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THE AUSTRALIAN BUSH
An introduction to an Australian home — Off to a picnic — The wattle, the gum, the waratah — The joys of the forest.
The Australian child wakens very often to the fact that “to-day is a holiday.” The people of the sunny southern continent work very hard indeed, but they know that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”; and Jill a dull girl too. So they have very frequent holidays — far more frequent than in Great Britain. The Australian child, rising on a holiday morning, and finding it fine and bright — very rarely is he disappointed in the weather of his sunny climate — gives a whoop of joy as he remembers that he is going on a picnic into the forest, or the “Bush,” as it is called invariably in Australia. The whoop is, perhaps, more joyful than it is musical. The Australian youngster is not trained, as a rule, to have the nice soft voice of the English child. Besides, the dry, invigorating climate gives his throat a strength which simply must find expression in loud noise.
Let us follow the Australian child on his picnic and see something of the Australian Bush, also of an Australian home.
Suppose him starting from Wahroonga, a pretty suburb about ten miles from Sydney, the biggest city of Australia. Jim lives there with his brothers and sisters and parents in a little villa of about nine rooms, and four deep shady verandas, one for each side of the house. On these verandas in summer the family will spend most of the time. Meals will be served there, reading, writing, sewing done there; in many households the family will also sleep there, the little couches being protected by nets to keep off mosquitoes which may be hovering about in thousands. And in the morning, as the sun peeps through the bare beautiful trunks of the white gums, the magpies will begin to carol and the kookaburras to laugh, and the family will wake to a freshness which is divine.
Around the house are lawns, of coarser grass than that of England, but still looking smooth and green, and many flower-beds in which all the flowers of earth seem to bloom. There are roses in endless variety — Jim’s mother boasts that she has sixty-five different sorts — and some of them are blooming all the year round, so mild is the climate. Phlox, verbenas, bouvardias, pelargoniums, geraniums, grow side by side with such tropical plants as gardenias, tuberoses, hibisci, jacarandas, magnolias. In season there are daffodils, and snowdrops, and narcissi, and dahlias, and chrysanthemums. Recall all the flowers of England; add to them the flowers of Southern Italy and many from India, from Mexico, from China, from the Pacific Islands, and you have an idea of the fine garden Jim enjoys.
Beyond the garden is a tennis-court, and around its high wire fences are trained grape-vines of different kinds, muscatels and black amber and shiraz, and lady’s-fingers, which yield splendidly without any shelter or artificial heat. On the other side of the house is a little orchard, not much more than an acre, where, all in the open air, grow melons, oranges, lemons, persimmons (or Japanese plums), apples, pears, peaches, apricots, custard-apples (a curious tropical fruit, which is soft inside and tastes like a sweet custard), guavas (from which delicious jelly is made), and also strawberries and raspberries.
The far corner is taken up with a paddock, for the horses are not kept in a stable, night or day, except occasionally when a very wet, cold night comes.
A hut in the Bush.
That is the surrounding of Jim’s home. Inside the house there is to-day a great deal of bustle. Everybody is working — all the members of the family as well as the two maid-servants, for in Australia it is the rule to do things for yourself and not to rely too much on the labour of servants (who are hard to get and to keep). Even baby pretends to help, and has to be allowed to carry about a “billy” to give her the idea that she is useful. This “billy” is a tin pot in which, later on, water will be boiled over a little fire in the forest, and tea made. Food is packed up — perhaps cold meats, perhaps chops or steaks which will be grilled in the bush-fire. Always there are salads, cold fruit pies, home-made cakes, fruit; possibly wine for the elders. But tea is never forgotten. It would not be a picnic without tea.
Now a drag is driven around to the front gate by the one man-servant of the house, who has harnessed up the horses and put food for them in the drag. Some neighbours arrive; a picnic may be made up of just the members of one family, but usually there is a mingling of families, and that adds to the fun. The fathers of the families, as like as not, ride saddle-horses and do not join the others in the drag; some of the elder children, too, boys and girls, may ride their ponies, for in Australia it is common for children to have ponies. The party starts with much laughter, with inquiries as to the safety of the “billy” and the whereabouts of the matches. It is a sad thing to go out in the Bush for a picnic and find at the last moment that no one has any matches with which to light a fire. The black fellows can start a flare by rubbing two sticks together, but the white man has not mastered that art.
The picnic makes its way along a Bush road four or five miles through pretty orchard country, given up mostly to growing peaches, grapes, and oranges, the cultivated patches in their bright colours showing in vivid contrast against the quiet grey-green of the gum-trees. It is spring, and all the peach-trees are dressed in gay pink bloom, and belts of this colour stretch into the forest for miles around.
The road leaves the cultivated area. The ground becomes rocky and sterile. The gum-trees still grow sturdily, but there is no grass beneath; instead a wild confusion of wiry heather-like brush, bearing all sorts of curious flowers, white, pink, purple, blue, deep brown. One flower called the flannel-daisy is like a great star, and its petals seem to be cut of the softest white flannel. The boronia and the native rose compel attention by their piercing, aromatic perfume, which is strangely refreshing. The exhaling breath of the gum-trees, too, is keen and exhilarating.
Now the path dips into a little hollow. What is that sudden blaze of glowing yellow? It is a little clump of wattle-trees, about as big as apple-trees, covered all over with soft flossy blossom of the brightest yellow. I like to imagine that the wattle is just prisoned sunlight; that one early morning the sun’s rays came stealing over the hill to kiss the wattle-trees while they seemed to sleep; but the trees were really quite wide-awake, and stretched out their pretty arms and caught the sunbeams and would never let them go; and now through the winter the wattles hide the sun rays away in their roots, cuddling them softly; but in spring they let them come out on the branches and play wild games in the breeze, but will never let them escape.
Past the little wattle grove there is a hill covered with the white gums. The young bark of these trees is of a pinky white, like the arms of a baby-girl. As the season advances and the sun beats more and more fiercely on the trees, the bark deepens in colour into red and brown, and deep brown-pink. After that the bark dies (in Australia most of the trees shed their bark and not their leaves), and as it dies strips off and shows the new fair white bark underneath.
Our party has now come to a gully (ravine) which carries a little fresh-water creek (stream) to an arm of the sea near by. This is the camping-place. A nice soft bit of meadow will be found in the shade of the hillside. The fresh-water stream will give water for the “billy” tea and for the horses to drink. Down below a dear little beach, not more than 100 yards long, but of the softest sand, will allow the youngsters to paddle their feet, but they must not go in to swim, for fear of sharks. The beach has on each side a rocky, steeply-shelving shore, and on the rocks will be found any number of fine sweet oysters. Jim and his mate Tom have brought oyster-knives, and are soon down on the shore, and in a very short while bring, ready-opened, some dozens of oysters for their mothers and fathers. The girls of the party are quite able to forage oysters for themselves. Some of them do so; others wander up the sides of the gully and collect wildflowers for the table, which will not be a table at all, but just a cloth spread over the grass.
They come back with the news that they have seen waratahs growing. That is exciting enough to take attention away even from the oysters, for the waratah, the handsomest wildflower of the world, is becoming rare around the cities. All the party follow the girl guides over a slope into another gully. There has been a bush-fire in this gully. All the undergrowth has been burned away, and the trunks of the trees badly charred, but the trees have not been killed. The gum has a very thick bark, purposely made to resist fire. This bark gets scorched in a bush-fire, but unless the fire is a very fierce one indeed, the tree is not vitally hurt. Around the blackened tree-trunks tongues of fire seem to be still licking. At a height of about six feet from the ground, those scarlet heart-shapes are surely flames? No, they are the waratahs, which love to grow where there have been bush-fires. The waratah is of a brilliant red colour, growing single and stately on a high stalk. Its shape is of a heart; its size about that of a pear. The waratah is not at all a dainty, fragile flower, but a solid mass of bloom like the vegetable cauliflower; indeed, if you imagine a cauliflower of a vivid red colour, about the size of a pear and the shape of a heart, growing on a stalk six feet high, you will have some idea of the waratah.
Two of the flowers are picked — Tim’s father will not allow more — and they are brought to help the decoration of the picnic meal. Carried thus over the shoulder of an eager, flushed child, the waratah suggests another idea: it represents exactly the thyrsus of the Bacchanals of ancient legends.
The picnickers find that their appetites have gained zest from the sweet salty oysters. They are ready for lunch. A fire is started, with great precaution that it does not spread; meat is roasted on spits (perhaps, too, some fish got from the sea near by); and a hearty, jolly meal is eaten. Perhaps it would be better to say devoured, for at a picnic there is no nice etiquette of eating, and you may use your fingers quite without shame as long as you are not “disgusting.” The nearest sister to Jim will tell him promptly if he became “disgusting,” but I can’t tell you all the rules. It isn’t “disgusting” to hold a chop in your fingers as you eat it, or to stir your tea with a nice clean stick from a gum tree. But it is “disgusting” to put your fingers on what anyone else will have to eat, or to cut at the loaf of bread with a soiled knife. I hope that you will get from this some idea of Australian picnic etiquette. But you really cannot get any real idea of picnic fun until you have taken your picnic meal out in the Australian Bush; no description can do justice to that fun. The picnic habit is not one for children only. The Jim whom we have followed will be still eager for a picnic when he is the father of a big Jim of his own; that is, if he is the right kind of a human being and keeps the Australian spirit.
After the midday meal, all sorts of games until the lengthening shadows tell that homeward time comes near. Then the “billy” is boiled again and tea made, the horses harnessed up and the picnickers turn back towards civilization. The setting sun starts a beautiful game of shine and shadow in among the trees of the gum forest; the aromatic exhalations from the trees give the evening air a hint of balm and spice; the people driving or riding grow a little pensive, for the spell of the Australian forest, “tender, intimate, spiritual,” is upon them. But it is a pensiveness of pure, quiet joy, of those who have come near to Nature and enjoyed the peace of her holy places.
I took you from near Sydney to see the Australian forest and to learn something of its trees and flowers, because that part I know best, and its beauties are the typical beauties of the Bush. Almost anywhere else in the continent where settlement is, something of the same can be enjoyed. A Hobart picnic-party would turn its face towards Mount Wellington, and after passing over the foothills devoted to orchards, scale the great gum-forested mountain, and thus have added to the delights of the woods the beautiful landscape which the height affords. From Melbourne a party would take train to Fern-tree Gully and picnic among the giant eucalyptus there, or, without going so far afield, would make for one of the beautiful Hobson’s Bay beaches. Farther north than Sydney, a note of tropical exuberance comes into the forest. You may see a gully filled with cedars in sweet wealth of lavender-coloured blossom; or with flame trees, great giants covered all over with a curious flowerlike red coral.
But everywhere in Australia, the hot north and cool south, on the bleak mountains and the sunny coasts, will be found the gum-tree. It is the national tree of this curious continent, the oldest and the youngest of the countries of the earth. Some find the gum-tree “dull,” because it has no flaring, flaunting brightness. But it is not dull to those who have eyes to see. Its spiritual lightness of form, its quiet artistry of colour, weave a spell around those who have any imagination. Australians abroad, who are Australians (there are some people who, though they have lived in Australia — perhaps have been born there — are too coarse in fibre to be ever really Australians), always welcome with gladness the sight of a gum-tree; and Australians in London sometimes gather in some friend’s house for a burning of gum-leaves. In a brazier the aromatic leaves are kindled, the thin, blue smoke curls up (gum-leaf smoke is somehow different to any other sort of smoke), and the Australians think tenderly of their far-away home.
Surf Bathing — Shooting the Breakers.
One may meet gum-trees in many parts of the world nowadays — in Africa, in America, in Italy and other parts of Europe; for the gum-tree has the quality of healing marshy soil and banishing malaria from the air. They are, therefore, much planted for health’s sake, and the wandering Australian meets often his national tree.
A very potent medicine called eucalyptus oil is brewed from gum-leaves, and a favourite Australian “house-wives’” remedy for rheumatism is a bed stuffed with gum-leaves. So the gum-tree is useful as well as beautiful.