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The Valley

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Sketch on page 48 of 'The Valley'

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IT was a tangled forest of growth and undergrowth; of the standing and the fallen: of the living and the dead, that valley in my first remote recollections of it. There was a time, indeed, when only a narrow track through the scrub led from the house to the creek by way of the raspberry-grown backwater. I have said before that we children were forbidden to go to the creek alone across that six or seven hundred yards of venture. But there was a time even earlier than that at which we would not have attempted the journey without the escort of an elder. For one thing there was the legend of a wild pig, the kind which the barons of old used to hunt, and roast whole. How that legendary pig was transported to that valley of the antipodes in these modern times we never troubled to inquire. Miracles are common when one is six or eight years of age. It gave us a wholesome dread of the scrub-covered flats, and in that way doubtless performed its mission. The real dangers were snakes, which were possibly responsible for the wild pig myth. For snakes there were in plenty; seldom a day passed without at least one being killed. Many a peril did that divinity that doth hedge innocent childhood avert. Once I trod on a snake on the track, but that same divinity decreed that the serpent's head should be under my heel. Whether from fear or valour, I stood rooted there till someone unwound the lashing thing from my leg and killed it section by section. I lived on the fame of that adventure for long. I remember feeling a pleasurable vanity in hearing the incident recounted to interested, though possibly sceptical, visitors. Annie had a pony, the first pet of value that any of us possessed in the first lean days of pioneering. It got lost amongst the tangles of the unfenced

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valley, and only after months was the poor thing found, reduced to bones and hide, between some high logs, where, beguiled by some foolish curiosity, it had gone, and being there, had not been able to get out.

That was the sort of land that had to be cleared and prepared for the plough by the indomitable settlers along that whole river valley. I heard the wise ones say later that the Government charged them a pound an acre for the land, and Nature an added exaction of forty. She certainly had clad those flats well with tree and scrub and fern. Many an age had she laid down her sowings by the tillage scheme of gravitation, of flood waters, and all those other wonderful and inexhaustible powers of hers whereby the earth is made ready for man. And then man, to do his own sowings, had to remove Nature's, necessity stopping at no desecration, no waste. We had the privilege of seeing—I know now that it was a privilege —and, indeed, of helping in the undressing of the loam, and the taking from it of man's first fruits. They were potatoes, those first fruits, I recollect, and unless you have seen and intimately know the potato of the virgin soil, you cannot appreciate the dithyrambs toward which my pen trembles. They burst in a shower, those potatoes, large, finely shapen beauties, from the many-pronged forks that threw them up from the tangy, fern-rooted soil. Always autumn it seemed on those flats—that is, when it was not winter there. So thickly they grew, and so befoliaged were the tall trees, so dense was the scrub between them, with the sun-swallowing ranges close beyond them, that truly the place was always dank and dewy, even when the soil on the volcanic hills nearby gaped for moisture. I have a host of memories of magpie notes, half cheery, half pensive, in the blue, smoky air when we took tea to the workers in the afternoons; memories of the jackasses making their sudden swoops from watching-posts of stumps and trees, tame in their daring for the upturned worm. I have known a bird narrowly escape guillotining under the spade in its eagerness for the wriggling mouthful. The tussock fires ever burning were things to make one dally. There is nothing so bewitching as a tussock fire on a still autum

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afternoon, with streamers of mist from the river that is always near, tying true lovers' knots with the streamers of smoke from the fires, low and lazily drifting. Claribel nearly fell into one of those tussock volcanoes once, when, loitering in our tea-carrying duty, we were adding to its smoke and flame some litter. She was in puffy cinders to the boot-tops, and had blistered feet and singed curls.

There is an especially romantic period in the turning from green to dry of ring-barked gum-trees, especially the spectral white gum of the long, clean stem. The time is when the loosened bark half detaches itself from the trunk, and goes a-flapping in the wind. It is a weird and deep delight to native ears and eyes that sound, that sight. We knew what the strange sound of winds in half-dead timbers were well enough, but we got many a romance of fear and wonder out of it. We have sometimes deliberately on gloomy evenings worked ourselves into eerie moods, to hearing strange cries of tortured ghosts from those mystic flats; sounds that made us run homeward, stumbling and tumbling in our haste. It was this flapping of the loosened bark that in other moods became the bridle-reins of the wind driving the trees. There was nothing our fancy was not equal to in those days, ere the “prison house” shut us in. There was, though, a very practical use to which the dry and curling bark, at last come to the ground, was sometimes put. My mother liked it better than anything else when she wanted a quick fire for baking small cakes. Many a large bundle of the light stuff used we to bring her for that purpose; our sweet and crisp reward not far away.

Many a harvest was gathered in of root and ear and pod ere the valley stood an actually cleared sward, unpunctuated by obstinate blackened log or deep-fanged stump. For years the plough continued to go round the obstacles that were toughest to dispose of; many a time a hidden root has sent the holder of the old single-furrow plough spinning from his furrow. Hooper came one day to my mother, hand at side, but not with laughter, a gapped shear, a twisted coulter, and a snapped rib or two, for him had been the result of coming

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against the impregnable. Hooper, I remember, declared himself to be all right after a cup of tea—which ran to several —and showed himself a believer in Nature's surgery. “She made the ribs,” he said, presently going back to his interrupted furrow; “let her cure them.” They rather liked difficulties, those men, and many a tale could I tell of the pitting of human will against resisting stump or tree in the clearing of those flats. There was one log that my father used to say had been there before Noah, a water-soaked, moss-grown mammoth, the embodiment of obstinacy; a log that man and horse and plough and scythe had gone round for many a year. At last it met its Waterloo in encountering a strange, wild-looking man, whom no one knew as other than “Andy.” He was a terrifying-looking creature; mad, the others said; speaking to no one in the huts; muttering to himself constantly, and going barefooted to his work on the rigorous winter days. He had a contract to destroy this long-weathered log. We children used to pass wide of the queer figure, where day by day he smote the monster with axe and wedge. Sometimes he sawed, sometimes dug beside it, and always he burned, stoking his fires with smaller logs piled against the huge one. They said that he rose muttering at night, and went out to his fires, stoking and levering. And so it was worn away at last, and the queer St. George, having slain his dragon, vanished I know not where. He had been six weeks, but then Nature had been much longer growing that grim tree, and longer, too, mossing and drenching it fallen, with a thousand rains.

Dick once hid himself in an old hollow fallen trunk by the first barley paddock, and was lost for several hours. He had, I remember, constituted himself the keeper of an elder brother's marbles, and had been by their angry owner threatened with the policeman. By one of those strange coincidences that sometimes occur in real life, as in fiction, the policeman from the distant township happened to call that day at my cousin's home, and the conscience-stricken one, assuming the worst, had fled. Possibly fear would have kept him in the hollow log all night, though he confessed to Claribel and me after

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that there were terrible sounds in the log, and that snakes had slid across his face and spiders had crawled all over him. The fires kindled by the elders in all directions, and all the shouting and the search would not have discovered the lost, who was not lost, but hiding. It was Hooper who remembered seeing in the afternoon a small form making its way through the scrub. He searched in that direction; found, reassured, and brought the wanderer home. Claribel and I consented to make a hero of Dick after that for a time, and to take his escapade at his own high valuation. He had bragged of the snakes and the spiders as being quite good house-fellows, and we, having in our romantic imagination had him dead by a hundred tragic means while he was missing, were ready to listen and believe. I have since discovered that it is not unusual for mere naughtiness, if it be sufficiently invested with the romantic, to pass for the heroic. As for my young cousin, he enjoyed the rôle while we consented to allow him to play it. It brought him quite a lot of good things, and relief from his small duties.

My father built a wonderful shed. It was made of logs closely set together, and had a roof of maize-stalks piled on to a great depth. It was an idea of his own to use what was at hand rather than go farther afield to the bush for material. The roof served well; the rain never came through, and that shed was a noble wet-day place for us young ones. We used to smuggle forbidden books in there or, with legitimate ones among the hay or the harness, study in our own way the lessons set for children's use by Dr. Aiken and Mrs. Barbauld —books only displaced by the Royal Readers when we went to school. Many a golden hour did we spend there. There it was from sheer desire to do something new that Claribel cut off my curls, and I cut off Claribel's. We did our reaping not as the men in the paddocks did theirs, but just here and there took a swathe where fancy and the scissors led. My mother took a gloomy view of our handiwork, and did her reproachful best to make a level sward of our hackings. I know Claribel cried—for she loved her curls—when she looked in the glass and realised that our sport had spoiled her beauty.

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For me to be rid of the hair-ribbon that always got into knots it hurt to pull loose was a ready compensation. But then I never was vain, like Claribel.

In the first cleared corner over the backwater paddock my father established a vegetable garden. It was his pious desire to keep us out of mischief, but I look back on that vegetable garden and its tyranny of weeds with bitterness. Had it not been for my early capacity for story-telling, and thus whiling away the tedium of extricating tender onion stalks from clasp of “hog weed,” and rescuing young carrot stalks—and you know how spindly they are!—from the overshadowing sorrel, I think we should many a time have succumbed to despair. As it was, if the story loitered, or failed in interest, Claribel would get fits of desperation at the length of the row ahead, and would make a wild assault on weeds and vegetables alike. I remember that once in this mood, when we were planting turnip seed, she poured the whole stock-in-trade into about a yard of space, forgetting that Nature would soon reveal the lazy trick. When we got to one end of that little plot of ground it was always time to begin again at the other. In that fertile soil reposed asleep, or came by some mysterious undeliberated means, legions of every kind of weed-seed known to naturalists. The weeds rose up and mocked us while we laboured with hoe and hand to evict them. We used to take young baby Jack with us to this toil, and set him on the ground to watch us. He was a handsome excuse, when one got tired, to go home. Indeed, looking back now, I realise that our labours in that vegetable garden did more to discover the original sin of our natures than any good that “keeping us out of mischief” accomplished.

Every year the clearing of the flats went on, obliterating the old romance, till, burned or turned into posts and rails and slabs, every tree, except a fringe left for shade along the creek-bank, passed, leaving not a wrack behind. Many a time I have grieved to see the trees fall, for trees to their lovers are sentient things. When the hewing axe goes into their sappy flesh, do they not groan and make protest? When

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deprived of their life-blood, and swaying gaunt and grey in the autumn winds, are they not moaning for the green life lost? I could not take leave of that primal tangle, tracing it to the clover sward of to-day, without seeing once again in the passing of those trees and that scrub the passing also of the shy wild things whose home and hiding they were. The foolish monkey-bear, her baby on her back, with the pretended wisdom of her gaze, looking down at one as one passed, in the lust of youth, and paused to throw at her an ineffectual missile. The bandicoot and paddy-melon, the wild-cat, the water-rat, the wombat, they were all there. Original dwellers, they all had to be scared, protesting (how feebly!), from their habitat. The trees that in the daytime held up aloft the iron-clawed koala, riding to the nod of the gale, at night were haunted by the 'possums. Gentle beasts all of them, and the kangaroos that stole to nip the springing green; they all had to go. Many a pet we had, given us by the fortunes of the chase. The joey kangaroo, fallen from the pouch of the pursued mother, learned later to follow us, devoted as a dog. We were seldom without a young 'possum, or monkey bear, confiding little creatures, and in every sense clinging. The younger dogs, ignorant of the rules of the game, sometimes harried to death one of these pets. I have memories of passionate grief over the torn body of a deer-eyed young kangaroo that fell a victim to that ignorance. I remember Claribel declaring that she would never be happy again—a sentiment I echoed and believed. To such as survived of these pets, the call of the wild inevitably came, and, despite the happiness of their domestication, some morning our pet would be missing. The wild things, however gentle, are the foes of the pioneer, who must harden his heart and turn to his shot-gun. For the encroaching kangaroo and monkey-bear there were bullets. Many a time on a winter's night I have watched my father making his bullets for this work of extermination. We used to get our tea in large boxes, with queer Chinese characters stamped all over them, and the inside of these boxes was lined with a thin lead, which, melted in an old pan, as my father did it, made bullets of any mould.

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Bright and glittering from the moulds they would roll, at a tap on the hob, upon the hearth, whence, with gingerly touch, we children would lift them. It was great entertainment, that bullet-making; but not its result for the poor native denizens of the valley whose home we had seized. Back and farther back to the ranges they went, such of them as escaped the cruel despatch; back they retreated for ever somewhere beyond the distant sky-line. And so was the valley won from beast and bush.