Tales of a Backyard Farmer: Chapter 12

Pigeon power over the veggie patch

Circa 2005: from the book Tales of a Backyard Farmer

Autumn is here at last, and the light over the veggie patch is kinder and more golden, and the air somehow gentler as the harsh heat of summer fades in memory. All that heat is stored up in the melons and pumpkins as they start to ripen.clip_image002Each week we check the tendrils on the stems opposite the watermelons, and look for a drying-off – the sign that at last these monsters can be pulled off the vines and bought up to the house for slicing and eating.

The sunflowers too are glowing in among the lettuces and beans, and their seed heads will soon be cut off and stored for winter food for the chooks. As usual, the zucchinis have succumbed to mildew on their broad leaves after recent rain, and will soon be seen off to the compost heap.

clip_image004Just last week, work took me up to Whyalla at the top of Spencer Gulf, between the desert and the sea, to the WERIC demonstration house. The Whyalla Eco-Renovation Information Centre was set up to allow walk-through visitors to see low-power lighting and sky-lights in action, for school children to understand how to recycle plastics and cans, and for home handymen to see how to optimise sunshine and air flows in buildings and how to utilise the benefits of insulation.


Water saving measures like double-flush cisterns and recycled rainwater could be seen, as could the solar panels on the roof and the stormwater catchment tanks around the house. I should have gotten straight down to work, but spotted the veggie patch down the back yard and another old fossil working in it. Five minutes later I was getting the Cook’s Tour of the raised beds and composting systems, the fruit trees and the irrigation system – all under development.


For $1.50 I was able to buy a delicious honey-melon for my morning tea, straight from the garden. For such a sophisticated house, it lacked a bread-knife for use by wayward melon-slicers like me, but this problem was soon solved after some digging around in my toolbox…

clip_image012As a small boy, my toolbox was the key to all the exciting things that could be created out of odd bits of wood and metal. As I got older, and my hand-skills improved, I took to building model cars and boats that were beyond our frugal means to buy, but could with ingenuity be built. What I really lacked was some motive power – specifically a steam engine. I had no way of building one - let alone owning one - unless one magically appeared in my Christmas stocking. I hawked this idea around the family to whoever would listen. When Christmas morning finally dawned, no steam engine! In its place – a bloody tennis racket! I was inconsolable. By now I had some inkling that Father Christmas was in fact my mother, and this was confirmed as she sought to point out to me the social value of a tennis racquet in a huge extended family whose gatherings always seemed to precipitate inter-cousin tennis matches. In between, I was to get good use out of that darn racquet by belting a tennis ball backwards and forwards on the dirt road out the front of the house, with one or another of my many brothers and sisters.


In many ways my mother was right about the social value of that tennis racquet, but I wasn’t prepared to admit that. She needed to understand the tension that I’d always felt between wanting to be left alone to create things, and being drawn into gatherings to make social contact with fellows of my species. Did she not know that the arrival of the industrial age kicked off with the invention of the steam engine? No matter that we in our current society feel oppressed by the shear weight of the technology we have created in the past few hundred years; we have witnessed the greatest outpouring of creativity in five and a half million years of human evolution. Nobody enacted Acts of Parliament to say “you shall create more gadgets!” Instead, there existed a spontaneous rush to continually improve on the work of others, and to use our species’ skills and intellect in an outpouring of innovation that many felt would contribute to the betterment of our lot.


I witnessed a strange sight on one of my early morning walks around the Whyalla Wetlands - a single young domestic pigeon sitting on a power line, and a flock of nearly sixty of its fellow pigeons swinging in circles over it, trying to entice him off that wire and into the flock. Why did the group expend so much energy on a single individual? (I counted about twenty laps before I had to leave them to it!) The answer has to be that flocks work for pigeons, in the way that herds work for elephants, pods work for whales and packs work for wolves. This is an evolutionary stable unit for a pigeon. Flocks are what have ensured the pigeons’ survival, as can be attested to by the fact that they are still around today. One has only to witness a hawk or falcon attacking a flock of pigeons to realise that for the flock pigeon there is safety in numbers. Despite numerous passes through the flock, the raptors seem to become confused by the sheer numbers of their prey, and come away with empty talons. A solitary bird would undoubtedly be taken.


Finally my job in Whyalla was completed, with help and support from my own small tribe back in Adelaide. Tribes are the organisational unit what have worked for humans throughout our evolutionary history. My tribe don’t live together or inter-marry, but we do make our living together, and each of us supports the others so that as an entity we can continue to survive.

clip_image024After lunch on Friday, I set off for home via the least direct route – through Horrocks Pass to Wilmington – birthplace of my maternal grandmother. Back in her era, pasture land composed of native grasses was cut up to make way for farmland, with disastrous consequences in terms of erosion, flooding, soil loss and loss of bio-diversity. With the consolidation of family farms in recent times into huge corporate operations, these small towns in our mid-north regions are dying as the population has aged or moved to the cities. In the Wilmington deli, I ordered a cup of tea and bought a packet of nuts. While I waited for the kettle to boil out the back, I examined the miserable array of old fruit and vegetables on the shelves, and wondered at the poor levels of nutrition some of these folk in country towns must endure for lack of access to fresh and healthy food.

clip_image006Perhaps they too could seek solace in the company of a small tribe of their fellows, and set about growing their own fresh fruit and veggies locally? There was little enough evidence of this in my tour of the back streets of some of the small towns that I passed through, but I did come across a plantation of native peaches (Quandongs) and a large crop of native saltbush being grown for fodder.

Perhaps the next great outpouring of human innovation will see us finding ways of living sustainably and in harmony with the land we walk. There are too many of us to return to a hunter-gatherer existence, even if we wanted to. clip_image026The forests and woodlands that harboured those who walked away from earlier civilisations when the going got tough are no longer there. Perhaps we humans will form open tribes within our large cities, with more veggie patches distributed throughout the suburbs as community gardens where folk living in energy-efficient shelters can meet to grow things together. I reckon all that land we’ve reserved for golf courses, footy ovals and tennis courts would be ideal for just such an application. But perhaps this is just my way of expressing an on-going resentment towards that tennis racquet received all those decades ago…


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