Summer’s Fiery Blast

Just when we thought the heat of summer was waning and that autumn was on its way…a final hot day for February and out of control bushfires to deal with!

Don’t you just hate the feeling when you are sitting at work in a neighbouring town and looking out the window to see huge amounts of smoke billowing into the sky from the nearby landscape…to hear the local firetrucks roar past – those AMAZING volunteers that don their heavy yellow jackets on 40 degree days to fight the fires and try to save our landscape, communities, houses and livestock.

What’s even worse is when you realise that the smoke is from a big bushfire and with the recent wind change, that it’s headed straight for your friend’s property where your llamas and horse are currently agisted!  What follows is a very quick exit from work, a very hurried drive to get home and grab halters, ropes, woollen blankets (in case I was caught out in the fire and needed to shelter in my car), hay and treats (getting 4 unruly llamas haltered in the middle of the paddock and onto a trailer alone was going to be interesting…) and my phone and then a very quick drive towards the towering plumes of smoke for Operation Animal Evac!

Mt Bolton Fire

Adrenalin had kicked in once I got to the gate of the property and raced up the driveway.  The llamas and horse were grazing in the front paddock, so I whistled and called them to follow the car up to the shed where the trailer was located.  Luckily, I have been visiting frequently and they are used to associating the car with copious amounts of carrots and treats and all came trotting up as I hurriedly put the trailer on the back of the car.  They were all still relatively calm as the hot wind hadn’t yet shifted in our direction.

Llamas to be rescued

Lilah, my friendliest llama was the first up for treats and I quickly managed to halter her and load her onto the open box trailer.  The others I knew would be more difficult, as they have been running wild across the 15 acres for a few months.  But, with surprising speed, I somehow managed to get both Brittany and Wildfire in halter and wedged them all on the trailer.  This was a fantastic reminder as to why I got Llamas instead of Alpacas.  Llamas will come up to you in the paddock, they will respond well to training, treats, commands and halter training.  They are much, much, much easier to catch and halter in an open environment than a skittish alpaca would be.  Their domestic evolution as a beast of burden certainly comes through with the right training and I was so grateful at that moment that I had invested in training them, for there was not a minute to lose.

Meanwhile, back at the fire front on the other side of the ridge, the blaze had made it into hillside bushland…

Mt Bolton fire AJeffree

Yuki, the final llama – who was incredibly difficult to trailer load in the past and the wildest of the lot was going to be an issue.  I couldn’t fit her on the trailer – I usually only trailer a maximum of 2 llamas at a time as they like their personal space, but today I had 3 squished in there, shoulder to shoulder.  I would have to come back for her.  And somehow get her on-board…

I made the dusty dash down the driveway with the llamas all jostling and bumping along in the trailer.  As I drove out the driveway, 8 more fire engines and CFA vehicles roared past me on their way to the fire front.  Teams were coming in from near and far to fight this blaze.  I couldn’t see the flames, just the huge billowing cloud coming up from the other side of the ridge.  I hoped that they were getting it under control. 48 trucks were there already and a number of large helicopters and water aircraft.

Mt bolton helicopters AJ

Back home at White Stone Farm (which was actually only 13kms from the blaze…but a damn sight further away than my friend’s property!), I quickly unloaded the llamas.  Wildfire, not used to being crushed between the two girls had spent much of the frantic ride home spitting at Lilah, whose face was now covered in green, rank stomach contents.  Poor thing, I had no time to wash her face, I just removed their halters and turned them loose.  I needed to race back for Yuki…and had no idea what I was going to do about Jess the horse.  I don’t have a horse trailer and my friends who do were pretty preoccupied evacuating their own animals at this stage.

By this time, Stace had made it home from work and met me at the front gate of the property.  The wind had shifted and yellow-grey smoke drifted menacingly across the landscape towards us.  Poor Yuki was in a bit of a panic with all of her llama herd suddenly disappearing, but we managed to coax her over and get the halter on her.  Now for the tricky part, getting her to step up onto the trailer! I don’t know if it was her desire to get out of there, our adrenaline or the urgency of the situation, but she stepped on with relatively little fuss (compared to last time where we had to practically LIFT her 100+kgs on!!). Ok, what about the horse?  Jess was up the back of the paddock hanging out with some neighbouring horses.  We drove up there to get her as she refused to come down.  I managed to get a halter on her with minimal fuss. I couldn’t put her on the box trailer, so I gave Stace the keys to drive Yuki home and had no option but to walk the 8 kilometres home with Jess in tow. I didn’t have a helmet, saddle or bridle with me and didn’t trust that I could be calm enough bareback to ride her home safely on the roads, so we had to leg it!

It was hot, windy, a little smoky and I realised that I hadn’t eaten nearly enough lunch for this amount of energy!  Jess moseyed along, it was her first big adventure outside the gates and other than a possible horse-eating old couch on the nature strip that she eyed suspiciously, she was absolutely fine. We made it into town where a friend saw me and offered Jess a paddock for the night, until I could float her the rest of the way home.  We reasoned that the blaze was getting under control and that the town wouldn’t be at risk now and could leave her there for the night.

Jess worried fires

With all my beasts safely relocated, we waited with bated breath to see if the firefighters could manage the blaze.  By now there were 93 vehicles attending.  With their amazing hard work, teamwork, talent, grit and determination they got the blaze under control.  We could see the fires still burning on the ridge that night from White Stone Farm. Ten days later it still burned, with teams managing the blazes as they reignited or smouldered.  Without any decent rain, these amazing crews are all we have to ensure that our homes and communities continue to be safe.

mt bolton landscape helicopter ajThe sad part is that this fire – and 2 more that were alight at the same time nearby, are believed to be the work of arsonists.  The Country Fire Authority do an amazing job, dropping everything to put their safety on the line in dangerous conditions to ensure that their communities are safe. Forget the Marvel Superheroes – these men and women are indeed real life Superheroes!

We donate to the CFA every year, as we are not able to volunteer for the brigade. It never feels like enough though when you see the tremendous work that they do. If you would also like to donate to this fantastic cause, go to the CFA Website.

My fingers are crossed that this is the last of the fire season for summer.

The amazing fire photos in this post were taken by the very talented Ann Jeffree. See more of Ann’s wonderful work at Ann’s Facebook page.

Mildly summer

Ahh…what a wonderful reprieve we have enjoyed from the fiery breath of summer! We braced ourselves for an onslaught of hot, windy, horrendous conditions for January…and yet heard whispers of ‘above average rainfall forecast for western Victoria for Jan and Feb..” Nah, not here, not for Clunes…we never get any rain…

But the skies opened and lovely, cool, wet rain dampened the earth.  9mm one day, 16 another, 30mm another time!  Happy Dances all round!  In a place like Clunes, where it is so dry that the tough conditions bond townsfolk together in a mutual hardship, there was literally dancing in the street to celebrate the downpour!  Giddy smiles at the thought of water tanks being topped up (many people were having to buy water in during December as we had such dismal rainfall in winter and spring), gardens soaked up the rain goodness and the landscape was flushed clean.

It was so wonderful to see puddles on the ground, to feel a cool breeze on your face, to get mud on your boots again…

Feather, Fez and puddles

My poor baby chickens didn’t know what to make of it – they had never seen rain before! It took a couple of minutes to coax them out from their house in the morning. But all of the wet, bedraggled chooks enjoyed the cooler conditions. The rain encouraged bugs out of hiding places and soaked the newly spread hay.  Yay for more soil creation with a bit of moisture!

What February will look like, who knows?  Maybe we’ll get more of the beautiful wet stuff and the weather forecasters prediction of ‘above average rainfall’ will come true or maybe it will dry up and we’ll receive that hot blast of summer again.  At least we enjoyed those magical days of milder weather and the green flush of growth that follows.

Joy of the Festive Season

I love the festive season! A time when our family gets together to celebrate the year, of love, giving, laughter, great food and gorgeous local wines.  We are so lucky to live in a country where we want for nothing regarding food and drink, safety and comfort.  That being said we now try to use as much of our own produce, particularly meat, as we can.  Another celebration, of the life that we lovingly raised and nurtured and acknowledgement of their final sacrifice for our table and sustenance.

As it’s awfully difficult (and a bit of an ask!) to get someone to look after our chooks and lock them up on Christmas night, we encourage the family to come up to White Stone Farm for a good ol’ country Christmas instead!  It’s a small affair, just my folks from Melbourne and my sister, which is just wonderful.  The years have passed where we travel around the countryside visiting a myriad of relatives and now that our oldest matriarchs and patriarchs of the family are no longer with us, we rarely get together with extended family for Christmas. It’s just the 5 of us and it’s lovely. I rarely get to see my family, so I love having them stay.

Stace worked hard in the days leading up to Christmas to complete a patio out the front of the house.  In just 3 days, Stace finished the concreting, erected the wooden supports and on Christmas morning, added the laserlight roofing…just in time for us to enjoy our lunch in the shaded outdoors!

Front patio structure

Front patio people

With the new exterior of the house now complete (and looking amazing!), the front patio provides a shaded, breezy entertaining space in summer, an extra ‘room’ to enjoy and with the addition of café blinds, will also be a great way to capture extra warmth on that northern side of the house in winter.

My parents arrive from Melbourne for the festive season celebrations with their babies in tow – they are wildlife carers for orphaned Grey-headed flying foxes, also known as fruit bats and December is a busy time for looking after these babies.

Baby Amidala

Yoda baby bat

Baby bat feeding

The bats need constant care for about 4 months – including 4-hourly feeds, constant heat when they are tiny and motherly love (yes, they see their human mothers as such when they are tiny!), so my parents have to take them EVERYWHERE with them.

Flying foxes are the most amazing creature – particularly when you get to see and interact with them up close. They have an intelligence similar to monkeys, gorgeous little personalities and bond closely to their foster mum (or dad!).  Having them stay during the festive season wistfully reminds me of the days that I used to be a bat foster carer myself – you can read more about that journey here, so it’s nice to play with baby bats as well as celebrate the season!

Prue and baby bats

My sister comes up to White Stone Farm from her beautiful seaside home, with lots of goodies packed in her car. Food, gifts, decorations – she is super organised and always has that vital item that I have forgotten to procure for the festivities.

We celebrate, give thanks for the year and all it contained and excitedly plan for the year to come. Invariably, I always convince someone to do some gorgeous SAORI weaving with me – complete with wine and cheese…the BEST way to weave!

Wine and cheese weaving NYE

We hope that you have all enjoyed a safe and happy festive season, filled with love and laughter!

A Cool Reprieve

Oh, how wonderful this summer has become.  While we steeled ourselves for the baking heat, oven-like conditions, lack of water, dry and dust…Mother Nature instead has given us a beautiful reprieve of cool temperatures and rain.  Blessed be this unusual summer where every day feels like spring!

Sunflower artichoke

December and January both had their share of showers, rain to penetrate and soak into the ground, to still the dust, sustain the plants and seep into our water tanks. To replenish and renew the landscape when everything was getting ready to die.

Our usual plan of Operation Lock Down, to go into Survival Mode, hide away and conserve our energy from the heat outside has been unnecessary.  Beautiful cooler days have allowed us to continue working outside on the house.  Our newest project, now that Stacy has some days free from work, is to finish cladding our ramshackle weatherboard home.  Long gone is the ideal of building our passive solar dream home at the back of the block.  That dream faded after the first year when we realised just how windy and difficult that part of our property can be. Instead, we have decided that this little weatherboard house can indeed be our home and can be retrofitted to increase its thermal mass, jazzed up, insulated, clad and lime rendered to look like one of those gorgeous lil’ houses on the Greek islands.  Our Greek island house to go with our inland Mediterranean climate.  We;ve already painted the windowsills in Mykonos Blue (yes, that’s a real paint colour!)

Stacy house cladding

Not only has the weather helped our struggling plants, but also our mental well being. It’s so nice not to be hot and bothered. To have enough energy and enthusiasm to get outside and get lots of projects done.

I’ve watched friends lament the rain and weather of this inclement summer in Melbourne. For ruining their picnic or curtailing their trip to the beach.  For us it’s a blessing, the loveliest summer that we’ve had here yet.  A wonderful chance to squeeze more into our busy year when we would usually have to down tools and hide.

Our water saving measures are still working well however.  Our grey water system – a series of two IBC tanks that filter the water through sawdust and then charcoal, is working beautifully.  The reed beds that have been planted around it and the pumpkin planted on top has erupted in growth!  And clear, nice smelling water comes out the bottom. Tada!

Grey water system

Who knows how long this reprieve will last.  All we know is that we are very much appreciating it, the animals are definitely enjoying it and we are making the most of it while we can!  Now, time to get back out there…

The Drying of Summer

Golden Brown, golden brown

The landscape’s wearing its golden gown

Makes me frown, gets me down

I miss the green in this golden brown.

Summer landscape

As Summer descends, the landscape colour and demeanour is changing. The greenery is disappearing quickly as the weather heats up and the air dries out.  The rolling hills and pastures of the ancient volcanic landscape take on a golden hue; a yellow descends over the landscape until the only faint smudge of subdued greenery shows amongst the eucalyptus leaves.  From the verdant green of spring, we move into a dry, hot, dusty, yellow landscape of summer.

It happened even earlier than I expected this year.  Our Big Event of the Year – our long awaited DIY Country Wedding here in the volcanic landscape was supposed to be awash with verdant green rolling hills.  I had planned for early November to take advantage of that greenery and the nicer weather…but they evaded us.  But, it still made for dramatic pictures and a stark contrast with the golden grass instead.

Prue & Stace wedding

Summer in our new landscape often brings with it a certain depression for Stace and I. We’re forest people – we originally hail from the tree fern abundance of cool temperate rainforest.  Our property is starved of greenery in the summer months, the baking heat and high winds evaporate moisture until you feel like you are in the desert.  As temperatures soar into the mid-40’s, we go into survival mode at White Stone Farm.  Our aim in summer goes from abundance in spring to SURVIVAL… to keep things ticking over, keep things alive and hydrated.  Plants, chooks, llamas. Just keep everything from expiring in the heat!

When we encountered our first summer, it was a big struggle. We didn’t realise how hot and dry it got out here.  We had planted 50 tomato plants and not only was I working full time nearly an hour away, I was trying so hard to keep all these plants alive on a scarce water supply and had limited time to keep things going on the hot dry days.  It was hard, but we persevered and to be honest after all that effort, the tomatoes were absolutely amazing, but it was a huge struggle to keep things ticking over when we were barely here.  We just didn’t understand the challenges summer sets here.

The second summer was perhaps even harder because we knew the heat and hardships that awaited us. I would look with envy at other places in Victoria (or the world!) that have milder summers, microclimates, shade, cooler temperatures, less wind and we’d question why we were in this place.  A hot, dry depression hit us again.  Our water situation was a little better because we had installed more water tanks, but it was a very dry summer.  The rains had stopped well into early-mid Spring and the land was volatile.  That summer was pretty tough.  Our dams dried up completely, the silver perch we tried to establish died. The fear of bushfires crept into our psyche, particularly mine as I was alone at the farm a lot during that time as Stace worked in Melbourne.  We questioned ourselves again…were we in the right place?  Was this all too hard?  Did we bite off more than we could chew?

The summer of 2014 was another hot and dry one.  But we were no longer surprised and steeled ourselves to mentally and physically cope.  It is what it is.  The heat saps you of strength, willingness and enthusiasm.  But, we rise to the challenge, we overcome the obstacles and we managed to keep everyone alive and happy in the heat!

One of the biggest lessons these summers have taught us is that as the seasons change and go through these big extremes, our understanding of the landscape and this environment is also changing as we continue to experience it.  The first principle of permaculture is Observe & Interact – to take the time to really understanding what goes on in the landscape, across a number of seasons.  How do they differ?  What does each season present as challenges and rewards?  Our dawning realisation is that we have wild extremes here.  Winter is very cold and frosty and summer is incredibly dry and hot.  The soil goes from waterlogged in winter to massive open cracks in summer.  It presents challenges but it also encourages adapatability and understanding.  Appreciating each season for what it does present.  With the hot dry environment, we managed to dry a heap of waste barley mash from the local boutique brewery to use as chook food.

Chooks and barley

The hot and dry environment means that we can dry food really easily such as tomatoes, herbs to enjoy in months to come.

Where once I used to lament the lack of grass and bare, dusty paddocks that surround our house, I now rejoice in seeing the sparse paddocks, because our grass fire risk is minimised.

Llamas in summer

Sure, it takes some different ways of working and make sustainability more of a challenge.  Additional hay needs to be procured from the farmer next door to keep the herbivores fed if all the grass has dried and died,we need to scrounge the local supermarket to get green scraps for the chickens each day, we pick our battles on what we will and won’t grow and our normally outdoor working hours mean that we hide away in the seclusion of our house in the middle of the day.  We like to think of it as a Spanish siesta (which usually involves close association with a pedestal fan and Scrabble!).

And we appreciate each season for what it brings.  We have stopped asking ourselves if we are in the right place.  We KNOW we’re in the right place for a myriad of reasons and we rise up to the challenge of overcoming these tough seasons and showing how others can do so too.  Let’s face it, our world will continue to dry.  Temperate areas will become increasingly drier and we need to know how to adapt to those changing situations. Growing food doesn’t just occur in the wet tropics or on perfect properties and landscapes of abundance – it happens right here, during punishing summers, droughts and harsh landscapes.

We’ll just forge a path through the dust, heat and haze and then show people how it can be done!  Watch this space…

The Perils of Permaculture visits

This farm has helped us learn things about ourselves. It’s tested our strength, our resolve, our relationship and challenged our perceptions on many things. I realise that I am not a fan of the hot, dry summer.  Growing up near temperate rainforest, I’m a green forest child and I miss it in the landscape.  So dealing with the long, hot, dry summer has been tough.

WSF-Vista-sml.jpgBut, finally we have our first rains and the parched dirt, so bare of vegetation suddenly starts to sprout!  Little sprigs of green peek out from amongst the cracks in the earth, where you are convinced that no seeds could still remain.  Resilient things, these grasses.

We had a group of Permaculture Design Certificate students out to the farm the other day.  20 students to traipse around and see what we’re up to.  I was excited about showing them around, but was disappointed that they would see the farm in its hardest time, when little is going on and we’re in ‘survival mode’.

But then I realised that this is the BEST time for them to see the place.  When it is at its worst.  When it is at the very start of a permaculture journey.  Too many times in permaculture teaching courses, students are taken to the very best, most amazing permaculture properties to see how it’s done.  I was lucky enough to visit both Melliodora (David Holmgren’s amazing property) and Dave Arnold’s property in Violet Town as part of my PDC…and it was really inspirational…but it gives you a skewed perspective on what you can achieve as a permie newbie.  Often new permies have just bought a dilapidated parcel of land cheaply, or live in a challenging area and it’s difficult to grasp just how long it takes to establish a good, sustainable, functional, integrated permaculture system.  The amazing properties that I visited took 20-30 years to get to the stage they are now at, so while it’s fantastic to be able to look ahead to what is possible in the future and be inspired and motivated, it doesn’t show any reality of what a permie newbie has to face in the immediate future.  Which can inevitably lead to disappointment in the short term.

So I was happy to show them our warts and all perspective on our property.  Some were motivated, some were overwhelmed, and some were downright horrified!  Welcome to the start of permaculture people…it ain’t always easy getting a functional ecology happening with our parched, nutrient-starved Australian landscape.  I did feel the need to follow up with them in Spring to reassure them that things get greener, easier, better and all-round nicer in other parts of the year – and many of them were amazed at the change in the landscape.

‘Tis yet another example of Observe & Interact – understanding that there are many changes that take place in a landscape and on a property throughout the year and that giving yourself time to observe and understand those changes for the challenges or opportunities they provide is of utmost importance to assist with decision making and efficiency.  We bought our property in May, right after some very unseasonal summer rains and the place looked amazing.  Little did we know about the desert like summers to come or the swamp like winters to wade through or that roaring southerly that whips across the property.  I happily told them about some of our rookie errors (planting fruit trees on the windiest part of our block to help provide a wind break…what were we thinking?!) and our enthusiastic plans for the future.  It also allowed them to see a property at the very start – and think about how they might plan their permaculture design and overcome some of these challenges if they had such a property.

Now with the autumn rains, it’s lovely to see the landscape undergoing that change, reminding me that the seasons bring different offerings and appreciating being amongst the landscape as it becomes refreshed after a long hot summer.  I hope through their visit and by following along with our journey, that those permaculture students also have a better understanding of what the start of a permaculture venture might look like – with all its trials and tribulations, as well as having that beautiful Melliodora-esque property vision for the future.