Go on: pamper yourself


Spring: season of creation and life-giving and fecundity. The time when everything is hatching, metamorphosing or tearing away from the placenta and gulping in their first lungfuls of atmosphere. And then, in the case of the vast majority of them, being killed and eaten by something faster, larger and more powerful.


It feels like I can’t take ten steps down the creek at the moment without happening up on a scattering of feathers in the grass, a carcass, or just the discarded pickings of a raptor kill.


The gasworks is full of life after one of the quietest winters I can remember. The rabbits are back, after disease swept through the place last year, and now Jambo gets to bolt off on his endlessly futile attempts to catch one before it disappears into the lantana. Black-shouldered kites hover in pairs above the bamboo grass and brown falcons occasionally skulk atop the naphtha tower.


We humans are adapted to living with scarcity. Fecundity, plenty and abundance are not natural states for us, and we struggle with them on the rare occasions that we meet them. We go stupid. Our myths and religions have developed in response to scarcity and most religions have an inherent asceticism: periods of self-sacrifice, abstinence and denial. We’ve been doing it for so long that it’s embedded in us.

But our contemporary world has developed  a  focus on overcoming scarcity. Plenty is the new normal. We no longer need to delay our gratification and so we can have whatever we want whenever we want it. And why wouldn’t we? We’re almost programmed to gorge ourselves, not just with food but with everything. Go on: pamper yourself.


Every year I give up the grog during Lent for … what? I don’t know. In the UK at the moment there’s a movement around “Stop-tober” and “Go-vember”. I think we yearn for limits on our otherwise insatiable appetites.


Nature doesn’t make choices like this. So this month I’d better get used to seeing more dead birds, dead rabbits, dead reptiles.

It’s weird. I don’t what or why, but it is.

On the waterfront


I thought that the rain we got the other week would result in a banker but it was such a slow, steady fall that the creek just rose, nice and slowly, and then fell, nice and slowly. The kind of rain the farmers love.

I always have mixed feelings about rain after a prolonged dry period. The creek gets so clogged up with gunk and rubbish that it’s kind of cathartic to have it all swept away by one huge, cleansing flood. But then I know that all the crap has just been shunted down to Carrington mangroves, or the harbour, or the beach.


It’s still … THERE … even though I can’t see it.


There was an article in the Herald about the OdysSea group, who are encouraging people to litter-pick along the beaches. They’re great, those young folk, and I must admit I rather  envy them. The beaches are so iconic and so beautiful that it seems like a no brainer to ask help keep them clean and for people to respond. The creeks just don’t have that same emotional kicker. I pick stuff up but, let’s be frank, I ain’t gonna make much of a dent in this lot. And anyway, it’s just the drain.


Sometimes I don’t pick things up, deliberately. Big Ted, here. He’s not going to be accidentally swallowed by a cormorant or a turtle. Where will he go? Who will find him?


Not far, as it turned out. He staggered ashore down by the TAFE, still wet, a few days later. Don’t know where he is now.


Other things are just too elusive to pick up. This sign, from a car yard, teased me for at least two weeks, always bobbing up and down with the tide, always a good couple of metres offshore. Come and get me! Nyaah!


As well as the litter pollution the creek’s been suffering from the subterranean movement of oils, tars and residues from the gasworks and the petrol depot. This always speeds up when the warmer weather arrives; September isn’t just the month of koels and channel-billed cuckoos, it’s the month of gaseous miasmas and heady, bituminous pongs …


… and intriguing canisters of unknown origin that are impossibly tempting to your average cairn terrier.


But if I’m feeling slack and not picking up, the creek will always send me a reminder of why I should do the right thing. Saturday morning and, as the tide turned and pulled the bottles and cans and cigarette ends and lumps of polystyrene foam and nerf bullets and tennis balls and busted thongs out and down and away towards the harbour, this sad sight drifted past me. Another cormorant casualty. A young, healthy-looking bird. What had it swallowed? What had gotten caught and twisted in its gut?


Get my bag. Pick it up. Even you, Big Ted. Even you.


Stocktake clearance


Everything must go! Well, not quite. Mostly  I write, using photos to illustrate what I’m thinking about. But blogging has changed that process a bit and I often have photos that I’ve taken on my phone that end up influencing what I write about. It’s not always an immediate process and I often have pictures that sit around on my desktop for a while before they inspire a post. It can be the case that a theme emerges over time: I take a picture of a certain type of graffiti and over a few weeks I see it again and again; a type of litter starts to appear, or disappear; a view emerges, or a change in a view takes place.

But some photos just sit there, in the folder on my desktop called “Holding pen”. Well, it’s time to clear it out.

To start off, here’s a little fish being eaten by ants. Probably dropped by a heron. I often find dead fish or dead creatures but, after finding this little fishy, I didn’t find anything for ages. So there it sat, on its own, in the holding pen. Out it goes!


This was almost emerging into a post about fag packets of the past, and being able to buy Woodbines and No. 6 and Silk Cut individually at the shop near my high school, but the it just didn’t happen. This happens quite often now I think about it.


Frangipani blossoms brown and decay so quickly that I was surprised to find this one in almost perfect condition a long way away from the nearest frangipani tree.


This green plastic tube with Europcar written on it appeared one morning. And then another half dozen  straight after. From whence? And for what purpose do they exist? I do not know.


This building at the TAFE has “Block O” on the front, which kind of begs a post of some kind. And yet …


I would never have believed that Rock Star energy (+ guava) was available in a can. I’ve looked in shops and never seen Rock Star energy (+ guava). Am I looking in the wrong shops? Or am I simply not made of rock star material?


This one was going to be called “Seven girls”.


I was coming home from a friend’s 50th birthday. I was wearing a tuxedo, it was 3.10 am, I took a short cut down the creek and I came across this wheelchair underneath the Griffiths Road bridge. Where to begin? It was so rich in possibilities that I think I froze.


It was still there the next morning, when I went to check. But then, not long after the farmers’ market, it disappeared. Was it a farmer’s wheelchair? Did a farmer take it? Sell it?


Ah, dead pigeon squabs. So many. Nature is so fecund.


There’s a big new gas tank in the ELGAS site. You can see it here, peeping over the fence. Now, maybe it’s just me but I couldn’t help but think of …


Keith Flint of the Prodigy!



A murder of crows


I’m not big on collective nouns; I’ve never heard anyone, in normal conversation, refer to a fluther of jellyfish, a puddling of mallards or a bloat of hippopotamuses. They always feel a bit forced and “aren’t I clever?”, basic trivia night fodder. But one that always seems entirely appropriate and completely unforced is “a murder of crows”.

The Wife took Jambo up the night-soil lane on his walk the other morning. At the end, near Bates Street, there’s  a mandarin tree and every year at this time it attracts flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos. They tear off the unripened fruit (perfect size for a talon) and reel around the fence, squawking and giggling like Year 9 boys who’ve broken into the school tuckshop.

But, reported The Wife, a little further along was another group of birds. The crows.


This guy, all on his own, does not look very menacing. But recently Jambo and I have had a 20-strong mob of them circling and cawing and swooping around above our heads. It’s deeply unnerving. Murder feels possible, almost inevitable.

There was murder, this morning. One less sulphur-crested to mangle the mandarins. (And there goes Old Mate, off down the creek for his morning constitutional.)


Which allows me to link, rather unconvincingly, to my own constitutionals. I was pleased to see that H-Foot is still getting out and about. This sign belongs to a water tank that appeared in the gasworks weeks ago. It hasn’t moved but is gradually being plucked at, bent, tweaked and generally knocked about by the Night Walkers. Maybe H-Foot is transforming his/her-self into a pedestrianised Judge Dredd. That’d be something to see.


We were going to go out for a constitutional, me and old H-Foot, but it never came off. I don’t really mind; if it’s meant to happen then, one day, it will.

You out there, H-Foot?

Language differences


The other day I was at the Newcastle/Hunter Studies Symposium at the Newcastle Art Gallery. One of the many excellent presentations was by Keri Glastonbury on the Newcastle blogging and Tumblr scene, and look who should pop up!


Yes, of course, he’s a star. I’m just the human on the other end of the lead.

It was a great day, the presentations supported by the absolutely amazing exhibition focused around the Macquarie Chest.


You MUST get to see this exhibition while it’s still up; it’ll never be together in one place again.

But that’s not what made me think of this post, it was Helen England’s presentation on brass bands in Newcastle. Helen described one of the many demonstration marches that Newcastle’s pit bands made, back in the late-nineteenth century. On this day about a dozen bands marched to the (ahem) Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles on Watt Street. Yo, Victorians: tell it how it is!

This blunter, old-school use of language was at the forefront of my mind as I’ve recently been proofreading a dictionary of Gurindji, a language from the Northern Territory. (The Gurindji are famous for the Walk-Off.) Modern Gurindji has lots of Kriol words in use, words that have an English origin but have gained a different meaning. And often these are words that have been gently massaged out of modern English usage as they’re considered too abrupt, offensive or (ugh) inappropriate.

I do love the Gurindji words themselves though. Consider this:

nguntiyip, verb, to yelp, like a dog, also used for the sound made by the engine of a bogged car.

I can see that! Or:

murr, verb, to settle down such as after a fight, pain going away as a sore heals, or an engine after it has been turned off.

Priceless. I was thinking of all this in the gasworks the other day when I saw the pair of black-shouldered kites soaring and hovering. They’ve won their territorial battle with the brown goshawk. In Kriol the brown goshawk is known as “chickenhawk”, and here’s the entry from the Gurindji dictionary:

karrkany n. chickenhawk. Milvus migrans. ◆ Manku nyangunyangu-pijik karrkany-ju. “Chickenhawk will make him a witchdoctor.”  This bird can make you into a traditional healer or witchdoctor in a process called tirriny. It does this by calling out karrk . . . karrk and throws a small stick at you. This stick can then be used to heal a person by placing it on the part of the body causing problems. Both men and women can be traditional healers.

Blimey! I’m glad the kites won!

What would this kookaburra think about it all?


Was it Oscar Wilde who said that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language? Well, perhaps Australia is a nation divided by a multiplicity of languages.

Pack away the ark


It was a hell of a rain, and while parts of Queensland and northern New South Wales are still struggling with rising river levels we here in Newcastle didn’t cop it too badly. Styx Creek filled very steadily then drained very steadily. By Tuesday afternoon the downstream flow went from bank to bank, but only to a few inches.

I went for a sticky beak with Jambo this morning. He’d been confined to barracks for two days and went berko, charging up and down, swimming across the creek then back again, burning up all that latent energy. We hit the junction with the Chaucer Street drain about 9.30 am, just as the tide was peaking. What a sight!


An iPhone hardly does it justice, but the tide at this point normally comes up in exhausted pulses. True, it’s still quite a sight as the saltwater merges with the fresh, but it’s usually just beck wide. This was bank to bank, really pushing in hard. The pulses were close together too, barely two minutes apart.


It really is hard to believe that just a few days ago we were all lolling around under the ceiling fan or staggering about in a heat-induced torpor. When I was having my evening walk just before the weekend I bumped into this family who were, like me, benefitting from the cool breeze that always blows down the creek even on the hottest days. And, of course, they didn’t have to cross all those busy main roads on their way back to New Lambton. Vicki would approve!


The same night, about a hundred yards downstream, I came across this recently departed eel. What a whopper! It can’t have been dead all that long and bore no signs of having been attacked by a bird of prey. Its skin was beautiful.


I’ve only ever eaten eel once, at the Japanese restaurant by the harbour, and it was delicious. I wasn’t tempted to take this fella home though.

It turned out to be a night of dead stuff. We came across a rat up near Chatham Road bridge, a very unlucky rat as Jambo’s DNA kicked in and he immediately did what ratting dogs are supposed to do. It was short, sharp and severe. If I said “No rats suffered in the making of this photo” I would be telling very large fibs. There was a fair degree of squealing for a few seconds then … silence. And one very pleased terrier, who wanted to carry it all the way home. I don’t think so.


Not the happiest ending for Ratty. But I suppose that that’s two less animals for the ark, next time we’re faced with a deluge.

The herd is on the move


Seasonal changes. There were king tides at the end of last year. The threat of a king tide at night contains the possibility of scary excitement, of floods and carnage, but mid morning, just after a leisurely home-brewed coffee, it rather loses its menace. Me and dog wandered down for a sticky beak. It was indeed impressive, coming right up past Chatham Road bridge. But not menacing.


Strangely, the high tide was matched by very low tides. Is this what happens?

I was late getting out at night, in fact it was almost dark by the time we got to the gasworks. The sun was setting over the Entertainment Centre. You really would think I’d have gotten the hang of lining up my shots by now. I mean, there’s this perfectly straight line going right up and down the middle and still I stuff it up. One of the trillion reasons why I’m not a photographer.


Speaking of the gasworks, there are hardly any rabbits around at the moment. Just before Christmas I found this dead one on the creek bed, which was a bit unusual. An adult, it bore no signs of it being attacked, no pussy, diseased eyes or bleeding nose. Then this one.


There are always dead things, of course, especially in spring and summer.


Spring and early summer is the time of year when all kinds of babies are being born and, as is Nature’s wont, the vast majority don’t make it to adulthood.


These baby trollies hatched recently. Sadly, none of them will every roll freely around the supermarket aisles, gather with the rest of the herd by the checkouts, find a mate and bring new trolley life into the world. It’s tough, the life of a trolley.


This one got caught attempting to cross the creek at high tide. Poor thing.


But the herd moves on. The herd will repopulate in the vast savannahs of Waratah Village, Officeworks and Franklins car park. Many more will come, and many more will fail to cross the …

What AM I going on about? I think my brain’s still on holiday.

Low tides, high tides


Part I: Low tides

It’s amazing how different the walk down the creek is when the tide is low. It doesn’t look very low in this picture but I can assure you it is; it’s just that the creek bed is so clagged up with fallen leaves that the water has trouble draining away and ponds around the beck.


At the lowest tide you can cross the creek as far downstream as the TAFE, if you don’t mind having your feet blackened with mangrove mud.


Several man-made reefs have appeared that I didn’t know existed. They may just be old shopping trollies, but I’m sure they fulfil the same function.

Hey, do those gable ends look faces? Someone should get Trevor Dickinson to draw them, he likes faces on buildings.


The weekend before last I walked the whole way down to Throsby Creek with Jambo, right down to the dog park at Tighes Hill.


There’s some work going on by the car scrapper. I don’t know what they’re doing but I do know one thing: that is the most rubbish silt fence I’ve ever seen. Banging in a few star pickets and stretching a bit of shade cloth does not a silt fence make.


The bridge pillars beneath the Maitland Road crossing are covered in oyster shells, something I’d never noticed before.


I know almost every ancient footprint in the concrete of the creek bed, footprints that belong to people who are now in their dotage, if they’re alive at all. But something else that I hadn’t noticed before was this sad face, a bit like a Harry Potter dementor.


They’re still jack-hammering up the concrete banking at Throsby and replacing it with rock revetments; this section is quite close to Maitland Road. How far round are they going with this? I’ll bet they stop at the Styx.


Part II: High tides

And so, after the lowest tides we’ve seen in a while, it seems logical that we should have some of the highest. Is it logical though? I really don’t know much about tides, other than some half-understood “knowledge” about the moon and gravity.

I was talking to someone recently who told me that when there are high tides on one side of the earth there are not, as you might expect, low tides on the antipodes. Rather, high tides and low tides appear in equal and opposite measure. It was all to do with forces, of which gravity is but one. That really made my head hurt.


This week has seen high tides pushing all the way upstream, almost beyond Chatham Road bridge. The high tides, the recent rains that have flushed away the litter, the crystal clear skies and the work by Dave and the maintenance guys has combined to make the creek a spectacular place to be. Early mornings are utterly gorgeous: the edges are teeming with waterbirds, the shrubs alive with insectivores and honeyeaters, the water boiling with leaping fish.


The gasworks is jumping with rabbits at the moment. I came across my first dead one in the creek, which was a surprise. What happened? Dog? Disease? Avian predator? It was too big for the resident black-shouldered kites, kestrels, grey goshawks or even brown falcons. The swamp harrier’s been back, lolloping along at treetop height with its huge wingbeats, occasionally dropping, swooping and banking. It reminds of a German bomber, endlessly mobbed by Indian myna Spitfires.


Jambo was, of course, morbidly interested.


Do yourself a favour: get up early tomorrow and go for a walk down your local creek. You just don’t know what you might find.

Call that a drain?


That’s a drain!

It’s not just any drain, it’s the Moonee Ponds creek in Melbourne, with the City Link running over the top. I’m not sure what the big red things are: art installation or plastic bag catchers. This great pic was sent in by expat Novocastrian and former drain rambler Ken, who was back in his old stomping ground recently and took his lad down the drains near Waratah Park. It’s excellent that our drainy heritage is being passed on to the next generation.

The creek’s been quietly lately: no students taking short cuts to the TAFE, no quad bikers, no dog walkers (apart from me and Jambo). The clean-up squad’s been and gone; I missed Dave and the boys but the mountain of plastic that had built up has been taken away.

Which is very timely, as the Australian Marine Conservation Society is running an anti-plastics campaign at the moment. Called “Like diamonds: plastics are forever”, it reminds us that “every piece of plastic we have ever used is still on the planet today”. You can donate to their campaign here.

I don’t think this eel died from ingesting plastic, unless he ate a ruler. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an eel so straight.

This blue-tongue was laid out pretty straight too. Not sure if he lost his tail in a fight with a dog or if it was snapped off after he drowned.


I mentioned recently that the coal tar in the old gasworks had been on the move since the warm weather kicked in. Here’s a nice example. This liquid ooze popped forth from the ground when I was walking round there the other day.

I felt like Jed Clampett, though I wasn’t as pleased to see this “Texas tea” as he was!



That’s me at the moment, in spite of my bung leg, Christmas deadlines and the looming fiscal cliff that’s so troubling the US. And it’s impossible not to be happy when you see a big yellow smiley face. Impossible.

The recent rains weren’t as heavy as predicted. Steady rains are much better for the garden but don’t create great flushes in the creek; rather, there’s a steady build up followed by a steady fall. The litter just bumps up against the boom at the TAFE, so this is a good thing: at least it’s there to get collected. But when the rain has gone away, and the water level’s fallen, and the wind changes, we’re left once again with an ugly mess.

The steady flow has created lots of beautiful patterns from the leaves, sticks, jacaranda blossom and other debris that gathers on the creek bed. I never tire of the gentle curves and arcs that they form and continually photograph them. Thank God I’m not paying for film development.

These she-oak leaves collect next to Bates Street and tangle together to create an interlocking raft.

A colourful pile of fabric caught my eye and I thought it was yet another recruit to the Legion of Lost Children’s Toys but, when I stooped to photograph it, I realised it was a dead rainbow lorikeet.

I never think of these pretty birds as ever being dead. There job is to fly around looking gorgeous and adding sparkle to the skies. If ever thought about life after sparkly flight for these guys (which I never had) then I would imagine that they’d be carried off by a warm zephyr to a place in the clouds full of nectar and ambrosia.

But that’s the drain: always throwing reality back in my face. The pile of DVD cases under the Chatham Road bridge was continuing to grow and there was this right shifty-looking geezer there the other day, though he quickly scrambled up the banking as I walked upstream from the gasworks. Since then it’s stopped. Either Jambo and I have scared him away from a life of crime or he’s chosen to dump his loot elsewhere.

I saw two trains that had stopped for a chat, one empty and vandalised and off to the sheds for a bit of train pampering (or perhaps “pimping” would be more trainy, masculine and contemporary – if ugly) while the other was was all clean and full of people. I don’t know why it should tickle me but tickle me it did. What were they saying to each other?

Ooh. I just had a thought: maybe it was the drivers who were talking, not the trains. I really should rein my imagination in a bit!

After this walk I went back through Ham North rather than back up the drain. On the way I passed the old Gas & Coke building. A lot of people having been going in there lately for a look round as the back doors have been busted open. Frankly I’m all for this, but not every visitor is in there to admire the pressed metal ceilings or grieve over the way this architectural landmark is being run down. There are kids who go in there simply to trash something, and this worries me. The roof is showing signs of going and now some of the windows have been broken. If water gets in – when water gets in – some of the processes of decay will be irreversible.

I’ve emailed Jemena again about this building, but still no reply. I’ve sent them the link to Renew Newcastle’s excellent promotional video on the ways in which they’ve repurposed some of the city’s empty commercial spaces (as featured on SBS News the other day). But no reply.

And that makes me NOT HAPPY.