Friday, February 29, 2008

Gratuitous leap-year post

I could not let the fact that today's the 29th of February – our 'leap year day' – and I have to mark this day with a blog post, despite the fact I haven't got anything interesting of mine to share.

Still, I don't want to wait another four years to have this chance again. Happy leap year day! And to make it worth your visit, I'm sharing a bunch of links to mark the day:
  • here's this great photo I found on flickr; I had mixed reactions when I clicked on the photographer's profile: he's 19, and has only been into photography for a year and a half! I'm not sure whether to feel heartened or not
  • Aboriginal film maker, Warwick Thornton, won the Crystal Bear for the Best Short Film at this year's Berlin Film Festival, not that the Australian mainstream media paid much attention
  • the Rudd government today released a 55-page report card on its first 100 days in office. If you consider 5 pages for title and prelim pages, contents etc, that's averaging half a page per day in office. Hmm. What do you think?
As Peter Cundall says, that's your blooming lot for the week. And for February.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Workers' choice at the Archibald

Staff at the Art Gallery of NSW have awarded the "Packing Room Prize" to Martin Ball for his portrait of Neil Finn, of Crowded House fame. The prize is a bit of an institution at the gallery, as the predominantly non-curatorial staff, I believe, vote on their favourites of those entered for the Archibald portrait prize. I tend to prefer both the Packing Room and People's Choice awardees to the official thing in this horse race.

The photo in the link has a very odd angle, but it looks like a great portrait. But it will be some months before the exhibition gets to Melbourne, so it's still a treat.

Interestingly, both Ball and Finn are New Zealanders. How long before Australians 'claim' Ball too?

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wordless Wednesday No.2

Making a meal of it

This is my favourite of the photos I took of the pig sculptures in the mall in Adelaide, September 2007. I think it speaks volumes of our culture's consumption habits.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Fruit of our labours

This post was inspired by the upcoming Festival of Trees, which has fruit trees and orchards as a theme.

To mark the birth of my eldest son, I planted an apple tree. Well, it was so tiny that you could hardly call it a tree. It was nothing more than a stick with bare roots growing from one end, and two twigs bound with nurseryman's tape to the fork at the other. In all, it probably came to no more than a meter tall, but this was some six years ago and I have a bad memory for measurements and such.

What I can remember is how I came away from the heritage fruit varieties grafting day held by a core of dedicated gardeners at CERES Environment Park that cold August winter's day with great excitement and trepidation: could I get this precious package home okay? would I plant it in its pot correctly? did I have a big enough pot, and enough manure? and would the grafts ‘take’ and the tree survive?

The two tiny twigs – scions – were of two different heritage apple varieties that are uncommon in Australia – King of the Pippins (an excellent eating apple) and a Baldwin (reputed to be an American favourite for cider and cooking). They were grafted onto a dwarf-variety, agricultural quality, disease resistant rootstock. I wanted a dwarf variety because we lived in a rented home and, while being avid vegetable gardeners then, my partner and I didn't want to lose the apple tree if we had to leave that house and garden at some stage. We wanted to be able to take the tree with us if we moved.

I had been wanting to plant a tree to celebrate my son's birth for a some months after he was born. It struck me as a significant and enduring heritage that I could give him: a living thing that would grow as he grew, that he could learn about the cycle of living things through, and that would be not only beautiful, but also useful – productive, even. It didn't take long to settle on a potted fruit tree, rather than a gum tree or some other Australian native tree that would never survive a pot.

A potted heritage apple offered many attractions: fruit, portability, and being part of continuing varieties of apples whose species viability were threatened by the restricted varietal choices of commercial growers and supermarket chains, and the vagaries of industrialised agriculture. It also helped that we liked apples. I dreamed of one day having a whole backyard orchard of heritage fruit varieties.

Without going too much into the ins-and-outs, let’s just say that things did not go entirely to plan. Don’t get me wrong – the grafts took and the tree survives to this day. Only, with the vagaries of Australia’s longest-drought-on-record, harsh garden watering restrictions and the competing demands of work, family and home, gardening was given a back seat in our changing priorities and the apple tree has become the main casualty of our horticultural neglect.

But let’s just say that it never got the opportunity to thrive. Its flowering and fruiting have taken a battering from the shifting climate conditions, lack of water and poor feeding; and I haven’t learned to prune it. If this were the Day of the Triffids, the apple tree would murder me in my bed.

When we gave up the massive vegetable garden and weatherboard house (and the effort that came with their upkeep) and downscaled to a brick unit with a small courtyard, small herb and flower beds and potted plants three years ago, we brought the apple tree in its pot with us. But downsizing our gardening has not improved the attention the apple has received from us. In fact, it has failed to fruit properly two seasons in a row. Guild over how I’ve neglected the apple tree nags at me over time.

So, do you think I’ve learned my lesson? Well, no. My partner and I have been talking about planting a fruit tree to commemorate the birth of our second son! He turns two in May, and we hope to plant something to mark that time. We’ve decided on a citrus.

Concerned that son number two’s horticultural heritage should not be some impossible to eat lemon – you know, sour, bitter, tart, thorny, forbidding, and certainly not for eating off the tree – we’ve been discussing whether to plant an orange or a Tahitian lime for him and whether they would survive Melbourne’s winters. (I know, preferring a lime contradicts my concerns over lemons, but I think a lime has more zing, and so spark and life, and I love cooking with them!)

Will I learn to not keep trying to grow fruit? No. Because I will always aspire to be different, better, more attentive, when it comes to the fruit trees – especially those planted in our children’s honour. Mainly because they celebrate our children, but also because fruit trees hold some special place for me, and I’m sure many other people in Melbourne. Whenever I'm given pause to think of home grown fruit, I envy people whose fruit trees thrive in their suburban gardens.

Home-grown fruit signify self reliance, a love of good fruit, the joy of picking and eating ripe fruit straight off the tree, being in tune with the cycle of seasons and changes in weather and water, as well as having greater choice in fruit varieties and not being dictated to by supermarkets over what an apple (or pear, lemon, peach, or nectarine) should look, feel, and taste like. Home-grown fruit allow us to connect with where our food comes from, how it is grown and raised, how it gets from farms to our tables, and what food means to us as people. Contrary,
even, to the growing chorus calling for Australians to abandon gardening to save watering, I would argue for these reasons that we continue to grow food – including fruit – albeit with judicious water use.

In this time of environmental crisis and challenges to our habits of consuming more than we can sustain, growing our own fruit trees – however small and humble the tree, and however great and difficult the challenge – offers us the chance to take powerful, though symbolic, action to reaffirm our hope for something different, for something better, for our selves and our children.

So, with my desire to grow another fruit tree for son number two has come the resolution to rescue the apple tree of son number one – to re-pot it and give it a good pruning this winter, and to feed and water it come spring and summer in the hope it will find its feet again. Promise.

[Image by me: these people have no problem looking after their fruit! A little apple tree in the front garden of a house in my neighbourhood]

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

A call out for fruit trees and orchards

Or rather, for blog posts on fruit trees and orchards. If you have a thing about these, and have blogged on them recently, or have an idea for a new post on fruit trees and orchards, you may be interested in the call for submissions for the new Festival of Trees. The guidelines, as posted by the host of this festival:

I’d like to try and adhere to a theme of fruit trees and orchards… but virtually anything that is even loosely connected to that theme is welcome! Gardening and growing, horticulture, heirloom fruits, food and recipes, environmental and conservation issues, folklore and mythology, travel, what have you!
I've been watching the Festival of Trees of-and-on for a while now, hoping to contribute a post on trees sometime, but now the theme of fruit trees and orchards has really inspired me so I'm taking up the challenge.

The Festival of Trees is a blog carnival (no, I don't know why they prefer 'festival' to 'carnival'), which they explain as "a monthly blog carnival for all things arboreal. Like other blog carnivals, the Festival of the Trees is a collection of links to blog posts and other spots on the web, hosted each month at a different blog."

So, get your pruning shears, fruit picking baskets, picnic baskets,
axes, bags of manure and compost – and stories, of course – out for this carnival. The deadline is 27 February 2008, and submission can be made via details in the first link above.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

(Not so) Wordless Wednesday No. 1

I first learned about Wordless Wednesdays from two peas, no pod, and I've decided to start doing it here. It's late, but it just sneaks in today! The idea is to post a photo of mine each Wednesday (I hope) to share, with a few details of the 'where', 'when' and 'what' of the photo's subject (and maybe 'how' of the photography), and to leave it at that – let the photo tell the story. Hence 'wordless' Wednesday. You can learn more, and find other participating bloggers at the home base of everything Wordless Wednesday.

This is
my second son, Jamie, at San Remo on our way home from our Phillip Island beach holiday. He has this amazing capacity to sit and occupy himself – amazing for one his age – as he was when I took this photo. He's also wearing my favourite of his t-shirts.

This being my first such post, I'm going to break the rules and say a bit more. Besides, it's also a week since I last managed to post here, so this helps to break the drought.

Tomorrow will be Jamie's first full day of child care. That is a big thing for us, as it means that we will be trusting him into the care of people who are not his extended family or close friends of ours for some stretch of the day. This will be a big thing for him as well, I'm sure.

It will be for two days per week, for now, and somewhat different from the weekly three hours of occasional care we've had him in the last six months at the local Neighbourhood House.
But this means that his mum can start going to uni this year, and his dad can keep going to work to pay the bills and fit in study and writing as well, so we are really appreciating the fact that so far he has taken well to the new day care centre.

He has had his orientation there: a number of two- and three-hour stints over two weeks at his new child care centre so that he can get used to the place, the setting, the carers, and the idea of being in care there. We feel that we can trust the carers and their ethos, and we know that Jamie is ready to be in child care a couple of days each week, but this is still a big thing for us. He will be growing and doing things some days that neither of his parents will get to see, and I can admit to some trepidation at the whole thing.

Sure, we've done this before, over a number of years, with his older brother, but it's been two years since we've had a child in day care so it's still some getting used to all over again.

It is certainly shaping up to be a busy year for our family. What I'm thankful for, though, is that I can fit in study and child-rearing responsibilities around my very family-friendly part-time job, including my working from home on Tuesday mornings while Jamie is at the Neighbourhood house, and then going to get him and spending the rest of the day
caring for him! This means we can still spend some decent time together each week!

Jamie, you're growing fast, and this year you're going to do some of that growing beyond our eyesight. So it is my privilege to record and share
here some of that growth that I do witness!

Okay, from now on, Wordless Wednesday posts are going to be a lot more wordless!

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

"A beautiful, beautiful day"

The moment so many, many people longed for finally arrived – Kevin Rudd, as Prime Minister of Australia, and the national parliament this morning offered a formal apology to the Stolen Generations for their removal as children from their families and communities, and the terrible hardship, pain, grief and suffering they experienced as a result.

So many people were feeling excited, but mixed with a solemn sense of remembering, in the lead-up to the apology at 9.00 am. This was particularly so amongst the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country, but especially the surviving members of the Stolen Generations and their families. There was a palpable buzz around Melbourne this morning as people gathered at various places to watch on big screens the apology broadcast by the ABC from parliament. I heard there was a big crowd at the Aborigines Advancement League and a huge one in Federation Square.

Of course, there was the great convergence of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Indigenous supporters from across the country in Canberra, and they gathered on the lawns of Parliament House.

I watched it at work with my colleagues and a few other visitors

From the text of the resolution that Rudd read in parliament, and his speech in favour of the resolution, it was clear that this apology was pretty much what so many people, the Stolen Generations in particular and their supporters, were hoping for. It was also very apparent from Rudd's speech that he had caught the mood and hopes of people around Australia - Stolen Generations members, others in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, other advocates for Reconciliation and people generally. It was clear that Rudd did 'get it'.

Despite the speculation in the lead-up, Rudd had made it clear that his apology would mention the word 'Sorry'. What was not clear was whether he would bow to the Liberal opposition's pressure to not use the term Stolen Generations in the apology.

Although Rudd was not overly passionate or animated in his delivery – he is clearly not the type of Labor orator that Keating or Whitlam were – he clearly showed respect to the Stolen Generations, and honoured their pain and suffering, and was sincere in his apology in terms of his words and intent. It was also clear that he was speaking to them, to the Indigenous community overall, and to the whole of the nation as well.

On the other hand, I could barely bring myself to keep listening to Opposition leader Nelson's speech. I thought it mean-spirited, terribly insensitive, and had many comments that were so out of place for this event. It was terribly narrow because it, in the main, appealed to the Liberal party faithful, rather than the people of Australia as a whole, or the Stolen Generations directly. I wasn't sure if Brendan Nelson just didn't 'get it', as some people suggested to me, or that he did get it but was capitulating his moral beliefs for his leadership and position in the party and saying what the party wanted to hear from him. I am still making up my mind which is worse. Ultimately, it was Nelson's lost opportunity, and ultimately the Liberals' lost opportunity.

All the same, if you consider how over the last 10 years of the Howard era it seemed impossible to imagine this national apology by the government - and the parliament - actually happening, Nelson's position was not surprising. It doesn't make it less distasteful.

The strength of feeling by people across the country against Nelson's mealy-mouthed speech is quite clear. But it was most clearly demonstrated to me by an event this afternoon.

I had gone down to Federation Square this afternoon with my colleagues to catch the last half-hour of the free concert – to hear Archie Roach and Ruby Hunger perform – to celebrate the apology. W
hen I was catching the tram back to work from Federation Square, a rather distinguished looking elderly man waiting for a tram saw that I had the Aboriginal flag on my t-shirt, and started to ask me how I felt about the apology. Unsure what reception I'd get, I told him I was happy about it. He then told me how pleased he was at Rudd's speech and the apology, and how disgusted he was at Nelson's speech. He wished me well and popped on his tram. I was touched that this apology had reached out to touch so many people that I wouldn't have expected it to.

Later, when I got back to work and trawled through the internet coverage of the public reception to the apology and the speeches, and saw footage of crowds, clearly upset at
Nelson's words, booing him and turning their backs to him during his speech, and there on screen I saw the same elderly man with the shock of white hair yelling 'Get him off' at Brendan Nelson!

However bad people may be feeling, and however much we may resent Nelson for stealing this day's attention from the Stolen Generations, all in all we know that this day means so much to the Stolen Generations, and Kevin Rudd helped make that possible.

As Archie Roach said to us as he wrapped up his set at Fed Square, "it's a beautiful, beautiful day!"

Update: The full transcript of Rudd's speech is available for download (PDF) from the Parliament website. However,
if that link stops working (for instance if the Parliament House website people move it off the front page and the link breaks), you can download it (PDF) here instead. You can also hear/download (MP3) the audio of Rudd's speech off the ABC website.

I've added the image above to capture how I feel about the moment. It's off The Age website, photo by Glen Mccurtayne.

[Updated 10:47 am Thursday 14 February 2008]

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Welcome the Rat - Gong Xi Fa Chai!

Today begins the Chinese New Year. Gong Xi Fa Chai to you and yours! I hope this year brings peace, good health and a richness of ideas, creativity and hope, as well as financial security and wellbeing, for you all.

This marks the beginning of the Chinese year of the Rat, also the first year in the Chinese 12-year astrological cycle. The Rat is identified a the protector and bringer of prosperity and wealth, which are values also traditionally consistent with Chinese desires for the New Year.

My wishes for this year are a slightly subversive take on this traditional desire for prosperity and wealth, only because I would like to pause and think about the implications of the desire and pursuit for unbridled
material wealth and prosperity at the expense of our other needs, and the sustainability of our society and ecology.

I can't argue with the sentiment of the Rat protecting our prosperity, though, as I certainly hope that the growing impact of interest rate rises, overblown credit and mortgage stress coupled with rising inflation don't overwhelm the financial security
of today's households. But I would like us to reflect on our expectations and what it means to be wealthy and prosperous in today's culture.

This period is also a time for families to gather and celebrate, strengthening their bonds and renewing their families. I am thinking of and missing my parents and my sister and her family at this time, but I have my own immediate family here in Melbourne, and I'm certainly not as affected as the millions of people in China who are stranded far away from their home towns due to the weather-induced collapse of the rail network. It is very painful for them to be away from their families at this special celebration. I am also thinking of them at this time.

[The image is by What What (cc), of a stencil reputed to be by renown street artists Banksy on a street in the UK.]

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

A feeling for sun, sand and a book

Sophie Cunningham's Sarsaparilla post on how the location and moment of reading a book can indelibly affect one's experience and memory of the book is fascinating. Her recollection of reading Johnathon Fanzen's The Connections in Sri Lanka is well worth reading, if not only for the great photo she took leaning out a train window!

I was inspired to share my fond memories of reading Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow on the beach one hot summer holiday - 10 years ago! I so enjoyed that trip down memory lane that I'm sharing here what I wrote in the comments to her post.

The writing and the plot left a big impression on me, but the main memory is of the odd juxtaposition of reading a story set in the dead of Denmark’s winter, while enjoying the heat and sunshine of a Queensland beach holiday.

I had spent six months working as a temp in the public service in suburban Melbourne (and hardly the headspace to read anything decent).
I was not long out of university and this had been my first full-time, 5-days-a-week job and I was desperately in need of a holiday. At the end of my contract I went up to Queensland to visit family.

I picked up a copy of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow at my sister’s house, and took it on my well deserved backpacker’s holiday to Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. So there I was caught up in what I thought was a ‘whodunit’ (it ended up with more layers than a trifle) set amongst the cold and dreariness of Denmark and the icy expanses of Greenland.

Meanwhile I was seeing sunspots from too much sun while lying on the beach reading, which made it hard to focus on the page at times, and feeling really hot while reading of ice and snow. That is my abiding memory of the time. I read about baking bananas with sugar and ground cinnamon to ward off the cold, and tracking footprints in snow, while feeling hot sand on my skin and cooling off in the surf, taking walks through lush, sub-tropical forest, and encountering rosellas, bush turkeys and other tropical birds, and lizards.

That experience of where and when I read the book has stayed with me as much as, if not more than, the book’s settings, characters and details, (I even experimented with baking bananas with cinnamon and sugar with mixed success that following autumn). I can’t think of any other ‘when and where’ of reading - in my experience - that can match it for me.

The photo
above is one I took of a massive grass-tree at Noosa Hill during my last family holiday up in Queensland. I didn't have a camera with me on that Noosa holiday 10 years ago so I've no photos from then. No sun or sand, but you get the picture.

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In the picture

I discovered this amazing news through Genevieve at Reeling and Writing and Lucy Tartan Sorrow at Sills Bend: the Library of Congress has recently added a significant chunk of its collection of images and photographs to flickr – free, and without restriction, as they've selected "only images for which no copyright restrictions are known to exist" to share online.

That's 3,115 (to date) copyright-free images to use! I'm salivating just thinking of all those images to use in blogs, agit prop, histories and research.

I'm also excited because, as I've mentioned before, I'm going to take a serious effort to learn photography this year, and this is going to make a great learning resource and an introduction to the history of American photography. What I'm also amazed is that someone (or more than one someone) actually sat through all of them uploading, adding titles and descriptions that include photographer, subject, date, and technical notes - and tags! Now that's discipline. And commitment to librarianship and the commons. You'll find them at the Library of Congress flickr page.

The photo above is by
Jack Delano, of "Mrs. Marcella Hart, mother of three children, employed as a wiper at the roundhouse, Clinton, Iowa," taken in April 1943. I found it under the tag 'railways'.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Spirits of the times

My sons and I enjoyed the Chinese Lion Dance performance at the local cafe in my neighborhood shopping strip. A New Year's tradition practiced by Chinese communities throughout Asia, the lion dance is performed by dance troupes at businesses, homes and public places to bring good luck, prosperity and good fortune for the Lunar New Year, very important attributes for the Chinese.

The dancing was organised by the local council and traders to celebrate the Chinese Lunar New Year, which is actually next weekend. It's one of those cultural community activities the council promotes to shore up their, and the neighbourhood's, multicultural credentials, but it also makes a lot of people happy – my boys and I included. (Sorry about the photos, they were the best I could do on my camera phone.)

The big loud drum and cymbals accompanying the dancing also help ward off evil spirits, as do the firecrackers, another ubiquitous feature of Lunar New Year celebrations by most Chinese communities in Asia, especially in Malaysia, Singapore, and Hong Kong, at least before they were banned.

There were no firecrackers in this Australian celebration, but the lion – or rather its performers - did 'eat' the lettuce hung up by the cafe owners. It required the young man performing the tail to hoist up the
young man performing the head so he could reach the lettuce (all the while maintaining the illusion that it was the lion eating the lettuce with its mouth) and scatter the shredded leaves around the cafe to spread good fortune.

Eating the lettuce also involved 'consuming' the envelope of money tied with it, payment for the dance troupe. There were some other pretty spectacular acrobatics on the part of the performers, including the young man performing the lion's head standing – at full height – on the tail performer's shoulders, and the young percussionists were giving a rousing performance, so they certainly deserved it!

Once finished at the cafe, the troupe slowly made its way up the street, performing at whichever business had arranged for them to do so - signaled by the lettuce suspended in the doorway, along with the envelope with payment of course. Interestingly, it was not only businesses owned and run by Chinese or Vietnamese traders who had hung out the lettuce to invite the lion, and so good fortune, and this is a pretty mixed multicultural neighbourhood.

I've seen lion dance performances in Melbourne's Chinatown in previous years' New Year festivities, so the fact the lion dance was performed in Australia was not itself noteworthy. I've also seen some spectacular lion dances with some incredible acrobatics and daring while growing up in Southeast Asia, so despite the energy and enthusiasm, this performance wasn't remarkable. Rather, it was the fact that the performers were a troupe of predominantly young Aussie men and women, and kids, from Central Victoria – Bendigo, in fact. And they were accompanied by their parents and other adults, so it was quite a community and family affair.

You don't really expect a bunch of white kids to be performing the Chinese lion dance to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck for the Chinese New Year, but somehow this seemed perfectly reasonable to me. As did the fact that the troupe was from Bendigo, which was a major centre of Chinese settlement in nineteenth century Victoria, especially during the gold-rush era. In fact, the Chinese museum in Bendigo housed one of the largest dragons – of the dragon dance variety – in the world.

It is quite encouraging to think that regional Australia can be in touch with its Asian heritage beyond the compulsory country Chinese restaurant and Chow Mein – and bring it to share in Melbourne, which is so usually so proud of its strong multicultural make-up! Hopefully this is a growing trend, and we'll see Australia waking up more to the Asian aspects of our heritage.

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