ON THE FINAL evening of our week away, I took a plastic bag bulging with broad beans out to the veranda of the holiday house. There in the twilight I set to the fiddly task of separating the pale fleshy bodies from their fibrous green envelopes. As I dropped the beans into a metal bowl, my thoughts drifted to questions that would have made no sense at all to generations past. I can't imagine that my great-grandmother or her friends would have stopped to contemplate the merits of growing and making their own food. It was simply a matter of necessity.
As the bean skins began to pile by my feet, I wondered why so many people are returning to growing their own produce, whether in backyard, community, guerrilla or tree-change gardens. It's surely no coincidence that this is happening as supermarket shelves buckle under a dizzying range of foods, or at least products pretending to be food.
I make my living by writing about public health, and have been among those promoting home-grown and local produce (and encouraging people to avoid the processed pap on supermarket shelves) for the sake of planetary and personal wellbeing. I am inspired but also intimidated by the example of people such as the American writer Barbara Kingsolver, whose personal experiment in local eating and growing is described in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating (Allen & Unwin, 2008). She reminds anyone who might be tempted to romanticise the past of the slog involved in reverting to the ways of previous generations. I am not made of such stern stuff, and have no ambition to do the hard yards to become truly self-sufficient. I may make my own fetta, yoghurt and bread, but that's because I've discovered that it's not nearly as difficult as those selling ‘convenience' foods suggest.
My motivations are nowhere near as high-minded as Kingsolver's, and have more to do with some primal instinct than with saving the planet. I dig and plant and grow because I must. And also because of my inner Scrooge. There are other reasons, too, but as I pulled apart the beans I realised that some of the way I choose to live is a throwback to the days when frugality was a necessary virtue.
PART OF MY preparations for going away was a harvest. As well as the beans, I picked silver beet, parsley and lettuce. I particularly enjoyed severing the broccoli stalks, after months of watching the plants grow bigger and leafier without any promise of flowering. Maybe they finally sprang into action because of my threats to consign them to the chooks. I doubt that it was because of anything I did; I am not a particularly meticulous or methodical grower. I put some effort into the earth – my excursions to town are judged successful if I find bags of horse or alpaca poo for sale by the road on the way home – but have a fairly relaxed approach to the plants themselves. Whether you call this letting nature take its course or survival of the fittest, it is amazing how much thrives on neglect.
As I packed my harvest, I wondered whether taking vegetables on holidays might be a sign that I really am going potty, a question that seems to be recurring with increasing frequency as my way of living moves further from the urban mainstream. In the end I decided that BYO produce was not nearly so silly as leaving the vegetables at home and then having to buy limp, inferior produce of unknown heritage. The broad beans were worth every ounce of effort; they were delicious tossed through pasta with the juice of a lemon from a tree at the holiday home. Yet I was not completely satisfied. It seemed such a waste to throw away that pile of skins. They could have been put to use if Scrooge's helpful friends, the chooks, had come on holidays too.
We arrived home to find Chris, a geologist, and Baina, an artist, bursting with news of their local explorations. We first met them a fortnight before our holiday, when they came for lunch and a mutual inspection after hooking up with us on a house-sitters website. Over home-grown spinach pie we discovered many connections, and by the time they returned for house– and animal-minding duties, Chris had much to tell us about the history of our area. As he talked, we began to understand another way of seeing the land around us. Where we saw the results of our labours over the past several years, he saw how rocks had been compressed, crumpled, cracked and cooked three to five hundred million years ago. Where we saw old farm buildings clustering in a clearing atop a bushy ridge, he saw an ancient river carving its way through time and space. Where we saw rich basalt soil nurturing our hundreds of plantings, he saw reminders of violent volcanic eruptions.
The visitors also gave us a much more recent picture of our property's past. They left a print propped on our old kitchen table that they had enlarged from a black and white photograph taken in the 1920s. The photographer had been standing on the hill below where our house now rests, and pointing the camera towards land that had recently been cleared of massive ironbarks, stringy-barks and other virgin bush. The settlers often took a week to fell and dig out a single tree, and the clearing went on for years before the apple trees lining the foreground of the photograph could be planted. Young and bushy, they stood in awkward contrast to the dense, unruly thicket in the photograph's background.
Chris and Baina found the picture when visiting our next-door neighbour, Win. Her parents began clearing the bush on our place in 1912, and subsequently planted 2,500 apple and pear trees. Win worked on the family farm after she finished correspondence school in grade six, until she married and moved next door in 1952. She remembers spending three weeks with two horses ploughing the paddock around the apples, and taking the harvest by horse and cart to the nearest village. The return journey took three hours; these days it is a thirty-minute drive.
Win is a fine advertisement for the fruits of hard labour, and is still collecting eggs, digging potatoes, harvesting fruit trees and chopping wood, despite having celebrated her eightieth birthday some time ago. She is one of the joys of our tree change. We are connected not only by place, but by a shared love of growing and animals.
LATE IN THE winter of 2006, Win came by to help us plant an apple sapling on the hill overlooking the paddock where her parents' orchard once stood. A terrible bushfire destroyed it in 1965, together with the other orchards that once made this area famous for its apples. Her father never recovered from the loss of a life's work, and died a few years later.
The tree we planted together, in honour of Win and her late husband, Harry, is called Scarlet Nonpareil and produces sweet red fruit. The heritage-apple producer from whom we sourced our fifty old-fashioned varieties describes this tree, whose origins can be traced back to around 1773 in Surrey, England, as yielding ‘a very excellent dessert apple of first-rate quality'.
I could tell you that we planted heritage apples because we are part of a grassroots push to preserve the plants of the past, whose value exceeds those that drive commercial production. Or because sensible growers learn from history, and sentimental ones seek to repeat it. But really, we selected our trees for the poetry of their names.
Our orchard includes Autumn Pearmain, dating back to sixteenth-century England; Belle de Boskoop, whose lineage can be traced back to the Netherlands of the mid-1850s; and the Duchess of Oldenburg, whose popularity in Russia has lasted for centuries, thanks to a ‘soft, creamy flesh'. Then there is the Ribston Pippin, ‘one of the richest flowered apples'; the Beauty of Bath, known for its ‘pretty and fragrant apple'; and Peasgood's Nonsuch, which is said to cook ‘to a puree with a spicy flavour'. Not to forget the Boswell, which ‘hangs well'. This is just a taste of the diversity that can be found in an old-fashioned orchard.
The trees had a tough start to life, thanks to the great wallaby massacre, but, incredibly, all recovered. Last December, we made our first tentative harvest from the juveniles. Into one bucket went 3.6 kilos of cooking fruit; into another went 1.3 kilos of eating apples.
Another few buckets were filled with fruit that had fallen or been eaten by birds or bugs. These buckets I stewed up for the benefit of Petal, our 350-kilo porcine companion, who prefers to take her fruit as dessert. Petal arrived in our household as a delicate week-old runt – thanks to Win – and captured our hearts immediately. She began her residency in a box before the fire in the lounge, then moved to a larger box in the laundry, and then to a small yard in the old apple-packing shed, before making her final move to an old set of cattle yards, where she now spends long hours renovating her mud spa. A few months ago she celebrated her second birthday by devouring an entire fruitcake in a few happy chomps.
When you have the pleasure of getting to know a pig well, you realise how poorly we treat the species, not only because of the inhumanities of intensive livestock production, but also because of the pejorative vernacular. Calling someone a pig is never a compliment, and yet I've rarely met a nicer creature.
Pet – by name and nature, as she has become – is full of humour and mischief, curiosity and affection. She can be naughty, unerringly making a beeline for the potato patch on our daily walk, knowing full well that it's out of bounds but remaining determined to get in a few quick munches before I catch up. She can be infuriatingly obstinate, even fierce, when it comes time to return to her pen. If you weren't well acquainted, the angry head-waving and tooth-baring might seem intimidating. But this subsides as soon as I put on a show to rival hers – waving my arms and growling threats – and our ritual confrontations invariably end with a friendly cheek or belly rub.
On meeting Petal, visitors invariably do two things. First, they state sagely that pigs are very smart. No argument there. And then they make tacky jokes about bacon.
I don't mind a bit of bacon, and have inadvertently ended up with a freezer full of free-range pork due to a mix-up with a local producer I found through the local Slow Food Association. I am sure he told me over the phone that the minimum quantity of pork available was ten kilos. But when I went to collect, a forty-kilo box was waiting. Instead of shelling out $150 – and that seemed such an extravagance – I was $600 out of pocket. Pork will dominate our menu for many months. I'm not sure that this is exactly what Carlo Petrini, the charismatic Italian founder of the Slow Food movement, meant when he told an audience during his recent visit to Australia that we should all be prepared to pay more for good food.
Petal, however, is safe. We would no more eat her than any of our other dear friends. No doubt, there are some who would take a dim view of this anthropomorphic approach. Such a waste, they might mutter. To which I reply that Petal earns her keep as part of the recycling loop: vegetable scraps into pig, into poo, into compost, into veggie patch. The Scrooge in me loves the pig, even though she is far from cheap to keep.
I HAVE SYMPATHY for the mutterers. Our lifestyle may be frugal by some standards, but by others it is incredibly self-indulgent. Few on the planet are able to live in such natural luxury while maintaining a semblance of a city job.
When I look out over our green hills, whose largest use is to keep the roos, wallabies, wombats and other wildlife well fed, I sometimes hear other mutterings. Bloody tree-changers, they grumble, making hobbies of what was once productive farmland. Once we brought a tall, gentle man from Nigeria here for a recuperative spell away from the trials of asylum-seeking. We took him for a walk in the bush along the back of our property, expecting he would be delighted by the friendly wildlife, which generally impresses visitors. He was impressed, but not in the way we had expected. He charged after the wombats, roos and wallabies, doing his utmost to knock them out with the large rocks. He thought us awfully wasteful to have all these animals around without making use of them. We were pleased his aim was bad.
One morning, I took a draft of this article for a short drive down a damp country road. I also packed a luxurious freshly picked head of broccoli. One of the rituals of visiting Win is that you never arrive or leave empty-handed. Win checked that the historical facts were all correct, and sent me home with a large slab of double sponge, baked in her wood-fired stove, and two packets of peanuts which had been bought for a Christmas long past and only recently rediscovered. She knew that Petal would appreciate them, even if they were a bit stale. My inner Scrooge, it need hardly be added, was most content. Frugal living fits very comfortably with abundance, after all.