Another update for the Gaia/nature challenge. Check out Brizzy May’s post on Kailas Wild’s account of the wildlife rescue operation on Kangaroo Island after the fires; The 99th Koala This week I also read Jackie French’s delightful A year in the Valley: seasons of content which is another great nature-themed read about Jackie’s life in the Araluen Valley in southern New South Wales, lots of homegrown food, recipes and of course wombats.
Jackie French is an Australian national treasure. A whole generation has grown up reading her children’s books, while their parents have devoured Jackie’s advice on gardening and sustainability. Jackie French was a literary staple in our house during Bronte’s childhood, the Phredde Pharey stories were particularly loved in primary school and the often thought-provoking historical fiction was rapaciously devoured. So I am wondering why it has taken me so long to discover the absolutely wonderful A Year in the valley: seasons of contentment which was published in 2010, a published version of Jacke French’s diary of life in the Araluen Valley. An account of gardening, wildlife and nature, it is a wonderful read, that will make any reader long for a life in the country, despite the challenges of drought or anything else that might come.
Organised by seasons, this joyous account is peppered with recipes and natural remedies. Simple food, grown and prepared to honour the environment that produces it. This is a book about slow living and its rewards. The pleasure of tasting the soil and the sun in the land’s bounty and sharing it with others, whether they be human or covered in fur or feathers.
The writing is sublime, I wish my journal was as eloquent and as evocative as this is:
The sky always seems higher at 4am, as though someone is standing above it snd stretching it as high as it will go. The stars like moth holes in the fabric of space-time and last night a lattice of cloud: a high wind above the ridges blowing from the east and an even higher one perhaps blowing from the west, so the sky was crisscrossed with the thinnest webs of mist. (p.41-42).
There is much about the love of the land and French embraces an Aboriginal like responsibility for country, while mourning the banishment of people who loved and cared for this land, people who the land owned not the other way around:
Indigenous sacred sites are accepted now even if we don’t respect them. I wonder how long it will be before our culture accepts there may be white sacred sites too – not man-made ones, not churches or parliaments, but parts of the land that we too hold sacred, that we are part of, that are part of us. (p. 134).
The Araluen Valley is famed for stone fruit and the scent and taste of fresh peaches drips from the pages. French discuss food production and how modern purchasing and consumption in Australia has changed production and not for the best. The unreasonable demand for aesthetically pleasing fruit, to suit on-demand needs has resulted in the loss of some of the better-flavoured varieties and what we end up with are; “tasteless and often textureless”. We only have ourselves to blame for that and as French points out: “Consumers get what they deserve.” (p143). Sustainable living and growing your own food is fundamental to Jackie French’s philosophy and the book contains much discussion of growing your own and using what is to hand:
“About a dozen years ago I lived hand to mouth here – fed the occasional houseful of guests with food that got more and more traditional – great hunks of sheep roasted at nearly every meal … masses of veg from the garden (potatoes and pumpkins, peas, silverbeet, beetroot, zucchini and tomato), and stewed fruit for after, with maybe pastry from home-grown eggs and nut flour – everything homegrown; incredible and easily achieved abundance, the living very cheap, and similar to what my great-great-grandparents probably ate. It would be easy to substitute roast roo for the sheep…”(p.204)
The above entry is followed with a recipe for grass seed cakes and almond flour biscuits, so many good recipes, many involving peaches, casually strewn through the book. There is even a reference to utilising roadkill with the much more appealing description of “massaged,” the recipe is included although Jackie admits she normally uses chicken. but it does make a very good point:
“If you don’t have a hare – massaged or otherwise – this recipe is good with a hunk of wild pig, leg of goat pork leg chops at a pinch, or even chicken, which is what I usually use (yes, even a frozen chook if you must, but it’ll be stringy and not as succulent). You need meat that tastes of something for this dish to be really good -say a youngish rooster, introduced to the axe as he starts to crow at maybe twelve weeks. (If you think I’m hard-hearted, remember that even Gile’s massaged hares have a better life and death than any meat you buy at any butcher’s. Those who eat meat need to shoulder the responsibility … and anyone who keeps chooks knows you can’t keep all the roosters, they fight amongst themselves and terrorise the hens…) (.p238-239)
Elsewhere Jackie describes herself as an ethical ominvore and I liked the sound of ideas about eating ferals:
“… the rabbit pies are good. We feel virtuous as well as full, knowing that maybe another bandicoot may survive with at least one competing bunny gone.
Roger the Ranger and I once planned a restaurant called ‘Ferals’ where everything would either be a pest or a weed – prickly pear tart, wild boar and venison, feral goat and so on, not to mention dandelion, sheep’s sorrel, cardoon, blackberry, hawthorn berries, briar heps, watercress … Of course sheep, wheat, rice and cotton are probably greater ecological disasters than any of the pests, but I’m not sure how a restaurant called ‘The Great Ecological Disaster’ would go. (p.217).
Modern life has lead many of us to become increasingly divorced from the natural world and the practicalities of food production. Now more than ever I think it is important to think about the where and how of our food and make responsible and ethical choices wherever and whenever we can. Obviously, we can’t all live in the country and produce all our own food but we can be more aware of the food we purchase and consume. We can also try to slow down a little bit and grow and prepare some of what we eat, not always easy to do, I know but even growing a few herbs is good for the environment, bringing useful insects to the garden, which in turn encourages other life, like small insectivorous birds. Gardening and growing some of your own food feeds the soul as much as the body. Even if you are a terrible gardener, gardening is still good for you. I don’t have green thumbs, I wish I did, but I still enjoy the process. Jackie French is an inspiration when it comes to growing and preparing your own food and that is a big part of the joy of A year in the valley. The other great pleasure of this book is the wonderful writing about nature, the flora and fauna of Jackie’s world, the wildlife, some of which has featured in Jackie’s famous children’s books, especially the many wombats.
There is the sad story of poor little Gabby, and the much happier tale of Mothball and the misnamed Bruiser and then there is Smudge: “Smudge … taught me how to sit back and watch the bush and just enjoy the early morning sun.” Or the comic tale of a certain red-necked wallaby, with a proclivity for pleasuring himself. There is beauty, humour, wisdom and practicality in this wonderful book, not to mention inspiration. I borrowed A year in the valley from the public library but I realise this is a book I might dip into again and again so now I will be hunting for a copy to keep, can’t think of a higher recommendation than that.
Are you reading anything for the Gaia/nature reading challenge, don’t forget to let me know, so I can link to any post and I would love to know about any great nature themed reads out there. It is never too late to join the challenge it runs all year and you can read as many or as few nature themed books as you like. For any post in January and Febuary I will donate a nature themed children’s book to a new children’s literacy project in Toowoomba based at the Lighthouse precinct, it officially launches in Febuary so more on that to come.