I guess life and death and the food chain are more in your face in the country, you know? It’s fairly common to grow up with an intimate knowledge that the chicken curry on your plate was actually made from a bird with feathers that once pecked and breathed and crapped on the verandah.
We ate from the supermarket, the garden and the paddock as I was growing up. Mum used to name the stock for human consumption in ways that would leave no doubt about their intended use, like the lamb named Chop Chop or the steer we had called Freezer. It didn’t stop me from falling in love with them. It didn’t stop me from wrestling with the feelings I had for them when it was time to give them the chop. They were beautiful creatures. I don’t think killing the animals you eat necessarily makes you a cold-hearted person. It can make you more intimately aware of your role in the cycle of life and death and, like a traditional person; you become less sentimental about the process. I think it’s possible to become less sentimental and at the same time more understanding and respectful of our place in nature.
I had a go at being vegetarian for a few years. Not because I was against killing animals for food but just to see what it was like. It was hard work eating out as a vegetarian in the country. Oh, so you don’t eat meat, you might have to go for the fisherman’s basket then, mate. No, there’s no meat in the carbonara, just a little bit of ham. My brother is a committed vegetarian and he made his decision on ethical grounds: he doesn’t like the idea of killing things for food. We grew up in the same household. I respect his decision and I have no trouble cooking for him when he comes over for dinner. We have a few bizarre things on the barbie like slabs of zucchini or egg plant. My wife makes a mean vegie burger.
The attitude the locals have to road kill here is pretty ordinary. I find wombats and wallabies and roos smeared across the road and I think how hard would it have been to stop when you ran over that creature? How difficult would it have been to drag it off the road, make sure it’s dead, check its pouch or whatever. A dead beast left in the middle of the road is a hazard for other road users, too, and it’s not hard to show a bit of respect. Yes, but itis the country. I’m sure a dead roo in Swanston Street or in The Cross wouldn’t even warrant a second glance.
It’s magical when you live somewhere long enough to develop relationships with the critters that share the country with you. I know that happens in the city—I’ve fed the possums in Fitzroy gardens and marvelled at the fish at Doctors Gully in Darwin but they’re fleeting romances compared to the relationships we have with the animals at home. We have a bird that has adopted us. She’s a magpie and in a fit of creativity we called her Maggie. Sometimes, I don’t realise how magnificent creatures are until I get to spend a few hours over a few days just watching them go about their business. Even the most humble and common magpie is a delight.
She—and I call her she because we have since day dot and my mate Doctor Barry tells me sexing magpies is like telling the guys from the girls at a transvestite’s convention and definitely not a job for an amateur—she just walked in the front door as we were putting the final touches to the floor eight years ago. She was flighty in those days and didn’t hang around for long. Over the years she has relaxed into our company and now takes food from our hands. She nests in a big Gippsland Grey gum on the side of the driveway and has had one or two chicks every spring we’ve been here. She doesn’t swoop us at all. She brings the chicks down to the house when they’re a few days out of the nest and some are friendly and some are not. None of the chicks eat out of our hands.
My bird book tells me that magpies are catholic to the extreme. That puzzles me. I know she can’t pray the rosary because she doesn’t have an opposing thumb like me. She’ll take the bread part of communion but wouldn’t be interested in the wine. When she comes in to share breakfast, she’ll give the most divine choral blessing you can imagine. Magpie song is magnificent pre-dawn and when it’s solo for an audience of one, it’s something else. Hail Mary.
Maggie epitomises the idea of a low maintenance wild pet. She’ll take a bit of bread or biscuit if you offer but she’ll never nag or snatch or eat enough to make herself ill. If you’re not home or don’t feed her, she attacks the local invertebrate population, many of which are pests. She has taken to dive bombing the rosellas in the fruit trees and the vegie garden but won’t eat the fruit herself. The only drawback I’ve found with our friend Maggie is that her kids squawk like a mob of three-year-olds with party hooters. I’d never tell her that though, I value her company too much.
I love electric fences. I love how portable and practical they are. I love how you can turn an acre of bare pasture into a veritable Gulag for bovines in about ten and a half minutes. And how many hours of the ABC have been listened to on shed radios with the reassuring tic-tic-tic of the electric fence in the background? More than all that, I love how cantankerous they can be.
I got my first serious kick from an electric fence when I was seven years old. We’d parked our bikes on the side of the road. The only thing between us and the dam that was seething with tadpoles was a flimsy-looking fence. Three measly strands of plain wire.
Fifteen thousand volts later, after I’d stopped screaming and my joints had begun to retract to their original position, my very knowledgeable companion pointed out the insulator and said that I’d been electrocuted. Instant hero status.
Later, after we had enough space to warrant a unit of our own, we started getting cocky. We matured from testing the fence with a blade of grass between us and the voltage to grabbing it with our hands like dad did, but only while we were wearing gumboots. The gumboots stop you from getting thrown on your back, but you still get a bit of a kick. The wetter you and the ground are, the better conductor you become.
I guess it’s just a logical extension to take your charged finger and zap one of the friends that are standing near by. The lighter you touch, the bigger the zap. If they grab you and make good contact, the next person they touch gets an even bigger shock. I think our longest chain was seven friends and family members one Christmas day. Used every spare pair of gumboots in the road. Aunty Jess declined to be involved on account of her pacemaker. Sensible move.
And I guess it’s just a logical extension for a thrill-seeking group of adolescent boys, full of dares, bravado and testosterone, to want to pee on the thing. Strangely enough, no one got a shock that way. It wasn’t until my brother set up a strobe light in the outside toilet —in a fit of artistic genius at one of our shed parties—that I worked out why. I can tell you for a fact that you’d have to be homicidally close to get a shock. A stream very quickly becomes a train of disconnected droplets under the flashing strobe. The circuit and the myth were broken.