It’s almost 5 months since the catastrophic fire that cleaned us up and changed our life forever.Shit has Happened!Next! So Let’s move on. Get over it. We have to get on with being in the here and now. The new normal will now be massive fires at intervals set by the new hotter climate. We need to acknowlege this, internalise it and re-build appropriately. We have decided to re-construct eveything in Steel frame and steel cladding. This won’t eliminate the risk or reduce the wild-fire exposure, but when the fire returns – eventually, as it will, in the next catastrophic event, we will be better prepared with buildings that are less likely to burn. Our first attempt at building something new – a car port. A galvanised steel structure, is now complete. The council has been out here to inspect it and given the final approval and ticked it off. We have had the solar electricians out here this week and installed the 6.6 kw of solar PV on its roof. So we are not buying any of the ‘green’ wind power from the grid any more. We are now back to using our own self-generated solar power. It has taken 5 months to get back here. It’s a nice feeling to be getting back to self reliance in electricity and food. We decided to use re-cycled galvanised iron to clad the new building.
It makes the rather bright looking new building a lot less shocking. It blends in with the charachter of all the other buildings on the site. The inside is still rather bright, a bit ‘2001- a shed oddesy’, but I intend to line it in times to come when funds and time permit. That will tone it down a bit.
Because my leg is still healing. I can’t do too much – especially on ladders and up on roofs. So I have been grounding myself with working on the stone stairs leading up the retaining wall to the new pottery. These stairs will link the new pottery to the wood kiln shed below.I have found a lot of my stomemasons tools that went through the fire. Luckily, being mostly wrought iron, thay survived the fire in reasonable order, just very rusty.I have enough ‘gads’ to be getting on with, so I can cut up the big stone slabs into smaller sizes more suited to stone step treads in a set of steps.I’m not up to lifting big lumps like this anymore, so I’m using the tractor’s bucket to do the heavy lifting these days.
The weather is holding out, only a few frosts as yet, so we are still harvesting all our green food from the garden. We are making a lot of stir-frys at the hmoment. Ones that use a lot of capsicums! We make a big double batch and make gyoza dumplings from half, then stuff capsicums the next night with the rest.
Every big project is composed of many small steps. This week we took a few more small steps on the way to the completion of the bigger picture.We got our 2nd semi-trailer load of stone blocks. We are now almost finished building the retaining wall, and back filling. Tomorrow, I’m expecting the the last few truck loads of crushed rock dust. While we wait. I have been digging down to re-expose the old 3 phase cables and conduits. It requires digging down where I think that the cables ought to be, sometimes it’s there and other times it isn’t. I have spent a lot of time digging in the wrong places. I eventually find them, it’s just a matter of time. I remember where they used to run. After-all. It was me who burried them, but it was 30 years ago and the landscape here on this block is now completely different since the fire, without buildings, fences, trees, and other reference points. I found this one;
And these two, where they crossed over. Once found, it is a matter of digging all along the edge of the conduit, exposing it on the side, so that it can be pulled out of the embedded soil and out into the open trench.
I want to expose and re-use all the old wiring. There are 3 lines down to the old pottery site. The original single phase line, the newer 3 phase line and the solar power line. Installing new wiring and conduit is very expensive. I just had to pay $400 for just 25 metres of 16mm copper cable to do a short extension. Copper is so expensive these days. That makes the original cabling that I have spent the week digging out, worth about $5,000, and that doesn’t include the value of the 40mm. conduit and the cost of digging the trenches. Then there is the electricians service fees/labour costs. As the site is about 70 metres from the power box up at the street, I estimate that I have saved myself $30,000 all up. I paid $5,000+ for the initial 3 phase line in 1998. Things have gone up since then!
Tragically, as I was just threading the new copper cables through the new conduit. I went to step over the trench, lost my footing , as the side wall collapsed. I went down with the cable. I fell in, twisting my leg as I went down. I ended up back to front, but my leg didn’t follow. I twisted my leg right around. I thought that I had broken my leg at first, just looking at it all the wrong way around, I went into shock. I couldn’t feel my foot, but slowly came to realise that I could still move it OK. It is just very painful to move it. I had to crawl, limp and shuffle back to the house with Janine’s help. I went to bed. I couldn’t do anything else. I didn’t have the energy or motivation to do anything else.Today I’m very sore, but can limp around, we had booked the excavator to come back, so had to be out there to organise things, but didn’t do very much at all. I can see that this will take some time to heal. it’ll slow me down somewhat.
We have spent this Easter long weekend digging trenches and laying plastic ‘polypipe’ all around the perimeter of the property. We used to have a complete circumnavigation of the block, but it was largely destroyed in the recent fires. I laid about 1000 metres of polypipe in the 70’s, but having chosen to live here on a very low income, I buried all the pipe by hand using a mattock. I dug and buried about 6 metres every summer morning before breakfast over a few years.
My big mistake was that because the ground was very dry and hard, I only managed to bury the pipe just below the surface, possibly just 100 mm. deep. Over the years with mowing and soil disturbance, erosion, etc. some of the pipe was just visible in places. It wasn’t such a big deal for the first 40 years, it only turned out to be a mistake when the catastrophic fire roared through here.
When the fire came, it was so hot, that it melted the pipe where it was exposed, or even if it was close to the surface. After the fire we found 2 complete melt outs, and 15 leaks in the system. We spent a couple of days with our friends Warren and Trudie helping us, to locate and patch all the holes. Each day driving back into town to buy more joiners, junctions and piping. We were haemorrhaging a thousand dollars a day for the first few days. We knew where the holes were, because whenever I started up the pump, we could see a fountain appear out of the ground. So I would switch off the pump and dig out the wet soggy site, then cut out the damaged section of pipe and install a couple of joiners and a new length of pipe. It worked as a stop gap measure, it got us through a tough spot in the dangerous, hot, dry, summer. But now it has become the time to do the job properly.
I decided to re-route the new pipeline right around the extreme edges of the land, whereas previously, it had cut around the edges about 20 metres in from our boundary. Now I want to move the pottery up onto the orchard site and move the stone fruit orchard up to the front of our land close to the street. I don’t want to have to move the polypipe again. I need it to be out of the way, but accessible. This time I have dug the trench 300 to 400 mm deep. Not deep enough to have to worry about cutting through the electricity conduits where they criss-cross the block, 600mm. down, but deep enough not to melt in the next fire that will come through here in the coming decade.
Eventually, I got back to the old pipework and joined the old 44 year old imperial agricultural pipe into the new blueline metric piping. There have been 4 different ‘standard’ joints for this poly piping system and 3 different standards in pipe sizes and wall thicknesses over the years. My under-ground water system has elements of all 7 different parts. It’s a hotch-potch. Whenever I dig up a part of the system to add on a spur line, I have to try to match the parts and pipe sizes.
I used to have stock of all these different parts to get me out of trouble in 1inch, 25mm., 2 inch, and 50mm. sizes in both male and female formats. These days I have to drive down to Mittagong to buy each new part for the circumstances at hand. I usually buy one extra spare part to start to replace my parts in stock.
We will be safe for the next 4 years, as it takes 4 years for the leaf litter in the forest to build up to a level that will sustain a bad fire, somewhere from 5 to 10 years on, there will be another very dry, prolonged period, but global warming increases the likelihood that it could be worse than this last time. When the fire comes again we need to be better prepared. This is how we are thinking & planning, and how we are responding to this disaster. I need to make our property defendable in the next very bad fire.
While I was concentrating on digging and laying the 130 metres of new 50mm. dia piping, Dave the concreter turned up to start work on the concrete slab for the new metal framed car port. I thought that would give him a hand, but I soon realised that the best assistance I could give him was to keep out of his way. He has done this all his life and is very quick and efficient. One day to dig out the site and frame it up, the lay the steel rio mesh, and another day to cast the concrete and polish the surface. Straight after Easter, the builder turned up to start erecting the metal frame.
It’s all going so quickly now. We have finished excavating all the beautiful rich dark top soil from the orchard and spreading it on the new top site. We spent a day raking out the roots and stones from the top soil and loading the truck to take them to the burn pile.
I want to get this new orchard site ready for the arrival of the new dwarf fruit trees by June/July. The site has to be completed by then because these new fruit trees are going to be bare-rooted, and will need to be planted pretty quickly. They are already ordered and paid for. I won’t have time to be doing all this prep when they arrive. These little jobs have to be scheduled in all along the way as the opportunity arrises. I couldn’t bare to build the new pottery on top of all that hard earned, self created, beautiful rich top soil. I had to remove it and use it productively.
So now the site is prepared, we still have to lay in the irrigation. One of my new poly pipe spur lines terminates just inside where the orchard fence will be. I am still trying to figure out the cheapest way to build a fence and frame to support the bird netting. This is a work in progress. The next immediate job is to build a stone retaining wall to hold back the lovely deep bed of soil. Actually I need to build 2 stone retaining walls over the next few weeks to prepare for other stages of the new pottery build. The old orchard site that will house the new pottery will need to be levelled, what’s called ‘cut and fill’ and that soil will need to be retained. Whenever I can get around to that.
And the good news is…. Our Hyundai Ioniq electric plug-in hybrid car has returned the performance figures for the first quarter and we have raised our average fuel consumption from 500 km. to the litre of fuel up to 505 kms to the litre. It’s an amazing statistic that I find hard to comprehend, but I have only been to the service station one this year so far, and the fuel tank is still over 3/4 full. Very pleasing!
Lastly, we have been trying to find ways of using up our huge excess of capsicums. First they were roasted by the fire and lost their leaves, then recovered by the heavy rains that followed. Now we are having to deal with this huge harvest. Fortunately, capsicums are a favourite of ours, but everyone has a limit. We use them in every soup, salad, stew, and stock. I have roasted them and pickled them, this week I stuffed them and baked them. Last night I cut them into chunks and used them on kebabs with zucchini slices and some fresh tuna off the fish truck.
Janine made a baked pudding using 2 jars of our preserved berries from the summer.
As the weather has turned cooler now, this warming and very satisfying desert is very welcome and delicious .
I have made some sourdough bread. I rescued the sourdough starter from Geordie. Now that his restaurant has been forced to close. I thought that I might keep the sourdough ferment alive here for the duration.
It’s now 3 1/2 months since the fire cleaned us out. We have been working hard to clean everything up and bring our life back to some semblance of normality. Well, the sort of ‘normality’ that we chose as normal for us.
I keep thinking, well hoping is probably a more apt term, that I have finished with chainsawing blackened logs. But they are every where and I still find myself at it after all this time. I haven’t even started t think about clearing up the rear section of our land, down the slope behind where the pottery used to be. There is a lot of blackened sticks down there that will have to be tackled one day. For the time being, I’m concentrating on just the front half of our land. The part that will face the next fire in 5 or more years time after the forest grows back.
With global warming increasing at an increasing rate, and world leaders with their heads in the sand, its going to come around again in the next decade. A long dry spell with increasing temperatures, The east coast will burn again. I need to work now to set us up to be better prepared for the next episode. I thought that I was well prepared before, but you learn from experience, and I had never experienced anything like that before. I had no idea what a catastrophic fire event could be. I’m a bit wiser now. No-one should have to go through that.
So with this idea firmly fixed in my mind, we are back into it, cutting and stacking the last of the stumps, fallen branches and pruned dead limbs from the front garden. Of course it’s not a front garden any more. It’s now just a front yard of bare scorched earth. We will keep it as a meadow of wild flowers into the future. something that we can mow down when required to keep a clear space to the west, where the next fire will most likely come from.
These logs are so heavy that I can’t lift them onto the truck, so I use the tractor to do the lifting, but even then, the tractor has a load limit of just under 200 kgs. and one load was so heavy that I could only get it just 100mm. up off the ground. I learnt to limit the load to just one lump at a time.
So now it has become the time to make that really big decision. it’s one of the toughest decisions that I have had to make. We have decided to take out the stone fruit orchard and move the pottery up the slope a bit onto that site, farther away from the bush at the back of our land and closer to the centre. We will re-plant a new orchard in the front area, on the other side of the entrance driveway. This new ‘orchard’ location will be easier, and therefore cheaper, to build on.
We rented a weathboard pottery studio up in Dural to the north of Sydney when we first started out in the early 70’s. It burnt down in the bush fires of 1976. We moved to Balmoral and built a pottery out of galvanised iron, hoping that it would be more fire proof. It burnt down in 1983. The next pottery was build of mud bricks, I hoped that it would be more fire proof. but it still had a timber ceiling and roof framing. Now it has burnt, I’m slowly getting the message. This time I will build in steel. I’m a slow learner!
The first pottery we built here in 1976 was on 3 levels to accomodate the slope of the land. We build it over several years, one room at a time as we could afford it. When it burnt down in 1983, the next pottery was rebuilt on the same sloping site on the same 3 differing levels. We had no money, or any prospects of earning very much of it, so we worked with the lie of the land to save money.
As this will hopefully be my last pottery building. I need it to accomodate me in my zimmer frame and wheel chair in the future. This pottery needs to be all on one level. This also probably means building it on a concrete slab. I have strictly avoided using concrete in the first 3 potteries because of the huge carbon debt that cement incurs, but I need to be both practical and economical. a slab is looking like the smartest option. So I’m selling out my green credentials and going with concrete for the first time in my life, thinking of our old age.
So the orchard is gone. We planted all those trees as bare rooted whip sticks in 1976. That’s 44 years of nurturing, pruning, fertilising, watering and mowing. It’s all gone now!
We have engaged our friend Ross, to dig up all the top soil that we lovingly created over the past 4 decades. The top 200mm of soil has become a rich dark brown humus rich soil. Far too good to bury under a concrete slab. The original native soil here was an orange/yellow sandy loam when we started. I was delighted and surprised to see how deep the top soil had become over time. So good in fact that we couldn’t bear to waste it. I decided to ask Ross to dig it up and transport it to the front garden to fertilise and enrich the new orchard site.
We piled up all the best dark soil into a heap, not unlike a mini Mt. Everest in the garden. The chook formally known as ‘Ginger’ decided to climb the mountain of soil looking for bugs and worms. This top soil is extremely rich and alive with life.
I noticed that she attacked the problem from the North Face, the hard way, without ropes or carabinas. She will now be known as the chook called ‘Hillary’!
We will plant another orchard on the new front site, where we will plant all new trees that are mostly grown on dwarf grafted rootstocks. This will make the orchard easier to manage in the future as we grow older and less vigorous ourselves. The opposite of the fruit trees. We will grow the new orchard under a full netting cover, just like the vegetable garden has been now for 15 years. What we have learnt from the veggie garden experiment, is the kind and size of netting to keep out the fruit eating birds and rabbits, but let in the smaller insect eaters.
Once all the top soil has been moved to the new site, I will to start extending the poly pipe watering system all around the new orchard site to allow for access to plenty of irrigation water in the future.
So many jobs and so little time. I hardly notice that the rest of the world is in lock-down, we are happy being busy here on our own little piece of land and our self created world. We have been living ‘self-isolation’ voluntarily for decades.
In the afternoon I set fire to one of the many piles of dead trees and branches that we have stacked up, and in the evening after dinner, I roast, sweat, peel and pickle the huge crop of bell capsicums that the recent rains have brought on.
Nothing is perfect, nothing is ever finished and nothing lasts! I’m grateful to be still here doing this. I have to try and creative a positive outcome from the unmittigated disaster that this is. I take up the challenge that has presented itself to me. I could never have pulled down the old pottery to ‘improve’ it for my old age. I couldn’t have ever concieved of digging out our beautiful old orchard that we had worked on for so long. This is an oportunity to re-define ourselves here on this piece of land that we love. We have been offered this once in a lifetime opportunity to make our homestead age sensitive and apropriate to our coming frailties. Gone are the steps and in with the ramps.
We will be better prepared for both natures next holocaust and our old age.
We have spent the last weekend extending the front fence to the south of the house along the road frontage, replacing the old wooden post and rail fence that was originally there a hundred and thirty years ago. We know that there was a post and rail fence, because the massive corner post on the northern boundary, with its 3 mortices in it, was still standing there in 1976 when we came here. I would have kept it there, as i saw it as a bit of heritage, but when the land next door was bought by the new neighbours, they dug it out one day without telling us and replaced it with piece of rusty steel pipe that was obtained from the local coal mine.
We spent the first day of the weekend digging the 17 post holes down to 600mm depth. I borrowed a ‘kanga’ machine with a post hole auger the make the job easier, but it still took all day, as we kept hitting big rocks and huge tree roots, so many of the holes had to be done by hand with a crow bar and fencing shovel.
Something quite amazing happened in the 2nd last hole. This is 100 metres from the site of the old wooden corner post. I lined up the position of the fence using a long builders tape and a string line. I really just relied on lining it up visually with the string line, however, I was pretty confident that it was more or less in the correct place. If anything, I was tending to err on the side of caution. maybe 100mm in from the border line?
When I tried the bore the 2nd last hole, I hit what appeared to be a tree root, but it was quite vertical. I had to dig it out by hand with the bar and shovel. When I got down to the 600 mm level that I needed, I found that the ‘root’ was a slightly loose, so I managed to pull it up and out. it was only then that I realised that I had found one of the original wooden posts, dating back 127 years. It had rotted off at ground level and down 300 mm below ground level, but was preserved intact between 600mm and 800mm deep in the airless conditions deep down.
What are the odds of keeping the fence line perfectly straight with the old non-existent fence, working down 100 metres from the original corner post. BUT, then to dig a fence post hole directly on top of the original one! I was amazed, staggered actually.
You can see in this image that although the forest around us is still burnt black, some of the trunks off the older eucalypts are starting to re-shoot from epicormic buds on the main trunk of the trees.
Janine mixed the cement and dry sand mix for me to ram into the fence post holes, so as to set the post straight. I did all the ramming and levelling. We even made our own hand made rubble from crushed building waste from the burnt out old pottery building.
After ramming in and concreting the 17 fence posts on the 2nd day with the ramming bar, my hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders were quite strained and sore. I needed to have 2 days off to recover! I’m not used to such heavy and punishing work like this on my body at this older age.
During the week, we lifted, scraped and cleaned 1000 old recycled roofing slates that we had stored along the fence line of the old stone fruit orchard. We are intending to build the new pottery on the stone fruit orchard site, so everything has t one shifted and cleaned up. we moved the slates to a new storage place under the verandah of the old Railway Station. We always intended to use these old roof slates as floor tiles in the old pottery, but as we didn’t have any concrete floors, just pavers set in sand, it was not possible to use them at that time. They will find a place in the new pottery.
That was two days of bending and and scraping, different from post hole ramming, but it still feels like work, just not as brutal on the joints.
Our next job this week was to dig up all the stone retaining wall along the old pottery site and stack the stones off sit, ready for re-use as a new stone retaining wall for the new pottery, once the site is cleared. We will need to raise the level at the back of the site about 500 to 600 mm high to get a reasonable level.
We need to find sufficient stones to build a wall 600 mm high and 25 metres long. We will be scrounging every stone on the block to get there.
Our last job today was to level out the 5 tonnes of rock dust that we had delivered to make a base for our new water tank. It needs to be 4.5 metres in diameter, solid, well compacted and reasonably level. We have had a couple of goes at it, over the week, in between bouts of rain, which was very good at settling it down and compacting it. This afternoon we got it just about right. One more shower of rain will do it good.
With the recent rain and the last of the summer heat, the vegetable garden has grown like crazy. We came back from WOMAD and the Writers Week to find the garden was totally overgrown.
I had a couple of attempts to tame it with the strimmer, then Janine could get in with the mower. We spent a day pulling out weeds and clearing space for the new plantings. I should have been a lot busier in the garden a lot earlier, but have been distracted with fencing and other jobs around the place. Everything needs doing no! I still haven’t finished chopping up the last of the pine trees in the back of the house. My tractor broke down and needs some work, so it’s gone off to the tractor whisperer to be made good again. So until I get it back, I can’t move those last few huge logs.
I have finally got around to planting out the winter crops of brassicas, quite late, but better late than never. I’m also planting out the garlic, also a bit late, but OK.
We have recently harvested our rather poor crop of red grapes, What with the drought, then the fire, now the very hungry wild life, and in particular, the bower birds, we were lucky to get any crop. Janine has been maintaining a wildlife feeding station down at the back of our land where there are a few possums and we don’t know what else eating the fruit and veg that we put out for them. She has created a an ‘apple’ tree out of a burnt out native tree and its charred branches.
She places the slices of apple there each afternoon and they are all gone in the morning. There isn’t much else to eat in the burnt out forest, but there are now some green shoot appearing from the trunks and root lignotubers of the blackened trees.
We made a small batch of summer wine from our tiny harvest. Best enjoyed straight from the keg as it ferments after a few days. A delightful combination of sweet grape juice, spritz bubbles and a little alcohol.
We may be burnt out. We may be unemployed. We may be in self imposed C19 isolation, but we are eating well as mostly vegetarian and gifted with an amazing group of tremendous friends that have given us so much support and assistance, up until lock-down.
We wouldn’t be be here now in this lucky position without you!
Thank you. You have been so wonderfull to us and helped us through this testing time.
The summer started with extremely dry weather, then the fire. closely followed by loads of rain, slight flooding and now cool autumn weather with a flush of green growth. This is our life. lurching from crisis to crisis, extreme to extreme, drought to flood, fire to rain, barron soil to flush greenery.
I have spent two days mowing to keep the new growth of grass down. I spent a day in the vegetable garden with the whipper-snipper shredding weeds and grass, clearing the fallow beds ready for the autumn planting. and clearing all the paths.
I should have got these winter veggies in a month or two back, but have been otherwise distracted by my close encounter with death and then the never-ending cleanup. I’m just starting to sleep through the whole night again. I have had two good nights now.
I put this down to our holiday escape to Adelaide for Writers week and WOMAD. We had booked and paid for this annual sojourn 6 months ago. If it hadn’t been prepaid, we wouldn’t have gone. There is just so much still to do here, just to get back to tors. Luckily we had paid for it all in advance, so we had to go. I’m very glad that we did. I really needed a break. My neck was so stiff with tension. However, after our time away, where we couldn’t do anything except engage with ideas and concepts, as well as walking several kilometres per day into the city and back. It did us a lot of good and I’ve come back relaxed and able to sleep better. I can now turn my head freely again.
So our time away was good for us, but the garden went to ruin, over-run with weeds after the rain and the last of the warm weather. Under all the over growth there is still a lot of food still to be picked. I hacked and slashed my way through the paths, then returned with the strimmer. Usually, not too much stops this machine, but this level of weed growth really slowed it down. I had to work very slowly, otherwise the cord just slowed down and didn’t work. The same applied to the ride-on mower. I had to drive very slowly to allow the mower to cope with the high level of wet grass. Consequently, the mowing took far longer than usual.
We mowed and whipper-shipped until we ran out of petrol and I ran out of plastic strimmer cord. I used to keep stock of all these consumables, strimmer cord in a big roll, spare chain saw chains and sharpening files, two-stroke mix, ear muffs, chain saw tool kit. They are all melted and burnt. I still don’t know all the things that we have lost. Not until I go to the shed to get something that I always have, but realise that I don’t have a shed anymore. All those small items and tools all gone. Still, all the mowing is now done for at least a week. Time to re-stock all the consumables. I have a long list for tomorrows expedition to the hardware shop.
The garden is starting to take shape – a little. It’ll look a lot better by the end of the week, when I have finished weeding all the beds and planting out new seedlings.
Once I could see what was still in there, I picked a load of vegetables and herbs for a mirepoix. A parsnip. some celery, a few carrots, the herbs, thyme parsley sage and bay leaves, plus a little salt and pepper corns to flavour it up. I bought a beef femur and a pigs trotter, which I boiled in an excess of water without roasting this time, as I usually roast the bones first to caramelised then a little, but this time, to save time, they went straight unto the pot. Another boiler had the herbs and veggies.
Last night we had the wood stove on for the first time this year, because of the sudden drop in temperature with the rain, so I was able to let them both boil down nicely over the evening and into the night. Today I separated the marrow from the cooled bones and drained the mirepoix, discarding the green matter. Then both liquors went back into the big boiler together with a bottle of good red wine and some tomato paste. Here I deviated from the normal script. We have run out of tomatoes, so I indulged myself in the use of a packet of bought concentrated tomato paste. Australian of course!
So this is our new life post fire. All the old standards have fallen. I didn’t roast the bones! I have bought tomato paste from a shop! where will this all end?
I finished reducing the stock down from the initial 9 litres to less than 1 litre. I must say that it is really delicious, savoury, sour, salty, and ever so slightly sweet – just a hint, and very viscous and creamy in the mouth.
You can’t buy stuff like this. its real food! This will be stored in the freezer and just a sliver of this frozen gel with be like a stock cube added to any wintery dish. Beautiful, and so rewarding.