Three deaths, a small dog and insurmountable Christmas joy.

I promised myself I would never put on paper the story that follows, but the last paragraph has filled me with such joy, I have relented and now wish to share it. I hope you will read this without deeming me too self indulgent but sometimes something so utterly lovely flings itself upon your heart, that you forget (and don’t care) that you might bore everyone rigid and so instantly pick up your pen…

Just on two years ago, my father died. He had been ill for around 7 years, so, whilst I was desperately sad at the thought of no longer being able to talk to, or touch him, my overwhelming emotion was one of relief. I’m certain death was also a relief for him. We all knew that his body had reached the point where total failure was near, and whilst we could make him comfortable, death was inevitable. We offered him our love, constant touch and our tears but no-one resiled from what was approaching, least of all him. When the time was right, he needed to stop breathing. He needed to ‘go’. (In conversation, neither he or I were entirely sure where that ‘going’ would take him, but he was unconcerned, and bless him, tried to convince me not to be afraid for him). He died with surprising ease and calm. If death can be lovely, his was. Some may consider it odd, but I enjoyed holding him after his death. He was peaceful; not bound up, with laboured breathing and a pinched look on his face.

The most fascinating aspect of my father’s death is that it involved two animals. This is interesting only insomuch as he was not at all fond of animals. He accepted that they would always be a part of his life (he married an animal lover), but he only ever tolerated pets. He never really engaged with them, until a slightly overweight King Charles Cavalier Spaniel named Charlie entered his life.

But hold on. Before I tell you about Charlie, I need to talk (just a little) about Molly. Molly was my first dog. She was my first “child”. That looks completely daft when written. When spoken it sounds vaguely acceptable, so try to imagine my voice. She and I were inseparable, even after the birth (and obvious adoration) of my two human children. After their arrival, Molly recognized her inevitable slide in the family pack, but was also wily enough to know that all she need do was crook her head “just so” and I’d melt and let her hop back up onto my bed at night.

5 days before my father died, Molly choked on a bone in the back garden and died.

My children found her by literally tripping over her while playing hide ‘n seek. They came flying to me, screaming “Molly’s dead Mama, Molly’s dead.” And yes she was. Bloody foolish gutso. In her greed, a large bone had gone down whole; the wrong way. There was nothing I could do. I tried kitchen tongs, the Heimlich manoeuvre, violent massage, you name it. Ultimately, what distressed me most about her death is that my children, for the first time, saw me completely undone. I sat for a long time clutching her, rocking back and forth on my knees, my tears splashing onto her fur, while making odd uncontrollable guttural sounds . For someone who shows control at all times, this was a very naked moment. It still makes me feel inexorably sad. It was so unexpected. Horrid, just horrid. Although, I’ve come to think that her death prepared me and my children for the death of my father.

So there we are. Two deaths in under a week. One expected, the other not. The family swung together and made ‘arrangements’. Molly ended up under a lovely hydrangea and a sandstone plinth in the front garden. That was easy. Arranging Dad’s funeral was pretty easy; after all, we’d all talked about what form it would take for some time. The trickiest task was phoning the Priest at the Church in which Dad’s funeral service was to be held to ask, if for the first time ever, an unleashed dog could lead the casket into and out of the church. And so we come to Charlie.

Charlie is a rotund Cavalier Spaniel who lived up the road from my parents. He used to visit every other day, begging for tidbits from my mother’s always overflowing fridge. His owners gave up trying to stop him visiting and he very quickly became a part of our family. Over the years, as my father became seriously ill, Charlie also gave up asking for what might come out of the fridge and instead hopped up onto Dad’s bed and gently laid his head beside my father’s. At first, Dad would feign horror and kick him off. But Charlie persisted and slowly, Dad relented. On the day of his death, Charlie was firmly ensconced by my father’s side which gave both of them great comfort. After Dad had gone, Charlie placed himself in my father’s favourite chair and didn’t move for several days.

On the day of my father’s funeral, Charlie was allowed to lead all of us, ahead of Dad’s casket up the aisle of the church. He sat, head cocked and listened to the service. On leaving, he walked slowly, head low, down the aisle and guided Dad away. It was a very special moment.

And then Charlie disappeared. Vanished. Gone. Mum found this incredibly difficult. We all presumed Charlie had fallen ill, walked into the nearby bush and curled up to die. Mum and Charlie’s original owner posted a $500 reward for anyone who could locate him. Nothing. So, again, we suffered an unexpected, but this time, unexplained death in our family. And again, horrid, just horrid..

And so we come to today, two years on from Dad’s death. This afternoon my mother phoned me in tears to say that Charlie has been found. On Christmas Eve he apparently wandered into the garage of a woman in Liverpool and sat there. She gave him something to eat and next day phoned the local vet. The vet, despite enjoying the last of his Christmas pudding, scanned a slightly dirty little King Charles Cavalier, to discover that his true owner was some 30 kilometres away. Who knows how he ended up there or how he has survived all this time. And quite frankly I couldn’t give a flying fig on the detail. What I do know is that we have all unexpectedly regained a part of our lives that will serve daily to remind us of a father that we still miss very much. A truly special Christmas present.

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How to do nothing and enjoy it…

A rerun of a post I wrote in December last year. Still as accurate this year…..

In Australia, for many, December means celebrating Christmas, hot days, gifts, reconnection and relaxation, family, more hot days and approximately 9 weeks of school holidays. We’re a month into summer and the heat can be oppressive. If you’re lucky and have access to a pool, beach or outback dam, the summer break invariably means much time spent cooling off in the water, perfecting the ultimate ‘bomb’ or dive, hunting for sea creatures in the sparkling depths of rockpools and seaweed forests, or catching yabbies in a muddy dam using nothing other than a bit of string and some pongy meat.

However, unless you shut out all forms of media during December, it can be frustrating to have the festive period defined by mainly European and North American media viewpoints of what the season is. Reindeer, snow (and the associated activities the white stuff brings), hot baked dinners, holly and mistletoe, mulled wine and egg nog all abound, to name just a few. Here in Sydney, these Christmas “markers” repeated in our mainstream media just seem plain silly (and lazy on behalf of the Australian media). Every now and then I’ll see a token picture of Father Christmas on a surfboard but that’s about it.

So I thought I’d share what the summer break means to me and my family. Firstly, school has finished for the year and will not return until some time in February. There’s no homework for up to 9 weeks (a personal favourite of mine); endless stretches of warm days, sea breezes and late nights spent attempting to avoid manic and hungry mosquitoes, whilst watching reruns of ridiculous, yet highly entertaining B-grade movies.

It’s spending most of the day in our bathers eating a vast range of summer fruits such as peaches, nectarines, mangoes, lychees, rambutans, strawberries and raspberries and then washing the sticky juice off your arms and legs whilst running under the sprinkler in the nud. (regardless of age). The rules are relaxed on who sleeps where and at what time one goes to bed. I often wake in the gentle, quiet hours of early morning to find my children sleeping on the couch or verandah with our puppies – it’s a delightful amorphous mass of arms, paws, the occasional snort, whiskers, twitches and general loveliness.

It’s getting up early before the day becomes too warm to walk the puppies but forgetting to change out of your PJ bottoms. And then the flooding sense of relief as you meet other people on the harbour track who’ve done exactly the same thing. It’s the daily opportunity to head to the beach, and later that evening curl up in bed with the salt still scratching your skin; waking the next morning with salt-encrusted bed-head. (This is another favourite of mine as I’m CERTAIN it has to be good for you).

There’s a BBQ to be had every other day, entertaining friends who casually drop in clutching a fine bottle of chilled wine whilst shaking the sand from their toes. There’s fresh seafood to eat, books to read, summer quizzes to ponder in a newspaper that offers little else at this time of the year.

It’s watching with delight as my children take the “shortcut” and scale the backyard fence to go play with their mates. Summer break means that beach cricket will be played, Lilos will be burst, Aloe vera will be applied to “Coppertone” bums and bathroom scales will be pushed under the vanity until January 1st.

And whilst my family doesn’t observe any particular religion, this time of year will inevitably find us lying under a Moreton Bay Fig in Sydney’s iconic Botanic Gardens listening to Christmas Carols whilst flying foxes screech overhead.

What I like best of all though? Sydney’s summer break affords me the perfect opportunity to remind my children of how to do “nothing” and actually enjoy it. Without the distraction of school or work, the likelihood of over-structured time or prescriptive play is reduced tenfold. With no formal learning, no rushing here or there, we find ample opportunity to unplug, reconnect with each other and spend way too much time outside in the sun enjoying all that playing outdoors has to offer. I am convinced that this is the best Christmas gift I can give my children.

To all, a happy festive break. Whatever it means to you and however you celebrate, I hope it brings much joy wherever on our beautiful planet you might be.

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Colour play fun… but in the kitchen?

Colour is everywhere! Grey days, rainbows, autumn leaves, impossibly blue skies, brilliant pink flowers, murky brown mud or an expanse of green lawn. My children and I have had great adventures exploring the concept of colour during our time outside. To be honest though, I’d never really thought about introducing lessons on colour into our kitchen.

Which is why it was utterly delightful last night when my 7 year old made the realisation that her favourite colour (purple) was taking precedence in the evening meal. There was a shimmering deep purple eggplant. An incredibly beautiful home-grown cabbage. Spring asparagus, with a blush of purple at the tips. Squealing with delight, my daughter then raced about pulling together every hue of purple she could find in the house. It was quite the collection: A large purple platter, a beautiful Iris from the garden along with some sprigs of the pretty plant “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow” (Brunfelsia grandiflora). A couple of books, pens and colouring pencils, a skipping rope, hairbrush, a watch, and on it went. She even reminded me of the picture of her friend on page 122 of my book, Small Fry Outdoors!

We happily chatted together whilst preparing dinner about primary, secondary and tertiary colours and whether Indigo was blue or a deep shade of purple. It was great fun and needless to say, she ate every last scrap of the family meal.

Oh, and the meal? Eggplant and haloumi stacks, grass-fed scotch fillet steak sitting atop blanched purple cabbage with spring asparagus on the side. A squeeze of lime, freshly cracked black pepper and a pinch of sea salt completed a beautiful, healthy meal.

I’d love to hear how you have ‘played’ with the concept of colour in your home or during your time outdoors. x

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Two children on love, imagination and outdoor magic

Sometimes something literally takes your breath away and transports you to another place where imagination, joy and gratitude collide. This happened to me last week. I was visiting a dear friend who I hadn’t seen for several years. She lives with her two beautiful daughters in the Noosa hinterland. They know that I’m a big believer in fairies and have written a book on being outdoors with children and encouraging lots of unstructured play. I had told them I was going to bring a copy of my book for them and a few bits and pieces for lunch.

In anticipation of my visit and to say thank you, they prepared a fairy home for me.

Here’s what they did.

I love the cotoneaster berries that are tranformed to become a ‘rock climbing wall’ for the fairies. And the garage, complete with a little car to get about. There was a room for reading and a room complete with an open fire to stay warm. The large piece of bark is, of course, a slide complete with soft leaves at the bottom to ensure no fairies get hurt when whizzing down.

The red earth was packed up against a stone wall by the girls. Mixing it with just a little water made the perfect mud brick wall on which to complete their masterpiece.

The girls worked steadily, for around an hour, flitting around their garden (just like fairies) looking for the right materials. They were happy and their faces glowed with a sense of achievement and pride on showing it to me. I was, simply put, honoured to be presented with such a precious gift. The gift of imagination and love. x

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Gum Nuts for Mum

Today I visited The Point Preschool in a leafy suburb of Sydney. I adore this preschool and all that they do to encourage innate connections with nature in their young students.

So I was well and truly chuffed when I arrived to find a group of 4 year olds busily making the Gum Nut Potpourri recipe from my book, Small Fry Outdoors. They are making little boxes of it for their Mums for Mother’s Day. They were so happy, their faces earnest with concentration – pouring, mixing and playing about with the gum nuts and leaves and loved the responsibility of undertaking the project with little or no interference from adults.
The Point Preschool is inspirational. It has won many awards for the work it does in championing sustainability and natural playspaces. It has a very strong commitment to the environment and education for sustainability. As many of you know, the aim of education for sustainability is to promote a sense of responsibility, respect, empowerment, active participation, enquiry and social change. Education for sustainability focuses on biodiversity (nature connections, gardens and animals), environmental health (chemical reduction, pest management, food) and resources (water and energy use, waste minimisation).

As Catherine, the Director of the preschool says, “Early childhood is a great time to involve children in education for sustainability and develop life long practices to ensure the respect and protection of our planet. We believe a sense of wonder, belonging to and love of the natural environment, living things and animals is critical for young children to develop lifelong respectful, positive and proactive attitudes towards protecting our environment, caring for all living creatures and creating a sustainable environment.” I couldn’t agree with her more.

So rather than have Dad and the kids head to the shops, why not encourage them to head outside to find the perfect Mother’s Day gift or better still, have them try the potpourri? Playoutdoors bliss.

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Plants kids can play with #3 A Seuss plant

This week’s plant was chosen by my 7 year old daughter. In her words, “Mummy, you should write about Marigolds. They always look sunny, sometimes funny and I like eating them too.” As that sounded Seuss-like to me, how could I argue? So here’s our tribute to the humble French Marigold (Tagetes patula) and some tips and ideas on how kids can have fun with this sweet plant.

With only a little bit of love and lots of sun, French Marigolds will reward you with a splash of colour from mid-spring through to late autumn and sometimes beyond. In Sydney, we’ve had success growing them during our mild (generally frost-free) winters. Virtually foolproof they can be grown from both seed and seedling.

Given the rapidity with which they grow and the fact that they are also so quick to flower, they are a very rewarding choice for the often impatient young gardener. They can be grown in containers, pots, old toys and the garden itself (mass plant for a stunning effect). We’ve even grown them in a pair of old shoes.

So where’s the play to be had with this plant?

Go hunting in the toy cupboard and find a toy that has seen better days. Old tonka trucks are ideal. Encourage your child to fill the truck with potting mix, plant the seedlings, water gently and voila, instant Marigold patch.

If your child already tends a vegetable plot, suggest that they plant some Marigold seedlings throughout the area. Known as a companion plant, they’ll send insects such as White Fly packing from your fruit and veggies.

Marigolds come in a range of sizes and colours (warm-hot on the colour wheel) so grab some colouring in pencils, pick a few blooms and let your kids explore the concept of mixing primary colours to create some (secondary and tertiary) masterpieces.

Pick individual petals for use as hair or a skirt in a “nature drawing”.

Pick the blooms and make a flower salad (combine with other flowers such as Nasturtium, Basil, Rocket, Viola, Rose, edible Sages and Lavenders). The taste of Marigolds is a bit peppery, with the petals themselves having the mildest flavour.

Encourage your child to pick the petals to sprinkle over their meal to add a bit of zing! They look fantastic sprinkled over rice and pasta dishes or dips such as hummous. (The leaves can also be added to salads or steamed for use as a green vegetable).

Play “the smelling game“. Along with some Marigolds, pick a couple of other plants with noticeable scents (eg. rosemary, roses, chocolate mint, basil -basically anything “smelly” you can find) and place them all in a box with a lid – a shoebox is ideal. Blindfold your child and have them pick out the plants one by one and try to identify the plant by smell (and/or feel). Marigolds have a pungent, earthy scent. My daughter describes it as smelling “like a carrot that’s just been pulled“.

Well that’s it for this week. I hope you find a little bit of #playoutdoors fun in each and every day.

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Love me, love my conkers – Plants kids can play with #2

Welcome to number #2 in the series "Plants kids can play with“.

This week we feature the majestic Liquidambar styraciflua. Also known as Sweet Gum, it is native to eastern North America. However, it is also a common tree here in Australia in large private gardens, public parks and gardens and streetscapes (in temperate areas). So why and how do kids play with such an large tree?

First of all it sits somewhere near royalty in the climbing stakes: When I was a little child we had an enormous Liquidambar in our front garden. Its branches were in all the right places and the shadowy crown acted as the perfect hideout. I was convinced it was my very own Magic Faraway Tree. My sisters and I could get to the very top as the branches were strong and oh, the view! Everything was dragged up this tree over the years, including a full tea set, blankets and pillows and our dog which was no mean feat as she was a Bassett Hound. My children are now very lucky to have three Liquidambars in our garden at the farm. These trees have strengthened their beautiful little bodies as they scramble up and down, helped with gross and fine motor skills and provided hours of ‘babysitting’ duty for me.

The leaves, being palmate in shape provide a myriad of craft opportunities. We have used them for stencilling leaf ‘hands or people’, making clothes for peg-dolls, used them in our sets for fairy play/capture/attraction and used the leaf tips when making ‘baby birds’.

In autumn, the leaves come into their own. From a muddy yellow, through to a pearly black and all the colours in between, the Liquidambar puts on a beautiful display as autumn progresses. We have spent hours trying to match (on paper) the various colours found on the tree. Whether kids manage to match the colour or not is incidental; just encouraging them to explore the concept of colour in this way is great fun. And when the tree loses its leaves altogether, we spend time sketching the ‘skeleton’, or outline of the tree on wintery afternoons.

And then there are the conkers. Oh the wretched conkers! When forming they make perfect earrings or a ‘bullet’ to shoot out of a home-made popgun. We’ve used them as counters and also painted them to make natural ‘marbles’. Once dried, however, the conkers are wicked spiky things, lurking in the grass just waiting for an unsuspecting foot to land on it with force. I estimate probably 40% of the Australian population has done exactly this at some point. However, the dried conkers do have an upside. They can be used as ‘stamps’ to dip in paint and roll around on bits of paper to make funky squiggles and shapes on the page. They also burn beautifully in the fireplace over winter.

If you have some space in your garden, consider this tree. If you don’t, take a walk around your neighbourhood and you are sure to come across them. Just watch out for the conkers!

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