Maggie Mackellar: A Day in the Country
MAGGIE MACKELLAR LOOKS PAST THE BREAKING OF THE DROUGHT TO NEW HOPE IN A POST-LOCKDOWN WORLD.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, just as the world went into lockdown, the drought broke and we had rain. It felt miraculous. Overnight the dry, sick country sprung violently into life. My vegie garden had been dormant. Actually dormant is too soft a word — it had been barren, as hard as concrete. Somehow the asparagus had hung on, but it was the only thing to have visibly survived. Into the softened ground I dug sheep manure carted from under the shearing shed, and in the days that followed, an army of parsley and rocket ‘volunteers’ popped their heads out of the soil. I planted masses of broad bean seeds, leeks, broccoli, kale and onion seedlings, and in the shortest days I pushed garlic into the quiet dirt, but left two plots in gratitude to the self starters. And all through winter, as my late sown seedlings grew, I have harvested this riot of parsley and rocket.
The drought is still a trauma I trip over as I pass a pile of whitening bones on a walk. It’s in the shortened shearing as our stock numbers are at a record low. As the dry tightened, possum, wallaby and even deer came into the garden to eat the dying remnant of lawn, graze on my geraniums and what was left of the rose bushes. Cracks appeared in the walls of the house. Fence posts collapsed. The undergrowth in the bush died, as did so many of the trees. The dams disappeared. All the grazing animals became small, an outline of themselves. Scavengers thrived, especially our increasing population of devils, whose meals came easy.
By the end of February, a time when I’m usually drowning in apples and mulberries, not a single fruit could be found.
All were gone before they could ripen, raided by possums and birds. Out of this devastation, the only tree to have given us a crop was the walnut planted right on the banks of the dry creek, its toes reaching deep into the water hidden below.
The bucket of walnuts I gathered at the end of summer has sat by the stove through autumn and winter. The nuts, along with the wild abundance of self-seeded rocket and parsley from the vegie patch, have fed us for months. I have made salads every evening and pesto every week. One measure of walnuts to two of greens. How easy it would be to empty a packet of walnuts into the blender. Instead I submit to time swelling, and celebrate the moment it takes to crack each nut and find the kernel soft and sweet.
This lack of hurry is something I’m trying to apply to the rest of a year where the normal signifiers of time passing have been upended. I’m looking to make small moments into tiny ceremonies of gratitude. I’m eager for spring. I’m listening for the lilting call of the grey shrikethrush in the garden, and when I hear it I’ll stop for a moment and let the sound wash over me. I’m looking forward to the sight of the first-born lamb, the next generation sucking in the air of a new world. This year, we hope for an abundance of grass and lambs. I hope my garden will be a tangle of new growth.
But it’s not abundance I’m thinking about; rather it’s the grace to accept the rise and fall of the years, to celebrate the song of a bird, the sweet kernel of a nut, and to understand both my insignificance and my agency. I’m thinking, “Slow down and be a witness to the beauty.”
The drought of recent years took a terrible toll, but Maggie is looking forward to the first blush of spring and the promise it will bring with it.