A few days ago I left Melbourne and ventured out into regional Victoria. I’ve decided against the garlic factory and a fruit harvesting job for now in favour of a help exchange farm stay. This means that I live with an Australian family in their home and work on their land in return for food and board.
To count towards a second working holiday visa, specified work must be carried out in regional Australia. When I first heard this, I imagined regional Australia to be a vast expanse of wilderness, parched earth stretching out to the unbroken horizon (how exactly I thought it would be possible to get any fruit picking done in the barren landscape of my imagination is unclear). It turns out that pretty much the whole of the country, aside from the cities of Melbourne, Perth, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, is classified as regional Australia. Even Bendigo, about 25km north of my current location is considered regional, and it has a population of around 90 000 and is well appointed with shops, cafés, galleries and entertainment facilities.
Living with a host family is wonderful. The couple I’m staying with now, Peter and Karoline, are kind and knowledgeable. In the few days I’ve been here I’ve learned so much. For example, native Australian trees are predominantly eucalypts or acacias and there are hundreds of species of each. Peter took me on a tour of the grounds and showed me the different types of gum trees (eucalypts) that they have. He plucked a leaf from each so that I could crush them in my fingers and smell the different scents ranging from medicinal eucalyptus to citrus. Standing there with the broken gum leaves in my hands reminded me of something I adored as a child, but I’ll come back to that later.
Walking through the grounds, Peter remarked that he was sure that Nature was female – Mother Nature not Father Nature – because there doesn’t seem to be any order to where the plants grow. They just spring up anywhere they like, completely randomly and resisting any attempt to control them. It struck me because I’ve often thought the exact opposite. The natural world seems to me to be so skewed in favour of males; the fact that females are burdened with child bearing is, in my mind, enough evidence that Mother Nature is no woman.
Peter and Karoline have an orchard in a field above their house where they grow everything imaginable: apricots, peaches, figs, cherries, apples, pears, almonds, lemons, walnuts, olives…It’s the wrong season for harvesting at the moment but over the next few months the little nubs of fruit will grow and ripen and even by the end of this year the cherries will probably be ready to pick.
The four or five raised vegetable beds walled in by railway sleepers produce carrots, onions, garlic, beetroot, lettuce and herbs. A large area has been cleared to plant more vegetables, and I’ll be helping with that while I’m here.
Over the last few days I’ve been planting shrubs which will act as a wind break to protect the rows of berries, and mowing the long grass to keep the snakes away. When Peter was showing me how to use the lawn mower (it’s one of those sit-down ones) he told me about a previous help exchange worker they had who didn’t recognise the sound of the blades straining. They continued to mow and the belt that connects the engine to the blades exploded. How awful, I thought. I’ll make sure that I don’t do anything as careless. Shortly after that I reversed over a water tap in the lawn mower. It went off like a geyser. Luckily Peter and Karoline are very forgiving. ‘Don’t worry,’ Peter said, standing next to the sodden marsh I’d created, holding the shorn-off tap in his hand. “I’ve been meaning to put a post in next to that tap for ages and now you’ve given me an excuse to do it.”