My life has double joy at the moment. Not only am I able to walk again without pain after my knee surgery, but in doing so I have fallen into a love affair with mangroves. Well-being for me right now consists of a combination of a titanium prosthesis and drab looking shrubs growing quietly on our foreshore. Maybe I am easily pleased!
I was introduced to mangroves nearly sixty years ago: as a third-year geography student at university I researched mangrove habitat as part of the course. Memories of mud, squelch and mosquitoes at Corner Inlet are still with me, but I had no idea how that trip would come full circle and be part of my life today.
Then came my life in West Papua in the eighties. I delighted in the pristine environment of Manokwari on the Bay of Doreri, the mountains rising to 5000 feet out of the water, the tropical growth and our own private white sand beach in paradise. We were surrounded by mangroves but I was too busy having babies and coping with primitive living conditions to explore very much. I know now that over half of the mangrove habitat in Indonesia is located in this part of West Papua and that the trees play an important part in everyday life there.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” Psalm 91:1-2
Foxes have dens, and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One has no place to lay his head. Matthew 8:20
The unseasonal spring rains this year have prevented me from being outside as much as I would like in the growth season. Rain and more rain. Big fat drops and horizontal windy rain. Hard to escape getting wet sort of rain. Can’t even dash to the car without being drenched sort of rain. Shelter becomes more welcoming in such weather.
I love verandahs around a house; they wrap me up and shelter me whilst still being outside in the fresh air. I can sit and look at the dripping garden, foliage bouncing under the weight of drops. The soil is damp – no watering needed – as it absorbs the gift from the sky. But I am dry and sheltered under the rustic corrugated iron roof. Inside or out, my house is my place, and I can retreat there in comfort. I feel thankful to have a home I can always return to. ‘Home is where you hang your hat’, someone said. I have heap of hats for every occasion, and when I come home, I throw mine back on the pile.
I think about people without shelter. The news is troubling as I see whole apartment blocks in Ukraine blown apart. What does one do next when home has disappeared under a pile of rubble? Nowhere to make children feel safe; no water or electricity. No shelter from the paralysing cold. No soft mattress at night. I shiver and wrap my granny rug around me as I relax in my recliner in the warmth and peace of my home. What have I done to deserve a safe shelter?
Does it matter what size your home is? I recently met friends who made the decision in retirement to live in a ‘tiny house’. As I pack up our stuff to move house and ‘downsize’, it doesn’t compare to their adventurous move to a carefully designed place that measures 8m x 2.5m – for everything! They speak of intimacy and liberation from stuff, of having a spot for every vital belonging, and having to go to sleep and rise together as there is no space for individual movement without disturbance. This is their shelter for now and it means as much and more than the five-bedroom house they moved out of, because it is a shelter adventure.
I think about why we ourselves might still need a house with several bedrooms, bathrooms and living areas. My sense of home and shelter is challenged by my friends’ decision. We are downsizing our property, but not our house. Unlike so many of our friends, we don’t feel ready for a retirement village unit, let alone a ‘tiny house’. I do not need a lot of space for my lifestyle, but I still feel the need to be able to welcome our large family to our home. Giving hospitality is high on our list – we want to share our home, and that takes space.
Clearly, however, a sense of shelter and a roof over our heads is not dependent on size. Our homes reflect what we value at any particular stage of our lives. My artist husband will always need space for painting and all that goes with it. He is not ready to leave that behind, although will be challenged to use a smaller space. Art is part of his sense of shelter and who he is, and I hope that he will find a new expression.
I enjoy watching the TV series ‘Alone’. There is something addictive about seeing people on their own in the wilderness trying to survive in order to win a prize. From my observation, the successful participants are often those who manage to create a weatherproof and warm shelter early in their adventure. They usually have only a tarpaulin to begin with and some are still using that when they leave. Food and shelter compete on the needs hierarchy in the first few days, but I am always surprised when they do not prioritise making a wind and rain proof shelter.
Some are satisfied to have somewhere dry to sleep and keep their gear. Others add branches and moss for insulation. Some manage to set up a fire inside for continual warmth and comfort – that always appeals to me. One person dug downwards into the earth to make a pit house under her tarp roof and showed a strong sense of shelter as she used a great deal of her energy to set it up. Others created swinging doors and protection from wild animals. A soft base for a bed looked like a good idea and many used springy natural materials to create a soft, welcoming mattress. Some did not really have a comfortable place to sit in their shelter, but those who did make chairs often were the most creative in whittling toys, utensils, games or musical instruments. I am sure this level of comfort in their shelter enabled them to stay longer.
As the days dragged on, participants would start to miss their homes and families. It is not natural to be completely alone; their sense of shelter is bound up with the loved ones who live there, and those reflections, (along with their family photo), would often precipitate their decision to give up and go home. No matter how well they build their shelter, home is where you want to be with people you love; shelter and relationships are inseparable for me. I have never, however, lived alone.
The remote highlands of West Papua can be quite chilly, even though the country straddles the equator. The locals wear very scanty clothing that involves only a penis gourd or grass skirt so their homes are important shelters. Their crude (to us) grass huts on the hillside are cosy shelters with interior fires to warm them through the cool nights. The family members, rubbed in pig fat for insulation, curl up on the ground around the fire, sharing body heat, while the smoke from the fire curls upward and out through the central hole in the thatched roof. Body contact in a tiny hut around a fire is the epitome of warm shelter, from which they emerge in the morning with their arms characteristically wrapped around their necks to retain heat. Their shelter is not just their fire-warmed huts, but warmth from their families and their own bodies. Intimacy can be challenging in such proximity!
When my little son saw photos of these huts and heard that we might be living and working there, he said he did not want to go to West Papua. Probing revealed that he thought the big bad wolf would blow down the houses of straw that he saw in the photos. Based on the children’s stories in his books, his idea of safe shelter was something more substantial than a thatched dwelling. Our sense of shelter is culturally shaped, which raises many questions about people reared in ‘Mc Mansions’ with television sets in every room.
I have been shaped by a life of constant moves – I have lived in thirty-five homes, not counting short stays. Some of those houses have been very basic, but they have all been our homes and I have never been without a place of shelter. There have been many lessons from a such a nomadic life, but the main one is that home is where you are.
The views out of my window are jarringly unfamiliar. Different plants and trees mixed with just occasionally friendly lavender and acacias. Suddenly a pair of lorikeets flits under the pink bottlebrush and my heart leaps to see birdlife that I know. I am sitting at a new window after moving from our home of eighteen years.
Our comfortable, convenient, customised dwelling that felt just right. The place that worked for us, embraced us, like slinky pyjamas. The rooms that all connected to the living areas so that we could always converse from anywhere; we felt close to each other. The family room with framed picture windows on three sides making the garden sidle inside and embrace me, then entice me out. Watching the snow peas form in the raised bed outside and the brassicas sprout their secret heads. Anticipating the seasonal arrival of perennial plants carefully planted in view of my spot.
There was a place for every phone charger, each spare toilet roll, the motley array of kitchen appliances, the grandchildren’s toys and books, dozens of photo albums and hundreds of books. Not that everything was always in its place, because it was just home. But the debris always found its spot eventually.
The cackle of kookaburras heralded rain or woke me out of early morning sleep and always made me smile and wryly enjoy the hilarity. The wind in the surrounding bush and the occasional crack of a dropping branch. The rain on the wrap-around verandah roof which always made me feel cosy.
Years of digging, weeding, composting, planting and pruning shaped a garden that was my canvas. Warm palette of reds, yellow and orange at the front; cool hues of mauve, pink and white at the back. A random mix of natives and perennials, unruly cottage plantings breaking out of borders and little surprises around the corners. Flowers in every season. Garden statues, bird baths and benches creating resting places for birds and humans. The rustic garden arch elegantly supporting my Pierre de Ronsard pink climbing rose.
Seven raised veggie beds have produced countless kilograms of produce over the years. Boosted by my husband’s lovingly cultivated wormy compost, the seasons came and went with summer vegetables and salad plants alternating with winter root crops, brassicas and alliums. And always greens of every shape for the picking. Unforgettably tasty tomatoes and bowls full of peas, fresh garlic plaited and cured, a herb box providing year-round flavours. Treasure hunts for the potato crops with the grandchildren, with squeals of delight when the biggest tuber was found and celebratory chips made.
Flourishing citrus trees weighed down with golden fruit contributing to summer drinks and lemon, lime and grapefruit marmalade to last until the next season. Overflowing abundance of organic cornucopia to share with all who came.
And the grandchildren. The first one was a six-week-old swaddled bundle when we moved in; now there are nine and some are high school graduates towering over me. They have never known Grandma and Poppa living anywhere else. When they were little tackers, they were too scared to go right up the back with its bushes, overhanging trees and warnings about snakes. Then it was totem tennis, soccer and badminton, paintings in Poppa’s studio, along with the annual Easter egg hunt. I would find stray undiscovered eggs under the bushes for the rest of the year.
Family gatherings for Christmas and birthdays followed a well-worn cycle, with the decorated table extended and a trestle added as the tribe grew. Eventually the highchairs went to the op shop with the soft toys, and the cheeky children would seat themselves at the big table, leaving the kiddie table for the adults! So much comfort food – especially Indonesian food with yellow rice and curries with aromas evoking our family history.
Dusty in summer and muddy in winter, our unmade road led nowhere except to our home and a couple of neighbours. Twice we made adrenalin-fuelled evacuations just in time from bush fires that threatened our secluded retreat. The two hourly train tooted at the nearby crossing, punctuating our lives and thrilling the little grandchildren. The goats over the road bleated, and the forbidden roosters crowed insistently; dogs barked at the wind and visiting cars. But peace descended like a comforter at night while we slept.
We will miss sharing coffee with our neighbours – almost a daily ritual at our fence café during the lockdowns. We shared our lives, our birthdays, Thai food, our faith, our worries and the time of day. How to tell such close friends that we were leaving?
But we have and life goes on; we file away the memories with gratitude as we transition to making new ones.
It was like a very quiet ambulance. The siren finally caught my attention and I realised that it had been there in the background. My phones lay on the desk, and I wondered which of them was demanding attention. My constant battles with technology predisposed me to ignoring anything that didn’t need me immediately, but this was insistent. Sigh. Was it the Blackberry or the Nokia?
The Nokia was mine, with its clear icons and simplicity. How I fought against the idea of owning a mobile phone, the hassle of keeping it with me in my handbag and being pressured to answer it whenever it rang. Too much bother! As for charging it constantly – there were already enough routines in my life. So my husband went out and bought the lime green phone and presented it to me, saying I would get used to it.
Gradually it became part of my life. I enjoyed the quick chats with my family in stolen moments at work down on the Peninsula and being able to make last minute arrangements. Text messages became my new language. My learning, however, was on a need-to-know basis. Like when the phone rang while my husband was preaching a sermon and I couldn’t mute it…
And then the Blackberry landed on my desk at work, a gift from the Business Manager. This was to be my work device from now on, said the memo. Oh goodness, how would I keep two devices going? Two networks, two chargers and two ring tones. Now my work emails were immediately visible and I could not escape.