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.)