The Australia Day outhouse

For future Australia Days, I have elaborate plans for a composting toilet, together with reed beds to filter greywater into an ideal frog habitat. Unfortunately, for this year we still had our single antiquated bathroom with an ancient, undersized septic system, supplied with water from just one rainwater tank.

These are the realities of our new country lifestyle. When it rains heavily, we’ll be cut off from town; when it doesn’t rain, we’ll need tankerloads of water delivered. When we flush the toilet too often, the septic overflows as the water supply dwindles.

Having family and friends to stay, therefore, has its challenges. Which, as it turns out, can become opportunities.

Back in November 2021, our Introduction to Permaculture course began with the usual housekeeping run-through: emergency evacuation procedures, break times, and of course, the location of the toilet. Ladies around to the left, men out the back to the Gentlemen’s Pissatorium. Sorry, the what?

The Pissatorium. As it turns out, it’s a strawbale on the ground, semi-enclosed in sheets of corrugated iron wired to star pickets. At the end of each weekend, the semi-sodden straw is forked as nutrient-rich mulch straight into the soil to compost. We spent five minutes laughing over the predictable jokes about whether women also use the Pissatorium, but as permaculture students, we all agreed this was a great way to return both moisture and nitrogen to the soil.

In the December lead-up to family and friends staying for Christmas, my mind returned to the problem of our tiny septic system and single water tank. I pictured us all on the back deck, drinking Corona with lime (from our orchard no less) … and so the opportunity to return moisture and nutrients to the soil …

We already had an unused three-walled outhouse. Shaded by mango trees, a respectable distance from the back deck, it would be ideal. All we needed was an absorbent bale of something to place on the floor.

So on busy Christmas Eve I drove, part of a slow-moving procession of dusty farm vehicles, through to the loading section of the local drive-through produce store. I popped open the canopy on the back of the ute and was soon approached by an older man in faded jeans and a shirt in the produce store’s branded colours.

‘I’d like two bales of something absorbent I can use as garden mulch’, I began.

‘Lucerne hay is high in nutrients and good for the soil, but it’s more expensive. Bales of silage are cheaper.’

‘Does the silage have weed seeds in it? We already have enough weeds in the garden.’

‘Yes, it will probably have seeds in it. Sugarcane mulch is your best bet.’

‘Sugarcane is wrapped in plastic, isn’t it? I wanted something that stays together in a bale.’

‘Ahh, why do you need it to stay together in a bale If you want to spread it around as mulch?’

I glanced at the vehicles queuing behind in the drive through. Barely patient drivers wanting to buy food for their working dogs, worming paste for their livestock, new gum boots, or whatever else brought them to the produce store on Christmas Eve.

I decided the salesperson, with his kindly but now slightly confused face, looked like a salt-of-the-earth farmer-type himself, accustomed to the practicalities of country living.

‘Ok, I’ll tell you,’ I began. ‘I’m building a Gentlemen’s Pissatorium. We have people coming for Christmas, the small septic system backs up and we only have one water tank.’

Like a true pro, he showed no surprise at all, going straight into professional problem-solving mode.

‘Well, you could use the sugarcane mulch, you just need to cut one panel open for the top.’

And it worked.

Now, when friends and family come to stay, an introductory tour of our tiny farm includes the vege patch, dam, orchard, and the Gentlemen’s Pissatorium. Naturally, this is followed by the predictable jokes about whether women also use it.

The banter reminded me of my visit to Europe in my early twenties, when I encountered (from the outside), my first public pissoir. In the chill of winter it looked a breezy affair, with open panels along the top and bottom. There was no door, but the spiral-shaped entrance gave a modicum of privacy, although the occupants legs were visible from the knees down. My boyfriend and I had been out to dinner, then a walk, taking the scenic route back to our hotel. We happened upon a pissoir at a very timely time – for him.

I scouted behind the small building, looking for the cubical for women. There wasn’t one.

‘But I really need to go too,’ I said. ‘Where’s the girls’ pissoir?’

There wasn’t one.

In writing this post I needed to google ‘pissoir’ because I didn’t know if it was spelt with one ‘s’ or two. In doing so I learnt that the earliest pissoirs, ironically, were simply hay bales placed in discrete corners of European villages and markets. The bales were then used as mulch on fruit trees. I also learnt that controversy now rages over the few modern (with plumbing so they actually flush) pissoirs still in existence, due to the perceived sexism. Women are asking county councils why men are provided with pissoirs, while they are expected to just ‘hold on’.

Here in Australia it’s now Australia Day and our Gentlemen’s Pissatorium is on its third bale. After a few weeks of use, it takes two of us to lift out the bale to be replaced, but the sugarcane absorbs all the liquid and odour. We collect valuable nitrogen, among other trace elements, while saving four litres of water for every toilet flush.

In the future, our fruit trees will thank us. They’ll produce many limes, some of which will be sliced and placed in bottles of Corona, consumed on the back deck, a respectable walk from the Gentlemen’s Pissatorium.

And so, natures cycle continues its flow.

The season of green and black

‘The fire only made it as far as your boundary,’ the real estate agent confirmed, indicating some fence posts with blackened crowns. She painted pictures in our minds of our prospective new home being a safe haven, an untouched oasis.

Not fully trusting her vested interests, we looked closer and found charring on trees up the gully, above the dam and nearer to the house. We learnt two homes further along the road were lost in the Black Summer fires of 2019/20, which devastated almost the whole of the Australian East Coast.

But we bought the property and made the move to the country, making an informed choice, aware of the risk of a future fire. The risk is not particular to this property, but almost any. Here we know some of the surrounding land is cleared for grazing, most of the closest trees between us and the state forest are in our orchard and probably less predisposed to fire than eucalypts. We’ll buy a slasher to keep the grass short. We’ll put in more water tanks and pumps. A friend admitted that after those fires he’s now obsessed with pumps and backup pumps, generators and backup generators.

During our first day at our new house, we received our first mail delivery – from the NSW Rural Fire Service. Welcome, and a reminder to get bushfire ready. Welcome to the country, and the responsibilities of owning a property.

What it was like, back on that day of the fire, here on our not-so-untouched haven and oasis? Were the previous owners bushfire ready? They left us two pumps in separate pump houses down at the dam. The smaller one irrigates the orchard, the larger supplies flow to the fat fire hose, coiled and mounted in a shiny red casing close to the house. When we started this pump, water sprayed in an arc halfway up the hill toward the house, where the plastic transfer pipe had melted in the fire. At the very time it was needed, the fire hose was rendered useless by the fire itself.

If you’ve driven any part of the Australian East Coast over the past two years you may have seen land struggling to heal. Much of the bushland I’ve seen is fire-affected, but with some new green growth sprouting from the charred black remains. It’s the season of green and black. But where the fires burned too hot, trees are faded to grey skeletons, the ghosts of gums that will not recover.

Communities also are struggling to heal. Local councils still employ coordinators to assist recovering residents and communities, and seasonal workers camp at rural showgrounds as contractors to replace fencing for property owners with disaster recovery funding.

During that terrible firey season, 5.5 million hectares of land was devastated, 2,448 homes destroyed, and 26 lives lost. Many native plant and animal species are now extinct or endangered. Cossetted in my city home I wanted to do something. Thoughts of injured and suffering kangaroos, koalas, wombats, and birds plagued my nights. Like many people, I sewed ‘koala mittens’ and ‘batwraps’, donated money to WIRES and community fundraisers.

I’d like to think those fires were an anomaly. I’d like to think it will take years for the regrowth to sustain another large fire. I’d like to think that we’ve had recent rain and there’s no immediate danger. That we can get on with fun and exciting activities like house improvements, establishing a vegie garden, planting a food forest, buying chickens and maybe goats; instead of preparing for a potential bushfire. But I know this thinking may mean we’re not bushfire ready when we need to be.

We need to replace the melted hose pipe and bury it deeper underground. We need to learn what the ‘SWS’ (Static Water Supply) sign affixed to our front gate means – presumably, we need to provide easy access for an empty fire truck thirsty for our water tanks and dam. If a fire does come, where will we move our vehicles to? Which of us will look after our pets? How and when will we decide whether to defend our home or evacuate?

I’m here to live closer to nature, more in tune with her cycles. Summer and bushfire season is part of that cycle. It’s summer now, but we’ve had lots of rain. The dams and tanks are overflowing, it’s lush and verdant. Now is the season for appreciating the rich colours, the abundant growth. The season of green (and black). But this is Australia, so now is also the time to prepare for future seasons.

Note: photo is not our property, thank goodness.

Meeting the new house

I knew immediately I needed to slow down. Slow down to meet the house on its own vibration. Bringing my big-city buzz through the door would stop me connecting with this quiet, tired cottage that has nestled here amongst established eucalypts for forty years.

Driving those few hours to our new property, to finally move in, I was anxious to check the reality of my new home and country life against the preconceptions I’d developed. Will I feel safe in the country? Will I miss city cafes, bootcamps, walking to the shops and other conveniences? Will I be overwhelmed by the renovations required and the reality of looking after country acres? Will I still love this house or will this all be a terrible mistake?

I’d thought of various ways to introduce myself to our new home with more ceremony than simply walking through the door. I could light a sage smudge stick and waft pungent cleansing smoke through the rooms and into every corner, clearing old energy to make way for new beginnings. I could rub some soil from the bank of the dam under my armpits and sprinkling it into the water, to announce my arrival. (An idea inspired by ABC TV’s Back to Nature, ) I could say hello to the spirits of the traditional owners and let them know my intention is to care for land and wildlife, to be respectful.

I drive along those final few undulating kilometres of gravel road, skirting the national park, threading between huge gum trees in an area listed as critical koala habitat. As I round the last bend and glimpse the rusty A-frame roof and views down the valley, the house greets me like a sigh of relief. I know this is where I’m meant to be.

I also know my convoluted plans to announce my arrival are not necessary. My smudge stick will stay in my suitcase, the soil at the dam, the traditional owners undisturbed.

This cottage, on its ten acres, has witnessed floods, drought, and the terrible bushfires of 2019-2020 when almost the entire East Coast of Australia was on fire. Who am I to land here from the big city with my big ideas, to come in as the new owner and start pushing things around? I’ll move slowly, get to know the land over time. The patterns, the seasons. I have much to learn.

Getting to know the property began simply that first day. Cleaning. My husband and I rolled up the ancient, filthy carpet and scrubbed the concrete slab beneath. I started cleaning high inside the house and worked my way lower. Vacuuming what I could reach of the vaulted ceiling, squeegee mopping the walls, then the windows and floors.

We unpacked the sound system and learned of the beautiful acoustics provided by the solid walls and soaring ceilings.

My husband had arrived at our new home yesterday, while I packed up the last of our city belongings. I asked him how he’d slept last night on a mattress on the floor. He hadn’t slept well. Kept awake by rustlings in the cupboards, scurryings in the attic, and scamperings along the gutters and over the corrugated iron roof. I was glad our furniture had been delivered. Although the bed was one of the few items unpacked, at least tonight we will be sleeping up off the floor. After vacuuming droppings from cupboards and corners today, I knew we were not the only occupants of the house.

Exhausted we flopped onto the bed. So far there’s no scamperings or scurryings. We chat about how different the night sounds in the country. No sirens. No drunk people stumbling home from the pub, post COVID lockdown. There’s no hoons in loud cars. No neighbours dragging their Thursday night bins out.

So what can we hear? Frogs. An owl. Crickets. Our heartbeats. And nothing at all.

Time to treechange

A treechange is what I’ve wanted for twenty years. I’m now plagued by doubts, but it’s too late to go back.

The last of the furniture was carted away by removalists earlier this morning. All that’s left is a scatter of half-used cleaning products in the centre of the loungeroom. After hours of wiping and scrubbing, the house glows with love and care, ready for tomorrow when the new owners take possession.

My husband has gone on ahead with the removalists to our new property, a few hours away in the country. I’m here alone, except for the cat, Charlie, who anxiously follows me from room to room.

I drag the old single mattress which sags in the centre to the bedroom wall, where this morning our king-size ensemble was located. The removalists have accidentally taken the vacuum-packed sheets and doona, so I’ll be sleeping on the bare mattress in my clothes with my bathrobe over the top to try and stay warm.

This is my last night in what has been our home in the city for ten years. It’s also the last night where meals can be home delivered, so I treat myself ordering Chinese online.

No longer filled with our furniture, paintings, books, and belongings, the house already feels less ours. Yet I’m still here, clinging to this out-dated version of what home is.

What will be our new home is not, as yet, a home. I barely remember it as our only inspection was more than three months ago. I’m a little scared of the house – I recall dust, musty and perhaps mousy smells, spider webs, filthy carpets, imposingly towering raked ceilings, and … ‘good bones’, ‘potential’.

I imagine the new house sitting silently awaiting me, windows murky, accessible via dirt road and far from the lights, sirens, and city busyness I’m accustomed to.

And this is the reason I’m here alone tonight.

Today I exaggerated the need to stay and further tidy up our city home, ready for our purchasers. Secretly, I wanted my husband to go before me to tame the spectre of the new country house, and the wild unknown I’ve built it up in my mind to be.

‘Will you be scared, staying in the new house by yourself?’ I’d asked my husband this morning.

‘Hah, don’t be silly.’

I text him now, ‘How’s it going?’

He replies: ‘It’s raining and the lights are off. I’m standing, walking, looking, listening and learning.’

I picture this, him becoming aquainted with our new house. His senses stretching as an aura around him in the dark. Alert to each sound. The creaks and groans as the house settles for the night.

Will our new house nurture, support and inspire us? Will I come to love it? Will it become a home?

Tomorrow, the house and I will be introduced as my husband will have already been there twenty-four hours. He’ll have some observations and stories to share.

My Chinese meal arrives, and I settle on the mattress, the cat purring and curled against my leg. Just for five minutes I cling to the normality and stability this home has provided.

I’m apprehensive moving to a community where we know no-one, to look after a patch of land we know nothing about. To a country house beyond the reach of town water and sewer services. What has been a long- held dream is now very real.

I wonder if my husband has completed a circuit of the building, explored outside as well as every room? Does he hear the rain on the roof flowing into the water tank, or are the gutters choked with leaves and overflowing – the first indication of a house more neglected than we’d anticipated. There’s so much for this house to reveal.

How’s my husband feeling there alone? Does he hold fears? Overwhelm? Regrets?

Then another text arrives from him.

‘I think we are going to fill this house very well,’ he says.

And my oppressive blanket of uncertainty immediately feels lighter. After an evening of second guessing our treechange decision, I’m again looking forward to our adventure together, which for me, starts tomorrow when Charlie and I drive to our new country home.


Book review: ‘Kokomo’ by Victoria Hannan

One conversation … I’ve come all this way. One conversation is all I want.

Kokomo by Victoria Hannan

I was lucky to be on Twitter and put my virtual hand up at the time when Hachette announced a few uncorrected proof copies of this book were available. I had no idea what this yet-to-be published book was about, but that’s how I like it – dive right in and go wherever the author takes me.

Blurb on the back

While living in London, Mina receives an urgent call from her best friend back in Melbourne and her world is turned upside down. Mina’s agoraphobic mother, Elaine, has left the house for the first time in twelve years. Mina drops everything to fly home, only to discover that Elaine will not talk about her sudden return to the world, nor why she’s spent so much time hiding from it. Their reunion leaves Mina raking through pieces of their painful past in a bid to uncover the truth.

My thoughts

Why did Elaine stay inside the house for twelve years? Why did she make the choices she made throughout her life? Like Elaine’s daughter Mina, I was perplexed.

We begin the story in London, where Mina has spent seven years establishing herself in the advertising industry. The London pubs, nightlife, share accommodation, late nights working on advertising ‘pitches’. That corporate ladder is so real I can almost feel the rungs.

I’m then transported to what I clearly see is an outer Melbourne, and very Australian, suburb as Mina returns to her childhood home. Here she’s forced to compare her chosen life path to those of her old friends as she stumbles across them.

Kokomo has some great descriptive writing which flows easily and strongly anchors mood and place. Here is an example showing how Mina feels when she first re-enters her childhood home:

She felt the silence draw up around her like floodwater. She wades down the hall. The striped green wallpaper dotted with pink roses gave her the impression she was in a prison designed by Laura Ashley.

Mina now begins the process of untangling the complicated relationship with her mother. At first I don’t want Mina to pick too much at Elaine, in case uncovering the truth is too uncomfortable for all of us.

For much of this book I didn’t understand Elaine’s choices. But then drawing together all the insights into her life, which are scattered perfectly throughout the narrative, I started to understand her motivations. Kokomo has great character development and portrayal.

This book gave me something to think about. Two weeks after reaching ‘The End’ Kokomo is not yet done with me – I’m still holding onto hopes for Mina and Elaine’s future. If author Victoria Hannan wanted me to be invested in her characters, she certainly succeeded.


Published by: Hachette

299 pages

The perfect gift for a writer

Yesterday I was given a wonderful gift, perfect for every writer. It wasn’t wine, flowers, or a new notebook.

What do all writers need? Time to write of course, and a spurt of creative energy. My wonderful gift gave me both.

For me creative energy is my new currency, vying with money for importance. Having enough money allows me to buy and do things. I generally have enough to meet my day-to-day needs because I work full-time, but this means I’m often depleted of creative energy. I need creative energy to write, and think about what I’m going to write. In addition to writing, I also use creative energy to organise family activities, plan and cook meals, and enable a fulfilling, enlivened relationship with my partner.

Money/work/creativity are in a constant three-way arm-wrestle.

My creative energy is depleted by fatigue, stress and overwork. Last week I was offered an overtime shift which I turned down, because I know working six days straight comes with a cost to my creativity.

I replenish my creative energy by spending time in nature, exercising, having some time to myself. It’s also self-perpetuating in that the more creative things I do the more creative energy I have. Going to the theatre, an exhibition or other creative excursion also lifts my creativity, as do social events and conversations provided I’m not tired. Inspiration is everywhere when I have the energy to recognise it.

Being given creative energy and time was my perfect gift. It was presented as a hamper containing lime, capsicum, carrots, mushroom, coriander, bean sprouts, tofu, coconut milk and homemade laksa paste. Everything sliced, chopped and ready, for a fresh, delicious family meal. Today I did’t need to plan a meal and go shopping; I’ve been given more time and more creative energy. I can sit, and write, for a few extra hours. Thank you.

I’d love to hear your tips for replenishing creativity!

Happy birthday

My birthday always involves some introspection. Today I’ve had additional time to  introspect as circumstances have led me to spend much of the day alone. It’s been great, and unnerving.

My birthday heralds an annual mid-life mini crisis. This year may become a mid-life medium or monumental crisis. It’s still evolving, pending my capacity to progress it or quash it.

I think a mid-life crisis generally might include changing homes and jobs. With my skills in self-diagnosis I have concluded that I am at risk. This afternoon with my husband I raised the prospect of our moving to the country. My poor shift-working husband, hit with this when he’d only just awoken and was yet to be caffeinated. After he left for work this evening I further developed my crisis, only just refraining from calling up a friend to ask her to refer me for a new job in the country. But sensibly, I’ll only need that new job if we do move to the country.

Sensibly . . . sensible. Every year after my birthday I sensibly suppress the crisis.

My husband and I have good jobs, we live in a good suburb, close to work and the kids’ schools. Choosing to be sensible is one way to suppress the crisis. But I have other methods. Other tools in my tool-belt include practicing gratitude for what I have; minor distractions like Facebook, watching TV and reading; and major distractions such as undertaking a university degree while working full time (guaranteed to reduce the time available to ruminate existentially).

Distracting myself, pushing additional information into my brain, or perhaps the occasional wine to relax my mind all help ensure there’s no time or inclination to ponder life and its overall direction. All of this can work, except when it’s my birthday.

I’m possibly due for a mid-life crisis. I’ve previously had an earlyish-life crisis. A monumental one, but the outcome was fantastic. I went out into the desert on a holiday and decided to never go back home. A story for another day.

image courtesy of @finnmacfee