Friday, 7 March 2014

Wild nettles

Tonight I came across some old notes.  I had chaired a committee of local water users sharing one of the high mountain streams.  In that role I met a group of amazing people.

Straw flowers - native to the mountains.

One brief unlikely friendship emerged.  I met her only a couple of times, to talk about the stream and then the past history of the place, before she passed away.  The notes I found were of our conversations.

She told me the story of the stream - the Yandyguinula Creek - which rises in the mountains near Palerang and eventually feeds into the Molonglo River to become Lake Burley Griffin - the center-piece of Australia's capital Canberra.  

She had lived next to the stream all her life - her mother before her in an old wooden house high in the mountains, surrounded by decaying sheds.  Next to the house, in an abandoned vegetable patch, bower birds argued with magpies.  By the front door, yellow straw flowers.

She told of the droughts and floods that came in cycles.  Of how once when tending cattle in a high mountain bog, she was nearly swept to her death in a sudden violent downpour (and told me to take care when walking through the narrow mountain valleys).  Of how some years the stream simply became a series of small water holes, running underneath the ground.

Her mother, who had lived there for many years before had told her stories of the stream – a catalogue of drought and flood.  How the stream had changed as Crack Willow, introduced from estates on the Hoskinstown Plain had gradually made its way up the creek, replacing the old native Casuarina Pines.  How the mountains were stripped of their tall timber.  How the bush had come back when the old timber was exhausted and the foresters left.  How sometimes the water was full of tannin from the willow and the old saw mill and tainted with arsenic from the sheep dips.

She had never seen any of the first people.  But her mother had had glimpses, once or twice, far in the distance of a group of adults and children climbing along the high ridges.  Once, she saw a young white child with them.  Her mother told the men, but they had shuffled their feet and did nothing. 

Ajuga australis: The first people used its crushed leaves to cure wounds.

The men went to war, and some didn't come home.  She had an old photo of her house, surrounded by water at the end of the second war, when the rain would not stop.  

There was no store and no doctor and no medicines.  They grew everything: mutton, milk and potatoes - and stinging nettles. 

In the old days, wool was made into thread and milk into butter, here.  The wool was dyed green using the nettle or brown/yellow using wattle.  When tea was scarce, wild nettle was boiled instead, and cooled with a little milk and sweetened with local honey or water in which banksia flowers had been kept.  Lozenges for colds or flu were made from sugar and gum (not something I would try).  The old folk also used raw nettle to relieve the pain of gout or rheumatism by collecting a couple of plants and hitting the affected area with the nettle.  

Tending the cattle while young she had many encounters with the wild nettle – she thought enough to see her older years through. 

Electricity had come to her place only recently.  She served me scones made from her old wooden stove.  Despite the nettle, she moved slowly with old pain as she poured another cup.

Tomorrow is International Womens Day.  Tonight, I am spending a little time thinking about that time, high in the mountains, listening to her voice telling her story.  Wishing I could remember more.

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