Lessons from the Bush – a reflection.
Some time after leaving the bush, having had another stint in the city, I am sitting on a rainy afternoon in Northern New South Wales, taking a moment to reflect on what was gained and learnt out there.
It seems obvious to say that I learned a lot from that experience, but when you take yourself away from an existence you understand and place yourself in that of another family, another way of life, another way of seeing things: it stands to reason that you’ll start to think and feel differently about a number of things.
My attitude to that number of things has, of course, changed since being on a cattle station. My aversion to animals I don’t know, particularly dogs has changed drastically. I have never really liked dogs, perhaps because I never had one, nor really knew anyone that did when I was growing up. We were a cat family through and through. Dogs have a horrible smell, need their poo picked up and often dribble. Then there are bush dogs, who roll around in dead things, shit everywhere, live outside and eat anything. Yuk. Yet today, when I was cuddling the cattle dog where I am staying, who was sitting on my lap, frightened of the impending storm, smelling like a dog, I realised how far I had come. I never used to like touching a dog unless I knew I could wash my hands immediately afterwards. I never wanted my clothes to smell of a dog, nor to have a single hair on me that wasn’t mine. But as I was sitting in the paddock, with my arms around this dog as if she were a small child I laughed at the girl who used to hate them.
Living out in the bush, miles away from anything and anyone but the people you work for, you soon learnt to adapt your way of doing things to make life easier. I quickly had to get over the fact that I couldn’t always wash my hands when I wanted. I had to get past my food anxieties regarding use-by dates. I had to rapidly defeat my fear of what might be outside my room at nightfall.
I also stopped wearing make up, sometimes didn’t brush my hair and never did any ironing. I had to swallow my thoughts regarding safety and logic on a number of issues and try letting go of my need for logic and planning on a number of activities.
I swam in a damn that had cow shit around the edge and a number of interesting insects in or around it. I walked and jogged through the bush knowing there were snakes ready to visit. I played with dogs who smelt of dead things, or hunted pigs.
I had to learn to feel ok about a ten year old driving a car, and then that ten year old driving me in that car, and better still, that ten year old driving the 5 of us from a party in the early hours of the morning. I had to learn to let go of the idea that shoes should be warn, helmets on heads and rules should be followed.
Above all I had to learn who I was, so I could effectively live in a place that challenged some of my ideas and compromised some of my beliefs. I had to reassess what was important to me, what was necessary for me and what was acceptable for me. I adapted my eating habits, sleeping patterns and exercise routine to fit in with my surroundings. I learnt to laugh when things annoyed me. I learnt to make things simpler if they were too complicated. I learnt to trust people younger than me, and learnt what it was to be trusted too. I learnt to teach everything I know and make it a learning process. I learnt to take myself away from certain situations and give myself time out. I learnt to look at the sky and see it differently every day.
I learnt that I can make a situation that is wildly unfamiliar for me familiar and that I can make anywhere my home if I need to. I also left that cattle station for the second time, knowing that I had done my best with what I had and can absolutely definitely say that despite moments of sheer frustration at times, or confusion, or just bewilderment, I absolutely definitely wouldn’t change a moment of it.
I am sitting in Flagstaff Gardens as I write this, or at least I was, writing it in my notebook. A real pen and paper: imagine that!
It’s supposed to be 32 C, but it’s cloudy and considerably cooler than it was 30 minutes ago, but that’s Melbourne in a nutshell. Away from the madness of Bourke Street, I sit on the grass in the square shaped gardens with Saturday traffic rumbling past on each side. I can hear the cars, but I am at peace. There are some Asian girls in front of me chatting in a tongue I cannot comprehend, a group of people my age to my left enjoying each other’s silence and in another patch of grass a group of men of varying nationalities kicking a ball around. One is wearing a Chelsea strip a few seasons old, with Frank Lampard on the back, and sandals on his feet.A interesting backdrop for my Saturday thoughts.
And I sit here, cross-legged, with two days left in Melbourne pondering over what I have done, wondering where I am going and reminiscing on where I have been. My blog by my standards is way overdue – is it possible that I have had so much to say, it’s become too much to write about? My family say I write posts that are far too long, so I resolved to write little and often, but that doesn’t seem to have happened at all.
I have not had the opportunity to write about my fourth, yet by far the most fun trip to Sydney; my terrifying yet fabulously rewarding sea kayaking experience in Byron Bay; what it was like to return to a much hotter cattle station and all I realised I had learned about myself as I left again; the return to a city that has the familiarity and comfort of a place that I daren’t call home; the experiences I have had dressing in my suitcase finery and posing as a mystery shopper in Melbourne; eating all day and dancing all evening at a Latin festival; my impression and ideas about Melbourne and my thoughts on my nomadic life so far.
There really is so very much to write about and seemingly little time. I do not know where the last 3 weeks have gone. I do not know where the majority of my audience is based, nor fully understand their interests or what they/you want to read. I know one of my fans will tell me to write it all, write it all Grace!
Here is my train of thought for today, sitting in Flagstaff Gardens on Saturday 24th November…
I am thinking right now about the people I have met so far on my Australian Adventure and indeed on the literal and spiritual journey I have been taking to get to this very place today.
I feel that there are people who come into our lives for a purpose – yes, this is not a very profound statement to make, but there is more to it. There are the people who are in the background, setting the scene, playing the extras if you want a film analogy. They are the people in the park with me right now, the people that serve you coffee, sit next to you on the tram, the person who brushed past you in the street. The passers-by or passengers have, in my opinion, every importance to your day.For, without them, your day has no colour or sound.
Then there are those who are placed in your life because your purpose is to teach them something – they are the student. I don’t say this because my profession is teaching, but because they will learn something from you perhaps without either of you realising. Then, and perhaps it’s arguable that these are interchangeable, but there are the people who came into your life to teach you something. Again I refer not to the didactic role of a teacher, but more the passive role you play as you learn something, very often about yourself, through something this person does or how your relationship develops.
I also strongly believe that some of these people are planted in front of you to serve you a purpose and nothing else. They are passengers who get off at the next stop and need not stay on your train for any longer than necessary. You may never see them again, but you are pleased that they sat next to you for some time. Then there are the others who will continue the journey some distance with you, maybe until the very end because they have touched your soul in a way that the others didn’t. You therefore understand the importance of holding these people close either physically, or in your heart after geographical locations separate you.
As I sit here today, in my pensive mood, I am mentally flicking through the catalogue of amazing people who have coloured this journey and created endless lists of moments to laugh, cry and wonder about. I can clearly categorise the teachers, the students and the extras in my movie. I know who is going to continue on my journey: who I’ll hold onto dearly, and who I will smile at and say a fond farewell when I depart. I also remember those who have already passed through, those who have moved on and those who are coming with me, metaphorically. I remain optimistic about who is around the corner waiting to bump into me, or who will get on my train at the next stop. And I smile wholeheartedly from deep inside at the wonderful people who I’ll be certain to meet again soon or one day in the future.
It’s sad to say goodbye, better to say see you soon and oh so wonderful to say Hello again.
This was written some time ago…
“Do you have any plans for Sunday?” I was asked last week. Plans?? Hmmm… well, I have to do some laundry, sweep my room, maybe catch up on some sleep, but those can all wait. “Nope” I said with a grin. “I thought we might take you for a ride then”. This was MUSIC to my ears! I had been anxiously hoping, that on my final weekend here in the bush I would do what I have hoping I would do all this time!
Ever since my very unexciting ride back o
I was instructed to come to the house at 8am (on a Sunday!) and wear jeans, long sleeves and plenty of sunscreen. After a not so good sleep, and a chilly early start I skipped over to the house in my most convenient horse riding attire. Thank goodness my jeans are stretch!
After making lunch (should I blog about my cooking too?) which was a pumpkin and carrot frittata and gathering up yesterday’s baking marathon: a fruit and muesli slice, raisin brownies, apricot and orange muffins and double chocolate chunk cookies: I was put into a pair of boot and fitted for a hat. (Not a riding hat, like us Europeans are used to, but a cowboy hat!)
At about 9 am E, K and I got into the Ute and drove off the other yards to collect some saddles, whilst D and C went off to round up the horses. My first shock, perhaps, was that the horses had to be found, and then saddled. I could barely lift the heavy thing out of the Ute (not a good station hand am I?) About 8 horses galloped into the yard: All excited, all frisky, all not looking very calm.
So Oaky was saddled and bridled up and I walked him around a little bit before trying to find a place to climb up so I could get on. Apparently he has an odd body shape, so his saddle rolls a bit as you try to get on. Poor D seemed a little bit unsure of whether to put his hand on my arse to shove me onto the horse, so I had to climb onto a water trough and transfer myself to the horse.
We set off, the children in front, and myself and K at the rear, making sure to keep out father and son horses a safe distance apart as they don’t share much love between them. I needn’t have worried about Oaky’s friskiness, as he was in their words “too old, lazy and unfit” to give me any bother. He was In fact a very gently horse, who when kicked slipped into a reluctant, but smooth trot, which my audience were impressed with. My last official riding lessons were about 20 years, but I still remembered my “rise and trot”, “heels down” and how to gather the reins. Those puzzled me at first, as I had never used an open rein and of course held those all wrong.
Once back in the saddle, the memories I have of always wanting to have my own horse as a child came flooding back, and the enjoyment I have always felt when sitting on one surrounded me as we walked through the paddock under the crisp blue spring sky. We stopped once we found a tree that provided shade and good stump (for me to climb back on the horse) for morning smoko. We ate our fruit, fed E’s horse the cores and the children shared stories of funny horsey happenings in the bush. On we went through the trees for some time until we reached Tiger’s Hole. A damn/creek in a picturesque spot: perfect for our bush picnic.
My saddle bag had a quart pot in it, which we filled with water, and put in the fire the children made for Quart pot tea. Having cleared the ground of ants and sat cross legged in the dirt eating our lunch, whilst the children did running jumps into the creek: I realised I had (had to) let go of a lot of my hang ups which had manifested in adult years. Sitting on the ground where I can SEE ants is one, eating without washing my hands is another, trusting a horse I don’t know, wearing someone else’s shoes, peeing in the bush… all of which might not seem much, but I hadn’t realised how much they had made me restricted.
Before heading back, we mounted the horses (with the help of another water trough) and Oaky and I had a photo shoot, as well as a few little trots for the camera. Everyone wanted me to experience Oaky’s “beautiful” canter, and game though I was after my initial hesitation, it was short lived due to my stirrups being just a tad too long to feel comfortable.
On the ride home, the sun was blazing and all of us here breaking a sweat. I found it hard to imagine mustering all day in much sharper heat, for much longer and at a much more demanding pace than Oaky’s totally chilled out gait. We trotted quite a bit on the way home, and once or twice, sniffing the air of the home stretch, Oaky broke into an unexpected canter, which I wish I could have enjoyed, but my reservations about stirrup lengths and inexperience made me pull him up sharp and we continued at a healthier, slower pace.
Arriving home, I felt an overwhelming sense of pleasure in finally experience something that these bush people clearly love. The conditions were perfect, nothing went wrong, and apart from having to walk around in a John Wayne stance for two days, it was an invigoratingly positive experience.
I was told this an uncountable number of times in my first two delicate weeks here and it puzzled me each time as I never thought I was being particularly weak!
However, life in the bush IS tough, it IS harsh and it’s not for the fainthearted.
I have never considered myself to be a girly girl: although I do like to paint my nails occasionally, I am not afraid to get my hands dirty. I also enjoy wearing a pretty dress and heels occasionally, but I am just as happy in jeans and trainers.
The family obviously consider to me to be more delicate than daring and simply because I wasn’t brought up in the bush, I have the disadvantage of being much more sensitive and affected by the ways of life out here.
My second day here was a good introduction to what was to come, when the cut up carcass of the cow we have been eating for the last three months was dragged through the kitchen, leaving a trail of blood and hung in the cold room for several days before it was butchered.
When C put an axe through his foot and didn’t go to hospital because “it’ll be alright”, I was shocked. When K’s horse tripped, threw her and rolled over her, she didn’t go to hospital for scans or x-ray, cos “she’ll be alright”.
When the puppies were born to a work dog and fathered by the randy Labrador, I was told we’d be lucky if any survived. The previous three litters didn’t have a very high survival rate, thanks to bush harshness. In this litter, one of them escaped watchful eyes, and was savaged by its father at 6 weeks old. The puppies had a deadline too, and i did my best to help rehome them, having been told that their fate would be sealed with a pair of pliers if they couldn’t find homes to go to.
Their mother, apparently a useless dog, was “dealt” with once the puppies were weaned. Thank goodness it was done whilst I wasn’t on the property. The Cats here have a pretty harsh life too, and I have learnt that no animals get buried if they don’t make it.
The work dogs have a very short life: It’s rare that they reach retirement. If they don’t get killed by something, they are done away with once they no longer serve their purpose. If they hurt themselves they either have to get on with it, or they are shot. There are two right now running around with open wounds. When I asked if there was anything that could be done (thinking that despite the idea of touching it making me heave, perhaps I could sneakily give them some care), of course I was told that could lick it so they’re fine.
Then there are us humans, who are not allowed to feel pain or emotion sometimes. Only the other day I was eating lunch when a particularly strong onion in my potato salad made my eyes water and my nose run, when I remarked upon it at the table, simply because I was surprised, I was told to “suck it up” and “move on”. Thanks
And that’s not to mention the other dangers here like spiders and snakes that could kill you. Or dingos that can rip young cows to pieces. Naturally I was worried about all of the above and asking the relevant questions regarding my safety. Some of the responses I got were that dingos can’t pick locks (goodness, there I was thinking they were the local locksmiths) and that I was obsessed with snakes! Well, I said in my head, Obsessed no: well-read, concerned, aware: yes!
Every time we go for a drive I pray we don’t see a Dingo or a wild pig, as I know there is a loaded rifle in the Ute, and every time I go for a walk I desperately hope I won’t see a snake.
And if I dare to mention something that hurts or upsets me I know that I will be told to Toughen Up, which on them the irony is lost when I think about just how silent I have been …
Something strange happened today…
Maybe it was because I outed myself as a jogger, maybe it was because I have been doing to for nearly two weeks, maybe it was because I knew all of you had read this, maybe it was because I had casually measured my waist…
but I jogged today, I jogged hard. I could even say I ran!
It was just me and K today. NO dogs, no children and a nice cool breeze pushing us along.
Today it didn’t hurt as much as it did before. I even picked up speed. My feet left the ground, not shuffling, but jogging. We jogged until we got to a tree that was far enough away to feel a good jog, then walked for a bit, then jogged to the next tree or powerline. Ok, these are STILL short spurts, but we are doing it. I am doing it! I am joggin for my biscuits in the bush. I am going a little further each day and it’s not as horrific as I thought it would be.
Jogging for biscuits
Before I came out to the bush the vision I had of myself was riding horses regularly, spending plenty of time outdoors, eating prime cuts of meat and fabulous home cooking and just watching my muscles build and the weight fall off.
That is not the case of course. My day involves walking the 12 or so steps from my bedroom door to the classroom and then an additional 12 steps to the house, and I never walk back out of there without having eaten something.
Then there is the food: the volumes of it, which I readily accepted so not to be impolite on first arrival. The Smoko (cakes/biscuits/pikelets/tea/coffee etc) at 10am, and then again at 4pm, (more of the same) and dinner is a mountain of food very often followed by a dessert. Lunch is starchy and meaty unless I make it myself.
So to summarise: I have grown. I am not the svelte shape I hoped I would be, but a larger, much less fitter version of the one I was aiming for.
In my first two weeks I was in the kitchen readily baking for eager mouths, loving the novelty of having people to bake for, but I soon started to notice an ugly pattern. The two bushies decided to get me jogging one day, which was absolute hell. I pounded along a dirt track, one behind me hitting my bottom and the other in front encouraging me on like an old cow going in for milking.
We coined the term “jogging for biscuits” which became my incentive and much fun for them as they turned my plodding efforts into biscuit rewards!
Now, some weeks on, having had many many relapses, I am now going for a stiff walk, and breaking occasionally into a jog or a shuffle, as we call it, every day! Since almost two weeks ago, I have not missed a day despite the pain and undesirable state it leaves me in.
We agreed that at 5pm every day we will go for a walk. We put on trainers (yes I have been lent a pair!), enlist a few Labradors, I don my leggings (because if I feel sporty, that’s half the task done!) and off we go into the late afternoon sun. Sometimes it’s just me and the bushies, sometimes me and their mum, sometimes me and my new pig-hunting-dog friend, but it’s always me!
We walk/jog/shuffle up the hill, down the track, around the paddock: It doesn’t matter where. I know if I break a sweat (not hard!) and get my breath going (equally easy) I have earned at least half a biscuit. Sometimes I can manage a whole 100 metres of jogging, which those of you who know I can barely run for a bus will understand is no mean feat!
One day I even walked the LONG way to the mailbox and back, which was over 10km. Some days I have longer energy spurts, some days a pain appears from nowhere and makes me wince, but every day (since two weeks ago!) I go.
I jog for biscuits in the late afternoon sun of the Australian Outback.
Dear Old Tiger
Tiger is not a tiger, despite her name. She is a cow. A milker, to use a local term. That means that we don’t eat her: she makes babies and milk and if she doesn’t have her own calf to feed, she’ll feed whatever poddy needs feeding. New word for Grace and maybe some of you: Poddy – An orphan calf.
This old dear usually has those two words in front of her name, as she is a longstanding member of the crew here. She’s about 9 years old, which is fairly old for a cow, and looks all skin and bones but I am assured she is very healthy indeed.
She has been hanging around the paddock closest to the house recently, because loved as she is, she gets fed Udder Buster to help her produce good quality milk for her offspring. Apparently she can produce bucket loads of the stuff, which is supposed to be my job to milk her for the family, but I am not akin to just walk up to a cow and start pulling on her udders unless someone shows me how to do it. And her udders, despite being fed Udder Buster (is anyone else finding that funny?) are in a pretty bad state after a little trip she took the other day.
I had gone for a walk with the girls, and Tiger who was in the house yard saw us walk over the cattle grid, and started to follow. I got anxious, wondering what we would do if she got herself stuck in it. She thought better of it though and moved away from it, along the fence. The barbed wire fence. A determined old dear found a slightly weak link and pushed her way through it. I stared aghast wondering how the cow was going to get through, but a trained pro, she stepped her way through the two levels of barbed wire, udders and all! I was alarmed, but as always E wasn’t, so we carried on. I wondered where old Tiger was off to, as she determinedly walked off down the track.
3 quad bikes went out later (this was before we lost one) to try and find her, and she had walked all the way to the other yards, several kilometres away to get back to her calf that had been weened off her that day.
Dear old thing was brought back up here, with cuts on all her teets after her treacherous journey. She mooed and moaned for days to come, despite being patted and fed on a daily basis. This saddened me, as many things do about harsh cattle station life, but I was told she has made many many trips like this before, and would walk the 26km breadth of the property to get back to any of the calves she has fed and mothered.
A day in the life of a governess on a cattle station…
The alarm goes off at 6:50, and as usual I feel I have been robbed of some sleep because the crows have started cackling at least half an hour earlier, and the dogs would have had something to bark about at least once in the night, so I hit snooze.
It goes off again, this time I reach down for the remote and switch on the tv, letting breakfast television into my life, and starting my day. I resist another snooze, get up, stretch, open the blinds to see another sunny day in the bush. Sometimes Tiger, one of the old milking cows is in the paddock outside my window or one of the horses has come up for a different patch of grass. The crows are there, sitting where I can’t see them, but taunting me with their child-like cries.
Flip-flops on, I head into the house yard, to my “bathroom”, which is a glorified shed. It’s got a toilet in one room, washing machine in another and then a shower, which is like a walk-in wet room. Sometimes there is a frog there to greet me, or one of the dogs comes for a sniff on my way.
The shower is fed by the dam, which I am now used to, but the smell used to put me off getting washed in the early days. I nip back to my room, have a cuppa, shovel down some breakfast, get dressed and pack my bag for work.
I have to walk approximately 15 paces to the classroom, which is where I spend the next 8 hours. On a chilly morning, I have my gloves and scarf on, switch on the heater and wait for the burst of energy that comes over from the house at 8am. Now internet is part of our lives, I plug in my laptop, and wait for any school notices of sickness, timetable issues, or last minute requests for phone lessons to appear. I also get some funky music on if it’s a Tuesday, cos that’s when we have an early morning boogie.
First class of the day is at 8:30am. One goes off to the phone room, and I stay and have a concentrated hour with the other one. This time it’s maths, which isn’t always easy! 9:30 we have a quick brain break, which is a new invention, and helps marvellously. We chuck some soft balls around between the three of us, improving our catching techniques and taking our mind off the previous lesson.
Just enough time after that for a spelling lesson, or some maths revision before Smoko at 10am. That was a new word for me, originating from Smokehouse, which perhaps is where morning tea used to take place? In we troop to the house, although the kids usually have some energy to burn outside first, and it can be a battle to get them back inside. If I have had a good morning, I go for a piece of fruit, but if we’ve had a bad one, I seem to hit the cake.
The next two hour session is broken into chunks, which depending on the day, consists of reading time, handwriting practise, journal writing, or a simultaneous spelling lesson: which can be quite complicated running at the same time, with two kids on different levels. It goes something like this: “Ok, C, exercise A, write this down, E spell NOISE. C, what’s the spelling rule for those words? E, spell SIGHT, C, do exercise B, No E, that’s not how you spell that, C, what are you doing?”
11:30 there is another phone lesson for the other student, so one-on-one time for E and I, again it’s maths. We have a quick brain break between activities, and if things are going particularly bad, we have to put pens down and they do laps around the house. It works, trust me!
Pissing me off, answering back, getting into class late or fighting results in a yellow card. I am a referee in so many ways. Two yellow cards and they get a red card and are sent off ( we like football here), and have to make up the time after school. This has only happened once, and I made sure the other student was doing something REALLY fun, so we haven’t had a sending off since!
After lunch we have science or history, and this lesson is conducted to both at the same time. Again, it goes something like this: “Ok, C, start on task 6, read that for me, and tell me what you have to do. E, go to task 4 on the disc. Ok C, what do you need to do? E, click on that, C write down the answer please, E let’s try this activity. One Sec C, I’m explaining this, do your maths sheet whilst you are waiting. Ok, have you read that? Let’s try the next one. E, draw a picture of what you just saw….” It’s exhausting!
Half past two rolls around and if we are on schedule, we have an hour of craft or project. Paints come out, we get messy! Then it’s tidy up time, there is always a squabble about whose turn it is to sweep. Jelly babies are given out for good behaviour, classroom is tidy and they literally burst out of the room.
I have a few minutes to myself, go to the house for a debrief with mum and a cup of tea. At 5pm, sometimes earlier it’s time for a walk or a jog. This is sometimes accompanied by children and/or dogs and the length and destination change according to mood. 6pm, shower time, minute to catch my breath.
6:30 over to the house to help dish up dinner: this is the only way to ensure you don’t have to eat a bushman’s portion of meat (which is a lot for us non-bushies!) it’s meat and veg of course. Then the station hand and I clean up the kitchen, knowing we both have stories to share, and few moans to have, we clink and clang in the kitchen as the family sit down to the tv.
Off to the classroom to get first lessons ready for the morning, make sure exercises are cut up, books are ready and read up just in case! And then I go back to my shipping container after checking my emails in the classroom. Now it’s getting hotter and there is a station hand to share my evenings with, we sit in my hut, with the fans on, crack open a beer, have a whinge, let off some steam and chill out, before getting an early night for it all the start again the next day.
I learnt a new card game last week called 500. I had never played it before and since I had a few glasses of wine each time I played, I found part of it rather funny.
A trump is a trick, of course I knew that, but in my country it also means fart.
So, having the childish mind that I have and fuelled by a bit of vino I giggled my way through the first few games. I was told to trump as often as I could, and told that everyone was trumping, so I should trump too. I was also made aware that it was possible to overtrump, and that it’s always a good idea to have a trump up your sleeve. Everybody trumps when they get the chance, if you don’t have that card: throw a trump, if your partner trumps, you win the points. Watch out for other people trumping… oh it went on and on and I was in fits of childish titters by the end.