― 77 ―


The Bush

  ― 78 ―

Sketch on page 78 of 'The Bush'

  ― 79 ―

IT came down close all around us, dark and stern, along the ranges, lighter timbered toward the valley, where the fertile land followed the rambling creek. The massed foliage of the ranges flowed back and back; the sombre greens made a deep blue by the alchemy of the atmosphere in distance. We used to go up the rise in front of the house on mellow evenings to see the sun set behind the ranges and the blue become purple and gold under his passing touch. It was a wonder of which Claribel and I sometimes spoke after we had gone amid those ranges and proved the blue, the purple and the gold, to be green. But the green was infinite in its variety of shadings, for the native trees that grew and hung with the mischievous mistletoe were many. The high spurs flaunted a miracle of growth from the apparently barren soil; the slopes and gullies calling to the instinct of the native cherry and blackwood had grown these beautiful trees in profusion where Nature had sown them, building them in the faultless symmetry of their kind. We went early among those barren hills for days of ramble and adventure. I have memory of a dingo, with pricked ears, and forefoot suspended in the air, watching Claribel and me stooped over a cranberry bush miles from home among the ranges. Fleet and far he ran, meeting our eyes—no less fearful than his own—and we came home to concoct a trap for his wary feet. We succeeded only in catching a bronze-winged pigeon, which lay dead when we went for our dingo. In sorrow at this unwitting result of our cleverness we carried the creature home, and gave it the tribute of tears and a little mound among our dead pets.

I do not know when the bush is most full of witchery. Her extremes of September and June have alike, for those

  ― 80 ―
in whose veins her sap has entered, the charm irresistible. Away on those seeming barren places, where the only path is the path that peters out, made by the inconsequential feet of the native creatures, away on those places when September flaunts incredible vistas of the softest, fairest flower on earth —the puffy, fluffy, golden wattle blossom—when all among the bending glory of it hangs the purple festoons of the sarsaparilla. Is not then the Bush the royal home of nature? Oh, the softness of touch and scent of those masses of blossom against one's face, the coolness, the sweetness—Mother Nature's kisses on her babies' faces! But she has moods, and we, her children, have answering moods to them all. I know no deeper joy than a howling peak in June, with the weird voices eerie and awful, all around and about, and over the dark brows of the range the curtain of thunder-cloud. The brooding, silent moments of the coming storm, broken by the scuttling of bird, the withdrawal of beast to its covert. And then the roar, the rush of the elements that make the environment for a tragedy where tragedy is not, unless you feel for the terror of the small things that Nature makes and breaks in her prolific and destructive way. We thought it tragedy once, two small sprites of us, caught afar in a cataclysm of storm, with whirl of flying limb and roar of thunder—“the shout of God” some picturesque phrase of our reading had called it —then the lightning and the rush of rain. We had read a story of a man who sheltered under a tree in a storm, and was found splintered like the tree where he had stood, and so we ran with drenched hair and streaming faces till into the world of fences we came, and through, or over half a dozen brush barriers, panting to the house-door.

There was another, a less deep and rugged stretch of bush, that lay between our home and the school whereto with shining faces our little group darted or dragged on its daily way. There was a track—for our avoidance, at least we were seldom upon it, for there was more interest to right and left of it. The tardy lesson-learner might walk upon the marked-out path conning his neglected lesson with a younger child for fag to keep watch-out for the snake that might be lurking

  ― 81 ―
among the dried leaves of the track. But the rest of us ranged abroad; there was always something to endanger the punctual arrival at the little iron-roofed school in the clearing ahead. A young monkey-bear on its mother's back on a good stout sapling top called for capture for the home menagerie. Coats and school-bags were speedily on the ground, and two boys, hand over hand among the limbs, were soon damaging skin and bark with impartial prodigality in the pursuit. Mother bear, wiser than her foolish eyes, would urge herself to the highest fork, and all the shaking could not dislodge her. Once, after one of these attempts at kidnapping, when the main party had gone on, I remember Claribel, and Lucy Speary— who had “come our way” that day for the sake of showing Claribel her new pinafore betimes—remained about the tree where the bears sat on the swaying bough till half the morning was gone. They imagined that by beating sticks against the trunk of the sapling, and keeping the mother bear to her wavering perch, presently she would fall, and the young one be theirs. But nothing came of their lingering except confusion to two stammering little girls, who later failed to slip unobserved into their places in the class.

But sometimes we actually did capture a pet in the bush. One prickly problem that travelled its way to freedom after having resisted our cautious overtures to friendship for two days, and partaken of some millions of insects we had sedulously gathered for it, was a porcupine. It was an ungracious creature, impossible to get on intimate terms with, though we had been prepared to love and tend it as long as we lived. Dick declared that its quills held a kind of ink (some cuttle-fish story had gone awry in his mind), and after many attempts to prove his belief, resulting in a painful hand, he took a dislike to the new pet, and ridiculed our pursuit of insects on its behalf. Later on, we suspected him of being the cause of our prickly pet leaving us. He had secretly called in the services of Tiny, the bellicose little terrier of his brother A.H., to get an experimental quill for his curiosity.

That little terrier played ever a part in our bush adventures. Small of body, she had the heart of a lion. There

  ― 82 ―
was nothing, from a kangaroo to a snake, that she would not attack. Tiny died at last as the result of her too-great boldness with a snake. Old age had, I think, made her less nimble and expert than formerly, for many a time she had done that same feat without hurt to herself—sprung in and gripped a snake by the neck. But, like many human beings, Tiny failed to realise the decay of her special powers, and so she lay dead by a log in the school playground one evening when we came out of school—the pitcher broken at last. That was the only time I remember seeing A.H. weep—he was of the disposition to scorn the weakness of tears—when he bent over the already swollen form of his beloved friend, the little mongrel Tiny. The terrier and a wonderful pocket-knife he possessed were my cousin's two most valued belongings. The knife was a weapon of many blades, with tweezers, a corkscrew, and sundry other things tucked away in the huge brown handle. His mother used to complain that this knife used to wear out, not only his pocket, but his trousers as well. Certainly one never saw A.H. in those days without his knife either in his hand or showing an outlined protuberance on his leg. It cut its way everywhere, that knife; I am afraid the school furniture was not unacquainted with it, and the initials of all our juvenile party were cut deeply into the bark of many a tree along the bush-track; so deeply that long after the youngest of us had ceased to attend the old school, some scaling remnants of these records remained.

Iguanas always had a hideous fascination for us, and we often met one in our rambles. We feared, yet we pursued them. It gave one a start, indeed, to hear a sudden rush and rustle in the dry undergrowth almost under one's feet, and a scramble up an adjacent tree before one could realise what was happening. Then we would prepare for instant combat. Claribel once seriously argued, when Dick was pelting one of these unlovely creatures that had taken refuge in a tree at our approach, that ugly things could not feel, and so no treatment of iguanas could be cruel. These moral sentiments were exactly to Dick's mind in view of his occupation of the moment. He looked aside to applaud and agree, and in that instant

  ― 83 ―
a whirr like the slash of a sword in air came near his head. The outraged animal, indignant at Claribel's derogatory remarks, had flung itself at its most active tormentor. The iguana was lost to sight instantly in a bramble near by, but my cousin stood pale and nonplussed, feeling his ear, uncertain if the sharp tail had actually struck him or not.

I have many a time wondered that no serious accident befell us in our rash doings during our ramblings in the bush. Some divinity surely flitted about us in our goings and comings. Lucy Speary used to say that an aunt of hers told her that if she escaped a danger once it was meant that she would not die by accident, and that one might, once escaping, therefore do anything. Lucy herself had been horned by a bull when she was two. She often displayed to a semi-circle of admiring children the white mark on her leg where it had been torn and sewn up. So Lucy knew, you see, and she carried out her aunt's philosophy in a way that sometimes made even the boys stare. There are those who might explain the child's conduct differently; the modern phrase might ascribe some of her reckless doings to a “love of the lime-light.” In any case, it was Lucy Speary who introduced the game of “playing Kelleys” as a bush pastime at school. Two sections of us—one the police, the other the gang—would go into the bush, and desperate things would follow. The real bushrangers were then at large, and what more natural than that we should do honour to the Robin Hoods and Dick Turpins that a kind, if melodramatic, fate had brought, as it were, to our door. On one occasion, I remember, we had, pursuing and pursued, gone so far afield at this wild sport that when the customary bell rang to assemble us for the afternoon not a child was within range, and the afternoon was well advanced before anyone, save the outraged teacher, realised that not even for bushrangers does time stand still. Oh, those combats! Of what use one's parents confiscating the book of stories of the deeds of reckless and desperate men when beyond the pile of blue mountains—comfortably far away—were roving the fascinating doers of deeds of exquisite lawlessness and daring! My sedate mind loves to

  ― 84 ―
reflect that it was only by force, as it were, that the police gang was ever made up for these escapades. We all wanted to be bushrangers, even fair haired little Jenny Wood, who wore a high boot and had hip trouble.

We once made a flower garden in the bush, bringing to it cultivated plants from the home garden, and transferring them with a fine faith to the barren soil. We had no particular reason for this freak, as far as I remember, except that it gave us excuse for making a high and close animal-proof wall, rather than fence, about our plot. The plants persisted in wilting or in dying outright. The only thing that had survived, when I passed the deserted place long after, was a stubbly bush of “southernwood,” a plant too resolute and life-loving to die anywhere, and too pungent of taste to be eaten by anything. But while the craze lasted, we used to work hard to make that wilderness blossom, dividing our labour between petting the plants, watering them with brackish water, carried in jam-tins from a pothole near by, and tinkering at the fence.

Better success attended our efforts at transplanting bush flowers into the home garden. For years we had a flourishing variety of native plants that took gratefully and gracefully to the finer soil and more human surroundings. Carried originally from a range gully, there yet grows in Claribel's garden a three-times transplated shrub of native musk. Mindful of its endearing history, in the present springtime I have paused beside that bush more than once to gather a tender leaf-tip, rubbing it softly between my palms to breathe in aromatic memories.

How well we knew the wildflowers of the bush; how little we knew their names! To most we gave such names as our fancy suggested. I remember dry, gravelly spots of bushland where we might gather hundreds of several kinds of orchids; some of them we knew by name as the dainty “spider” variety. We knew and loved the spider orchid long before we had heard the legend that accounts for its presence in our bush—how, being fairy dancers, and having outstayed the night at their revels, they paid the penalty by being rooted for ever. “The Grey Woman” touched them,

  ― 85 ―
and they “never laughed again.” We had not that fancy about the orchids, but Claribel and I, fingering them softly as we lay among a profusion of them on the gravelly ridge, invented, I know, curious fancies of our own about these flowers of Faery.

We used to gather strange and non-succulent provender from the bush. The gum from the black wattles along the gullies we ate with relish. It exuded profusely, we found, after the visits of the wattle-bark strippers, whom we both liked and disliked for their depredations. The tangy wild cherry, more like wood to the palate than fruit, but sweet to us because of the adventure of procuring it; the she-oak “apples,” with their inhospitable semi-prickles, and a sourness that made one's eyes pucker up the while one's resolute teeth went into them. And not least pursued, and enjoyed because of the work of getting them, were the cranberries, sickly and slimy of taste and little but skin and stone. They always grew in the greatest profusion where the soil was poorest, and where apparently the bulldog-ant preferred to make his home. Many a sting from him did we sustain when, in pulling up the little earth-gripping tendrils of a cranberry bush, we dislodged with them the earthy portals of a bulldog-ant's castle! And the bull-ants also seemed partial to the locality of the clumps of wild acacia that grew here and there about the bush, and which were particularly attractive to us because the tomtits and other small birds generally put their nests among their prickly boughs. It was a point of honour amongst us that we, only look, count and touch gently, eggs or gaping-mouthed young within those nests.

I remember that we were not always so punctilious in regard to the eggs and young of larger birds. The aggressive magpie, defending the nest at the bill's point, used to raise in us sometimes the spirit of vengeance. I have a memory of a cruel reprisal that were best forgotten, following on an angry bird having knocked off Fred's cap and brought blood from his face by a sudden blow of flying wing. We registered a solemn vendetta, the carrying out of which took the form of throwing sticks at the magpie's nest, and securing for the eggs in it the fate of Humpty Dumpty. However, many a

  ― 86 ―
bird pet obtained in our hours of tenderness, lived cared-for and fiercely loved; some of them, indeed, killed by kindness.

There was a little tiger cat that is remembered chiefly because of its refusal to become tame, and its general fierce ingratitude. It would scratch the hand that fed it, and spit in the face wistfully advanced to it. This incorrigible, finally escaping from its wired cage by a miracle of astuteness, scratched its way into a chicken coop, and disposed of the ten helpless occupants. Then, no doubt—for we saw him no more—he fled to the bush, “a smile on the face of the tiger.”

There is to this day no more delightful sound to my ears or scent to my nostrils than the ringing sound of axe and maul and wedge, and the glorious odour of broken green gum or box wood. There was always chopping or splitting, sawing or adzing going on in the bush about us. My father was a believer in sheds, and yet more sheds, to house everything, in Old Country fashion. And so one-eyed Mick was constantly employed timber-getting. When the air was crisp and still in the autumn afternoons we used to love old Mick's neighbourhood; to watch him while emitting the wood-chopper's approved grunt, send flying the giant chips which made us sometimes fearful for the well-being of his remaining eye; to watch him thrust back and forth the sharp-toothed cross-cut through the juicy timber, swiftly and easily, as though it were cheese. How we loved to watch, too, the bursting log as the fibres parted beneath the mighty blows when Mick's concern was slabs or posts and rails! And again, when season and sap permitted, his deft tools peeled off the shaggy bark from the stringybark's straight bole. How we loved to dance upon the sheets of it, curled, sappy-scented envelopes; to help to straighten them upon the ground for the weights to be put upon them. And then there was the stripping of the poles for the building of the everlasting sheds, in the making of which the stringybark sapling played such an important part. Many a sapling of these fell to the blows of an infant Hercules, who, for his turn, had the joy of the tomahawk, while the rest had the second-rate pleasure of stripping from the fallen the enveloping bark.

  ― 87 ―

And there were always in the fall of the year the clearing-up fires; after the tree-felling in the bush there was a fine litter of branch and bark till gathered up and burnt. This “tidying-up” was a rare game, though we made a virtue of the pleasure, and sometimes exacted payment for it. What heaps of half-withered branches did we pile, waiting for the seasonable hour to fire them, when to the moonlight orgy all the family came: we danced in the glow like little savages, imperilling ourselves often enough in feeding the leaping flames with yet more withered branches. A fire in the bush on a moonlight night of chill, and the faces and forms around it of one's fellows—I know nothing of a town child's possible recreations of day or of night to compare with the delight of it! The little scamperings among the shadows that may be a 'possum or one's own dog nosing out some bush thing. The glow, the darkness, the scent of bough, the tang of smoke. We went home from it all to sleep well.

There was the taking of the wild bush honey, too; that was always done at night. I knew the bush honey before I knew that there was any other, except the kind that is always mentioned in connection with locusts in the Bible, which Claribel and I early decided must be nasty. The pursuit, and flight, and mad return, when a bee attempted to get into one's bonnet; the gathering near, chary and wary, to watch the doings of the daring elder, veiled and gloved, with his big ladles scooping from the hollow wood the sticky, streaming masses of honeycomb, dropping it into the waiting tub. On each side of him bent the bearers of the lights that showed him his work, and whose added task it was to wipe from his neck or sleeve the bee escaped from the fumes of the saltpetre. The noise and silence of it all; the dark, the glare, the glamour. The strange movements of the bush beyond the glare; the satisfying eeriness of the scene with the moon still lingering in the tree-tops, listening to the hoot of the far-away mopoke. Visible and invisible phantasmagoria of the bush, touching every sense, ay, and ministering assuredly to something in one's being beyond the sense.