An extract from Greenhood: the delight in being dormant by Tricia D. Walker.
“I saw this place online. It’s not what we’re looking for, but let’s check it out anyway,” I said, pointing out the car window towards a grassy paddock surrounded by a native forest of sheoaks and ironbarks.
We hadn’t planned on stopping. We were driving from one place to another when I recognised a sign hanging from a metal farm gate. Hand-painted in blood-red capitals on an old sheet of ply were the words BARINGUP LOT 12.
I crouched down and climbed through the fence, being careful not to catch myself on the barbed wire. I raised myself with the stiffness and awkwardness of someone who’d been sitting at a desk for twenty years. As I brushed the sandy earth from my hands I was slammed by a potent yearning. My soul was familiar with a place I’d never been.
“Just give it a chance,” I said to my husband Mike while lifting a strand of barbed wire for him as he navigated his way through.
A flock of grey-crowned babblers greeted us, chattering loudly and seemingly scolding each other. I had seen plenty of photographs and had listed them in reports for years, given they are threatened with extinction, but I don’t recall whether I had actually seen one in real life before that moment. They flitted from tree trunk to ground, foraging for insects under bark and digging among the long grass, fallen timber and leaf litter.
Mike and I chatted about having our own patch of babbler forest to maintain in its natural untidy state. Most of the open woodland and forest habitat they prefer has been cleared. What remains is often tidied of its messy yet vital ground cover thanks to grazing, bushfire hazard reduction, firewood collection and landholders who want their bushland to look tidy.
It had been a wet summer. The grass was green, and flowering native herbs and forbs were scattered across the grassland. We wandered, pointing out one plant after another. There was brilliant blue scurvy weed, a dainty purple-burr daisy, and a delightful little egg and bacon pea.
“Grevillea montana!” I squealed with delight, pointing out a small knee-high scraggly shrub. Another rare species, although this one isn’t threatened with extinction, it has always had a restricted distribution, occurring only in this southern part of the Hunter Valley. I’d used it as a case study when teaching plant nomenclature. Only metres in from the gate, and already the place felt familiar.
We followed a dirt track through an open forest of ironbarks, their dark grey trunks splattered with pale green lichen. Up a slope, beyond two small murky brown dams, we found a small clearing, bordered on one side by a green shed and the other by four majestic old ironbarks, their grand outstretched limbs guarding a clearing that would be the perfect site for a home. Tree changers who buy a bush block so they can be ‘close to nature’ and then mindlessly ‘improve it’ without thinking about their impact are a pet peeve of mine. They clear bushland and slash or overgraze native grassland, and then move onto another dream, unaware of the trail of environmental destruction they leave behind. That this block had a clearing big enough for a house was a huge plus. We could build a home without cutting down a single tree.
We wandered beyond the shed through a lop-sided gate to the back paddock. Abandoned childhood dreams of living on a farm all at once seemed within reach. My adult efforts to connect with nature—a daily green hour where our daughter Liv and I explored urban parks, and going bush on the weekend whenever we could—suddenly seemed pitiful. It was this rugged real nature I wanted, not the kind we found near our city home: a few trees near a littered playground.
Standing in the middle of the paddock, we turned and looked back towards the shed. “I can’t believe the real estate agent ignored this view,” I said, awestruck by a spectacular backdrop of sandstone cliffs. But I was glad. It meant few knew this view was up for sale. It had been on the market for only a week and I felt a sense of urgency. I had to belong to this land. I had to live here.
We laughed, recalling that only a few months earlier in the heat of summer, Mike had been driving through the area and had said “Who the hell would live out here?”.
We found it easy to forget that we had been looking for a comfortable home with just enough space for a vegetable garden. There was no house, no power, no water, no internet and barely any mobile phone reception. But all that was missing didn’t matter, because all that it had was what we wanted.
A month later I described where our new block was to an archaeologist at work. “Across the road from Yengo National Park, walking distance from the Baiame Cave.”
“They’re known as healing hills. Full of healing plants,” she said.
That’s perfect, I decided. Exactly what I needed—healing hills.