Sixteen years ago, my partner and I decided we had enough equity in our house to buy an investment property. This is quite common in Australia and it’s not unusual for someone to have several properties, spread all around the country, generating income. It’s thanks to the ever-increasing price of real estate which seems to have barely caught its breath, certainly since I arrived in the 1990s. While this is good news to existing home owners, it’s become a nightmare for people setting out to buy anything for the first time. Not only do they have to find the money for a heart-stopping deposit but they are then lumbered with huge mortgage repayments. So I know that we are incredibly fortunate to have been able to do what we did.
At first we imagined that we might get something sensible in the city, like a small flat, but then I had a thought: why not buy a property we might eventually move to? We could rent it out until we were ready to live there. It seemed like a brilliant plan.
And so we ended up with a lovely old farmhouse in northern New South Wales with ten acres. It felt like a win-win situation – we could rent out the house and its fenced garden and still have land to play with. Even better, there was a shed we could camp in for holidays. Having a foot in two places is, of course, a mixed blessing. As many know who have holiday homes, they quickly morph from a relaxing retreat into something more burdensome, loaded with an endless list of jobs-to-do just waiting for your next visit. Where once we enjoyed long days exploring the area and thinking of ways in which we might improve the place, now we arrive prepared for work and wondering what disasters need to be fixed – a fallen tree, a broken pump, a leaking roof. (I know, I know, poor us and all that.)
And yet being able to escape to the country has been a marvel. At first we’d turn into the long drive and think that someone was going to tell us to clear off. Could it be true that we’d actually gone and bought this magical place? In the first years the grassy fields in front of the house were cropped by a herd of a neighbour’s beautiful cows, adding to the bucolic atmosphere. Whenever the house was between tenants, we would walk through its lofty rooms and imagine the time when we would call it home. It’s a real classic, built in the 1910s using timber felled on its own land. I always marvel at its setting, crowning a slope that enjoys long views and which receives the cooling coastal breeze in summer (every day at 1pm, regular as clockwork) while being sheltered from the most damaging gales. Those farmers knew about feng shui, I reckon.
There was, however, one thing that troubled me – the lack of birds, or, more precisely, the lack of birdsong. Not that there were no birds, they were just a bit thin on the ground. There were flocks of ibis and plenty of swamp hens down at the creek and there are always colourful Eastern Rosellas fussing through the pecan trees, and grey herons stamping around for frogs, and magpies heralding the morning with their glorious carolling song. But where were the little birds? Where were the fairy wrens (surely Australia’s prettiest bird) or foragers like whipbirds (named after their whip-crack call). Our friend Rick told me not to worry. Trees were the answer.
The narrow paddock behind the house borders the macadamia plantation next door. And so my partner decided to plant out the whole field and create a rainforest, which is what was there before the pioneer farmers cleared the land at the end of the 19th century. He said the trees would catch any unwelcome drift from the sprays used on the macadamia trees. For me, and my feng shui eyes, it felt right for the old house to be supported by lush forest.
The soil there is volcanic and as rich and brown as chocolate cake mix. Locals joke that you poke a stick in the ground and the next day it’s a tree. The generous rainfall makes everything, including the weeds, grow at a stupendous rate. And so, within a short time, the forest rose up, every year taller and more astonishing. There are now towering quandongs with fat purple fruit, the spotted bark of leopard trees, a tamarind, stands of clumping bamboo, spreading figs and spiky-leaved flame trees, tree waratahs and myrtles, and plenty more whose names I don’t know.
And with them came the birds. One weekend I noted down all the different species I saw and there were nearly forty. The balance is extraordinary. Each day busy flocks of tiny birds, like Silver-eyes, Red-browed Finches and Thornbills, work their way through the trees, and Fairy Wrens warn of any dangers with loud, peeping alarm calls. Bowerbirds with violet eyes and catbirds, with a squealing call like a mewling baby, and Spangled Drongos, that cackle noisily, visit the more open trees. Fruit doves gorge on berries and shy emerald doves peck at seeds on the drive so there’s the flash of their green wings as you approach. Whipbirds pick through the leaf litter and call to each other, the true sound of the rainforest.
The dawn chorus is deafening now, when there was so little before. I’ve become attuned to the birdsong through the day, too, knowing when there are eagles overhead by the abrupt silence, or when an unwelcome intruder is being chased away by an array of different birds – a visiting cat or fox doesn’t stand a chance but the goanna marches about like it owns the place. Unfamiliar birdsong has me out with the binoculars, rewarded by the sight of a bird simply passing through, like the Scaly-breasted Lorikeets, or one that will start to make the forest part of its territory, like the comical Pacific Baza with its jaunty crest and striped J-P Gaultier vest, who now nests in the gum tree and watches our every move from a nearby branch. At night the owls bark and Frogmouths swoop unseen, their calls spooking me as it sounds like they’re stage-whispering ‘Colin, Colin’ in the dark.
As the golden light of a dawning day pushes through the early mist, the birds give full throat to the day and I know how lucky I am to be there. And when I contemplate yet another task – a flat tyre caused by a spike of unseen barbed wire, the peeling paint that calls out for a paintbrush, a flyscreen holed by rodents – and when I flinch at the sight of brown snakes hunting for rats in the rocks by the milking shed (every Eden must have a snake, of course), I only have to listen to the birdsong to feel like I’m the luckiest man. And knowing that the key to all this was nothing more (and nothing less) than a tree (or two or three…).
Do you have a place that fills you with joy?
(My own photos of the birds are often rather blurred so I’ve added links to www.graemechapman.com.au which has lovely photos of all kinds of Australian birdlife.)
Congratulations to both of you for creating such a wonderful forest for all the birds that have now found a home there. A great legacy to leave for future generations.
Thank you, Mike. The good thing is that many of our neighbours have been doing the same so the diversity is being maintained, and it’s lovely to be part of that.
How wonderful. The forest is a real achievement and must benefit so many. It looks like a fascinating place to have chosen to buy. Do you still think you may live there one day?
We will live there at some point but we used to tell people, “Hopefully in two years” until the years ticked by and no one asked anymore. Plans change, I suppose! But it’s a great area, full of creatives, and with leafy lanes that reminded me of the South Wales of my childhood (with slightly different wildlife, though). In the meantime, it’s such a pleasure to see the trees growing ever-bigger and anticipating what will happen next…
Oh, this is so lovely! What a wonderful place, and how beautifully you’ve described it. The before and after pictures of the tree growth are incredible. And now I long to see the most excellently named Pacific Baza!
Thank you so much! I sometimes get a shock when I see the photos I took back in 2002 – even the established trees have grown so much. I hope you get to be eyeballed by a Pacific Baza – they really are the most comical bird of prey with their bright eyes and their habit of really staring at you – almost rude!
What a beautiful story, from the beautiful word play in your title to the description of the birds in their habitat. To have created a bit of rain forest sounds like a wonderful legacy and well worth the headaches of weekend chores.
Thank you, Mel! Yes, it remains one of life’s pleasures just to stand among those trees and quietly observe the life all around. I was especially pleased recently to see an echidna bumbling around. Australian flora and fauna really is incredible…
How wonderful to have created all that life, sound and colour and, as you say, restored the flora back to its origins. I’m surprised you get any work done at all(!) Just the names of the different birds are fascinating. Even in our little English seaside town the birds do seem extraordinarily vocal this year.
A place that fills me with joy … always at the centre of my heart is a certain valley in rural Tuscany …
Well, I do have a particular knack of being able to stand or sit and watch the world go by. I was always fond of birds, encouraged by my grandfather who had lots of feathered visitors to his kitchen window, but Australia really got me into ‘twitching’ (no jokes, please) and I tend to notice the birdlife in other countries much more now, as well. Always inspires me how they just get on with their lives around us… I think rural Tuscany might stir my heart, too.
Paying it forward and coming full circle, knowing the trees and birds will be there when we are long gone……A wonderful legacy. My favourite spot is Tintagel outside the tourist season, followed closely by Cape St. Vincent in Portugal.
For some reason my response didn’t get through so apologies for the delay… That’s a lovely way of looking at it, paying it forward, and hopefully the land will stay this way in the future. But others in the area have been doing the same for longer than us so I have high hopes… Tintagel is very special – I remember it from childhood as well as much later and it evoked so much. But Portugal remains a place I really must visit – so many people tell me how special it is. So thank you for the nudge!
Fascinating to see what haven and heaven you have created in Northern NSW on your rural block. It’s interesting to read your experience and enjoyment of vegetation and birdlife. What strikes my niece the most while she is currently visiting me on Sydney’s North Shore is the ever-present tree cover: tree-lined streets, reserves, pockets of bushland and even National Parks everywhere. On the other hand, what had struck me the most when I first lived in Sydney was the birds: they were so much more omnipresent, colourful and loud than the birds of European cities, even in similarly densely-built areas. Everyone needs more trees and birds in their lives, so thanks for your contribution to just that.
I remember my very first morning in Australia, woken by the cacophony of bird sounds outside the window and wondering what on earth was going on. Hard not to be drawn into finding out more about them. It always surprises me when people have no idea about birds when we have such abundance all around us. It’s certainly been a privilege to add habitat to that and yes, I totally agree that we need more trees and more birds in our lives!
Beautiful post – the house my father lived in at the end of his life had been in the family since the late nineteenth century and looked across the River Yare and then across the Norfolk Broads to an infinite horizon. There’s something very restful about being able to gaze at a far distant horizon. Appropriately enough it was called Riverview!
There’s something special about a house that’s been in the family fora very long time. Our farmhouse was being sold for the very first time and were somewhat reluctant to go. We had to sit for hours while they pottered about, never quite able to finally drive out through the gate. Moving on many levels… You’re quite right about distant views and resting the eyes. I always return from there feeling occularly relaxed!