Category Archives: Craft

A big blue Murray Cod

IMG_2335I’m crocheting a big blue Murray cod out of recycled baling twine. Anyone with horses, and anyone who has been hand-feeding stock through the drought, will be very familiar with the stuff. Starting out, I knew I’d need a lot of it. On spec, I rang a horsey business in Forbes, because I was going to be driving out there for something else, and asked if they had any blue baling twine lying about. Bullseye! First time lucky! I pulled up outside of a two-storey brick house on the edge of town, near the river. There were about eight horses in stalls out the back, and it had one of those back yards with a bit of everything in it – parts of machinery, old tins, building materials, the odd half-buried child’s toy. I knocked on the door. Silence. Try again. Wander around the back, noting two chained dogs watching but not barking. The horses watching, too. Note the large drifts of blue baling twine. Wonder if I should just start gathering it. Finally, a window opens on the second floor, and a bloke’s face appears in it. He explains he’s minding a small child so he can’t come down, but go right ahead. He watches me from the window as I gather up my treasure. It overflows my arms so I grab a large empty stock-feed bag and stuff the twine into that. I turn to go but the man in the window urges me on, clearly happy to be rid of the stuff. But I can’t take it all, there is just too much of it. I gather one or two extra bits to be polite and make my getaway.

Baling twineHours later, I dump it all onto the living room floor. There’s a satisfying amount of hay amongst the twine and a nice farmy smell. There’s some pink twine as well as the blue. I snip the machine-made knots out of it, sort it by colour, vacuum thoroughly.

Way back in December I’d heard on the grapevine that polypropylene baling twine was to be this year’s Waste to Art theme, even though it hadn’t been officially publicised. So that was in the back of my mind when, as summer temperatures soared and stayed frighteningly high for days at a time, we got news of fish kills in the Murray Darling at Menindee. It felt personal. The Macquarie River (Wambool) that runs through Bathurst heads west and north until it gets to the Macquarie Marshes out past Warren, and these finally drain into the Murray Darling. Some of the water that runs through town here gets all the way to the mouth of the Murray in South Australia.

Two men holding large dead fish.

Rob McBride and Dick Arnold with dead fish at Menindee. Click the image to see the video on the Tolarno Station facebook page.

A perfect storm of factors – water diverted to cotton farms, nutrients running off farms, drought, high temperatures – created an algal bloom that killed millions of fish. The blue-green algae bloomed in the heat and then died as temperatures dropped, and in death it de-oxygenated the water. The fish drowned in their own river. A video of big dead fish held in the arms of farmers near Menindee went viral. Images of thousands of dead fish floating on the surface of the water turned up on social media and in the news. Giant Murray cod that had lived through drought and flooding rains for a century had finally been felled by human beings recklessly taking more from the river than it could give. Would the Murray Darling recover? Perhaps yes, to a point. But the future of the Murray cod is looking grim.

As a part of the River Yarners, I meet with my craftivist posse every Friday afternoon. Since late 2015, we’ve been knitting and yarning a representation of the Macquarie River/Wambool from its beginnings south east of Bathurst to its nebulous end-point across the Macquarie Marshes. I took my bright blue baling twine along to our next meeting, and started crocheting a simple continuation of our 80 metre-long woolly river. I had to split the twine to make it thinner and easier to work with, rolling it between my fingers to unravel what a machine had ravelled. My intention was to add lots of small dead fish. I’d enter this in the Waste to Art exhibition and then fold it back into our long woolly work.

But then the magic of anatomical crochet, the journey I’ve been on since my illness in 2014, began to kick in. What did a Murray cod really look like? I turned to Google images and there they were, pages of them.

I noted the big thick lips, the large mouth, the relatively small eyes, the mottled surface, the big pale belly that gets bigger bigger over the years, like a beer belly, the rounded, not pointy, shape of the tail. I started working on a big fellow, starting with the shape of the lips and working back. I thought I’d make a big fish and lots of little ones. But then my artist friend Karen Golland urged me to think about doing just one fish. So I’m making just one big fella, to stand in for its myriad peers.

A haul of plasticAlong the way, I have become obsessed with blue plastic. On my walks around the soccer fields, alone now without Bertie the black Lab (who is now in eternal repose, so at odds with his personality, in the back yard between Taro the yellow Lab and Prince the tabby cat), all I can see is bits of blue plastic in the ground. I’m like a satin bower bird, attracted to the colour. Lots of lids from bottled water. Lots of Mentos packets and chip packets made of layers of plastic coated in a thin film of shiny aluminium.

The obsession has grown to encompass litter in general. After kids’ games over the weekend, the soccer fields are littered with clear plastic Slurpee and McDonalds cups, Zooper Dooper packets, plastic straws, soft clear plastic bags for ice bought from the service station, sports drinks, some with a good slurp still left in the bottom. So much to do with cooling and hydrating young human bodies, while the bodies of our fellow creatures, the fish, die and decay.

I collect some of it in a calico bag, channeling a lady we used to know as Old May in Carnarvon, who collected things from off the street and out of rubbish bins to add to her big calico sack. In my hat and oversized white shirt against the sun, and the calico bag bulging with rubbish, I look a bit mad. People tend to avoid my eyes.

At home, I wash my collections and try to sort them. Amongst the ordinary litter, I find bits of treasure: a tiny blue comb for a doll, hard plastic spoons in a beautiful translucent green, Nerf gun bullets, a whole golf ball with a split rind. My plan is to stuff my blue Murray cod with this rubbish (I’m washing it carefully and putting it out to dry). I’m tempted to make the rubbish more visible in and on the fish, to make the piece louder and more didactic. I want to stitch the Mount Franklin bottled water labels over it. I want to use the Slurpee cups to represent the cotton growers taking more than their fair share. But then I remember Karen’s mantra – just the fish, just the one fish. Do justice to the fish, its shape, its being.

Murray cod headThe size and shape of my fish is inspired partly by the image of Mr McBride holding the cod in the video, and partly by the length and width of my coffee table. I’m now about a third of the way along from the snout and I’ve already got a bit of the tail. But there’s a long road ahead, creating the body out of small stitches of single crochet.

See Waste to Art details here.

Things on a table

I took this photo as soon as Judy left, struck by all the stories flowing from the things on this table. And the table itself. And the tree you can see through the window. The more I look, the greater the orgy of gratitude. That after everything, I get this table, that shaft of light, that tiny kookaburra with a hole where there was once a tinier black plastic snake.

So, to explain: Judy came round to drop off a stretch of the crocheted Macquarie River that a group of us have been making. We’ve been doing this since the end of 2015, when we heard a gold mine was sniffing around wanting to divert river water into its cyanide-laced belly and excrete the leavings into the water table feeding the Belubula River. We began stitching, and completely forgot to stop. The river is now about 80 metres long. The decision about whether to sell water to the gold mine is on hold, but as soon as it goes back to Council, our river will be ready to join the fray.

So Judy came to drop off a stretch. This contained a very neat green length stitched by Mum during a visit here, and some orange-bordered fish created by Judy herself. On the weekend, Vi and I will occupy the Girl Guides Hall, stitching the river in the company of local Aboriginal women making a possum-skin cloak. The possum skins for this exercise have come from New Zealand, because possums are a feral animal there.

Judy was in a hurry, had errands to do, is off to Western Australia with her husband, but I convinced her to sit down and have a cup of tea. The house is in uproar, dozens of work-in-progress projects strewn about, but the table was wonderfully bare and inviting. We soon changed that. On the way to the table, before she even got to the table, Judy spotted Gribblies. This is her name for the plastic cereal toys you used to get at the bottom of packets of Cornflakes. A long time ago. Cough. These Gribblies were lying about amongst bits of half-dead succulent and tiny stones in a dusty terrarium on the kitchen counter. She told me they were very valuable. We fished them out and while we drank our tea I lined them up in a circled wagon around the wooden vase in the middle of the table. The pokerwork vase itself (a bit like this) came from my Newtown friend David Haag, who’d found it in an op shop, the design mostly rubbed off. The dried flowers in the vase were everlastings. I told Judy that in Spring, parts of Western Australia are carpeted in these flowers, and the ones in the vase were grown in my back yard in honour of them. Judy is the sort of person who likes such details. She really liked the Gribblies. When she married, she brought her small box of Gribblies and added them to her husband’s bigger box of Gribblies. The Gribblies solemnly mingled together in holy matrimony. The marriage produced two children, and these children obliviously played with them, chewing on them, losing the tiny black snake out of the mouth of the tiny kookaburra.

Talk of collections moved on to a discussion of buttons. Judy said a button tin was one of the “sacred possessions of a woman”. I’m not willing to generalise but I will admit that this is true in my case. I ran and got out my grandmother’s button tin, which lives in the cabinet holding her treadle-powered Singer sewing machine. The round tin itself, which you can see there on the table hails from 1981, which, in the context of my grandmother’s long life, makes it quite “new”.  It celebrates the marriage of Lady Di and Prince Charles, son of the man who is, as it turns out, Not Dead.

Judy’s hands moved swiftly. These are war buttons, she said, grouping them together. I peered more closely. Gee. Yes. Buttons from army uniforms, and what looks like airforce uniforms, or are they all army? These are buttons from work shirts. Fancy buttons from coats from the 1930s. I went for the self-covered buttons. Mum was a dressmaker when I was little, and I enjoyed watching her cut a circle of fabric and use a special contraption to press them into something so neat and perfectly stretched. Judy wasn’t so into the covered buttons. Her Mum never used to do that. In all of this, my grandmother’s hands. Here are her hands at work. Here she is carefully sliding small buttons onto the shaft of a safety pin to keep them all together. Here she is wrapping a piece of wire around a finger. Here she is dropping a round plastic Tiddlywink into the collection because it is round and plastic and button-like. Here she is snipping the metal pieces out of the back of a bra because they might come in handy, later. She is here.

And there was a tiny glass jar with some white covered buttons in it and a tiny scrap of paper, hand written. A message in the bottle, written to the future. To her descendants. “Buttons from my Moroccan wedding dress”.

And then Judy and I confessed our love of picking things up out of the ground. A shard of willow pattern plate. A nice piece of green or blue glass. So I ran back to my study and brought forth the large jar labelled Blayney Road Common. I pick things up when I go walking with Bertie (and earlier with Taro, when she was still walking; her bones are now resting peacefully in the back yard). The jar had a bit of dirt in it still clinging to bits of metal and a whole bakelite light switch, so I grabbed a bit of newspaper off the pile to protect the table. Newspaper. Such an ordinary thing, but threatened. It will be quaint, in the not-too-distant future. Yellowed newspaper will be like other things of the past that nobody uses any more, like box Brownie cameras or  manual typewriters. Fairfax reporters are on strike. It’s important to fight, but we all know it’s over. Not for journalism itself, hopefully, but for newsprint. For piles of inked paper lying carelessly around houses, ubiquitous, used to wrap scraps or start fires. Still, today I have a house with a pile of newspapers in it, and I used a bit to protect the table that was passed on to us by Steve’s Mum. It’s a piece of light mid-century furniture. It pulls out to a longer version if there are more people to seat. Judy and I talked about how found bits of glass and ceramic are more interesting than gold. Gold may be beautiful but it doesn’t exercise our minds. This tiny bit of pink flower might have been a teacup that might have been used by a woman a hundred years ago. She might have taken sips of tea as she sewed buttons on her children’s coats.

What else is in the picture of my table? The tree through the window where our own possums – protected native animals, not allowed to surrender their skins to Aboriginal women who might like to make a cloak – spend their nights prowling for something to eat, things to do. They clatter across the roof at dusk and dawn. There are three of them. What looks to be a teenager and a mother with a joey riding on her back. I love their big eyes, their cute pink noses They are wrecking havoc in the ceiling cavity. They have to go, but that means another project on the to-do list that is already very long and doesn’t include stolen mornings over tea and a button collection. And on the wall there’s the cockroach painting created by my artist friend Karen Golland out of sequins and there are the little woven mats Steve and I bought in Peru? Bolivia? and the Country Women’s Association cookbook, a new one Mum gave me only last year, and the collection of ring-pulls from Mount Panorama telling the stories of wild weekends of beer and car races and a spider plant that I call Deb after my sister because she gave me the plant (or its ancestor) and there are more stories in that picture but this will have to do for now.

Judy and I admitted we were borderline hoarders and discussed the minimalist movement that is fighting the good fight against clutter. But I don’t see clutter. It’s only clutter if there are no stories attached. Until the stories have finally and fully leached out, I’m quite happy to live amongst these things.

My name is Tracy, and I’m a Pokémon Go addict

spearow_crochet

Caught a Spearow.

Writing this post… I’ll just keep the app running, okay? The phone is sitting on a clever little stand I made out of a piece of plastic packaging, and a non-slip sock filled with lentils. I wedge the phone between the plastic and the little bean bag snugs itself around it. I think I could make these for Etsy. Anyway, where was I? With the phone propped up nicely against the … buzz…. wow…. a Pokemon? YES! Oh, it’s just a Pidgey. Pidgeys are so BORING. They just look like … like pigeons. The other day I was walking along the street and saw a group of crested pigeons and I felt an inner buzz, that little spike of addictive energy and then I realised I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) catch ’em all because they were actual pigeons. And I realised I had it bad.

Pidgeys are boring, but it’s important to catch them so you can level up. I’m now at Level 16. So I grind through my Pidgeys (this is called “Pidgey grinding”) hoping all the while for something more rare and interesting, like a Bellsprout. Bellsprouts might not be rare in other parts of the world, but they’re very unusual in South Bathurst. I reckon I could crochet a Bellsprout. A quick Google. But other people have already done that. And other people are already having fun with Pokémon Go as addiction.

 

I confess I have found myself lurking near the controversial Evans statue in the town square, which has become a notorious local Pokestop. The scene was dark and cold, lit only by street lamps and the red glow that lights up the war memorial. There was a group of teenage boys just over there … and me. We did not acknowledge each other. We were there to do what we had to do.

But it’s not all just pidgey-grinding with me, I hasten to add. A few other things are going on. My agent (yes! I have an agent!) has just sent my novel (my novel!) off to publishers, so I have to sit around with my fingers crossed & get Bertie to cross all his claws, which is difficult for him to do. Bertie would be a useless Pokémon. Combat Power of about 8. He works best as a Lab assistant lying patiently on his lambskin rug behind my chair. And I’m still working on my PhD research proposal, which means reading up on the agency of nature and critical plant studies, which brings me back to the Bellsprout. We think of nature as dead. Animals are dead meat; plants might be alive but they’re vegetative, which has negative connotations. What if we felt the world as a living, thriving, thrumming thing, which is actually what it is? A thing full of myriad things all with their own lives, their own work? That’s what I’m exploring in my PhD; how we might become more alive to the more-than-human world. How do we make it interesting enough to stop fucking wrecking it? As I walk down Torch Street, I’m alive to the vibrating possibility of Pokémon flitting about in augmented reality like shimmering dragonflies. There’s this humming other world that I can enter and play with. As a child I did this with ants – I’m talking real ants, here, the ones that have an ant-smell – watching them walk in lines, talk to each other with their feelers, carry a crumb. For my PhD, I’m exploring how my crocheted guts became a way of interacting with my barely known and threatened organs. I’m exploring the hand-made, but I can also quite excited about the possibilities of augmented reality games as a way to get modern children interested in the more than human world. Locally, we could have a blackthorn pocket monster and a purple copperwing butterfly and the ant that tends its larvae. Kids (and adults) could catch em all, have fun and engage with the barely-seen nature that lives here with them.

Bzzzt. There’s a Weedle! Darn, I’m out of Pokéballs.

How to fail at everything and die of cancer

If you take your eyes off it, it grows.

The mighty dieffenbachia

Okay, now I have your attention, I’ll hasten to add that I have not had a cancer setback; my numbers are still excellent. I’m still in hearty, robust remission, and long may it continue. No, what’s happened is that I’ve failed to even get an interview for the full time version of a job I’ve been doing as a casual for nine years. People often tell me how well I do this job. Not even an interview.

So what I’m experiencing now is a fit of pique, an imaginative foray into spitting the dummy, a brooding, repetitive thought pattern that circles like a plane unable to land. The landing place is, of course, the city of Disappointment in the country of Humiliation. I must check in, once more, to Heartbreak Hotel. I must wander Disappointment’s crepuscular streets. I step over the body of a young man who has died of lítost. Lítost is a Czech word, defined by Milan Kundera as “a state of torment” brought about by “the realisation of one’s inadequacy or misery”. The young man has jumped from the high window above, but nobody has come to take his body back to his hometown because everyone else is dealing with their own lítost and there’s no energy to do the paperwork.  A doleful waitress – she might have been a star – doles out a plate of comfort food, beige and yellow. We exchange a rueful glance.

But then I think of the dieffenbachia in my living room. This is a plant that laps up being indoors and doesn’t mind long stretches without water. I would certainly never pot it up, fertilise it or change the soil. For ten years it has grown vigorously and fulsomely, shooting straight for the ceiling. It has produced two sturdy daughter plants. This plant knows nothing of failure. It is successful, and because it lives in my house, I can claim its success as my own. Look at the plant I’ve grown!

And I think of my friend Sue. We started treatment together, finished treatment together. My cancer didn’t come back, but hers did.  She’s in deep trouble. She has four children, three of them still teenagers at school. I could claim success in this vile race for survival but even my black humour can’t go quite that black.

Success is real, failure is real, but it’s clear that these are not, and never have been, fair. Okay, I’m not casting aspersions on my selection committee (although it is tempting in these hours of pique) but the bigger picture reminds us that it’s all bullshit, really. Some people are dieffenbachias. They sit there with their vegetable success and congratulate themselves. Others – like the ten year old Indigenous girl who committed suicide in Western Australia – are struggling to secure the basic requirements of a life worth living, and blame themselves.

Google has no idea about this, though. If you ask Google for advice – as we must, because Google seems to hold the Wisdom of the Ages, and because Google is always there, and we are lazy – you will get this:

– Why success always starts with failure
– 50 famously successful people who failed at first
– Failure Is Feedback: How 5 Billionaires had To Fail To Succeed

Note how we could only come up with five billionaires? Compared to how many people living on earth? The fact is that most of us are – and must be, by Google’s definition – losers. It’s a horrible word to apply to your aunt, your partner, your children, the waitress at your local cafe, the neighbour who checks your mail when you’re on holiday, the unpublished novelist, the bedroom singer-songwriter, the swimmer who came second, the Aboriginal kid living in the remote community next to the iron ore mine making billions for one of those five billionaires.

Oh the chip! The chip on my shoulder! I’m actually laughing at myself. Could be time for a third cup of instant and to finish reading Sarah Bakewell’s exquisite new book The Existentialist Cafe, dotted through with some exceedingly consoling crochet.

A kick to the groin, a karate chop

IWD Bathurst

Sally Neaves and Leah Moulden from Rahamim at the IWD event in Bathurst.

I’ve just returned from a stint on a stall at the International Women’s Day event in Bathurst. This day has many and varied meanings, some entirely contradictory, but that’s to be expected. Women come in all ages, sizes, shapes, races, height of heels, wealth, education, sexualities and even biological starting-points (in the case of trans women). School girls in their white blouses trooped in. Business women networked. After unstructured time for a trawl around the stalls with their fliers about domestic violence, aged care and health, we were called to order to witness a martial arts display. The mats were brought out and a group of young women and one young man readied themselves nearby, wearing black suits with orange embroidered or appliquéd flames running up their trousers.

I’ve always had a bit of trouble with the self-defence narrative when it comes to women’s rights. Some of this may stem from the fact that, as a teenager, I was rubbish at judo. We practiced in a hot metal shed out at the pony club. The vinyl mats were spongy and thick and sweaty. I wore a hot, white, quilted suit. I remember half-heartedly doing a bit of uncoordinated kicking and flailing about. Deciding I was hopeless, I plumped for just riding it out until I could legitimately declare (to Mum, who sewed the suit) that I’d given it a go and now wanted out.

There’s also my suspicion that the self-defence narrative helps perpetuate the idea that men are violent, lustful creatures by their very nature. Rather than putting the onus on men to change their attitudes and behaviour, self-defence puts the onus on women to change their attitudes and behaviour. Fight like a girl!

But unlike me in the sweltering hall at the pony club, or me stuck in the mental back rooms of feminist discourse analysis, these young black-suited women were putting their hearts and hands and feet into it. They were shouting and grunting and making precise, jabbing, swishy movements. It was exhilarating to watch. Their moves told a different story about young women: not passive princesses but active creators of their own lives.

After the girls had dealt with each other, the young man of about the same age stepped forward to play his part as perpetrator, the prowling opportunistic stranger who might accost them in a dark alley or an underlit carpark.

Another twinge of unease. Despite the media’s entrancement with Anita Cobby and Jill Meagher – both victims of the lurking stranger – most violence towards women is perpetrated by their own partners or ex-partners. I think back to last winter, when Nadia Cameron was shot by her ex-partner after she’d left him. Lurking, murderous strangers certainly exist, but women are much more likely to be raped, injured or killed at the hands of the men they know.

The young man performed his role in good spirit, repeatedly felled by a young woman with a swishing long blonde ponytail. In a sharp, unambiguous movement, she pretended to knee him in the groin. This final humiliation was a high point for the ladies in the crowd, who met it with clapping and cheering. This seemed to be the end of the show. But it wasn’t, not yet.

Off to one side of the mats there were two big heavy concrete breeze blocks with three stacked roof tiles suspended between them. As the young women retreated and disappeared, the young man picked up the top tile and took it over to be inspected by members of the audience. Yes, a genuine roof tile out of someone’s shed, complete with spider webs. He went back and carefully replaced the tile. Someone lay a towel over the pile of three strong tiles. Holding his palms upward, he lowered and raised the backs of his forearms over the tiles, sizing them up. And then, in an almighty display of strength and technique, he suddenly punched his forearms downwards. The tiles smashed satisfyingly to the floor, kept from spraying in all directions by the bath towel. More clapping.

I made my way back across the room and sat down behind the gentle undulations of our crocheted river. I could hardly believe what I’d just seen, on International Women’s Day no less. It was as if a display of female strength and assertiveness could not go unanswered. It had to be immediately “corrected” by an even more dramatic display of male strength. That mental image of the vanquished boy on the mat with the girl standing triumphantly over him must not be allowed to linger. No, he had to get up and have the last “word”.

I’m sure this was not intentional. I’m sure it was simply the local martial arts group displaying its wares, putting itself through its usual paces. I’m sure nobody was thinking about the appropriateness of a dramatic display of male physical strength on a day dedicated to celebrating women’s rights and achievements. But that’s how culture works: it’s invisible. We find ourselves doing things that feel natural. After we’ve broken the natural order, we feel compelled to restore it again. So the roof tiles had to cop it.


UPDATE

Righto, this has been an interesting one. As soon as I hit “Publish” on this blog, I started to worry about it. Was it fair to dump some heavy-duty feminist theory on the local martial arts group? Possibly not. But then, what’s the use of feminist theory if it’s not used to think through the situations we confront in everyday life? Social change happens when we keep these discussions going. Anyway, this evening I got a phone call from Gerarda, who is a leader of the martial arts group I’m talking about in this blog (and author of this book). She understood my problem with the appropriateness of the tile-smashing at the end and took that on board, but felt I’d also been sarcastic about the particular girls involved in the demonstration (or their group). Oh dear. The last thing I want to do is be negative about girls being involved in a positive, assertive activity that builds a sense of strength and confidence in the world. The girls demonstrating their skill yesterday were amazing, and I was genuinely impressed. Their group is obviously highly professional. Gerarda pointed out that the training received by the men in the group is all about self control and skill and the utmost respect for women. Young men with such training learn ways to handle themselves consciously and respectfully in the world. I do take this on board – it’s obviously a great club doing great things! Hopefully this note will go some way to counteracting the whiff of negativity in my piece. But I’ll let my original post stand, because I do think that on a broader level my uneasiness with the self defence narrative (ie its place in the wider movement against violence against women) is worth putting out there. But this is an ongoing conversation and one that links with much wider issues around creating a culture that is genuinely non-violent and respectful towards women. It was great to have that chat!