friday and fish-tailed my way back with $458 worth of exterior pine cladding in the trailer. Smells nice, will look good when it’s up. If it was just a matter of whacking that up it’d be fine, quite a nice job really — quick, good result — but there’s so much else to do.

On the 3rd July we moved from Horsham into the shed on the property (still Joan’s). We’re out here now for good or ill. The die is cast; the McKenzie/Rubicon has been crossed. Of course we still don’t own the land. Ha ho. So we were ‘on site’ every day if not necessarily working.

The shed had our bed in it, a table and four chairs and a very old wood stove that we had rescued from somewhere which actually worked a treat. Light was a pressure kerosene Tilley lantern, which had reasonably durable mantles, gave a strong light — you could read by it quite easily — but hissed mercilessly. It was always a relief to turn it off. The smart set had moved onto gas bottle lamps by then, still noisy if less so, but that move had passed us by. Cold water came from the tank and hot water from a 5 gallon ‘fountain’, a big cast iron vessel that you just left on the stove. It was never warm in the morning, so the day began with a cold splash followed by a cup of tea made with water boiled on a gas ring. Then we’d climb in the car and pray we wouldn’t get bogged before we’d got out the gate. Forty minutes later we’d be in the staff room at HHS at our desks checking what was actually in front of us for the day. After school we’d do a bit of shopping, Myrna down the street and me at the hardware store, and make our way back towards Mt Zero, down the Laharum road past Mt Stapylton (named by the Major’s trusty off-sider after himself) and the olive plantations, through Laharum, past Joan’s, up over the hill at the Roses Gap turnoff and down into our valley.myrnz #1

12 July. It’s three weeks past the shortest day and there is still no real sign of a let-up in the minimalist approach to sunlight. More or less dark at 5.30. After ’staff meetings’ and that sort of thing it means no time no time no time and we of the pioneering fraternity have things to do. There’s wood (currently getting thoroughly soaked) to cut, lamps to clean and fill, water to be pumped. … Here I am espousing the glories of noble ecological savagery to 3A1 and 3A5 with an aching shoulder and tomorrow with a sore eye having been hit ker blam by a flying bit of red gum. At night the Screech Owl is continuing its horrifying cries over in the ti-tree, and the first time always makes you jump. Or it may be someone being tortured. Hard to know. The shed fills with the smell of hot wet stringy bark and the wife sits meditating on greener pastures.

the builderIt was another very wet winter (and spring). One of the things that I was constantly alert to was how I could keep the materials up to the site and not stuck half a kilometre away on the other side of ‘the pond’. But even some of the materials that had been there a while provided a challenge. Upon checking the interior lining board — in the open now for I suppose five months [under a bit of plastic actually] — I find it has been colonized by a fungus and families of various creatures: the giant slater, the ant, the spider ENORME etc. etc. What do they think this is? The bloody bush?

roof#1But it wasn’t always like that, and things improved when I got the roof on. At last there was some shelter.

19 July. Faintly warm. We drove in from the best angle, the north-west, in the middle of one of those red, red sunsets with a huge moon rising over the ranges. The roof was a shimmering silver sea, the moonlight pouring in through its skylights. I climbed up and sat there on the roof thinking that for every hassle with the house there is a countervailing stroke of the purest and most energetic luck. It’s coming into shape and it’s ours and it’s beautiful.

Val Finch [another teacher living in an owner-built home, an A-frame] told me a story today about how two Mallards and an ibis had tried to land on their roof in the moonlight thinking that it was a lake. I was just thinking about that when a flight of some unidentifiable birds whirred past just above — you could hear the motors in their wings they were so close — and uttered one stark cry. One. Stark. Cry. It means nothing, but the whole situation was art. I’m living in an art form, an installation. The weather is good, the wood is reasonably dry, the shed is warm, the food is cooking, the sun will rise tomorrow.

stove inA couple of days later: On the credit side, to which the Great Keeper of the Balance Sheet would urge attention, we might have some hot water soon. [I’d installed the fancy and fabulous second-hand IXL slow combustion stove in the house (where it belonged on the slab really) and hooked it up to the hot water. Even though we were out in the open we could, if we wanted, cook on it, and we weren’t a long way from the first bath if en plein air.] Arthur Phillips [our lawyer] is refusing to return calls and we’re $1000 in debt. Yippee. Not sure if I’ve stayed entirely on the credit side. I have put the heads on the taps and they’ll work soon, but rain is getting in on the rather gorgeous mezzanine floor at the moment and I really don’t want that weathered. And why do the mice have to shit all over the bloody table? Tell me that. We have become an exciting new food source. Where’s their sense of gratitude? I wonder when it’s pay day and whether I’ll get $1000. Myrna might. She deserves it though. Once again I’d like a nice sunny FREE week to just get a few things done. Just a clear week or two. Hot water. That’ll be a groove.

mezzaI took two days off the next week to put in the glass panels in the mezzanine and the clerestory in the south wall running between the top plate and the roof, a fiddly job but one which would improve weather proofing substantially. As I surmised it was a bugger of a job. A while ago I wrote up some sort of phoney timetable for us to follow of things to do. After two weeks we’re three weeks behind. Anyway, what the hell. Drunk again.

One of the features of the house was two pairs of magnificent black bean and glass doors, oversize, nearly 3m high and out of a city bank via Whelan the Wreckers. (See below.) They were a striking part of each end wall. But double doors are hard to fit. Anyway …

20 July. Last week, a windy week, I had for the 103007th time tried to fit the double doors: the unfittable meets the unwidenable with intransigence the name of the game. A gust took one of the doors and smashed it down onto a pile of Hardiflex [the proprietary name of the AC sheet], the world’s most revolting building product. The thick and very expensive glass, however, did not break. So I went round to pick it up, thanking lucky stars etc etc, lifted it up and returned it to its place saying, hmmm tough no damage great etc etc, dropped it and the glass smashed.

The work was getting done at the weekends. I would do a tour of the hardware shop or the plumber’s supplies or the saw mill on Friday after school to make sure we weren’t going to be thwarted by some crucial missing item and we would get up at the crack of dawn on Saturday and get into it, often with amateur help arriving mid morning. By four o’clock the mistakes would begin. By five o’clock insuperable obstacles would have emerged. By six o’clock I would be walking around looking at what had happened to see if I could see any difference. Next morning I would correct mistakes, I would have resolved the insuperable difficulties and we’d be off again.

On Sunday nights we would make our way over to the Taylor’s for a hot shower, so we could at least begin the week fairly clean. Their house was fully air-conditioned, warm, lined with western red cedar, had lights, everything working, often a bowl of soup to go with the shower. My best recollection was that I was very grateful — it was always fun to see Gwyneth, not so much Ron — but not envious. It was a very nice house with a fabulous view of the Asses Ears and a remarkable garden of natives emerging very quickly under Gwyneth’s tender ministrations, but they’d brought the suburbs with them. I think that’s what I thought.

seppo 1toiletIn early August, the septic tank went in and a friend’s plumber father hooked it up to the pan and signed the plumbing off, the only professional contribution of labour to the whole. Here is an example of the occasional offset. It took me less than a morning to dig the hole for the tank (at left, 2.5m. deep) in slightly damp pure sand. A talking point was provided by the fact that I sunk the toilet pan so that it was half way between a squat and a pedestal. I’d read somewhere it was a good idea. My mother demurred.

first fire 1The first fire in the fireplace was on 25 August. Laurie Polec set it. He wrote, inter alia: The house, yes well one of the nicest and most splendid I’ve seen, and safe and secure thanks to my work today. And we should finish grouting those tiles tomorrow. But Mernz’s cooking is the big drawcard here. I had a bath tonight which was magnificent in a room with view. At left is the first fire occasion. The grand doors are on display along with the clerestory above the top plate.

This is followed by one of my many ‘lists of disasters’. Borer in the main poles. Moths breeding in the blankets. Vegie garden underwater again. Pump under water. Ran out of trim. Fridge goes on and off. East wall leaking somewhere. And so on.

Wet orchard 1On the 5th November we had two days off to go to a wedding in Mildura, the first downtime since 5th April.  But we had moved in. All that’s left to do on the house is a bit more trimming, two storm water drains, make and fit the fly screens. All the systems are working. The stove is brilliant. Might have another day off sometime. Life? Good.

The person who started it is the person finishing it. There have been no deaths. It seems like the shallowest of beginnings. Constant, teeming struggle against things that can’t be satisfied, like hundreds of lots of dishes to do everyday and I’m the dishpig. But then the trees [in the orchard] are in leaf and some are going very well.

This is the only photo we have of the inside of the finished house: blurred, black and white, shot into the sun coming in through the east wall. Jill and Melissa Vallence talking to Mernz. It doesn’t show the warm honey colour of the wood or the glorious variety in the quarry tiles that I bought from an Eltham potter. Or the way that the light would come through the quadrilaterals of plate glass cut for me so willingly by the chaps at Horsham Glass. Nor the bits and pieces of Italian ceramic on the wall. It was often bit neater than this. No idea what the fly screen is doing inside and we would have put the tent (in the hessian bag) away. Its usual spot was in the root cellar.inside
garage 1We finished the house to a very liveable condition before Christmas and I built this over summer. So we finally had a shed for the ute, the wood and a laundry.

But then we had some news. Myrna was pregnant and while the house was perfect for an athletic childless couple, it wasn’t ideal for a new and growing family. We were also having lots of visitors and it would be nice to be able to offer them a pleasant bedroom. So we built another wing of three bedrooms, more simply designed than the house and much more skillfully executed.

Again we were in something of a hurry. Always in a hurry. My nephew Martin has been building his own very fine house in southern Tasmania for years now. He’s a much better builder than I am, and one of the reasons is that he is patient. When he’s a bit sick of things he stops. He’s also made a friend of his building inspector, who inspects only to marvel at the quality of Marty’s work. I’m not patient.

siteThis is today, I wrote in the journal as a caption to this photo, where there are 92 tons of McKenzie Creek Quarrying Co.s finest and lots of bits of 4×2, 4×1½, 6×3 and 7/10s of a roof as the rain pours down and my terribly expensive lining board gets wet. There’s not the same big fat history to the bedrooms as there was to the house. That was a case of schizoid obsessionalism, a phase now passed. Don Carter has been shooting his scurrilous and lizard-like mouth off saying we haven’t got a building permit. Horrible Don. He had dobbed us in to Fred. I’d sent the plans in but we didn’t have a building permit.

The slab was poured on the weekend before Easter, 10 April just less than a year since we had poured the slab for the house. This slab was a pretty one. I used prime scantling for the very well secured box but experience must count for something. The last mixes were a bit runny but that wasn’t my fault. I began the frame on the 18th and finished it four working days later. I think there’s a future for me in timber framing. The roof is on now so there is somewhere to put the pristine new lining board. It seemed to go up in a flash. It wasn’t a very complex building but I was in practice, I knew what to buy and I had a clear idea about what to do.

Compounding a most inglorious set of mail, Fred sent the plans back yet again on 21 June. He noted the roof needed strutted purlins (an impossibility as he himself admitted when he knew what was going on) and that the slab was unsatisfactory! (Bust ‘er up and start again. Aaaarrrrrrrrgh …) With these and other travails in mind I thought I’d harden up and ring him with a solid line of engineering argumentation. So I gave it a burl on Friday. On Thursday night we had noted new tyre tracks into our place and Myrna had cracked an hilarious joke, ‘Probably Fred Heinz.’ (heh heh heh)

‘Hello Mr Heinz? David McRae. We’ve been corresponding recently …’

‘You’ve been doing a bit more than corresponding. I inspected your place yesterday.’

What can I say? There is no confessional for the building miscreant. This is what Freddy found.frame

And for some reason that’s where the journals end, except to note that on Christmas Day 1976 it was 106 degrees Fahrenheit, and that even though there was work to do I was sitting reading Charles Mingus’s autobiography and it was making me feel queasy.

Front#2I can’t even remember how Fred and I sorted out our differences. I wasn’t required to break up the slab. (Can happen. Happened almost over the road near here a year ago.) I didn’t have to pull any work out. The bedrooms were snug and efficient, each with a different lovely view. We had a bay window in ours. The floating wood floor made things very comfortable.

But then Jessie was born. The Wimmera Base Hospital, 16 September 1976. She had heart surgery in Melbourne a few days later, and everything Jessie#1

Telecom put the phone on, a very difficult task, running an underground cable almost a kilometre through thick bush two days after I rang and asked them to do so. That was a help, but Myrna was expressing milk, saving it, getting up in the middle of the night, walking across to the house, lighting a lamp, lighting the gas bottle, heating milk, feeding a baby who had spent quite some time in intensive care as often as possible day and night. I was going in to work in Horsham leaving at 7.30 in the morning getting home at 6 or later. And there was still wood to cut, water to be pumped …

Other things happened, but between locking the gate for the last time eight months later and now, I have spent surprisingly little time thinking about all this. It’s been an adventure to rediscover it.

I kept building: a fair bit of another house for a friend, big renovations for others, two new rooms on our new house when we moved to Melbourne and then in Alphington whenever I got bored till every room had a view of garden and from every room you could see the birds.Backview#2

There’s still more: the final IN MEMORIAM #6: THE ASHES


My highest mark ever for Woodwork was 72. It was also my lowest, six terms in a row.

According to Bushy Shier’s distinctive but clear marking scheme, 76 was outstanding and suggested uplift to the elect. You could get 74 by intense application and copious sandpapering; 70 meant you hadn’t finished your models because you’d been mucking around with the tools although in an appropriately masculinist way; and 72 meant that you were just filling space. (Proof really that a four-point scale can accommodate the seminal issues of assessment. Who said school education wasn’t scientific?) The most complicated thing I made in six terms was a pot stand, five slats on two rails, and before we drown in snorts of derision I think this may still be in use somewhere.

That must have been about 1962. I didn’t return to woodwork for ten years when I made a base for our mattress — a bed I suppose you’d call it really — in a space approximately 2 metres x 80 centimetres x 2.5 metres, a sort of narrow corridor out the side of our Carlton terrace house. Tools: hammer, one short saw with a narrow, rusty and twisted blade, one chisel which had been used to chip out concrete, hand drill brace with two bits, screwdriver with a chipped blade. Sandpaper. I did have sandpaper, and the result stood up and stuck together, so … ever so possibly teetering on the brink of a 74?

Maybe I should say that Myrna and I had done a good deal of our endless years of courting in the half-built houses of Horsham; and maybe I shouldn’t say that this provided a lucid perspective on the nature of building processes at least as much as a romantic environment (which, before you get too excited, generally meant a good spot to sit and talk). I have always enjoyed watching how things go together in the building process.

And then there was The Australian Carpenter. In the various shifts we have made I have thrown out/ passed on/ given away probably 20 times more books than we now have, but The Australian Carpenter by C. Lloyd, Instructor at Swinburne Technical College, Melbourne has survived every one of those paroxysms. In the one bit of zippy fizz anywhere in its 225 pages, the strapline on the dust jacket says: ‘How to drive a nail How to build a house — and all the carpentry in between.’ True. That’s what’s in it. (This isn’t my copy. The dust jacket on mine disintegrated years ago.)gc5640317640751959784

First published in 1948, I have a copy from the second edition (1965) revised after 13 reprintings. My copy comes from the seventh subsequent print run. This is massive. This is enough in itself to keep a publisher solvent. So popular and ubiquitous was this book, woodwork courses across Australia were called ‘Sloyd’. In fact when I was discussing this blog and building just the other day, the woman I was talking with said without the slightest prompting, ‘Oh yes. Sloyd.’

Its tenor belongs to my boyhood rather than my 20s. It is from another happier less complicated time. There is an outline of the ‘Scheme’, Sloyd’s very practical epistemology, which precedes the Introduction.

The work set out in this book, follows in order the training of a lad who has been apprenticed to carpentry.

Part 1. The first section describes work as it should be done in a small workshop where very little machinery is used. 

Part 2. In this section the lad is supposed to be sent out to a building to help the carpenters. He works through from the start to finish of a timber house, and has further experience with brick veneer, and brick construction.

Part 3. But he needs more bench experience and is sent back to the workshop; this time to a big joinery mill, where the kinds of joinery he has been fixing on the building, are made. He works here and learns how to set out, and how to arrange his work in order. … He then goes out into the yard to select the timber for his jobs. … and so on.

The effectuality of this theory of knowledge is proposed with enormous implicit confidence. From the Introduction proper:

‘A trade cannot be learnt from a book.’ This saying is often quoted by old tradesmen, and it is quite true that the ability to turn out a workmanlike job, under all circumstances and in a reasonable time, can only be acquired by long practice under actual trade conditions. Unfortunately at the present time [three years after the end of the second World War], it very often happens that the training an apprentice receives is deficient. This can be corrected.

And my nationalistic heart pumps at this —

Most available text-books dealing with carpentry come from overseas, and of course give the subject as practiced in other countries. While with advanced work, this is much the same everywhere, for simple carpentry Australian practice differs considerably. The fundamentals remain the same, but local conditions, such as climate, class of materials available, and the price of land, tend to cause important differences in the design and construction of ordinary dwellings. Cheap land, dodgy materials, especially Australia’s green hardwood — the most common building material of the time — which has a mind very much of its own. That’s what he’s talking about.

Whipping past those issues, The Australian Carpenter is its own sober version of the hippie building manifestos. It implies that, with enough application, you really could, and perhaps if you were a responsible male you really should, do it yourself. So far, so sympathetic.IMG_0809In 102 lessons (‘the first two years of a Carpentry Course in Technical Schools’) with a paired page for each — one of drawings, many of them isometric, one of crystalline instructional text — he sorts you out. For example: ‘Order of working is most important when making joinery, as it is with many other jobs. Set outcompletely, gauge all joints, then ripall the tenons and chisel out all the mortises. … right way round with face edge in, clean up inside edges then cramp and glue up. Only the raw beginner sets out and makes and fits one mortise at a time.’ And in this context who could be thought raw beginner?

This is definitive instruction. It is a course which is not taught, but ‘given’. I loved that then and I love it now. None of this ‘facilitation of self-teaching’ nonsense; none of this ‘look for it online’. If you’ve got the wit to see it, all you need is there right in front of you, authoritatively.

Sloyd provides an articulate version of the voice of that very interesting version of masculinity, the excellent tradesman (carpenter, plumber, farmer, surgeon, accountant, cameraman or bureaucrat) — straight, honest, capable, inventive to a point but only to a point, insanely neat and concerned about clean up; absorbed and driven, within limited horizons, by the idea of ‘the good job’. (Women can and often do have all these positive qualities of course, but it seems, for whatever reason, to gel into a different final form with men.) I’m not one, I don’t want to be one, but the good order and functioning of the world is heavily dependent on such people.

Before I started building I would pour over Sloyd in bed and later, when I was actually doing something with wood, would use it as a constant source of advice. He is/ was (I can’t even find his first name) a man after my own heart. (Colin? Clive? Chris? Cecil and Cedric are the only names I can think of which begin with a soft c.)

Let us begin traversing the vast distance between Sloyd as theory and Sloyd as realised practice.

ShedAs I’ve said the shed was an important try out.

We rummaged around the wrecker’s yards and found a collection of material that I thought would work okay. I also began an addiction to hardware stores. The brand new 150 gallon rainwater tank, not yet installed here, was the shed’s single most expensive component.

On the first day of the week set aside for its construction the concrete truck eventually ambled up through the track in to dump five cubic metres of aggregate, sand and cement in the box I’d built.

What can I say? Bought too much, wasn’t sure what to with the leftovers. Couldn’t screed it off properly because there were stakes in the way and the screeder wasn’t long enough and warped anyway. (Screeding is the process of roughly levelling concrete by ‘sawing’ back and forth across it and paddling it to get rid of air pockets.) Got the bolts for the bottom plate in the wrong place, the reinforcing mesh fell off the half bricks I was using as spacers. We had no water for curing, in fact I don’t think I knew about curing because we were working on the slab next day. Didn’t cut the formwork away from the slab. In the end it just fell off I think. About 3/8 of the surface was very nicely floated, flat and subsequently pleasant to walk on in bare feet; the rest not so much. Collaboration you see. There were feelings to consider, and notions of manliness.

But I know all those things now. And I only ever did versions of them again. The rumble of the concrete truck still remains an awesome (trad. usage: awe mixed with terror) moment.

The shed, 5m x 4m, was the simplest thing we could have built. (Today you’d probably buy a prefab thing with self-supporting sheet iron walls; but that’s today, and the result would have had far less character.) But the second-hand scantling I’d bought was so hard (40 year-old yellow and grey gum timber is almost literally like steel, nearly as hard and very very strong) we had to hand drill every nail hole. I decided then that I would never use second-hand timber for framing again — the first conscious anti-ecological compromise (and still, don’t tell anyone, a good move).

The shed’s outside cladding began a long relationship with AC sheet — easy to work, excellent painting surface, very durable, and possibly deadly — where C is for cement and A is for asbestos. The A has been taken out of Hardie’s products now; it hadn’t then. However because we had no power tools and cut it by clipping rather than sawing we never raised much dust of the sort that would give you mesothelioma.

The building rose and formed. The pitch of the roof was fine in the dry but a bit shallow when the rains came. Native creatures and insects (Now, under what circumstances would you insert ‘vermin’ there? Who was there first?) strolled inside unimpeded and at will, those that wanted anyway, a select and largely friendly group.

Design was also part of this process, and in keeping with the idea of doing everything yourself that was what I did. I taught myself the required amount of technical drawing, how to write up building specs and given my skill with maths, against all imaginings, how to do the engineering calculations required by the final design. Besides the National Standard Authority’s Light Timber Framing Code, the other book that absorbed my attention was its antithesis — Lloyd Khan’s book Shelter.

One Google request and bang here it is again 40 years later in living colour with a blurb that is still right on the money.SHELTER_new_cov_352WWith over 1000 photographs, Shelter is a classic celebrating the imagination, resourcefulness, and exuberance of human habitat. First published in 1973, it is not only a record of the countercultural builders of the 60s, but also of buildings all over the world. There is a history of shelter and the evolution of building types. Tents, yurts, timber buildings, barns, small homes, domes, etc. There is a section on building materials, including heavy timber construction and stud framing, as well as stone, straw bale construction, adobe, plaster and bamboo. There are interviews with builders and tips on recycled materials and wrecking.

A cult classic from the heyday of teach-ins and VWs, this large-format book may have inspired more owner-builders to build crazy structures than any other. Organized like a big scrapbook, it seamlessly blends vernacular building traditions from all over the world with far-out American hippie shelters, including geodesic domes, gypsy wagons, tree houses, windmills, and bizarre ferrocement living sculptures.

UnknownIt was a time for exotic buildings. images copy 2Building caught fire, so to speak, with the same flame that was igniting other bundles of life.

I began with the idea that we would build a fibre glass geodesic dome. School at the time was full of rolls of fibre glass and pots of resins for a prolonged burst of canoe-making. I made a model dome and bought scads of glass and resin before realizing what an utterly terrible idea it was. And it clung on. Probably the next six series of designs had one or more domes attached to … hmmm … pentagons, galleries, irregularly shaped versions of the shed. It was like Tony Abbott and the paid parental leave scheme — madness that clung.

images-1 copyGeodesic domes may come again, but their time in the sun, full sun anyway, was short and the pictures you see these days are usually of skeletons. And fibre glass … that organic, green ecologically responsible material! It would have been like living in a maths equation wrapped in Gladwrap, IF it had ever got under way. Fred Heinz would have put a stop to it long before the first panels were made. We’ll get back to Fred.images-2 copy

(You may be able to see with this one on the right that a more conventional building has been built inside the dome as a room structure. Occam’s Razor: delete the dome.)

Given the preponderance of sand on our property, I also thought of rammed earth but the sand had been too thoroughly scoured to be sticky enough for pisé. We collected rocks, sandstone, for possible walls of masonry. But there was no stone on our property and suitable types in quantity were a long way away. As well, masonry required skills that I absolutely knew I didn’t have, whereas I thought I could probably manage wood.

It was about this time that the floods came and the site we had chosen for building was largely underwater. We looked elsewhere and found a bump a metre or two higher at the other end of the orchard. That seemed to make a difference. But the site also had a different aspect. It was more buried in the bush, suggesting that the house should be too.

We were living in the shed and most of the time I loved it. With lino on the floor and a bathroom, the shed would be just about the most comfortable place on earth to live. This has consequences for the nature of the house. It is essential that it should be kept simple. No garbage, no frivolities.

I summarised the design process like this.

Phase 1: We got rid of the domes and extended the living room. Phase 2: Squared off the bathroom and provided a nook. Phase 3: The roofing plan is disgustingly complex. The pentangular kitchen took a dive. It’s squaring up. Phase 4: The axis dispute. Should the roof ridge run east-west or north-south? East-west has got to be obvious hasn’t it? Pise looked promising (for ten minutes). Hmm poles cut off the property, 300mm diam. They’d be nice. Phase 5: The cosmic hit. On the way back to Melbourne I was passing these things through my mind and just a mile the other side of Myrniong [a tiny village en route] I saw this very good-looking barn and thought: If we’re going to be simple, let’s be simple. Once on the drawing board (as we in the trade say) it immediately fell into place.

It didn’t of course. It went through a dozen more iterations before I finally sent the finished plans off to Freddy Heinz at the Shire of Arapiles on the 25th March, 1975. The plans came back a few days later with a request for $100 and, because she still owned the land, a signature from Joan stating she agreed to the building. Five or six small other adjustments were required. Nothing of concern. I had convinced him.

It turned out to be one very large room (10m x 8m, four times the size of the shed) with a bathroom cropped out of it with a mezzanine floor where we would sleep, really a very large open space with a pine lining board ceiling following the roof line 5 metres high at the ridge. It would be heated by a large fire place offset a little from the middle — a Jetmaster hollow-back steel construction set into brick, so effective we had to let it go out mid-evening except on the coldest nights. The first budget said nice and precisely $7788. I did another budget three months later when we had chased up and bought a fair bit of stuff: $4400. It finally turned out to be, insofar as you can possibly define such things, $8319.

In keeping with the spirit of things I chased materials all over the place haunting Whelan the Wreckers in Melbourne and later Bert Van Veldhuisen’s yard in Horsham. What I found influenced what we built. Bert was wrecking the old block of Horsham High School at the time and kept pulling out this fabulous mature rough-sawn Oregon (Douglas fir, imported from the US, straight-grained, lovely to work with if not as strong as many Australian timbers) — huge pieces, 300x100mm in section (12×4 in the old money) 5 to 8 metres long was not unusual, 400×50 slabs that I got planed and used for flooring, and the very useful 150 x 75 sticks of which I bought maybe 100 lineal metres. The other thing his yard was full of was white pine lining board that he’d got out the many Wimmera farm houses he’d pulled apart. I must have bought (and de-nailed and cleaned) more than 1000 lineal metres of that. But the availability of the Oregon in particular said build solid — build post and lintel.

I chased other stuff as well. In the absence of finalising the purchase of the land and getting on with the actual business, it provided an illusion of doing something. One of the places I went looking was a farm clearance at Hynam, about half way between nowhere and nothing across the border in South Australia.

3500 in attendance and good madcap sale had by all. A pleasant day full of high level drama. The crowd went mad. NO ONE was going to go home empty-handed: beds $600 [see the total price of our house above], 1940s steel-wheeled tractor (not going) $970, standard (very standard) lamp $140, plastic bag full of empty milk bottles $2.40, 3 sticks of rotten wood $15. I was there to buy a gas fridge that would run off bottled gas which was the second last lot auctioned, and one other couple had stayed late equally determined to claim it. I would have got it for $5 if they hadn’t been there. $95. I hope the damn thing works.

[It’s not sounding very promising is it? But we didn’t stop there. It is to be continued: In MEMORIAM #5]

IN MEMORIAM interlude: John Anderson

Among our guests at Girin Flat was John Anderson, like Molly Meldrum a child of Kyabram.

I met him at university where he became a close friend. He was a poet and nothing but a poet. I have never known anyone with such a startlingly clear sense of vocation. He worked painfully slowly and revised unflaggingly. He died when he was 49 having published only three collections. I think they are all masterpieces.

Gary Catalano and others have written a fine appreciation of his work. If you’re interested, go here. In the mauve block you will find ‘Anderson biography’. Other direct links don’t seem to work.

He wrote this during one of his visits to Girin Flat (and may have rewritten it several hundred times subsequently, but this is what he left us with).


The idea that the Australian bush is drab and monotonous is well established in our literature.

It has some truth but even the greyest bush is relieved by a certain fragile glassy glittery sub theme — on the drier inland slopes the more crystalline and unsoftened by climate.

The theme is picked up on the tips of things: gum leaf glitter, red gum tips — and in crevices: quartz crystals, mica, an ant dragging its shiny abdomen over leaf litter.

It is contained too in those knobs of kino, collections of hardened red gum sap fastened like rubies to trunks.

Movement is part of the quality and its keenest edge is animate. Insects and birds are its untapped cells. Unfortunately its most unstable. Here it seems that the spectrum has poured itself in an almost pure prismatic form on a few agents, parrots and rosellas flitting through a leached backdrop distributing colours.

In the dry sclerophyll, iridescence seems almost a general principle for beetles and wasps.

It is an elusive theme, one which picks its way in a series of disconnected points and for which I think Balinese music provides a successful metaphor. It provides the same tinkling contrast to the bush as is suggested by its own metallic glints. It gives just the right amount of form without imposing too much. Its rhythms are hidden and natural and yet capable of extreme exuberance and subtle enough to lend fluency to the songs of frogs, cicadas, crickets, bellbirds … sometimes disappearing, like an invisible songbird behind an elaborate screen of notes. Gumleaf glitter in the wind is the equivalent to a torrent of gamelan.

If it is conceded that life evolved from the sea — maybe in Australia it drew something too from the stars, bushfires, mineral springs, mirages, frosts, lightning, blue distances and waterfalls.

Or was some process of refraction from the gibber plains involved?images



images-2 copy 2[Eugene Von Guerard, 1862: ‘Mt Abrupt and Mt Sturgeon’]

The Grampians are the southern end of the Great Divide which runs for more than 3000 kilometres down the east coast of Australia, separating the fertile coast line from the more challenging interior. In contrast to the massive shield in Western Australia where the earliest evidence of life on earth dated from 3.5 billion years ago can be found in Pilbara rock , the mountains of the Great Divide are fresh young things, and the Grampians younger again.

IMG_1410Unlike most of the rest of the Divide the dominant landform in the Grampians is the cuesta, a long slope with a sharp scarp, the result of folding and faulting. Except for a couple of granite outcrops in the Victoria Valley the Grampians are all sandstone, in geological time not long from the sea bed. [The pic? I’m on the peak of the highest mountain in the Von Guerard looking north. The hump on the horizon to the right is Mt William/Duwil.]

Growing up first to their south in Hamilton and later to the north in Horsham, I was a familiar. Picnicking and walking in the Grampians was a staple of domestic entertainment, just as it was for Myrna who grew up in Horsham. Sunday afternoon? Mt Zero and Flat Rock.

I have always been struck by the way they spring out of the surrounding plane, without topographical warning. There are few foothills, so there can be sublime ‘whole’ views like the one west from Carroll’s cutting just out of Ararat on the way to Moyston, north across the paddocks from Glenthompson, south from the Laharum turnoff or in any direction from the Glenelg Highway.2702050-16x9-940x529

[The Glenthompson view. Von Guerard again, same time but really ‘Grampians viewed from Mt Rouse’]

images copyFrom above (in the dry, this area can be greener than this) they are shaped, broadly, like a saucer with two tails. A large cutlet of fish perhaps. images-3 copyThe fin at the apex is shaped like a nose (in Jardwajali, ‘gar’, see Peter Bellingham’s fabulous pic) and is capped by Brigg’s Bluff from the top of which eternity appears just beyond the horizon.IMG_0921Lake Wartook, dammed in 1886 but probably a very long standing body of water, is in the middle of the saucer (‘syncline’ to its intimates). To the north are the chocolate soils of the Wimmera plains and to the south the volcanic soil pastures of the Western District.

Less than 100 k.s from north to south and not much more than 50 east to west (ignoring the Black Range, a small outlier further west), they have always struck me as fragile and small. Since I walked from Dadswell’s Bridge to Mt William as a callow youth of 14, the development of roads, tracks and other infrastructure has made them a lot smaller. Some of the Victoria Range might be considered isolated but when I hear of people getting lost in the Grampians (as they do from time to time, very occasionally fatally) I am puzzled.

220px-Mitchell,_Sir_Thomas_Livingstone,_Explorer,_1792-1855,_NLAThey were named ‘Grampians’ by Major Thomas Mitchell, leader of the first group of Europeans to visit the area. He thought they looked like the Grampians in his native Scotland. Hard to know what he was thinking really, although it had been very cold and wet. The bullock drays carrying the expedition’s baggage were being pulled through the soil almost axle deep just here and they were only making a few miles a day. When he and his party climbed Mt William (or Duwil, the range’s highest peak at 1167m.) on July 14 1836 they were completely fogged in. The view next morning on a clear day must have been a revelation.

In the early 1980s there was a move to rename the ranges and their features (and in this heavily weathered sandstone country there are many more features than you can poke a stick at) with their original Koori names. [‘Koori’ = Indigenous Australian term used in Victoria for ‘people’; ‘Jardwajali’ one of the many local tribes or groups.]

Instead of ‘Grampians’ for example, ‘Gariwerd’, a rendering of the Jardwadjali generic term for ‘mountain’, and Gar (‘nose’) instead of Mt Difficult, Wudjub-Guyun instead of Hollow Mountain, and Djibilara rather than Asses Ears, Galbidj rather than Birge’s Nose. I was interested to discover that the ‘Billy wing’ of my childhood was actually ‘Billawin’, and the ‘Cherrypool’ where I’d spent time looking for the cherries was actually ‘Djarabul’. For several months the letters pages of the ‘Wimmera Mail Times’ shimmered with choler and bile. This clunky state government initiative produced a  reaction from the locals which set the cause of Indigenous recognition and reconciliation here back years.

Indigenous people lived in the Grampians for more than 20,000 years before the first whitefellas appeared — Jardwadjali to the west and north and Djab wurrung to the south and east. Billawin, a most unusual sometimes marshy area full of heath and head-high ti tree with an increasing number of lumpy and exotic rock formations as you close in on the Victoria Range, was an important ceremonial meeting place. This area, like much of the Grampians out of the tourist swarm, has a very particular and striking flavor. It resonates with something that is difficult to describe. It’s incredibly particulated but of a piece; it works; but it’s not you, or me anyway. Both fragile and resilient; scrubby but graceful; worn out but enduring; brimming with life a lot of which is crepuscular or nocturnal.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThere are more Indigenous rock art sites in the Grampians than in all of the rest of south-eastern Australia combined, many of them near Billawin. These pics are from Buandik and Billimina shelters where the sandstone is polished and the art more than 10,000 years old.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Four years after the Major’s first visit almost all the land around the Grampians and beyond to the southern coast had been colonised by Europeans. Four years. So very fast. Eight years later around 3,200 members of the two Gariwerd tribes, about 70 per cent of the total, had died or been killed. There is no doubt about the scale of the deaths; the circumstances are foggier. Introduced infections (like colds) certainly killed many, but there are also stories about massacres one of which may have taken place on or near the site of the current Hall’s Gap football ground, and there are other equally repellant stories about the activities of the ancestors of some of our erstwhile neighbours.

IMG_0785Further to issues of naming, here’s proof, of a type, from a Government of Victoria Department of Survey and Mapping map (Northern Grampians, 1994) that our property did exist. The area is called Wartook. When we were round there were nine (9) little black squares: four at ‘Rosebrook’ home of Peter Carter’s family, three at ‘Rain Acres’, Bernie Caelli’s holiday property, and two at ‘Girin Flat’. No others. No knives and forks, no petrol bowsers, no (public) beds. Our property was bounded by the road, the creek and the two black lines. ‘Joan’s paddock’ is the area containing the ‘200’ contour line mark.

IMG_0904Proof also that we have contributed to the named features of Victoria. ‘Girin’ is the Jardwadjali word for sulphur-crested white cockatoo. It seemed appropriate. Every evening hundreds of them would gather in our trees and chatter — hawaack waak waak hhhaaawaak qwaaaack waak waak poi poi poi WAAACK waak waak waak — until sundown after which you might hear a lonely cry from stragglers flying home.IMG_0911

The birds were and are a spectacular feature of life in the Grampians. The variety of environments, the plentiful flora and insects and the mild climate mean they are there in profusion. Geoffrey ‘The Twitcher’ Ainsworth began this list. Think of it as a poem.

Blue wrens, crimson rosellas, eastern rosellas, grey thrush, emus, eastern shrike-tit, southern yellow robins, willy wagtails, yellow-tufted honey-eaters, yellow-winged honeyeaters, wedge-tailed eagles, white-browed babblers, sulphur-crested cockatoos, Major Mitchell cockatoos, southern magpies, chestnut shelducks, kookaburras, brown and grey tree creepers, brown flycatchers, orange-winged sitellas, pied currawongs, long-billed corellas, lorikeets, crested and bronzewing pigeons, rufous whistlers, welcome swallows, crows, spotted and striated pardalotes, yellow-tailed thornbills, galahs, kestrels, whistling kites, screech owls, southern lapwings (I say spur-winged plover), gang gang cockatoos, yellow-tailed black cockatoos, noisy miners, magpie geese, bronzewing pigeons, white-faced herons, ibis, pipits, flame robins.

And dozens more. More than 240 species of bird have been identified in the Grampians and I suspect we would have seen at least a third of them on our land.

IMG_0832The Grampians are also alive with animals. There are more species of kangaroo living here than anywhere else in Victoria and they’re not difficult to find. This is one place in Australia where the tourist dream of kangaroos loping up the main street is realised. They particularly enjoy grazing on pasture, or lawn for that matter if it is available, and that was one reason why groups of hundreds of roos were common in Joan’s paddock. When the trees in our orchard started to grow kangas also proved to be partial to young fruit tree growth.

orchid_Thelymitra_aristata_Grampians131106-4682C_tensa_Rigid_Spider-orchid_G_Rudolph341KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAnd flowers. Flowers are one of the reason why the Grampians are overrun by tourists in spring. Unexpectedly prolific, diverse, florid, sometimes tiny like the orchid on the right, but gorgeous among the standard khaki, grey and dusty greens.

One other thing you might note about the map and the location of Girin Flat is the blue hatchings, the err … ‘subject to inundation’ information. We didn’t look at this or any other map when we tried to buy it. We got things under way in early summer, signed up (after a fashion) in mid summer, and anyway knew the western side of the Grampians is far drier than the eastern side. It has a Wimmera climate: hot summer, beautiful winter with freezing clear mornings warming up to 25 or so, shirtsleeves if not shorts. It rains from time to time but not very often and not very much.

Except when we moved there.

In July 1974 the rain began and it kept raining. Four inches (100mm) in three days, then six inches over a week, then it just rained continuously during August — the wettest month on record. I tried to plant fruit trees but the holes I dug would fill with water as soon as I sank the shovel in.

Quicksand has struck. There is sort of a crusty surface and very paddly sticky stuff underneath. Cam [a nephew, young at the time] got his foot and leg into a patch near the creek and went straight up to his groin which was rather exciting. And today when, as is my custom, I got bogged next to the shed, I was able to watch all four wheels slowly sinking into the dirt until the body was more or less resting on the ground. A job for P. Carter’s tractor that one.

Talcum powder, quicksand, bogs, washaways, puddles, frogs, lakes, swamp, marsh, floods, night noises, taddies, water birds, creeks. We’ve bought a creek, a wide one. By judicious and careful calculation one can conceive that this might be what happens every year about this time.

As the floods tore through our first garden, Myrna wrote:

IMG_0847Floods in the vege garden nearly broke my heart yesterday. It was so depressing. I came close to understanding how the farmers feel. It is a very different thing to be dependent on the weather. For the first time ever the Grampians seemed really quite hostile. … There were hundreds of kangaroos at Zumsteins busy grazing. The looked quite prehistoric with their enormous backbones extending out to the end of their tails and their tiny heads. I’ve never looked at them like that before. They seemed to belong to the rugged hardy trees and the prickly complicated mountains. The Grampians didn’t seem to be sympathetic to us at all. It made me see how nature can stop or destroy things so easily. …

That’s the way it is when you want to be in touch with living things. It isn’t all beautiful and fresh and invigorating. It is often trying and bewildering and hurtful and very very harsh. Living here isn’t going to be a lovely time in the country. It will be sometimes. … But we will have to keep reminding ourselves about all the animals and plants which have evolved tough strong durable systems before we ever arrived and started doing things. … We should respect what is here and not try to do too much.

The water finally receded in early November. The water table dropped about 90 cms. We moved the garden and the site for the house up onto a modest rise. The native grasses came up in profusion. Hundreds of emus populated Joan’s paddock. And, because it’s Australia — ‘a sunburnt country of droughts and flooding rains’ — the country browned off after six weeks to the point where we were watering hours a day.

IMG_0852[pic: not Billawin, but typical. Looking south to Sentinel Rock from Mt Rosea ridge]

IMG_1409.JPGThe alien quality of much of the Australian physical environment to its European settlers is a commonplace if not a cliché. I thought about this when we were walking through the Ardeche in southern France a year or two ago: picturesque stone houses in a rolling green countryside that seemed to be the very embodiment of fecundity, an ecology apparently in fine balance, a landscape so palatable I could just loll around in it permanently without thought. But is this some atavistic memory, some throwback, some chocolate box archetype of how things are supposed to be? Myrna has always been more fond of the Grampians than I have. I like them very much. She might say they were part of her identity: I wouldn’t. I can remember times, just as she describes above, when I’ve been shaken by them.

If we’d been doing this at Molyullah, a softer and more settled landscape, it would have been different. Girin Flat wasn’t virgin country; it had been logged by sleeper cutters and there were remnants of a camp half way over to the creek. But it wasn’t that far off. At Molyullah we would have been starting with cleared land (surrounded by national reserve), we would have had sheds, a garage, sewerage, a phone, water and power. At Girin Flat we had none of those things, which was partly the point. (Or was it? I don’t remember thinking about it much).

We spent endless hours trying to clear the bracken from around the house, and from the orchard and the garden. Bracken grows from extremely hardy rhizomes (underground rooting systems) which are very hard to remove. We didn’t want to poison them so we had a permanently available job cutting bracken. And look here at the first thing coming back after the fire.IMG_0549

There is no shelter in the bush. I knew that, and that was one reason why we valued the shed so much. It had a roof. But there wasn’t anywhere to put building materials or other stuff which might become rain-affected. We established a sewerage system after a while which worked very well, except for some reason we needed twice the length of runoff piping than was standard. I doubt whether runoff would have got much past the first few metres.

We used tank water to drink (after we had a roof to collect it). To wash and to water the garden and orchard we pumped water to a header tank from the creek (Horsham’s water supply but 40 k.s cleaner). Our pump was much better at blowing than sucking so we moved it over to the creek 500m. from the house which meant that you had to go (usually walk) over there to start and stop it. This was not always convenient.

This morning I was running late. I tear into the bathroom, tramp round the ice-encrusted tiles, leap in the shower and turn on the tap. Nothing. Nada. Rien. Zilch. No drips. No noise. Nothing. Thinks: no water. Bloody hell blooody hell. The wife has emptied the tank with all her watering.

So without further ado I stick on boiler suit and slippers jump in the ute and drive heedlessly through native vegetation. (I did stay on the track.) Got there and had a real struggle trying to get the aluminium-flavoured ice block that was the trusty Honda 4-stroke to fire. As I casted through all the things that could have gone wrong, rusty water was coming out the drip line, always a bad sign.

Then, lo! Bonzo the idiot wonder dog appears at the side of the clearing with infuriating Jack Nicholson grin. Then even more lo!, glamorous wife appears in pyjamas on Space Ranger bicycle and tells me the whole pipe is frozen. I’ve been trying to drive a 50mm x 500m. icicle through the house. I will read this in few years and, no doubt, marvel at nature. But I was pissed off this morning. Minus 6 degrees.

And for most of the time we had no electricity. We used wood for heating, cooking and hot water and had efficient technology for each. Both our slow combustion stove and our hollow-backed open fire place were brilliant performers. You did of course need wood. I found a great pile of red gum sleeper offcuts somewhere up the creek and cut them up using Peter Carter’s docking saw. That lasted a couple of months. Wood goes fast.

Our fridge ran on gas. (See ‘In Memoriam #4’ for its exotic source.) It mostly worked okay. Entertainment came from a battery-powered cassette player which turned over a set of batteries a week. I tried to hook it up to a car battery, swapping them over, but never succeeded. For light we used a kero pressure lamp which as I have complained elsewhere hissed relentlessly and six or more Aladdin lamps (see pic. Ours weren’t just like that, but same principle.) which gave a lovely light but not enough to read by and their mantles were very fragile.Bmajectic And no phone. Never thought about phones then. Imagine.

When Jessie came along we bought a small generator, enough to drive the record player and one light to read by. (Not reflecting very well on me at this point.) But you had to start its motor and leave it running for anything to happen. The Pykes (see below) had a large, and quiet, diesel generator which was automatically activated by turning any switch on. That was too complicated for us.

Not having electricity wasn’t a matter of ideology. We were more than a kilometre from a pole and it would have cost as much as the land did, more than $6000, to get connected to the grid. And for a good while we seemed to be getting on all right. Except for the matter of actually buying the land.

It took forever. The stages: hope, wonderment, mystification, fury, disdain, fatalism.

It was a subdivision which made it more complicated. It needed to be surveyed for a start. Before it could be surveyed we had to cut a clear eye line about a kilometre through ti-tree which we did quite promptly.

31/2/74 First visit from Noel Ferguson the surveyor. Seems like a good bloke. We may be getting a little closer to fixing things up. It looks like the survey will be taking place before Easter.

25/5/74 Despite the fact that we’ve cut a clear line for more than half a mile Noel says he won’t be able to survey it for another month. Needs new equipment or something.

27/6/74 Today I had a rather cathartic visit to Bob Stewart of Power and Bennett, solicitors and vile bodies of Pynsent St Horsham. Nothing has happened. Nothing. He suggests, from behind his professional mask, worn threadbare from overuse, that it might be 6-8 months before we are able to finish buying the land. That’s just crazy. There is a whole collection of misunderstandings combined with the slowness (indolence, sloth, sluggardliness) of the surveyor. I hate this.

15/8/74 Ferguson is now in a position of even lower esteem. Joan has been in touch and he’s fobbed her off, told her he’d finished the job but he hasn’t been anywhere near the place.

2/9/74 It is certainly not a matter of being patient and having your expectations pleasantly fulfilled. The right date, the right time or, as a delightful surprise, a fraction earlier, a good job, that extra mile — NO WAY. It always seems to turn out crazily rushed at gunpoint, shoddy work, things missed or mucked up. Anyway after all this time Noel F, our poster boy, has finally confirmed we are going to buy 23 hectares of finest Grampians land.

Seven months. What a rat. And that was just the surveying.

In July, 1974 we became official holders of Crown Grazing Licence No. 302.130 with ‘the transfer from Joan Carter to yourselves duly endorsed thereon. Signed: E. Kennedy, Secretary for Lands.’ Five dollars per annum allowed us ‘to enter with cattle, sheep or other animals upon parklands to depasture same’. This was the slice of land between what we wanted to buy and the creek. But it didn’t allow us to build anything.

I spent a long time trying to talk Fred Heinz, the building inspector for the Shire of Arapiles, in long distance control of our area, into considering plans for a building under Joan’s signature.

12/9/74 I had a long talk to Fred Heinz yesterday when it was so wet and miserable it almost guaranteed that everybody would be home. Noel F. had at last, a pleasant surprise, got off his bum and done the prints for the survey map. So all the stuff is sitting at the Shire of Arapiles. Fred says that —

1)     There is absolutely nothing to do before 100 days. Hi ho. Same old thing.

2)     He will not look at the plans even under Joan’s name until the sub-division is approved.

3)     He was all over the place about whether or not we would be able to build here! It might be ok … probably. And we won’t know that until we have bought the land and completed an Interim Development Order which may be subject to a number of conditions.

4)     I was a land developer. I said I wasn’t. I was a teacher who wanted to live on the land. He eased off a bit after that was established.

In the end he did agree to look at a building submission signed by Joan. And finally, after a good deal of the house had been built —

9/8/75 Today we signed some dubious looking papers that apparently indicate that sometime in the future the bank will buy the land from Joan and that we owe them $6310.50 for that particular privilege. This has occurred an offensively long time since this game began. I’m past caring.

Nearly two years in fact. That was as hard to manage as anything. Not least because Fred was based in Natimuk an hour’s drive away, so regular contact was difficult and in his mind pointless. There was no basis to have contact with the Councillors of the Shire (we weren’t rate payers till we owned the land) and Fred ruled with an iron fist anyway. Short, very blond, cropped hair (can I say Germanic? I think I will), he was exceptionally keen on the letter of the law. But his Wartook confidants were also the dark side of the Carter family.

We were the first of the new settlers (which 20 years later multiplied egregiously as the Carter boys found there was very comfortable money to be made from land sub-division). There were three families besides us. Ron and Gwyneth Taylor, a few k.s away, had come from (‘been driven out of, by development’) Vermont, an outer suburb of Melbourne. He was a retired solicitor and Gwyn was a gifted naturalist (plants. native) and they were staunch ‘greenies’, I think the first formal versions of the genre that I encountered. Ron was an irascible crock, Gwyn a lovely person. Further round towards Zumsteins were the Raleighs, Royce and Zhan and their three young kids. He was a primary teacher working in Horsham too, but they wanted to quit and set up a native plant nursery which they eventually did. Then back towards Horsham and more remote than any of us on a glorious and large block, several hundred hectares with a great view, were the Pykes. Will was an ag scientist and good at a lot of practical things and Prue was a TAFE teacher before they began producing children.

Fred had made the Raleigh’s pull down their shed frame and insert new reinforcing plates on the slab. That helped our relationship.

But our immediate neighbours were Peter and Denise Carter and their young kids Bradney and Genene. Peter was Joan’s nephew. The only stipulation Joan asked of us when we started buying the land was to keep our gate shut so that, and I quote, Peter’s lice-infested sheep wouldn’t get into her paddock. He was thoroughly amiable, dreamy in a sort of orotund way, enjoyed a drink, was keen on the races and not so much on work. He had a well-rehearsed theory that good farms looked after themselves. His brother Don owned the land adjacent to the national park nearest to Zumsteins. He was another sort all together. I thought he was sharp, mean and hard and he quite evidently didn’t like us and our ilk.

The back to the earth literature is full of the presence of wise ancients who can advise you of the ways of the land and guide you through the thickets. They may have among their skills an ability to talk to the wind or to call emus at will. They know knots, how to baffle wasps and at their finger tips have 32 practical uses for (traditionally refined and organic) sump oil. Old Justiney or Black Beardy James. Joan and her man Jack Smith were a bit like that, but mainly we were embedded in quite a large colony of red neck arseholes (for whom of course we were fly-by-night drug-infested hippies).

Three things gave me a sharp fright when we were on the land.

One was the first and every subsequent time I heard a screech owl. You would swear that someone was being murdered. The second was the time a possum dropped on us when asleep in the shed. It didn’t like it; we didn’t like it. There was a ruckus. The third was again in the shed, again asleep, but home from school sick as a dog. The door was crashed open and the two Carter boys — men, how old? probably 40 — stood over me, demanding to know all sorts of extraneous things that were none of their business. Was I building on Crown land? Where did those bricks come from? Who gave me the right to … Were there drugs on the property? (I think they might have been drunk themselves.) I was physically shocked and utterly nonplussed. How and why that happened is still a mystery.

This event coloured our relationship somewhat which may already have been coloured by the Horvath affair, something to which there is no reference in the journals and about which I had completely forgotten till last week.

Here’s a note to self that is in the journals: A good thing to do after we own the land and have a building permit, would be to get Royce and Ron and the Pykes, all the people round here we could muster and people who don’t want shooters crawling over their properties. Could set up an organization devoted to conservation causes.

This admirable notion was pushed ahead because a Mr Horvath, who we never met, purchased some land on the other side of the creek up the hill in order to set up a theme park full of Disney characters. This, like most things, infuriated Ron who in short order sought an injunction to stop any such thing happening.

This is a classic land use issue of course. If we could do what we liked with our land, why couldn’t he? Whose values should prevail? What notion of amenity applies? Is there any role for the idea of ‘appropriateness’? Oooo land development, what a Sargasso Sea of untethered rights and cravings.

So, long story short, we hooked up with Ron; and the Carters (with, I would have to say, an eye on their own subdivisions) went with Horvath. I set up a public meeting in Horsham to try to establish a Grampians Conservation Society. It started nasty and got much worse. I think the whole Laharum Football Club — players, relatives, friends and acquaintances — led by Bruce Lamshed whose son I was teaching (as if that means something), turned up to yell and catcall. There were no fistfights because there was no one on our side. It was the most abject of disasters. I would have done better if I’d played footy for Laharum, but I was too busy building the house.

orchardI could talk about the garden and the orchard and how we were trying to woo plants to grow in sand that had been scoured by the creek for centuries, maybe millennia. Great for mortar and foundations, useless for vegetables and fruit trees. How we used to spend days collecting manure for these enterprises: on one day alone 17 ute loads of aged sheep shit were dug from under Bernie Caelli’s historic shearing shed and carted off. And, despite all, how things did grow. We never had any fruit off the trees but they blossomed and some of the 40 or so thrived. Myrna’s garden was a major source of food.Garden

One meal I noted: three fish from the creek, mushrooms from Joan’s paddock, broad beans, zucchini, brown rice and homemade bread. Yum. I don’t know where the fish came from. I’m not a fisherperson. But the garden did flourish, maybe hydroponically.

There’s so much more. But the subject is the house. Let’s return to the topic in hand. In Memoriam #4 and 5: How do you build house.poles