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  • Writer's pictureSonia Neale

Moving to Bush Cottage (life under self-isolation)

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

Food is Life

Food, water and shelter are paramount to life. Living well involves making the right choices if you are able to. The ability to choose one’s own life decisions is powerful. Choosing to grow your own food, even being partly self-sufficient is a very powerful feeling and when your garden starts to produce vegetables for your table, you want to beat your chest like Tarzan, or pop your arm muscles like Popeye, or scream “START THE CAR” outside IKEA. It makes you feel alive, makes your blood fizzle at the bung-hole, gives you a sense of who you are, where you came from, where you are going and why you are on this earth. I get that feeling when I watch a cherry tomato, one I carefully planted and nurtured, slowly turn from green to orange to red, before I pluck it off the stem, warm and ripe, into my mouth, kicking off the fizzle process.

I never got that feeling buying groceries at the supermarket, it was more about getting more bang for my buck, like buying bananas at a rock bottom price of 99c per kilo. That was the buzz. I could not care less whether they came from California, Queensland or the farmer down the road, for me, at that time in my life, money spoke louder than meaning. That was my purpose, keeping the weekly grocery bill down to a dull roar.

Mental health

Then ten years ago, my purpose was mental health, first my own, then other peoples. I wanted to save the world, but, like everyone else before me, I found out that the only person I could save was me. The long and the short of it is, we had a tree change and moved to the country and fell in love with our vegetable patch, chooks and rabbits. While mental health, mine and others, is still my life’s passion, I saved me, by moving to a lifestyle that was compatible with my newly awakened conscious awareness, and discovered a connection, a power I had never had before, the power of growing life-giving food from the dirt I stood on. It made my mental health stand on end, grounded by the earth and rising up to the sun, growing stronger every day. If you’ve ever grown a tomato plant in the back garden between the date palms and the daffodils, and eaten your luscious bounty hot out of nature’s oven, you will know what I mean.

I remember when I was ten, my dad coming through the back door, very excited telling me, Mum and my sister, his metre-high mandarin tree had finally borne fruit. Just one slightly limp and frizzled citrus about the size of a golf ball, but it was Dad’s excitement I have never forgotten. Dad was five years old in England when WW2 was raging and with rationing, the only time he ever got to see, let alone eat a mandarin was at Christmas. I can never see a mandarin without thinking of that tree. Or Dad for that matter.

We saw ourselves not just growing veggies, but raising chooks and ducks, building frog ponds, rearing rabbits and anything else remotely countryfied, it was already on the list. This all gives me partial self-sufficiency with a glimpse into what self-actualisation might look like. This self-discovery involved a not always cooperating environment, the vagaries of chickens and a regular egg supply, insect infestations, loving the butterfly but not the caterpillar and sometimes, well just jolly old good luck that the pests missed the best part of the harvest.

This is us now. This is real. Real and gritty. This is our life. Before we were largely unaware of the universal collective unconscious in all of us where we all have a connection to the land, especially the topsoil dirt that grows the stuff what gives us life, ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The same as all water we drink has been passed through someone else at some time during the history of man on earth. We cannot escape this physical connection, it binds us together as one whether we know it or not, but we can always choose to remain separate in our mind seeing each individual as an island of their own making. If food is essential to life, then so is connection, not just people connection, but connection to land, to animals and most important – to ourselves.

Attachment is Suffering

When I moved from the suburbs to the Perth Hills, I did not know I was somewhat disconnected from my suburban self until I connected in a strong way to the land and the house that we moved to. Disconnection to the self is not living a fully conscious existence in the present moment, you miss out on so much. It’s amazing to think the humble carrot or celery can have so much connective power if we would just let it. We are sometimes forced to disconnect and dissociate for reasons of survival, as it is sometimes safer to zone out than be aware. As a therapist, as a “wounded healer,” I am always looking at my own sources of connection, reconnection human and animal contact in order to help clients reconnect with their own sometimes abandoned selves and lost souls.

Before that, before mental wellness and moving house, I spent years living life “out of awareness,” not knowing my real motives, my true ideals and my personal responsibility for events. I blamed everyone else and went shopping hoping material goods and shellacked nails would somehow fulfil my destiny. I’m pretty sure no-one has ever found enlightenment in Big W or K-Mart, but I was focussed on material things, getting the right cushion to match the lounge suite to match the right curtains and carpet and wondering all the time, what will the neighbours think of this? It was trying to keep up with the Joneses. Who cares what Mr. and Mrs. Jones think? I was so emotionally attached to the image of my house and constantly denied to myself I was suffering from blatant rampant consumerism. There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting a nice house, it’s just that it didn’t fill that bottomless hole for me. I wanted my suburban house nice so that when I shuffled off this mortal coil, wrapped in a pink blanket out on the garden swing, just like Molly in A Country Practice, my house would be, well…..perfect. Ah!! There is it, blatant rampant perfectionism along with blatant rampant consumerism, the two doppelgangers of suffering.

Conscious Awareness

During this time of unconscious awareness, we had three children (one was great, two was hard work, and then we had the Third Child) and somehow managed to bring them up as people I’d like to spend lots of time with in my perfect house and this is how it happened. I got really old (57) and one day my best suburban friend upped and moved to the country. Just like that. I thought she was crazy, and her family thought she was crazy and we all tried to talk her out of it. Two months after she moved, we visited her and then went to a winery restaurant and got into a conversation with the waitress. The waitress extolled the virtues of country living, and I had a sudden rush of blood to the head and seeing as my husband had been drinking a lot of wine, I suddenly started blathering on that I wanted to move too. I saw myself living in the country also, and surprisingly I was prepared to forgo perfectionism to do this. That took me by surprise. I had turned on a sixpence and there was no going back. So I took advantage of his inebriated state and started haranguing the poor man. However, it turned out I didn’t need to do more than scratch the surface of the winter of his discontent, as he too had been secretly harbouring the idea that a tree change might be imminent. Whenever we went local for a holiday, we wanted to retire to the place we chose, be it Pemberton, Denmark, Dwellingup or Timbuctoo, but it had always been the nebulous “sometime in the future”, “when we retire hahaha!” or “one powerball hohoho!”. Blue sky thinking at its best.

Trouble was, we were stuck in the suburban rut of comfort, stability and safety and to actualise this idea was too scary to imagine. Especially as we had always told people that we would never ever move, under any circumstances. How wrong we were. Suddenly, out of the blue, just because someone else did it, we were itching to move. As my mother (and all mothers, including me) used to say, “If so and so jumped off a cliff, would you?” Apparently, yes I would.

Tree Change

So we moved to almost an acre of bushland in the Perth Hills and immediately named our new abode Bush Cottage. I wanted to call it Ducktown Abbey, after both my love of ducks and obsession with Matthew and Mary from Downton Abbey but I was shouted down, by the rest of my family. It was almost called Poultry Manor because I wanted as many chooks and ducks as we could handle. Less was not more. More was more. Classic blatant rampant consumerism again. This was my Magical Cottage in the Enchanted Forest. To someone else, it was an aged seventies homestead with wrap around verandas, with too many red clinker brick walls and arched entrances, and what on earth was that random slate and brick hallway all about? (turns out it is the formal entrance to our house). Our kitchen and dining room was barn-sized and there was more pine veneer than a Swedish massage parlour. Friends and other family members nodded intently with furrowed eyebrows as we showed them through the back end of the house which was all white walls, doors and industrial strength bong-water brown carpet. No-one said what they actually thought, but smiled politely and somehow it didn’t matter. The more we looked at it the more we fell in love with our Swedish Pine Barn.

That Oceanic Feeling

But it was the garden that we were after, it was not quite “acreage” as they say around these parts, but it was what we could afford with the budget we had. Five acres would have been nice, though, but it is what it is. We have a path leading up the left-hand side of the property and with a couple of chairs, a buddha statue, pine cones and some bonging chimes, my Zen Garden was up and running. This quickly became part of our morning coffee routine, sitting there looking back on the house and the tall trees through the falling rain and mist, watching the clouds of small bush birds frolicking in the light of the early morning God rays.

As a keen photographer I sometimes left my camera inside so I could enjoy the holistic picture for a change, rather than see it through the black tunnel of the camera lens. There is something remarkably healing when sitting in the quiet awe of connecting with nature. The one time when peace reigns in my semi-always activated nervous system and I want to just sit there for that moment knowing that at this point in time, not needing anything else for this is the perfect/imperfect moment that I will refer to, when I get low, for many years to come. It’s a religious or spiritual feeling of being one with the land, the trees, the sky and the sea.

Rather like the time my husband and I were watching ghost crabs on a beach in Mandurah on a warm still day, or when my son (Mr. Third Child), my husband and I were snorkelling off Point Peron and we all spotted the giant stingray at the same time, we were above it but part of it. Revel and remember those moments because they are the ones that will carry you through the many adversities of life. Just writing this makes my blood warm and my heart sing and because of this, because of these moments, because I am older, I choose my battles, I choose where to put my emotional energy and this is where I choose life. Right here, on my River Deep, Mountain High.

My Bush Bubble

I choose to live in my bush bubble, with my crabs and my stingrays and my frolicking birds and my God rays. This is the connection I had as a child when I went hunting tadpoles and frogs in the creeks that ran parallel to the railway line we lived near. I always wanted to go back there, to being the eternal child, always ten years old. Now in my later years, I have moved back to my childhood, my jaded and worn cynicism and sarcasm somewhat replaced with a renewed zest for what I had before I grew up. A return to simpler times, before adult responsibilities, employment (and unemployment), keeping up with the Joneses, mortgages, bills, kids, more kids, then the Third Child, health insurance, car insurance, house insurance, job insurance, life insurance, the internet, social media, social distancing and Covid-19. Going back to simpler times, simpler pleasures I thought as I collected some motorbike tadpoles from the next suburb through the Tadpole Exchange Program on Facebook.

Frog Pond

We built the frog pond next to the Zen Garden. This was well away from the house so we didn’t have to hear the tadpoles turned frogs revving up all night. They are not called motorbike frogs for nothing. It was trial and error, learning from our mistakes. We got a solar pump to aerate our one metre round plastic Bunnings pond and put the tadpoles in. Next day the pool was empty aside from a tiny puddle under the pond plants. Turned out the solar pump was so effective the fountain was spraying over the sides and draining the pond. Somehow twenty tadpoles survived in one inch of water for two days. We put plastic netting over to keep the birds away and just this very week we have lots of little froglets. I swear that if I kiss one of them, he may turn into a handsome prince, such is the power of this enchanted land.

Vegetable Garden

Every day we discover something new at Bush Cottage. In the suburbs we planted a few veggies and herbs in amongst our manicured English Cottage Garden (well, that was the look we were going for despite the savage Western Australian summer months) but they didn’t like the soil or they didn’t like us and they refused any attempt to thrive or survive. It didn’t help that we really only did a half-hearted job and kind of expected the plants to rise up to the task themselves. Are we still talking about plants here or children? The only thing that did thrive was the chilli plants. I hate chillies. I’m sure they survived just to annoy me.

In order to learn how to keep more than just chilli plants alive, we started watching Mark “Self-Sufficient Me” on You Tube and quickly established several raised beds, grew half a tonne of tomatoes, cucumbers and spinach, spinach so intense you felt your cheeks and mouth squirm and contract and your biceps explode, just like Popeyes. I cooked, preserved, chutneyed, relished, jammed and sauced to my heart’s content. I established a brand name with a logo and gave away much of my produce as birthday or Christmas gifts. Bush Cottage Vegetable Garden was just the gift that kept on giving.

Zombie Apocalypse

Early March arrived along with Covid-19, and I just had this intuition that I needed to start my Chicken Raising Program earlier than anticipated, due to crazy Doomsday stockpiling. For some reason I knew live chickens would be the next. Everyone now wanted to be “self-sufficient.” We all knew Doomsday Preppers were a weird bunch, but look who’s laughing now. Apparently, toilet paper is not on any authentic preppers list. I still don’t get the toilet paper, but I understand existential anxiety very well. I might not have stockpiled toilet paper but I found myself wanting to buy more and more dry food until I forced myself to stop. But I had to have my chickens.

Enter Poultry Manor, a 3m by 4m chicken coop, purchased from the appropriately named By this time, toilet rolls were flying off the shelves, like ducks heading North for winter. No sooner had I purchased two hylines, and named them Zoe and Zara, when I read on ABC News that live chickens were the new toilet paper. Then I figured out vegetable seeds and fruit trees would be the new chickens. I was not wrong. We managed to stockpile a good selection of vegetable seed packets and nine small fruit trees. So, we were now partially self-sufficient and patting ourselves on the back

Zoe and Zara are pullets which means they won’t lay eggs till they are 18-22 weeks old and they were eleven weeks when we got them. I never thought I could love a chook as much as I do these two, and a few days in I found myself not only stroking Zoe’s neck but I gave her a kiss on her head as well. So now I’m into kissing frogs and chickens. I also thought that chickens were, well, just for eggs and meat, and not as actual pets. I had a complete disconnection for the part between the live bird with feathers and the shark belly white parts wrapped in plastic and polystyrene in IGA, Coles and Woollies. I chose not to connect until I did, and I still eat chicken, even though someone pricked my conscience. But I could never eat a chicken that had a name, so our two were safe.

When Harry Met Timmy

Just when the chickens had settled into a good routine, we got rabbits. I wanted rabbits and my husband didn’t, so we compromised and got some rabbits. This is a bit like our decision to have a third child when two worked really well. After the run on toilet paper, hand sanitiser, chickens and vegetable seeds, household pets were starting to get scarce, so I did some panic-buying even though rabbits are the most “rehomed” pet there is, (not that we are thinking of rehoming our third child – ok well only sometimes). I’d always wanted to save rabbits, especially after reading Watership Down, fluffy rabbits with their cute little bunny hops and twitching nose. I kept reminding myself of this when I caged them in the lounge room and they peed all up the wall over the carpet and all over themselves. Bear in mind these were two male rabbits, unsterilized male rabbits just under one year old. After trying the cage in the lounge room, in the random slate and brick hallway, and a half-baked, hare-brained idea of running chicken wire around four large pot plants on the verandah for a pen, I decided they just had to move in with the chooks whether they liked it or not.

The girls were pretty ok with the boys moving in, but only after a few rules had been established. One was that the top of the hen-house belonged to them. The rambunctious rabbits ran amok, in and around the stiff upper lipped chickens who decided they weren’t worth the effort, powdered their noses, preened in front of the mirror (yes, a good way of keeping hens amused is to put a mirror in the coop) and pretended to ignore them.

After googling “Rabbit Enrichment Programs” I rushed off to Better Pets and Gardens and bought several expensive plastic toys which the label assured me would develop their fine and gross motor skills, so after handing over a King’s ransom, I introduced them to Harry and Timmy who ignored them in favour of the cardboard boxes they came in. These two unsterilized, unhouse-trained bunnies jumped in the air, ran, leapt, twisted, kicked, binkied and turned for about an hour before collapsing on the ground next to each other. I’m thinking they might have spent a lot of time in a tiny cage in the pet shop. After a bit I noticed Harry chasing and circling Timmy, mounting him and biting the back of his neck. Chasing, circling and humping is a dominance behaviour and I was worried that a bit of bunny bullying was also happening. Google also told me that female rabbits can hump each other and males as well. Now that you know that, you can never unknow that. In a bilateral agreement both chooks and myself agreed that something had to be done about the rabbits and I made the call to the local vet and booked Harry in for “that little operation.”

It was also fun and games till someone lost an eye trying to get them into their top loading cage at night. I lumbered around the pen like the Giant in Jack and the Beanstalk getting rabbit-kicked and scratched, that is something I still have to work out. Rabbits are quite timid scaredy-cat creatures and we are still getting to know each other, its early days yet. But I’m thinking the snip will help with that.

Ducks Are (not) Us

We’ve currently put the Pet Pekin Duck program on permanent hold. People who have ever owned ducks will know why this is a good idea. This would be like having a fourth, fifth and sixth child, followed by triplets, followed by adopting several children from a foreign country. I always wanted four children. I think I was the only one who did.

We’ve lived here for nearly five months and not once have we really thought about our picture-perfect suburban house of 32 years. We’ve moved on, moved past what was once so important to us. Why did we do this, this Tree Change? As a psychotherapist, I’m always interested in why people do the things they do, what motivates people, why do we sometimes self-sabotage, why do we make and carry out stupid decisions knowing they are dumb-arsed ideas but we feel compelled to do them anyway? What subconscious processes have been percolating in the bowels of our minds for many years? This tree change started off as an unspoken gut feeling we needed a change, a good shake up. We were bored with suburban life, and it felt like we were just going through the motions till we made a seismic shift and moved our landscape several degrees to the East. The process of finding a house caused us a lot of grief and we had to pull together on this and find a house, a compromise house that suited us both. It was not easy finding the right house on the right block in the right area at the right price. But when we did it, we realised that we no longer had to keep up with the Joneses. We were the Joneses.

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