Sunday, January 14, 2018

Field

Hay’s cut, shining ridges like ritual scars in moonlight.
I stretch out on heaps that sweat lightly;
ground I'm on could turn in its sleep.

The world of grasses, standing, fallen, and the plants that grow among them. When the cows come in for milking, stamens of cocksfoot and yorkshire fog cling to their shining faces from where they’ve grazed, huge pollinators with the wind, among the flowering clumps under the cherry plum hedge. In the wallaby-lawns and short-cropped turf of pastures, centaury holds up its small, pink, bitter star-clusters, untouched. Along the roadsides prunella glows purple and in rich ground where cattle have bedded, nettles are lush. Thistles spread their spiky rosettes to make way for flowers and then the downy seedheads loved by goldfinches.
Haying begins late – new year is in before the mowers lay down their swathe-labyrinths in the shut-up paddocks and rush to make their escape, jouncing outwards across the courses of the pattern as soon as the last turn is complete, beasts breaking free by the shortest path. Stalks all fallen one way, the rows of cut grass form raised glyphs, burnished, until the tedding rakes come to scatter them and the balers swallow and spit them out.

It’s a good year for insect-eaters, and for their predators. Relative cool and damp means pastures are still green and full of plants among whose roots and leaves butterflies and moths and beetles continue to lay their eggs which hatch to feed and pupate and scatter skyward in flight after flight, providing rich food at every stage. For the first time in many years, a pair of flame robins rears chicks in the dense shelter of the windbreak along the ridgeline, and scrubwrens – ground-nesters that were among the first to colonise the garden but which vanished when quolls moved into the roof-space a few years ago – have reappeared to fossick under shrubs and perennials around the house. They co-evolved with quolls so they must have some strategies.
The quolls are very active – they gallop out across the roof at dusk and return at first light to bicker over sleeping-spots in the ceiling cavity, stirring now and then throughout the day to groom, and to hiss at one another. They leave their little tarry shits around the garden, glittering with insect husks and flecked with bone. Bats are feasting too. On the floor in a corner of the shed below a favoured rafter, a drift of moth wings gathers where a flittermouse has hung to eat its captures. Over several weeks, a chocolate wattled bat, soft-furred, mouse-sized like all the species found here, repeatedly finds its way inside the house (and out again), who knows how. In search of insects or a roosting-place, after the lights go out it emerges from a fold of curtain to elaborate the darkened volumes of the room with its purring flight.

Days of heat alternate with squally rain. Froglet mating-choruses go up, harsh, rattling, and later the insect-trilling of tree frogs. In cattle troughs and along the reedy margins of the dam, clouds of spawn float in their water-heavens. A lone banjo frog plucks its slack string among the rushes as it has done for the last six or seven summers. Frogs can live for fifteen years or more; it waits and calls, calls and waits for its answer.
On a dry day of little gusts that lift and fall away, downhill and downwind from us in our danger zone machinery strikes a spark, metal on stone, in roadside vegetation. Flame spatters outwards like spilt fuel. It runs along a fenceline, climbs a tree, jumps the road and splashes through the stubble of a hayfield, catches hold of bales not yet brought to the shed. There are people right there – workers in a nearby cherry orchard who rush to stamp it out, and neighbours who call the fire truck. But next morning the tree, a eucalypt, smoulders again. Fire can find its way into punky heartwood or go underground along a root-run and reappear weeks later – this is flame country, this is how renewal happens here. We watch and check and check again. Next day comes a relief of rain.

Brown falcons call to one another as they gyre the updrafts or hunt from powerline perches, shadowing and shadowed by a murmuration of young starlings still in their dark silver plumage, practising formation flights over the mowed ground. I don’t hear the falcons come and go at their usual nest in the pine hedge this year. Black cockatoos are there in numbers most of the time now – perhaps the falcons have been unsettled by them. And this season only a single swamp harrier quarters the hillsides – I hope, as ever, that a pair didn’t choose a hay-paddock somewhere in this territory as a nesting site.

In blustery wind, heavy crops of hard little fruit thrash around on the pears and apples; plums and figs begin to colour, hidden then revealed among the leaves and spotlit by intermittent sun. First blackberries ripen. As gusts buffet from all directions, the huge old pine at the corner of the road, last of a row that led to the stables of a house long gone, leans heavily on the elbowing limbs it has laid along the ground as prop and ballast. Thornbills and wrens flit among the crooked complexities of its niched bark and twigs; woodswallows sally out from its tiers after insects; a pair of eagles rests momentarily in the canopy with this year’s fledgeling before all three step out onto the wind to play once more when mobbing crows blow in.
After a hot day I go out in last light with the dog who trots, happy to be on the move, circling forward and back to urge me on. We sink into the dusk. Orange-brown butterflies lift from the field of me, small trails cross and recross. Flickering presences hunt the smoke-blue spaces of breath, claws print and crackle my skin, hawk drops to its kill, time lifts and what’s left of the little body dissolves to a cloud of flies, resolves to a handful of clean bones in my dirt. The dog’s feet throw up dust; I am taken, all in, deep.

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