On October 22, I went on a road trip straight out of a Rita-Mae Brown novel. Which is not at all straight. Two of us were women who had Gough Whitlam to thank for their free university educations. They had led rich, full lives that had been transformed by progressive social policy. Both have returned the investment manifold, so it’s a win-win. Old Labor knew the value of a good education.
We reminisced about the 1970s and 80s. We were all card-carrying activists in our youth, (and for years well beyond what is sane), so our conversations are always interesting, outrageous, funny, despairing, eye-rolling and never quite legal. One of us who raised a daughter blessed Gough Whitlam for the single mum’s pension that his visionary 1975 Labor Government introduced. Two of us born in New Zealand remembered our envy of Australia as the dead hand of Robert ‘Piggy’ Muldoon lay across the Land of the Long White Cloud. It was my yearning to live in Adelaide, the so-called Athens of the South, under the legendary Don—Dunstan not Bradman— that first turned my ship towards Australia, where I found I had come home. But that’s another story, set under a blaze of stars in the desert of South Australia, with the moon and sun together in the same sky for a glorious moment or two:
one getting up, one going to bed,
one behind me and one ahead.
In the time of The Dismissal and its aftermath we were of tender years, one of our number still a pig-tailed school girl at Brigidine College St Ives. By the late 1970s we were lit up with the ecstasy of Women’s Liberation, an intoxicant like no other that inflamed the generation of us known as The Second Wave. It was magical and momentous and, at times, it was bruising. Our day had come. We know who we are. We are those for whom feminism was welcomed as a tsunami to cast aside the male church and state like bath toys and usher in a new and fairer world. While much change has been wrought, we are still waiting for Godot, still waiting endlessly and in vain for equal pay and affordable childcare, for starters. Now, driving through the spectacular south coast bush, all of us spoke softly, darkly, of the times in which we are living. We are uneasy. Mars rising. We women know when war is upon the land — its creeping shadow is in our very marrow. Its only fruit is sorrow.
I am in the company of a woman who has heroically given a lifetime to the same women’s refuge movement the New South Wales government is currently wrecking. She shakes her head, the battle fatigue showing.
‘Three kids sign up to ISIS and we pass terror laws and go to war,’ she says. ‘One woman dies every week at the hands of her partner and, worse than do nothing, they close down the existing shelters.’
A moment’s silence.
So Gough was well memorialized by us of The Travelling Sisterhood and some good gelato later eaten, but what lay ahead was a vision that makes my heart ache with longing for the world to steer a course away from fighting wars.
Our pilgrimage to Mamma Bear’s is secret wimmin’s business, and as such I will draw a veil across some details. There are, however, some things I can share: Once upon a time, some wounded spirits wandered away. They left the tribe. They became Terraformers right here on earth, making a new Garden of Eden. Gentle with the land, they listened to indigenous wisdom. So we were visiting a very special being I shall call Mamma Bear. What I don’t realize is we will be meeting Mother Earth incarnate, the sturdily built She Bear who 15 years ago put her ear to the ground and found a heartbeat to soothe her; a place to call home beside a green river. A green seducing river whose shallows and cool depths encircle her land like a mother’s arm. In a place that gets as cold as minus 7 and as hot as 50, she made a paradise, but the snake next door five years ago robbed her. To cover up his crime, after he ransacked her house he burnt it to the ground. She rebuilt. We inspect the ashes and she frowns deeply and looks up at the sky.
Bastard, I think.
Mamma Bear currently leads a pack of several dogs—clothes optional. She says she fears contrails and can taste the aluminum on her lips when planes fly over, dousing us with chemicals. It is a cruel delusion.
‘Why do they do it?’ I ask.
‘Because there are too many of us. They want to get rid of us. The Americans . . . ‘
Her explanation, like the hated contrail, fades away.
She may be right. She mutters darkly about Ebola. She may be right.
I am a cat woman, and in the presence of dogs I am suitably remote and unimpressed by their gauche suite of tricks. Although I like them as fellow creatures, they have never breached my inner circle. In fact I was just then eying them off, and thinking about hook worm, which is plum wrong-headed, because I’ve never seen healthier dogs— and ‘no canned muck’. Ok, I’ll pat you. I’m told the brindle brick-with-eyes and velvety face folds is a Shar Pei/Rottweiler cross. Damn that’s macho.
The funny/angry looking dog is looking at me. I look back. We weigh the same.
‘I may not keep her’, Mother Bear says sorrowfully of the Shar Pei. ‘She’s too out there’.
The ancient and revered Chinese Shar Pei, I learn, are dominant by nature; prized for protecting paddocks and used for dog fighting. They were popularized in Australia by a toilet paper ad on TV. Oh dear. She holds the Shar Pei’s mouth closed gently. What will become of her?
‘This one was kept in a cage for two years.’
She’s been milled for her puppies. The folds in her skin that distinguish the breed look comical in the Rottweiler’s sterner bone structure. I reckoned she was a nano second off being a psycho killer and kept my distance. Bad men bred this dog for dark purposes. Two years in a cage forced to breed and I’d be bitey too, I thought.
‘They get problems with the folds of skin. Problems just like those poor dogs bred with squashed-in noses in man’s world,’ Mamma Bear says sadly.
Man’s world is far away on this skyblue day.
Finger Limes and Frizzles – far from the madding crowd . . .
Yes! I gasp with delight as an Illawarra Flame Robin flits around the laden fig trees. Red on green. Finger Limes, no kidding, is that what they look like? A big prickly bush that will later bear the zingy caviar I consider among the best bush tucker, along with lemon myrtle. A kiwi fruit vine climbs like a colossus, and there are fruit and nut trees of every stripe. A chestnut. An Illawarra plum. Gnarly grapevines snake through the acreage, promising a glut of summer fruit. There are vegetables of course, all the usual suspects plus herbs and spices, common and exotic. And surprisingly, there are buckets full of colorful hollyhocks near the door to her little home. How very English and how very beautiful. Unexpected, like the piano inside the one-roomed shack insulated with books.
The ancient looking conifer. What’s that? Bunya pine, apparently. The nut is delicious roasted in the coals. You can get $29 per kilo for the Bunya nut, says Mamma Bear. A good cash crop. She can be found at the local markets buying and selling her produce and poultry.
We walked around her precious land, a tangled garden in which Edna Walling would swoon. Wild, unstructured, with surprises at every turn. Yes, there are Red-bellied black snakes here. Browns down by the river.
We have brought our own chairs, thank god, and sit under a stone fruit tree, the dogs circling us like wagons, a tiny fluffy puppy tripping over herself and running up our out stretched legs from time to time.
Her face falls talking about snakes. The only thing Mamma Bear has killed is a Death Adder. (They look like Blue Tongues without legs, apparently, if you want to note that). ‘Got around my ankles’, said this infinitely loving and kind soul and mother of wounded dogs, this nut brown Venus of Willendorf whose pendulous breasts nourish the whole world. She relocated 20 rats and 10 mice rather than kill them. Perhaps they were released on the arsonist’s patch. I hoped so.
Even after the man burnt her out, Mamma Bear did not retaliate. They fell out further when she rescued one of the dogs he kept on a short chain in 40 degree heat with no water. ‘It’s skull was boiling,’ she said, looking skywards. ‘I took the dog and gave him to someone else to look after.’
She told the council to fuck off when they tried to have a look at her land. They did too. She smiled. Some locals might fear and mock her, the mad woman with the dogs, but I see her shyness open and close like a butterfly’s wing, there and gone behind the toughness needed to live off the grid. Alone. Self supporting. She has hens of every hue and possibly extinct breeds and a gorgeous glossy rooster. Each hen has a grass catcher for laying eggs and raising chicks. And there are curious blue eggs. Giant black Australorps plod around and there are knob-headed Chinese Silkies, curious Frizzles, whose feathers grow backwards and Isa browns, a riot of poultry gently burbling as she moves among them, the dogs hanging their pink tongues through the chicken wire, panting and lusting after the birds. They wouldn’t dare.
A shovel was handed to one of us when she wanted the toilet and later as I squatted near some Salvia I thought, on balance, it a good thing the Death Adder had been dispatched. I had discovered the limits of my own ‘do no harm’ philosophy.
Just pull off the leeches, she laughed when I said I couldn’t bear them. Ticks were another problem and she groomed the dogs constantly. You get your three types, shellback, paralysis and bush tick. Ok. And we took a couple home with us.
The abused Shar Pei cross with a head like a brick and wrinkly skin made famous by the toilet paper ad had the kindest eyes— golden orbs like Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. She was ugly-beautiful. She could feel my admiration, I believe.
‘I’m sorry someone hurt you’, I whispered to her, and she took to me and bunted my hand. She reminded me of the poor angry kid recruited to ISIS making jihad videos for the six o’clock news. He’d found a snarling wolf pack to wreak his vengeance on the world. This dog would turn wolf too, if not for Mamma Bear.
She found a softer, kinder way. She did not retaliate even though provoked beyond belief. She did not wage war on a man who burnt down her home. She did not turn away the junkyard dogs that no one wanted. She is Venus de Willendorf, a true earth mother with the reek of soil and compost and wind on her skin. She is an inspiring soul because she has taken her woundedness and used it for good. And she doesn’t even know it. She is the Tao.
On their walk to the river she asks Frances how long we have been together.
A lifetime, she says simply, when Fran tells her 21 years. Yes, a lifetime.
I smile as Mamma Bear mentions she has her eye on a lion tamer at a nearby zoo and so needs no excuse to to round up her unwanted roosters and donate them. She laughs and the sun comes out. Such a curious courtship.
I probably will keep her, she says, patting the Shar Pei. Phew.
We eat Greek bread I’ve made and have a feast under the peach tree. Mamma Bear tells me I need to get my blood right. The Ph is wrong. I need to drink baking soda and bring it into an alkaline state. And soak my feet in Epsom Salts, she advises. My blood is acid and I should bring it into line with soil Ph. She’s probably right.
I know I am sitting at Mother Earth’s feet—that whomever fashioned the Venus de Willendorf eons ago saw exactly what I am seeing— female fruitfulness; beauty but not in the idealized male way of Venus. Fecundity. Venus does not loiter palely. She is robust and wide-hipped, heavy breasted, burnt-butter brown and brawny and oozing fertility. Everything she touches grows wild and rampant—this is no tamed or manicured garden. This is the real Eden. And there are no pesticides. A place where you must share your harvest, not wipe out the competition. Just grow things. And the least of creatures can find a home with her.
I am in pain from a pinched nerve in my neck and my dear, dear friend is surviving cancer and we are, neither of us, having the best of days. But we are here— we have seized the moment. While our partners walk to the river with Mamma Bear, we share the conversation of the Departure Lounge. We both find ourselves letting go more and more, which translates into ‘could care less’. We are exhausted by the mean spirited politics of Australia and amazed that our journey today ends as it began in the 1970s with a wave of knowing we had to find another way to handle conflict.
Men can never know this women’s space, just as they have their brotherhoods, we have our sisterhood. It is a sacred ancient circle I sit in and I am ashamed to say that at first the feral fecundity offended me. I am animal and I yet I spend a lot of time denying my nature. I am so cleaned by chemicals and filled with medicines that I knew the whole pack could smell my disease.
But just shooting the breeze, hearing the stories, heeding the advice, eating strawberries and blueberries, and cheeses and dips, was healing and then, right on cue, at the end of the meal, Mamma Bear warns us sternly about White Death. In no uncertain terms. We all nod. Sugar. The old enemy. The Bad Guy.
Then out comes the Lindt chocolate.
‘This is not the way we put an end to war’, as Buffy Sainte-Marie sang in Universal Soldier.
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